Monday, November 10, 2008


I returned from our weekend away feeling refreshed, and able to face another 6 weeks of life in crowded and filthy Shanghai.

Both of my girls returned feeling exhausted, but a bit rosier around the cheeks, having tested their balance on old, rocky staircases and pushed their lungs running around a hilly yard in a higher altitude.

Dave returned feeling dread that he had to go back to the office. He has begun putting out resumes and fielding phone calls, especially for jobs in international development. He's looking primarily in Africa and Asia at this point, although open to other positions. If you have any connections, please email us privately and we'll share more details.

Even through a thicky, rainy haze, Moganshan was beautiful this weekend. The girls and I piled into the car with plenty of gear on Thursday afternoon, expecting to arrive around 6pm. Our friends would beat us to the cabin, and they would have hot pasta on the table and a warm fire in the wood stove. Our driver took a wrong turn and went an hour out of our way, so after a long 5 and a half hours of driving we arrived in the wet, dark night at the bottom of 250 stone stairs. The rain continued, blotting out the light from the moon or the stars, so the girls and I plodded up the wet stairs with no idea of the beauty that surrounded us. The staff at Naked Retreats, where we stayed, were fantastic. An old man from the village carried our luggage on a pole over his shoulders. My phone contact spoke perfect English and Chinese, and directed our driver at multiple different crosses in the road. Finally, one of their staff drove a van down the hill to lead our way back up. I told them that our gas tank was dangerously low after our 2 hour detour, and they promised to rescue us with reserves if the need arose.

We reached the top of the stairs, and saw a warm cottage with a small yard in front. The windows blazed with warm yellow light, evidencing a fire had been started long ago. We walked in, and the air warmed us immediately. The girls and I sat by the fire while our friends piled our plates with warm pasta, fresh fruit and glasses of milk. We filled our bellies and the girls went straight to sleep in a perfectly dark room upstairs.

We all woke Friday morning to a slow rain and a chill in the air. The warmth of the fire hadn't made its way upstairs, so the girls and I dressed quickly and raced down into the common room. The two ayis on staff to serve our house had started a fire in the woodstove hours before, and the room was cozy. Our friends were already down with their little ones - two 2 year olds, and 1 4 month old. We feasted on fresh eggs and local bacon, milk, juice and toast, and piles of fruit, all provided with our payment. The fridge was stocked, and the kitchen was so pleasant. An island in the middle of a common room, so the chef could talk to the other grown-ups and interact with running and playing children. The American concept that the kitchen is the heart of the home applied well to this cottage, and not at all to our home. I was the Friday chef, and enjoyed my time at the stove.

A break in the rain came around 11, so we quickly bundled our little ones and brought them outside to explore. As the Daddies had stayed in Shanghai to finish the work week, we were 3 Mamas to 4 toddlers and an infant. For playing in a warm cabin, our odds were good. For climbing stone stairs in the rain, our toddlers lacked confidence and our numbers were low. The rain began in earnest as we were a few steps away from the house, but we still followed the stone staircase to a very Chinese chicken yard at a barn up the hill. The girls loved running in the rain and chasing the hens, while the moms fretted over muddy fingers and wet hair. Our outting was quick, but gave us a taste of the fun that the outdoors held for our families. We feasted on a warm pot of chili and piping hot corn bread that night, the men meeting us around 9pm, and then everyone slept well in the dark, moonless night.

With families complete, Saturday took on a different flavor. We all shared a large breakfast, and then each family took off in a different direction. We climbed up and down stone stairways through the bamboo forest in search of great panoramas. We found quite a few, and once we had climbed too low, we dug bag into the forest and wandered along a stream until our bellies began growling. Along the stream we worked to keep our shoes dry, watched people harvesting bamboo, and avoided amazingly large spiders with bright yellow bodies hanging right in our path.

