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, January 10, 2007

Entering Xinjiang

Like a flash, six months have gone by and outside my window I see the snow of a Laramie winter instead of the clear blue sky of the dry season in Yunnan. Bummer! Instead of motivating to teach for two hours a day, I pack a lunch and head to my office for eight, a fact of life that I’m still not used to after our China year (will I ever be used to it again??). And instead of a half hour bike ride to work along with people toting butchered pigs and hauling baskets of vegetables, I walk to the gym at noon and ride the stationary bike while reading Newsweek. The transition has not been easy.

It gets harder to think back and remember what it was like to live in China, but this blog remains unfinished and we visited some incredible places in July 2006 – Xinjiang, Gansu, Jiangxi and finally Beijing, where we boarded a jet and emerged in the U.S. some 12 hours later to begin gaining weight. So I’ll post a few more entries to try to at least partly finish the year’s story. Probably I will mostly just add photographs from our travels with extended captions, but maybe a little commentary here and there.

We left Lijiang in late June, first giving away a small truckload of accumulated “stuff” (American consumerism is hard to shake) to a woman whose family runs a guest house in the little village of Yuhu, site of Joseph Rock’s former home at the base of Yulong Shuishan. In the pile to give away: pirated DVDs and a DVD player, mattresses, blankets, my industrial grade power converter (for charging my never-used rock climbing drill), kids books, kitchen wares, miscellaneous food, and our trusty “Beartrap” bicycles. To carry with us for the next month: a huge suitcase, a huge, heavy backpack and several smaller bags, all stuffed with things we either couldn’t mail or thought we might need. For the next month we would feel like pack animals, dragging this pile of luggage from plane to train to hotel and back again in the heat of a Chinese summer and stashing it whenever possible in “left luggage” rooms to be reclaimed after excursions. I always vow that on the NEXT trip I will travel light, but it never happens.

By the time we said goodbye to our friend Jacqueline, who rode with us to the airport, and boarded the plane to Kunming, we were too tired of packing and waiting for our last paychecks to be especially sentimental about leaving, though there were tearful goodbyes with our Naxi neighbors and Western friends and last looks towards Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

In Kunming we boarded another plane for the long flight to Urumqi, capitol of the Xinjiang, China’s vast, westernmost province where the high mountains of the Tian Shan and the Himalaya cradle broad deserts that are the lowest and hottest places in China. The flight from Kunming took us across the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and the Qinghai Province and high empty landscapes extended off to the horizon, a temptation for future travels. The mountains just north of Qinghai lake looked especially tempting in their emptiness.

Urumqi, our initial destination, was far from empty and we deboarded into a new world from the one we had left in Yunnan. Xinjiang is dominated by the Uighur minority—Chinese Muslims—and though the Han are making a stout effort to overwhelm this population with immigration, entering Urumqi feels like leaving China for the Middle East. Men wear Muslim hats, women are often covered and minarets replace Chinese pagodas in piercing the skyline. And it isn’t just a feeling. Like Tibet, the Uyghurs have historically been more linked to Central Asia than to China, and many long for independence, much as Tibet has tried to remain separate. And uprising have been crushed by the Chinese with similar overwhelming force. Peter Hessler’s recent book “Oracle Bones” explores the Uyghur’s at least superficially and is an interesting introduction.

We spent just a couple of nights in Urumqi and a night in nearby Turfan (Turpan), an oasis in the nearby desert. Here are a few photos.

Minarets signal a major change in cultural heritage from the Naxi world of Lijiang to the Uighur Muslim world of Xinjiang and Urumqi. These two were at the "Da Bazaar" or "Big Market" in Urumqi.

The Da Bazaar was also a new world of things for sale. No more Dongba script!

Oil lamps at Da Bazaar.

All of our students who came from Xinjiang and many others who had visited here raved about the famous fruit and everywhere we went there were melons, peaches, grapes, etc. for sale on the streets.

My fascination with manequins in China was piqued by this herd.

And by this counterpart to the "pycho bride" of Shanghai. Perhaps her long lost groom?

