I never tire of walking the streets of the little villages that dot China's countryside. Around every corner is an opportunity to capture a moment and learn about a simple way of life that no longer exists in the United States. Some sights I enjoy no matter how I often I see them: wooden doorways with lion knockers; streams filled with people cleaning vegetables or clothing; homes built from mud and brick, decorated with red lanterns; basket weavers, wood carvers, jewelry makers and food sellers; laughing children; resting elderly. Many of the local people sit on stools outside their shops or homes and watch life pass by. This is an activity that is lost on Americans. Sitting and observing. No phones or other electronic distractions. I'm not convinced I would be able to do that. I fall prey to the beckoning of my phone. But being in these villages reminds me that I should try.
Shangrao in Jiangxi Province is one of those villages that will soon to be no more...at least in terms of what it looks like today. The people there are still living as they have for hundreds of years. We see ancient buildings and rice terraces. We see the local farmers walking with poles on their shoulders, hauling their crops in baskets that hang from either side. Dishes are washed in the stream that runs through the town. Streets are swept with brooms, made by hand, using straw. Chickens run freely. The local pastime is sitting on stools and chatting. The fields are green and lush. There is no noise pollution since there are no cars in Shangrao.
Yet there are signs of change. Some buildings are being refurbished. The gardens near the entrance to the village are landscaped as a welcome sign to future visitors. Plans for rebuilding and restoring are tacked to the wall of one of the pagodas. The local government will soon be restoring Shangrao. The local people have mixed feelings. They do not want to be overrun by tourists and yet, tourists mean a stream of income. Farming is hard work. If they just have to farm in order to keep neat fields, regardless of crop yield, for the purpose of luring tourists, that might be just fine.
This does not mean that Shangyao will be remarkably different in ten years. This depends on what is done to improve the town for tourists. The biggest difference will be the locals' indifference to foreign visitors. Now they are surprised, excited, shy and in awe of westerners. Soon they might be hiding inside their homes so as to avoid us. Although this would be a shame, it is progress and there is no stopping it. This is what happens in all nations as they industrialize and modernize.
There are still plenty of "Shangraos" in China. You just need to know where to look. Join me in my search.
Chinese tea experts laugh about the green tea we get in the U.S. They say that our tea bags contain the scraps and refuse swept off the floor in the tea packaging plants. I'm not so sure about that, but I know that the Grade A and B teas that I taste at Longjing Tea Farm in Hangzhou are the most delicious green teas that I have ever tasted.
Whenever I visit Hangzhou with travelers, we take an hour or two to spend at the tea farm, learning about the picking, drying and packaging process. More importantly, the local people educate us on the health benefits of green tea. Of course, we westerners understand that green tea is good for us, but for many Chinese, green tea really is the "apple a day."
The water in China is not potable. Not even the local people drink it. They are not all buying bottled water; they are boiling their water. Since green tea is good for their health, many Chinese people can be seen toting around a bottle or thermos of green tea, oftentimes lukewarm. This is their "Camelback," but it's filled with tea, not water.
Most people who are not slaves to an academic calendar agree that traveling in the heat of summer sucks. But there are some benefits. In gardens across China, the flowers are magnificent. The colors this time of year are not visible in the cooler months of spring or fall. Is it worth it? Yes.
On West Lake in Hangzhou, we get a rare glimpse at the opened lotus flower. I could sit and photograph the lotus for hours. This seems like hyperbole, but anyone who enjoys photography will understand the truth to that statement. Hangzhou also offers beautiful sunshine, West Lake and breezy boat rides in the summer months.
Regardless of the time of year, Hangzhou is peaceful and serene. It has been frequented as a source of inspiration by poets, musicians and artists for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Join me on a trip to China. If your schedule allows you to travel in the fall and spring, most agree that the weather is best then. However, time of year is not a factor for me. I go for the beauty, the people and the perspective...this is not season-dependent. If you join me in the summer, it will be worth every bead of sweat! I promise.
One of the impromptu stops we made on a student trip to China in 2014 was a garlic farm. As we were driving along in Yunnan Province near Dali, I spotted a group of farmers and, as I often do, asked our driver to stop.
I urged all of the students to disembark and learn about digging garlic bulbs. The farmers were quite surprised that we were interested in learning and helping, but soon got over their wariness and welcomed our assistance.
We were not there long, but as always, my take-away was about the people more than the experience (although digging garlic bulbs was cool). As I sat with my camera, shooting photos of the students and the farmers, I listened to their conversations and their laughter. I felt the warm friendliness of this community and was, once again, reminded of how lovely life would be if it were just a bit simpler.
Spontaneous stops to meet local community members is not unique to one or two trips. I try to be spontaneous on all trips. Sometimes this is frustrating for travelers because it means I cannot give an exact overview of our day's itinerary. However, I think everyone with whom I've traveled agrees that this is what makes the trips different, memorable, inspiring and impactful. We all need that in our lives. Join me.
