Friday, August 14, 2009


The last stop on my official around the country journey is now complete.  I spent two and a half days in Nanjing, one of the ancient capitals of China.

From a general point of view, Nanjing is very similar to Beijing.  There is a mixture of re-built old city architecture and modern business buildings.  The city was much more visited by foreigners than the previous cities that I saw, excepting Xi'an (another ancient capital) and Hong Kong.  People tend to go to Nanjing for the history, which predominantly features Chinese culture, revolutions and wars: both domestic and foreign.  I had a little taste of these three key types of history. 

Before I start with the description, here is the Nanjing Photo Album for those who are interested.

On my first full day in Nanjing, I spent nearly the entire afternoon walking through the city, spending most of my time near the Confucius Temple.  That area, which was almost completely decimated during the Cultural Revolution, has been reconstructed to mimic the historical setting.  Surrounding the temple and nearby garden is an area composed almost completely of shops which have rebuilt "ancient" architectural facades.  Placed on the streets which lie in front of the shops are bronze statues of Confucius and various other Chinese thinkers and historical figures. 

Aside from the statues, this area was very similar to many other Chinese shopping streets that I have visited - full of hole-in-the-wall stores selling tacky souvenirs - so I eventually tired of the area and continued on walking toward the mountains to the northeast.  As it turns out, those mountains were very far away.  I walked for about 1.5 hours along very wide, boring streets that look like they could have been the main roads in a Midwestern American suburb, and after visiting some rather uninteresting Ming Dynasty ruins, arrived at the Zhongshan gate through the city wall (As an aside, Nanjing supposedly has the world's longest city wall, but I read that online, so don't quote me).  At that point in time, I saw the mountains to my left, so I walked in that direction.  Bad decision.  I ran into a gate that was guarded by a man in a military uniform.  I pointed to the mountain behind the gate and asked if I could pass through to go there.  He didn't like that idea, and explained to me that I couldn't get to the mountain using the road that the gate blocked.  Good thing he was there, I guess; if he weren't, I probably would have accidentally trespassed on a Chinese military base.

At this point, the weather had become extremely hot, and I was getting tired and cranky.  Hence, I decided to catch a cab back to the hostel to relax for a while.  I rested, met some nice people in the hostel, played some pool, etc.  Eventually these new friends decided that they wanted to go out and see the Nanjing nightlife (on a Wednesday night).  Needless to say, there aren't any interesting stories to relate:  the bar that we went to was not empty, but nor was it full.  We just had some drinks, met a few of the foreigners who lived in town, and danced a bit before going home.

On the final day, I figured I had better go see some real sights, so I took a bus to Zhongshan, the same mountain that I was trying to walk to the day before.  It's a good thing that I had stopped walking, because the bus stop next to the historical sites was located a good two to four miles beyond the point where I had turned around.  The sights on the mountain were very much worth the 2 RMB (about $0.30) bus ride, but when you include the 80 RMB (about $11.50) entry ticket, I felt like I broke even.  At least I was able to see lots of sites though!

I won't bore you with the details of each of the places, but I went to Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum, an open air auditorium, Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Memorial, and the Ling Gu Scenic Area, where I saw some tombs and the Ling Gu Pagoda and Temple.  The one interesting fact that I will relate is that I was surprised by all of the attention that has been devoted to Dr. Sun Yat-sen in these museums.  He was the father of Chinese Democracy (yes, you read that correctly), and he was one of the leaders working to form the Kunmingtang government which was eventually led by Chiang Kai-shek and defeated by Mao Zedong and the Communists.  Perhaps this was unfair of me, but I had just assumed that positive notions regarding previous governments (and democracy in general) had been stamped out during the Cultural Revolution and following certain more recent events.  I guess I was wrong!

That about sums up my experiences in Nanjing.  I spent the remainder of the time between the Zhongshan site seeing and my arrival in Beijing on pure necessities.  However, I am now safe and sound in Beijing staying at my friend Jonny's house (the same Jonny who came to visit me in Chengdu), and I'll be here for the next week!

As a final note, this may be my last China related post.  If there is another one, it will be after I have arrived in France (I'm going there on August 24th to visit Sabine).  Hence,  thanks for reading, and I hope that you have enjoyed it! 

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hong Kong and Trains

When I last wrote, I gave a little preview of my experiences on the 30 hour train ride between Chongqing and Shenzhen, and I'll begin this note by finishing that description.  If you recall, I was forced to switch from a bed to a hard seat because of a booking error in Chongqing.  However, the switch didn't end up as badly as I thought it would.

I shared four seats with a mother and her two daughters; one was twelve, one was about two and a half.  They were extremely pleasant and interesting people who were going from Chongqing to Guangzhou to see the girls' dad, who is working there.  The mother was interested in my experiences in China, as most adults are, but the elder daughter had some new questions for me.  She wanted to know about the lives of children in the United States.  She asked me questions like: "Do parents often tell their kids that they can't do things,"  "When are you allowed to make decisions for yourself," "What is school like," etc.

