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

Monday, May 22, 2006


Ellen doesn’t love my favorite 30-minute bicycle commute from Gu Cheng(Old Town) to the da xue (college). It has to do with her aversion to dust—dust that settles into your hair and sticks to your teeth as you bounce along through road construction behind a wheezing dump truck. But for me, the alternative route up the well-maintained but less direct Shangrila Lu adds minutes to my trip which I usually don’t have to spare, and offers less interesting, though by no means boring, sights. So several times a week, I eat dust and Ellen pedals on the pavement.

Ellen's preferred route follows Shangrila Street from town out to the school. The views are not too bad and the road is not devoid of cultural interest either.

"Stick" tree plantings along the Shangrila route to school. Ellen is flabbergasted that these miserable sticks, stuffed into the ground and given minimal water, eventually thrive and become trees. But it's true.

Our commute doesn't leave us looking quite a clean and perky as this shampoo model on a billboard in Lijiang.

To put this into perspective I should say that we’re already beginning to grieve (not too strong a word) our late July departure from this extraordinary place. It isn’t just the trips we’ve taken that we’ll miss. It’s also daily life; the glimpses of things simultaneously insignificant and remarkable. These glimpses will be remembered as fondly as sunrises on big mountains or shadows settling along the Yangze. The 30-minute bicycle commute each day is part of our mental landscape and on almost every ride, I see something that I want to remember.

Images like this are part of every day and every trip out of the house.

A typical teaching day for us begins at about 6:00 a.m. when we open our eyes and, from under the heavy comforter on our cobbled-together but comfortable bed (foam mattresses atop roughcut boards resting precariously on stacks of bricks constrained within a dilapidated frame), have a look through open louver doors into the courtyard, still in shadow, and to the sky, just growing light. If we sleep a little late the sun wakes us up, reflecting off the chrome tank that feeds the solar hot water heater which on a sunny day will produce plenty of water for dribbling gravity-fed showers. But we don’t worry as much about hygiene here as we do in the States, and showers can usually wait for hot afternoons, when the breeze that filters through the mostly open cinder-block bathroom doesn’t seem so daunting.

The courtyard of our house in Old Town. The pebble surface makes for wobbly trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night but it is a nice place to wake up in the morning.

Our solar hot water heater. "China's best brand" according to the decal.

Living in a courtyard house is a little like camping out. There is no heat unless you huddle around an electric space heater, light a charcoal fire in a brazier or leave the kitchen gas burners on a little longer than necessary after boiling water for coffee. But it’s almost summer now and mornings are warm—so the barefoot hobble across the pebble-paved courtyard to the bathroom is not so bad. And at night, from our bed, we can see the stars.

I get up and get dressed, putting on one of my two “nice” teaching shirts and a pair of Levi’s—all now threadbare after 8 months, but still more appropriate than showing up to teach in a t-shirt. When we leave China the shirts will be left behind, along with much of the flotsam we inveterate American consumers have accumulated here—pots and pans, pressure cooker, DVD player, stacks of pirated DVDs, English novels, day packs, bikes and our now rarely used electric space heater.

In the kitchen, I brew a cup of Yunnan coffee—spooned into my coffee filter from a plastic ice cream container that once every couple of weeks I get refilled at a local cafe for 40 yuan (about $5). The coffee isn’t bad, and it’s a lot better when I have real cream than when condensed milk is my only option. The cream comes from Kunming (10 hours away) via another cafe (The Prague) that orders it for us, and it’s a luxury that improves my morning immeasurably.

Bei in the kitchen. We have a two burner gas stove which doubles as a heat source on cold mornings.

If you miss breakfast at home, there are ample opportunities to eat on the street, where vendors sell everything from eggs to bbq.

Or you can stop for some "coffee language." Few Chinese are fluent.

