April's Notes from the Road: Southwest China (2002)
This travelogue was originally written in the summer of 2002, when I spent nearly 2 months exploring southwest China. Some of the observations may be outdated or seem otherwise out of context, but, well, that's what can happen in 5+ years.
Ni hao -- greetings in Mandarin -- and Happy Midsummer!
I have just returned from an extraordinary adventure through southwest China, where several weeks were spent exploring, photographing, and hiking in Guangxi, Yunnan and Sichuan (Szechuan) provinces, and 'bookend' time in Hong Kong was included at the beginning and end of the trip.
On balance, I was struck most by the incredible diversity (ethnic, geographic, and level of economic development), the pervasive kindness and stunning beauty of the people, the much-higher-than-anticipated language barrier (accompanied, of course, by incessant calls of "hello hello where you go? hello hello you want? hello hello special price!"), and the incongruity of the region's economic, political, and legal systems in transition. Each province was markedly distinct from the others, though common threads between them gradually became apparent (for example, the 'hybrid' nature of religion (see below), the emphasis on community, mega-statues of saluting Mao, and the existence of fiery chilli peppers, fried beef, and beer for breakfast!). Of course one may wonder whether the country's continued development will lead to increased homogenization between its provinces; I would argue that, if so, it is a relatively long way off. For China is an enormous place, and for all its growth and dynamism and its entry into the international community, it remains a place where it is still much harder/slower to get things done (at least in the areas I visited).
Perhaps nowhere are the many forms of China's diversity more apparent than in Hong Kong (HK) -- though I did not realize this at first glance. Indeed my first impression of HK was nonstop consumerism; literally, one can shop and eat 24 hours a day. Not only that, but one can find anything to purchase there, and the culinary offerings are equally overwhelming. My adventures kicked off with, among other activities, a subtropical hike around Victoria Peak and its spectacular views of the HK cityscape and harbor, a full-day architectural tour of skyscrapers new and old, dim sum at the Luk Yu teahouse-cum-museum with dark wood paneling and gold leaf, and browsing in Kowloon district's innumerable markets and megamalls (some of which are literally several kilometers long). I also tried to put into perspective the political, economic, and legal ramifications of the handover of HK to China back in 1997, both in isolation and in light of subsequent changes within mainland China. Admittedly my first attempt at this was not successful, but thankfully I had another chance to reassess HK at the end of the trip...
My entry to mainland China itself was relatively uneventful, aside from an onerous one-hour border crossing. (Perhaps the Chinese customs patrol does its job 'too' well?) The first stop on my itinerary was the town of Yangshuo, which is noted for its spectacular karst formations and natural beauty. It did not disappoint. The landscape is hard to describe, in fact: the surreal experience of arriving at dawn in the town center, which is literally surrounded on three sides by looming, tall, rocky, grey pinnacles and flanked by the tranquil Li River, on which cormorant fishing lazily takes place. The misty light charcoal sky, the sound of cicadas and early fishermen's banter, the familiar sight of rusty bicycles and rickshaws... the effect was mesmerizing. And I was struck for the first time just how 'back in my element' I was, to be 'truly traveling' again.
Sunrise broke and the landscape transformed. The karst hills took form and beckoned to be climbed; the riverbanks revealed low, lush green rice paddies, and the town center streets were filled with people selling everything from motorcycle parts and dried shrimp (for the locals) to jade trinkets and whimsical Mao teapots (for the tourists). I eschewed the markets and headed to the sunkissed countryside. Climbing a couple of the karst pinnacles was a terrific trekking warm-up and produced an entirely different perspective: a patchwork quilt of nondescript rice paddies and terraces; Chinese bathers in the river and hikers in thin cloth shoes (ouch!); and 360-degree panoramas that gave a sensation of being on a 'lumpy' moon.
Returning from this hike, I was ready to undertake my first culinary experiment. There is a saying in Guangxi province that people eat everything with legs except a table, and everything with wings except an airplane. Grilled rat, dog, snake, and various insects are some of the local specialties. I headed to the night market to view the offerings, and did not even have to ask which was which -- it is pretty easy to recognize a skewered rat, tail and all! Even my (relatively strong at this point) stomach turned, and I settled for a more mainstream, delicious dish: "pi jiuyu," fresh Li River catfish sauteed in beer (yes, beer) along with raw garlic, ginger, spring onion, green pepper, and the infamous 'flower pepper' red chilli -- so hot it makes your ears sweat.