I found the questions extremely interesting, because they seem to be exactly the type of questions, which revolve around independence and socializing, that pre-teens and early teens in the US grapple with.  It was enlightening to find that Chinese youth are working with the same issues, and even more interesting to discover that they think life is completely different on the other side of the Pacific.  Needless to say, I assured her that, when I was twelve, there were plenty of things that I could not do.  However, I gave her a glimmer of hope, telling her that as I aged, I was given more and more responsibilities and was able to keep them, as long as I didn't lose my parents' trust.  I think she was satisfied with the answers.

I passed the first night with limited and intermittent sleep.  Total, I slept about 5 hours between 1:00 am and 9:00 am.  When lots of others on the train began to wake up, however, sleeping became nearly impossible.  Luckily, I had brought my instant coffee, and I was able to chemically fend off drowsiness.

By the morning, it had become common knowledge that I spoke some Chinese, and lots of people on the train wanted to talk to the only foreigner in the hard seats section of the train (no lie, I was the only one  . . . I might have been the only one on the whole train; I didn't see any others).  We walked through the standard conversation:  What's America like?  How is China?  Is America better or worse than China?  How old are you?  What do you do here?  How long have you lived here?  Where did you learn mandarin?  Et cetera, et cetera.

Chatting with people aside, the most interesting part of the train ride must have been the period immediately after a salesperson came through the train hawking a little toy.  Essentially, the toy was like a snake that could be twisted into various shapes.  One of the children next to me purchased the object but couldn't make the animal shapes that the salesperson had demonstrated.  He seemed disappointed, so I offered to help.  He asked for a bird, and I made him one.  Word of this accomplishment quickly spread, and before I knew it, I had a line of Chinese children asking me to make various shapes for them.  They would decide they wanted a certain shape, ask me to make it, play with it for a while, and then hop back in line when they wanted something new.  It was quite fun, and a great way to pass and hour and a half during a 30 hour ride.

As much fun as I had being in the hard seat section of the train, by the evening I was exhausted.  I knew that the next couple of days in Hong Kong would not afford me much time for sleep, so I made the decision to upgrade to a soft sleeper for the night.  It was a good decision; I had a great night's sleep and arrived in Shenzhen at 8:00am.

I spent the morning making the journey from the Shenzhen train station across the Hong Kong border (it's possible to walk across at a place called Luo Hu) to Hong Kong Island, and I met my old friends, Sean and Nikki, for a brief period before Nikki went to work and Sean took me to lunch near their apartment, which is in a great part of town called Happy Valley.

At this point, I guess I'll link to the Hong Kong Photo Album.

My initial impression of Honk Kong was that it was basically New York City, but it's full of Asians and cars driving on the wrong side of the road (thanks to the British influence).  The most amazing thing to me, however, was the fact that everything just seemed to work.  Whereas China is full of traffic jams (with honking horns), negotiations, and inconveniences; Hong Kong is quiet, well-ordered, and efficient.  My friend Moling's description sums up the city's situation nicely:  "If Hong Kong is the China of the future, then we're all fucked."  It's true.  Oh, and I just have to add one more highlight: it has the full internet (not the Chinese regulated internet), including YouTube, and Facebook, and my Picasa Web Albums.  Sweet.

I spent the first afternoon getting catching up on some administrative work that I had to take care of, and then Sean took me out for drinks.  It was a good night out, but I came to a realization the next day when I woke up and looked in my wallet:  Hong Kong, like the USA, is very good at separating people from their money.

On Saturday, Sean and I relaxed, chatted about my travels to that point, and walked about the city before joining Nikki and a friend of hers for dinner at an Indian restaurant.  The food was excellent (as it was everywhere in Hong Kong) as was the service . . . another big difference from China.  We had a couple of drinks afterward, but since we wanted to enjoy the whole day on Sunday, we decided to go home early to get some sleep.

Sunday was, without a doubt, the highlight of the Hong Kong trip.  We all woke up at 9:30 am, went to pick up a pair of Nikki's friends, and took the ferry across the harbor to Kowloon.  We shopped for a couple of hours and then had a delicious and relatively inexpensive Dim Sum lunch, complete with wontons, dumplings, and hot peppers, which by the way, don't seem so bad after eating Chengdu Hot Pot.  After lunch, we spent a couple more hours shopping, and then went back to Nikki and Sean's to change clothes before beginning the best part of the Hong Kong trip: a four hour hike over the inland mountains.

Hong Kong is a beautiful island, but it's even more beautiful when viewing it from 300+ meters (900+ feet) above (see the photos).  We hiked from a road in the center of the island up over two mountain peaks, and I was continuously awestruck by the views.  Mountains jut out of the water forming numerous bays.  Surrounding the bays are tall narrow skyscrapers, which actually add to the beauty of the natural surroundings, rather than taking away from it.  On the water, boats pull water skiers, and on the roads below, buses and luxury autos roll by (very luxurious; we saw 6 Lamborghinis on Sunday).  Increasing my sense of amazement was the fact that we started our hike at a location that was less than 15 minutes from downtown Hong Kong.  I've never been to such a large modern city where outdoor activities are so nearby.

