Timing is everything!!
When we got here to Nanchang we were fully prepared and fully expecting that we would offer our help of teaching at the school as best we could for a couple of months, anticipating basically the weekends off and the typical run of weekday activities. And it certainly started out that way, until the school folks informed us about the upcoming National Day, China's equivalent of the USA's Fourth of July. And we thought COOL, that would be fun to see what kinds of traditions and celebrations China does for a national holiday. But what we soon found out was that what China does is take 11 days of holiday leave and basically close down shop for that time! As in pretty much: "sorry, the country will be closed, you need to go somewhere and have fun!". Okey-dokey then, we can handle that! So with the school lights out, and with the help of a local travel agent, and with the extraordinary offering of personal help by the school's English teacher and her husband, we set off on a mini-adventure for about 7 days, exploring the northern regions of the Jiangxi Province, not only as just a fun get-away but also to try to get just a little more in tune with Lisha's homeland! So here's how it went......................
The first stop on our National Day Holiday tour was the city of Jingdezhen
, the world's porcelain capital. This was the home of the imperial porcelain kilns that made all of the special porcelain requested by the Chinese emperors back in the days of yore. Supposedly there's more china here than in all the rest of China put together. In fact, we learned that it was from the prolific industry in this very town that the country of China
took its official name…….. pretty cool! We visited the Jingdezhen Pottery Culture Exhibition Area, which included the ancient kilns, the temple to the porcelain god, exhibition galleries, as well as workshops where master craftsmen demonstrated the making and painting of the porcelain. On the Ancient Kiln tour the kids got to sit with a pottery master and try their hand at spinning and forming porcelain bowls, and a fine job they did.
We then headed off for a tour through the northeastern countryside hill areas of Wuyuan County, stopping to prowl clusters of scattered ancient Huizhou villages that, except for the hordes of tourists, was like taking a giant step back through the portals of time! The intriguingly decayed old buildings, the beautifully weathered faces of the elderly locals, and the ambiance of a world quite unlike the one we’re used to, made for an experience far beyond what we would ever find in a big city! We learned that the Wuyuan area is known for four colors: Red Carp, Green Tea, Black Ink Stones and White Pears………and of course Baker, our awesome guide for the week, made sure that we were able to personally check out all four (and I’ll tell you, the carp was intensely delicious!). Xiaoqi
was the first ancient village on our itinerary. It was built around the year 787 and is known for its camphor wood, so the shops were full of combs, bowls and just pieces of camphor (that smelled really good!). We all got to walk around the 1,000 year old camphor tree, a ritual that apparently assures ourselves long life – OK, we’ll take that!. We’re learning that every scenic spot seems to have a "lucky charm" sort of thing to bring good luck, long life, prosperity, promotions, you name it. You rub the big rock, wash your hands in the pool three times, or walk once around the tree and you’re set!! And far be it from us to avoid participating in those local rituals – after all, one never knows just what may come from those "lucky" encounters!...............
Wandering through the village we noticed some of the old walls still showed writing left from the days of China’s Cultural Revolution, praising Chairman Mao and wishing him long life. It was fascinating to see a lot of the ancient wood and stone carvings that had to be hidden during this time but which have since been approved for show. In one case, a homeowner packed yellow clay over the stone carving over his doorway in hopes of secretly preserving his ancestry. Afterwards, he washed off the clay to expose the original art, but the yellow stains remain.
We then headed down the winding mountain roads to the village of Wangkou.
This 1,000 year old village turned out to be the highlight of the day. It was basically one long narrow serpentine walkway that must have been close to a mile long, where we saw some beautifully weathered and aged home fronts as well as some beautifully weathered and aged people! We learned a few things along the way too, thanks to Baker’s interesting stories and narrative, such as the three steps up to the front door meeting the high threshold, symbolizing the owner’s work and struggle to reach their final social status, hopefully as a government official (interesting side note: apparently here it’s the ultimate social status goal to become civil servants for the government…………..hmmmmmmmmmm). We thoroughly enjoyed Wangkou, and could’ve stayed there a lot longer, especially had the sun been out to cast shadows and pull out all the gorgeous colors of this intriguing town. But as a fun aside, at our driver He’s suggestion we stopped at the Likeng Pit Tea Factory
where we were treated to a delightful tea exhibition. We learned the proper process for brewing tea, heard about the various local green teas, and then had ample opportunity to sample these local brews.
