Chengdu isn?t somewhere where there are a lot of sites to see, but it?s a large city on my way South to the Yunnan Province. From Xiahe I took the same 6-hour bus ride back to Lanzhou followed by a train ride that lasted over 20 hours. On the bus I sat next to a traditional Xiahe woman who smelled like yak butter and threw up into little baggies. A little boy and his grandpa, wearing his traditional blue government-issue jacket, slept in my section on the train. The little boy was completely terrified of me.
The Sichuan Province is mostly known for it?s spicy cooking and giant pandas. Although I?m pretty sure I?ve seen pandas in a zoo in the U.S. I thought it would be interesting to see a large number at once. China?s breeding center in Chengdu is considered a ?national treasure.? It?s a bit better than foreign zoos but not nearly as advanced as a similar facility would be in the Western world. In the video we were shown the workers didn?t even use gloves when picking up and treating newborns. In the section housing young pandas a worker teased one panda so they would beg on their hind legs for food–I don?t see how this is helping with reintroducing pandas into the wild. In any case, the pandas were awfully cute.
Chengdu also has a large number of tea houses. A temple I went housed hundreds of people talking and drinking tea. When I wandered around the complex I saw people singing in a small orchestra, lots of older people playing board games and checkers and women dancing in unison to an accordion. It seemed as if people really were enjoying the last sunny afternoon of the national holiday.
Tomorrow I plan to take a bus South to Leshan and Emei Shan before heading South into the Yunnan Province.
Hopefully nobody was too worried that I was somehow “detained” in China. I am now in Chegdu and it has been a bit more difficult than Japan to connect to the internet (and upload files) so it has taken me a while to post new entries. I am backdating them so please check out entries before this one. The gallery should also get an updating soon as well. Thanks for reading!
After Xi?an I headed West again. Another sleeper train took me to Lanzhou, the largest city in the Gansu Province, where I immediately caught a six hour bus to a small mountain town called Xiahe. The town has a large Tibetan influence because of the Buddhist Temple founded there which has a famous pilgrim?s walk of prayer wheels and stupas. The town?s population includes 1,000 monks, Tibetan nomads, Chinese Muslims and Han Chinese. The weather had been getting colder since leaving Beijing and I was able to pick up a jacket in Xi?an but I was unprepared for a few days at 3,000 meters. Mornings were 30 degrees feirenheight and afternoons only reached into the 50?s.
The town was quite small but it did have a modern section where the Han lived. Every day the townspeople walked around town wearing long sheepskin coats, guiding yaks and donkeys. The woman wear their hair in two braids fastened at the bottom, a lot like Peruvian woman around Lake Titticaca. Mixed in with the traditional townspeople were monks with shaven heads and long maroon and dark pink robes. Interestingly, the monks acted like anyone else in town, talking on cell phones and watching TV in restaurants. While I was drawing at the large temple a monk took great interest and invited me back to his living quarters. We ate bread and drank a strange salty tea and saw his English lessons and sketchbook. When I asked who he talked to on his phone he told me that he talks to his monk friends in town. I also figures out why men?s pinky fingernails are so long–the better to clean their ears.
Another day a few people I had met and I rented a minibus to take us out into the grasslands and more traditional villages. We stopped at one monastery that turned out to be a big cave surrounded by prayer flags. None of the monks or pilgrims spoke English so we blindly walked into the pitch black cave. We would stop, thinking we were at the end until we saw a flicker of a candle or heard voices. The path got increasingly slippery and narrow until we came upon a small opening. We all decided that we wouldn?t go in until a young monk came along and dragged me into the opening. The others stayed behind and I found myself in complete darkness following a monk through mud-covered tunnels and climbing up large walls of rocks into the darkness–not knowing if I would hit my head or drop 14 feet. After every new opening I told the monk I didn?t want to go in Chinese. He would insist that I follow him. After what seemed like a long time with no carvings or light in sight I started to get worried. He was even more insistent that I go on and I broke down saying ?I don?t understand? and ?I don?t want to? in Chinese–the only phrases I knew. After a small panic attack I heard the voices of the the others and I had apparently gone full-circle. There were no carvings or statues in the cave–only mud and a lot of slippery rocks. We could only assume it was another pilgrim?s path that had some spiritual meaning. I emerged with only a few scrapes on my hands and covered in a lot of mud. Below is a picture of the cave opening.
