Friday, September 18, 2009

虎跳峡 Tiger Leaping Gorge

After spending just a night in Lijiang, I made the quick ride over to Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) the next morning. Tiger Leaping Gorge is a canyon on the Yangtze River and one of the must-do’s for any hiker in China, or anyone with two legs traveling in the vicinity of the gorge for that matter. The gorge ranks among the deepest in the world, cut nearly 12,000 feet deep between two 18,000 foot peaks, Jade Snow Mountain and Dragon Snow Mountain. A Korean guy named Hong, who I’d met at my Lijiang hostel, went with me. After dropping my big bag at Jane’s Guesthouse at the trail head and fueling up on some noodles, we set out at around 1:00. There are two routes for the gorge, the checking-it-off-the-list lower route that you take by bus, or the higher foot path for hiking. We were walking along the road looking for the high path, and we would have missed the inconspicuous trail quietly veering off from the road had it not been for a nearby local who pointed us in the right direction. Nearly missed turns and local Naxis helping us out would turn out to be a continuing trend. The Naxi, by the way, is the local minority that inhabits the gorge, still using the same trails for daily life that we trekked. For the first hour or so we were trailed by a local and his horse, frustratingly waiting for us to get tired and pay for a ride.

The hike took us on switchbacks and steep climbs past waterfalls, terraced farmlands, and small Naxi villages where women were feeding their pigs or men were corraling their goats. Each movement of the sun and clouds made for a different perspective of the mountains and water. Frequent stops had to be made for pictures and just to think. The highest point of the trail (first picture) made for some excellent views. It is definitely the most peaceful place (and naturally impressive) I’ve been in China. Possibly trying to fill the competitive void left by not running cross country for the first time in nine years, I found myself unintentionally outpacing Hong and other Chinese hikers we ran into along the way. There are several guesthouses along the trail, and around 6:00pm, and we (Hong) decided to stop in at the Tea Horse Guest House for some tea. Of course, the owners were Korean – I think Hong knew this before we stopped there. We weren’t going to the Halfway House as planned, even despite my arguments that we should keep going in case of rain the next day (again, my competitive side).

It actually turned out to be a good decision, despite Hong ordering our dinner and breakfast without asking me what I wanted – it was only a problem because the food was really bland, not exactly what you want when you’re ravaged from a day of hiking or are gearing up for another one. Over beer and bland food I chatted with a doctor from New York, a couple from the UK, and an electrical engineer from Norway whose name I won’t even attempt to spell. The guy from New York, Cappy, had spent time doing medical volunteering in Africa and gave me some great suggestions for places to go, as well as books to read. The second day was a lot easier since it was pretty much all downhill. The coolest part of the whole trek was the very end, where we took a nearly direct decent down to the water’s edge. At the water we got to see Tiger Leaping Stone – the stone from which a tiger is said to have leapt across the Yangtze, thus giving the narrow gorge its name. To be sure, the hike, and especially the decent down to the water, is no Disney World or US National park. Often I found myself crossing bridges that wouldn’t have won any engineering awards or sidling down ladders held into the side of the canyon by wires, sticks, and an unsettlingly small amount of iron. Still, I managed to make it out alive and make this post - now it's time to get back to work.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Coolest Old Town Ever

That's certainly a bold statement, and of course I'm basing it off only places I have been. Still, Lijiang, in northern Yunnan province was pretty freakin' sweet. First though, I went to Dali, Lijiang's rival a couple hours south that also knows how to throw a party. Dali (home of Dali beer), is a city situated around the enormous Er Hai Lake and nestled in between the Cangshan mountains. After a night of pedaling cheese, I got up at 7am and rented a bike and hauled out to the ancient Three Pagodas. The pagados themselves were pretty cool, but I've seen my fair share of pagodas, and the huge park itself was basically built up around the pagodas for tourism. I asked one of the merchants in which dynasty a particular temple was built, and she said 2005. Not so cool. After that I made a valiant effort to get to the butterfly garden, as I pedaled for a solid hour by wheat and corn fields. Ultimately I didn't have enough time, and decided instead to head to the water to do some journaling while local fishermen tried to make a catch.