Our bicycles were purchased in September from one of the many local bike shops. They are not the famous Giant® brand recognized here as the Cadillac of bikes (we went cheaper) and after a mere 8 months, like many of the things we’ve purchased here, they are beginning to fall apart. On my bike, the front derailleur no longer works and both plastic gear shift levers, weakened by sun exposure, have snapped off, one at the expense of my right thumbnail, to be replaced (25 yuan) with sturdier versions. My unbelievably heavy ride resembles a mountain bike only in appearance, and its model name—the Wangpai Beartrap—advertised by a decal on the blue and silver frame, attempts to make up for other shortcomings (I did not buy the fancier Wangpai Big Mac). Perhaps in an unlikely encounter with an even more unlikely bear (we’ve seen almost no wild animals in China except at the meat market), the bike could be hoisted and heaved, it’s formidable weight slowing the bruin long enough for escape.

I strap my book bag onto the bike rack, plug myself into my IPOD, and get ready to ride.

An IPOD can go a long way towards easing the transition to another culture and at times, obliterating it. I joined the IPOD generation before we left for China, when I purchased our 20 Gb model at the UW Bookstore and then downloaded all of the songs we liked (including a substantial collection of songs for 4-year-olds) from our not-so-extensive CD collection onto it in the weeks prior to our departure. Total space occupied by all of the music I could cull from 50 or more CDs: 1 Gb. I use the remaining 19 Gb for photo downloads when traveling, but mostly I just enjoy being able to plug into music now and then to escape the relentless low-fidelity megaphone-broadcast Chinese pop that assaults you on the streets of Lijiang where stores blast bad music presumably to attract the attention of Chinese consumers (and to repel Western ones??!!).

Chinese friends in Zhongdian last winter listening to bad Chinese pop on their shared MP3. I use our IPOD to block out this kind of music.

Having an IPOD can create some strange juxtapositions. One morning I turned on Lenny Kravitz’ version of American Woman just in time to round a corner in our neighborhood where a beautiful little Naxi girl clutching a white lily was riding up the stone street on her aging grandfather’s back. Another time I mellowed out to Louis Armstrong singing What a Wonderful World It Would Be as a man peddled past on a 3-wheel bicycle cart full of dead pigs, heading towards the market. Sometimes the sound track is more appropriate. Bruce Cockburn’s version of the Monty Python classic, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (from “The Life of Brian”) makes sense as day after day you ride past men in the hot sun whose job is to hand chisel boulders into building blocks for a few dollars a day. And every day as I ride past they find the energy and spirit to wave, smile and say “hello” to the passing foreigner.

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you're chewing on life's gristle
Don't grumble, give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best...

Men breaking rocks. Some things in life are bad.

The steepest part of the ride to work is short and over quickly—up the stone-paved street in our neighborhood, past two small stores that sell everything from baijiu and cigarettes to milk and medicine and then past several abandoned mud buildings where the smell of sewage is noticeable.

If you get confused about directions as you ride, there are some helpful signs posted to orient the tourists in town.

I turn onto JinHong Lu—the asphalt road connecting our neighborhood in the farthest east part of Old Town to the bustle of New Town. A short and gentle incline on JinHong brings me to the top of the hill and I coast down the other side, helmetless along with all the Chinese riders (short of a full-blown motorcycle helmet, there is nothing to be bought here), weaving among taxis, buses and other cyclists, and passing little storage-unit sized stores selling everything from plastic pipe to live chickens. On the sidewalks, people wash their hair, catch up on the morning gossip, or walk their kids to school. On the street, vendors haul bike carts laden with the perforated charcoal cylinders used for cooking, their bikes too heavy to pedal.

The view down the hill on Jinhong Lu.

A typical 3 wheeled bike cart--used here to haul everything from charcoal to dumpling steamers (with the dumplings being cooked en route) to spouses or children.

Veering north onto Xin Da Jie, one of the main north-south avenues through town, I pedal past more shops, more people and more megaphones – the latter blasting Chinese pop so loudly that my IPOD can’t drown it out. Embarrassingly, I now recognize most of the bad Chinese songs, and secretly hum some of them when I’m not paying attention, in the same way one might hypothetically find oneself humming “Brandy, your a fine girl...” and then stop in horror.

The intersection of JinHong and Xin Da. Avoid those swerving taxis.

The view north up Xin Da Jie.

Chairman Mao watches peacefully over Xin Da Jie. The official line is that Mao was 70% good and 30% bad but he is still visible in 100% of the substantial towns in China.

Advertising is entertaining in itself. What IS that peak?

