Monday, July 17, 2006

Southern China

Wuhan, Hubei, China
Guess I kind of disappeared there for a couple weeks, but that way you had time to read my marathon email from Vietnam.  Over the last two weeks I was very ambitious.  I traveled hard and fast and covered a lot of ground.  I feel like I've been to about 5 different countries, and in a way I have.  China is so huge that going between different provinces or even different cities can feel like a complete change.
So... I left you last having arrived in Kunming, Yunnan Province.  It was a big city, but the highlight was the Stone Forest - a collection of big rock formations.  Trying to get there was fun - I asked at least 5 different people where to find the bus and was told it was impossible to get there that day.  But in China you just keep asking until you find someone who says yes. 
The next day I went north to Dali, a little "backpacker paradise" with beautiful pagodas and a huge monastery.  Did some hiking there and was amused by the fact that as you walk along the street, little old ladies in traditional dress come up to you and offer you pot ("you smokah da hash??")  It's hard not to laugh when a 70 year old woman offers you ganja and pretends to be selling you jewelry.
Yunnan, besides being chock full of great scenery, is also China's most ethnically diverse province, with the greatest number of ethnic minorities located there.  In fact, because of this, Yunnan kind of does what it wants, because it doesn't associate itself as strongly with the Han Chinese culture.  Most of these groups, at least the older people, still dress and live and eat in the traditional way (caterpillars and bee larvae, anyone?), which is very interesting to see.  Additionally, the Han Chinese (the dominant group - what you think of as "chinese") are the least friendly of all the ethnic groups, so being in these small, ethnic towns was a bit of a respite because the people were much nicer....although almost everywhere you go, you have to contend with hordes of screaming, pushing, spitting Chinese tour groups, which really wears you down after a while.
After Dali, I went to Lijiang, also in Yunnan and also a cute little old town, with very interesting Dongba architecture.  I wandered through the market - an interesting experience and one that I wished I hadn't worn sandals for.  They basically butcher their animals by laying them on the table and chopping them up, bones and all, so there were lots of heads lying around and a few stiff dogs, with their hair removed.  One guy was blackening meat with a blow torch, but I'm not sure why.    A fascinating experience - markets are one of the best ways (I think) of getting to know a culture, because you see how the people interact, how they bargain, how they treat their animals, and how they prepare their food and eat it. 
I also saw the "oldest dance school in the world" and some examples of the only remaining pictographic language - the Dongba language.  It's funny how one of the things you are reminded of by traveling around so much is just how much you don't know.  I have learned so much in the last month.
The next day I did the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, which I was not previously aware included a steep hike gaining almost 1000 meters in altitude.  You start out already pretty high up, and I was just getting the flu, so it was a bit tough, but the views were worth it.  You climb way up a mountain to get a spectacular view of the Yangtze River, and you stay overnight and hike down the next day via a different route.
One interesting thing I learned from the experience is that websites about b ird f lu are censored here.  I've been sick for about two weeks, but I think it's just the standard flu that everyone here seems to get.  I felt like I was going to die for the first three days or so, but now it's almost gone.  The lady at my hostel the first two days was cute, though - she didn't speak any English, but when I finally got up, she was waiting with her phrasebook to ask if I wanted a doctor.
So from Lijiang I took a plane to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to avoid more than 24 hours of bus travel.  I arrived at 1:30 am and ended up camping out on someone's hotel room floor, but it worked out in the end.  In the morning we went to see the Panda Research and Breeding Center.  I didn't realize that Sichuan was the only place in the world where pandas are remaining in the wild.  The conservation effort here seems to be sincere, although they do let tourists take pictures touching the pandas, which just seems unnatural to me.  But the breeding center was really interesting because not only did we get to see lots of pandas (and some little ones) close up, but they had videos and a museum about their reproductive process, and I learned lots of new things.  For example, first time mothers are usually so surprised at the thing that just popped out of them that they bat it around sometimes until it dies (and we wonder why they are endangered).  And baby pandas are born very underdeveloped - their eyes don't open for a few months and they have no hair or anything.  They have to be carried around in the mom's paw for a while before they can wiggle around on their own. 
That night I checked out the "Sichuan Opera"..which wasn't an opera at all, but a variety show in which people did such things as make shadow puppets with their hands and juggle tables with their feet.  They also had a "changing faces" act, in which they flipped masks on and off really fast.  It was really entertaining, but I still have yet to see an actual Chinese opera.  I'm told to look for this in Beijing.
So then I decided to splurge and buy myself plane tickets to see the north of Sichuan.  The alternative was to either not go at all or spend two of four days on the bus, so I went for it.  It was totally worth it (and quite an adventure).
