China Postcard 5 - Follow the Yangzi Home

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August 9th 2005
Published: August 10th 2005
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Tibetan Man in ZhongdianTibetan Man in ZhongdianTibetan Man in Zhongdian

He was extremely pleased at my greeting of "tashidalek" (Hello in Tibetan)
Let's Call it Shangri-La
I was confused. I had bought an airline ticket from Lhasa to a city called Zhongdian but as I stepped off the plane onto the rainy tarmac, the sign over the terminal building clearly read Shangri-La. Well it seems that the Chinese government has decreed that Zhongdian is the real-life paradise that inspired the famous novel. It is no problem at all that there is little convincing evidence for this - if the government says its so, no one here is going to question it. A bigger problem is that Zhongdian looks much more like another dirty Chinese city than an idyllic utopia. I did read that there is an interesting if not beautiful old city district complete with mud-brick houses and roaming pigs. Not any more! The old city is a construction site. The old houses are being leveled and replaced by quaint fake-old wooden buildings, all in the new approved Shangri-La style. It reminds me of an Intra-West ski village.

Zhongdian's other claim to fame is its large Tibetan minority. That's because this used to be part if Tibet. What China calls the Autonomous Region of Tibet is only a fraction of what was
Songzanlin MonasterySongzanlin MonasterySongzanlin Monastery

Tibetan Buddhist monestary in Zhondian
the country of Tibet. The most populous and productive parts were carved off and annexed to neighbouring Chinese provinces like Yunnan. I went to see the large Tibetan Monastery here, which resembles the ones I saw in Tibet except that there are no pilgrims praying, only tourists and the monks seem more preoccupied chatting by text-message on their cell phones than meditating. My Tibetan greetings of "tashidalek" (hello) to some of the older residents were received with great surprise and laughter.

Tiger Leaping Gorge
One of my objectives here was to organize a trek along the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge but the non-stop rain was making me question whether I wanted to undertake it alone and I didn't see any other westerners at all in Zhongdian. Then, the morning that I planned to leave, I bumped into a guy wearing an Expos cap, running around desperately looking for his lost wallet. It was Dan, a McGill student studying Chinese in Tianjin for the summer. After he miraculously found his wallet and contents, he told me that his next plan was to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge. Perfect, so off we went! Our travel itineraries turned out to be almost
Little Emperor gets KFCLittle Emperor gets KFCLittle Emperor gets KFC

Photo taken in Kunming.
identical and it would be two enjoyable weeks before we parted ways in Wuhan.

Tiger Leaping Gorge gave me my first glimpse of China's longest and the world's third longest river, the Yangzi, as it descends though the steep Himalayan foothills. The trail initially climbs 1000m through switchback after switchback but then levels off and clings to the side of the gorge. The second day, we hiked back along the road closer to the raging river. I would see a lot of this river since my route roughly follows it all the way to Shanghai.

Dali and Kunming
Dali is a relaxed backpacker town where local minorities specialize in tie-dyed fabrics and the beer flows liberally. Kunming is much larger but just as much fun. There is a small and shrinking old city where everything from birds and puppies to CDs and Playstation consoles are hawked from outdoor stands. More and more of the city is shining glass and steel, how Chinese see their future.

Near Kunming, the soft limestone karst has eroded deep channels until the remaining vertical columns resemble a stone forest. I explored the area and found a way up to the top of
Monks at Songzanlin Monastery in ZhongdianMonks at Songzanlin Monastery in ZhongdianMonks at Songzanlin Monastery in Zhongdian

After they put away their cell phones
a 30m column of rock where I was away from the crowds. There are millions of tourists in China but unlike many countries where tourist = foreigner, in China the tourists are almost all Chinese. From my rock-top vantage point, I noticed that the few westerners were alone or in pairs, as far away as they could get from the crowds. The Chinese, however, were almost all in large groups that seemed to exhibit a certain clotting property. Whenever 2 groups met, they would fuse into a larger group.

Little Emperors
In a bid to control its explosive population growth, the Chinese government implemented a one-child per couple policy. You would expect this to reduce the population over time but it has continued to grow because the policy is not enforced everywhere and many exemptions are made. Boys are much more desirable than girls in Chinese culture, so selective abortion of girls is sometimes done to ensure that the one-child is a boy. The result has been a generation of only-child boys used to getting whatever they want, except perhaps a girlfriend. With 1.17 boys born for every girl, millions of boys will have to do without.

