Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 17 – “Tiger Leaping Banjo” (blog)

Shangri-La – Tiger Leaping Gorge

Today we are headed to one of my favorite places on the face of the Earth, Tiger Leaping Gorge, near Shangri-La. It is located in the remote western hills of Yunnan, China, deep in the beautiful mountains. We have an early 630am wake up time to catch the bus to the Gorge. I was here 8 years ago with another friend, and the views and memories I have of that experience are enough to bring me back out this way. The Tiger Leaping Gorge visit consists of a two day hike; one day up into the mountains, and another day back down.

The sky opens up in Shangri-La

We catch the bus and begin our journey to the Gorge. I use the time to catch up on my writing and gaze upon the rich Chinese countryside. The colors of the mountains and the fields full of farmers hearken back to a time long ago. The deep complexity of China with it’s mix of old and new is such a fascinating recipe. We sit beside two older teachers from the U.S. and share stories and funny pictures, and the 2-hour ride goes by rather quickly. As we reach the destination, confusion sets in a bit, as everyone starts scurrying around and speaking really rushed Chinese. I luckily have a small grasp of the language and an affinity for striking up conversations with the people around me. Almost in every situation, this ends up being our saving grace, as my new friends are always eager and willing to help us find our way. It’s not really a design as such, but more that I just love people and they return that energy in kind. It’s the kind of symbiotic relationships that fills life with joy and happiness.

Enjoying a stop on the journey

We get off of the bus, and begin our journey on the trail. The first mile or so consists of roads that go by small houses and villages. All along the trail you find big plants of marijuana and every small little guesthouse selling bags to the travelers. In Beijing this is strictly forbidden, but here in the deep mountains of southwest China they have a saying that translates something like “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” Now, I am a proponent of medicinal cannabis, but this ganja looks and smells more like decomposing lawn clippings, so we pass by and keep walking.

“The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away”

Very soon into the trail, it begins a steep climb upward into the hills. Eight years ago, I was a young spry 27 year old man. Now that I am 35, these strenuous hikes up the sides of mountains have a different effect on me. However, I do like the challenge and the workout, so I continue on, pushing myself up and up. My traveling partner, Ben, at 41, has a different outcome of that first leg of the journey. As I’m waiting on him at the top of the hill, he reaches up, huffing and puffing, almost out of gas. He knows this is a two adventure, and I’m sure is already cussing me under his breath for bringing him on this crazy hike. I assure him, even though I am not sure myself, that the hike gets easy and breezy just on the other side of that ridge. He looks at me like I’m trying to sell him beachfront property in Kansas!

Not a happy hiker

By sheer luck, and the intelligent enterprising of a Chinese mountain man, there is a mountain guide sitting there at the top of the hill with a riding horse, just waiting for his collapsing victims to show up. Ben gives in, not sure if he can make it any further at the moment, and jumps on the horse. The price to ride to the next village is expensive, but so is passing out on the trail, so he climbs aboard the horse and goes for a ride. We make plans to meet up the trail a bit and journey on.

Ben and his new trail companions

One of the cool things about his hike is every few miles there is a small village with guesthouses for the hikers. You can stop and enjoy a Chinese meal, or even pack it in for the day and rent a room. The trail rolls through the countryside, past these beautiful small villages, and up into the mountains of the Gorge. As you get higher and higher the views become spectacular. On the trail side, you walk along the side of the mountain filled with deep canyons, and rough and rocky terrain. On the other side, deep green and rocky mountain raise from the ground at almost a vertical angle, reaching up to the sky. On top of highest mountains you find rocky ominous peaks covered with snow, and smoky clouds swirling all around. And down below all of this, splitting both sides of these majestic mountains, runs an emerald green river, flowing and rushing with the power of millions of horses. With one heavenly glance of this environment, you understand quickly where the inspiration comes from all of those Chinese paintings and movie scenes depicting this magical nature. Being here allows you to feel the space with which we exist, and the source from where we find our Love. It feels like the edge of the world.

View from the edge of the Earth

Ben climbs off of his ride at the first village where we have lunch and a beer, and continue on our hike. We go through a couple more villages and attempt to conquer the steep trial up the mountains called the 28 bends. Although he gets his legs under him a bit, he is still struggling up the mountain. We find one rock painted 14, which means we are halfway up the 28 bends and provides some encouragement, but a few bends later we see a rock painted 12, and become a bit disheartened.

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Not the most hopeful message on a rock

However, we keep trekking and eventually make it to the top of the rock. Once we arrive, there is a Chinese woman waiting for us who says in broken English, “Congratulation, you made it to the top”. She then proceeds to try to sell us water, beer, or red bull, or weed, and charge us 10 yuan to take a picture from this amazing viewpoint. Agitated at this unexpected reward for hard work to make it up the mountain, I decline and continue on. Right around the corner I see a large pile of red bull cans and plastic water bottles, and am glad that I did not contribute to this enterprise.

We finally made it to the top of 28 bends!

The trail is much different than I remember from 8 years ago. Although the beauty of the mountains and the fun of the hike remain the same, many things have changed. Back then there were no horses. You did not have that option to ride up into the hills, then be dropped off to walk down. A side effect of this new option is that the horses have to poop somewhere. Therefore the trail is almost covered in horse dung. Not only do you have the challenge of hiking through some steep rocky terrain, but you also have the challenged of avoiding stepping in horse manure on nearly every drop of the foot! Also, back in 2007, there were no tents set up vending drinks and snacks and marijuana. This is interesting, and sometimes helpful when you are thirsty, but has contributed to a trail now littered with plastic water bottles and candy wrappers. I sort of miss the wild and primitive nature of this place as it was. But, the deep and rich beauty of Tiger Leaping Gorge remains intact, and keeps it a must have experience for anyone who has the chance to visit.

