Bad news friends. China is blocking WordPress and Facebook. I smuggled this in code on a fishing boat down the Mekong to a contact in Vietnam who deciphered and posted it for me. Just kidding. I e-mailed it to my friend Marc who graciously posted it for me. Thanks Marc!
China – Wow. I’ve only been here 24 hours but there is so much to say. First, the sheer amount of development that is happening even in Yunnan, the farthest province from Beijing is breathtaking. Highway projects, skyscrapers, malls and hotels are going up everywhere. This is an amazing juxtaposition to the still very traditional life occurring on the streets. Markets, bicycle-taxis and family shops and restaurants still dominant the street level. I watched a few minutes of what appeared to be some sort of acupuncture/blood-letting procedure happen right on the street right in front of a large bank. I’m not sure how sanitary that was!
Yunnan is also the most diverse place in China – China is something like 94% Han Chinese, but in Yunnan there are over 50 identified ‘minority groups’ that make up over 50% of the population. Not far from the Burmese, Lao and Vietnam borders, this area is teeming with hill-tribes and ethnic groups that historically and possibly even today owe their affinity much less to a country than the forests and mountains that their ancestry came from.
I also feel like a movie star – so many people stop to stare, some even turn around to keep watching. I remember feeling this a bit in Japan – it can be uncomfortable but I’m trying to take the high road and am assuming its more of a curiosity than anything with mal-intent. The people that I have sort of talked to (with the 4 Chinese words I know) have been generally polite and helpful.
**** Those were my first impressions; it is now 5 days later.
I was expecting Jinghong, the first city we stayed in to be a dirty, crossroads sort of place – not so at all. It had a very metropolitan feel, with promenades, nice restaurants, parks and tons of shopping. We walked by this really nice hotel and decided for a laugh we would ask how much it was per night – turns out it was their grand-opening and they gave us a room for 80 Yuan ($11) when the going rate was 580 ($80)! So that was a pleasant change after staying in relatively ‘modest’ places over the past couple of weeks. After soaking in the culture, having a fantastic massage at the Seeing Hands massage place (supporting the blind by employing them!), and doing some people watching it was time to get back to roughing it. Ohhh and roughing it we did. One evening we were sitting at Mei Mei’s Cafe in Jinghong and reading through the guest book where a few people had written about a trekking opportunity without a guide that would allow you to see some non-touristy villages, beautiful scenery and rural Chinese life along the Burmese border in an area known as the Xishuangbanna region. Sounds good eh?
Off we went the next morning with a sense of adventure and some chicken scratch in my notebook that was supposed to be our guide for the next 3 days. Lonely Planet had not ventured into this area! The next morning after buying some snacks, Wei and I took a bus to a small town called Mengzhe, realizing soon after we got there that the next bus to the town where we were to spend the night wasn’t until 4pm. It was interesting watching my impatience – at first I was upset at myself for not being more detail oriented, thereby wasting four hours of my day. But again, what is wasting time? Can time truly be wasted? We sat on a park bench, watching the ethnic women in their colorful garb rake corn and rice in the streets to dry it after the recent harvest. Other than that, it appeared EVERYONE was wasting time, just sitting around, passing the hours during the hottest part of the day. Just another little part of myself that I’m working on letting go of during this trip, that sense of urgency and efficiency that accompanies my time…
We eventually caught the bus to Xiding at 4pm and after a bit of searching discovered that there was exactly one restaurant and one guesthouse and they were the same place. The room smelled like mildew, had no ventilation and there were small bugs crawling around the edges of my bed. I’ll stop there, but rest assured I’ve never been more tucked into my sleep sheet more tightly!
The only thing that happens in Xiding (ever, as far as I can tell!) is a Thursday market where people from all over the surrounding hillsides come to buy and sell their wares. It was quite a site – butchers chopping up pigs, fresh tea, noodle produce, the typical plastic Chinese crap. Mostly it was about the people – Wei took some great shots that hopefully I’ll get to post after I leave China. A colorful mix of young and old, men and women, traditional and modern dress. I was generally a foot taller than everyone and was quite the attraction for the locals once again – I don’t think they see many waiguoren (Chinese term for foreigner) in these parts. While I highly recommend the market, I highly do not recommend sleeping in Xiding…
After the market we started the trek, mostly downhill, reaching our originally intended destination, a town called Zhanlang, passing temples, tea plantations and small villages. We hitched the final 2 miles on the back of a truck after receiving a kind offer for a lift. And here is where it got interesting. Originally our plan was to stay in Zhanlang for the evening, as several travelers had reported very hospitable hosts that would allow you to stay in their homes and show you around the neighboring areas. Arriving at noon, we made the decision to push onward into the unknown. (Looking back this was a bad decision as the primary purpose of the trip was to interact with locals, not necessarily just walk through!). But we started walking, eventually getting lost in a maze of dirt trails with many diversions into corn and tea fields. Suddenly the nice stroll took on a new air – we were running low on water and baking in the midday sun with really no clue where we were. Stumbling upon a motorbike, we found a farmer working in his field who politely offered to take us to the next village for some gas money (and the additional $10 he extorted from us later), which we gladly agreed to. What a ride, three of us and a couple of backpacks crammed onto a motorcycle shredding through steep, rutted single track, ducking the various low hanging branches intent on taking off our heads. Happy to be alive!
Arriving in the town of Manwa in one piece, we composed ourselves and asked several local villagers how far it was to Bada, where we would need to spend the night to catch a morning bus back to Jinghong. This is where it got weird. Despite vague memories of the guest book saying the road from Manwa to Bada was long and arduous, we believed the locals who said it was 2-3 km and that there were many places to stay in Bada. 4 hours and about 8 uphill miles later we ended up in Bada, well after dark, miserable and exhausted. We still don’t know what reason these guys had to lie to us, but already at near exhaustion, we ended up pushing it way to far, nearly a 20 mile day. An interesting note about how Chinese thought is different than ours – during that excruciating 8 miles, we’d encounter people and ask them how far it was to Bada – the usual answer: “not far” or 1 or 2km when in fact it was much more! I have no reason to believe that they were lying, more that it is an aspect of the non-linear approach to life that many eastern cultures have… BIG lesson learned. Bada ended up being a very small town, once again with one place to stay smelling of mildew and dust. At that point all I wanted was sleep so it didn’t matter…. crashed hard and woke up early to catch the early bus back towards civilization.
I know some day I will look back at this and laugh, but right now I’m fighting a cold/possible strep throat from pushing myself past the brink of exhaustion. It was an exhilarating way to see some far off the beaten path areas but a good reminder that the thrill of unplanned adventure must be checked with some planning and reputable information.
Today I find myself in Kunming, the major city in Yunnan, clinging to a 1-bar Internet connection that comes and goes from my 4th floor hotel room, drinking tea and eating yogurt, trying to recover and kick this sore throat. We likely wouldn’t have stopped in Kunming, but this is the one city where Wei can find a new SLR camera to replace the one stolen in Bangkok. Next stop is the northwest of Yunnan, to Dali, Lijiang and the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Overall my impressions of China have been positive – there has been an element of surprise, despite the many reports of growth here it still is amazing to see it first hand, the red machine running day and night. There is a sense that China will never be the same, that in 20 years it will look drastically different if the pace of development continues. I feel fortunate to be a visitor during this period, witnessing change first hand. There are the negatives obviously of such growth – ‘getting rich’ is definitely on the minds of many Chinese and one needs to be on the look out for all sorts of scams and con-artists. China also faces massive environmental issues, it seems almost monthly a new story about business interests losing touch with ethics and poisoning rivers, risking lives or damaging the environment…