Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 24 – “The Dragon’s Tail” (blog)

Beijing –

My brother Ryan gets here today! I’m really excited to welcome him to China and share his experience of this amazing place. We spend the beginnings of the day getting caught up with work and laundry. It’s another beautiful, warm Beijing day, which is a surprise this late in October, but we nonetheless enjoy what the Universe has given us. The view from the rooftop deck of our hutong home is really fun. You can see over the whole neighborhood, as the rolling roofs flow all around like a dragon’s tail. It’s the best place for cats to be as well, and it’s nice to have some furry friends rummaging around. Ryan’s plane doesn’t get into until 3, so we finish work, go out for a walk and find some lunch. Around 330 we head out toward where he will meet us at the subway station. I’ve given him instructions and an address in Chinese that will allow the taxi driver to drop him off at a specific location. Ben and I go out to the location a little early to make sure we can find it, and set up on the stoop of the subway.

Beijing Banjo

Ryan sends me a text that he just landed, so about an hour later, we start looking for him. The communication from him stops coming, so I assume that his network isn’t operating correctly, or that he has run out of power. In either case, I get a bit worried because he hasn’t shown up, hasn’t called, and his Chinese language is basically non-existent. Although I’m not sure of his whereabouts, and it is getting cold fast, sitting on the corner of the subway and watching Beijing life go by is fascinating. Old people, young people, fashionable people, people in their dirty construction work clothes. Life in Beijing, in all of it’s color, sound, and taste, goes by on the street, as we sit there stationary and soak it all in. The Chinese are a proud and determined people, and you can see and feel the zest that they have for life in every smile, in every excited and animated phone conversation. The horns blare, the bikes and scooters roll by, and Beijing exists just as it should; the busy, beautiful, exciting capitol city that it is.

Watching Beijing go by

Ryan finally shows up in the cab, as the driver drops him off right where instructed, and I give him a big hug, happy to see him. He’s a bit loopy after traveling for about 20 hours straight, as expected. He has booked a hotel room at the nearby Eclat, a futuristic and funky looking building right around the block. I grab his fiddle and bag and we head off down the block. He booked this room to have a nice easy transition into Chinese life, with a bit of luxury and ease to smooth the path, which was a good idea. The hotel is gorgeous, filled with art from Dali, Warhol, and many others.

The art filled hallways of the Eclat hotel

The owner is an art collector and has filled this space with some amazing pieces of work. Each floor has it’s own unique theme, and they have booked his room on the white floor. As we get up to the floor and the elevator doors open, a white statue of Chairman Mao greets us. The room is posh and modern, coming equipped with a massage chair, giant soft bed, a stocked refrigerator, and even a lamp that turns on and off with a laser gun. This is a side of Beijing that we have yet to experience on our Banjo Earth budget. From hutongs to hostels, the Eclat displays a level of Chinese innovation and elegance that we are unfamiliar with. It’s nice to see this side of things, even though I prefer to see the real life of family living in the old and back-alley neighborhoods.

Chairman Mao greets us on the white floor

They have a complimentary happy hour for guests, a fantastic idea whose time has come, I might add, so we get him settled into his room and head down to the lounge to partake. I have a delicious margarita, Ben gets a gin and tonic, and Ryan opts for the Martini. It’s really nice to catch up, as I haven’t seen him in over 3 months. We enjoy our drinks, the company, and the people passing by. It’s cool to see him in this foreign and exotic land, and watch the effect on his soul taking place. Afterward, it’s time to hit the streets. He’s a combination of tired and excited, so I want to take him to see just a couple of interesting destinations. We start with Wangfuging, a touristy but hip section of town close to Tianenman. There we find some scorpions on a stick, lamb meat skewers, and all kinds of interesting things to ingest. It’s a nice way to start his China adventures.

