Trekking in Shangri-la: Up a remote river valley

We had a vague research plan. In fact, we were treating this trip as a sort of reconnaissance, to check out the area, and hopefully make some contacts. We are both interested in Chinese dialects, language contact, and Chinese language education among China’s ethnic minorities, particularly Tibetans. We hoped to make contact with some rural schools to see how Tibetans are learning Chinese. The first challenge we encountered was finding information about the river valley we wanted to visit. I had heard about the Niru Valley from a former student who had spent a short time there the previous year. A remote place like this does not appear in the Lonely Planet Guide or any other guide. Searching online also did not produce much. We finally found a hand drawn map from a Chinese blogger who had visited the region. The information was scant, but better than nothing.

We planned to hike up this valley past the village Hongxiu (at least that’s what we had heard) to the Tibetan village of Niru. We hoped there was a school there and that we might be able to meet the teacher, even though school was out for the summer. We also hoped to interview some locals and talk to them about their experiences learning Chinese. But more than anything we wanted to see some natural, remote, and wild parts of China. We had both spent plenty of time in big Chinese cities and had seen all the big cultural sites many times.

The evening before we left we went down to the entrance to the old town where drivers and their minivans congregate. We talked to a few guys until we met a guy we liked. He was a Tibetan who was born and raised in Shangri-la. We negotiated a price for him to drive us to the village of Luoji.

Our Tibetan driver and his mini-minivan

The next morning we met him and we began our journey. Minivans in China are not like minivans in the U.S. which are actually quite large. These are tiny little vans, and yet they still can seat up to 6 or 7 people. Luoji is an ethnic Lisu village several hours drive southeast of Shangri-la. The Lisu are an ethnic (non-Chinese) group that have lived in Yunnan Province for hundreds of years. In fact, there are more ethnic minority groups in Yunnan than any other place in China.

The road to Luoji started out as a nicely paved two lane road. We first climbed up out of the Shangri-la plain, then began descending into a deep valley. For the first two hours we climbed up and down switchbacked roads through very green and lush countryside. Occasionally there would be a village on the hillside with terraced farmland. We also passed a ranch with rustic buildings with livestock.

Our driver was delightful. He had a high school education and had pretty good Mandarin. My experience is that the more education a person has the better their Mandarin is. I have spoken with plenty of people in rural areas of China that had very rough and broken Mandarin. (It is secretly gratifying to talk to Chinese that have worse Mandarin Chinese than I do). We really enjoyed talking with him as we drove. He told us all about his education, particularly how they learned Mandarin Chinese as children. He told us all about his family. He was married and had two daughters, of which he seemed very proud.

After about two hours, the road began to deteriorate. It went from nicely paved blacktop to a type of crushed rock road, to a dirt road full of pot holes, and deep muddy pools. It was pretty rough going for about an hour and a half or two hours.

After about three and half or four hours we arrived in the small village of Luoji. The main road ended here. At the end of the road was a small restaurant, a guest house, and a small store. We had bought some things in Shangri-la so didn’t bother buying anything. When we got out of the minivan, we were met with stares. It was as if they had never seen foreigners before. They even seemed a little spooked. We were anxious to get out of town, so to speak, so we paid our driver and bid him a warm farewell. He had never been to Niru but he pointed out the way.

Luoji was much lower in elevation than Shangri-la, probably by at least three thousand feet. It was much warmer down here in this river valley. Shangri-la had been very pleasant and cool, being over 10,000 feet in elevation. We were surprised it was so warm here.

With all our belongings in midsized backpacks we set off down a narrow dirt road. We felt a sense of excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation at the unknown. We really did not know what to expect up this valley, but we hoped to meet some rural Tibetans, see some beautiful unspoiled country, and enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside. We had read a Chinese blog report that there was a rustic guesthouse up the valley in an area called Hongxiu Village, but we were not sure where it was. We assumed we would be able to buy food at stores, or eat at small restaurants. In Shangri-la we had bought some crackers, coconut cookies, some instant noodles, and some peanuts. We each carried two quarts of water. We did not bring any camping gear as we planned to stay in guesthouses along the way. We were also hoping to hike high into the mountains above Niru to some high mountain pasturelands where the local Tibetans grazed their yaks in the summertime.

The road just outside Luoji descending down to the river

The trek begins

Three hours later we are sitting by the side of the road, hot, sweaty, and already running low on water. The road out of Luoji dropped down into the bottom of the valley and crossed a river, then switchbacked up the other side for a couple miles. It was steep going for quite awhile. Once we got to the top of the gorge, the road turned left up into the Niru Valley along the Niru River. At this point the river was far below us at the bottom of the valley. Across the valley picturesque farms dotted the mountainsides and side valleys. It was very idyllic and looked like something out of a coffee table book.

We were told by some locals in Luoji that the road to Niru was built the year earlier. Up until that time it was not much more than a trail. In several places the road is washed out, or covered by rocks from small landslides. Occasionally a jeep or truck passes us. We are sitting taking stock of the situation. We’re running low on water but there is a small creek running down the mountainside and across the road. We fill our bottles and treat them with purification tablets that I carry in my first aid kit. That should be good for a few more hours. We certainly were not expecting this kind of heat.

Collecting sap

After another couple hours we come upon a small cluster of wood frame houses. We are again running a bit low on water, so we decide to see if someone can offer us some water. We leave the main road and head down a small side road that leads to the farmhouses. Almost immediately a mangy dog appears barking ferociously. We both instinctively reach down and pick up a few rocks. A few well-aimed throws sends the dog on his way. We heard stories of the fearsome, and huge Tibetan mastiffs. We approach what looks like a very old wood frame house. There is a woman in the yard washing clothes in a large metal washbasin. We greet her in Chinese. She turns and yells something in a language we do not understand. A young teenage girl appears from inside the house. She speaks Chinese, as most school-age kids in China do. They are Lisu and her mother does not speak Chinese. We ask them if there are any stores around. They say the only store around is back in Luoji, so we ask if they can give us some water. She invites us into the house, so we drop our packs outside the front door and enter a dimly lit, very rustic house. It is made entirely of wood, the floor, walls, ceiling. There are three chickens wandering around inside. There does not appear to be any running water or plumbing.

