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Published: March 6th 2009
Greetings from China / Hic Incepit Pestis
That's right, we've both been battling what feels like a plague/SARS hybrid-type bug for the past week, but we're finally feeling up to some blogging - so here's the rundown on our first ten days in the People's Republic.
Since landslides have closed the main rail line linking Hanoi and southwestern China, we took a pass on an 18-hour bus ride and flew straight to southwest China's largest city -- Kunming, pop. 2.5 million. We headed out on the town after our uneventful arrival and were immediately struck by the tranquility of the city center, which, despite its skyscrapers, pulsing neon signs, and traffic-snarled six-lane boulevards, was mercifully short on scooters and the constant blaring of scooter horns that infected the sound scape in Vietnam. It was Sunday, so after checking out the city's main Buddhist temple, we joined the locals strolling through a boutique-lined central promenade, and were soon overcome with a dreadful feeling of schlumpiness that has stuck with us throughout our time in China. We were wearing our usual mono-tone fleeces and travel pants, but everywhere we looked, Chinese were dressed to impress, conspicuously draped in every designer clothing
Tiger Leaping Gorge
brand you can think of, sporting bouncy foiled hair-do's, and with brightly colored, exotically-skinned handbags of enormous size (B.C.E.S.H.E.S.'s) slung over their shoulders--the display was all-the-more impressive considering Kunming is way closer to Khasakistan than it is to Shanghai or Hong Kong.
In the evening we ate at a great mock-meat restaurant--skipping the the injection molded mock turtle in favor of good-old mock chicken--before continuing our spiral into aesthetic inadequacy while perusing the bars on the strip outside Kunming University, eventually ending the night with the following disconcerting conversation with a middle-aged Westerner and his six-year-old Asian daughter in the elevator at our hotel:
Man: Where are you two from?
Anna: The U.S.
Man: Oh, so are we. . . . Are you here on business?
Anna: No, we're traveling around China for about a month.
Man: Why!? . . . You mean, you came here voluntarily?
Anna : Sure . . . You know, we're excited to see the . . .
Little girl: : We're here to get a baby!!!
Man: That's right! We're getting your sister aren't we, and then we're going home.
The next morning, we day-tripped it out to the
Stone Forest, a thousand-acre geological spectacle of tree-sized grey and white limestone karsts. After obliging two Chinese families on the way in by posing with them for pictures ("Here's a photo of two Americans we saw! They sure don't know how to dress, but look how tall and pale they were"), we ditched the tour-group gridlock in the central viewing area and spent three hours wandering the site's deserted patchwork of outlying trials, admiring the other-worldly scenery, and trying our hands at identifying some of the ambitiously named individual formations listed on our visitor's map, eventually agreeing that we could just make out the "Eternal Mushroom" and "Elephant Relaxing on a Terrace," but definitely not "A Lady Yearning for her Lost Husband," or the "Rhinoceros Gazing at the Moon."
We then caught a puddle-jumper east to Lijaing, flying on the start-up China Southern Airlines (whose in-flight magazine boasted that it now has "more former Beijing Olympic medal presenters" working as stewardesses than any airline). Lijaing is a small city set in a sprawling mountain valley that's known for its minority Naxi-tribe inhabitants and its winding, cobble-stone old-town alleys. We rolled into town past a snow covered mountain and fields
of grazing yaks, but as soon as we arrived, it was clear that reports we'd heard of the entire area being overrun with domestic tourists were spot on. Literally every inch of the once residential old-town now consists of restaurants and shops selling tourist kitsch, and rather than locals, the streets were packed with middle-class Chinese tourists who, like us, had flown in to check things out for a few days. Despite our initial trepidation, however, the ostentatious flaunting of wealth, combined with the fact that it was genuinely cold in Lijaing, gave the town the feel of a Colorado ski resort in full swing, with a festive atmosphere and fantastic people watching. So we spent our first night drinking beer on benches set along a small stream adjacent to a row of open-air restaurants, taking in: (1) the commitment to form-over-function of the innumerable woman walking in boots with spiked heels on the rough-hewn cobble-stones; (2) super-expensive D300 and above cameras worn like Oscar-night jewelry by dozens of proud owners; (3) full length man-furs; (4) a shifty-looking kid who we watched try and fail to pick someones' pocket; (5) a kid casually setting off M-80 sized firecrackers, which didn't
seem to phase anyone but us; (6) a game of street badminton that was as impromptu as it was short-lived, what with the stream and all; and (7) teenagers carrying guitars with battery powered amps who serenaded diners with Chinese pop songs and us with Celine Dion's theme from Titanic.
