Author Archives: Tom

Words, characters, and odd translations

The more I learn about the Chinese language, the more sympathy I gain for the linguistic differences that lead to the often amusing signs that are the subject of many blog posts including our own.  Much of the problem comes from the tremendous structural differences between the languages.

Chinese is inextricably linked to its thousands of characters.  They are not just a representation of meaning and pronunciation, but the language’s fundamental building block.  With rare exceptions, each represents a single syllable and a constellation of vague meanings that are often determined by context.  Classical Chinese poetry is rich in ambiguity as characters resonate and flow into each other.

The concept of a “word” is relatively new to Chinese.  In modern Mandarin, words are mostly two syllables, usually composed of two characters that modify each other’s meaning into a specific term similar to those of modern Western languages.  But in classical Chinese and some regional dialects, words were the rare exception, and single characters the fundamental unit of meaning.  And even now, Chinese words are written without spaces and break arbitrarily across lines, leading to ambiguity that confuses even native speakers.

So, translators of restaurant menus are often left wondering which words to look up in their dictionary.  Combining the wrong characters into a word can transform “cold noodles” into an unintended political commentary:

IMG_0378Gongbao chicken is often translated with an explosive alternate reading of the character “bao”:


Splitting a two-character word into its components can be disastrous, as in this translation of a type of mushroom:

IMG_0274And even two-character words often have alternate meanings, with “snails” translated as “screws”.

So why don’t Chinese restaurants spend a few dollars and hire a native speaker to check their translations?  The answer is simple: English on most restaurant menus is not intended for foreigners, who rarely visit unaccompanied by locals.  English is there to make the restaurant look classy and justify higher prices to the local population.

IMG_0368Western letters can also be confusing in reverse.  Non-native speakers do not naturally clump letters into words, sometimes substituting another common word with a similar visual shape, as in this “baby on board” sign.

None of this explains the signs posted in front of urinals in men’s rooms throughout China.  The usual message is the “one small step for a man” already covered in a previous posting.  Having made progress with their multi-decade “no spitting” campaign, sanitation officials have apparently decided to try to convince Chinese men to stand closer to the receptacle to reduce the volume of another liquid that often ends up on the floor.

But what should we make of this message in the brand new terminal of Beijing’s Capital Airport?


The move is now complete

I just finished redirecting internet traffic to our new site, and it should be accessible throughout the world within the next 24 hours. The new site gives many advantages:

  • A clean, modern layout
  • Ability to subscribe to receive updates via email and RSS feeds using the tools in the right column.
  • Pages are now categorized by subject as well as date.
  • You can create a login for yourself on the site if you want to participate in discussions.
  • You can now submit comments, which can show up on the site after approval.  For now, you are not required to create a login, but I reserve the right to change that if it gets out of control.
  • The site is fast and visible from all parts of the world including China.
  • I can make further improvements in the future.

The move should be transparent to you if you have used the old address Links from search engines and other sites should also come straight to the right page. People who subscribed earlier to the RSS feed should automatically see to the new one. All of this was far more complicated than it looked, so please forgive me if I missed anything in the transition. Please report any problems to

Although you can continue using the old address, we encourage you to update your bookmarks and links to the new address  This will give me the flexibility to make further changes in the future without disrupting you.

Happy reading!


We have moved

Actually not us physically. Our blog has moved. has been hosted on blogger/blogspot since the beginning. Blogger is simple and works well, and I’m grateful that it helped me start the blog at a busy time when my focus was getting into the mountains and not website hosting.

But it is blocked in China. Rough and Ready Tours does not get into anything political, but other Blogger users do. And although we have our own name, we share our network address with every blog on the most common Western service. So our blog has been consistently unreachable to our friends in China.

It’s not that Chinese people don’t use blogs. Chinese portals like Sina provide hugely popular replicas of blogger and twitter, and since they’re hosted on government-controlled sites, they can operate withouth indiscriminate blocking. But if we moved our blog to one of these sites, our Western readers might have access problems.

