China Travelogue 6: Jiuzhaigou to Langmusi

This Post: Jiuzhaigou --> Songpan --> Ruoergai (Zoige) --> Langmusi

(Queenie with the Shepherd Children in Langmusi)

Hi All,

In one of the earlier eamils I sent, I said we didn't have a travel plan, well we made one. From Jiuzhaigou we decided to go to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, on bus! We will then fly to Beijing then go to Nanking and then end our trip in Shanghai, but not lets get on with the latest travelog!

Okay..so we have been travelling China now for three weeks and I can honestly say that I had my first "I hate China morning" on Friday. It all started at around 4:00am in the hotel in Jiuzhaigou when the temperature outside was about -5C and we realized that the cleaning lady had not closed the window and the room was also about -5C.....agghhhh....

....well after we warmed up and a little we had to wake up at 6:00am and leave the hotel at 7:ooam. We asked the hotel to find us a taxi but it was still dark outside and they could not find one so, in the bitter cold, we had to hike to the bus station......agghhhh....

.....we then got on the bus, of course we were the last ones to arrive, and after we got seated we realized we were surrounded by a bunch of chain smokers who initially respected my request not too smoke but afterwards just lit up anyway.....aggghhhh.....

.....after they had lit up I tried to open the bus window to get some air but I ripped my gloves.....aggghhhhh......

.....we then arrived in Songpan at about 10:30am where we were to spend the night before heading off to Gansu and the bus driver managed to tear the waist strap off my hiking bag....aggghhhh.....

.....we arrived at the hotel which was very dirty and did not have running water (we since discovered the whole town of Songpan does not have a continuous water supply). The hotel seemed like a prison with two uninterested girls running the place....agggghhhhh.....

.....we then discovered that every one in Songpan spits at an alarming rate and we had to play hopscotch to avoid the puddles of saliva that marked the street....agggghhhhh......

....and all this time we were really cold....aggghhhh....

...But then the sun came out, we found a place to have a hairwash, we had a wonderful walk through the town and started to enjoy the day at abuout 11:30am, and it has been pretty good since then. So what is there to say about Songpan?

It was once an important town that was used in some famous wars and battles (not famous enough for me to know). It still has the original wall and city gates. The people of Songpan are a diverse mixture of Han, Tibetan and Muslim. Really interesting. All the people (but most noticeably the kids) have the reddest and rosiest cheeks you have ever seen. In fact this is true for all the towns we have been in from Songpan up. It really looks unhealthy on them. The houses outside the city walls are all broken down wooden structures and the people still use firewood and coal to warm their homes and do their cooking. We actually saw a coal shop where you could buy a bag of coal. I forgot to find out how much a bag would cost! It generally wasn't a bad place but it is not the sort of place you wish to spend more than one day and a night in, and we didn't.

During the day we were sitting in a coffee shop in Songpan where they had the television on. The program on the TV was a variety contest were entrants were singing famous songs. The competion was in China but Queenie noticed that all the songs that were being sung were either from Taiwan or Hong Kong! She has been really surprised by the popularity of Taiwan music in China. Everywhere we go people are mostly listening to Taiwanese singers! In fact, one of the contestants on the show was even singing a Taiwanese folk song! really interesting.

In the evening we met an Englishman called Craig who was coming in the opposite direction (from Gansu into Sichuan) and he told us about the cold and how dangerous the roads were (he wasn't kidding). Craig also had many interesting stories about his travels around the world and especially about the "hygiene" in India (I will spare you the details). But we had a great time. Walking back to our hotels we were guessing the temperature. Craig figured it was about 2C, we found out the next day that it was about -8C (really cold).

That night neither Queenie and I could sleep! The electric blanket we were using was too hot and if we turned it off we were too cold. That is a real dilemma. Saturday dawned and we were to be up at 6:00am to take the 7:00am bus to Ruoergai (Zoige in Tibetan) and what a ride that was!

Firstly, you guessed it, it was freezing! We got on the bus with all these Tibetan people dressed in their traditional thickset cloaks and went off on another interesting bus journey (at least this bus driver cared about our lives). The first half-hour of the road was tarmac we then turned off onto a dirt track in the valley of two huge mountains (actually the dirt track is a road in the making). Of course in the valley we never saw the sun and so our feet felt like ice-blocks. During the bus journey in the valley the bus would continuously stop and people would get off and go to their homes. We couldn't see where they lived but I really felt for them! They live in such isolated places with so little warmth that it was just pitiful. I remember three of the people that got off. Two were kids who got off the bus, thinly dressed, shivering in the bitter cold and carrying a bag of clothes to a small store their parents ran where they would try to sell what they had bought. The second was a wrinkled, bent over old lady, heavily laden who got off the bus and headed down a small road with no home in sight. Queenie and I really wanted to weep after seeing this. This is the face of modern China!

