Monday, July 17, 2006

Southern China

Wuhan, Hubei, China
Guess I kind of disappeared there for a couple weeks, but that way you had time to read my marathon email from Vietnam.  Over the last two weeks I was very ambitious.  I traveled hard and fast and covered a lot of ground.  I feel like I've been to about 5 different countries, and in a way I have.  China is so huge that going between different provinces or even different cities can feel like a complete change.
So... I left you last having arrived in Kunming, Yunnan Province.  It was a big city, but the highlight was the Stone Forest - a collection of big rock formations.  Trying to get there was fun - I asked at least 5 different people where to find the bus and was told it was impossible to get there that day.  But in China you just keep asking until you find someone who says yes. 
The next day I went north to Dali, a little "backpacker paradise" with beautiful pagodas and a huge monastery.  Did some hiking there and was amused by the fact that as you walk along the street, little old ladies in traditional dress come up to you and offer you pot ("you smokah da hash??")  It's hard not to laugh when a 70 year old woman offers you ganja and pretends to be selling you jewelry.
Yunnan, besides being chock full of great scenery, is also China's most ethnically diverse province, with the greatest number of ethnic minorities located there.  In fact, because of this, Yunnan kind of does what it wants, because it doesn't associate itself as strongly with the Han Chinese culture.  Most of these groups, at least the older people, still dress and live and eat in the traditional way (caterpillars and bee larvae, anyone?), which is very interesting to see.  Additionally, the Han Chinese (the dominant group - what you think of as "chinese") are the least friendly of all the ethnic groups, so being in these small, ethnic towns was a bit of a respite because the people were much nicer....although almost everywhere you go, you have to contend with hordes of screaming, pushing, spitting Chinese tour groups, which really wears you down after a while.
After Dali, I went to Lijiang, also in Yunnan and also a cute little old town, with very interesting Dongba architecture.  I wandered through the market - an interesting experience and one that I wished I hadn't worn sandals for.  They basically butcher their animals by laying them on the table and chopping them up, bones and all, so there were lots of heads lying around and a few stiff dogs, with their hair removed.  One guy was blackening meat with a blow torch, but I'm not sure why.    A fascinating experience - markets are one of the best ways (I think) of getting to know a culture, because you see how the people interact, how they bargain, how they treat their animals, and how they prepare their food and eat it. 
I also saw the "oldest dance school in the world" and some examples of the only remaining pictographic language - the Dongba language.  It's funny how one of the things you are reminded of by traveling around so much is just how much you don't know.  I have learned so much in the last month.
The next day I did the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, which I was not previously aware included a steep hike gaining almost 1000 meters in altitude.  You start out already pretty high up, and I was just getting the flu, so it was a bit tough, but the views were worth it.  You climb way up a mountain to get a spectacular view of the Yangtze River, and you stay overnight and hike down the next day via a different route.
One interesting thing I learned from the experience is that websites about b ird f lu are censored here.  I've been sick for about two weeks, but I think it's just the standard flu that everyone here seems to get.  I felt like I was going to die for the first three days or so, but now it's almost gone.  The lady at my hostel the first two days was cute, though - she didn't speak any English, but when I finally got up, she was waiting with her phrasebook to ask if I wanted a doctor.
So from Lijiang I took a plane to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to avoid more than 24 hours of bus travel.  I arrived at 1:30 am and ended up camping out on someone's hotel room floor, but it worked out in the end.  In the morning we went to see the Panda Research and Breeding Center.  I didn't realize that Sichuan was the only place in the world where pandas are remaining in the wild.  The conservation effort here seems to be sincere, although they do let tourists take pictures touching the pandas, which just seems unnatural to me.  But the breeding center was really interesting because not only did we get to see lots of pandas (and some little ones) close up, but they had videos and a museum about their reproductive process, and I learned lots of new things.  For example, first time mothers are usually so surprised at the thing that just popped out of them that they bat it around sometimes until it dies (and we wonder why they are endangered).  And baby pandas are born very underdeveloped - their eyes don't open for a few months and they have no hair or anything.  They have to be carried around in the mom's paw for a while before they can wiggle around on their own. 
