Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice


Let us rejoice, my friends – bakeries and cafes, desserts and breads have arrived at the Middle Kingdom!


In 2006, by the end of a two week trip in China, I was experiencing a severe bread and dessert deprivation. The restaurants in the mighty cities of Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai and in the magical land of Guilin countryside generously fed me with the best fish of my life, freshly grilled lamb, spicy and crunchy fried green beans and delicate glass noodles. On the other hand, they stubbornly refused to yield to me as little as a soggy croissant or a slice of a stale coffeecake. The only sweets available were sticky rice buns with sweet red beans inside; they tasted like boiled mud with sugar. The buns probably inspired Brian Maxwell to create Power bars.

Restaurants, food stalls and markets were everywhere; cafes and bakeries were more difficult to find than a bloody slab of meat in a vegan restaurant. There was no place to sit down, leisurely sip a cup of coffee, eat a slice of tiramisu, write some notes, watch people and enjoy life.

Eight years later, the tree of life was blooming with coffees and desserts. For two months we’ve been traipsing around from the ancient towns of Yunnan and canal villages of Jiangsu to the metropolises of Nanjing and Xiamen. Almost everywhere, we saw bakeries selling sweet and savory joy made out of wheat, butter and eggs. We sampled their fare, we chatted to their bakers and to their customers. We learned how baked goods spread through China at a supersonic velocity and conquered the most populated country on the planet.

Nobody carries more responsibility for the changed fate of one billion and three hundred million people then a forty four year old Szechuan man. Twenty years ago, Luo Hong couldn’t find a proper birthday cake for his mother. Frustrated, he bought a whole bakery and made sure that their desserts satisfied his mom. Today, Holiland bakery chain controls 85% of Chinese market.


We have seen dozens of them all over China. The bakeries sell sweets and sandwiches based on soft buns and white sliced bread. Cold thin crust pizzas are not up to New York standards but they are better than Domino’s. Tiramisu, chocolate and fruit mousses, flans, sponge rolls, strawberry shortcakes and wafer cookies taste much better than their cousins from American supermarkets. The flaky pastry from their croissants and egg tarts is getting close to the French standards.

We also saw many local bakeries and smaller chains happily ripping off Holiland repertoire. Some started specializing in particular items, like egg tarts and cream puffs. They serve locals and they charge between fifty cents and two dollars per piece. It took us four dollars per person to gorge ourselves on food that most American cities still sadly lack.

Yvonne remembered that two or three years ago the pastry quality was considerably worse. A Holiland chef in Suzhou confirmed her observation; right around that time the boss pushed the chain more towards the Western pastry standards.
Recently, Holiland bakeries started serving coffee and tea, also at the prices aimed at locals, from seventy cents to two dollars a drink. They don’t make much money on the drinks; most of their income comes from their specialty cakes. Multi layered sponge cakes with whipped cream and decorated with carved fruits can cost as much as thirty dollars. They taste fresh, simple and fruity. Holiland cream comes out of a cow rather than out of a bottle with nitrogen oxide and their fruits don’t taste like cardboard.


Western-style cafes serving deserts, coffee and tea are not as ubiquitous as Holiland bakeries, neither are they as affordable. Most items cost between three and five dollars. They sell classic European desserts, sometimes with a light Chinese twist, like a green tea mango mousse next to a dark chocolate flourless cake. Their gelatos are on par with Italian ones; you can see a stinky durian sorbet next to a black currant one. The coffee, from espresso to cappuccino, tastes the same as it would in a random café in Rome but, unsettlingly, it costs twice more. Some cafes obtain frozen desserts from local bakeries; others run their own kitchens.

The cosmopolitan metropolis of Shanghai seems to be the origin of the café epidemics, starting ten or twelve years ago. The cafes have spread far and wide, however, just over the last five years or less. They do not specifically cater to Westerners though; there just too few white people in China. The cafes serve to the young roaring beast raising its many million heads – the first generation of Chinese yuppies. They also take advantage of the single child family policy. Chinese parents won’t spare any luxury to their beloved only son or daughter. The crowds of college students and recent graduates swarm to the touristy destinations. Smartly dressed, cosmopolitan looking and with their own and parents’ money to burn, they must be the most coveted demographics of all the new businesses in China.

Ironically, Starbucks introduced the idea of a hangout coffee house in China and, then, failed to attract college and yuppie girls. They find Starbucks cafes too corporate and impersonal; they didn’t like the company of businessmen. Upstart local cafes rose to fill the void; one of them provided Yvonne with entertainment and myself with a lesson.


Out of a personal incident and a demographic need, a new café chain rose, small but growing furiously. The owner opened the first café as a gift for his wife. The Shanghai and Suzhou girls approved; they found their paradise in the chain of Momi Cafés.

When Yvonne walked into one of them in Suzhou, she squealed in delight. Then, laughing at the confounded expression on my face, she condescendingly laid it out to me like a professional designer talking to a dumb and a blind male scientist. Apparently, the most important thing was space; there were at least six distinctly different sections to house at most twenty five tables. Stairs, curtains, sofas, different tables, different chairs and different lighting supposedly helped every girl to feel herself unique. Hundreds of postcards, books and coffee- related paraphernalia were carefully arranged in an apparently chaotic fashion throughout the café. Bob Dylan and his Chinese colleagues sang in the background. Every table had a glass with colored pencils and pens; every wall had writing on it. Everything was aimed to attract hipster college girls and younger women while not freaking out their accidental male companions.


The café achieved their purpose. Since five years ago, when I worked on an art conservation project in Italy, I’ve not seen such a crowd of bright, animated, tastefully dressed and confident girls. Half dorky, half hipster, these girls would fit in anywhere from New York to Paris to Shanghai.
Yvonne and I spent five hours and ten dollars there; she was drawing and I was writing this story. Half a dozen girls were admiring Yvonne’s drawing and I was chatting with them about Shanghai, Suzhou, cafes, Western food and life. If I was a student in Shanghai, I would definitely come to a Momi café in search of a girlfriend. A cup of Italian grade Cappuccino with an Brooklyn style cheesecake would celebrate my success or sweeten up the taste of failure.

An Ode to Chinese Taxi Drivers (Inspired by a driver who loaned us money)

There were taxi drivers. They picked us up, turned on their meter, charged us money, dropped us off and drove away. They were everywhere.

There were obnoxious pushy hustlers that swarmed around us like dung flies, screeched like fishmongers and smelled like skunks. They crowded around large cities’ transport hubs. I wanted to spray DEET on them.

Then, there were a few taxi drivers that we will remember warmly every time we think about this trip. We met all of them in small provincial towns.

A Huangshan taxi driver knew history and loved talking. I wrote three pages of notes based on his stories. By the second day with him, we disregarded the advice from our three guidebooks and we asked the driver to pick our itinerary. He brought us to Huizhou villages much more interesting than what we would’ve found ourselves. When we ran out of money, he loaned us six hundred remnibi for entrance tickets. We paid him back of course, once we got back to an ATM. But we still feel that we owe him both for his kindness and for his knowledge.


A taxi driver at Jishou train station drove us for an hour to Fenghuang. He helped us to find our hotel, hidden by construction and located inside a pedestrian zone not passable for cars. We didn’t like the place; he suggested a better one, drove us there for free and bargained them for a better price. In a day, he arrived an hour early because, “he didn’t like to be late.” He took care of us like mother hen protects her chicks. In return, he asked us for small foreign banknotes and coins for his collection. Now, in the town of Jishou there is a Chinese taxi driver who has Russian, Kazakh, Kirgiz, American, Thai, Cambodian and Taiwanese money.


A Longyan taxi driver drove us around Tulou fortress houses for a day. There was a bit of haggling involved, true enough. But once we agreed on the price, the driver delivered. He sneaked us by an entrance point and he cheated the Chinese government out of our one hundred fifty remnibi. Later, he drove us to his town and gave us a tour of an abandoned Tulou fortress where he grew up. In the end, he brought us to his home for tea and more stories. We learned more about the life in Tulou houses from our taxi driver that we would’ve ever learned from a guide.


These taxi drivers were excited about strangers from a strange land. They liked us and they took care of us. They went above and beyond their duty. And I can’t even recommend them to my readers because they only speak Chinese.

Wuyuan: the Birth of a Ghost Town.

As our bus is rolling across Wuyuan, I find myself staring intently around me, consumed by confusion, discomfort and curiosity. There is something deeply unsettling about the town but I can’t figure out what it is.

Wuyuan is shiny and new, like a freshly minted coin . Wide open streets have two or three lanes in each direction. Bicycle, scooter and pedestrian lanes are paved with tiles. Five foot trees have been planted carefully everywhere, all of them are the same age, height and appearance. White and spotlessly clean four and five story buildings line the streets. There are banks and businesses, stores and restaurants. I see doors and windows, balconies and AC units. I see a few people walking the streets.

That’s it! There are not enough people. It’s a Saturday noon in a Chinese town; the streets should be packed with people hustling and bustling. Bicycles, scooters, mopeds, carts and other semi-motorized contraptions should be moving in all directions and honking noisily, friendly and warningly alike. Shops and stalls, cards and restaurants should be offering food. Chinese towns have become cleaner, but there should be some trash leisurely rolling around in the breeze. Where is a city’s olfactory duet, the smells of refuse and sewage?

The gleaming wide boulevards are as eerily perfect as they are eerily empty. Where are the thousands of small features and minor differences that make a town feel real? Wuyuan feels like a Hollywood movie set, not a city. I am expecting the street to turn into a California desert or a parking lot and a cameraman’s voice barking “Action!” If I pull a door knob, will the whole façade fall down to the street baring an empty space behind it?

We get out of the bus. The station is the most lifelike place in town we’ve seen so far. Here is food, refuse, sewage, dust, mud and people, all right. My pregnant darling performs her customarily stint in a public restroom – she pees and vomits at the same time. Still, the bus station feels emptier than it should be for a town this size. Half a dozen buses stand on a parking lot where at least fifty of them could fit. Half a dozen taxi drivers assault us enthusiastically but politely. We pick the least pushy guy and load into his car. As we get out of the station and start riding Wuyuan’s sterile streets, the feeling of unreality assaults me again.

We pass a blindingly white concrete bridge with an authentic Huizhou style colonnade; it is built out of aged wood with a corbel joinery roof and two entrance arches. Even the aged wood looks new and shining; it can’t be more than two or three years old.

As we approach the edges of the city, we see more construction. The perfect buildings of the city center give way to almost finished houses, then to empty concrete half assembled husks, and finally to leveled ground plots.

Yvonne asks our driver about the town and the guy starts laughing. The central government, he says, has encouraged the local authorities to build more and more. The governor had the whole city laid out and built from scratch over the last three years. Now they are having troubles finding people and businesses to move in. The town should have two hundred thousand residents, but it barely has a third of that number.

The driver’s words explain it, but I still feel bewildered. Most human settlements have been born inadvertently, slowly, noisily, dirty, bloody, and chaotically; they’ve been born human. Now, I witness a whole town being born coldly, precisely and lifeless, like in a science fiction novel or a Corbusier architecture textbook.

Finally, the city ends and we are back in the bucolic Chinese countryside. Still, we can’t get the image of a sterile shining city out of our minds. We have been traveling in China for a month and we’ve see a frenetic frenzy of construction everywhere. How many buildings are left waiting forlornly for their residents never to move in?

Yuanyang Rice Terraces


I am desperately waiting for the bus ride to end. I am not driven by the desire to see the famed Yuanyang rice terraces; I just want to get out of the bus and finally vomit. I am still halfway unconscious from the flu. Every time the bus tightens up yet another mountainous U-turn, my stomach climbs out of my mouth to say hi; a dry heave ends in a biley burp. I’ve never thought that nausea could be so difficult to handle. Is this how pregnant women used to feel before the age of anti-nausea medication?