The young girl gives us each a cup of boiling water and we sit and chat. She is in middle school and says there is a small school nearby that teaches all the kids in this part of the valley. She tells us that most of the kids are Lisu or Naxi. She has okay Mandarin, though it is accented. Her mother sits by smiling. They tell us that they have never seen foreigners before, except on TV. After about fifteen minutes we thank them and take our leave.

A bit further down the road, we come across another cluster of houses. We wander around a bit, until we find someone and ask them if there is a store nearby. A young girl runs off, returns a few minutes later with an middle aged women who shows us to an old building that looks like it used to be a store. Inside the floor is littered with boxes and trash. She rips open a few boxes until she finds one with bottled Chinese sports drink. The expiration date is a year old, but probably can’t do too much harm so we each buy two bottles. It looks like a type of guesthouse was build here but nothing came of it. It was deserted. Their Chinese was pretty rough so we didn’t spend much time there. We thanked them for the drinks and continued up the road.

The entire day the road gradually climbed up the valley. By afternoon the road had dropped down to the bottom of the valley and we were hiking along the swift and roaring Niru River. After another hour or so of hiking we came to a gate over the road with a sign saying “Niru.” We had finally arrived. This was the beginning of the Tibetan area. At the top of the sign was Tibetan writing with large Chinese characters below. We were pretty tired. We had been hiking for about eight hours and had covered probably 15-17 kilometers. But we were disappointed that no village appeared, only occasionally farm house along the road or across the river. The homes here though were distinctively Tibetan.

Tibetan farmhouse

We began to get a little concerned about where we might stay for the night. It was getting late and we were tired. A few minutes later we approached a Tibetan farmhouse with a tattered sign advertising a guesthouse. The sign was all torn up and half of it was hanging down to the ground. It didn’t look too promising, so we decided to walk on a bit and see what we could see. Every time someone would pass in a car we would ask how far it was to Niru. We got everything from two hours to seven hours so we really did not know how much further it was to the village proper. Another few kilometers up the road we met a farmer on the road in front of his house. It looked like a newly built house and was nicer than any of the other farmhouses we had seen along the way. We chatted for a bit, and asked him if we could stay at his place for the night. He said he could not house us, but didn’t really give any reason. I think he was kind of scared of maybe getting in trouble for housing foreigners without proper permission. He told us that this valley was gearing up for the tourist trade but was not ready yet. He said there had been some tourist here, but they were all Chinese, never foreigners. He gave us some boiled water so we could make our instant noodles for dinner. No one has heard of a Hongxiu Village.

And so we sat on the side of the road eating our noodles wondering how far it was to the actual village. We sat on a log eating, a few black pigs rooting around in the brush behind us.

Foraging pigs

Michael’s stomach was acting up so he headed up the hillside into the woods to take care of business. I sat alone enjoying the peace and quiet that I was so unaccustomed to in China. Dark clouds were moving in from up the valley and it looked like it might rain. We had no camping gear, did not know how much further the village was, and could not find anyone around to take us in. Most of the Tibetan farmers that we had seen would wave to us, then quickly disappear.

As I sat there two kids, a teenaged girl and boy, came walking down the road from up the canyon. They were very surprised to see a foreigner sitting there on a log eating a bowl of noodles. Our conversation went like this.

“What are you doing here?”

“My friend and I are heading up to Niru. How much further is it?”

“At least four hours on foot. It’s too late to get there today.”

“Are you sure? We heard it was pretty close.”

“No. We just came from there. We walk this road all the time.”

“Do you know anywhere we can stay for the night around here?”

“You can stay at any of these farms around here. Anyone will take you in.”

“I don’t think so. Everyone seems to be afraid of us.”

They both burst out laughing. They are both Tibetan, but give us their Chinese names. (I am intentionally not using their names here because, though the chances are remote, I do not want to risk getting them into any trouble). Many Tibetans have Chinese names, which sometimes are transliterations of their Tibetan names and sometimes are just made up Chinese names. You cannot translate an English (or Tibetan) name into Chinese, so if you want a Chinese name, you get a native to help you pick out a Chinese name. She is fifteen years old, he is seventeen, and she is actually his aunt. They have just returned from ten days in the mountains picking wild mushrooms. Their families have a cabin up in the mountains where they stay with a couple other families, picking mushrooms. They had come down into the valley and sold their mushroom crop to a buyer who would then sell them in Shangri-la. They were returning home for the night to clean up. She would then head back up to the mushroom camp, and he would stay at home, while his mom would head up to the camp.

They offered to help us find a place to stay. So we headed back down the road, from where we had come. When we would arrive at a farm, they would shout out (in Tibetan) to the residents. They knew everyone all up and down the valley. No one seemed to be around and they were perplexed. When we arrived at the farm with the tattered guesthouse sign, they shouted out to a women in the courtyard of the home. She looked up, saw us foreigners, then quickly disappeared into her house She would not come out no matter how much the kids called out. They were both very amused by this.

The supposed guesthouse

Finally, they suggest that we just come home with them. I tell them that I don’t think their mothers would approve of them dragging home two middle-aged white foreigners. They laugh again and assure us it will be fine. They tell us that their mothers have never seen foreigners before and will really enjoy it. I continue to resist, until the boy finally says, “I’ll call my mom and ask if its okay.” To our surprise he pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and proceeds to call his mom. We cannot believe that there is cell phone coverage up this remote valley. The girl explains that there is pretty good coverage all up and down the valley. Cell phone coverage all over China is pretty good, but we did not expect it up here. The conversation with his mother is all in Tibetan so we cannot tell what is said.

