Hello Uncle Foreigner

Yangtze River

Nov 22, 2014

Video: Life along the Yangtze

Viewing the world from our perch in Luzhou

Traveller from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: Devin Townsend, “Traveller”

A typical fall afternoon, hanging out by the river.

Jun 14, 2014

The victory lap

Leveling up in Luzhou

The kids and us at Egg Bar, with the boss
Our buddies at Egg Bar, in Tai’an
Briefly, there were hot dogs
Sadly, after a strong opening, the hot dog guys fell prey to a decline in quality and we haven’t actually seen them in a few weeks.
The Luzhou pig cakeTaste that savory meat
猪儿粑, or Pig Cake, is a delicious Luzhou specialty that our friend Listening introduced us to earlier this year.
Post-flood Yangtze RiverThe river walk today
Left: One month after the 2012 flood, makeshift tea houses reclaimed the crumbled banks of Yangtze Riverfront. Right: These days, the walk along the river has been greatly spiffed up.
Far-away-hot-potThe crew of far-away-hot-pot
Far-away-hot-pot has some truly delicious meatballs.
At Chinese Bar with Claude and MaybellDownstairs Chinese Bar
After a spicy meal at far-away-hot-pot, we love to stop at Chinese Bar for an old-fashiony night cap.
The kids at Around the Corner restaurantSome buddies at Snaggles'More young friendsA friend on the road
We’ve made all kinds of friends out in the village of Tai’an.
The old, rickety carnival by the riverShiny, new Spirits Land
Left: The old carnival by the river; right: The rollercoaster at Spirits Land
Is it a Transformer?The X-Men branded swings at Spirits Land
At Spirits Land, everything looks a little familiar.

A new vendor appeared at the bottom of the hill behind the Old School in early April. Next to the ladies selling dumplings, cold noodles, and fried 串串 snacks, two young guys set up the Little Bear Hot Dog stand. And their efforts were delicious: Perfectly savory dogs — the Chinese tube meats we’d come across before tend towards the sweet — on homemade buns served with pickles and real French’s mustard (“It’s American, just like you!” said the guy in the mask, in Chinese). We quickly made Little Bear part of our Old Campus routine. And joked to each other that this represented a huge level up in our ongoing RPG of a life. “Achievement unlocked: American-style hot dog.”

As spring progressed, it felt like less of a joke. Luzhou is changing and we are changing, and everything feels a bit more comfortable. For maybe the first two years, I’d look back every few months and think, “I have no idea how we even survived without the knowledge and experience that I’ve just gained. We were such ignorant fools until now!” But recently, so slowly that I’ve barely noticed, my mindset has become, “Hey, we’re doing pretty well these days. China’s awesome and we’re awesome!” Some of that’s due to small things, that are really more Luzhou’s doings than our own, mostly having to do with what gets stocked in the imports section at at the supermarket. There was even butter, for a short while.

But, we’re the ones who’ve found the fun at far-away-hot-pot and Chinese Bar. Far-away-hot-pot is our latest hot pot find: A place that does it up Chongqing-style, located 15-minutes in the direction away from the city center from our Old Campus apartment (hence our name for it), right on the Yangtze River. It has a beautiful view, a friendly staff and fantastic meatballs. We introduced it to our friends Maybell and Claude, and they too really liked it. Chinese Bar is the actual name of an historically themed Chinese restaurant, where the waiters dress in old fashioned river worker costumes and we drink rice wine out of ceramic bowls. Both establishments seem to be where the young and cool of Luzhou hang out. And now, it’s where we hang out, too.

We’ve also established ourselves out in Tai’an, chatting often with both the locals and the many construction workers who are in town to make this little hamlet into a city. I’m working pretty hard on my Mandarin, and these conversations are more in depth than ever before. People are starting to accuse me of speaking the local dialect, even.

