A Ride Around Erhai Lake, Dali

I rented a bike one afternoon while I was staying in Dali, and decided to try to ride the length of the large lake which runs to the north of the city.  It was an amazing day, clear and beautiful to a rare degree, and it was one of the best things I have ever done in China.  I would go so far as to say that it was one of the best day rides I have ever taken, though my legs and knees would pay for the abuse I was giving them quite heavily in the weeks that followed.  All told, I did around 70km in one ride, a foolish decision for someone who hasn’t done any serious riding in at least four years.  There isn’t much of a story to go with this one, but I think the pictures will say all this is needed.  Enjoy-

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The Cangshan Mountains

I had arrived in Dali with the intention of exploring the Cangshan Mountain range to see if there was some opportunity for backpacking trips with young adults. I arrived at the train station around 5:30, and by 7 I was underway and hiking up the side of the mountain with a guide that I had hired out for the next day. The sun had already set, and as luck would have it the flashing I had brought along did not survive the flight, forcing me to climb 600 vertical meters of steps in the dark. Hiking at night can be a very cool experience, and many people actually do quite a bit better without a flashlight, as the ultra contrast between light and dark tends to ruin your depth perception, especially with the unnatural color of light provided by most LED flashlights. Hiking in darkness means that you have to go slower, but I have always had a much greater sense of where I am and what is around me. A flashlight reduces the number of times that you have to blindly feel around, but I always have the strange sensation that I am in a bubble, out of touch with everything that is not illuminated.

I started at the base of the mountain with the mindset that high altitude was going to pose no challenge for me, but by the time we had arrived at the Inn (position around the 2600 meter mark), I found myself already dizzy and breathing double time. I was glad to drop my pack and have a drink. We spent some time with the Innkeeper, an odd older man who spoke an unrecognizable dialect but was very friendly and happy to have us for the evening. We took our rooms, which overlooked the city far down below. Because we were so far south, they were unheated and open air, a style which I have come to love. The temperature went down just below the freezing point, but I had an amazing night sleep, waking the next morning to a fantastic sunrise.

We set out early with the goal of making it to the highest point in the range, the Malong Peak, standing just above 4100 meters. I was very sore from the night before, and it was apparent that I had overworked most of the muscles in my legs. Five minutes into our hike and they were already cramping, a very bad sign when you have 17 more kilometers to go. The trail was very slippery, but we were soon enough out of the woods and hiking into the beginnings of the alpine zone, the distinct line where the plant life changes due to the effects of altitude. The trees get smaller, and all sorts of small shrubs dot the ground. My guide informed me that locals tend to climb this mountain so that they can harvest the bamboo that grows high up. I couldn’t image hiking this high, only to carry bundles of bamboo all the way back down.

After some time, we made it to the 3600 meter sign, at which point my head was spinning and I felt purely sick. I had a coach in high school who wouldn’t let us stop running until someone threw up, a brutal style of coaching, but effective in making a point. As we hiked, I thought periodically about whether the sensation was real, or just something my mind was doing to ask me to slow down a little. As we went higher, I decided that it was probably a combination of both, but it went away relatively quickly once we stopped and I had some food and time to breath. In the distance, I could hear music, and for a moment I wondered whether or not it was a hallucination. We were way up on the mountain, and yet I was hearing a very distinct sound, not unlike the metallic racket you hear at a carnival.  It’s what I picture when I think of the sounds that would exist in Santa’s workshop, a bell-like, over-sweetened melody that doesn’t really seem to start or end.

“It’s the Chairlift”, said my guide, watching me look around. “They built a Chairlift up here a few months ago, and it plays Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” all the time”.

My first thought was not the absurdity (or irony) of song choice, but rather that I had come all this way looking for wilderness, only to be met near the top with the epitome of Chinese tourism. A damned chairlift. I had seen the same tragedy on the sand dunes in Inner Mongolia. In the middle of the desert, miles from anything else, one of the few remaining pieces of nature and they decide to build a chairlift so that people won’t have to experience the terror of hiking. I found myself once again confronting frustration, tinged with a strange bit of culture shock.

As we came over the top of the hill we were climbing, I could clearly see the station at the end of the chairlift, a massive, ugly structure sitting right at the base of the peak. It was a beautiful valley, and a shame to have ruined it with all the walkways and mechanics of this beast. We boarded one of the platforms, while a number of Chinese looked at us as though we were insane. Walking along the elevated path, we found our way to the top obstructed, and a guard informed us that we were no longer aloud to hike all the way up.

