Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Geranium fields and medieval cities.

It's been such a long time since I wrote my first entry, and so now, as it is drizzling outside, is a nice time to update you about my adventures in China, where every time I cross the road or hop on a bus seems to be the last, where I have tremendously improved my hand-speaking and drawing skills, and where I always need to be on the look out not to step in someone's spit on the floor.

I very happily left the craziness of Hong Kong for mainland China where I visited the leading company in essential oil exports in China. I went there on a saturday, when David, the person I had contacted over email, had time to show me around. David is in charge of all foreign trade, and so he was not able to explain to me in grand detail the actual plant design. The most interesting part of the visit was when he told me about the history of the company and how it was affected by the Opening-up policy of 1979, when China took a first step towards a more capitalist system. The company is located in the Guangdong province, which many refer to as the "factory of the world" as it is where many "Made in China" goods are produced. It is a booming province, which welcomes many young Chinese graduates who need a job. That's why most companies are equipped with dormitories where the young workers can stay as they are so far away from home. After the visit of the factory, I was eager to go further upstream, to the fields where the peasants produce the crude oil that is then refined by companies like the one close to Hong Kong. So I headed towards Yunnan, a province in the South-West of China that shares borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. There they produce most of the Chinese geranium, eucalyptus and citronella oils.

Since the train journey from Guangdong was going to last 2 days, I decided to stop on the way in Yangshuo, a small village in the Guangxi province, lost in the middle of limestone karsts. To get there, I got on a 12-hour bus ride, and so I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the bus had beds. I was almost as tall as the bed, and so I thought how miserable Xan and Rory would have been on this journey.

In Yangshuo, the landscape was absolutely breathtaking. It looked exactly like the hilly landscapes of Chinese painting scrolls. I stayed there for a few days, while waiting for seats to free up on the train to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. In the meantime, I tried rock climbing- it was quite hard, especially under the 35 degrees C sun... but I thought of you Fanny, and you really would have been in heaven here with all the rock-climbing opportunities. Yangshuo was an interesting place, a highly touristic place where both Chinese and Western tourists mingle. Hence, in the past 4-5 years, the local population has rapidly adapted to the tourist industry. I was constantly harrassed by people who wanted me to follow them to their guesthouses, or older women trying to sell their bottled water.

After a 24 hours train journey, I was happy to arrive in Kunming, where the temperature was about 10 degrees lower than what it had been in Guangxi, Guangdong and Hong Kong. Yunnan is a very interesting province, as it is home to 28 minorities including the Bai, the Dai, the Naxi, the Yi, each with their own religion, language, and food. Yunnan was always considered by the Chinese dynasties as a far-away province in which they did not take much interest. So Yunnan was always very independent from the rest of China. In Kunming, one can see the Muslim heritage from the Mongol invasion, and apparently down South in the Xishuangbanna region, language and tradition are very close to the Thai culture.

The day after my arrival in Kunming, I met a woman who is in charge of a geranium distillery in the fields surrounding the medieval city of Dali, home of the Bai minority. She took me to her house, lost in the tobacco, geranium, corn, rice and orange fields . It was so nice to go through the fields, and here and there smell glimpses of a sweet and bitter odor, the freshly distilled geranium oil. It is too bad I had not thought of bringing a small vial where I could have taken a small sample of the oil- for sure I ll think about it for later. There I visited the distillery and was able to ask many questions thanks to her cousin, an English teacher who nonetheless did not know how to speak English very well. This was the first time during my trip in China that I really sensed the language barrier. Eventhough I had an "English translator" I could not communicate directly with the farmer and this was a huge handicap, especially when asking more technical questions.

I was hoping to stay there for a few days and work with the farmers on the field and in the distillery, but when I asked if this was possible, the only answer I obtained was general laughter. They didn't see the point for me to do this, it would be too complicated and how would I know what to do since I do not speak Chinese. I persisted thinking this would maybe be my only chance to work with geranium oil in China, but abandonned as I sensed I was annoying them. Needless to say, I was really disappointed. I guess this is part of the experience. So I left Dali and while I was in the North-West of Yunnan, I decided to go more North, closer to the Tibetan border.
I am now in Lijiang, an old town which is now on UNESCO's World Heritage list, with small houses and their pointy slate roofs, paved streets passing by food vendors proposing dog meat (no I haven't tasted it yet, but soon...), fried caterpillars or "baba" the local type of pancake. It is home to the Naxi minority group, which is extremely interesting as it based on a matrimonial system.
I just came back from a two day breathtaking trek, along the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We hiked up very steep hills in the mountains surrounding the Yang Zi river, which starts in Yunnan and ends 6 000 km away in Shanghai.

I'm staying here for a couple of days, trying to see if other geranium farmers would agree that I work with them, and then I'll head back to Kunming from where I should visit eucalyptus and citronella fields.

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