Well anyway, after an eternity in this valley, and freezing to death we started to ascend a dangerous mountain road! But halfway up we met the sun and started to warm up. After about 15 minutes we finally reached the plateau, and what a sight it was! Snow covered fields filled with Yaks and Tibetan herdsman riding on their own yaks, horses or motorbikes! It was a sight to behold. As the journey went on the snow got less and more brown grass dressed the fields: but the yaks, Tibetan shepherds and the flat barren landscape with scattered Tibetan prayer flags, framed with snow covered mountains, never ended. I remember the first Shepherd we saw was a lady sitting in the snow all by herself, miles from anywhere, watching the yak herd. What an amazing life they lead!

On the road to Ruoergai we also saw these Tibetans kowtowing (bowing in worship) on the road. Later when we arrived in Langmusi we discovered that these Tibetans were kowtowing all the way to Lhasa! They would take 2 or 3 steps then kowtow, 2 or 3 steps then kowtow.....continuously.....it will take them 2-years or more to reach Tibet....what devotion! They believe that they will have a better next life if they do this.....but ahh, the agony.

After driving on the plateu for a few hours we finally arrived at Ruoergai....a sleepy Tibetan town with a population of about 70,000 according to one of the residents. Actually the town cannot hold more than a few thousand people but it seems that most of the population of Ruoergai county are shepherds and yak herders, living in tents, in the freezing cold! After arriving in Ruoergain we met a Canadian called Trevor who is still travelling with us (we had the same route). We have lost him once or twice but we always seemt to find him again!

Anyway, when we got to Ruoergai we immediately went to the Ruoergai hotel (at Craig's suggestion). This must be the central China Hilton. It was a MAGNIFICENT hotel with 24-hours of hot water, beautiful rooms and a wonderful reception, all for the grand price of RMB150 per night. We never wanted to leave. We could also phone anywhere in China for free! What a deal! If any of you ever land up in Ruoergai, this is the place to stay...no doubt.

The town of Ruoergai has an average annual temperature of 0.5C and the Ruoergai plateau on which it is situated is at elevations between 3500m and 3900m. The plateu is the home to a number of endangered animals. The town itself is laid back and we really had a good time just walking around and talking to a bunch of people on the road. That evening we had a meal with Trevor and learned of his travels through China (he has pretty much followed our route, or we have followed his). The temperature in Ruoergai was cold but the hotel was warm and we had a really good time there.

On Sunday, we were to board our third bus (to Langmusi) in as many days! We went early to buy the tickets and managed to get some but Trevor went too late and there were no tickets avaialable! We asked the bus driver if we could pay him directly and he told us that Trevor should go to a junction on the edge of the town. I told the cyclo rider the place but when we arrived at the junction, Trevor wasn't there, so we had lost him! At the junction the bus driver took out a bunch of small metal stools, put them out in the middle of the bus and then sold tickets to a bunch of people who could not but tickets at the station! The bus got really crammed and the driver pocketed a few extra yuan.

The bus from Ruoergai to Langmusi was mostly dirt road and it really got interesting when we went over a mountain. Coming down the other side I swear our wheels were millimeters from the edge! We saw an overturned truck on the road which really made it interesting! At any rate, we arrived in the dirty monastry town of Langmusi safetly 4-hours later. Once again we found a pretty decent hotel that was only RMB75 per night and it also had a heater.

That night, after walking through the town and eating dinner im a Muslim restaurant, we found a really cool Tibetan coffee shop where we met a bunch of really cool Tibetans. The owner of the coffee shop is A-Sun and he is only 26. He was telling me about the business and religious life in Langmusi. To start the business in Langmusi he had to pay the temple in his hometown, Gong-Ba which is 12km from Langmusi, RMB5000. After that he has to pay about RMB800 a month rent and it cost him around RMB30,000 to decorate the place. He also told me that the Langmusi Lama is a county vice-president. The Lama lives in Hezuo and only returns on weekends. The Langmusi Lama also owned the hotel we were staying in. So much for separating business, religion and politics (perhaps I know a little of that)...heh heh heh....A-Sun also told us that the Langmusi temple had been completely destroyed during te cultural revolution and was only rebuilt 20-years ago.

That night we also met a Shepherd who currently owns over 50 yak and more than 100 sheep. Apparently when the price is good one yak is worth RMB3000 and a sheep about RMB300. When the price is bad the yak is worth only RMB1200. He also told us about the difficulties of living on the plateau in winter and the cold. This guy has given up shepherding and is helping his wife run the Lama's hotel. He allows other shepherds and herders to use his land in return for them looking after his sheep and yaks. Oh, yes, the guy also owns 3 horses and he reckons that a horse is way easier to ride than a yak. I wonder? Our friendly shepherd had also been in Lhasa for four years. When I asked him what he had done there he just said had fun! Actually, I found out later that when the Tibetans do a pilgramage to Lhasa they will have to kowtow for at least 2-hours each day!

