Noilly Prattle: June 2017

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

China 2017: 16 – farewell Fenghuang; hello Sanjiang

wine shop with large ceramic storage jars
750ml. bottle of plum wine
on my Mac Air
     When we came down to the lobby the morning after the dinner party it had returned to normal and was quiet. All the other family members who had been at the party the previous evening had already checked out and were returning to the matriarch's home town. We asked Mr. X where we could buy some of the 50% alcohol liquor served at the dinner party but he told us, then, that it was home made and not commercially available. Instead he took us to a nearby wine shop. The wine is kept in large ceramic jars. The shopkeeper gave us small plastic cups and ladled out small samples of various wines. We finally chose a nice plum wine which he poured into a clear plastic gourd-shaped 750ml. bottle for 60 yuan ($10).   

      The weather took a turn for the worse and it rained pretty heavily all day. We borrowed umbrellas from the hotel and only went out for eating and other necessities preparing for our trip to Sanjiang the next day. Later that evening as we were preparing our bags for departure and eating a makeshift supper of cashews, rolls, bananas, cookies and dried plum fruit and drinking some of our newly acquired plum wine Mr. X knocked on our door. He offered to drive us to Sanjiang himself for 1600 yuan. He said he thought the taxi at 1800 yuan was too expensive and since we had stayed five nights and the hotel wasn't very busy he would be happy to drive us (and happy to have the extra money). We happily agreed.

Mr. X
Mrs. Yuan
      Mrs. Yuan knocked on our door around 09:55 and beckoned us to follow her to the family car. Apparently both Mr. and Mrs. X decided to make a day of it and both accompanied us on the trip to Sanjiang. The trip went relatively smoothly most of it on the toll road which (not wanting a repeat of the previous "scenic route") we explicitly asked them to do. There were a couple of detours around uncompleted sections of the toll road and a couple of pit stops at roadside rest areas. Mr. X had a navigation system in his car (a Chinese make with a horse head for an emblem which he rather proudly informed me cost 100,000 yuan [$15,000]) and quickly found our hotel. He helped us register (helpful since the reception staff didn't speak any English) and then insisted on taking our bags up to our room before bidding us farewell.

Sanjiang International Hotel

       Our credits cards didn't work at the reception desk, so they summoned another staff woman who spoke English named Miss Liu who walked with us to the local Commercial Bank of China to get some cash from the ATM machine to pay the bill. No “swallowing” of the ATM card this time. :-)

  Relaxed in our room with our plum wine and a some snacks before going out to eat. We had spotted a little mom-and-pop noodle shop when we went to the bank and decided to try it out for dinner. It turned out to be a good choice with excellent beef noodles and some fried dumplings that were also delicious. 

       All in all, a relatively smooth and painless transition from Fenghuang to Sanjiang. 

partial view from our room in the Sanjiang International Hotel

Thursday, June 22, 2017

China 2017: 15 – a family dinner party

     The Weiyanghao Hotel wasn't very busy since winter is the off-season. We only saw a couple other guests during the five days we stayed there and they only stayed one or two nights. Mrs. Yuan was more or less solicitous to us. One day we asked her if we could do some laundry and she offered to do it for us. We protested but she was firm. She also said that her husband and partner in the business (whom I called Mr. X) would be back from Beijing in the evening and she invited us to dinner with the family.

the dinner party . . .

       The dinner was amazing. Apparently Mr. X hadn't come back to Fenghuang alone. There were four related families gathered at the hotel, one of whom (a bureaucrat from Beijing) spoke excellent English. He helped me clear up and resolve many of our communication difficulties. During the course of the wonderful family dinner, which included a large variety of local dishes laid out on a big round table in the courtyard, Mr. X called the taxi driver we had previously asked about driving us to Sanjiang and arranged everything for us.

l. to r.--Mrs. Yuan, Mr. X and the Beijing man
old woman is the family matriarch
      With that matter settled the meal was thoroughly relaxing, oiled by a delicious slightly sweet homemade Chinese liquor with 50% alcohol content and very friendly and open company. The family were warm and outgoing and made us feel at home and well fed in the most unpretentious and natural way. The evening turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip to China.

a traditional Miao costume . . .

       After a couple hours we went back to our room to get our coats to go out and see the night lights of the town. When we came back down everyone was still hanging around the lobby area or in the courtyard sitting around the dinner table talking quietly. The women were trying on a traditional Miao (the dominant ethnic minority in Fenghuang) women's costume and they invited Akiko to try it on as well. Everyone got a big kick out of it with the men (including me) goofing around and putting on the decorated headdress.

Fenghuang by night . . .

old women in traditional Miao dress
       In winter, the night is the most animated time in Fenghuang. The crowds were much larger than in the day time. The dreary cloudy sky was obscured; the lighted buildings and music of the clubs and bars make of Fenghuang a veritable fairyland. It was a mind-blowing high (aided, no doubt, by the 50% alcohol content liquor flowing through the bloodstream)--a kind of alternate reality.  

Rainbow Bridge justifying its name

a crescent moon, Venus and the crenelated old town wall

Monday, June 19, 2017

China 2017: 14 – around the old town

the road from Fenghuang to Sanjiang
     After leaving Wulingyuan we were basically winging it as far as land transportation was concerned. Our plan was to either take public transportation (buses or trains) depending on availability and convenience or arranging for a car and driver (a sort of Uber experience) through our hotels. Unfortunately, we had not expected the level of language difficulties that we encountered. I have already discussed the car and driver who drove us to Fenghuang. But now we needed to arrange the next leg of our journey from Fenghuang to Sanjiang about four hours away by bus or train.