Closing in on a small village for the night

We reach our guesthouse of choice right before sundown. Exhausted we get a room, have as shower, and begin our descent into sleep. The house is overrun with Chinese and foreign hikers having fun, eating dinner, and making a lot of noise. But it is of no consequence to us. When a tired like this overtakes you, there is nothing that can get between you and your dreams.

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Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 16 – “Journey to LiJiang” (blog)

Dali/LiJiang –

The day starts out at the Josh’s home in the Dali mountains.  We stayed up late jamming and drinking wine, so we muster ourselves out of bed to meet a driver who we’ve scheduled to meet at 930am.  We make it to the meeting spot on time, but he is nowhere to be found.  We wait about 20 minutes, then decide that he is not coming.  We would later get a text saying that he had overslept.ha!  So we say our goodbyes to our friend and begin our walk down the mountain to catch a bus.

Saying by to Josh and to Dali

These extended walks with about 50lbs of banjo are not easy.  I have to switch hands about every couple hundred yards.  But, I just look at it as a chance to get a workout in, and I can already feel the power in my shoulders and arms strengthening.  Sometimes all it takes is a little mental reframing to turn a negative situation into a positive one.

Sometimes it just takes a little mental reframing..

Today we are headed to LiJiang, a beautiful old city tucked away in the western mountains of western China.  It is about a 3.5 hour bus ride from Dali, so we must catch a ride to the bus station, where we will then catch the big bus to LiJiang.  So we make it the Jade Emu, a hostel we have been frequenting while in Dali, and they have arranged a ride to the station and a bus ticket.  The staff at the Jade Emu is extremely helpful and they can arrange almost anything for you.  They also have coffee and a bacon and egg sandwich, so I can with confidence recommend staying there if you are ever that way.

Plains, Trains, and especially buses

Our driver is a bit late, but at least he shows up.  So we make it to the bus station almost on time.  Luckily our bus is late too, so we make it on with no problems.  It even gave us a few moments for an impromptu banjo performance and a chance to make some new friends.  Which, the latter, while in China with a banjo, has been really easy to do.  The bus ride up to LiJiang is extremely beautiful.  It is filled with mountains and field of crops.  The environment is extremely relaxing and calm, except for the violent movie starring the Roc and Billy Bob Thornton.  But alas, I have a chance to make another installment in my video log series, which seems to be getting better and better with each one.

Journey to Shangri-La and LiJiang

We make it into town, and per our recent tradition, find the nearest hole in the wall restaurant to eat some delicious food and make a plan.  The pamphlet that fellow traveler handed me at the Jade Emu is now coming in very handy.  It has the address for a hostel we can stay in, called the Mama Naxi, and the public bus numbers to ride that will take us there.
So we decide to venture into the fray which is the public bus, when we get on, it is packed.  The bus is much more crowded than any subway I’ve been on in Beijing.  It is quite crazy and exciting.  I do my best to keep my bag and banjo out of everyone’s way, but it doesn’t always work.  I am also unclear about our stop, but after asking around the bus a bit, several helpful Chinese folks assist us on our way.

We finally make it to the old of LiJiang

Once off the bus, we head into Old town to begin the search for our hostel.  Ben breaks out his gps tech, and actually makes finding it pretty easy.  But, it is a nice long walk again, and I unwillingly get in another shoulder workout.  We quickly and easily settle into our quaint room, and venture out onto the town.  LiJiang is a tourist destination for many Chinese around the country.  The old town, where we are staying, is pedestrian only, and most of the cobblestone streets are filled with people.  The city is extremely beautiful with brooks running throughout and the ancient architecture being very well preserved.  We meet and talk with some wonderful people, eat some interesting food, and let a lot of Chinese tourists take pictures with us.  It was another wonderful full day, and sleep is easy to find.

Pull up a chair and relax in LiJiang

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 15 – “Sweet and Spicy” (blog)

Dali –

It feels really good to wake up in the Dali mountains. The sun is shining, there are no horns blaring, the smoky clouds drift down the mountain, and the cat is purring in my arms. Life is good. I’m really excited about our recording session from last night and the music that came from it. What could today bring?

The cat and I hang in the early morning

Everything is really quiet and the rest of the crew are still asleep, so I find it a great time to do some more recording. Having a room that sounds this good and an excellent guitar to record with is a blessing on the road, and should be made the most of. I lay down a couple more guitar tracks, some banjo tracks, and sing some.

Early recording session in the Dali hills

As Josh awakes he gets the tea going and begins making some oatmeal. The oatmeal here is not like the instant packets you find in the states. It’s actually some grain that needs to be boiled for a while.   It’s really delicious and he has a lot of things to put in it: bananas, walnuts, raisins, honey. Josh is such a gracious host, and his hospitality is amazing. We sit around breakfast, having a really fun time and our friend Kirk breaks out his recording to do a podcast. We have an amazing conversation talking about music, culture, and the arts in China and the USA. We tell stories, laugh, and understand things in a broader perspective.