I have finally done the research and worked out a good solution. I set up a new server in Hong Kong with the address (note the .net and the subdomain – www will also work for now, but I won’t promise it will forever). I installed the leading blogging site software (WordPress) and ported all the content with a few fixes along the way. I have added some additional tools such as a button that lets you submit your email address to a service that sends updates by email. Comments from registered users and visitors will also be allowed as long as I am able to moderate it.

Feel free to bookmark and begin using the new site as it is now operational. Within a few days, I will redirect to point to the new site. This is actually trickier than it sounds, because a surprising number of search engines and sites point links to this blog (we get over 50 page views per day). I think I’ve worked out a way to do it with messages that automatically inform the internet of the change, but I can’t promise there won’t be hiccups. Please send any complaints to

The old site will remain permanently available at but will not receive any further updates.

Bringing the blog up to date

Yes, gentle readers, it’s been a long, long time since we’ve updated the blog. We’re sorry, but we’ve been very busy ever since we returned to North America on April 17.

Immediately following this post, you’ll find four new postings devoted to weekend excursions we took during our five months in Kunming – three with our tour guide friends Dai Hui and Zhang Xuelin to other parts of Yunnan province and one by ourselves to Laos.  You may need to click “Older Posts” at the bottom to see all four.

The rest of our time in Kunming was almost entirely devoted to studying Chinese. We spent four hours per day (in some cases six) in one-on-one lessons with our very kind and dedicated teachers. Marcia and I have tremendous respect for these young women who stayed positive and effective despite the very difficult task of teaching a language to people of our advancing age.

Learning any language is humbling, and Chinese even more than others. I thought I was doing well until about the third month when my teacher broke down and told me my tone pronunciation was so bad that none of the other teachers could understand me. Thanks to her intervention, we went back to square one and did speech therapy for more than a month until I started to speak properly. I’m not perfect, but I can now hold my own in everyday conversation.

So what’s next? Marcia and I have been traveling around the US and Europe meeting many of my old colleagues and customers to validate the concept of starting a consulting business based in Shanghai. My idea is to serve Western and Chinese pharma companies and vendors who need an experienced manager to help them manage relationships and deliver projects in China. We have now confirmed enough interest that we have committed to moving to Shanghai in late October.

It will be another adventure, and I’m sure we’ll have many stories and pictures to fill a new phase of Rough and Ready Tours. Stay tuned!

The Bridges of Yunlong County

Marcia and I met Xuelin at a bus station in India in the spring of 2010. Learning that she and her friend Dai Hui ran a tourism business in Kunming, we agreed to get together to play majiang and have some adventures in places ordinary tourists don’t go.

In December, they invited us to go with them on a trip to check out an unusual area called Yunlong County. They had never been there before, so it was an adventure for them as well.

Yunlong (“Cloud Dragon”) county is 150 kilometers to the west of Dali, the furthest most travelers get in Yunnan. It is out of the way, requiring almost ten hours of driving from Kunming, with the last four hours on a terrible one-lane road. When we arrived, we had to call our host to guide us into the village of Nuodeng where we would be staying in a traditional courtyard farmhouse.

Nuodeng is a well-preserved hillside village built around a salt well. It is mentioned in documents as old as the Tang Dynasty (7th century AD) and it has buildings dating back almost 1000 years. Salt was a valuable commodity, so it was clearly a wealthy and influential village.

We stayed in a farmhouse owned by the village headman. The house was over a hundred years old and a fine example of a traditional four-sided courtyard house (siheyuan).

Other houses in the village followed the same layout, although often modified to accommodate the steep slope on which the village was built.

Most had family shrines on the upper floor.

A sign of the salt village’s wealth was the Confucian temple built at the top of the hill. These were usually found only in larger provincial towns where high-ranking students were studying for government exams. But so many influential students had come from this village that it merited its own now-quiet temple.

The area is known for its ancient covered bridges, which were part of the “Tea Horse Trail.” As important as the Silk Road at some times, this road connected the fertile regions of Burma to the cities of Yunnan and ultimately the heart of China. Salt was a valuable currency produced and sold along the way.

