September 2015

Two Days Till Launch

Coming down to the wire...have the visa finally (a ten year visa!) after a trip into DC, and the plane tickets. The seats are terrible, but then I have a lot of work to do anyway, preparing additional lectures. Down now to the stage we always go through when preparing for significant travel: the TO DO List and the TO BUY list.

The TO DO of course includes things like call the bank so they don't decline my Credit/ATM cards; make sure all the bills that come do while I am gone are paid; water the house plants and make sure that the garden is under some sort of control (and put a link on the Garden Smarts site noting that I will not be maintaining it in my absence).

Tomorrow will be the final packing...launch from Bakerton at 5 am on Saturday, which is not really a problem since I am used to getting up for the farmers market anyway (had to do three weeks of ads ahead of time and give them to Fiona and Todd).

Pretty unstressed about the whole thing as there are people at the other end (Chengdu and Kunming) who are making all the arrangements. I pretty much just have to show up!

Made It !

I am now in Chengdu...24 hours after leaving DC. The flight(s) were uneventful, though there was a delay in SF and so I arrived shortly after the scheduled time.

Ms Sun, who has been my contact and will be my translator, was waiting at the airport and all went smoothly. We start the program tomorrow at 9 am local time.

Unfortunately I cannot log in to my Gmail account (Great Firewall?) so I cannot communicate directly with my particulars, and I apologize; I am looking into VPNs or perhaps creating a new and temporary email account to stay in touch.

 I'm sitting here a  bit jet-lagged drinking warm Budweiser before crashing out.

image from

Big arrival dinner tonight including a local specialty: Pickled Duck Tongue...


Ah The Famous Great Wall....

No I am not talking about the bricks and mortar thing built on the northern border to keep out the invading hordes on horseback, but the the virtual wall built to keep resident citizens from accessing Google, or Yahoo, or Facebook or YouTube (or more than two thousand other websites).

It took me a couple of days to figure out how to beat it but it hasn't been easy, especially since I am changing hotels daily and on the road dawn to dusk visiting far flung sites with a bunch of friends and colleagues from the hort trade. (I have also absorbed quite a bit of Chinese culture and cultural history!)

It has only been two days in country, but a lot of has happened, and a lot of ground covered...and I'll try to catch up on it after dinner tonight. I did manage to get my photos from the camera to the laptop and that should add a little fun to it -- especially the Lek shi farmers market this morning -- just a block from our hotel, the four star Xin Peng!



Last Night In Chengdu

Even today was totally consumed, but that was because of the graciousness of my hosts. Even though I switched from "foreign expert" to "tourist" this morning (and shot off my Modern Farmer article that was promised a week ago) my handler Sherry was with me all day.

Asia Mall 1

It was a shopping day, getting presents for all the home folk (more to do in Kunming where I land tomorrow) and she saved me immense amounts of Yuan by haggling in the home language. Most of the stuff was bought at the Asia Mall, a touristy place near the Tibetan neighborhood I will choose to stay in if I am able to return.

She is a wonderful person (seen lurking behind me in the photo posted on Facebook after the lecture at the Agriculture academy) who turned me on both to the VPN that has allowed me to get back in touch and the Chinese / English smartphone app that is allowing me to communicate with the locals in her absence.

Theoretically I will have tomorrow afternoon off and will be able to do a little catching up, so look for back-dated posts covering the week in Chengdu ... especially the food. Think you have had Szechuan food in a Chinese restaurant? Dream on.

Departure Dinner

It's been just under a week, but it seems I have my chops back (sticks that is). Spent the last couple of hours at the big family dinner for my friend Rongna Liang, who was the inspiration -- and the sparkplug -- for this whole trip.

Check out this spread:

Goodbye Chengdu

Its all what I have come to know as the social round table. That is the most striking difference I have noticed about China versus the US: they are very social people while we are very isolated people (this is aside from the fact that it seems they will eat just about anything).

This dinner was a little more sedate than some of those put on by my hosts: no pickled duck tongue, or chiffonaded pig stomach, nor either thin sliced pig snout or ear crisps, just your basic hotter than hell veggies and meats with soups and white rice.

After dinner I had to negotiate a cab ride to the airport (46 Yuan, or $7.50) where I am staying in a runway-side hotel for the night. Not even unpacking...just a hit and run.



Rabbit Head Anyone?

