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Finding the old and new attractions of China

Visitors can find range of pleasures, from street food to spectacular vistas

Finding the old and new attractions of China

Browse the new Armani flagship store on the Bund. Sip a US$3 latte at Starbucks. Ride the 266-mile-per-hour Maglev magnetic levitation train that travels the 18 miles from the airport to the city in eight minutes.

The reason to come to Shanghai is not to see what's old. It's to see what China is becoming.

If you're a young worker commuting by subway to the high-tech office parks in skyscraper-clad Pudong, your accessories include an MP3 player and cellphone.

If you're out of a job, you sweep the sidewalks or pick up trash.

If you're retired, you head to Fuxing Park. The gates open at 6 a.m. for Tai-Chi and ballroom dancing to Chinese jazz from portable boom boxes.

Forget visions of communist block-style hotels and squat toilets. The 12-room B&B-style Old House Inn in Shanghai's colonial-style French Concession neighborhood is an example of what you can find and book on your own over the Internet.

On a back lane around the corner from the Hilton, the building dates to the 1920s when French, British, American and other Western powers moved into Shanghai and established outposts as the city opened up to foreign trade.

Creaking wooden floors give away its age, but the bathrooms are spanking new, and the owner/architect Wu Haiqing took care to decorate the rooms boutique-style with Chinese antiques and lacquered furniture.

Shanghai is a good city in which to begin a first trip to China. There's more English spoken there than in Beijing and more English signs. The wording might be awkward when it comes to translations, but the message is usually clear.

This from the "Rules for Visitors" posted outside the Shanghai Public Park:

"Visitors are expected not to post ads or posters and write or carve around in the park ... nor (are they) to expose one's top, lying about, washing and airing clothes. Scavenging or begging from others is unallowable."

There's one phrase you'll want to learn in Chinese besides "Hello," "Please" and "Thank you," and it's not "Where's the bathroom?" Toilets are clearly marked with stick pictures of men and women.

It's "tai gui," meaning "too expensive."

The price on anything is negotiable, even hotel rooms. I wandered into a store my second day in Shanghai, and the clerk immediately cut the price on a faux leather jacket from US$25 to US$5. I passed, and instead came home with three North Face Gore-Tex jackets (US$16.50 each), a fake Prada shoulder bag (US$6), six Chairman Mao watches and two miniature hot-water-bottle-shaped bags that crystallize and heat up when shocked with an internal metal clicker.

Shopping experience

Shopping is a cultural experience worth making time for, because you will need time - to banter, to laugh, to walk away, come back, banter some more, help the shopkeeper practice his English, hand over money, shake hands and make a new friend.

Making a purchase usually goes like this: A vendor stands outside his store clapping his hands to rock music. "Hey lady, what you looking for today?" he shouts, grabbing a calculator and offering his "special morning price."

It might be double what he's willing to take, or five or 10 times more.

You say "tai gui," and start to walk away. He then hands you the calculator and asks you to "say how much you want to pay." You type in an amount, and he makes a motion like he's going to slit his throat.

"Ah ... you kill me!"

The two of you continue back and forth like this for a while, and before you know it, your friends are all getting Chairman Mao watches for Christmas and your mom is getting a heating bag that comes with a guarantee that "the product is harmless and has no side effect on man."

A few Chinese words and phrases come in handy, and there's no substitute for practicing with a native speaker.

Thanks to Zheng Zheng Ming, a k a "Jimmy" to the foreigners he meets, I added a few more words to my vocabulary.

Jimmy, 72, of Shanghai, and his friend, Chu Bing, were my seatmates on a flight from Shanghai to Guilin. We struck up a conversation when Chu Bing opened his backpack and offered me a packet of a cumin-flavored beef jerky.

Jimmy's English was better than Chu Bing's so he did most of the talking. He taught me a few Chinese phrases _ such as "Where is the bus stop?"

Chu Bing had been too shy to say much, but finally broke in.

"Excuse me ... Clinton or Bush?" he asked.

"Clinton," I answered. It was thumbs up all around. Chu Bing reached into his pack and presented me with more beef jerky and a box of milk. I gave my two new friends postcards of Seattle. Then we got off the plane went looking for the bus to take us to Yangshuo.

I'd been warned that despite English signs in the Guilin airport, few people there actually spoke English and getting to Yangshuo could be confusing.

As it turned out, with a little luck and some good directions supplied by Alf Exposito, the Australian owner of the Buffalo Bar in Yangshuo and publisher of, a Web site for independent travelers, we found our way to the bus station via an airport shuttle, and onto a "luxury bus," a nonsmoking coach with A.C. and upholstered seats.