The next morning we woke before dawn and caught a lift two hours north to Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is billed as the deepest and narrowest gorge in the world--with snow-capped, 18,000 foot peaks rising up so straight from both banks of a river that it's said a tiger once lept clear across. The scenery was stunning, and absolutely one of the highlights of the trip--especially when the moon appeared from behind the mountains in the cloudless sky, Ansel Adams-style. We had to work for the best view though, hiking four hours up and four hours down on a trial with a nerve-rackingly shear drop-off, that included a final push up a Pike's Peak-like "28-bend path," where we counted out every last switch-back in between gasping breaths. So you can image our surprise when we rounded the last steep corner and the whole gorge opened up below us, and
A big city in a beautiful province
there, standing precariously on the side of the trial, was an ancient looking woman selling a full accoutrement of beverages and snacks. She ended up taking a couple photos for us after Anna chatted her up. On our way down, we ran across hikers who had started later in the day, one of whom looked like she'd seen a ghost when Anna (truthfully, but maybe not diplomatically) answered her question about how close they were to the top by saying that the "serious" climb started a little further up, and another who we thought was also just tired, but who, it turned out, was really having a panic attack because he was afraid of heights--which we finally figured out after his friend started pleading with us to stop telling them about the view from up top. The day was marred only by our absolutely terrible meal back in town, when the expensive local delicacy of "Fried Fungus" that Jub ordered on the assumption it was some sort of fancy mushroom stir-fry turned out to be a plate of dark grey tubes, whose taste could only generously be described as "bark-like," and Anna's "River Shrimp" ended up being basically unshelled (and
uneatable) freshwater krill. At least the beer was cold, we told ourselves.
The next day we rented bikes and peddled through the countryside to Baisha, a small Naxi village, before catching a bus four hours north through beautiful--albeit stark--scenery to the small, ethnically Tibetan city of Zhongdian (recently rebranded by the government as Shangrila). All was quiet on the Tibetan front during our visit, but we caught a glimpse of the government's readiness to crack down any Tibetan "troubles" during the bus ride as we drove past a long, low-slung building in the middle of nowhere and just for a moment we could see maybe 80 police performing drills dressed in full riot gear in the central courtyard. It was freezing in Zhongdian, and the town itself was just OK, but the absolutely stunning Gandan Sumtseling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery we visited on our first day was easily worth the schlep out (there, now all our Yiddish is in play this blog). It helped that we visited on a crystal clear day, but between the sprawling, centuries-old patchwork compound, the central temples' glimmering golden domes, the austere prayer halls covered in silk streamers, friendly pilgrims and even friendlier monks, and--to
top it off--a flock of hundreds of ravens who spent half an hour circling the temple in unison, we walked away in agreement that the Monastery was the first outright spiritual place that we've been to on the trip. The next day, we had a breakfast of doughy, tofu-filled baozi (better than it sounds) and yak-butter tea (worse than it sounds) before touring the nearby Pudacuo National Park. The park was pretty enough, with several nice lakes and herd-filled meadows, but was insanely over-priced, since the only way to see it was to ride with dozens of other visitors (many of whom were sucking down bottles of oxygen that were being peddled everywhere in town) from short-walk to short-walk on the park's "green" bus at $30 a pop--or about triple the price of our meals and hotel room for the day.
From Zhongdian we headed cross-country to Xian, where we began our exploration of China's more urban landscapes. Stay tuned.
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