Archive for the 'china' Category

goodbye china, hello thailand

Sunday, May 14th, 2006

moving on now to thailand, and i feel ready for another country, another time zone, a change of custom and language and scenery, a change of money and pace. it’s not that i’m tired of china, but that i am eager to see what the rest of asia holds.

but here are some snapshots of china that i wish i could have taken:

the bobble-headed mario lemieux doll in a random shop window in xi’an

hodling my own in a “chinese queue” at the bus station ticket window (liberal use of elbows involved)

the phone-relay conversation with the datong cabbie and his one english speaking friend on the other end of the line acting as translator

the national obsession with meat-on-a-stick

the praying monks at wutai shan

the sign which read “please protect your valuables – keep them with you in your head space.”

the hilarity of “point and pray” dining

the pure joy of a solid 2 hour all-english movie, with popcorn on a rainy day

twelve sales clerks for every one customer

coal factories everywhere

the sight of us traipsing down the dusty highway in pingyao with trucks whizzing past us

all these and more will have to stay imprinted on my memory… until next time.

hong kong

Friday, May 12th, 2006

arriving in hong kong, i am blown away. i don’t know what i was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

hong kong is unabashedly everything that mainland china is not: modern, efficient, brash, stylish. the skyline is a daring testament, a statement: we’re brave and powerful, and we’re putting our stamp on the world. it’s less conservative than new york, less traditionalist than london. hong kong has chutzpah and moxie – it’s chasing the cutting edge with abandon.

drawing near to the city, there’s that feeling of excitement when anythign is possible – there’s an energy beneath the neon, an undercurrent, a buzz given off by people doing big things.

physically, hong kong is like manhattan mashed into san francisco – the funky hills and character filled districts. there are still vestiges of the colonial times (”mind the gap”, double decker buses, driving on the left, Mr. softee ice cream) but hing kong is asain through and through, make no mistake. it’s what london could have been if londoners were’nt so damn provincial. it’s bold, it has vision – things happen here in the way that only people with money and drive can make them happen. the people who inhabit the city by day are urbane and sophisticated. they like their $20 coffes and imported cuisines. but they develop, they deal, they sell. they’re fast movers bringing the city right along with them. and that hum? it’s the kinetic energy, the force of forward motion, of people pulling a city towards the 22nd century, creating a beautiful electricity that’s altogether something dazzling to behold.

a matter of trust

Friday, May 12th, 2006

trust is an important lesson in travelling. it means learning to go with the flow even when you have no idea where that flow is taking you. you’re continually being lead by people you don’t know, following directions you don’t understand, and trusting that they will get you where you want to go in one piece. for example, we just had to change buses in the middle of the highway – why, i don’t know, but i have to trust that someone else does. people sell me tickets i can’t read, food i can’t identify, products i don’t recognise. and i have to trust them.

even more than learning to trust others, you have to learn to trust yourself – trust your own capabilities to deal with whatever strange, difficult, and wonderful adventures may present themselves. because we head off blindly with all our intentions, and only the vaguest notion of how to get there or achieve them. and leaving it to the hands of fate and strangers, we somehow arrive safely at the other side.

a minor miracle, trust is, when you’re a stranger in a strange land. yet the most essential first step for undertaking any journey.

sleepless in yangshuo

Thursday, May 11th, 2006

another sleeper bus journey overnight to hong kong. i have to admit, when i first saw the bus, my spirits immediately lifted. compared to our last sleeper, this one is a positive rolls royce. carpeted and clean, climate controlled and cigarette free, with soft berths featuring individual lighting and vents. the idea of a comfortable journey made my heart sing.

unfortunately, none of the above matters when you’re slamming allong a pocked and scarred concrete road which looks like it’s been hit by shrapnel, for hours on end. sleep in impossible when your teeth are rattling and your internal organs are being shaken loose of their moorings. every bone is being jittered and jarred with every pit and pothole. twelve hours of this.

sleep is a distant dream.

the hills are alive

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

we arrived in guilin at 2:30 am, the city still sleeping deeply, the sky pitch black, and only the crickets and mosquitoes to keep us company as we waited for it to be daytime.

i haven’t been awake at that time in a long while. it was muggy, and the air was thick and clinging. we were exhausted from the long journey, and we had to wait until the buses to yangshuo started running. giddiness in the empty car park, as the sun slowly pulled itself over the horizon. and at 7 am, fireworks. revelie for the military base nearby, sparkling brightly in the dawn clouds.