The lovely spring weather has seen us get out and about nearly every weekend — whether to destinations remote and spectacular, like the Bamboo Sea, or far flung corners of Luzhou city, like Spirits Land. Spirits Land is the English translation of Luzhou’s new amusement park. According to Listening, Crela and Echo, after the flood of 2012 wiped out the scrappy old rides by the river, the city carved out a space to rebuild all that kind of thing on the outskirts of town. When we visited, mid-May, the park was only half complete, but 100% safer looking than the river carnival had been. The new park had multilingual signage in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French and English; and willy-nilly copyright infringement: The Krusty Krab and the Chum Bucket were places to buy snacks, X-Men characters festooned the “Hurricane Fly Chairs”; and good-old Mickey ears sat atop the entry ticket booth.

During all this travel and fun, Peter and I talked constantly about our upcoming move, and how much we were going to miss Luzhou. The more we reveled in our first Chinese hometown, the more fiercely attached we felt to it. One afternoon, in conversation with our boss, we successfully floated the theoretical idea of a raise. “What if we stayed?” we started wondering.

After the first time that was voiced, it didn’t take too long for our “Say Goodbye to Sichuan Province” tour to turn into a campaign advocating for “Bonus Year in Luzhou.” Over lunch at corner restaurant (we call it that, because it’s on a corner) we called our boss Linda to sign on for another year. “God bless you,” she said.

Kunming will still be there in 2015, and we’ve finally found our footing here. So we’re staying, to revel in our achievements and to enjoy the comforts we’ve worked so hard for. Bonus round: GO!

An afternoon at Baizitu

Nov 26, 2012

Chongqing: Yangtze River International Youth Hostel

Back on the road

The Chongqing Yangtze River International Youth Hostel
Omelettes for breakfastOmelettes for breakfastRoom oneRoom two

For the last weekend of National Day, we decided to get out of town. Our 12-hour fly-by of Chongqing this summer left us wanting more, so we hopped on a bus for the 2 and a half journey east.

This time we went rogue, accommodation-wise, and opted for a hostel that was not in our guidebook: Yangtze River International Youth Hostel. It was located just at the tip of the center-city peninsula in a quaint, traditionally styled building.

It was also right underneath a brand new bridge that was being constructed. I guess we’re just drawn to that sort of thing. But each room came stocked with ear plugs to block out the noise.

The restaurant-bar area was cozy and funky, with a full menu of Chinese and western foods — as reasonably priced as anywhere else. They had a small outdoor area, which would have been lovelier minus the giant construction cranes, but it was a perfectly nice place to enjoy a drink or a meal. Our particular favorites were the homemade mint tea and the breakfast omelets, the latter of which attempted a Mexican flavor (with a vegetarian option!) via a Sichuan spice rack. Oh, and the french fries were pretty wonderful, too.

Our room the first night was small but cute. It was two levels, with a small sitting area and TV downstairs and the bed upstairs. We loved it … until suspicious scrabbling noises started up in the walls and ceiling, and continued until dawn. This was not ideal. Rat fear makes it pretty hard to sleep.

In the morning, we asked for a change of rooms. They moved us, no problem — and, to be honest, they didn’t seem all that surprised by our complaint. Our second room was just off a balcony that overlooked the river. Minus the giant mold patch on the ceiling, this room was pretty nice.

There’s a really charming hostel here, gone slightly to seed. Like, someone had really cared for this place many years ago, but didn’t have the money or the desire to do the upkeep. The staff is genuinely helpful and friendly — they gave us thorough and accurate directions to pretty much everywhere in the city. As it is, however, mice and mold are just too much for us to return (although, to be fair, they weren’t enough to make us leave).

Sep 8, 2012

Flood: Cleaning up

One day later, things get on the road back to “normal”

Cleaning up
Cleaning up
For some, cleaning up was not a priority. This shoe store got straight to the selling. And, many of their customers got straight to the buying.

By July 24, the water had subsided. (And the power came back the day after that.) We suspect it was so fast due to some jiggery pokey with the Three Gorges Dam. So the clean up began.

The whole neighborhood smelled of low tide and bleach. The first thing to do was to get the muck and garbage out of your store. There were huge piles of detritus along the street, and hardworking store owners were covered in mud. Small groups of soldiers went from here to there, wearing life vests and carrying brooms.