Michael with the Tibetan kids

In fact we have both studied a little Tibetan before this trip, but we learned very quickly that we were learning standard Lhasa Tibetan, and the dialect spoken in this area was quite different. So our efforts did not help us too much, except for some basic greetings. Our driver also taught us some basic phrases while we were driving out to Luoji.

He tells us that his mom said it was okay for us to stay the night at his house. Michael and I look at each other, shrug our shoulders, and gratefully follow them down the road. We hike back down the road for two or three kilometers, before leaving the road and crossing a rickety bridge across the river. We then follow them up a very steep, narrow trail up a mountainside to the top of a bluff where there are two traditional Tibetan houses surrounded by cornfields. The first house is where the girl lives, and the second house is where the boy lives. We all proceed to his house. These houses are similar to the ones we had seen in the outskirts of Shangri-la, though they are much smaller, and more rustic.

The boy's house on the bluff

There is a high wall around the house and a gate that opens into a courtyard. The courtyard is covered to depth of about 18 inches with leaves and branches. This is to absorb the animal waste. There are several small black pigs there as well as several chickens. We walk across the small courtyard, and up a steep wooden stairway to the second floor and into the house. It is post and beam construction, made entirely of wood. The floor is rough wooden planks, burnished smooth by countless footfalls. There are no glass windows, just one small opening, a out two feet square, with a wooden door over it. It is very dark inside, only illuminated by two large, but very dim bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It smells like wood smoke. His mother greets us warmly, a broad smile spreading across her wind burned face. It is obvious that this woman has spent her life working in the outdoors. No fancy headdress or colorful clothing out here in this remote area.

On one side of the room is the open fire for cooking. There is a large steel wok in a kind of frame over the fire. Next to it is a steel woodburning stove that they use for heat in the winter. The only furniture in the room are two low wooden platforms that are used for sitting.

They are all quite excited to have guests, especially foreigners. The mother gets busy cooking a simple meal. It consists of stir-fried potatoes with just a little salt, and some stir-fried squash and some yak cheese. It is very simple, but much appreciated. They cook over an open fire indoors. Above the fire is a woven platform where cheese is stored.

Reaching for some cheese from the storage rack above the fire

A nice hunk of smoked yak cheese

Above this is a hole in the ceiling where the smoke mostly dissipates into the third floor storage area. This is where they store grain, corn and barley, yak hides, chili peppers, and so on.

Ladder to the third floor storage

They grow corn and squash. They collect wild mushrooms, raise pigs and chickens, and rely heavily on yaks for butter, cheese, meat, and their skins for clothing and tents. Smoked and dried pork hangs from the ceiling. The men are with the yaks in the high summer pastures. In fact, the fathers are away most of the year with their yak herds. The boy’s older brother is with his father and the yak herds.

There is no running water in the house. They collect water from a nearby creek, and store it in a large, probably 30 gallon barrel, in the corner of the large room. There is no bathroom. At one point I have to go and ask the boy where I should go. He laughs, as if this is a ridiculous question, and simply says, just go anywhere outside.

As rustic as these farmhouses are, they all have satellite television, and solar hot water heaters with cisterns on a high platform. So there is hot water to wash with.

The girl is a sophomore in high school. She boards at the high school in Shangri-la during the school year. She has very good Mandarin Chinese. She tells us all about her schooling, even pulling out some of her textbooks. She also studies English and shows us one of her English textbooks, but she cannot really say much in English. The boy only attended through primary school. As a result his Chinese is heavily accented and we sometimes have a hard time understanding what he is saying. But he is very patient with us, and laughs often.

They are very gracious hosts, and allow me to take lots of pictures of them and their humble home. Realizing that I have a camera, they want me to take pictures of them in their formal, traditional dress. They run into one of the two bedrooms, off the main room, and return with a pile of brightly colored clothing. They proceed to dress up in their traditional clothing that they wear at weddings and during the Tibetan New Year celebrations. They are beautiful and all hand made. After taking photos of them, they insist that we try on the clothes as well. They are very amused and laugh when we try on their these traditional clothing. We laugh along with them as we contemplate what we are doing, and the good luck that has brought us here. The black robe I try on his made from yak wool and is heavy and thick. The hat is made from fox fur.

We have a very enjoyable evening visiting with them. It’s getting late and they need to get up early in the morning. In fact the boy’s mother is getting up at 2:00 am to head up to the mushroom picking camp. It is a ten to twelve hour hike up into the mountains. The girl prepares to go home and tells us that we need to stop by in the morning before we leave to have some fresh milk from their cow. She is very proud of the fact that they have a milk cow.

They prepare a bed for us by pushing the two wooden platforms together. They throw a wool rug over it, with a couple more heavy wool blankets and a couple pillows. We have travel sheets that we use as well. It is a very hard bed, but we are grateful to have a place to sleep. When they turn the lights out the room is absolutely pitch dark.

Our bed for the night

The mother is up early, re-stoking the fire and making yak butter tea, then she is off. Later that morning, around 7:30, the boy is up re-stoking the fire and preparing breakfast for us. We have traditional Tibetan tsampa, which is really just barley flour, yak cheese, and yak butter tea. In some Tibetan areas tsampa is made by mixing barley flour with yak butter tea to form round dough balls. For many Tibetans, this is their primary diet, along with lots of butter tea. In this area the barley flour is eaten raw accompanied with butter tea. You just grab a pinch of flour and pop it into your mouth, and wash it down with tea. Yak butter tea is made with hot water, yak butter, salt and tea leaves. It is very strong, and most westerners have a difficult time getting it down. The tea is prepared in a wooden cylindrical churn. It wasn’t the most appetizing breakfast, but what a unique cultural experience. We were profoundly grateful to be having this experience.

Making yak butter tea

A Tibetan breakfast

After breakfast, we pack up and head next door. We meet the girl’s mother, and her 90-something year old grandmother, who has been blind for the past twenty years. No doubt cooking over a fire indoors for many years had something to do with that. The mothers speak just a little Chinese, but the grandmother only speaks Tibetan.

