Finding Culture

A new day, a new destination and a new journey of the Chinese culture…

Lijiang is a western province bordering Tibet, but that didn’t mean much more than warm weather and people dressing in traditional clothing until I arrived that is.

There are 13 nationalities in Lijiang, 24 in the Yunnan province and 55 in China…give or take a few. For Americans, this isn’t as impressive as our nationalities are endless, but when you think of China, few think of anything other than Chinese. Yes, every one of these 55 amazing cultures is Chinese, but every one of these nationalities is as unique as the Russian, Polish, and Russian Jew that is in my heritage.

This might be better left until I visit the villages… for now let’s talk food….

I awoke at 6m, packed, showered and said goodbye to my Kunming hotel excited to be arriving in Lijiang in just a few short hours. 12 pm I arrived at my new hotel nestled in the mountains with the view of the breathtaking Jade Mountain.  I should have used this opportunity to eat, but I decided that discovering a new town was the better option and best done by a refreshing run. It’s the time of day that I don’t particularly care for taking images so it’s a perfect excuse to exercise and discover a new town. Destination Black Dragon Pool.  I realize that as a tourist I am expected to discover a new land via the line of taxis waiting outside of the hotel, a tour bus or a private guide, but I’ve never been one to stay within a box so off I ran.

Had I taken a taxi I would have missed the sound of the wind blowing softly through the delicate leaves of the bamboo, the women hoeing the ground along the road, local children playing with a stray puppy, the colorful markets, the local “carwash” down at the river and that chicken being tied so it couldn’t fly away, mmmmm, dinner I thought. Dinner, wait, I hadn’t had breakfast or lunch. Well, maybe after my run. First let’s find a local restaurant.

After the run, some yoga and a shower I headed back toward the lake for an afternoon of absolutely spectacular photography but first lunch.

I like local restaurants; the ones where the chairs are at calf height and have tables to match. I enjoy the outdoor seating and the local scents lofting through the air.  Traveling along the local roads I passed by several of these establishments and there were 3 that caught my nose. Backtracking a few blocks I found my way into a restaurant that my nose couldn’t resist. Just you, the owner asked, dui, xiexie.  He started leading me to my own private room but the table of minority locals wouldn’t hear of this foreigner eating alone. They motioned for me to sit down and pointed to my seat that was presently occupied by the only somewhat English speaking person there. From my past experiences I was quick to asses several things: it would be rude to refuse, they would be doing the ordering and I would be eating everything served, they would not let me pay, they will want me to drink and probably a lot and I would not be be making it to the lake…I was right on all accounts.

After trying to daintily remove the black rubbery skin from my chicken I found my way to the meat of the 4 pieces served to me and even managed to get some of it in my mouth. I was ready to go on with my mission of Dragon Pool photographs but that was not the intent of these local’s day. A translator was phoned to join us so that they could communicate with their new Měiguó friend and I found myself doing shots of beer with the ever-growing table of locals. The original 8 grew to almost 20 and I smiled reflecting at the experiences leading me to this moment of complete relaxation. Going with the flow was never a part of my vocabulary but when in Rome…

Confused as to where everyone was heading it was explained to me that it was suppertime. I said but we just ate. That was a snack they laughed. Oh, a snack and here I was ready to go back to work, silly me!

We sat at our two hotpot tables and enjoyed a traditional Lijiang meal. This is my 4th hotpot meal in China and one would think they are all the same, but I assure you they are as different as the multitude of cultures that shared the hot pot.

It is a sign of respect to be the one chosen to eat the head of the chicken. As I gnawed on some part of the bird people were filling my bowls with liquids and bean curd, my cups with tea and beer and on my plate a black rubbery head. Oh, I said with as much enthusiasm that I could find, xiexie! I looked to the interpreter when she explained the importance of the head and walked me through the proper way to eat the head of a bird. First you start with the crown of the head, the black rubbery thing that I would never in a million years thought of eating was my first bite and as all eyes were fixed on me I smiled and started the journey of eating a bird head.  The crown was actually a pleasant surprise, I looked up at the intense eyes, smiled and said delicious. Pleased with the response the eating, drinking and laughing resumed. I asked her what to do next. Split the head open from the beak and eat the tongue then bite the head, no not with those teeth, with the ones in the back she explained, then you can get to the brains. I struggled with that head but determined to satisfy my guests I was not giving up.  Realizing my struggle I was relived of my duty to eat this head and though I was appreciative as took a bite of the eyeball I said thank you but I can do this. I split the head into pieces with one bite. Embarrassed as a rather large chunk found its way out of my mouth onto the table I quickly grabbed it smiled and had back at it. Proud that I got the head open I looked down at my plate and there it was, the smallest brain I’d ever seen. Okay so it’s the only brain I’ve ever seen, but still it was small. I don’t know what I expected brains to taste like but I did know that before I left China there was going to be an occasion that I was not going to be able to escape brain eating and this was it.

We ate, they drank to me and I drank to them. The Tibetans at the table wanted to sing me a song so after a few more shots of beer the serenading began leading to my very first KTV experience. We headed to the local karaoke bar, were directed to a private room filled with beer, fruit, popcorn and snacks.  Neon lights changed hues throughout the room and the music blasted. No one goes to Karaoke without singing, especially the guest of honor, the lao wai.  Searching through every English title I could find my heart pounded as I could feel the crowd growing impatient as I tried to find something that I might know. Refusing to sing Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and the Backstreet Boys the minutes searching felt like hours then I saw it, Reflections by Christina Aguilera, YES! I love Mulan! After all I did name my truck after her, this is perfect for me. Wait I have to sing in front of 20 people to a track that is not any version that I recognize, oh what fun this will be. I’m just glad they didn’t kick me out for the temporary damage done to their eardrums.

They sang songs of their nationalities and we moved to the beautiful tunes that filled the room.

I never made it back to Black Dragon Pool for the heritage photographs; instead I was living the life of the locals celebrating their individual heritages and appreciating the differences among them.  Photos are only images; it’s the story that they tell that gives them meaning.

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