Ryan trying to make sense of it all

Then we take a walk over to the Forbidden City and Tainenman Square. The palace is beautiful at night as it is lit up like a beacon to lost ships. Mao’s gigantic painting over the front is entrance is always there to remind of China’s interesting history. Given the past, it’s one of the coolest things for visitors to check out, and really easy to get to. So we take a few pictures, enjoy the view and the scene, then venture back to the Hotel Eclat. I get Ryan to bed, then catch a taxi back home. It’s getting late, and we have a very early date with a Chinese Rap performance (which is actually old people singing stories and playing classical Chinese instruments), so it’s off to bed, Banjo Earth style.

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The Forbidden City at night

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 23 – “Kung Fu House” (blog)

Beijing –

Today is another recording day! We have 8 hours booked in a Beijing studio, and I’m excited to see what we can create for the Banjo Earth album. The day begins like most other days this trip, with coffee and blogs. Our digs are a little sweeter this time though, as our hosts have a built a wooden deck atop their old style hutong compound. So on this unusually blue, clear, and warm late October day, the roof deck is definitely the place to be. As I’m preparing coffee, I get into a conversation with Nick, one of the hosts, about the history of the place. He has been married to Cindy, the Chinese woman who’s family has owned the property since before Mao. Here is the basic story he related to me.

On the roof deck of Cindy and Nic’s home

A year or two before Mao and the Communist Army took over Beijing and the country, all of the people who owned property began selling it off quite quickly. They saw the impending philosophies and the results that would come, and tried to liquidate whatever holdings they may have before it went down. Mao took over in 1949, so around 1947/48, property could be bought very cheaply. Cindy’s Great Grandmother saw this opportunity and bought the property where we are staying in 1947. Two years later the Communist party came in, turned all of the rooms into apartments, and took out all of the running toilets, and forced people to use public toilets. That is why you find so many public toilets around Beijing today. They are quite useful as you run around town, but it is really interesting to know the history behind them.

So Cindy and her family grew up in one of six little apartments, that were once a large courtyard house. All of the communist workers got a little apartment in the compound. This was an extreme redistribution of wealth that the party was known for. Later came many deaths from starvation, and the cultural revolution, but this post is not about those things. Just merely about the history of the house.

Fast forward to about 10 years ago, and Cindy is a strong Chinese woman in her mid 40’s. Beijing is preparing for the 2008 Olympics by tearing down as many old hutongs as possible and replacing them with modern architecture. Personally, the hutongs are one my favorite parts of Beijing. This is where real Beijing life takes place. The people living here have often lived in the same house all of their lives, along with their Mothers Fathers and Grandparents. So the government came to Cindy in an attempt to “buy” her property for a fraction of the price. But her family has been through this before and she found the strength and help to defy the government and win to keep her house.

Back into the studio

After this fascinating story, we trek out toward the studio to make some music. After getting the guy to turn down his Michael Jackson so we could record, and negotiating new strings for their guitar, which had strings apparently leftover from the Qing Dynasty, the music commenced. We got quite a bit done, then went to take a break with my oldest Chinese friend, DaZhi. I first met DaZhi back in 2001 when I was a student in Beijing. We got along really well, even though at first we had to communicate through translators. We told stories, played music, and ran around town with reckless abandon. 15 years later, we have managed to stay in touch. I recently saw him in Los Angeles, and now back in his hometown of Beijing, we get together again. The way this friendship stretches out over time and land is fascinating to me, and makes me smile deep in my heart. I tell him when that when we are 80 years old, we will go together to eat food, drink beer, and tell stories. I can actually see this taking place in my imagination.

Catching up with my old friend DaZhi

Da Zhi wants to celebrate our presence in China, of course, and he and his wife take us out to Chongqing Hot Pot. Chongqing is a region is Southwest China, who is famously known for their spice. As you walk in the restaurant, the boiling water at all of the tables is actually so spicy that it chokes you a little. After that introduction, I know what we are in for. He shows us how to make the Chonqing sauce, with garlic and sesame oil being the 2 main ingredients, then we sit down for a fun time around the table. Dishes keep coming out raw, ready for the pot, including some strange things we have yet to taste. Our particular menu covers lamb meat, beef, lotus root, bamboo, duck blood, duck intestines, tracheal tendons of the cow, and sprouts. Everything is extremely delicious, even the duck blood!

