Xi'an Aura

Thursday, July 31, 2008

I arrived in Xi'an by plane from Shanghai. Or rather, I arrived 50 km from Xi'an by plane and into the city proper by bus. Not far from the central area where I was dropped off is the southern gate of the city walls beside which are two youth hostels. Ori, an Israeli I'd met in Kunming, happened to be in town already and so I went to the hostel he was staying at and checked myself in. In spite of being in a new city with some world-renowned sights, however, I felt myself more checked out than in. It was already July 29 and I was flying home August 5, and I think as time wound down I was starting to mentally prepare. As well, you may have noticed that since northern Vietnam, my pace of travel has been restless, relentless, and reckless. In any case, I arrived wanting to leave, ready to go home, and not at all in the mood for exploring a new place, finding my way around, and so on. But it was July 29, and I had only one week in China left, so regardless of how I felt, I hit the town.

The day's explorations brought me back through to the centre where I'd arrived and then north into the city's famed Muslim quarter. Despite what you may have heard, people in China do have religious freedom. That is to say, they have the right to believe or not believe what they want. What they don't have is the right to organization that in any way that the state feels threatens its total control over the lives and minds of its peoples. So while there are Catholics, for example, you won't be finding catholic schools. While there are Tibetans with their own language, schools in Tibet do not and cannot teach in that language. And so yes, there are practicing Muslims all over China and I was wandering around the streets where many of those living in Xi'an dwell and work. Aside from the mosque, the main sight here is one of my favourites: food. Fried flat bread, lettuce, and potato made into a sandwich with some sort of spread for the low low price of 2 kwai (30 cents). Mmm. Mutton soup with sesame, noodles, peanut, and more? Yum! Honey and sesame desserts mingling with a dry powdery sugar-almond concoction? I wandered the streets for quite a while sampling various fares until I could sample no more. On the walk home, I passed a bunch of people dancing in the streets while a band played and watched and listened for some time, realizing again that I was lucky to be here. Home would be coming soon enough.

The next morning I woke up early, which is to say too late, to check out the Terracotta warriors. They're outside the city and I was booked on a trip through the hostel leaving at 9:00. I grabbed a breakfast to go and was second-last on the bus and then we were off. I'll say here that I never realized how much there is to do around Xi'an, albeit all in different directions. There's a small panda sanctuary here, though it doesn't come close to being in the same league as the more famous one in Chengdu (which just celebrated two cubs, I hear). There's the warriors. There's a collection of impressive imperial tombs. The city itself. And enough more (that I can't recall right now) to make me consider a stop there on my return to China. For now, just the terracotta warriors. On the bus with me was an English expeditionary group that was combining travel with philanthropy and I thought it a great trip. They're doing a project near Lijiang soon and I gave them some tips for the area.

And then, at last, we were at the Terracotta warriors. It's amazing to think that this find was not made until a farmer stumbled on it 30 years ago digging a well, especially when you see the size of the endeavour. Old emperor Qin (China's first emperor, 230 BC) decided when he died he wanted enough soldiers to continue his rule into the afterlife. While my idea of heaven doesn't include a Chinese emperor or stone warriors, he certainly took enough with him to give someone a headache. Almost 8000 soldiers were hand-crafted, painted, and buried in a tomb he had made for himself. In the meantime, he went on to standardize the Chinese characters still in use today, gather the disparate pieces of China under one banner, and start the building of the Great Wall of China. To be fair, he had an early start as a 13-year old. What he left, the wall, the army, and the country, are in various states of disrepair but all remain to this day. The soldiers themselves fought and lost their first battle not long after his death and so many were found in pieces hacked apart by angry peasants but some remained intact. The main location of them, Pit 1, is a sprawling covered area with buildings and a healthy dose of soldiers some repaired, some intact, and some scattered on and in the ground.

The army had structure, and there was a general's tent, there were archers, chariots, infantry, cavalry, and different ranks. Every soldier had a unique and interesting face which itself is a marvel. There are two other pits open to visitors, both of which are neither as big or as populated, but which have their own charms as archaeological sites. After a visit to all three and a factory where souveneirs are made (I got to craft my own soldier but didn't recruit him) it was back to Xi'an for more muslim food and a bit of catchup with Ori. We were both pretty tired and were going to go see a movie but settled on a DVD of Stardust which is a fair adaption of a good book by a great author (Neil Gaiman). My final day in the city on the final day of July was spent visiting sites I'd been too lazy to investigate before. I went up to the bell tower and drum tower, witnessing an excellent performance at the latter, and then grabbed a bike and rode around the 14km of city walls in just under an hour. While it's not especially interesting visually, it is simply one of those things that must be done because it can, and despite the bad bike and cobblestoned thumping I received, it was well worth the effort.

As I returned my bike atop the walls, I heard some very ominous and powerful drums being played in the south gate and went to investigate. Although it was being played by smiley women in costume, it was an imposing sound and I could imagine it striking terror into people attempting to attack the city. It had been a busy day and was growing late, so I went back to the hostel and grabbed a pizza while I caught up on my internet. The pizza took an hour and I was worried about missing the train but I managed to get it finally and shared a cab to the station with two English girls that I'd met earlier. The three of us, after boarding our overnight train to Beijing, my final stop on this oh-so-long tour, played a Chinese dice game in the dining car as the countryside passed unheeded in the night. Of the many, many rounds we played, I did not win even once. It was good-old embarrassing fun and before long I was in my hard-sleeper bunk crying myself to sleep. I woke up and July had turned to August, the people in my cabin had stayed up talking the entire night, and I was in the Olympic city. Beijing awaited, and unlike my arrival into Xi'an, I was thrilled.