The desert oasis of Turpan (Turfan in China) is famous for grapes and raisins. We drove through a pass in the Tian Shan to get to this place which is the Chinese equivalent of death valley--below sea level nearby and extremely hot. But grape arbors provide shade and a peaceful atmosphere.

One of the common modes of transport in western China, the donkey cart.

Seman fried rice??!!

A crowd gathered in Turpan to watch a show and fireworks display.


A thriving outdoor eating area in Turpan.

The desert outside of Turpan. Very dry and very hot, this desert gives rise to towns and vineyards by virtue of a huge network of wells and underground canals that have been dug and maintained for thousands of years.

The Flaming Mountains outside of Turpan.

Melons are everywhere. This man was carrying a few more to a vendor outside the gate of an ancient city called Gao Cheng that we were visiting.

Bei protecting herself from the hot sun at the ruins of Gao Cheng.

These kids work selling tourist stuff at the entrance to Gao Cheng. As is always the case, they were very interested in Bei.

This Uighur girl posed for us and then walked back to our van so that we could take her photo with Bei.

Bei with the Uighur girl from Gao Cheng.

We were able to get permission to visit a Uighur cemetary outside of Gao Cheng, thanks to our driver who was Uighur. This is a body carrier.

A typical Uighur (Muslim) cemetary in this area. This is the one we visited outside of Gao Cheng. The graves are expressed on the surface but often go very deep with multiple graves arranged within deep narrow pits. Wealthier families have big elaborate mausoleums, many of which were severely damaged during the Cultural Revolution. Human bones are scattered about in the dirt.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Adoption Issues: One-child Policy, etc. (Text only)

I recently asked my writing students to produce short “memoirs” describing things in their lives that were important to them. Many of the resulting essays were overdramatic accounts of boyfriends, girlfriends or middle school teachers, but a few were considerably more substantial. I’ll share a few of them here without much interpretation since I think they speak for themselves. These essays mostly address the impact of the one-child policy in China though one (The Apple Tree) captures a sense of the loneliness of growing up away from one’s parents as many kids do in China. Out of a probably unnecessary sense of caution, I won’t provide the student’s names with these essays, since some of the opinions are critical of the one-child policy.

Born in 1983

If my parents didn’t tell me these things which I will never know, just like these stories I will tell you. Then you can know how hard life my parents lived through caused by me at that time.

It was 1983, a tough time in China’s history. At that time Chinese government called for One-child policy and punished the people who didn’t obey family planning. By my parents touched “the tiger’s ass.” When my elder sister was two years old, I, as the second child in my family, was born in 1983.

One month before I was born, my mother hided in home and never went out for avoiding being found by government. One month after I was born, my mother hided in a big mountain, being looked after by my aunt. The food was provided by my relatives. Being lack of sunshine and nutrition, my mother was very weak and I was valetudinarian [a person overly concerned about their health] boy when I was born.

Fire can’t be kept in paper, this is the reason why my mother hided in the mountain. At the same time, my father had been jailed in a small house. He even had been suspended on a tree for the cannot afford 700 yuan [fine]. One month later, my Grandpapa gave the money which he collected from everywhere to the government and my father was released. When my Grandpapa went to see my father in the house with a steamed bread, but he found that the house was empty – my father went to see his wife and one-month-old son immediately! 700 yuan equaled to my whole family’s one year’s income at that time!

At the same year, another child who was the second child in his family was born. His father handed out 700 yuan at once because my father was a living example. But the boy had a sonorous given name in my hometown – Seven Hundred (Qi Bai).

Birth Control

In the year I was five years old, my mother was pregnant. My Grandma told me I would have a brother or sister in the near future. On hearing that, how happy I was then. However I did not know it was against the One Child Policy. During I was looking forward to the baby’s coming, my mother was missing without letting me know why and where. I kept crying for the whole day and asked Grandma for Mum.

The next day, the local government came to my home and asked me where my Mum had gone. I was terribly afraid of them, because they all looked so fierce. In fact, they were appointed by the local government leaders as “dogs.” They shouted at my Grandma with eating the apples from the tree in our yard, and took our furniture away. I hated them, because they killed my loved dog which kept shouting towards them. Eventually, they put up a seal on our door in order to keep the family out. They fined my Dad 50,000 yuan. It was a large of money to our family then.