Along the Li River

Hardly a book or poster promoting China tourism doesn't include a picture of the limestone karst mountains protruding from farmland along the Li River, usually with nighttime scenes of fishermen perched on bamboo rafts.

When Exposito first came to China six years ago, backpackers were discovering the small fishing village of Yangshuo as an alternative to pricier Guilin.

Now Western-style bars and restaurants line pedestrian Xi Jie or "Foreigner's Street." Cafes serve banana pancakes and mocha shakes, and eager young people anxious to practice their English run the restaurants and hotels.

Within a few hours of arriving, we had checked into a deluxe room in the Magnolia Hotel (US$47), purchased airline tickets to our next destination, found an ATM, booked a boat trip along the Li River, and found the Cafe China where we sampled the local specialty, beer fish, a whole fish dressed in a sauce of tomatoes and bell peppers (US$12 or two).

It was here we connected with the first of a few local guides we hired for anywhere from a few hours to a day or two. She was Li Jinfeng, 39, whose e-mail address I found on a Web blog.

Li had her second son 15 years ago when it was illegal to have more than one child. She tried to hide him, but the police found out and she and her husband, both rice farmers, faced a US$375 fine.

"We had no money and couldn't afford a home," she recalled. Then Li had an idea. Tourists were coming to Yangshuo. What if she could make a business out of cooking them lunch and showing them the countryside?

Her husband took their baby to the rice fields while she developed the business. Today, she's a sought-after guide.

Pedaling with her on mountain bikes along a highway filled with mini-buses, cars and motorbikes, we should have been worried. No helmets for starters. But it wasn't more than a few minutes before we had veered off on a dirt path and were cycling through rice fields, stopping to chat with farmers and an 80-year-old woman harvesting her peanut crop.

The highlight was lunch at Li's two-story stucco house in the village of Moon Hill. The kitchen was the size of a walk-in closet, but a wok and a propane burner were all she needed to whip up duck-egg dumplings stuffed with pork and vegetables and a stir-fry of peppers, tomatoes, onions and bean sprouts. For dessert, we walked to her garden for pear-shaped palmettos.

Li told us to pay whatever we wanted for her services that day. When we pressed her, she said some people pay as much as US$6. We gave her US$12, generous by her way of thinking, and a bargain for us.

If you're on your own and can't read a Chinese menu, feeding yourself gets easier if you're willing to take a few risks.

We ate well in China, usually by working through the English translations on menus, looking at pictures or seeing the actual food.

Simple but good food

One of our most memorable meals was at the Huang Luo Green Food Restaurant across from where we waited for a bus to take us to the village of Ping An in the Dragon Backbone rice terraces northwest of Guilin.

Several tables were set with tea cups and rice bowls. As it turned out, a tour group was expected; two foreign travelers were not. A woman with shiny black hair twisted atop her head like a turban presented a single-sheet menu in Chinese, and then went to find her granddaughter.

"Speak a little English," she said, motioning for us to follow her into the kitchen. "You choose."

I pointed to bowls filled with green beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, bell peppers and then to a wok and made a stirring motion. Woks sizzled. Beer flowed. Fifteen minutes later we were sitting down to stir-fried vegetables, steamed squash and rice. Best of all was a smile and thumbs up sign from the grandmotherly owner, a member of the Yao ethnic minority who live in some of the villages below Ping An.

Yao women are known for their long hair, which they cut just twice, once at age 18 and again at 38.

"Hello, Yao women have long hair. Take photo," is the extent of their English, so interaction beyond exchanging money for pictures is difficult ... unless you happen to stop by their village around lunchtime and get invited into the kitchen.

I'd read about China's terraced rice villages, but nothing prepared me for how my calves would ache after spending a day hiking in Ping An, a 700-year-old farming community near the top of a 3,200-foot-high ridge.

Ping An has no roads, no cars, no bicycles, no pack animals. Everything that goes up is carried by people walking along miles of rocky footpaths.

Rural development

It's only been in the past seven or eight years that tourists began coming to Ping An. Direct buses travel to Guilin and Yangshuo, and the main road has been paved and lighted.

Ping An is example of how some remote parts of China are becoming more accessible, and how tourism is changing the economy in rural areas.

"Until eight years ago, this was a poor village," explained Amy Liao, a local guide who led us on a hike. The villagers of Ping An will never shop at Armani on the Bund in Shanghai or sip a latte at Starbucks in Beijing. Rural incomes average around US$300 a year. But for Amy Liao, 22, a member of the Zhuang ethnic-minority group and the daughter of a rice farmer, tourism offers the chance for jobs that never before existed.

