A Travellerspoint blog


Book Five: Return to Southeast Asia and China



After the long flight, Hong Kong still felt vaguely familiar after a five year absence. Our hotel, the Panda, was comfortable enough, though kitchy in the Chinese way. When we had breakfast in a local place around the corner, ham and eggs and toast with the crust cut off in the British manner, we truely felt we had arrived. Shortly thereafter we made our way to the subway station, and managed to get lost several times, though we did make it to the mainland Chinese train station. It was not entirely uneventful, as I left my small day pack next to the information both in the subway. As we were purchasing tickets from a machine, the attendant came up to me and asked if I had left a bag. Initially I said no, only to realize a few minutes later that in fact I had done so. Luckily she still had it in the booth. A close call with a lot of imprtant papers.

In the main train station we found ourselves next to Peter from Montreal, who we chatted with about travel adventures and found we had been to many of the same places. In his late 40's, he had a business and a girlfriend which brought him to Guangzhou on a monthly basis. He kindly offered to let us call Sunny, our former English student, on his phone when we arrived, which turned out to be unnecessary. Sunny, who was only 15 when we last saw her was right there to meet us, and we recognized each other immediately. It was, after five long years, wonderful to see her again, as she was by far our favorite student in Xiamen.

Sunny in her apartment and next to revolutionary statue in sculpture garden

Guangzhou is a big,rather futuristic looking city with many new skyscapers, and a nice walkway along the Pearl River. On the day we arrived Sunny took us to the top of the Canton tower, some 600M high with a commanding view of the city. The tower was erected for the 2010 Asian games. Unfortunately the smog obscured much of the sunset. However, when the lights of the city came on after dark, the display of multicolored neon was incredible.

Taken through the glass at the top of the tower

The tower itself was alternately lit up like a rainbo, then red, purple, green etc. which was best seen once we descended.


As Sunny pointed out, the Chinese are very good at puttng on a show for others to see. Later in the evening we took a cruise on the Pearl River, and the lights on the bridges and tall buildings were like a well organized light show, also multicolored, as well as moving and pulsating. I snapped away wthout a tripod, eager to try out my new superlight camera.






For the first couple of days Sunny kept us incredible busy seeing all of the sights, and insisted on paying for many things. We ate up a storm, from local soups, to dongbei, hotpot, and dim sum.

Old monastery amidst the constant new construction

Finally we had to tell her that we didn't need to see EVERYTHING, and just wanted to spend time with her. This gave us time to just relax and enjoy each other's company. We spent one evening making jouza, dumplings, in her apartment, where we met her roommates, and an Italian man who Sunny had corresponded with, who was interested in studying Chinese in exchange for teaching her Italian. Another night we met her boss, David , a low key Brit who seems to appreciate her talents and is almost paternal with her. She works for him as an administrator, in a language institute which provides training to multinational corporations. Though much more mature than when we last saw her, Sunny is still the same free thinking, independent person she was five years ago. Despite the gaps in her formal education she has a very good and inquizative mind, and has blossomned into a responsible and attractive woman. Her English, complete with American accent, has improved to the point where it is possible to have a conversation with her about practically anything. We discussed many things including some heavy family issues, friendships, work, goals for the future etc. When and if she decides to create her own business, we can be the first, and as she put it, likely the only shareholders. I think we all realized that our connection to each other remains as strong as ever, despite the time and the distance. She has become, for all intents and purposes, like our third daughter, and we feel very protective of her.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:58 Archived in China Tagged skylines people photography buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

Tiger Leaping Gorge

By the next morning, I was ready to head off to Tiger Leaping Gorge, anxious that the good weather might not continue to hold, this being the rainy season. The Gorge is prone to landslides and can be quite dangerous to hike during significant rainfalls. We talked Grace and Dave into accompanying us, though it didn't take all that much to convince them. The Gorge is said to be one of deepest in the world, and was a two hour ride back in the direction of Lijiang. We left our heavy packs at Jane's, a guest house at the start of the trek, and continued on with day packs, knowing we would find small inns along the way. We started out about 3PM and decided to spend our first night at the Naxi Family Guest House. With the weather looking more threatening, this seemed like a good idea after two hours of uphill hiking. The guest house was constructed of stone and wood with a large central courtyard, complete with purple bouganvilla and marijuana plants. The view beyond, was of a line of jagged green and stone mountains, high above the river which we could still hear, but not see.

