Dang Jia Shan village and valley, Shaanxi Province, China.
Hello all.  Well, I have a few minutes here to send off my first dispatch.  I'm in JiaXian City an hour or so from the village, capital city of the village’s county.  We're here for a couple days, leaving tomorrow.  I'm a bit surprised, but all of the government officials we met last summer remembered me right off. Last night we had to participate with the dancing troupe again like last year. (ugh) Afterward, the mayor of the city wanted a photo with me and the leader of the dance troupe personally drove me back to the hotel on his motorcycle. (I think the photo is hilarious.) Also, the vice-governor, whom I spent some time talking with last year over dinner (through Jaing Lu translating) remembered me very well.  This year during the round of toasts, to everyone else she said to them "cheers" or "welcome" or something like that when doing her personal toasts, but to me she said, "We are good friends."  I thought that was rather nice.

So the Earthwatch crew with whom I am traveling couldn't be more different than the one last year.  There are only 3 other volunteers, two (a couple) from Austria, and one from Japan.  Plus a Chinese graduate student of Anrong's.  So I'm the only native English speaker, but we are all communicating in English.  Very interesting. We spend a lot of time learning what one word or phrase means in Chinese, Japanese, German, and English.

Coming in to China was very different from last year.  It was a little creepy, in that the plane ride from LA to Beijing was almost like some sci-fi trip because the atmosphere outside was very dark and strange.  Hard to explain.  But then I landed in Beijing and all outbound flights, including the one I needed to take to Yulin, were delayed because of flooding.  But Jiang Lu, the PI from last year's expedition, happened to be in Beijing at the time and she came in to the airport and we had breakfast together. For some reason I had terrible vertigo all morning.  So the strange views from the airplane windows, plus the flooding and the dizziness gave me a strange welcome into China.  Jiang had to leave after a time so I spent the next four hours waiting in the airport for the planes to be able to take off.  I noticed two westerners sitting in the waiting chairs with their wet socks drying on the armrests and their boots off.  I thought, Man, those are hardcore travelers; don't even take time to do their laundry except in the airport.  Turns out, they were the Austrian volunteers who got caught in the flooding coming to the airport and waded through thigh-deep water in order to get inside the airport.  So they were emptying water out of their shoes for a long time and drying their socks with the bathroom hand-dryers.  

The village is as lovely as I remember.  And all the villagers welcomed me back so warmly.  I didn't know what to expect  But as soon as anyone of them saw me, it was all smiles and hugs.  Anrong's family literally ran up to me as I entered their courtyard to hug me.  It was very touching.  The kids of course are hanging all over us. Rong-Rong won't let me out of her clutches for a second.  Even to go to the toilet.  If I leave the group to go to the toilet, she walks with me and just sits patiently next to the loo.  So, I have to wait until the middle of the night to accomplish any real "business" I might have to do. [Erik:  I gave Xiu-Xiu the art set and she was totally taken aback and rendered speechless.  I think she is very happy and slightly bewildered.  She's given me several paintings and drawings to take home.]  Last night I gave Anrong's father and brother the selection of "airplane" liquor bottles I brought and they were very pleased to try all the flavors. 

We have seen a lot of new scenery this year.  A couple weeks before our arrival, a massive thunderstorm came through and has flooded the valley.  There is literally a lake in the valley beneath the village. For several days the villagers had no drinking water because the spring lies on the other side of the flooded valley and they couldn’t get to it (kind of ironic). The hired vans cannot come anywhere near the village because of the lake, so we had to walk nearly the whole way from the highway (“highway”) into the village and out again yesterday when we left to go to JiaXian.  And because this Earthwatch group is more focused on the geology and landforms and flora, we have done quite a bit of hiking around the area.  And my gosh, it is beautiful.  It is literally a Little Utah, like the Canyonlands areas.  Great spires of red and brown loess dirt and fun little slot canyons.  The creepiest thing we found was a human skull in the mud in the riverbed!  Anrong figures that during the thunderstorm an old grave was disturbed and the skull tumbled down into the valley.  It was pretty wild. 

