Tag Archives: china

“The Orlando of China” at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom

Last Monday, Joel’s college sponsored a staff day at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. This theme park, which just opened in January of this year, is located in southern Zhuhai. The Chimelong Group has indicated that they plan to turn the area into “the Orlando of China.” I’d say they’re well on their way towards that goal—for better or for worse. This park is ocean-themed and quite reminiscent of Sea World.

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As in the U.S., it turns out that the last Monday before public schools close for the summer is a smart day to tour a theme park.  I’d been warned to expect the crowds of Disney with the shoving of Chinese tourists, but the park was mostly empty, especially in the morning.

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Joel’s not a fan of rides, so he kindly watched Simon as I took my turns on the park’s major offerings. Their star is a ride called Parrot Coaster, which is located in their Amazing Amazon. It’s a steel sing coaster. There’s a central cart attached to the track, but the riders sit on “wings” that jut out to the sides. So there’s nothing above you or below you as you ride along. I sat in the outer seat and was only connected via the seat next to me. It has a fantastic (gut-wrenching) first dive. The whole way up, I kept wondering about the safety and inspections of Chinese amusement park rides. Fortunately, the guy next to me was so scared that I spent the rest of my ride worried that he was hyperventilating. (He was OK by the end.)

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We took Simon on one ride: the Octopus Carousel. As you can see, he wasn’t a fan. I had to pull him off the horse (er…turtle) before it was over.

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I also tried out the Walrus Splash, after purchasing my 10-yuan poncho.  Surprise feature: the car turns around backwards for the first drop.  Nobody was expecting that!

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What Shamu is to Sea World, the whale shark is to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom.  The aquarium is the heart of this park, and it holds multiple records.  At 22.7 million liters, it’s the largest aquarium in the world.  True to Chinese fashion, there’s a row of Guiness World Record plaques lining the entry, just to make sure you know.

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And the whale sharks!  I’d heard they weren’t on display everyday, so I didn’t have my hopes up.  But there they were!  Two juvenile females.  Those are some big fish.  And to think they’re only babies!  I’d still love to see one in the wild someday, but this will hold me over ’til then.

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In addition to the fish, Chimelong has some other animals on display. We spent some time in the penguin house because it was so cold–what a relief from the steamy air outside!

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You can learn a lot about a culture by how they define their wildlife.

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I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: China is like America in the 1950s. IMGP1822 (1280x848)

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Mom, this isn’t very culturally appropriate, is it?

 

We caught the afternoon parade, which was full of freaky costumes.

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These guys kept spinning and shuffling in circles. I thought they were hydrothermal vents, but Joel says they were coral.
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The octopuses rode Segways.

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Proof that I’ve been in China a while:

I was walking around looking for something to eat.  I stopped at one kiosk and asked the lady what she was selling.  She opened the lid to show me cups of fish.  I shook my head and sauntered off.  Only later, when I passed by again, did I realize they were meant to be fed to the sea lions.

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In my defense, the nearby cafe was advertising two different specials: Korean roasted squid and a bowl of octopus tentacles.  And those are intended for humans.

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We ended up eating well, though.  Our entry included dinner at the swanky hotel buffet.  On the way to dinner we met the mascot, the Chimelong tiger.

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High fives.

After dinner, we roamed the hotel lobby and gift shops.  It was a modest, understated facility.

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Sadly, we went home with no merchandise at all, though I was sorely tempted by the hammerhead shark googly-eyed hat.

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Peppers ‘n’ Pandas

Where do giant pandas climb skyscrapers?  Where can you eat a chocolate bear donut?  Where did that numbed-on-fire taste in my mouth come from?

Well, Chengdu, in Sichuan province China, of course!

The Food

We love Sichuan cuisine, and it was Susie’s plan to simply “eat our way across Sichuan province.”  A more modest plan was to try this in just the capital city.

Sichuan food is famous for its use of a ‘citrusy’ fragrant peppercorn (the flower pepper) that also numbs your mouth.  That, combined with spicy red peppers, anise, garlic (lots of this!) and ginger gives Sichuan cuisine its distinctive flavor.  Chengdu is famous for its mapo tofu (literally, this translates to “tofu by the lady with the pockmarked face”), Sichuan hotpot (which we tried on our Chengdu date night), dandan noodles, and spicy pork and/or chicken dishes.  Perhaps most Americans recognize one Sichuan dish especially as a standard dish in US takeout joints: kungpao chicken.