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The Southern Tour: Train to Dali

After spending time in the far south of Yunnan, I began the second leg of my journey that would lead to Dali, a city several hours to the northwest of Kunming. I had purchased a hard sleeper train ticket a week earlier when I arrived in the city, and was soon at the station waiting to board a train. I have had several experiences with trains in the past, all of them quite memorable. I have always loved trains, and China has been the first place where I have had the opportunity to take extended rail trips with some regularity. Despite being extremely crowded and frequently filthy, trains in China are cheap and very reliable. More than anything, though, they are a great way to see the masses, a perfect spectrum of culture.

During the previous occasions that I have spent on such rides, I have not had the energy or the wherewithal to pull out a camera and document the experience, which is unfortunate as some of the previous trips were far more thrilling than the one which I took between Kunming and Dali. It makes no real difference, however, as almost all such trains look the same, and these pictures will give you a small piece of the life that exists onboard. The author Paul Theroux spent a year traveling through China almost exclusively by train. How he managed to stay sane, I do not know, but by the end of his story he appeared to have lost all interest in continuing his journey. The final 150 pages of the book are shockingly dull. These trips are almost always eye opening, but such travel is nothing if not exhausting.

I have always enjoyed the lack of space that dominates every moment of a train ride. With an aisle little more than two feet wide, there is barely enough room to pass someone coming from the other direction. This is not helped by the large number of bags and random items that typically scatter the floor, along with the not infrequent passenger that has decided to sleep next to or even in the aisle. A large number of migrant workers and various other individuals purchase standing tickets, as they are significantly cheaper. On a 12 hour trip, you are going to sleep at some time or other, and in many cases the floor is as good a spot as any. It is not uncommon to see a pile of blankets in the vestibule between cars, with one or more people asleep inside. On some occasions, typically holidays, it is too crowded to sit down, and people will sleep standing up in the aisle, supported by the complete lack of space that might have permitted them to tip over.

Most people that board for a very long trip plan ahead and bring a sizable number of snacks and a stockpile of instant noodles. The shops inside of railway stations often have some of the most spectacular noodle isles that you will find. If you don’t manage to get anything ahead of time, it is rarely an issue. Despite the impossibly thick masses that block the isles, an attendant from the train will roll a snack cart from one end to the other and back, typically every hour. It is very entertaining to watch them push their way through, as people climb on a variety of seats and bags around to get out of the way. On this occasions, my trip started not with the snack cart, but with a woman who spent a full ten minutes yelling out the qualities of toothbrushes that she was selling. I really do mean yelling. At one point, she insisted that there was no better gift for friends and family that we would be visiting when we arrived in Dali. Seeing as I had neither friends nor family in this location, a toothbrush was not a necessary purchase.

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The Southern Tour: Field Walking

We went for a walk one afternoon to explore the town in which we were staying, as well as the surrounding countryside. Leaving town each morning, our bus would drive past an amazing looking set of terraced fields, and myself and one of the leaders from our group made a point of trying to find our way to some of these hills for a photo session. As always, this seemed a bit easier in the planning stage than it turned out to be.

We did a bit of quick guessing on how best to exit town, and began to walk in the direction that seemed the shortest. As a general life-principal, this method almost never leads you to the destination you desire. Case in point, we almost immediately found ourselves blocked by the path of a river, and had to circle back before heading onward. It had been raining for the better portion of the day, but the sun had come out and in the distance I could see wispy low lying clouds hanging in the valleys, a scene that I now associate with the region. It was one of those places that actually looks in real life as it does in the pictures you have seen before visiting. In this case, it was not possible to capture the true essence in any picture; the scale was simply too large.

We spent some time lost in the maze of the village that we had entered. One of the amazing things about large portions of China is the manner in which villages cluster around one another. After leaving one small town or village, chances are fair that you will be able to find five or six others within half an hours walking distance. Navigating between these ancient islands can be a bit of a challenge, as there are not always distinct roads or paths-sometimes a small strip of dirt running through a paddy field is the main thoroughfare, and farmers are not always pleased by camera toting foreigners ambling through their crops.

I would periodically ask a villager for directions to the next village, or if they new a quicker way back to where we came from, and almost all of them answered that they didn’t know. While I found this a bit hard to believe (Chinese often say they don’t know if they are uncomfortable talking to me, or if they don’t want to tell me that that can’t understand my question), it suggests that these communities exist quite independently of one another. This was certainly true for thousands of years prior to the 20th century. Sustainable living indeed. The more interconnected these villages become, the more it seems that the bits of culture specific to a village are washed out, lost with the young generation that has left for a better life in the city.

