Monday, May 25, 2009

May 16-22: Chengdu & Xi'an

May 16th marked our one year annivesary of unemployment.  We didn't do anything out of the ordinary to celebrate as every day is special, but it did get us thinking about coming home.  We've been increasingly excited the last couple weeks to get back into things.  I'm itching to start building things again and have been doing some preliminary designs for a couple iphone apps.  Allison's similarly eager to jump back into education reform.  This accompanied by the desire to try and find a house has made us change our travel plans and we're coming home a month early!  That means we're cutting out Western China and Mongolia, which likely would have been amazing, but we'll just have to save them for another trip...

From the Tibetan plateau we bussed down, down, down to the Sichuan capital of Chengdu.  Chengdu is famous for primarily two things, incredibly spicy food as it is the heart of Sichuan cuisine and as the home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.  Since Indonesia our spice tolerance/addiction has gone way up, to the point where we're putting chili sauce on toast in the morning and are really looking for a spicy meal for every meal.  We finally met our match with the Chengdu hotpot, a steaming oily broth filled with hundreds of chopped chili peppers, in which you dip and cook your veggies or meat; a kind of massochistic fondue.  While incredibly delicious and fun, we did have to take a break from the spice the next day.

Giant pandas really are as cute as you think.  With only 1000 left in the wild, the breeding center in Chengdu is the most cutting-edge Panda research center in the world attempting to keep the species around for future generations.  Besides the obvious main problem of encroachment on their natural habitat, what makes things especially difficult is just how lazy these creatures are.  They get so little nutrition from the bamboo that makes up the entirety of their diet, that they barely move all day and don't have the energy even to procreate!  So the center is resorting to techniques as extreme as in vitro fertilization.  It's not looking good for the giant panda's future.  The less well known red panda is on the other hand decidedly not as cute, looking more like a raccoon's relative.  There appears to be concensus on this, as the Chinese who are very adept at pricing things based on market forces, charge $150 to take a picture holding a baby giant panda, and only $7 for the same honor with the red panda. 

We spent the rest of our time in Chengdu wandering through some serene temples and playing with a new mode we found on Allison's camera.

Xi'an, home to the infamous Army of the Terracotta Warriors, is one of the biggest tourist draws in China.  It's really hard to grasp the immensity of the undertaking without seeing the site in person, with over 6000 life-sized figures in full battle formation, exquisitely detailed with every body and face completely unique, and the layout planned out as if there was a real battle, from flanking brigades, to a headquarters with generals facing each other as if discussing strategy.  These were all so that Ying Zheng, the first emperor of China could rule in death as he did in life.  What I found most intriguing was the incredible ego and vast swath of power this man must have wielded.  Taking 40 years to complete and employing 720,000 people, his warriors and the rest of his mausoleum were only one of the gigantic projects he undertook.  Beginning with the unification of all of China, which involved defeating five other countries, to building the Great Wall, this guy got things done.  The fact that this vast citylike mausoleum was only discovered 25 years ago and by chance as a farmer was digging a well, must excite and inspire all fledgling archeologists, as they imagine what other treasures are still buried under modern civilization.  Allison was most fascinated by the vast crowds, fighting each other to get the best photo angle :)

Besides it's most famous site, Xi'an isn't a bad place to spend a few days, wandering the muslim quarter with it's delicious lamb kebabs grilled on the street, and hiking up Hua Shan, the most sacred Taoist mountain.  The latter is an incredibly steep ascent, all stairs for about three hours, sections of it so narrow and steep you are literally crawling on all fours.  We climbed up on a hazy day so were not afforded the views the peak is famous for, but it was fun to be part of an important Chinese pilgrimage, the Chinese huffing and puffing their ways up having a ball of a time along the way.

As we cut a month out of our travel, we've decided to up our transportation budget.  Here is us on the deluxe sleeper Z train, sharing a bottle of wine and slurping down some delicious and filling instant noodles.  The best night's sleep I've had in months...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

May 11 - 16: Tibetan Plateau, Western Sichuan

Our adventure into western Sichuan, across the Tibetan plateau began in the town of Shangri-La.  Emblematic of the Chinese tourist industry's way of blurring fiction with history with reality to attract the most yuan possible, the town was named after the fictional location descried in the novel The Last Horizon and not the other way around.  Although not quite living up to the mysticism and paradise embodied in its name, Shangri-La was a pleasant stop over for a few nights.  At 3,200 meters, it helped us acclimatize for the journey ahead and we enjoyed some delicious home cooked dinners at our guesthouse outside of town.

We spent three of the next four days - 29 hours total - on public buses.  Each journey took us over harrowingly beautiful mountain passes and came complete with their own special mini-adventures.  Day one featured two sections of the road that were massively under construction where 6 foot deep holes had to be temporarily refilled so that our bus could pass by.  On day two, the driver needed to pull over every hour to air smoke out of the engine (which was inside the bus) and refill its water supply.  On our final journey we were blessed with an especially chain smoking / spitting crowd as travel companions.  The guy across the aisle had a routine of one cigarette followed by two massive halking spits, set on repeat every 15 minutes.  We estimated he worked his way thru 35-40 cigarettes during our 9 hour trip. 