About one month later, my Grandma took me to the hospital to see my mother and baby brother. In the hospital, I saw two men waiting for their own baby’s coming. They were so anxious that they could not sit down but walking over and over again in the front of the delivery room. The nurse told a man of the two that he had got a baby daughter. The man was so sad and in total despair that he did not say anything but beating strongly on the wall with his fists. At this moment, the other man came to him and said, “Don’t be sad, brother, a daughter is as important as a son. Daughters are more lovely than sons.”

The nurse made a mistake, and the baby girl should be the other man’s. After he learnt the baby girl was his own, he looked as if he was crazy with the truth came like bolt out of the blue to him. “What went wrong? What did I did wrong? Why the God punishes me like this? It is my fifth daughter,” he cried. He forgot his words and did not say “a daughter is as a son” any longer.

Seeing this, I walked away with a smile.

In the adoption community we often speculate about birth mothers, but we seldom talk about birth fathers or birth siblings. The following story is an interesting one from the perspective of a sister to a boy that was given up (I’m not sure why the family gave up the elder boy and kept a younger girl).

Goodbye My Brother!

When I was in the junior school, a boy who elder than me often visited my home. At first I asked my parents who he was. My parents told me he was just our relative. But I thought our relationship were not easy day by day. Eventually, my father told me the whole story.

At a cold winter day, a beautiful boy was gives birth by my mother. When my parents saw this beautiful baby, they cried with happy tears. Then although our family were very poor at that time, they also led a happy life. But three years later, I was born. My appearance tousled my family’s peaceful life. Because of my appear, the responsibility of my family became bigger and bigger. My father told me that there was a little food to eat at that time and my older brother often didn’t eat full for me. But sometimes when my parents went out for work, my older brother took care of me carefully, although he was three years older than me. As time went by, we brought many troubles to our parents. But they did everything for us with no word.

But one day, a couple went to our family. I didn’t know who they were. I just played with my brother. But my parents were wiping tears. A moment later, that couple when out with my brother. I saw my brother and my parents were crying. I didn’t know what has happened. So I cried loudly with them.

I forgot my older brother day by day for my young. But I know my parents often sobbing at night. Until he came to my home again, my parents told me this story. I asked my parents why did thy gave my brother to other people. They said sadly: “We have no condition to bring up two children, the couple couldn’t breeding, so...We are sorry to him, but we love you!” They burst into tears. Now my brother went to abroad with his parents. I think they must having a happy life. Maybe I couldn’t see him again, but I will always remember him and love him forever.

Goodbye, my brother!

An Apple Tree

When I was five years old, I lived together with my grandmother in the countryside because my parents’ work were very busy and they had no time to take care of me. I could remember that there was a big apple tree in her garden. I had a good time on this tree. So, this tree became my friend when I was a child.

The trees leaves was so much that they could help me to cover sunshine. When spring coming the bird song on the branch. In those days, I always wanted to catch a bird. I couldn’t catch them because when they saw me toward to them, they flied away quickly. The branch was so big that I could sleep on its. When I felt tired, I slept on this tree as my bed. I often saw some butterflies surrounding me. In my dream, I always became a beautiful butterfly to fly into the blue sky.

My Grandmother loved me very much. I took my whole days in this tree, and she also did her housework under this tree. She didn’t know why this tree attracted me so deeply and what did I do in this tree? She often asked me: “Do you eat in there?”

“Yes,” I answered.

Then, she got into home and gave food to me. So, I sat the branch to eat my lunch. I thought this tree maybe was my heaven...

Now, I was far from this tree and my Grandmother to enter University. Many times I dreamed I was on an apple tree and my Grandmother did her housework under the tree.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Yubeng 2 -- The Tourism Dilemma

First, let me say that things are getting a little busy around here with our impending departure. We finish teaching on June 23 and then will travel until the 19th of July when we fly to the U.S. We’re in the midst of finishing a semester, packing the formidable pile of stuff that we’ve accumulated, shipping things back to ourselves, trying to plan a lot of in and out of China travel and saying goodbyes to friends and students. All to say that blog entries are going to be sparse for a while. I’ll continue blogging here in China and after we return to the U.S. until I have worked through a long list of topics that I’d like to discuss (not the least of which is our planned orphanage visits). But it may take a while. For now, I’ll relate a trip back north to the Meili Snow Mountains and Yubeng that we did over the May holiday (WuYi).