We drifted from one village to the next, and it became apparent that the great terraces we so desired to see had the best vantage point from the elevated highway, and there was no chance I was getting on that by foot. We continued on, enjoying the unpredictable nature of the course we had chosen. Finding ourselves once again blocked by a river, it seemed prime time to step off of the main path and head more directly into the fields. When walking between a village and the section of land that they will be working, villagers use a system of narrow dirt paths that separate one section of land from the next. These walls are typically a meter high, and at most a foot wide, but very efficient for getting from one point to the next. At one point I had a six foot drop on one side, and a large pool of water on the other. Not a good time to slip.

Our walk led us through the fields for some time, and we eventually found our way back to a road that would lead home. Exiting through what I thought was a public gate, I found myself face to face with two very large, very angry dogs of a nondescript breed. I love dogs, but have had a few poor encounters with them in the past, making me all the more wary of walking past them, especially in rural areas. Fortunately, the apparent owner came running out of the house, probably at first to yell at whoever was in her yard, but then to pull her dogs off of a pair of very surprised foreigners. She was just as shocked as I was, and I was glad to use that momentary surprise to continue on our way.

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The Southern Tour: Nameless Village

Oh, so tired, but a picture is worth a word or two and that means that I can rely on them just a bit more heavily than I tend to like.

I won’t say (once again, for various reasons) where these photos were taken, but all of them are from a village where our group spent a decent amount of time.  It was far down at the bottom of Yunnan, and it was amazingly tropical.  There were scorpions of a shocking blue color, but I didn’t manage to get an pictures of them.

Most of these pictures are pretty self explanatory, but if you will pay particular note to the large steaming barrel- This is some 50 gallons of home-brewed moonshine that the villagers make from corn.   Known across the nation as Baijiu, it is a nasty concoction, but widely enjoyed as a sipping liquor.  The mere smell haunts my dreams.  Check back on Sunday for a proper story.  Until then…

And of course, let’s not forget, a group of foreigners attracts a significantly higher level of attention than just one foreigner.  The result typically looks like this;

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The Southern Tour: A Rural Chinese Town

The next morning, I found myself looking at a town that was larger than it had appeared the night before, but not as large as I had expected for the town of Pu’er. Some investigation revealed that it was not, in fact, Pu’er, but the town of Mohei. I was not clear on had we had ended up at one and not the other, and in the real scheme of things it doesn’t actually matter. On many levels, I was glad that we stayed in this smaller, less developed town. Over the time we spent there, it proved to be very friendly and a true example of a way of life that is slowly being pushed out by the rising tide of commerce. Mohei probably had no more than four or five hundred residents, and I had a real sense of the patterns of life in a part of China that is far removed from the workings of the west. Take a look at the picture of my hotel room and you will understand what I mean. For only three dollars a night, it was amazing.

Despite such lack of foreign influence, the people in the town were not as interested in our group as I have seen in some of the other places I have traveled. Sure, they spent a good bit of time watching us, but in exactly the same manner as you would surely observe if a group of Chinese showed up in a rural southern town in the United States. Only rarely did I encounter the abrasive and blatant “hello” that foreigners so frequently hear when walking through parts of China less frequented by tourists. Undeveloped as it was, it was apparent that we were not the first westerners to have ventured through this small place.

For various reasons, I won’t go into much more detail than this about the town, but instead will give you some of these pictures. Some of my favorite moments from the trip occurred while we were getting on and getting off of the bus that toured us around. If our group itself didn’t draw much attention, the bus certainly did, and there were usually a number of people that seemed to be more interested in the process of of our entry and exit than in our actual presence. It was as though the excitement only remained while we were still in transit, perhaps a hope that a new, more interesting batch of foreigners might replace us over the course of our daily absence. When I watch Chinese observing a group of foreigners, I can’t help but wonder how we compare to their expectations- Based on what I have read an heard about the Chinese perception of Americans and our customs, I can’t help but think that they must find a real American not nearly as interesting.

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The Southern Tour: In Which We Head South

I met up with the group I would be traveling with at the Kunming Airport the following afternoon. We would be heading about five hours south to the town of Pu’er, just over 50 kilometers northeast of the border to Myanmar. There is something that really appeals to me about being so close to the edge of a country, the edge of the world as it seemed in this case. China is a very large place, and I was headed to the far edge, with the Tibetan plateau to the west and the beginnings of Southeast Asia at my feet. These were exciting times.