The hike to the peak was not easy.  Actually, the rumor is that the path has more than 1000 steps going up the mountain.  I'm not sure if it was that many, but it was enough to make Sean, Nick (Sean and Nikki's friend), and me sweat through our clothing on the warm sunny day; it was also enough to discourage Nick's wife from making the trek; instead, she bypassed the mountain with their dog.  Regardless of the heat and the stickiness, the hike was absolutely amazing.

After hiking, we took a walk along a bayside promenade in a part of the city called Stanley.  There, we saw lovers enjoying the sunset, athletes playing soccer, and kids relaxing on a sandy beach.  We were still dripping with sweat, but the surroundings were so nice that I didn't even care.

The whole weekend finished up with a veggie-burger dinner at Sean and Nikki's favorite local bar in Happy Valley.  The food was delicious, and the beer was cold and smooth.  Both of which were made more enjoyable by the fact that we had such a full and active day.  When we finished, we returned home to sleep; they had work in the morning, and I had to make my way across the Hong Kong border again to catch my train from Shenzhen to Nanjing.

All-together, I loved Hong Kong.  Well, I loved everything except the prices.  It was a very different experience from the others that I have had in China: much more urban, much more westernized, and much more modern.  However, it was still excellent, and I want to give my sincerest thanks to Sean and Nikki for being such great hosts to me while I was in town!  You two are great!

I began this post with a discussion of a train, and I'll end with one as well.  The train from Shenzhen to Nanjing (my next destination), which I boarded in 90+ degree heat (30+ C), had a broken air-conditioner.  As a result, I was in a train with about 30 really pissed off Chinese for the first five hours of the journey while the staff decided how to solve the problem.  I do not think that I have ever sweated so much while sitting still, nor have I ever heard so much angry screaming in such a confined space before.  But hey, I'm in China.  It's an experience!

The problem was solved, however, when the staff decided to trade beds with all of the people in our car.  Honestly, their car wasn't that much cooler, but it seemed to make my fellow travelers happy, so no complaints here.  The really curious thing, though, was when I walked over to their car (my old car) the morning after we moved.  It was much much cooler than our car.  I won't make any accusations, but it was strange.  I guess the air conditioning wasn't broken after all.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Chengdu Part 2 + Chongqing

When I last left off, I was in Kangding preparing for my trip to Chengdu. Since Kangding and the first day back in Chengdu were more re-charge time than anything else, I won’t describe those days in detail beyond this: I slept, caught up with some planning that I needed to do, and hung out with a couple of friends from earlier parts of my travels (namely; Pep, Joseph and the people who run the hostel where I stayed in Kangding).

On Thursday, however, I was joined by two friends from Beijing: Jonny and Aaron. I won’t describe our days in too much detail either with one exception - to be announced later. The majority of our four days went something like this: Breakfast, see a sight, eat a bit more, perhaps see another sight, have some drinks, go to bed, repeat.

As far as sights go, we saw the dark and tiny tomb of Wang Jian, made a return trip to People’s Park (see the previous Chengdu post for a description of that), spent time on the main shopping street called Chunxi lu, and visited a park that claimed to have more than 120 different species of bamboo (though I think that figure may have been misleading) as well as exhibition of antiques within that park. For pictures of these places (there are only 5 - not including very similar pictures), you can start here and move forewards.

For food, we braved the exceedingly spicy Chengdu hotpot – two of the three of us survived unscathed; one, who will remain nameless, had some . . . digestive issues. After that experience, we tended toward western food, but we did have some Chinese grilled fish that may have been the best fish I have tasted in China.

Finding the right location for drinks proved to be a challenge the first night. We took four cab rides and asked every driver and young person who we could, “Where do young people go to have fun at night.” By the end of the first night, we had been to every major nightlife street in the city (save one, which was our second stop the next night), and we located the “foreigners bar,” where we saw about 40 of the approximately 60 westerners in the city. Chengdu is not like Beijing. In the end, we settled on a street of establishments with predominantly Chinese clientele that struck a good balance between price and fun. Just to give a quick image of the type of places that we went: as soon as we decided that one club was suitable and ordered drinks, the in-house music shut of and was replaced by a male vocalist singing onstage karaoke-style. After a brief eye-roll from all three of us, we decided to make the best of the situation and enjoy our drinks; it turned out to be not too bad.

I mentioned that there was one Chengdu experience that I would describe in more detail, and that experience was visiting the Panda Breeding Center. In order to follow along with this part of the journey, you can take a look at the specially created Panda Album.

If you want to learn about Giant Pandas, I’m not going to help you much here. You should instead go to this Wikipedia article about pandas. I’m going to give a slightly different analysis, because after seeing real pandas, I feel that they are largely misunderstood. Also, as a disclaimer: If anything in my description disagrees with Wikipedia, blame the Panda Museum, my guide, or my faulty memory.

Now, I won’t deny it: Giant Panda’s are very cute. They even have opposible thumbs (just like us!) that render them extra cute because their arm and paw motions tend to mirror ours very closely, at least when they climb trees or eat bamboo, the only two things that I saw the Giant Pandas do.