Last week I wrote about Taishan, the eastern mountain of the Five Sacred Mountains. I have also spent some time on Songshan (Mount Song), the central of those mountains. Songshan is on the grounds of the Shaolin Temple and monastery. As such, I think I have walked the beautiful pathway around the side of Songshan four or five times.
Unlike Taishan which has well paved stairs to the summit, Songshan's path is a little bit treacherous. I opt for the cable car and then a long hike along the cliffside. There are actually two cable cars. The one that gives the best views and provides the cliffside walk is the Sanhuangzhai cable car. I have never made it farther than about 30 minutes walk out and 30 minutes back. However, I understand if you have some time, you can walk about 1.5 hours to a suspension bridge, across the bridge and walk another 30 minutes to Sanhuangzhi monastery (which you view from afar as you walk along the cliffside) and then after the monastery, about 30 minutes down to an exit. That is my plan for the next trip to Song Mountain, in 2020.
Before ascending the approximately 7,200 stairs to the summit of Mount Tai
After our long climb, we look exhausted as well as exhilarated!
A few years back, I led a group of 27 Americans, ranging in age from 12 to 82 on a trip to China's sacred mountains. One of those mountains is Taishan (Mount Tai) in the small city of Tai'an in Shandong Province. Taishan is known as the eastern mountain of the Five Sacred Mountains in China.
Religious worship at Taishan goes back thousands of years. It is a sacred Taoist mountain that was visited by emperors who came to pray for, and make sacrifices for, a good harvest. Like Hangzhou and Suzhou, Taishan is a place where poets, writers, artists and musicians come for inspiration.
Although there is a cable car to take visitors up to, and down from, the summit, pilgrims and strong travelers make the hike up the 7,200 stairs. Most of our group took the stairs. I was constantly humbled as elderly pilgrims and men carrying dozens of bottles of beer passed me.
We spent the night on the mountain which was a very cool experience. We woke for sunrise. Regardless of the weather, the sunrise is pretty spectacular on Taishan because the summit is above the cloud line. Even if the sun is invisible, the clouds below are magnificent.
As I scrolled through my photos from my trip to Guizhou Province in 2015, I remembered the beauty of the land and the people who live there. Returning soon is a necessity. Guizhou still has villages undiscovered by tourism, and untouched by the government.
In April, the people in one of the villages we visited were beginning to plant the rice crop. Due to the subtropical climate in this part of the country, farmers can get two harvests between April and October.
Our visit was a good introduction to the changing family structure in these rural villages. Looking through the photos, we see the older generation of grandparents farming and taking care of the grandchildren. The middle generation of parents is off to the city to work for higher wages. They hope to find permanent jobs and residency in the city so that they can move their families off the farm. They leave their children in their home villages to be cared for by grandparents, sometimes only seeing their parents and children once or twice per year.
I suppose some might criticize the parents for leaving their children, ethnocentrism and privilege forcing judgement upon others. But when I see the children running around in the sunshine, laughing and playing, and, as they get older, working in the fields rather than inside with a phone or video game, I am pretty sure that this early childhood is worth the trade off.
The Labrang Monastery, located in Xiahe, Gansu Province (northwest China), is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and the greatest number of Tibetan monks, outside of Tibet. The monastery was founded in the early 1700's.
A pilgrimage to this monastery is important to Tibetans all over the region. During prayer times, as the monks run to the main temple, chanting, dozens of pilgrims arrive to pray outside the temple. They also walk the pilgrimage circuit around the monastery, some doing prostrations, rather than, or in addition to, walking. Prostrations are a way to show reverence for the Triple Gem: the Buddha, his teachings and the community. These prostrations include kneeling with palms together and then placed on the ground (almost like child's pose in yoga).
The video and pictures in this post show the beautiful purple-red robes of the monks and their yellow hats. This sect of Tibetan Buddhism is actually called the Yellow Hat. The video above shows the monks gathering prior to prayer time. This is an inspiring and spiritual experience for monks, pilgrims and visitors alike.
Xiahe is not easy to get to and as such, is not overrun with tourists. Join me on a Chow Fun trip...whether or not one of our destinations is Xiahe, we always travel off the beaten path.
The above video is one I took last year from my hotel room in Xiahe. This could be any neighborhood park or square in China. Every morning, in virtually every park, there is a plethora of activity: dancing, Tai'chi, badminton, ping pong, walking, running and jianzi (Chinese hackey sack). Sometimes the activities are done as a group. In that case, there is a leader who brings the music or calls out the movements. The uniformity of the movement is mesmerizing and fascinating. It feels as if one must know the full order of the movements, but the participants are eager for new recruits and happy to introduce us to their activity.
Join me on my next trip and do some line dancing with me!
I have traveled all over the world, including adventures in China, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, England, Denmark, Russia, Costa Rica, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Dominican Republic, Canada and Mexico. My greatest love is introducing Americans to the sites, traditions and people of China. My hope is to give travelers a new lens through which to see the world.