Visiting a tiny, traditional Tibetan village huddled at the base of enormous glaciated peaks on the Yunnan frontier is a once in a lifetime experience worth repeating. And since Bei and Ellen hadn’t had the chance, we returned to Yubeng over the May 1 (WuYi) holiday, along with hordes of Chinese tourists, also eager to experience “nature” and “Tibet.”

Yubeng is beautiful and increased tourism is inevitable.

Tourists get their first glimpse of the Yubeng valley from this pass, where they can also buy bottled drinks and other trash-producing snacks.

Traditional villages anywhere in the world offer tourists the ever more unusual opportunity to glimpse ways of life quickly being consumed by roads, cell phones and the relentless onslaught of the growing global economy. We Westerners are especially drawn to places that are “untouched.” But the very act of observing changes the thing being observed in profound ways (just ask Heisenberg. Our return to Yubeng was a great chance to see a still-beautiful and largely traditional Tibetan-style village, but it was also tainted by the realization that the huge mobs of tourists (that we were a part of) who descend on this tiny place are rapidly changing the very thing they come so far to see.

Young boys ride a horse through Yubeng. What will life be like for them 10 years from now? And what will their children's lives be like?

Tourists crossing the pass into Yubeng.

An editorial published on May 12 in The New York Times described a tribe (the Nukak) from the jungles of Colombia that recently renounced their traditional ways to move from ancestral lands into a more modern village. The Times commented:

“We have no clearer idea what it would mean to live a subsistence life in the Colombian jungle than the Nukak have of living even on the fringes of the modern world. In one sense, there has never been a better time for a people like the Nukak to leave the wild. They'll find medical care, sustenance and a genuine attempt at cultural respect that would have been impossible years ago. Yet the fact that they're leaving suggests how much their world — and ours — has been impaired.

The Nukak have every right to make this decision for themselves. But it's hard to escape the feeling that their self-sustaining existence — which went almost entirely unnoticed by the rest of the world — was holding something open for us, something that has now been lost.”

Yubeng, of course, is not a tribal village in the Colombian jungle, but some of the issues are analogous. The village is small – it had 133 residents in 2001 and I doubt that the population has changed substantially in 5 years. Yubeng is isolated—there is no road access and the foot-trail to the village climbs steeply over a mountain pass that can be blocked by snow in the winter. The people of Yubeng, though not isolated from the outside world, still live a simple life—cutting timber, raising yaks and other animals and farming on the small areas flat enough to be plowed. And life has been hard here. Health care is difficult to access and other services are nonexistent. In a 2001 New York Times piece by Erik Eckholm, the author says:

"But if this is almost paradise, that "almost" contains a world of sorrows the people of Yubeng could do without.

Mr. Aqianbu [a Yubeng resident and guest house owner] matter-of-factly gave an example. He, his younger brother and the wife they share, in the polyandrous triangle common to the region, have watched three of their four babies die -- a result of the near-total lack of modern medicine, the poor sanitation and nutrition and, ultimately, the poverty and isolation of a village that is an arduous six-hour hike from the nearest dirt road.

They are proud of their surviving daughter, but they are not happy that to attend school beyond the third grade she must make that same hike over a high mountain pass, then stay at school for two weeks at a time, paying dormitory fees that are a terrible strain."

A woman carries a load from the Yubeng fields back to her house. Farming is hard work and the lure of a tourist economy is strong.

Our friends Scott Lehman and Bay Roberts visited Yubeng several years ago before it became so visible on the tourism circuit and Scott constructed the first outhouse (suitable for “western wide rides” according to Scott) in the village. Outhouses, along with visitors, now abound though they are often poorly constructed, thoughtlessly located, and overused so that raw sewage finds its way into the streams that run through the valley on their way to the Mekong several miles downstream.