Along our Zhongpingyuan Road, the whole process lasted about a day or two; they were soon up and running with the merchandise that they had rescued from before the flood. Some businesses took the opportunity to upgrade or move out or move in.

As you approached the river, however, recovery took a little longer. Many of the KTVs and teahouses immediately adjacent to the river are still rebuilding. (Although some threw open their doors as soon as they were sufficiently dry, thus explaining a heavy mildew smell we found in one of these establishments over Christmas break.)

Cleaning upCleaning up
Furniture from some KTVs still sits in a pile across the street from where it belongs, waiting for repairs and upgrades to be finished.
Cleaning up

The flood waters stripped the river bank of all the (admittedly, somewhat rickety) structures that had been there, and left behind a lot of garbage that has yet to be picked up.

Cleaning upCleaning up
Before the flood, a giant carnival was set up at the water’s edge.
Afterwards, enterprising folk have set up outdoor tea rooms in the newly free space.
Cleaning upCleaning up
This frightening, lakeside swingy ride before the flood …
… and the after.
Cleaning up

We were glad to see a cleaning brigade at sticks on the day after the flood, but in the subsequent days, no one came back. We checked every day! By the time we were ready to leave town a couple of weeks later (summer vacation stories coming soon!), there was still no sign of life. Had the flood wiped out our 串串 for good?

Sep 7, 2012

Flood: What are you looking at?

It’s not a disaster, it’s an event!

Looking at the flood

I was definitely not the only one running around with a camera that day. Spectating may be the Chinese national sport. You’ll often run into crowds of onlookers huddled around anything from a car accident to a cellphone demonstration to a construction site. (Sometimes they’ll actually wander around a construction site, just to see what’s up.) So people were out en masse to soak up the spectacle.

Looking at the flood
Police had put up caution tape where water overflowed into our street, but many people just ignored it.
Looking at the flood
Don’t worry. The guys in the boat are official.
Looking at the flood
The recently completed bridge by our house provided an excellent view of the area that was underwater. This was as crowded as it’s been since the bridge opened.
Looking at the flood
This is possibly more tourists than the Luzhou Laojiao factory gets when it’s not underwater.
Looking at the flood
A quiet spot, away from the crowds
Looking at the flood
The man on the right-hand side of the photo is guarding his living room furniture.
Looking at the flood
Some citizens took it upon themselves to sweep the water back down into the river.
Looking at the flood

Next, the waters recede …

Sep 5, 2012

Flood: Getting down to business

A little water would never get in the way of sales

A man cleans off his stools in the flood water
A man cleans off his stools in the flood water
Adults invade school grounds
Hey! These people aren’t students!

One of our first clues that something was different — besides the power going out, which happens often enough — was the presence of a ton of adults on the school grounds. The school year had wound down and the campus had been mostly empty for the weeks prior to the flood, so it was weird to see anyone, let alone grown-ups.

Of course, out in the street, the answer was obvious: Our school was a dry throughway from Zhongpingyuan Road (aka Low Road) to Jiangyang Middle Road (or, to us, Middle Road).

The astonishing thing was that this was not an emergency route, necessarily. The uptick in traffic through the school was just errand-runners, picking up groceries, going to see friends, browsing for shoes, continuing life as usual. And, out in the street, everyone was just working around the flood like it was a minor inconvenience. People whose homes were flooded sat at the edge of the water, guarding piles of their furniture and things. As for the shops and businesses in the neighborhood, if it was dry, it was open. If it was underwater, the owners were getting ready to open as soon as the waters receded.

