So, it's been 9 days since I landed here in Zhongguo, and I feel terribly bad for putting my journaling off until now for two reasons: one, I've been lazy, and two, I think my English has deteriorated and my ego is at risk. Oh well. As for the latter concern, that kicks off this entry with the observation that NO ONE HERE SPEAKS ENGLISH, well, practically no one except our guides. This has upsides, for example, my Chinese has really improved and the experience has felt very authentic. We discovered this fact when arrived at our first hotel, a wonderfully new and clean place called the Novotel immediately adjacent to the Guangzhou Bai Yuan Int'l Airport. I was so excited by the modern room with western bath and aromatic soaps it was like Christmas (ha ha).
The next morning we took an early morning flight to Kunming in Yunnan province, where our trip really began. Since neither Ari nor I enjoy crowds, bars, late nights, or smoke that much, we decided that for this trip we would just skip the cities and go straight to the country side in tourist-popular forever spring Yunnan province. Of course, here in China a small city like Kunming still boasts 10M people, but it has an intimacy that is charming. It is navigable, clean, and inherently accessible. We met our tourguide, Leslie in the airport and took a car straight to the only AAAA tourist attraction we'd see on the entire trip, the Stone forest (Shi Lin), a park of 300sqkm that is pock-marked with large grey stones jutting up from the ground. It's a beautifully groomed place, and we were pretty tired so we took an electric bus and walked just some short distances.
Our guide Leslie, who was a chatty and sophisticated 21 year old told us about how Israelis frequently visit this area and are typically the most demanding tourists of them all. Apparently the previous week a large group had gotten into a fight (people literally pushing eachother around) when the local hawkers got a little too forceful. She showed us the exact location and we all laughed. That afternoon we tried our first authentic Chinese food and it involved choosing raw ingredients by sight to be cooked, a routine that was exercised several more times on the trip. We ended up with Pork with mushrooms and a green spinach-like vegetable stir fried with egg, and a large bowl of soup with some cured meats. We thought it was tasty, albeit a little expensive (85RMB, about $10). I was able to try out my Chinese by ordering a bottle of water and two glasses.
On the way back to Kunming, Leslie brought us to a family's shop (in a big house) where ladies were carefully stiching away at delicate thread covered paintings and exquisite silk rugs. That night after a nap, we ventured out of the hotel, tired and bedraggled from traveling, to get some dinner. This task proved more difficult than expected, seeing as I forgot my quick-reference book and only knew the words for bread, rice, dumpling, beef, and pork. We ended up getting adventurous at a small street-side restaurant with arms-length-diameter steamers, and discovered something that we loved but still don't know the word for (see pic).
The next morning we caught another flight and headed north toward the Himalayas to Dali, a town with dual personalities: modern and ancient. This region, Yunnan, is haven to more ethnic minorities than the rest of China combined, so we set out to learn more about them. The Naxi (na-shee) people are centered in this area, so we went to a touristy Naxi house and saw the three course tea and marriage ceremony recreated. Three course tea involves three teas, one bitter, one sweet, and one with everything but the kitchen sink, including cheese that is grated and some nuts. (bitter and sink ones pictured). We liked the second one best, with its spiced honeyed taste. The marriage recreation was also interesting - the bride actually wears sunglasses (and as Ari says, looks ridiculous) and a mirror hanging from her neck. As you can tell, we were entertained.
A typical restaurant where you choose your ingredients, while they're fresh, and then they cook it!
Later that afternoon we visited the three pagodas and a gigundous Buddhist temple complex, all shiny and golden in the afternoon sun. I was in awe at the 40ft tall buddhas laden with gold in the numerous darkened temples. The doors in these places are people-sized, and the monuments god-sized, so it's difficult to imagine the possibility of even transporting one of the statues into each temple. The thresholds are 1-2ft high to prevent wandering ghosts from meandering in, which makes one feel a little athletic. Through the center doors go the monks, while the lowly tourists (myself) go in the side door. While we were there we heard chanting which sounded almost Gregorian in tune, and the air was muggy and rainy. One hall that was especially interesting for me housed 300 statues of monks (at an inferior level to that of the Buddha or other gods) from long ago until now. Monks were life-sized, and each with a resemblance to someone, perhaps even the monk himself. There were monks with large bellies, skinny as a rail, monks laughing with children climbing about them, monks with beards, monks with no hair at all, monks with musical instruments, with war tools, with mouths open in praise and quietly meditating. The stories of each of these characters were almost palpable, and recorded in a way that was formerly unknown to me: in sculpture.