Our guesthouse in Yubeng. One of many that are being built to accomodate increased numbers of tourists.

When I visited Yubeng alone in February, there were a few Chinese tourists in town and guesthouses were quiet. One could imagine the village as it has been for hundreds of years and could, with little effort, explore the area with only yaks and pigs for company.

But the May 1 holiday in China is like Spring Break for the entire country, and the scene at Yubeng had utterly changed. We hiked from the trailhead accompanied by an almost continuous stream of Chinese tourists (over 200 per day over the holidays, we were told), most on horses led by hard-working locals who sometimes make two trips a day over the pass to maximize their salaries (horse + horse packer costs 160 yuan per trip, which is about $20, a sizeable sum in rural China). Not only do the horsepackers rush up and down the mountain pulling often reluctant horses and mules, but they often do so while carrying the substantial backpacks of their clients. They are so fit that it is an endurance workout to try to keep up with them (Bei rode a horse, so we ran along behind).

The trailhead for the trip to Yubeng. The once sleepy place is a mob of tourists and horses, waiting to join forces for the trip over the pass.

For many Chinese, outdoor recreation is a new pastime—the emerging middle class I suppose – and they struggle with great determination to reach places like Yubeng. Those on horses often seem to be doing all in their power to insulate themselves from the “nature” that they came to see. Riding in the hot sun, they dress in full gortex suits, boots, gators and substantial sun hats. We passed one group of older tourists who added to this outfit a complete facial wrap of thin gauzy material and large sunglasses to prevent sun from touching any skin, so that they resembled Saharan Touregs riding camels across blistering dunes.

The disconnect between man and the environment among many Chinese manifests itself in an oblivious disregard for the effects of so many people. Trash is a big problem and the area along the trail, which climbs through fir forest and blossoming rhododendron stands, was littered with plastic bottles, food wrappers, toilet paper and other refuse. Above snowline while on a dayhike, I saw tree-wells where trash accumulated on melting snow. In the village itself, workers cleaning rooms tossed refuse off of balconies onto steep hillsides to contribute to terracing efforts in front of the buildings (making ever larger viewing platforms for tourists atop the trash). A picturesque stupa in the upper village sits beside a plastic bottle dump, where thousands of drinking water containers are sequestered in a small fenced area to slowly decompose in the sun.

This area near a stupa, though beautiful, is also right beside a large dump where plastic bottles and other refuse are tossed into a small, fenced area.

And the flow of people like ourselves also brings change by virtue of the money we pour into the local economy. If you were a villager, would you preserve subsistence farming and a “quaint” lifestyle or would you engage with the lucrative tourist trade?

There is much construction in Yubeng these days and many families have upgraded their traditional Tibetan courtyard homes into tourist guest houses (still rustic). And who can blame them? In 2001 Eckholm wrote that:

"Now the people of the region, especially in more pristine places like Yubeng, are facing a challenge that many other parts of China have already failed: finding a way to prosper, while preserving their unique environment.

To solve this problem, the people of Yubeng are engaged in an unusual dialogue about their future -- part of a collaboration between the Yunnan government and the United States-based Nature Conservancy, one of the largest private international conservation groups.

"The goal of the Nature Conservancy is to protect biodiversity," said Rose Niu, a 39-year-old member of Yunnan's Naxi minority group who has a master's degree in resource management and directs the conservancy's China project.

"But here, it's very clear that you can't protect nature unless you work together with local communities and preserve the culture too," she said. "We especially need to promote the traditions calling for harmony with nature.""

Houses in this area are built of rammed earth and huge timbers culled from rare mature forest. Though logging was outlawed in 1998, villages still have rights to use forest resources.

There are big trees around Yubeng--a rarity in our experience in Yunnan. But many of these trees are used for the enormous posts that are part of traditional architecture in this area.

A water powered sawmill for cutting logs into boards. This mill near Yubeng appeared to be abandoned.

Boards stacked to dry near Yubeng. I believe that these are milled using chainsaws or other gas powered tools, though I'm not certain.