Xi'an Photos
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Shanghais and Byes (and Buys)

Monday, July 28, 2008

From my remote station in Fei Lai Si I made the trek back to the relative civilization on Shangri-La (Shang-guh-li-La since the name itself is not Chinese) with a minivan full of Chinese. I, however, was beside a Malaysian-Japanese couple who were very friendly and indeed didn’t leave me alone until they were sure I was okay once we arrived. I was faced with a bit of a dilemma... on the one hand, I was behind schedule and discovered Chengdu would take an extra day of travel above what I’d expected as a result of my remote origin. On the other hand, with a pricey plane ticket I could be close to back-on-track though still rushed to make it to Beijing with time for sightseeing. Complicating matters, Charlotte and Gerri were back in Kunming the next day and it would be great to catch up with them. And finally, it should be noted, that to get to Chengdu without the pricey flight, I would need to backtrack to Dali or Kunming anyway. So it was that, at the bus station, I found myself on the last seat of the last bus out of Shangri-La, en route to Kunming and old friends.

I slept quite well compared to my last sleeper bus experience in China and, coincidentally, bound for the same city. This time, a seat to myself. This time, no Chinese spooning. This time, ridiculous amounts of traffic. The traffic was so bad coming in that our bus driver gave up attempting to reach the bus station, parked, and led us all on foot to the station about 1 km away. I went to have a look at bus and train tickets to Chengdu and couldn’t help but notice all the security in the place. I had been here before, but I didn’t remember seeing them. Hmm. Eventually, I gave up attempting to interpret the signboards and caught the number 3 bus to the Hump Hostel. This, by contrast to the bustling and jammed roads, was empty. Where last time I’d barely secured a seat, this time I had the bus almost entirely to myself. None of this really registered as especially suspect, rather, it was a small series of observations that accrued like snow on a mountain slope until enlightenment finally triggered the avalanche. There had been two busses bombed in Kunming only a few days prior.

It all made sense then, though it didn’t change anything. I still had places to go and in particular two people to see. I waited around at the Hump, getting caught up on photos, internet, and day-to-day life until I looked up to see Charlotte standing over me and shaking her head in quiet shock. It was a happy reunion with her and Gerri and we caught up over a customary bowl of popcorn, beer, and swapped travel stories. Xixuanbana and its black and white pagodas had been a disappointment to them, even if the weather was a lot more balmy than the Himalayas and they did come back with a funny story about rice whiskey and being obliged to drink with the locals. We went out that evening to a happening district and attempted to ‘club it’, but between loud/horrible music and being interrupted every five seconds so that some other Chinese person could come and campay us (bottoms up!) it was a pretty disappointing night too.

The next day, perhaps out of shock from the day prior or perhaps because we had all been rushing around China for the last three weeks straight, we did not leave the hostel. Not for breakfast, lunch, nor dinner. We spent the day lounging on the patio looking over the square, and snacking, discovering little by little that most of the food at The Hump is pretty poor indeed. Draught beer started around 4 PM and then we used up the rest of our supplies from the night prior – they sell beer in 12-packs at bars here, like it or not, and we hadn’t gone through much. It was a relaxing and quiet day and nice to just sit around, visit, and snack. All we needed was some knitting, but in its place I attempted to caption photos and create a Facebook account for Charlotte. And I attempted to decide where I was going next. Chengdu was no longer in the cards, or at least that decision appeared best. I had likewise heard from fellow travelers that going to the Three Gorges to see the world’s largest dam was not quite what you’d expect: you are actually not allowed anywhere near the dam itself so you have to settle instead for a binocular viewpoint. The three-day cruise was a relaxing break from traveling China, but given my day of relaxation and waning time, probably not the wisest decision either.

For these reasons and because I would not be reaching Hong Kong this trip, I decided to fly out to Shanghai. I booked my ticket on the internet but received no confirmation even after a few hours. I’d booked with my AMEX and had been asked for the CVN. On American Express, I thought, that was a four number code printed on the front of the card but the site had wanted only three so I entered the three on the reverse side. Maybe the payment hadn’t gone through? Another hour and I decided to try booking with my VISA, and again no confirmation. I attempted to call the booking site but no answer. Hmm. I sent an email and no answer. Uh-oh. I woke up the next morning to a reply stating that my booking could not be found and urging me to login and see if I had really booked. So I wasn’t going anywhere, apparently, but then logging in I had both tickets booked. I was even more afraid of this. Urgent response, please cancel the more expensive ticket. And then the three of us were off to the airport.

At the airport, scanning my passport revealed I had two tickets under my name – though you’d think this would flag some sort of security warning, I never had any problems. In the end, I chose the earlier flight and, after a scuffle with some Chinese line cutters (the line cutters part is redundant in this country, as the concept of a queue is mostly foreign – here, the sharpest elbows win) we passed through security. The girls’ flight, contrary to their opinion, was not for a few hours, so we walked to my gate, said farewells, and once again I was on my own, sitting on a jet, just as I would be in ten days bound for home. I captioned yet more photos on the flight, arousing the interest of the Chinese woman beside me. I had to explain where they were from to her as I went along and then suddenly she got up to – I presumed – use the facilities. She returned with her English-speaking daughter and had her sit beside me while she took photos and then disappeared. The daughter, about my age, also wanted to see the photos and then we talked a bit about life in China as the plane descended to Shanghai.

