May 12- June 1st, 200
Cal Hort to Sichuan & Yunnan Provinces
Notes from Cynthia Wood and Daisy Mah

 

May 14

Hong Kong to Chendu airport that was converted from a military operation. Kevin, the local Sichuan Province guide and Stacy Young who would accompany us throughout our trip, greeted us and welcomed us to China. It was humid as we were sheparded to a nearby Bank of China to convert our dollars and traveler's checks to the Chinese Yuen at a rate of 1 to 8.2. With Mr. Joe at the wheel with herbal teas, we were soon off on the elevated Airport expressway built in 1998 for 12 kilometers to downtown Chengdu. The view out the bus window is rubble, demolition and salvaging in a mad effort to build anew. What remains are the apartment complexes that house masses of residents. Hopefully their efforts will last longer than 20 years, which according to our guides qualifies as very old. The "look" changes as we enter the rebuilt and "luxurious" downtown where the well heeled aspire to live. Still, laundry is drying out on balconies and windowsills. The air is grayish and smoky.

Chengdu has a 3000-year history as a capital city of Sichuan Province with average temperatures between 0-15 C at 500 meters or roughly 1500 feet elevation. Of the approximately 1.3 billion Chinese, 92% are Han, 8% ethnic minorities or 56 recognized groups in China. 36% of the people in Southwest Chinese are considered ethnic minorities. According to Stacy Young, being an ethnic minority has some benefits such as the right to have more than one child and assistance with higher education.

We are excited about being in China and despite our many hours, was it 16 hours spent aboard two flights plus the waits in airport terminal, none of us opt for a break. We instead head out to rural surroundings to Sanxingdui, a new archaeological museum with an impressive collection that include bronze masks with protruding eyes, 13 feet high fanciful bronze trees with ten suns carried on the back of birds, gold, ivory, 80 elephant remains, bronze shells; an early form of coins and jade knives. On the way we see farmhouses, fields of rice, wheat and rapeseed and noted the roadside trees that have suffered from topping and over pruning. Farmers were digging an irrigation line when they discovered pieces of jade first uncovered the archeological site in 1929. Excavation began in 1930s and 40s. Artifacts vary from 4800 to 2800 years old. The Shu Kingdom ruled present day Sichuan from 16th to the 3rd century B.C. They communicated with the spirits, gods and heavenly realms through their worship of mountains and nature. Only 1/4 of the site has been excavated images of dragons that represent the people of China. "The heavenly rooster crows to the sun and is showered with infinite brightness to humankind."

Our first of many fine meals consisted of a variety of dishes of somewhat reminiscent of a diem sum meal that we might get our local Chinese restaurants though decidedly more spicy than the ubiquitous Cantonese-American cooking we have grown accustomed to eating. Following dinner, we were entertained at an outdoor theater that featured Sichuan style opera, dancing, puppetry, hand shadow puppets. Hot tea was poured from yard long-spouted tea kettles. The audience is quite animated and expressing their delight with performances.

After being without rest for 36 hour, we welcome our long-awaited rest at the Yinke Dynasty Hotel up on the 15th floor. Tap water is risky to drink and teeth brushing unless boiled. Hotel rooms are furnished with an electric teakettle that is very efficient and turns off automatically after the water boils. Tea bags are always nearby.

May 15, 2004

Buffet breakfast congee, a rice gruel flavored with condiments, sautéed spinach was a personal favorite and western fare.offered at our four star hotel.

"Jzchow Zoing Howe",or good morning in Mandarin and introduced to Baijie our 1st of 3 botanist. Chengdu, once referred to as the Brocade City, now the "Lotus City" is located at along the Brocade river or Jin Jiang. It was built in 316 BC when the Dujungyan dam and irrigation system was put into place. In the 1980s, the water quality had degraded to a crisis level necessitating severe measures. Home sites were destroyed and residents relocated in order to control pollutants and waste. Much of the pollution was produced by paint, chemical, paper and silk factories. In an effort to provide environmental awareness, the Living Water Garden was created along the banks of the Fu-Nan River. It serves as an urban get-away with people enjoying the 6 acres that include sculptural forms that aerate and filter out toxins, ponds of plants act as living filters, settling ponds, on to ponds with fish. Betsy Damon, an environmental artist from California worked on the project in the 1990s incorporating scultpture, native wildlife and plants. One plant of note was fern "Neotroteris hidus". .Our group attracts much attention, and is shadowed by middle aged man with camera who with his wife were both agreeable subjects.

