I had been in Mongolia on a horseback riding camping trip and thought while over in Asia I should poke around China a bit. I had to bribe the train authorities to get a seat on the Trans-Mongolian to Beijing and somehow I got a super deluxe! There were only two beds, a fan and even a shower of sorts in the sink. It was quite nice and very different from my usual experience of traveling with an over flow of bags, kids and animals. Thirty hours later I arrived in Beijing to the most amazing sea of humanity.
I, strangely, liked this crazy city. It is pulsing with life and activity, a powerful combination of the ancient and the insanely modern (talking taxis for example). It is loud and hectic, with bikes, cars, busses, trams, rik-shaws all zooming about in reasonable order. The people were neither particularly friendly or rude, but rather, had a welcomed indifference to all of us tourists.
I was having a bit of trouble finding out any information on how to get around since I was protesting the use of the infamous “Lonely Planet Guide”. Everyone has it so you end up in all the same places. My book was torn in half and from 1989; probably more useful as toilet paper. So, I was winging it which was not such a good idea, considering I could neither read nor speak the language. One must have their destination written in the Chinese characters or one is, shall we say, up the creek without a chopstick.
I managed to find a brand new hostel and was paying an exhorbitant $20 per night!! But it had a hot shower, a TV (only in Chinese and the one English station was only about business) and it was really clean and comfy with AC; a necessity as it was ridicuously hot in July.
The Forbidden City was being renovated and was too hot and crowded. It would have been better to visit the surrounding buildings as they have more interesting stories and things to see. Tiananmen square seemed like just a big cement slab to me. But the Great Wall, now that is truly something! I had signed up spur of the moment so really didn’t know what I was getting into. We drove way out of town, which given the size of Beijing, takes two to three hours! I discovered we would be hiking the friggin’ wall for 10 kilometers! (from Jinshanling to Simatai). I’m not quite sure how far that is in miles, but let me say, it is entirely too far to be slogging around in a heat wave! But it does let you appreciate how immense and rather mad an undertaking building this wall really was. The bricks follow the curves of the land and some parts are seriously steep! There are people following you all the time trying to sell you water which turns out to be fairly lucrative, considering. At the end, we took a zip wire down the mountain to a river then boated back to our bus. All in all it was a grand day and I was pooped. I decided to eat at the hostel and some of the choices were, “deep fried tongue”, “goose liver”, “edible fungus”, “snakehead eggs” and “pig intestine”. I opted for the dumplings and rice.
I decided to fly south to Guilen rather than take the train as I had limited time. I made it to the Beijing airport quite early, but turned out it didn’t matter, they changed the gate about 4 times and we left late anyway. Of course us “ferners” hadn’t a clue what was happening so just kept following the crowds up the stairs, down the stairs, up the stairs, etc. We did finally get on and they served breakfast. They offered a Chinese or western meal. Interestingly, the Chinese passengers chose the western, the westerners chose the Chinese. Well, guess who were the smarter of the two? They got eggs, sausage, hash browns, fruit and we got some black runny goo with lima beans! I arrived in Guilen and began my annoying interrogation of fellow travelers to give me some clue what the guidebook says on where to go. The guidebook is often wrong is the problem, in this case the youth hostel was closed. I ended up getting a run down place on the edge of town, then wandered around looking at all the mountains and caves from the outside since the admission prices seemed too expensive to me. Eventually I got lost, which I tend to do, and lo! little “Tang” saved me. Tang was 27 and a calligraphy teacher who lived in a dorm at the school. He took me through the walking mall and helped me find a decent toilet. I can feel very indebted to one who can find a decent toilet let me tell you. He also showed me the gallery where he displayed his art work and I felt indebted (again) to purchase one. Then he took me to an underground mall with a tea shop. It was dark and small and smelled exotic. Way in the back I was involved with these two guys in the elaborate art of the tea making. Rinsing the tea 20 times, pouring here, pouring there, tipping this, slurping that… tap tap tapping on the table, sniffing, nodding, grunting… I got caught up in it all and had a brief fleeting thought that maybe this was not a good idea, maybe something was in this tea… I had a cold starting, my head felt clogged and I was literally drenched in sweat with the recent downpour of rain. And then it happened… I bought a tiny container of tea for $15 US dollars… “oh my God, what have I done?!”