Yvonne’s bottle with fifty magic anti-nausea pills is so close, and yet they could be on the other end of the world for all that matters. The pills lie a meter below, in the baggage compartment and the bus ain’t gonna stop. In fact, it rushes around yet another blind turn, overcoming a black passenger Lexus, and honking warningly.

An eternity and three hours later, the torture by nausea ends. We pull into Xinjiezhen bus terminal. It is a dusty square in front of a gray one story building that has became decrepit while still being new. Yvonne jumps out of the bus, finds a van with dark windows, talks to the driver and throws me into the car as I stare vacantly into my stomach’s swirly depths.

Somewhere during the transfer, I swallow a magic pill. Over the next forty minutes, the van carries us up and down an even narrower and more winding road. The driver chats and flirts with every girl in the car, including Yvonne, and pulls over at every scenic spot. He wants us to enjoy the ride and the view. Unfortunately, the fog has the consistency of milk and I can barely see our car when I step out of it. I don’t care; I am just happy to stand outside and inhale the clammy cold air that’s clinging to us like a wet down blanket. Just as the pill finally puts my stomach to sleep, our trip comes to an end. The driver pulls up in front of a staircase and smiles pointing down it. He isn’t going to drive the minivan down a few dozen stairs and a one lane wheelbarrow street. Welcome to Duoyishu, supposedly an even less developed and more authentic mountain village than Xinjiezhen, a true bumblefuck.

I spend all night drinking tea, sweating and shaking under three blankets. The next morning, the evil virus finally loses the fight. Wet and still weak, I crawl from out of the blankets and feel reborn.

The weather cooperates – the sun burns a hole or two through the ever present fog. The balcony view is worth shivering for a few minutes.


The guesthouse owner, Jackie, serves us a breakfast; his mom runs the kitchen. He is the first local Chinese person we’ve met so far who speaks good English. In fact, his English is not any worse than mine. Jackie is a local boy made good. Like the other Hani, a local minority Chinese group, he is barely five foot tall, unlikely to weigh more than one hundred pounds, with a head that looks slightly too big on his shoulders. Unlike the other locals, he went to France for three months to work as a photographer’s assistant. A short trip to France turned into a four year jaunt through Europe, Middle East and South America.

Jackie opened the guesthouse just a couple years ago and both wikitravel and tripadvisor have already discovered him as the only English speaking local point; that’s why we’ve picked Jackie’s Inn to begin with.

Jackie quickly draws a map of places to go and things to see. We glance at it and start laughing – it looks like a climbing topo.

“Yes, I climbed in France, but there is no good rock climbing here,” Jackie sighs.

“Make sure you skip the official sightseeing points, unless you want to pay a one hundred RMB entrance fee,” he adds, “you didn’t pay it when you drove in, right?”

“Thank you for your advice again,” Yvonne grins, “we picked the right minivan. It had tinted windows and the driver pretended that the car was empty as he drove through the checkpoint.”
The locals don’t seem to care much about the government and its money.

We walk out with Jackie’s employee; Shin has decided to join us. She joined Jackie as a volunteer for her winter break; he is paying for her room and board. Shin wanted to see the rice terraces. She is also a village kid; she grew up picking rice and feeding pigs. Then, she went to a college a thousand miles away to study special education. She is shorter than Yvonne and skinny like a rail; she is used to eating two meals a day and the city life hasn’t softened her up yet.

Unsurprisingly, construction is proceeding here at a typical Chinese feverish pace. On our way up, towards the road, we pass a couple dozen buildings. Nine of them are in the different stages of construction. Men and women alike are laying bricks, pouring concrete, hammering, cutting and drilling. The workers can be anywhere from twenty to sixty year old; it’s hard to read their dark leathery faces.

A lot of locals have figured out already that attending tourists beats growing rice. Hotels, stores, and new houses are growing everywhere like mushrooms after a rain. Unlike other ancient Chinese towns and villages we have visited, there is not much of art and architecture tradition here. Over generations, the local denizens have directed all their creative energy into constructing tens of thousands of terraced rice paddies covering a few hundred square miles of mountain slopes. The original houses look exactly like poor mountain village hemlocks should look. The new constructs haphazardly incorporate every element from Western and Chinese architecture the owners have discovered when surfing images on the internet. A random sprinkling of traditional mushroom shaped thatched roofs adorns the buildings.

A winding road takes us past another village. When Yvonne sees pigs, she squeals in delight. The pigs don’t bother squealing back; they have better things to do.


There are no restaurants in this area yet, but a local gentleman sells roasted ducklings at three dollars a bird. A mix of chilies and salt comes for free.


The trail takes us away from the village and along the mountain slopes. The girls chat happily; the muzzle keeps my mouth shut as I keep my distance from Yvonne. Occasionally, she translates Shin’s stories for me. Belonging to a rural minority in China offers advantages and drawbacks alike. Unlike Han Chinese, the minority families are allowed two children and there is an affirmative action policy of some sorts. Still, the rural life is poor and hard; the kids and their families push hard towards getting a higher education. All Shin’s high school classmates, i.e. ten people, are in college. They are not coming back to the rice fields. I will be the last person to judge them.


Every time we walk by yet another domesticated life form, Yvonne goes all over it, squealing, crooning and taking pictures. Shin looks a bit confused. To her, it’s just work and food. The best comes when we see a mother pig with suckling piglets.


The pig looks like a mini size boar ready to defend her progeny against real and imaginary enemies. I wearily walk around her. Shin walks by and casually kicks the pig in the snout. The pig grunts unhappily and submissively moves aside. Shin looks at me,

“See, they are nice, no need to worry.”

We walk to the top of a cliff looming over the mountain valley, one of Jackie’s recommended observation points. Yuanyang rice terraces sprawl below and to the sides of us like thousands of calm gray ponds. A few photographers armed with full set of professional gear are already there, waiting for the sun to fight its way through the clouds. Yvonne joins them; her Canon SLR looks pathetic next to their professional two foot long lenses mounted on heavy tripods.

Meanwhile I eat my duckling lunch. Only yesterday, it was squawking and running around and now it’s killed and roasted for my pleasure; I don’t mind. The salt and chili peppers cut through the grease and spice up the fresh meat, as I carefully pick every shred off the baby bones.
The sun refuses to fully cooperate and disappointed Yvonne has to satisfy herself with inferior quality shots.


I look down, at the thousands of rice paddy layers descending the Ailao mountains. For more than a thousand years, fifty generations of the Hani peasants manually hoed, leveled and tilled the mountain sides, with an occasional help from their scrawny undersized water buffalos. They built elaborate canals to deliver water from the tops of the mountains and distribute it fairly and efficiently for up to three thousand levels of rice fields going all the way down the valley. They grew red rice for themselves and red algae for their pigs. They raised chicken and ducks. They worked the fields all their lives till they died on mud floors of their earthenware huts. In the process, they pulled off an impossible feat. Inadvertently, they used a bunch of mud puddles to shape a mountain landscape improving what nature had intended.

Sure, a rice paddy can excite a duck looking for a worm or a peasant thinking about his harvest. But why would it attract the best nature photographers in the world? In fact, when the tourists started coming in, the locals were sincerely confused. It’s a paddy, thought the peasants; why would one stare in a slack jawed ecstasy at water, rice and mud? And, I would add, use cameras that cost more than the area’s GDP to take pictures of dirt?


Why does a few dozen meters distance turn a grass reinforced mud pile into a green and brown border separating quiet ponds of different colors and shapes?

“How have mud and dirty water become a symbol of transcendental beauty,” I ask Yvonne.

Yvonne’s head with a camera attached to it turns like a tank’s gun turret searching for a target.

“The scale adds visual power,” Yvonne replies absent mindedly.

“This landscape will look dramatically under different light conditions. Dense fog with uniform light gives the landscape the brown color,” Yvonne mumbles as she stares unhappily at the camera’s digital screen.

The shooting should be the best at sunrise or sunset. The world is multi-colored then, with vibrant oranges, pinks and purples. If it’s slightly windy and the clouds are moving, the color’s transition happens quickly; the water acts like a mirror, constantly changing colors. Water pools have different depth and it influences color diffusion and reflection. That’s what makes it so beautiful and magical. There are cloud reflections in each pond. Red algae in some ponds add extra texture.

“Look at the curving lines of rice paddies. They follow the slope curvature but they also constantly vary in size and shape. The variation adds richness and depth to the landscape,” Yvonne concludes her little lecture.

I look down at the mud pools; I just think they are magical.

The sun finally comes out to please Yvonne and the water glows in reflected light.


My little darling is getting more and more excited with every minute, whipping herself into a photographic frenzy. She is adjusting shutter speed, F-stop, exposure and other, undoubtedly, very important photographical things. She is moving, trying to find better shooting angles and positions. The camera is furiously clicking in Yvonne’s strong stubby fingers.

I am just sitting on a rock, enjoying the view and chewing on a dry grass blade.

The sun goes behind a cloud again and Yvonne exhales, drops her shoulders and swings the camera around her back. The trail leads us further along the mountain slopes, into the rice paddies. A water buffalo looks sad and tired.

Up close, the rice paddies look like many lives of hard of work. In another generation or two, half the locals will be probably off to the easier city life. Another half will be running tourist establishments. How much time will it take before the famed rice terraces of Yuanyang slowly crumble to landslides and erosion? The mountains will take back its due and the slopes will come back to their original state.

The trail leads us uphill, towards the paved road and designated observation points. The picnic set of table and chairs pulls me out of melancholia.


We walk along the road discussing with Shin how she could make her dream come true; she wants to visit Canada or Italy for a year.

Children in bright traditional dresses pose for tourists along the road. They don’t exactly hassle the tourists, but they don’t mind getting paid either.


The clouds finally gave way and Yvonne spends the evening on the hotel roof, sketching the mud puddles in the light of the setting sun. I come back from a short evening run down the fields and sneak behind her. Iphone panorama option allows me to take a strangely appropriate fairytale picture of the rooftop view.


The sun rolls behind the mountain taking all warmth away. Yvonne’s fingers are frozen solid and, with a practiced ease, she runs them under my down jacket, fleece and shirt, towards my armpits. I grind my teeth.

“It’s your purpose,” Yvonne purrs as she waits for the watercolor to dry.