Or so I assumed. There was no real way to know there was anything below us as the sky was carpeted in brown cloud also known as smog, and the girl was quite embarrassed by this. Charlotte had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to see much of anything skyscraper-wise due to the heavy pollution and it appeared she was right. That we found an airport at all is largely thanks to computer guided ILS (instrument-landing system). Off the plane and onto bus 925, which drove 2 km and parked behind a mob of busses and everybody got off and boarded bus 941. Now I had no idea where I might end up but managed to discover from the ticket lady that we would be passing a metro stop where I could reach my hostel near Peoples’ Square. This lady became quite protective of me, which was kind of cute. A little later I offered my spot to a father so he could sit next to his wife and kid and when the lady came back she berated the poor man for taking the spot from me though I tried to defend him. They both eventually insisted I take the spot and there was nothing I could do about it but thank him, apologize, and sit.

When my stop was approaching – I had dozed off due to a lack of rest the past few days – it turned out that she had found someone else who spoke English and was getting off at the same stop. She organized that girl to walk me to the metro which, again, wasn’t necessary but just try to say no in this country. So I had a guide to the metro and then on it since she was heading the same direction as me and, it turned out, getting off at the same stop to meet some friends. But before she did that she insisted on walking me the 10 blocks to the doors of the Hiker Hostel I was hoping to stay at. Ah, China, so full of people happy to overcharge you exorbitant amounts and then turn around and bend over backwards to help out a visitor. It was lucky she left because I had no reservation and therefore no bed that night in the crowded hostel. I booked a bed for the next day and then went off in search of a reasonably priced hotel nearby.

I awoke the next morning surprised that I had no only fallen asleep again while taking a rest before hitting the town but also that the rest had lasted twelve hours. I was refreshed, showered, and had myself a bed in the Hiker Hostel before noon and finally did hit the town. It seemed I had been blessed. The brown skies were vanished without a trace leaving blue sky, sun, and scattered cloud that was perhaps bluer than anything I’d seen in Kunming. After munching on some giant but delicious wontons and treating myself to a blizzard, I walked to the Bund, the famous Shanghai riverfront, and admired the skyline stretching in all directions but definitely peaking straight ahead around the gaudy Pearl Tower. I stayed as long as I could bear the hear and seriously considered walking around like a Chinese man, with my shirt half-rolled up to unleash my belly upon the world. I decided that cooling the belly was a good idea, but opted for internal treatment instead and resorted to a DQ Blizzard liberally applied.

Then further down bustling Nanjing Rd, a pedestrianized and wall-to-wall strip of shops and neon signs with the towering Shiamo building capping the west, and guided me toward Peoples’ Square. Everywhere, the city feels like Disney’s Tomorrowland, trapped in a perpetually 1960’s view of what the year 2010 could look like, except that it has actually materialized here – and only here. Oh sure, the flying cars are missing, at least in the literal sense, and one can only be thankful for that in the hustle and bustle here, but here we have a city with one of the world’s first Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains whisking travelers across the city skyline at the mind-boggling speed of 430 km/h. Here we have a city with, it has been said, more skyscrapers than Manhattan. Here we have a city where, if a flying car were to buzz 30 metres above the freeway, nobody would look up from their bowl of noodles.

Yes, here, the home of the 2010 World Technology Expo, in a city that is pushing the boundaries of things that are still dreams in other parts of the world, is still a city where, beneath twinkling skyscrapers, 40-storey television screens, and an endless barrage of light and activity, you can still sit down in the streets on a dilapidated chair across from a shirtless man who is slurping up Shanghai noodles after a long day moving goods from factories to various stores on his bicycle. A positive side-effect of the indoctrinated Chinese mentality to not question the universe, the law, or the system is that when something like rising world gas prices become a reality, they accept and react rather than sitting around moaning about price-fixing, greedy oil companies, and OPEC. So bicycles, electric motorbikes, and increasingly green methods of transport are definitely on the rise here.

But, back to Peoples’ Square. There is not much here but a small urban park surrounded by tall buildings, a few museums and theatres (including the highly recommended Shanghai museum which I just couldn’t fit into my schedule). A wander a little further along Nanjing Road to the west yielded nothing but more megamalls and so a turn south was in order, bringing me smack into the fringe of the French Concession. On the periphery, it’s a motley collection of old European and modern Chinese buildings, but heading east eventually yields the untouched tourist-heart of the area, a collection of French buildings with stony courtyards, cafes, bakeries, and expensive wine. Walking along with a chocolate √©clair, the area started to grow on me though I think I prefer to be a few blocks away from this trim and lean heart where boutique shops and Chinese restaurants sit side by side.

It was nearing sunset and I found myself back at Peoples’ Square, so I hopped the metro across the river to the base of the Pearl and watched the sunset with camera in hand (or rather, on tripod). I’d actually contemplated paying the 150 yuan to ascend but wouldn’t have made it in time, missing the actual sunset to wait in line for an elevator. Afterwards, I did something that must surely have been on fellow travellers’ lists whilst here in China mid-2008: I went to the theatre and watched Kung-Fu Panda.