The food court at the Asia Mall, such as it was, had a wide variety of choices including deep fried octopus (with head up and tentacles splayed in a perfect star pattern). I passed on that, but my eye was caught by the shrimps...and next to them the rabbit heads (it was Sherry that identified them for me).

Rabbit Heads

Ummm, boy!  Later in the day, after visiting the Wenshu Monastery, we cruised the surrounding streets and came upon a sort of farmers market that had an incredible and unusual lineup. More on that in another post, and I hope to put up a photo gallery of the place...

Almost Busted

Made it to airport without incident, and check in was no problem once I figured out the Chinese menu on the ticket machine. Just as quick and easy as the States. And the security line was not more than 10-15 minutes despite the enormous crowds here on a Sunday morning.

The metal in my ankle still does not seem to set off any of these machines (I have been through a dozen or so since the surgery). Oddly, they did not ask me to take off my (money) belt, but they did want to scan my wallet. And they put my carryon through twice before asking me to open it.

Anyone who is concerned about airport safety outside the US (and especially in the Second and Third worlds) is living in a dream world – the American Bubble. I went through American security twice on the way to China without incident, but here in Chengdu they found a pair of (prohibited) scissors deep in the “emergency pack” that Diane had packed for me, complete with medicines for anything short of appendicitis and a sewing kit…that included scissors! They were polite about the whole thing, and of course I just blamed it on her, smiled Shepishly, and I was on my way.

Chengdu Airport Cafe

Sitting now at a café near the departure gate hoping the weather is clearer south of here as I lucked out and got a window seat. I wish I was on the right hand (Himalayan) side, but I’ll take whatever view I can get on the 90 min flight out of these sweaty lowlands – look at a topo of the Sichuan Basin where Chengdu sits – and into the cooler highlands.

Will be met by a Mr. Ma, who is to be my host for the next four days (the four after that I am on my own). Then it is back home from Chengdu, though I have not booked the ride back to there, as I am not sure if I want to fly or take the 19 hour train ride and see things from ground level.

Will keep you posted as best I can.

What's For Breakfast?

Am scrambling to make the 7:00 am airport shuttle. Had about 10 minutes for breakfast: boiled egg, some potatoes (!) plus some green beans and pickled cucumber with garlic (not to mention the requisite melon). Had to pass on the coffee, as it was the same as at the Chengdu Hotel, which is to say a fifty-fifty mix of Nescafe instant and powdered milk. The tea was good though.


Breakfast Ears


I also decided to pass on the “Cold Pig Ears” as they seemed a bit heavy early in the morning. Now maybe a pig foot .THAT I could do!

Home In Kunming

Made it to the hotel in Kunming by lunchtime. There was a little mixup in that my host took me to this really flashy marble and mirror place where they did not seem to have my name on the list. In the end it turned out that the "hotel complex" included this new international posh-posh and its older brethren across the way a couple of hundred yards, which is where I ended up.

Truth be told I am happier over here. It is a classic mild climate place, a ring of three stories (no elevator) around a central courtyard full of mature philodendron and bananas and such, with sitting nooks among them (and WiFi).

Kunming Hotel Courtyard

A little worn around the edges perhaps, but a solid internet connection, "leave me alone" ambiance, and no flashy types in their shiny Eurocars.

Out the back, through my ten foot window I can see across our fence (below me...I can't see it) is some sort of compound centered around a fact a monk just came around the right side, swiping his robes back up toward his elbows.


Four days? No problem. No traffic, no moving every day, no handlers and drivers....just the mellow Mr. Ma, who was driving 80 clicks down the middle of the 120 click expressway in from the airport, young daughter in the back seat, trying out her English on me and desperately wanting to pull the rollaboard suitcase from the parking lot to registration. A real change from Chengdu!

Toiletries For Sale

At this hotel you have to closely examine everything before you touch, due to hidden price tags (not really hidden, but a number surrounded by Chinese characters). This bathroom rack is the classic:

Toiletries-Garden Expo

We have your shaving kit (15), we have your bamboo fiber towel (15), your men's underwear (18), your ladies panties (18), your condoms (30) and your nail care kit (15)...what else could the happy couple need...oh, but we're not a couple...DAMN!

I think we can tell, by the relative pricing -- underwear costs more than a shaving kit? -- what people really value when they are staying in a hotel...

Going Organic

When I walked back to the satellite building of the hotel where I am staying last night, I passed this van / bus in the twilight. Today I had extensive conversations with my (new) colleagues at the Yunnan Academy of Forestry about the growth of organic both in the USA and in China.