Arriving at Jiuzhaigou airport, there are no buses to the park, so you have to wait till you have 5 people and then a bus will go.  After we had 4 (three middle-aged Chinese men and me), the guys decided to get a taxi for the same price.  One of them had been trying to talk to me and was enjoying my phrasebook.  On the way to the park, he invited me to go to the theater that night and see "dancing and singing".  I declined, but when we got close to the park, I found the taxi was dropping us at a hotel, and the man had the nerve to point to my phrasebook and indicate that he wanted to share a room at the hotel with me and tried to pay for my taxi and everything.  I found some girls and they called their English-speaking sister, who told me I was 2km from the park entrance.  I gave the taxi driver my share of the money and said sionara to the sketchy man and practically ran out of the hotel.  By the time I walked to the park, looked at the museum, paid my entrance fee and went to the entrance, guess who was waiting for me??  Yeap, but I was quite rude to him and went back inside, and he must have gotten the point, because I didn't see him again.
The rest of the day bordered on magical.  The tour groups had all gone in the morning, so I spent 4 hours walking completely alone through the forest.  I saw maybe 2 other people total.  The park is absolutely gorgeous, with sparkling, clear blue lakes and lots of trees and flowers and butterflies.  Very few westerners go there, and since I arrived in the afternoon after the taxi debacle, I had the entire place to myself at first.  Such a nice change from the noise and hassle of China. 
There are nine Tib etan villages in the park, as the area is very close to Ti bet, and the food, temples, people, and language in the area are almost all Tibe tan (and hence the people do what they please).  Technically it's now illegal to stay in the park, but there is a very cryptic piece of information that gets passed along from backpacker to backpacker, which I wont mention just in case it might get someone in trouble, about whom to talk to in order to get a room in one of the Ti betan villages.  I was a little worried about finding it, but I walked into the village around 5pm and sure enough I found the right person and was led down a bunch of winding staircases where no government raid was likely to find me, and I got a fairly nice room for the night.  I got dinner in the home of a monk and a very old Tib etan woman, who never stopped spinning her prayer wheel (I don't know what it's actually called, but if they spin it, it's supposed to make them live longer), and the food was great.  It was really a special experience. 
The next day I had to contend with the tour groups and it was back to reality.  The park was beautiful, but the silence was broken, so it wasn't quite as great.  I moved on to Songpan, famous for their horse treks, and signed myself up for a two day trek.  This turned out to be a big disappointment, as the two day one doesn't go to the places with the greatest scenery, and the whole thing is basically a glorified pony ride - a lot of fun if you've never ridden a horse before, but if you're an experienced rider, very annoying.  Plus we had to walk half the way.  We did get good food, though, and they piled up leaves for mattresses and saddles for pillows, so it was a fun little cowboy experience.
I came back to Chengdu and headed straight out for Chongqing, where I saw more temples before being herded onto a Chinese tour boat down the Yangtze River.  We were promised many things by the tour agency, several of which failed to appear, and it was kind of amusing to watch my fellow backpackers get really angry about all of it, when I had told them from the beginning that the promises were empty.  I guess I'm just over it, since I already know it's all lies and there's no point getting angry. 
I paid extra to be in "second class" - four bunks. Well, there were five of us in there... but apparently a child doesn't count.  On the second night she got a "fever" that I think was a ploy to get me out of the room, because the grandma spent the whole first day glaring at me like I was a huge cockroach that had wandered in through the window.  Since they were up tending to the girl, I complained that I'd never get to sleep, so I was very graciously moved to THIRD class (with no refund of money of course).  At least the people there were friendly, even if I couldn't really talk with them at all.  And the main reason everyone was mad was that we were promised an English-speaking guide and one never materialized.  On another boat, some Canadians didn't even get notified when it was time to get off the boat for sightseeing - just woke up and found the place empty.  But the way things work here is that you ask if you'll get something and they say "oh, yes, of course" but they are lying to your face every time.  You get used to it, but it is still frustrating.
The boat ride was interesting mainly because you see the level markers of the water.  They are building a humongous dam, which is going to raise the level of the part of the Yangtze before the dam by something like 80 meters, displacing a million and a half people by 2009.  The markers are now up to 140m or so. By October the water will be up to 156, and up to 170 by the end.   It's a bit surreal to see a big "170 M" painted on houses on the hill, and think that the people living in them are doing so knowing that in a couple years, their entire house will be under water.  Now is definitely the time to see the Three Gorges and the Yangtze, because it's going to be a much different place in a few years.  Even some of the famous sites along the river have been recently rebuilt, because the original ones are now completely submerged.