The next stop was Lijiang, a city whose history stretches back over 800 years and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is home to the Naxi minority, and is exactly what you would think of when you think of traditional Chinese towns - cobblestone roads, ceramic tiled roofs with horned eaves, and old buildings squeezed together to create intimate alleys lit by bright red lanterns. The coolest thing about this bustling old town, however, is the system of open waterways running through the city. It's no Venice, but it is pretty nice to enjoy some traditional Naxi bread and noodles in a cafe perched right next to a canal that runs under a series of wheeping willows.

While snooping around I was asked to take my first photo with a Chinese person this summer. This was common stuff three years ago, but I've found that as China becomes more and more exposed and developed, especially as a tourist destination, my white skin and brown hair are becoming less of a novelty. It must be the smooth good looks that keep them coming back for more.

After finding Petit Lijiang, an old bookstore where I was able to trade two old books for a new one (The Kite Runner, if you were wondering), I did some hunting for dinner. There were simply too many new foods to settle for just one big meal, so I took the piecemeal approach. First I started off with some delicious dumplings prepared by a local Naxi-family-run restaurant. This was a cheaper restaurant (I tend toward these), and apparently they don't get too many foreigners, or at least Chinese speaking ones. They had a good time with me, asking for my opinion on everything from Michael Jackson to Chinese women. Next I went for the "Chinese Hamburger" - basically a hollow bread creation that is stuffed with cold noodles. It got better when I added loads of spices. A dried water dragonfly was next up, and it took a bit of willpower to get that one down. I ended up putting down three of them for good measure. The dragonflies might (would) have been better had they been deep fried or covered in chocolate, or both. Then I went for some dried yak meat, which was great, and followed it up with yak yogurt which, because yogurt in China is "酸" or sour, was downright nasty. I polished off all of that with a cold Fanta of the orange variety. There was a war being waged in my stomach that night as I slept.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Joining a Chinese Protest Over Land Rights, Pt. 2

The next night on my way home I stopped by the village area to find the protest over. A fortunate break for the villagers - the local government leader had come today and agreed to meet in two days, cutting the protest short at noon. Once again they wanted to know if I had already eaten and if they could get me anything. Over an hour of chatting I learned more about the situation. They asked me where I was living, to which I responded that it was this apartment development, but I forgot the name. One of the main ladies I was chatting with said, “Xia Yi Er Yuan?” When I confirmed, she said, “That used to be our land.” Apparently, in 2004 the government bought that land, which was their farming land and now the development I was staying in. Without much land to farm what did they do for income? They built up their homes to rent out, but now the government was going after that land too.

The government did pay them for their farming land, somewhat. They received about 45 USD per square meter (really low), but the government only gave them the money in slow-coming increments, and two years after the development's completion they have still only received 75% of the money weren't happy with in the first place. The government expects them to find new homes on their own, or move in with relatives. Should they move further away from the city for cheaper housing, work becomes an issue without any land to farm and no city jobs. Staying where they are and they'll find their money buys much less house - then they wouldn't be able to sublet part of their home. It's a tricky situation, from what they are telling me at least. I asked why they don't just get knew jobs. One answer was simply, "We have no culture." Whether it was an easy cop-out excuse or a reflection of how the poor rural citizens are being left behind in the wake of China's urbanization, I'm not yet sure.

This conflict has made me realize how hard it is to cut to the core of an issue. It's hard to know who to believe, the establishment or those fighting it? And it's even harder to know when you are part of the establishment (the rich upper-class, at least) but can very easily sympathize with the poor. The two people I was talking to most that night were born and had grown up in the protesting village. Personally, regardless of the price the government was offering, I would feel betrayed by my country if a government official knocked on my door and told me I had to vacate my home which I had grown up in because it was needed for high-rise apartments that I would never be able to afford. I find this whole situation even more of a slap in the face given the demand for these high-rise apartments. Noticing the ghostly winds that blew through the complex I was staying in, one day I asked the security guard how full it was. Two years after completion, and not even 50% of the flats were filled. And these complexes were popping up like weeds in my yard (if you've ever seen my yard, you'd know). Hopefully I will be able to go back to Kunming to find out what happened, and do some more reading on the subject. I'll keep you updated.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Joining a Chinese Protest Over Land Rights, Pt. 1