The town of D’en Tswein and a flu virus

My recollections of Jianshui are a bit hazy, my desperate desire not to get Yvonne sick being the most vivid memory of our stay there.
But let’s start from the beginning. Everybody from Lonely Planet to Yvonne’s parents told us that we should go and see the Yuanyang mountain rice terraces in winter. As a crow flies, the rice terraces are only hundred fifty miles away from Kunming. Unfortunately, a bus takes seven and a half hours to get there, the key word being “mountain”. We decided to break an exhausting bus trip in two stages and spend a day at the town of Juanshui – located exactly in the middle of the ride. Lonely Planet agreed with me and recommended a few attractions worth visiting and a small historic old town.
By the way, in standard Mandarin Jianshui is pronounced as D’en Tswei. Traveling in China, I’ve often had the uncivilized desire to find the people responsible for the English transliteration of Mandarin names and do something unspeakably violent to them. Yvonne can only speak halting Mandarin and she can’t read it at all; my white ignorant barbarian self is, of course, completely useless. Traveling in China is different enough for us already. Not knowing even approximately how to pronounce a name of the town, doesn’t make it any easier to buy the tickets or find the right bus.
The outside of D’en Tswei bus station looks like construction in a recent war zone. The piles of rubble are higher than our bus; cranes and trucks roam everywhere, and the air consists of nitrogen, oxygen and gasoline. Fortunately, a four kilometer taxi ride fixes the problem. A wall of densely packed modern residential buildings separates historic D’en Tswei from the feverish polluted construction taking place outside. Only scooters taxis and buses are allowed to pass a newly built historic-looking town gate that resembles a small fortress.
The old town center consists of a half a mile long street and a few short dead-end alleys with hotels, stores and restaurants. Two story wooden buildings with tiled dragon roofs, carvings, courtyards, ink drawings on whitewashed walls and occasional columns merge together to form a two hundred year old Qing town. The police department is my favorite building.
I give Yvonne ten tries to guess what the building houses and she never even gets close.
Chinese Imperial Lions guard a multi-tiered entrance gate at each end of the main street. Ignorant Western barbarians disrespectfully call them Foo dogs. The not quite so old town, on the other side of the gates, is bustling with life. Traditional and modern buildings co-exist in more or less peaceful harmony. Present-day students pray for the successful results of their exams at an examination hall built hundreds of years ago by their far removed ancestors. A dozen kids dance a lame hip hop in a park. A three dozen of their mothers are doing an out of sync dance aerobics nearby. Taxis illegally drive in pedestrian only zone and honk when the rude pedestrians block their way. And, one of the sweetest phone office employees in the world spends thirty minutes fixing our SIM card issues.
My head hurts all evening, slowly getting worse, but I ignore it.
The next morning I wake up, get out of bed and almost trip over my feet with weakness and nausea. Hi, virus.
“Yvonne must not get sick,” a police siren with blue and red flashing lights turns on inside my head.
In the beginning of December, I generously shared a cold with her. She spent two weeks in bed and she stopped coughing a full five weeks later. Another cold like this will effectively terminate our sweet dream trip; we will have to go back to the US. Yvonne should listen to the sweet voice of reason, I think. Even with her brain shrunk from pregnancy, she should remember two week old events. If we are lucky, a combination of facemask, separate rooms, and salt water gurgling may keep the virus at bay.
Predictably, Yvonne complains, pouts and takes my suggestions as a personal offense. I stand firm against the storm of abuse. Finally, to my great relief, my sweet little pea relents. To commemorate us making peace, we walk out to visit the Zhu family garden and residence, one of two key attractions D’en Tswei. Your humble servant is muzzled with a white medical face mask and walking six feet away from Yvonne.
We enter the garden through a perfectly round hole in the wall, just slightly taller than me. It is a labyrinth of the seemingly endless courtyards and identical looking almost empty rooms with a few random clearly never used furniture items arranged in a perfectly symmetrical way. The place is serene and quiet, white walls are just tall enough that I am not tempted to jump and look over them; the doors and windows on the two story buildings are made out numerous carved wooden screens, dark from aging. Stone tiles form patterns under our feet. Occasional photographs and texts inside the rooms provide us with some information though the English translation is as flowery as it is confusing.
I am feeling weak and miserable, barely able to walk. Every couple of minutes, I have to park my sick ass into a generously provided chair.
And, then, we pass by a walking oxymoron, a knowledgeable local guide. A serene young woman dressed in a long yellow dress, glides like a swan from one courtyard to another, followed by a small flock of tourists. Yvonne listens to her for a bit and, to our great surprise, approves of her. As a great favor for a pitiful sad puppy, i.e. me, she agrees to hire the guide and act as a translator for me.
For the next hour, Yvonne and the guide patiently explain and translate from English to Mandarin and back. I learn a variety of random things. The flowing calligraphy and numerous landscapes with sages and animals on the whitewashed walls have to be painted anew every several years; such is the nature of ink drawings. The dark massive chairs and tables carved out of expensive wood with hard and cold marble sections in the middle were made about ten years ago for the visitors to use. The dozens of bonsai trees in pots are all original, between one and two hundred year old.
I finally find out that an entrance in the shape of a perfect circle was not supposed to be just a round hole in a wall. Originally, there were intricately decorated round wooden gates, but a hole in the wall has proved to be a more historically stable formation.
From the guide, we learn the full history of the place. A couple hundred years ago, a rich merchant Zhu moved to a provincial town of Juanshui. To accommodate his immediate family, eventually, he built a modest residence containing almost one hundred fifty rooms, forty courtyards, one pond, large enough for the Olympics, and a few gardens. Over the nineteenth century, the clan grew and prospered, traded, dabbled in and supported the arts and scholarship, and, finally, started dabbling in opposition politics. The latter proved to be the clan’s undoing. By the beginning of twentieth century, the Qing dynasty was weak and dysfunctional, mired in corruption and pulled apart by the internal strife and the outside enemies alike. It was still an imperial power and the opposition clan leaders’ heads ended up in rusty iron cages hung of a fortress wall somewhere.
Yvonne’s faltering Mandarin cuts through the guide’s detailed story down to the core.
“They killed all of them,” Yvonne helpfully explains to me.
Somehow, the house itself managed to survive the imperial wrath, the subsequent warlord mess and, the most impressively, the liberating Red Army troops. Luckily, it was used as a hospital for the soldiers, so it wasn’t burnt down or trashed, just sacked mildly by the zealous revolutionaries.
An hour passes quickly and our guide glides away, her long yellow skirt flowing in her wake. It is right around time, too, since I am losing the fight with the virus. Isn’t it amazing how much can one’s body get screwed by a few strands of random DNA coated by a few thousand repeating small protein molecules? I turn in for a nap and kick Yvonne out of my room to sulk.
In the afternoon, Yvonne patiently accompanies me as I slowly drag myself an intolerably long way of almost a kilometer across the old town – to visit Confucius temple. Why are we going there? Both Yvonne and I despise the dude. His so-called philosophy is mostly a bunch of whining on how best to suck up to your ruler, boss, parent, husband and elder in exactly this order. I can see why Asian rulers picked it up as a convenient political philosophy but to Yvonne and me, it’s as repulsive as it is primitive. For more than a thousand years the Chinese bureaucrats were selected based on their studies, analysis and essays over Confucius writings. The truly amazing thing is that they ruled the country successfully.
In spite of our feelings for Confucius, we like the place.
Unlike Zhu mansion, it was built to impress, but to impress modestly and ethically, following Confucian doctrine.
The solemn dark red walls and equally solemn dark brown buildings spread in a park. Two hundred year old trees loom over us; they have survived the vicissitudes of life. We pass several statues of an oversized solemn Confucius and his small students, looking enlightened by their proximity to the Great Master. Every student wears Confucian thin mustache and foot long skinny beard. There is one person with a bare face and Yvonne and I spend speculate whether it was a eunuch or a woman. We pick the former option, since, accordingly to Confucius, a woman’s place is in the kitchen.
It seems that the only outlay for any kind of humor, playfulness or creativity, poor Confucian students got was in carving small stone figures guarding the balustrades from evil spirits. There are howling pigs, fierce turtles, friendly lions, and many other confusing animals in various stages of drooling, snarling, baring teeth, and sitting in satisfied contemplation. Their stone heads were thoroughly polished by many generations of Confucian students and, later, visitors patting them.
It is cold in the park; the temperature is in the low forties; it is overcast and slightly breezy. There is not a single soul anywhere other than us and a few miserable looking employees, matching the temple color scheme in their dark red uniforms. Today, the Confucian temple belongs to us and its Lord is cradling me in his arms.
In my dialectic fight with the virus, the latter starts winning again. A splitting headache is back with a vengeance; I am so weak that it’s difficult to walk.
In the evening, Yvonne tries to sneak into my room again – she is lonely. I kick her out; she walks away pouting and muttering something not particularly nice under her breath. Tough shit; whatever it takes not get her sick.
The next morning we leave the town for Yuanyang. I am not aware of it yet, but I am going to have the most unpleasant bus ride of my life.

The Karst Kingdom


In the first part of this entry, I mostly complain the about environmental degradation, the Chinese government’s interpretation of national park and tourist hordes. If you don’t like snarky whining, just skip it and go to the second half. The Stone Forest is worth it; it is a famous Chinese national park, a Kingdom of Karst.

Yvonne, Embryona and I get on a two hour bus ride from Kunming to Shilin, or Stone Forest. We just spent a couple of days in Kunming, a capital of Yunnan. We liked the city, its two European bakeries being the high point of our stay. Still, we are very happy to get out of pollution riddled city towards the pristine Chinese countryside and the Stone Forest’s mysterious cliffs. A day ago, I spent an hour drooling over the internet photos of impossible karst formations, magical lakes draped by fog, gnarly pine trees growing right out of white stone and other sights to behold.

We pass by hilly countryside generously sprinkled by scrawny pine trees and dull brown grass valiantly fighting erosion. Occasional patches of cultivated land stand out as impossibly bright green geometrical shapes. They are randomly spread out among the slopes steep enough to be designated as be black diamond ski trails in a Vermont ski resort.

As we get further from the city, the visibility is getting worse. Thin darkish fog coats the expanse of the open space around us. The hills next to the road are still sharp and clear but the buildings and land half a mile away from the road are blurred. A brown haze covers the horizon. For an hour, Yvonne and I entertain each other by discussing the nature of the air phenomenon. The smog is so disgusting! Yvonne, it can’t be smog, we are in the countryside; the air in Kunming was actually cleaner; nothing here could produce such dense smog. It must be fog, you moron, what else can it be? Moron yourself; what kind of fog is it, sticking to the ground at 11am, on a sunny crisp day… And so it goes, two lovebirds chattering tenderly.

Two hours later, as we still are still undecided on the nature of the air phenomenon, the bus arrives to our destination. A few dusty restaurants and low-end hotels together with a local market shyly hover at the edge of, probably, the single most famous outdoor attraction of the People’s Republic of China, the Stone Forest National Park.

We walk into a cluster of parking lots and buildings that could put an entrance to any Disneyland to shame. It’s a winter weekday, a dead season, so we walk past a few hundred meters of gray concrete desert peppered by the occasional specks of tourist buses. A gray concrete building towers ahead of us; it’s guarding an entrance to the Nature. A Time Square size LED screen is hanging in the front, and a sequence of Stone Forest images march across like a Star Wars opening sequence under the corresponding music.

It costs quite a bit to get into the Stone Forest, 175 yuan or $30; it is four times higher than any entrance fee we’ve ever seen in China. Since we want to spend a couple days here, getting acquainted with the park at a slow pace, we ask for a yearly pass – it costs only $4 more. Maybe I’ll be lucky, I think, and sell it to somebody afterwards. With a commendable entrepreneurship spirit, the entrance to the park was constructed three kilometers away. So, we have to pay another four dollars to ride an electric card to the park. A few minutes and a daily salary for a qualified Chinese laborer later, we get in.

We are confused. The national park starts with a classically landscaped Chinese garden. A four foot wide paved trail passes artfully arranged streams, rock beds, flowers and trees. The garden would make Beijing proud, but what has it to do with a national park? We walk further, towards the sounds of music. A fake stone bridge crosses over a fake lake leading to a flower pyramid. It grows mysteriously in the middle of a tiled square.


A few remaining karst towers grow out of the lake; the others were probably quarried to pave the lake perimeter with concrete. The lake is only a quarter of a mile wide and a few dull featureless buildings grace the other shore. With a jolt I realize that the fairy tale photographs of a vast water space with dozens of graceful karst towers quietly fading into the fog were actually taken here. My compliments to Chinese nature photographers!

At least, we are getting closer to the actual park; we can see occasional white karst formations shining in the sun. We cross another concrete square and pass a dozen Chinese tourist groups and their megaphone-armed guides wearing drab down jackets over colorful national costumes.  We walk by an impossibly perfect green meadow that can put Oxford gardeners to shame. The meadow is encircled by ten meter high karst towers; it looks like a six star exclusive golf course.


We walk another kilometer on a five meter wide paved road with green electric cars packed with people whizzing by us every three minutes. Finally, we see a trail sign and we rush towards it with a sigh of relief.

It is like magic; all the people are gone. Over the next three hours on the trail, we haven’t met a single tourist. Gone are fake lakes, artistic gardens, paved road, packed cars and megaphones. We finally step into the Karst Kingdom’s fairy land. The trail winds its way up a gentle hill, and stone towers over us surrounded by a coterie of squat green pine trees and subtropical underbrush. It took water millions of years to patiently wash the ground away, baring what used to be the ocean bottom cliffs. They are not very imposing; they rarely taller than a five story New York City building. But there is such a variety of shapes and formations. All around us are single towers, couples, groups, rows, circles of them. There are columns, mushrooms, waves. Some resemble people; a couple resembles a mother and a child embracing. Of course, there is a concrete plaque next to it explaining in five paragraphs of Mandarin and flowery awkward English that these rocks are called “Mother and Child Embracing” because they look like mother and child embracing.