Additionally, the Yangtze is a good example of China's use of natural resources.  The water looks like gravy.  Brown and oily.  There is lots of debris and various trash floating on the water.  Someone told me he took a cruise on the Yangtze a few years ago, and at the end of each day they would collect all the trash from the bins on the boat and tie it up neatly and throw it overboard.  And they wonder why they have no drinking water left in this country.  And believe it or not, they still eat fish out of the river.  Worst of all, no one seems to have any thought that it might be a problem.  Any trash you might have, just throw it over your shoulder.  If you can't see it anymore, it must not exist.
I did finally have a good hotpot for dinner though - the local specialty is basically a big boiling bowl of broth (with a gas burner under the table to keep it boiling), and they bring different veggies and raw meat to throw in the pot, which you then fish out with your chopsticks and eat with rice, and it's very spicy.   Amusing, too, because we asked for "chicken and vegetables" and we got a CHICKEN.  Head, feet, all the rest of it chopped up bones and all, and the piece de resistance, at the end they brought over a bowl of various bloody organs and dumped them in, but fortunately by then we all had finished eating.  An Australian guy did eat some of the head just to be funny, though I don't know how his girlfriend stood it.
Anyway, at around 2am last night we were literally shoved onto a bus and taken to Wuhan, where I am currently awaiting my train for Shanghai.  I should be on the train for around 20 hours, so I'm really looking forward to that.  I have supposedly booked a hard sleeper - meaning there are 6 bunks in the room - so I'm praying that I have a top bunk at least.  Damien will be joining me the day after tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to not being alone anymore (and especially not sleeping in dorms anymore). 
So that's the update.  I've had a fantastic couple of weeks.  Frustrations and illnesses aside, I've seen beautiful scenery, met fascinating people, had interesting experiences and generally enjoyed China a whole lot.  Now that I'm over the initial culture shock and have accepted China and the Chinese for what they are (mostly), I'm really feeling like I could have spent a lot longer here and I've shortchanged it in an effort to see as much as possible.  It's definitely not easy to travel here, but it's worth making the effort, as the country has a lot to offer once you start to find a way in.  If I come back, though, I'd like to learn a lot more Chinese, because a lot of people seem like they are really wonderful if you can break through the language barrier and get to know them.  I can get around with the Chinese I know, but I can't get to know people - a first for me - and it's quite frustrating.
Well, I've rambled enough.  Thanks for the emails - keep them coming.  I can't believe my trip is half over already!  Can't wait to see as many of you as possible in August.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Scamorama in Vietnam

Kunming, Yunnan, China
Well, I'm back in China again and thought I'd take the opportunity to give you the run down on my week in Vietnam.  It's hard to summarize without running on and on, but hopefully I wont bore you all with too many details. 
I'll start by saying that I really liked Vietnam.  It's so much more relaxed than China, the people seemed nicer, and more people speak English, so it's easier to get around.  The tourist infrastructure is much more developed there, so it really helps those of us who don't speak Vietnamese.  At the same time, it is a place where you have to be constantly on your guard.  I have never been anywhere where the people were so happy to lie to your face and scam you out of your money, all the while wearing a friendly smile and acting like it's totally normal.  Yes, I got scammed, more than once, as does everyone.  You can't avoid it.  Many times you know you are being scammed and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, which is so frustrating.
I've heard stories so much worse than any that happened to me.  One person I talked to met a guy who was given a "candy" by a new "friend" on a bus, and by the time he woke up, the friend had made off with all his valuables. This is a common one with drinks and even dropping pills into open water bottles.  One girl was attacked with a pair of scissors by some people in a tour agency.  Many people have stories about not getting what they paid for or agreed to.  One guy I met said it took him four tries to get somewhere once, as he kept getting on a motorbike, only to stop halfway there so the driver could demand more money to take him all the way.  And absolutely everyone in Vietnam has gotten in a taxi and been dropped at a hotel they did not request, where either the driver tries to pretend it's the one that was requested or he just flat out refuses to go anywhere else.
Here's the first one that happened to me: upon arriving at the border, all tourists are treated to the same - they are picked up by a taxi at the border, the only way to get to the nearest town, and the taxi says it is taking them to the bus to Hanoi. He then drops the poor tourists in the middle of nowhere, where conveniently only one bus goes to Hanoi, and it costs three times what the locals pay.  Even if you know there is a bus station, if you don't know how to get there (and nobody does and there are no signs and no Vietnamese people will tell you), you have no choice but to suck it up and pay the money even though you know you are being scammed.  Welcome to Vietnam.