The proudly serve us each a large bowl of milk. To our surprise it is very sour and full of curds. We sip it tentatively. Michael leans over and says he’s going to hurl if he has to drink any more. I’m trying not to laugh. I guess I have learned to mentally shut out gross things and just put them down. But I admit, the sour, curdled milk is pretty bad. After a short visit, we thank them, and head down the steep trail, across the river, and back onto the road. They assure us it is only about a four hour walk to the village of Niru. It turns out that this whole long section of the valley is technically Niru village, but at the end of the valley is the cluster of homes that constitute the village proper.

TO BE CONTINUED

Exploring Shangri-la

The city of Shangri-la looking toward the old town. Buddhist temple on the right and a huge prayer wheel on the left.

The city of Shangri-la has a population of around 120,000 and sits at 3200 m (10,498′). That may sound like a pretty good sized city, but on Chinese standards, it’s pretty tiny. The city consists of an old section where all the Tibetans used to live and a new section recently built up by the Chinese. This is typical of many Chinese cities—the original older city, and a newly developed section. For example, a couple years ago I was in Qingdao visiting an academic program there. I was staying in the new section of town and I didn’t like it. It was very modern with lots of new shiny skyscrapers, and shopping areas, but it was all very bland, with very few people on the streets.  It was even hard to find a decent restaurant that was reasonably priced. The border between the new city and the old was stark. Literally cross a street and it was like the old China that I know and love—tons of little shops and restaurants, crowds of people on the streets, old architecture, lots of character.

A street in Shangri-la's new town

Shangri-la’s old town was charming and quaint, but a little too “restored.” That is, they went a little too far with tourists in mind. It is full of little restaurants, coffee shops, stores selling all kinds of tourist trinkets, and guest houses.

Shangri-la's old town

Click on the link below to see a photo of the old town taken in 1999 (photo courtesy of Michael Paul)

Zhongdian Old Town

The new city is rather typical of most Chinese cities, bland concrete architecture, wide streets, and generic stores. But Shangri-la is still predominantly Tibetan, and that is who you see on the streets and in the markets. Yes there are Chinese run businesses and restaurants, but there is still a huge Tibetan presence. Tibetan women in this part of the Tibetan realm have a distinctive dress. Nearly all the women in the city seem to wear pants (oftentimes jeans), a bright blue apron. sometimes with a white apron over the top it, and a distinctive headdress that sometimes consists of bright fuchsia yarn wound together, or a woven scarf. They are very bright and colorful. Some women also wear brightly colored blouses or vest-like coverings.

Tibetan girls on the street

Traditional Tibetan headdress

One morning while out exploring we came upon a thriving street market. This is where we had our first taste of yak cheese. Though a bit strong and somewhat smoky, I kind of liked it. Michael was not too thrilled about it though.

Street market

Yak cheese

We then stumbled on an indoor market selling meat, produce, and other things. In Chinese we would call this a 农贸市场 nóngmào shìchǎng, or a farmer’s market. I love these kinds of markets and we had a great time wandering around taking pictures. The highlight was when Michael slipped on a big chunk of pig fat on the ground and almost went down.

Fresh market. The characters in the upper left say cài shìchǎng or "vegetable market"

Traditional shopping baskets

These kinds of markets sell an astonishing array of goods, from fresh meat and vegetables to dry goods and live animals in some cases. Below is a sampling of goods.

Chili powder

Fresh chilis, ginger, corn, and I think rhubarb

Tea

Fresh mushrooms

Fresh noodles

Roast duck

Chopping block

Fresh bacon

Frogs (not for pets)

Another day we were wandering around on the outskirts of town and came upon a mushroom market. July and August is wild mushroom season in this part of Yunnan Province and many Tibetans roam the mountains picking mushrooms to sell in the markets. This is one way for rural Tibetans to earn some cash.

Mushroom market

Bringing in the harvest

Wild mushrooms

More yak cheese

The road to Tibet, a few hours drive away.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Trekking in Shangri-la: Songzanlin Monastery

In late July of 2010, a colleague and friend of mine attended and spoke at an academic conference at Yunnan University in Kunming. Since we were in a wonderful and scenic part of China, we decided to take some time after the conference to do some trekking. We both have interest in Tibet and the border regions of Tibet where about half of all Tibetans live. Yunnan Province in China’s southwest has three Tibetan Autonomous counties. One of my former students had traveled to the Shangri-la region in upper northwestern Yunnan and the region seemed really interesting with a high Tibetan population. My friend had also visited the city in the 90’s.

In 2001, in order to attract tourists, the city of Zhongdian 中甸 zhōngdiàn was renamed Shangri-la 香各里拉 xiānggēlǐlā. The name Shangri-la came to the west from the novel written by James Hilton about a mysterious Himalayan utopia isolated from the world. Several places in the Himalayas have been thought to be this place described in his novel, but only China was brazen enough to actually name a town Shangri-la.

In the old days, (in the 90’s and previously) Zhongdian was a dusty, almost one street town, where it was not uncommon to literally see Kham Tibetan “cowboys” ride into town on their horses. The old town consisted of narrow winding alleys through a large cluster of old wooden frame buildings.  After 2001, that all changed as the Chinese spent millions of yuan “improving” the city. These improvements included completely rebuilding the old city gearing it toward the tourist industry, widening streets, building luxury hotels, restaurants, an airport, and so on.

After our conference, we flew to Shangri-la from Kunming. We had arranged to stay at a small guest house (Kevin’s Trekking Inn) where my former student had stayed. It was also recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The place was run by a Han Chinese guy and staffed with a couple Tibetans. It was a bit of a mixed bag. The rooms were okay, but the water was unreliable, meaning we only had water for a short time each day, and what we did have was pretty weak and very cold. They claimed that their well was low on water, but we suspected there was some politics going on, that and the fact that the guesthouse was on a hillside where it was probably more difficult to get water.

