Happy New Year to all of you. I am safely back in sunny Bangkok after giving the Chinese government ample chance to lock me up. I figured I’d give them a sporting chance... At the time of my last message, I was in Guilin in southern China, having arrived in the dark from Thailand. After the warmth of all of the rest of SE Asia, the coolness of Guilin (it was in the 50s) was nice. Guilin was a relatively big town, maybe 5 million people, but is small by Chinese standards. I spent 3 days there, seeing the sights, getting my bearings on China, finding that my ATM card didn’t work here, etc., before heading down the Li river about 75km to Yangshuo. While in Guilin I did get to the red flute caves, a series of limestone caves that run for miles just outside the city. Used as bomb shelters during WWII, some of the caverns are huge, capable of holding hundreds of westerners (or thousands of Chinese). The government has turned the place into a kind of light show, casting some of the structures in rock concert style colored lighting. I hope some of my pictures do the place justice.
Once in Yangshuo, I found a hotel (it is low season and so beds were easy to find), and set out exploring. Like Guilin, Yangshuo is located on the banks of the Li river, and has odd but lovely limestone hills that randomly rise a few hundred meters out of the ground for no reason. Standing alone, steep, vertical sided, covered completely in green plants and bamboo, they resemble in some cases camel humps. Along the river they are much more common, appearing almost like a mountain range they are so close together.
Where Yangshuo differs from Guilin is in the size and nature of the place. Guilin is a city, albeit laid back. Yangshuo is a medium sized town, mainly a tourist destination for those who know of it. Most of the place is contained within a pizza slice of land with the river for a crust. Lined with shops and restaurants, one can easily pass an afternoon (or several) strolling to the river and back. Close in to the river is a place called (aptly enough) "Foreigner Street" lined with a few western bars and restaurants. Having found a website for the area before I arrived, I had heard of one of the bars, Buffalo Bar, and upon stumbling across it, found that I was there every day. Quite a den of the lowest kind it was, and so I naturally felt right at home.
I managed to get out on a bike for a time while there and took a river cruise, seeing the locals living mostly as they had for centuries- cormorant fisherman still working the rivers for fish, using the birds to do the hard work, terraced fields of rice being cleared by hand or by buffalo. It was really quite incredible. From there, I packed it up and headed back to Guilin and then on to Shanghai. I highly suggest those of you inclined to travel get there when you get a chance.
The train trip to Shanghai wasn’t bad, but wasn’t at all what I had bargained for. For starters, I thought that the trip was going to be 25 hours, and turned out to be closer to 30. Second, I figured I would splurge and get a soft sleeper (Chinese trains have 4 basic classes- Hard Seat (I was warned not to even consider this option for a ride of more than 3 hours), Soft Seat, Hard Sleeper, and Soft Sleeper), but when the train arrived I discovered it was a hard sleeper that I’d gotten. As usual in my wanderings, I rolled with it and found my way to my berth. Hard Sleepers aren’t bad (certainly by Indian standards)- a series of open compartments bisected at one end by a common hallway that runs the length of the car. Each compartment has 6 beds, 3 on either wall running across the car. I luckily had the bottom bunk, which afforded the most head room. Random aside- The Chinese, as most of us know, are not large people, but I was surprised to see that they were not nearly as small as I imagined they might be. True, the older generations (especially any person likely to have a picture of Mao hanging in their house, boat, etc.) are, but those of the modern generation are much bigger, and 6 foot tall people were not uncommon.
I shared my ride with 3 women, none of whom spoke more than 2 words of English, but we managed to communicate on the basics. I had brought food, as had they, and at meal times we had feasts. I couldn’t help but feel that I was back in college for a time as the major staple for all of us, despite the chips and fruit, was ramen noodles, cooked with hot water provided in every car. These were fancy compared to what I was used to (at least one cup I had contained 3 seasoning packets and a fold up fork), but cup-o-noodles are the same regardless. Needless to say, when I arrived in Shanghai and after my shower, a real meal was in order.
Along the way north, aside from my Suduko puzzles (I am officially an addict), I had lots of time to look out the window. There was building going on everywhere, and factories seemed to be the number one creation. I can report that all the things people say about the Chinese economy and its growth appear to be true. My advice is to learn Mandarin ASAP, cause they are coming, at it could be next week...
Shanghai marked the luxury portion of my travels, as I was scheduled to meet up with my folks for a 2 week tour of China and Hong Kong. Thus, the hotel where I stayed the first night, and where my folks were meeting me the next day, was much much much much much much much fancier then anyplace I’d been in quite some time. This wasn’t the Plaza or anything, but after $10 a night places and 30 hours of ramen noodles in a small train car, I felt like I’d found paradise.