Kung pao chicken and Sichuan green beans.
Kung pao chicken and Sichuan green beans.
Sichuan spicy bbq ribs?  Messy awsum!
Sichuan spicy bbq ribs? Messy awsum!
Green beans, onions and pork.
Green beans, onions and pork.
Not ALL food in Chengdu is spicy.  Simon enjoys his sweet, sweet teddybear donut.
Not ALL food in Chengdu is spicy. Simon enjoys his sweet, sweet teddybear donut.

 

The Sun-Bird:  Chengdu’s Official City Symbol

Chengdu has another symbol, other than pandas.  While not as cute as pandas, the golden sun bird is possibly more impressive.  In Bronze Age China, the area near Chengdu was rumored to have its own complete civilization.  Historians argued back and forth about when / where this mystery people may have lived, but that all changed in 1986.  Workers unearthed sacrificial burial pits, finding one of the most amazing examples of ancient undiscovered cultures.  Chengdu has two archeological sites, and (in interest of time), we visited the one within the city limits, the Jinsha Site Museum.

The Jinsha site had great artefacts, including the hammered gold disc showing a sunstar and orbiting birds (maybe a phoenix?) that symbolize immortality, power (and now, Chengdu).  The jade, gold, porcelain, petrified wood, sacrificed animals (including mounds of elephant tusks) all date from a culture over 6,000 years old.

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The gold disc of sun and birds from 6000 years ago.
Two archeologists pose in front of the excavation pits.  The museum houses the actual Jinsha discovery site, allowing tourists to watch as archeologists continue to work.
Two archeologists pose in front of the excavation pits. The museum houses the actual Jinsha discovery site, allowing tourists to watch as archeologists continue to work.
A chariot was buried here, including the skeletal remains of two horses and a charioteer.  Man, job security in the Sanxingdui culture is hard-core.
A chariot was uncovered here, including the skeletal remains of two horses and a charioteer. Man, job security in the Sanxingdui culture is hard-core.
Gigantic logs of ebony were found at Jinsha, and now have been turned into a forest.  Also, two Chinese students take a moment to photograph that really tall foreigner.
Gigantic logs of ebony were found at Jinsha, and now have been turned into a forest. Also, two Chinese students take a moment to photograph that really tall foreigner.

 

The Giant Panda:  Chengdu’s Other Symbol

So, the panda is an endangered species that is quite cute, if somewhat lazy-looking.  If China is symbolized by one animal, it is either the tiger or the panda.  But Sichuan province, and Chengdu in particular, really loves their pandas.  Or at least they want their tourists to love their pandas.  So with that to bear* in mind, pandas are a symbol for the whole city.  So panda toys, logos, signs, sculptures are everywhere.

*sorry

A giant panda is scaling that office building!  Ruuuuuuuunnnnn!
A giant panda is scaling that office building! Ruuuuuuuunnnnn!

 

And, when planning a trip to Chengdu, how could we have flown all the way to China and not go to the most famous panda facility in the world?  Needless to say, our halfday trip to the Panda Research Center just outside the city was great.  We were prepared for a touristy, overpriced cheezefest.  And there was that aspect there.  But hey, let’s face it … Simon pointing at live pandas and saying ‘wowwwww…’ is worth it.

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A panda in its natural habitat: a highly controlled zoo for tourists.
The panda nursery is a very complex facility.  All that is missing is a machine that goes 'ping.'
The panda nursery is a very complex facility. All that is missing is a machine that goes ‘ping.’
baby panda ... kawaiiiiiiiiii
baby panda … kawaiiiiiiiiii

 

Of course, the panda center ALSO has red pandas.  Also known as firefoxes (they are the browser’s logo), we actually thought they were just as cute… or even cuter? … than the giant panda.