Their plane was late, and I figured that with such a long drive it was unlikely that we would depart that evening. I really needed to use the bathroom, but decided that I could wait until we arrived at the hotel before doing so. I don’t like holding up a group that I have just met. I could hear the teenage taunts in my head. “Oh yeah, the new guy, he couldn’t hold it”. We got on the bus, and the representative from the organization informed us, to my great surprise, that we would begin our long journey south. Looking to the back of the bus, it was apparent that there was no bathroom. In China, where it is entirely possible to be stuck in traffic for five hours, this is not a good thing. Drivers also have a tendency to avoid taking any breaks, if possible. A good ride without traffic should never be interrupted, less your luck suddenly change. But hey, we were headed south, and I was immediately distracted by the changing scenery. Corn and other lanky crops were quickly replaced with things that I had never seen; the kind of vegetation that seems to be compulsory element of every Vietnam film. And then we entered the mountains.

The bus tilted from one turn to the next as we passed through roads nearing ten thousand feet. I was a bit concerned about the odds of rolling over the edge, but we happened to have a relatively conservative driver. Other buses flew past us, ignorant to the signs warning of melting brakes and transmission failure. We periodically passed the carcass of a truck (typically unrecognizable) that had been displayed on stilts in the middle of the median, an intentional reminder of the consequences for careless driving. I found it to be quite effective, and hoped that our driver felt the same. As darkness began to creep in we made our way further into the mountains, going through long tunnels in sections were mountains had challenge the path of the road. Each time we exited to the opposite side, the sky would be just a bit darker, until I could not tell the difference between tunnel and heavens, but for the change in the sounds around the bus.

I was woken up by a change in the road. We were bouncing around and moving at a much slower speed. Small houses and shops passed by, and it was clear that we were in a village or possibly a town, but it certainly was not Pu’er. Large trucks and an assortment of other vehicles were wedged against the sides of houses, leaving only a small space for our bus to push through. There was no doubt that we were in a rural place. This was truly far in, a place that I like to call the Way Back. I have always been drawn to the quiet that exists in farming communities, a silence second only to that which you find while standing in a snow storm. True quiet is generally a sign of a working class town, an agrarian community that gets up and goes down with the sun. This town was silent, and I was excited. Getting off of the bus I could smell the fields and see the stars, and for a moment I felt like I was in my grandparents driveway in Vermont, after a long drive north from New Jersey.

There was some confusion about how to arrange our rooms in the hotel, but I didn’t mind spending a bit of time just watching the lack of movement that was all around us. Beijing, even at its most quiet, is a city of constant hum, a white noise that lingers, becomes like the noise of a jet long into a flight. You loose awareness of it’s presence, deaf to it’s roar, only to be reawakened by it’s absence once you have left. I was handed my room keys, and headed in for the night.

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The Southern Tour: Kunming

The days leading up to a trip are one of the greatest parts of the experience, but hell for someone with any level of anxiety.  All of those details, all of those small items that you are so likely to forget when you begin the process of packing.  I rarely start the physical packing process prior to the night before departure;  I think it is bad luck.  Plan too early and you are bound to forget something important.  Wait to the last minute and you will only leave the small things behind.  Toothbrushes, nail clippers, pens, all things that can be replaced.

There are not many things as inconvenient to forget as a pair of sunglasses, especially when you are heading to a place at higher altitude where glare and risk of retina burn tend to me much higher.  I decided to shave about 10 minutes before leaving for Yunnan, a last moment tinge of social anxiety.  I must have been wearing my sunglasses, as I ended up in Kunming without them, only to be told that I had left them on the bathroom sink.  As it turns out, sunglasses are extremely hard to find in Kunming, and significantly more expensive and ugly.

I didn’t really know what to expect of the southern city that I had heard so much about.  I knew that it was a favorite among travelers and trekkers, revered for warm weather and gorgeous scenery.  It is regularly referenced as the land of eternal spring.  True enough, I arrived toward the end of October to a completely full green landscape and temperatures in the mid 70s.  It was immediately apparent that I had made a grave error in my decision to live in Beijing.  This was paradise.

I’m not sure how I can describe Kunming and actually do it any level of justice.  I’m also not sure that I’m really in a position to pass judgment;  I was only in the city for two days, but I was more relaxed in those two days than I have been in a long time.  The transition to a China lifestyle has not been the most relaxing of moves, and it was nice to find a moment to slow life down just a bit.  The buildings around the city are much lower than most things in Beijing, and tended to be made out of red brick, giving it a look not dissimilar to parts of Baltimore and bits of old industrial New York and Pennsylvania.  The soil in the region has a high clay content, and I suspect that most of the bricks were locally produced.  Narrow, curving streets lined with high skinny trees gave it a tropical European feel.  For a few moments, I didn’t have much of a sense that I was in China.

