Place of Peace


Last Sunday night, I arrived back in Beijing from a ten-day trip through Yunnan Province. Yunnan is located in the southwest corner of China and borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. It’s just under 1,700 miles from Beijing and just over 1,800 miles from Udaipur. Located almost squarely between the two cities where I’ve split the last four months, Yunnan serves as more than just the geographic midpoint between the two halves of my experience here.

IMG_5942  Puji Temple in Lijiang

IMG_6085Visually, Yunnan brought me back to Udaipur- women wore elaborate and bright textiles, lakes were nestled between rolling hills and mountains. There were shops selling Indian food, and we even saw a few cows in the road. Culturally, it also appeared to be a blend of the two places. Several ethnic minorities inhabit Yunnan, and we were able to visit the homes of different tribes. Some people conversed in Mandarin, but many other spoke their own tribal dialects. Rajasthan is also home to several large tribes and ethnic minorities. There, too, many people spoke different dialects in addition to Hindi and/or English. Religiosity was also very apparent in Yunnan. When walking through Shaxi, one of the towns we visited on the trip, we saw a roadside shrine to a village deity. Seeing the shrine and visiting temples during the trip to Yunnan evoked memories of India where it felt like a religious structure was constantly in eyesight.

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At the same time, Yunnan was entirely unique, unlike anything I’d experienced in Udaipur or Beijing. At 3,300 meters, there was no doubt we were a long way from Udaipur (600 m) and Beijing (44 m); even a light hike felt grueling. We travelled in a new way: sightseeing with tour companies. And we studied new things: the ancient Tea Horse Trade Route and current primate conservation efforts.

IMG_5910During our ten days there, we visited three different cities (Lijiang, Shaxi, and Zhongdian) and spent two nights in a nature reserve in Tacheng. In Lijiang, we visited a house-turned-museum for a lesson in the Dongba pictographic language of the Naxi tribe. We hiked to a small Buddhist temple where a monk recited a blessing for us. We spoke with a woman at The Nature Conservancy about the group’s work in and around Lijiang. We explored the Old Town, and got $8 massages. The spa idea sounded great in theory, but unbeknownst to us, the shop we visited subscribed to a unique, deep-tissue school of massage, and we all left feeling a bit more bruised and sore than we felt coming in.

IMG_6016    canola fields

We then drove southwest to Shaxi, a small town that was a key layover point for traders on the Tea Horse Route. There, we tasted 600-year-old Puer tea that sells for $800/kilogram- no surprises that the tasting cups we were given were only slightly larger than bottlecaps. We walked through bright-yellow fields of canola plants and visited an abandoned nunnery. The morning before we left Shaxi, I woke up early and went for a run. I was out as vendors were setting up their shops along the main street and farmers were beginning work in their fields. I ran through the main section of town and out into a small enclave of houses that Nicole and I had stumbled upon the day before. The air was crisp, and the clouds hung low. After running uphill for a while, I decided to head back toward the hostel. As I turned back, I looked out over the huge terraces of crops that I’d been running past. The slight breeze sent waves through the plots of long green grasses and menacing blue-black mountains lay in the distance. On my way out through town, I’d passed an elderly man. As I ran home, I saw him again and he gave me a wide grin and clasped his hands together. “Very good!” he told me. I giggled and kept going. It was an incredible way to start the day.

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black-necked cranesWe had breakfast that morning at the hostel (peanut butter, toast, eggs, and of course, tea) before heading to Zhongdian. In 2001, Zhongdian was renamed Xianggelila or Shangri-La (the paradise described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon). Shangri-La or “shambala” in Sanskrit means place of peace. The politics surrounding the name change were highly contentious, but the place itself is totally serene and wears the name well. While in Zhongdian, we visited an enormous, gold-roofted monastery and hiked up a small hill with a small shrine and 360 degree view of the Napahai valley. Prayer flags rippled in the stiff wind, and we could see snow capped mountains in the distance. As we walked across the valley below the hill, we caught a glimpse of the rare black-necked crane, a symbol of luck. That night, we ate dinner at a local Tibetan family’s house- butter tea, yak meat, and a dance show to cap the night off.

