Triathletes in the Hiz-ouse

Matt: The race started on top of Purple Mountain, often referred to as the lungs of Nanjing. It’s a very pretty mountain with a lake near the top. A cold lake on an October morning, I may add. The race started promptly at 7AM, so with transport, and other logistics we were up at 5 that morning. The funniest part of my part of the race was the swimming. As I tried to get out of the water to tag Laura I simply fell backward; I didn’t have my land legs back. On my second attempt I fell to the left still not able to balance. After falling for the third time I half crawled half floated to a very eager Laura so she could run down the mountain and hop on her bicycle.

Laura: Oh, am I sore this morning. I prefer to think it’s due to the race yesterday morning, rather than the celebration afterwards.

From Nanjingman Triathalon

Six of us entered the annual, unofficial Nanjingman Triathalon this year to make two relay teams:

Team 310 Team 319
Swimmer Matt Craig “Lynchie” Lynch
Cyclist Laura Jason Crawford
Runner John Michael James “Oggie” Ogram

John Michael’s the only legitimate athlete of any of us – his 9.6 kilometer run (that’s about 6 miles for us Americans) clocked in at about 50 minutes, though Oggie wasn’t too far behind, only five minutes longer. Matt swam 800 meters in 24 minutes ten seconds – that’s about a half mile swim!

From Nanjingman Triathalon
From Nanjingman Triathalon

They didn’t even bother to clock my time on the bike – I missed a turn and found myself lost in Purple Mountain. By the time I made my way back to the last place I saw volunteers directing triathalon traffic, they had already packed up and gone home. I cruised in about an hour after everyone else – but I still got a breakfast and T-shirt.

From Nanjingman Triathalon

There’s always next year – Lucy, my friend and coworker, and I are going to start a women’s team for the May triathlon, if we’re still around. With only two other all women’s teams entering this fall, we’re at least guaranteed third place, no matter how lost we get!


A Desert Dropped in the Grasslands


From Inner Mongolia Datong

On the ride from Datong to Baotou, leaving at 1:40 in the morning, we each had a hard sleeper ticket, but each in a different car. Exhausted, I climbed up into my top bunk (which has very little room above and is a little clausterphobic, not to mention high off the ground). I slept on-and-off, partly because I was worried about waking up at the correct stop, and partly because the smoke from the passengers below irritated my throat. Near Hohhot, the lights turned on and I could sleep no more. I climbed down from my bunk and asked the passengers which station it was in Chinese. When they said Hohhot, I climbed back up into the bunk and tried to sleep. Eventually, however, the sun rose and I could stand the close quarters no more, so I sat on the vacated bottom bunk and looked out the window at the huge blue sky and passing mountains.

From Inner Mongolia Datong

As we neared another station, I asked a middle aged man what station it was in Chinese. He asked me where I was going. I said Baotou. He replied that it was not Baotou station. I thanked him, and sat back on the lower bunk. A few minutes later, he came over and struck up a conversation in Chinese. He spoke incredibly clearly, but I have a very limited vocabulary, so it was quite a challenge, and there were plenty of pauses.

“Where are you from?” he asked.
“America,” I said.
“Are you travelling?”
“Yes, I’m travelling with my husband and my friend. We are teachers in Nanjing.”
“English teachers?”
“My friend is an English teacher, and I’m a math teacher.” (This is the summary. It took me a long time to remember how to say math, and even then I check to make sure he understood by saying, “one plus one is two.”)

We went through my repertoire of polite conversation. (Do you have children? Yes. How old? Eleven. How long have you been married? Thirty Seven years! What is your honourable last name? Tai.) Mr. Tai said he was “Baotou ren,” a person from Baotou. (This usually means their hometown, not just where they are currently living.) He also said he had a black friend from California who had lived in Baotou for two years. He asked me if I had friends in Baotou, and where we were going. I didn’t know how to say “Resonant Sand Gorge,” in Chinese, and Matt had the Lonely Planet, so I couldn’t read the pinyin or show him the characters. After a long time of saying, I don’t know how to say it in Chinese, I said “yi ge di fan mei you shui,” a place with no water. This is how I learned the word for desert “san mu.”