From the hiker hostel I’d been west and east. To the north was nothing of note, blocked as it was by a small river a few blocks up, and so the next morning found me heading south into the town’s oldest Chinese area. I just want to take a quick second here to say that the hostel is in the perfect location, walkable from all the major attractions, and though it is pricey at 60 yuan/bed/night and the warm water is more adequately described as “not freezing”, I recommend it. Anyway, the old town. More shopping, and for once I gave in. I was going to be home soon and not only did I want to pretty much eject all my clothes before boarding the plane, but I still wanted to get something at least small for friends and family back home. First stop, a tea house where you sit and sip various teas with a little Chinese lady who extols the relative virtues of hundreds of types of teas.

All the while, walking the streets of Shanghai, you are constantly assailed by people trying to sell “watches, DVDs, shoes, t-shirts”. I did actually want a pair of shoes to wear home as my hikers are destined for yard work and my sandals should’ve been fumigated and discarded ages ago. So it was that, after munching on some mangosteens I was approached by number 82 who asked me what I was looking for. “Somewhere to wash my hands,” I replied and she offered to let me wash them in her shop so we went up the stairs, dunked my hands in a faucet, and started browsing. It really felt like a black-market shop… narrow, ill-lit staircase leading up, a hallway-sized space filled with shoes, shirts, DVDs, everything promised and more. I looked at some ‘Diesel’ shoes which they swear are authentic and for which the asking price was 450 Yuan ($60). Ha! After a lot of work and them pretending to be grumpy taking my money, I got these rather flimsy but good-looking shoes for 80 yuan ($12) with a pair of socks thrown in and I still think I paid too much. Then it was time for shirts and DVDs, the latter of which I left alone, but a Beijing 2008 Olympics shirt couldn’t hurt, and again on the wheel from 80 down to 20. It should be fine until it’s washed. Plus they threw in the new Batman movie for free, which I definitely won’t watch (I hate cam jobs).

Back at the hostel, I met my new Swiss roommate and a Dutch girl and the three of us went for dinner somewhere good but really pricey (by which I mean it cost $5/each) before I went off to Shanghai’s famous acrobats. It was a bit of a rushed dinner, so rather than catching the metro and walking, I hopped on the back of a motorcycle and whizzed through the nighttime streets of Shanghai. This is NOT to be missed, it doesn’t matter if you have nowhere to go, zipping around the beautiful buildings and neon signage of Shanghai is a surreal experience that the metro robs visitors of. And from this surreal experience to yet another, a woman balancing six plates full of glasses while doing some extremely bendy work. The show had started when I arrived, but it was only the start of the first act. It is something special to be in a foreign country and, for a pretty reasonable price, behold the type of spectacle that maybe only 50 years ago, would be reserved for a dictator or emperor and his court. We sat as one and oohed, ahhed, and gasped as we witnessed everything from a man riding a unicycle upside-down on a tightrope to nine chairs stacked precariously on a table one by one as women climbed up to, well, you name it. It was a spectacle.

I joined in “the races” when I returned to the hostel and went out that night with three English guys and two Polish girls. Tired or not, Shanghai has a world-famous nightlife and I was determined to see some of it. Unfortunately, the place we ended up was just a crappy little bar called “Windows Too” about which there is nothing positive to be said except that drinks weren’t too expensive. And then, before I remember going to sleep, I was awake again, packing up for the trip to Xi’an. But there was one more thing left to do in Shanghai. I rode the Maglev train, finally, passing cars so quickly that they appeared to be driving backwards. Even planes coming in for a landing were no match for us. As I stepped off the magnetic train and turned to look at it in wonder, I was struck by how unassuming it looked. A white bullet sitting in a giant gun barrel about to be fired back into Shanghai’s heart like a shot of adrenaline. The magnets buzzed, a jet engine whined in the distance, and I departed the city of tomorrow for a city of a long-passed age. Xi’an awaited.

Shanghai Photos
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I Trek, Yubeng

Monday, July 21, 2008

It was a hard slog in every way. Finally, my luck with the weather ran out and it rained almost the entire trek into the Tibetan village of Yubeng. Between trekkers and donkeys, the trail was often times a soup (with ingredients you don’t want to think about) and a largely uphill one at that. I’d gone with an Austrian couple but they weren’t acclimatized and were feeling pretty pressured to keep up with me so I wound up ahead and on my own. A hot bowl of soup helped restore my water supply and core temperature at the chilly peak and then downwards the rain finally began to abate. There was a big chain of donkeys carrying supplies that I had to endeavour to stay ahead of (it’s painful to pass them or be stuck at their pace even though only slightly slower than mine) but as I got below the cloud the village could be made out amidst the shadows of some imposing mountains.

I found a place to stay in a Tibetan guesthouse (this village really is Tibetan in everything but name) and went back to show the Austrians where I was staying. Our host asked if we were hungry and then brought us to his pantry and kitchen to point out ingredients we wanted. I wanted more than just vegetables and remembered that chow mein is fried noodles, so I managed to get that tacked on to our list of veggies as well as some meat (he couldn’t stop laughing once he figured out why I made a ‘moo-ing’ sound). The end result was a fatty soup of noodles, pork fat, and veggies that was edible but not my favourite dish. But, I suspect, we were eating the way they do.