Red pandas are known for their pumpkin hunting.
Red pandas are known for their pumpkin hunting.
Mommy?  Can I have a red panda of my very own??
Mommy? Can I have a red panda of my very own??
LOOK AT THE NEW FRIEND MY MOMMY BROUGHT TO ME!!!!!
LOOK AT THE NEW FRIEND MY MOMMY BROUGHT TO ME!!!!!

 

 

What’s to Do in Chengdu?

Our next stop was Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province.  For this part of our travels, we tried minimal planning — just seeing what the city had to offer once we got there.  This was a bit frustrating, but we figured that a city of 14 million (China’s fourth largest city) must have something to offer.

We window-shopped at the Tibetan quarter of the city, walked the touristy pedestrian streets, and relaxed in a park dedicated to bamboo.

Chengdu's Tibetan quarter has one-stop shopping for all your monkish needs.
Chengdu’s Tibetan quarter has one-stop shopping for all your monkish needs.
Bamboo gracefully towering over pathways.  Wangjiang Park.
Bamboo gracefully towering over pathways. Wangjiang Park.
Simon at the park near Dufu's Cottage, Chengdu.  Yes, our little Xiao Pienzi was given that balloon by a passerby.
Simon at the park near Dufu’s Cottage, Chengdu. Yes, our little Xiao Pianzi was given that balloon by a passerby.

 

Eastern Memory Music & Art Park

One evening we saw an old factory (that used to manufacture tv tubes) that had been transformed into a center for music performances, with stages large and small separated by artwork, dessert shops, bars, and coffee lounges.  Simon loved this place!

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Posing with cosplayers (people who dress up like Japanese cartoon characters). Silver samurai looks deadly, silver princess shows a heart of love, Susie looks happy, Simon looks … concerned.
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Four toddlers and a bucket of live crawfish. Chaos surely will follow.
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Simon rushes to join the revolution!

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A Shrine to Heroes

Joel really wanted to see the Wuhou Shrine, a temple/park/museum.  The Wuhou Shrine is dedicated to Chengdu’s most famous hometown heroes.  They can be found in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a historical novel written 600 years ago.  The story takes place late in the third century, when China’s empire dissolved into tiny kingdoms held by petty warlords.  Three men swore eternal brotherhood and decided to fight all of the evil, selfish warlords.  Maybe it’s a bit like King Arthur and the Round Table – a very old tale based on real wars in real places, but with a lot of myth thrown in.  Chinese kids play video games based on this novel, its heroes and villains are used in tv commercials, and movie and tv adaptations get re-made every decade.  But unlike the Arthurian legends, you can actually visit the tombs and shrines of the novel’s main characters – and that makes Wuhou Shrine a very popular tourism spot in Chengdu.

It is normal for shrines to have lions and dragons and such.  But a baby seal?  Even sculptors love cute!
It is normal for shrines to have lions and dragons and such. But a baby seal? Even sculptors love cute!
Not sure of the mythical / spiritual significance of pumpkins at a shrine.  Oh, China.
Not sure of the mythical / spiritual significance of pumpkins at a shrine. Oh, China.
A statue of Liu Bei, emperor of what is now Sichuan province from 221 to 223, and a main hero of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He is the literary symbol of a benevolent ruler.
A statue of Liu Bei, emperor of what is now Sichuan province from 221 to 223, and a main hero of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He is the literary symbol of a benevolent ruler.
Hide and seek in ornately carved wooden chairs at Wuhou Shrine.
Hide and seek in ornately carved wooden chairs at Wuhou Shrine.
Susie finds her favorite animal at the Wuhou Shrine: a qilin.
Susie finds her favorite animal at the Wuhou Shrine: a qilin.
Simon, mao (his orange kitty pulltoy), and a very serious horse all pose at the Wuhou Shrine.
Simon, mao (his orange kitty pulltoy), and a very serious horse all pose at the Wuhou Shrine.

 

 

Nap-time Adventures

Like our trip to Beijing, sometimes one parent would stay with Simon while the other went sightseeing alone. Susie had a great time in the People’s Park, one of the best / most interesting parks anywhere in our travels, and Joel saw a poet’s park and an active Buddhist monastery.