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IMG_6200The next day, we woke to two inches of snow on the ground. It was beautiful, but delayed our departure for the next portion of our trip. After an extended breakfast at a local café, we piled into busses for a six hour ride down the mountain to Tacheng where we’d be staying in a nature reserve and learning about the efforts of China Exploration and Research Society (CERS) to preserve local Lisu culture and protect the endangered snub-nosed monkeys. Yunnan means “south of the clouds” in Mandarin, but during our time in the nature reserve, we were literally among them. We stayed in small log cabins tucked into the forest. At points during our stay, it was impossible to see farther than a few meters with all the clouds hanging around us. It was beautiful, despite the fact that it never stopped raining. We observed snub-nosed monkeys and visited a nearby Lisu village. We learned about bee-keeping techniques and spoke with a local ranger. On Saturday morning, we headed back for a final day in Zhongdian before flying out on Sunday.

snubnosed monkey      IMG_6268

What in many ways appeared the middle ground between Udaipur and Beijing, Yunnan gave me something totally different- a serene, peaceful escape from the crowded, bustling cities where I’ve spent the last three and a half months. The clean air, mountain vistas and forests of prayer flags were such a relief. When we got word that the bird flu had hit Beijing, I joked with friends that we could adopt a simple plan: run away and stay in Yunnan forever. I could think of worse places to end up. But for now, I’m happy to be back in Beijing. Relaxed and rejuvenated from the trip, I’m ready to soak up my final 13 days in China (14 until I see Collin, 25 until Minnesota, and 43 until Bowdoin.) Yes, the countdown has certainly begun.


Finding Home

ImageMaybe it’s because it’s been over 12 weeks since I left home. Or maybe it’s because there are only a little over 5 until I return. Then again, maybe it’s total coincidence. But over the past two weeks, I’ve found myself seeking out and bumping into pieces of home all around Beijing.

Second only to the people at home, what I miss most is food: Thai, Mexican and American diner fare to be specific. I’ve felt their acute absence throughout my trip, but over the past week I filled the voids of all three. Last Tuesday, we all trekked out to a restaurant called Avocado Tree. It was described in online reviews as a knock-off Chipotle, and it was exactly that: Image
identical décor, identical menu, and most importantly, identical food.
Unfortunately, the prices were also identical. A $6 burrito doesn’t seem that outrageous in the U.S., but when I’ve been spending less than a dollar on most of my breakfasts and lunches, it felt like quite the robbery. It was delicious, though, and worth every kuai.


On Wednesday we grabbed dinner at a Thai restaurant in the swanky expat neighborhood called Sanlitun. It was great, but no competition for the pad thai at Big Bowl or Sweet Angel. And finally, I filled my pancake craving on Easter Sunday at Grandma’s Kitchen, a restaurant near the Silk Market.


Meghan and I dressed up for the occasion before making our way to one of Beijing’s few American breakfast places. I loaded up on real coffee (not instant, which people seem to really like both in India and China), blueberry pancakes, sausage, and eggs. It was perfect and left me full until nearly 8 that night.


ImageThere also appeared to be a Minnesota exodus to China this weekend; I ran into over 200 people from the Twin Cities over the course of Saturday and Sunday. A few weeks ago, Ms. Wong, my high school Chinese teacher, contacted me about meeting up during Breck’s annual China Trip. We agreed to meet up at a restaurant on Saturday night. That afternoon, I left myself plenty of time to find the place and even brought a book in case I got to the restaurant with a lot of time to spare. That was real overkill because as it turned out, I arrived to the restaurant 45 minutes late and never ate dinner. I got terribly lost after getting out of the subway station and couldn’t find anyone with reliable directions. My journey to the restaurant consisted of walking one direction down several lanes of hutongs then being sent back the other way under the guidance of shopkeepers and other residents. I rode on the back of a man’s small rickshaw, who then proceeded to drop me off in a random alleyway and demand 300 yuan ($50) for the five minute rickshaw ride; when I recounted the story to my parents, I boasted that I’d reasoned with the driver and convinced him to let me get away by only paying 25 yuan (around $4). They were none too pleased by my bargaining techniques. In retrospect, it was pretty stupid and something I hope to never repeat, even though I am pretty proud of my bargaining.

ImageI finally arrived to the restaurant by cab and walked in as dinner was being cleared from the tables. Ms. Wong was making announcements before the group headed out. In typical Ms. Wong fashion, she looked up and without skipping a beat announced to the group, “And we’re joined by Katie Ross.” All 100 people turned to me. It was my turn to talk, whether I liked it or not. I told people about what I was doing in Beijing and how I’d liked the trip so far. Ms. Wong asked me to talk about Bowdoin and my plans for the future. The whole experience made me feel so old. I remembered meeting alums four years ago when I was on the trip, and now suddenly I was old enough to be one of them. Things had come full circle. Ms. Wong was the first Chinese teacher I ever had and is without a doubt the reason why I’m an Asian Studies major today. Me being in China right now really is all her doing. While the trip to the restaurant nearly got me killed, it was wonderful to see Ms. Wong again and talk to students and parents on this year’s trip.