It’s cold up here in the mountains (current elevation around 3700m) and the three of us sat around the hearth in their living room with the grandmother of the family. She could only speak Tibetan, not Chinese or English but we tried to initiate a conversation with her regardless. I pointed to myself and said, “Dean” and then pointed at her. It turns out that both “di” and “dean” are numbers in Tibetan (1 and 7 respectively) and so that initiated a counting lesson that the Austrians were more than happy to see me struggle with. I then tried to find out her background and found (I think) she’d been born in Lhasa, had moved to Shangri-La and Lijiang when she was younger and then had lived here the rest of her life. We didn’t want to overstay our welcome so we said goodnight, grabbed some tea, and then went to sleep ourselves, praying for better weather tomorrow.

I awoke at 6:30 in the morning to see the sun begin to light the tall mountain out my window. And then I realized that I could actually see that mountain. I hurriedly dressed, ran outside past the cows to the washroom, came back and packed, and bolted out the door. There was hardly a cloud in the sky though they seemed to be forming as the sun warmed things up. Aside from the locals (and let’s face it, there still are not a lot of tourists here anyway) I felt I was alone in the town to observe their morning rituals. A woman milked her yak, a man tended to his mules, and somewhere a small bell was ringing every five seconds or so. This turned out to be a woman turning a prayer wheel (you walk in a circle around a cylinder, pushing it) that hit the bell every revolution. Another woman joined her in an unlikely little temple and I watched quietly for a time before moving.

Knowing how the weather changes in the mountains and fearing rain and cloud, I resolved to make good time while the weather held. After admiring the views from above and then making my way down to the lower village (where I’d observed the prayer), I set out on the path towards the Secret Waterfall. The path ambles through a valley forest along a snow melt stream which is never too far away. On the way, I passed a tree covered in bracelets, cloths, earrings, and other trinkets. I have no idea what this indicates, but it was a departure from the streamer-like prayer flags. Further along and further uphill I went, admiring the mossy forest still wet with morning dew and catching glimpses through the canopy of the Himalayas that surround Yubeng and isolate it from the rest of Tibet. While cloud seemed to move here and there, offering glimpses and then taking them away, it soon became clear that weather was not going to be an issue. It was an absolutely perfect day, and the third of four in a season where one nice day every couple weeks is lucky. I think blessed is the word to describe the weather here this July.

At last, my journey neared its destination. The surrounding mountains, beautiful Miancimu and the Buddha’s Head framed the green foothills below with snowy peaks and wispy clouds, the two mingling only via a river of snow cascading down from the heights. On the right, two massive waterfalls. In the middle, a cloudy landscape of snow and low, jagged peaks with the higher mountains partially peeking through. On the left, green and white and blue. The funny thing is that these massive waterfalls are, when viewed from afar, an almost insignificant part of the mountain itself. I climbed up along a stream and accidentally washed my shoes to the top where, of all things, a pair of rainbows sat at the end of the waterfall illustrating that I had indeed found the pot of gold.

I’m sorry for the flowery prose (or whatever you might call it), but I’m not quite sure how to convey the feeling that goes along with a walk of this sort. And if you’re cringing at the pot of gold remark, well, I made my way off the path down the moraine on a very steep and foolhardy descent and was rewarded with two 100 yuan notes that must have been lost in the winter or were deemed irretrievable. So, that would pay quite nicely for my trip back to Shangri-La not to mention the guesthouse. I played around in the snow, the first time I’ve seen snow since leaving New Zealand almost two years ago and shoe-skied my way down to where the snow ends and the stream collects the run off. Back to Yubeng, a quick lunch that quite resembled last night’s dinner, but with yak meat instead. I was tired, hungry, and probably would’ve grabbed a horse back up but that nobody offered me one.

Just as well, once I had my Snickers (this is not a paid advertisement) I had a bit more energy and I doffed my shirt in the sun and virtually ran up the slope. People stopped me, no word of a lie, to give me thumbs up or say things like “strong”. One Chinese guy was so startled, I merited a heavily accented “Oh my god”. If you know me at all, you’re wondering the same thing as I am – what on earth are they talking about? I think they were surprised I hadn't opted for a horse. Still, I felt good and made the hike back in what I consider a speedy 2.5 hours. The view on the way was spectacular – all the mountains were out in all their resplendence. Back in Fei Lai Si, I thought about waiting a few hours for sunset and passed some time having beer with an English guy but got tired waiting and retreated to Tashi’s for dinner and a warm bed. It had been a big day, a big four days in fact, and I was looking forward to the morrow’s ride southeast to, well, wherever I could reach. But if I haven’t been convincing in my delivery, let me just spell out in plain words what a wonder this area is. If you are coming to Yunnan, I definitely recommend a stop here in Fei Lai Si, even if only for the drive up.

Yubeng Trek Photos
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4660 Metres Above the Sea

Sunday, July 20, 2008

We started at Tashi’s and walked to the Reringkha village proper, taking a path up to a Stupa and then veering off into an ethereal forest. The climb through the forest was at times steep but trees had mossy beards, pine needles were soft and leafy, and soon we were above the tree line. Tashi’s is situated at almost 3500m already, so it is not too far up before the trees yield to meadows. Perhaps the end was a bit premature as we crossed a small farmyard and had lunch at a little logging shed. The cloud that had been hanging in the morning was continually lifting as though we were pushing it with our efforts, the result being an increasingly beautiful backdrop and a sense of our altitude. Although the tops of the Himalayas were well and truly obscured, their bottoms still stood imposingly in the distance.