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Flames of the faithful, Wenshu Monastery.
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Dragon carved from a single large tree trunk, Wenshu Monastery.
Susie's glass of hot floral tea at the People's Park, Chengdu.
Susie’s glass of hot floral tea at the People’s Park, Chengdu.
Another Chinese park, Another set of scary-looking amusements.
Another Chinese park, Another set of scary-looking amusements.
The People's Park L-train??
The People’s Park L-train??

 

A Night at the Opera

We also had a first for our vacation:  a date on our own!  With Simon in the hands of a capable babysitter (trilingual, no less), the grown-ups got to be out on the town.  Our first stop was hotpot – where the centerpiece of boiling broths makes it hard to dine safely with a toddler.  These restaurants are popular throughout China, but Sichuan is the home of spicy hotpot.  The food was delicious (although not super spicy, by request).

Susie goes for seconds on date night at a Sichuan hotpot.   Two yellow boiling broths (chicken soup) and two red boiling broths (spicy pepper soup).  The small dishes have raw veggies and frozen meats that you cook at your table.
Susie goes for seconds on date night at a Sichuan hotpot. Two yellow boiling broths (chicken soup) and two red boiling broths (spicy pepper soup). The small dishes have raw veggies and frozen meats that you cook at your table.

 

After our meal, we checked on Simon (the restaraunt was near our hotel) and went off to a variety show held in a teahouse with a stage.  Popular with foreign and Chinese tourists alike, a troupe puts on small performances that give you a taste of Sichuan’s broad range in theater.  We saw Chinese opera, puppetry, the Chinese ‘violin’ (the er-hu), and the famous face-changers, but all within two hours.

Shadow puppetry at the Sichuan variety show.
Shadow puppetry at the Sichuan variety show.
Puppetry at the Sichuan variety show.
Puppetry at the Sichuan variety show.
Chinese opera is not known for its subtlety.
Chinese opera is not known for its subtlety.

 

The best feature of the night was undoubtedly the face-changers.  The art of bian lian features actors wearing a cloth mask featuring a character from a famous Chinese opera.  The character’s mood and intent is indicated by color and expression drawn on the mask.  In the blink of an eye, the actor changes masks once, twice, seven times. The secret of this quick change is passed down within theater companies, and traditionally only to males (because women might reveal the secret to non-opera husbands).  It was amazing, and you should really watch videos online to get the full effect.  The only one I have ever seen change from happy to terrifying that quickly is our little Simon.  😉

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The Sichuan variety show's climax act features Face Changers, who switch cloth masks in less time than your camera shutter works...
The Sichuan variety show’s climax act features Face Changers, who switch cloth masks in less time than your camera shutter works…

The Grottoes of Shibaoshan

So I don’t want to mislead you.  It’s not like we sat around in little cafes and never did ANYTHING in Shaxi.  There were a few cool adventures along the way.  And moreso than any other town we visited, we met some other interesting travelers, who accompanied us on various excursions.

One day, we hired a van with two other couples to visit Shibaoshan, a nearby mountain temple complex.  The first stop, Shizhong Temple, was a weird amalgamation of things.  There was the old temple, newly built additions, and historical halls.  Lacking a guide or interpretive signage, I was never quite sure what I was looking at.  The buildings are nestled into the bottom of a hillside and there are trails up to the top, with little grottoes all along the way.  Some of the statues looked new; some were lovingly cared for; some were broken and falling apart.  It was weird.

The other trouble with site was the monkeys.  I’ve really grown to dislike monkeys while traveling in Asia.  I troop of macaques have decided to make Shizhong their home.  Stupid tourists (mostly Chinese, as far as I could tell) like to buy food from the nearby vendors and feed it to the monkeys, who have become very aggressive.  We were warned to hold onto Simon and raise our hands and yell if necessary.

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Look closely–there is a row of monkeys sitting on the stone railing.

I was amused to discover that the temple employees a man with a slingshot to keep the monkeys at bay.  They’d roam around quite boldly, but the second that this man stood up and reached for his weapon–zoom!–they were gone!

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Temple protectors are a very common installment in this region.  I was happy to see several more statues, similar to the ones back in Shaxi.  I really like the idea of these big, hulking guys who can know your soul and only allow the good and pure to enter their halls.  Maybe I need to employ one back home?