Not your everyday bowl of oatmeal

Toward the end of our conversation, Josh presents with gifts from his new venture. He has begun manufacturing guitar straps that are made by local craftsmen and women. The straps are made from leather and hand woven stitching that is wonderful in so many ways. They are colorful, artistic, and functional. The name of his straps are Tea Horse Straps, and through the creation and sell of these, he has found a way to support the local artisans of the area, as well as creating a great product that musicians will love. He gives both Ben and I a strap as a gift, and we are thrilled to have such a beautiful addition to our musical adventures. You can check out his work at Thanks Josh!

Beautiful Tea Horse Guitar straps

After breakfast, another recording session begins, and my friend Kirk lays some down some vocal harmonies and fiddle tracks. The songs for the Banjo Earth album have been graced with excellent music during our stay here in Dali, and I am extremely grateful for the talents of these generous musicians. We play a few more tunes, and decide to head into town for dinner and some exploration.

“Famous” Kirk Kenney laying some fiddle tracks

The walk down the mountain village to the road where we can catch a ride is amazing. There are fields full of all sorts of crops, and the people working them. Behind us is a mountain range that will take your breath away, and before us is a gigantic lake, also graced with a mountain range. The sky is clear, the sun is setting, and it feels like a magical moment in a magical place. We catch a ride into town, and find an excellent restaurant and have some amazing noodles and vegetables. After a couple of beers and walking around the old town for a bit, we get antsy to get back to the mountain house and have a midnight jam. After a few tunes and some more musical collaboration, the time for bed draws near, and we all say goodnight. Another peaceful mountain rest begins.

Night sets on Dali

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 14 – “Stoke the Fire” (blog)

Dali –

I begin the morning once again by blogging, coffee, and hanging out in the courtyards of the hostel. It’s energizing to see all of the activity of these travelers making plans and having breakfast before their journeys. We’ve got some really cool things planned for today, and I’m excited to get it started. After breakfast I head into town to make a couple of purchases. I need to find some sunglasses and a hat, or hoodie. The hat is to keep my head from the impending cold, and will also operate as afro control, keeping my curly mop in check. The sunglasses I could not find, but I did find a beautiful, hand-made, hoodie from a local craftsman.

Out and about in the Old Town, Dali

There is a lot of really gifted artisans and craftsmen living in the Dali area. Leather-work is big here and you will find the most beautiful belts, bags, and clothing that you have ever seen. It is all extremely well made and expensive, but well worth the price. Even though haggling is expected in this part of the world, I gladly pay the man full price for the hoodie, because it is his art and craft. As an artist myself, I respect the time and skill it takes to create something of value. Thus, with no haggling of price, I hand the man his money and walk off with my new blue hoodie.

The blue hoodie

We have a recording session set up today for the afternoon and evening with my friends Josh Dyer and Kirk Kenney, whom I played with at Sun Island on my first night in town. They have become quick friends as we share a love of music and many other basic philosophies. Josh has offered us to come stay at his place in a small mountain village to record. He has also arranged for a Mongolian musician/singer to join us, and for a traditional ethnic dinner to be made.

Enjoying our time with Kirk and Josh

We meet Josh at the hostel and have a beer to discuss life and our plans for the rest of the day. We secure a car to take us there, then follow him on his motorcycle to the village. It’s nice to be getting out of the old city and exploring some other parts of the town. The village is quite primitive, and the street is extremely narrow, so our driver drops us off at the gate to the village and we walk the rest of the way.

Get some fresh country air

The place is amazing! It is an old style courtyard compound with branches of the house surrounding the center. One side of the house is over 100 years old and is still happening with the same wood with which it was constructed. This will be the studio. There is lots of space and the room sounds incredible. As we get set up, the musicians start arriving. I redo the rhythm guitar tracks I did the other day because Josh’s guitar and the room sound so much better than my previous attempts.

Laying down some rhythm tracks in the makeshift studio

I track down Reuben and Desert Waltz, as I feel those two would be best suited for the Mongolian player. His name is Gawa, and he is a consummate musician. He is well grounded in the traditions and skills of his native past. Yet he is fearless and adventurous in his willingness to embrace and try other music. I play Reuben with him for a while, then let him listen to the recording we’ve made, and we begin tracking. He is quite nervous as we all stare at him and Ben puts a video camera in close proximity, but he performs quite well and the sounds he made are perfect for the track.

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Gawa doing his thing in the studio

We then come down for dinner made by a local Bai woman, the main native ethnic group of this area. The food is so delicious, and the company is a lot of fun. Meat dishes, cucumber, lotus root, potatoes, and rice, accompanied by red wine and whiskey combine with great and fun conversation. We converse about the state of music in China and America, and Gawa gives us a little throat singing lesson. After this fabulous meal, we head back into the studio to put some Mongolian singing on the track. It is exactly what I envisioned, and even better, and gives this song the Banjo Earth magic that it needed. I’m really excited about how it turned out.

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Deliciously cooked meal made by a local Bai chef
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The chef…she’s yelling at me to get out of the kitchen!

Post recording, everyone gets their instruments out and the jam commences. We play so many different tunes and styles, and play well into the night. Sad songs, happy songs, Mongolian songs, American songs, and new songs we make up on the spot allow us to foray into all kinds of musical worlds. We play well into the night, laughing and jamming along the way. It all eventually winds down, and we brush our teeth with my hippie toothpaste that I got in Arizona, and fall into bed. What a great day this was! The food, the music, the mountains, was all just right. Huge thanks to Josh for having us to his place and arranging all of the magical things to happen. Peace through Music. Community through Creation.

Peace through Music. Community through Creation.