Having tackled the hills by foot, the next adventure was to view them by boat. So the next morning at 5am I headed out along with the water buffalo crowding the bumpy dirt road and villagers going to market, to the outpost of Xingping. For the next four hours, the broad wooden craft plied the Li River towards the town of Yangdi. En route karst formations with names like "Lion Ascending the Five-Finger Hill" and "Grandpa Watching Apple" were pointed out -- unique as they were, imagination was definitely required to match the titles. Returning from the boat ride, I treated myself to a full body massage by Dr. Bin Qiu Cai, a homeopathic specialist whose acupuncture needles and instruments were nothing short of vast -- and not just a little bit frightening.
Also while I was in Yangshuo and Guilin, the World Cup football mania began. Though the Chinese team did not fare well (if only they could have scored one goal!), the Cup remained the number-one evening pastime (along with badminton at sunset for the younger set) and the Chinese followed it religiously. Come to think of it, there are more Chinese football fans in the world than anywhere else, thanks to the large population! It was easy to know when a game was on. In big cities the main plaza would be filled with people watching the game on the digital mega-screen that typically served as a backdrop to a saluting Mao statue on one side and McDonald's golden arches on the other. And in smaller towns the majority of the under-50 male population would be crowded around the few (and sometimes only) television sets, eyes glued on the picture and one hand glued on a San Miguel, Dali, or other locally-brewed "pijiu" (beer).
So, back to the population, the Chinese people and Chinese society... People everywhere, literally, 1.3 billion of them, living with -- and often it seemed like on top of -- one another. The concept of personal space gets tossed out the window, and one becomes accustomed (in the cities) to constant jostle, crowds, lines, and body contact. I found the Chinese to be delightfully 'in your face' without in any way being offensive; in this way I was reminded much much of the Vietnamese. Indeed, the Chinese were among the most interesting -- and above all interested -- people I have ever encountered. Young and old, men and women, all wanted to meet, welcome, observe, follow, and at times gawk at me. I cannot tell you how many times (a) people watched me for hours simply write in my journal (granted, I am equally fascinated by watching Chinese calligraphy being created-- it is truly an art form), and (b) people would come up out of the blue, plop a baby in my lap, and instantly snap a photograph of us. The first time this occurred I was taken aback, but by the end of my stay was almost accustomed to it and did not mind. In any case, Chinese babies break records on the adorable scale, and the parents were invariably all smiles.
Having covered territory in Guangxi, it was time to forge ahead into Yunnan province. Yunnan is one of the better-known regions in all of China, in large part due to its geographic variety and year-round mild climate. My fist stop was Kunming, the capital city, where I arrived after my first internal flight on Yunnan Airlines. The scenery en route -- endless horizons of karst-studded plains gradually giving way to forested mountains -- was spectacular. And what I remember best about the flight was the in-flight "meal": an entire 500g (1 pound) package of Chinese shortbread biscuits, served along with a Yunnan Airlines waistpack souvenir. Whatever works, I suppose... passengers certainly could not complain of going hungry. And in any event Kunming provided a warm enough welcome, overall clean and organized and friendly. But what I was really looking forward to was hitting the road to the towns of Dali and Lijiang to the northwest.
Having experimented at this point with express bus, subway, local train and airplane modes of transportation, it was time to try the fabled "sleeper bus." Yes, it is a regular bus on the outside, but rows of bunk beds on the inside. Interesting! I had been forewarned that these vehicles are often ashtrays-on-wheels, full of smoking, spitting, sometimes-unruly Chinese men. So I boarded with earplugs in hand and my backpack padlocked. But much to my pleasant surprise, aside from a 2-hour departure delay, the trip was entirely comfortable. In fact, if you can get a top bunk, I would even venture to say that it the premier form of bus travel around. To watch the countryside whiz by while reclining on pillows -- what a treat (if only I had brought a box of chocolate bonbons!).