We took an electric bus back through the ancient leaning pagodas (think Towers of Pisa) that miraculously seperated and reunited during the 1996 earthquake, and headed to town. Since it was our first ancient town, we were enthralled with the "old-China"ness of it all - ashen-coloured roofs curling up at the ends, dragon carvings, charcoal covered wood everywhere. We stopped in a tea shop for a sales pitch and sampled three teas as part of a complicated process: first, one has to wash the tea leaves three times with almost-boiling water, and wash the cups (small shot sized glasses) as well with the hot tea-like stuff, and then you can try it. In the shops they have these neat desks with a depressed area for splashing hot water and the tea about, and then a drain that heads secretly out of the back of the shop. We enjoyed the syrupy sweet ginseng zing and caffeine. Then we headed back to our hotel.
That evening we ventured into town along "Foreigner street" to find some food at a restaurant with an English menu. Unfortunately, this limited us quite a bit, because I found that even ordering the local specialty (fish in a hot pot with bean curd) was a bad idea. The best part of the meal was when an old woman tried to sell us some small hand-made dolls, and I asked her if she wanted the soup. She eagerly nodded and pulled out a plastic bag, in which she and I dumped the sizeable remaining contents of the soup (a whole fish, cabbage, beancurd, etc.) in to a flimsy slightly-leaking pink plastic bag. She left quickly and I hope she enjoyed the soup more than I did.
Later that night we realized what a tourist trap we were in when the Chinese guests also staying at our hotel came back from whatever revelry they had been up to. The walls were thin and the guest were LOUD. All night. This theme unfortunately continued into LiJiang.
Drive to LiJiang
We awoke the next morning and drove another couple of hours to LiJiang. Our guide met us at the hotel and took us to Ancient Lijiang. From the highest point in town, one can see a yin and yang of construction - old blackened roof houses in the ancient part, and new alabaster-coloured commercial buildings in the new. Unfortunately, the place significantly loses its romance when you learn that entire place was reconstructed in 1996 after the massive earthquake that tumbled all the buildings to the ground.
Anyway, back in the ancient city, we were a little puzzled - weren't we just in this place in Dali? It looked exactly the same. Our guide took us on a walk through the city explaining the geography of the place, with its heartspring of water and unique well systems - water was recycled completely efficiently at one point, with drinking water, dish-washing water, and clothes-washing water all coming from the same place. Now, ancient water ways line all the stone paths so that tourists can find their way around; if you're ever lost, just head upwater and you'll reach the center of town at the water wheel.
Water wheels in LiJiang
Dai minority women in LiJiang square
Waterway in the square
Longevity Bridge - supposedly a guy who lived here hundreds of years ago lived for hundreds of years.
On the way to Lion Hill
We also climbed to the top of Lion Hill for a good look down on the two-faced city and the mountains that surround it. The Chinese are keen on noting the likeness of natural formations and other inatimate objects. The peaks that surround LiJiang are said to resemble a Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and a divot for holding a paintbrush. Since the roofs of ancient LiJiang are also blackened, its said that the city is like an ink slab for a giant god-sized artist. That night we ventured back into the ancient town to find a raucous scene that reminded Ari of Thailand. Dancing girls in bars shouting at eachother and into the crowd in mock competition, Chinese tourists everwhere, and really bad food. At this point we realized that something I was eating was really getting to me (more on that later) and skiddadled back to our hotel for some shuteye.
at the top of Lion Hill
The "Ink Slab" (ancient city)
LiJiang new city
The mountain where you rest your paintbrush:
Tourists putting lotus flowers to float down the waterways
Sunflower seeds: an international pastime:
The next day we headed up to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which tops 5900 meters (19,350 ft) Ok, for those of you who have ever been to a mountain in North America, this is really really high. I forgot to mention that even in LiJiang at Lion Hill, we were dramatically huffing and puffing up the stairs. Here, we really had to take it easy. Fortunately, the park as a wonderfully long and peaceful ski-lift that you take up to a mountain meadow (pictured).