The bridges are all still in use for foot traffic, including this vine bridge that even the goats refused to cross.

It was market day, so many people were out in traditional costumes.

Marcia got a chance to make friends with a goat.

Some cemeteries in the area have unusual Buddhist gravestones with Chinese writing on one side and Sanskrit on the other. People speculate that Indian culture may have filtered this far up the Tea Horse Trail and some people wanted to have both languages on their graves.

On the way back we spent a night in Dali, a famous tourist destination that we had somehow never visited. It’s easy to get to and quite the backpacker hangout, but charming nonetheless. Its 16-story pagoda is famous throughout China.

One interesting anomaly that most travelers miss is this religious building in the old town. Only the cross on the roof and the icons of Santa Claus show that it is a Catholic church.

It was market day, so many people had come into town to shop.

A Laotian Interlude

Our multiple-entry Chinese visas required us to leave the country every 90 days. Because we were staying in Kunming for over five months, we had to make a short trip outside the country in the middle of our stay. Cheapest would have been Hong Kong, which is considered separate for visa reasons, but we decided instead to go to Laos, where we had never been.

From Kunming, Laos is a short 90-minute plane flight or a grueling 24-hour bus ordeal over terrible roads. We took the plane.

We spent most of our time in the old capital Luang Prabang, now a charming provincial town with excellent French restaurants.  Luang Prabang has a large number of Buddhist temples and monasteries, with active communities of young monks with cell phones. Most are built in a style close to temples in Thailand, but there is considerable diversity.

One had a painting that had survived without being “restored.”

The old royal palace still stands as a museum in a lovely park in the center of town.

Bridges connect the town to houses across the river.

Luang Prabang has a beautiful custom that is sadly being destroyed by tourism. Every morning at dawn, the monks of all the monasteries walk through the center of town and accept sticky rice and other alms from townspeople. Monks give excess rice back to poor children along the route. Local people still participate as they have done for centuries, but unfortunately they are now outnumbered by tourists trying to have an “authentic” experience. I took these pictures from a respectful distance.

We took an excursion to a cave a few hours up the Mekong River.

The cave and scenery were nice, but the real adventure was the transportation in small gasoline-powered long boats.

Our first boat pulled off 20 minutes into the trip and transferred us to a friend’s craft, which the driver billed as a “luxury boat”. The luxury boat, however, seemed to make worse time upstream than any other. Then, on the way back, the engine died shortly above some rapids. The visibly rattled driver did what he could but finally ended up on some rocks. Unfazed, he did some engine work and then lifted us off the rocks once he was confident he had repaired the engine. He left his navigation pole on the rock as a memorial.

We spent our final night in the new capital, Vientiane, which has more great French restaurants but very few historical buildings.

The most interesting site is 6 kilometers outside of town and visited by few foreigners. When the CIA pulled out of Laos in 1975, the new president Kaysone Phomvihane set up his residence in the old compound. Unlike the leaders of some of his crazed neighbors, Kaysone ran Laos with a modesty and pragmatism that left it well place to rejoin the international community ten years later when he convinced his colleagues to follow the quasi-capitalistic reform policies of Deng Xiaoping. When Kaysone died in 1992, the government preserved his house just as he left it, right down to the standard US Army furniture. We could have been in Kansas except for the steady stream of Laotian schoolchildren coming to pay homage to the father of their country.

Dongchuan Red Soil

Our second outing with Zhang Xuelin and Dai Hui was another research trip to an area called “Dongchuan hongtudi” (red soil). This mountainous area north of Kunming is covered with clay-rich red soil that has been a bane to local farmers but now a boon to photographers, who flock here every spring.

The cherry and plum trees were in bloom.

Local farm tools and childrens’ toys are mostly unmechanized.

We had some excellent meals prepared in this kitchen by the owner of a local homestay.

She also sold us a good supply of locally distilled baijiu (more than 50% alcohol).