But our 36 hours in Litang half-way through the journey made every minute on the bus well worth it.  Litang sits at 4,000 meters making it one of the highest towns in the world.  Although technically outside the "Tibetan Autonomous Zone", Litang is just about as Tibetan as it gets -- and without any of the travel restrictions or mobs of tourists that accompany a visit to Lhasa and its surroundings.  On our first afternoon we explored the grounds of the local monestary, wandering up to a structure covered with prayer flags waving in the wind against the bluest sky you can imagine.  The four monks handing out on the hill as we approached created an image that would almost seem too cliched if it wasn't the real deal.

As if our afternoon with the monks, prayer flags and Tibetan sky wasn't enough, we had the priviledge of witnessing a Tibetan Sky Burial the next morning.  This was, without a doubt, the most intensely unique cultural experience either of us has ever seen.  To "bury" their dead, Tibetans bring the body up to a hillside and watch as vultures eat every last scrap of meat off the bones.  When this is finished, they grind the bones together with a flour paste and let the vultures have another go at it until all the remains have been consumed.  As a testament to Tibetan buddhist belief in the cycle of life, this "burial" makes a great deal of sense with the passing of one creature nourishing another.  A benefit of being the only four tourists in town meant that we were slowly welcomed into the ceremony by friends and relatives of the dead.... which means that we have some pictures to prove it if you're skeptical that we saw what we said we did (warning, they're a bit graphic)..
Our afternoon and evening were spent getting to know the people of Litang a bit more, playing with kids around the local stupa and hanging out with some nomads over beers in the evening.  This town has a truely wild west feeling to it with rough and tumble but at the same time beautifully kind people. 

Thinking about the expense and hassle of a travel to Lhasa, we feel very lucky to have stumbled upon this authentic Tibetan experience as an alternative.  Thanks also to Sonny for being a wonderful travel companion this week and for tipping us off to the adventure.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 7-10: Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge

Back in the motherland, home of delicious dumplings and efficient transportation.  After a couple weeks in Burma, China feels straight up luxurious.  We reentered China in the Yunnan province in the southwest of China.  Our first stop was the old town of Lijiang.  As the railway doesn't go further west of Kunming we took our first overnight Chinese bus.  Stripped of any seats, the bus is three rows of double-decker beds.  Strangely, the length of each individual bed varies greatly and the Chinese seemingly know which ones are better than others, leaving us with the shortest ones.  Not the best night's sleep, but not our worst either.  For anyone considering this route, take an upper berth bed.
Arriving in town we experienced our most major language barrier snafu yet.  Having neglected to have someone write down the name of our hotel in Chinese, we were stuck with only the name of the hotel in English.  Knowing it was near an elementary school, we found another traveler who was volunteering at an elementary school and showed her scrap of paper with its name to the taxi driver.  30 minutes later we are in a completely different town at dawn with no one around.  To make a long story short, three hours later we arrived at our hostel, after what should have been a 10 minute drive.  We won't make that mistake again.  The complete lack of English speakers in the west of China is a real shock at first.  Even the simple phrase "Speak English?" draws a blank stare more often than not.  The exact same thing would happen if someone said "Speak Chinese?" in Chinese in the US, it's just the first place on our travels where it's been this ubiquitous.

The old town of Lijiang takes you back to the China of past centuries, mazelike cobblestone alleys, stone bridges over narrow canals, tiled roofs, the picturesque Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looming in the background.  If you get up around dawn you can watch men making fires to boil tea water, women shaving fresh rice noodles from a gelatinous mass and frying up the local Naxi bread.  By about 9 AM, however, the Chinese tourists arrive en masse as part of tour groups, the trinket sellers take their places in the town squares, and the pseudo-indigenous women in pseudo-traditional garb begin their weaving, in front of whom the Han Chinese tourists enthusiastically take pictures for a small price.  With its canal-side cafes and unexplored alleyways the charm is not completely gone, but it's quickly heading that way.

Lijiang wasn't our favorite stop but it was the jumping off point for a spectacular two day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge.  One of the deepest gorges in the world, the river flows 2000 meters (6600 feet) below the upper track of the gorge where we hiked.  Every few kilometers there is a small family run restaurant or guest house, which means you can stop and rest wherever you get tired.  We spent the night near the highpoint of the gorge, at a guesthouse with a terrace that practically floats above the gorge, a great place to enjoy a beer after a strenuous climb.

Here's the view from the open-air bathroom (hole in the floor):

One of the joys of traveling is the freedom to change your plans based on the advice you get from fellow travelers along the way.  Our original plan was to head from Yunnan to Lhasa, but due to some riots surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's exile to India, travel to Tibet proper has been severely restricted to package tours where you must have a guide with you at all times.  Which means you will only see the places that Beijing wants you to see.  Accompanied by the exorbitant prices of these trips, this wasn't a very appealing option.  Fortunately we ran into Sonny, a solo Brit, who faced with the same dillema introduced us to the idea of taking the "backdoor" into Sichuan via the rough and fairly untravelled road across the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau which not officially part of Tibet is open to foreigners (although just recently as their were riots there a few weeks back).  So we've busted out our cold weather gear from the bottom of our packs for what should be many hours on a chicken bus, but a rare chance to see a bit of real Tibetan life.