After a 25 hour journey, I arrived in Hanoi.  I shared a dorm room with two British guys who exemplified a large number of the travelers I see here - couldn't stop talking about beer, soccer, and Asian women. I get the impression a lot of the solo male travelers here are running away from something - and hoping to run straight into the arms of the Asian women.  It's interesting to me to see the kinds of people who are traveling here, though I can't really say I approve of traveling around Asia to look for women.
My second day I spent wandering around Hanoi, which is quite a colorful city.  I don't think I've ever seen so many motorbikes in my life.  For the first day I was in Hanoi, I didn't even realize there were traffic lights there - the army of motorbikes on each street just does whatever it wants.  The Lonely Planet has some advice about crossing the street that I laughed at before I got to Hanoi - basically it says that you have to just take a deep breath and start crossing the street slowly (don't try to run across) and pray that the motorbikes will go around you.  And it's totally true.  It's very scary, but you have to just walk right out in front of them, and somehow they always manage to manoever around you.  The Old Quarter of Hanoi is filled with little shops selling everything you can imagine, and I ended up giving in and buying some and mailing it home.  They have so many beautiful things.  I also visited the "Hanoi Hilton" - the prison where they kept Vietnamese political prisoners and, later, American POWs, and that was quite interesting.  Didn't look like a fun place to live, but they did their best to show how happy the Americans were there.
I've been debating whether to share with you what happened next, but in the name of telling a good story, I feel I should.  I'll preface it by saying that I asked around and found out that at least turtles are farmed here, so no species should have been endangered in the making of this story.
So here goes:  when I travel, I like to get to know local people if I can, to get a better idea of the culture, etc.  When you don't speak the language, it limits who you can talk to, and I now know not to trust people here who speak English.  A lesson hard learned.  I was sitting by the lake on my first day and started talking to a very friendly guy.  He ended up showing me around the city and joining me for a tour of the Temple of Literature.  After spending several hours with him, I thought he seemed nice enough and agreed to go try some "local food" with him.  Now, I will take the blame for this part - I initiated the food idea, but I was intending to get some noodles in the local market.
He instead took me to a nearby town, where I was shown a cage full of turtles and a bag full of cobras.  Upstairs were huge jugs of snake wine - rice wine with whole cobras preserved in it.  Supposed to be good for your health.  They are awfully scary looking.  We sat down and they brought us a bunch of little appetizers.  Then up they came and put a flopping turtle on the ground for my new friend's approval.  I was horrified but didn't want to offend him, so I didn't say anything (I know, but it's hard when you are trying to be polite in a foreign culture).  After a little while they came up with grilled turtle pieces, and then three water bottles with dark liquid - one red, one green, and one gold.  Turns out that the custom is to take the fresh turtle's blood and mix it with rice wine - the red drink - and also take the turtle's bile and mix that with rice wine - the green drink - and all this was accompanied by the third bottle, the snake wine I saw earlier. 
Well, I managed to get down a little bit of the one with blood in it, but I think after seeing me turn green in the face at the thought of what I was doing, my host did not offer me the bile.  The snake wine was somewhat sweet, but I kept thinking I must be getting poisoned or something.  Anyway, this was followed by turtle stew made with the rest of the turtle, and then the usual tea.  And here's the worst part - at the end of dinner, my new "friend" did not have enough money, and I was left to pay an enormous bill, which I'm sure he then went back and split with the restaurant later. 
Apparently this is an extremely common scam - I've since heard from many people it's happened to - but I was unprepared, given that I've had great experiences doing the exact same thing in many other countries.  It took me a long time to get over being angry about that one, but it was a good lesson to me about Vietnam.  And at least I got a better story about it than most people, who just have a standard noodle dinner and then lose all their money.  The dinner I had is one that is a "special occasion" meal and expensive enough that there is actually a small possibility that I wasn't scammed and indeed just had a very expensive dinner.  But it was a very uniquely Vietnamese meal, and definitely makes for a funny, if slightly embarassing, story.
So anyway, the next day I determined to make a fresh start of it, after staying up all night feeling upset about the scamming and the turtle killing, and I got a tour to Halong Bay.  This was beautiful - karst formations jutting out of the ocean and a lovely cave that is nicely illuminated.  Unfortunately our guide spoke completely unintelligible English, and so half of us did not bring our cameras on the nicest hike with great views of the bay, since we all thought we were going kayaking.  And when we did go kayaking later, something was up with the water or the boat and we all kept turning in circles. 
