Well it has been a month since the last update, and I’ve been busy busy, so I’ll jump right in!
After leaving Thailand I headed back to Hong Kong, had another lovely and quick visit with friends from Korea and new friends from Hong Kong, drank cocktails and ate steak on a boat, and prepared to head into China. I took an over night train from Hong Kong into Shanghai, my first stop:
I was so so very extremely fortunate to have friends living in Shanghai who let me stay with them for a WHOLE WEEK! I know my visit to Shanghai would have been half as fulfilling without them, and I am so grateful they let me stay for so long (in their very lovely apartment with their very cute dog too!). My week in Shanghai went by very fast. I spent my time admiring the impressive skyline, eating in some very nice Western restaurants, wandering around the different neighbourhoods and sampling Shanghai expat life. HIghlights include smoked meat poutine, 4.5 hours straight of karaokee, a surreal and super interesting collection of Maoist propoganda posters and an unbelievable acrobatic show that culminated in EIGHT guys on motorcycles driving in circles around the inside of a wire sphere. It was a great week! My travel buddy and I were sad to leave our comfy lodgings and generous hosts, but we got on a train anyway and headed to…
Zhangjiajie (aka Wulingyuan Scenic Zone aka Avatar Mountains)
Our first 24 hour train! Yay! Luckily, possibly one of the worst as well. Stuck on top bunks, the train arrived FOUR hours late, so arrived 4 hours late as well, too late to catch the bus to where we needed to go…grrrrrr. But we managed to make friends with some nice Chinese girls to pass the time a little quicker. When we finally made it to the small town of Wulingyuan, it was like 9p.m. So we got the info we needed and got to bed so we’d be able to venture out into the mountains bright and early the next day. These mountains have obviously always been there, but their popularity exploded after the movie Avatar came out, because apparently the floating mountains in the movie were inspired by these mountains in China. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and it rained for both days we were there. While still incredibly beautiful and unique, and definitely the karstiest karst I’ve ever encountered, we didn’t get to see the famous views at their finest. But still two days of nice hiking (not great mind you…China has the thing with using the slipperiest material possible on their sidewalks and walkways) and so very beautiful. And expensive. The ticket to just enter the park was a lot, and once inside most people were also paying for cable cars, trams and a giant elevator. Oh well. It was still cool.
After our second overnight train, this time with nicer bunks, we arrived in Beijing in the evening. First impressions of Beijing: ugly compared to Shanghai, why are there cops everywhere, why is there a line up to get into the subway station, why are there a thousand people strewn across the square in front of the trains station, damn it’s cold. I now know the that cops everywhere could be connected to our visit coming just before the start of the APEC summit. It’s possible that the leaders were n Beijing at the same time as us and in the same area, and more cops were about than usual. Another effect of the APEC summit was that the Beijing air was cleaner than usual. Turns out all the factories had been shut off for the summit a couple weeks in advance, so we got to see the “APEC blue” skies of Beijing, which was nice. Our first day we went to the Forbidden City (but not in, a) closed b) expensive), so we walked around it, then ovr to Tianmen Square, then some nice middle aged women tried to pull the teahouse scam on us and we almost fell for it. The started speaking to us and asked if we wanted to have a cup of tea with them and speak English. When we got to the teahouse the prices were INSANE and that’s finally what tipped us off. We politely got the hell out of there. Then we watched the sunset, went home and went to bed early so we were ready for the next day: The Great Wall. We picked the easy way of booking a tour through our hostel (it came with free lunch!). Spent a few hours hiking along the wall (so many ups and downs and stairs), took about 1000 photos, had our lunch and went back to Beijing. It was a really good day, with great weather. The next day we only had a few hours, so we walked around one of the old fashioned neighbourhoods that they call hutongs and saw a drum and bell tower. Then we got on train #3 and set off for…
Zhangye (Danxia landform)
Zhangye is in Gansu Province, the corridor between the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi Desert. It’s dusty and bleak. On the train ride there both of us were feeling a little stomach achey. We only had one day here with one specific purpose: see the rainbow mountains. The mountains were beautiful, but we were a little disappointed with the park facilities…you couldn’t really hike around it or anything, There was just a bus that drove you to 4 different scenic viewpoints, where Chinese tourists would get out for like 15 minutes, take photos, and drive to the next spot. So not a waste, but the park could be set up way nicer and it could be more enjoyable. Our next mode of transportation was bus to