However, I would argue that the majority of pandas’ cuteness (and we humans' resulting fascination with them) derives from their lazy idiocy and clumsiness. I don’t know exactly how it works, but for some reason humans are sufficiently entertained watching a black and white bear accidentally smack itself in the face with sticks of bamboo that it is trying to eat that we will stand by it watching and giggling for a good 15 minutes. Sitcoms don’t last much longer than that. And let me remind you that pandas don’t hit themselves in the face very often, so the majority of the time is actually spent watching a very lazy animal sitting on his butt or laying on his back . . . doin nothing. So yeah, that’s the most entertaining part about the adult pandas: when they smack themselves in the face with bamboo that misses their mouths. Guess what are the most entertaining moments when watching the baby pandas . . .

When they fall down (Obviously).

Here is the video which proves the point.

A close second to baby pandas falling down is baby pandas fighting, which tends to lead to baby pandas falling down. However, as a side-show while you wait for the inevitable fall, you get to see them growling, gently biting each other, and swinging for each others’ faces (often missing). What could be more fun than that!

I’m rambling a bit, but let me get back to the misunderstanding that I mentioned earlier. I found the false impression most succinctly stated in the Breeding Center’s Panda Museum. I found a quote that said (almost exactly), “Pandas are champions of survival and evolution.”


They’re not.

I already mentioned that they’re dumb and lazy, but if that wasn’t enough, here are two more maladaptive characteristics.

1) They are capable of eating meat, but they only like to eat bamboo, a plant with almost no nutritional value; and worse, they only like to eat about 20 of the 40 common bamboo species in their habitats. In fact, they have to eat 17 – 40 kilograms (37.4 – 88 lbs.) of bamboo every day according to the museum, which, by the way, seems to disagree with Wikipedia. Further, they can’t move around much because that wastes the precious energy which they gain from eating those 88 pounds of food.

2) They suck at procreating (cover young children’s eyes for this paragraph). They only have sex during one short period each year. If the female can’t find the right male, she doesn’t even try to have a baby. Even if she does find the right male, they often do not have enough energy to mate (thanks to the bamboo diet). To make matters worse, the male’s penis is too small for the female’s vagina, so ejaculation is not even certain, let alone fertilization. And then if the female actually becomes pregnant, when she gives birth she only births one or two babies per littler, and she doesn’t know that the thing that just fell out of her is her cub, so she sometimes tries to kill it – trust me; I saw a video, and it was frightening.

Long story summed up very succinctly: I began to doubt the theory of evolution.

But then I saw it: a board titled “Panda Predators.” There are four. 1. 2. 3. 4. A panda can count that high without using its opposable thumb! And better yet, the predators, if I remember correctly, are also very rare.

So it seems to me that pandas are not “Champions of survival and evolution.” Rather, they were a well-evolved creature that wandered into the mountains, and then devolved because they didn’t have any predators. And thanks to that unlikely lucky situation for a maladaptive species, we now get to laugh at them when they smack themselves in the face with bamboo or fall down.

That concludes the tongue-in-cheek panda description. Let’s move on to Chongqing. Exit Jonny and Aaron.

When I arrived in Chongqing (photo album, for those who want to follow), it was raining buckets. And finding a taxi in the rain in a big Chinese city is war. I had to fight a woman holding a child for a taxi cab. Yes, I know that sounds heartless, but I had already had more than 7 cabs stolen from me, and I had clearly laid claim to this one when the woman, holding her baby like a football, ran in to try and take it away. However, I got it, and I was soon on my way to the hostel where I spent most of the day.

At the hostel, I met a Mexican girl named Val, and I did most of my traveling with her. We were able to walk around town for about two hours between two downpours. During that time, we walked towards a war monument which was suggested to me by one of the Chinese kids that I met on the train between Chengdu and Chongqing. However, when we arrived we quickly discovered that the war monument was not the main attraction. We ended up at the main shopping center in the town. (Note to self - even though I already knew it in the abstract: young Chinese people love going to shopping centers. Take their suggestions with a grain of salt.) We spent a little while walking around there, and then started to head back toward the hostel. About 2 minutes before we returned, the rain started full-force again, and we were forced inside for the remainder of the night, where we watched a movie and were joined by Stu the Australian for dinner and drinks.

The second day was much more fun. It was a sunny day, and Val and I spend the morning and early afternoon wandering through down the narrow alleyways between the stilted houses on the side of one of the mountains upon which Chengdu is built. We stopped for a quick cup of tea in one of the bomb shelters, which was built during the Sino-Japonese war period. Then we proceeded to the markets where Val was appalled to see chickens and ducks sitting in cages and then being removed and chopped into pieces in front of our eyes (for meat . . . it wasn't just a killing grounds for fowel).

From there, we started working our way up the mountain again, and we discovered a cable car which crosses one of the two rivers that converge around the main peninsula on which the center of Chengdu sits. We rode the car across the river, and were able to spend the sunniest part of the afternoon walking along the main promenade next the river. The city was quite pretty when the sky had cleared up, and I don’t think the photos quite do it justice.