Day 2 saw us eating breakfast in another Muslim restaurant! You might wonder why this is well, the truth is that the Muslims are just so much cleaner (I kid you not). Now, I can understand why people do not want to shower when they have to carry the water from the river, then boil it and then afterwards freeze until you can get warm again! This I can understand. What I couldn't understand was why were the Muslims, who live in the same conditions as the other, just so darn spanking clean? It was an amazing contrast! At any rate, in Langmusi our staple diet was lamb noodles and mantou (a Chinese bread).

After breakfast we went to the Langmusi temple and hung out with some Tibetan Buddhist monks. We actually in the end never landed up going inside the temple but it was really cool talking to the monks. Apparently they are obliged to pray for 4 to 5 hours each morning. They then take a break for lunch (see video below), have lessons in the afternoon and do some self study. After that they do more prayers from 5:00pm to 9:00pm. This is their everyday routine! As I said, what a life. Some of the monks were as young as 12 years old.

We met some monks who had lived in the monastry for 20-years or more. How they did this if the temple was only rebuilt 20 years ago I do not know but it is what they told us. watching the lessons were also quite interesting! One person who was standing would shout out a question to someone sitting on the ground. The person on the ground would then shout out the answer.

We did try to find out about their beliefs but all they said is "We believe in Buddha, you believe in Jesus." They also thought that to gain membership into the Church a person had to pay lots of money. I told them that in all the Churches I had been in it was free. They were duly surprised, perhaps they thought I was lying!

Now the coolest part of our trip to Langmusi happened in the afternoon! Queenie and I went for a walk accross a small hill that was covered in snow. We got to the other side where there was a road and a frozen stream to cross where we met 3 shepherd children. They invited us back to their tent where we met their mother. It was great. The mother welcomed us in and she made us tea and then they set about making us Zhong Ba, the staple Tibetan food! Well, out of politeness I had to eat it. To be honest (and polite) I will say it was not that good but I still ate half of it and they were thrilled.

We also watched the kids chasing stray yaks around the campsite! These kids are half my height and run toward the yaks head on, without fear, shouting and throwing stones. A fully grown yak is huge, I was inclined to run the other way, but what can you do when a yak is about to trample your tent and all your earthly belongings? They told us that they had just walked five days from their previous pasture area to Langmusi to see out the winter! After seeing their life first hand I can honestly say that I appreciate mine more and more. At the end of our visit we took some pictures and the kids asked if we could mail them to their school where the could collect them. It was really cute.

That night we again hungout with A-Sun and the shepherds and this time I dragged Trevor along (who we found again earlier in the day). That evening there were a bunch of Tibetan youths hanging out in the coffee shop and they all just broke out into spontaneous Tibetan dancing. It was another great evening!

I suppose the last observation to make about Langmusi where the beggars and the way they are treated. For the first time since I left Shenzhen I was troubled by beggars! On the first night at least seven beggars came into the restaurant we were eating in to ask for money. The most amazing thing was that all the local people gave them one yuan. This happened regularly! Also, the restaurant owners always allowed the beggars to sit at a table and eat any left overs! It was an interesting sight. Of course I was also targeted and in the beginning resisted giving out money but after a while I started to give them a bit as I was shamed by the locals who have no money.

So far Langmusi has been one of the best places I have visited: watching the Buddhist monks eat in Muslim restaurants on modern cell phones and racing motorbikes up and down the road and as we say in South Africa "popping wheelies" was interesting. The warmth of the country folk and their generosity and openess to all was a pleasant departure from many of my experiences in China.

Tuesday saw us leaving Langmusi for Xiahe (where I am now) but that journery and this part of the trip is another story and I will send it to you all soon. Until then, all of you take good care of yourselves. Sadly, we only have 16 days left on the road, but we will make the most of it!


China Travelogue 5: Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou

This Post: Chengdu --> Jiuzhaigou

(Queenie in Jiuzhaigou holding a lamb)

...Let me start this travelog by saying, "I saw a yak on Tuesday"...(I never thought I would say a sentence like that)...heh heh heh....yeah, a real live yak waltzing down the street, but now I am getting ahead of myself.....

When I last left off we were still in Chengdu and still had a night to spend there before getting on a mad-hatter bus to Jiuzhaigou. The last night in Chengdu was great. Sun Yi Yi, our old colleagues friend, treated us to a fantastic Sichuan fish and tomato hot pot. What a great meal! Once again the restaurant left much to be desired (sunflower seed shells and fishbones littered the floor) but the food was great, and of course I had to wash it down with a beer. How else can you hope to eat a Sichuan fish and tomato hotpot?

At dinner we were telling Sun Yi Yi about our trip to the Panda base. She told us a funny story of a man who had a big white dog and had died its ears and eyes black and also the tail and some of the torso to make it look like a Panda. The poor guy had apparently been arrested nine times for having an endangered animal. This may be a Chengdu urban legend, but if its true it is funny...heh heh heh....