However, the boat ride was very relaxing and we slept on the boat in the bay, which was really nice.  The next day we spent the morning going back to town on the boat, with a short stop for swimming on the way.  I wasn't feeling in the mood but decided to go in anyway, and after a few minutes I felt something bite my arm.  As I was looking down trying to figure out what was going on, my legs were suddenly besieged by an army of something.  I started yelling and swam as fast as I could out of the water, where they poured vinegar on my legs and I stood there in excruciating pain.  I never even saw the jellyfish, but he managed to sting the backs of both of my legs pretty much all over, so he must have been humongous.  To top it all off, the crew told me I couldn't lie down because we had already "checked out" so I had to lie on the wood floor for the next two hours while I was in the most pain. The pain didn't subside for about two days, and I still have huge red marks on me.
Anyway... the next day I spent again in Hanoi again, wandering around to the lakes, checking out temples and enjoying fresh lychees.  I did my shopping and was planning to stick around another day, when I found out that I had to leave that night or I would be stuck for three more days.  So I packed up and took the overnight train up into the mountains of the northwest to Sapa.  The ride up there was fantastic - beautiful mountain landscapes and minority groups dressed in their traditional dress and going about their business, including herding water buffaloes up the mountain. Once in Sapa, I got myself on a little tour of the surrounding villages, which meant a fairly long and precarious hike down into the valley and through rice terraces to visit villages of Black Hmong and Red Zao people.  They raise corn, rice, some small vegetables, and, most amusingly, hemp (only for clothing, not for smoking), so we walked by all of these crops. The little girls followed us around as we walked, asking a set group of questions to "get to know us" before they made the hard sell of their handicrafts.  They were adorable, and most of us ended up buying cheap things, even though I didn't really appreciate the tactics, which later included pushing me and yelling at me when I didn't buy something from a girl who had walked with me for a while. 
We had an overnight in a home in a village, and it was very nice.  Although they still live pretty much the way they always have, our house included a real western toilet that even flushed and had running water, though only bucket showers.  Tourism has really reached even the most remote parts of Vietnam.  It's not too hot there because it's high in the mountains, so I finally got a good night's sleep.  I was slightly nervous, though, as the guy sleeping next to me kept referring to his "illness", and when I finally asked, he had told me it was "psychosis", though evidently his medicine is working well enough for him to be out of the home...  yikes.
The next day it rained like nobody's business, and the 8km hike back was ridiculously muddy and slippery.  I was lucky and didn't fall, but only because I had a walking stick and some help from the tribal girls.  I got back totally soaked and fortunately the tour agency let me take a shower there and put on some dry clothes, before heading off to the border.  I bought a ticket from them all the way to Kunming, and in Vietnam's final insult, I got scammed one last time.
I do believe that the girl who sold me the ticket thought she was telling the truth that I was to be on a nice, new, air-conditioned sleeper bus.  However, her boss had other ideas, and he knew that once I crossed the border, I couldn't come back and get angry with him about it.  The border crossing was very complicated, and Vietnam not only took away my visa but never even stamped my passport, so it appears like I was never even there!  And the Chinese guys had a very long discussion, made me sign my name again, and compared me to my photo for a while before finally letting me through.  At the bus station, some guy showed me a badge that said "license" and tried to get me to go to his office to "ask me some questions".  I don't know what he wanted, but when I said he had to ask me the questions in public, he tried to sell me water and then to change my money before finally giving up.  And of course I was not on the nice sleeper, but one that was better than but quite similar to the horrible one I took to Vietnam in the first place, closing up a nice little circle for my sojourn in Vietnam.  Some guy on the bus kept yelling at me - I have no idea why - and the bus broke down in the middle of the night and they spent 90 minutes trying to fix the engine in the dark.  And to top it all off, they broke my backpack - ripping one of the straps right off the front of it.  At least they didn't steal anything, which is what I was expecting to happen.  The road was horrible, and there were times we bumped so hard I was bounced totally up off my bunk.  I had to hang on to the window for most of the night to keep from falling, and though I read a lot of my book, I didn't get much sleep.
And now I'm back in China.   It's weird to be back - it's much more challenging to travel here, and I was kind of enjoying the ease of travel in Vietnam.  In fact, I liked Vietnam so much I was very tempted to stay a lot longer.  It's definitely a place I'll return to.  But China is nice too, and actually the people I've met here have been extremely nice as well, but fewer of them speak any English at all, so it's hard to find out how nice they really are.
Well, I've rambled on, but it's been quite a week.   Hope I've kept you all entertained.  It's certainly been an adventure over here.
Till next time,

Adventure map for 2009...