Soon though, I bear left, crossing traffic to enter a quieter street lined with new buildings, almost all unoccupied. I read that Ernst and Young (a U.S. accounting firm) recently withdrew their estimate that Chinese banks may be sitting on over $900 billion in bad loans—many for unviable construction projects. The company cited a lack of firm evidence for this estimate though from my perspective here in Lijiang, where they build wildly on almost every city block, and where many of the new buildings remain unoccupied, one has to wonder if the estimate is low rather than high. In Old Town, a successful restaurant recently opened a new outlet in a building that reportedly cost them over $100,000 USD to rent and several hundred thousand more to renovate. You have to sell a lot of rice and stir fry to recoup that kind of investment, no matter how popular your restaurant is.

A typically brand new and unoccupied building in Lijiang. Who paid for this? The Bank of China?

On my left, pasted across the entire width of the second floor of a modern building, a giant poster of a Medieval Amazon Dominatrix looms large, cleavage taunting and exaggerated eyebrows threatening a woman on her way to empty her mopping bucket into the alley. I round a traffic circle, alert to the many opportunities for car/bus/truck/bike collisions and pedal at last onto the small road that leads the last few kilometers to the college.

A warrior princess watches over Lijiang.

At last I turn onto the poorly maintained road leading directly from town to the college, and ride past a scrappy mix of traditional Naxi houses, small fruit orchards, ugly modern buildings and semi-industrial sweatshops where people manufacture cinderblocks, furniture and charcoal or amass dangerous piles of scrap material in all its sharp, raw, recyclable glory. Masters of simile and metaphor, we chose our words carefully when we renamed this road “the bumpy way” for its substantial potholes and cobbled stretches. It has become substantially more bumpy in the last several months since becoming a construction zone. The road is being widened—from a narrow two lane to a 4-lane divided highway that will offer tour buses a direct route from town to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

A view of construction on "the bumpy way."

Public bus number 3 bounces along through construction.

Though the road itself is a mess, farms and orchards line the route. In the spring, the fruit trees provided a nice break from dust and a great fragrance too.

An orchard along the route.

With the construction comes commuting inconveniences, like backhoes ripping trees out of the ground and suspending them from steel cables overhead as you cower, or dump trucks piled too high with boulders teetering through the potholes or Ellen’s favorite, thick choking dust, but it also brings a chance to see the Chinese economy in action. Workers swarm over the 3 kilometer long site, and the project progresses quickly by virtue of sheer labor. In the 2 months or so since the project began, workers have—by hand—built substantial stone walls on both sides of the new highway corner with stones shaped using hammer and chisel by men pecking away at them for 8 or more hours a day. The stones are held together with mortar, every bucketful of which has been mixed by hand and carried to the stone masons. The potential for productivity gains are mind boggling, as is the potential for unemployment.

More rock breakers pecking away at huge piles of boulders with a hammer and a small collection of chisels.

Stone walls like this one, that extends for miles, are the fruits of the rock breakers' labor. Each stone has been hand chiseled from big irregular boulders.

And then the commute is over – I emerge back onto pavement, stop at the little store by the college to buy a yogurt or a bag of bbq potato chips, pedal past students cowering from the sun beneath their umbrellas (they don’t want their skin to “turn black” and they certainly don’t want to look like people who do manual labor in the sun. They are the new emerging middle class). Finally, I ride through the school gate and wrestle with that pre-teaching pit in my stomach that comes from gathering the energy necessary to try to generate enthusiasm for learning English.

At 8:00 a.m., class begins.

Get those umbrellas out--the sun is shining.

Students ready for a 2-hour class.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Three Weddings and a Funeral

In the prelude to his ballad “Better Off Without a Wife”, Tom Waits describes a not-so-blushing bride-to-be: “She’s been married so many times she has rice marks all over her face.

Waits would have been right at home at the third wedding in less than a year for our waiban (foreign teacher handler) Ren Jing, the ultra-petite woman at our college who does everything from arranging our schedules to negotiating our work permits with the PSB to helping us with required and gripping medical exams at the Lijiang hospital to inducing a Pavlovian dread of her phone calls, which inevitably call for some unpleasant bureaucratic response—usually quickly. And she teaches English.

