Birthday on the Road

Because Joshua’s birthday falls on August, we usually celebrate it in Manila because it’s the summer holiday.  But this year, since we made a major move from Tianjin to Yunnan, our trip to the Philippines was postponed for a month.  I asked Joshua where he would like to hold his seventh birthday and he chose China.  I was a bit worried knowing we would be on the road at that time and won’t be together with other family members and friends unlike his past birthdays.  Even though it was just the four of us, I wanted to make sure it was going to be a fun day doing Joshua’s favorite things like biking and feeding rabbits.

We targeted the Dianchi lake to go biking and found this massive parking lot for tourists. From there, we started walking, both unsure and certain we’ll find what we wanted.   Because somebody needed to go to the bathroom, we were lucky to have ended up at the the Dianchi Garden Resort Hotel and Spa which had an exclusive frontage of the lake that was calm and peaceful.  You can see just over on the other side where the tourists were herded from one pre-ordained spot to another.  Joshua and Jimmy fed rabbits and peacocks with carrots and when the animals got tired of those, the kids substituted leaves from the weeping willow trees.

We found the bikes for rent and at the first rental station, there was none in Joshua’s size so Jason drove a three-seater with the kids.  At the next station, the birthday boy got his fondest wish — a mean looking bike with puffed up off-road wheels like they were on botox.  The bike path is very busy only on one portion and after ten minutes, you reach areas where there are fewer people, you reach areas where the locals fish and then you reach the end where the government is still constructing the remainder of the bike path. Too short especially for Joshua, the route can easily be finished within an hour and the best part goes past hundred-year old eucalyptus trees.

Next is when the birthday turns a little sour.  It rains so we couldn’t go to the water slide park the kids were so excited and eager to enter.  We decide to drive around the lake but the drive is not as interesting as the one we had around Dali’s Erhai Lake.  Eventually, the ride got too long and too uncomfortable.  We were tired, hungry and couldn’t find a hotel.

In the end, everything worked again in favor of the birthday boy because we discovered in one of the big malls, a restaurant which had robot waiters and tons of robot toys to keep children amused and occupied.  A lady robot welcomed you to the restaurant and a robot waiter brought food to each table once but humans still do most of the job.  By the entrance, a giant transformer robot danced, sang and flashed lights when you dropped coins in it. The robot theme is a clever marketing ploy in a highly competitive field but the food was absolutely one of the worst I’ve tasted ever.  However, if it keeps the kids happy especially on a birthday, then I’ve no complaints.

From Dali to Kunming

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We were simply smitten by Dali because when we got to Kunming, we missed the immersion in nature and felt like we were suddenly disgorged into too big a city without warning, without enough transition.  Before we left Dali, we made a second-to-the-last stop and checked out the Hilton and got excellent freebies from gorgeous views to an hour of fun in a posh play room, without paying a cent.  (That’s another tourist-avoidance secret tip.)  Our last stop was at a car repair shop where we walked down farm fields and once again, I couldn’t help take pictures of the burbling, gurgling, living stream that irrigated the land, plus the party of spiders that decorated the sky.

What greeted us in Kunming was a warm welcome from Alex, a friend of one of my students who treated us to one of the grandest meals of our trip — Yunnan’s specialty, mixian.  The rice noodles come with a cornucopia of ingredients laid before you before it is gingerly eased into the broth.  We have Alex and her mom to thank for such a special dining experience.

The next day, we run a bank errand that couldn’t be done in Dali because the transaction had to be performed in a bigger, higher tier city.   After that, we explored Kunming and priority was finding a playground for Joshua and Jimmy who sat too long in the bank’s waiting area.

I don’t know if I’m the only one who finds this interesting from an architectural point of view but when the Pompidou musuem in Paris broke out with all its insides out, it made a splash in the world of design.  This building may or may not have been inspired by it or may be a more prosaic version with all the exhaust pipes from the restaurants snaking horizontally and vertically from the openings, creating a dynamic, playful facade.  I wish we could’ve eaten in one of the many restaurants but perhaps another time with friends who appreciate the mess and relish the intensity of urban life.

 

Lakeside Serenity

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The entrance to this guest house would be easy to miss unless you knew exactly what you’re looking for.  It’s a narrow wedge between two houses.  The people who flock there, like modern design pilgrims, know what they’re after — that pure, minimalist serenity by the lake.

The guest house is called Chao Feng 嘲风 and it’s at the end of the road leading to one of docks by Erhai lake and not too far from the Old Town.  This was the first hotel I saw in Dali because the owner is Jason’s friend so it was the initial stop we made.  Since then, I’ve seen many other guest houses in Dali just as architecturally stunning but this one will always have that unique “shock” value as we entered it late at night after a twelve-day drive from north to south of China.

These pictures were taken more than a week ago but I’m posting them now before leaving Dali for Kunming.  We have to pack our things again and try to fit everything like a puzzle at the back of the car.  I wish Jason and I didn’t bring as many things and we could’ve guessed which ones are not so useful before embarking but I guess it’s only hindsight that affords you that luxury.  After that, experience should teach us that “less is more.”

