Sichuan Peppercorns Get You High!

Pass it my way, man


I always get head rushes from our favorite dishes, gan bian si ji dou (dry fried stringbeans) and mapou tofu (spicy tofu), and finally last night, when the rush was bigger than usual, Googled it.

People: these dishes’ signature, Sichuan peppercorns, contain THC! The psychoactive ingredient in cannabis!”The psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). A couple other plants make THC in smaller amounts, most notably the Szechuan peppercorn, hwa-jhou.”

My kids also say they are getting buzzed on our dinner dishes!

The chemical in the peppercorns

Don't bogart that peppercorn, dude


“produce a strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation…[and] appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once to induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive. So theoretically may cause a kind of general neurological confusion.”

BTW tumeric has some, too.

Bespoke (David)

He'd rather be biking

David is very tall. Also his arms are long, so clothing sometimes doesn’t fit. His wardrobe, while timeless in one sense (khakis, herringbone tweed, blue shirts) is also mostly of the 20-year-old, Salvation Army variety.

The man and his khakis

Not that there’s anything wrong with that!!

Still. For his birthday, we dragged him to a Chinese tailor for his first-ever custom-made clothing.

The tailor is making him a sports jacket, a cashmere overcoat, and a set of shirts. I don’t want to overdo the joy at underpaid Chinese labor, but let’s just say, Lands End wouldn’t sell you a jacket for the price of this package. Which will fit!

Happy birthday, honey!

In sports-casual mode

Bad Ideas–Like Bullets in Your Suitcase

Stupidest thing we’ve done: Checking Ethan’s toy airplane (swear, I thought it was brass tubes), in a suitcase & learning–while being briefly searched & detained at the airport–it was made of bullets.

Don't fly with bullets

We Blue-Eyed Devils aren’t so hated anymore. (The moniker dates to the Opium Wars; it actually is devilish to use addicting a country to heroin as a tactic for redressing a trade imbalance.) Now kids at KFC and McDonald’s, and young parents with toddlers enrolled in “Disney English” language schools wear all-American Abercrombie, Gap, Lauren, and Hilfiger. Or this:

So hot, so sexy

At Beijing’s Silk Market, where half (3/4?) the goods are pirated (Louis Vuitton bags for a few bucks, Adidas & Nikes for $20; new movies and DVDs for 80 cents), there’s a new sign of the times at the gate: Pirating is not OK! In place of enforcement, banners. Be Law-Abiding!

Protect Intellectual Property Rights!

Increase awareness!


P.S. We call him “Tongue Dog.” He lives on campus.

We love Tongue Dog

Beijing, Destroyed

Beijing Central Busn. District


In the aftermath of Xi’s visit to the U.S., some thoughts on China–trying to understand its exercise of power, self-reinvention through destruction … the meaning of all this new-ness all around in this rising superpower. From my vantage point in Beijing, on my 6-month anniversary here.

Take the Marais, the Latin Quarter, Montmartre in Paris, so many parts of London, Rome, NY’s W. Village or the Meatpacking District, Copenhagen’s Medieval quarter — great cities, alive, conjuring a sense, an experience, of history. You walk it, see it, feel it. Same with the Middle East’s walled medinas — Jerusalem and Cairo, Aleppo and Damascus, Fez and Marrakesh.

Old City Wall of Fez, Morocco

Not so Beijing.

You’ll look hard to find China’s ancient majesty. It’s tucked away, almost an amusement park. Beijing has cool new buildings (the Olympics’ Bird’s Nest and Water Cube; CCTV “Big Underpants”) but what most characterizes Beijing is…miles and miles of already-cracking nondescript newness. Ugly flyovers across 8-lane mid-city highways. It seems contradictory yet Beijing is overpopulated yet barren. Beijing, despite China’s amazing excitement and energy, the humor and art, vitality, great food, is largely depressing if you love cities. Just try to find a pedestrian route through this seemingly improvised sprawl.

“Beijing is defined by congestion, lack of public spaces, discontinuous neighborhoods,” writes Michael Meyer, author of the excellent The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008). Which this post is all about.