It’s a wonder she has time for all of those weddings.

But those of you inclined to pass judgment on this sort of thing should not be too hasty. All of Ren Jing’s weddings were to the same man, and as Ellen, Bei and I approached the doorway of the three-star Lijiang hotel where the day’s festivities would take place he stood, along with his very put-together and significantly air-brushed bride, holding a large silver platter draped with a red cloth and piled high with Chinese filter cigarettes.

Ren Jing and her husband greet guests with candy and cigarettes.

In America, the stress of just thinking about a wedding was enough to send Ellen and me quietly to the Laramie (Wyoming) Justice of the Peace, who was duty-bound to perform our nuptials with little fanfare. Not that we are typical. In more extroverted American social circles, the parents of the bride meet nervously with their financial planners to decide which assets to liquidate before hosting their daughter’s one (they hope) special day.

But in China, just one wedding is sometimes not enough. And in fact, weddings here may be self-sustaining—at Ren Jing’s 3rd wedding—the one we attended—arriving guests were unashamedly asked to produce red envelopes, traditionally enclosing at least 50 yuan per guest—a tidy sum in China. Body language and instructions from the envelope collectors, arrayed like well-dressed body guards near the cigarette-wielding groom, translated roughly to: “Do you have an envelope??!! Give it to us now or go home.”

We produce our envelope.

One thing that you can say about weddings in China if the one we attended was typical is that once in the door the celebrations are pretty sane—more so than many of their counterparts in the U.S., where endless toasts can go for hours, couples who should not be allowed near a typewriter recite their self-authored vows, and aging schmaltz-bands force horrified attendees onto the dance floor to devise jerky reactions to un-danceable mus-ak. At Ren Jing’s 3rd, we were in and out the door in less than 2 hours, stomachs full and dignity mostly intact.

Bei acknowledges the bride and groom.

The Chinese equivalent of the garter toss. Whoever catches the rose gets...thorns...and according to tradition, is likely to marry within a year.

Bei's-eye view of the wedding dinner. Photo credit: Bei Driese

The feast: a rooster with comb intact...

...and fish.

And before I move on, you must be wondering WHY Ren Jing had three weddings. The answer is simple: once for family, once for friends and, as Ren Jing would put it in her pretty good English, once for my colleag – gahs at the college.

The view from Wenhai toward Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xueshan).

A few weeks later we found ourselves attending a funeral in the small Naxi village of Wenhai. “What,” you ask, “is the connection between a wedding in Lijiang and a funeral in a small village on the flanks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain?” It’s tenuous, but has to do with those filter cigarettes; this time walked around in a large basin to all of the men at the post-funeral dinner, much as a good New York host would deliver little bits foie gras or flutes of champagne. Cigarettes at a funeral—as if to insure that the deceased does not suffer alone for long the netherworld without the company of her male friends and family (few women smoke).

Cigarettes are part of the culture here and were handed out at both the wedding and the funeral. This man unabashedly enjoyed his.

A local man at the wake, cigarette in hand.

We became peripherally involved in the Naxi funeral by chance during a return trip to the Wenhai Ecolodge, where we have spent a few weekends in the past 8 months and where we traveled on this weekend to see the now blooming rhododendrons. A 57-year-old woman, who had lived in a house adjacent to the lodge, died of a chronic heart problem during the week before our arrival, reportedly while she worked in the fields. As we walked by her house on our arrival, we noticed a big dinner party in the courtyard, along with what Ellen thought looked like some guys building a boat (which of course turned out to be the coffin) but we gave it little thought, tired from our walk and assuming it was just a local get-together.

Rhododendrons along the trail from the valley to Wenhai. The mountains are thick with blooms right now.

Rhododendron blossoms.

Later, Bei reported to us, after returning from the dead woman’s house where she had been whisked by a covey of local women (to eat and play): “There were two people in bed there. And one of them was dead and the other one was crying.” She went on: “the dead woman was beautiful—she was wearing makeup.”

“Was the other woman dying?” Ellen asked (momentary visions of a bird flu outbreak fluttered through our heads).

“Maybe,” Bei replied, unperturbed, before running off to explore the Ecolodge and to invent fairy princesses to occupy its nooks and crannies.

