Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Green Hat Gang
Originally uploaded by xiefeilaga.
Eli and Kro, my Beijing laowai buddies. Eli represents a lot of snowsportt and skating brands here in China, including Forum, who's main color is green. To 'wear a green hat' in China means that you're a cuckold. There are countless stories out there of dumb foreign companies ruining their image by passing out green hats, but this time it's intentional, and with the young, alternative set that's into snowboarding, it's starting to catch on. People are starting to line up for their cuckold hats...
A few weeks ago I went with some of my laowai buddies to Nanshan, a small ski resort outside of Beijing, to watch the Nanshan Open, a snowboard competition at their bitchin new snowboard park. Chinese and international boarders duked it out on the enormous kickers for a chance at 10,000 euros for first place.
I didn't stick around to watch who won, but the Chinese boarders, most notably Wang Lei (China's top rider) put on a good show, with international pros hailing from Norway, Canada and a few other really cold places.
The event was sponsored by Red Bull (thx for the free drinks!) with some punk bands performing right in the park thanks to Gibson. Cheers to Beijing's local snowboard scene for being a lot hotter than most folks on the outside would imagine. Also cheers to all the people, foreigner and Chinese alike, who are working to build this market and scene. You guys really have your sh** together.
Pics should be appearing above shortly...
Monday, January 15, 2007
Though still in its infancy, the new year has proven to be an eventful one. After spending the holidays among old friends in
My Long March is a television event devised by Cui Yongyuan, a famous talkshow host on CCTV (China Central Television). It commemorates the seventieth anniversary of the Long March, which if you don’t know about, you’re just going to have to google it on your own. For the event, 26 hand-selected participants retraced the main Long March route across China, who crossed eight provinces, 6,100 kilometers, eight months and four snow mountains without anything resembling a brake. Each participant had to carry their own water, clothing, toiletries and sleeping bag on their backs, along with, lo and behold, two cakes of our Dayi Classic 66 tea (one raw, one ripe).
Back before the event began, we at Dayi agreed to sponsor the My Long March Event, as did Aigo, Chery, Kingcamp and a few others. What we did differently is that on top of that, we also became their charity partner. The Long March passed through much of
The My Long March Team was scheduled to march into Huining, a county in
I chose to have four workers sent from the factory, and for Yao Tianlai, one of our dealers, Zhang Wei, one of our marketing guys, and myself to come out for the hike. The four workers were all local Menghai youths, representing the Hani, Dai, Bulang and Han Chinese ethnic groups. Some of them had never left the comfy environs of southern
Part II – Journey to the
Our flight into
We were all about ready to pass out as we finally pulled into the tarmac at
We came in late at night so we didn’t see much, but the next day I found that we didn’t miss much.
We got up before dawn the next day to catch up with the Long March team in Maying, roughly 60 kilometers from the Huining County Seat. As we slid our way through the mud hills in the darkness, our headlights occasionally illuminated crowds of children walking for miles in the sub-zero darkness to get to school. It was definitely uphill both ways for these impoverished children.
The sun rose over a Martian landscape. The blinding white of the snow contrasted with spots of yellow where it had blown away on the rolling mud hills. The villages scattered about were almost completely made of mud, the only thing in abundance here, and old disused structures were left to slowly melt away into the earth.
We caught up with the Long March team just outside of Maying. These were not the people I had met eight months before. They all looked five years older, darker and leaner. The main group walked in a close formation, bearing red flags at the front and flanked by CCTV support vehicles. Behind them stretched a motley collection of stragglers, volunteers, reporters and others who had been following the team all along.
True to the communist spirit of the event, we pulled out our team’s red flag and lined up along the road to greet and salute the Long March team. They were happy to see some familiar faces and welcomed us right in. We started marching immediately, climbing our way up the mountain.
We walked, and then we climbed, and then we walked some more, and then we walked some more. All told, we covered 37 kilometers that day, only stopping for five minutes every hour or so. All through the endless frozen hills, the local peasants dropped what they were doing to gawk at us. The women in their tattered bandannas, and the old men in rough, filthy sweaters just stood there staring. Who were these crazy people marching by with their flags, backpacks and entourage? What were they looking for in this land of melting mud and frozen ice?