After all of this walking, we made our way back to the hostel and re-joined Stu the Australian and (no lie) another new Stu the Australian for food and drinks. During this time, I relaxed and prepared for my long train trip which would begin that night at 1:04 am.

My general impression of Chongqing was very favorable. I wish that I would have had more time to spend there. The people were extremely friendly compared to those in most of the other cities that I visited in China. It seemed that nearly everybody was willing to talk and answer questions; it was kind of like a big city with a very small-town feel to it. If I were to pick a Chinese city in which I would like to relax for a summer or retire, I think Chongqing would be it (provided that I could still speak Chiense at those times; English was a bit scarce there).

That about sums up my experiences over the past week or so. I wrote this about 15 hours into my 30 hour train ride from Chongqing to Shenzhen, and according to myself at that time, "I’m looking forward to arriving. However, the hard-seat experience has proven to be very interesting. I’m surrounded by a number of young children who have taken a liking to me (the foreigner who can speak Chinese) :-p. Perhaps I’ll add a description of this experience onto the next post, but I’m not sure when that will be!"

Update: I ended up moving to a soft sleeper car (which has a bed) for the second night, so I arrived in Shenzhen relatively well rested. Now in Hong Kong, I'm not quite ready put together the train ride post, but based on my current impression of how different Hong Kong is than China, it looks like this weekend will contain plenty to write about as well.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

No Full Post Yet, But the Travels Continue

I have moved from Chengdu to Chongqing.  I was planning to get a post together today, but couldn't find the time.  In the interests of not making anybody nervous (first and foremost, my parents), just wanted to let you all know that I'll be offline for the next day or two.  I have a 30 hour train ride to Shenzhen beginning at 1:04 am this evening. 

Unfortunately for me, the woman who helped me to book the tickets in Chengdu made a mistake, and I was forced to change my seat assignment from a hard sleeper (bed) to a hard seat (exactly what it sounds like).  Wish me luck!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beautiful Western Sichuan . . . Which is Essentially Tibet

All of the pictures for this post: Tagong Album.

I have just returned from one of those places where it is simple to lose track of time.  The pace of life was slow; the surrounding scenery was beautiful; and every day offered new experiences.

The village's name was Tagong, and it was the only place that I have visited that has a Tibetan majority.  The architecture is unique: colorfully decorated stone buildings are the norm, and they show almost no trace of traditional Chinese style.  Monks walk the streets in saffron and brown robes or they spend time praying or spinning prayer wheels in and around the multiple monasteries within and surrounding the village.  Smiling Tibetans warmly wave and spurt forth greetings as one walks the streets.  Thousands of prayer flags have been planted in the hills immediately surrounding villages; they flap in the wind, supposedly sending floating their prayers into the air and constantly blessing the surrounding areas.  These elements and more came together to create an experience unlike any that I have had before in China.

Arrival Day (Pictures for the day)

The first day began with a missed bus to Danba thanks to a landslide, which I mentioned in my previous post. (Now that I am officially safe off of the mountain roads, I can state how fortunate I feel that I chose my particular dates of travel; apparently the landslide led to injuries and deaths.  I don't know the numbers, but I hope there were very few of the latter.)  The closed road, however, turned out to be a benefit for me, because I was able to change my destination, and I had the privilege of riding in a small mini-bus with a very nice Chinese couple.

The first portion of the journey was essentially uphill toward the highest pass between Kangding and the next series of villages.  Based on my brother's experience in Bolivia and Peru about 9 years ago, I was a little bit worried about the extreme discomfort and vomiting resulting from altitude sickness.  However, I was quite relieved when I passed 4,298 meters (about 13,000 ft) without any problems.

After crossing the pass, the jagged peaks of the high mountains gave way to the rolling grasslands that stretch to Tagong and beyond.  As we moved through these green, flower speckled lands we saw a number of tents and houses that were put up by members of the Zang Chinese subculture.  Around these dwellings, Furry Cows (Mao Niu in Chinese) grazed.  Also in these grasslands we began to see bits of Tibetan culture.  The most interesting Tibetan spectacle that we saw on the road was a group of people around a pile of rocks and sticks throwing what looked like giant bits of confetti into the air and cheering as they did.  I still don't know the meaning behind the celebration (It sounded like a celebration), but it was cool to watch.

Shortly after viewing the Tibetans, our driver decided to take a little off-road run which, from time to time crossed the road, but eventually went back off-road.  Surprisingly enough, even though the roads were terrible (only about 3 miles of the whole trip was paved), high enough that a fall would have killed everybody in the car, and occasionally crowded with huge utility vehicles, I felt very safe with the driver that we had on this particular day.  And after about 4 hours of passing through beautiful scenery and stopping periodically to take pictures, we arrived safely in Tagong.