At first we were the only ones there, but then as evening came on, a rather international crowd of Swedes, Danes, Americans, Chinese, etc. began to arrive. At dusk, the clouds dissipated somewhat, and we were rewarded with an incredible sunset, backlighting the mountains in an evanescent glow. There must have been 15 of us, snapping pictures like mad to try and capture just the right light. After that , we were treated with a nearly full moon rising over the peaks in the deepening night, illuminating the dark clouds in the north.




The next day we started up the 26 bends, a long series of switch backs during which we gained two thousand feet of vertical. Though it was raining just before we started to hike, miraculously it cleared just before we had to start walking. After three hours, we arrived at a series of cascades and couldn't tear ourselves away. Best of all, we saw no people until much later that afternoon. We did see:


Continuing on, we shortly arrived at Teahouse Guest House, where we decided to spend the night.


That way we could easily return to the falls to while away the rest of the sunny afternoon. Dave and I went for a most refreshing shower in the icy water.

It rained again that night, but as we started out for Tina's, the final leg of the trek, it stopped once again affording us comfortable hiking in overcast skies. The trail here was a long traverse across the side of the gorge, with some serious views down into chasm and its churning waters below. In places the path was slippery, with water overrunning it from the previous days of rain. Luckily, no serious erosion had occured and it was all passable.


We arrived at Tina's at midday which was packed with Chinese daydrippers eating lunch before descending to the bottom of the gorge.


After an hour, the place cleared out and we decided to relax and just meander down the road after lunch. Here, in Walnut Garden, there were several other guest houses, all with stupendous views of the gorge and the mountains on both sides.

Now for the piece de resistance. That evening, once again the rains came, but ended in the morning before we started to hike. The trail from guest house to the gorge was steep, and we decided to descend a different way because we thought it might be less slippery. Walking back to Walnut Garden, we cut across a hillside into the village below. It was difficult to find the right path to the river, but eventually we saw some red arrows, and sneaking past the sign which said to pony up 50 yuan, we descending the rest of the way. The rapids were class 6, boiling and roiling in the high water through the narrow gorge, after all the rain. It would make a hell of a rafting trip.


Coming back up a bit, we contoured around the mountain, hoping to meet up with a path that would take us back to the trail further up river near Tina's. At times there was a clear trail, and at others, it was like bushwalking through tropical brush without a machete. We eventually got to a more obvious path, where we saw an old man, sitting on a large rock contemplating the wild scene below.


He seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see him, but we managed to ask if we were going in the right direction and he seemed to indicate yes. We couldn't pass up the opportunity to take photos, and after asking if it was okay, began snapping away. I got one shot off with Nanette sitting next to him, while he, touching her earrings, was obviously fascinated by the gold color. A real National Geographic moment.


Here was a simple farmer, impossible to tell how old, meditating in his own way while enjoying the natural environment, obviously quite content.

We continued on 'through the trees and brush, eventually arriving at another, but more remote Shangri-la. A little spot that had been cleared a few hundred feet above the river, planted with corn, and with a fish pond along side a small stone dwelling. A young woman came out and once again we asked directions. After some confusion we gathered we could continue on the path we were on to get to the one below Tina's where we could ascend.

She asked for 10 Yuan to cross the rickety old bridge.

"Is it safe?" we asked.

"Yes, safe and easy," she said, and agreed to accompany us part of the way along the trail. Well for me at least, it was not that easy. A trail had somehow been cut through the cliff directly above the torrent below, and at times there were gaps in the rocks where you had to descend by small ladders to get to the other side. My fear of heights kicked in several times, but she was nice enough to hold my hand over the worst stretches.


We could hear the roar of the river constantly and it was easy to imagine falling in and being sucked down to disappear in the foam and froth.


