Madeleine arrives in China

I arrived in China in 2005 in a drugged stupor.  This was due to the fact that I, who rarely takes sleeping pills, was advised by a friend to take two of the little pills she handed me. Whatever they were, I think a half of one would have sufficed.  Fortunately the flight had been overbooked and I was upgraded to business.  That was cool, as I actually slept well in my narcotized state.  Truly before I knew it, we had landed… I was baffled, to put it mildly.  In the airport, I was so groggy that I just floated from one arrival task to the next, including getting in a cab, well NOT a cab, a car to take me to the hotel.  JUST what Michelle had advised against.  There are poachers at the Beijing airport who come and “grab” you before you get to the official cab line. They usually charge exorbitant rates.  The hotel I booked was way downtown in the Hutong, the old district of Beijing…a long ways from the airport and hard to find even by Beijing natives.  The ride was both terrifying in my drugged state (where was he taking me, really?) and magnificent (the lights and sounds).  Can you imagine!  I had no idea where I was going, spoke not a single word of Chinese, and was seriously stoned.  But guess what!  The driver got me to the obscure little hotel, and the charge was same as a cab.  Whew!

The Far East Hotel is a great little place, and was perfect for my first stay in China. Smack in the warren world of old Beijing, it caters to students and budget-minded tourists.  I think the rate was $25/night.  Certainly comfortable enough, I would stay there again.  In fact I might!  The lobby was vibrant with many languages, and the reception people were trying hard to accommodate. In the bowels of the hotel, vast cauldrons of boiling water provided guests with, amongst other things, safe water. Decanted into delightfully decorated thermos bottles and delivered to our rooms, brushing teeth and making tea were not health threats. When I stayed in the hotel again in 2007, the thermoses were replaced by those instant boil tea pots in each room.  It didn’t feel nearly as safe as the water that had been boiled for a long time.  Also, by then much of the Hutong was slated for major destruction, Massive highrises were going up in their stead.  It will be interesting to revisit.

I awoke early (3:30) that first morning and went for a walk after my ritual ablutions.  Most of the town was still asleep, but not all. The Hutong is very old, and it has much character.  One knows where the communal toilets facilities are with no problem (sniff, sniff). I also explored out of the Hutong in a modern neighborhood with concrete apartments.  As the sun rose, I watched people doing their morning exercises.  Public exercise is de rigueur whether in groups or solo. And I saw men, always men, carrying bird cages, walking determinedly.  So I followed one. They meet their friends, who also have birds, and set the cages up fairly near to each other so the birds can have social time, like they are all on a tree.

One unexpected sight, and one that I was to see if in one form or another over and over again, was that of people sleeping in public.   My morning meanderings that first day bore witness to workers crawling out from under plastic tarps on building sites and people camouflaged for the night in trash heaps.  I don’t know how to process this visual information and find myself haunted by the apparent discomfort as well as the underlying social context.

On the other hand, I was delightfully surprised to see how people in Beijing dote on their dogs.  Seriously…  What did I think?  Hmm.  Yup.  I had heard the Chinese eat their dogs.  Well, maybe some of them find their way to a plate…but not these urban canines.  



Michelle in China

My niece graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Women’s Studies. During her time at school she spent a year in Spain, and investigated as much as she could of European culture in her spare time.  After graduation she expressed a desire to explore cultures in the so called Eastern Hemisphere and signed up with Volunteers in Asia, a good-will program out of Stanford.  She was assigned a post teaching in the far west of China, a very long way from home and family.  We were all a bit freaked, but as it turned out, her journey sparked adventures for all of us.  Her assignment ultimately had her teaching English to Tibetans who had made it to the Chinese University in Xining.  There was much that was eye opening, not just the typical foreignness, but from her perspective, the consistent diminishment of women was visible everywhere…including her classroom.

Michelle 2005

Michelle 2005

It was soon apparent that her female students were not actively participating, and thus not doing very well.  Upon inquiry, she discovered a cultural roadblock. Asking questions in front of men is not admired in the traditional Tibetan culture, thus all of the young women were thwarted in their efforts to keep up with the guys.  Rising to the occasion, she suggested they come study with her on the weekends.  Several did, and not only did their English improve, they formed a women’s group to delve deep into what it means to be female in a Tibetan world.  Out of this endeavor came an insightful book, Heavy Earth, Golden Sky: Tibetan Women Speak About Their Lives, edited by Michelle.

A book written by Tibetan women with stories from their lives.

A book written by Tibetan women with stories from their lives.

These women ultimately formed a very productive non profit organization, Shem Women’s Group.  Facilitating fundamental improvements for their villages by getting grants, they purchased solar panels and solar cookers, provided potable water to spigots in villages, and even built a bridge.

The unwavering powerhouse behind this group was, of course, Michelle.


I seriously do not like being cold. So I wonder if perhaps this is not a stupid endeavor.

Weighing it all out, I trust that if I do diligence and prepare adequately, I will be able to enjoy this adventure. After all it does get cold here in the Klamath Basin.  Last winter was sub zero for quite a while, and I fared OK.  I have actually been colder in 40º weather in Point Reyes, where there is significant moisture in the air.  I imagine the Tibetan plateau to be quite dry at 12,000 feet.  Fingers crossed…in my mittens!

I have been online for weeks trying to ascertain the best clothing for the trip.  I have finally settled on an LL Bean -55 coat.  This is for starters.  I ordered a large, but then realized I will need room for layers, so soon I will be the proud owner of this fabulous and, hopefully, toasty, XL coat. Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 4.53.55 PMI plan on living in silk long johns, some kind of turtleneck, my camelhair sweater and this!

I also purchased some down mittens, but have learned that wool might be better, with waterproof covers.  Especially boiled wool. That said,  I will test my down mittens and hopefully the exterior material is waterproof enough to be effective.

The BEST thing I have gotten is my STORMY ROMER rancher’s cap.  This is a wool baseball-style hat from the Upper Peninsula (Michigan)with padding and ear flaps.  I love it. It might be too bulky to travel with…but, it is so perfect that I could be a sales person!


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Next will be an exploration of the best trousers.







In 2005, I went to China for the first time.  I did not really want to go. The Chinese were the competitors I LOVED TO HATE in the Olympics.  I had embraced popular notions about the arrogance and cruelty of the Chinese in regards to Tibet, and I was scared of the pollution.  But my beloved niece had gone to teach at the university in Xining, a large town in the far western reaches of China.  At an altitude of 7200 ft, it is on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. My niece’s students were Tibetan, studying English.  That these kids made it into a Chinese University is quite extraordinary.  They were the brightest of the bright, and came from families supporting their studies. Most remarkable is the inclusion of young women students, as in the traditional Tibetan culture it was not thought that they had the ability to be anything but the labor force for their villages.

working the fields for her entire life, this woman from a remote Tibetan village wanted me to make images that would highlight the plight of women's toils.  Gansu Province, PRC 2005

Working the fields for her entire life, this woman from a remote Tibetan village wanted me to make images that would highlight the plight of women’s toils. Gansu Province, PRC 2005

Tibetan woman in Agricultural Tibetan village. Sichuan, PRC 2007

Tibetan woman in Agricultural Tibetan village. Sichuan, PRC 2007