The duck blood goes into the hot pot

They treat us like we are royalty, and it is such fun to catch up with my good friend and his new wife. They are truly wonderful people. Afterward, we stop by the Temple Bar, where Banjo Earth will play its first concert on Sunday Oct 25. It happens to be Nirvana night and is filled with both Chinese and foreign nationals. The first band sounds pretty rough, but the second band covers Nirvana quite well. The dance floor fills up with moving people, as we have a couple of drinks and watch this interesting scene happen before us. Later we catch a taxi back to our hutong home, and stumble into bed. Another full day in China has worn us out. My brother Jesse Ryan arrives in China tomorrow, for his first time, and I’m super excited to welcome him to China.

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Always a good time at the Temple Bar

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 22 – “Look Both Ways” (blog)

Beijing –

The “kung fu” house, as I call it, sleeps really well. It has a soft, gigantic bed, and is really quiet. I awake very rested and excited about being back in Beijing. This place is starting to feel like my home. But, when you are on the road, anywhere you stay longer than two days feels like home. So, I head out to the studio to try to get our session changed to tomorrow. The studio is very nice, and let’s me change the time, but asks for payment up front this go around. Fair enough. Afterwards, I stroll the city a bit, then head back to the house for recording. It is quiet enough and spacious enough to set up the gear and get some really good sounds. After working for hours on one banjo solo for one song. I’m ready for a break.

The “Kung Fu houe” courtyard

Ben and I head out for dinner, where we have rice, duck, broccoli with mushrooms, and meatball soup. It is a cold Beijing day, and the warm food heats our soul. We enjoy the meal, and take a walk afterward. They have a saying in China that goes something like “If you walk a thousand steps after every meal, you will live to be 100 years old”. That’s probably true if you aren’t walking in Beijing! The traffic here is unpredictable, and they definitely don’t follow the pedestrian first rule like they do in the States. That is the first thing I tell fellow travelers here. Don’t expect the car to stop when you are crossing the street.

Look both ways!

After our return home, we dip into the recordings to begin mixing the record. I’m really happy with how the music is coming about. It is a great mixture of American, Chinese, and original music. The Mongolian throat singing and horse-head fiddle sound awesome, and the Chinese songs we are working on are taking shape nicely. We have about 5 more days to get this record in the bag, and there is still a long way to go. So, we hit the bed early and prepared ourselves for some new exciting adventures.

Beijing tire art

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 21 – “Follow Your Dream” (blog)

Dali/Beijing –

I stayed up late last night, and felt like sleeping in this morning. But, when it’s time to get the day doing in China, there is no holding it back. The jackhammers get going, the horns start blaring, and the people start talking in their usual loud and lively manner. Thus the day begins, willingly or not. We have a flight back to Beijing at 6pm today, so luckily we have some hours to lounge around, get some work done, and enjoy our last few moments in Yunnan. The breakfast food at the Jade Emu, the hostel we are staying at, is very comfortable. They have coffee and western style dishes, along with all kinds of delicious Chinese dishes. I order pancakes, bacon, and coffee. It does the trick and I get a full breakfast belly and my morning computer work done. My non-twerking British friend sits with me for breakfast and we have a few laughs over coffee. By noon the work is done, Ben is gone out for a walk, we’re packed out of the room, and I have time to go for one last stroll through the old town of Dali.

Met this amazing street musician with no legs

I am hungry again by this point, and stop by a little gyoza restaurant. Now, when I say restaurant, what I usually mean is a room, with 4-5 small tables, and chairs that look like they are meant for a 5 year old kid. You sit down on one of these chairs, order the jiaozi (steamed dumplings with filling), eat your food, and leave. For this particular visit, the jiaozi was so simple and good that it gave me chill bumps. The lady sits in the front of the room by the street, where she rolls the dumplings, sets them in a bamboo steamer, and serves them to you fresh and hot. The simplicity of this process, combined with the absolute delicious taste of the food, made me shake my head in wonderment. You mix yourself a little sauce with the red chilis and soy/vinegar, then dip your dumplings and enjoy. Add a small bottle of water into the mix and I was in food heaven. The total cost of this ancient and beautiful custom was 10 yuan ($1.50). These are the kind of experiences that make it hard to leave China, and keep you coming back.