Beijing from the Jing Guang Bldg

Meyers explains why it’s so bad, while chronicling the razing of Beijing’s few, precious, surviving old neighborhood alleys (or hutong). (It must be said that original hutong homes have no plumbing; residents use public bathrooms. I don’t ever idealize that kind of poverty and hardship. They needed to be renovated–not demolished.)

Chinese for "Destroy," painted by authorities


Why has Beijing been destroyed? Meyer’s research found, for starters, there was (& remains) comparatively little professional capacity, relative to the need: No Chinese architecture department until about 1930. “Building” long considered a lowly trade. Few decision-makers even now understand preservation, sustainable development and planning (re: resource use — god let’s hope that’s changing fast), nor architectural heritage. Some important advocates raised loud voices here; big-name Western foundations offered expertise, to no avail. Or too little, too late. China, built of wood, rotted away.

From Meyer. Why Old Beijing was destroyed:


1. It reminded people of feudalism, which they hated.

European architecture carries you to different eras. (A cathedral is “a portal back to a specific time and its politics, arts, ethics, economy.”) In China, materials and design remained largely unchanged for 2,000 years. It’s all about one hated period: feudalism.


2. The city had a celestial function. Once obsolete, no reason to save it.

Beijing for millennia had a cosmic raison d’etre. “European cities grew organically [around] food production, transportation, and governance.” Not so Chinese cities, Meyer explains. Planned from scratch as administrative centers, great cities simply were home to a high-ranking official. A capital “existed as a medium for the emperor to communicate with the universe through rites, balancing the harmony between the celestial and the earthly.” Harmonizing yin and yang forces, feng shui, the Earth’s five elements. Confucian hierarchy, Taoist balance, determined layout and location. When beliefs died, there was no reason to save the infrastructure, preserve the history, salvage the urban grid or revisit traditional design.

Old Beijing



3. A century (the 20th) of self-hating envy of the West

In the early 1900s, many Chinese studied in America (including Sun Yat-Sen’s son, Sun Ke, who went to UCLA and Columbia) and came home to modernize the southern port, Guangzhou (Canton), with deputies likewise trained in America, “where the nation’s wide, paved roads designed for cars made a lasting impression. On their return, they ordered the pulling down of Guangzhou’s 800-year-old wall…[even as Canadian and American architects] urged an adaptive architecture [melding] modern engineering with traditional Chinese building traits.”

Chaoyang, Beijing (CCTV Bldg)



4. Embarrassment at China’s poverty.

Rich Americans seek out high-priced old Amish barn siding: it’s a precious decorative accent. Here old wood = slum. “You must understand the terrible inferiority complex that comes with poverty. The only desire is to look modern.”

CCTV Building, "Big Underpants"



5. Successive Chinese empires wiped out what they conquered.

The tradition of razing goes back to the emperors. Conquer-and-raze was a millenia-old tradition.

Wall remnant; Beijing


6. War


7. The Cultural Revolution


Of course. “Destroy the old world; Forge the new world.” Along with torture, murder, and public humiliation, Red Guards vandalized or burned down an astonishingly large fraction of China’s heritage. Many temples have been (are being) rebuilt and restored. I lack data but they’re a small bit of what was lost. We look hard to find and visit them, as do many Chinese tourists and pilgrims.


8. Communist (sometimes Soviet) ideology.

Beijing had two rings of walls: the inner surrounding the imperial palace, the outer around the city. A 1953 city government declaration said the Old City walls “serve feudalism and the imperial era.” Soon the outer was gone. (A crusading architect at the time, Liang Sicheng, said it felt “like having my skin torn off my bones.” He was in the papers this week when his own home was razed, despite its status as “an irreplaceable cultural relic.” [See under: “Rule of Law, problems with”.])

Beijing City Wall Museum

In 1953, under the CCP slogan, “Learn everything from the Soviet Union” a cadre declared (per Meyer), “The major danger is an extreme respect for old architecture.” So went not just wall but gate towers, ceremonial arches. He quotes a People’s Daily (CCP party organ) editorial of 1957: “The people all want to use their hands to destroy! You destroy a gray brick, I’ll pull down a piece of stone. Citizens of every district help pull down the wall.” Today, instead of gates, gargantuan intersections. Meyer found that Soviet advisers actually urged preservation of parts of the wall, to no avail.

A few years ago, about a kilometer was reconstructed — between a highway and a housing block.