The real sad part is I didn’t even realize it till much later. I even went on to take my scammy con artist artist friend out for dinner! I really am too much. However, I must say the restaurant was an experience. Evidently we were in snake season, so there were cages of the critters everywhere, not to mention the rest of the menagerie available. Tang walked me home and we had to cross the river holding our shoes in our hands. The people can take a bamboo raft across but it seems most choose to wade. On the other side a man practiced his flute and it was all so lovely. It wasn’t until I was lying in bed thinking about the day that I realized I had just been completely skint by these boys. I have since seen this very tea for sale at one third the price! But then, I did get a story.
The next day I left for the Li River cruise. I chose the Chinese boat rather than the tourist boat not so for the authentic experience so much as it was half the price. Of course I didn’t understand a single word! And these people were all TALKING SO LOUD!!! Give a bullhorn to a Chinese and watch out! Quiet, demure giggling girls become Helgas of Hosseldorf! We were marched in, sat down and told what to do and what we’ll see and what is pretty and what is not and what each rock is named, etc, etc. I just sat outside and was awestruck by some of the most unusual and mystical mountains I have ever seen. Even the rain added to the experience. There were water buffalo grazing and swimming, bamboo rafts slamming up to the boat to sell their wares (not that I would be buying another bloody thing here), delicate ceramic tile roofs, swaying bamboo shores… truly magical. Yangshuo began the maddness again; the shouting and crowds and language barrier. But overall, it was the oppressive humid Vietnam-movie-type heat that was truly staggering.
I got a little tram to my “Happy Hotel” (lovingly known as “Crappy Hotel”), with my new best friend DongWuk from Korea, who speaks English AND Chinese… Yes!, score!! We rented bikes and began looking for some of the famed trails and boy did we find some! I felt like I was riding in a postcard!! The huge pointy Karst mountains, the rice fields with the workers in the reed hats, the women carrying baskets on poles on their shoulders, again the buffalo wallowing in the mud, the little houses and irrigation canals, the people crowding around trying to sell flowers, knick knacks, boat rides, rafting trips, water SCREEEEECH!!!! oh, there went the perfect scene. You just can’t escape capitalism.
I stayed on West Street, which as the name indicates is where all the westerners hang out. Of course so do the gazillions of Chinese tourists. I stayed for three dollars a night above one of the many cafes. The room had hot water and a western toilet. I was eating my usual gluttonous “American breakfast” out on the street front one morning and one of the many tiny ladies, slumped over from years in rice fields, with her ancient face gave me a near toothless grin and asked for my leftover toast. She hugged me when I gave it to her and then tried to sell me some trinkets from her little basket. I can almost cry again now thinking about it. I cannot imagine what she must be thinking with all these strange faces invading her land and her having to learn these meaningless words… “herro”, “tank you”, “you buy?” I want her to be home with her family, comfortable, safe and happy in these last years of her life. And then, for all I know she was really enjoying herself, but I didn’t get that sense. The few Chinese I have been able to talk to say there isn’t much in the way of social programs here for the sick or elderly and that they must rely on their families. But let me say, start learning your Mandarin because this will be the country of the future. These people are perfecting capitalism without a conscience. They are very hard workers, even building in shifts through the night. And yet they are so sweet and helpful and easy going, I, actually, think the language is pretty and melodic (as long as it’s not coming out of a bullhorn). I, of course, butchered the language and thankfully met an Australian fellow, Jason, who had been teaching English here. He not only spoke a bit of Chinese but was an excellent barterer taboot. He got us a motorbike, which I don’t believe non Chinese are allowed to rent, and we explored the spectacular countryside and villages. Then on the way back the bike stopped working. Jason just “shhhhed” someone over and gestured what had happened. The guy took out a rope and tied us to his bike and towed us into town. I thought Jason knew him, but no, this is normal here, just “shhhsh” someone and they seem more than happy to help. Of course you have to pay them a bit, but geez I can’t see that happening most places back home.