He told me that there were three desserts in Baotou. I couldn’t remember the name of the one we were going to see. He named them, and I pounced on “Kubuqi,” dessert. He made fun of me – “You said you didn’t know!” and he made fun of my Chinese as well. He asked if my husband spoke Chinese, and I said I spoke better than he did. He rolled his eyes, and I could here him thinking, “Oh, no!”

Mr. Tai asked me how long we were staying in Baotou. Just the day, I said, our plane leaves at 11 in the morning the next day. That’s not long enough, he said, we would be too busy! Mr. Tai asked me how I was going to get to the desert. I said I didn’t know – bus? No, there were no buses. Taxi? Taxi was too expensive, he said, and there weren’t any taxies leaving the desert. He offered to take me. I couldn’t believe the generous offer!
He repeated it a few times to make sure I understood. “Gende?” I said, “Really?” and “Xie-Xie,” “Thank you.” He shook his head like it was nothing. We’d go to his house to pick up his son first, he said, then he’d take us to the desert, and then to the bus station to go back to Hohhot.

And that’s just what we did! We got to be on a family vacation to the dessert! Mr. Tai picked up his son, an eleven year old named “Tai Zhi,” (sounded a lot like Tiger!) and a thirteen year old girl – maybe a cousin – whose name was “Woman Tiger,” which Lucy says means bossy lady. After waving to his wife in the window and delivering fish to friends and family for the holiday, we set out for the Kubuqi desert.

From Inner Mongolia Datong

The most amazing part of the desert gorge is that it is in the middle of dry grass mountains. When we came up to it, it appeared from behind the mountain, incredible in size. Soft, bone colored sand, just like pictures of the Sahara desert, in dunes and one huge mound, directly across from a Grand Canyon-like cliff, which was directly under ordinary grassy land. It expanded for as far as the eye could see.

Mr. Tai was generous not only with his friendship and time, but with his money. He paid for our tickets, bought Matt and I both cowboy hats, and Matt had to give the boy three hundred kuai to pay for the next tickets. We rode camels along the dunes in a line, to a collection of sand-sculpture Buddhas.

From Inner Mongolia Datong

Then, we took a huge green sand rover vehicle, racing through the desert, up and down the dunes. After a lunch in the shade, we slid down the steep sand slide, as if sledding in the snow. It was a little like being in Disneyland, but with a beautiful, far-reaching desert as the background.

From Inner Mongolia Datong

Datong: Big Buddha


From Datong

Datong has been listed, in some surveys, as one of the most polluted places on the planet. .

From Datong

Why did we go there, do you ask? Because they also have one of the oldest collection of Buddha caves in China – and we love our Buddhas, and we love ancient art. I love the old Buddha caves because I feel it is so amazing that someone can touch me from nearly two thousand years ago – that, ultimately, we are more similar than we are different, if we find the same things, years apart, to be beautiful.

From Datong

Our luck with transportation, considering it was so near National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival, was great this trip. We were able to get hard seats from Hohhot to Datong with the help of one of the young women working at the hostel. The train was a great, old-fashioned looking thing, the kind you see in movies with women waving their handkerchiefs out the windows to the lovers running along side. As most places in China, we were packed in tight, three to a seat, with our knees touching. An middle aged man, working for the train, asked us in Chinese where we were from. When we said, “Meiguo” (America), he said “Welcome – to – China.” While I’ve found people everywhere to be helpful in China, people in Inner Mongolia seem to be especially nice and welcoming.

Our four-hour, smoke-filled train ride was marked with excitement – a fight broke out that drew everyone’s attention at the front of our car. When we tried our Chinese to call a hotel to ask for a room, we also received a standing audience. (I found it easiest to communicate with the hotel clerk if she spoke in her very limited English [she asked if I wanted a room for today or for yesterday] and I spoke to her in my poor Chinese – and I’m finding this is really the best way for both parties to be understood.)

The hotel we ended up staying at was not the one I reserved a room for, because we found one closer to the train station, which would minimize time in a cab. (In fact, I had called this place from the Lonely Planet, only to be told there was “no bed” – I think that the clerk was just overwhelmed with speaking to a foreigner and wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible.) Though it was a clean, but run-down two star place, there were plenty of foreigners, probably due to the listing in Lonely Planet. This also meant that there were amateur tour guides/taxi drivers nearby soliciting business, and we ended up working with one pair, Simon and his taxi-driver cousin.