Going home that night we sadly noticed that the beautiful river that ran next to our hotel and bisects Chengdu was a place for prostitutes to find customers. It seems that China is one big brothel...(and yes we saw brothels too)...but remember prostitution is illegal in China...there is none! Such is life...at least there were not so many as there are in Shenzhen. The Lonely Planet says of Shenzhen, a city that used to be a small fishing village, that the "only fishnets your are likely to see are on the hordes of whores that inhabit the city." Such is life!

It is funny how we get used to the places we live in. When I first moved to Shenzhen the one thing that caused me great interest was the way people all crowded around a single television, and overflowed into the street, to watch a particular program. Well, I never noticed it for a long time but then in Chengdu, walking back to the hotel on Monday night, we saw some entrepeneurs had setup small rooms, with chairs, for people to watch television. They can then order a drink from the guy who owns the stand and that is how they make their money. Interesting concept and excellent idea.

The other thing that I had become "blind" to is how the public authorities stick the daily newspaper on a public notice boad so that people who cannot afford to buy the newspaper can still have access to the news. We have seen this regularly on our travels. Perhaps this journey is reopening our eyes to the things we had forgotten. This is indeed good!

So then, Tuesday morning and the road to Jiuzhaigou....what a ride....what was meant to be a ten hour jaunt become a 14-hour ride into madness by two insane cowboy drivers whose only agenda seemed to drive as fast as possible and to honk their horn when they saw anything that seemed alive and moving....sometimes they just honked their horn...but they only honked in daylight...when darkness overcame us they decided that honking wasn't needed. The best way to describe the journey would be to say that it was a combination of taking a ride on the Wizard bus in "Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban" and Jonathan Harker's mad rush to Dracula's castle in the first chapter of Bram Stokers Dracula. The ride was crazy....somehow we survived....

Of course there were two delays: one was 2-hours and the other 1-hour. The first was caused by an obstruction on the road and the second was caused by a crash (no one injured) but they refused to move the bus, car and truck until the police came. Of course these vehicles were blocking the road and instead of just marking the accident site to allow the free flow of traffic, they had to delay about 1000-people. Although the police were just down the road they took an hour to get there. It was lunch time I think.

Something else that was really funny was whenever there was a bathroom break the bus would come to a screeching halt, we would all nearly fall out of the window and the driver would shout, "Shang Tse Suo" (go to the toilet) and everybody would dutifully march off the bus into some of the most disgusting toilets we have ever seen (the public toilets in China are something else again and civility prevents a thorough description...use your imagination...on second thoughts don't).

Well anyway, it was at one of these crazy toilet stops that I saw the Yak....and it was not too friendly....Actually, I remember the first time I heard about a Yak was when I read Willard Price's "Indian Adventure" when I was nine or ten, it took me a while to see a real one.....

Despite the mad-hatter driving of the cowboys up front, the scenery outside the bus was amazingly beautiful....big mountains with beautiful rivers....and some snow....the scenery was, for the most part, incredible.

Anyway, after a torturous 14-hours and some beautfiful scenery we finally landed up in the village of Jiuzhaigou, our final destination. Being the intrepid travellers we were we had not yet booked a hotel. We had gotten off the bus into about -5C into a deep darkness (you see the village is in the shadow of the mountains). Well, Queenie hailed a cab driver and told him matter of factly: "Get us to a hotel fast: the budget is RMB200 per night." We were there in a flash! Of course we were still hungry and the hotel being a budget place never had any food...so Paul (being the guy) had to once again go out and get some food. I landed up in a restaurant and told them I wanted some Qing-Jiao-Neu-Rou (green peppers with beef)....here they don't use green peppers rather they use actual peppers that are green...when they told me that I gave up...in the end they rustled something up....although it was overpriced, it was hot and thawed us out....

Jiuzhaighou....the nature reserve....otherwise known as fairlyland....how does one describe such an enchanted place? Perhaps one doesn't! Going through it I thought of the House of Elrond in the "Lord of the Rings" but words, photographs or pictures cannot reflect the awesome beauty of this pristine alpine valley. It is beyond any beauty I have experienced. We have been on the road now for three weeks and all the Chinese people say that Yangshuo is China's most beautiful place. Perhaps they have never been in Jiuzhaigou! It is now the beginning of winter and there is snow on the ground and on the mountains.....the cold winds chilled us to the bone but the crystal clear lakes, the thundrous 300 meter wide waterfalls, the gushing rivers and the pine tree forests all astound and amaze. Perhaps there are places like this elsewhere on Earth but I have not seen them.

We spent two amazing days exploring this valley and walking along the rivers and it was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. Today Queenie said that in these surroundings she has drawn closer to God. Looking at this valley it is impossible not to believe in a majestic, wonderful and beautiful creator who in His heart must have beauty as an immutable attribute.

The name Jiuzhaigou means "nine village gulley" and named after the nine Tibetan villages that are in the park. The Tibetans here continue to practise Buddhism and there prayer wheels are in some places driven by the waters of the river. Their prayer flags are scattered on the windswept rivers and cold, multi-colored lakes. Their villages dot the landscape. It is truly an amazing place. Today we visited one of the villages and had tea in a traditional Tibetan home. It was an interesting experience.