Some of the best jiaozi I’ve had anywhere

I am getting use to using the selfie stick to make videos now, and it’s actually pretty fun to walk around with one here because people get super excited and try their best to find their way into our video. So I set the “stick” out, and start strolling through the town. I’m also working on a song that I’m writing, so to remember I sing it into the camera. It’s really very liberating to walk around the city, with a selfie stick, singing a song you made up rather loudly to the camera and passerbys. I suggest you try it immediately.

Having fun with the selfie stick

After the town singing excursion, we meet back at the hostel to catch our ride to the airport. I really enjoy the taxi and bus rides in and out of town, just watching life in China go by. There is such a mixture between construction and beauty that it is a joy and curiosity to see. We get to the airport, check in, and wait to see if the plane will leave on time. But, this is China, and regional airports are notorious for delays. Our plane leaves 90 minutes late, which pushes our Beijing arrival time to midnight.

Passing the time in a Chinese airport

Luckily, our hosts are very cool and are able to stay up this late. Also luckily, we pass a group of foreigners in the alley that are on the way to stay at the same place. As it is a little difficult to find, this seems to be a serendipitous event, and they lead us right into the house. It is a cool old courtyard style hutong house, the way most residences were in Beijing before the Communist party took over. Our hosts greet us with friendliness and hospitality. After a beer and some tea, and some time trying to guess where our host Nick is from (he’s from Greece), we head to bed. It’s been a long day of traveling, and this week marks the last leg of the Banjo Earth: China project. It kicks into overdrive now with recording and touring, and we will need all of our energy to make it happen.

Finally getting back into Beijing

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 20 – “Keeping the Flame” (blog)

Dali –

I awaken early, excited to get back into the studio. The village is quiet and peaceful, that is until I start picking the banjo. I am working on a Chinese folk song called Dark Sky, which I couldn’t quite perfect last night. But with a fresh morning and new strings on the banjo, I get it on the second cut and put it in the bag. Recording music first thing in the morning, before tea, coffee, or breakfast, brings a certain immediacy and freedom to the music that I have rarely experienced. That fresh mind that you have upon awakening translates really well to the music and provides some excellent sounds for the album. We get some other really lovely stuff done for the album, including another gorgeous Chinese folk song called “The Night of Grassland”, which features a really cool ukulele backing finger roll by Ben, and some banjo of course. In Beijing, we have a singer arranged to fill out the song.

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Early morning studio session in Dali

The studio time is very productive. We get several new tracks down, have a Chinese clarinet player come in to record some, and have some delicious lunch. I get yelled at by the local old lady in Chinese for using the wrong bed sheets, and this makes my Dali mountain village retreat experience complete. Our friends and the people here have treated us with such generosity and kindness, and it is kind of bittersweet to leave. We have made some great friends and have really enjoyed our time here, but it’s time to travel on. We pack up our stuff, and begin the trek off the mountain down to the road to flag a bus. The walk down to the road is easier than it has been, since I am used to lugging my heavy banjo around. It goes by much faster now that I am stronger in my shoulders, and we eventually find a bus that pulls over and lets us climb aboard. We get into town, book our hostel room, and relax for a bit.

Grilled Chinese street food never gets old

I sit down for a beer and start catching up on some work. But as usual, there is always somebody really cool sitting by, and I start up a conversation. This time it happens to be an awesome British girl who is traveling around Asia for months. We have a lot of fun talking and she says she wants to come out with us to see our friends play music at a nearby bar.