Songzanlin Monastery

Our first objective was to visit the large Songzanlin Monastery 松赞林寺 sōngzànlín sì outside of town. We took a local bus that ran the length of one of the main roads in town up to the monastery. The bus was full of Tibetans. It made a mandatory stop at a new building where we were forced to get off and buy a ticket to the monastery (all part of the tourist plan). From there we boarded another bus that took us up to the monastery. The monastery itself was originally built in 1679, and is the largest and most famous Buddhist monastery in the Kham region of Tibet. It is also known as the little Potala Palace because of its traditional architecture. It sits on the side of a mountain at 10,827 feet. The whole complex consists of the temple, two lamaseries, and a large jumble of small wooden living quarters clinging to the hillside. My friend had visited this monastery in the early 90’s and reported that the monks were very friendly and showed him all around. We were looking forward to this kind of reception but were disappointed that even though we spoke Chinese, we received a pretty chilly reception. They did not seem to be interested in talking to us. I suppose at this point they were tired of all the tourists traipsing around their monastery.

Yak butter candles

Prayer wheels

We spent several hours wandering around the complex of temples and houses. All the structures were made of wood and a maze of narrow alleys cut through the dwellings.

Houses around the monastery

Houses adjacent to the monastery

House facing the monastery

Behind the monastery were many more houses, many of which seemed to be made of rammed earth and wood.

Houses behind the monastery

We walked through this small village and climbed to the top of the hill behind the monastery. There were the customary prayer flags as well as beautiful views of the valley.

Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags are inscribed with prayers and mantras and are said to bring good luck. The wind carries these prayers across the countryside. For more information on prayer flags see, http://www.prayerflags.com. From the top of this hill there were nice views of distant Shangri-la, as well as distant mountain ranges, and surrounding farm and grazing land.

Shangri-la in the distance

We hiked off the back of the hill down into another valley with a few traditional Tibetan houses.

Traditional Tibetan houses

Racks for drying the barley crop

At the end of this valley was another small village full of traditional wooden framed Tibetan houses. These houses consist of a gate that leads into a courtyard. The houses are three stories with animals, (pigs, chickens, cows), on the ground floor, living quarters on the second floor and storage on the third floor. These houses were pretty nice. We would later stay in a much more rustic Tibetan house.

Songzanlin Monastery from a nearby village

Typical gate at a traditional Tibetan house

Traditional Tibetan house

After walking around for most of the day, we were really feeling the altitude and were tired, thirsty and hungry. We found a nearby restaurant and had a pretty basic (i.e. not very good) meal. But it was nice to sit and rest a bit before we took a bus back to Shangri-la.

Monks in front of the small restaurant

Feeling the altitude

Tibetan girls in the restaurant

I do not recommend that you go poking around in restaurant kitchens in China as they can be pretty unsanitary. But I couldn’t resist a peak into the kitchen of this place. After all it was right next to where we were sitting. They certainly weren’t trying to hide anything.

TO BE CONTINUED

Serve the People—A Book Review

A couple years ago I was in the University of Arizona bookstore browsing when I came across this book. I was immediately interested since it addresses one of my favorite topics—food and eating in China. I admit that I really enjoy eating when I am in China. In fact, I seldom (i.e. almost never) go out to eat Chinese food when I am in the States. I am too often disappointed with American style Chinese food. It’s not necessarily bad food, it’s just very different from authentic Chinese food that you get in China. Students often ask where the best Chinese restaurants are in town, and I have a hard time recommending anything. Usually the best Chinese food in town is made at the home of some Chinese family. Fortunately I am able to travel to China enough to satisfy my cravings for good, authentic Chinese food. I do cook Chinese at home on occasion to keep me happy between trips to China and have collected a few pretty decent Chinese cookbooks, some written in English from American Chinese writers and some in Chinese that I found in bookstores in China.

Now for the review.

Lin-Liu, Jen. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. 2008.

The author is a Chinese American journalist living in Beijing. It should be noted that she is a fluent speaker of Chinese and it would not have been possible to do the research that she did without good Chinese language skills. I mention this because I think it adds credibility to her research and what she has to say. To be able to interview and interact with people without an interpreter I think is very valuable and will allow one to get stories that would otherwise be unlikely, if not impossible.

The title of the book comes from the socialist slogan coined by Mao Zedong and popularized by the communist party: 为人民服务 weì rénmín fúwù, which literally means “for people serve.” When I first arrived in China in the early eighties you could find lapel pins all over the place with this slogan. Though it is used less these days, you still hear it once in awhile, probably more in official settings.

This book is divided into four parts, 1) Cooking School, 2) Noodle Intern, 3) Fine Dining, and 4) Hutong Cooking. In the first part Lin-Liu describes her experience as a student in the Hualian Cooking School in Beijing, a three month course, Monday through Friday for two hours a day. At the end of the course students take a national cooking exam, are awarded a diploma and can then be hired to work as a cook in a restaurant. This does not mean that you have to have a cooking diploma to work in a restaurant, as I am sure there are countless small mom and pop restaurants all over China where they have received no formal training. The author learns all about Chinese regional cuisines, different kinds of foods, methods of preparation, and so on. She also gives the reader some insight into attitudes and practices of traditional Chinese education. For example, she learned very early in the course, “listen, bow, and copy” and don’t ask questions.

In the second part of the book, Lin-Liu apprentices with a noodle chef from Shanxi Province. She works in his tiny noodle stall in a warehouse district in Southeastern Beijing. Through much hard work she learns how to prepare a variety of different kinds of noodles. I think her goal here was not just to learn how to prepare and cook noodle dishes, but also to experience working in this very vibrant and important part of the Chinese restaurant culture, the food stall, which is really the equivalent of fast food in China.

In Part Three she moves to Shanghai and works in a high end Shanhaiese restaurant on the Bund called The Whampoa Club. Here she learns all about the opposite end of Chinese restaurant culture. The reader gets a glimpse into the high fashion world of Shanghai and the exquisite food that is prepared and consumed by the wealthy, both Chinese and foreigners. It is a completely different world from the noodle shop and yet many of the techniques used are the same.