The white little cliffs look so sexy to me; they sing to me in a litany of lovely voices, “Touch us; feel how lovely we are, hold us, climb to the top.” Impatiently, I grab a handhold. I hiss and jerk my hand away; the damn thing is so sharp. I gingerly caress the rock with my hands – it feels like something in between a ceramic knife and a petrified cactus. “Ok,” I think, “I shouldn’t rush it like an impatient teenager. This rock wants me to be gentle and slow like eh… experienced middle age man I am.

I start moving slowly and deliberately. The razor thin and razor sharp edges look painful and fragile. I carefully plant my feet and hold on to the rock, prepared that it can break off at any moment. In a few minutes I learn better. The rock is sharper than Steven Colbert, but it is also hard like an old cynical whore. The ridges look like glass – they all end with a monomolecular thin edge. But they hold my weight without any crumbling at all. Instead, they try to cut through my shoes. I can’t grab a handhold; I can’t even put my hand on a rock. Instead, I have to carefully squeeze handholds between my thumbs and opposing fingers. Fortunately, the rock is not only sharp, but it’s also very rough. The friction is excellent and the climbing feels very secure, albeit painful. So, I carefully climb up a series of holds to the top. The tower lets me have some liberties with it, but it doesn’t yield completely. I can’t stand on top of it; the damn thing is a razor sharp ridge covered in one inch deep, you guessed it right, razor sharp ridges.


I come down with blood dropping off my left hand, between my fingers; Yvonne rolls her eyes. I pat her round belly, “Too bad you can’t climb right now, you would’ve liked it.” Yvonne rolls her eyes again; I keep rubbing Embryona.

It warmed up and we can finally take our down jackets off. It feels like a Northerner’s paradise. The temperature hovers just below sixty, afraid to cross the line into the summer; a light breeze occasionally passes by and the subtropical winter sun warms the air. For the last two weeks we’ve been traveling at an altitude of just about a mile above the sea level, blessed with days like today, sunny, crisp and dry.

The trail takes us from one clump of towers to another. A dog has to pee at every post; I have to climb every tower with a relatively safe ascent route. Since the rock is so mercilessly sharp, I am not taking any chances and I am not climbing anything harder than grade four, easy five at most. Still, it feels good to scramble, chimney, stem and traverse along the wavy ridges. In spite of being incredibly careful and slow, I keep getting more and more cuts, scrapes and abrasions on my skin and clothing. As I hear yet another ripping sound, “Skin will heal”, I gruesomely think, “but my clothing won’t.”

Yvonne and Embryona stately roll ahead of me, stopping occasionally to let me catch up. It’s hard to imagine that only a mile away, dozens of tour groups are riding dozens of electric cards listening to dozens of guides’ megaphones. It’s so quiet her; neither people, nor insects buzz around. A few birds chirp somewhere in the trees and an occasional squirrel is making its way.

A trail takes us up, past several cultivated fields, to a plateau, above the karst ocean. A traditional Chinese gazebo made out of traditional steel re-enforced concrete signifies a designated lookout.


A farm somehow stayed in the middle of the National Park, on the edge of karst forest. A dozen or two of level fields of various shapes are skillfully carved out of tilted slopes. Like a thousand years ago, a skinny dark peasant is swinging his hoe at the hard ground, patiently making yet another field. Even from a distance, it looks painful. Screw bucolic farming.

The trail turns around, crosses the electric car road and dives into the densest part of the Stone Forest, going towards the Sword Lake. This is the most picturesque part of the park, and we start seeing an occasional tourist or a small guided group. Yvonne mimics a guide, “Here you see a rock. See, it’s just like a turtle. You can touch it.” Everybody obediently touches a rock shaped like a turtle. Yvonne shudders.

The trail of thousand staircases weaves its way artfully around the towers, sometimes squeezing through a passage that a Walmart customer would get stuck in. Once or twice, I have to take my daypack off to fit through.


Naturally, I can’t resist making comments about Yvonne’s belly. “Fuck you,” Yvonne pleasantly replies and we kiss. We are descending deeper and deeper into the heart of karst labyrinth. After a dozen staircases, we finally arrive at Sword Lake. It’s almost dark here; it feels like being on a bottom of a cavern. The bright blue sky is so far away. Karst towers grow tall and numerous around the lake. They look more forbidding than before, their slick vertical walls rising like ten story houses into the air.

Naturally, I still find an easier way up a shorter tower and climb to a ridge, than up the ridge towards the highest tower. The ridge feels like a serrated knife. I gingerly squeeze little stone razors with my fingertips as I smear my feet on a near vertical wall. The ridge leads me to a tower with a one meter high stone block somehow stuck on top. I am finally standing on a flat surface, albeit still ridiculously sharp. The stone block is the size of coffee table and I feel like I am standing in the air, floating twenty meters above the ground. The towers, connected by crests and ridges surround me on all sides. I can’t see much past the blindingly white waves of karst, reflecting the sunlight; I feel like drowning in a stone whirlpool.


I look down, at the lake. The water looks calm and dark, always shaded from the sun by the cliffs. Yvonne is sitting on the stairs next to the lake, looking bored. An old Chinese guy in a conical straw hat is fishing with a bamboo pole.


I downclimb, scraping myself a few more times. We wonder around getting bored of concrete trails and staircases.

Then, we get lucky. Like a dog, I have to sniff at every suspicious looking narrow passage. Most of them are dead ends, but one suddenly leads us towards an old abandoned staircase, the original one built by normal people, before the age of UNESCO and Chinese bureaucrats. Worn out one foot wide stairs, barely discernable in the stone, lead steeply uphill. We have to do a few easy rock climbing moves when getting up and I spot Yvonne. That’s definitely what I would call a technical staircase. In more difficult places, there are holes drilled through the rock to be used as handles. Six inch wide stone blocks bridge five foot gaps with substantial exposure; Yvonne occasionally freaks out.


Could it be that Embryona is screwing up with Yvonne’s head for heights? The so-called staircase brings us to the top of the peak and around and down into a pitch dark passage where we have to grope blindly and slowly towards the light and back out to the wide and boring concrete staircase. A twenty five year old Chinese guy accosts us excitedly,

“How did you get up there? Where is the passage? I want to do it!”

Yvonne shows him the passage and a few minutes later, we hear the guy screaming to his friends,

“I am here! See me? You should get here.”

We get out of the stone labyrinth back into the forest and find an open meadow with soft grass and bigger pine trees next to the electric car road. Yvonne sits down to make a sketch; I set up a slack line. For the next hour, Yvonne entertains herself making a sketch of a generalized electric carload of Chinese tourists; I entertain myself by walking the slack line, and the carloads of Chinese tourists entertain themselves by watching me walking the slack line. The sun generously warms us first, then it slowly rolls behind the hill and it immediately gets cold. It’s time to go back.


Ancient Towns of Baishu, Shuhe and Lijang: The path from Squalor to Beauty and then to Disneyland

It is dark as the pavement turns into cobblestones under our car’s tires. A few minutes later, the suicidal microvan pulls over and we scramble out. Sorry, says the driver, he can’t get us any further into the ancient town of Shuhe, it’s a pedestrian zone. No problem, we smile to our Tibetan Clint Eastwood, as we shake hands and wish each other the best. Yvonne’s parents go away looking for a hotel. They don’t take us with them; a hotel would try charging white people more.  So, Yvonne, Gen, Jordan and I sprawl in a restaurant. Like all the other local establishments, the place is open to the elements.  A copious amount of hot oolong tea helps us to temper the fresh air at just above freezing temperature.

A few minutes later Yvonne’s parents come back glowing with pride. They found a hotel for twenty dollars a night that would satisfy even the most demanding customer, i.e. my pregnant darling. As we walk inside, Yvonne approves and everyone breathes out in relief. The hotel does combine charm, cleanliness and comfort; unfortunately, like all the other inns around, it is also a good place to for winter survival skills training.

We drop our belongings and walk outside, into a frosty night. The streets are devoid of tourists, but everything is open, stores, restaurants and travel agencies alike. We don’t know what to make of the town; enjoyment and annoyance mix in equal proportion. Over the next three days, we roam the streets, back alleys establishments and museums of Shuhe, Lijang and Baishu. I formalize my feelings and I decide to write an essay on the three phases of an ancient town development in China.


An ancient town starts as a rundown squalid place, forgotten by everybody except the local denizens who stubbornly cling to their ancestral homes, land and the way of living. Then, the UNESCO or Chinese government or both discover the town. A restoration process starts. As funding and outside assistance come in, the town rises out of the ashes towards its original glory improved by the twenty first century utilities and sanitation. The locals fix their dilapidated houses and convert them into restaurants, hotels and stores. The town has variety, richness and authenticity. Every house is different, stores sell actual crafts, tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants offer local fares, the locals are friendly and are excited to actually have some income and see new people. More adventurous and less moneyed tourist types start trickling in, curious and bright-eyed.

Then, the town becomes famous. Guidebooks, internet sites and tourist agencies recommend that visitors come and sample its unique charm. Tourist buses rush in, the land prices increase and the original residents are pushed out by the tourist businesses and the real estate developers. Bit by bit, the town loses its original richness and variety as it turns into a plastic fake, a tourist Disneyland. The restaurants grow large and loud; the hotels lose their unique charm and turn into money making sleeping accommodations. The stores turn into chains selling souvenirs, low quality clothing and poorly made shoes. The remaining locals become predatory towards tourists.

Our trip through the ancient towns of Dali, Shaxi, Shuhe, Lijang and Baishu allowed us to observe every stage of this transformation.

Shuhe is at least eight hundred years old. It was built by Naxi people long before Imperial China’s influence spread to this area. Long rows of two story houses blend together along narrow streets. Several hundred year old arching stone bridges cross a few meter wide canals. Open squares give access to sun and provide space for local vendors to sell fruit and grilled food. One afternoon, Yvonne and I spend three hours in one of these squares, luxuriating in the delicate warm rays of a winter sun. Yvonne sketches and I write.


The water in the gutters and canals is sparkling clean. There are numerous doll-like bridges, all of them different. Red lanterns hang on every house, varying in size for a human’s head to an elephant’s one.

Simple but delicate wood carvings are plentiful; aged and new alike. There are carvings on windows, doors, walls and railings. The brown, yellow, red and white color scheme makes the place feel warm and inviting. Chinese dragon roofs adorn larger and more important buildings but they look friendly and funny look rather than pompous and official. Following Chinese landscaping tradition, everything is paved with cobblestones; trees and bushes grow in pots.

My Chinese Vernacular Dwelling textbook classifies Naxi dwellings in a dozen different types including “Three Terrace Houses with One Screen Wall, quadrangle residential with 5 small yards and horse mounted house with lapped corner joints.”

While my mental deficiency prevents me from fully appreciating this undoubtedly outstanding scholar classification, I enjoy tremendously how every house is unique and rich in details, especially as we continue our Shaxi tradition of visiting local hotels. It’s off-season and every hotel wants customers; besides, the locals are overwhelmingly friendly and warm. We get an enthusiastic reception everywhere. Since my Mandarin vocabulary, is effectively limited to three words, “hello”, “good-bye” and “thank you”, Yvonne does all the talking. I can only smile till my mouth hurts.

Accidentally, I drag us into the most expensive hotel around here and we immediately get a private tour by a local girl bursting with energy and dying of boredom. As she drags us around the place, she keeps calling Yvonne’s mom “my older sister” to Flossie’s bemused annoyance. The girl is in love with the hotel, and she venerates the owner. The house used to be the private residence of a rich merchant family. Recently, the owner turned it into a hotel; from the girl, we get an impression that the most esteemed gentleman didn’t do it out of a lowly love of money, rather he wanted to share with the people the amazing splendor of his ancestral home.

