Monday, October 16, 2006

Last week's column


Finding Hidden Treasures
With Visiting Parents

October 12, 2006 11:30 p.m.

Because China is undeniably hot, living here means receiving a constant stream of visitors, ranging from colleagues to best friends and everything in between. They come just to see us or for tours, business trips and fact-finding missions. Our entire family enjoys the company and the care packages as well as the prompted visits to tourist-site that are often otherwise overlooked. Still, because we are not on permanent vacation, we have also developed a retinue of guides, drivers and tour companies to assist guests in getting around town.

But parental visits are different, and when my folks arrived about two weeks ago, I put virtually everything on hold to accompany them on their outings. It was wonderful to have them here just a year after my father was diagnosed with bladder cancer and things looked bleak. None of us ever lost our sense of amazing grace at his ability to simply be here, seemingly good as new; anything we actually did felt like gravy. But, boy, did we do a lot.

We made our way to several popular tourist destinations, including the Forbidden City, which I had shamefully never entered. My trumpet-playing father even made his China debut, performing with a friend's band at a downtown club. Everything was going great. Then I decided to take them on a wild Wall hike, in large part because of their enthusiastic reaction to my recent column about hiking outside the city.

Because the first week of October is one of the busiest travel times of the year, with a national holiday celebrating the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China, we battled dense get-out-of-town traffic for a solid hour. We finally left the masses far behind by heading up and over a twisty mountain road, plowing deeply into neighboring Hebei province. Finally, guide Tony Chen pointed me toward a sharp turn off.

We slowly bounced up a severely rutted dirt road, the drop-offs just to our right growing ever more precipitous as we ascended impossibly steep switchbacks. Feeling my parents' unease rising I struggled to focus on driving and stave off panicked thoughts that I was insane to drag my folks to such a remote spot. This highlighted the conundrum one can easily face; visitors expect you to take them off the beaten path, but how far off do they really want to go?

We finally arrived at a virtually abandoned village cut hard into a hillside. Tony explained that only about 15 mostly elderly people now lived here, lack of water and opportunities causing the others to move on. My anxiety began to melt away as we walked through a verdant valley and I sensed my folks' wonder and delight, taking in the vistas and the peasants picking crabapples off of fruit-laden trees. This is a part of China tour members rarely see but one I think is crucial to even begin understanding this vast country.

We hiked up a hill into increasingly arid mountains, which stretched as far as the eye could see. After about an hour, we came to a gorgeous section of the Great Wall, approximately 400 years old and totally unreconstructed. Though grass grew waist high on the top, the Wall was in great shape and we trekked atop it, my father marveling at both the construction and the solitude. Neither of us realized it was just our first course of outback exploring.

Two days later, we flew to Lijiang in Southwest China's Yunnan Province. The postcard-perfect old city has become increasingly popular with Chinese tourists in the last decade and was packed for the holiday. Though the central square was wall-to-wall people, our lovely little hotel was down a quiet alley. It was easy to escape by wandering through the perimeter's narrow, cobblestone streets, which were reminiscent of Jerusalem's ancient markets.

The area is the home of the Naxi minority, natives whose fascinating culture includes the world's last living hieroglyphic language. We spent a day in Yuhu village with guide Lushan Nguloko, who works for the Nature Conservancy and whose family runs a guesthouse out of their traditional courtyard home. Her mother and sister cooked us lunch, then we all toured the village on horseback. We also stopped by the former home of Joseph Rock, a self-trained botanist and anthropologist who lived there from 1922-49 and wrote extensively about the area for National Geographic.

On day four, we loaded into a van and headed north for Shangri-La. People have been searching for this fictional paradise since it was described in James Hilton's 1933 novel "Lost Horizon." In 2002, the Chinese government changed the name of Yunnan's Zhongdian County to Shangri-La. As cynical as that ploy sounds, it actually seemed likely we were heading toward paradise as we left a gorgeous locale only to watch the scenery grow ever more stunning.

The expansive, snow-capped 16,778-foot Jade Snow Mountain, which had been hidden behind clouds our entire stay in Lijiang, was finally visible, looming outside our right window for close to two hours. We stopped to descend into the belly of the 3900-foot deep Tiger Leaping Gorge, gawking at the Yangtze River pounding over rocks at the bottom, before sending two of the kids back up in a shoulder-carried rickshaw. We paused again for lunch, then pushed onward.

After nearly five hours of endlessly climbing to over 10,000 feet, we reached a level plateau that was both achingly beautiful and distinctly different. We were in Tibet, no matter what the borders say, with a huge sky that stretched from mountain range to mountain range. White stupas (Buddhist prayer monuments) dotted the landscape, surrounded by free-roaming giant yaks and whole families of pot-bellied pigs rooting around freshly plowed fields. A few farmers trailed yaks, with plows attached to their animals by large nose rings.

It was mesmerizing, but the kids were deliriously ragged out from the drive and at least one total meltdown seemed imminent. When we turned onto the heavily rutted dirt road leading to the Banyan Tree resort I flashed back to our hairy drive up to the Hebei village. As we bounced and jiggled around, my father sarcastically said he had to hand it to us for finding such a place and I was certain I had gone a step too far dragging my children and parents into these wilds.

Then we pulled up to the hotel's main lodge and everyone, kids included, instantly knew the journey had been worth it. Simply put, it was the most remarkable place I've ever stayed. Both the setting and the buildings were somehow indelibly soothing and inspiring, so much so that it would have been hard to argue with the inflated tab even if my parents hadn't insisted on picking it up.

Walking by the nearby river we watched yaks, sheep and pigs heading home on their own as dusk approached. We were trailed by three Tibetan children, curious to peer at our kids and delighted when we gave them gum, granola bars and fresh fruit. The next morning we went for a short trek to a nearby village, with the kids riding horses. We drank yak butter tea and ate yak cheese inside a home with elaborate woodwork and intricate, brightly painted beams but no toilets. My father again said he had to hand it to us, but the sarcasm was gone. And then it was time to leave, our visit too short but incredibly memorable.

The six-hour trip home was mercifully uneventful and the next morning we had to face up to a return to reality -- kids to school, mom and dad to work and my parents back to the airport. A few days later, we all have a post-trip hangover, exacerbated by missing my parents and feeling a little extra isolated in their absence. But the true mark of a successful visit is feeling sad to see it end.