Farewell China Tour (Day 8)

Yamdrok Yutso Lake
Whew! What a relief to wake up feeling relatively normal. We still couldn’t believe the dramatic effect of the altitude on our bodies.

Chum Zhun picked us up after breakfast, and Feng Shifu drove us out of town. Puffy white clouds floated in a sapphire sky, bluer than I’d ever seen in China. Our van climbed twisty roads in the barren brown mountains. Yaks and sheep wandered the vast hillsides, searching for clumps of vegetation. Farmers in brightly colored dress worked in the fields. Villages zipped by. Homes were made of mud brick and stone with many pots of blooming flowers and ornately painted woodwork around the doorframes and windows, contrasting with the drab backdrop.

The Tibetan word for yak translates to “treasure” reflecting the animal’s value to farmers and nomads. Yaks help with all the manual labor in the fields, and Tibetans use every part of the yak after it’s slaughtered. They get wool and leather from the skins, make traditional medicine out of the hooves, and eat everything else. Chum Zhun told us that her mother lives in a small village, where she owns a yak. One year, wolves killed the family’s yak, and they were forced to depend on neighbors to help with the farming until they could save enough to buy another one. A single yak can cost more than $500, a fortune to tribal farmers.

Our van pulled in to a parking area overlooking Yamdrok Yutso Lake. Cath and I climbed up a path in our quest to reach 5,000 meters, but Chum Zhun chased after us to say we had wandered on to a military road. Not a good idea in this region of unrest.

Nestled in the monochrome mountains, the turquoise lake appeared luminous. Low-lying fluffy clouds drifted by, revealing snow-capped mountains in the distance. Prayer flags fluttered from every structure as people sought the highest possible point to release their prayers. The flags, pre-printed with Tibetan prayers, come on a string in five auspicious colors: blue, white, red, green and yellow. Chum Zhun tied up a string of flags to pray for her niece, who was taking the elementary school final exams today.

We drove a little further to a more isolated spot overlooking the lake and enjoyed a picnic lunch on the steps of a Tibetan home. Unable to eat everything the tour company had packed, Cath and I gave our extra food to the family’s little boy, who ran in to the house, calling to his mother and referring to us with the Tibetan word for “older sister.” Two massive mastiff dogs, wearing collars of shaggy sheep’s wool dyed red, stood guard and watched us eat. They happily gulped down our chicken bones.

A yakherd stood nearby with his yak decked out in colorful gear, so we gave him a little money to pose with us for a photo. We both got a bit more than we bargained for when he copped a feel. Tibetans don’t have much junk in their trunk, so you can’t blame a guy for checking out a couple of western booties when he gets the chance.

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Yumbulagang Palace
Following our intimate encounter with the yakherd, we drove a few more hours to the town of Tsetang, checked in to a hotel, and took off to visit Yumbulagang, the first palace in Tibetan history. The palace is located in Lhoka Province, which is considered the cradle of Tibetan civilization. During our brief stay in this province, we saw Tibet’s first palace, first temple and first monastery.

We had the option to ride a horse, yak or camel (?!) to the mountaintop palace, but we opted to walk. We purchased prayer flags from a villager at the base of the hill. Cath had performed a rain dance a few times, which Chum Zhun found hilarious, so we were not surprised when rain began to fall during our ascent. The thirsty crops glistened in the sunshine that filtered through the rainclouds.

After visiting the palace (first constructed in the second century BC), we bought strings that had been blessed by the palace monks. Chum Zhun told us to wear the strings around our necks for three days to get the full benefit of the blessings. As Cath was digging in her bag for a donation, she held our prayer flags between her legs. The monk laughed and said something to our guide, who gently reminded Cath that the flags were holy and maybe that wasn’t a very dignified place to put them. The monk smiled at our apologetic self-conscious giggles.

At a stone fire pit, an old lady showed Cath how to make an offering: toss a bundle of herbs (sage, I think) onto the fire, then throw in a handful of barley, and finally sprinkle a little water on top. We turned the big metal prayer wheels and climbed higher up the mountain in the blustery rain to hang our prayer flags. Chum Zhun, Cath and I tied all our flags together to make one long string of 15 flags. As Cath secured one end at the top of the hill, Chum Zhun told us to take a moment to say our prayers (and she urged us not to limit our prayers to just one wish). Unlike birthday wishes, it’s customary to share your prayers with each other, so we all did just that. I had said prayers for more rain to end the drought, Tibetan independence, and safe and happy transitions for all my friends who are moving this year.

(I felt a lot of pressure! In retrospect, I would have liked to spend more time up there to cover all my bases. However, the wind was getting pretty scary.)

Then Chum Zhun took the other end of our string, climbed down the hill and up the other side to pull the flags across the chasm. As soon as she tied the flags, a strong gust of wind lifted them up high, and we couldn’t help but feel our prayers being released into the heavens. It was a powerful experience.

As we walked back down the hill, we greeted people in Tibetan: Tashi dele! They loved it, often stopping to smile, putting their hands together in a prayer and bowing to us. Many laughed in surprise to hear us experimenting with their language, but they always replied with a joyful “tashi dele” of their own.

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Tradruk Temple
Our next stop was nearby – the first temple in Tibetan history. The wife of Tibet’s 33rd king apparently told him that the country was shaped like a female monster, and he needed to build temples all over the land to “pin down” the ogress. Among the 12 temples he built, Jokhang Temple (back in Lhasa) was constructed on the monster’s heart, and this one in Tsetang was built on its left arm.

The temple was under renovation during our visit, so several sections were torn up or covered with scaffolding. As we arrived, the workers were leaving, so they all filed by with friendly waves and smiles, yelling out, “hello!” or “tashi dele!” Beautifully painted Tibetan furniture – the kind we paid lots of money for in Shanghai – sat in the courtyard, exposed to the elements. A big attraction at this temple is the Compassion Buddha thangka made out of about 30,000 pearls, so we filed up some stairs to see it. Very impressive.