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 13 – “A Day in Dali” (blog)

Dali –

Upon waking from a dream where I was hanging out with Jay-Z, I feel extremely refreshed and head down to the hostel café for breakfast and internet. This place, called the Jade Emu, is really cool. They have coffee, western breakfast, a fast internet connection, and the place is hopping with travelers ranging from Aussie to Israeli to Chinese, and of course, American. There is also a ping pong table, pool table, and the staff is very helpful with getting around the area. If you ever find yourself in Dali on a traveler’s budget, stay here.

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Breakfast and a blog

After breakfast, we head out into Dali to explore the town. This place is very vibrant and alive. The local ethnic group, the Bai, are an extremely colorful people. They dress in bright colors, and can often be found wearing bright smiles. We are in the ancient town, which is the old capital city and is surrounded by walls and large gates at the North, South, East, and West. I find and buy a selfie stick, something I thought I would never purchase. But, given the nature of this project, it is a very helpful addition to the arsenal.

Uh oh… I got a selfie stick!

The ancient town of Dali is remarkable. There is so much activity here. The city is filled with music and food vendors. Backpackers visit here so often that there is an industry set up to accommodate them. It is filled with people from all sorts of different ethnic groups and backgrounds. The food here is very spicy and amazing, and is a very wide variety. We explore around the city, seeing things are new and different around every corner. We happen into the meat market, and it’s a sight not for the faint of heart. There are at least 50 meat vendors, all with slabs of raw meat right out on the table, and hanging from the rafters. There is lamb, chicken, beef, and all sorts of other creature flesh that I can’t identify.

Hanging meats

Ben and I split for a little while to pursue our own adventures. I go for a walk and end up getting little bit lost, I find myself outside of the old town walls, and have trouble finding my way back. Luckily I have enough Chinese to ask where all the foreigners, music, and bars are, and they direct my back to our hood. I meet back up with Ben at the music bar we have been frequenting, and share out stories. A couple of local gals who we met the night before come talk to us, share a sip of whiskey, and teach us a few pick up lines in Chinese. It’s the practical language learning that fits me best!

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Sharing language and whiskey with Zhou Zhou

I then head back to the hostel room to do a little recording. But as I settle in, I find that the screaming and yelling kids right outside the door in the courtyard aren’t really suitable to a great recording. It thus turns into a nice time for a rest, and I catch a little nap. There are a few bands we’ve met, that are playing in town tonight, so we head into the fray around sundown and see what we can find. There is a rock band playing at a place called the Bad Monkey. They set up a microphone for me and I play a long, extended space jam with them. It is quite fun, despite not being able to hear the banjo very well. I thank them for allowing me to jam, and we head on down the street.

Getting my Yunnan fashion styles together

One of the most fun things I’ve found to do on this trip is walk down the street, playing banjo and dancing a bit. I stop and play for anyone who seems to really enjoy and have really cool interactions with people. Sometimes they dance, sometimes they sing, sometimes they ask questions, and sometimes they just look at me funny. And if you are a musician on the street, look out! The banjo is coming for you. I find a drummer and play a song with him, and continue on.

Musical collaborations in the Dali streets

At Sun Island, one of the music rooms we’ve befriended, there is another musician playing whom I was recommended to jam with. He is playing a solo electric guitar gig, and sets a microphone up for me to play with him as well. I really like the vibe and owners of this place, and I can hear much better here. So I play until closing time (11pm) with Dan and we hang out and have a lot of fun. He is a fellow from Ohio who has been living and playing in China for around 5 years. His music ranges from old-time banjo to rock to electronic trance, and is just a really cool guy.

Jams with Dan

After leaving Sun Island, we begin our trek back home. But along the way, I remember this is indeed Dali, and we find even more music happening. There is a guitarist named Xiao Xi, who was playing with the rock band earlier, and he has an acoustic out. We get together in the street for a few tunes. He is a really good guitar player and can play in the style of Django Reinhardt, one of my favorite artists. We cut through Minor Swing, a blues song, and something else I don’t know. On down the street, I find a guitar and a group of people sitting on the stoop. Of course, they get the banjo treatment as well. We sit around, going through tunes like Chinese folk songs, American folk songs, and even a song from Green Day.

Xiao Xi experimenting with the Banjo

Inspired by the vibe and the music of Yunnan, and Dali in particular, the Banjo Earth seems to be in full swing here. The cross collaboration and exploration of cultures is the heart of the project, and is really finding a home among the different cultures of the region. Tomorrow we have a recording session in a remote mountain village with some local musicians, and I am really excited to see what we can create. But for now, sleep is near.

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The colors and flavors of Yunnan province

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 12 – “Down the Road” (blog)

Kunming/Dali –

It’s amazing what a night of peaceful sleep on a good bed, and a couple of long, hot showers can do for the soul. Feeling energized and refreshed, I go to check out the complimentary breakfast. It is literally the most amazing breakfast I have ever seen! It is separated by regions of the world: including European, Western, Chinese, Japanese, and a fruit/bread section. There are too many to dishes to choose from, so I settle in on a fried egg, coffee, toast, chinese greens, and nuts. Trying my best to take advantage of the buffet style, I go in for seconds and find another egg and a bowl of noodles, plus a small doughnut. If I could fit anything in my belly I would have, but I’m stuffed as I get back up to the room to work on the blog. I’ve done a few blog posts in my days previous to Banjo Earth, but along this trip I’ve been able to create work everyday. It feels really good to create a solid discipline for writing that is a consistent, creative outlet.