And then we walked some more. My face was numb from the biting wind. And then we walked some more. My feet began to holler as they tore apart. And then we walked some more. My knees began to bitch and moan. And then we walked some more. The roads and dirt tracks were packed with hard snow and ice broken only by the chains on the support cars.
At midday, we spent an hour climbing to high ground and after a brief rest descended along a winding road into another treeless mud valley. The round, bald mountains stretched out endlessly on all sides. Everyone from the edges to the depths of the valley came down to greet us as we walked into the village to pay our respects to a mass grave. This was
At around three o’clock we walked into the
We gathered with the children and local officials at the gate of the school to dedicate it and give out backpacks, books and sports equipment to the some 200 students served here. We were made to stand (owwwww!) as the local officials, one by one, read long speeches carefully calculated to mean nothing. Then it was my turn. I made a short motivational speech directly to the kids. I told them that I admired their spirit, trudging through the pre-dawn cold to learn how to read, and I told them that if they could make something of themselves, to remember where they came from and help the ones they left behind. I got a strong applause from the team members and audience alike, though I’m not sure if it was for a good speech or for the mercy of my brevity.
To give a sense of the poverty in the region, you can take note that the most common propaganda statement on the walls of the village huts was one naming a cash bonus for women who elect for vasectomies. The bonus when two women in a family get the operation is 3400 RMB, about 400 dollars. The people have to struggle for half a year to raise meager yields of grains and potatoes from the lifeless mud, and the rest of their time is a struggle to stay warm in their mud huts and give fodder to their flocks of sheep. The whole north of
And then we walked some more…
We climbed our way, bodies in agony, out of the valley, and when we finally reached the top, we faced a long descent into the next one. Don’t worry, just another ten kilometers to go! After a few more eons had passed, my numbed mind slowly came to the realization that we had stopped walking. It was time for the team to find a place to sleep.
Going corporate has its perks. I gratefully poured what remained of my body into our luxury van (thanks credit co-op!) and watched dazed as the mud houses whizzed past. My mind started to come back later as liquor was poured down my throat in the hotel restaurant. Apparently it was a nice dinner, and my belly was very happy. I floated upstairs and passed out with a faint notion that I could sleep for five hours, if lucky, before it was time to walk again.
And then we walked some more…
The road was a lot better and a bit shorter the next day, but my body was not happy. I really thought I had injured myself, but I couldn’t let my team down. We followed a flat road for about 25 kilometers into Huining, where we were greeted by a massive crowd who clapped, shook our hands and stuffed potatoes into our pockets. There was a huge celebration at reunion square on the site of the Red Army reunion seventy years ago.
My team hobbled out of the square sometime later. We were all proud of ourselves, but a little sheepish feeling so tortured after sixty kilometers when the Long March team had walked for 6,100. They’re really a great bunch of folks.
What had moved me the most, beyond the poverty and desolation of the area, beyond the physical challenges of the march, was the spirit of the Long March team, and how warmly they had welcomed us. Other sponsors had basically thrown a bunch of money at them for pure advertising. We had worked with the team throughout the trip to organize charity work all along the way. Several of them came over and thanked me (though I was just a part of a team myself) for our efforts. They all said basically the same thing: “If we didn’t have this work, we would be just plain walking, and what would be the point of that? We all feel that we’ve done something meaningful over the past months, and you are the guys who made that possible.” Sheepishly, which is the only proper adverb for this situation in
Though My Long March was less than the runaway television hit that we were expecting, I still find myself baffled at what just transpired. The team members had been strangers less than a year ago, and somehow they came together and went through this enormous, incomprehensible ordeal together. Only people who have shared a life-changing experience together with a bunch of strangers would be able to comprehend what was going on in their minds, and such people are rare. As we downed case after case of local wine on the government’s tab, I could see a mix of emotions in their eyes. They were elated to be at the end of their journey, but just at the edge you could see a touch of terror at the prospect of splitting up and trying to rejoin the normal world. Nothing will ever be the same for them.
