Ken, Ellen and Bei in China

Ken, Ellen and Bei spent a year in Lijiang, Yunnan teaching English. This is a place where we kept in touch with everyone while we were away. If you'd like to comment we'd love to hear from you on e-mail. Send to You can view more photos on Flickr at

Location: Laramie, Wyoming, United States

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Parenting Moments and Miscellanea

1 December 2005

It's been another busy week here in Lijiang frought with nasty head colds and a lot of teaching, so collecting new photos for the blog fell to the wayside. On the other hand, parenting continues despite illness and work, and Bei provides a near constant stream of material that suffers only from not being regularly recorded. As a 4-year old, she is thinking hard about all kinds of things, many having to do with fashion or Barbies (to our horror), but some with more import. And just being here in China raises issues that maybe would be less pressing were she surrounded by her friends in Laramie. One night this week as I put Bei to sleep we had a particularly interesting conversation that I'll reproduce here. I'll follow with a few miscellaneous photographs.

Bei dressed and ready for school on a typically chilly Lijiang winter morning.

Bei: I'm mad Papa.
Ken: What are you mad about Bei?
B: I don't have any friends in China that speak English and that's hard for a kid.
K: I know that's hard for you Bei, and you've done really well here. What about Esther? [a little girl at Bei's kindergarten who speaks English]
B: She lives far away. That's why I need a baby. A twin.
K: But Bei, you can't have a twin. A twin has to grow in your birth mother's stomach and have the same birthday as you.
B: How do they get out of the stomach?
K: Well, little babies are kind of like bars of soap. They're really slippery so that they can come out.
B: You mean they just pop out?
K: Sort of.
B: Where do they pop out?
K: (Gulp). They come out of the "popo" [Ellen's family euphemism].
B: So do they go into the toilet??!!
K: No, the birth mother usually lies on a bed so the babies come out onto the bed.

[pause while Bei thinks this over]

B: Why couldn't my birth parents take care of me?
K: We don't know, Bei but sometimes birth parents in China can't take care of their babies.
B: I wonder if they are sad about it?
K: I think they must be sad.
B: If you and Mama were my birth parents would you not be able to take care of me?
K: Even if we were your birth parents we would take care of you.
B: When my birth parents left me at the hotel they had to be quiet about it, right?
K: Your birth parents didn't leave you at the hotel. They left you where you would be found and taken to the orphanage so that people could take care of you there. The people from the orphanage brought you to the hotel [where Bei was delivered to us in 2002].
B: But they had to not tell anyone, right?
K: Right. They probably didn't tell anyone.
B: Why?
K: Because in China they might get in trouble for that.
B: By a policeman?
K: Yes.
K: It's late, Bei. You need to try to go to sleep now.
B: Ok, Papa.

[5 minutes or so of silence as we both settle down and process information]

B: Papa?
K: Yes, Bei.
B: Can I ask you one more question?
K: OK Bei, but then we need to go to sleep.
B: Does "Blupiter" rhyme with "Jupiter"?

And so goes parenthood.

Here are a few miscellaneous photos from around town:

A calligraphy school in Old Town Lijiang.

Remember, you are innocent until proven guilty. Or is it the other way around?

A street scene near the Old Town market.

For God's sake! Had I arrived earlier, what would I have witnessed?

Cloth bags full of unidentified materials for sale in the market.

A street scene in Old Town.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Wenhai 2 -- A Bad Day for Pigs

22 November 2005

Late fall is a bad time for pigs in the mountains of northwest Yunnan. Ever so slowly the rains stop, crops are harvested and leaves change color. Mountain villages grow sleepy as the growing season ends. Groups of Naxi or Yi people sit around tables in courtyards playing cards, sipping beer, laughing, talking, eating whatever is at hand...and butchering things. The faint sounds of goat and cow bells compete with the braying of donkeys, the shouts of kids chasing each other between mud brick houses and the thud of axes hitting meat and bone. It’s a nice time to be a human.

After surviving two weeks of midterm-exam-grading-hell, we escaped into the mountains for our second weekend at the Wenhai Ecolodge (see September 5, 2005 post to read about our first trip). The lodge is a convenient getaway for us “foreign teachers.” A short taxi ride to the trailhead and a 3 hour walk deliver you to the ephemeral Wenhai Lake, which occupies a broad basin in the foothills of Yulong Xueshan. Several small Naxi settlements populate the area around the lake and can be explored on short excursions. Or you can relax at the lodge where hot showers and cold beer are available and where a small deck affords views of the entire basin to the south and of the mountain to the north.