From Tradruk Temple
From Tradruk Temple

Tibetan Funerary Customs
On our way to Tsedang, we pulled over to the side of the road to take photos of prayer flags hung on a tree beside the Brahmaputra River. As we stood at the peaceful spot, we had a confusing conversation with Chum Zhun. Although she spoke excellent English, we sometimes had to decipher her accent or unusual word choice. We thought we were encountering the language barrier when she looked around and pointed to the remains of a campfire. “There was a body here,” she said.
Me, assuming she meant someone had just left: “You mean, somebody was here?”
Chum Zhun: “No, there was a body here.”
Cath, thinking she must have heard wrong: “There was a party here?”
Chum Zhun: “No, a body. There was a water funeral here.”

Whoa, Nelly! A body? A water funeral? And thus began our gruesome (by Western standards) introduction to Tibetan customs regarding the disposal of a dead person. If Patricia Cornwell novels or episodes of CSI make you nauseous, you may want to skip the rest of this post.

Chum Zhun detailed the five most common methods for disposing of the dead. This used to be based on the status of the deceased, but now Tibetans do whatever is the most convenient or desired, she said.
(1) Stupa – These above-ground fancy-schmancy tombs are reserved for kings or dalai lamas.
(2) Cremation
(3) Burial
And here’s where it gets interesting. The last two options start with the same procedure. This information is quoted from the a website that confirmed what Chum Zhun told us:

A complete set of funeral procedures should start while the person’s life still lingers. The family members would feed the dying person with a tablet made of rare Tibetan herbs mixed with burnt ashes of the drapery, hair and nails of Living Buddhas, which is said to be able to help the dying person cut off some intrinsic qi, i.e. the human appetites, and let the soul leave peacefully. Meanwhile Lamas would be commissioned to chant scripture, so as to help the dying person to get rid of anguish and fear at the last moments. Notably the ladies and children generally are not allowed to approach the dying person, because it is said that will disturb his mood and influence his smooth transmigration.
As soon as the person dies, a piece of white cloth will be used to cover his face, and nobody is allowed to touch or move the dead body from then on. At the same time, Lamas will be commissioned to hold a ceremony called Paowa, that is said to help the soul’s exodus from the skull and rise to heaven, instead of expelling it from the asshole and falling to hell.
During the funeral preparation period, a pottery jar will be hung on the doorway of the dead person’s home as a sign of mourning. Meanwhile some cypress branches will be burned in the jar, adding in some tsamba, cattle or sheep’s blood, meat and fat, as well as the milk, cheese and butterfat, a way of serving meals to the dead. Throughout this period, all friends, relatives and neighbors shall not sing, dance or make any fun. Cats, dogs, and other livestock are to be strictly kept away from the dead body.
Wizards are also commissioned to divine and select appropriate time of the funeral, which is usually at 4 or 5 o’clock in the early morning on the fourth or fifth day after the time of death. The body is bent into a shape like a fetus in pregnancy, with his arms and legs being bound together. The body, covered with a white tweed, will be carried on back of a family member, and moved towards the funeral yard for a certain distance, and then be handed over to a professional body carrier, but by no means will it be placed on the earth on the way, or else the soul of the dead will wander about there.

After all that takes place, a professional body carrier takes the body to the riverside for a Water Funeral or a mountaintop for a Sky Funeral.

(4) Water Funeral – The body is carried to the banks of the river, where it is ritually chopped into pieces and tossed in the water. “I am looking at the current, and it seems that body parts would wash ashore,” Cath said. But Chum Zhun assured us that men are hired to stand along the water’s edge with long poles to push any wayward chunks back out into the river. When we expressed concern about swimmers potentially encountering a finger or face, Chum Zhun pointed out that fish rapidly consume the body parts.
(5) Sky (or Celestial) Funeral – The body is carried high up the mountain to a sacred platform near a temple (only a few locations have been sanctioned for sky funerals). An appointed sky funeral wizard removes the body’s organs and cuts all the flesh from the bones. Then he crushes the bones into a powder and mixes it with barley to make balls. Vultures then enjoy a feast of bone-and-barley balls, followed by flesh, and lastly, the organs. Any bits that escape the vultures must be burned.

Tibetans carefully screen their funeral officials because a sloppy funeral could prevent the spirit from moving on, Chum Zhun said. The procedures – especially for the complicated water and sky funerals – must be followed meticulously.

She said Tibetans grieve privately because public tears rain on the path of the deceased’s soul. They believe that a person’s soul is released from the body when you die, so the shell that remains is nothing special and should be used to make a final religious offering. By feeding a loved one to the fish or the vultures, you complete the circle of life and honor Buddha.

From Water Funeral

Prayer Wheels
We saw lots of prayer wheels during our stay in Tibet – from tiny ones on a keychain to gargantuan ones that took all our strength to turn. Check out this website to learn more about them.

From prayer wheels

Farewell China Tour (Day 7)

Feelin’ the Altitude
When we woke up on our first full day in Tibet, Cath and I both had red swollen eyeballs – not puffy eyelids like after a crying jag, but literally swollen eyballs. I was actually afraid that my eyes might explode. We also had killer headaches, the kind I used to get after university kegger parties only without the fleeting fun of getting drunk. These were altitude headaches. Before this trip, I assumed altitude sickness was an ailment contrived by whiny baby travelers who didn’t have my level of energy and fortitude. But we did everything right: drank lots of water, didn’t exert ourselves too much, went to bed early, and still we both felt like the walking dead.

Our room’s “mini-bar” featured a funny collection of items. Although tempted, we didn’t use the oxygen.
That’s dried yak meat, barley porridge, Budweiser, altitude sickness pills, cans of oxygen, and … hmmm … I can’t remember what’s in those red cans.

From Tibetan Mini-Bar

Potala Palace
Chum Zhun and our local driver, Feng Shifu, picked us up for the short ride to Potala Palace. The government strictly controls how many visitors traipse through the palace and how long they spend there. Unfortunately, we had just one hour to explore the sprawling icon of Lhasa.

As we were entering the palace, we heard a melodic chanting. Chum Zhun pointed to a big group of Tibetans working on part of the palace roof. She explained that they were singing a common “labor song.”