I spent the night in an amazing place called the Cloudland Youth Hostel, sleeping in an eight person dorm (something in the neighborhood of three dollars a night).  It was a very down to earth place, and in the morning I found myself wishing I had a bit more time to sit on the porch watching the side street down below.  The clock was moving, and it was time for me to head further south, but part of me never wanted to leave this small moment in time.

This is only the first bit of the great southern tour, one day out of two weeks.  Check back on Friday for part two, the deep south.  Pictures of a whole new variety.  Until then-

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Back From the South

After two weeks of exploration in China’s far southern Yunnan province, I am finally back in Beijing.  It’s already quite late, and I have a whole mess of stuff to do tomorrow, but here is just a (small) sample of some of what lies ahead, content wise.  Check back on Wednesday for part one.  Until then…

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The Big Empty, Inner Mongolia

I’m heading out tomorrow morning on a two week expedition to Yunnan, a province in the far south of China. It seemed fitting that I should introduce this next mission with an update from the last.

I haven’t written in more than a month, and it is a true shame as I have a monster pile of material. I have recently taken a new job in Beijing, and though I won’t give the name, it has me spending a large amount of time traveling and exploring locations where we can take people backpacking and exploring China. I have stories coming out of my ears, but just not much time (and frequently not much energy) to get them on the page. This is just a bit of my recent trip to Inner Mongolia, as it was an experience I will never forget-

There is quite a bit of confusion when I speak about Inner Mongolia, so lets clarify; If you are speaking about Inner, you are speaking about a region that is still considered to be a part of China. It is heavily influenced by Mongolian culture and history, but for all purposes it is still within the borders of the PRC. I went with a few colleagues to explore options for students to spend time camping, traveling and exploring the wilderness of the great north. October in Inner Mongolia is quite cold, and even though the days are in the 70s, the complete lack of moisture in the air means that the nights can easily drop down into the 20s.

I had wanted to get at least one night camped out so that we could gain a sense of what it would be like. It is hard to see so many amazing places from the highway and think ‘Oh, that would be an amazing place to spend a few nights camped out’. No, it is much better to pull onto a dirt road, drive for a while and actually do it, and this is exactly what we did. It was cold as anything, but an amazing experience. I woke up to coyote tracks all around the tent, and the signs of a small frost still hiding in the shadows.

Camping and backpacking are in their infancy in China. Very, very few people have ever slept in a tent, let alone taken a pack and gone on a week long trip. When I proposed the idea to several people in Beijing, they seemed completely unsure of how to approach the idea, but were excited nonetheless. A night that dips below the freezing point is not necessarily the best introduction to camping, especially when you are using bad rented equipment. We made a fire (a very risky business in such a dry location), and huddled around talking about what it meant to be camped out with nothing but the wilderness. After so many months of city living, I felt that I had found a bit more of my own home, thousands of miles away in the nothingness of the Mongolia Steppe.

One of the members of our crew pulled a bottle of shampagne out of nowhere and began to shake it up. I asked why he was doing this, and was informed that it was necessary to prepare the drink. We toasted to our successfully trip and our evening under the stars, the first that I have seen since arriving in China.

I woke the next morning completely stiff with the cold the settled deep in sometime around 3am. When you are truly cold, you feel that you will never be warm again, but the feeling always seems to disappear with the rise of the sun. This is the beauty of the wilderness. Discomfort, nothingness, and no thoughts about anything other than how you feel. You always return to the real world feeling different than when you left.

We spent some time in the City of Ordos, a massive bit of development that doesn’t have enough of a population to fill even half of it’s buildings. All around us were newly built skyscrapers that had yet to find inhabitants. The entire city looked like the set for a movie, a landscape waiting to be populated. This is not uncommon in China. Speculation on development, especially real estate, is off of the charts, and developers often build entire cities in anticipation of masses of people moving in from other locales. An empty city on the edge of an empty landscape seemed very fitting.

We ventured outside of the city in search of more options for camping sites, and eventually arrived at a brick factory outside of the city of Ordos. It appeared that the factory has not seen business in a very long time, but still kept two guards around for appearances. Confused as they were, they didn’t mind us cooking next to the shop, and then spending some time climbing the dunes out back.  The strangeness of a foreigner venturing out so far to climb into the emptiness brought an apparent confusion, and from the top of the dune I could see the two guards watching me climb skyward.  Our silent fascination with one another was clear;  I wondered at their solitary existence in this lost world, while they wondered at the single tourist, an american drifting through the emptiness.

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