Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Spring City

Oh KunMing. Here we are. This city is a big one... apparently bigger than Taipei. It is impossible to compare though, as this city is newly developed - there are brand new skyscrapers everywhere - and Taipei was largely built way back in the day.

For some reason, I have a strong urge to participate in the economy. That's right kids, I'm really considering buying something not directly related to my daily survival. Something like.... well, something anyway. I haven't pinpointed it any further than that initial feeling.

Go Consumerism! You truly work in mysterious ways.

On a related note, some of you may have heard about the upcoming IPO of the Bank of China. I heard that they are set to raise over $11 Billion US from investors. As someone who recently visited a branch of this fine organization, I feel more than qualified to confirm for you that the Bank of China is, in fact, a bank. This isn't a communist plot folks. Indeed, I was successful in withdrawing my weekly living expenses, $50 US, in RenMinBi (almost 400 Yuan) earlier today. They had no problem in providing me with this amount of hard currency on the spot. Even more amazing was the 35 cent commission I was charged for the transaction.

I implore all the brave free market capitalists out there with liquid assets to take this opportunity by the horns. With your billions, our Bank of China can model itself on the fine banks in North America. After all, what are banks for: to provide a place for people to keep money and maybe make a little extra from the interest? HA. That was so 1980's. The Bank of China needs to get to doing what banks are supposed to do...

Providing returns for investors.

Yes sir, if I was a man of means, the first thing I would do was demand that the Bank of China raise the commission for changing traveler’s cheques to at least $1. I've also noticed that the Chinese are not buying on credit as much as they should be. We need to change that. We should also spring inflated ATM fees on these fools.


Following are a hodgepodge of photos totally unrelated to KunMing.

Does this farmer have the kind of access to credit that he needs? What about his water buffalo? Could this be another imerging market?

Nice light here.

A-ma has been working in these fields for generations.

This was a quiet little town, and the guesthouse we stayed in had an amazing rooftop garden.

And here it is, as well as confirmation for the skeptics out there.

We are in fact working hard. It's not all "fun and games".

Well, mostly it is.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

regarding comments

Of course, it is possible for me access to compose and upload postings to this blog, but I cannot view my blog through normal channels. China blocks the url that blogger blogs use,

Interestingly enough, they don't block yahoo blogs, msn blogs and many others. It seems that people who use are of a different breed (but we knew that, right?).

Being moderatly web savy (barely), I found out I can access my site and many others (all others, in fact) by using a proxy server.

One can go to or, key in any website address, and surf anonymously through a server in the states. Amazing!

To get to the point, though these are nice services, they have one problem. For some reason, I can view my comments but not post any. Go figure.

I'm sorry that your comments are unanswered. It's not because I don't like you. Actually, I quite like you.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

it's like this.

Just ONE more picture of tea, ok? DaDuGuan grows a lot of tea... this view well made up for rough day of climbing.

This storm had us spend about half an hour under a nervous woman's shop awning. She didn't know what to make of us. After the third cookie purchase though, the ice was broken. Score one more for successful cultural exchanges!

Pictures... pictures of people taking pictures... are the most wonderful pictures in the world.

Definitive proof that I am in China. This is DongMen (the eastern gate) in JianShui. Even the locals are impressed. The apprentice of the designer of this gate is said to have designed and built TainAnMen in BeiJing 20 years after DongMen was built. As not to surpass this teacher, TianAnMen is one floor shorter. Take that BeiJing!

Looking down from the gate. Local folks relaxing over the sweet sounds of the ErHu.

Backroads in ShiPing. All of these southern cities still have raucous old districts full of markets and mayhem.

Local cruisers. Cushy. No wonder the old men aren't jealous of our rides.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pu'er Pilgrimage

With directions from a tea store owner in MengHai, we headed into the hills to find the old tea fields. The directions were sketchy not only because they involved unmarked mountian roads that began 20 km out of town, but also because they were described in Chinese sometime past midnight over our fifth pot of pu'er.

We did not set off early the next morning. Those lacking experience be warned: a pu'er hangover can be tough to deal with. It's is best cured with a lot of water and another strong cup of tea.

After climbing to an elevation of around 1700 meters on a rough road, getting lost in an old village, avoiding a local guide, and finally getting more much needed directions, we finally got onto some nice dirt tracks that lead into the fields. That's a stunted tea tree on the left side of the road.