So I've really enjoyed seeing so much new territory around the village.  Also it looks so much different than last year because it is later in the growing season and also they've had a lot of rain this year.  So the valleys and terraces are wonderfully green.  The corn is at least 8 feet high.  We've been fed cucumbers that are three feet long and tomatoes the size of softballs from the villagers' personal gardens.  We also visited some of the same places as last year, like the family cemetery and the village temple, but I got a lot more completely new information.  It makes me realize that I'm truly justified in coming back, as there is so much more to learn.  Last year, when I had my fortune told in the temple, maybe some of you will remember the photo, where they rolled a little cylinder on the ground. Well, I learned that the village temple was moved to its current location sometime in the 1800s because a fox "broke in" to the temple in its old location and stole that little cylinder and dropped it in the spot where the temple now stands.  The villagers returned the cylinder (which is what has the fortunes written on it), but the fox did the same thing again.  So they decided the gods were telling them to move the temple to that location. During the Cultural Revolution, the temple was defaced and used as a sheep pen!  It's hard to imagine.  But it's really nice now.

This year, we've been given the opportunity to participate in practically everything we watch the villagers do.  So everyone except me (owing to my back) carried water from the spring on a shoulder pole over to the donkey (where you dump the water into larger pails for him to carry back to the village). They all exclaimed “this is harder than it looks!” and struggled with the weight. I wasn’t too sad not to participate. The water spring now is much more cheerful.  Last year in June the villagers had to jump down into a deep pit and scoop up with a ladle little bits of water into their pail.  But this year, the pit is full up to the level of the ground, so they can just dip in their pails.  But still, it is much lower than a couple decades ago, when it flowed out of the pit and had to be contained in a small reservoir in late summer.  

The weather for the first few days was relatively pleasant, but the last couple days have been brutally hot.  The night before last, in the village, I went out for a walk by myself beneath a near-full moon at about 11:00pm.  There was a man walking around with a black light.  He's a scorpion hunter.  Ack!  I was too afraid to sit down once I made it to the top of the hill I climbed. (yes, I know I’m silly.) After a time my roommate, Li-Li (Anrong's niece and a student at Xian Foreign Language University) came out looking for me (as I neglected to tell anyone I was going out).  And from the top of the hill on the other side of the valley from the village I could hear her whispering my name from beside the loo.  When I responded to her where I was, we spoke to each other in regular conversation voices and they echoed off the hillsides like there was nothing on earth that could absorb our words.  I thought they might just go on echoing into eternity. Really amazing.  

This year Anrong's father has built a little stick roof over one of the holes of the loo, but he built it for people of his size (coming up about to my shoulder).  So it's rather inconvenient! The other day we were standing around Anrong's family's courtyard waiting for breakfast and Papa (Anrong's father) came by carrying a small tree; I think he was going to cut it up for fuel for the stoves.  But one of our young consorts, Cao-Yu, said "Oh, a Christmas tree!"  So I took off my bracelet and hung it on a branch and said "Christmas tree!"  It took a minute for everyone to understand I was decorating it, but soon the other kids and volunteers took off their bracelets and necklaces and eyeglasses and hung them on the branches.  Then Cao-Yu wanted to hold hands and walk in a circle.  So in a totally random scene, Anrong's father stood holding a dead tree with our belongings dripping from its branches while a group of village children and adult foreigners held hands and walked circles around him. Then I said, well if it's Christmas, we need to sing Christmas carols; so I led everyone in several rounds of Jingle Bells. They caught quickly onto the tune and “la-la-la’ed” along.  Then we started walking faster and then someone suddenly switched directions so everyone bumped into each other; the kids thought that was hilarious and kept switching directions maniacally, and soon we were running around the tree rather than walking, and it was a chaos of giggling and screaming.  Thinking of my childhood dancing around May Poles in the spring, I pulled everyone in toward the tree while we kept our hands held together and raised them straight up over our heads as we closed in upon poor Papa. No one had translated in Chinese for him what we were doing, and he stood bewildered and laughing. We lowered our arms as we backed away and stretched out our circle until everyone’s arms were fully extended.  Again we closed in together; again we back away apart. Our voices swelled up each time we came in tight toward the tree, “Whooooa-OH!”  Over and over until breakfast was ready.  It's one of those scenes I hope I never forget. Whenever I feel sad, I think it will be a “happy place.”  But of course there are a lot of those experiences to be had in the village. 

So I don't want to run out of time here on what I paid for.  I don't really know what happens when your time runs out (I'm at an internet bar).  So I'm going to send this now. It's just wonderful being back here.  Eight-hundred-gazillion thanks to my financial benefactors who helped me get here!

More Written a Few Days Later in Beijing ...