While in one of the villages, we stopped in for a cup of afternoon Tibetan tea. We both thought it was delicious. The tea house on the inside was very colorful and very warm when compared to outside. It was a wonderful place to have a break and the last stop in this fascinating place.

Once again credit must be given to the authorities for the preservation and organization of this pristine wilderness. While most places in China are being torn up to stimulate the rapid economic growth of modern China, this place is, with the exception of the road that goes through it and the wooden walkways that carve their way through the valley, is pretty much untouched by man. They have people cleaning the paths and guys with swimming pool nets cleaning out the lakes (big job considering that some lakes are 19000m2). To continue to preserve the park no visitors are allowed to stay in the park.

Sadly, because the tourist season is over, many of the walkways were closed off so we were forced onto the road. But it is a trade off: you either come in the tourist season with over 10000 people a day entering the park, or come in the off season when there are only 1000 people a day. Well, we came when we had time: which was now! And it was one of the best decisions we (actually Queenie) made.

It was during our walks through the rivers and lakes of this park that a startling cultural difference between the Chinese and westerners came to mind. It was a difference that I have been aware of for a while but it is something that is most observable in a natural place like Jiuzhaigou. Usually when Westerners go out into nature they enjoy the peace and quiet (communing with nature). Walking through the nature reserve I enjoyed getting away from the people and walking quietly along the paths so I could see the birdlife and perhaps catch a glimpse of a squirrel foraging on the forest floor. Yet, when the Chinese people came along the road, they came full of banter, laughter and with faces lit up with sheer joy. Of course at their arrival all wildlife disappeared and I was left a little irritated but then Queenie reminded me that the Chinese love to be "Re Nau" wherever they go. There is no literal translation of this into English but it is a combination of being vibrant, exultant and generally very jovial all at the same time (I guess that it is the best way to describe it). The Chinese love to be Re Nau in nature too and although they chase the wild life away and disturb the peace and tranquility of they environment, they seem to have a damn good time doing it. All power to them and sometimes I must remember that I am a guest in their country! (Even so, I did get to see a squirrel)

Well, to end the Jiuzhaigou saga I must admit that it is the first time I have ever been in snow (Queenie has) but I have never really gone to snowy places....yesterday I threw my first snowball at my long suffering wife and today I made a bad attempt at making a snowman...well, the snow wasn't the sticky kind so we couldn't really configure large snowballs so my snowman became a contorted snow head....mmm....but I am still proud of it...the full man/woman/person is coming soon.....I hope....

This then is the end of this update. Tomorrow we will head back South to Songpan, then go to Zoige and after that Langmusi and Xiahe in Eastern Gansu province. These are Tibetan towns and Xiahe is the next biggest Tibetan buddhist center outside of Lhasa. After that we will head to Lanzhou then fly to Beijing I think....until the next time, take care all.


China Travelogue 4: Lijiang to Chengdu

This Post: Lijiang --> Chengdu

Dear All,

We are now in Chengdu where we have spent a delightful few days. We flew into Chengdu on Friday night and will leave tomorrow when we got to the Jiuzhaigou nature reserve in Northern Sichuan.

Lijiang was okay I guess but the number of tourists in the old town made it feel so cramped that it wasn't very enjoyable. The family inn we stayed in was quite good. The family that ran the place were especially helpful in arranging trips for us and giving us excellent travel advice.

The highlight of the whole Lijiang part was the ascent to 4680m. What a breathtaking cable car ride. It only takes you to 4600m and you have to walk the rest of the way. What a tiring walk. I have never been in anything like it. It was a bit freaky when the cable car stopped because of high winds but that is just part of the deal. The top of the mountain was freezing (about -5) there was snow on the ground and yes I nearly landed on my butt when I slipped on the ice. At the highest point there was some crazy girl wearing only a t-shirt for some pictures.....I thought she was nuts. We were wearing four layers of clothes and still cold because of the wind.

At the top of the mountain is a beautiful glacier. It is the first glacier I have seen and it was a special sight. The thing about glaciers though is that they move very slowly so you have spend a while (a few thousand years I guess) to see it go about 1mm.

Before we went up the mountain we were taken to a local Naxi worship site. Set in the plains beneath the mountains on a dead, windswept landscape, it was certainly something unique. On the ground the ancient Naxi people had carved their interpretation of the cycle of life onto a slate on the ground. According to their beliefs, if one is a bad person when you die you die. Thats it! If you are not bad but not good you land up in hell where you have to climb nine mountains after which you are gruesomely tortured (according to your sins) and then reborn. There are six cycles of life. Once you finally have a righteous life you become a buddha in Heaven where you do not really do much except meditate. I told the guide that I thought that there were more activities in hell (mountain climbing and torture) but she thought I was nuts, had a good laugh and agreed. She was an excellent guide. She also said to me that the Naxi people do not eat lamb or beef. I asked her if she does and she said "Of course." The video below shows a small part of the burial grounds.