I think I did everything you can do in Yangshuo; the caves with mud baths, bamboo rafts down the rivers, the villages by bike, and oh yes, a very cool light show out on the river. Of course I saw the cheap version, the show from far away on the roof of a little boat. It looked like it would be quite extravagant if you actually were in front of it in a seat. Literally hundreds of people in dugout boats with flames, and even lighted costumes, singing, and waving enormous flags, splashing water… at least that’s what I imagined they were doing.
I left sweaty Yangshuo and flew to Kunming. I was supposed to meet someone I had met on the train but it turned out she was too busy with her family and had to cancel. I was none too happy as Kunming is just another huge, sprawling, modern, crowded, loud, neoned typical Chinese city. In addition, the hostel I came to had only dorm rooms left and I really am too old now to sleep with eight other stinky backpackers. I immediately booked a flight for the next day and settled down to try and figure out how to spend the evening. As fate would have it, I met “Helen”, a Chinese girl studying law in England. She insisted on taking me out to dinner. Granted it is not so expensive, the typical hot noodle soup costs about .50 cents. However she also took me out for tea, and I found out that there really are expensive teas here and rethought my rip off experience. Anyway, it was great finally having a Chinese person to interrogate about politics. She says that Taiwan was always part of China and should remain so. The issue is that two leaders (or parties; the Nationalists and the Communists) want to be boss. As for Tibet, she thinks they can’t be a sovereign nation and if not run by China would be run by India. She also thinks that most Chinese respect the Tibetan culture and its differences. The Chinese don’t understand the “religion” there, she says, since they are all raised to rely on themselves without a thought for a “higher power”. She feels this is a practical approach and that she herself has done quite well. Also, Tibet will surely be needed to feed the people, even with the one child per couple rule, the population is immense. Every possible spot is cultivated. Finally, she ended up inviting me to stay in her very nice room and I didn’t have to sleep with the smelly backpackers or share one of those horrible bathrooms. Really, it is beyond me how they can handle these things, simply a ceramic hole in the ground, or worse, a ceramic trench, where you scoop up some water to rinse whatever down the pike. Rumor has it that many Chinese women have injured themselves falling off western toilets while trying to squat way up there and in fact I have seen shoe marks on the seat. (Next month, on to LiJiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge!)
I flew the quick hour to LiJiang which is supposed to be a typical old village. It was more like a Disney World look alike of an old village. It was jam packed with tourists (mostly Chinese) and every shop was a souvenir shop selling jewelry, clothes, leather, wooden products (like toy guns), teas and lots of weird dried stuff I can’t possibly identify. I met a Finnish girl and we booked in the youth hostel which at first appeared quite quaint, but turned out to be a real dump (note to self: find out when exactly the hot water works when staying at cheap accommodation in China). We then ran around trying to get info on the Tiger Leaping Gorge which is the thing to do here. We just could not find anyone who spoke English and could not find maps or anything! We ended up booking a bus ticket to the place. Well, it happened to be monsoon season and I mean it was pouring! I regretted having cut up and given away all my warm clothes in a heat induced delusional state back in Yangshuo.
The following morning in the downpour we decided to chance it and go to the gorge even if we only got to see remote shadows through the rain. When we got there we found a crazy Australian woman who had opened up a cafe, not to mention there were other hopeful foreigners on our bus. After we all warmed up with some really bad coffee and noodles, we all began the hike. The weather had cleared a bit so all were optimistic we could make it somewhere. The hike usually takes two days and there is a park fee but because of the weather and the landslides the park was technically closed and therefore you could enter at your own risk and free of charge. So there I was with a 20 year old gung ho Finnish chick, neither of us with the proper gear as we had thought we would be taking a taxi or bus to see the gorge. Seriously, she was in one of those see through plastic raincoats you buy at the dime store, with a bright green book bag! I looked a little more together but purely on the outside. The trek, however, was spectacular; I believe we got over 3000 feet. Below was a raging river and of course the huge mountains towering above. Even with the rain and clouds it was quite impressive. Along the way were the locals with their donkeys waiting for the tourists to just give up.