ImageAnother surprise came on Sunday morning after my Easter brunch with Meghan. She and I decided to stop by the Silk Market before heading back to campus, and as we walked through the parking lot, I noticed a big tour bus with a red sign for Eden Prairie on the inside of the dashboard. It seemed in typical Chinese fashion to string two pleasant sounding words together to name a tour group. Meghan snapped a picture of me next to it, and we moved along. After walking around the market for an hour, we decided to head out. A group of boys cut in front of us and I noticed a small red and black insignia on one of the boys’ jackets. I called after him, “Hey. Excuse me? Are you by any chance from Eden Prairie, Minnesota?” The boy stopped and looked around for a second before responding, “Uh, yeah?” I apologized for being so creepy, and told him that I was from there too. It turns out the EP band was on tour in China for their spring break; 92 of them were on the trip. So with me, 93 of EP’s 60,000 residents were in Beijing, all in the same market at the same time.




While I’ve been finding home, I’ve also been setting up my new one here over the last two weeks. My friends and I have explored more of Beijing, going to Drum and Bell Towers and walking around Nanlouguxiang in the Houhai area and visiting Yonghegong and the Confucius Temple near Dongzhimen. We’ve discovered our favorite neighborhoods and cafes to hang out in. We’ve gotten our nails painted and hair cut at local shops. We’ve found our favorite shopping spots and given nicknames to all the places we get dinner; high up on the list are Ralph’s restaurant, the Shanghai restaurant, the English picture menu place and Maidanglao (McDonalds in Mandarin.) The fact that I’ve found aspects of home is not at all to say that I haven’t noticed and relished the totally foreign aspects of the city. 




Yesterday, Swetha and I went out to Changping, a district over 40 kilometers northwest of Beijing city, to conduct research for our project on maternal and child health. We left the dorm at 6:30 AM and arrived at the health center in Changping two and a half hours later. We were accompanied by our two co-researchers from Peking University, Bingyu and Xinyang. The four of us arrived at the Changping Health Bureau by bus and then met up with a driver and two folks from the Health Bureau before driving to the Chang Ling Community Health Service Center. We toured the facilities and spoke with administrators and health care workers about the center and the services it provides to pregnant women and newborns. By the time we wrapped up our tour and interviews, it was 10:40 AM, and we were ready to head back to campus. Our hosts asked if we wanted to stay for lunch, but Bingyu kindly informed them that we weren’t very hungry and had to get back for 2 PM class anyway, but thanked them for the offer. They insisted we stay. We giggled and declined the offer. Apparently “no” was not an acceptable answer. The promised they’d keep it simple and quick.

ImageTwo minutes later, nine of us piled into a van that was waiting outside the health center and we headed out to a restaurant to eat. We arrived at a small restaurant that appeared to be constructed out of temporary housing material. As we walked toward the entrance, we passed by an outdoor area with a tarp overhang that appeared to be the  kitchen. Swetha and I exchanged a glance; it looked like we’d be going hungry at this meal, not that we were even that hungry to begin with; it wasn’t even 11 AM yet. We sat down around a large round table and the director of the health center looked at the menu and began rattling off the group’s order to the waiter. He’d heard that Swetha was a vegetarian, but he wanted to clarify, since vegetarianism is a pretty foreign concept in China. He asked her if she could eat chicken (no), fish (no), egg (yes), and finally asked if she minded if the rest of the group ate meat (of course not). With the last response, all of our hosts breathed a sigh of relief, laughed for a moment, and the meal ordering resumed.

ImageWithin 15 minutes, the huge lazy susan in the middle of the table was filled with dishes: tofu soup, fried chicken, eggplant noodles, fried green herbs, wild mushrooms, sizzling sausage, and sautéed veggie patties. All together, the director had ordered 16 dishes for 9 people. At several points during the meal, our waiter had to come remove plates from the lazy susan, which was already massive to begin with (probably 3 feet in diameter.) The lunch lasted for two hours and was anything but simple, but it was delightful. Many of the dishes were things only served in villages (Bingyu and Xinyang had never heard of several of them even though they’d only lived 40 km away their whole lives.) And close to a third of the dishes were purely vegetarian; if you know Chinese food, you know that this is an uncommon ratio of vegetarian to meat dishes. But our hosts wanted to please us, and graciously ordered several dishes meat-less.


ImageThe fact that I’ve actively sought out and in cases just chanced upon things from home is not at all to say that I haven’t loved the very foreign aspects of my stay. I guess I’ve realized that looking for home is just a natural consequence of being away from it. In two days, we’ll head to Yunnan province in southwestern China. Yunnan borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and also houses a portion of the Himalayas. Ethnic minorities make up over a third of its population. All that I’ve heard and read about Yunnan leads me to believe that it will be the most exotic place I’ve been on this trip. I may have been able to find semblances of home in Beijing, but surrounded by the Himalayas, there will be no doubt that I’m far from Eden Prairie. Then again, I hear there’s plenty of snow and great mashed potatoes…home may not be so far away after all.