According to Young, during the Cultural Revolution, the overall look of City was drab with the masses dressed in dark blue, brown or black. Now, without the restrictions on dress, many urbanites prefer western fashion including tight, faded blue jeans and bare midriff tank tops on their wispy frames. Cell phones are common sites at 300 Yuen per month.

A side excursion takes us to a Mosque. Photography was prohibited in the exotic house of worship. Our guide tells us that the raised threshold was an attempt to thwart the rodents; perhaps symbolically it kept out evil spirits.

Next destination: an open-aire market reminiscent of our farmer's market, but Chinese style. It was refreshing to see the colorful produce, meat, beans, herbs, seaweed, noodles, hopefully dogs to become pets and tofu on display. Attempts to photograph people were somewhat successful, particularly with the help of Kevin and Stacy. We got out without being pick-pocketed to Kevin's relief.

Lunch at Xin Hua International House included a lively tofu dish, sautéed amaranth, a savory custard and broth with pork meatballs, and finally the rice appears. Despite never quite understood the sequence, our overly abundant meals were enjoyable to a majority of fellow travelers with Chinese brew and hot tea.

Negotiating the streets of Chengdu by bus is an experience not for the faint hearted. Pedestrians, cyclist without helmets, scooters, buses, cars all somehow manage to coexist. They are accompanied by sounds honks, whistles and ringing bells. On quite a number of occasions, I truly believed we would be involved in a tragic accident. Bike lanes with medium strips separating them from the motorized traffic were developed perhaps 20 years ago. Gingko biloba, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, and Cedrus deodora are used along the new expressways. They seem to be planted to closely,. Could it be a future source of fire wood or lumber? We notc the practice of wrapping tree trunks with rope. It was later explained that it was useful in the transplanting process and perhaps helps reduce effects of sun scalding. It was actually very attractive, but one of the many things I saw that didn't always make sense to an outsider looking into a strange culture. According to one of our guides, Chinese Americans such as myself are referred to as banana,s yellow (Chinese-looking) on the outside, white inside.

Toll roads appear commonplace. This one priced at 70 Yuen or about $9 at 55 Kilometers an hour. Petrol was priced at 3.90 yuen plus tax; around $2 a gallon. Warning signs along road state "Don't Drive when Tired" or "Overspeed Prohibited". Gas stations are colorful and festive: some festooned with colorful flags. An adjacent public "squat toilet" is far from deluxe despite marble floors. We soon realize that we are not quite at home, but take it quite gracefully. We leave the scenes of salvaging and rebuilding brick structures to head to mountainous regions. The dramatic mountainsides with many waterfalls and lost photo "ops" are lushly covered with conifers and a rich understory. Even by bus we try to botanize, Ligularia sp. and Rodgersia comes to mind. It is amazing to hear from botanist Baije that we are not seeing primitive forest, but those that were reforested after the denuding during the Cultural Revolution. Clearly this area is subject to heavy rainfall, though we never were able to get the average yearly rainfall. As the roads become windy and narrow, the bus driver Mr. Joe honks at every blind corner to let oncoming traffic know we got there first and the right of way. Norma Anderson whom I roomed with also shared motion sickness problem. She always sat in the front of the bus, as opposed to the "Gang of 5" who were always relegated to the back where they were free to wisecrack and keep things lively. On some occasions, escort Kristin Yanker Hansen had to subdue them so that the guide would be able to communicate information over the less than great intercom. My notes are nearly illegible due to the bouncy bus and not always able to decipher the data that we were given to us by our Chinese guides. Thankfully Kristin did a wonderful job of interpreting. Who knows what I missed or misinterpreted, even when I wasn't napping or sneaking in another photograph. i.e. Note about Quin Lan Pagoda puzzles me, perhaps it's 200 years and constructed during the Ching dynasty?

We head to the Ah Bah prefecture to Wolong Nature Preserve to help with the survival of the Giant Panda. We are greeted by spunky vendors hawking their wares; sashes, jewelry, herbs, post cards, assorted souvenirs as we trudge into the Panda Inn. Paulonia tomentosa is planted along the road, Kristin was offered a baby girl, but she kindly declined, in her newly resurrected and impressive Mandarin. We spent time after dinner playing with a rented Mah Jong set with lessons compliments of Stacy and Kevin. Our Rosemary Wong who had not played in many years, quickly recalled the nuances of the game with this refresher course. The elderly man who serves us hot tea carries a baby; the children are adored, beautifully dressed, healthy in appearance were definitely photo ops. Generally people with babies were generally agreeable to being photographed. My photo request to adults was oftentimes rejected. Some are shy, others might feel that they are inappropriately attired for the photo session, or perhaps their spirits may be snatched with a click of the camera. There was much to photograph, though the people renewed my interest in photography.