That obviously didn't happen, and we made our way to the path below Tina's after 30 harrowing, but exciting minutes. From there we had two choices. We could ascend via a hundred foot ladder and then very steep trail or continue on for a bit more until we reached another trail with stone steps hacked out of the rock. We went on, and not only because of me. Again we were rewarded with close up views of raging class 6 rapids, created by the narrow rock walls forcing a huge volume of water over and around the boulders, at one point creating a drop of 10 feet with murderous looking hydraulics.


We finally got to our path, and here there were literally hundreds of Chinese, including some women in high heels and others in flip-flops, descending the steep, slippery path to the bottom of the gorge. We headed up, grateful that we had gone down a different way and experienced the wildness of the place for ourselves. This trail also had a few hairy bits, with steel wires to help prevent failing. Overall, it was managable, especially going our direction. After perhaps another 90 minutes we emerged on the road just below Tina's.

We had a big lunch, several well deserved Dali beers and then headed back, reluctantly, to pick up our packs and then continued to crowded Lijiang in a minibus. Our friends left for southern Yunnan, and we were sad to say goodbye after such a week. Tomorrow we leave for Kunming, and then to Bangkok to apply for our Indian visas.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:04 Archived in China Comments (4)

The Real Shangri-La: From Lijiang to Zhongian

View Burma, Indonesia and Laos on jonshapiro's travel map.

From Dali, hippie capital of Yunnan, we took a four hour bus ride to Lijiang, now the most popular tourist destination in China. Teeming with thousands of Chinese (and some westerners), the old town, with it's twisty cobblestone lanes and alleys, sans cars, is not without its charms, but


it is very easy to get lost, and there are far too many people, as well restaurants, grossly overcharging for the priviledge of sipping a beer near one of the numerous stone bridges. Naxi women, dressed in immaculately laundered blue regalia, along with a few Tibetans, perform dances on the streets while hustling the tourists to empty their wallets in the thousands of souvenir shops which are everywhere.

Lijiang at Night from our Guest House

It is what I imagine Epcot Center to be like, though I confess that I have never been there. Way too artificial for my tastes. We stayed in a guest house just outside the old city, affiliated with the hostel we loved in Dali. However, the staff was surly and seemed to resent the guests. To top it off, I suspect there were bedbugs in the pillow, as I had hundred of bites on my neck, which didn't go away until after we left two days later.

Zhongian, which was renamed Shangri-la by the Chinese government, was a relief after Lijiang. Much more low key, the old town is smaller, with intricately carved houses of stone and wood, and windows painted in the bright reds and other colors that the Tibetans like so much. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has big plans to turn Shangri-la into another major tourist destination. There is construction going on all over the surrounding new city. Big hotels are sprouting up, and what look to be shopping malls, all being built in faux Tibetan style. In five years, the place might be very different. The Chinese have a way of turning even their minority groups into a commodity to be marketed to flag waving, beanie wearing, Han Chinese tour groups. Part of the problem is that there are just so damned many of them, and they quickly overwhelm whatever other cultures they come into contact with. Couple this with their sense of cultural superiority, and you have the makings of what the Dalai Lama has called, cultural genocide. Shangri-la is really the start of the Tibetan world in China. It is high, over 3000M, and Tibet itself is not very far away. Neither is northwestern Sichuan, which is overwhelming Tibetan as well.

It will be interesting to see, in the years to come, if the influence of American culture wanes, as Chinese culture becomes more ascendant. In some ways, our culture has also overwhelmed others, less because of numbers, and more because of Hollywood and the power of American marketing techniques. In the end, Chinese and American culture may not be all that dissimilar. The Chinese, after all, love to shop, conduct business of all kinds, and they love Mickey. Perhaps the end result will be a weird amalgam of both cultures?

In Shangri-la we found a wonderful guest house. From our room, we could look over to an enormous prayer wheel and a Buddhist temple, especially beautiful at night when they were lit up.