Arrangements . . .

       Frustratingly, there were no convenient bus terminals or train stations in Fenghuang itself, so we decided to try and arrange another car and driver. I tried to get our hostess, Mrs. Yuan, to arrange something but communication broke down. Instead, Road Buddy wrote the Chinese characters for Sanjiang (三江) and a simple request on a piece of paper and we stopped a taxi and showed him the paper and asked if he could take us there and how much it would cost. He seemed to understand and radioed his boss and then offered us the ride for 1800 yuan, rather steep, but we said OK and he gave us his card and telephone number.

The old town . . .

had to go back to warmer clothing
this jolly fellow seems to
be carrying a wine jug
       With that settled we began to explore the old town. The weather had taken a turn for the worse. We had to take out cold weather clothes after having exchanged them for windbreakers in Wulingyuan and the first couple days in Fenghuang. It had gotten cloudy, a little misty and raw, threatening rain occasionally. Still, the old town is very picturesque in any weather conditions and is a pleasure to stroll and look around ever alert for interesting photo ops.

Fenghuang means "phoenix" - bronze sculpture is the symbol of Fenghuang

East Gate (background)

old town wall and North Gate
South Gate
Rainbow Bridge
heart of old town Fenghuang
Rainbow Bridge (background)
Rainbow Bridge through the mist
view from Rainbow Bridge looking west
view from Rainbow Bridge looking east
street market
old footbridge on the canal
wealthy merchants mansion - now a museum

At the Soul Cafe . . . 

"Taking a long time for those Margaritas, isn't it?"
         On the way back to our hotel, we stopped off at our go-to restaurant (Soul Cafe) near Rainbow Bridge, the most iconic structure in Fenghuang. Ordered a couple Margaritas along with a bacon and mushroom pizza. It seemed to take an inordinate amount of time for the drinks. The waitress apparently misunderstood the order because she finally brought a Margherita pizza instead of the drinks we ordered. I tried to explain the error. She was confused and flustered but finally understood and took the unwanted pizza back and brought the two Margaritas along with the bacon and mushroom pizza we had originally ordered. Typical language confusion day in Fenghuang!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

China 2017: 13 – an ATM “swallows” my card

    Fenghuang, you might ask! Why Fenghuang?

     A little introduction to Fenghuang might be in order at this point:

old town Fenghuang  (from Rainbow Bridge)
hand drawn map of old town Fenghuang
     Fenghuang is one of several well-preserved “ancient” (as the Chinese like to call them) towns in China. The Chinese people tend to be rather proud of the continuity and longevity of their over 4000 years of written history and culture. Fenghuang, however, is not 4000 years old. It was built in the early 18th Century A.D. making it only around 300 years old—a mere baby. Some consider Fenghuang, home to the Miao ethnic minority, to be the most beautiful of the preserved old towns. The town is situated in a mountain setting with a river running through it. The wooden buildings of the old town are lined up along both sides of the river making for some very picturesque views. The scene is particularly stunning when the area is lit up at night.

screen grab of translation app.
      Difficulties with communication continued as a result of changes we wanted to make in our booking. The hotel (Fenghuang Weiyanghao Boutique Inn) owner himself was away on a trip to Beijing and his wife Yuan was managing the place in his absence. She spoke no English and relied on her smart phone translation app. to communicate with us. The translations were rudimentary at best. I needed to explain that we wanted to shorten our stay from seven to five days. That required some fairly complex language acrobatics. I downloaded a free translation app. for my Mac Air notebook computer and carried it down to the lobby. So Mrs. Yuan and I spent at least half an hour communicating by computer and smart phone until we finally came to an understanding of sorts. It was all pretty exhausting.

pavilion, plum blossoms and old town
     After something breakfast-like to eat at our Margarita restaurant (Soul Cafe) we wound our way around the maze of narrow streets of the old town trying to find the Bank of China with our street map. We heard the sound of percussion music and singing and stumbled upon a little square high above and looking down on the old town and the river. It was like a senior citizens center with many elderly people hanging out, sitting in a pavilion; a small group were playing some gong and cymbal-like instruments and singing. First an old man had a microphone and was singing when we arrived on the scene; then a old women in a red coat got up, took the mike and did her number. It was all really charming and heart warming. Some of the folks came over to help us find the Bank of China on our map and pointed us in the right direction.

rhythm section
the sweet singer of Fenghuang

the lady in red belting the blues
check out the beard

senior citizens center

cocktail hour at the Soul Cafe
     The the terror of terrors happened at the bank. No, not a suicide bomber. The ATM machine went out of order with our card still inside it. Frantic, we tried to tell the bank staff what had happened. Finally a young woman whipped out her smart phone translator and informed us that the ATM had “swallowed” our card. Well, yes, we know that, but what can we do about it? More fiddling with her translator and we were informed that a technician was coming to attend to the ATM machine and we should “wait”. After a not too agonizing interval the technician showed up and our card was retrieved and delivered to the teller. Further interminable checks and crosschecks by the teller to verify my passport information finally got the card back into my hands. Big sigh of relief!

      Wandered back to the hotel through the old town by a different route that just “happened” to pass through the Soul Cafe just in time for another much needed cocktail hour. Yess!