We walked slowly up stairs for 117 meters (383 feet) to the top of he palace, which sits at 3,775 meters (12,385 feet) above sea level. Our tour took us through many small chapels with shrines to Buddha and various other historical and mythical figures. We noticed many Tibetans were carrying thermal bottles and plastic bags, which we assumed were drinks and snacks. Then we realized they were pouring their “drink” and spooning their “snack” into the big copper pots in front of the holy statues. Chum Zhun explained that the pilgrims were making spiritual offerings of yak butter (or more often than not, artificial yak butter – a cheaper alternative).

Elementary school children skittered past us, tossing single jiao notes (about a penny and a half) to many of the shrines. Again, we turned to Chum Zhun for an explanation. Turns out the middle school entrance exam was the next day, and Tibetan children never spend the day before an exam studying. “If you don’t know the information by now, it’s too late,” she said. Instead, students take their best test-taking pen around to the temples to pray for blessings.

Inside the palace, we saw the flashy stupas of several dalai lamas (Buddhist spiritual leaders). The fifth dalai lama, who died in 1682, was the most influential for his success in unifying Tibet and balancing religion and politics. Many pilgrims leave yak butter and money at his jewel-encrusted golden tomb. I also loved the “victory banners,” long cylindrical banners made with a patchwork of colorful silk fabrics. They represent the Buddhist quest for victory over ignorance. (I think all teachers need a victory banner in their classrooms …)

Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photos inside the temple.
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During a restroom break, Cath and I had a big chuckle over the “toilet” that was really just a hole in the ground with nothing but air and hillside underneath. I hope the kings and dalai lamas who lived here had nicer palace potties than this one …

From Palace Potty

From the top of the palace, we looked down at the Liberation Monument, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of China’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet in 1951. It stands as a solemn reminder that this region remains shackled to the Chinese communist regime, which – despite its efforts to fight poverty, build schools and modernize infrastructure – continues to obstruct religious practice, destroy temples and other Buddhist symbols, discourage the use of the Tibetan language, and otherwise chip away at the area’s rich culture. (I’m really trying hard not to get too political on this blog, mostly because I don’t want it blocked in China. But it’s not easy.)

From Liberation Monument

Jokhang Temple
After lunch at a Chinese restaurant (during which poor Cath experienced another wave of altitude sickness), we returned to Jokhang Temple. King Songtsen Gampo built the temple around 647 to house his Chinese wife’s sacred dowry – a golden statue of Buddha. The statue is about 2,500 years old, but it looks brand new thanks to the gold paint brushed on by rich patrons. The temple’s courtyard was slick with yak butter, and every nook and cranny of the interior featured colorful ornamentation. Again, we couldn’t shoot pics inside. Doh!

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After visiting the temple, we decided to join the pilgrims in the Barkhor – the sacred clockwise circuit. Bustling with pilgrims at dawn and dusk, the Barkhor was relatively quiet in the heat of the afternoon. We meandered along the route, pausing to check out all the shops, market stalls and hawkers selling everything from prayer flags to shoe insoles. We soon identified many of the same products for sale in Shanghai markets, and we stumbled upon people making Tibetan “antiques.” Chum Zhun said the influx of Chinese entrepreneurs in recent years has seen a shift in the market from traditional Tibetan goods to cheap mass-produced souvenirs. Sad.

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Nighttime Nuttiness at the Palace
Chum Zhun mentioned that the Potala Palace was beautiful at night, so Cath and I decided to see for ourselves. Despite our altitude-induced weariness, we walked about 20 minutes to the plaza with the Liberation Monument. Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” was blaring from a speaker while a synchronized subterranean fountain blasted massive streams of water up into the air. The dancing water performed to a shrieky Chinese song and then a cowboy tune (complete with galloping hoof sounds) and then the loop began again with Strauss. Bizarre.

As we waited for the sun to set, Cath demonstrated her brilliant waltzing skills honed in Austria, and we twirled around the plaza to “The Blue Danube.” A Chinese man asked us to dance again so he could film it, but we pointed out that the waltz had ended. “The music is in my heart,” he said. Ha!

Eventually, darkness fell and the palace lit up. The silliness of the fountain and the eclectic music loop detracted a bit from the palace’s spiritual power, but we appreciated it nonetheless.

From Potala Palace

We caught a bicycle tuk-tuk back to our hotel, where everyone on the street was throwing water at each other to cool off. They howled with laughter and pretended they didn’t want to get wet. We smiled at them and quickly ducked in to our hotel, mostly dry.

For more details about Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, check out the website Sacred Destinations.

Farewell China Tour (Day 6)

Tibet!!
As our plane approached Tibet, we bounced around through strong turbulence. Suddenly, the plane emerged smoothly into clear skies and the snow-capped mountains stretched as far as we could see. Stunning!

From Approaching Lhasa

Our local guide, Chum Zhun, greeted us at the Lhasa airport with white prayer scarves. Later, we saw similar scarves tied on various statues in the temples as offerings. As we drove into the city, we passed rocky mountains and parched countryside. She explained that the region was suffering from a drought.

Cath and I immediately felt the effects of the altitude. Lhasa sits 3,490 metres (11,450 feet) above sea level, and we could walk only a few steps before feeling winded. Chum Zhun encouraged us to take it easy and acclimate this first night, so we had a simple dinner at our traditional Tibetan hotel, and then we ventured out for a poke around the neighborhood.

About a block from our hotel, we watched hundreds of Buddhist pilgrims walk the perimeter of the 1300-year-old Jokhang Temple, one of Tibet’s holiest shrines. Nomads and farmers from all over Tibet make the pilgrimage to Lhasa to walk prayerfully around both the temple and the spectacular Potala Palace, located on a nearby hillside. Dressed in colorful ethnic clothing, they often twirl a prayer wheel – an engraved cylinder that rotates on a stick – as they walk. Some pilgrims make the circumnavigation slowly, prostrating as they go. Wearing pads on their knees and hands, they bow to the temple, fall to their knees, push themselves onto their stomach and rise to start again. We stared, fascinated, for a while before breathlessly shuffling back to our hotel.

Our hotel room was stifling, and the A/C was broken. Exhausted and oxygen-deprived, we battled with a rattle-y old fan and even tried to fix it with a hair scrunchie before finally calling the front desk to request a new one. Fortunately, it worked.