we finally find the bus to yangshuo, through sheer luck and lots of persistence by a strange chinese man who was able to convey that we were waiting in the wrong place. i’m drowsy and sweaty, yet still stunned by the scenery around me. it’s breathtaking, and i’m excited to be able to explore it soon.

first, we sleep. cool shower and clean cool sheets. we wake for a late dinner, ravenously hungry. sweet and sour pork and a big bottle of local beer. as we drift off to bed, we plan that tomorrow we’ll hire bicycles and head for the hills.

awakening this morning, subconsciously aware of the curtains of rain coming down outside, and allow ourselves to drift off again for another few hours. later, still pouring hard, we roll up our pant legs, put on flip flops, and head off for breakfast. we draw it out as long as possible, hoping the sky will clear, and finally after noon, it does.

we hope we’re heading in the direction of moon hill, about 10 km away, and the highest point around, but as we wend our way further, it becomes clear we are not. still, it’s an incredible ride and we’er hardly complaining – our dirt path taking us through small villages of spectacular beauty. thousands of tiny froglings sprinkling the road, the river widening and rushing past, then narrowing peacfully again. villagers chanting in buddhist prayer, leading their cows home, harvesting their crops. intimate scenes which felt like we were intruding, but we kept pedaling on. the views growing more dramatic with each bend of the road. scattered lives set against scenery from a movie.

as our time in china comes closer to the end, i can’t help but think that what i’ve experienced has been just like everything i’ve ever seen or read about it, but even more so. no movie or photo can capture this. it’s like the difference between looking at a replica of a masterpiece through a dusty glass, versus being *inside* the masterpiece.

and today we were priviledged to be inside.

picture perfect

Monday, May 8th, 2006

on the train en route to guilin, and i am transfixed by what is unrolling outside my window. like something out of a fairy tale. towering karsts and caves and rice terraces and milky aqua streams winding through a backdrop of green like i’ve never seen before. greener than green. water buffalo and horses grazing in flooded plains, while farmers till the soil in straw hats. golden bundles of hay set to dry against the sun, and children bathing in clear pools.

a verdant picture postcard scrolled to life.


an evening lightning storm illuminates the stark black hills from behind, twisted craggy silhouettes against a flashing grey sky, while rain slashes sideways against the window pane, sparkling drops in the streaking light.

killing time in kunming

Sunday, May 7th, 2006

so we’ve been back in kunming for the past two days, coming in from dali and waiting to catch our train to guilin. the hostel we’ve been staying in is cheap, and the city is pretty pleasant overall, but it’s not where we want to be – we’d hoped to get an earlier train, and this stall cuts into our time in yangshuo (the next big destination). that’s just the way china works sometimes, but i think we both kind of resent having to stay here longer than we would’ve liked, which bleeds into resentment for the city.

which is not particularly fair. kunming is (objectively) kinda nice. it’s got a large expat student population, and so is more westernised than most of the cities we’ve been to so far. it’s got decent cheap food, amenities like shopping plazas, walkable layout, comfortable climate, and some trees sprinkled in for good measure. but i find myself struggling to find anything to photograph because it all seems kinda… blah. and to be honest, *we’ve* been kinda blah. just walking without seeing, eating without tasting. j’s been down, and i’ve been struggling to keep up the energy for both of us.

and so what we needed was some socialisation, a little interaction with the outside world, a night out. so when a few of the other’s from the hostle invited us to dinner, we jumped at the chance. two of the group were teaching/studying in china from the u.s. and the u.k., two were well-seasoned aussie travellers who’d lived in london, one was a visitor of the teacher from baltimore, and then there was us. we all jumped into cabs and headed off for a great little out of the way restaurant where we had the most incredible meal, stuffing ourselves silly, then we walked down to a bar to have a few drinks. lots of conversation, laughter… it really was just what we needed to feel human again, and to remind us of the comraderie/community side of being a world traveller – sharing stories, tips, inspiration. remembering there is more to this trip than seeing temples, riding buses. it’s about people and experiences and learning.

and with that, we hop on a train this evening for a grueling 30 hour journey to guilin (yangshuo). where gorgeous limestone karsts, the li river, bike rides and relaxation and beer await us. i’m sure we’ll have some stories to tell when we get there.