On the way to Shangri-la, we met up with Grace and Dave, who we had seen on a previous bus ride. She is Korean and he is from New Zealand, but they met in China where he taught English while she taught music. She had a thriving career in music in Korea, but felt stifled by the increasing christian religiosity of her country and her family. She apparently was more or less disowned by her relatives when she hooked up with Dave. We ended up spending the better part of a week with them.

I took a Picture of Them and They took a Picture of Us

On our first full day in town, we set out for a major Buddhist temple, Songzanlin, a few miles away. Largely reconstructed after being destroyed by the Red Guards, it looks somewhat like the Potala Palace in Lhasa, though the roof is a bright gold color and huge golden stupas surround the grounds. Inside, enormous Buddhas, looking almost childlike, smile benignly on all who enter.


Here too, Naxi and Tibetan women, in full costumes of cobalt blue and white for the Naxi, and mainly fuchia and elaborate headgear for the Tibetans, pose for pictures. Five Yuan, if you please. After visiting the monastery and the extensive grounds, we wandered through some of the nearby villages and saw many more women dressed in native costumes, though somewhat more threadbare and dirty, clearly not designed to appeal to tourists. There were other villagers as well. Everyone was friendly and seemed to get a kick out of seeing us there.




The next day we set off on a bike ride with Grace and Dave. Having only a poor map and little helpful information, we had no idea which way to go. We headed East with no particular destination, but in the thin air of Zhongian, some of the hills were difficult to negotiate. Nanette and I had good bikes, but Dave and Grace were on a tandem with no gears, Grace never having learning to ride a bike growing up in Korea. After an hour or two in the hot sun, we noticed a small dirt track leading to a village further in the mountains. We headed there, eager to get away from the tourist buses plying the main highway. As we rode down the rutted and potholed road, Tibetan women and children would shout out Ni Hao, and sometimes Tashi Delek(hello in Tibetan) We got to what was obviously a poor village, though the houses looked more solid than many of the new buildings they put up in the cities. Pigs, chickens and cows meandered on the road, and I think we saw less than two cars for the rest of the day. After another hour, we ended up near a tiny store, just in time to replenish our dwindling water supply. A few locals came out to observe, curious about what foreigners on bikes were doing there.


We headed for a house with a bright red roof on a nearby hill, which we arbitrarily made our destination. However en route, a group of Tibetan women stopped us and asked where we were going.


" We have no idea," Grace said in Mandarin, and they invited us to visit the lamasary on top of the hill, not far from the red house. We thought that's where they were going, but as it turned out, they soon split off from us to go to another part of the village. They pointed the way, and we continued walking and riding up.

Eventually we got there. The lamasary building looked old, and rather decrepit, but the view of the green valley below, the surrounding mountains, and the tattered prayer flags blowing from the tops of nearby chortens, was sublime.


The dozen or so monks in residence soon came out to greet us. "Chu la ma"?, they said. Did you eat? We replied, "chu la, bao la". Yes we ate. We're full. Oh they said, "at least come and have tea.". Nanette and I might not have understood all of this, but Grace's Chinese was better than ours. They showed us around the temple, which was very dark inside, much like those I had seen in India and Nepal, and then took us upstairs to what was obviously the most comfortable sitting room. There they first gave us green tea, Chinese style, then yak butter tea, along with Yak cheese and tsampa. Tsampa is powered barley, usually rolled into balls moistened with butter tea. I didn't realize at first that it was what I had tasted in Nepal, but to be polite I took a small piece and ate it as the monks instructed. It tasted vaguely like peanuts.


The monks were mostly older teenagers and some in their 20's. They were big fellows, tall, broad, and even little fat. They were laughing and attempting to talk to us in Chinese, obviously enjoying our presence. Once again Grace came to the rescue, though she didn't understand a lot of what they said. After a while, it came time to leave, and somewhat reluctantly we said our goodbyes. Biking down the hill from the temple, we stopped for picture taking of the unspoiled scene. Here was one place where the tour buses had yet to discover.

It would have been a perfect day, were it not for the car that happened to be parked in my way as I pedaled furiously back into town. Not looking where I was going, or rather not being able to see over the large brim of my hat, I ran straight into it, bouncing off the bumper. My third bike accident in the last several months. Luckily though, other than giving my quads a good bang and knocking the wind out of me, this one was not as bad as the last.