After a walk with the girls, we wanted a walk without them. All of the children went down to nap around 2:30, and our friend Jim joined Dave and I on a search for old hotel ruins. Moganshan is an interesting area - perched on a mountaintop, this little village was once a hedonistic getaway for Shanghai's elite. In the early part of the century, expatriates would escape the heat of Shanghai by taking the train to Moganshan, where the temperatures average 7 degrees lower than the city. The small mountain is dotted with European country homes and hotels. But with the turmoil of China in the middle of the century, expatriates expatriated China and the area did not become Chinese. Rather, it stood vacant for decades, only now slowly receiving reinvestment.

Jim, Dave and I headed up the hill to explore the ruins of an old hotel. The small building sat hidden off of a small path, with no road nearby. It perched the top of the hill, and had amazing panoramic views. We only caught glimpses of these views, because although the rain had stopped, Saturday maintained the thick haze of the days before. Having been an easier hike than we imagined, we next headed off to find the old convent. It seems that missionaries as well as wealthy expatriates enjoyed relaxing in old Moganshan. We climbed hundreds of steps, up and down. We passed construction workers with their bamboo scaffolding, their walls full of old rocks, and their concrete laid clumsily and quickly. Jim is an engineer from the Bay Area of California, and knew that these buildings would fall immediately in an earthquake.

We passed old hotels with all of the shutters drawn, old yards now homes to ducks and chickens. We walked through fields of tea, where lean-tos had been created with a stick and an old tarp, straw hats still hanging neatly inside. We walked an amazing number of stairs, got ourselves fairly lost, and became worried as the sun fell in the sky. Without daylight savings time, the falls falls by 5:00 in eastern China. On a dark mountain, we would have been in trouble without flashlights or a good sense of direction. Feeling a bit hurried and nervous, we pushed on through the bamboo forest. We took a left turn, feeling confident that we headed toward our cabin. As the path became less obvious, we became worried again. Jim hurried ahead, and Dave and I sloshed through as mountain springs poured over the stone steps and right through my running shoes.

Suddenly, we reached a clearing. The bamboo forest had been clear-cut for this small field growing low bushes of tea. A shack sat neatly in the middle of the field, and the hill fell away steeply so that we could see for miles. Even though the sun was quickly falling, even though we could not decipher our direction, even though our shoes were wet, we stood and gazed at the view. It was amazing, and made the entire adventure worthwhile.

We soon regained our direction and found our familiar path as the sun began to fall in earnest. It was dark as we climbed the steps to our cabin, and our ayis began grilling an amazing dinner of chicken and pork, burgers and sausage, potatos and corn, and vegetables marinated in simple Chinese sauces. We ate for hours, poured bottles of wine, and enjoyed another warm evening in. Before we sent the girls to bed, we pulled out a special treat. Three marshmallows were placed on skewers and pushed into the flames of the woodstove. The girls watched wide-eyed. Once removed, each marshmallow was squeezed onto a graham cracker with one piece of chocolate. The girls sat and ate their snacks quite seriously, and in complete silence. The s'mores were a hit on the young crowd. After they were all asleep, the adults took our bottles of wine outside and roasted our marshmallows over an open fire under a sky full of stars and a bright moon. This was the camping trip we had all envisioned.

The morning came quickly and with a bright sun that allowed little girls to run around in the yard of the cabin while the adults packed their bags and prepared lunch. The same tottering old man carried our luggage back down the few hundred steps, where our drivers were waiting. We all climbed in and headed down the mountain. We drove in autumn's golden light through an agricultural scene which could have been anywhere, uniquely Chinese by the people hand-scything their fields and the pavilions dotting the landscape with the frequency of gas stations in rural America. I kept my camera in its bag, as I didn't want to lengthen the journey any for our girls. But the orange tinted images of fall in rural China are seared into my mind - the autumn sun shining its late afternoon gold over a large reservoir surrounded by bamboo forest and with a simple pagoda sitting serenly in the center; the men and women working their fields with no machinery, wearing warm sweaters and basking in the sunlight.

For camping, the price was steep (about $1,500USD for a 3-bedroom cabin for 3 nights). For S'mores, the price was outrageous (about $25USD for 1 box of graham crackers, 1 bag of large marshmallows, and a few bars of chocolate). But for a weekend out of the city with our close friends, Naked Retreats and Moganshan were perfect and we are already talking about returning next spring.

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