sneaky cheeky

Thursday, May 4th, 2006

so seeing as how today was our second day in dali, and dali is really a one day kinda town, j and i decided to head up for a hike into the beautiful mountains surrounding us. they’re pretty high, so there’s a cable car which can take you up for 30 yuan, but since we’re not averse to a little sweat and exercise we decided to take the “easy 2 hour path” mentioned in the guidebook. upon reaching the starting point of the path, however, there was a gate, and attendants who insisted we could not enter the mountain area without paying the 30 yuan cable car fee, whether we intended to ride it or not. this immediately go my back up, and we stormed off muttering about paying for things we didn’t want, intent on finding a way around their silly little gate. as it so happens, you can, in fact, subvert the admission rules if you don’t mind wandering a bit through a few farmer’s pastures. luckily, we didn’t mind at all, feeling quite smug in our ability to stick it to tha’ man. the amble through pastureland quickly turned into the hike from hell – 2 hours straight up, no plateaus, no stopping, do not pass go, do not collect $200. sweating our proverbial asses off, the only thing keeping us going was the promise of a nice ice cold beer at a hostel located high up the mountain, just near the temple, right off the side of the cable car. so we clambered and climbed and sweated. finally arriving at the top of the path, i was overcome with joy at the prospect of some cool sweet liquid for my parched mouth. only to be confronted by another nasty little woman who informed us we needed to pay 30 yuan to enter the temple… on the other side of which, was the promised inn.

i was damned if after climbing all the way around the gate to avoid buying a cable car ticket, after killing myself to get to the top of the bloody mountain, i was going to get roped into paying money *for something i didn’t want*. so we backtracked down the path, climbed around the whole bloomin’ temple, around the cable car… to finally arrive at the path to the inn. which was several hundred more metres straight up.

a beer never tasted so good. and in the end, we saved ourselves 120 yuan, got some really good cardio exercise, and got the views for free – along with the satisfaction of subverting the system.

file under: cute and funny

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

cute: all the toddlers here wear these little pants with a split in the crotch, and no undies. so everywhere you go, you see cute little baby bums. i’m dying to take a photo, but afraid of being seen as a paedophile!

funny: finally broke down and bought lotion today, for my poor parched skin. the lady who was trying to sell it to me was such a great salesperson. she kept enthusiastically miming putting lotion over her whole body, and trying to point out from the bottle, the many benefits of each lotion (as if i understood a word she was saying) and all the while saying, “shuka, shuka. shuka, shuka.” it was so hilarious i was tempted to prolong the transaction just to watch her jump around lotioning herself some more saying “shuka, shuka”.

i know. i’m going to hell.

tiger leaping…not

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

how do you deal with defeat and disappointment on the trip of a lifetime? we spent all of yesterdaytrying to find a way to get to tiger leaping gorge – a stunning and rigorous 2 day trek along the worlds deepest gorge, and by all accounts, one of the highlights of a trip to china. yet we were continually stymied in our quest – none of the buses were running. ticket agents, travel agents, youth hostels – all told us “no tickets, no bus”, but were unable to tell us any more. was it poor planning because it was a national holiday? was everything fully booked? were the buses running at all? would they be running tomorrow? no one could tell us, and we couldn’t ask. there was a rumour of an accident on the roadway (notoriously bad conditions) but a search of google china (ha!) turned up nothing. we asked everywhere and everyone we could think of. then we made a last ditch effort at just showing up at the bus station bright and early, cash in hand, hoping for a miracle. no luck. we’d come specifically all the way to lijiang with the intention of using it as a departure point for the gorge, and had to admit it wasn’t going to happen. crushing disappointment, as we’d both been looking forward to it so eagerly. but with our limited resources and information, we were at a dead end.

i am trying to take it in stride. intellectually i know that these kinds of things happen, and you just have to roll with the punches sometimes. instead we’re going to dali, a little backpackers’ haven that we’d ruled out in favour of the gorge. we’re trying to make the best of it, and i know it’s all part of the experience of living day to day on the road. (and perhaps even a blessing in disguise, as j was feeling under the weather after some yak meat that didn’t agree with him – feeling subpar would’ve made for a very difficult hike.)

still. once i get my mind fixed on something, i have a hard time letting go.

ah well, gives us and excuse to come back i suppose. not that we needed any.

  • Photos