Monday, January 19, 2015

China Today: A scientific look

My first meal of 2015 was a Chinese breakfast buffet. We had our choice of a number of different dishes. I particularly enjoyed the fried rice with bits of egg in it, and also enjoyed some buns that resembled marshmallows. I also began to notice that I was getting drastically better with chop-sticks, and that I had found a way to hold them that suited me.

When we were done eating, we loaded back on to the bus. The plan was to drive and find more platforms from which to see the terraces. While we were driving through one of the villages, we got caught in a traffic jam. It was explained to us that today was a holiday for the Hani people, and the cause for the traffic jam was a wedding that had just taken place.

We finally got past the jam and continued towards more of the terraces. The two platforms we saw were above different terraces than we had seen on New Year's Eve. They weren't as amazing as the ones we had seen the night before, largely due to the lighting, but it was amazing to see how extensive they were.

Soon though, everyone began to get tired of taking photos of the terraces. As awe-inspiring as they were, you could only take so many pictures of them before you started to create duplicates. We decided then to head back into town.

As we started to walk around some of the markets, we noticed a commotion. A crowd had formed and music was playing. We all tried to get a peek, but I just wound up confused. One man was handing out jars of colored liquid, and the other was standing at a table with a bunch of dead snakes and a dead horse shoe crab. I asked Nixon as to what was going on, and he said that they were putting on some sort of show to promote a product. Continuing to walk the streets, we saw everything and anything. Some of what we saw was fresh tobacco, electronics, shoes, clothes, barbershops, even freshly butchered meat. We looked around for a while, but nothing really caught my eye.

When we went back to the hotel, we had to prepare to leave again, this time for Menzi. The road going down from Yuanyang was just as perilous as coming up, but at the very least I was better able to see the view due to how the bus was oriented.

Once we were out of the mountains, we stopped by a fruit market by the side of the road. Some had their suspicions that this was just an excuse to stop for gas, but I had a good time regardless. My diet back in the states isn't what it should be, but the market had some interesting fruit I'd never tried before. First was the Chinese grapefruit, which was much better than the pink grapefruit I was used to having back home. It wasn't sour or bitter, just sweet, and it never tried to shoot juice in my eye. Next was this really strange fruit called the tamarin. It had a shell like a peanut, but when you opened it up, looked and tasted similar to a raisin. You had to be careful though, because the center of the fruit had pits. Finally, we had the Jeque fruit. It was a citrus-looking orange-ish yellow fruit that tasted somewhat like banana. Of what I had tried, I enjoyed the jeque fruit most.

Soon we were back on the road. We had to go up into some more mountains, but they weren't nearly as high as the ones we went into previously. The soil started to turn a dark red, which I guessed was a result of a high iron content. It didn't take long for the mountains to end though, and soon we were driving through an extremely flat and dry area.

At one point I saw a Chinese fracking pad, although we passed it too quickly for me to get a decent shot of it. From what I've read, the Chinese have had a hard time obtaining natural gas, and are helping Russia circumvent their UN sanctions by allowing them to build two large pipelines into China. Soon we were in Menzi. Apparently we were staying at the Huanghe University dorms. They prepared a large feast for us in honor of the New Year. We ate until we were stuffed, then most of us went to bed.

A few of us were still anxious to explore however. Dr. Luo led us through a student pavilion on the outskirts of campus. The air was filled with smoke and the aroma of cooking food, and many students were drinking beer and playing pool.

After we got so far, we went back out the way we came, and then walked just off campus to a small mall-like area. We saw a few bars, what might have been a Chinese McDonalds, and a few outlet and convenience stores. We then walked back to our rooms, where I quickly fell asleep. I woke up early the next morning to look out the window and see a bright pink sky. I quickly rushed out to take photos of this beautiful sunrise.

For breakfast, we got to boil our own noodles and choose what meats and spices were in our broth. I chose pork, and it was by far the best breakfast I had eaten yet in China. After we ate, we set out for the Bisezhai railway. The Bisezhai railway is renowned in China for being the first railway built by the Chinese, even though it was owned by the French. It connected down to the same railway we had previously seen in He Kou. I couldn't help but feel as if I had walked into a western movie, between the desert-like landscape of Bisezhai along with the railway station.