That night I checked out the "Sichuan Opera"..which wasn't an opera at all, but a variety show in which people did such things as make shadow puppets with their hands and juggle tables with their feet.  They also had a "changing faces" act, in which they flipped masks on and off really fast.  It was really entertaining, but I still have yet to see an actual Chinese opera.  I'm told to look for this in Beijing.
So then I decided to splurge and buy myself plane tickets to see the north of Sichuan.  The alternative was to either not go at all or spend two of four days on the bus, so I went for it.  It was totally worth it (and quite an adventure).
Arriving at Jiuzhaigou airport, there are no buses to the park, so you have to wait till you have 5 people and then a bus will go.  After we had 4 (three middle-aged Chinese men and me), the guys decided to get a taxi for the same price.  One of them had been trying to talk to me and was enjoying my phrasebook.  On the way to the park, he invited me to go to the theater that night and see "dancing and singing".  I declined, but when we got close to the park, I found the taxi was dropping us at a hotel, and the man had the nerve to point to my phrasebook and indicate that he wanted to share a room at the hotel with me and tried to pay for my taxi and everything.  I found some girls and they called their English-speaking sister, who told me I was 2km from the park entrance.  I gave the taxi driver my share of the money and said sionara to the sketchy man and practically ran out of the hotel.  By the time I walked to the park, looked at the museum, paid my entrance fee and went to the entrance, guess who was waiting for me??  Yeap, but I was quite rude to him and went back inside, and he must have gotten the point, because I didn't see him again.
The rest of the day bordered on magical.  The tour groups had all gone in the morning, so I spent 4 hours walking completely alone through the forest.  I saw maybe 2 other people total.  The park is absolutely gorgeous, with sparkling, clear blue lakes and lots of trees and flowers and butterflies.  Very few westerners go there, and since I arrived in the afternoon after the taxi debacle, I had the entire place to myself at first.  Such a nice change from the noise and hassle of China. 
There are nine Tib etan villages in the park, as the area is very close to Ti bet, and the food, temples, people, and language in the area are almost all Tibe tan (and hence the people do what they please).  Technically it's now illegal to stay in the park, but there is a very cryptic piece of information that gets passed along from backpacker to backpacker, which I wont mention just in case it might get someone in trouble, about whom to talk to in order to get a room in one of the Ti betan villages.  I was a little worried about finding it, but I walked into the village around 5pm and sure enough I found the right person and was led down a bunch of winding staircases where no government raid was likely to find me, and I got a fairly nice room for the night.  I got dinner in the home of a monk and a very old Tib etan woman, who never stopped spinning her prayer wheel (I don't know what it's actually called, but if they spin it, it's supposed to make them live longer), and the food was great.  It was really a special experience. 
The next day I had to contend with the tour groups and it was back to reality.  The park was beautiful, but the silence was broken, so it wasn't quite as great.  I moved on to Songpan, famous for their horse treks, and signed myself up for a two day trek.  This turned out to be a big disappointment, as the two day one doesn't go to the places with the greatest scenery, and the whole thing is basically a glorified pony ride - a lot of fun if you've never ridden a horse before, but if you're an experienced rider, very annoying.  Plus we had to walk half the way.  We did get good food, though, and they piled up leaves for mattresses and saddles for pillows, so it was a fun little cowboy experience.
I came back to Chengdu and headed straight out for Chongqing, where I saw more temples before being herded onto a Chinese tour boat down the Yangtze River.  We were promised many things by the tour agency, several of which failed to appear, and it was kind of amusing to watch my fellow backpackers get really angry about all of it, when I had told them from the beginning that the promises were empty.  I guess I'm just over it, since I already know it's all lies and there's no point getting angry. 