Bu Cutzze = no thank you and heng show teung = you are beautiful. Kevin's name is Houa Shin. Shin's name translates to illustrious. We are allowed to stop the photograph the terraced mountainside. and to our good fortune, we are greeted by a hopitable elderly gentleman who offers us a basket small plums harvested from his trees which some including myself accept with a bit of reservation but we were fine. There is a forlorn looking outhouse,. The mountain air was cool and clean, a lovely stop. To my surprise it wouldn't be possible to mail him his photo; he has no mail service , but our guide Kevin kindly agreed to take on the role as messenger. We stay at the Panda Inn, 3 star.

 

Sunday.May 16, 2004

We visit the Panda Bear Reserve. They are living in a "zoo-like" environment to breed and protect this endangered mammal. Animal keepers feed pandas with arrow bamboo , Basjama famgama and Fargesia robusta which is being hybridized to produce more for the Pandas. We pass by a pond and admire the golden colored fish. The Panda produces two offsprings annually, but discards one. In 1988, the bamboo had flowered, creating a crisis in their survival. We take many group photos including some who paid the 20 dollar to be able to cuddle a 2 year baby Panda as others photographed. The proceeds went a worthy cause. They sure were cute, but with sharp claws. Bryan Jorgensen learns the hard way that the bamboo is there to be grazed by the pandas, not humans.

We head to the Ying Chang Valley and seek out plants along protected area. Budding artists are painting , We walk beside rushing streams and waterfalls, spot Corydalis flexusosa with it's blue flowers and vine Hobellia fargesia (love at first sight), and Arisaema sp. The Shi Crow river runs into Min Jow River. Along the road we follow the path of the river accompanied by the oohs, ahs and wows! of fellow traveler Norman Nagao. We were in awe of this wild, rugged scenery with spottings of Rhododendrons, some 30 species grow in this area. Terracing was utilized to produce cabbages, corn, greens, bamboo to feed the giant panda, trees are often cultivated right up to the edge of the road. The small homes built of stone and dark tiled roofs nestle up against the mountainsides. It took my breath away and my attempt to shoot in the bus was mostly futile with the exception of the super duper Ilford film rated at ASA 3600.

The group led by Wes Conner from the Strybing Arboretum are there at lunch. They were seated in the private room that we had grown accustomed to. He is very friendly and comfortable with his role.

We are surrounded in so much beauty that I wanted to capture with the aid of my Olympus OM1. Though risky to park the bus along these narrow roads rarely with much of a shoulder, but yes, we are allowed to stop at one of the temples with the dark gray roof tiles with the upturned roofline. We hit the lottery with this photo op. Peacocks crafted in metal adorned the roof line, Tibetan prayer flags were flapping in the breeze. The lighting was studio-like. An impressive dragon sculpted into a wall that protected the temple and followed the contour of the hillside captivated me. Chickens were scratching in this very sacred and spiritual place. Climbing up the spacious rock steps led to a close up of a sculpture of a male dressed in a robe at one end with a container of used incense. We couldn't resist the temptation of peeking through the crack in the back doorway where we spotted the glow of incense burning away in a dark space, dispelling any notion that this was an abandoned temple. It was truly a spiritual and magical experience with some photos that captured the moment. The decorations indicate that this temple is an unusual mixture of Tibetan Buddhist and Toaist religions. Sheh Sheh = thank you.

The bus heads to the Four Ladies (Girls) Mountain and stop at a small settlement to purchase bottled oxygen. We will be up to 4,523 meters at the Balang Pass or 17,000 feet! The vegetation becomes more sparse. One of the highlights was sightings of large yellow Meconopsis sp. One of the stops just prior to Rilong Town was our first Stupa, tapered monument done in white , had a small window that protected a statue of Buddah and was often times decorated with the Prayer flags.

The ride is making me sick to my stomach and quite relieved when we reach Rilong Town and registered at the Jinye Hotel or four mountains Hotel, 3 stars. It was quite chilly here and some never were able to take their hot showers. We experience a taste of the art of bargaining. Soon we allow the kinetic Ethan DeMara to act on our behalf who charmed the socks off the vendors.

Monday, May 17, 2004

We explore the Suangqioa Gully and Changping Gully, and spot Yaks along the roadside. In the Sung Chow Valley or 2 Bridges valley, we walk on boardwalk known for specimens of Hippophae sp. which is harvested for its fruit is eaten fresh and used in a beverage. We are in the highland region inhabited by the Tibetans and Chung minority. Our lovely guide with rosy is outfitted in Tibetan dress meets us in our environmentally friendly, but smaller bus. She sings along with the music, very lyrical and sweet. Botanist, Mr Chan explains to us that the Japanese are fueling an industry of harvesting of a particular wild mushrooms that is a reputed treatment for cancer. The local government has established the preservation areas.