Beijing City Wall remnant


9. ‘Urban renewal’ (quote-unquote) — hastened by the Olympics.

With Beijing’s Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, “Neighborhoods that had survived the fall of imperial rule, the Republican era’s modernizations, Japanese occupation, and Mao’s industrialization fell to a faceless foe. The Hand moved through the hutong after dark, surreptitiously marking courtyard homes ‘Destroy.’ ”

A typical hutong (alley)


10. And why does it happens so fast? Party politics. Bureaucrats’ ambition..

Meyer explains: “Rapid clear-cutting [is] the preferred method over selective thinning of buildings. “It’s about time… Speed. For the officials in charge, the faster they demolish old structures and begin new projects, the faster they can declare to those above them, ‘Look what I’ve accomplished.’ There are no paths to career advancement for ‘Look what I saved.’ ”

Consumerism in mod malls, says a famous, gifted Chinese architect (hutong-raised, trained at Berkeley, who hated the dead suburbs he saw in America, and now is head of architecture at MIT) — isn’t just a priority. Newness, consuming, is a way of life. Not of the opiate, brainwashing, shallow sort. Though it may devour 7 earths (that don’t exist), Chinese postmodern self-expression through consumerism is about choice where none existed before. It’s about experiencing freedom, exploring a new world. Life for once as a series of open possibilities.

The world’s robust new superpower, embodied in Beijing destroyed, is managing its own fate.

Another City, Old & New (Xiamen)

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No Lies Beijing

Sunday: Saw nothing quaint, antique or traditional. No orange-robed monks. Real Beijing was the library construction site outside — home to migrant laborers’ trailers — springing back to life after the Lunar New Year.

View from our window

Riding the subway and learning from billboards everywhere that Beijing has a new motto: “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, Virtue.”

If it says so, it must be so

Visiting Tiananmen’s lone old watchtower, and a historic district (Dashilar or Dazhalan) restored, in part, with a Fanieul Hall/South Street Seaport artificiality. It was Ethan buying Mao’s Little Red Book there, a fake-antique.

Sayings of Chairman Mao

Eating hot pot without drama: only minor hand burns.

Emperor ate hot pot here

And dinner in chichi Sanlitun with a NY childhood friend, late-40s like me, who’s produced (and exported) U.S. theater here for 2 decades. Today, her old contacts, partners, friends, have hit (or anticipate reaching, come October’s transitional Party Congress) China’s very highest levels.

Glossy, glassy Sanlitun

If you’re a 40- or 50-something, a Chinese regional or industrial or political or bureaucratic somebody, this is your time. Or maybe I should say, whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you do: Whatever the world will become next — it’s our turn now.

A Few Funny Foods

Edible flowers–Yunnanese food, at the famous Golden Phoenix near Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Minzu, campuses in Haidian.

Stir fried with garlic

Bagels are great…but not Chinese. Amazingly, we found a Beijing bakery devoted to — the bagooel.

And at the Beijing Capital Airport Burger King, why just fry your burger? Coat it in bread first: The Tempura Whopper.

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Drying Tea, Pickling Cabbage

Tea dries, tulou

Cabbage, mud bricks

Grieving for Anthony Shadid, who died apparently of catastrophic asthma, covering the Syrian resistance, as always by giving voice to those otherwise unheard (“we write small to say something big” — quotes the Times op-ed). Our friendship began in Cairo ’91 or ’92; my best memories center on rookie days in NYC, Upper West and Brooklyn; Anthony terrifying me swimming in humongous waves off Jones Beach after a hurricane blew out to sea…loving his first Jewish chicken soup, Shabbat at my sister’s (“What do you call this?”).

Chess in tulou


The humanity of his reporting–so rightly praised by Pulitzer juries, readers, editors, colleagues. I tell all my students one of his great questions, useful almost always in interviews: “How so?”

Then you listen.

Hakka woman, pickling

A reporter who listens that well is practicing an art, fulfilling a godly obligation, in possession of a precious gift of compassion–and making a heavy choice, making sacrifices, to be in a position to listen for so long, so carefully.

Cabbage on wall


A very simple photo journal on drying plants in southern China, Fujian province, at clusters of tulou, “roundhouses,” a few hours from wealthy city Xiamen. The famous tulou (“too-low”) are dried-mud, multistory apartments 100s of years old. It’s tea- and cabbage-drying season. The Hakka, a minority group, pickle cabbage. They also sell China’s famous oolong tea.