We found out about four different types: Eyebrow, Green Buddha, Snow Orange (best for teachers, as it’s very good for the throat of those who talk a lot) and Cloud teas. What a nice, relaxing way to finish up our busy day. At dinner time, Baker and He made sure we were able to try many of the local specialty foods, including red carp, rabbit and duck. He has taken to making sure Lisha gets enough to eat, so he began sitting next to her so he could scoop various foods onto her plate, much to her irritation when it was something spicy or that she didn’t really want to eat! He’s a grandpa-type though, with a big heart in spite of his rather gruff and commanding voice.
The next day was filled with clear skies and bright sunshine--a perfect day to explore the village of Little Likeng
, an amazing and extraordinarily picturesque village situated on a small river in the midst of mountainside rice fields.
We walked beyond the throngs of tourists who were congregated at the lower end of the village and meandered up the tranquil valley into the working fields of the local farmers. The village itself was much like the others, but we’ll let our many pictures do the talking on this one. A photographer’s dream!!
After lunch, it was off to climb up the mountain at the Dazhang Shan
scenic area. We hiked for a couple hours up the steep and craggy mountainside and through lovely thick lush forests.
With tired legs but determined souls, we all made it to the two upper waterfalls (where we washed our hands in the clear, clean, cold water for good luck!).
After our long climb, we enjoyed a very welcome treat of watermelon near the summit courtesy of the guy who apparently owned the mountaintop snack shop. Great hospitality for visiting foreigners!
We managed to negotiate a van ride down the mountain and arrived below to find out that He wanted to make it to one more village before day’s end. So we buckled up, grabbed anything we could hang on to, and nervously marveled at He’s driving skills as we screamed down the country roads at break-neck speed, with He steadily pounding on the car horn the whole way, which is the standard Chinese driving tactic indicating “I’m not stoppin’ or slowin’ down, so you best get outta my way!” Quite an experience for us, but we did make it in one piece, just in time to explore the last village of the trip, Sixi
. It was a pretty spot, with hardly any people due to our late arrival. But we got a few good pictures in the fading afternoon light and then left the locals to their evening routines.
The following day we visited the Wuyuan museum and then headed back to Nanchang, realizing how lucky we were at having experienced a phenomenal little out-of-the-way corner of this beautiful country.
After one night back in Nanchang, we were off again to Lushan Mountain
, one of China’s UNESCO Heritage sites, located in the northwest part of Jiangxi Province. This portion of our National Day Holiday came courtesy of the incredibly accommodating and ultra-friendly help of the English teacher from the school, YoYo and her husband David. Out of the kindness of her heart, she had worked up the entire 3-day itinerary and did such a masterful job that we told her if she ever decided to give up her day job as a teacher she really ought to consider being a professional travel consultant! We had an absolutely delightful time just hanging out and sightseeing and eating REALLY WELL with our new friends in an amazingly beautiful corner of the Province.
Amongst the highlights was an afternoon/evening where we parked at Lulin Lake
and walked down a long stony path that meandered through the thick woods, past a temple and next to the Three Ancient Trees (a gingko and two cedars planted five centuries ago by Buddhist monks), and ending up way down the hill at the Yellow Dragon Lake and Black Dragon Lake (Yellow Dragon much better for you in Chinese folklore……………do NOT wash your hands in one named “Black”!).
We stayed at the small high mountain village of Guling
, which is the Chinese sound (or spelling) for “Cooling City”, the name given to this area by the Western colonialists and missionaries who came here as a cool, refreshing respite from the hot valley below. We wondered through a few of the European-style buildings in the Villa area, including the home where the author Pearl S Buck spent her childhood summers.
Guling is a rather modern artsy village compared to the ancient villages we’d become accustomed to earlier on this journey, but just a blast to walk around amongst the quaint meandering streets that in many places are pretty much completely covered by the massive overhanging branches of the many sidewalk trees. Up and down and over and around the curving freeform streets was a walker’s delight.