From Wenhai Lake, several Yi villages are accessible. The Yi people are less common than the Naxi in the area directly around Lijiang but are very prominent as one travels north through the mountains and into the Sichuan Province. They generally settle at higher elevations and wear more colorful clothing than the Naxi, whose muted blues and whites are common even in the big city of Lijiang. Over 5 million Yi live in China and they have had a fierce reputation even in recent history, raiding villages and taking slaves up until the 1950s. Relations are calm now and Naxi and Yi coexist peacefully in pastoral mountain valleys.

On our last Wenhai trip I stayed at the lake with Bei while Ellen and Tony hiked to a nearby Yi village. This time Ellen and Bei hiked near the lake and Jacqueline and I walked the two hours to the Yi village, a small and simple settlement in a valley that descends eventually (a 6 or more hour hike) to the Yangze, upstream from the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

This is where the pigs come in. Three things conspire against pigs in autumn: first, like many animals, pigs are made of meat; second, the amount of meat in each pig increases considerably during the summer months and plateaus in the fall, and third, the drop in air temperature is sufficient to preserve meat in the absence of refrigeration.

We entered the Yi village on a chilly Saturday afternoon and our attention was immediately drawn to two large pigs being aggressively butchered in a courtyard just below the main path through town (this activity was also happening in other houses and other villages throughout the area). Our interest was not unnoticed and we were invited by the Yi family to watch, which we did with some fascination as axes and knives made quick work of the two large animals which were laid out on tables in the courtyard.

A Yi woman with strong, ropey forearms and simple blue tattoos invited us into the kitchen where children deposited pig parts into basins beside the fire and an old musket hung on a sooty wall. We were asked to join the family for lunch, an invitation that we declined both because we didn’t want to eat their hard-earned food and because we were uncertain about exactly which pig parts we might be served.

The generosity of relatively poor mountain families and their open friendliness is both common and remarkable in China. Where in the wealthy U.S. would we invite strange passing foreigners into our kitchens for lunch? This is not to say that Americans are greedily hording their food, but that our culture just doesn’t work this way. China offers a refreshing glimpse of a different way to view community and humanity.

Below are a few photos from the weekend. Some are similar to our first trip, but many are different. The change in scene from the rainy season to the dry season is substantial, with lush greens and cloudy skies replaced by dry fields, sharp contrasts and snowy mountains.

Here's Bei on her trusty steed, ready to head up the trail to Wenhai. After riding through Tiger Leaping Gorge in October and now to Wenhai and back, Bei has become more than comfortable in the saddle. In fact, she can fall asleep there if you don't keep an eye on her.

Yulong Xueshan from the Wenhai Ecolodge.

Another view of the Wenhai valley and the Snow Mountain. In the foreground, locals move cattle up the road towards the village.

Wenhai Lake is ephemeral. It grows during the rainy season and disappears in the dry season. Many channels and side streams like this one wander through the grasslands around the lake.

The Snow Mountain created strange clouds that we watched as we walked towards the Yi village. Eventually the clouds coalesced onto something more substantial, but precipitation is rare this time of year and we didn't experience any.

Another view of Yulong Xueshan from just behind the ecolodge.

Turnips are a major crop in this valley and every house was draped with them. We don't know if they are eaten by people or fed to livestock, but we were never served any. The quantity is impressive. Turnip pancakes? Turnip upside down cake? Turnip casserole?

More turnips. I'll have the pork and turnips. Without the turnips.

A closer view.

The fences in the Wenhai valley are beautiful and simple constructions of sticks and vines.

A detailed view of fence construction.

The kitchen at the ecolodge. We waited expectantly each morning for the fire to be built and the water to boil so that we could brew our Yunnan coffee, carried with us from town to supplement the tea that is offered everywhere. Coffee is not commonly drunk by the locals but of course is a requirement for our western metabolisms.

Smoke darkened light bulbs in the kitchen. Smoke from open fires finds its way out through vents in the ceiling after leaving a residue on windows and walls.

An old musket and powder holder in the Yi family's kitchen where we were invited to share the newly butchered pigs.

Yi men cheerfully working on one of two pigs that were slaughtered in their courtyard.

The pigs were butchered and cleaned by both men and women from the Yi family. Children carried various parts into the kitchen where they were deposited in basins or to a nearby spring where they were washed.

Yi women cleaning pig parts at the spring.

A wooden plow in the Yi village. These plows are common all over this part of China and are usually pulled by cows.

A collection of beer bottles stacked against a wall in the Yi village.

Another view from the Wenhai valley across fields now cleared of summer crops.