Carrying tea

Harvesting greens


Tea-drying basket


Tulou exterior


Tulou cluster


Tulou central courtyard


Tourists overlook tulou


Ethan exits tulou


Road beside tulou

Team Play (Jeremy Lin’s, & ours)

Team matches take over our U.S. week-ends. Here not. The boys play on just as many teams, but instead of games (“exchanges”), they train. They save up competing for one huge, all-day blow-out. Today was that volleyball tournament for Kenny (Ethan’s European handball event was last week-end). These things feature dozens of teams from all over China, a caterer, rainbows of uniforms, awards.

BSB Teddy Bears' pregame huddle


Absent: parents. Also great. The kids live their own lives.

BSB on the court


Today at Dulwich College Beijing, our Under-14 British School of Beijing Bears took 5th. (Last week-end at the German School, Ethan’s team was eliminated before the quarterfinals.) Lots of floor dives, so we’re on ice and Motrin, but no hospital.

Kenny and Kimbo


Here’s Kenny and Kimbo, a good friend. They’re the team’s only 12-year-olds (“7th Years”), the rest are 13-14. I’ve talked about our bigness posing problems (can’t buy clothes or shoes, can’t get child discounts–even for an 8 year old). What’s noteworthy here–and let us add a moment of tribute to Knick Jeremy Lin, as”Lin-sanity” grips Beijing as well as NY, and Kimbo’s family is also from Taiwan–is that great multisport athletes come in all sizes. Kenny is, for sure, terrific, I’m not knocking him. But Kimbo is probably the stronger athlete. Coordinated, calm, consistent–that capable player a team relies on.

You should see the kid’s spike.

Speaking of Taiwan, tomorrow we go to Xiamen for a week, the Chinese coastal city across the Strait. We’ll visit those giant, packed-earth roundhouses, tulou, clan apartment buildings thousands of years old. …Which I hear the CIA once mistook for missile silos pointed at Taiwan! Sure glad we didn’t bomb them.

Here is a Lintastic sign. Lin is a popular name!

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Top 10 Lessons, Midway Through Year

Sort of lost, as usual

At the Fulbright Mid-Year Conference in Xiamen–five days with the great full-year lecturers and getting to know the Spring-only group, I’ll be presenting…along the lines of this very condensed…

Ten Lessons Learned, Midway Through a Year in China

Mu Mansion, Yunnan


1. To understand anything, rely on Chinese journalism in translation.

Kuilan Liu, translator, scholar, friend


2. Banks are the object of protest. But life without them here (can you say “disintermediated”) isn’t great. In emergencies, there is no such thing as check, credit card, ATM. Find a place to hide a humongous wad on your person.

Calligrapher, Xi'an


3. Shame a student and you will never see his or her face again. (Suppose that’s why they call it “Losing face.”)

Mao Statue, Lijiang


4. Zithromax, Zithromax, Zithromax. Don’t leave town without a year’s supply x the number in your party.

Tagong cook, Sichuan


5. No matter how fab my lectures and exercises, students prefer field trips to places they’ve only heard about: global media and international NGOs.

6. When ad libbing a public speech (or–with any luck–delivering a prepared one), you might get away with a lighthearted opener but ultimately, weighty and formal are expected.

McDonald's, Old Beijing


7. Related: Give thanks, give tribute, give recognition.

Temple lamps, Chengdu


8. What the young feel and believe most deeply–everything you most want to know–they can’t articulate. Fish can’t explain water.

Guest speaker banquet


9. Gradual (imperceptible?) change is praiseworthy; upheaval is scary.

10. A little repression is always to be expected.

798 Art District, Beijing 2011

Superbowl at 6 a.m.

Bad parenting

I was dead-set against it but had a last-minute change of heart the night before and decided we’d be the world’s worst parents–or maybe the best–and let the kids, NY Giants fanatics, watch the Superbowl early Monday morning.