The book ends with a rather short section on Hutong cooking. A 胡同 hútòng is an alley or lane and is used to identify many of the old Beijing neighborhoods characterized by courtyard houses and mazes of narrow lanes. Unfortunately these historic neighborhoods, which have been around for hundreds of years, are disappearing to new develpment. This part of the book is mostly about these historic neighborhoods and the people that live in them. She also discusses how these friends of hers shop and cook in their small hutong flats. It is an interesting look into these very cool neighborhoods. A couple years ago a friend an I spent a very enjoyable day wandering a hutong neighborhood admiring the architecture, eating at a small restaurant, and chatting with people.

Hutong near the Bell Tower in Beijing

Typical Hutong alley

I really enjoyed this book. Lin-Liu did an excellent job drawing the reader into the world of Chinese food and eating. The book is sprinkled with historical anecdotes and interesting facts, such as how MSG is made and used in Chinese cooking. The reader also sees an intimate portrait of regular Chinese people living ordinary lives in Beijing. Again this would not have been possible without Chinese language skills. I guess my bias as a Chinese language teacher is showing through here, but it goes without saying that learning a foreign language opens all kinds of doors not available to those without foreign language skills. For example, who is going to invite a foreigner to their home if they cannot communicate with them?

I highly recommend this book as a glimpse into contemporary China, particularly with regard to food and eating, which of course, is everything in China.

你吃饭了吗?“Have you eaten yet?”

To say that Chinese life revolves around food and eating is not an overstatement. Food is at the core of literally every Chinese holiday and a multitude of everyday activities. In fact, a very common greeting in Chinese is 你吃饭了吗? nǐ chīfàn le ma? “Have you eaten yet?”  It is an expression of well-being, or concern for the other individual. This seems pretty logical coming from a country that has endured centuries of on and off famine.

Food is so important in Chinese culture that the language is full of food and eating terminology. In fact, a search in the wenlin electronic dictionary for the word 吃 chī “to eat” found literally pages and pages of words and expressions that incorporate this word. A similar result was found with the word 食 shí also meaning “to eat” in many Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese. A sampling of the these terms include:

吃苦 chīkǔ eat-bitterness = bear hardship

吃力 chīlì eat-strength =  strenuous effort

吃醋 chīcù eat-vinegar = to be jealous

吃亏 chīkuī eat-loss = suffer a lose; come to grief

吃惊 chījīng eat-surprise = to be startled or shocked

A couple other food related expressions that are commonly used in everyday speech include:

铁饭碗 tiěfànwǎn       iron rice bowl = to have a secure job

炒鱿鱼 chǎo yóuyú    fry squid = to be fired, as in“他炒了我的鱿鱼” tā chǎo le wǒde yóuyú “He fired me” literally, “He fried my squid.”

吃不了兜着走 chībuliǎo dōuzhe zǒu

carry away leftovers from a meal = to get into serious trouble; for example if I said, 你吃不了兜着走 nǐ chībuliǎo dōuzhe zǒu  means that you are in serious trouble. Obviously the meaning in this expression is metaphorical.

China truly is one of the great ancient cuisines, along with France and Greece. It is a cuisine that has survived and evolved for thousands of years. What most Americans do not realize is that Chinese cuisine varies dramatically across the country. In other words, there is not just one kind of Chinese food, but rather many kinds of Chinese food, that use different ingredients, different methods of preparation, and different methods of cooking. There are also popular dishes that you can find all over China.

Below are a few photographs of some dishes I like to eat when I travel to China. In a later post I’ll discuss some of the different kinds of Chinese food.

鱼香茄子 yǔxiāng qiézi; fish flavored eggplant

宫宝鸡丁gōngbǎo jīdīng; Kung Pao Chicken

番茄炒鸡蛋 fānqié chǎo jīdàn; scrambled eggs with tomatoes

I don’t know the origin of the eggplant dish below, but I have only found it at one very small restaurant in Nanjing. It is truly delicious—spicy, sweet, and crunchy.

蟠龙茄子 pánlóng qíezi; coiled dragon eggplant

四季豆 sìjìdòu; green beans

南京盐水鸭 nánjīng yánshuǐyā; Nanjing salted duck

穆斯林羊排 mùsīlín yángpái; Muslim lamb ribs

烤鸭 kǎoyā; roast duck

And finally some dimsum dishes from Hong Kong.

More on Terms of Address

The owner of a small restaurant

A few posts ago I talked about terms of address. I’m afraid terms of address are quite complicated in Chinese. In fact, the complexity of the system is a direct reflection of hierarchy in Chinese society. That is, it is very important how you address an individual based on your relationship with them. If the person you are addressing is in a position above your own, you will address them differently than if they are in a position perceived as below your own.

Familial Terms

This is true for familial titles, or terms for your relatives as well. Basically, if a relative is older than you, you address them by their title. If they are younger than you, you can basically call them anything you want, from their given name to a nickname or anything else.

For a detailed list of familial terms of address, see this website. Be warned that the list goes on for pages.

http://blog.tutorming.com/mandarin-chinese-learning-tips/family-tree-relatives-in-chinese

In reality there are specific terms for just about every relationship you can imagine within an extended family. And the terms are different if you are addressing someone on your father’s side versus your mother’s side. It is incredibly complex. For example, last week I attended my nephew’s wedding, the son of my older brother. I was meeting with a Chinese colleague and wanted to tell him about it, but I first had to look up the term for “nephew” and not just any nephew, but the son of my brother, because the term is different if it is was my sister’s son.

Even in immediate families it is common for younger siblings to address their older siblings by a title, such as 哥哥 gēge or 大哥 dàgē for older brothers, and 姐姐 jiějie or 大姐 dàjiě for older sisters. If you had more than one older brother of sister, you would refer to them in the order of their birth. For example, your oldest older brother would be 大哥 and the others would be 二哥 èrgē,三哥 sāngē and so on.