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In addition to the temple guardians, there were, of course, many statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas.

 

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From   Shizhong Temple, we moved on to the big attraction–the stone grottoes of the Nanzhao Kingdom.  These grottoes were carved in the 7th to 9th century A.D. and depict an important time of transition between Tibet and Yunnan Province.  (Remember that Tea Horse Caravan?)  Photos are not permitted within most of the area, so you’ll have to use your imagination.  But the figures were highly detailed, depictions of royalty and deities.  Despite a few centuries of vandalism and erosion, most were in admirably good condition.   I was allowed to snap a photo of this one, carved on the opposite  mountainside and more exposed than most of the others.  We were struck by how European the figure looked–it almost appears to have the halo of a Christian saint.

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Were to grottoes on flat, easily accessible land? No. Of course not. We had to hike up this mountain to see the image above. Of course. Most of the ancient grottoes are protected by the building in the background. And yeah, we had to climb up there, too.

 

So You Think You Can Caravan?

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a trip by pony
Just like the caravans of yore,
‘cross mountains far and lonely.
 …………………………………………
They promised us a short, safe trip,
Return by lunchtime?  Sure!
Seven travelers set off that day
For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.
…………………………………………
We climbed up hillsides far from home
The path was steep and stony.
No reins, no helmet to break the fall,
“Just hold onto your pony.”
  …………………………………………
We packed no food; there was no need,
We’d be home soon enough.
We held on fast to our tiny steeds,
But soon our bellies rumbled; soon our bellies rumbled.

…………………………………………

That three-hour-trip was just one way.
In the wilderness, that means
No shopping mall, no Circle K.
We rationed jelly beans! We rationed jelly beans!
  …………………………………………
So join me here to read the tale,
You’re sure to get a smile,
Seven exhausted horseriders,
They traveled so many miles.

 

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One of our ponies.
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This young man rode a donkey without even a proper saddle.
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“You’re going to have to get off and walk here. It’s too steep and dangerous for the horses.” Greeeeeaaat…
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Simon and I rode the pony on the right. I nicknamed him Munchie because he was as hungry as us.  But he could eat grass.  We couldn’t.
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View of our trail. It gets pretty dry and desolate up in the mountains!
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Taking a break. No, children, there’s still no food in the bag.
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Atop a dam for a rest stop. The children are counting the last of our jelly beans.
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Coming upon a minority village.
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Finally! We made it to the village! Maybe we can pay them to feed us lunch!
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Nope. But we managed hot water and peaches.
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This fellow took a real liking to Simon.
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At another home, the matriarch dressed up to show us her traditional headwear.
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The kids were more interested in the candy she shared.  Woohoo, sweet, caloric sustenance!
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Listen up, America. If they can manage solar power out here, we can do better. I know we can.
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Returning to town after a long, seven-hour pony ride. These elderly folks were walking home for the day, singing and clapping as they walked.  I felt like clapping, too!

Shaxi’s Friday Market

The internet resources on Shaxi travel—and there aren’t many—all agree that the Friday market is the coolest thing to do in town. I’m not going to lie. I think the coolest thing in town was sitting still at a coffee shop and drinking a fancy-pants coffee drink, the likes of which can otherwise best be procured in the U.S. or Europe.

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“Cheers!”

But the market was pretty cool, too.

We started out at the livestock market, on the edge of town along the Heihui River.

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Most cattle were walked to the market and tied to the fence.
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Take a look at the full-size Holstein on the left. Then compare to the water buffalo for sale on the right. Look at his hind legs. That thing is HUGE! And solid. It was simply a massive animal when you got up close.
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Observing cows from a safe perspective.
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Geronimo!
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Oh, little donkey! Run…hide! Don’t you know what they do to donkeys around here?
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This little piggy went to market, and this little piggy cried “wee wee wee” all the way home.
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View of the Heihui River from the outskirt of town.

From the livestock market, we walked into town, which featured both a wet market (for produce and meat) and a household market.

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Prepared foods for sale, deli-style.
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These eggs were beautiful. Can anyone explain why the yolks were so big?