Long March - 长征 Chang2 Zheng1
Charity - 公益 Gong1 Yi2, 慈善 Ci2 Shan4
Donation 捐款 Juan1 Kuan3
Gansu Province 甘肃省 Gan1 Su4 Sheng3
Poverty Stricken Region 贫困地区 Pin2 Kun4 Di4 Qu1
Sunday, January 07, 2007
The county, in the southwest part of Xishuangbanna, lies well into the tropics, but at an average altitude of 1200 meters. It is one of the powerhouses of puer tea cultivation, and one of tea's original natural habitats. The rolling mountains around Menghai valley are interspersed with vast tracts of tea plantations and old growth jungle, dotted here and there with Akha (ch- Hani, Aini), Bulang and Jinuo villages. Most of the inhabitants of the valleys are Buddhist and Muslim Dai (Northern Thais).
Having finished my company business at the factory, I requisitioned a jeep and headed out with some coworkers to Bada, about a three hour drive up into the mountains. As we set out on Saturday morning, the entire region was enshrouded in a heavy fog. At some points the visibility was less than ten meters; temples, bamboo stands, people and villages would emerge from the nothingness as we worked our way up.
This is the famous mist of southern
We first stopped off at Menghai Tea Factory's Bada plantation. This is a massive plantation consisting of older tea plants that are prized for their unique flavor and aging properties. The plantation takes full advantage of the winter fog, and is surrounded by rich forests that provide abundant spring water for the trees. When we got there, wild cherry trees were in bloom all over the farm, as were the tea plants themselves.
This is the time of year to prune the trees to induce branching and new leaves for the spring. Most of this was done by hand, with the farmers opting for machetes over clippers.
We spent some time with a farmer family, sampling their crop and chatting about their lives there. We sampled some summer tea, somewhat mature leaves that were picked after the first summer rains. Though pretty fresh, they weren't at all bitter, and gave off a rich, smooth flavor that stuck to the chest like molasses. These leaves had caught a smokey flavor from the hearth in the middle of the house, but the right amount of that can add character to a well aged tea. They gave me a big bag of the stuff to take home.
After lunch, we set back out for our real goal, the 1700 year old King of Wild Tea Trees, deep in the cloud forest atop the mountain. The abundance of ancient wild and cultivated tea trees in the region has led many experts to believe that southern
Our car could only go so far, so we met up with a local friend at the end of the road, and hiked in. The forest was so dense that it grew dark as soon as we stepped inside. Living in
We had just missed a rare bamboo bloom. Bamboo blooms are extremely rare, occurring in a given variety only once every few decades. When a variety of bamboo blooms, it all does so at the same time and promptly dies out. The forest was littered in bamboo carcasses. Who knows when I'll get my next chance to see this rare spectacle. If I had only shown up a week ago...
I must admit that it felt a little anti-climactic when we reached the King of Wild Tea Trees. When it was discovered in the seventies (our driver was part of the first expedition), the tree was over thirty meters tall. As is all too often the case with the world's cultural heritage treasures, the tree's first modern custodians didn't know much about how to protect ancient beings, and took various measures to 'protect' this tree. They tried things like cutting down nearby plants to let in sunlight and erecting a fence around the tree. The best way to take care of an ancient tree like this is to leave it alone. Many of the things they did disrupted the delicate balance that this tree flourished in for almost two millenia. The fence posts around the tree have surely causes a lot of root damage, and some assholes even carved their names into the tree's trunk. The tree has now lost almost half its height, and from the looks of it, may not last the century.
A little bit of silent contemplation next to the tree allowed me to see the tree in a different light. It was host to a thriving community of mosses and creepers, and ancient holes in the tree have probably been home to countless generations of critters. Though the tree was tiny compared to its neighbors in the forest, there was no mistaking that this was an ancient being.
The real depth of what I saw is still sinking in. This plant slowly evolved in this back corner of the world and was discovered and nurtured by an obscure and forgotten people. Somehow (check out the caravan entry) this little plant sired millions of offspring who went on to become one of the most economically, socially and politically important plants in the world, shaping cultures and markets, playing decisive roles in massive historic events from the Opium Wars to imperialism, the American Revolution and Indian Independence. Now a newfound interest in the most traditional of teas is reviving local traditional cultures, whose men can now earn as much money at home than they did when they traveled to far off cities as migrant laborers. These little leaves are also at the forefront of worldwide trends to return to traditional, natural and healthy ways of life. And it all started with an unpretentious little bush growing slowly and quietly among the clouds...