12-year-old bar fly


We don’t know any American football fans here–certainly not well enough to invite ourselves over at an ungodly hour (as I had inserted us, for Halloween trick-or-treating, into the Western gated compound of the lovely head here of Ogilvy, to whom I’m forever grateful). Superbowl Monday began with a 5 am wake-up, travel to Beijing’s expat-heavy East side (from our West side university district), and meeting our new friend, writer William Poy Lee, who hooked us up with neighborhood sports bar Paddy O’Shea’s. We got the last seats. Fan allegiance was evenly split. It was nice seeing all those Americans, remembering all the shapes, dress codes, colors, & and sizes we come in.

About a dozen Beijing bars besides O’Shea’s opened for the Big Game, broadcast by the Asian Sports Network (sadly: without the American ads!). Most charged a RMB100 ($16) cover, including eggs, coffee, and beer, so you could be drunk and alert for kick-off at 7:30. O’Shea’s was super nice & let the kids in free. By 10:30, before the incredible last minutes, they got Sprites and pizza.

Dressing on the subway


Go, Giants!

We were on the subway to the British School by 11:30. They pulled their uniforms over sports jerseys (Kenny wore Tuck), to stares and laughter from commuting Beijingers.

Please don’t tell the headmaster.

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All the Animals I’ve Seen in Tibetan Monasteries

By Kenny

Here are some pics I took in a few Tibetan monasteries. Most of them are at Ganden Sumtseling, in Shangri La. One is in western Sichuan.

Enjoy.

Cat in monastery

Yak in monastery, Tagong, Sichuan

Pig in Shangri-La


Another pig, Shangri La

Cow, Shangri La, Yunan

Dog in monastery

Monastery chicken, Shangri La

China, Building…

Highway over farms


Our weeks of ‘ethnic-‘ or ‘eco-‘ tourism have me thinking about China’s build-out. Beyond our treasure hunts for un-razed old Beijing, I mean something much bigger. We seem to exclusively pursue the preciously pre-industrial. As if that’s all “Chinese” means–in a human sense, and re: the built environment.

Ethan spit a phrase back at me during our 2 weeks in Yunnan and Guanxi (provinces bordering Vietnam and Burma), a wake-up to how much we chase the quaintly scenic, the un-“spoiled.” In China, the building is happening so fast and all at once, I think it’s part of the knee-jerk anti-China senftiment prevalent now. I think the build-out scares Americans far more than our own (slower, older) devastation of nature.

One day, on mountain bikes, after a long hard climb escaping Lijiang’s city limits, on reaching dirt paths around Lashi Lake–and even there, after crossing giant highway construction–we reached peace, lake, horses, corn fields, big birds (could it be the rare white-necked Tibetan crane?!?).

And Ethan asked, “Are we off the beaten track now?”

Lashi Lake, near LIjiang

Mr. Livingstone, I presume?

Bai village family


I think many Chinese tourists regard, and experience, ethnic minority areas the way many Americans do the Amish. We wrap our fears about modernity, our sense of loss and helplessness, up in a sort of ‘love’ for their ‘natural,’ ‘noble savagery.’ I don’t mean to insult. These narratives are bigger than we are, unconscious.

China is building, everywhere. Yet until now we have hardly posted pictures of this. Our photos are, to some extent, lies. Wish fulfillment. (Fear, idealization, ‘love,’ big narratives, as above.)

Zongdian (Shangri-La) Yak Crossing

In Ariel Dorfman & Armand Mattelart’s classic How to Read Donald Duck , two Chilean radicals’ scathing, landmark 1971 booklet (now a collectors’ item) on imperial relations, framed as an attack on Disney comics, it’s a bullseye when they describe “the historical nostalgia of the bourgeoisie…[for] lost paradise”:

“A Wigwam Motel and a souvenir shop are opened, excursions are arranged. The Indians are immobilized against their national background and served up for tourist consumption. …Stereotypes become a channel of distorted knowledge. …[The] principle [is] … sensationalism, which conceals reality by means of novelty, which not incidentally, also serves to promote sales…”

Corn dries, Baisha restaurant.

So here we are ‘consuming’ China–not ours, actually, but someone else’s empire. Ostensibly looking for “reality,” “authenticity,” yet taking so few pictures of the changes underway, the infrastructure rising everywhere. Favoring instead quaint (powerless minorities), color, sensation.