Leaves are changing slowly in the mountains, mostly to yellow. Many of the trees here are evergreens--long needled pines but there are also some oaks and some poplar species.

A senesced fern along the trail on our hike back down to the valley on Sunday afternoon.

Bei with her horse driver and Ellen during the walk down from Wenhai.

A view south towards the Lijiang valley as we hiked down into it at the end of the weekend.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Odds and Ends

17 November 2005

It's been hard to put a cohesive blog together for the last couple of weeks. Our jobs suddenly interfered with our recreation and forced us to apply ourselves to teaching. We're finally catching up after administering 300 midterm exams each and then grading them. All of the teachers here at the Lijiang College of Culture and Tourism have been huddled over stacks of papers, looking wistfully toward the sunshine streaming through our apartment windows, as we corrected grammar and interviewed oral English students one by one. But we have emerged (!!) and plan to head into the mountains this weekend for a fall hike. In the meantime, I've thrown together some miscellanea from the last month or so to keep the blog from getting too stale.

First, so as not to mislead, this is what it really looks like around here.

Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) at sunrise from our apartment window. The mountain dominates the valley were we live and the town of Lijiang. Every morning I wipe the condensation off the window and look north to see if the mountain is out. Now that the rainy season is over, it almost always is.

Another sunrise shot taken from our living room window.

New town Lijiang is much less charming than Old Town, but the mountain lends some atmosphere. The road sign conveniently identifies the feature in case you aren't sure what you are looking at.

Just throw a couple of things on your bike and head into town.

Bei and I decided to head up the Xueshan last Sunday. A tram carries visitors from the base to 4,600 meters (about 15,000 ft.) where one follows a boardwalk along a fractured glacier to eventually gain a view of the cirque below the main peak, which is over 18,000 ft. high. Chinese tourists stumble along the boardwalk huffing oxygen from little aerosol cans that they sell at the base. Bei and I opted to make the trip "without O's."

Extreme alpinist Bei relaxes along the boardwalk.

But...the altitude turned on her and put her to bed. Thanks to my alpine experience I knew what to do...descend. I carried the sleepy Bei from our high point (4680 m) back to the tram and successfully descended to base camp where Bei quickly recovered. Our mission now: figure out how to reduce the atmospheric pressure in Bei's bedroom at 8:00 p.m. every evening.

The snack bar menu at the base of the mountain. Anything look good to you (if you click on the photo you get a higher rez version up that you can read)? They were out of hot dogs.

Fall lingers here for a long time. At least by Wyoming standards. It's mid-November and still far from feeling like winter though we huddle around our electric space heater. This view is looking south from the town of Shuhe just east of our campus.

The highway that heads west from Lijiang towards the first bend of the Yangze River.

Yunnan is famous for it's plant diversity. This flower (What is it?) is common in the hills around campus.

The Lijiang markets are eternally interesting. This woman steams baozi early one morning.

A technique that would make Tim Allen (Home Improvement) proud. Cooking with a blow torch. Actually, burning the pesky hair off a pig leg with a blow torch. Scenes like this one warm the hearts of carnivores like myself.

A scene from the market in old town. All around these guys, meat was being chopped and singed by busy vendors, but nothing could disturb their cool as they maintained their poker faces.

An older customer makes his way home from market back when the rainy season was still sputtering.

Blues Brothers watch out. When this gentleman wraps his waxy brown hands around the neck of a guitar and plays the baddest blues this side of Earl Johnson, the competition shivers...well...maybe not. In reality he was content to watch the comings and goings in the market through a remarkably stylish pair of mirrored dark glasses.

And for you climbers out there--yes there is potential here. This cliff is in a canyon that extends for several miles north of our apartment. I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of my new Bosch drill and wondering how, after 3 months of virtually no climbing, I'll ever be able to haul myself up a piece of stone. Stay tuned.

Happy Halloween from China.

Any advertising gurus out there? Can you think of a slogan for this company?

DVD shops flourish here and all over China. Bei just watched this film as I worked on the blog. Any chance that it might not be a legal copy?? Whose the fairest of the mall? [sic]. To find out just view this "Latinum Edition."

And finally--at risk of censor, the bird flu issue looms. A recent rumor of 2 bird handlers from a nearby lake dying in the Lijiang hospital had everyone talking, but to the best of my knowledge this was never a confirmed rumor. It certainly never appeared in any news that I could find. But does that mean anything in China? Our attention is focused on the issue though and, like many people here, we've (regretably) eliminated fowl from our diets.

The recently opened KFC in Lijiang has suffered from the rumor. It was absolutely packed with customers two weeks ago and now is sparsely visited.