Going Organic

Tonight, I noticed that there was an open garage door right in front of the bus, with two Isuzu cabovers backed up to it, loading goods. There was also another, smaller van, with a similar paint job (branding?) parked nearby.

I think I may have landed in the land of the nascent Chinese organic food movement. It is especially ironic, since the building that this door is in the basement of is now (after having been part of the hotel complex years ago?) the Yunnan Maca Biotechnology Industry Group offices!


Olive Grove Zapper in YAF Arboretum

The extent to which China (or at least Sichuan and Yunnan) are committed to recycling and energy efficiency is impressive. Unlike India, or Thailand, or Vietnam -- all of which have similar transport systems, the Chinese seem to have embraced a quieter, more electrified future. It is quieter than Costa Rica, even quieter than Bakerton (out my hotel  window right now, despite the occasional pedestrian or car, it is quiet enough to hear the monks chanting in the shrine across the way.

Yes, a lot of this electricity comes from coal, which they have. This was used to cook our lunch...

  Coal For Lunch

But there is widespread use of solar, both for powering small transport and for freestanding devices. Check for instance this solar powered Bug Zapper mounted at the end of the new planting of olive trees (both the Sichuan and the Yunnan forestry academies have 4-5 year old olive groves).

Solar Bug Zapper

This is just one more of the fascinating juxtapositions I am seeing on this trip: these two "phenomes" are no more than a few hundred yards apart and under the control of the same management. It is like the shiny new office buildings surrounded by crumbling tenements.

Growth. Renewal. Maybe even progress, who knows anymore. But it is all high relief here.

Out In The Country Again

Sudden change of plans this morning. I was up late last night and early this morning prepping for a 9 am presentation to the Academy and was closing down on it at 7:30 when I went over to the main building for breakfast.

As I was leaving the breakfast room, the desk man (who speaks no English) flagged me down with the telephone and it was my host, Mr. Ma, the editor of the Southwest China Forestry Journal.

He informed me that the president of the Academy wanted him to take me to visit one of their rural stations about 100 km ESE of Kunming, and that we would leave after lunch. Goodbye window shrine!! The room, while not central to Kunming, had been peaceful and quiet...

Presentation and lunch at the Academy done we walked down to the East Section of the Kunming Botanical Garden (famous for their camelias)...stopped at the PO so I could get some Chinese stamps for my old friend Monica Hathaway, and Ma could sweet talk the Postmistress into getting us comps for the garden. I didn't have my camera with me or I would post some shots.

We launched around 3pm, through rush hour (why that was not considered I cannot understand).

We drove out past the famous "Stone Forest" which I had assumed to be right in Kunming from all I'd read but it was actually 75 km away in the town of Shilin. I got a few pix of the karst near the Expressway, and hope we might stop back, but time was (apparently) short even after having whiled away the mid-day.

  Phalli Valley

We made a stop along the way (apparently for my benefit) at an ancient Chinese warlord's mountain fortress about 10-15k SW of the main expressway and walked around there for an hour or so. I may post a photo gallery of it at some point as it was reminiscent of Canyon de Chelly. Here is one pic.

Mountain Fortress 1

We arrived in Lu Liang, which bills itself for crafts (on the highway signs) but is clearly a stone cutter's town. Amazing stuff glimpsed from the expressway, but impossible to photograph that way.

All around the town were hundreds of acres of high tunnels. Not like ours; these are intense and a total way of life for the farmers that tend them.

High Tunnels Yunnan 1

We arrived around 6:30 pm (I had gotten up at 5:00 am) and went immediately to dinner. As we pulled through the gate to what I thought was going to be the hotel, the two gate guards in olive camo fatigues stood and saluted.

We decamped and walked across a courtyard full of vehicles with roof light, through a portal, and across a classic urban enclosed space, with a basketball court and cadets playing two on two. We entered a spartan dining hall where more cadets were stocking the tables.

As the guest (the first American) I was given the first-feng-shui position, back to the wall, facing the door we had come in. I had to sit while everyone else prepared...and could do nothing for myself.

The Chinese have a ritual toasting ceremony that I will have to describe at some point (but I am too tired now at 10:30pm). I will leave it with a picture of the table (notice the turntable for grazing the dishes and the little toasting glasses and carafes of liquor).