The beautiful calm morning weather led us to choose a small rather nondescript eatery just up the street from the hotel where we had our breakfast “al fresco” in the great outdoors, taking in the sounds of the morning birds, the footsteps of the walkers, and the fluttering of the autumn leaves on the many trees. Certainly not something we could ever experience in Beijing, Nanchang, or any big city for that matter! This place is just a little slice of heaven all beautifully packaged on the gorgeous mountaintops of central China.
We had one of the most beautiful days ever, hiking around Ruqin Lake
, and then being mesmerized by the sights we encountered on a really long up-and-down trek on a winding stone and dirt covered path
around the side of the mountain, going past intensely scenic spots with names like Heavenly Bridge, Immortal’s Cave and Dragon Head Cliff. It was pretty much like you see in all the photo books that show the very best of China, with the only difference being we were actually there seeing it all live and in person! Can you tell we were all gaga over this!? ;-)
Another similar trek late that afternoon to a place called Hanpo Pass
was also incredible, where we splurged for a ride on the sky-high cable cars to get a wonderful overview of the lush mountainside floor below with its big waterfalls and a front-row seat to view nature’s carving of Wu Lao Feng (Five Old Men Peak), and “Mao’s Mountain”,
our term for a series of mountain peaks that look like Mao lying in-state gazing up into the heavens. We finished our hike and our new-found fascination with Lushan Mountain with the sun just starting to sink away into its nighttime slumber.
Our journey from Lushan Mountain back to Nanchang took us to Poyang Lake, the largest freshwater lake in all of China. David and YoYo thought it would be fun to take a boat ride out onto the lake, which we found out after we were motoring around also is where the Yangtze River converges with this lake.
We went to where the line in the water goes from clear to muddy - the point where the flowing water of the river meets with the cloudy still water of the lake. So now I guess we can say we've navigated the Yangtze River.........................well, sort of............;-)
Oh, and did we mention the food on this trip???? YoYo had a knack for picking out little out-of-the-way eateries that had hands-down some of the best food ever to cross our lips! We reveled in meals consisting of culinary delights such as roasted duck in beer sauce, fresh bamboo roots, cold diced cucumber salad in oil and vinegar, slivered potatoes, butter-braised bok choy, noodle soup in a rich beef broth, Poyang Lake shrimp, bamboo leaf-wrapped pork ribs and rice, various local fish and shrimp delicacies, and some frittata-like dishes with veggies (and that’s not even including all the snacks YoYo had brought for us to munch on along the way: chestnuts, pecans, wild dates, watermelon and sunflower seeds, a variety of fruits and cookies, and even Dove chocolates!). It was all really, really, really, REALLY GOOD!! I’m not sure our tummies have ever been happier! ;-)
And that’s that for our little week-long “vacation” away from the classroom scene at the school.
As a quick update on the “mini-adventures” of our Grand Adventure, some of you may know that we hit a little snag last week in our master plan when the US travel company we had contracted with to take us around other areas of China, ultimately ending up in the village where Lisha was born (probably the most anticipated part of our entire year’s journey), suddenly notified us through e-mail that they were cancelling our trip due to financial difficulties. And we found this all out with less than two weeks to go until the start of that particular tour. But, as we always hold on to our belief that things happen for a reason, and we may not be able to control it, and that everything will ultimately work out, it looks like we may be close to getting the original itinerary put together working with another company specializing in China travel. In the meantime it’s been keeping us in the back-and-forth e-mail chains and on the Skype phone lines for way longer than we would have liked, but if it does all work out it will have been time well spent. After all, getting to see Lisha’s hometown and the orphanage where she was raised for her first year and maybe even meeting the nannies who raised her is a goal worth going the distance for! We’ll find out soon, and y’all will know shortly thereafter.
OK, the school bell is about to ring once again, and we must get back to our lesson plans. It’s exciting to be back with the students, but our memories linger in the beauty of the northern Jiangxi Province, and will probably stay that way for a looooooooong time!