Jianshui county old towns

Having ridden on Dai Hui and Zhang Xuelin’s coattails twice, we hired them for a fully paid outing to an area three hours south of Kunming called Jianshui. This was a group trip for ourselves and six fellow students, who we hoped would continue to hire our friends after we left.

Our first stop was at a village called Tonghai, whose inhabitants are descendants of the Mongolian troops that came to Yunnan when Kublai Khan took over. It was market day and many were in traditional dress.

We ate river eel for lunch.

Our next stop was a village named Tuanshan that had several lovely old family houses and temples with ornate carvings, including this one that is hardly recognizable as a Chinese character.

Another kind of art dates from the Cultural Revolution, where temples were taken over as granaries.

A wooden building in the center of town still has a fading slogan that means “Raise high the thinking of Mao Zedong, the great red flag forges valiantly ahead.” Once everywhere, these signs are now visible only in the remote countryside.

A nearby stone bridge dates back several centuries.

Jianshui itself is a larger city with a pleasant, tree-lined old town. Wells provide water for the local product of pressed tofu squares.

One of the town’s highlights is a well-preserved aristocratic family house with traditional interiors and courtyards.

Writing on one wall lays out the many rules that family members needed to follow.

Fish are carved in the stone as an omen of wealth: the Chinese words for “fish” and “surplus” sound the same.

Jianshui is also renowned as the home of one of the best traditions of Chinese pottery. Work is still done by hand and is sold at high prices to investors from large cities.

The Great Leap Forward in Kitchenware

You have no doubt noticed we haven’t posted anything for a long time. We haven’t been idle. In fact, we’ve been studying Chinese like mad to make the most of our time in Kunming. We’ve made a lot of progress working one-on-one with excellent teachers, and in fact, we’ve decided to stay a few months longer than originally planned. Before we leave in mid-April, we will post some thoughts about learning languages, but there will be no pictures and probably not much to interest armchair travelers.

But we do have pictures and stories from a few weekend trips to western Yunnan province and nearby Laos. I will post these very soon.

In the meantime, here is a picture to show how much China has changed in the last thirty years. This advertisement on the side of an upscale department store takes direct aim at the artwork of the Communist era. The red slogans proclaim “The great household revolution has broken out!” and “No guilt in giving presents!”

Some newly elected US congressmen would probably have us thrown us in jail if we made similar jokes about George Washington.

The Silk Road across China

We know it has been a couple of weeks since our last posting, and in fact we have now finished our trip and landed in Kunming, where we are starting our next adventure learning more of the Chinese language.

We spent the last two weeks crossing the western half of China. These desolate deserts are culturally still in Central Asia, and indeed they have been part of China for only brief periods of its history. But Chinese merchants and armies have been passing back and forth along the Silk Road for two thousand years, and since the Revolution, the Chinese population have increasingly been making this their home.

This map shows the Silk Road, which in fact was a collection of caravan routes that changed from time to time. At the eastern end, the Silk Road began in the ancient capital of Chang’an, now Xian, and then passed along the narrow Hexi Corridor around Lanzhou. Dunhuang was the last outpost of Chinese civilization, and travelers there funded one of the ancient world’s greatest art galleries as they offered prayers for their dangerous journeys.

Further west, the road split and crossed either north or south of the Taklamakan Desert. In Kashgar (Kashi) the main routes rejoined and crossed the Tian Shan into what is now Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. From there, the caravans could reach Samarkand, Merv, Meshad (Persia/Iran) and ultimately the Mediterranean.

We had crossed into China northwest of Urumqi and then flown back across the desert to Khotan (Hotan), as described in our last previous posting. The new postings that follow this one take us back north across the desert to Kuche, a little west of Baicheng on the above map. From there, we followed the northern Silk Road east through Urumqi and Turpan to Dunhuang and finally to Lanzhou, where we ended the Central Asian phase of our trip.

The following postings from the desert to Lanzhou are grouped in chronological order with titles starting “CN-#”. You will probably need to click the navigation panel or the “Older Postings” link at the bottom to get to the later entries.

After reaching Lanzhou, we flew south to Kunming and are now studying hard. We are looking to staying in one place for the next two months.