OK, I have a little time, so let's go back to the village.  I gained the title of Peanut Master while I was there, by the way.  Because after much diligent practice, I successfully lifted all the way to my mouth 5 peanuts simultaneously with my chopsticks; even Anrong and Qi-Wei thought this was impossible.  But golly, there are so many things to say about my time in the village.  So perhaps I will just tell you about the last two days there, as they exemplify much of the character of the time I spent there.  The second-to-last day in the village has to rank as one of my favorite days ever in my lifetime here on this earth.  I suppose to describe it, you might wonder why it was so great; I guess you just have to be me to understand!  But here's a run down of the day.  

First, we got up and walked to another village about 1.5 miles away where they were having a week-long village celebration and had hired a musical performing band for a few days.  It's a troupe that plays and sings songs that tell long stories, as in stories that take 2 or 3 days to tell.  Somewhat similar to the blind musician who came to the village last year.  But these guys are very talented. When we arrived at the bottom of the hill that leads up to their village temple, we were greeted by a man who came down the hill with a little portable temple on his shoulders. We had to get down on our knees and kowtow to the miniature temple.  Then we followed him up, and Anrong and the villagers (his family came with us) did further kowtows at the village temple. 

Then we watched the band.  They had incorporated into their storytelling a “welcome” to each of us foreigners, mentioning the countries we were from.  Later on in the performance, apparently some of the audience was being a little rowdy and the singer sang to them to please settle down as they were trying to perform their best for the foreigners. The flute player was mesmerizing to watch as he played while holding a lit cigarette between 2 of his fingers. On the way to the village, little Lei-Lei and Cao-Yu held my hands most of the way and we sang Row Row Row Your Boat over and over (they were taught that by another volunteer earlier this year). I taught them Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and they had their own version of Frere Jacques that we sang together in our own languages... 

In the afternoon, we went out for a hike up the main valley below the village. “We” being the three Earthwatch volunteers, the graduate student, Anrong and three kids from the village, Li-Li, and me.  After a time we came across a narrow side valley that led to a beautiful little meadow with lush grass on a gentle slope.  Can you guess what I did?  Do you know me well enough by now?  I walked uphill, laid down and log-rolled down the hill (this is something I do everywhere I go; it's like my personal mission to log roll down every appropriate slope around the world.)  Well, everyone, and the kids in particular, thought that was a riot.  And somehow that was a catalyst for unrestrained frolicking.  The kids made me a head wreath of greenery and we all started dancing around; the kids were chasing each other; Li-Li and I did a can-can dance.  Then Anrong started filming us and told us to “do the young dancing." He wanted us to dance like we did in JiaXian City.  So Cao-Yu took the lead and the other kids (including Li-Li) followed.  I sat out for a minute until Anrong and everyone goaded me into joining.  So I picked up a big tree branch that had recently been cut off a willow tree and carried it like the men carry the umbrellas in the dance, pumping my arm up and down with it.  After much laughter, the other kids ran off to get branches also.  (Later that night Anrong showed this video to his family, and they laughed hysterically at me in my head full of leaves carrying a big branch, parading around.  They were not unjustified in their hysterics.)  

We left the meadow reluctantly and found an old tunnel system in the cliff side.  Anrong knew of its existence, but he never went in there as a kid because they didn't have flashlights or anything.  The villagers used it to hide in from tribes of Muslims who used to come through in the 1800s pillaging and plundering and killing.  The villagers had no weapons of any kind, so they just hid when they saw trouble coming.  They had stores of food and water hidden in the caves so they could stay for awhile.  The tunnels went very far into the hill.  We didn't have flashlights either, but I used the flash focus light on my camera to see.  I went as far as I could until Anrong begged me to please come back out.  So I never reached the end of the tunnel, where I'm quite sure some fantastic treasure lies hidden!

Then we climbed up to a grove of trees where Anrong, Cao-Yu and LiLi broke into folk songs.  High, high up on the mesa top a shepherd was taking his sheep along the rim, and they were spilling down the dirt cliff. We climbed up on top of the mesa (there was no trail), where it was just open grassland and we could see 360-degrees into folds and folds of mountains and see the village off in the distance to the north. We could hear very clearly the musicians in the other village still playing their story songs.  It was so beautiful.  I can tell you quite precisely what I felt like:  We were the VonTrapp family in the Sound of Music, when they run down that hillside in the mountains with their arms open wide like airplanes, running and spinning circles and singing “the hills are alive with the sound of music.”  Anrong was the nanny (Julie Andrews) and the rest of us were the kids he was leading around.  It was just an indescribable FUN feeling.  Simultaneously, for some reason I missed my dad like I’ve never missed him before.

