The Chengdu Experience

May 20th, 2009

Our first day in Chengdu was very full and extremely beneficial.  As a self-proposed “slow city” we still seemed to move at break neck speed to take in all of the opportunities.  Our first order of business for the day was to participate in an environmental education curriculum open house at the Panda Research Base.  We were among other western researchers, local principals, teachers, provincial educational officials, and national forestry officials.  The open house was to unveil their new curriculum for local teachers that would help them to use the Panda Base as a springboard for further inclusion of environmental messages and behaviors in the teaching.  At one point, we were asked about our suggestions for meshing the traditional curriculum with the environmental.  Matthew discussed the idea of aligning the Panda Base curriculum with the required national curriculum.  This idea was not embraced.  Later he asked why there was no support for  alignment and was informed by the Panda Base education staff that the kind of alignment would allow for “personal interpretation” which is not desired by the provincial and national education bureaus.  Unfortunatly, his underlying belief will always make the inclusion of environmental studies as an “extra” in the curriculum as opposed to the interdisciplinary study it should be.  While touring the base, we had many interactions with the local wildlife including the endangered Golden Pheasant, and the 83 pandas housed at the facility.

For dinner, we took part in a Sichuan tradition – the hotpot meal (see photo below).

This meal was in addition to the rooster testicles that David and I ate for lunch (Susan had one one her plate and then got the word just in time to stop).

After dinner, we took a stroll around Chengdu to see all of the Chinese take part in the nightly exercise regiments.  On every corner, there were people dancing, doing tai-chi, and using outdoor exercise machine.  We felt a bit sheepish as we waddled through having just consumed a large amount of very spicy food.

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Sights of Chengdu

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Culinary Travels


Chengdu Nightlife


Lost horizons…

May 19th, 2009

Shangri-La, and the park nearby, illustrated an interesting link between the preservation of ecological and cultural diversity.  Both are governmental priorities and supported by governmental funds. Given that the traditional cultures live more lightly on the land than the new Western practices, the two diversities are compatible as well.  And our impressions so far suggest that people from the minority cultures feel more closely tied to their landscapes and locations than the majority people do — the landscape is part of what defines them. This is not to endorse the simplistic view that minority groups always live in harmony with the earth.  I was just intrigued by the way different types of diversity were linked by state policies here, in part because both types of diversity enhance the revenue from tourism


Lijiang and Beyond

May 19th, 2009

Culinary Travels – Can You Identify (an interactive post)

We need your help!  Below is a photoset form our lunch in a traditional Naxi village.  We had a lunch Naxi street food (I know, we paid the price later), but we have no idea what we ate.  If you have any idea as to what we put into our bodies, let us know!  For what it is worth, it was delicious!

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Music from the Naxi Village

The Song Zan Lin Si Temple

Known as a tourist “must see” Song Zan Lin Si Temple provided us with a firsthand encounter at the intersection of religion an politics. 

While touring the Tibetian Buddhist temple we all were taken by the richness and vibrancy of the imagery, smells of the burning yak butter candles, the transition to compact fluorescent lights in their deity displays, and the chanting of an older monk and his very young apprentice.  As we got closer to the two, the older monk stopped his chants and greeted us with a “hello.”  We were a bit taken aback, but not so much as went he asked, “Where from?”  We answered “meiguoren” (American).  This response caused the monk’s eyes to lighten and enthusiastically say, “Meiguoren (with two thumbs up), Dali Lama ( again with thumbs pumping), Zhonguoren (frown and arms crossed in an X).  He repeated this several times while our Chinese language lessons with Rujie came rushing back.  “Americans good, Chinese bad.”

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Old Town Lijiang

At first blush, a location such as this could be called, as coined by our new acquaintance, a cultural zoo.  But as we traveled through the Old Town, we realized that the reality is much more complex.  The stated purpose of the town was to celebrate Lijiang’s Naxi minority groups, and it seemed that the Chinese government had made efforts to work with the minority groups to co-construct a cultural representation that allowed the tourists to feel as though they were having an “authentic experience,” while the minority groups seemed to be enthusiastic participants – eager to share their heritage and beliefs (FYI, the previous sentence has been entered into the “longest sentence competition” and stands a pretty good chance at winning).

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Civilized Signage

This theme continues from city to city.  We are doing our best to tow the line!  Sometimes David gets a bit rowdy…

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May 19th, 2009

Leaving the Gorge

Before heading to Shangri-La this morning, David and I decided to go for a morining adventure to find the elementary school that served the 60 families living in the section of the valley we were staying.  After multiple zigs and zags through what were a number of “backyards” we gave up and went for a short run down the valley road.  Of course running down the road also meant running back up!  While we were away, Susan captured this image of a local herder heading off to work.  If only we could post a video, the sounds of the bells ringing from around the goats’ necks was amazing.