Familiar Terms Outside the Family

Familiar terms are also used outside the family, even with people you do not know, such as with people that work in stores, restaurants, train stations, or friends of family members, such as your parents friends. For example, children will often address adults with terms like 大哥 or 大姐 for young adults, and older individuals with terms like 叔叔 shūshu (uncle) or 阿姨 āyí (auntie). In Northeastern China, the term 大妹子 dà meìzi can also be used for a young woman. For very old people, one can use the terms 大叔 dàshū or 大爷 dàyě for someone really old, or for women, 阿姨 or for a very old woman, 奶奶 nǎinai.

It is not necessary to memorize all the familiar terms. In fact, even native Chinese get confused and don’t know all the proper terms for all their extended relatives.

Other Terms of Address

A common way to address a child, whether male or female is 小朋友 xiǎo péngyǒu(literally “little friend”).

A fairly common term used to address people in the service industry, or those considered skilled workers or experts, such as drivers, coaches, and so on, is 师傅 shīfu. This term means “master” but is used beyond that specific meaning.

The term 服务员 fúwùyuán is also a term used in the service industry and is specifically used for waiters and waitresses, clerks, salespeople in stores, and so on. The term literally means “service personel.”

If you take the time to learn how to address people in China it will go a long way in showing  respect to those with whom you associate. It will also make those with whom you communicate feel comfortable, especially when dealing with a foreigner. Remember that the goal is for people to feel comfortable communicating with you, for you to communicate the way Chinese expect people to communicate.

Yuantong Temple 圆通寺 Kunming

A couple years ago a friend and I were in Kunming for an academic conference and decided to visit the famous Yuantong Temple. It was originally built in the late eighth century, but like all old structures in China, it has been rebuilt many times. It is a working temple with quite a few resident monks. It is the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan Province. Pilgrims come from all over the area to pay their respects.

At the temple there are classes on Buddhist scriptures as well as many oridinary citizens praying. We observed several gatherings of people in the various pavilions singing, chanting, and praying together.

I really enjoy visiting Buddhist temples in China. Usually they are are very peaceful and a welcome break from the frenetic pace of large Chinese cities. I like talking to Buddhist monks about their background, why they decided to become a monk, their daily activities, and so on. I’ve had some very interesting conversations over the years. I remember at a monastery in Xi’an once chatting with a middle-aged monk. We were strolling through a quiet back courtyard with no one else around. Out of the blue he pulled out a handful of kettle corn from somewhere inside his saffron robes and offered it to me. My first thought was, “where did that come from?” I graciously accepted his simple gesture.

Another time at the Lingyin Temple and monastery in Hangzhou I struck up a conversation with another monk. After chatting for awhile he offered to show me around. After a brief tour of the main hall, he ushered me into his office. I was surprised to find a computer, fax machine, and other modern electronics. He offered me a cup of tea and we sat on burnished wood chairs as he explained why Buddhism is important to him.

Below are a few pictures from the Yuantong Temple in Kunming.

I’m not sure why the water is so green, but that is how it really looked. And it was full of fish and turtles.

Tending the incense and wax fire

One of the many resident monks

Detail of stone lion carving

Worshippers

A sleepy little lady

Monk shoes

How do you address someone in China?

This may seem like a rather simple question, but it is important, and differs from how we address people in the US. In China, hierarchy is an important part of social interactions. That is, who you are and your position in relation to others determines to a large extent how you address them. This is why, in China, that individuals will always exchange business cards when first meet so they know how to address each other.

Terms of address, or how you address someone, depends on your level of familiarity with the person and the formality of the occasion.  Below I describe various ways to address people.

1. Surname + title

This is the most formal, and safest way to address someone. In Chinese, surnames always come first. This kind of address is appropriate in all formal occasions and whenever you are addressing someone in a position superior to your own or to someone older than you. For example, if you are a student, and your teacher has the surname 王 wáng, you would address her as:

王老师 wáng lǎoshī          Teacher Wang

Or if your boss is a manager, and is surnamed Zhang 张 zhāng, you would address him as:

张经理 zhāng jīnglǐ            Manager Zhang

2. Full name (姓名 xìngmíng)

Unlike in the US, it is very common to address a person by their full name. It does not sound strange at all. Even people that know each other well, may address each other by their full names if they are in a more formal setting. Husbands and wives will even use their full names with each other when they are in public. This term of address is common in the workplace among colleagues, as well as at school with Chinese classmates.

You will most likely use these two terms of address with the vast majority of your Chinese contacts.

3. Given name (名字 míngzi)

You have to know someone pretty well to be on a first name basis. This is quite different from the US where you can meet someone for the very first time and refer to them by their given or first name. In China it takes quite a long time to get to the familiarity level to call someone by their given name. This term of address is reserved for in-group individuals, such as friends, classmates, and co-workers that have a similar social status as you.

4. Nickname

Just as in the US, nicknames are reserved for those with whom you are very familiar, such as family members, close friends, and close colleagues. Nicknames in Chinese are often given based on physical characteristics, or personality traits. These kinds of nicknames are called 绰号 chuòhào or the more colloquial term 外号 wàihào. Here are some examples of these kinds of nicknames:

小胖 xiǎo pàng             “little fatty” for the chubby person

四眼王 sìyán wáng      “four eyes Wang” for the guy that wears glasses

书呆子  shūdāizi          “bookworm” for the person that always has their nose in a book

A Chinese associate of mine explained to me that her nickname among her friends growing up was 老五 lǎowǔ. This name came about because she had four close girlfriends and she was the youngest. In Northern Mandarin 老 lǎo refers to the youngest member of a group. Since she was the youngest of the five, they used this nickname. You could also use this term for a relative. For example, if you had three uncles, you might refer to the youngest as 老舅lǎojiù or your youngest aunt as 老姨 lǎoyí.