The forest gave way to indescribably beautiful alpine meadows absolutely covered in wildflowers of all shapes, sizes, and colours. The trail had ended and we bounces our way up the meadow, avoiding flowers as much as possible though it quite simply wasn’t possible. They were everywhere and the smell of honey filled the crisp mountain air. We made our way to the first summit, a green top with strewn rock among the flowers at 4500m, but saw another peak with more prayer flags atop it not too far away. The cloud continued to clear and revealed Dechin far below on our right and the Himalayas far away on our right. We were at the snow line (though there is no snow here for some reason) and scrambled yet further up a rather steep incline where we sat and admired the view at the top of the world. The Mingyong glacier was fully visible and all but the tops of the Himalayas were, too. I really wanted to get up as high as possible so we made our way up the rocky peak of the next highest summit and it was here that we were genuinely terrified.

We got as high as we could without climbing a broken rock face and looking down we knew that the slightest misstep was death. A very real sense of our height was suddenly perceptible and that, we decided, was as far as we were getting that day. Mary took out her altimeter and declared our height to be 4700 metres above sea level – about 14,000 feet! Cloud had started moving in a bit as we all held tightly to the rocks and we began our scramble back down. It took a long time to get down this steepest first part but the going got easier and we practically ran through the meadows once the danger was past, although my knees kept me to a fast lope. I really think we were blessed with our weather. Neither day did we have rain or fog – yes, it’s true we couldn’t see the mountain tops aside from the day of our arrival, but we still had great views – and now the cloud I’d feared was coming in seemed to disperse until we passed below. We returned to Tashi’s and I decided that yes, I will trek to Yebung village and stay a little longer than intended. It’s not everyday you can visit a Tibetan village that has only a solitary path over a 3900m mountain inaccessible by any modern form of transport.

Summit Hike Photos
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Mingyong Glacier Hike: Journey of Legends

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The best thing about staying at Tashi’s Mountain Lodge in Reringkha, about a half-hour walk from Fei Lai Si, is its owner. Richard has trekked the area quite extensively and has all sorts of unique walks in the area not to mention advice and maps. We had just arrived and were treated to a large feast for 30 Yuan (expensive for China, but not for the area) and then I was picking his brain. As I did so, some of our other new arrivals came and listened and soon five of us were pouring over a map trying to decide what we could see in a rather short time. There’s Yubeng, a Tibetan village one day’s walk from the lodge, sitting at the foot of the mountains and offering nearby waterfalls, glacial lakes, and of course staying with a Tibetan family in a place that is a six hour walk from the nearest road. There’s the Mingyong glacier, the foot of which can be reached by car and a 1.5 hour hike. And there’s a mountain summit just behind the lodge that is a trail rather unique to Tashi’s. With three days, what was I to do?

My plan, eventually, was to do a one-day hike down (and then up and then down again) to the glacier, passing an abandoned village, crossing the Mekong into Xigong village, up along a mountain ridge and down into Mingyong town. There, we’d spend the night, hike up to the glacier the next morning, admire it for some time, and then make our way back to the lodge by car. Mary and Alden (two Americans), Michelle (Aussie), and Malak (Moroccan) were also interested, and so the five of us set off the next morning after breakfast making our way down a knee-wrenching descent from Fei Lai Si to the Mekong. The clouds were unfortunately of a height that they obscured the Himalayas towering over the Mekong but it was special to be, once again, on this river that has played so large a part in my journey. I had thought our travels together completed when I made my way down to the delta in Vietnam and now here I was so near its origins, sharing a wooden suspension bridge with cattle.

We crossed into the Tibetan town which appeared deserted until we ventured further in, and up in a valley before turning up a path to give us a nice ridge walk over the Mekong. On our left, the Himalayas, on our right and far below, the Mekong once more. We soon found ourselves in Mingyong, the glacier town, far ahead of schedule. So far, in fact, that rather than taking an extra day we decided to hike up to the top of the glacier now and we set off. Here, the altitude really affected me and I had to walk quite slowly and stop often which was embarrassing. The glacier was impressive and would’ve been more so if only we could see its top through the cloud, but it was great to sit there and watch it in the late afternoon sun. What was all the better was that because we’d arrived so late – about 4:00 – we pretty much had the glacier to ourselves. It was peaceful, sunny, and cool. We were back down in the town by 7:00 and my knees were killing me, but we had done our two day hike in one and caught a cab up to Fei Lai Si to watch the sunset and grab dinner.

When we returned to Tashi’s, everyone knew of our ‘legendary’ trek from some people we’d run into on the glacier. It was pretty funny to be there and have people slapping us on the back and saying that we were machines but we sat around exchanging hiking stories and Alden, Mary, and myself decided that we would take the day we gained and hike to the nearby summit the following morning. I was apprehensive about my knees, but they weren’t too bad and I went anyway. Thank goodness I did! The prior day’s hike may have made us into legends but the scenery did not feel like anything I couldn’t have seen elsewhere, except the glacier, and that was more ‘sightseeing’ than trekking. The scenery on our summit hike was varied, beautiful, dramatic, and terrifying at various stages.

