Browsing Tag


Asia, Destinations

Yin and Yang

November 23, 2014 • By

Last summer, I read an article in Traveler Magazine about a writer’s journey to Shangri-La in search of answers to his grandfather’s past.  The author took me on a spiritual trip through the Yunnan Province and to a rural part of Southwest China I realized I must visit.

By plane, I traveled 3 1/2 hours from Shanghai to Dali mostly over rolling foothills and peaks and valleys.  Two hours prior to landing a flight attendant came around and motioned for me to turn off my computer.  Puzzled, I thought I misjudged the flight time.  About 45 minutes later and no sign of a descent, I made my way to the bathroom only to be shooed away like a naughty child.  When I returned to my seat, I asked the aisle passenger if he spoke English and questioned whether I was missing something.  He replied, “It’s China Man! Sometimes they care and sometimes they don’t.”  So much for that I guess.

One of the Gates of the Ancient City – Dali

One of the Gates of the Ancient City – Dali

Upon my arrival in Dali, my cab driver, who spoke only Mandarin, drove me through New Dali, a sprawling town with modern apartments and office space beckoning for residents. I guessed by the amount of refineries and excavating I noticed while flying here that this is an area rich in natural resources.  Indeed, I am correct.  Yunnan ranks first in the country in deposits of zinc, lead, tin and cadmium, to name a few.

My cabbie drove me through New Dali (I had no idea there was a difference) and around a beautiful lake until we stopped abruptly on a street corner and I seriously considered crying.  In this area, no one speaks English, the signs are only in Mandarin and my Verizon cell phone registered no service.   I sat patiently pondering my next move until another man settled in the driver seat and my cabbie pointed to himself and said, “me New Dali, he Old Dali” and off we drove destined for Old Dali.

After another 30-minute drive, we turned off a major rode and into some sort of land time forgot but Chinese tourists found.  My cabbie dropped me in front of my hotel (picture the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie if you have seen it), I gathered my belongings and then weaved through 200 loudly speaking and pushy, smoking tourists into an open-air lobby and again I wanted to cry.  By this time, my inability to communicate left me in silence and my stomach put me on notice.  I checked in, threw my crap in my room, tested out the bed (softer than Shanghai but by no means comfortable), grabbed a coat and ventured out to figure out exactly where I landed.

To my shock, this town was bustling with natives and thousands of tourists.  It was dusk and the streets seemed to be coming alive. Dali is an ancient walled city occupied by the Bai people.  It’s closed to cars and there are four main gates adorned with lights, paintings and true Chinese architecture, which I genuinely enjoyed having not seen much of anything authentic in Shanghai.  Each street proclaimed its own identity.  I took to nicknaming them for sake of retracing my route as dusk turned to night:  Foreigners row (true name), Karaoke Row (50 bars with entertainment for all), Pig and Rooster Alley, Western Way, Souvenir Street, and so much more.  I meandered for a few hours somewhat curious about the culture a mark contrast from Shanghai.  Locals were dressed in white with colorful hats and scarves, the food to the naked Western eye not recognizable, the physical features of the locals distinct.  The Bai people, one of 26 ethnic groups in the region, are Chinese but darker (brown) and probably closer in appearance to the Thai or Vietnamese people of today.  It makes sense because the Yunnan Province borders Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar(Burma).

After I snapped enough pictures for the night and admitted a scarf purchase excessive, my energy turned to eating.  Afraid of the cheese, I dismissed the three pizza places on foreigner row and by this time a slight panic ensued.  The restaurants either lacked pictures or the menus were written in Mandarin or I deemed them not sanitary.  I walked up and down the same streets several times before deciding the granola bar in my room would have to do.  As I turned the corner to the street of my hotel, I recognized a supermarket and for some reason thought it would be a good idea to enter.  This adventure proved to me the highlight of my night.  The smell outrageous, the food absolutely disgusting and the people of all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors ruthless.  After a few loops (it took me some time to decipher the labels), I accepted my fate to go to bed hungry and I bought a banana for the morning.

As I may have mentioned, the beds suck.  The pillow concoction I managed to put together in Shanghai did not work so I woke up early and restless and started emailing my mother sad pictures of me.  The lines on my face a sign of several sleepless nights and probably lack of food and water.  After I reconnected with friends on Whatsapp and started feeling even more hopeless, I watched the sunrise over the mountains, pulled myself together and readied for the day.  Today,  I would need coffee and I would find it now armed with daylight and ambition.  I Yahoo’d (so not the same as Google’d which is blocked here along with every site I use daily) a Western restaurant named Sweet Tooth.  My hotel did provide a Chinese breakfast and a Western breakfast but seeing that I was the only Westerner they provided me cereal in a restaurant by myself.  No thanks! How depressing?