We stopped just outside the old town to have dinner at the Puppet Restaurant, offering, Chinese, Indian, Naxi, Tibetan, Japanese, western food, and God knows what else. It looked to be frequented mainly by Tibetans and was less touristy, so we decided to give it a try. Though the momos were not outstanding, the Naxii meat pies and Indian food was delicious. Our waitress and proprietess was a beautiful Naxi woman who spent 6 months in Kathmandu studying English, which helped to explain the wall hanging of Bodinath, as well as her nearly flawless accent. We asked her several questions about the Naxi culture. Pronouced, Nashi, they are one of the last matrilinear cultures in the world. The women choose to have children with whatever man they like, usually without bothering to be married. They stay with the man as long as they wish, but usually, the children are raised only by the women in the family. The men have no responsibility, but also no parental rights . Often the women choose to have a succession of boyfriends, and there is no stigma attached to this whatsoever. The women own and run the family businesses, and, of course, female children are highly valued, so very different than traditional Chinese culture. Depending on the position of their parents within Chinese society, they might however still be bound by the one child policy.

Wow, I might suggest to my feminist daughters, that they become Naxi.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:46 Archived in China Comments (2)


The next day, the rain continued lightly, but we were able to walk to the bus station and got out of town without a problem At first when we arrived in Dali, we felt disappointed at seeing another large and rather ugly city, though the mountains and the lake were beautiful. But then after much negotiation, we got into a cab to take us to the old city, which we thought was right next to the new. Instead it was 14k higher and closer to the mountains. We have been here now for five days and it is quite beautiful, though touristy. Many old buildings, narrow streets, small shops and bars, old stone walls and beautiful gates surround the small city. It is a mix of foreign tourists and Chinese, though mercifully cars are banned on several of the main streets.


Pagodas Near Dali

Within the first couple of hours of arriving, we wandered into a small bar called Paramita, somehow drawn in by the energy of the place as well as the Billy Holiday music.

Paramita with Kankan in background, Joachim and Antonette Foreground

We spent several hours talking to Lia, the Chinese owner and her friend Kankan, also Chinese, who speaks English with A British accent, having learned it on her own by listening to BBC. They were incredibly welcoming and we felt very comfortable. They are both, at least to us, rather atypical Chinese in that making money is not so important. Both of them have been involved in several humanitarian projects with children in different parts of Yunnan. Within an hour we felt like good friends. They also offered us some pot to smoke, which came as a shock, given our understanding about Chinese drug laws

We said we'd return later, but got sidetracked by meeting a German couple back at our hostel, Joachim and Antonette. They are traveling here for another month, after having come overland from Germany through ]Russia and the trans-Siberian railroad, and then into Mongolia to ]China. Later they will go to Brazil, where they have purchased a catamaran and will sail the world for as long as they like, or until their money runs out. They have sold their businesses and decided to end their working careers, at least for now.
We spent a few highly enjoyable days hiking and biking with them. Yesterday we climbed part way up Mt Cangshen, just out of town, foregoing the cable car, and then did a long, but beautiful traverse on a well maintained stone path crossing many waterfalls. Luckily the weather held.

Nanette with Joachim and Antonette on Mt. Cangshen

Views of the Hike

Sunset Over Cangshen

Views of the Lake that we Biked1Yunnan_pictures_051.jpg1Yunnan_pictures_141.jpg

Today we took a minibus to an interesting market with Naxi and Bai women dressed in native costumes, a lot like South America.


We returned to show our friends from Paramita where the local weed grows wild in huge clumps, not far from the mountain. They've only been here two months and were unaware of this particular stash.

We have spent several nights hanging out at the bar, talking to Lia and Kankan, and later meeting Lia's Canadian husband, who returned from Kunming with Sid, an Indian-American artist friend from New York. An assortment of other interesting people wandered in, including a very bright young Aussie, studying traditional Chinese medicine, and a rather crazy Israeli, retired hematologist, looking to move to New York.