The inside layout of the place reminds us Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water house. Everything is carefully planned; every object is picked with a great care and it is placed with a purpose. Nothing clashes; furniture, paintings, pottery, sculpture, water and greenery work together to form a space that’s both grand and invitingly warm. The place is designed as a secret garden, every time we walk around a corner, we gasp in admiration at a new space, a classic Chinese landscape painting, a room, a dark aged bookshelf with ancient looking manuscripts, the most elaborately carved ashtray I’ve ever seen. Following classic Chinese tradition, the building is designed as a square around a courtyard. Water flows out of a few foot high fountains and gurgles quietly down a stream, passing a few sculptures on the way. Prolific vines and bushes make the light turn green. A collection of old armor and weapons faces the bar, so that real men can drink and imagine themselves on a field of battle.

The girl shows us the guest rooms. Instead of numbers, each room is assigned a name such as “first wife”, “second wife,” and all the way to “twelfth wife.” Hmm, rich Chinese men did tend to have more than one wife, but twelve seems a bit excessive for me. For a hundred dollars a night we can get the first wife’s room; it is the only heated accommodation in the town and it has a personal Jacuzzi. Yvonne looks at me inquiringly, should we rent the place? She has known me for eleven years and three months; I’ve been complaining about undersized bathtubs fit only for dwarves for exactly that same period of time.

Finally we get out, overwhelmed to the hilt. Over next two days, we see at a dozen or two more hotels; none of them is in the same league as the first one but I would be happy to stay in every one of them. Shuhe residents have mastered the art of tasteful creative clutter. The hotel courtyards weave chairs, couches, woven furniture, swinging benches, ink drawings, paintings, sculptures, small pottery, human size pottery, multitudes of cushions, flowers, bushes, vines, trees and staircases into a place where even eternally restless I can lounge for hours. Many hotels have little ponds with fat colored coi carps slowly moving in red, orange and spotty circles.

Locals don’t like cutting trees, so in several hotels, tree branches grow through staircases and people climb around them.


One hotel has a few abstract expressionist paintings hanging around common space and in bedrooms. The bedding color scheme matches the paintings or vice versa, I am not sure. I like the exuberantly cheerful and happy pictures and Yvonne asks a girl at the hotel, where they come from.

“Oh, it’s a guy working here. He is not a famous painter or anything,” the girl replies somewhat defensively.

“Who cares? He is a good painter, please convey him my complements,” Yvonne translates my request as we leave.

All the hotels, including the most expensive ones, have modestly unassuming entrances; it’s only when we step in, the beauty and comfort of the inside space surround us. In many years of traveling, I’ve never seen so much beauty available for only fifteen to thirty dollars a night. A couple years ago, Yvonne and I traveled around southern Spain, also in winter. Shuhe reminds us about the houses in Seville and Jerez de la Frontera. The Spanish have the same culture of blank outside walls enclosing an inside space created for warmth and intimacy. Shuhe is much more exquisite though, both in the quality of the individual pieces and the overall layout.

So far, I’ve been babbling with happiness describing Shuhe. However, premonition tinges my enjoyment with fear and sadness. As we wonder around the town, we can clearly see how it has been shifting from the phase two, Beauty, towards phase three, tourist Disneyland.

Only twenty years ago, the town of Shuhe was a rundown half-forgotten place. It was not as bad off as Shaxi, but the time of its power and wealth as a capital of Naxi kingdom had long been gone, only the shabby palace of its former kings was left to remind of its former exalted status. Then, the Chinese government started investing money into restoration. Three former capitals of the Naxi kingdom, Shuhe, Lijang and Baishu joined the UNESCO World Heritage list. Funding, fame and tourists started coming in.

As with Shaxi, the first inflow of money, together with strict construction policies, brought restoration and beauty to the downtrodden communities. Then, the tourist establishments and the real estate developers started squeezing the locals out.

The town of Shuhe is divided by a river; it’s less than fifteen meters wide but it separates two worlds. The development of the west side of the town started earlier and it was more aggressive and the difference between the west and the east is striking. On the west side, identical stores sell identical tourist crap. The buildings are shinier but also less detailed.


The restaurants are larger and louder, with Chinese pop music stars whining and yapping about love and loneliness at a fifty decibel noise level. As I am walking on the cobblestones of the main street, along an ancient water canal crossed by a low stone bridge, and the red lanterns hanging off the ornate two storied wooden buildings diffuse the golden light of the setting sun, I can see, smell and feel in my mouth the taste of garishness.

As I cross the river into the smaller, eastern part of town, the taste of garishness fades almost completely. Symbolically, the cheesiest and most annoying touristy activity is happening in the middle of the bridge, separating the town. A conveyor belt of wedding photography is running full power. The bridge is quite famous, old and historical, and every simpering young bride wants a picture of her and her metrosexual broom be taken right there.


There are up to three couples being photographed at a time. Yvonne begs me to stand in the back and make feminine poses right as the photographer shoots. I refuse; Yvonne sulks. We walk towards the less developed part of the town.

There are more residential buildings and smaller streets. People wash their laundry in the river and a few old women plant, water, weed and sell whatever they grow in the tiny bright green patches next to their houses.


A store sells furniture and wooden carvings; some of them are museum quality pieces. Unfortunately, they don’t allow photography.


I stare at a sculpture of an old sage with a flute in his hands and loose boobs hanging all the way down his belly; three joyfully dancing portly Tang dynasty beauties remind me of Renoir. There is at least one art studio with several painters and sculptors working. Bars sell raw grain liquors out of ten liter jars that only locals can consume, but even they seem to prefer tea. In the evening, I drop order here a shot of sour plum brandy. With the help of a google.translate app on my Iphone, the barman and I have a typing conversation about life, Universe and everything.

This is probably how the western Shuhe looked five years ago; not anymore. Modern China is a very dynamic society; the two stage transformation seems to take less than twenty years.

As we are walking around Shuhe, I am still not fully aware of the observations that I’ve just summarized. It takes us the next trip, to the town of Lijang, for my thoughts to crystallize inside my slow brain. The ancient town of Lijang is a better known and more popular destination, for Chinese and international tourists alike. It is much bigger than Shuhe. In fact, it was so overwhelmed by tourists that the local government started enlarging the original old town by constructing more historical looking buildings on the outskirts of the historic area.

A famous river flows through Lijang, and a famous eight hundred year old bridge crosses the famous river. A few hundred feet tall hill grows out of Lijang ancient town, adding more charm to the place. The hill is topped with a park and a nine story pseudo-historic pagoda that has more glass than wood. It was built in 1997, as a Chinese answer to Cinderella’s Castle Disneyland challenge. Yvonne actually gags when she sees the building up close; such is the power of true art.

We wander around Lijang, where everything looks the same and tastes like plastic, except for a few leftover buildings tucked deep inside the narrow dead end alleys. As I envision the future of Shuhe and Shaxi, a wave of sadness washes over me.

We visit Mu palace, or what Lonely Planet and mysteriously call Palazzo della Famiglia Mu. The authors must’ve been pretty high to place Lijang in Italy. The Mu clan ruled Lijang for more than four hundred years, throughout the Ming and the Qing dynasties. Their palace sprawls on a side of the hill; it is a grand wooden construction, with multiple buildings, pavilions, temples, gardens, an imposing entrance gate and an encircling wall. It looks a bit too pompous for my taste, but quite historical and authentic. Only a few days later, I learn that the original palace, where twenty generations of Mu clan had lived, was burned down by the Imperial authorities somewhere in 19th century. They decided that it was too luxurious and dangerously alike the Forbidden City. The palace was re-built from scratch just a few years ago.

I like the most a two story library, the favorite place of a Mu king, later elevated to a Bodhisattva status. Apparently, he liked reading so much that he had to become an outstanding warrior and general. This way, he could finish his wars quickly and get back to reading. At the age of thirty five, when his favorite wife died, he got equally tired of reading and ruling, so he abdicated and went in to the mountains to become a saint. His library no longer houses any books, but it does have a collection of seven feet tall slightly rusty weapons with bulky wooden handles.

Yvonne’s highlight of the day is dressing me as a Mu princess and taking a bunch of pictures of me posing with four Chinese girls. The girls are giggly and excited to have me next to them. They don’t realize how homely they look next to my radiant beauty.


In the evening, we see the phase I of an ancient town development, the Squalor. We go to Baishu; eight hundred years ago, for a short time, it was the first Naxi capital. Afterwards, it went back to a blissful state of a rural paradise. The previous evening, Yvonne kept torturing till she found some excited references by Western tourists to Baishu being the most authentic Naxi dwelling of them all.

A cab takes us twenty kilometers away from Lijang and the driver unloads us to the center of Baishu, where the main street crosses with the only other street.


The new cement paved road has not been replaced with authentic cobblestones yet. Free range pigs wander around, little children are playing in mud, and a few local men with wrinkled leathery faces sit on a low stone bench holding a slow quiet conversation. We look around confusedly and turn left on the main street. For half an hour, we wander around Baishu, observing authentic village houses in various states of disrepair, repair and construction. There are mud walls, brick walls, mud brick walls, logs, granite blocks, random rocks and wooden planks. Some walls have all of these elements combined.


We also see spacious shiny new buildings being constructed more or less within the traditional architectural canons.


We are trying to figure out where the money comes from; the consensus is that rich urbanites are betting on Baishu becoming the next Shuhe.

We walk back to the intersection, and past it. The other half of Baishu is quite different. It is still quite modest and one story white buildings. However, there are antique stores, guesthouses, and cafes, including fancy coffee shop Illy. The scattered English signs and menus include coffee, pizza and deserts such as cheesecake and tiramisu, at eight dollars a piece. There are some signs for traditional minority arts schools of weaving or embroidery. Antique stores have original interesting items and Yvonne spends half an hour looking at unique combination locks, snuff bottles, ink stands and such. I finally lose my shopping virginity and buy myself a small fat smiling Buddha. One day, many years from now, I will down sit cross legged, drink a beer or two, put my hands on my fat potbelly, relax, smile happily and achieve enlightenment, just like the little guy.


It’s getting late and we need to get back to Shuhe, so Yvonne’s dad asks a local guy to give us a ride. The slightly drunk middle aged man is happy to make ten bucks and we climb into his microvan. On the way to Shuhe, the driver enthusiastically answers all our questions. Yes, he is local, yes his family has been living there forever. What’s forever? Well, he can count at least twenty three generations but it was probably more. Why was the place we picked him from so busy? Oh, every couple days, one family kills a pig and the whole village gathers at their house to eat one. Where are the new rich houses coming from? Oh, it’s all locals. People are making more money nowadays with small businesses. What kind of tourists come to the village? Oh, it’s all foreigners. Why? Chinese people like flashier things and they want to stay at fancy places; foreigners want to see more real things. A few years ago, they started biking to Baishu from Lijang, they liked the place. Some foreigners rented store fronts from villagers, hence western food and signs.

And yet again my thoughts are drawn towards the mysterious ways of authenticity. Please, I pray to my fat little Buddha, even knowing how useless it is, don’t let Shuhe into Lijang and Shaxi into Shuhe.

Baishu, I don’t care that much about.

Shaxi: away from tourists

It’s pitch dark outside and our Tibetan driver is (over)cautiously driving his Chinese seven person microvan down a steep winding one lane road. Since he doesn’t read Mandarin and he has no clue about this area, Yvonne’s dad is squinting out of his passenger seat, carefully watching for the road signs. We don’t want to end up in Tibet, just yet. Finally, the asphalt turns into cobblestone announcing our arrival into the ancient market town of Shaxi, our next destination.

We drag ourselves out of the car, groaning and stretching. On the bright side of things, ionly two days ago, our trip would’ve taken six hours rather than four. I still can’t believe that the four lane through the mountains and over the valleys highway from Kunming to Lijang opened two days ago, just for us.

