HuangYao Ancient Town

Often Every day I am struck by how things are filtered through the China lens to produce something familiar but also so, so different. For example, the Western-style weddings that take place at our building that I watch from my bathroom window feel very much like a game show, complete with an emcee with a mic and applause lines to deliver to the audience–er, family and friends.

The same performative phenomenon happens with tourism, and Colin and I experienced this when we spent MLK weekend in HuangYao Ancient Town (黄姚古镇), a dot on the map in the next province over with ancient banyan trees, narrow stone-paved pedestrian-only passageways, and a creek that bisects the town.


You pay an entrance fee that grants you access to the town. You get a ticket and a sticker as your proof of payment (about $25). Nice clear signs in four languages highlight the truly magnificent trees (“named Dragon Gate Tree because it looks like a dragon and is next to the gate”), or note significant buildings or viewpoints (“this view was featured on a postage stamp”), or lay out the rules for being a tourist in what is still a community where people live something like a normal life (“don’t be a loud jerk”).


This view was featured on a postage stamp.

It appeared that everyone who resides within the limits of HuangYao Ancient Town lives and breathes the tourist economy. Shopkeepers mostly sell the same ten spicy, fermented sauces and oils but sometimes clothing and cheap souvenirs. The riverfront is lined on both sides with open-air restaurants. Buildings that aren’t shops do double duty as guesthouse/eatery, but the whole town was so sleepy that when we stopped into one looking for a beer, the elderly woman in charge confusedly asked us, “Beer? What kind of beer?”


We walked down every passageway.

IMG_20180113_163606.jpgWe saw the sights on the first day. I read all the signs to Colin while he snapped photos under the overcast and polluted sky. One of the dozen boat captains talked us onto his pontoon by warning that it may be raining the next day, so we took the tour under the charming stone bridge and past the bend in the river that collects so much of the litter. On foot we followed the stone passageways to each end of town, separately coming to the conclusion that HuangYao felt a little bit like Venice, Italy.


We were not alone in being charmed; the second day of our stay we had to walk through (again and again) a very serious film crew that was shooting something in the very bar we managed to find a beer in the night before.


Some sort of ritual in involved wearing squares of white cloths, banging drums and cymbals, and the regular lighting of firecrackers, the sounds reverberating through the stone alleys and more than once scaring the shit out of me because we were nearby when they were lit.

Our guest house was right on the edge of the tourist town, and there was a manned post right outside the front door, which we only realized was an issue when a sign on the inside of the door the next morning warned us to go out the back door unless we wanted to pay the entrance fee again. We didn’t, really, so out the back door we went. It emptied us into the middle of what was once a larger compound that had been parceled out–I think.


The architecture in HuangYao is all low buildings walled off on the passageway side that open into courtyards once you’re inside. Thresholds within the compounds are round, and those to the outside are raised and with holes bored into the curb that would allow a door to be barred closed. The building materials are grey and dark stone and bricks, but red-painted wood is fashioned for the windowsills and eaves of the roofs, and red lanterns cover the fluorescent bulbs that light the town after dark. To complete the scene, giant Mao-era advertisements for things like light bulbs and tonics adorn the walls at intersections. I couldn’t tell if they were genuinely historic or added afterward to boost the historic vibe and because they are so arresting as photo backgrounds.IMG_20180114_175909.jpgIMG_20180113_181734.jpg


Colin gets this photo cred.

I do believe the food we ate was authentic. There were four or five outfits set up on one side of the river and another across. The women would bring out more folding tables and plastic chairs as needed, and menus were offering identical fare. The specialty was tofu in broth that had bits of pork inside; Colin had it the first night but didn’t order it again. I twice tried eggs scrambled with tomatoes, a combo I really like but was underwhelmed by in HuangYao. Noodles and rice porridge were breakfasts, plus I found a tasty, thicker-than-I’m-used-to soy milk. We definitely dropped the most coin at the chic-for-HuangYao tea shop that had both a snuggly cat and a heater.


We spent four hours of our second day in that tea shop because, well, we’d already seen the town and it was a really wintery weekend and my coat (actual vintage, formerly grandma’s) was way cuter than it was functional because I missed the memo that I really needed to pack a puffer coat. So we sat in this shop and ordered round after round and wrote postcards and read and it was really pleasant.

IMG_20180114_083840.jpgLogistics: Take the train into Hezhou, walk past the touts at the station to find the bus to HuangYao by yourself in the adjacent parking lot. The bus ride is roughly an hour and drops you right at the ticket window, but then you have to walk maybe half a mile to get to the town itself. This would have been a tough trip to do without at least some basic Chinese or a hardy sense of adventure–be warned.


I definitely owe you an update

Life in Arlington continues. School, work, Spanish, rest, rinse, repeat. We renewed our membership at our climbing gym and I am sore from the tips of my fingers to the tips of my toes. Colin is on Congressional Record as being officially nominated to the Foreign Service: his name in size 9 font on a list of many, we didn’t get to go to the Senate or anything. I hosted some gals this weekend for a bread workshop. I’m hoping they find as much enjoyment and therapy in the hobby as I do.

The move to El Sal creeps ever closer. They’ve invited us to fill out a housing survey, though we won’t know the results until just before we leave. New friends who received an English-speaking post have already shipped their sea freight and are down to their final few weeks in the States.

We are healthy enough and looking forward to the holidays. Our apartment was plagued with butterfingers over the weekend: a salad tong fell and broke, a knife dropped onto a bowl of hot soup, breaking the bowl, and a glass of eggnog and a glass of wine spilled at once all over a board game. At some point you just have to laugh.