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The Trail of the Fairy Tale Scent

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The scent of food cooking almost had a fairy tale quality to it, the sort of fragrance that would drive men crazy or a pregnant woman to push his husband to exchange an unborn child for fruits from a witch’s garden.  Right next to the guest house where we live, they seem to be cooking something delicious everyday as the smell wafts through our courtyard, making me wish I had the audacity to invite myself in.

Through its big picture windows and glass doors, it looks like a minimalist restaurant but it’s not because it only has a simple open kitchen with one electric burner stove and a table for four.  It’s an old house renovated to be one of the thousands of guest houses in Dali but its aesthetic is almost monastic.  It looks suitable for artists, writers, hermits, philosopher, zen types.

If I were single and had no kids, I wouldn’t mind living there but with Joshua and Jimmy making a ruckus most of the time, the occupants might be bothered and roused from their contemplative state.  Plus, like Joshua and Jimmy, I have fallen in love with Didi, the golden retriever puppy in our current guest house which we treat almost as our own dog, walking him out when he needs to go to the bathroom and taking him out for a hike up the slope.

For now, we plan to stay in Dali for a few more days and then the kids and I are flying back to Manila where we’ll be for over a month.  When we get back to China, Jason plans to go further south to escape the cold, windy winter of Dali which is probably nothing compared to Tianjin’s but I guess Jason’s got the itchy foot.  I had already set my heart sending the kids to attend Qiu Jin’s little school while we continue walking Didi every morning but then plans and expectations — prepare to suspend and change them every moment.

Today, we went up the steep steps of Dali University and were treated to a sweeping view of the old town and the lake as each terrace took you higher and higher like in no time, you could touch the clouds themselves.  I imagined how it would be great to work here and live amongst the trees and mountain creatures.   We followed the trail of lush vegetation to a tea plantation that was fenced in at one end.  There must be several other trails to explore and if you’re a student, teacher or staff at the university what a blessing to be immersed in such an environment.  We did not reach the peak but maybe for another time perhaps.

For Joshua and Jimmy, the university is one massive playground with steps to infinity, giant ramps and waterscapes, ideal for burning kids’ excess energy.  Now, I could add this to the list for Donna and Lucia to visit.  Instead of touring Cang Shan with the rest of the site-seekers, climbing up Dali University would be a calm, peaceful and invigorating exercise, far from the madding crowd.

Is it strange or not to be attached to a puppy after walking him for a few consecutive mornings?  I’d hate to leave our guest house in Dali and move on to the next destination, Kunming, where we take off for Manila soon.  This is the trail we leave that lingers in our minds, the stuff childhood is made of.

What Do I Tell Donna Now?

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Last July, my friend, Donna and I went biking in a park in Taiwan during the democratic education conference’s day-off.  We biked through perfect tree-lined paths designed to maximize the experience, both urban and natural.  A few days ago, when my family and I biked along Erhai Lake, I immediately sent Donna a WeChat voice message, so excited that she must come over to Dali and bike with her daughter, Chong Chong.

Donna replied that she’d love to visit but the problem is, as a university professor, her vacations fall on the main holidays and on those dates, droves, hordes, flocks, throngs and masses of Chinese people travel to the most popular destinations.  Donna asked, “Wouldn’t it be too crowded in Dali?”  Feeling like an expert after only nine days in Dali, I reassure her there are places where not as many tourists go.  Don’t worry.  You just need to choose those places, not the ones with tickets and not the ones included in packaged tours.

On our first day biking around Erhai Lake, I was happy seeing places less inundated with tourists, because the old town alleys are too small to be reached by big tour buses.  You’ll meet fellow bikers along the way but since the lake is so big, the tourists are dispersed throughout and not concentrated in one spot unlike a temple or pagoda.

However, on our second day exploring Erhai Lake, my opinion of tourism in Dali went way south again.  I now understood what Mark the Monkey Man said about the “Disneyfication” of Dali.  While the lake and mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, the built environment in some areas bear the heavy hand of greed for tourism money.  To cover more ground and give our bodies a rest from biking, we took the car completely circumnavigating the lake and saw parts where the number and size of the guest houses are too big for comfort, some with design on the garish side.  The guest houses which are renovations of old houses usually stay faithful to the scale but in areas where there’s no history of building to set the tone for organic evolution, entire hills are sadly destroyed by copy-paste, pastiche architecture.

How do you destroy a perfect hillside with a perfect view of the lake?  Let buildings look like cemetery tombstones in their unnatural uniformity.  There’s a difference between forced and organic growth.  One is driven by multi-billion contracts and real estate moguls without conscience.  An example seems to be a white-elephant of a hotel that looks like an ill-proportioned cruise ship docked unfortunately on one sensuous curve of the lake.

How many tourists do they expect to come?  How many rich buyers do they want to attract with the lure of lakeside holiday homes?   Is demand really growing that exponentially higher?  Or are they going to step up marketing to keep occupancy revolving throughout the year?  How many places in China have been ruined by insensitive and unsustainable tourism?  How many places in the world for that matter?  Is China’s tourism industry unique because of the sheer amount of population it seeks to serve and does that justify crass, untrammeled development?  What defines over-development?  Is there a formula to avoid it based on population and area?  Does anyone care as long as there’s a buck to be made?