Shaxi proper is a pedestrian only village, and a short staircase fittingly separates the cars in the modern town of Sideng from a traditional Chinese world of pedestrians and donkeys. We walk down Shaxi’s main street occasionally stumbling over rough cobblestones. It is dark and quiet; a few Chinese tourists wander mindlessly around. An equally few shorter, skinnier and darker Bai locals hang out in front of their shops smoking, drinking and chilling out in front of waist tall coal burning braziers. The ever-present pollution is finally gone; the air is fresh and tasty, with occasional whiffs of incense and wood smoke. There are no street lamps and whatever light we have comes from dimly lit windows and red lanterns hanging in front of touristy establishments. The paper lanterns seem to rustle slightly even when there is no wind, welcoming us to the town.

The empty dark street suddenly opens up into the world of people, excitement, music, dancing and bright colors. Bai women in red and gold embroidered white clothing are dancing to the sound of drums softened up with wooden flutes. Their men are watching and clapping support. A few tourists joined the dancers and, with mixed success, are trying to emulate the moves; their gray and black down jackets stand out among the flashing white. The women fill the frosty darkness with light and warmth. We stand entranced for a few minutes but, alas, the performance is over and the people start to leave. Disappointed but happy we go to the hotel; we randomly reserved on the internet half a day ago.

The hotel shocks us. The next morning, Yvonne grunts in frustration taking one photograph after another. The camera refuses to do the justice to the impression of the ultimate perfection that the hotel delivers.

It is so incredibly tasteful. The cohesiveness of the whole building is in perfect harmony with the richness of all and every details; the only thing that looks ugly is me. The place felt spacious and yet warm and inviting. Ah, I give up, I can’t really describe architecture. I’ll just try mentioning a few small things.


A seven foot table in the living room was carved out of a whole piece of wood and lacquered lightly to bring out every line flowing across it. Every lantern is handmade and painted in classic Chinese ink style with nature scenery. Calligraphy adorns the walls together with classic paintings of birds and flowing water. Any of these art works would feel in place in a major art museum. Exquisite woodwork is everywhere, dark and aged with time. Rough and simple objects counter balance the artsy stuff. Our room has the strangest lock I’ve ever seen; it is a seven foot roughly hewn pole that locks the door between the ceiling and the floor. A dozen roof tiles painted and glazed with nature scenes hang on our room wall.

The place is full of beauty made to be enjoyed, not to impress people. As an ultimate praise to the hotel, Yvonne is so much in love with the place that she even refuses to acknowledge a stink coming out of our room’s squat Chinese toilet. As we happily bubble with complements and praise in the morning, a son of the owner working at the desk, tells us that the house has belonged to their family for five generations. We feel like in a museum of traditional Bai architecture and art.

And then, as we are still lavishing our praise, the guy innocently tells us the actual story of the house. It comes as an ultimate anticlimax. Apparently, the whole house was completely remodeled and rebuilt in four and a half months by his twenty five year old brother who just graduated from Chengdu art school. The boy did the landscaping, architecture, and art; he also supervised over the construction. The front lobby that we gaped at used to be a pigsty just four years ago. A pigsty!

I am considering writing a long essay on authenticity.

Bundled in all our clothing and slightly shuddering as the frosty fingers of morning air squeeze under our down jacket hoods and up our sleeves, we step outside. It’s 9am, the time to get going. The locals are smarter; they are still stretching under their heavy warm blankets waiting another hour or two till the sun finally warms up the place. The geography and climate still confuse my little brain. There is twelve hours of daylight in January; we must be relatively close to the equator, i.e. warmth. It’s most certainly not warm; at least not by my delicate Russian standards.

We walk to the central square, where the night before the native women danced so enthusiastically and cheerfully.


This building used to be a theater. Following the tradition, every villager had to act there at least once in his or her life to be considered fully Bai. Now, the left wing is a cafe run by a fat white expat and her Chinese husband. They sell Western coffees at $5 a glass; a two pound fresh steamed fish costs as much in a restaurant nearby. That’s the price a caffeine addict must pay.

Across the ex-theater, a Taoist temple used to welcome weary and scared travelers. The friendly smiling deities would hopefully guard them from the numerous hardships of the Ancient Tea and Horse road.


The town of Shaxi was one of key points on the long and arduous route from Tibet to Southern China. Horses and other livestock from the high mountains were traded for the lowland fares, particularly tea. Hence the road name. As a trade route, it used to be just as famous and important as the Silk Road to the north. Even now, Shaxi still has a horse and cattle fair every Friday, at a pasture across the river.

Inside the temple, we read a detailed story of Shaxi’s transformation told in UNESCO bureaucratese English. By the end of twentieth century, Shaxi was a rundown backwater town in a desperately poor area. The buildings were falling apart, the roads, sewage system and utilities hadn’t change much since the pre-modern era. The pictures look quite scary indeed; they remind me European WWII era  photography. Around year 2000, the Chinese government together with a large UNESCO team re-constructed the town and trained the natives in modern sanitation, sewage and fuel usage. From the government, the locals received funding and strict building regulations.

In spite of their poverty and desperation, some natives evidently kept their old skills of construction and woodworking. Once they got funding and motivation, they restored the buildings to the original beauty and the town of Shaxi rose out of the ashes. Guidebooks and internet brought small but steady stream of Western tourists and more money flowed into the area. Surprisingly, the teeming multitudes of the Chinese tourists still haven’t learned about the place. Shaxi residents haven’t seen yet the long rows of tour buses rolling in, and the screeching megaphones of the tour guides don’t wake them from their morning slumber.

We wander around town, checking out cafes and restaurants, sneaking into hotels. It’s off season; the hotels are empty and desperate for customers. The friendly staff takes us around and shows the old restored buildings. Most of them used to be family residencies. Chinese courtyard building system makes it particularly easy to turn a private house into a hotel; all the rooms are separate and they face the courtyard. The owner only needs to add restrooms. Every hotel feels inviting and warm, well in spite of temperature still hovering below forty in the shade. All of them tastefully combine spatial layout, landscaping, woodwork, tiles and ink painting. We take a vote; our hotel wins.


Both in Dali and Shaxi, the streets are old and narrow but much straighter than their counterparts in European cities. A day before, I find out the reason for that in one of my Chinese architecture books. Just twenty five hundred years ago, the Zhou dynasty came out with an urban development code defining cardinal grid system of straight rectangular streets going N-S and E-W. Since then, all Chinese cities followed the code.


Compared to Dali, Shaxi feels smaller and it gives off more lived-in feeling; even though, it lives primarily off and for tourists. We liked Dali, our previous destination, quite a bit. But, it was not a real town. To a great extent, it was a fake tourist reconstruction. It was a good fake, tasteful and historically accurate. But it was still a fake – it was built to make tourists happy. There were no pork pieces curing in the wind under a roof.


There were no repair shops with chairs made out of old bicycle tires.


Dali tasted more like plastic, following the plastic fake souvenirs filling its tourist shops. Shaxi feels different. The same families have been living there for generations. Year after year, they build next to and on top of the previous buildings. White blocks follow red brick, mud with straw peer from under white plaster, the Chinese tiled roofs sag a bit in the middle and disappear multi-layered into the sky. Vertical lines of characters brace every doorway, ready to share their ancient wisdom with those lucky ones who mastered the art of reading Chinese. The signs are painted, engraved and burnt on panels in styles varying from formal to flowery to relaxed.

I don’t want to think about how many hundreds of people spent how many thousands of hours carving the intricate wooden panels covering the town. But here they are, in windows, doors, verandas and airways. Hundreds of years of exposure to the elements aged and cracked the woodwork but it’s still there, adorning the town. We leave the old town and find ourselves in Sideng. Like everywhere else in China, feverish construction is taking place. Here, however, it is constricted by the harsh building code. The new buildings are still built in the old technique, peg into the hole, no nails. Yvonne is watching it with an open mouth. She turns to me,

“They only use joinery in the most expensive furniture. I’ve never even imagined that somebody would build whole buildings like this. Only in China…”

Yvonne trails off, muttering something under her breath.

We walk a bit further and stop in front of an entrance to the Chinese South Electric Grid Authority. I am at a loss of words; Yvonne pets me on the head.


In the evening, we roam through half dark Shaxi streets looking for a place to have a drink. We have no interest in consuming boring and expensive imported Western booze. Through a restaurant’s open door, I see four five gallon bottles full of mysterious liquids.

We walk in and inquire the barman on the nature of the drinks. Unfortunately, Yvonne’s Mandarin is not fully up to task.


“He says that this is some alcohol with some mushrooms, this one has berries and this one I don’t know what he means,” Yvonne reports to us. Naturally we sit down for a tasting. For the crushing total of ten dollars, the barman brings three shot glasses with different liquors to each of us except for Yvonne and Embryona. With a great anticipation, we start tasting. Yvonne looks at us with envy. Soon, her envy turns to glee.


Alas, the stuff tastes worse than Kentucky moonshine. It’s a one hundred ten proof grain alcohol that tastes like a farmer teenager son’s first distillation attempt. However, we like the feel of the place, a young Bai guy plays a skinny tall drum in the corner skillfully and fried pork spare ribs with steamed local mushrooms do a good job of masking the liquor aftertaste.

“Tomorrow is Friday – it’s a market day,” declares Yvonne in the morning and I follow her to the market. By far, the animals are the most interesting part of the market. They were so recently alive, but now they are thoroughly dead, for our culinary enjoyment. Yvonne happily squeals when she sees a cart with a dead pig, whips out her camera and starts taking pictures.


The cart is our guide and we follow it to the market. At the market, Yvonne squeals again, my sweet little piglet, and makes one shot after another. There are pigs everywhere, big and small.


But we see no cows and only one sad looking water buffalo.


Pork is everywhere in the South, while beef is still more of a luxury. For all the dozens of dead and dissected pigs, there is absolutely no smell. Only thin tendrils of steam rise from the open ribcages into the crisp air. I look inquiringly at Yvonne; she smiles and shakes her head. Apparently, she doesn’t feel nauseous at all

Pregnant women and puking go well together. Yvonne is in her fifth month, and she throws up so regularly that we started taking it for granted. Any strong smell, especially of sewage, garbage and cooked meat, can trigger her. At first, she freaked out, gagged, took time to recover and hated life. I kept getting nervous, asking her how she felt and trying to provide her some moral support. Now, my sweet round Pukey just turns away, throws up nonchalantly, wipes her mouth with toilet paper and stretches her hand towards me. I pass her a water bottle; she drinks and we keep walking. Ok, enough about vomit, let’s get back to food.

I am looking at all this free range humanly raised and just killed meat and I crave desperately for a barbeque stand. The sad black water buffalo could provide me with the best filet mignon steaks in the world! The pigs died to give their pork chops to me. All I need is a small grill with some wood coals, or just a frying pan and a stove… One thing I don’t need is a Chinese cook. While, the Southern Chinese do fish the ultimate justice, they thoroughly misunderstand the nature of meat. They cut it in tiny pieces and throw it on a wok, essentially steaming it. It tastes so boring, I can’t even describe it. The Northern Chinese are a different story; like all cattle raising nomads, Mongols, Manchurians and Uyghurs know what to do with the meat and their influence spread from the North. However, we are currently at least five hundred miles to the south of that smoking Muslim grill with lamb chops on top. A cunning plan is slowly forming in my head; I need to sneak into a Chinese restaurant kitchen and just cook the pork chops myself. Don’t trust no nobody; they are out there to get ya. However, it’s not gonna happen today.

In the afternoon, we drop by to see the cattle market. I wonder if it hadn’t changed that much over the last few hundred years.


Well, I may be wrong about the trucks; they probably were not here in the fifteenth century. But it must have been the same large dusty field, a few hundred scrawny cows half the size of a Holstein with scrawny half empty udders and their calves demanding attention in thin annoying voices.

Short hairy horses looking like oversized scrawny ponies are tethered nearby. And occasional pigs wander around pretending that they follow the directions from a guy with a stick.