There was a quarry near the railroad, and I was happy to find a few nice rock samples to bring home. I found a perfect chunk of Calcite with some beautiful cleavage. Dr. Luo and Katie brought over some vesicular basalt to check out.

Basalt is the result of dried lava or magma, and vesicular means that it had many holes in it where gas bubbles had been while it was forming. I didn't know it before, but Yunnan has many volcanoes, and possibly some rifting where magma has been able to reach the surface.

Dr. Viditz-Ward also asked me to look at a large rock that a local had placed as decoration outside of their house. It was finely rounded with the exception of a roughly hewn area beneath a small arching piece. I'm pretty sure the stone consisted of Limestone, but I'm not one hundred percent sure. I also observed a number of small quartz veins running through it. The rough area I suspect is the result of it originally resting by a magma chamber, possibly even next to my small sample of vesicular basalt.

Next, we went to a restaurant and had the famous Crossing Bridge Noodles. It was interesting how the meal was made. They would bring everyone a bunch of raw ingredients, including pork, mushrooms, eggs, a whole chicken leg, along with many other meats and vegetables. Then a large bowl of steaming hot broth was given to each guest, and they would throw in all of the ingredients they were given, starting with the meats and ending with vegetables. They would all cook inside of the broth, and after a few minutes it was ready to be eaten. It was delicious as much as it was peculiar.

After lunch we went to the Honghe Minority Museum. They had the entire history of the county, starting with fossils found locally. They also had artifacts that were hundreds of years old. Hugh, Jess, and I walked around slowly observing each object on display while the group moved on. Then Jess realized that we weren't alone. A group of Chinese girls had been watching and following us from a distance. After a bit, they worked up their courage and asked Hugh if they could get a picture with him. They then left, but came back later to get a picture of the three of us with them. Soon after they left the second time, another member if our group came in and got us. Apparently the group had gone through the museum pretty quickly and had been waiting outside for us.

We then drove a little down the road and walked around a small lake in the center of town. All around the lake were these beautiful pagodas and bridges. There were also rides and a pool for the kids. It was a perfect day to see this lake, as there wasn't a cloud in the sky and a comfortable breeze coming from across the lake. It was a day to remember.

We then returned to the campus and had some time to do whatever before dinner. I took a quick walk around campus to see what I could. Two girls saw me walking around and called me over. Apparently they were English majors, and wanted to know if I could help them study for their exams. I helped explain how to use some words, and then helped them with their pronunciation. Eventually it was time for me to head to dinner, so I wished them luck on their finals and left, but not without leaving them with my email. Assuming they email me and everything works, I now have Chinese pen-pals!

After dinner, I took a short walk around campus and went straight to bed. And so ended yet another day in the beautiful Yunnan province.

We started Wednesday by eating again at 1897. We then packed and prepared for our trip to Yuanyang. We knew that we were heading to the terraced fields, but nobody quite understood what that entailed. We left He Kou back through the Ai Luo Mountains. This time I was facing the mountain rather than the gorge, which was somewhat of a shame because the first time I thought the photos wouldn't be worth taking through the windows.

Since then it was pointed out that they may not be great, but could still be high enough quality to be worthwhile. While I may have missed some of the more scenic shots, I did get something I didn't expect to. We eventually turned off from the road we had previously taken onto another small highway beneath it. Most of the rock face consisted of limestone, however there was occasionally some sandstone and shale, which is to be expected.

Many places by the road displayed evidence of dynamite blasts, which could be seen as equally spaced holes drilled vertically into the rock where dynamite was placed. However, these blasts had made portions of the mountain unstable.

Where there had once been a solid rock face, there was now a crumbling mass of sediment and stone. Until another single face can be eroded away, that crumbling mass will continue to fall apart, and could possibly grow further up the mountain, creating a hazard for the highway below. The Chinese had tried to stop this crumbling by placing concrete grids over the blasted areas, in an attempt to reduce further erosion. In some place it worked, especially when local plants were able to take root in the grids, keeping more sediment from shaking loose with their root systems.