Ellen and I looked at each other for a moment and then got the rest of the story in bits and pieces from villagers who work at the communally-run lodge. And we agreed that this was a good way for Bei to see death—something that in our society is held much more at arm’s length and regarded with much more fear and secrecy than it is here.

As it turned out, the other bed-ridden woman was a mourning relative and was not, in fact, dying. (Pass the chicken, please.)

I can offer little insight into the personal stories around the life of the dead woman and her family, since I don’t speak much Chinese, let alone Naxi, the language of the village. The locals were kind to include us in their eating and to invite us to watch the funeral procession, but we stayed mostly on the periphery, respectful of the passing of someone who had spent their life in this tiny community, and feeling like the superficial visitors that we were. But that weekend, as I enjoyed the beauty of the place—the quiet of the village, where kids still run home from school on dirt tracks; the aging herders, who still move their cows from adobe brick houses onto the broad meadow surrounding the ephemeral Wenhai Lake; the people at the banquet, laugh lines permanently etched by the sun at the corners of their eyes—I thought about what it would be like to be born, raised, and married; to raise children and to die, all with this place as the backdrop of your life.

How many more generations of people will spend their lives in such a simple way, sheltered from the rush of change that is sweeping over China? As we left Wenhai on Sunday afternoon, Bei on a horse for the 3-hour walk back to Shuhe, acquaintances of the family also left to return home, most to their houses in the village, but some in cars or on motorcycles, driving down the new dirt road connecting the village to the Lijiang valley where they now make their homes.

Kids running home from school on the weekend of the funeral.

An old woman watches as her not-so-young son (I'm guessing it's her son) takes cattle out into the meadows at Wenhai. What changes has she seen in a lifetime at Wenhai?

Horses graze in the beautiful green meadows around Wenhai Lake. At the end of the rainy season, these will be underwater, but during the dry season the lake shrinks and reveals perfect grazing for the village herds.

A shepherd along the shore of the now shrunken Wenhai Lake.

A Wenhai woman, etched by the sun.

A fence enclosing yellow blossoms at Wenhai.

Bei and one of her peers get acquainted.

Spring foliage and trees near the fields surrounding Wenhai.

The funeral. Family of the deceased woman wear white cloth wrapped around their heads. The men of the family line up and kowtow in anticipation of the journey of the coffin to the cemetary.

A new generation watches the passing of one of their family members. Will these boys live out their lives at Wenhai, or will they leave to seek a more compex life?

The coffin is passed over the heads of the men of the family.

Men carrying the coffin over the heads of family members. Note the cigarette. All of the funeral attendees follow the coffin up past the house and to the edge of the fields, where they bid goodbye to the deceased woman. Then the men continue on to the graveyard where they bury the woman. The rest of the people return to the house for a big meal, to be joined by the coffin bearers later.

A typical (old) grave at Wenhai. Newer graves are adorned with more elaborate monuments.

A boy from the dead womans family pushes his bike in front of the family house.

The gathering at the dead woman's house.

Two generations at Wenhai--a mom and her baby.

East meets west -- Bei with one of the local boys.

A boy from the dead woman's family wearing the traditional white wrap.

A girl at the post-funeral dinner.

Although living in a village about 5 miles from Wenhai, these Yi women probably attended school with Naxi kids from Wenhai. While walking to this Yi village, I passed an old woman walking towards Wenhai. On my return, I passed her coming back with about 10 kids who had spent their school week living at Wenhai and were on their way home for the weekend.

A man and a baby rest on the grass outside the house where the funeral dinner was finishing up.

Bei and Ellen talking with some of the Naxi villagers after the funeral.

We left Wenhai to return to our world--Bei on her horse and us on foot. The growing city of Lijiang occupies the valley in the background. Lijiang tourism and economic growth is quickly encroaching on previously isolated places like Wenhai.

Locals heading home from the funeral. Most are on foot, but a few friends from the valley leave in cars or on motorbikes to drive down the road, recently carved up the mountainside to connect Wenhai to the valley town of Baisha. Locals I asked say that they like having the road there. It makes life easier. But what will this quiet place be like in 20 years? Maybe the woman that died is part of the last generation to live a traditional life at Wenhai.