There are probably only about 30 flags to remember

OK friends, we’re a week out from getting our flag. That flag will reveal our home for the next two or possibly three years*. My father-in-law will be here; my brother will be here; dozens (maybe A dozen) of people on the West Coast will be anxiously awaiting the results.

There’s a not-so-good joke about people going up to accept their flag but not actually knowing what country it represents, and there’s a rumor that someone made a cheat sheet for all of the possible flags on our list. If I only have a week to go before I’m responsible for matching flag to country for our two guests while Colin goes up for a handshake, I should probably start studying.

*Two years in the country plus possibly one year here for language training.

Road trip day 12: Home stretch

Miles: 391

The final day was basically a delirious, smelly, trafficky mess until our triumphant arrival in Bethesda, MD.
Grand summation
Miles: 4,144ish
States: 15
Fantastic, generous hosts: 3
Subway lunches: 4
Tickets, car troubles, other serious mishaps: 0
Highlight: midway through Peekaboo Trail in Bryce Canyon NP
Lowlight: leaving New Orleans and being thwarted at three potential campsites before finally going to sleep in the car along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast at 11pm

I’m glad to have made the coast-to-coast drive, and it was so fun to watch the country change from region to region. We saw many interesting corners we never would have seen otherwise. We sought out a lot of delicious food but also ate a lot of junk. The car and the relationship survived intact, so I think that counts for a win. All that said, though, I’m in no hurry to do it again.

For more great photos, check out Colin’s blog!

Road trip day 11: Road weary

Miles: 265
Fried green tomato (slices): 3
Carolinas: 2

A couple days earlier we’d finished our truly riveting and time-passing audio book, Under the Banner of Heaven, and so now we were left with commercial-heavy radio, months’ old Radiolab podcasts, and each other’s company to fill the silence. Our mile count wasn’t nearly as high as it had been our first few days, but these miles seemed so much longer.

It got less scenic as we drove north from Charleston, where we had enjoyed a truly fine rendering of chicken and waffles for lunch. We’d also stopped at a roadside stand to buy a snack I’d thought I’d probably never have again, boiled peanuts.

After following one bad lead, we arrived at dusk at a North Carolina campground. The ranger came by on his way out for the night and told us we could pay in the morning if we were still there, but if we had to get on the road before that, to have a safe drive and come back and see them again some other time.

Road trip day 10: Gullah country

Miles: 191
Unintentional detour (minutes): 20
Angry cars behind us at the gate: 8
Gators: 0

Our Jacksonville friends treated us to a seriously delicious biscuit breakfast before we left, headed north for the first time since leaving Utah. My opinion of the South is based on mostly unflattering statistics, but it does have some beautiful historic cities and charming scenic byways. We walked three miles around Savannah and found lunch in the hippest, artsiest cafe in town. We crossed Savannah’s beautiful new bridge into South Carolina and headed to Hilton Head Island, land of the occasional gator and home of our host for the night, Kyle’s mom.

Road trip day 9: The Gulf

Miles: 520
Last year Colin saw Jim: 1998
Times Kirby the dog excitedly peed on the carpet: 1
We watched the sun rise over the Gulf and had breakfast at Waffle House. The coastal road was perhaps the prettiest route on the trip, and certainly with the most interesting homes—beautiful mansions up on stilts. We stopped in Mobile, AL but didn’t even need the full two hours for our parking. Our goal for the night was Jacksonville, FL, the home of one of Colin’s childhood friends and his wife. The guys figured they hadn’t seen each other for 18 years, and we had a nice time re-acquainting over dinner and a bottle of wine.

Road trip day 8: Like Vegas, Venice and San Francisco combined

Miles (walking/driving): 10ish/100ish
Walking tours: 2
“Campsites” visited: nearly 5

A self-guided tour of the Garden District, then lunch and a walking tour of the French Quarter in the afternoon. I thought I saw John Goodman sitting on his porch, and I loitered outside of Sandra Bullock’s house hoping she might step out and start chatting with me, but alas. The streetcar on St. Charles Ave. was great for getting to the French Quarter but left us in the cold on the way home. Quiches and pastries, including beignets at Cafe du Monde, plus a beer for the road since open containers are legal in the streets. So weird. One final po’boy, and then we were on our way to try to find camping for the night. And that was an adventure not worth remembering.

Road trip day 7: N’awlins!

Miles: 509
Crawfish hand pies: 2
Mandolins: 1
The only goal for me was to make it to New Orleans in time for dinner. We had time for coffee in Dallas with our host, Sean, lunch in Alexandria at Porky’s, and a traffic jam crossing the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, and we still made it to the Historic Streetcar Inn on St. Charles Ave. around 7. We ordered too much at the Voodoo Barbeque & Grill, then found the last dive bar on the street, Lucky’s, for a beer and one set by the 26 String Mafia.

Road trip day 6: Finding California in Texas

Miles: 647
Hours lost to time zones: 1
Turtles: 2

In order to get to Dallas early enough to log quality time with two friends, we left Albuquerque in the dark. We’d downloaded our new book club book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, and listening to how two Mormon  Fundamentalist brothers murdered their sister-in-law and niece and justified it really helped those miles pass.

College friend Melissa met us for a much-needed margarita when we finally arrived. She took us on a tour of Dallas’ first Trader Joe’s, which she had just opened, and then SAIS friend Sean hosted us at the home he shares with two turtles and a cat. Though we didn’t get much of a feel for Dallas, we did get to do a lot of reminiscing.