I arrived at Sweet Tooth ahead of schedule and waited outside for the doors to open at 8:30 AM (like pacing on the sidewalk).  The sky indicated it would be a beautiful day and my optimism slowly returned.  Sweet Tooth had my name written all over it.  Who likes sweets better than me?   To my delight, the display contained cookies, and cakes and the menu listed items in both Mandarin and English.  I pointed out the granola with yogurt and the Irish coffee.  I then loaded my Chinese app and continued saying “skim milk” in Mandarin to the best of my ability.  As I sometimes can get carried away, I persisted with the skim milk even at one stage going behind the counter to show the man the word on my app.  He waved me off again and again and then suddenly I turned around and as if a ton of bricks fell on my held I caught the sign by the register.  “The workers at Sweet Tooth are supplied by the local deaf community.”  I mean really????  I already have enough trouble communicating.  Regardless, he brewed one wicked latte and I scarfed down that granola like I had not eaten in days.

To be continued…

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Asia, Destinations

The last from Shanghai

November 22, 2014 • By

Since I don’t want to keep anyone in suspense, my Shanghai friend failed to ask me to marry him but I found him to be intelligent, charming, handsome and a product of the Big 10. What’s not to like? It’s most unfortunate I discovered he is a Wolverine and not a Spartan but since my team is better than his, I was thrilled I could air my grievances about that other school in Michigan and its self-proclaimed superiority. I even donned my very uncomfortable hanky panky underwear (seamless) to feel more desirable but after the coconut drink served in an actual coconut slipped out of my hand and spilled all over the bar there was no bringing sexy back.

View of the entire city from Jin Mao Observatory

View of the entire city from Jin Mao Observatory

With that being said, I surrendered my shy girl routine and dived into my journalistic instincts to get the story and grilled my new friend on life in Shanghai.  He arrived in 2003 with two duffle bags of clothes and is quite impressively fluent in Mandarin – a skill he admits required a great deal of patience and commitment to learning. Most of his friends come from all over the world including the U.S., Australia, Brazil and Japan and the social life of others like him centers on work and eating and drinking. It’s representative of every other big city in this world. If you work hard, play hard or maybe that’s just my motto. Culturally, he said it’s very difficult to friend locals and in particular men because of a lack of common interests. He also indicated dating Chinese women proves challenging. I guess there is hope for the rest of us.

According to my Shanghai friend, the Shanghainese are considered middle to upper class by most standards and there is no shortage of people with money.   I witnessed first hand the hustle and bustle of a workday with people moving in all different directions. Locals walk, bicycle, train and drive to work in cars and on motor scooters, they dine out, purchase luxury items and live in apartments that meet corporate skyscrapers eye to eye. I’m fascinated by my new friend’s stories but suspect he will return to the U.S. one day.

My feet suffering from excessive walking yesterday, I decided to act like a local and give the subway system a try. I conquered this with ease thanks to clearly labeled colored lines and English translated stops. My train rides provided me with a rare moment of people watching. It quickly occurred to me that while many of the passengers dressed appropriate they were not wearing Prada, Gucci and Chanel. In fact, the bulk of people in transit need to call Anna Wintour. I couldn’t decide whether Ann Taylor and Nike merged or if New Kids on the Block had an affair with Hello Kitty.   And the shoes…Women wear a black clunky, high heeled monstrosity ankle boot or calf boot that doesn’t even coordinate with their outfit. Perhaps I have lived in New York too long, but these “shoes” cannot be comfortable or fashionable. Picture bulky, bulletproof military boots with suede and buckles-all black. It doesn’t seem likely that the wealthy people are riding the train but they are flying by plane. My flight to Dali (Friday) holds 150 passengers and I counted no less than 80 Prada and Chanel bags boarding. By contrast, I’m carrying a Stella McCartney gym back and wearing a Lululemon capri pant and Gap t-shirt. Take that Shanghai.

Many Chinese people invest in real estate as a means to diversify their wealth.   At this time, however, there is an over supply of available condos yet the excessive building continues. In Shanghai proper, the largest industries include agriculture, finance, tourism and entertainment, technology, public utilities and of course manufacturing. The city like the country struggles with finding a balance between economic growth and protecting the environment. Residents use an app to determine the pollution levels for the day. I noticed a few folks wearing masks and a slight smog rolled across the city round 8:30 am but overall I found the skies mostly clear and the weather delightful – upper 60s during the day and low 50s at night.

While Shanghai is bold, vibrant and enjoying an economic boom, hidden amongst the skyscrapers and shopping fairways, I discovered square blocks of slums. They resemble spruced-up shanties and it’s my assumption, the home of Shanghai’s laboring class. Further evidence of the tale of two cities that exists all over the world. I contemplate that for a moment and flashback to my train ride where everyone young and old carried the latest version of the IPhone 6, IPad or Samsung Galaxy. This is a different China, a scene of immense opportunity backed by a rich and long history. I succumbed to the belief that my biases are not always correct and the part of travel I enjoy most is reading between the lines.

I’m traveling to the Yunnan Peninsula later today. This princess is hopeful the next hotel will have a bed worthy of my musculature so I can rest my weary head and get some decent shut-eye. The picture below is an engineering feat of pillows and duvet covers in an attempt to create a softer more bearable bed.

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