A look back at the hills and some smaller tea trees on the left.

This is one of the oldest tea farmers in the area. Note the look of concentration as he busily tends to his trees.

This tree is said to be 700 or 800 years old.

As I understand it, tea actually originated in this area. Probably not in this field or anything, but this county has apparently been producing tea for thousands of years.

Old trees = big tea leaves.

We bought some "big tree tea" in town that we occasionaly mix in with the morning pot of Pu'er.

Tea in the initial stages of fermentation.

That's about all I've got concerning tea.

Now we are in JianShui, a city with a great old section of town. Tonight we are heading to a local tea house we scoped out last night for some song and dance, and probably some gong fu, all of course over tea.

I like tea.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

MaMa knows best

We find ourselves in JingHong again after a three day excursion in search of fine Puer tea and the ancient tea trees in the mountains west of here. More about that soon.

It's rice planting season, and everyone is out in the fields working hard. These plots contain rice seedlings which will soon be harvested and transfered into the rice paddies by hand. The color might not look real, but it was late in the day and the fields looked stunning.

Riding through the country side we've passed through some amazing Dai villages. The beauty of riding is that you can just stop to take a break or a walk anytime. The Dai share there roots with the people of Thailand and Laos. The arcitecture is similiar to some of the traditional houses in northern Thailand, though they use a lot more brick here. As you can see, it's still quite tropical down here.

This is impressive (though maybe only to me and Tom). With a gravel pit above, this hand built system graded and temporarly stored gravel to load into trucks. This is the kind of technology that I'm sure Canada hasn't seen since the old coal mines in the early 1900's. Spectactular.

What a beauty! This is a simple truck that all the farmers use around here.

For risk of giving you all a distorted picture of what southern China looks like, here's a picture of an urban area encroaching on the country side. It's ugly, but the trash you see at the bottom of this picture is actually sorted for recycling. See the group of kids heading to school on the path between the rice paddies?

And finally, here is a picture of me doing the tourist pose with reclining Buddah.

We stayed in a kind of homestay/boarding house (lushe) in MengHai, and the owner's mothering instincts soon dominated our relationship with her. Our first mainland MaMa was very concerned about our apparent lack of concern for our own safety. It was soon decided that she would take us to a local temple to be blessed and given talismans - blessed objects that confer safety on the wearer. After a walk across town we came to this temple, but unfortunatly the guy wasn't around. MaMa implored us to wait around until the afternoon for our blessing, but we decided that we needed to head out of town and look for those tea trees.

I crashed my bike four hours later on a mountain road. I guess MaMa knows best.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Bargin' it from Thailand to China on the Mekong

Well, finally some time to update this with those pics/stories I promised...

This may be a bit over informative for some, as I will try to make this a place where people who want to do the same trip can get some information (I get some strange hits from google). I will probably add more information in the next week.

Contrary to what others have written on the net, this trip is possible year round. Usually the boats travel from Chiang Saen to JingHong. This time of year though (the dry seaon - anytime from February to early July we were told) the trip will only go as far an GuanLei in YunNan. From GuanLei it is a 5 hour bus ride to JingHong, or two days on a bike.

From July to December, this river trip can be done in two days and two nights. The risk of doing it late in the dry season is that it's possible that the trip will take longer. Possibly a lot longer. Our captain told us that the last trip took him 16 days... if we weren't too scared, we were welcome to come aboard.

The Chinese government controls the dam that controls the flow of water, so if you decide to do this trip in the dry season, you may find yourself anchored somewhere between here and nowhere (as we found ourselves doing a couple of afternoons) waiting for the water to come up. I can tell you that it comes up pretty slow.

Because this trip can take a lot longer in the dry season, the boat captains will try to charge more. We read on the net that 300 yuan was a pretty standard fare, but we met one cyclist in Lao who paid 600, and another guy who had paid 400. So, you're going to need to bargain. Our captain started at 500... eventually he explained that the trip could take a long long time, and he would need to feed us during that time. Food costs money. Eventually we worked out a deal where we would pay 350 if the trip was 3 days or less, 400 if it was 4 or 5 days, and 500 if it was more than five days. Seemed reasonable. Payment to be made on arrival!