We stop to photograph scenery and notice vendors at the roadside that included a woman grilling potatoes and yak on skewers, quite tasty and spicy. A gray-haired woman in Tibetan dress is spinning and offers weaver Barbara Woodward an opportunity to spin and allowed me to photograph her with Dana Richson. Yaks are seen grazing along mountainsides. We are fairly close to Tibet Province.

The four major groups are Ani, Kunbba, Jaw Long, and Andow. The Jaw Long Tibetans are closely related to the Han majority. In the 6-7th Century,King Tang Bu married off his daughter to the Han. The 5 colors mountain, farmers are encouraged to plant grass, trees rather than traditional crops. We find Podophyllum emodii, Ligularia achyrotricha, Mayapple, Paeonia veitchii, Cimicfuga, Çalta and Betu

Roadworkers live with high risk. Some are spotted squatting along the road scooping up their rice with chopsticks. They scatter to avoid their demise as vehicles drive dangerously near. We see painted boulders with Tibetan writing near the white stupas or pagodas which are symbolic of Buddha. Behind a small window is a small statue of Buddha. Rocks piled against the base for good luck and some of roodside railings are hand painted. Rocks are used to weight down roof of rock structures. Rhodies are mixed with Larix, clematis, Daphne retusa and ferns.

Guides lead us to a particularly stunning spot to view and photograph mountains, but upon our arrival the area is swarming with activity and static. The crews are apparently filming a Pepsi commercial were spoiling the quiet and tranquility. There are reputed to inhabit the snow. It is lightly snowing .At dinner, Ethan steals the show dressed from head to toe in a Tibetan robe and trousers of brocade and edged in fur.

 

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

"Zye Jea" good bye. We leave in the rain, but soon is snowing as the bus winds its way down the mountains. Dick Hansen begins to pace and fret, about the lovely, but treacherous conditions. Botanist's name Bai means white and Je is clean. We are at 4,500 meters at the Bolong Pass. We stop to check on breaks and photographers are out the bus to photograph the snowy white scenery. We pass by mountainside glimpses of Cornus sinensis, bamboo, and ferns. A lone youthful cyclist is spotted, a rare siting due to rough roads. Roadworker are wheelbarrowing rock and concrete. A man scoops up his rice with chopsticks. Bamboo is grown as a crop to supply forage for the giant panda bear. Ligularia thrives in lush, heavily wooded, moist mountainsides with waterfalls. Our road snakes alongside rushing waters. Bus driver honks around bend. Cabbage is interplanted with Gingko biloba and corn. Cars appear inches away.

Engineer Bryan Jorgensen explains dam building as he is fond of the history and science behind them. Head x flow = generated power. The expected life of Hoover Dam is 2000 years. He points out sand harvesting. The Grand Cooley dam was naturally created. Refrigerated pipes are used to offset the heat generated by curing concrete. Six thousand workers are estimated to build the 3 gorges dam.

We are heading to the 2,300 year old irrigation project engineered by Li Bing in Lidui Park, Dujiangyan. He diverted waters of the mighty Min He and funneled them into irrigation canals, harvest the sands and cut through a mountain with water diverted to irrigation canals. I am surprised and delighted wit the many temples that were built to celebrate this ambitious project and honor engineer Li Bing. Crossing the suspension bridge was rocky, swinging from the other westerner's horseplay. Roomy Norma Anderson barely enjoyed her ice cream cone and takes a spill which proceeded to open her recent knee operation. Stacy, Kristin and Norma pile into the ambulance. Meanwhile the rest of the group follows Kevin to the botanical garden. The layout is formal with potted specimens of Gingco biloba in ornate and huge containers and water features. Bedding plants are actually planted in pots set on hard surfaces rather than grown in soil We stay at the Jingye Hotel or was it Guoyan Hotel? Norma returns in wheelchair in time for dinner.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

We re-visit the Botanical Garden, entrance fee of 60 Yuen again, which is one of Unesco's designated World Heritage sites. People are enjoying the bonsai, dramatic angular rock pillar-like formations, groves of trees, ponds and tea pavilions, masonry walls with cut out windows, tiled walks and more.

Later we visit a tea shop, learn a little bit about tea made from Camellia sinensis and enjoy tea tasting and offered tea for sale. Their showroom has a nice selection of teapots in the unglazed clays in dark colors. Many are done with great artistry and imagination.

The air is thick with smog as we take flight on Air China to Kunming, Yunnan.