Our driver on the day was also quite interesting. She had travelled to many countries as a representative of the Naxi minority group. As a representative she was obliged to sing and dance and show her culture off. The only disappointing thing was that on the way back she hit some farmers dog and evidently broke its leg. I wanted her to stop the car so we could take the dog to a vet but she refused. Poor dog, I hope its okay. She told us that in China you only get fined if you kill a consumable animal (e.g. chicken, cow, or sheep). I guess in Guangdong you would also get fined for knocking over dogs and cats and mice and rats and.......(in Guangdong they eat everything)

The next day was pretty mellow. We hung in Lijiang and ran into the Dutch couple we had previously met in Dali. We went to a beautiful park in the afternoon. The entrance fee was RMB60 but when we arrived there was no one in the gate so we managed to get in for free. That was brilliant. The park itself was stunning with beautiful lakes where you can see the mountains, trees and pagodas reflected in the lake. Late that evening we flew into Chengdu where we met Michael who was to be our driver and guide that night and two days later.

The first day in Chengdu we met up with one of our Chinese Teacher's (Jenny) friends Sun Yi Yi. What a delightful person. She does research in a Chinese medicine company and her whole family are Chinese Medicine Doctors. That day we hung out in the people's park in Chengdu, we went to Du Fu's (a famous Chinese poets) house and then went to eat in the most disgusting yet most vibrant and alive restaurant I have eaten in in a long time. The food and the beer was good too. It was a hot pot but the way it was done (Chengdu style) was fantastic.

On Saturday we also met an American girl who was working on an interesting wild life project as a volunteer helping to save endangered species on the Tibetan plateau. It is the first convservation project I have heard of in China and it seems like a fantastic endeavour. It seems that with the rapid economic growth of China roads have been built all over the show and many of these roads in Western Tibet have slice through the migration paths of many of the antelope that live there. The long distance truck drivers have been filmed driving over these endangered species so this group of people, when the animals are crossing the road, stand in the middle of the road to stop the trucks. They are also trying to raise awareness and get more people involved on the ground. It is an excellent project and I do hope they succeed and are successful.

Day two in Chengdu saw us meeting Michael again as he took us to the Panda research base. Michael is an interesting character who studied Chinese literature at College. He asked many questions about the Taiwan issue and Taiwanese people's perception of the situation. After explaining it to him best we could I asked him what he thought of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. His response was that the situation was peaceful and that he did not understand why foreigners spent so much time and attention on this issue. I then told him the same is true for Taiwan: in terms of reality it very much acts as an independent country and that not so much time and attention should be spent on this issue. He thought that was a strange viewpoint and still insisted that Taiwan was a part of China.....heh heh heh.......

The Panda Base was AMAZING. We donated USD100 to the center and I could get to hold a panda....it was one of the best experiences I have had in China. If any of you come to Chengdu, you need to got there. The entrance fee is only RMB30 (less than USD4.00) but what a worthwhile experience. I honestly wish I could be that happy eating bamboo. The zoo's in China are generally very inhuman but this place was a wonderful place for these special creatures to live. And the work done there is amazing. I really have to say that on this the Chinese government has got it right.

While we were at the Panda Base a TV crew from the local station decided to interview me when they found out I knew a little Chinese. Of course, me being the cluts I am I forgot how to speak Chinese.

We also got to see red pandas. I had never heard of them before but they are also interesting little creatures that are much smaller than the giant panda and are far more lively.

At the Panda base we met Shan, a Taiwnese guy who lived in Johannesburg for 16-years and is now moving back to Taiwan. I am sure to hook up with him in Taipei.

After the Panda base we went to watch "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." It is the best one so far but the movies are becoming darker and scarier. I do recommend it though as it was a good film in its own right and the adaptation is excellent. After Harry Potter we had dinner, a foot massage and then bed.

Today has been fairly mellow. We went to the Sichuan University Museum. Aparently it is the best Museum in West and South China with 40,000 artifacts. The museum was really interesting but the National Palace Museum in Taipei is still the best for Chinese artifacts. The cultural revolution resulted in the destruction of much of China's past and so sadly, on the mainland it is hard to find excellent Museums. But once again, at least they are trying.

Well anyway, today is going to be the last hot day (8C) for a while. Tomorrow we will arrive in Jiuzhaigou after a 10 hour bus raid and the weather will be a fair to mild -8C - 4C....sounds like swimming weather to me. After that I have absolutely NO idea where to go. We are getting to the end of the route we had planned so if anyone has any brilliant ideas of where to go then let us know. We could go east to Xian and then work our way up to Beijing along the old silk road or go down the Yangtze river to Nanjing. Or we could head North East into Gansu province and make for the Hexi corridor and head for Dun Huang (if you have seen th Michelle Yeoh movie the Medallion you will know all about Dun Huang) and the Mogoa caves....Decisions, decisions....