When David and I returned from the run, we decided to get some local opinions on the proposed future damming of the gorge valley.  We had already talked with our guide who expressed his sorrow for losing the beauty of the gorge, so we headed up the road to another guesthouse run by westerners.  Our inquires were met with icy stares and a curt response, “Why don’t you ask the owner of Woodys (our guesthouse) what he thinks of the dam.  He wants it!”  Conversation over.  We never had a chance to talk with Woody about the dam, but as Shila noted in her reply, many villager see these ideas as unpleasant, but at the same time, progress – a way to better their situation.  The Western owner of the guesthouse seemed to have a very different stake in the valley.  He had already “made it” and was concerned about protecting his own investment, while at the same time protecting a majestic place.


Potatso National Park

Who knew?  Once again our assumptions about China have been turned upside down, this time by a visit to a national park in the Tibetan Autonomous Region that rivals Yosemite and Glacier for its breathtaking beauty. It was especially interesting to see firsthand how the visitor experience was choreographed.  There was no such thing as setting off on your own to explore the park! Instead, we boarded one of the dozens of tour buses that regularly plied a loop through the park.  On each bus, a Tibetan tour guide in full ethnic dress gave a carefully rehearsed speech about the historical and ecological significance of the park, all this as we passed Tibetan men tending herds of yaks and horses in lush green valleys.  Our first stop was a 3 km hike along a boardwalk that sported a solar-powered restroom facility and skirted the field where Tibetans hold an annual horse-riding competition.

Then a 4 km hike alongside a crystal clear lake with a perfectly circular, spruce-covered island in the middle that holds special religious significance for the Tibetans–all this at an elevation of about 12,000 feet with snow-capped peaks in the distance.

Most of the signs along the paths were bilingual (Tibetan and Chinese), further evidence that plans to preserve natural spaces in China are simultaneously local development projects that provide coveted employment opportunities for minority groups.

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Shangri-La Valley

Tiger Leaping Gorge

May 17th, 2009

Very early Saturday morning we left Kunming and our incredibly gracious hosts at Yunnan Agricultural University and headed west into the mountains. We landed in Lijiang airport and drove 3 hours to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Of course we first have to comment on the food….

Culinary Travels


The meat of the valley was pork. Our guide described it as “nature-raised” pork. We were even offered a piglet to buy on our hike. In light of this, our culinary feature for the day was the pork “pissa” featured above. While not appetizing in appearance, the pissa was surprisingly tasty with a crust like that found in baozi (steamed buns).

The Gorge

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The Tiger Leaping Gorge, on the Yangtze River, is one of the deepest in the world, 3900 meters from top to bottom.  It is also a possible site for a new dam — one of many on the Yangtze. As our Naxi guide said, the people need electricity but it could destroy the beautiful nature. So in the knowledge that this landscape may soon be irrevocably changed, your intrepid Wooster faculty trekked the middle gorge to see what it was all about.

As the photos show, it was stunning. Beyond that, it appeared to be a successful match of ecotourism with cultural diversity. The local people (about whom David will say more below) continued their traditional farming unfazed by the hikers striding across their property. In an impressive display of entrepreneurship, they set up mini-markets along the way and also took it upon themselves to maintain the middle gorge trail (the government only maintains the upper gorge). They posted signs requesting donations for such activities as maintaining the wire railing, which we appreciated, and constructing the “sky bridge” ladder leading up from the gorge. The photo of David does not indicate how tall and scary that ladder was! We would have felt more impressed with ourselves if we hadn’t been passed by several 80-year-old men — Susan

People of the Valley

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After two days in the noise and congestion of Kunming, where cranes and new construction projects greeted us at every turn, it was exciting to spend a day in a village of about 60 families that were sandwiched between the two ridges on either side of the gorge.  The villagers in the pictures above are mostly Han Chinese and their livelihoods come from a combination of small-scale farming (corn, beans, etc. with clever irrigation systems rigged from the small streams and waterfalls cascading from the ridges), raising livestock (pigs and goats are sold at market, though every household seemed to have a dog or two and several chickens), and manning the trail toll booths (where they also sold fruit and drinks to weary hikers).  The 80-year old man pictured above appeared from his small plot to give us the thumbs up sign as we passed by.  Judging from the quality of the houses and the availability of electricity (though firewood is still used by many families for cooking), the villagers here have clearly benefited from tourism and don’t (at least yet) have a jaded view of the hordes of Chinese tourists that frequent the first rapids and the more adventurous ones who cross their farms as they trek further into the gorge.  More on some of the ethnic minorities we have encountered in our next post!-David