I paid extra to be in "second class" - four bunks. Well, there were five of us in there... but apparently a child doesn't count.  On the second night she got a "fever" that I think was a ploy to get me out of the room, because the grandma spent the whole first day glaring at me like I was a huge cockroach that had wandered in through the window.  Since they were up tending to the girl, I complained that I'd never get to sleep, so I was very graciously moved to THIRD class (with no refund of money of course).  At least the people there were friendly, even if I couldn't really talk with them at all.  And the main reason everyone was mad was that we were promised an English-speaking guide and one never materialized.  On another boat, some Canadians didn't even get notified when it was time to get off the boat for sightseeing - just woke up and found the place empty.  But the way things work here is that you ask if you'll get something and they say "oh, yes, of course" but they are lying to your face every time.  You get used to it, but it is still frustrating.
The boat ride was interesting mainly because you see the level markers of the water.  They are building a humongous dam, which is going to raise the level of the part of the Yangtze before the dam by something like 80 meters, displacing a million and a half people by 2009.  The markers are now up to 140m or so. By October the water will be up to 156, and up to 170 by the end.   It's a bit surreal to see a big "170 M" painted on houses on the hill, and think that the people living in them are doing so knowing that in a couple years, their entire house will be under water.  Now is definitely the time to see the Three Gorges and the Yangtze, because it's going to be a much different place in a few years.  Even some of the famous sites along the river have been recently rebuilt, because the original ones are now completely submerged.
Additionally, the Yangtze is a good example of China's use of natural resources.  The water looks like gravy.  Brown and oily.  There is lots of debris and various trash floating on the water.  Someone told me he took a cruise on the Yangtze a few years ago, and at the end of each day they would collect all the trash from the bins on the boat and tie it up neatly and throw it overboard.  And they wonder why they have no drinking water left in this country.  And believe it or not, they still eat fish out of the river.  Worst of all, no one seems to have any thought that it might be a problem.  Any trash you might have, just throw it over your shoulder.  If you can't see it anymore, it must not exist.
I did finally have a good hotpot for dinner though - the local specialty is basically a big boiling bowl of broth (with a gas burner under the table to keep it boiling), and they bring different veggies and raw meat to throw in the pot, which you then fish out with your chopsticks and eat with rice, and it's very spicy.   Amusing, too, because we asked for "chicken and vegetables" and we got a CHICKEN.  Head, feet, all the rest of it chopped up bones and all, and the piece de resistance, at the end they brought over a bowl of various bloody organs and dumped them in, but fortunately by then we all had finished eating.  An Australian guy did eat some of the head just to be funny, though I don't know how his girlfriend stood it.
Anyway, at around 2am last night we were literally shoved onto a bus and taken to Wuhan, where I am currently awaiting my train for Shanghai.  I should be on the train for around 20 hours, so I'm really looking forward to that.  I have supposedly booked a hard sleeper - meaning there are 6 bunks in the room - so I'm praying that I have a top bunk at least.  Damien will be joining me the day after tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to not being alone anymore (and especially not sleeping in dorms anymore). 
So that's the update.  I've had a fantastic couple of weeks.  Frustrations and illnesses aside, I've seen beautiful scenery, met fascinating people, had interesting experiences and generally enjoyed China a whole lot.  Now that I'm over the initial culture shock and have accepted China and the Chinese for what they are (mostly), I'm really feeling like I could have spent a lot longer here and I've shortchanged it in an effort to see as much as possible.  It's definitely not easy to travel here, but it's worth making the effort, as the country has a lot to offer once you start to find a way in.  If I come back, though, I'd like to learn a lot more Chinese, because a lot of people seem like they are really wonderful if you can break through the language barrier and get to know them.  I can get around with the Chinese I know, but I can't get to know people - a first for me - and it's quite frustrating.
Well, I've rambled enough.  Thanks for the emails - keep them coming.  I can't believe my trip is half over already!  Can't wait to see as many of you as possible in August.

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