Now, I didn't feel any altitude sickness per se, but once I was off the mini-bus and walking around, I did begin to feel very, very tired.  I was amazed at how similar I felt compared to when I was in Cuzco, Peru; I was also amazed that I remembered the feeling so clearly once I experienced it again.  The altitude in both locations can simply be described as "oppressive."  The lack of oxygen constrains the mind, making it ebb and flow to and from clear consciousness (while also enhancing the bright colors - which are already very bright based on the Tibetan tastes); it also constrains the body, leading to breathlessness when walking even at medium paces - though for some people the physical constraint was so severe that they had difficulty breathing if they laid on their sides, rather than their backs, while sleeping.  For those who are runners, the feeling is somewhat similar to the daze that you feel after running more than 10 miles.

It was in this physical and conscious state that I spent the afternoon.  I had tea with some foreigners who were in the town, took a brief nap, walked around the city taking pictures of the main street and nearby monasteries, and then ate dinner with my tea group.  Even though these activities required minimal expenditures of energy, I was still ready to go to bed at 8:00pm, and I slept until 8:00am the next morning.

Day 2: The First Hike (Pictures for the day)

On the second day, I woke up feeling wonderful and rested.  Hence, I had a quick breakfast and found three people whom I had met in Kangding - Pep, a semi-retired Spaniard; Joseph, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois; and Netta, an Israeli girl who had been traveling for quite some time - and we began a hike to the north of the town.

We spent the majority of our time traversing the paths along the side of a mountain which had a huge patch of prayer flags, telling stories about our travels and taking pictures as we walked.  The paths, for the most part, were fairly simple to cross.  However, given the heights (and probably a little remaining altitude-induced dizziness), there were times that I felt a bit concerned.  I'm sure that the knowledge that hospital care in the area wouldn't be excellent also made me a little more cautious.

However, the views were simply spectacular.  Following grey skies in the morning, the afternoon carried forth patches of blue skies, and we enjoyed every second of sun that we got.  We crossed the mountain, and ate some snacks on a huge flat field, surrounded by grazing horses.  Unfortunately, though, the sun went almost as quickly as it appeared, and by early afternoon, we were making our way back to the city to avoid the coming rain.

More unfortunately, we had crossed a river before we reached the first mountain that we passed, and as we worked our way back toward the village we realized that there was no bridge near our present location.  Luckily for me, I was wearing sandals, and I was able to pick the path through the river for the group; the rest followed after me after removing their hiking boots and rolling up or removing their pants.

We returned to town before the rain began falling hard and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing.  After the hike, I began to feel the altitude again, and I went to bed very early for the second night in a row.

Day 3: The Second Hike (Pictures for the day)

The second hike was to the south of Tagong.  The hike itself was uneventful (except that we - on this day "we" was Pep, Joseph and me - saw two foxes, a bunch of vultures and a pair of hawks), but we spent the majority of our time on the highest hills near to Tagong. The views from the top of the surrounding world gave us a great feel for the scale and beauty of the area.  Take a look at the pictures in the link above; they'll tell the story better than I can with words alone.

Day 4: The Third Hike (Pictures for the day)

This hike was culturally the most interesting one that we (Pep, Joseph and I) took.  On this day we, were also joined by a Brazilian named Gui and his Chinese girlfriend, Wenwen.  We set off after morning rain showers intending to visit a monastery that Pep, Joseph and I had seen the day before.  However, once we arrived, we were surprised by two things: first, the monastery was unfinished (which allowed us to take some cool pictures), and second, to the north of the monastery was a town which we had not seen or expected to see.

We spent the majority of our time walking through the town, chatting with the locals, and taking pictures of the town and the prayer flags on the hills to the north.  From what we discovered, the town only had a Tibetan name, which I don't remember.  Also, the vast majority of the inhabitants were monks - female monks.

During this particular time of the year, there are 45 days of prayer (I think that number is right) for good health.  We happened to walk through the village on one of the prayer days.  In the center of the city was a huge square (which, we discovered, doubles as a soccer field during non-prayer times) that had more than 600 people inside offering flowers and chanting simultaneously.  I didn't go inside, but I did peak in through the door, and the view was beautiful: people in saffron and brown robes kneeling and spreading huge clusters of flowers over the ground while a man spoke over a microphone, leading the prayer.  I wish I could've taken a picture, but I didn't want to interrupt peoples' concentration to determine if it was permitted.

The final point that I will make regarding this village is related to the friendliness of the people.  While in most locations around China, people predominantly keep to themselves (aside from the occasional "hello" and ensuing giggles after getting the attention of the foreigners), the people who I met in this region were genuinely outgoing and friendly.  Everywhere that our small group of westerners went, we were greeted with waves, the words "Tashi delek" ("Hello" in Tibetan) and big smiles, which often showed a gold tooth or two.  At one point we were even invited into a household when the weather turned bad and given tea, bread, Yak butter and an edible dough.  Even though we were willing to pay for the food that we ate, the head of the household insisted that we not give money.  THAT was a surprise to me after living in this country for three years - everything has a price in eastern China.  It was a very different experience than I was used to!

All of this said, though, I only saw this kindness is directed toward westerners.  Based on other experiences, the same kindness is not generally or consistently directed toward the majority race of (Han) Chinese. It's too bad that, though the travelers who I have met tend to get along with both groups, the two groups have so much difficulty dealing with each other.