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Our new British friend

Our old time friends from town are playing at a really hip bar called September. We stroll in together: Ben with camera, me and my usual banjo over shoulder, and our new British friend. They quickly swing a microphone over my way and the jam commences. These guys do an awesome blend of old-time, bluegrass, and Americana, and they are a pleasure to play with. They are almost single-handedly keeping traditional American music alive in China with their performances all over the country.

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Old Time Americana music jam at September Bar in Dali

My British friend turns down several of my invitations to dance (she doesn’t even know what twerking is!), but the crowd is really into the music and it is a super fun night. We rock out until the police show up at the front door, at which time they turn off the p.a. system and we continue on with an acoustic set. This eases the tension and the night relaxes into midnight. We say goodbye and hug our people’s necks and make our way back to the hostel. We must get some rest for our trip back to Beijing tomorrow, and the last leg of our Banjo Earth: China project. Peace through Music. Community Through Creation.

“Famous” Kirk Kenney doing what he does


Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 19 – “Monday Morning Dance Party” (blog)

LiJiang/Dali –

We wake up early after 2 days of full exhaustion, rested and ready to get back on our proverbial horse. Today we will head back to Dali, with our Lijiang excursion over, and get back in to the recording studio. But first we have time to get a little breakfast and explore the neighborhood a bit. We pass by a Naxi restaurant who seems to be getting breakfast going and come in for a bite. The people are really cool and we joke with them and share some laughs. We get a cup of coffee, some fried bread, boazi, and sugary soybean milk. I really like the people so I help them bring in customers. I teach them to say “coffee”, whenever a group of foreigners walk by. It doesn’t work on the first group, but the next group of folks walk by, we all shout “coffee” to them, and they walk in and get a seat. The old Naxi woman who runs the restaurant is so impressed and happy that she brings Ben and I some boiled eggs, free of charge. Haha! That’s what I call a win-win.

Our egg reward from Mama Naxi

After breakfast we walk to the center of town and find a Monday morning dance party with all of the Naxi women of the village. They have a boom box in the middle of their circle pumping out jams, and they are all dressed in their colorful traditional garb. They are all so cute, old, and breaking it down with their dance moves. I couldn’t think of a better way to start the week than a dance party. The music and moves they make remind me of a reggae show back home. I jump in to the circle for a dance and begin to feel the rhythm. This really gets my day going, and we leave the square to carry on, but my body keeps grooving as we round the corner. I think I may have discovered a new Monday morning tradition!

Monday Morning dance party with the Naxi women

We have time to look around a few stores and hike to the top of the town for a view of LiJiang. There is a Buddhist Temple atop the hill that looks over the old town and the distant mountains surrounding it. The old town has been preserved of its ancient history and from above looks like a maze of Chinese architectural beauty with it’s rolling roofs and dragon-like curves. You can also see where the edge of the old town ends, and the new city of LiJiang begins, high rises and industry grow into the sky. Off in the distance are the beautiful mountains that protect the city, some of which are covered in wind power turbines.

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Overlooking LiJiang

After climbing down from the top we browse a few stores, and one in particular peeks my interest. I see what looks like a chandelier made of out animal skins and faces. It turns out to be a bunch of purses packed together. There are really warm hats, jackets, and everything you can imagine made out of these furry animals. I can’t place the animal, and when she asked me how to say it in English, and I tell her I don’t know what it is, she says that I don’t know how to speak English. But honestly, I just don’t know what the animal is.

The “animal chandalier”/purse rack

After our excursion we head back to the hostel to pack for our travels. There is a few minutes to spare, so I grab the banjo and walk down to the riverside for some composing time. There is a tune I’ve been constructing, which I’m calling The Forbidden City for now, which could use some more parts. I settle in and start playing. It’s always fun to play on the streets in China, because the people here have often never seen or heard a banjo. Their reactions are so amusing and motivating. Some seem confused, and others just seem really happy and excited to hear the music. I get so many smiles, thumbs up, and some guy even drops 10 yuan on my case, even though it’s not even open. I come up with some new parts for my tune, practice the other Chinese folk tunes I’ve been working on, and sing Little Maggie. The Chinese people love to sing, and love others who sing, so when I get Little Maggie going they really seem to enjoy it. I pack the banjo back up, get back to the room, and we journey off to the bus stop for some more adventures.