They all thought I was Kaarina’s mother and were saying “MaMa Ho”, meaning does your mother want a horse. I was being offered many rides and am proud to say I never accepted. Eventually we met up with these two seriously outfitted Austrian women and their personal guide. They saved the day! We attached ourselves to them and made it to the “Halfway House” guesthouse. My God, you should see this place! Beautiful!! Brand new rooms with balconies overlooking the gorge. Semi hot showers! and yes, the ceramic trench. They had little braziers to warm us up and good hot food. The entire thing cost about five bucks!! Needless to say I was soaked most of the time while hiking and my little cold had turned into something resembling pneumonia. But it was worth it. The next day we kept hiking and made it down to the bottom. We were going to go on but it turned out all the roads were blocked with landslides. I was beginning to freak out that we would get stranded in there, when KABLOOIE!!, We start hearing blasting. They were literally blowing up the boulders on the roads! So, in the end we hired a local to drive us back to the entrance via the teeny tiny guard rail-less road, weaving around the boulders, overlooking the huge abyss down to the crashing river at the bottom of the gorge… it was almost more exciting than the hike!
Leaving LiJiang was rather a nightmare. I waited forever for a bus to the airport, then a quick flight to Kunming, which seems to be a major hub of the west. There were soooo many people! And Lo! they tell us our flight will be delayed two hours! That would put me in Xian at about 2AM with no firm reservations and only a pretty sketchy address of copied Chinese characters. But as had been happening so frequently in China, I got saved again. A Chinese girl came up to me in the airport to see if I needed help since generally I was standing around like a deer in headlights. She had been living in NY for the past 4 years trying to “find herself”, was 26, and had married an older Chinese guy in order to get residency (he’d been in the U.S. about 17 years). Turned out her father worked for the Communist government which she found rather distressing. Well, those two got me to their hotel where I stayed for 3 nights. The hostel it turned out was full and it would have been a real disaster. I ended up spending my entire time with this family and it was a hoot! A government liason arranged our transportation with a driver and took us to every possible tourist attraction AND fed us the most amazing meals I’ve ever seen! I never paid for a thing! I have to say again, that the Chinese have been some of the most gracious and generous hosts I have ever encountered and I told them so in one of our very many toasts we made over eel, fried donkey, wild mushrooms and the many other dishes flying around on the lazy susan in our private dining room. Seriously, I was sick from eating so much. And the custom is to toast your fellows, slug down the whole shot, then show them you drank it all so they have to drink all of theirs!
We saw the Terra Cotta Warriors (the burial ground for the first emperor) and really that guy was quite something. He’s the one that conquered all the provinces, unified the writing, built the Great Wall, and basically created China. We also saw the temple that houses Siddarthas finger bone (no kidding) and here are all of these supposedly non-religious Communists bowing, praying and lighting incense…very strange and endearing. Then to the tomb of the one and only female empress where really it was much more interesting to see the cave houses built into the surrounding land. Finally we ended up at a museum of calligraphy and I must say their writing really is more like art. Overall I have found these people and their to be quite impressive.