Other areas were less successful. Large rocks would still fall from the rock face, being a hazard and further damaging the grid before vegetation could help to secure it from erosion. One way that the Chinese helped secure these grids was by pouring a cement mix over particularly troublesome areas. Pipes drilled into the mountain would stick out of these areas, most likely to drain groundwater that might otherwise put pressure on the concrete. What I am unsure about is how they poured the concrete without further aggravating the stability of the slope. From what I could see, there were no ledges above that were level enough to support a truck, yet the cemented parches seemed too wide for a person to do on their own.

After about an hour, the valley began to open up more and the slopes became less steep. We passed a fruit market which led me to believe that we were getting close. After all, we were heading to the terraced fields, it would make sense to see people selling their produce. We continued past the market and quickly began to ascend further into the mountains. The winding roads here were really narrow, with only a small concrete barrier keeping you from plummeting hundreds of feet straight down. This didn't seem to change anything in regards to how people would drive, as even small motorcycles would still regularly cut in front of our bus. Luckily our driver was a pro, and this drastic change in elevation hardly seemed to phase him. This was impressive, as I was feeling anxious from the height just by looking out the window. I was particularly cautious when I saw a crack in the road large enough for you to see the space beneath it.

Soon it started to become foggy, and we quickly realized that these were the clouds. We were told that we were almost to the Hani minority village, and that we would have to do some hiking. Considering the steep slopes and high elevation, this made me nervous. However, when we got there I realized that the path down to the village was paved with bricks that provided good footing, so I had nothing to fear. The Hani village was located just below some of their terraces. These terraces were beautiful, but didn't compare to the sights we would see later.

The buildings of the Hani were all bright orange, and had thatched roofs that intentionally made them look like mushrooms. Children wandered the streets, playing games with ropes and sticks. It was fun to watch some of the boys sledding down a dirt hill with a piece of plastic.

Vendors sold items to tourists out of what seemed to be their homes. Most of these items were seemingly handmade or extremely old, which made it the best place to buy souvenirs that we had yet seen. I bartered with a vendor for a cast iron dragon statue. It cost me 360 yuan, or about 60 dollars. While I have yet to find it's artisan's signature, tool marks suggested that no machine had been involved in it's creation. I considered it a bargain, if not a steal.

It was good to see that the locals were savvy to tourists. In order to take pictures of the people, you would have to give them a few yuan. While this was hardly anything for an American tourist, it's possible that this money could help stabilize their living conditions should something happen to their crops. It was interesting to see how the Hani treated their animals. Small caravans of mules were led through the streets, while groups of water buffalo had to be occasionally prodded with a broom. Ducks happily quacked in the streets near a source of water while children laughed and played nearby. All of the animals seemed healthy and content with their lifestyle, and it was clear the Hani went to great lengths to provide appropriately for them.

Soon we began to hike back up to our bus. We drove further up into the mountains until we got to a tourist site. As soon as I got off the bus, an old Hani women grabbed me and handed me an envelope full of postcards with pictures of the terraces.

At first I wasn't sure if they were free or not, but the fact that she wouldn't leave after handing me them told me otherwise. She wouldn't leave me alone, so I just decided to buy them. Then she decided to push another one on me, and me being the soft hearted fool with no taste for conflict, decided to just buy those too. Together they cost 20 yuan, or in dollars about $3.30. I was ready to mark it off as a karma buy, but the woman made it a little hard when immediately after the transaction she ran over to her friends excitedly shouting something that must have translated to something like "I got that sucker to buy TWO of them!"

I'm pretty sure I became a target after that, because other woman selling the same things began to swarm me after that. Many of them brought sad looking children to me, and buy their gesturing I was able to put together that the kid was either hungry, sick, or just dirt poor, and that they needed me to buy their stuff. I had figured out their game by now, and did my best to tell them I was not interested. Most left after some badgering, but one really persistent woman I needed help from Mr. Li, our Kunming University representative, in order to get rid of her.

The site itself was a large platform on the top of the mountains overlooking the terraces. The terraces were built in a valley high up in the mountains around 700 years ago by the local minorities after they had to flee from areas to the north.

They chose Yuanyang because no warlords would be interested in conquering such a remote location, and if they tried they would have to give up far more valuable lands in order to do so. The way the people filled the terraces was brilliant.