The first night Lia and her friend invited us to stay for dinner, In between chopsticks of their delicious food, we engaged in what were highly intellectual discussions about art, China, the Living Theater, Jerzy Grotowski, the Yin and Yang of Chinese medicine, world politics, etc. , enhanced no doubt, by the plentiful weed that was being passed around. Lia also told us that her 41 year old brother had more or less suicided of alcoholism three years ago and that this really screwed up her parents who blamed each other. Lia seems to have her own problems with drink, and now I fear, with pot as well. She really knows how to take care of others, though I'm not sure how well she cares for herself. Her friend Kankan seems much more grounded, and especially considering that she is a middle school drop out, is incredibly well informed and has a formidable intellect. The first night we spent in the bar felt a little like My Dinner with Andre, a long intellectual riff.

We also spent an afternoon or two making art to help decorate the bar.

Nanette with unfinished Buddha Pic and Lia

Last night we returned with our German friends, who don't smoke. Things got a little out of hand, with the laced brownies that everyone had consumed. The conversation though lively, was much less coherent and by the time we returned home at midnight, very late for us, it was a little difficult to walk a straight line and everything felt like it was moving at a rapid clip. We haven't partied like this in a very long time.

How Lia and her more business oriented Canadian husband, will ever make money out of the bar is difficult to say. People seem to hang out most of the night, drink a little, and smoke a lot. Perhaps there is a plan afoot to market the local stuff to foreigners? The scene here is shockingly unlike anything we have experienced thus far in China, more international and open. Clearly the authorities know what is going on, but at least for now, do nothing. Perhaps they are making money out of it; hard to know. It has been a very relaxing time, full of fascinating people. It will be hard to pull ourselves away.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:22 Archived in China Tagged people parties postcards Comments (2)

Shanghai to Kunming:Lost in Translation

Shanghai was big, busy, and full of shop til you drop malls and various restaurants. There was not lot of culture, though we were only there for two days. We stayed in an old hotel near the Bund, which was a disappointment as most of the old buildings were abandoned and in disrepair. Shanghai, like so many other Chinese cities, is destroying the old and putting up the new, mostly glitzy office buildings and neon lit shopping centers.




We liked Kunming in Yunnan province somewhat more. The climate is good as it is located at almost 6000 feet, but alas the rainy season had already started. We spent a nice day wandering around the University and large nearby park.


And then went to a 1000 year old Buddhist temple, rebuilt many times. The temple was one of the most interesting we have seen in China, full of old ladies meditating with their prayer beads, as well as sleeping and eating on the temple grounds. We were allowed to walk around but not to actually go inside the main building.




After a couple of days we tried to make our way to Dali, some 150 miles west of Kunming and more in the mountains. We picked the wrong day. All night long it poured and was still raining when we got into our taxi the next morning. The streets were jammed, and many were flooded. The city was virtually paralyzed, and traffic was backed up in all directions for miles. After two hours of trying to reach our destination, the driver seemed to indicate it was hopeless, and dropped us somewhere in the city which was totally unfamiliar to us. We tried to find out where the bus station was and several people pointed and then shook their heads when it was obvious we couldn't understand their Chinese. Eventually we surmised the place was flooded, but it was hard to know for sure. Then we tried to get back to our hostel, but that soon proved impossible as all the cabs were full and not moving anyway. We went up to a couple of policemen and asked for a hotel, but despite knowing the word, they didn't seem to understand or know any hotels, and neither did anyone else we asked. We began to get anxious about being stuck on the street and unable to go anywhere. It was raining hard, and so while Nanette waited with the luggage, I scouted around to try and find a place to stay. This went on for some time and I eventually turned back thinking that Nanette might be worried about my being gone so long. Luckily, I found a place that somehow I had overlooked the first time, and even more lucky was that there was someone at the desk who spoke some English. We were right near the bus station as it turned out, and yes it was totally inundated with water.

All in all it was a frustrating and trying day; one of the more difficult ones we have had in China.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:52 Archived in China Comments (2)

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