Anyway, until I am thawed out and able to write again stay well and stay safe everyone....


China Travelogue 3: Kunming to Lijiang

This Post: Kunming --> Dali --> Lijiang

So here I am behind a computer screen in the middle of a backpacker haven in Lijiang. We arrived in Dali on Sunday after spending three nights in Kunming and came to Lijiang today.

Kunming, as Chinese cities go, is a rather nice place and, given a choice, I would choose to live there as opposed to Shenzhen. The weather is moderate, the people nice and the air clean. The roads are big and all the motorcycles are electric. True, there does not seem to be much to do in Kunming, but there are some interesting sites nearby.

On Saturday we went to the big lake just outside Kunming, but it was a little cold so we went back into town, Queenie had a massage and I just had a nap. We then had lunch, a rest and didn't do much more. That evening we went to an outdoor shop to buy some warmer clothes for the colder climates of northern Yunan. At the store we met a most interesting person, Kathy, from Australia. We later had the opportunity to have coffee with her.

Kathy has travelled the whole world and told us many interesting stories. She worked as a tour guide in Africa and knows my hometown of Durban fairly well. It was a really interesting conversation. Perhaps the most amazing story was how she was told to leave Norway on a days notice and get to Uganda to lead a tour group during the Ebola outbreak a few years ago. Kathy being Kathy jumped to it and went to lead the tour.

Sunday saw us get on a bus for Dali. At the first tollbridge we saw a dead guy lying on the ground a family trying to lynch the driver who had killed their family member. There were five policeman trying to prevent the lynching and they were getting quite a hiding too. The whole affair was very sad.

Dali is in North West of Yunan, South East of Tibet. The landscapes on the road were magnificent. The sky seems so close to earth. Sometimes you feel you can reach out and touch the clouds. It is just so beautiful. As usual, on the way we saw many small villages with dispossesed people. Many of these villages did not even have roads going into them. One wonders how the people survive.

After arriving in Dali we needed to take another bus from the old town to the new town. Of course the bus nearly had a crash and killed the lot of us...heh heh heh....well it wasn't that funny but we survived. The locals told us that it happens a lot but the drivers never learn and change. It sounds a lot like the taxi drivers in South Africa.

Dali is a quaint little town that still has an old city wall with city gates. Unfortunately, once you enter the town all the shops are tourist shops and you are surrounded by hordes of tour groups. But walking through the old town is still quite quaint and the view of Erhai Lake from our hotel room was stunning.

Monday saw us take up with a dutch couple. We went on a boat ride on Erhai lake to a small island in the middle. The boat ride was relaxing and we all had a really good time. The dutch couple told us a lot about the social strife that currently exists in Europe between the families of migrant laborers and the Europeans. Their is a lot of angst between the lot of them and the solutions are not apparent.

Monday night, after dinner, Queenie and I had a pleasant conversation with the host of the guesthouse we were staying in. John comes from the minority Bai group. His parents are peasant farmers and he explained to me the daily challenges they face. He also described how he had to start cooking meals for the family at age 8 and how during the harvest season he and his siblings have to return to the fields to help bring in the harvest. John explained that although the situation had improved dramatically over the last 10-years, most of China was still poor.

John described how some of the Lisu minority group in Lijung prefecture do not even have money for clothes and how they make their clothes out of tree bark and leaves. He was also deeply saddened at the death of the minority cultures describing how the girls in the villages were now refusing to wear traditional outfits.

On Tuesday Queenie and I went up the mountain at the back of old Dali town. We bought chairlift tickets at the hotel but our driver took us to the cable car (we couldn't use our tickets). We bought new tickets and once we reached the top of the cable car we went for a "short" walk. One kilometer became two, two became, three, three became ten. YES, we walked 10-km. The walk had spectacular views of the basin in which Erhai lake and Dali are situated and the path took us deep in the gulleys that ran down the mountains. No picture or words can describe the beauty of that place. At the end of 10-km we found the chairlift and could use the original tickets.

We had lunch under a waterfall where we met an Irishman name Martin who is trying to get back home from East Timor without taking an airplane (an interesting concept). He is trying to make it home before Christmas so he needs our prayers. In the evening I had a beer and a long chat with him. He explained a lot about contemporary Irish politics: Another interesting and detailed conversation.

Today we came to Lijiang. A famous 800 year old town with cobbled streets and canals running through the village. Unfortunately, all the old houses have now been converted in restaurants, shops or guesthouses and the town is filled with thousands of tourists. It is very disappointing but the town is still quaint.

Lijiang's elevation is 2400m (Johannesburg is 1700m) so we are quite high up. Tomorrow we are going to the top of a mountain that is over 4000m high. It will be cold as the temperature in Lijiang is about 5C.

I leave you with a final thought: This afternoon we were looking into the canals that go through Lijiang and watching the fish trying to swim upstream. If they stopped swimming they would be swept all the way downstream and start againg. Queenie looked at me and said that is what life is, swimming upstream....so all of you keep on swimming....