After a Chinese breakfast (fried and steamed white bread, pickled vegetables and one hardboiled egg – I had the tongs ripped from my hands by the egg Nazi when I went up for a second) , we set out with Simon and his cousin first to the Hanging Monastery. On the way to the monastery, we stopped along the side of the road overlooking a village.

From Datong

The houses were made of mud, and a flock of sheep were right outside the village.

From Datong

Nearby, men spread yellow millet in large circles on the ground, throwing it up into the air to let the husks blow away. At times in our journey, farmers had laid millet along the road so that cars could go over it and crush the edible seed out.

From Datong

Our tour guide explained that the people are farmers, and they eat what they grow and the sheep they raise. They have very little connection with the rest of the world. Three women ran up the side of the cliff to sell us little birds they had sewn, with paper octahedrons wrapped with yarn with traditional herbal medicine inside.

Across the street, up a small mud staircase, was a traditional cave house, allegedly three hundred years old, lived in by a happy old man and a dirty old shiatsu. The old man was eager to show us the small place, and a photocopy of a New York Times article with his picture in it. Outside of the place was a cheery little garden, complete with flowers, sunflowers with heads droopy from the weight of their seeds, and tall hemp plants. Our tour guides took two heads of sunflowers for the seeds, and we ended up buying two pairs of medicine birds before continuing on our journey.

From Datong
From Datong

The Hanging Monastery is set on wooden stilts on a mountain cliff face. The emperor that commissioned it had three stories built so that followers of Confucius, Buddhism, and Taoism could all worship together. The temple was continually raised higher on the cliff to keep it safe from the flooding river, but today a dam has been built that keeps the river away.

From Datong
From Datong

Climbing in the Hanging Monastery was like walking through an old, once nicely painted, tree house built for children. The walkways and stairs were narrow, with low hand rails, and the twisty-turvy layout, where you could look at people on the levels below, gave it a kind of fun-house feeling. The sun was quickly moving to behind the cliff face, hiding it in shadows.

From Datong

We meant to grab lunch quickly at a road side restaurant, but two large parties of men, truck drivers, continued to order food that slowed down our service. One thing the waitress brought out was a smooth round yellow mound. I asked the men at the table, “Zhe ge shi shenme?” (What’s that?) They said, “Gou. ” “Gou?!” I asked, “Bark-bark – gou?” They laughed at me and nodded. Lucy asked them if it really was dog, and they laughed and said no, but they never did tell us what it was.

The lunch knocked us out on the ride to the Buddha caves. After paying 1 RMB to pee in a bag-lined toilet in a dirty outhouse, we set on to the caves. The Yungang Caves were built by the same dynasty and the Longmen Caves that we saw last year in Luoyang. The ones in Datong were built before the dynasty moved its capital to Luoyang, so these caves were not only old, but they were supposed to be closer to the Middle Eastern and Indian art forms and images of Buddha.

Matt led the tour, organizing us so that we saw the statutes chronologically. The oldest statutes were in the roughest shape, with their faces eroded away, limbs broken off, or simply no longer in their little cave homes. On the other side of the grottoes, though, they were similarly splendid as Luoyang’s Buddhas. Luoyang had more demon-soldier-like statues, and the statues at least appeared taller, but some of the large Buddhas in Datong were carved inside of their own caves, so that you had to walk into a cave room, which itself had carvings all along the walls. These little rooms also meant that there was more protection from the elements, so some of the color paint has stayed. One Buddha was golden in color, and there were blue and red colors, too. Some of the Buddhas were pock-marked, with holes drilled into them. Our tour guide explained that the paint didn’t stick onto the stone, so they used a kind of plaster over the stone carvings to paint. But the plaster would slide off of the stone, so they drilled holes and inserted wooden pegs to hold the plaster on.

From Datong
From Datong

Just outside of the caves, bulldozers and construction workers were kicking up the already loose red-brown dust. Previously, outside of the caves had been a coal mine. They were changing the area, however, to have old-fashioned Chinese buildings, creating a real tourist attraction that I am sure Beijingers will love.