Women in ZhongdianWomen in ZhongdianWomen in Zhongdian

Sitting in front of a new fake-old building in the Shangri-La style
saw many couples toting a lone whining and pouting boy. One boy of about 8 was insisting on getting his own glass of beer just like Daddy. Another overweight boy was screaming and pointing at a KFC. In each case, they got their way as little emperors must.

3 Gorges and a Dam
The next step of the trip got up close and personal with the Yangzi during a 3-day boat trip though the famous Three Gorges; more famous in recent years due to the world's largest hydro-electric dam under-construction there. Water levels have already increased by 135m and are slated to rise another 40m, displacing 1.5 million people from there homes and flooding some 8000 historical and archaeological sites. Entire cities have become ghost towns as the water creeps closer. The US$ 26 billion dam is already partially operational with 12 of 16 turbines generating power. It will have a capacity of 84 billion KW and reduce reliance on coal by 10%! (MISSING)While this will not entirely ruin the spectacular views of the Three Gorges, they are being diminished and all the wild rapids have already been tamed into flat water.

Far more than the water level, however, I found that pollution detracted from what would have been beautiful. It's hard to ignore that the boat is plying through garbage and other debris, sometimes in patches thick enough to hide the muddy water beneath (muddy due to soil erosion aggravated by deforestation).

Pollution is one of China's most serious challenges. Its mind-boggling 1.3 billion people take there toll on the land but the pollution crises is becoming acute due to another success: rapid industrialization and the addictive prosperity it brings. Nine of the world's ten most polluted cities are in China and in some cities, just breathing the air is like smoking 2 pack of cigarettes each day.

I bought a corn-on-the cob from a street vendor and, not seeing any trash cans, I tried to give the empty cob back to the vendor. He would not take it, gesturing to just throw it onto the street. Poor people are paid a pittance by the state to pick up after rich people. I could not bring myself to do it and carried the cob in my pack all day.

The Yangzi meets the sea at Shanghai. I've talked a lot about China's history
Tiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping Gorge

Dan on the trail
and current conditions but to look at Shanghai might just be a glimpse into China's future. It is rich, confident and thoroughly modern. Where the rest of China looks inward, Shanghai looks at, and looks like the world. Its western roots show in the architecture and openness but more than that, it is a city that seems to work. The spotless metro runs like digital clockwork. People's Square is a garden instead of the typical communist-style paved wasteland overseen by a statue of Mao. I decided to go to the airport, just because it's 30 km away and takes 7 minutes to get there by public transit. Work it out, that's an average speed of 250 km/h! It's possible because of the Maglev, a super-fast magnetic levitation train that reaches a top speed of 431 km/h. I'll resist commenting about public transit to airports in Canada.

Mark vs. Taishan, Taishan Wins
After a couple days of great weather in Shanghai, I decided to buy a train ticket for the next day to Taishan. This is the most sacred of 5 holy mountains in China, famously climbed by Emperor Qin Shihuang 2200 years ago and by every emperor since, including "Emperor" Mao. My plan was to stop and climb Taishan on my way back to Beijing where I'll catch my flight home.

The gods of Taishan did not look favourably upon my quest. When I returned to the hostel, train ticket in hand, the place was plastered with notices warning of a typhoon bearing down on Shanghai. This omen hit a few hours later and I have never seen such intense rain and wind. But by the next morning, it was just rain so I headed to the train station as planned. The 12-hour train ride was hell. I had a seat but it was so crowded that many people were standing in the aisles, constantly leaning on or falling against me. When I squeezed off the train at 10 PM in Taishan, I immediately went to buy my ticket to Beijing. Luck was still not with me. There were only 2 trains available, 7 AM the next morning (no time to climb the mountain) or standing-room on the 7-hour overnight train arriving in Beijing the morning of my 16-hour series of flights home, with no chance for sleep or even a shower for 24 sleepy stinky hours after
Tiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping Gorge

Dan on the trail
climbing the mountain. I spent the night is my seediest hotel so far then waved goodbye to Taishan from a distance at 7 AM. I can take a hint, I guess I'm just not emperor material.