Waking up in a Yunnan Jungle

We pack up and begin our trek up into the mountains of southwestern China. We are headed to Dali, and ancient capital of a whole region of the western part of the country. The city is now full of artists, musicians, and creatives who have gotten away from the lights, pace, and pressures of Beijing. The town is situated between a giant lake and a chain of very high mountains. It is a popular destination for Chinese and foreign tourists alike. I visited here 8 years ago, and am really excited to get back to this magical land.

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Our transportation into the Chinese mountains

The hotel calls us a taxi that is waiting for us after checkout, and takes us to the bus station. We catch a bus 10 minutes after arrival to the station, and in no time we are on the way. It’s about a 4-5 hour bus ride up into the Chinese hills. It is a beautiful ride and is very interesting to get a perspective of the Chinese countryside. You will often see people out in the fields working with their rakes and hoes, toiling on their own little strip of Earth. This is a sight that is almost unseen now in the U.S.

Working the fields

The ride is a chance to do some filming, catch up on writing, and learn how to make video blogs. I finish the first video blog just before we reach town. We haven’t made any arrangements for sleep yet, so after we get dropped off at the bust station, we find a little restaurant to devise a plan. The first place we come across is a tiny little street restaurant that is serving chicken noodle soup. I can taste Grandma’s flavors in there along with a few exotic spices. It is delicious. Almost everything I have eaten on this trip has been uniquely amazing and satisfying. The food is worth the trip to China alone.

Grandma’s Chinese Chicken and Noodle soup

As I eat I make a little conversation with the cook/owner. English is few and far between outside of the large cities, so my Chinese has to do for now. I tell her where we are headed, and she arranges for us a friend’s taxi to drive us to the old city of Dali. I am usually wary of these sort of back street arrangements, but they seem like pretty straight people, and we are not real sure how to get around town yet, so we agree. I find out later that the price they gave me was a little expensive, but it was easy and convenient, so I was happy to let this one ride. I have a couple of contacts here in Dali that I was put in touch with by a mutual friend in the States. I contact them on the taxi ride, and my friend hops on the phone with the taxi driver to direct him to our destination. It’s amazing how, when you just get going on your way, things seem to work out, and you can always find a way to make it to your destination. Loose traveling, I call it. My new friend is a 6’3 tall American with a head full of curly hair on the street that we are looking for. I am a crazy American, also with a curly afro, hanging out the side window of a car. So we easily spot each other on the street.

Joshua Dyer
“Famous” Kirk Kenney

I’m really happy to meet a friendly face in an unfamiliar city, and he walks us to the restaurant to meet his other friends. Our new friend’s name is Josh, and he is a dobro/guitar player from Oregon who lives here in Dali. Our other new friend is Kirk, a great fiddle/guitar/singer who lives in Beijing and is visiting Dali. They are super friendly, funny, and knowledgeable about China and the area we are in. They also play my kind of old-time and bluegrass music, and have a show booked at a nearby bar. We join them for a beer and some conversation, then head over to the venue. It is a really neat, small, open-air style bar run by a Frenchman and his Chinese wife. The duo sounds great and I’m really excited to jam with them. They have me up for the second set and we have a blast blending bluegrass, old-time, and whatever else kind of music we feel. The crowd is very receptive and seems to be having a great time. Even the Frenchman is slapping his knees in a very rhythmic and percussive style. I meet some really interesting people, some great musicians, and make some plans for our short stay in Dali. There is a lot of minority music happening down here that I am really interested in exploring for Banjo Earth. We finish our whiskey drink, say our goodbyes, and head to our hostel that we secured just before closing time. It’s been another great day in China, and I’m once again excited to see what adventures tomorrow will bring.

What adventures will tomorrow bring?

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 11 – “Skinny Dipping in Kunming” (blog)

Beijing/Kunming –

I’m excited to wake up today. We are heading down to Yunnan province in Southern China, flying into Kunming, and I’m excited for some more adventures in the Banjo Earth. We are already packed and ready, so there isn’t much to do upon waking besides have some coffee. The haze has started creeping back in today, after several beautiful days of blue skies. So we load up, lock the door to the hutong home one last time, and set off down the street. We are going to try the airport expressway; a train that runs off of the subway system and rides you directly to the airport. It is very easy and fast, and costs about 25RMB($3.50).   We get to the airport with plenty of time to spare. And it’s a good thing too, because we run into a few issues along the way.

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Headed to Yunnan province

First, the search of our bags and our bodies is pretty intense and intrusive. I have a small wrench that I use to tighten my banjo head when needed. That is now in the property of the Chinese government. My friend also lost his portable phone battery charger on the way through…#Carryoncasualties. So taken our losses, we continue on to the gate. We hang out for a bit, eating some peanuts and freeze-dried apple slices that are actually pretty good. All is well until we get in line to start boarding the plane. We then notice that this plane is headed for Shanghai, not Kunming. Uh oh!

Oooops…Wrong Gate!

It has escaped our notice that the gate for our flight was moved to 62, not 20. So we start speed walking to the new gate. They are there waiting for us when we arrive to board the shuttle bus that takes us too the plane. Ahhhh. Luck strikes again. We make it on the plane and settle in for a flight across China. Thanks Chairman Mao!