Small crimson lace fringed hearts on long strings are are hung in the trees and the forest is quiet. Also, we happened to arrive at a time when the minimal number of Chinese tourists were also there: lunchtime. We began to like our guide even more. We headed to a green mountain meadow where young couples used to commit suicide when they could not be with the one they loved but instead their betrothed. The mountain is much closer from here, too, yet shrouded in a cloud like it is all summer. It also began to rain but in the warm air the wetness was not so bad. The Chinese tourists had a different attitude about this, and acted almost allergic to the rain. It started to really come down in blustery winds when it was time for us to take the ski-lift down, but we decided to be adventourous and get wet. Our tourguide followed with her umbrella (pictured). Once we got to the bottom, we were pretty soaked and ready to head back to town.
Yaks in the meadow
We were the only ones without an umbrella :-)
That evening our guide suggested that we visit a local dumpling shop called Northeastern King Wang's Dumplings right near our hotel, and I did my best at navigating the all-Chinese menu. We ordered 30 dumplings and two huge bowls of fried rice for just 22RMB (about $3). Unfortunately, we also discovered what was making me sick for the last three days: MSG. The dumplings were laden with them. 10 days later now and I'm still recovering. So goes it.
Finally somewhat accustomed to the altitude and eager to get out of the tourist jungle, we kep driving north with our trusty Muslim driver and fancy new car (a VW with just 16K miles) towards Zhongdian (Shangrila). We saw tobacco fields aplenty, and lots of other crops too, including corn, rice, apples, melon, etc. As part of the journey, we decided to take a hot-dog shaped raft 18km through the first bend of the Yangtze river, where the river bloats and swells its brown mass around a bend and heads north for the first time. Ari and I were eager for a substitute for the car (despite the fact that we really liked our driver) and it was lovely to get some fresh air and see things from a different perspective. We stopped at a sandy mound in the middle of the river, infamous for its gold-flecks (pictured). After about 18km, we stopped at a random sandy bank and hiked up a couple of switchbacks to actually find our driver waiting at the right spot. Our guide gave me a couple of peaches to try, which were at the height of their season and apparently a new variety with less fuzz. They were crisp with white and pink flesh, an quite delicious.
At the stone drum (an ancient tablet)
Rafting in the Yangtze
We met our next guide at a road-crossing near Tiger Leaping Gorge and had some "without MSG" lunch with him. We visited Tiger leaping gorge (where the Yangtse rushes through a 5000ft tall ravine with great fanfare, spraying up over boulders the size of a house) down approx 800 stairs, and made it back up on our own. Men wait along the way with unglamourous chariots and you can't turn a corner without seeing a makeshift shop with trinkets and other junk.
Markedly different from our other guides in manner and in looks, this guide explained that he was Tibetan. It was pretty amazing for us to see the dramatic differences once we had passed from LiJiang county into Shangrila. First was the smiles - everyone had one for eachother, and our guide took pains to give a smile warm handshake to each person we met. Second was the ruggedness of the land, people, and their lifestyle. Structures went from being small and stone to large, wooden, and seemingly full of warmth - Tibetan houses are large boxes, three stories tall, rectangular shaped, where the animals live on the ground floor during the winter, heating the human quarters above. The top level stores the wheat and grain, and a large open chute makes it easier to distribute to the people and animals below. The landscape also made us feel that we were in a new world - wide grassy expanses with ubiquitous black and white longhaired yaks, the chilling pristine mountain air, farmers with reddened leathery faces. Stick-made structures that resemble a shoddy wooden chair dot the landscape - 30ft tall, structures that keep and dry the wheat during the winter so it can be distributed to livestock. "Buddha hearts" (pictured) also accompany the road to keep drivers safe.
To be continued...at a later date...