Before we even made it out of Zhangye, a rock hit one of our bus windows and shattered it! Everybody was fine, but it took about and hour to sort out who was to blame, who owed who, and then to “fix” the window with some Scotch tape. But we were soon on our way again, with a taped up window, through the mountains, for 7 hours on a bus. The drive was actually pretty beautiful, going through snow covered mountains dotted with various animals and prayer flags. Inside the bus was not quite as nice, with a handful a folks vomiting into bags, squished into small asian sized seats, so many smells. When we got there, we were so lucky to have a friend of mine pick us up IN A CAR to drive us back to his place, where he generously hosted us for a few nights. It has been 4 years since I was last in Xining, and the place has changed so much, parts of it are unrecognizable. There are new streets, new neighbourhoods, new buildings, new stores…transformed. We were lucky again that my friend needed to go over to Rebgong (aka Tongren) and we caught a lift in a car for 2 hours instead of a bus that would take 4 hours and spent the day meeting with locals and monks instead of walking around like the dumb tourists we actually are. We got to eat the most amazing food, and at the monastery there, we witnessed an annual gathering of monks doing what is called “slap debating”, in which monks challenge each other about Buddhist philosophy and then slap their hands together at the end of each challenge (I think anyway…it’s not like I could understand what was being said). The next day we took a trip to the museum that I used to do some work at, and I lucked out again in that a friend of mine who used to work there, still works there, and happened to be working that day! We checked out the exhibits, and I was a little disappointed (although not at all surprised) that none of my English revisions had been taken into consideration, and all the English signs still make as little sense as they did before. By this point in the trip I had a full blown cold and sounded like I was perpetually on the verge of hacking up one or both lungs at any second, so I took it easy the rest of the day. Last day in XIning I took some time to meet up with a couple more old friends to see how they were doing. One woman who was running a great organization trying to make it easier for Tibetan girls to get educated said she had to shut the whole operation down due to new policies that have been adopted in the last year. She had many organizations have had to do the same, which blew me away. It means that all the people I had been trying to help with funding and funding reports are essentially now defunct. Such a waste. The next morning, it was time for ONE MORE 24 hour train ride. We said goodbye to our lovely host, and jumped in a taxi to the train station. It was nice to say goodbye on my own terms this time.
Sichuan province! Spicy food and pandas! At this point we were closing to the end of our time China, so just a couple days here. We arrived in the morning, so we walked around the downtown areas of Chengdu and ventured into the People’s Park. There are People’s Parks in every city in China, but we didn’t see ANY as lively as the one in Chengdu. There were maybe like 10 different tea houses, with outdoor seating, packed full of middle-aged locals drinking tea and playing cards or mahjong. I mean, there were SO many table of old people playing mahjong, like a sea of them. And the tea was good too. There were boats in the park, performances, dancing, badminton, kids amusement park stuff, flower displays, karaokee machines and of course a marriage market. It was really a spectacle. That evening I bought a rather expensive to so “Sichuan Opera” not really knowing what I was in for. But the show was overall pretty nice, mixing traditional entertainment with some cheesy laser shows, synthed up music and one rap (so weird…whyyy). The part that was amazing, is this thing called face-changing. The actor/dancer is wear a mask, and in plain sight, turn their head just a tiny bit for 1/10 of second, and their mask is DIFFERENT. One of the guys didn’t even turn is head. I was super impressed. The next day was panda day! Near Chengdu there is a panda breeding facility that gets lots of tourists. The hostel tour went early in the morning to ensure that we could avoid the majority of the crowds and actually see the pandas. I really enjoyed it! The habitats were large and natural, and there was lots of information about pandas and the facility posted everywhere. We even timed our visit well to see baby pandas! Like so little they couldn’t really even use their legs properly. It was ridiculously cute. However, the more you learn about pandas, the more you wonder if we’re wasting our time trying to keep them from going extinct. they are practically suicidal. Their digestive systems are designed to be carnivorous, yet they eat 99% bamboo, and since they don’t digest the nutrients in bamboo well they have to spend the entire day stuff their faces with it, and because they lack nutrients they have to spend the rest of the day sleeping. They are super picky about mates, and then even if they get pregnant have have the baby, half the time they don’t even look after it. Anyway…just some thoughts I had while walking around the facility. Our last highlight of Chengdu was trying out some Sichuan pepper hotpot, free courtesy of our great hostel. While a little too spicy for me, Conor loved it. The next morning, we caught an FLIGHT (not a train yaay!) to Kunming.
The flight to Kunming was actually just to help us get to a little place called Dali faster. Dali is in Yunnan province, and home to the Bai people. We came here because we had heard it was a nice little relaxed town that was very foreigner friendly, with a beautiful lake on one side and picturesque mountains on the other (perfect feng shui BTW). It ended up being a bit more of a hassle to get to than we bargained on, but luckily it was worth it. We went for a bike ride along the lake until it started to rain, and spent another day just ambling around the old-fashioned buildings in the town center. And now, it’s back on the bus to Kunming, to catch our flight tomorrow into Myanmar! I’ve had a good time in China, probably better than I was expecting to have, but I am real excited to go somewhere warm again.