After the Hikes

The following day I took off early in the morning to Kangding.  Since then, I have essentially been dealing with administrative stuff: writing, reading, catching up on my blog posts, making my way to Chengdu, and relaxing as I prepare for the rest of my trip.

Later on today, I will be meeting up with two of my friends from Beijing: Jonny and Aaron.  We'll be spending the next 4 days here in Chengdu, and then I'll make my way south toward Hong Kong.

This post should have given you plenty to read for the time being; look for the next one some time in the middle of next week!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Kangding: Thank Goodness for Flexibility

After 4 days of withdrawal from my internet addiction, I have finally returned to Kangding and am able to write again.

When I last left off, I had seen the beautiful eclipse in Kangding.  Later that day, I spent some time walking around the city (see the Kangding Album), which has about 80,000 people and is nestled into the mountains between the city of Chengdu to the east and the Tibetan plateau to the west.  Besides streets of shops, the surrounding mountains, and a raging river that runs through the center of town, Kangding doesn't have much of interest.  Hence, I just took in the scenery as I made my way to buy a ticket to the city of Danba for the next day.

Later in the evening, after I had eaten dinner, I made my way back to the hostel where I was staying.  As I walked up the hill toward the hostel gate, I passed the manager who was carrying a bottle of reddish brown liquid in a water bottle.  He recognized me as a guest, and told me that when we arrived at the hostel we would have to "He yi bei (Have a glass)."  I asked him what the liquid was, and he explained that it was moonshine that he had picked up from a friend.  Awesome.

We arrived soon enough, and food and large Dixie Cups awaited us.  The first cup was filled all the way to the brim (the liquid within probably being equivalent to 5 shots), and the boss attempted to pass it to me.  Sensing imminent disaster - and very aware of the fact that I had to wake up at 5:30am the next morning to catch my bus - I immediately grabbed for a new cup and quickly filled it one-third full.  With that gesture, I had saved my own liver and set the stage for an interesting night, since the full glass then defaulted to the boss.

What followed was a series of "Gan bei(s)" (the Chinese equivalent of "cheers"), and the inevitable sloppiness that ensued.  What began as a discussion of the beauty of the area and the differences between the Chinese and English languages quickly gave way to discussion of the relative attractiveness of Chinese women and men in various parts of the country, as well as the compulsory drunken "I love you, mans!"  Of course, the drop in quality was instigated and perpetuated by our fearless leader with the full Dixie Cup.

Thanks to my earlier decision to serve myself, I was spared the drunkenness, but I was not spared from the taste of the disgusting brew.  For those who have drunk the Chinese rice liquor called Baijiu, imagine that diluted with vodka.  For those who haven't had the privilege, imagine taking all of the 80+ proof white alcohol at a bar, mixing it together in equal amounts, and then adding a splash of spiced rum for color.  That would probably be a decent approximation.

Hence, with a foul taste in my mouth, but feeling pretty content, I went to bed.  My bus was due to depart at 7:00am the next morning, and just to be safe, I woke up at 5:30.  The staff at my hostel assured me that I would be able to catch a cab to the train station.  However, after descending to the road at 6:10 and waiting for more than 10 minutes - in the rain, of course - with no success, I began to feel uneasy. Therefore, I began to walk towards the bus station (which, in total, would be a 1 hour walk . . .eek).  As I walked, I still saw no taxis, and I started to become very nervous.  Trying my best to disregard the huge backpack that I had on, I began to trot, and then as I still saw no taxis, I began to run.  Now I was a runner in high school, but we didn't run with 30 pounds of stuff on our backs, nor did we run at 2,600 meters in altitude, so this was tough.  However, at 6:50pm (and about a ten minute run from the bus station), I finally found a cab.  My clothes were soaked from the outside with rain and from the inside with sweat, but I would make my bus on time.  Excellent.

Well, not really excellent.  After frantically running through the bus station and not finding anything headed toward Danba, I asked around and found that my bus was cancelled.  As it turns out, there was a landslide on the road between Kangding and Danba; no buses would be going there for several days.  Welcome to China.

At least I got my money back.

After returning to the hostel, I found that other people were scheduled to ride on the same bus, and they were arranging a mini-bus to Danba (on a different road).  However, by then my fickle mind had already set its sights on Tagong, a different city, so I decided to go there instead.  I love traveling flexibly.

I was planning to write about Tagong today as well, but this post is already becoming long, and I am leaving for hot springs in about an hour, so Tagong will have to wait for another day.  However, if you're absolutely itching to see the beauty of the Tibetan plateau (at least the part in Western Sichuan), you can check out the Tagong photo album right now.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Chengdu and an Unexpected Once in a Lifetime Experience

As a quick note to those who skim: if you want to see the unexpected experience (it's cool!), be sure to read the last paragraph.

The internet gods have been good to me, and even as I move into more remote parts of China, I continue to have access to the web.  Hurray!

After the unreasonably long train which originated in Xi'an, I finally arrived in Chengdu at 5:30am, one day later than I was supposed to.  I was exhausted and spent the morning sleeping before starting my travels around the city.