Mingyong Photos
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The Road to Fei Lai Si

Friday, July 18, 2008

Since receiving an email about Fei Lai Si from Dan (my Alabama friend), I’d wanted to go there. His letter was filled with such hyperbole and excitement that I unquestioningly added it to my itinerary. I had spent the last couple days in Shangri-La with Charlotte, Gerri, and Eric and now Eric and I were to head up to Deqin (pronounced Duh-cheen) near the Tibetan border while the girls made their way south to warmer climes of Yunnan’s tropical regions. So the four of us were at the bus station when we discovered that, in a lesson I’d still not learned in all my time traveling, the busses for Deqin were full that day. Even though we’d known for two days we’d be taking a bus sometime that day, we hadn’t booked it. I guess I like the freedom, but when you know where you’re going it makes a certain amount of sense to plan ahead. I didn’t.

There were two options. One was to wait another day and take a bus first thing in the morning – buying my ticket today, of course. The other was to negotiate a decent price for a car. I’d asked around and the going rate seemed to be 500 Yuan, which is, to be quite honest, a lot. Still, time was precious, another day in Shangri-La was not needed, and really, it’s a journey into the heart of the Himalayas of six hours. So I was soon in a car for 400, probably still too much, but bound for Deqin. Saying that the road there was magnificent is an almost criminal understatement. My driver, whom I initially liked, then had a bad feeling about, turned out to be quite a decent guy though he tried to bring on friends that hadn’t paid at my expense. We tried to sing Yellow Submarine, he tried to teach me a Chinese song, and eventually we just admired the scenery while he sung and I listened to my iPod as the inherent drama of the surroundings played itself out.

The drama starts soon after leaving Shangri-La. The car rises into the hills and on the left, the Chinese Grand Canyon plunges into the earth. As you lament that this marvel is passing by unexplored, the car rises over a ridge and drops into another canyon. The road follows the lay of the canyons so closely that it is as though the meager traffic on the highway has somehow worn the earth away after thousands of years. Soon the real culprit appeared as we moved off the valley floor – the Golden Sands river also known as the Yangtze, the mightiest river in China and one of the most important waterways in the world. My driver pulled over and I walked down a little path to see a spot where the river actually executes a complete hairpin around a mountain in its path.

Further along as the road climbs, villages cling to mountainsides and the gilded roofs of Tibetan monasteries boldly shine in the sunlight. The hills are mostly dry but from time to time, and especially near villages, rice terraces snake down the cliffs like vines on a stone wall. The road is making its way up to 4000 metres and getting better with every metre of altitude. Soon, asphalt gives way to cobblestone – and the road remains cobblestone for almost 50km! There is something to be said for being high in the mountains looking down a steep cliff and passing nomads walking with various baskets of goods in the middle of nowhere while the car bumps along like a wagon on a cobblestone road. Forget the van and you are back in the 1800s bumping along a road that has been used for centuries by traders with various wares to carry over the Himalayas. And as you bump and pass locals and look into bottomless valleys and the rolling hills you inexorably make your way up yourself.

Soon, you come around a corner and there – there – are the Himalayas in stark black and white, beneath a blue sky, and just behind a few hills topped with nomads’ tents and grazing animals. At last, I could see Tibet from my vantage point, 4000m above sea level on the eastern edge of Yunnan. For all intents and purposes, I was already in Tibet. The locals and nomads I met atop the mountain as I scoured the alpine meadows for photos were Tibetan as were most of the people in all the villages I would pass and stay in over the next few days. Only a Chinese cartographer had foiled my ambitions of being ‘in’ Tibet. Or perhaps I should be grateful for the opportunity to experience Tibet without the hassle of paperwork and permits that go with crossing that imaginary line.

Now, you’d think that the scenery had reached its climax, and perhaps it had, but even as our van descended the ridge to the other side of the mountain chain and towards Deqin, the drama did not follow. The sun was shining beautifully, mountains of red and green basked in the afternoon light, stupas lined the road of a Tibetan village, prayer flags carried their messages in the wind, and Deqin laid in the valley floor below. The weather, so unpredictable and often cloudy in this region, was impeccable. The Himalayas were laid out on the horizon awaiting our arrival like folded napkins on a dinner table. Some of them reached heights of over 7000 metres and absolutely dwarfed the massive hills in the foreground. We arrived in Fei Lai Si, just past Deqin, a little while later. And when I say we, I mean my van and another van of travelers who were also keen to go to Tashi’s Mountain Lodge.

Like Indonesia, I had done this trip alone - it was just me and the driver again. Eric had taken the lack of tickets as a sign that he was not destined to do the trek north and also bought himself a ticket south to reach Chengdu. Unlike Indonesia, I felt quite alone sitting in the passenger seat without the chorus of Belgian giggling or in depth discussions on film, politics, Canada, and China with my Montreal mate, especially at the beginning of the journey. It soon passed as the scenery filled my vision and my thoughts and now here I was arriving at Tashi’s with six other travelers just in time for an expensive but excellent dinner laid out on the table awaiting us. I was here at last, seven hours after leaving Eric at a bank in Shangri-La and the girls on a bus headed south, at the start of four of the greatest days on this trip.