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Farewell China Tour (Day 5, continued)

Dodgy Massage
At the end of the day, we had played with pandas and experienced some stressful (although ultimately fantastic) meals, and we were ready for a little relaxation. Our hotel featured a spa, so we wandered up to inquire about getting massages.

The young guy who greeted us at the spa jumped up from his TV show and tried his best to understand my pathetic Mandarin. He led us down a long hallway and opened the door to a huge room filled with deluxe foot-massage chairs, all facing a big-screen TV. The chairs were empty except for three hotel staff members, who were lounging in the front row, watching a Chinese sit-com. They shouted something to our guy, who promptly ushered us out and shut the door. Then an older lady caught up with us and led us out of the spa and down a corridor to a regular hotel room. She unlocked it and gestured for us to enter. We felt a little uncomfortable, so I asked whether we could just do the massages in our own room. The older lady and the young guy (her son?) acted like that was a brilliant idea. So we all marched down the hall to our room. Cath and I stood by while they pulled back our bed covers and otherwise prepared for the massages. We conferred, agreed it was a bit dodgy, and told the lady and boy that we really just wanted foot massages and why couldn’t we do that in the regular massage chairs at the freakin’ spa? So we all headed back to the spa, skipped right past the fancy massage room, saw through half-closed doors that most of the hotel staff members were watching TV in the massage rooms, and finally ended up in a grungy room with four battered recliners, a crooked painting of a naked lady, a plastic wall clock hung way too high and stuck at 2:00, and a wide-open window beckoning all the mosquitoes to come in for a snack.

Cath sat in the recliner by the window, and I sat in the chair next to her. The room soon filled with every variety of flying insect in China, and I discovered that moths are almost, but not quite, as horrifying to Cath as roaches are. The lady massaged my feet, and she did a good job. But I was so freaked out by all the mosquitoes that I used all her towels to cover my legs. Alas, I still got three bites. Not very relaxing.

The boy did Cath’s foot massage, and he was both excruciatingly frustrating and hilarious. From our vantage point by the window, we could see another wing of the hotel, where apparently the staff lived and, at that moment, partied. He clearly wanted to be with them WAY more than he wanted to earn a good tip from us. So he would half-heartedly massage Cath’s leg while he hung most of his body out the window to catch a glimpse of the action. Sometimes he would use his free hand to send text messages. Once he checked his phone and then ran out of the room for several minutes to make a call.

Sometimes experiences such as this make you want to run screaming into the streets. But, as Cath always says, “It’s all part of the adventure.”

Farewell China Tour – (Usually) Yummy Sichuan Cuisine

China recognizes around eight distinct regional cuisines. The food in Shanghai is a bit oily and bland, but the food in Sichuan Province (home of two stops on our trip – Lijiang and Chengdu) is notoriously spicy and delicious.

Crossing Bridge Rice Noodles
In Lijiang, Cath and I asked Li Qiong to take us to one of her favorite restaurants. She took us out for Crossing Bridge Rice Noodles, a meal and a unique cultural experience! First, the waitress brought each of us a massive bowl of boiling chicken broth, a big pile of rice noodles and many small bowls with portions of pig liver, intestines, stinky tofu, spring onions, a raw egg, chicken, bamboo shoots, white fish and bean sprouts. We dumped those small portions and the noodles into the broth and left it alone to simmer for a few minutes. Another plate had tiny servings of pickled vegetables, spicy mushrooms, cashews, deep-fried pork and spicy vegetable salad, so we picked at those tasty morsels in the meantime. Oddly, another side dish was a bowl of “black chicken” soup full of chicken skin and bones. Not my favorite.

Confusing sign that explained what we were eating:

From Crossing Bridge Rice Noodles

Vegetarian Yummy-ness
Another culinary highlight of our time in Lijiang was the Tibetan Vegetarian Restaurant, where we ate twice. Among our favorite dishes – puffy steamed buns filled with sweet cheese, salty green beans, and tofu “meat” with mashed potatoes. Bonus: the owner and the waiter taught us some Tibetan phrases that came in handy when we got to Lhasa.

Chilling with Li Qiong and the restaurant owner and waiter:

From Tibetan Vegetarian Restaurant

Sichuan Spicey-fest
One of the most memorable experiences of our whole trip involved eating in Chengdu. We had just visited the adult panda dorm at the Ya’an Panda Conservation Center when our guide, Deng Li, told us it was lunchtime. Originally, his plan was to drive all the way down the mountain to a restaurant that catered to western tourists. However that would have wasted a couple hours of our day, and I think he realized that Cath and I weren’t too fussy about our food.

“Our driver wants to cook for you,” Deng Li said. We exited the panda center, crossed the street, and walked up the steps to a Chinese guesthouse. We followed Deng Li to the kitchen, where our driver, Luo Shifu, stood in the light of an exposed bulb with flies all over his shoulders. He grinned at us and proudly gestured at his meal in progress. The counters were littered with greasy dishes and chopped vegetables. The wok bubbled with an oily concoction of pork and lots of spicy chili peppers. Cath and I exchanged looks of horror. We couldn’t decide which was scarier: the utter lack of sanitation in the kitchen or the fiery food’s potential toll on our unsuspecting intestines.

Luo Shifu in the kitchen:

From Luo Shifu

We shuffled mutely out to the concrete patio, where plastic tables and chairs were set with grimy bowls and chopsticks. The guesthouse owner brought us beer, which we happily drank from the bottle. Unfortunately, Deng Li noticed and graciously tracked down some dirty glasses for us. Cath and I waited nervously for our lunch.

Luo Shifu emerged from the kitchen and placed the bowl of spicy pork in the middle of the table. When the oily steam made my eyes water, I couldn’t imagine what would happen when I took a bite. Tentatively, I raised the chopsticks to my mouth and took a nibble of the pork. The juice nearly melted my lips, but the meat was delicious. Gradually, our driver filled the table with some of the most scrumptious food I’ve ever eaten. In addition to the blazing hot pork dish, he whipped up another pork-and-veggie delicacy, battered eggplant in a spicy sauce, and asparagus stalks. The guesthouse owner also brought out tofu and rice. Although he didn’t speak any English, Luo Shifu clearly appreciated our gushing praise of his culinary creations.