Air China..All aboard

Outside of Beijing, China is quite a different place. The English is fewer and farther between, and some problem solving skills are generally required more often. Such is the case upon our arrival in Kunming. We’re not sure whether bus or train is the best way to get to our destination, Dali, so I stop by the tourist information center. But neither one of us can understand what the other is saying. Luckily, a girl who I had started a conversation with on the bus to the plane happened by and asked if we needed help. We obviously agreed to her assistance, and she guided us outside, found the right bus for us, and even helped us buy our tickets. Without her help, we would have had a really hard time. The Chinese people continue to impress and amaze me with their friendliness, helpfulness, and general kind-heartedness. These kind of exchanges really warm my spirit. We then climb aboard the bus, and enjoy about a 45 minute bus ride to the central bus station of Kunming.

Getting by with a little help from our friends

The ride through the city is very enjoyable and interesting. Kunming has a charming small town feel, yet is actually a sprawling metropolis. How it achieves this I do not know. Maybe it’s the grandmas riding by on their scooters. We get to the station, but instead of continuing on to Dali, we decide to spend the night in Kunming. This is where it gets a bit interesting.

As we step off of the bus, a lady is waiting there asking us if we want to go to Dali. Of course, we say, so she offers us a ride in her car. It’s a bit sketchy, but not overly so, and we discuss our options. I’ve never hung out in Kunming, only passed through, and it’s getting a bit late, so we decide to find a hotel and spend the night. I ask the lady where a hotel may be and she directs us the street a bit. We follow the directions and find a hotel. I try to talk to the receptionist, but she doesn’t speak any English, and my Chinese is quite limited. She keeps talking to me and writing stuff down, which I don’t understand at all. So I try to draw two beds and see what happens. I think she is getting annoyed. We get the basic gist that we cannot stay there, and she has written down some Chinese characters for us on a sheet of paper. An address to another hotel, perhaps?

Our mysterious instructions

We step out to the street and hail a cab. The first cab wants to negotiate a flat rate and doesn’t want to use his meter, so I tell him to keep it moving. We find another cab, and give him the sheet of paper with the characters on it. He seems to understand it and we head off. After traveling through a couple of flooded tunnels and sitting in traffic for a bit, he brings us to the biggest, oldest, most majestic building around. It happens to be a resort and conference center that is immaculately decorated. This is not the hostel and hutong life we are used to on this trip. However, it could be nice to live lavishly for one night with a really soft bed and a hot shower, so we try it out.

Our humble abode for the evening

We find a decent rate on a room, I think? The use of a translator app on the receptionists phone helps out, and we are showed up to the room. The place is amazing, with a gigantic swimming pool, waterfall, crystal garden, and even a couple of robes hanging in the closet. I had never been so happy about a soft bed and warm shower before. This is the life, if even just for a night. After a shower, we hit the street in usual fashion with instruments around our necks and cameras in tow.

The magic power of a warm shower and soft bed

Kunming is much more spread out than our typical digs in Beijing, so there isn’t much place for us to walk around. But, we do find one street filled with Yunnan style vendors, all serving up grilled sticks of meat, veggies, and fish. The food here in Southern China is very spicy and very delicious. We have a fried fish dish on our first try that blows our mind. We even eat the eyeballs it’s so good!

Stopping in for a bite

After roaming the streets and playing some music for the folks, we head back to the hotel room. Ben settles in, but I’m a bit hungry still, for more food, and more adventure. I start back out into the city, this time going out the back way of the complex. What I find on this street is very different than our previous experience. Upon leaving the gate, I am accosted by several men aggressively trying to sell me prostitutes. I don’t know what he’s talking about until he gives me the universal finger through the circle back and forth signal. I kind of laugh and tell him I don’t want (Wo bu yao) about 7 times. The street is dark and seedy and I’m feeling just a little uncomfortable. I dip into a little store, buy a beer, and walk back the way I came. I again have to say no the hooker offer, but they sort of leave me alone this time. Speaking just a little Chinese helps me smooth the situation and continue on my way.

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Yunnan street food options

I get back to the street with the food vendors and sit down for a few grilled sticks of Yunnan delights. The couple running the grill saw me playing banjo earlier, and are super friendly. The owner gets out a couple of beers, brings over some boiled peanuts, and sits down to chat. He then invites his buddies over to my table and we all cheers (Gambay!) as they try their best to speak some English with me. I really admire the determination some Chinese people show in trying to communicate with me. I often apologize to them for not being able to understand what they are saying, because I really want to talk to them. Despite our language differences, we can still say a lot with the body language and eyes. I have a great time with the friends on the street, and bid them good night. Off to sleep in my soft, soft, bed.

New friends in Kunming

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 10 – “Old Ladies on Scooters” (blog)


Today is recording day! The plan is to lay down the foundation guitar tracks for a few songs for the Banjo Earth album. We begin the day by heading over to Rager Pies for breakfast. This is a very small café with enough room for one table and 4 chairs. If anyone at all is there, then the place is at capacity. They have a great cappuccino and some excellent baked mini-pies that make a perfect breakfast. There is also a really cute barista there who speaks English, has an amazing friendly energy, and is married to a Texan.

Emily is our favorite Beijing barista

We sit down at the only table, which is also occupied by a Danish man and enjoy our goods. Catching up on the blog and getting some nice coffee makes for a beautiful morning. I begin chatting with the Danish man and find that he works for a design firm here in Beijing. His company is in the midst of designing a really futuristic museum for George Lucas in New York City. He is really interested in the Banjo Earth project and we talk about that for a bit. You never know who’s sitting next to you in Beijing. As we are leaving another Chinese man walks in who speaks great English. He happens to be a hydroponic farmer in town who grows organic greens and wheatgrass. I am highly interested, so we make plans to visit his operation. It was a fun breakfast.