Yvonne is all over the piglets; I just get confused, what’s the big deal?

Another day of our unhurried travel through China is coming to an end. The glowing red hot sphere of the evening sun just rolled down the horizon taking all the warmth away with it. Another homicidal Chinese microvan, the car with the second highest lethal accident rate in the world is waiting for us. The driver is smiling; he probably doesn’t know the statistics. Or maybe he would rather die driving than live growing rice; I can to that. Good bye Shaxi, hello Lijang.







Entering Yunnan

Entering Yunnan

The weather finally cleared and we are flying again. From Beijing to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, from Kunming to Dali, the twelve hundred year old capital of the Bai kingdom, we fly over one row of mountains after another. The mountains are old, smooth and rounded, like women’s breasts. No sharp jagged peaks, no steep rock walls, no glaciers. The gentle forested hills rise up to ten thousand feet from a six thousand feet plateau. Even in winter, Yunnan is still warm. There is barely a hint of white at the highest points of mountain ranges, hiding among endless green trees and brown grassy meadows. Thin gray lines of rivers and roads and occasional little towns pass under the airplane. Mountain valleys are covered with a patchwork of tiny fields and their oscillating bright green and dull yellow colors present a perfect bucolic landscape. I pull my phone out of the pocket to take a picture or two and see a sign in Mandarin dubbed in English “No photograph!” with a camera powerfully crossed out by a red line.

Every few minutes, I am reminded that China is aggressively modernizing. Ugly wounds of yellowish white quarries stare at us from below. They cut into mountain slopes by hundreds and thousands of meters; roads and cars next to them provide me with a scale. It looks like a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal swooped down and tore a few million cubic feet of rock and earth with his mighty talons.

Yvonne reads this passage and rolls her shining eyes inside the most beautiful eye-sockets the world.

“You are such a dork!” She pets my head.

Well, yeah, I am a dork. And, like every other dork in the world, I mourned on May 11, 2001 when Douglas Adams died.

A particularly ugly quarry is gaping next to a highway that cuts through the mountains and spans over the valleys and rivers. Even from a few kilometers above, I see concrete pylons supporting the four lane road. The pylons taper upwards like Greek columns and they are they are just as graceful; the only difference is that they are ten or twenty times higher. They dwarf the trees and compete with the mountains. The elevated sections span several kilometers each till they run into the mountains and disappear for another few kilometers to become tunnels. It is possibly the prettiest and the most impressive highway I’ve ever seen. Chinese landscaping and engineering skills combined to seamlessly blend an urban creation into a mountain setting. Too bad, they left dozens of disgusting looking quarries all along the way.

The plane finally lands in new Dali, a dirty featureless modern city of ten story bland concrete buildings and endless construction. Our Dali, Bai ancient capital, a designated UNESCO heritage site, and, supposedly one of the most historically interesting towns in Yunnan, is still twenty kilometers away. Somewhere along the way, we united with four more people. Yvonne’s parents decided to join us for a couple weeks. They are excited about traveling with their daughter and Embryona; we are excited about traveling with people who can read and write Mandarin and have traveled in rural China extensively. Also, Yvonne’s closest friend Gen joins us with her boyfriend. Like me, Gen aggressively and successfully pushed her employers around to get a month or two of an unpaid leave. Then she grabbed Jordan and started dragging him around Southeast Asia.

Following advice, we stay at Sleepy Fish, an English-speaking miracle of rural China. It is run by a short muscular expat woman named Max. With an authoritative manner and cropped gray hair, she could be a butch lesbian, a retired Army sergeant or both. Either way, she runs her hotel with an iron hand and even her Chinese employees speak passable English.

Here we first learn how Southern Chinese deal with winter. They do have a mild winter, but still temperature often drops below freezing at night. During the day, sun slowly warms the world below it to mid fifties, but as the sun rolls down in the evening, so does the temperature. On a cloudy day, things just never warm up. So, life here can be a bit on the cold side. The Chinese are even worse than the English. They don’t bother with heating at all as they pretend that winter doesn’t exist. With sunrise, doors to every building, residential and business alike go wide open. In fact, a lot of establishments just take their wooden doors out and stack them next to a wall every morning. People live in their down jackets, woolen hats and, possibly, thermal underwear.

Our hotel is no exception. Instead of heating, we get electric blankets, or more precisely, thin wired sheets hiding under linen. I sleep in my ski balaclava. Heat lamps warm bathrooms by a few degrees, just enough to take a shower and not die of exposure while rigorously drying yourself. On the positive side, my morning exercise routine becomes a natural thing to do – it helps to warm me up. Surprisingly, Yvonne is tolerant to this setup. I expected way more complaints but they never come. She likes the hotel, the owner, the sparkling clean rooms and all ten pounds of our blanket.

For a day, we leisurely wonder around Dali. Yvonne still has to walk at a pace of a dying snail.  If she accelerates to anything resembling a normal walking speed, she immediately bends over trying to cough her lungs out. She is also a bit pukey – welcome to being pregnant. Cough and puking go great together – like lovers holding hands. On a positive side, moving slowly does have some advantages – I definitely notice lots of interesting little things that I would otherwise just rush by

There are a lot of little things to notice. Dali is a well preserved and reconstructed town with more than twelve hundred years of history. It’s also the first old Chinese town I’ve been to. The town has a strong tourist feel to it but it is also a lived-in place. There are all too many identical shops for my taste. Still, the town has the depth and variety. Some buildings look very old and they are in various stages of disrepair; the others seem to be historic but well preserved. Every few blocks, there is some construction or repairs going on. There are patently new buildings but they are all constructed in the same ancient style; whatever authority controls the town development, it does an excellent job (unlike the overwhelming majority of modern Chinese construction).

We walk by an authentic and ancient painting probably drawn a year or two ago.


Multi-tiered layers of wooden joints support gray and brown tiled roofs. The joinery is painted in the vibrant green and blue. Dragon roofs lift up on the sides of the buildings, towards the sky. Many doors and windows are made out of carved wooden screens. Paved streets are narrow and the cars can barely squeeze through, honking warningly at pedestrians, like yapping dogs. Stone gutters carry water from the mountain down the streets. The gutters are surprisingly deep and wide – I am sure they work as a good natural selection mechanism for drunkards or just poorly coordinated people. Two-foot-wide concrete bridges cross the gutters every dozen meters or so. Stores and restaurants offer the typical Chinese fare of excellent food, ill-fitting clothing and plastic touristy souvenirs. My nose brings me to a bookstore. I am lucky – out of the very few English books, the store carries three seemingly good texts on Chinese architecture and Dali history. I happily buy all of them.

At night, I entertain myself and Yvonne by reading certain passages from the Dali history book out loud. The translator is a head of Dali University English Department. Apparently he held a few visiting positions at various universities in the English speaking world and his most notable achievement is translating Robert Frost into Mandarin. Unfortunately, albeit entertainingly, he gets carried away when translating a dry historical text into English. The result is striking.

“He does sound like Robert Frost,” Yvonne drily comments on the history treatise style. Still we learn a lot.

Apparently, a just and righteous dynasty ruled Dali with a mandate of Heaven through the eighth and ninth centuries. Then, an evil supplicant overthrew the dynasty, had all the royal relatives gathered at the main square in front of the palace and single-handedly beheaded eight hundred people. Another couple hundred years later Mongols dropped by and behaved shocking civilized, at least by Mongol standards. By the time Mongols finally reached Southern China, they did soften up a bit. Or maybe it was just too few of them to indulge in their favorite game of kill-them-all. So, they were forced to rule with a lighter hand.

By the fifteenth century Mongols became soft and decadent and Ming dynasty took care of them. Supposedly, the current town architecture dates mostly to sixteenth century Ming. However, over twentieth century, like many other historic places in China, the town went into poverty, disrepair and neglect. Only around 2000, money and expertise flowed in to save the places from its pathetic state and to restore it in its authentic glory.

Overwhelmed by lofty subjects such as history and architecture, I am neglecting the more mundane topic of food. I have to admit, though, that our taste buds have been enjoying the trip as much as our eyes. Yvonne’s parents have been unerringly finding the most impressive fare in the dingy looking hole-in-the-wall places. Thanks to them, we have the double pleasure of eating excellent food and paying between one and a half (breakfast) and five (dinner) dollars per person per meal.

I am not ready to get into a full-power discussion of Yunnan food here, it’s just too much.  Hopefully, I’ll end up writing a separate essay on Southern Chinese food (with Yvonne’s help, of course). Here I’ll just sing to the glory of Chinese fish.

The most important thing about Chinese fish is that it is at first alive and then cooked. Chinese don’t seem to grasp a concept of storing dead frozen fish. A cook picks a fish from a tank, basin, pot, pool or river, sticks a knife through the struggling fish’s head, cleans it, guts it and steams the whole fish in ten minutes. Then, he pores sizzling oil over the fish and the crusty skin covers the most soft and delicious flesh. Then, he puts a mix of chilies, Szechuan peppers, roasted garlic, ginger and onions and almost raw scallions on top. That’s it; the fish is ready.

Chopsticks separate yielding white flesh from thin bones and deliver it into my wide open mouth. The fish is spicy enough to bring tears to my eyes but, miraculously, I can still feel how fresh and light it is. Oh, and there are green beans grilled over the charcoal; they taste like crunchy wood smoke.

The next morning, Yvonne is still coughing like a champ and she opts to stay in the village to paint. Gen, Jordan and I rent surprisingly decent mountain bikes from Max and prepare to explore attraction #1 – a route around Erhat lake. Well, to be honest, we are not planning to bike one hundred twenty kilometer run around the whole lake. We are planning to wait till it warms up a bit and bike for a few hours till we get bored.

Erhat lake stretches in the center of the valley; in fact, the lake has always been the heart and the source of human habitation for the valley. It is also famous for its serene beauty and the pretty villages spread all around it. Frankly, I don’t get the Chinese obsession with lakes. A lake is a lake, big deal. Of course, a clean lake surrounded by meadows and trees surely beats a stinky swamp downriver from a PVC plant, but that’s about it. Still, I like biking; the sun warmed up the air to the point that I can take my down jacket and gloves off; it’s time to roll.

A winding paved road takes us along the lake. The water is serene and quiet; the afternoon wind has not arrived yet. Bright green fields and paddies follow the road on both sides. Colorfully dressed peasant women weed, pick, hoe and plant. Trees grow along the road and, mysteriously, right in the lake, sometimes as far as a few dozen meters away from the shore.


The whole scene is picturesque to the point of failure. I can see an urban tourist gasping in utter delight and exclaiming something along the lines,

“Oh, my God, it’s a true paradise on Earth!”

I would love to see this urban tourist bending over next to that skinny five foot tall peasant woman with a wrinkled face of unidentifiable age and weeding the rice paddy for fourteen hours straight with her.

The bucolic heaven is also a place of frenetic, frenzied construction. For miles and miles along the lake, the waterfront is covered with buildings in different stages of completion.


There are genuinely old houses with walls built out of rocks, mud bricks and mud. But hundreds of houses have just been built or are hurriedly constructed right in front of us. Prefabricated brick and cement construction blocks are put together and covered with white washed plaster walls. A lot of ink paintings adorn the walls, some conventional, some unexpectedly humorous.


Luxurious multi-level tiered Chinese portico-towers guard house entrances and randomly attach themselves to windows and balconies. In a strange twist of traditional Chinese landscaping, piles of hundreds and thousands old tires grow next to the some houses.


In spite of all the construction and random traffic, the road and the grass next to it are almost pristine clean. As we pass construction sites, I see workers cleaning the road with brooms. Most of them are women. In fact, most workers I see in the fields and at the construction sites are women. Where are the men, drinking and whoring?