After the feast, I pulled tissues out of my bag to mop my sweaty brow while our driver cleared the table. When he returned, he brought two flowers plucked from the guesthouse garden. To his amusement, Cath and I stuck the flowers in our hair.

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Local (very local) Fare
After playing with the baby pandas, Luo Shifu drove us back to our hotel at the base of the mountain. Our “four-star hotel” featured lots of marble and gilding, but also mildew, faded carpeting and bugs. I had to talk Cath off a ledge when she spotted a roach in our room, but we flushed the little guy and then headed downstairs to eat dinner at the hotel restaurant. In the lobby, Deng Li intercepted us to say the driver wanted to take us to a local restaurant. We found it odd that the driver seemed to be calling the shots a lot during our visit, but we had to admit he seemed to know a thing or two about food.

We drove to the restaurant, where the driver dramatically ordered for us. Soon waitresses delivered the dishes: a whole smoked duck, an enormous fish in a sweet-and-sour sauce, a platter of fried spicy green peppers, twice-cooked pork, and tofu soup with mushrooms, meatballs and bamboo shoots. The meal really was an example of brilliant ordering. Each bite complemented the bite before with a tantalizing mix of flavors and textures.

While we enjoyed the meal, we noticed a group of men at a nearby table who were having even more fun. They pulled their shirts up to their nipples to cool off, chain smoked, spit out their duck bones on the floor, passed around a bottle of rice wine, and howled with laughter at stories we couldn’t understand.

Farewell China Tour (Day 5)

Playing with Pandas
Reluctantly we left our new friend, Li Qiong, and the wonderful town of Lijiang to fly to Chengdu. Although the city of Chengdu is massive and sits in a pollution trap of a valley, we had just one destination in mind: The Ya’an Panda Reserve. We arrived around midnight, met our guide and driver, checked in to our hotel and crashed. After a quick breakfast, we checked out and drove two hours to the misty green mountainside reserve. As the car twisted up the mountain roads, I was looking out the side window and spotted some deer.
“A camel?” said Cath.
“They’re deer!” I said, shooting Cath a look of incredulity.
“No, in front of the car, there’s a camel,” she said. And, indeed, there was. Apparently there’s a depressing little zoo on the way to the panda reserve.

From camel

Our driver, Luo Shifu, parked the car, and our guide, Deng Li, took us into the park. We wandered off the beaten path and wondered where we were going, but then Deng Li told us he knew some people who worked here so he was trying to get us access to the adult panda “dormitory” while the staff was at lunch. A worker eyed us suspiciously but then told us to be quiet and gestured for us to enter. We climbed a ladder to view the enclosures from above, and then we climbed down to look through the bars of each area’s gate. Most of the adult pandas sat next to their gates, reaching through the bars to pull in armloads of bamboo. Then they’d roll onto their backs and use their teeth to peel off the outer bark before munching on the tender stalks. Adult pandas can eat 20 kilos (44 pounds) of bamboo each day. So much for taking one home as a pet …

From chengdu

Soon it was our lunchtime. Deng Li had said that we would drive back down the mountain for lunch, which Cath and I thought was ludicrous, so we were relieved when he said, “The plan has changed.” We walked right across the street to a dingy guesthouse, where tables were set up outside. “Our driver wants to cook for you.” Stay tuned for details…

After lunch, we walked back across the street and took a tram to see the juvenile pandas. There were seven pandas in two enclosures. They’re not the most exciting animals in the world, but their mannerisms are so human that it’s easy to anthropomorphize. Cath and I laughed at how much they reminded us of one particular lazy student we had at SAS (who shall remain unnamed here!). The pandas gobbled up vitamin cakes brought by a caretaker and then rambled about, lay down, got up, sat for awhile, lay down again, rolled over, and more of the same.

From chengdu

We kept hearing a woman yelling, “Qing Qing!” (pronounced like Ching Ching), and we assumed it was a silly tourist trying to get the panda’s attention. Annoyed, we walked toward that enclosure, where we realized the woman was a caretaker trying to rouse lazy Qing Qing, who was napping under a tree up the hill and refused to come down to eat his vitamin cake. We dashed up the hill to get a better view of him, and we cracked up at his obvious attempts to ignore the shouting. He would roll over and put his paws over his ears. Then he would kick his foot out and stretch a bit. Finally, the caretaker hauled a bucket of bamboo shoots up the hill and tossed them at Qing Qing. Without standing up, he reached out, felt around for a bamboo shoot, and then popped it in his mouth. The caretaker threw them a little further away, so reluctantly Qing Qing roused himself from his beloved slumber, rolled up to all fours, sought out the bamboo shoots and then lumbered down the hill to get his vitamin cake. Cath totally related to Qing Qing’s love of sleep, so that became my new nickname for her on this vacation, especially each morning when I woke her up.

From Qing Qing

Deng Li said we could walk to see the baby pandas, but it turned out he didn’t really know the way. We found a trail with a sign pointing to the “Panda Kindergarten,” so we set off through the drizzly mist. The trail took us up and down rocky steps slick with wet leaves. The steep mountainous forest was thick with bamboo and ferns, and Deng Li pointed out that this was the real habitat of wild pandas. Considering that there are only about 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild, it was no surprise that we didn’t see any.

From Bamboo Forest

We arrived at the Panda Kindergarten at feeding time. About 10 babies scampered around the large enclosure while caretakers brought out bowls of food and a big tray of apples and carrots. The babies were all around six months old, and they looked like puppies eating out of their bowls. Several rolled on their backs to munch on the carrots. A few refused to come down from the elevated platform, so the caretakers had to climb up to deliver the food. After a couple minutes, most of them flopped down on their bellies for a nap.

Cath and I knew of several people who made donations to the reserve in exchange for a photo with a panda, and we decided it was a worthy cause and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We expected to sit in a chair and have a caretaker position a panda next to us, but the workers said we could enter the enclosure to play with the babies! We couldn’t believe it. After waiting an hour for naptime to finish, we suited up in a surgical gown, booties and gloves. Unfortunately, the rain really started to fall at that point, and Deng Li was not the most talented photographer. But we got a few good shots and some unbeatable memories.