It was really amazing to watch women set up their stands for market day.  Most of the sellers had driven in from the surrounding region and had to unload huge quantities of produce from the back of trucks.  This was almost exclusively the occupation of women, and the accompanying men stood by while women lugged these huge baskets.  It was such an unusual division of labor.

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The bag is filled with eggplant. Imagine how heavy it must be. Also, note that she steadies the basket with the strap wrapped around her forehead, a very common practice in the area.

I was also struck by the atmosphere.  Despite the intensity of the work, the mood was almost festive.  The women were chatting, laughing, and seemed generally happy to be there.  The chatter would pause periodically as they’d center a load on one woman’s back or discuss where to place a table of produce.  But otherwise, it was a very social, happy environment.  To be honest, I felt a twinge of jealousy that these women could be so happy while doing such back-breaking labor.

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More eggplant.
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Think for a moment about how heavy carrots are.

Shoppers, for their part, carried their purchased  goods in smaller baskets, which are very typical of the region.

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These woven bamboo baskets are, I suspect, the traditional style. I especially like the little feet to keep them off the ground.
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Equally popular were modern versions made from vinyl or other plastics. I really liked these and was sorely tempted to buy one, even though it’s entirely impractical for my life.
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If you’re in a bind, you carry most anything in a basket, I suppose.

Some of the foods at the market looked familiar, others less so.

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Mmm, a lovely, fresh carrot salad with… omg are those chicken feet?!?!
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Stacks of tofu for sale at the wet market.
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Red onions.
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Ginger.
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Bitter gourd.

The household market was also full of cool gear.

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Old rubber tires have been converted into buckets. What an ingenious design!
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Pig feed, for all your pig needs.
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“Hey, buddy, got a light?”
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Brooms.
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This booth sold pest-control products. I don’t mean to judge, really. But if you’ve got a rhino infestation in your kitchen, just don’t invite me to dinner.

We came upon a booth selling dried animal products for medicinal purposes.  At first, the woman said it was OK for us to take pictures, but we must have overstayed our welcome because she soon shushed us away and asked us to put down the camera.  Oh well.

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Dried pipefish, a relative of seahorses.
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Unidentified turtle shell.
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There was a tray full of coiled snakes that had been filleted and dried.

Many of the region’s ethnic minorities come to Shaxi’s Friday market, either to buy or sell goods.  The ethnicities I thought I recognized included Bai, Lisu, Yi, and Naxi.  While most of the men have adopted a more modern style of dress, the women often still wear traditional outfits.  The textiles were amazing.  Beadwork, embroidery, and delicately woven clothes and accessories enlivened the sea of shoppers.

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Shhhhh…. Shaxi….

I’d never even heard of Shaxi when we set off on our Yunnan adventure.  But while staying at the Bruce Chalet, we met up with an Australian family who were touring Yunnan with a guide.  I asked what they thought of Lijiang Old Town.  They were polite but noncommittal.  “It’s fine, I suppose.  A bit touristy.”  Was Shuhe better?  “Maybe… It’s just that we’ve been spoiled by visiting much nicer small towns.  We’ve seen some amazing ones, so these touristy places don’t do much for us.”  And what was the best old town they’d seen?

“Shaxi.”

That evening, I googled Shaxi and knew it had to be added to our itinerary.  We booked a hotel for three nights, but now that we’re here, I think we’ll stay a week.  It’s a treasured respite from the unbridled tourism elsewhere in Yunnan.

And that, my friends, was as far as my draft blog post got on July 4.  We did indeed stay in Shaxi–for eight days.  Like Odysseus in the land of the lotus eaters, we lounged about for days, sipping fine coffees, eating delicious food, and marveling at this land full of western comforts, beautiful weather, and a slow, comfortable pace.  I’m hesitant to even talk about it, as I want to keep it our little secret paradise.  So, shhh… Here’s where we were:

Shaxi is widely recognized as the last or best preserved trading town along a route known as the Tea Horse Caravan Route.  Many people are familiar with the famous Silk Road that connected China to India and the Middle East.  But to call the Tea Horse Caravan the “southern Silk Road” really diminishes it’s stand-alone importance.  Tea, originating in Yunnan Province, would be transported to India along a 1400-mile route that traverses nearly 80 mountains.  Small towns like Shaxi were critical stop-overs and centers of trade along the way.