Shanghai is a big place- our guide told us that there are 20 million people who live there, and while I didn’t explore it as much as I would have liked (tour groups, especially for the older set are like that) I can confirm that there are many, many, many Chinese people there. The city sits along the Huangpu river, a strip of muddy brown water that is somehow connected to the Yangtze. It looks much like Times Square, huge buildings of interesting shapes and sizes, garishly lit by tons of neon. Shanghai is a western city, full of as many western fashions and foods as one could want (I even walked past a Ferrari dealer). In many ways, despite the cultural revolution, shanghai must be -in spirit mainly- much as it was when the French, Brits, and international communities all had pieces of the place. It was quite a change from Guilin.
Once the tour started, I was ferried around by bus (stopping often for meals), and was taken to lots of shopping spots and a few cultural ones as well. We flew from Shanghai to Wuhan, took a bus to Sichuan, and boarded a boat which was to take us to ChungQuing past several hundred miles (and one big dam) up the Yangtze. The trip was like most of the cruises I have been on, although I did learn to play Ma-Jong. The Dam, the infamous 3 gorges dam, was quite a sight. They are still building the thing, which stretches more than a mile across the river. It is supposed to generate about 3% of the nation’s power when finished (it was supposed to be 15%, but Chinese power demands have grown so fast in the 10+ years of building, that its down to 3%- told you Shanghai had lots of neon...).
For me, and many other liberal leaning peoples, the real story for the dam is the impact it is having. Aside from just about wiping out at least two species of animals- the Yangtze dolphin and Chinese Sturgeon, the Chinese have had to move more than 1 million people from their homes because when the dam is finished, it will raise water levels by more than 150 meters (think almost 175 yards). Everywhere along the upstream river are marks and signs of where the water will rise to. Under that line, aside from the the people, most of whom are poor farmers who have lived on their pieces of land for quite some time, are at least 100 major historical sites, all of which will drown. It was strange to take a boat past 500 year old pagodas and even older burial sites, some of which well over my head up the mountainside and think that in a few years, they will be gone. That’s progress... I guess.
At the end of the boat ride, we got off in ChungQing, a city of 30 million, and flew on to Xi`an, home to the Qin dynasty’s Terracotta warriors. It was here that I saw my first snow of this winter- a few flurries which didn’t stick, but still, it was snow, and here that the cold finally convinced me that it was winter someplace. The Warriors, built by the first Chinese emperor, are quite a sight. There are thousands of them, some in almost perfect condition, others in pieces, lined in military perfect ranks for at least 200 yards in 3 separate chambers. Each one is unique- no two faces are the same. That they were made in the first century BC is even more crazy.
The guy who ordered it done, the first emperor, is a guy who probably should be more famous then he is. He unified the 6 nations that had been China to that point, linking them in an empire that lasted longer (more than 1900 years) then any other. He unified the language, currency, and weights and measures. He created a civil service that lasted until the rise of the Commies, and linked the pieces of the Great Wall that had been built to that point, stretching them for 3000 miles. In other words, he was busy.
After Xi`an, it was on to Beijing for NYE, the Wall, and the Forbidden City. The last two were awesome places (the Wall for me especially- as it marked the 3rd of the existing Wonders of the ancient world (assuming one doesn’t count Bodkin) I have now seen (the Pyramids and Taj Mahal the other two)) but what I enjoyed most was walking through the old city near its center. Beijing, like the rest of China is modernizing in a hurry, Beijing especially because of the 08 Olympics. To the Chinese, this seems to mean that anything that is over 30 years old needs to be destroyed in place of something else. Considering the Chinese population size, and the fact that land is at a premium (most Chinese are cremated, but those of the old school who believe in reincarnation and insist on burial (they think a body must be intact to move on) rent plots from the government for a period of 4-5 years after death, just long enough to start a new life. Then the body is dug up and cremated and a new body in put in that space), one can understand how they are interested in using the space they have.
Still, there was a time when Beijing was an old world city, small buildings (there was a law for the longest time which said that no building could be as tall at the 30+ meter palace in the Forbidden City) and narrow streets. Most families lived in small houses on a common private square. With the rise of the communists, the squares were paved over and lived in, but still, the neighborhoods were quite a sight.
From Beijing, it was on to Hong Kong for 4 days before I sent my folks packing and I went back south where it was warm. After the repression of China- certain internet sites blocked and 0 porn just as two examples, Hong Kong was wild. I stayed on Kowloon, one of the two more popular areas, Hong Kong Island being the other, but mainly for business. Hong Kong is like Canal Street- Anything one wants, any time of day, can be had. The food was good (I was in the land of the Pork Bun after all) and the fast ferry rides to HK island and Macau were lovely.
Now I am back in Thailand for the final 2 weeks of my trip. I am headed down south to get some more Scuba Diving in, and then I will be back in the states on the 20th. Hope all of you have enjoyed my blog, I will try and upload some more pictures in a day or two, but if not, I will be happy to bore all of you with the whole lot once I get back stateside.