From Suited Up

At first, the head caretaker/researcher told us we had to stay on the ground, which was disappointing because the pandas were all up on the platform. We reached up and scratched their tummies. Finally, he said, “OK, you can climb up there but you’re going to get very dirty.” As if we cared! We scrambled up and the pandas loped over to greet us. One grabbed my hand with his thick padded paw, nuzzled my ear and then plopped on my lap, clamping his mouth gently onto my arm. He unlatched only when Cath offered him an apple that had been tossed up by a caretaker. I was surprised at how heavy he was and how coarse his fur felt. Much too quickly, the caretaker told us it was time to go.

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Later Cath and I reflected on our day with the pandas. We felt good about making a large donation to the panda reserve, but we worried that the encounters between tourists and pandas would diminish the efforts to rebuild the wild population. So far, China has been largely unsuccessful in releasing pandas into the bamboo forest. The pandas born in captivity are too coddled by the caretakers and cooing tourists and have no survival skills, researchers agree. That said, we selfishly admitted how fortunate we felt to see and interact with these rare and unique animals up close.

Farewell China Tour (Day 4)

Lashi Lake
Feeling a bit disheartened after yesterday’s non-hike, we struggled to muster enthusiasm for today’s trip to Lashi Lake. Li Qiong had mentioned that we’d be riding horses, so we pictured hordes of obnoxious tourists abusing the tired sway-backed trail horses. Sullenly, I asked, “Will this be another long car ride?” Just 30 minutes, she responded.

Soon we were out of the city and driving on bumpy unmarked country roads. After stopping to ask directions a couple times, we saw some men watching three stocky little horses chomp at the grass. The horses wore crude saddles and bridles and looked to be about 13 hands (a little more than 4 feet at the shoulder). Nylon straps held the stirrups to the saddle frame and a thick blanket was draped over the top. A simple bridle had been fashioned with a metal bit and more nylon straps. Cath made a few jokes about breaking the tiny horse, but it didn’t even flinch when she pulled herself up onto the makeshift saddle (although it did stop occasionally to grab a mouthful of grass). Li Qiong commented that these horses were bred to be strong and sure-footed to carry people and loads on treacherous mountain trails.

We all climbed aboard our little steeds and loped across the grassy meadow, which was ringed by the Hengduan Mountains. Gauzy white clouds stretched across an enormous blue sky. The only other creatures in sight were water buffaloes, cows, donkeys, and more horses, as well as the local farmers. Not a single other tourist. Our spirits soared.

The horses took us to a large metal flat-bottomed boat that waited in the shallow marshes. We left the horses to enjoy the lush grass, walked across the water on wooden planks and climbed into the boat. Our Naxi host used a long wooden pole to push the boat out into the lake, and then he sat down to enjoy the tranquility with us. Complete silence was broken only by the squeaky scraping of the water plants under the boat, the swish of skimmer bugs dancing on the water’s surface and the hum of blue, black and yellow dragonflies. We held our breath and floated past mares and foals knee-deep in water, drinking and feasting on the foliage. Quietly we commented on the perfect reflection of the mountains in the lake.

Eventually, our captain stood up and plunged the pole back in the water to get us moving again. He sang a few traditional Naxi songs and taught us how to say “good-bye” in Naxi: lei duo duo. It translates to many, many tears. I love that.

Back on the horses, we tromped toward a nearby Taoist temple, but soon a messenger rode up to tell us that road construction had made the temple inaccessible. So we just trotted back to the car and said “lei duo duo” to our Naxi friends and horses.

Clearly, Cath and I need to stop trying to predict what our day has in store. The unhike in Tiger Leaping Gorge and the visit to Lashi Lake were both filled with surprises.

For more information on Lashi Lake, check out the Nature Conservancy’s website.

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Residential Old Town
Although Lijiang’s Old Town district features the traditional architecture, cobblestone streets and peaceful waterways, it truly is a tourist mecca. You don’t see much “real life” taking place amidst the shops, cafes, guesthouses and bars. Li Qiong asked whether we’d like to see the residential section of Old Town, and of course we jumped at the chance.

The façade was very similar to the touristy part of town, but the mood was entirely different. This was “real life” for the local Naxi people. At one of the town’s natural springs, we saw a well divided into three parts – one for drinking water, one for rinsing fruits and vegetables, and one for washing clothes. Several villagers squatted by the water, swishing bundles of spring onions in the cold water.

We passed a woman pushing a cart full of small trays that held green gelatinous goop. (Li Qiong explained that it was black bean jelly.) We watched as a man stopped, paid the vendor and then held out his hand. Expecting the woman to give him a tray of the jelly, we were surprised to see her turn the tray over onto his hand. He then carefully balanced the jiggling slime on his hand as he walked back into his home.

As we strolled through the neighborhood, we passed a house with two big red doors, each taped with a diamond-shaped white paper bearing a Chinese character. Li Qiong stopped and said, “This means someone has died recently.” Sure enough, as we kept walking, we came to a community center, where many villagers were wearing traditional mourning clothes (including a rumpled white paper hat and white apron). Li Qiong told us that Naxi people mourn quietly for three years. The papers on the door are white the first year, green the second year and red or yellow the third year.

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Ethnic Embroideries
There are 56 recognized ethnic groups in China, and many are known for their beautiful embroidery. Based on reports from others who have traveled to Lijiang, I expected the Old Town shops to be full of traditional handiwork. However, Li Qiong pointed out that Chinese entrepreneurs have filled the shops with cheap mass-produced copies and souvenirs in the last few years, so ethnic crafts can be difficult to find or authenticate. I stumbled upon a couple shops with lovely pieces, but the prices were shocking. I don’t mind paying a hefty sum for a genuine piece of artwork, but I want that money to go into the artist’s pocket. So, reluctantly, I walked away.

When I mentioned my failed quest, Li Qiong called up a Naxi friend who brings embroidery from her village to sell to the shops. We made an appointment to meet at our hotel. The diminutive young woman, Fen, showed up carrying two big bundles of stitched art. She laid them all out on a bench in our hotel’s open-air foyer. Every piece was far more stunning than anything I’d seen in the shops. Li Qiong translated as Fen explained some of the techniques. The amount of work and resulting detail in the colorful pieces left Cath and me speechless.