Overpasses cross lakes and soar above villages. Towering dams cement cliffsides. Massive bridges span the Yangtze and tunnels bore through (near Lijiang in Yunnan) mountains. (Same deal in Western Sichuan, now sealed off due to more Tibetan self-immolations and unrest).

In one minority area we visited, near Dali, a fresh village mural educated people about electrification (how not to get electrocuted).

Near Dali, electrification mural

The building is part Keynesian stimulation, keeping the economy percolating (so we read) to avoid a slowdown that could provoke big social unrest. (Vs. the ‘small’ and medium-sized unrest, already occurring, involving hundreds rather than, say, millions.)

Ganden Sumtseling, Shangri-La, Yunnan

Maybe it looked like this in the Eisenhower era when America built out infrastructure.

Elevated highway construction, Yunnan

Kids can study at night in electrified homes. Educated kids won’t need to wade knee-deep all day in cold rice paddies. At that level there’s no righteousness in chasing the “lost paradise.” Hats off to China’s retiring technocratic generation, soon to be replaced.

Yet. What if the build-out is truly ill-conceived? If Party leaders (central and provincial) are so close to the elites who run the state-owned conglomerates, they’ve got hands in eachother’s pockets. If the governing elite simply hired the enterprise-running elite — the state owns the biggest engineering firms, cement manufacturers, transport and energy conglomerates. If they’re investing the nation’s wealth not in education or healthcare, but roads to nowhere, tunnels through mountains, out of nepotism, favoritism, intra-elite self-dealing?

Shangri La Tibetan women

If ethnic tourism is inherently suspect, so is the despoilation we ecotourists are trying to escape, if it’s without checks or balances. So is one-party rule without media watchdogs. All sides of the equation are troubling.

More Foods I’ve Never Seen Before

In honor of Tu B’shvat! Happy holiday, trees and plants. We celebrate you tonight in at a Tu B’shvat seder in Beijing …and on Coplans in China!

A Citrus with Tentacles

Saw in Nanning, Guanxi

Green and Tortoise-Like

No idea.

Plum-Size With Stripes

Got me on these.

Like 7,000 Greens, None of Which Are Spinach or Cliantro

Greens for Sale Dali

These I have seen, but only in heirloom seed catalogs:

Beautiful Red Carrots

Red carrots

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Dr. Ho, David’s Qi, and Ezra Pound

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, 15,000'


Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (15,000′) is holy to the Naxi (“nashi”) people, whose priest lives up there, with a tourist chairlift. The Naxi, a matriarchal Chinese minority related to Tibetans, traditionally worship the spirits of rocks, rivers, and especially this mountain, which grows some 500 healing herbs, many unknown elsewhere (also: 300 different rhododendrons).

In this botanical wonderland east of the Himalayas, in China’s southwest Yunnan province, David had a consultation with the famous village healer, Dr. Ho, a figure of great cross-cultural interest. “I was raised by Christian missionaries,” Ho told the Daily Telegraph, (in one of many news stories). “But there were many other religions, too – Muslim, Buddhism, Confucianism and Naxi.”

Tibetan monastery near Baisha, Lijiang

In 1986, Bruce Chatwin wrote a travel piece in the Times which made Ho, and his clinic in Baisha, a tiny mountain village at 8,000′, something of an international legend. Chatwin was fascinated (as we were, as everyone would be) with the Naxi: “Their religion is a combination of Tibetan Lamaism, Chinese Taoism and a far, far older shamanistic belief: in the spirits of cloud and wind and pine,” Chatwin wrote.

Shamanism didn’t go over well with the Red Guards. Ho lost everything (but his herbal–a 19th-century edition of The Book of Flowers–buried safely under his floorboards) to attacks and round-ups during the Cultural Revolution. His books were burned and he was thrown in prison.

Times are way better now. He treats visitors from everywhere for donations, and locals for free. We went initially hoping to find something for altitude sickness. We were welcomed into his cluttered home office, attached to a storage room with big jugs of powdered herbs, roots, and mountain flowers. He sat David down and began a consultation concerning his habits, aches and pains, and lifestyle and well-being.