After our trip to Yubeng in May, I’d have to conclude that at least in some important ways, the challenges expressed so hopefully by Ms. Niu are not being met. What Yubeng needs is a sustainable way to support the inevitable increase in tourism that has already been unleashed on an area too beautiful to remain secret, while giving the people there a chance to prosper without destroying the very thing tourists come to see.

At the end of his article, Eckholm quoted a man named Amu, one of two village chiefs when the article was written in 2001:

“Of course, all of us are looking forward to a better life," he [Amu] said. "We need a road most of all, and we need a bigger hydropower station to give us steady electricity for cooking."

“We see tourism as our best hope," Mr. Amu said. "We welcome more tourists here, but those that bring destruction will not be allowed.”

And although if I lived in a village where my daughter’s life was in danger because of the lack of accessible medical care, I too would wish for a road, I also have to hope for and wonder if there are other solutions – regular visits to the village by doctors, establishment of a clinic supported by tourism and conservation dollars or other creative programs. For is not just tourists who “bring destruction” to pristine places in China.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is one organization that recognizes the huge opportunities that we have in China to preserve both culture and an unequaled environmental resource. I have to hope that groups like this have the capability of making a big difference. TNC states on one of their web pages that:

"To meet the conservation needs of this area and its people, the Conservancy has completed a draft resource management plan for Meili Snow Mountain that places special emphasis on reducing the threats of future mass tourism projects. Moreover, the Conservancy will continue to work closely with Tibetan communities, government officials, and technical experts to implement the plan."

To be successful in places like Yubeng, these plans require an influx of money from outside (and inside) China and letters expressing the hope that solutions can be found that address the very real problems faced by local people while at the same time preserving what is left of this place and culture.

If any of you are interested, TNC has an excellent web site for their China program:

The Nature Conservancy China Program

And it is not too late. The Meili Mountains are still beautiful, the Yubeng valley is still spectacular and the people who live there still lead a simple life tied largely to the land. On our last day in Yubeng before joining the hordes for the hike out to “civilization” Ellen and I took turns walking through the upper village to a stream where the rhododendrons were particularly spectacular. On her way back through the village, Ellen was startled by villagers announcing excitedly to one another: “Feiji! Feiji!”

As one they turned their heads upwards to watch a single passenger jet pierce the Tibetan sky.

Ellen and Bei on their way to our ride to Deqin walk through "Old Town" Zhongdian. Much of old town has been constructed recently for tourists and much is still under construction.

Bei dances with the locals in Zhongdian. We were told that the dancing was original forced by the government to promote tourism but has since taken on a life of its own among both tourists and locals.

Things for sale in a Zhongdian market frequented by locals and tourists.

One of several "first bends" of the Yangze River. This is a standard stop for tourists on their way north from Zhongdian.

Bei and Ellen visiting with monks at a monastery near the town of Benzilan north of Zhongdian. Bei and the monks were mutually fascinated.

Bei and I in Xidang above the Mekong River.

A detail from a stupa in Xidang near the Yubeng trailhead.

Crumbling tower in Xidang.

Prayer flags on a ridge above Xidang.

Herders move along a dirt road above Xidang. The steep terrain in the background is typical of the country along the Mekong and access to the area is difficult as a result.

Bei leaving Yubeng.

A string of horses and mules carrying tourists and gear into Yubeng for the holiday.

The Meili Snow Mountains. Not only is the village itself beautiful, but it rests just below peaks like this. How can tourists not come here?

Rhododendrons in bloom near Yubeng.

The afternoon view across the fields and forests near upper Yubeng.

A bench near the upper village of Yubeng. Afternoon light highlights the trees that were flush with new leaves when we were there in early May.

Bei with a couple of the women that are part of the family that owns the guesthouse where we stayed.

Ellen in the dining room at the Yubeng guesthouse where we stayed. When I took this photo she was unaware of the backdrop lurking behind her.

Tourists and their baggage catch a ride through upper Yubeng in the back of a tractor.

Rhododendrons near Yubeng. Yunnan is famous for them and they bloom all summer long.

A view from the fields near the upper village of Yubeng.

Locals watching the steady stream of tourists pouring into the village below.

Bei preparing to leave Yubeng on her trusty steed.

Bei and Ellen on the pass above Yubeng on our way out.