 

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Shaxi and surrounding communities.

Today, Shaxi is a sleepy village.  It’s central square has been recognized by the World Monuments Fund as one of the Most Endangered Sites in the world, and multiple international non-profits are cooperating to preserve and restore it.

Shaxi sits in a valley, nestled among low mountains.  While the hills are arid, here’s a lot of agriculture in the valley, thanks to mild year-round temperatures and frequent, light rain showers

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Rice paddies on the edge of town.

For us, Sideng Market Square became the center of our universe for the week.  It’s a quirky place.  Two buildings dominate the square.  Xingjiao Temple dates to the 15th century Ming Dynasty.  It’s unmissable, thanks primarily to the two temple guardians perched on either side of its entrance.

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Who goes there? Friend or foe?

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Despite their grimaces, I felt like they presented a friendly vibe.  They must have been able to perceive that we came peacefully.

Across from the temple was an old theater.  It’s not currently used for productions, as I understand it, but there was a small museum inside.  Hipster backpackers would perch under its colorful awning all day.

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We stayed just next door to the theater in a youth hostel called Horse Pen 46.  It’s an old Bai-minority courtyard that perhaps once served as accommodation for weary travelers along the Tea Horse Caravan.  We stayed in Mustang Stall 2-1.  They had a bit of a horse theme, you see.

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This non-descript door led to our lovely hostel.
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View of a rainbow from our balcony at Horse Pen 46.

But the real win was being able to step outside the hostel, into that lovely, peaceful Sideng Market Square.

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“In Yunnan Province, you can watch the sun shine while you’re standing in the rain.” So goes a local proverb. And it happened to us, several times.
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Shaxi attracted all types of laid-back, oddball travelers–both Chinese and western. This hipster fellow was practicing his tightrope walking (on his own personal tightrope) and didn’t let a rainstorm stop him.

The market no longer takes place in the square.  Instead, the square is shaded by a grand 300+ year-old tree.  Research tells me it’s a “pagoda tree,” Sapora japonica.

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The tree produces copious quantities of fragrant white flowers in the summer.  Local people collect and dry them for tea, baking, and medicine.  (Coincidence: these are the same flowers we ate at the farmhouse on our Great Wall camping trip.  I’m sure of it!)  Everyday, shopkeepers or restauranteurs would sweep up the flowers and lay tarps to collect more as the wind blew.  From there, they’d be placed into large, flat baskets to dry.

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And each morning, the tree would be blooming again, the air filled with the buzz of delighted bees.

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A younger pagoda tree can be seen on the left, which will someday replace the old tree when it is gone.

At the four corners of the square are coffee shops.  European-style, ground coffee.  Our favorite was definitely the Old Tree Cafe.  The owners, a semi-retired couple from Guangdong Province, spoke excellent English and were all-around lovely.

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Old Tree Cafe.
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Caramel macchiato with real foam? Yes, please!
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“Cheers to the good life!”

Their resident cat had two kittens.  Simon was fascinated and the owners let him follow the cats into their private courtyard.  There, he learned a new word.  He started by trying to respond to the cats’ cries and the result was the Chinese “mao,” which means cat.  It’s now one of his favorite words and gets used at least 10 times per day.

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Excited about his new friends.
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If I ever own a cat–which is unlikely, as I’m so darn allergic to the things, but if I ever do–it is going to be a pale orange tabby with stripes that look like Scandinavian wood. Just saying.

We only went inside Xingjiao Temple on one occasion.  In addition to the religious artefacts, there was a great display that explained the local commitment to Shaxi’s restoration and preservation.  I’m hopeful that the community will be successful, and Shaxi won’t turn into another Lijiang.

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In the back of the temple are the five golden Buddhas.

Like most temples in China, Xingjiao is still (again?) an active place of worship.  When we arrived in the hall with the golden Buddhas, a woman and her daughter were praying to the central figure.  Simon was impressed.  As soon as the woman stood up from her prayer mat, Simon knelt down in her place and repeated her actions: prostrating to the Buddha, then praying with hands over his head.  Maybe we’re raising a little Buddhist.

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