Street Market, Lu Liang, Qujing, China

Was having breakfast this morning at the Sheng Bang Hotel in Lu Liang  (very nice place) when I noticed out the window that there was a street market just across the main thoroughfare. We were scheduled to leave for a trip up to a small town in the mountains (6600 ft) where the Forestry Academy is consulting with the county foresters on new crops for economic development.

So I slurped down the rest of my rice noodle soup and ran across the street. I shot all these pictures (according to the digital time stamps) in nine minutes. As with the earlier gallery, I concentrated on things you would not see in our markets, and will identify those I don't know (and there are plenty) as I can...

Help me Rongna! <G>

Link to Photo Gallery of Street Food Gallery in Lu Liang Qujiong, Yunnan, China  9-16-15

It's Smoking In Yunnan!

I had heard when I was in Sichuan that Yunnan produces some of the best tobacco in Asia, and I decided then that I would bring back some cigarettes for my SheTown friends that enjoy that mildly intoxicating smoke.

Yesterday, I got to see first hand their tobacco production.

Tobacco In Field

It took me a few minutes (passing the fields in the car) to realize that I had reached the actual production area -- it is in the highlands, around 6600 ft, where temperatures annually range from the mid 20s to the mid 80s -- because these plants don't look like the ones I remember from my days at UMass Amherst, which was, at that time, in the middle of a large tobacco production region.

One of the unique aspects of the Pioneer Valley  viewshed is the tobacco barns that dot the landscape. Here in Yunnan, the tobacco is dried in small, hermetically sealed sheds, and as soon as I saw one with open doors and realized what they were, I started noticing them everywhere.

Tobacco Shed

And if you want to talk about a local ag product produced and consumed locally -- I know you would prefer it was food, but that is produced and consumed locally, too -- tobacco fits the bill.

Just check out my new friend and colleague is stoking up the cig-bong.


It turns out I was wrong in my earlier Facebook post to think it was his bong...around here, public  gathering places have cig-bongs available for general use.

Anyway, here is a pic of the (almost) finished product. I'll be bringing some home for those who care,

Tobacco Dried

This May Be The Last Post Before Home

Just got off on my own yesterday, and I am staying at a funky hostel right downtown by Green Lake. This is the place I have been yearning for...fantastic location and surroundings, diverse mix of people from all over the world...lots of places to walk and things to see.

Burger and Fries

My first cheeseburger in three weeks...and it was a good one! And I got a great book at a funky little bookstore that I am enjoying muchly (next to the burger).

And coffee! Yes, coffee! 

Breakfast Lost Garden



On the way here my laptop's display went crazy and it was totally unreadable. I did a couple of hours of magic on it, and got it back to normal, but the symptoms are creeping I may not get as far as posting the pictures from the Kunming street market that I took yesterday, or the pictures I hope to take today at the Kunming Flower and Bird Market, which is world famous.

When it first went gonzo yesterday I went for a walk to mull over my options (after shutting down the laptop and removing the battery) and happened upon an artist's supply shop. I have been meaning to get back into sketching (last time was 2012 / 2013) in preparation for my next garden book and I figured:  Oh, laptop, no blog, but I can sketch the city and write an old fashioned journal about my (four more) days here.

So, if you see any posts after this, you'll know Lenovo came back from the brink...and if not?


Kunming Fresh Food Market

Here is a gallery of photos taken at the Kunming fresh food market the morning of September 18th.

There are plenty of green grocers and butchers around town (I have discovered) but this is the home of the most basic vendors, and there were a lot more crops (and mushrooms) there than I had seen previously.

My favorite mushroom (to hear about, not to eat!) is one treasured by the Yunnanese, called "See You Tomorrow." You'll find it in a number of dishes and in tomorrow's "evacuation" as, despite its culinary delicacy, it is indigestible, and passes right through the system!

Photo Gallery - Kunming Fresh Food Market

Last Night In China

It's been a long and interesting time here in the ancient kingdom...and I had a hard time keeping up with this blog, both because of how busy my hosts kept me in the early parts, and connectivity and computer problems at the end,


I wouldn't have passed it up for the world. I am just getting ready to crash for the night at the airport hotel in Chengdu. I fly out at 9 am tomorrow and will get back to DC at 7 pm "tomorrow." I will be glad to be back even though I have had a great time.

Here's a picture out my hotel window (of the airport) just after 10 pm on my last night.

Last NIght