For a fraction of the shop prices, I bought a gorgeous baby carrier, stitched with shades of blue. It features tiny squares, each with about eight layers of fabric folded into miniscule triangles and secured using the sticky water left after boiling rice. The embroidery details include rows of swirling stitches and tiny knots. Li Qiong noted that the mother who carried her baby in this gorgeous carrier clearly took great pride in her workmanship.

Cath bought a whimsical piece featuring purple dragons. The technique involved separating the thread into seven fine pieces and sewing many overlapping stitches, giving the impression of silk. When Fen told her the price, Cath put her brilliant bargaining skills to work. She asked for the pengyou (friend) price and batted her big blue eyes. Fen laughed and stood on tiptoe to give Cath a big kiss on the cheek. They came to a compromise, and then Fen loaded all her pieces back into a bundle and led us to a local market. When we tried to give her a little money to thank her for her trouble, she jumped back, “No! You’re my friends!” she said in Mandarin, hugging and kissing us again before she headed home.

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Fay and Jiff
While we were perusing the embroideries, our friends Fay and Jeff called to say they were nearby. Cath ran to meet them and then brought them to our hotel. Jeff, a New Zealander who taught with us in Turkey and then followed us to Shanghai, hung back as his wife purchased a lovely piece from Fen. When Tony first met Jeff in Istanbul back in 2005, he had trouble understanding the Kiwi accent. He thought his new friend’s name was Jiff, and so it stuck. Although we were too tired and/or busy to socialize much with Fay and Jiff in Shanghai, I had a great time playing with the two of them in Lijiang and look forward to their promised visit to Laos.

Cath, Fay, Jiff and I went to a pub for a beer (after walking for a LONG time through Old Town, much to Jiff’s chagrin). The beer was warm, and there was no milk for Fay’s coffee, so after a short sit, Cath and I suggested another visit to our teahouse. Li Qiong had told us that she pre-payed for us to enjoy the tea one more time before leaving town. Although not entirely thrilled with the tea drinking, Jiff did enjoy the dramatics. He hammed it up and got lots of props from our Zhu Wei Li, our tea expert. Li Qiong stopped by for a few minutes before going to meet another tour group.

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Farewell China Tour (Day 3)

Tiger Leaping Gorge
Tony accompanied a student trip to Lijiang in 2005 and brought home photos of the rugged hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge. The 16-kilometer gorge is one of the deepest in the world – 3,900 meters from the water to the mountaintops. I had been excited to follow in Tony’s footsteps.

On the day of our hike, Cath and I rose early, ate a hearty breakfast, and laced up our hiking boots. The three-hour drive found us more often than not sucking diesel fumes behind a tour bus, but we tried not to get discouraged. We knew that soon we would be breathing fresh air along the banks of the Yangzte River.

Eventually, we parked, paid an admission fee and started walking on a paved path. Hmmm… where was the trail? With feigned enthusiasm, we asked Li Qiong if the whole route was paved. In fact, it was. At regular intervals, workers even played a shrieky pre-recorded warning to stay close to the mountain wall and away from the edge. We saw one such worker toss a big piece of plastic in the river to join the swirling mass of trash caught in a whirlpool.

The end of the path took us down a flight of stairs to a viewing point near the water, overlooking the sculpture of a leaping tiger. This leg of the Yangzte, called Jinsha Jiang, was impressive with its crashing roiling current smashing into the boulders and splashing up on unsuspecting tourists (such as me, who took a big drenching while composing a photo of Cath). It wasn’t the hike we had hoped for, but we had to laugh. It was so quintessentially China.

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Farewell China Tour (Day 2)

Breakfast each day in Lijiang was at a cute Tibetan café across the street – eggs, toast, yogurt, fruit and coffee. A nice start to our busy days!

Impression Lijiang
Our first stop of the day was the show, “Impression Lijiang,” a spectacular extravaganza directed by Zhang Yi Mou, who also directed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. With about 500 people from 10 ethnic groups, the show highlights the region’s traditional clothing, music and customs. The different numbers included women singing as they picked tea, men dancing through a drinking competition, small but sturdy steppe horses galloping around the open-air stage’s perimeter, powerful drumming and chanting, and the grand finale – the entire cast dressed in ceremonial costumes and holding hands as they zig-zagged down the hillside and turned to send a prayer to the mountain towering in the background.

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Snow Mountain and Yak Meadow
After the show, we took a public bus to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and then rode a gondola up to Yak Meadow at 3,800 meters. We had hoped to walk the full length of the trail around the meadow, but the altitude really slowed us down. We had to stop every few steps to catch our breath. So, instead of a long hike, we enjoyed lots of standing and soaking up the beauty. We looked out at jagged mountains and a meadow full of pink and yellow wildflowers, grazing yaks and cows, and a small Tibetan temple.

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Baisha Village
Back down the mountain, we drove to Baisha Village, the original settlement of the Naxi people 1,200 years ago. Cath and I sat by a big open window at a local restaurant and enjoyed a delicious lunch. One highlight was fried yak cheese that you dip in sugar. It tasted like cream-cheese frosting. Yum! In most parts of China, people don’t like dairy products, so this was a special treat. Looking out the restaurant window, we felt like Baisha Village was putting on a show for us. People were simply going about their daily lives, but they were thoroughly entertaining. Enter stage left: man pulling a towering cart of straw. Enter stage right: women in Naxi clothing with babies strapped on their backs in beautifully embroidered fabric. Enter stage left: man leading a cow pulling a huge cart with two giggling young boys in back. Enter stage right: Hunched over village elders with deep wrinkles of wisdom and beautiful smiles.
After our impromptu lunchtime show, we walked through the village to a temple, where we saw frescoes from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

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Tea Party
Feeling exhausted, we told Li Qiong that we’d like to take it easy for the afternoon. She recommended hanging out in a teahouse. I’ve seen the tourist version of a tea ceremony many times, but she assured us that it was just a nice place to chat and rest. Several hours later, after drinking gallons of tea, we had to agree. Our tea server, Zhu Wei Li, wore her hot-pink Naxi ceremonial costume and softly explained the fine points of drinking Puer Tea, the most famous tea produced in Yunnan Province.