I originally wanted to travel from Beijing to Pingyao, a small city with original city walls, but all of the trains were full. October 1st–7th is China?s national holiday, a time when everyone in the country has the week off work. Because everyone wants to travel at once there is a tremendous shortage of tickets to just about anywhere within China. Technically, you can book a hard sleeper class ticket four days in advance but whenever I tried, either through a travel agent or the train station, all tickets were sold out. Most tickets are hoarded and given away as favors to friends or influential people. Eventually I gave up my plans to go to Pingyao and went ahead to Xi?an, home of the famous terracotta warriors. I had to book a soft sleeper at double the price of the standard ticket but I feared I would never get out of Beijing.
I had fairly low expectations of the terracotta warriors based on what I?d heard from other travellers. Apparently they are the most publicized site in China, which astounds me when you think about the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. I arrived from my 12 hour train ride in the morning and immediately booked my ticket out of Xi?an–I didn?t want a repeat of what had happened. The public bus line wound around itself four times and for once I wished that there was the usual pushing and shoving to get to the front. After a 45 minute wait for the bus and hour bus ride I entered the museum. It was a madhouse. Crowds of Chinese tourists were being lead around by tour guides with flags, people pushed in to the railings 5 people deep and everyone took flash pictures of themselves in front of anything they could find. There are two buildings housing the majority of the dig as it was discovered but I was shocked to see only a few hundred warriors altogether. I saw posters and photographs displaying more warriors but they were either on loan or never existed, I?m not quite sure. After throwing a few elbows around to get on a bus back I felt I had seen enough.
Xi?an surprised me though. I had heard it was horribly polluted and just another big city to get out of. Instead, I found a bustling city with lots of students and young people out flying kites, shopping and enjoying their holiday. The main shopping district was very modern but it was full of people to watch. I helped a college student with her English assignment and watched a group of kids attempt to breakdance in front of McDonalds. I also spent some time in the Muslim quarter of Xi?an, where one of the first Chinese mosques was built. The mosque was a beautiful mix of Muslim flourishes and traditional Chinese architecture. I don?t think many people realize that there are many cities in China with large concentrations of Muslim residents. I certainly didn?t expect to see any evidence of religion in China but that hasn?t been the case. Overall, China doesn?t feel communist aside from the giant monuments to Mao and the old men wearing blue jackets and matching caps.
A group of us piled into a tiny minibus at 7am for the four-hour ride to the Simatai section of the great wall. The rest of the group were dropped off at a different site and walked 10k on the wall to reach Simatai. I was content with walking the area around Simatai and not risking the narrow unperserved sections of the wall. Simatai has a large number of watch towers left which provided shelter from the intense winds threatening to blow us off the wall. The wall is not complete so there are many sections you can visit, all in different states of preservation. Quite honestly, I don?t know what else to say about it. It?s one of those things that everyone should see, once you start walking the entire thing is even more unbelievable. It was the first time in China that I had that feeling that I was really seeing something amazing, something I?ve been waiting for all of my life.
Although I stayed sick for a few days I pressed on to the main tourist attractions in Beijing. I decided to pay Chairman Mao a visit first mainly to see how the Chinese tourists react to him. Apparently the unofficial tagline here regarding Mao is that he was 70% right and 30% wrong. Before you can enter the 1,000 person line for Mao you must check your bags and cameras across the street. You then wait patiently in 4-person rows to approach the large mausoleum. A lot of people ran out of line to buy flowers from the official flower seller, so the Chinese still go to pay their respects–not just to see if he?s really dead. Interestingly, this is the only instance I have ever seen Chinese people stand in a line, perhaps the police with megaphones and military guards have something to do with that. When entering the mausoleum the line splits in two in front of a large statue of Mao where people leave their flowers. You are then quickly ushered past Mao, who lays in a glass coffin covered with a Chinese flag, in a matter of 10 seconds. Mao?s tomb exits into a large hall full of official souvenirs followed by a gauntlet of souvenir stalls outside. In total, the entire viewing takes only 10 minutes even though the line is massive. This is mostly due to the fact that no one is allowed to stop to look at Mao, even slowing down is met with prods from the military. Mao?s body was a bit strange to see, especially because the lighting and waxy covering causes his head to glow orange from certain angles. I?m glad I went, just for the surreal experience.