Arrival in Dali the next morning was akin to going back in time to another world; for while the topography did not change drastically, the architecture and certain civil aspects did. Dali earned its fame by the end of the 9th century CE as the end of the Burma Road, and the old town was like a fairy tale preserved in time -- full of centuries-old stone houses with ornately carved wood-panel doors, low ceiling eaves, and scents of incense and fresh flowers around every corner. As home to the Yi, Bai, and Hui ethnic minorities and (along with Lijiang) the jumping-off point for Tibet, distinct ethnic dress, language, culture, and a greater sense of remoteness were everywhere apparent. Favorite experiences around Dali were had at the Bai market in Xizhou village (3 rolls of film shot in one hour-- enough said! There were separate areas for fruit, vegetables, dead animals, live animals, rice, far ming implements and general sundries); the local rice whiskey distillery (powerful moonshine, to say the least); and especially at a visit to a Yi village classroom, where we were spontaneously given a "concert" by the children, who sang about solidarity and putting the interests of the community above those of the individual.
The song was no doubt motivated (or at least encouraged) by the Communist Party, and of learning about communism in China was a component of the trip that interested me greatly. Subtle aspects were evident throughout the region, from propaganda to village hierarchies to the basic observation that people simply do not do anything or go anywhere alone. In this light my status as a solo traveler was overtly odd. It was greeted by the Chinese not with derision or pity, but rather with innocent curiosity. From my perspective this emphasis on community has both advantages and disadvantages, but regardless it is taken very seriously in China. For example, a detailed budget of each village's expenses is posted for public view, as is a log of how many hours each worker has contributed. (Note that the villager who works the most receives the honor and commendation of the Party, along with a "great red rose" of some sort which I never saw, but does not receive any financial compensation or get to keep the additional fruits of his or her labor. Further, jobs are routinely assigned at random, not on the basis of worker choice or merit. In my opinion such programs and circumstances pose substantial problems for the country's incentive structure and long-term competitiveness and capabilities. It will be interesting to see what the outcome of the Party's quintennial meeting (due sometime later this year) provides.
An inquiry into the Communist Party's history also touches necessarily upon the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the infamous Red Guard. I was sad to learn of and observe the extent to which China's artistic and architectural legacies simply do not exist. It is not even as though they can be recreated; utter obliteration was the command and the rule during the 1960s. Nevertheless the Chinese do try, especially in tourist meccas -- in fact, if one is not careful they may mistake a plaster-paneled concrete structure for the real temple (this happened to me several times).
Also while in Dali, my hiking adventures began in earnest. My first stop was Zonghe Peak, a 20-kilometer subalpine circuit that linked together several Buddhist temples and steep waterfalls -- how the construction materials ever got to such remote locations baffles me. Other aspects which were to become common themes also began to emerge -- including butterflies, wildflowers, eucalyptus, bamboo, and monkeys on the trail!
Now a few comments about Chinese languages (plural). I found the language barrier to be much higher than anticipated and, unfortunately, my attempts to learn even a few basic phrases were unsuccessful. I met my match with Mandarin and found it astoundingly difficult. I have a new appreciation and respect for any Chinese person who speaks English at all... Two lingual phenomena were particularly fascinating to me; translations and the role of tonal/syllabic homonyms. To be blunt, I have never seen worse translations than in China -- nor ones that made me laugh so hard. "Chinglish" has really endeared itself to me, though hopefully greater contact with native English speakers in further-flug locales will improve things a bit. Just a few examples of Chinglish at work:
- Hotels: Smelly Monkey Hotel, Resembling A Hazy Spring Morning Hotel
- Shops: Green Acres Machine Dry Clean Express and Recovery, Monopoly On Dali Authentic Option Store (what IS sold there, anyway?)
- Basic Bad Spellings: Pullic Sqre (Public Square), and lots of weicom, wellcm, wlcome (welcome) as well
In terms of the homonyms, there are several syllables that have multiple meanings in Chinese, depending on tone and context. As a result they often become linked in people's minds and in use. For example, the syllable for 8 is the same as for longevity, 9 for prosperity, and 4 for death. Interestingly, at times there is not a 4th floor in buildings, and the government has a monopoly on license plates and telephone numbers that end in 9. And when you string together series of syllables into phrases, it becomes even more fun... but that is far beyond the scope of my Chinese!