Culinary Adventures II

May 15th, 2009

We continue to expand our pallets and challenge ourselves to experience Yunan’s culinary culture.  Today’s favorite images came from two meals: 1) the variety of MSG’s that were provided to apply to our breakfasts and 2) our first, and very delicious, opportunity to have duck in China.  From what we understand, our hosts have been taking it easy on us in terms of the level of heat/spice used in the food.  Needless to say, we have enjoyed some very spicy treats!

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Life in Kunming

May 15th, 2009

Below is a collection of photos from in and around Kunming.

1) Lady in flower stall

2) A typical form of transportation

3/4) Some of the many gardens being tended in the shadows of large urban buildings and highways

5) A prevalent source of pollution and scratchy eyes

6) A time-tested method

7) Photos with a local who was immortalized in the Kunming Museum (we do not know who the lady is).  The man actually took many pictures of us as we viewed the exhibits in the gallery.

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The Stone Forest

May 15th, 2009

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After the flower market we headed out of Kunming to a national park: Shilin, the Stone Forest. The drive itself was educational, showing through rice paddies and terraced gardens that every available bit of land is used for agriculture. The park was beautiful, full of curved paths through striking tall stones with names like “bell stone” — it really rang! — and “looking at heaven and earth through a hole.” We missed our geologist and botanist friends to tell us about what we were looking at (karst), but as social scientists were fascinated by what the park suggested about local perceptions of nature. The scenery was clearly valued, but “improved” and managed through carefully constructed paths and definitions. Ethnic diversity was also used to enhance the tourist experience, with colorfully dressed members of the Sani people (which is not originally from this area) around every corner to sell cloth, traditional music, and photo opportunities. As the sign in the photo indicated, nature is best experienced by being civilized.

Tip-toeing through the tulips at the Flower Market

May 15th, 2009

Compared to the algal blooms of the previous day, our first stop on Friday morning gave us a glimpse of nature blooming in a different form.  After passing fields and fields of greenhouses, we arrived at the Kunming flower auction. 

Though things were wrapping up when we arrived, the displays of roses, carnations, lilies and other assorted flowers–most being readied for transport to markets in China and abroad–were impressive nonetheless.  And the prices were rock bottom.  One huge bouquet of roses, for example, was selling for about $1.25.  As it turns out, growing and selling flowers is the third largest industry in Yunnan Province, following tobacco and tourism.

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Kunming – Damp but well fed…

May 14th, 2009

We have decided to feature favorite culinary experiences from each day as a way of sharing some of the cultural highlights.  Since we have been eating a lot, this takes some serious consideration.  Today’s feature is an unknown, deep-fired, whole fish.  This was served with salt and chili pepper rubs that one could apply as desired.  Susan captured a wonderful image and commented at how photogenic they were.  We all enjoyed them, but we were allowed to eat everything but the heads.  Had the heads been required, they may not have made today’s feature.  While on our way to the bathroom outside, we were able to capture a photo of the restaurant’s master chef.  With a smile like that, it is no wonder the food tasted so good!

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After lunch, we were able to go see Dian Lake, the research site that had been the focus for the two-hour seminar we participated in during the morning.

Shi Jing presented the work of Zhang Janining that he had conducted over the past several years on the eutrophication Dian Lake.  Shi noted that the Yunan provence is one of the most important provences for agricuural production and diversity, and Dian Lake represents the collision of these two priorities.  In fact, Dian Lake has the worst water quality of any lake in China – most of which has occurred in the past 20 years due to population growth and fertilizer for crops (fertilizer represents the laregst source on non-point ground polution).  Soil type, slope, fertilization techniques, and application rates all effect the impact on the lake water. 

As you can in the images below, the lake at a distance is very beautiful (an is still a tourist attraction and source of pride for locals), but up close the polution is staggering.  Noted, swimming is prohibited, and we were struck by the lack of bird, aquatic, and insect life.

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In the afternoon, we took a short tour of the Fubao village.  Due to the torrential rain, it was a driving tour, but we were able to stop at the Fubao Culture Town and Spa. Though none of us spa-ed, we did tour the grounds and visited a wetland are (not a bog or marsh) they created adjectent to Dian Lake.  It appeared cleaner (people were fishing) but there was very little that separated the two.


Tomorrow we head to the Stone Forrest, the flower market, and a cultural experience TBA.

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