Then he headed back down into the valley as the sun was setting, and as the light began to fade we started making our way through the cornfields with the tassels towering high above our heads We walked among the stalks and it made me think of the Qin terra cotta warriors standing silently in line.  We stopped along the way to take a self-timer picture, as I found a tree trunk I could set my mini tripod on. 

As it got darker, we ended up separating into two groups.  I was in the last with Anrong, Takeshi (Japanese volunteer) and Qi-Wei (grad student). We looked up and saw these two trees next to each other, one straight up and one with a trunk split like a V, so it looked like a roman numeral IV and we decided it meant the four of us.  Next to that there was a dirt formation that looked just like a hand with a thumbs-up.  So we decided that meant thumbs-up for the four of us.  I don't know why, but that made us laugh so hard.  We called out to see where the others were ahead of us, and instead of them replying, a cuckoo bird kept replying every time we called to them.  By the time we got back to the village it was dark, and the little lights of the village houses shining softly along the hillside was the most comforting, sweet sight I've seen.  These tiny lights nestled into the hills.  I don't know... it was like chicken soup, you know.   

The next day, I spent the afternoon talking with Anrong, his fourth sister and his father, asking them all kinds of questions.  I was asking his sister about her schooling [oh, quick aside here, we visited the middle school where some of the village kids go, and where Li-Li went, in Wang Jiabian township… the boarding rooms there would be a nightmare to an American prison inmate. Our prison cells are far more luxurious – 20 Chinese kids cram into a cement room with no heat or AC and plywood for beds that 10 people sleep on together], so I asked Anrong if his sister went straight to high school after middle school and he said “no, she didn't go to high school because....” He paused and then realized he wasn't sure why.  I've told you before how much Anrong's family sacrificed for him so he could go to university because it was obvious he was gifted.  All their money, all of his older siblings' educations were sacrificed – this he knew.  But this day his sister revealed to him the reason she didn't go to high school: because he was in university at that time and it was a critical point in his studies, like some sort of important exams were coming up or something.  His father fell very ill, and so his sister left school and came home to help her mother care for her father and help with the farm work.  They kept all of this a secret from Anrong because they didn't want to distract him and worry him, and they didn't want him to leave his studies and come home (which he likely would have if he knew his father was ill).   So right there, in front of me, this story came out to Anrong.  It was pretty intense.  Of course he cried a lot and the sister cried, and it all made me a bit teary.  I asked them if they wanted me to leave them alone together, but they said no, and included me in their revelations.  Then Anrong's father came in and said the valley was flooding (it had been raining pretty heavily earlier) so we got up and went outside and stood at the edge of a cliff to look down at the water running through the valley.  It was rather surreal.  Then we went back inside and at my prompting, Anrong's father told the story of how he and Anrong's mother were matched together for marriage (they'd never seen each other before their wedding day).  It was a long story of much conniving from their respective family members who seemed to think those two would be good together.  But it was a story Anrong and his sister had never heard!  So they got a real kick out of hearing all about that.  I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring abandoned dwellings on my own.

The following day we left the village and it was terribly emotional for me.  I was having a hard enough time as it was, and then Cao-Yu threw herself around me crying "I love you! I love you!" and the sisters gave me a very special gift.  Which is a pair of hand-stitched insoles for shoes.  They even gave me a pair for Erik. This particular gift is one that is only given for special people and special occasions.  It's a gift his sisters give to Anrong himself sometimes. So it really is a treasure. 

Alas,  the lady here manning the computer room is really starting to wonder how I can be here typing for so long.  Here's one last funny thing.  In the hotel in Yulin City, where we spent the first two nights before heading to the village, I walked into the bathroom – always an adventure in these parts – to see the exposed pipes everywhere, the mold, the dirt and grime, and the scuttling cockroach, and thought to myself:  welcome back!  But the thing that cracked me up was that the toilet had a little paper across it that said "sanitized" in English.  You know, like they often have on toilets here in the States, and when you lift the lid the paper tears off.  But this paper only just curved around under the lid a little way; it was totally water-crinkled and brown and stained, and had obviously been used over and over for I don't know how many times.  Very sanitized.  OK, well, there's your marathon session of China.  Will try to write again in a couple days.  Thanks for your replies.  Won't take time to respond individually, but I read them all. Until I type again ....

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