Some nicknames are terms of endearment, and are often a variation of a person’s name and are called 昵称 nìchēng in Chinese. I had a friend who was a bit older than her group of friends so they gave her the nickname, 姐姐 jiějie, “older sister” and called her 冯姐姐 féng jiějie(her surname was Feng). Another friend was named 吴小琪 wú xiǎoqí and her parents and grandparents called her 琪琪 qíqí.

You are quite safe addressing Chinese with surname + title or by their full name. Be careful about using given names or nicknames. Relationships in China form and develop much slower than in the US and it may take quite a bit of time to get on those very familiar terms with someone.

One final note: in the US you will undoubtedly meet Chinese who will introduce themselves with their given name, either their Chinese given name or an English name. What do you call them? The rule I generally use, is that if you are speaking Chinese with them, I go by the Chinese practice of calling them by their surname and title or by their full name. If you are speaking English with them, and they have an English name, go ahead and use the English name. If they do not have an English name, I am uncomfortable calling most Chinese by their given name, even if we are speaking English.

No thank you’s, please.

typical Nanjing breakfast

Politeness and courteous language is another area where beginning (and even advanced) learners of Chinese stumble. If you don’t know how to act in a given situation, then you have no choice but to fall back on how you would behave in a like situation in your own culture.

In the United States we are conditioned to be polite, and nice to everyone, from family members to complete strangers that we will likely never see again. This politeness includes using lots of please’s and thank you’s. When learners of Chinese fail to understand how and when to use this kind of polite language they fall back on practices ingrained in their own cultural upbringing. Americans in China notoriously overuse the expressions 请 qǐng and 谢谢 xièxie. They go around saying 谢谢 xièxie to everyone regardless of their relationship with the person. I have personally observed students making a transaction on the street with a peasant selling mangoes. The exchange went something like this:

请问,芒果多少钱? qǐngwèn, mángguǒ duōshǎo qián?

Please may I ask, now much are the mangoes?

The seller was visibly uncomfortable and probably perplexed, and maybe a bit amused. After the transaction was made, the student responded with:

谢谢,谢谢。 xièxie, xièxie

Thank you, thank you.

This kind of behavior is so natural to an American that it is hard to think it could possibly be inappropriate. But most Chinese would find this behavior odd, even strange. To make matters worse, practically every beginning level Chinese language textbook simply translates 谢谢 as “thank you” and 请 as “please” with no further discussion about how and when to use these expressions appropriately.

In China the use of polite language is different. Chinese society is governed to a large degree on hierarchy. That is, you act differently with people above and below your position or status in society. For example, it would be very unusual for a Chinese person to thank a store clerk with a 谢谢 after making a purchase. The same goes for the clerk—they would not use this expression with a customer. The Chinese would likewise not use these polite words with people they are close to, such as family members, friends, and colleagues. With people close to you formal language is not appropriate unless you are intentionally trying to sound sarcastic or distance yourself from the person. Polite language like this is reserved for formal occasions, often when dealing with someone in a social position higher than yours, such as your boss.

typical department store

In recent years there has been a campaign by the Chinese government to clean up their courteous language or improve their verbal hygiene. Erbaugh (2008) reports that as early as 1980 the Chinese Communist Party promoted the use of five courteous phrases, 五个礼貌的词 wǔge lǐmào de cí, based on the impersonal Western-derived phrases, “hello,” “please,” “sorry,” “thank you,” and “goodbye,” with the Chinese equivalents 你好 nǐ hǎo ,请 qǐng ,对不起 duìbuqǐ ,谢谢 xièxie ,and 再见 zàijiàn. The fact that the government would promote the use of these phrases in everyday encounters is pretty good evidence that they are not commonly used by Chinese with Chinese.

With increased exposure to the West and increasing numbers of foreigners traveling to China, these kinds of phrases are heard with increasing regularity. Many Chinese who have regular interactions with foreigners understand that these courtesy words are expected and so they use them. But you still seldom hear them used among Chinese. As learners of Chinese we should strive to behave the way Chinese expect people to behave, linguistically and behaviorally. The Chinese should not have to adapt or modify their behavior to communicate with us.

In conclusion, here are a couple reminders.

1.  Save your 谢谢’s for formal occasions. Resist the urge to thank people in informal contexts such as at restaurants, stores, street markets, etc. You’re not going to offend any Chinese but not saying it.

2. Likewise, save your 请问’s for more formal occasions. Just because you are asking a question does not mean you have to begin with 请问. For example, at a market, if you want to know the price of something, just ask directly.

Erbaugh, Mary. 2008. “China Expands Its Courtesy: Saying “Hello.” The Journal of Asian Studies. Volume 67, Number 2.

More on 你好。

Several years ago I was teaching a Chinese teacher training course. One of my students was a native of Taiwan and was a Chinese teacher at one of the international high schools in Beijing. She related the following story:

One day after a long day at work teaching beginning level Mandarin Chinese courses, she stopped at an outdoor market to buy something. She approached a booth to inquire about the price of the item. The vendor had his back to her when she said,

“你好, (name of the item) 多少钱?” nǐ hǎo,  (name of the item) duōshǎo qián

“Hello, how much is (name of the item)?”

Without turning around, the man gave her an astronomically high price. Because she was Chinese, she was offended that he would quote her such a ridiculously high price, especially since she knew the value of the item. She laid into him in Chinese berating him for suggesting such a high price. He wheeled around in surprise and said,

“对不起,我以为你是外国人”。duìbùqì, wǒ yǐwéi nǐ shì wàiguó rén

“Sorry, I thought you were a foreigner.”

Being a native of Chinese, the vendor certainly did not mistake her for a foreigner because of her Chinese language skills; it was because she initiated this exchange with 你好. An outdoor market like this is very informal, and a formal greeting like this is simply unnecessary and not used among the Chinese. For an American, it would be natural to offer a simple greeting in this kind of context. So, how would a Chinese (and how should you) greet someone in this kind of situation? They wouldn’t use a greeting. They would simply ask how much the item cost.