We finished our first night in Datong at the restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet as “galaxies above” other dining options in the city. Flipping through the English picture menu the size of a Christmas catalogue, we gave into temptation and ordered everything that sounded good – dumplings, a seaweed tofu (which we were inexplicably instructed to eat WITH the Pringle potato chips), spicy cabbage, green salad in sweet dressing…. We left stuffed, with leftovers to supplement our one-egg breakfast the next morning.

From Datong

Synonyms for Huge?

Part One: Grasslands

From Grasslands – Inner Mongolia

On Saturday, we had an early morning flight booked for Inner Mongolia. Matt and I met our new friend Lucy, an American girl from Missouri, in our hallway to catch a taxi to the airport. We flagged a taxi, dragging our rolling suitcases behind us. “Huo che zhan,” I mistakenly said (train station), as we put our suitcases in the trunk. “Oh wait,” I told Lucy as I climbed into the front seat. “I said train station. Tell her airport. Fei ji chang.”

The taxi driver (who didn’t look at all like the male driver picture on the license on display in the front seat) asked us something none of us could understand. We drove for a while, on Nanjing highway, watching the morning come to life. Then, we pulled over at an intersection next to another taxi driver. Apparently, we were supposed to get out and take this second women’s taxi the rest of the way! That meant two flag falls – but I’m not sure how to say flag fall in Chinese to argue with the second taxi driver. In addition, at the airport, she wouldn’t give Matt change because she said she paid for the toll.

It was a sign of things to come. At the check in counter, we were told something was wrong with our flight. For an hour, we were ushered among different counters. Finally, a young woman came over, and between her English and our poor Chinese, we found out that another flight was leaving at 3 pm the same day. She took us and the other passengers to a nearby airport hotel, where we “had a rest,” (a power nap in every sense of the word), ate Chinese breakfast, and were offered lunch. Then, finally, we were taken back to the airport and got on a plane to Hohhot.

We were met at the airport by Zuraguai, who worked for Anda Guesthouse Hostel. We sat in the back of his Jeep, which looked like it had been a pick up retrofitted with bucket seats too low to the ground. The hostel was adorable – clean, bright, with fun paintings on the courtyard walls. The girls working at the hostel spoke some English and offered us tea while we checked in. We booked a tour for the grasslands the next day.

Online, the reviewers about the hostel and their tours were positively raving. The guide book said that we could take the bus, but then we wouldn’t be able to stay overnight, so we chose the tour. The guidebook also talked about Mongolian horse racing and wrestling we could watch – but no such tourist attractions were in our itinerary.


At one point in our long drive, the bumps in the road were too much for my small bladder. We asked the tour guides if we could stop, and one of them took me to the bus station to use the bathroom. It always seems that the bathrooms you have to pay for are in the most disgusting condition. Muddy stalls (I hope it was mud), no running water, soap, or towels, and a stench that would wrinkle a pig’s nose. I would have preferred to have gone outside, behind the station – at least then I wouldn’t have risked getting the hem of my pants dirty from the floor. Shortly, I would have plenty opportunity to bare my bottom to the great Mongolian grasslands.

We drove two or more hours, though mountains very much like those in California, covered with patchy dry grass, contoured sharply. Eventually, the terrain levelled off into brown prairies and grasslands. The sky was enormous and deep blue, an amazing sight after weeks of white-skyed Nanjing. We took the minivan off-roading across one tiny village with shingles falling from the roofs of their houses. A line of old men and one old woman, tanned, seamed faces so similar to the portraits of Native American chiefs in our high school history books, stood in a line across the road through the village, and only let the vehicle through after the driver paid them – a kind of toll, I guess. Occasionally, along the main road, we saw clusters of yurts, tourist camps.

We were not to stay at a tourist camp. We took a turn off on a bumpy dirt road. We passed a mob of Chinese tourists, about fifteen men, riding horses, dressed like cowboys with new stiff wide-brimmed hats. They arrived at the camp shortly after we did, jumped eagerly off their horses to take pictures with Matt and I (if I ever move to Florida, Minnie Mouse had better be worried about her job security). Lucy, with her big dark sunglasses and maroon knitted bohemian cap over her hair, escaped their notice.