I was sad to leave Dali but even more excited about what awaited me in the hinterland around Lijiang. This was the area that I had heard most about and had more people recommend to me than anywhere else. It is known for many things: the Naxi (pronounced nah-shee) culture; traditional architecture, pedestrian cobbled streets, and water mills -- the old town is one giant UNESCO Heritage site; and nearby opportunities to visit the Yangtze River, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (what a great name!), and the Chinese rendition of the fabled Shangri-La. Lijiang did not disappoint -- had I known beforehand, I could have easily spent the entire month there. The three-hour bus ride towards Tibet was splendid enough -- an increase in altitude coupled with lush rice terraces, rich chocolate-siena soil, traffic jams with goats, and streams of Naxi schoolchildren riding their bicycles home from school. Arrival in Lijiang's Old Town reminded me of a "little Venice a world away" -- full of babbling canals, small stone bridges, nooks and crannies and undiscovered corners at every turn, a maze of inviting narrow alleyways, the sounds of chatter and flowing water, the smells of ginger spice, fresh tea leaves, and frying buckwheat bread (known as baba) enveloped the scene. After getting lost several times en route, I finally arrived at my guesthouse-of-choice, settled into my tiny room overlooking a canal (a splurge at $7 per night), and set out to explore the environs. It did not take long to cover the main sights, as the town is both small and compact. One of my most indelible memories of the entire trip is the view from Wanggu Lu pagoda (situated on a hill overlooking the town) of Lijiang's traditional shingled rooftops nestled tightly together, steam and smoke rising randomly from between them, an occasional red lantern or string of tiny white lights visible, all taken in at sunrise before the hustle and bustle of the day has begun. Another favorite memory is the nightly ritual of community Naxi dancing in the Old Town's central market square after dark, next to which small candles are placed in lotus leaves and gently floated down the canals. The view and effect are truly magical.
Before heading for the mountains, let's talk about food and some culinary adventures I had -- here again, southwest China did not disappoint. Basic staples include rice (more common in the south, and in various forms: steamed, sticky, and porridge) and noodles (more common in the north, and especially in light soups), chicken, pork, innumerable types and intensities of chilli, ginger, cilantro, spring onions, parsley, eggplant, various mushrooms (including "wood ear fungus" and "forest fungus" varieties), kale, bok choy, and many other types of greens whose names I do not know. There was a lot of point-and-choose at mealtime, and unfortunately I was often unable to get the name of the dish. Given the potency of some spices and the enormous size of most dishes (because they are served family-style, as again, eating alone is simply unheard of), I did my best to snack and sample smaller portions.
So here is a food rundown... Favorite main dishes included paper-thin sliced white eggplant sauteed with crispy pork and cracked black pepper, minced beef with green garlic leaves, "old lady potatoes" (soft potatoes with cilantro, tumeric, ginger and several other spices), and fiery pickled vegetables eaten to clear the palate. Favorite side dishes and accompaniments included grilled baba layered with thick molasses, mantou (plain steamed dumpling), baozi (steamed dumpling filled with pork and vegetables), and marinated cold "seaweed bowties" tied in knots and served as an appetizer. Favorite sweets included dried plums and persimmons preserved with a variety of tastes (sweet, sour, cream), steamed buns filled with sweet red bean paste, green tea yogurt, osanthmus-infused sugar and graham squares, and hemen gao (crisp rice and caramel lightly fried and served in bar form). China is also a great place for candy lovers; never have I seen such a selection of jellies and hard candies, with flavors from melon to lychee to mango to black tea. And as they are typically sold by the piece in bulk, one can sample all they want and literally be "a kid in a candy store!" Which I was -- at least a slightly more adult version of one.
No commentary on food would be complete without mention of drink. Here China can be summarized in two words: cha (tea) and pijiu (beer). Tea drinkers are in paradise, though milk and lemon are not to be found. I encountered so many indistinguishable (to me) varieties of tea that at a certain point I began writing them down: green; green and snow; rose; black and peppermint; ginger (an easy recipe to try at home = fresh ginger slices + sugar + boiling water); chrysanthemum; ginseng and honey; Tibetan butter tea; and my favorite, "eight treasure tea" whose ingredients include dandelions, roots, bark, rosehips, and date peel. Everything is floating on top in the mug, and you are expected to swallow it all. The flower petals were alright, but the bark was too chewy for my taste! Beer was equally omnipresent but is far less interesting to write about. However I was pleasantly surprised to find wine on many Chinese menus. Granted, it was invariably the same five or so varieties (2 red, 2 white, and 1 rose' if you were lucky) by the same 2 or 3 state-controlled producers, but in all honesty at $1.50 a glass (very expensive by Chinese standards) it was hardly plonk.