The streets become canals
The flood made canals of some of the lower-elevated city streets. Which here provided this family with a waterside table for dinner.
This mahjong table's got to go somewhere
Street traffic consisted of motorbikes, zipping around where cars couldn’t reach, and people moving mahjong tables and other valuable equipment to safety.
The generatorSorry, baby. C-Best is closed.
A few stores were powered by very noisy generators.
Bigger chain stores — like Cbest, our supermarket — opted to close their doors.
Whiskey and a radio show, the best cures for a power outage

After running around and taking photos all day, it dawned on me that we might need some emergency supplies. As the sun was setting, I went out for bottled water and candles. Shops were starting to close down due to darkness, but I was successful in my mission, grabbing the last large bottle of water from the little market down the street and two packages of candles from the near-by hardware store. (I had both written down the characters and made a little drawing of a candle — though the owner was stationed in the doorway next to a gigantic pile of candles, making my efforts unnecessary.) My Kindle had some juice left, and I had just downloaded a few episodes of “That Mitchell and Webb Sound.” So we poured a couple of glasses of whiskey, lit the candles, and settled in for a night around our makeshift radio.

For some, the flood was the event to be at. Stay tuned for more details …

Sep 4, 2012

Flood: The water rises

It’s raining, it’s pouring … it’s flooding

The muddy, churning water of the Yangtze
The churning waters of the Changjiang River
Zhongpingyuan Road, at the bottom of our school
The river rises

The rain was quite heavy this summer, but we thought nothing of it, as the rain had been pretty heavy all year with no surprises. Until …

Sometime during the night of June 22, our Changjiang River burst its banks and flooded the streets and buildings that surrounded it. No one was killed, my friend Kristy told me later, but it was the worst flood Luzhou had seen in 50 years.

The water reached Zhongpingyuan Road, which is the back boundary of our school campus. That’s almost half a kilometer from the river, and up a significant incline. Buildings on the river front were drowned to their second story. From the bridge, you could see rooftops that were now at water level, and trees that looked like bushes, because their trunks were entirely submerged.

The before (left) and the after (right)

Above is the Luzhou Laojiao factory, which is right around the corner from our school, and a major tourist attraction for the city.

Tomorrow, a look at our neighbors’ reactions …

Jun 21, 2012

Snaps: By the Changjiang River

Also known as: The mighty Yangze

The river viewI'm touching the water!

On a walk down by the river (which you probably better know by the name Yangtze), we saw these tourists taking photos. I laughed at them a little bit — why do you need a photo of yourself in the river? — but then immediately wanted to go touch the water for myself. (Which would be the first time, even though we’ve been here many months already.) Peter snapped a photo, and we ended up with the same picture that I laughed at someone else for taking!

Jan 10, 2012

Crossing the river

Ferrying across the Yangtze

Get on a boat
Check out our album of photos from the Changjiang River.

So we’ve actually been on vacation for the past two weeks, and while we have some travel planned starting tomorrow, we’ve been taking this opportunity to explore our own city a little more.

Last week, we had a not-cold, not-rainy day, so we went out for a walk by the riverfront. We finally decided to try out one of those tea places that we always walk past. I pointed at some drinks on our food list, and we ended up with some hot sugar lemon water, which was actually much better than it sounds. As we sat, vendors wandered by, offering their services to the few patrons who were out that day. A very aggressive ear cleaner came by, but one of my life rules it to limit how many strangers I let stick pointy things into my ear, so we said no until he went away.

While we were sittin’ and sippin’, we noticed that one of the boats that we had mistaken for a restaurant was actually a ferry landing. “We should go across the river some afternoon,” Peter said. “How about this afternoon?” I said.

The boat was oooooold looking, but not unsafe. There was a basket full of life-preservers in the middle of the passenger area, and some people took them up. Not knowing the protocol, and wanting to err on the side of caution, we took some too. Once the boat got underway, it became clear that we didn’t really need them.

What a different scene on the other side! It was like we stepped back in time to what I imagine pre-’80s China might have looked like. The architecture was very utilitarian, and everything was a little bit crumbling. It was just dark, gray and concrete. As we walked further away from the river, the high-rises gave way to shorter buildings with storefronts on the bottom floor selling everything from salt (now that we know what we’re looking for, its everywhere!) to novelty socks to dish detergent.

I don’t think we’ll go back there, but it was interesting to see.