Making moves in LiJiang

We get our ticket and have an hour or so before the bus leaves, so we dip into the nearest restaurant for a little lunch. We struck a up a conversation with another group of Chinese travelers at the bus stop, so when they pass by the restaurant we beckon them to come join us for lunch. They are a lively a friendly bunch, including 2 girls and 1 guy. One girl is carrying a Ukelele, one girl is carrying a yoga mat and is a yoga teacher, and the guy we’re not sure about because he can’t speak any English. The lunch turns into an impromptu music jam as they ask me to get the banjo out and play some. They ask me to sing in Chinese, so I play the only one I know, my original song “Mei You”, and it gets a few laughs as usual. The girl who has a ukulele also plays and sings a famous Chinese song with me, and the spirit carries on. She is so happy to jam, and so am I. We pack up the stuff, pay for lunch, and go to catch the bus.

Our new bus station friends

The ride from LiJiang to Dali is about 3 hours. I love these bus rides through the Chinese countryside. They give me a chance to catch up on blogs, videos, pictures, and to gaze out among the fields and mountains of this beautiful country. We get into Dali right around sunset, eat a little food, and get a taxi to our friend’s house in the mountain village. He allows us to rent a room at the house, and set up our studio in the 100+ year-old wooden house on the property. We recorded here a few days ago, and the sound in the room is just amazing. We spend the evening tracking songs for the Banjo Earth album, drinking some tea and wine, and enjoying the evening. Another full day comes to a close, and the pillow whispers my name.

Listening to the progress

Banjo Earth: China – Chapter 18 – “Life, Death, and Nature” (blog)

Shangri-La/Tiger Leaping Gorge –

The rumble of a large group of over-prepared Chinese hikers awakes us from sleep this morning. They are all wearing super big boots, layers of hiking clothing, high-tech walking sticks, and seem to be yelling to each other instead of talking. But, no problem, it’s early and time to hit the trail once again. We arise out of bed with no breakfast and no tea, and hit the trail. It’s only a short 2 mile walk down the mountain to get to Tina’s, the final guest house where we will catch the bus back to LiJiang.


Sunrise over the turquoise mountains

After being so sore last night, it feels good to get the legs moving again. This last part of the trail down is so vivid, beautiful, and dangerous. The hike moves right along the side of the mountain, and the views of the river and gorge are incredible. There are several waterfalls that will take your breath, and your life if you do not cross them with care. The rocks are slippery and the penalty for tripping is about a 300-yard drop straight down the canyon. Selfies through these treacherous parts of the trail are discouraged! However, with safety aside, the power and beauty of this place touches the deepest parts of the soul, and is a reminder of the gift that it is to be alive and healthy enough to enjoy this experience. The only thing missing is being able to share it with everyone you love. Pictures taken back and shown at Thanksgiving just can’t do it justice.

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The trial runs through several waterfalls

We finish the trail and make it into Tina’s for our first meal of the day. An egg and bacon sandwich combined with a hot cup of coffee make a great reward for pushing ourselves to complete the hike. The views from the dining hall are spectacular and it is a great place to relax and sort through fond memories. But, it’s only 1130am and the bus doesn’t leave until 330pm, so there is enough time to complete one more adventure. There is a trail running from the guesthouse straight down the cliff, all the way down to river. We are fairly high up, so we know that it won’t be easy to get down, and even harder to make it back up. I didn’t do this trail on my previous visit, so I am excited to keep going. Ben, on the other hand, has had enough and smartly decides to wait it out in the dining hall, relaxing and recuperating.

Making some new friends at Tina’s Place

I say adios and head down the hill. I’m not sure how far down it is to the river, but I can feel every step down in every part of my leg. My momentum carries me down without much difficulty, but it does not go unnoticed how steep and long this climb will be getting back up. I make it down to the river aboard a large rock where a group of hikers have coalesced together. The river flowing by is violent and powerful, rushing by in large explosions of water. If you were to jump in at this juncture, life would not last long, as the water rushes about, lashing into the rocks. I sit by for several minutes, enjoying the power of nature, and my place in it. After taking a few pictures and talking with some of the other travelers, I begin my ascent back up. I am already worn out from the hiking, and I know this is not going to be easy, but I breathe and get to trekking.