Okay, enough talk of villages and food, time to talk about heading outdoors and hitting the trails. My trekking excursions were an absolute highlight of the trip. I went on 2 treks, one for 3 days to the Tiger Leaping Gorge (35 km total), and another for 2 days climbing the sacred Buddist mountain of Emei Shan (75 km total-- more than I have ever hiked in such a short period). In addition to fantastic exercise, what I enjoyed most about the treks were their contrasts: Tiger Leaping Gorge was all about spectacular scenery, stunning views, and mountainside villages, while Emei Shan was much more a spiritual journey, though the views from its 3100m (9500ft) Golden Summit were equally impressive.
The first day of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek, I met up with three other hikers and we made a spontaneous team on the trail: a Hong Kong-Australian native in the advertising business, a Belgian interested in panda research, a Chinese military aviation officer from Kunming, and me. What international fun! By stretching our lingual capacities to the limits, we were able to communicate pretty well. The first leg of the trek went from the village of Qiaotou (pronounced "chow-tow") to that of Bendiwan (population maybe 50). Much of it was a straight-up schlep, including a portion known as the 28 Bends that required some scrambling on all fours. We were afforded magnificent panoramas from the top, and the scenery simply did not quit after that. The gorge is situated much like the Norwegian fjords are, except that it faces upon Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (elevation 5600m or approx. 17,000ft) with the Yangtze River flowing fast and furious below. Over the course of this trek I was reminded of several other places in the world; initially western Colorado, then the Amalfi Coast as we headed into the hills, then Norway (fjords) and the Philippines (rice terraces clinging to the mountainside), and finally the Ecuadorean highlands, central valleys, and the Colorado Rockies and Front Range again at the end.
We arrived in Bendiwan at 6pm, which is also rush hour for the goats. There is only one single dirt track for access, so it took us a while to get there -- but no complaints, because there was Naxi reed pipe music wafting down the mountainside while we waited. Again, it felt like a fairytale... having arrived, the rest of the evening was spent admiring drop-off views and a beautiful sunset behind Jade Dragon, sharing beer and steaming noodles, and learning how to play poker Chinese-style.
Woken by the roosters the next morning, my bedroom view of the gorge below assured me that this was not a fairytale, but reality. The second day's destination was Daju, at the end of the gorge and on the other side of the Yangtze. The scenery was dappled with waterfalls, and disconcerting dynamite explosions were heard frequently (the first road through the area is under construction -- though who knows how long it will take). The river crossing was quite an adventure as well; we had to scramble down a very steep rocky slope to the river bank, where there was no dock, to be picked up by a long narrow wooden boat with a motor just powerful enough to counter the swift rapids. From there is was still another 10km to Daju, where I was all too hot, dusty, and happy to arrive. Though I have not been, Daju is much like I imagine Outer Mongolia might be -- it has a wild, maverick feel to it, and one wonders whether the rest of the world even knows it exists. Well, they say that Shangri-La is in these parts; having been apparently close, I'd believe it.
From Daju, the journey back to Lijiang was anticlimatic. But not for long, because it was time to head into Sichuan province. The next leg of the trip, which covered only 600km (350 miles), nevertheless took 26 hours on buses and trains. The scenery was less than breathtaking but it did afford many daily-life views of rural areas. Every single square cm of arable land is used intensively, and the few coal mining towns we passed through were utterly sad. Environmental nightmares come to life, black smoke so thick one literally cannot inhale, and upon exit one's exposed skin is covered visibly with black flecks of soot. The soot even managed to dirty us in a closed bus. I have a newfound concern for the people who live in such polluted areas and that these industries may wind down and transform. What can the international community do to help?
Having made it to central Sichuan, I made one stop at Leshan before tackling Emei Shan. Leshan is the site of the Great Buddha, the largest Buddha in the world (the ones in Afghanistan were larger, but the Taliban destroyed them). And let me tell you, that Buddha is huge -- 71m tall, and his big toenail alone is 8m long! The Leshan Buddha is carved into the side of a hill, which is part of a larger island/natural park complex that includes several temples, gardens, pavilions, bridges, and lots of stairs. It was fun to tromp around and it provided a good warm-up for...