Both of our Chinese hostesses talked about the tea with great reverence, lowering their voices and using metaphors from nature to describe its purity and benefits. They closed their eyes and breathed in the tea’s aroma with an almost spiritual calm. They instructed us to hold the tea on our tongues for a moment, then slowly swallow and inhale gently through our mouths. “It feels like a flower blooming,” Li Qiong said. “You can smell the freshness of spring.”

Zhu Wei Li served us two kinds of Puer Tea – one made from young raw tea called sheng and one made from cooked tea leaves called shu. The young leaves brewed a pale green tea with a floral scent, while the cooked leaves brewed up deep amber with a stronger flavor. The tea is compressed into round cakes the size of a dinner plate. You break off a little piece, drop it in the teapot, and add hot water. (The first pot of tea gets dumped out. In the teahouse, Zhu Wei Li dumped it on a symbolic clay frog that sat on her tea table. We also dumped the last sip from our teacups on a smaller version of the frog.) The same chunk of Puer Tea can be brewed 35-40 times, producing a slightly different flavor each time. When you’re done using it for tea, you can brew a refreshing face wash with the leftover tea, Li Qiong said.

Between cups of tea, we enjoyed hearing Li Qiong’s stories about her family and culture. Unlike many young Chinese, she was comfortable with philosophical discussions about China’s politics and culture clashes.

Here’s a fantastic website with details about Puer Tea.

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Farewell China Tour (Day 1)

And we’re off …
As soon as I knew this would be my last year working at Shanghai American School, I began planning my farewell tour through Southwest China and Tibet. My friend and colleague, Cath, was returning to Canada after two years, so she was eager to join me. For months, we talked and planned, but we were distracted by the stress of wrapping up the school year, organizing the ESOL Department for the incoming teachers, and coordinating the packing and shipping of our respective apartments, as well as all the social events that filled the calendar in the school year’s waning weeks. Consumed with all our obligations, we turned over the planning to a travel agent, paid by credit card, and put it out of our minds. Suddenly, the last day of school had come and gone, and we were on a plane to Lijiang, China, to kick off our 10-day trip.

Beautiful Lijiang
Our guide, Li Qiong, met us at the airport. We drove about 20 minutes through lush countryside and mountains to reach Lijiang’s Old Town.  First built in the Song Dynasty around 900 years ago, the town was nearly leveled by an earthquake in 1996. However, the architecture of the Naxi ethnic group largely survived, and the city opted to clear away all the concrete rubble and rebuild much of Lijiang using the traditional Naxi style. As news outlets reported on the earthquake and the historic rebuilding, the world got a glimpse of the region’s unique landscape and culture. UNESCO declared it a world cultural legacy in 1997.

The Jade River flows down the mountains and directly into the town. It branches off into four tributaries that flow through residential courtyards and alongside shops and restaurants. Bright orange and white koi fish add a splash of color to the narrow canals. Cobblestone streets, arched wooden bridges and preserved buildings with traditional tilted-up eaves hung with red lanterns contribute to the town’s quaintness. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain occasionally makes an appearance in the distance, its white peaks jutting out of the clouds.

Especially in the calm early morning, we could easily envision life in this ancient village before the throngs of Chinese tourists, before the pounding techno music emanating from Bar Street, before the influx of mass-produced cheap souvenirs. Lucky for us, Li Qiong shared our nostalgia and steered us away from the touristy destinations as much as possible.

From Old Town in Lijiang

Black Dragon Pool Park
We checked in to a traditional courtyard guesthouse and looked despairingly at the gray clouds. Unprepared for inclement weather, I bought a plastic raincoat for a little more than $1, borrowed an umbrella from the hotel and set off for Black Dragon Pool Park. Despite the sporadic showers, Li Qiong took us for a peaceful walk around the lake, which was ringed with willow trees and purple bougainvillea. In contrast to the shouting, pushing, photo-manic crowds of tourists, Li Qiong meandered along the path, rubbing her fingers over the unusual bark of the Mahjong Tree or bending down to collect a raindrop from a flower. She paused to enjoy the reflection of the clouds in the lake and exclaimed with joy whenever the sun peeked out and glinted off the pale green water. As we crossed a marble bridge, she fingered the whimsical characters decorating the railing as though she’d never noticed them before. At a shallow corner of the lake, she showed us how a sweet song could call up bubbles from the lake’s underground spring. Cath and I sang “Do, Re, Mi” from “The Sound of Music” – me, in English; Cath, in French. Sure enough, bubbles rose from the lakebed and popped on the surface.

Many of the lakeside buildings featured two architectural curiosities: a brick-colored wooden fish hanging down from the roof and a psychotic looking clay cat with wild eyes and a big open mouth sitting on top of the roof. Li Qiong explained. The fish symbolized water and served to protect the wooden buildings that were so prone to fire. The cat had a different purpose. During hard times, when many residents were poor and hungry, only wealthy families found rats in their homes because only they had crumbs or scraps of food to attract the rodents. The rooftop cat served to both ward off the rats and to brag a bit to the neighbors that the home had enough food to feed the family and attract the rats.

While most Chinese tour guides do their best to make foreigners comfortable, Li Qiong fell into another category altogether. Before becoming a tour guide, she had traveled to Thailand, where she taught Chinese and studied yoga for two years. Cath and I felt like we’d found a soul sister in this eco-conscious, peace-loving, adventure-embracing woman.

As we walked through Old Town, we noticed many women in traditional clothing of the two most common ethnic groups of the area – Naxi and Yi. We assumed the costumes were part of the tourist attraction, but Li Qiong said the clothes are very practical for the villagers, who still do a great deal of manual labor. The cushion on the back of the dress protects a woman’s back when she carries heavy loads, for example.

After dinner, we all enjoyed a massage in Old Town, where people were singing and dancing in the square below. The travel and altitude (2,200 meters) made Cath and me quite tired, so we crashed early.

Adventures in Teaching and Travel