With how high up they were in the mountains, the people lived amongst the clouds. The terraces were filled by the clouds, condensing their moisture on to the soil. The terraces were then built so that higher areas would overflow into lower areas, and these were made as far up the mountain as the people could manage access to. The platform we were on granted a full view of the mountain valley, and we were waiting for the sun to set over it. In the meantime, some of us decided to walk down to the lower platforms to try getting shots of different angles.

Going down the platforms was nerve wracking for someone with a fear of heights, but the photos gained were worth it. At the bottom, I was called over by a Chinese man who noticed that I wasn't a local. He told me that he was learning English, and I told him that I was learning Chinese, so we decided to try and have a conversation and help each other out. He told me that three months ago he took a trip to California, and he really enjoyed Lake Tahoe. He also said that Americans were really nice and polite, and while I was glad that he had gotten that impression, It was somewhat sad to know that my homeland was rarely so kind to people who are not perfectly fluent in English. I told him that I was a Geology major, and that the terraces were both beautiful and interesting. Soon though, I realized I was the only one in my group that was still on the lower platforms, so I told him I had to go. He wished me a good time while I was in China, and then we parted ways. My only regret is that I forgot to ask if I could take his picture.

I made my way back up to the top platform just in time to catch the sunset. I took as many photos as I could before it finished. We then made our way back to the hotel that we were staying in for the night. With all the excitement, I had nearly forgotten that it was New Years Eve. Dinner. For a long time I had wondered if the Chinese celebrated the international New Year. The answer is yes, as we saw a few Chinese stumbling around clearly drunk. One of the kitchen staff, who by my guess had a nice buzz going for himself, accidentally dropped a large living fish on the ground on his way to the kitchen. More people were leaning on each other and laughing as we left the restaurant to rest for the night. At midnight, I wished my family what would be to then an early "Happy New Year!", as I listened to the crackle of fireworks just outside.

We set out early the next day for Kunming. To me, there was only one feature that made this ride interesting. At one brief point we passed an area that had formations resembling those of the Stone Forest, or Shilin. While I know that the actual Stone Forest consists of formations that are both taller, more widespread, and dense, it was nice to have a sneak preview of what may be the defining moment of this trip for me.

When we arrived at the University, we said farewell to our guide Nixon and the bus driver. They had helped us see and understand everything outside of Kunming, and we wanted to make sure that they knew we appreciated the effort they made doing so. Dr. Viditz-Ward gave Nixon an old travel guide that was in English, and our group all put in some yuan to compensate the bus driver for a minor accident that had occurred in a traffic jam three days before. We also gave them Bloomsburg University T-shirts and said goodbye.

After we put our stuff in our rooms, we went to a Kunming University orientation where they told us
about the history of the school. The school in Kunming was founded at the beginning of the Japanese invasion, when three universities in the northeast fled and then united in Yunnan. This is in fact a common story in Yunnan, which before the fleeing of refugees during the war had been pretty small in terms of population.

After the war, the three universities returned to their respective cities, but the teacher's college stayed behind, and eventually became Kunming Normal University. In an old classroom, we were shown where the Chinese Nobel prize winner once sat. Also among the schools proudest accomplishments is the fact that they greatly contributed to China's nuclear weapon program.

After orientation, we had a chance to wander around the area surrounding the campus. We found a small shopping area clearly aimed at satisfying tourists, as there were restaurants with names like The Great Australian Bite, The French Cafe, and even a McDonalds. Some others and I eventually made our way into the French Cafe, and to our surprise one of the waitresses was fluent in English.

I had a chicken curry panini and a Yanjing beer, which I had seen advertised in many places. Both were very good, although once again the beer tasted very similar to Coors Lite. It seems the Chinese really enjoy their light beers, as the only dark ones I've seen are imported. The most popular foreign beer from what I understand is Budweiser, as it's the only one that's not only carried, but actively advertised. After I ate, I went back to my hotel room to prepare for class the next day.

— Brandon Robinson, environmental, geographical, and geological sciences major #HuskyAbroad

Led by Vera Viditz-Ward, professor of art and art history, and Jing Luo, Ph.D., professor of languages and cultures, a group of Bloomsburg University students spent three weeks in China studying language, culture and photography. The group, hosted by Yunnan Normal University, traveled to Kunming, Hekou, Yuanyuang, Mengzi, Dali, and Lijiang, where they had close contact with a variety of ethnic groups and learned about their lives and cultures.

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