...Emei Shan, also known as Mount Emei. Home to a circuit of delightful rustic Buddhist temples, a rich religious history dating from the 7th century CE, and more STAIRS than I have ever, ever encountered in my life. I expected for there to be a "normal" dirt trail to the top, but I was woefully mistaken -- it was ALL stairs! Yes, a 75km (47 mile) loop of stone stairs, small and large, steep and less steep, straight and zigzagged. Amazing, exhausting, and invigorating. Thighs of steel, an incredible sweat, and a spiritual-Buddhist-journey-of-sorts. Definitely most entertaining of all were the other hikers, who were of all backgrounds, ages, characters and dispositions. There were noticeably more women hikers than men, and there were numerous "Granny Alpine Clubs," groups of Chinese women over the age of 60, tiny in stature, with silver hair and bright eyes and ageless faces, wearing navy tunics and olive-green cloth sneakers (it almost seemed like an Emei Shan uniform), carrying bamboo walking sticks and tied cloth bags with wildflowers, intermittently lighting incense and gong-ing the bells at the temples, and appearing taken aback by seeing a foreigner (of any sort, much less a single blond female) on the trail. It was a very unique, moving experience for me, to spend such special moments in such special company, and to feel truly out of place.
Perhaps nowhere did I feel more out of place than at Wuoyan Si, the Buddhist temple and monastery at the summit which was also my lodging for the night. I was the only foreigner around -- the temple warden could not quite figure out what to do with me, but body language was ultimately successful. The temple was teeming with Chinese hikers, often occupying the dormitory-style rooms two to a bed. The simple Buddhist evening meal was taken communally, after which I set out to explore the summit area a bit. However in the meantime a dense chilly fog had set in, so thick that visibility was less than 10 feet and I almost got lost just trying to find the temple again!
Activity in the temple compound began the next morning around 4:30am, and I was up shortly thereafter -- with 40km still to walk, it was going to be a long day. Hit the trail at sunrise, legs feeling stronger than expected but grateful that the majority of the day's hiking would be DOWNhill. Throughout the day, which saw 13 hours of solid hiking, I continued to allow my mind to wander-where-it-would, to reflect on my time in China so far, and to allow whatever personal-spiritual-quest (if any) to manifest itself. Despite not being Buddhist (though maintaining many Buddhist affinities) it was a very meaningful, "cleansing" time for me.
Buddhism is but one of many religious influences in China, and Emei Shan allowed a perfect opportunity to put religion in the country into broader perspective. It is a complex subject, to say the least. Generally speaking religion in China comes in a variety of flavors but is rooted in Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and it is peppered with aspects of Islam, native/animist beliefs, and Christianity. Religion is associated with everything from ancestor worship and spirit appeasement, to fertility gods, to prayer invocation for material success. Supplication is made with incense, wood chops, bowls of fruit and flowers, horoscope cards, stone tablets, ambulation and orchestrated routines of movements. From the beginning I sought not to "understand" this veritable fusion of religious tendencies, but rather simply to observe and do my best to notice areas of similarity, overlap and evolution. On balance I learned much from noticing the importance of family, the search for balance and harmony (both internal and external), and the Buddhist 'Eightfold Path' to self-discovery. In addition, though the Communist Party professes atheism and religion suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, religious diversity is relatively apparent in daily life. As a whole, however, one does not see nearly the number of people actively practicing religion of any sort (and certainly not of the Falun Gong type) as is common in other parts of east and southeast Asia.
Hard for me to believe, but my time in China was quickly coming to an end. Just one last stop -- big-city Chengdu, capital of Sichuan -- before heading back to Hong Kong and the USA. Sichuan is the largest of China's provinces and noted for its high rural population density, geographic inaccessability, and spicy cuisine. For a variety of geopolitical reasons, the region has accumulated significant economic wealth over the centuries and is today one of the more prosperous provinces in the interior. And not least, northern Sichuan is also the home of the giant panda!