In the meanwhile my little Chinese hostess is expressing to me, very openly, her concerns about her future, her sexuality, her marriage, her family being so involved with the Communist party, her weight and her desire to study law and return to China to lead a revolution. She continually shocked me with her frank comments. My hostess was especially disgusted with the rampant growth in China, lack of conscience and of course, the toilets
My new friends told me McDonalds was better in China. The only difference I noticed was that there were a thousand people in line rather than the usual ten or so. They also wanted to go to Pizza Hut to have “tiramisu”. They said it was the only “Italian restaurant” in these parts. Turned out they were right. The waitresses even dress in what appears to be Mexican style garb, at least I don’t remember seeing that costume in Italy, and they were having a Spanish special with sangria and tapas. The Chinese like their uniforms. McDonalds workers have jeans with the arches emblazoned on their behinds. Anyway, I couldn’t find a seat at McDonalds, it was so crowded, but once again looking like a freakazoid helps out. I was offered a seat by a couple of young kids who of course wanted to practice their English. It goes something like this… giggle, giggle… “ahhh…. where are you from”…. giggle, giggle. “ahhh… what is your name?” giggle, giggle. That’s usually about it. Sometimes you get a bit more and can even ask them some questions. If they don’t speak any English at all at least they ask you to let them take a photo of you with their kids. They couldn’t tell how old I was, they thought I was 28… you gotta love ’em.
I got pretty savvy with the rip off scheme. The taxi tried to get me on the way back from the airport. First he tried to show me a rate list they made, 350 yuan to the hotel, “no way” I said. Then, he said he would go by the meter, which was rolling way too fast, so I said it was broken and I wouldn’t pay that either. I gestured I would pull the meter ticket and take their license number to the police to check their machine (kinda like Lassie; amazing what people can infer from a few select sounds and movements). He turned off the meter and let me pay what I said I would pay,120 yuan. Really something. I don’t mind being ripped off maybe double, but triple! That’s just too much. Then, when I got to my hostel they at first told me they were full, then that the price went up a hundred yuan. When I stared blankly and said “gee”, reminding them that I would be staying there a total of 7 days, that I use and pay for all their services, and how could things change in a mere week, etc, etc,… I got my old room for the same price…they evidently were not so full afterall.
My final and one of my favorite outings in Beijing, was to the Temple of Heaven. I arrived at about 6:30AM to miss the tourists and see the hundreds of people doing just about everything you can imagine. I didn’t care the temple was under construction, because I had gone specifically to see the activity. These folks meet every morning to do fan dancing, singing, ballroom dancing, hakey-sak, tai-chi (with swords)… or to walk backwards screaming (my particular favorite). I also like the calligraphy guy, he writes with water on the cement and so soon it evaporates… very Zen. Another great thing to do in Beijing is to rent a rik-shaw and visit the “hutongs” which are the old alley ways of the city.”
On my last day I decided to have a meaningless little chore. I like to do that sometimes, just to see where one might end up. This days goal was to find those white doughy buns stuffed with sweet red beans. I had had them in Japan and loved them and heard that they also eat them in China. So first I tried just looking for myself at different bakeries. When that didn’t work I tried explaining what I was looking for to various people. But as you can imagine, gesturing buns filled with something could be interpreted as a very different thing. Finally I found someone who spoke a bit of English and wrote out the word for me “do sha bao”. I proudly returned to all my previous folk and showed them my wee bit of paper so they wouldn’t think I was absolutely insane which may have convinced them that I was. Anyway, I found the buns and the lady even warmed one up for me. While I was gloating and moaning (even though I must admit I had been experiencing euphoric recall yet again, and it really wasn’t as tasty as in my memory), I was approached by yet another young girl wanting to “practice English”. I really was in no mood; tired, grumpy and just wanting to be left alone. But somehow she convinced me to come see her schools display of calligraphy. I thought it would be obvious by my ripped up shorts, dingy stretched out T-shirt, something the cat coughed up hair and otherwise total lack of class… that I would not be purchasing any artwork today… but no, she just didn’t get it. I waved good-bye and decided to hide out in my room and try to make sense of Chinese TV. I was actually able to follow some of the soap operas which just convinced me it was time to go home.
My flight was delayed and I spent entirely too much time in the airport in Seoul, although it is one of the nicer ones I have been in. I read the new Harry Potter and considered that the traveling part of traveling was losing its charm. I imagined the day when like in the books “Dune”, one can just eat “spice” and “fold space” and be there. In the meantime, keep me posted China, and, “more peanuts please”.