Dr. Ho's herbal medicine storeroom

David would prefer to start this blog post this way:

“What I love is, in Baisha (Dr. Ho’s village, part of Lijiang), among innumerable Buddhas, shawls, tablecloths, time pieces, wandering dogs and free-range chickens, there is but one Dr. Ho. Perhaps 2 — his son, who is practicing to replace him. Though not anytime soon. The post has to give a sense of the stupid souvenirs. The dumb-ass stuff. And also that Dr. Ho has become part of the whole tourist trade.
That should be the beginning.” (David says).

“And include Tibetans throwing fireworks, not for the New Year but to get people away from the stalls of their competition. Write about the cobblestones, the dustiness of it, the bright sun, & almost overlooking Dr. Ho. And the woman before us who seemed to have a good consultation. And say that if you can’t afford to visit him for a consultation, you can reach him online for his teas (and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medicine Clinic) at jdsmchmcl@yahoo.com.cn.”

David continues: “He asked about my work, and detected from feeling my pulse that I had lower back problems and neck problems. He asked about my prostate and wondered if I had hemorrhoids (no). His check-up agreed with my known problems. He noted that unlike many Americans, I wasn’t obese. He checked alternating wrists 3 or 4 times and said my qi was pretty good. His skin was baby soft. He attributed it to his Healthy Tea, which he gave me wrapped in paper.”

"Healthy Tea"

“The donation we made was about $30, about the same as my co-payment in the U.S., and I got more face-time and bedside manner. The tea’s herbal mustiness reminds me of every health food shop I’ve ever been in. My qi may be balanced, but I got the sense he was going to outlive me.”

(Now 90, Dr. Ho is prepared to pass the baton to his son, Dr. Ho II, who chatted us up at the clinic. He said the Mayo Clinic has correspondence with Ho regarding a leukemia case.)

This story has several layers.

Unlike our David, Bruce Chatwin didn’t visit Dr. Ho for a medical consultation, but to learn about Ho’s teacher, Joseph Rock, an eccentric Austrian-American self-taught botanist who lived in Lijiang, funded by the National Geographic Society, 1920s-’40s, cataloging wild plants and traveling colonial-mandarin style with caravans of servants. Rock’s National Geographic articles inspired readers far from China, like the author of Lost Horizons — (who never left London). It coined the term Shangri La (probably a corruption of Shambhala, the mythical Tantric heaven-on-earth).

Naxi dance for donations

Ho’s mountain, and Lijiang (spelled “Li Chiang”) also turn up in Ezra Pound’s Cantos:

And over Li Chiang, the snow range is turquoise Rock’s world that he saved us for memory a thin trace in high air
Canto CXIII

Herbs of Lijiang

This northwest part of Yunan province — China’s ‘wild’ southwest, bordering Burma–is called “remote but accessible” (and Lijiang is “the best preserved ancient town in China”).

Lijiang canal

Lijiang cafe

A major road will soon cut through (we saw massive construction). The three vast gorges that rivers carved here, at the edge of the Tibetan plateau–the mighty Mekong, Yangtze and the Nu–are twice the depth (on average) of the Grand Canyon. (In the pic, we’re hiking a popular route on the Yangtze, Tiger Leaping Gorge.) The highest mountains exceed 20,000′. It can’t be a surprise that species, that traditional medicines, thrive here which exist nowhere else on earth.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Corn drying, Baisha

I wrote earlier, from Sichuan nextdoor, that this area’s a “biodiversity hotspot“. There are rare mammals — leopards (but the ones for sale are only dyed dog skins). And separated by the peaks and river valleys, a dozen unrelated ethnic groups like the Naxi still speaking so many different languages, still wearing traditional clothing. Although the women dancing in the picture above were doing it for tourist donations. Several Naxi orchestras perform ancient music for tourists, as well.

Naxi Orchestra

“Uneasy symbiosis” ? Our tourist presence helps preserve the old cultures, deeply embedded in this astonishing landscape, which might otherwise disappear as young people move to cities. Logging caused massive flooding, so when it was banned, tourism became the biggest game in town. During Lunar New Year week, millions of newly middle-class Chinese families were out enjoying tourism just like us. (I kept thinking, it’s not their fault they are so numerous, that wherever they flock, and like us they go where it’s beautiful and culturally rich, that it becomes a swarm…a sea of humanity…a crush…a horde.)

Blissfully empty alley

David says he doesn’t mind letting me end things. Here: I hope the evolution our tourism inspires is as balanced — at the very least — as David’s qi.