Actually, when we got to Chiang Saen, the only boat in port was heading to Myanmar. The captain of that boat informed us that there were 5 boats 10 km up river at the Golden Triangle, and sure enough there were. Don't rely on Thai Immigration for information about the boats; they have no idea.

So, if you don't find any boats in Chiang Saen, you know what to do.

We headed up the road and arranged passage. Then the captain of that boat found a car and drove us back to Chiang Saen where we went through immigration and formally "departed" Thailand. At this point we walked out of immigration back onto the street - countryless - and drove back to the boat.

Anyway, here are some pictures.

Ahh... yes. This is the boat. mmm hmmm. Nice one. Up top, behind the front deck you can see four windows of the living quarters... There were eight rooms, each with four beds... This boat is called 红星号 or "The Red Star".

These Thai labourers loaded up the boat - shouldering three 10 kg boxes of dry Longyan (a fruit... aka "dragon eyes") down the hill - for about 8 hours.

We left just after dark and travelled for about four hours in the dark using spot lights... I took this picture early the next morning just after we set off. That's the cook (or "the boy" as Brett and I named him) swabin' the deck. We would usually travel until 9 or 10 in the evening before ancoring for a good nights sleep. The crew would get up at around 5:00 am, and we would set off before the sun rose.

On the bridge: "Mi se de" Yang at the wheel and I can't remember his name on the throttle. There was a huge poster of Mao on the door behind Mr. Yang that I wish I could have gotten in this picture.

When we went through a shallow section, two of the guys would stand at the front of the barge and probe the water with long bamboo poles, yelling out directions as we inched up the river. We were frequently beached on sand bars, and twice we had to just stop all together and wait for an indefinate time. During these times, the captain would come and give us doomsday predictions about how the trip would probably take 8 to 10 days. He was serious.

This was a crazy rapids section where the water flowed so fast that we needed the winch to pull the boat through. The barge had a winch up front powered by a huge deisel engine. Four or five members of the crew got off the boat and dragged the cable a hundred meters up stream where they found a suitably big rock. We inched up stream with the winch and the boats two engines all at full throttle. It was a little hairy. I guess that barge above didn't make it.

Here are a couple of barges parked early morning on the Lao side of the river.

A couple hours later, while I was reading on deck, I saw a bloated dead body eddying on the side of the river. Rough.

We kept on moving.

What to do? Did the crew see it? I have to say, I paniced a little (it's not everyday you see such a thing). I spent a minute or two working out what I was going to say to the captain. I went to the bridge and knocked on the door. I said something like "你们有没有看到水里的人? 他死掉了!" "Did you see that guy in the the water? He was dead!"

"Mmmm", they said. "He was probably having a bath and fell in".

We continued up the river.

I asked what we should do.

They said no problem, it was taken care of.

It was left at that.

The last morning of the trip, at least 100 km south of China, we woke up to find the Mekong raging. The water had risen at least a meter over night. The dam had been opened. Everyone was pretty excited. High water means a lot less work for the crew.

After exactly 3 days and 3 nights, we made it to GuanLei. The crew invited us to stay another night on the boat, and to head out for a night on the town. Before we got off the boat, we had a huge meal with six or seven dishes. They offered, and we drank a big glass of 百酒 (bai jiu, the strongest fire water I've ever drank) to toast the trip. Later we went into town to look around and play some pool. It was a great introduction to China.

You can check out Brett's blog for another version of this...

In the next posting I will explain how we learn Chinese by watching Chinese soap operas. Interesting and educational.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


We arrived on the evening of the 2nd, and spent yesterday cycling north towards JingHong.

The boat ride was great. We made it - along with the crew of seven and what must have been nearly a thousand tons of dried Longyan - from Chiang Saen to GuanLei in three days and three nights. I have many good stories to tell, including the one about winching the barge through fast and low water, the threat of a two week trip, the giant lizard (dead of course) that the crew bought from some Lao hunters, the dead body, and of course the night out on the town with the boys after we got into port.

But those stories are for another time.

Unfortunatly, this internet cafe won't let me plug in my camera, likely for fear that I will send out sensitive pictures. Ha.

Unsuprisingly, I can't actually look at this blog from China, the compromise being that I can post. This of course is due to what's known as "The Great Firewall of China". You can read about it on Wikipedia (which I find is also blocked) if you search under that term.

I will write more and post some pics from JingHong in a few days.