Breakfast at Rager Pies

We get back home and begin setting up the portable studio in the bedroom. After hooking up two microphones into my digital recorder and computer, I get to work. While I record, Ben heads out for his own adventures, where he ends up at a café filled with cats, 22 to be exact. Meanwhile I get through about 5 songs fairly quickly that will be on the album. I now have arrangements and rhythm guitar tracks for Reuben, Mei Yo (a Chinese song I wrote), China Cat Sunflower, Desert Waltz, and another surprise song. I feel the music is coming around along with the story of our trip here. I have met many musicians along the way and I can hear their sound and talents in certain parts of the record. It may end up being even better than I can imagine!

Opening new doors

I finish with the tracking, and begin packing up. We are leaving for Yunnan province in Southern China tomorrow, and a friend we’ve met has agreed to let us leave a few items at her apartment, which will lighten our load. She is very gracious to do so, and it is such a help to our traveling. So we stop by her place to drop off the stuff, and go together for noodles. I had been craving noodles for about two days, so it is nice to satisfy that noodle urge. After that, she is scheduled to play cello in a duet with an Englishman at a bar nearby where they will do the songs of Olde England. The singer/guitarist is amazing, and really is a delight to listen to. Our friend Heike fills in the sound with her Cello, and they make an excellent duet. After a couple of drinks, and meeting some new friends, we make way for our hutong home. We need rest for the new adventures that await us in far off places of China. Bon Voyage!

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The universal symbol for grilled meat on a stick

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 9 – “The Forbidden City” (blog)

Beijing –

After a long night of restless sleep and strange, unpleasant dreams, I wrestle out of bed to greet the day. We have a little leftover sesame seed butter from the farmer’s market, so I get the coffee going and head to the local xiao mai bu (little store) to find a couple of apples to have with the butter for breakfast. Today is going to be an exciting day, as we have plans to take the banjo down to the Tiananmen Square district to do a little playing and filming. It’s getting colder in Beijing, so the warm shower and coffee feel really good. I do a little catching up on the blog and photos, and we venture out into the city with the banjo around the shoulder.

Morning in the hutong

It’s another beautiful, blue-sky day. The wind is blowing pretty ferociously, so the pollution cannot hover over the town like a hazy blanket. Thanks Chairman Mao! We start out just doing some filming around the hutongs, and work our way down toward the Drum Tower. This is one of my favorite places in all of Beijing. The towers are so ancient and beautiful that you can feel an intense energy around the place. Also, there is a nice courtyard that is relaxed and easy, a nice juxtaposition to the energy. There we find a really cool guy selling gourd flutes who waves us over to play with him. I play some banjo for him and a crowd gathers around. We all enjoy some music together and some great conversation. I understand some of what he says, but he’s extremely patient and funny. He reluctantly plays some flute for us, and it sounds great. We thank the man for his friendship, purchase a gourd flute, and leave. That was fun!

Hanging in the Drum Tower courtyard

After our Drum Tower episode, we stop by the local studio to set up a recording session. We secure an eight-hour session for when we get back to Beijing in 2 weeks. This offers us an opportunity to invite all of the amazing musicians we’ve met so far to convene in one convenient place for some Banjo Earth sound making. Exciting.

Goza Studios, Beijing

Ok. Now the day starts to get really interesting, as we head down toward Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I do understand the sensitivity of the place and it’s security detail, so we weren’t trying to push things too far. The square is a really big place, and there are tons of people walking around, and taking pictures and videos. So we just thought we would stroll down there and see what happens. They have a pretty tight security check on the way into the square, but they wave me through, and there I find myself, right in front of the Forbidden City with a banjo over my shoulder. Success!

Gateway to the Forbidden City

We start shooting an extremely short video of me playing a song I had written walking the street minutes before, when a huge crowd starts to gather around. Everyone is rushing in to take pictures and videos, and it starts to get a little out of hand. I’m sure the banjo seems harmless enough, but when crowds start to gather in the square, this can be a bad thing. So I quickly say “zai jien” (goodbye) to everyone and meander on down the street a bit. The crowd quickly disperses and everything seems ok, for now. We take a few pictures of the front of the palace with Chairman Mao’s ever-present portrait behind us.

Beijing Banjo

There is a line going into the palace, across the mote that surrounds the building. I figured I would never get into the palace with the banjo, so I just sort of keep drifting around. But, my friend and I get separated and he thinks I’ve gone inside, so he crosses the mote into the palace. I sit around for a while looking for him when I see a text message that he is inside. The front entrance is only an entrance, not an exit. So I give a long, nervous, sigh, and begin my entrance. The bridge crossing the mote is lined with what I call Men In Black. Probably 20 Chinese dressed in black suits, with really dark sunglasses, and emotionless faces stand guard. I walk right past them all with my banjo. I don’t really make eye contact with any of them. I just have that curious confused look that I make when I’m doing something questionable. To my relief, no one says anything, and I soon find myself behind the palace walls, with a banjo!