The awesome power of nature

About halfway up I notice a ladder that supposedly shaves off a few minutes. But this is no ordinary ladder. It arises out the jungle, and goes vertically up about 100 yards. There are warning signs beside it, just in case you weren’t sure of it’s safety. I decide that any shortcut through this mountain ascent is worth the risk. I start climbing rather quickly, as if this is just any ordinary ladder. As I get higher, I notice that my life is now hanging in the balance. My legs and arms feel like rubber, and one slip off this ladder means lights out. No more Banjo Earth! Haha. My climbing slows to the rate of 2 feet per rung, and my care in the grip of my hands becomes quite meticulous. I have never been in a situation like this, and I find it to be simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. I stop long enough to take an epic ladder selfie, (it does cross my mind at this point that selfie deaths are at an all time high), and finish out the climb.

Epic ladder selfie

After I get off of the ladder, I rejoice for a short moment, then look up at the cliff that I still must climb. I love pushing myself, both mentally and physically, and this provides a great opportunity to do both. Getting back up takes everything I’ve got. Several times I had to stop, put my hands on my knees, and catch my breath. I finally make it, and get back over to the dining hall. It’s not long before the bus arrives and takes us back to town. The trail has been amazing; beautiful, challenging, and rewarding. We met many great fellow travelers from all over the world; Israel, Spain, Australia, Chicago, and China.

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Ahhhh! Time for a beer

Just when I thought the near-death experiences where over for one day, we start the bus ride back. It is an old creaky bus, that doesn’t seem all together. The road along the gorge, although one of the most amazing roads you could ever see, is bumpy, sometimes under construction, and very narrow. The curb on the road is about 2 feet, after which is a drop directly down the cliff to the rushing waters below. Add to this a driver who seems a bit reckless and has a need for speed, and it was very hard to sit back relax and enjoy the view. At times like these you just have to sit back, put your life in the hands of God, and a bus driver who loves to talk on a cell phone. After we make it out of the mountains, I wipe the sweat off my brow, and begin to relax a bit. Looks like I’ve lived to fight/love/play banjo another day!

We somehow survived the bus ride back

We finally make it back to LiJiang, and even though exhausted, we find a second wind and hit the town for a bit. Our hostel is in the heart of the old town, and we are surrounded by music clubs, cool restaurants, and interesting little shops. Right around the corner from our place, we hear a group of Chinese musicians playing Hank Williams’ “Jumbalaya”. It is good and interesting enough to entice us in to the club, which is called La Luna. Inside we meet some lovely people, and I ask the band if I can collaborate with them on a few tunes. They agree and I get up to perform for the club. I draft the percussionist and lead guitarist into the happenings and we play Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues”, and my very own “Mei Yo”, a song I’ve written with Chinese lyrics, which never seems to disappoint. The crowd seems to really enjoy it, and the band as well.

The houre band at La Luna

They have a musical tradition in the Chinese tourist towns that is very interesting. The bands print out a request list of songs they will do with price of each song. Ben gives the band 70 yuan (approx. $10) for the oddity and privilege of hearing a Chinese band play Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”. They actually do a really good job of the song, and this practice gives me ideas to take home. Perhaps, for some gigs in the U.S. I can print out a request list that says something like “Wagon Wheel” – $150, or “Rocky Top” – $75. The possibilities are endless!

These folks put in a request for “China Cat Sunflower”

After exploring around town a bit, eating some lamb meat on a stick, and having some fun with the locals, this long day has come to an end. Adventures around every corner, near-death experiences, and soul-enlivening beauty; this is the Banjo Earth life. And this is your life when you put Love in your dreams.

A long and adventure-filled day comes to an end

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