We pass a jail-like building of a local school with communist style murals of happy productive children. We do hear happy children screaming as we go by, so maybe the school is not as horrible as it looks. We stop at a native bird fishing village. More than thousand years ago, some smart and lazy dudes figured out how to train cormorant birds to catch and bring them fish. They tie loose nooses around the birds’ throats and the poor birds can’t swallow larger size fish, so they fly back to the boat and spit it out to the fisherman. It’s such an evil trick, isn’t it? Apparently it’s a dying art, now used mostly to entertain tourists. Apparently, the tourists are very happy to be entertained, and the fishermen look quite well off.

A dozen green slightly rusty boats are docked at the waterfront. A dozen fat black birds, each the size of a small turkey are sitting on a boat. One bird is hanging out on a branch next to the road. As we take pictures, the bird starts showing off; he is preening, spreading its wings and coquettishly turning his head.


A few enterprising natives are hanging out next to the boats. They all wear white dresses with blue and red stripes; clearly these outfits are made to impress the tourists, not to fish. An old guy with a straight posture and a face that looks like a baked apple starts talking to us in Mandarin. Having correctly interpreted our blank expressions, he reaches into a pocket, pulls out a tablet size smart phone and types “100” while pointing at the boat with the birds. Apparently he wants us to take a fifteen dollar per person bird fishing tour. We politely decline; the guy politely insists and points to a big featureless building nearby with a sign Restaurant on it. Apparently, they will cook the fish for us once we come back from the lake. Now, it’s really tempting but we still say no and keep biking.

In two and a half hours we get to the end of the road. A house with a food stand is strategically located there. We stop and I walk inside. A fat short and happy Bai woman smiles at me and asks something in Mandarin. I smile back, point my hand at prepped veggies, meat and pasta and show three fingers. The woman smiles again and nods. Three minutes later we get a bowl of soup each. The soup glows red with fat and chili. The noodles taste like fresh dough – they were just hand pulled. The veggies are crisp and the pork is abundant. We leisurely slurp and suck on the food while watching the lake. A two year old fat baby waddles towards us and requests attention politely but purposefully. Sorry, kid, we are not into children.

On our way back we accidentally find an answer to a question that may have possibly started to form in the back of our heads over the last two days but it still hasn’t fully surfaced to the surface. Everywhere in the villages and on the roads, there are signs engraved on rocks. The rocks are usually flat and vary in size from one to five meters in height. The signs are all in Mandarin, of course, so we have no clue to what they are saying. Some rocks are made out of boring gray granite; some are quite colorful and masterfully polished. Where do they all come from, who makes them?

We pass a stone workshop on the side of the road and it has hundreds of stones in the different degrees of preparation. A few short skinny middle aged locals, men and women, probably a family are cutting and polishing them. The place looks like a cross between a cemetery and a rock nursery.


Gen climbs in a chair and poses as Qing Last Empress; it doesn’t look too convincing.

Polishing rocks may be boring as hell, but it sure brings impressive results.


We have another dinner of a spicy fish that was alive and kicking ten minutes ago and crawl under our ten pound blankets.

The next day, I persuade everybody to check out the local climbing scene. Gen likes to climb also, so she is easy to persuade. A day before, we rent climbing shoes for her from a local climbing guide Adam – an American expat from Philly. The guy took a couple years of Mandarin in college and then decided that he would rather be the only white guy in a provincial Chinese town. So, he moved to Dali, opened a little pizza/climbing shop and started bolting local cliffs. Needless to say, he looks, speaks and moves like a typical American climber. Five foot eleven, skinny, bearded, yeah dude, no problem, man, see ya tomorrow at the cliff, I’ll be with some clients of mine, nice folks.

We need to rent a taxi for the whole day, so we find a Tibetan driver who, in his leather cowboy hat looks like a darker, shorter and older version of Clint Eastwood from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Every time he talks in his unhurried Tibetan drawl, I keep looking at his waist half-expecting to see two gun holsters attached to it. We really like the dude, but unfortunately he has a problem. He grew up in Tibet and he never learned how to read and write Mandarin. Tibetan is actually a completely different language, with alphabet based on 9th century Indic script. So, our driver can’t read road signs and he doesn’t know the area all that well yet. Yvonne’s parents have to guide him around. They like the guy a lot, so they don’t mind. It takes us an extra half an hour to find the trail head for the climbing area and all of us start going to the cliff. I am a bit surprised – I hoped to ditch everybody and just climb for a few hours with Gen but apparently it’s not gonna happen.

We walk by a tiny Taoist temple, through several moped-wide unpaved crooked streets and half dilapidated houses and then, under the highway that I just described a few pages earlier. A local dude, while watching over a few scrawny cows, tells us they just opened the highway system, Kunming to Lijang, two days ago. What used to take an overnight travel on local roads, is now a four hour trip. Concrete pillars support four lanes of highway soaring half a pitch above us (a climbing pitch is our favorite height unit – anywhere between forty and sixty meters). The concrete looks fresh, pristine and still glistening with moisture. They are no graffiti yet, no cracks, chips or dirt.

The unpaved road steepens up zigzagging up a mountainside. While Christians like cemeteries, Chinese often bury their dead in the hills and mountains. We encounter a bunch of these mountainside graves. Four feet high tombstones with Mandarin characters ingrained on them look cute and friendly, like front doors to Chinese mountain hobbit houses.

A climbing trail splits off and, half an hour later, we finally arrive to our destination, Shuanglang Softcore cliff. Apparently, Shuanglang Hardcore cliff has considerably harder routes. Yvonne is finally starting to recover; huffing and puffing, but not coughing she slowly makes her way uphill. With her parents and Gen’s boyfriend also arriving, our little athletic diversion turns into a family activity. Such is life.

Unfortunately, we only have time for a few climbs, when Adam leaves. He has to take Gen’s rented climbing shoes with him and the girl is rendered shoe-less. Rock climbing does require specialized shoes and Gen’s regular sneakers are worse then useless on the rock. Yvonne suggests Gen to try her leather biker boots. Shockingly, it works; Yvonne’s feet are slightly smaller and her boots fit very tight on Gen. The stiff soles and rectangular cut of the front of the boots make them decent climbing shoes. We are all speechless.

The sun crosses Erhat lake, moving to the west; our time in Dali comes to an end. The ancient town of Shaxi is awaiting us.



Yvonne is coughing all night and I am bouncing from side to side – fancy Walmart latex ear plugs don’t help me too much. Unfortunately, all good cough suppressants are grade C drugs – not recommended for pregnant women. Isn’t life fun?

The morning greets us with the sunny warm winter day and the temperature in the low fifties. The wind drives notorious Beijing smog away and even the horizon is sharp and clear. We have already been to most major museums in Beijing but Lonely Planet offers us a nice option – to visit Prince Gong manor, supposedly an interesting surviving example of a classic Chinese private residence.

We spend a couple hours wandering around the place; our feelings are mixed. This is not a residential accommodation that I hoped to see. This is a bona fide palace, like the Forbidden City but on a smaller scale. A classic Chinese courtyard style building complex is organized accordingly to the deep philosophical principles of Confucian ethics and feng shui. To a white barbarian like me, it just looks like a rectangular maze of narrow passages, barely fit for a Walmart cart to squeeze through, low walls and rectangular two story buildings.

Winter Beijing sun sits too low to shine into the courtyards and it’s a bit chilly in the shade. A few Chinese tourists wander aimlessly around the courtyards, just like us, dressed in ubiquitous down jackets and looking slightly cold.

The place has been renovated and it shines with bright colors. White washed passage walls are lined with black stripes. Bright red columns and door frames flank the buildings and blue green and yellow multi-tiered wooden corbel frames support the tiled roofs. Chinese color scheme is very warm and it makes even the most pompous buildings look friendlier and softer. Lots of wooden elements also help.


(this is not our photograph, Yvonne was too sick to take pictures. I just stole it from google images. I promise, there will be lots of our own photographs later on J)

As we wonder around, we learn some about the history of the place. Thankfully, most texts are translated into flowery and somewhat awkward English. The translator tried very hard to do the justice to a complex and poetic Chinese text using an Oxford dictionary. The result is often entertaining but not quite comprehensible.

Still, it’s helpful. As so many other buildings in major Chinese cities, the palace suffered a destruction in several stages. At first, European liberators used large caliber naval artillery to ensure open trade in China. Then, “there were some other disturbances after WWII”, as the text obliquely refers to the Communist government making an air conditioning factory out of the manor. Then, the building suffered in disrepair and neglect till early 2000’s. Before the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government had run major renovations of historical places all around China.

The maze of courtyards ends, bringing us out, into the park. Every self-respectful Chinese manor has a park with a lake, to get closer to nature, the mother of all things. Following – what else – Confucian ethics, the park is very simple and close to nature – every blade of grass, stone, and tree are carefully arranged with a perfect precision worthy of a computer chip factory. The natural perfection of Chinese landscaping always remind me a natural looking Hollywood haircut – the one that takes a few hours by a high end hair stylist.


(this picture was also stolen from google images)

It does achieve its purpose though; Yvonne and I enjoy the ultimate serenity that the place projects. Like two cats next to us, we luxuriate in sun’s thin warm light. Then, the fragile tranquility is shattered by a fifty person tourist group obediently following its microphone armed guide. Yvonne grinds her teeth as she translates the barking and hissing loudspeaker.

“See, this rock looks like a tortoise. And the pond has fish in it. And this building is a one story summer pavilion. The columns are painted red.“

I laugh and pet her slightly convex belly, in a counterclockwise fashion. We are so lucky to travel out of season. Three months later there will be dozens of tourist groups slamming into each other and enjoying the ephemeral beauty of blossoming tree under the screeching soundtrack of ubiquitous megaphones.

We leave the manor and wonder around old crooked streets, ducking into three feet wide alleyways framed by hundred year old one story buildings. This one of a few surviving old Beijing neighborhoods. We peer into open doors and windows; the condition of the buildings varies a lot. Some of them have doors and passages almost too narrow for me to squeeze through and I am thirty pounds lighter than an Average American guy. Some of them have been repaired quite thoroughly and wide gilded doors go together with new carved window frames.

I enjoy this place so much more than Prince Gong’s manor. As I grow older, my touristy preferences are slowly shrinking in size. At twenty, I was drawn to the biggest palaces I could find, Gothic cathedrals and wide open boulevards Baron Haussmann’s style. Now, I would rather spend time wondering around the narrow alleys of an old neighborhood, snooping into people’s lives. Too bad, I don’t know Mandarin!

We wonder for a while and then we pass a half of lamb hanging of a meat hook next to a grill. The sweet smell of roasted meat reminds us, it’s time to eat.


The photograph above demonstrates the power of foreshortening. This is actually a smallest cutest lamb I’ve ever seen, it is barely two feet long. As their religious brethren all over the world, Chinese Muslims know a thing or two about lambs.

Lamb chops on a stick, covered with a mix of cumin, Szechuan peppers and chilies, grilled over real wood charcoals – I want to cry, that’s how good they taste.

The biggest modern art museum in Beijing brings us nothing but disappointment. I suggest changing gears and checking out the biggest rock climbing gym in Beijing – I am very curious about the emerging local climbing scene.  Also, by a pure accident I happen to have a pair of La Sportiva climbing shoes in my backpack. We walk into the gym, the size of a large American living room, and two things immediately become evident. Firstly, the climbing has only just started its triumphal procession among twenty million people of Beijing. Secondly, to our delight, climbers are the same everywhere.

The familiar smell of climbing chalk and stinky climbing shoes permeates the bouldering room. A dozen skinny Chinese dudes and three skinny Chinese girls are hanging out on the foot thick floor mats. A young skinny German shepherd mutt is tied to a bench with a piece of climbing webbing and a biner. Yvonne rushes towards the dog and, for a few minutes she becomes oblivious to everything else.

I start climbing. The same plastic holds, the same routes, the same walls. It’s as if I didn’t just fly seven thousand miles over the Earth. A guy offers me chalk – I didn’t bring any. Another dude shows me how to do a difficult move on a route. I try it but fail – his stretching is two inches better than mine. We laugh ruefully. They speak virtually no English and I speak no Chinese beyond hello and thank you. It doesn’t matter, we climb.