Mao Mania
Mao Zedong was one of the 20th century's most brutal and psychopathic dictators. Not only was he responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, he ensured that hundreds of millions more lived in a constant state of fear and suspicion for decades. But unlike Hitler, Stalin and Mao's disciple Pol Pot in Cambodia who are all universally reviled, Mao-mania continues almost 30 years after his death. His giant portrait watches over Tiananmen Square in Beijing as his statues do in countless cities across China. His face is on the money. Any book, film or song critical of Mao is banned as quickly as if it criticized modern China. Even today, the Chinese seem unaware or unwilling to face the fact that their former Great Helmsman was imperfect, let alone evil.

The Great Firewall of China
Even the internet falls under the government's watchful eye. Websites are routinely censored, making it painfully slow for a site to load the first time, if it loads at all. Any site considered dangerous to the politics, morals or culture of Chinese society will be blocked by the government-controlled ISP. In China, even returns a mysterious "site does not exist" error.

Lasting Impressions
In my first China Postcard, I listed some first impressions of China. Here are a few more, filtered through 5 weeks of experience:

* Progress has become a passion. Countless construction cranes dot every skyline. Travelers that I met who were also here only a couple years ago could not believe how much it has changed.

* Many Chinese that I talked to were extremely friendly and went far out of their way to be helpful. People walked for several blocks to personally take me where I wanted to go.

* As much as individuals can be kind, courtesy and politeness are just not wasted on strangers in crowds. Walk too slowly and risk being hip-checked by a little old lady in a hurry. Apologies are out of the question; no one even acknowledges the presence of strangers. Leave an elbow-width in front of you in a line-up and someone will try to wedge in. Many go straight to the head of the line and try to steal the server's attention with no regard for others.

* I never got used to the horking and spitting. We're not talking about a discrete spit on the ground, but roaring nostril-sucking sounds followed by an exaggerated wind-up and delivery of these great gobs onto the floor - yes the floor - of trains, buses or even buildings.

* All men smoke. No women smoke. This makes sharing a train sleeper compartment or boat cabin with Chinese men far less than pleasant (also because of the previous point).

* Despite nominal communism, there is a distinct class system emerging with the new unequal prosperity. Growing numbers of shiny black sedans (mostly Audi A6) with tinted windows nudge impatiently though rickshaws and bicycles. Designer-clothed women, with parasol in one hand and latest model cell phone in the other, step over homeless people. A successful business-man no longer needs to tire himself walking up a long set of stairs when poorer men line up to carry him for a few cents.

* Most useful words: While they don't take "no" for an answer, "bu yao"
Tiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping Gorge

Roaring Water
(I don't want any) and "mei you" (I don't have any), spoken firmly, are wonderfully effective against aggressive vendors and beggars respectively.

Those last impressions seem far too negative - maybe it's time. Let's see.... I've been to Beijing, walked the wall. I've seen Xi'An and checked out Chengdu. I lived in Lhasa for a week, rural Tibet to boot and even Everest. I got showered-on in Shangri-La and trekked Tiger Leaping Gorge (gorgeous). I did Dali and karsty Kunming and floated down the yucky Yangzi. I saw shining Shanghai, a typhoon, but not Taishan. I discussed world affairs, politics and philosophy, often halfway through the night, with some incredibly knowledgeable people who have lived in or traveled to every part of the globe. I guess I can go home now. In fact by the time you read this, I'll already be there.

With more history than almost any other country and more people by far, China has complexity, drive and potential to match. Construction and modernization are national priorities, passions. China already has the world's second largest economy after the United States and the gap is closing quickly. There are huge problems to solve but this country seems unstoppable. Napoleon said 200 years ago that when China awakens, the world will tremble. China is finally stirring.

Additional photos below
Photos: 50, Displayed: 31


Dali BoysDali Boys
Dali Boys

Up to no good

11th November 2006

Just bad English translation
The correct translation in the picture on the left should be "Students and soldiers have priorities". The correction translation on the right should be " Do not use (the toilet) while the train is not in motion".
26th August 2010
Songzanlin Monastery

Good thank u
9th November 2010
Kunming Stone Forest

look where ive been
ha ha

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