Cheese sales went smoothly over the week we were in Kunming, and Zhou Ma, who was initially so timid that she didn't want to come to Kunming, was taking over when we talked to potential clients. It was an exciting change to see. One morning I lumbered out of Zhou Ma's apartment for my normal 5 mile run. Just a few minutes in I was stopped. One lady, pulling a bench with another lady, was arguing with a truck driver hauling TVs. More people were joining her with other benches. In a matter of minutes they had a solid blockade formed, complete with tents, signs, and any available locals of the Jin He (Gold River) Village.

I stopped my run (an action which, if you know me, I never would have before done) and started asking bystanders what was going on. Most of them didn't know or weren't locals. I got enough to know they were protesting land rights. I ran back to the apartment, sprinted up to get my camera and a t-shirt so I didn't look crazy, and ran back to the blockade. I joined them at their blockade, and they eagerly encouraged me to join them on the bench. Old and young alike were out with their books, breakfast, and knitting materials. For over an hour and a half I learned about the situation, from their point of view, at least.

Basically, the government had decided in mid-August that it wanted their land for a community development, and the day after the decision was made (allegedly) the people were told to move out. The local government was prepared to pay, but the villagers weren't happy with the offer. In protest they had decided to block the major shipping road until the local government leader came to meet with them to discuss the situation. The way the system works is that the Chinese government can take any land if acting in "public interest", which is a vague term open to some interpretation. The land must first be purchased by the local government and then converted to state-owned land before it can be sold to developers. Thus, the government and developers have incentives to acquire the land as cheaply as possible so that it might be sold to the developers cheaply and provide a nice thank you kickback to the local government official from the developer. This is, at least, the alleged underhanded way that things sometimes get done.

They brought out several documents for me, written by villagers, local leaders, and the government. For steel frame buildings, the government was offering just over $500 per square meter for the first three floors, and any floors over that would get only $150/square meter. The locals accepted the cheaper higher floors, but said the $500 should be more like $650, which is what they said any statistics on Kunming real estate would show.

I took the documents, went home, arranged a translator, and told Zhou Ma and Zhang what I was doing. They somewhat laughed, saying that I was "wasting my time" and that I shouldn't listen to what they were telling me. A few nights before I ever saw the protest, Zhou Ma and I were walking home from the bus stop. I saw a bunch of people (who I realized later were the protesters) and asked a shop owner what was going on, only to find out that it concerned the land rights. Zhou Ma said disdainfully that they were all "very rich" villagers, and wondered why they had any problem at all with the government's development program.

At any rate, I headed into the city to get the documents translated. I stopped by the protest on my way out, with warm hello's and greetings meeting me, as well as offers of food. They thought that I would be able to help them; maybe the government would listen to me or maybe I could post something on a Chinese website. I didn't think I could do anything, but regardless I first needed to see what these documents said in detail.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Slow Times in Shangri-La

So I finally made it to the mythical Shangri-La. My first thought after riding into town on a 13-hour overnight bus was: "Holy crap my legs hurt." (The bus's beds are made for the Chinese build, which as you might have guessed isn't of the 6'1" type that my body is.) But my second thought was: "This is the most beautiful place I've ever been in China." I haven't yet been to Dali or Lijiang, for anyone who knows China. After a breakfast of Xiao Long Bao (miniature meat-filled steamed buns), I got settled in for four days and three nights in quite a cool town.

Yes the town did rename itself from Zhongdian, and yes it does thrive on tourism, but it's a pretty nice laid back town in a beautiful setting. Located at a nosebleed 9,800 feet, Shangri-La is surrounded by mountains and rolling hills. Pigs are the most common thing to see roaming the streets - and I'm talking tanks of pigs. The hairy ones could pass for small bears. And, as a nice change from the sweat-drenched-t-shirt-heat of Bangladesh, the temperature is much cooler here. The coolest (not literally) area of town is Old Town (古城), which is where all the cafes and traditional Tibetan handicrafts are found. The cheese shop, shown in the last post, is in Old Town.