The camp was not so much a camp as the home of a Mongolian family. They had their own proper cement house, with Chinese style hard beds, a small wind turbine and solar panel supplementing the electricity brought with some irregularity by the power lines. Two metal and cement yurts, shaped like white steamed buns, were for tourists.

From Grasslands – Inner Mongolia

Outside of their house, there was also a pen for one gigantic, curly-horned goat – a goat you would expect to see conferring with Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia movies. Our guide told us they were not supposed to have goats, because goats eat the grass, which means that the sand flies away – straight into Beijing. There was another pen for the cows as well.

First, we had tea with our fellow tourists, a family from Australia, Peter, Susan, and Sophie, a slight blonde about twelve or thirteen years old. Peter and Susan, originally from England, were travelling with Peter’s older daughter, but had a week left to themselves. We had tea and hard Chinese cookies that looked like steak fries (which, though they weren’t tasty, I gobbled up because I was hungry), sitting on the floor of our yurt at a low coffee table. The inside of our yurt was like a Genie’s bottle. The walls were lined with a pink satiny fabric, and the floor was covered with a thick, soft, plush carpet with a deep blue pattern. Pillows and blankets were piled at the back wall. A portrait of Genghis Khan was hanging along the back.

From Grasslands – Inner Mongolia

Just before one o’clock, we had lunch, but the tour guide had forgotten to tell our host we were vegetarian. While the others ate a kind of yellow stew, we had rice and cucumbers with garlic.

After lunch, we went for a walk to a stone altar, a circular pile of stones about eight feet high, with scraps of prayer cloths tied to the stones and animal skulls on top. The Mongolians, our tour guide explained, worship the sky. Officially, their religion is lama Buddhism, like Tibetan Buddhism, but as with all religions, they are layered upon one another, so there is still the original nature-religion within their beliefs.

From Grasslands – Inner Mongolia

Here is an iron plant that you can see from the altar.

From Grasslands – Inner Mongolia

We then walked down to what appeared to be a lake lined with salt, but was really just a bunch of puddles and squishy mud. They have been having a drought for some time, which you can see in the brown grass.

From Grasslands – Inner Mongolia

After our walk, and a nap, we got to ride horses for two hours across the grasslands. Mongolian horses are smaller than American horses; you can look them in the eye. The horses had had a long day being ridden by tourists; they were eager to finish their last job, and would break out into a run or a trot. Trots hurt – with each step your bump slams into the saddle. To avoid this, you have to lift yourself up, holding yourself up with your thigh muscles and arms, but this does a number on your knees. When the horses run, though, it’s exciting in the same way as skiing or mountain biking is exciting – they go so fast, you can’t let yourself think too much, you have to let it happen. There were a few times they were going so fast, they crashed into each other. We were sore for the next two days from charging across the grassland.

From Grasslands – Inner Mongolia

At night, after a dinner where Matt and I loaded up on mantou (steamed white buns), our host barbequed sticks of meat and too-spicy green pepper under the stars. It was freezing, even bundled in our coats and sweaters, but the stars were beautiful, white sparkles crowding each other against the inky black sky. The Big Dipper was gigantic, filling one whole corner of the sky, and you could make out the shadow of craters on the moon.

In the morning, after steamed and fried white bread and hard boiled eggs breakfast, while Sophie and Susan went out for one last ride, Matt and I took a walk along the lower end of the grasslands. There, patches of straw-like grass grew in thick bunches. A shepherd herded a flock of sheep and goats through the family’s land. The weather felt like a perfect, cool autumn day.

From Grasslands – Inner Mongolia

On our way back to Hohhot, our tour guide stopped outside of a toll booth. This tour guide didn’t speak English, but the Chinese in the north is spoken so well – every word pronounced, so that even if I didn’t know a word, I could probably spell it in pin yin. We figured out that this car would not continue to Hohhot, but another car, the Jeep, with more tourists were coming, and we would switch. As we switched, we asked the tourists heading to the grasslands what they thought of the desert tour. They said that, while it was cool, there wasn’t much to do – much like our experience on the grassland. Given this new information, we decided to go to Datong for two days, outside of Inner Mongolia, before heading back to Baotou to see the desert.