In case you want to follow this description with pictures, here is the updated Chengdu album.

My first stop in Chengdu was the main shopping area on a street called Chunxi Lu.  Since I had no need to purchase any brand name apparel, I went straight to lunch.  Wanting to sample the local Sichuan (spicy) flavor, I ordered a Kung Pao Chicken (Gong Bao Ji Ding), and replaced the chicken with shrip.  The food was delicious.  However, I was more than a little bothered to discover, when the bill arrived, that replacing chicken with shrimp increased the price of the meal by 71% - not a trivial amount.  Just another reminder that if I let my guard down for 5 minutes in this country, I end up paying for it.

With my belly full and my wallet lightened, I took a walk across the center of town, stopping to take some pictures of the giant Mao statue in the center of town and ultimately arriving in People's Park.  It was Saturday afternoon, and the park was just crazy!  There was a swarm of people who tended to congregate around separate performances that were all going on simultaneously.   At one point, to my left there was an old man doing a comical set of motions that I would describe as a "shoulder dance" - his shoulders went back and forth, up and down, and side to side as he danced around the ring formed by his crowd of onlookers; to my right (and competing with his dance music) was a woman performing a solo song. She was certainly singing her heart out, so much so that the poor tiny speakers connected to her microphone buzzed discordantly as she belted out her notes.  Further to the right was another crowd surrounding what seemed like a family act who that was performing some form of a variety show while waving Chinese flags.  In between these crowds, people danced, exercised and practiced martial arts.  The videos in my Chengdu album attempt to capture the crazyness of this whole experience.

I caught the bus home from the near the park after enjoying the scene.  Thanks to the travel, the heat and the full day of walking around, I was pretty beat, and after booking a seat on a bus to Leshan for the next morning, I went to bed.

The trip to Leshan began simply enough. I was sharing a bus with two dutch people, two Americans and one Chinese girl who was dating the other male American.  We arrived after about 2.5 hours on bumpy roads and walked into the park, which turned out to be a Buddha sculpture theme park of sorts.  From what I could tell, only two large Buddhas and about 2,000 small Buddhas were original to that location. However, it seems that an interesting decision was made: to re-sculpt copies of more than 20 other Buddha statues from around China and place them all in this park.  As we walked through the caves and pathways looking at the various statues, my travel companions and I all agreed that it was quite odd seeing real ancient carved Buddhas interspersed between many copies, which could not have been carved more than 50 years ago.

The highlight of the whole Leshan experience, though, was the Dafu (Great Buddha).  And it was a GREAT Buddha!  Absolutely huge!  Take a look at the pictures if you want an idea of how big it was (there is one of me next to his foot; that will give some good scale).  Seeing the Great Buddha was amazing, but unfortunately the experience was rendered bittersweet thanks to the fact that the line to walk down near the Great Buddha's feet lasted nearly 1.5 hours - and the day was hot and humid with a temp that was most likely above 90 degrees ferenheit.  Nonetheless, our party of six made the most of the situation, entertaining ourselves and taking lots of pictures.

After departing the park and eating a delicious and spicy Sichuan style lunch, we made are way back to Chengdu.  We arrived, took much needed showers and then Tina (the Chinese girl) introduced me and the other two Americans to a new type of Hot Pot.  For those who don't know, Hot Pot is a special style of cooking where a giant pot is filled with water, oils, spices, and other flavors.  To this brew you add additional food that you order, usually meats, fish, vegetables, tofu, and mushrooms.  This particular type of Hot Pot was the Nanjing style, and in addition to all of the normal elements, rice was added.  I don't know if it was the spices, the rice; or if I was especially hungry, tired, or just drunk, but this Hot Pot was by far the best that I have had during my years in China.  Thus, returning to my hostel extremely content - and tired from the day - I went to bed.

The next and final day in Chengdu (though I will stop their again as I leave the mountains) was a simple day of sightseeing and food.  I started out in an area called Wuhouci, visiting a shopping street full of chuan(r)s, or what I like to call "stick food," because it is just food on a stick.  I ate some delicious squid and a strange pickled vegetable sandwich.  After that, I took a brief trip to a temple that was built to honor the heroes from the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese History.  Following that, I relaxed for a few hours in the park surrounding the cottage of the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu.  The pictures will do a better job than me of explaining what both of these areas included, so you can check them out if you want.  Following those two trips, I had a delicious Sichuan style (extremely spicy!) Hot Pot dinner with a couple of people who I had met in Xi'an before heading back to my hostel to get some sleep.

The next day was a full-day bus ride from Chengdu to Kangding.  Pictures and a full description of Kangding will be up later.  

Before this post is done, I have to introduce one more photo album that is a result of pure coincidence (a quick thanks to my buddy Alvaro for alerting me to the situation).  As luck would have it, while I was in Kangding, the city was in the narrow band of earth that experienced a full solar eclipse!  The sky wasn't perfectly clear, but I still got some good shots; the 25 pictures with captions (located here) will guide you through the whole experience, which lasted about 2 hours.  Hope you enjoy it!