China Travelogue 2: Yangshuo to Kunming

This post:-- Yangshuo --> Longji --> Kunming

(The picture is one of the woman from the Yao tribe)

I think the last time I wrote was on Monday after we had finished a brutal bicycle ride through the farms of Yangshuo. We are now in Kunming, the capital of Yuannan province.

On Tuesday we were still in Yangshou and we went down a river on a bamboo raft. It was a lot of fun, I managed to drink a beer doing it too. The price of the trip for Queenie and I, for a 2-hour ride, was RMB150 (about USD19). The poor boatman only earned RMB20 ( USD2.5). He still had to fork out another RMB5 for the truck to take his boat back upriver. The poor guy, he does all the work and the gatekeepers (whoever runs it) gets to keep all the money. If I were him I would be pissed.

Wednesday was an early morning for us. We had to wake up at 6:00am and be on a bus by 7:00am. We were going to the rice terrace fields of Longji. What a spectacular scene. The bus ride itself became a little brutal on the dirt road up the mountain, but after an hour of that (and then carrying our luggage up the mountain for 20-minutes) we were treated to a spectacular aerial view of the terraces, and a brilliant lunch. After the lunch I hiked to the top of the mountain to see the view. The local Yao Tribe ladies were our guides (and also hawkers) as they chased us up the mountain trying to sell their wares.

The women of the Yao tribe were particularly funny. After completing the hike up the mountain I was guided back to our hotel where Queenie and I were the only guests. We bought a table cloth from the guide who persistently begged me to buy something up and down the mountain. A little while later we were swamped by three other ladies all trying to hawk their wares on us. It was really jovial. The one woman was trying to sell me postcards. I had already bought a set and we set off on a half an hour conversation on comparing the postcards (whose had snow and whose had houses). It was hysterical. At any rate after an hour of no success three of the ladies returned home. The original guide remained to talk with us.

She told us that she had hardly ever left the village. She had not even gone to Guiling (a three hour bus ride). She said that the terraced fields had been divided up amongst the families and they are able to grow about 3000 jin (catties, a Chinese measure) of rice a year. This would feed the whole family and they mostly stored it at home. According to her someone had only recently built a road to the terraces and this had increased tourism to the area enabling them to sell homemade wares and guide tourists up the mountain. A single guide earned about RMB5 for every group they guided on a 2-hour trip. Not much money! Once again, someone is making a killing. The ticket of going to the place was about RMB130 per person. All the government did was build a road and put up a gate. In the summer vacations the lady told us that they may receive up to 1000 guests a day. The gate ticket is RMB50 per person so someone in summer makes about RMB50,000 per day. That's a lot of cash, and apart from the road, and nothing has been done to improve the lives of the people.

She also told us about some of their culture and habits. She showed us her hair which they never cut, and she also sang a song for us on the hill next to our restaurant. See the videos below:

At any rate, after this interesting conversation she asked me if I would teach at the local school the following morning. Of course I agreed. That evening we had one of the most romantic dinners Queenie I had ever had but it was then that the hotel seemed to conspire against me (heh heh heh). I found a stone in my apple pie (nearly broke a tooth), stood on a nail that went all the way into my foot (and had it brutally pulled out by a very embarrassed hotel assistant) and then got scorched in the shower when someone turned up the gas....ahhh....In the morning we were woken up at 5:00am by military music blasting out of the local school loudspeakers. I am not sure who was meant to be marching but I sure wasn't going to do it (I had my days).

On Thursday morning we went down to the school where I had the pleasure of teaching English for an hour to a bunch of eager to learn 15 year olds. All of them were eager to learn. I remember when I taught English in high school in Taiwan, the students were not enthusiastic at all. What a difference this was. They really got into the lesson.

After the English lesson most of the day was spent on the road to Kunming. The bus back to Guiling was about 2.5 hours. After arriving in Guiling we tool an taxi to the airport. The airport road is a toll road and the charge for a normal sedan is about RMB10. We were in the taxi and as we were about to hit the toll road the driver turned right and we found ourselves crossing makeshift bridge across some rice paddies. As we crossed the rice paddies we approached a small community. There was a guy sitting in a chair. The driver stopped the taxi and paid RMB2 to the man. We then went back onto the toll road. The community had built their own detour around the toll gate and offered bargain prices. That was really funny.

Well, we go into Kunming last night (after a 2-hour flight delay) and went for a foot massage. This morning we decided to change hotels and as we were walking down the road we saw a picture of an old colleagues daughter on the side of a shop advertising clothes. Prior to going back to Canada, Rob and Michelle's daughter Michaela did some fashion shoots for kids clothes. We never expected to see her on an advert in Kunming.

Today was a slow day. We had a hair wash, went to park and walked through a market. It was a pretty mellow time. The pace will pick up over the next few days. We are currently considering going into Chengdu through the backdoor (depending on weather and temperature). We will see.

Take care all of you and we will see you soon.


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