 
And don’t get me started on garbage — gorgeous sites marred by careless plastic bottles and packaging that decide to magically march all by themselves and sprawl dead on the ground.  I’ve always wondered whether cleanliness is a function of economy, culture or education.  Does it take an economically developed, culturally refined and educated citizenry to keep a country clean?  How do you reach that level of economic, cultural and educational maturity so that people stop throwing things out of car windows and stop thinking it’s okay to leave trash in the forests, mountains and rivers because nature is so huge, nobody will notice it anyway and if nobody sees it done, it’s okay?

 
I’m not saying that only economically developed countries are protecting the environment.  God knows all countries need to be held way, way more accountable but what we’re talking about here is the indiscriminate throwing of garbage.   Some international media outfit ought to do a documentary on how tourism is destroying China — fast!  How do you solve this conundrum of the most populous nation in the world with people who travel at more or less the same time? Color coding families or provinces like color coding cars to control traffic?  How do you slow down market-driven demand?  Can big-scale tourism be scaled down or is there no turning back?  Are there nature preservationist groups or individuals who wield any clout and power?

 

What do I tell Donna now?

I want her to visit Dali but during the peak season, would there even be breathing space?  There are two places where I can confidently take her but I need to search for more and keep it a secret.

A link to a CNN interview about a documentary: Is Tourism Destroying Our World?

Ripples in the Clouds

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Three days ago, we moved to our new home in Dali.  Most rentals require a one-year contract so we settled for a guest house that offered long-term stays with a monthly instead of daily charge.  It was a good deal and appropriate bargain for us.  Instead of squeezing into one bedroom, we had an extra, ante-room where we could finally unload all the things that jam-packed our car.  There’s no closet, drawers or kitchen but we can do our laundry and it’s like we have a spacious living room garden right outside with flowers, swing and miniature waterfall.  We still have to live with plastic bags of clothes instead of cabinets although every time I pass by a shop selling simple home stuff, I have to stop myself from purchasing a shelf.

The guest house comes with a dog — a golden retriever which makes Joshua and Jimmy excited to come home every evening.  This morning, Jimmy and I took the puppy out to pee when he exhibited signs that he had to, so he was a well-trained pup indeed.  The guest house kitchen is still not finished but though we have no place to cook, we did figure out where the locals dine so we don’t have to spend a fortune on meals.  The supermarket is less than ten minutes walk and there’s a church nearby that has an English bible study every Saturday afternoon which I have yet to check out.

What makes guest house living interesting is that there are different families and travelers passing through and kids easily make friends with other kids.  From the huge picture window of our ante-room, we can see Joshua and Jimmy play with other kids and the pup, Didi.  The guest house boss loves making tea in one corner and there’s a table right outside our room where Joshua, Jimmy and I do our homeschooling work in what seems to be our very own patio.  Essentially, we get a whole house (minus the kitchen but that one will be finished soon) for the price of a room.

The guest house is located in the area both Jason and I were automatically drawn to — right on the mountain slope and beside one of the eighteen canals that bring the water down from the cloud-tipped top to the ancient city.  It amazes me how vibrant this engineering system which predates who knows what dynasty.  Nature meets man – shaped and unshaped granite blocks, stones rough and hewn, lush vines and moss, the sound of water ever flowing.

Today we continued the journey around Erhai lake, this time taking the car to give our “pigus” a rest.  We ran into a portion where there were too many big tour buses so we went past that, stopped by antique houses and two picnic sites. The last one had beach umbrellas strewn throughout a pebbled shore and food vendors offered grilled corn, eggplant and fried fish, shrimp, mini-lobsters, mushrooms and sausages.  Jimmy took off his clothes and swam in the sky-merged lake.   Joshua and Jimmy threw stones and made ripples in the clouds.

Biking Dream Come True

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We celebrated Joshua’s birthday one week early with our much-anticipated, much-dreamed-of, much wished-for bike ride along Erhai Lake which took us through farmlands, narrow alleyways, chic guest houses punctuated by views of the serene lake and mountains.  Rain didn’t dampen our spirits; it cooled the long ride.

After biking for almost 20 kilometers, our butts hurt and we needed a break so we stopped by a cafe which had two white cats sitting comfortably on the sofas.  We had hot chocolate, waffles and french fries.

On our way back, we saw a hot air balloon taking passengers up and down but tied to the ground.  Corny!  We’ll pass on that one.  Aside from guest houses, souvenir shops, package tours and eateries, the other way to make money off tourists is to get a sizable piece of land, plant loads of beautiful flowers and watch the selfie-seekers come.

Our last rest stop was admiring huge spiders and their webs spun across trees.

I wish Dali’s vegetable farms and natural landscape don’t get encroached by too much development. There are areas with heavy equipment preparing for some massive projects and behind that, the farmers continue their backbreaking work on the fertile land fed by mountain streams.  Jason told me that the Chinese government is limiting the number of new structures by imposing exorbitant costs of license to build.  Let’s hope that’s deterrent enough and ten years from now, the bike ride around Erhai would still be dominated by nature, not man.

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