You come to the countryside to meet people and see village life, not sleep in luxury. Still, on a humid 80-degree day, we felt lucky to find the Ping An hotel at the top of the ridge. A basic but clean room with air conditioning and private bathroom was US$18.

Out the window, I saw red chili peppers drying on gray tile rooftops. A woman wearing a blue turban, traditional head gear for Zhuang women, walked along a path balancing a tray of fresh bean curd on her head.

That evening we ate steak and apple strudel by candlelight at a cafe called the Countryside. Ray Charles was singing "Unchain My Heart" played on a CD. Our cell phones worked. The cafe had Internet access.

It was all part of the China I had come to see.

It happens at least once on every trip. I know I'll be arriving late in a new city, so I book a room on a guidebook recommendation. The hotel turns out to be less than expected, and I spend a few hours the next day searching for another.

This is how we found the Moon Inn here in Lijiang, probably one of the nicest guest houses in this gentle city set in a valley not far from Tibet in the Yunnan province.

The owners are the friendly Li family, who turned a century-old wooden house into a 14-room hotel with polished bamboo floors, wicker furniture and views of the snow-capped Jade Dragon mountain range, the start of the Himalayas.

Lijiang was once a sleepy village with one bean-jelly shop, one pork shop, a library and two hotels licensed to accept foreigners. That changed after a 1996 earthquake. The government poured millions into restoration, and the pedestrianized old town became a World Heritage site. Its cobbled alleys, wooden buildings and canalside cafes draw thousands of Chinese tourists. Still Lijiang was relaxing, and we quickly bonded with the Li family through their English-speaking daughter, Xiao Ling, 27.

They invited us to dinner twice, and although most family members didn't speak English, we communicated with gestures, smiles and a few words of Chinese.

Before we left, Li Zi Zhi, Xiao Ling's father, clasped his hands together as if he was shaking our hands.

"Friends," he said.

A little luck helps

From the beginning, I decided that the emphasis of this trip would be people, customs, food and culture rather than historical sites or architectural wonders.

The Chinese are great believers in luck. I was becoming the same.

Luck changes, of course. So much about China is unpredictable. That's part of the adventure, and of course, part of the fun.

We were finishing breakfast in the Prague Cafe in Lijiang when a Chinese man approached us and introduced himself as "Richard."

"Would you like to tour some minority villages and see a monastery?" he asked

I had been thinking about hiring a local guide for a day, and there was something about Richard's appearance _ backwards baseball cap, glasses, mustache, jar of tea stuffed in his jacket pocket _ that made me feel he was someone who would take us off the beaten path. We agreed on a price of US$36, and the next morning he and a driver met us in a six-seat Chinese minivan.

The driver was dressed like the Marlboro Man in denim jacket, jeans, pointed-toe boots and a cowboy hat. He spoke no English and said little.

We took off into the countryside along a bumpy road that cut through potato and corn fields, and an hour later, arrived in the Naxi and Bai farming village of Jiuhe.

Richard's seat-of-the-pants guiding style wouldn't suit everyone. His idea is to drive to a village like Jiuhe, chat up the locals playing mahjong at the corner store and charm his way into someone's home for tea. This is how we found ourselves sitting around a fire on a rainy Sunday cracking walnuts and eating sunflower seeds with the Xi family.

Village life

Their mud-brick house and barn was typical of the villages within an hour's drive of Lijiang. Yellow corn and bright-red chili peppers hung drying on the top floor. Pumpkins and squash were stored on the first floor. Mr. Xi, a furniture-maker, showed us a few of his tables and introduced us to his wife and children. Other villagers gathered around, and my attempt to crack a walnut with the blade of a hatchet instead of the blunt end brought squeals of laughter.

Lunch was at a roadside restaurant that services truck drivers on their way to and from Tibet. Then it was onto a Buddhist monastery. It had begun to rain, and when the Marlboro Man went to start the ignition, nothing happened. The battery was dead. "Everyone get out and push," Richard suggested. "Except you lady. Sit."

Richard, my husband and the cook from the restaurant ran behind the car and pushed it down the muddy road. We made it to the monastery where we chatted with the monks around a fire in their kitchen, but when it came time to leave, the men had to push again. This time it took three tries.

The battery died twice more on the way back to town, once when we slowed down for a truck hauling rocks and again when we braked for a herd of cows.

We stalled for the final time at a traffic signal in downtown Lijiang.

The Marlboro Man got out and walked off. Richard suggested that we take a taxi the rest of the way.

Experienced China travelers have an expression they use in situations like this.

"Oh well," they say, shrugging their shoulders. "This is China."