During my time in Shangri-La I was able to establish shipping logistics for Yunnan province, survey customers for potential menu changes, inspect the shop for structural improvements to be made, and enjoy my fair share of cheese and wine. I stayed up late and got up early, with a local hostel serving as my home base. My pace, I realized, wasn't what this town was all about. Things move slower here, people walk slower. Cafes close at 11pm. I was mostly working with Zhou Ma, the manager of the cheese shop, and sometimes Zhang, another worker and her boyfriend. Zhou Ma is pictured picking out our chicken we would have for dinner that should have seen the bloody bag we were handed back after it was slaughtered.

Zhou Ma has been very helpful in accomplishing my and Mei Xiang's goals, giving a lot of input when it came to things like creating order forms or editing the company brochures. She knows her cheese and she knows her business. But there were times when I was ready to go, get it done, and check it off the list. She wanted to wait until later, or tomorrow. An argument would ensue, and most times I would concede, realizing that sometimes you just have to conform to the local way of life. Ultimately I have to pick my battles - I can't turn this young company upside down, so I have to pick my changes very carefully. After my short stint in Shangri-La, Zhou Ma and I saddled up for another sleepless, painful, and this time foul-smelling (some bad Chinese BO) 13-hour ride to Kunming to follow up on all the contacts I had established. Time to sell some cheese.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mei Xiang Yak Cheese

As I explained briefly in the last post, until the end of September I’ll be working with Mei Xiang Yak Cheese on behalf of Ventures in Development (the non-profit org that incubates Mei Xiang) to market more cheese to a Chinese population that is lactose intolerant. Good times. The Chinese cheese market, while minuscule in comparison to that of European countries, is growing rapidly and is finding a strong niche among upper-class Chinese and of course expats. Allow me to explain how Mei Xiang fits into this picture.

Over the past 30 years China has displayed remarkable growth rates never before seen by mankind, but this growth has been unbalanced. Most of the benefits have not reached the isolated areas of western China. The Tibetan plateau of northwestern Yunnan province is one such area. Here, the domestic yak of the Tibetan minority supports the population, but at average elevations of 4000 meters, the herders have not been able to take advantage of export opportunities to the rest of China. Instead, the high transport and storage costs have forced the Tibetan nomads to sell only locally at very low prices. In 2002 a prominent NGO in western China identified the opportunity to produce yak cheese for high-end Chinese markets, and with the help of Wharton and Harvard graduates, with who I am working closely, yak dairy products are being brought to market in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and locally.

The cheese factory, run by a small Tibetan family, is located in Landu village, home to just over 600 people living on approximately $1 per day. The village is actually about 50 miles away from where I am currently staying, but my host family said it takes four hour to get there, three of which cover only the last 20 miles or so – the roads are that bad. Local Tibetan herders sell raw yak milk to the Mei Xiang cheese factory in Landu, and are able to forgo the costly procedures of converting the milk into local products, saving both time and money, thus improving their livelihoods.

I’m based in Shangri-La (yes, the town was recently renamed after the utopia in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, and it did this to attract tourists), because Shangri-La is also the location of the local Mei Xiang cheese shop. The cheese shop buys from the cheese factory, and serves as a local outlet for the cheese (and also sells wine and other dishes that use cheese) as well as the distributing outlet for the rest of China. However, up until now, all of Mei Xiang’s business has resulted from customers coming to Mei Xiang, not Mei Xiang going to them. Other than the cheese shop, there are no customers in Yunnan province.

So finding myself fresh off the train from Guangzhou (after Hong Kong), I found a cheap hostel and started calling around. I visited numerous high-end restaurants and hotels, explaining the product and establishing relationships. Two questions resulted: 1) could they have a sample, and 2) what were our prices. Because I still hadn’t made it up north to Shangri-La at that point, I didn’t have any samples, and because Mei Xiang had never established consistent customers in Yunnan, there was had been no shipping logistics or price schedule established. My next stop was Shangri-La, where I’m currently based, and I was beginning get the feeling that this social business and poverty learning experience would be quite different than that of what I had in Bangladesh.