A Chinese Birthday

The last few years I’ve celebrated my birthday with fireworks. For the entire weekend or three days in a week, Matt and I go firework hunting, driving to all neighboring towns – even a two hour drive and a sleep over at my sister Sara’s house to the best fireworks in the state in Greenfield. Now that I am in the birthplace of fireworks, I can’t get them on the second-third-and-fourth of July – fireworks are only easy for foreigners to buy around Chinese New Year, though there are often random displays at night.

In addition, a lot of our friends are away on vacation this week as we cover their breaks, so there’s no opportunity for getting a KTV group together. So instead of a big party, Matt and I had a romantic birthday weekend away to Hangzhou, a city Marco Polo called “the finest and most splendid city in the world”.

Before leaving Nanjing, after class and a run to the gym on Friday, we went to Baker’s Pizza on Walking Street. Walking Street, or Lion Gate Street, is a stone-lined street where cars and bikes are not allowed, with tons of restaurants, food vendors, and all the pretty neon lights of a little Hong Kong. Baker’s Pizza has cheap, decent-for-China deep dish pizza, 20 RMB each, and really excellent chocolate mousse cake. We bought a bottle of decent-for-China red wine from a convenience store, which the waitress uncorked and gave us two mugs for without batting an eyelash, and ordered a Garden Veggie Pizza (surprisingly with no corn!) and a canned-peach-and-maraschino-cherry pizza (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it).

After ice cream cones from McDonald’s and blowing out my number 0 candle in a cup of HandiSnacks pudding, we went to bed early so that we could get up for our 8 AM bus to Hangzhou. (I’m proud to say that I bought the tickets myself in Chinese, asking the lady how long the bus took compared to the train and how much each was. I’ll never stop being grateful to all the Chinese people who speak slowly and clearly to me, as if I was a hard-of-hearing child.) Fulvio recommended we take the bus instead of the train because it was shorter and cheaper, but it didn’t end up being shorter, and though it was cheaper, the train station is in the center of the Hangzhou while the bus station is a 40 RMB cab ride away, about an hour in traffic, so we didn’t save any time or money in the end.

Hot and tired, eager to see the sights in our short trip, we went to the first and cheapest hostel in the Lonely Planet, but they only had 4 person dorm rooms available. I think I’m getting too old for hostel dorms shared with strangers – when we walked in, the beds were all a mess and there were clothes all over the floor, wet towels hanging from the stairs of the bunks. To boot, our roommates had also taken the lower bunks, though we were assigned them, even though there were signs every where saying to take your assigned bunk. I ended up having to climb up the towel-strewn steps to the hot stuffy bunk. Seeing the mess, without seeing our roommates, and seeing the tiny doll-sized shoes, I had assumed we were sharing space with a young Chinese girl, perhaps someone who was living there over the summer. I was surprised, when we returned home, to see that we were sharing space with a British couple our age on vacation, who never did clean up their mess.

After washing up, we went to a temple to eat at their vegetarian restaurant. They provided versions of local specialties – I successfully asked the waitress what was the best dish and she told me the fake fish. We also had fake shrimp that looked very life like, and asparagus with some kind of fake sausage. After, we went for a walk near the lake and rented a tiny, very slow, motor boat to putter around a small signed-off area of the lake while the sun set. The one nice thing about the pollution in China is that the sun starts to get all orangey early, so you have a nice long sunset. (I used my Chinese again to rent the boat, because the signs were all in Chinese, though it was a little tricky because the word for ten and the word for four (and hence forty) sound kind of identical to me in Hangzhou-ese.)

At night, we did some shopping at stalls and in a very pretty old-Chinese looking area and even saw a heated debate (not a fight – no bunches thrown) widely attended by on-lookers. After a long day in the sun, we slept really well to wake up at seven AM the next morning.