Men In Black guarding the Forbidden City

I catch up with Ben inside and we stroll around a bit. There is an interesting mixture of leisurely sightseers, vendors, and military personnel. There are a few souvenir shops as well, and the environment seems somewhat relaxed. As Ben looks around, I’m kind of tired so I have a seat on a bench. The banjo is around my neck, so naturally I just sort of start playing a tune. As soon as I begin, another crowd starts to gather around. I play a Chinese song that everyone seems to know, and a version of Earl’s Breakdown (Earl Scruggs). The crowd grows to become quite large, and again people start to make a line to sit next to me for a picture. Thus to avoid drawing too much attention, we quickly say our goodbyes and keep it moving. Ben would later tell me that this episode was pretty nervous for him and that his heartbeat rose to an excited pace. But, all in all, no harm was done, and at least the Forbidden City was graced with the Forbidden Banjo jam. It was an honor and privilege to make music in this ancient and beautiful environment.

Playing inside the walls of the Forbidden City

We walk out of the area, exchanging roles on our way. I give Ben the banjo to stroll and play as I take the camera and document the experiences. Immediately people begin to want to take pictures with him and video his playing. The banjo is magic! We find some nice baozi and gyoza snacks on the way, and trek back toward our home. We have a dinner invitation with my friends from the first day in China, who live in Southern Beijing, and don’t want to be late. We drop off the banjo and camera, pick a bottle of wine for dinner, and jump on the subway.

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Ben takes the banjo for awhile

The place is kind of hard to find, as my friend’s English and my Chinese are trying. But we eventually find their home, and the spread on the table is beautiful. In China, when you are invited to someone’s home for dinner, expect to be extremely well fed. On the table before us is a beef and potato dish, one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever had, some chinese cabbage, two different tofu dishes, and some other dish I have no idea what it was. All of it was really delicious, and we had so much fun chatting over dinner and discussing the ins and outs of our different cultures.

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The dinner was delicious!

Cai and Wei are such good people and we have quickly become very good friends. They even broke out the baijiu at the end of dinner for a couple of sips. Baijiu is a grain alcohol, which is very strong. The Chinese often drink this for business lunches and dinners, and can quickly lead to a high level of intoxication. This baijiu was very tasty, and not like the other cheap brands I learned how to drink when I was a student here. We say goodbye to our friends and begin our trek back home. It has been an extremely long and wonderful day, so as soon as I hit the pillow, it’s lights out.

My new friends Wei and Cai

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 8 – “Hutong Life” (blog)

Beijing –

Waking up in our new hutong(Beijing back alley) home felt wonderful. The wind had blown in the previous night and dropped the pollution index from the mid 300s to around 20. The skies in the morning were blue and beautiful, a rare and welcome Beijing blessing. I started the morning with some French pressed coffee, also a rarity in Beijing, and some Dragon Fruit that I found at the farmer’s market. The color is a deep purple with green extensions, and when cut open, displays some of the most beautiful fruit I have ever seen. The taste was exquisite as well, similar to a large kiwi fruit, yet not as potent or acidic. I love these forays into Earth’s bounty, which I have yet to experience.

The Dragon Fruit

After some computer work, we head out into the streets to locate a little food. I happened upon some large steamed buns from a street vendor, again, something I have yet to experience putting in my mouth. I get two, one is very sweet and the other savory, filled with some sort of bean paste. Not my favorite flavors, but obviously a Chinese staple, so the experience is worthwhile. The neighborhood we now stay in is filled with music and guitar shops. We’ve been looking for a guitar to help with the recordings for the album, so we stop in. There I find a mini little Chinese guitar that sounds pretty good for around 650 RMB ($100). It has a few buzzes, so the owner sands down the neck, and sets it up for me. It’s hard to beat for the price, so I walk out with the guitar and two microphone stands: necessary equipment for our project.

The mini Chard guitar

Happy with our new finds, we stop in a small restaurant in the hutong for a little Gon Bao Ji Ding (Kung Pao Chicken). When I lived in China previously, this was the first thing I learned how to order. So I became somewhat of a connoisseur of the dish. This time around, I’ve ordered it a couple of times, but have not been able to find the magic of Kung Pao Chicken past. Maybe soon. We head home to drop off the equipment and get ourselves together for another city filming excursion.

Gong Bao Ji Ding (Kung Pao Chicken)

We have set up dinner and a jam session with a local Cello player from Germany named Heike. So the excursion is a somewhat short one, but we find a few places that have been on our radar. Some of the hutongs around the Drum Tower area have become so hip and western that they are hardly recognizable. Vintage stores, wine bars, coffee shops, and interesting bars line many of these hallowed Beijing backstreets. Not one to be too fixated on nostalgia, I miss some of the Beijing I knew, but I welcome and appreciate the new reality. It is a really cool, progressive vibe, yet still has its distinct Chinese style.

Beijing Fashions

We get back just in time to meet Heike, the cellist, and head out for a dinner. I have been having some pizza thoughts in the back of my mind, so we settle on a “western” style meal including a tasty pizza, a delicious salad, and fried chicken wings. It almost feels like being at a pub in the states for Monday Night football, except for the small transport truck nearly snapping a handful of power lines into our lap, and the bicyclist that ran into our table, nearly knocking our friend out of her chair. Ahhhh the hutong life!

Heike – post cycler collision

We have a delightful jam session back at the apartment, running through some of the numbers we have planned for the Banjo Earth: China album. The cello adds a lovely flavor, and for a girl who’s been living in China for 14 years, it can’t help but be influenced by the Beijing sounds. She is classically trained, with an understanding and appreciation for Chinese folk music, so her addition to the project is a welcome one. After a few songs and a couple of beers, it’s time to call it a night, and our new friend rides off into the dark hutongs with her bicycle and cello. Time for sleep.

Off into the nIght