After Mao I spent the day in the Forbidden City. I knew it would be a large building of some sort but I was completely unprepared for how massive the complex is–it really is a city in itself. Aside from the huge buildings in the center of the complex surrounded by huge plazas, there are walls on either side which lead to smaller alleyways and a maze of living quarters and reception halls. After the complex closed at 4pm I headed up to the park behind it. By climbing up a hill to a small pavilion I was able to see not only the rooftops of the Forbidden City, but the entire Beijing skyline.
The next day I took the subway and a bus out to the Summer Palace. Although it should have only taken two hours I walked out of the subway in the wrong direction and ended up spending an hour in a residential district. The Summer Palace is a vast wooded area set on a large lake. It has living quarters, temples, pagodas, bridges and walkways all beautifully designed and set in very deliberate locations. Most tourist sites in China have to be appreciated from the outside, but some of these building had furnishings and antiques on display if you looked through the windows. I liked the less-visited hilltop sites which were sit into rocks and perched on the hillside. Down by the lake is a covered walkway painted with scenes of Chinese society that stretches along the lake between the main buildings. It was a beautiful, sunny day and many people rented boats to see the more remote parts of the Palace across the lake. You could easily spend an entire day walking around the Palace, maybe more. It was a beautiful example of Chinese architecture and turned out to be one of the better sites in Beijing.
China?s not working out real well for me so far. My first full day here was spent at the Temple of Heaven Park where I tried to understand why Coke ?light? costs more than Coke. I drew a bit and met a nice older German couple who invited me to visit them in Hamburg. I decided to go to a western-style mall for dinner because it has a large food hall that?s clean and easy to use. Unfortunately, my chicken fried rice didn?t stay with me for long. After only three meals in China I am throwing up and completely miserable. At this point it?s been going on for two days so I?ve decided to break out the antibiotics. I wanted my body to fight it on its own and build resistance but I couldn?t even leave the hostel today.
I think most people know China is different than Japan but I can?t begin to explain just **how** different it is. Tokyo is to Beijing like Paris is to Budapest. It?s loud, disorderly and dirty. People shout, spit and cough, there are very few street signs, nothing has a fixed price and the air is filled with cigarette smoke and pollution. There?s a lot of talk about the Olympics in 2008. I know I said the same thing about Athens, but I don?t know how the city will be ready. The government appears to be placing large billboards around all of the shanty towns so they aren?t visible from the road. It?s a shame that more permanent clean up couldn?t take place but that would also require a total change of lifestyle for the Chinese people.
My flight from Tokyo to Beijing was uneventful. I used my last 360Y to buy a very large bag of M&Ms. ANA (All Nippon) has a camera mounted under the plane?s nose so you can see the land approaching during you descent. I?m sure I haven?t seen that on any American or European airlines. I was treated to roughly the same movie choices as my flight from LA to Tokyo. This time I watched all of *Envy* and caught the first half of the latest *Harry Potter*. Because it?s a Japanese airline the food isn?t much to my taste–even for airline food. Although I did manage to eat the rice and the Nestle Crunch bar.
Customs and baggage took about an hour and I was cleared with no weary glances. The shuttle bus to town took about an hour and dropped me off nowhere near a subway station. Once I found it, the subway was easy enough to navigate and even had Pinyin translations of the characters. The real trouble came in when I tried to get to my hostel from the station. I looked at my map, consulted my compass and glanced at the neighborhood map at the exit. I was sure I knew where I was going. The problem came in when the next street (what I would consider a street) was very far–far enough to be another subway stop. Walking between two subway stops when you?re lost is always a bad sign. That?s when I realized that my definition of a street must be different than the Chinese definition. I passed numerous alleyways that looked like bombed-out war zones but no streets. Knowing I had gone too far I backtracked and asked for directions–no one seemed to know what a map was. This process went on for hours. Finally, after walking around for 3.25 hours I found it. My backpack must weigh 500 lbs. Maybe not quite that, but after more than 30 minutes it really feels that way.
I was too tired to speak Chinese and ordered some dumplings and a beer for dinner. Beer was the only drink on the menu. My bill was 3.5Y. That?s less than 0.50 cents U.S. I think China will be okay but first I have to figure out how to get back to the main road.