Pilgrimage - 朝圣 Chao2 Sheng4
Tea - 茶 Cha2
Ancient Tea Tree - 古茶树 Gu3 Cha2 Shu4
Primeval Forest - 原始森林 Yuan2 Shi3 Sen1 Lin2
Akha People (a branch of the Hani Nationality) 埃尼人 Ai1 Ni2 Ren2
Hani Nationality - 哈尼族 Ha1 Ni2 Zu2
Menghai Tea Factory - 勐海茶厂 Meng3 Hai3 Cha2 Chang3
Tea Plantation - 茶园 Cha2 Yuan2
I happen to have some time on my hands this morning, so I'm posting about something that I did a long time ago.
Last May, I travelled to Yunnan's far southwest corner on the border with Burma at Cangyuan County to act in a film project. Cangyuan is poor, remote, tropical and absolutely gorgeous. It is home to the Wa, or Ava people, who possibly migrated here from Southeast Asia several thousand years ago.
Linguistically, their closest relatives are the Mon-Khmer, the dominant ethnic group of Cambodia, though they are very different from each other. For one, the Wa practice animism and sorcery (though there are some Buddhists out there) while the Cambodians are mostly Buddhist. Secondly, and more importantly, the Wa used to be headhunters, right up until their 'liberation' by Communist China, and by some accounts, much later than that.
Traditionally, the Wa lived in bamboo and thatch huts, though most have moved on to brick and corrugated steel. Some villages, like Engding, pictured here, have kept their old ways. This one was given government funding to stay traditional and there isn't a scrap of corrugated steel in the whole village. It was almost 100 degrees when we got there, but the houses were amazingly cool inside. Chalk up another point for local knowledge.
Much of the surrounding area is covered in thick jungle, which, I found out only after a few romps, is infested with cobras. There are also bugs everywhere, and their incessant hum would become a cacophany of screams and wails as storms approached. That happened a lot because we were right on the cusp of the monsoon.
We did a lot of filming in the forests, and it is a huge biodiversity hotspot. I saw wild orchids, ginger, and even what looked like a wild ficus tree (ficus for congress!). We would sit around between takes picking wild raspberries until I thought I'd be sick. There are much worse ways to make a living.
We did a lot of filming with the locals. Many of my Han Chinese counterparts looked down on them as poor and illiterate, which they were, but anyone who's seen a bit of the world knows that it rarely translates into stupid. These people know everything about the world around them and how to use it and take care of it. We got caught in a downpour during a take and I took shelter in a nearby cave with a few local village elders. In a half hour of rain they had pointed out five types of plants that could be used for food or medicine, and dug some bugs out of the ground that they mash up for a healing poultice. One of them was even quoting Jimmy Carter to me. I've got another friend among the Wa, an elder of another region, who can play 46 musical instruments. Sure these guys don't know how to use an escalator, but you try making a house with nothing but an axe.
While we were out there, the county threw a massive party for International Labor Day (May1). I know it wasn't a traditional Wa festival, but it was great stuff anyway. Every township in the county sent out their best and brightest all dolled up in their ethnic finery with at least a truckload of their own homemade barley moonshine. They set up right in the local bazaar, which is already a big trading zone for Burmese and Yunnanese swapping cross border goods. Each town had a booth showing off their local produce and tourism resources, and being one of the only foreingers in town, I had to drink at each one.
The highlight of the festivities was the "monihei" party, which translates from Chinese into "rub you black". This was held at the local soccer stadium with a hughe stage for music, dancing, rituals, and a buffalo sacrifice. They have a medicinal goo made of mud and honey and they made up a huge vat of it, passing it around to everyone, so that when the fun really started we could smear it all over each other.
But first, they had to bless the festivities. Several high priests from the local clans were brought out to bless the people. They led out the largest water buffalo I've ever seen in my life, and tied it to a stake in front of the stage. As the priests called out commands, young men danced around it in circles, stabbing it several times with a spear and finally lopping its head off with a machete. In deference to more sensitive readers, I'll leave the photos of that in the galllery.
Once the bull had been slaughtered, the real fun began. We all whipped out our mud and began smearing each other head to toe. It was a real mud riot. Just as we thought it would die out, they brought out the wood drum. This is made of an ancient hollowed out tree. They had it on wheels and struck it with a jungle rhythm while others pulled it down the street with dried vines. We all followed, mud in hand, and turned the city into a mud riot. There were people rushing shops, dousing police officers and blocking cars to give them all a serious mudding. I gotta say, these guys know how to party.