I had expected nothing remarkable about Chengdu, but I was mistaken. What a lovely city! True that typical tourist attractions and landmarks are relatively few for a city of its size, but the basics could not have been more welcoming: friendly and informed people; numerous parks and gardens; clean broad streets and efficient public transport; and two local specialties that were definitely up my alley -- teahouses and opera. Most of my time (apart from getting a haircut -- see below) was spent simply people-watching and wandering the streets somewhat aimlessly. This strategy (or lack thereof) actually served me quite well; I drank rose tea on a terrace surrounded by people obsessively playing mah jong, I stumbled upon a multitude of couples ballroom-dancing in a park plaza at twilight, and I spent a half-hour watching three elderly men practice tai chi (or was it kung fu?) in front of the omnipresent mega-Mao statue. What's more, Chengdu's airport is among the most modern and efficient that I have ever seen. So when I boarded the flight back to HK, it was definitely time to call the trip a success already.
HK meant coming full circle, and my second visit there offered an ideal opportunity to reflect upon what had been done, learned and experienced over the previous couple of months. I noted things as mundane as cost differences (by my calculations HK is approximately 5-8 times as expensive as mainland southwest China, but price discrimination (Chinese price vs. foreigner price) and price gouging are far less likely to occur) and as subtle as currency exchange protocol (in HK you are not required to keep -- or even have-- a receipt for foreign exchange transactions). I was both ecstatic about and put-off by the presence of 24-hour stores, shopping and information access, and luxury goods. For at the same time that the development, modernity, and ease-of-getting-things-done in HK was appealing, part of me already longed to be back in the land of brightly decorated horse-drawn carts, ramshackle markets, native dress, and (at least psychological) remoteness. Such is the point of travel, I suppose -- to return to a place you have been before, but not to see it in quite the same way.
Perhaps the best way to conclude this travelogue is with a list of favorites. These include observations, thoughts, occurrences, and 'other' -- basically just things I think and hope you will appreciate and/or get a kick out of. So in no particular order -- and please, try not to passing judgment on them! -- the following are some of my fondest memories of southwest China:
- Stargazing in the outpost of Daju at 3am, where I felt closer to the heavens and further from humanity than perhaps ever before in my life
- Street cleaning vehicles that play the Happy Birthday tune as they drive down the street (imagine a sort of giant Chinese ice-cream truck, but instead it sprays water onto unassuming passing bicyclists)
- The name of the national wine production authority, "China National Cereals, Oils & Foodstuffs Import and Export Corporation." Hmmm, if I were in marketing, I'd want to change that -- unless industrial-strength wine is my objective!
- The Communist Party's "10 star" program for rural areas. In order to monitor this large portion (reportedly 80%) of the population and to make its policies more effective, the Party gives each rural farming family a small red license plate-style panel to hang above its doorway. The plate has 10 points where a gold star may be placed, each point associated with a particular question. The 10 questions include, among others: Have you professed membership in the Communist Party? Do you and your family have enough to eat? Do you know what crops you will plant next season? Do you abide by the one-child policy? Do you believe in, and abide by, the policy of mandatory free education for all until the age of 12? Most of the homes I saw had at least 8 gold stars.
- My Chinese haircut in Chengdu: A 2 1/2 hour event, without a single word of English spoken (but lots of smiles and thumbs-up signs). It started off with my hair being washed 5 times (I'm not joking!) while I was reclined in a vibrating leather chair. Next came the head massage, face massage, scalp and temple massage, neck and shoulder massage, and then another head massage. Finally I made it to the stylist's chair, who I would guesstimate was about 17 years old. He cut my hair meticulously, in about 10 different layers even though it is a one-length blunt cut. Honestly, I have to say it was hands-down the best haircut I have ever had -- and it cost a whopping $2.50. I couldn't help but tip him $.50, which he tried to refuse 3 times before finally accepting. And who says that China does not have a service-oriented economy?!
- Watching children's swimming lessons IN the Li River at sunset (yet another example of China's resourcefulness)
- Hong Kong's ultra-swank Peninsula Hotel, rated one of the world's best. Afternoon tea goes for a cool $40 (I did not partake), Rolls Royces are more common than bicycles, and the Aujourd'hui restaurant can keep up with the best of the Michelin stars.
- Chinese point-and-choose fast food that runs the gamut from cold bamboo shoots with chilli, to rice gruel with fungus, to succulent duck breast with preserved mandarin orange coulis (and it is far less expensive than the Peninsula!)
And finally, on a lighter note, I would really like to know what it takes to become a member of the Granny's Alpine Trekking Club.