On Sunday, we looked to rent bicycles. Hangzhou has a fantastic public bicycle system. You put a 300 RMB deposit down for a card, and then you can get a bike from any of these public bike stalls by swiping the card to unlock the bike. The first hour is free, and then it starts to take money off of your card like a metro card. The only problem is, it’s mostly for long-term visitors or locals. To get your 300 RMB deposit back, you have to wait ten days. So instead, we rented bikes from a convenience store stall guy (his place had no door and was smaller that my studio in Foggy Bottom). The bikes were only 40 RMB for two, for the whole day. (I asked “For how many hours?” a new phrase I’ve learned, and he shook his head and said something I didn’t understand, so I said “dou tian?” which is definitely not how you say “all day,” but the best I could come up with, and he nodded vigorously. Our receipt for the 500 RMB deposit was written on the back of some paperboard container.)

We biked around a part of the lake before turning on to Longjing Road. Longjing means “Dragon Well” and Hangzhou is famous for Dragon Well Tea. We biked through fields and terraces of tea shrubs along the mountain sides, past shiny pools of water lined with willows and flowers and other pretty plants. Eventually, the slope became too steep, as the bikes had no gears and very little thrust behind one pedal, so that I couldn’t bike up the mountain, so I pushed it up the rest of the way in the hot sun. (You would think going to the gym everyday, I would at least be able to keep up with my husband in a bike ride, but I was hot, sweaty, and my heart was pounding in my throat as I pushed that bike up mountain curve after mountain curve.)

We took a rest at a tea house (really, someone’s house where they serve tea), ordered two glasses of longjing tea to recuperate. I asked directions in Chinese for the village and, more importantly, understood the directions. (When I talk to older Chinese people, especially if they are from areas other than Nanjing, the conversation often goes like this:

Chinese person: Oh, it’s not too far, maybe a kilometre
Me: Is it far?
Chinese person: No. It. Is. Not. Far.
Me: How many kilometeres?

Chinese Person: Boats are 140 yuan for one hour.
Me: How much is the boat?
Chinese Person. One. Hundred. Forty. Yuan.
Me: For how many hours? Etc.

I’m often not able to understand what they are saying unless I can predict it – that is, by asking the question. But this time, I was able to understand what they were saying even if I hadn’t asked the question previously – a big step for me!)

The tea village was atop the mountains, over looking the terraced rice fields. The houses were very, very nice, with shiny wood roofs and marble floors. Apparently Long Jing Tea is good money! I asked one restaurant owner if I could drinks some tea, eat something, and look at the fields – he had windows overlooking the terraces. He said “Mei you difan zuo,” no place to do. I asked again, and again he said there was no place to do. So I left. We went to a place with a balcony instead, had yet more tea (they bring you a giant thermos of hot water so you can keep refilling your cup) and rice and tomato and eggs.

The ride back down the mountain was a breeze, speeding through all of the tea fields. Our brakes were terrible, so we were often going too fast, and we made what had been an entire morning’s journey up in about three minutes down. We stopped at the tea museum, which has beautiful tea shrubs and lovely wandering gardens – I really recommend it – in addition to an exhibition hall, where you learn all about the history of tea and the process of making it. They’re also building a new hall about the appreciation for the tasting of tea, which likes like it’s going to be multi-media.

When you think about it, tea tells a lot about a society. It’s not intoxicating, and it’s not a necessity – there are no calories, so it is a real luxury commodity. Tibetans would trade horses for tea, and local people would pay taxes to the royals in tea. Think about what that means about the prosperity of an area, if you’re willing to trade your horse for tea. There were texts written on teas about how to brew them and the proper ceremony – very early technical writing pieces. The Chinese thought about tea in the way we think about wine – there were scholars who devote their lives to the proper appreciation of it. It was even considered a sort of mental activity. Often, the museum talked about brilliant Chinese people who, it seemed to say kindly, couldn’t reach their potential because of the times (I imagine the politics), so they set themselves to studying tea. The museum also talked about the decline of the quality of Chinese tea production when Western countries started barging in, and showed the gold medals given to the men who helped to rescue the tea industry with modern procedures.

After the tea museum, we biked around the rest of the lake before heading to the bus station. On the other side of the lake were beautiful buildings, museums and universities I guess. The lotus garden had big pink flowers that, if I could stand on water, would probably reach my chin. Hangzhou is a really classy city, a beautiful place to spend a mini-vacation for a birthday.