Road to Fei Lai Si Photos
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Shangri-La Di Da

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The van wove along the Himalayas as the sun fell behind them, lining the clouds hanging between us and Shangri-La in gold. Soon, colour fell from the earth and Charlotte, Geraldine, Eric, and myself watched the world pass by in short flashes from our headlights until the lights of Shangri-La at last lit the night. It was 9:30 and after checking in to the Dragon Cloud Guesthouse we wandered around and found some drinks and fun at a nearby bar. It turned out to be quite a great night, we were all having a blast and probably too many drinks (especially at an altitude of 3500m, where one drink is effectively two) until finally we left and let our hosts close their very profitable bar for the evening. It was now past 2 AM and we had slightly missed our guesthouse’s midnight curfew, and so we stood knocking and pounding on the doors until we realized nobody was going to answer and we were stuck outside in the chilly mountain air and drizzling rain. Eric saved the day by scaling a wall and opening the door for us from the inside.

The way the day prior had gone, sitting in Tina’s with Eric and the girls, I was worried. Even so early, it felt competitive. The girls had gone up to Jade Snow Mountain and loved it, gushing excitedly. Eric and I had used that day to start our Tiger Leaping Gorge trek and it was likewise a great day. In telling this, Eric sounded defensive on price especially, as though they’d paid so much for a great time where it had cost us virtually nothing. Which, of course, upset the girls who felt the implication was that they were stupid or rich and foolish with their hard-earned money. So I took the middle line (which was easy as it was exactly how I felt) that yes our day in Tiger Leaping Gorge had been great but their photos at the top of the mountain (4600m) looked great and I would’ve loved to do it if I had more time and I could afford it. And so it went on every topic until this tension was discussed over drinks the night prior. After this, we had a great time together.

So it was rather unfounded worry that I would always be in between them. I should’ve been worrying instead about a good place for breakfast. The girls don’t do Chinese for breakfast and after so many drinks a western breakfast was sounding like a great idea. We … dined? … at Rose Caf√© in the old town. Eric’s curry rice came first, then five minutes and my American breakfast did. This meal is one egg, two pieces of cold toast, some dried bacon (?), and fries. Gerri’s English breakfast never came despite asking and reminding them twice. Finally a third inquiry revealed they’d forgotten and it very slowly came out, tasting horrible; Inedible, even for me. There was a mystery meat permeating the translucent gook that left a yellowish stain. Eric and I got her breakfast taken off the bill after a lot of arguing from him and me finally giving a 30 second slightly angry summary of why we weren’t paying for it.

It was a bad start to the morning, especially after so much searching and hunger. We eventually made our way to the famed Shangri-La monastery after some rest, and the sour mood was lifted almost instantly. It stood majestically on the hillside, with three golden towering buildings surrounded by homes for 60,000 Tibetan monks. The first building we went in was filled with religious paintings of the Circle of Life, the Path to Enlightenment, and various deities of whom I have neither knowledge nor understanding. The temples were red and ornately carved and painted and a massive and spell-binding Buddha sat in the middle as all four stories wrapped around him, giving an even more imposing air. We saw the other buildings in the monastery as well, of course, but they weren’t as awe-inspiring. And naturally, there were plenty of monks lingering around. On our exit, we were even on the bus with many monks and a few other Chinese and Tibetan people. I attempted to get the photo I’d missed the first time, the view of the monastery from further away, dug into the hillside. I noticed the bus stop and was thankful, thinking we were picking someone up. I took my photo and then noticed the whole bus staring at me and smiling. The driver had stopped the bus to let me take a photo. Ah, China!

That night was a quiet one, perhaps because we spent far too much money on a hotpot that was decent but definitely not worth how much we paid for it and left us all smelling of yak. On the positive side, this allowed us to wake up early and this time Eric and I got a local breakfast (8 quai/yuan each) and the girls seeked out their western fare while the two of us went looking for some hiking shoes. He was coming up to Fei Lai Si for some hiking with me and his shoes were in a dire state so this was a necessity. We didn’t find anything and made our way to the square to meet the girls at 1:00, where all four of us had some grilled eggplant, zucchini, chicken, mushrooms (yes, Mariah, mushrooms!), and various other tasty selections before walking up to a big temple we’d seen over the city yesterday.

The temple did, in fact, turn out to be a temple on a hill, and a massive prayer cylinder spun beside it. We were shocked to learn that the cylinder was turned by hand, and then gave a push ourselves. Unsure of what else to do in Shangri-La, we opted to get lost. We had been making fun of Charlotte’s uncontrollable desire to go places that were blocked off after she was scolded for entering a Tibetan monk’s room accidentally at the monastery, and she would now go peeking in slightly ajar doors and things like that. One door she noticed was the Cultural Preservation Centre though she didn’t go in this one. I decided if a door was going to be opened, this was the one, not someone’s home, so we opened the door to take a look and wound up having the best experience of our time here. We were greeted by some painters and a woman showed us some of their paintings and what they were trying to do with the centre. And then she invited us to have tea with the monk living there which we eagerly did.

It was an excellent hour. We chatted over tea, had watermelon, and asked him questions about his life, Buddhism, Tibet, and being a monk. He showed us photos of his training in India and the students he teaches about Buddhism and art and, well, it was just a great time. We all left smiling and feeling like we had turned the corner on Shangri-La after the breakfast debacle and had, in fact, had a very cool experience. The four of us wandered around, glowing a bit, and found Eric some shoes and fixed his belt, then grabbed some dumplings and had a few drinks. It was to be my last night with the Belgian girls and in the short week I knew that I knew it was going to be a hard goodbye. They’re very positive and upbeat people that I will definitely miss but that is traveling and at least I wouldn’t be continuing on to the Tibetan border on my own. Eric was coming with me. Or was he...

Shangri-La Photos
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