October Holiday Trip

This essay is a long time in the making. I am writing this more than three months after the event and I hope that I do not overlook anything.

Itinerary (2.5 Weeks):

Beijing –> Xi’an –> Kunming –> Dali -> Lijiang –> Tiger Leaping Gorge –> Chengdu –> Songpan –> Leshan –> Beijing
Photos from the trip (First batch)
Photos from the trip (Second batch)

One week prior to the National Holiday I traveled with my friend Jason to the ancient city of Xi’An. The city was the base of numerous Chinese dynasties and is rich in history. The most famous site is the terracotta warriors, and frankly, remains the main reason for going to Xi’an. The city itself is crawling with foreign tourists and is situated in the relatively wealthy province of Shaanxi. Surprisingly, the city is disgusting. It is one of the dirtiest large Chinese cities I visited and for such a historic place I could not believe the lack of effort put into maintaining it. Besides the warriors, the Muslim quarter and its unique mosque are of interest, along with the drum and bell towers and the ancient (though clearly restored) outer city wall. I do not want to commit the typical foreigner pattern of discrediting Chinese accomplishments but there is something to be said about the terracotta warriors. When I traveled to the Great wall, I was expecting to be impressed and when I arrived I was blown away.

Arguably, the terracotta warriors are the second most famous sight in China, considered by the Chinese to be the eighth wonder of the world. So, I visited the warriors expecting to be impressed and possibly blown away. The accomplishment of carving tens of thousands of unique (face only) soldiers is an impressive achievement, but there was something lacking. The feature that really dampened the grandeur of the site is the material used, clay. The amount of energy to carve something out of clay is infinitely smaller than carving the same thing out of granite, limestone, marble or any other stone. Now don’t take me for some aloof European (I am), but really, the warriors made nowhere near the mark on me that the Great Wall or the Buddha caves (Longmen Shiku) of Luoyang. They are impressive and need to be seen, but Xi’an should be visited solely for that, nothing more. Jason and I stayed three days and I assure you, it was too long. One more thing I learned in Xi’an is that buying a bottle of vodka between two people is a bad idea. First, it ties you down to a table and secondly it makes you way too drunk to dance or talk to girls. After that mistake (and the hangover the next day) we decided to never again do that. Sorry furry big boobs and all the other people at the club.

From Xi’an we traveled to Kunming in Yunnan province. An interesting city, brimming with minorities and a laid back feeling that is not found on the coasts or in the north. We spent a day visiting temples and hanging out in cafés. We were told that we were very goodlooking by three transvestites and that was as close as we came to any local women.

The following day we took the train to the backpacker haven of Dali, west of Kunming. Aboard the train, a Chinese man who was wearing a trench coat and large sunglasses approached me. Expecting to be handed a plan for a secret invasion of America through Alaska, he handed me a two page letter and in excellent English and asked me to read it. Seeing no red guards in the vicinity, I dove in. The letter outlined this man’s plight. As best I remember, he had gotten into a fight, along with a friend, with a group of men. The other men got the worst of it and despite the fact they started the confrontation and this sunglassed man was brought into the station for questioning. He claims he was beaten into offering a confession that he egged the other men on and started the fight. The beating of innocent people into confessing to a crime is common in China as the local authorities have a mandate to arrest someone for every crime, whether or not they find the guilty party. After spending a year or so in prison he was released.

After being released he was attacked by the same people he had fought with the previous year. He was stabbed along with his friend and his friend died. He was again beaten into offering a false confession and his family was harrased to ensure he complied. He was sent to prison again and he was tortured in prison repeatedly. He was eventually freed and some six months later I met this man on a train in the mountains of Yunnan province. The story seemed to be a little brief and may have overlooked import aspects that he may not wish to share. But, the important thing to recall is that this sort of beating of innocent people commonly happens in China and you can find many such stories on the internet and in major newspapers. He asked for help, but I had little to offer, and honestly, he sketched me out a bit. His glasses and trench coat may help him hide from the authorities, but I am not sure how much credibility it lends him. I suggested he try and get his story to western media or media in Hong Kong, but the truth is that stories like this are published all the time and while things may be improving slightly, they are still very bad for the average Chinese person who is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dali was a pleasant retreat from large polluted cities. The ancient Dali (there are two) is located near a lake, which itself has many authentic old Chinese towns that have not yet been turned into massive tourist traps. We made the error of staying in a hostel full of old Germans, but hey, you cannot have everything. We visited the nearby villages and would have liked to stay longer. I highly suggest staying there for three days (we stayed for two nights) and try to get a hotel with a more vibrant atmosphere.

After Dali, we went to Lijiang. Lijiang is an ancient (and typical) looking Chinese town in the mountains. It’s old center is very nice and could feel like a step back in time if it had not been completely transformed into tourist shops and generic bars, all of which sell the same things at the same inflated prices. It was more expensive to drink at the average bar in Lijiang than in an expensive club in Beijing or Shanghai. It is still worth visiting but beware that it is designed, run, and tailored for Chinese Tourists. Dali is much better.

We then took a taxi through treacherous mountain roads to get to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Coming from Canada, it takes a lot to impress me in terms of natural beauty. Tiger Leaping Gorge was as close as I got in China. It is a majestic place and the highlight is certainly the charm of the guesthouses along the hiking path. We took the high path through the hills and let me warn you, the section called the 28 bends will leave you with burnt legs. The trail was more difficult than I anticipated but I managed just fine. However, Jason, who was ridiculously unprepared had to have a 20 year old Chinese guy who was half his size, and about the same size as his bag, carry his bag up the trail. Nearly all the Chinese tourists take the low, paved road in large buses, you will find mostly foreigners hiking the high path and staying at the guesthouses. The mini-trek was very nice and it was comforting to know that my heart and lungs still worked despite all the partying and pollution of Beijing. Jason and I were sadly both somewhat sick with a cold we had been dragging since Dali and that slowed us down a bit, but the weather and scenery made up for our misery.

After Dali, we traveled back to Lijiang, which was packed to the rafters with people because it was now the national holiday in which the entire nation goes on vacation at the same time. What brilliant planning!! We caught our flight to Chengdu the same night and we left
Yunnan province for good.

In Chengdu we were supposed to meet up with Jason’s girlfriend, another couple, and two girls. The plan was that I would stay with the two girls and party it up, but they decided to not come and to not inform me of this. So in Chengdu I quickly visited the sites; the Panda breeding center, the old part of town and the teahouses.

I then took off solo for the mountain Tibetan town of Songpan. I was trying to find a location that would not be packed with Chinese tourists, and to a large extent I succeeded. The famous Juizaigou was certain to be rammed to the rafters and I wanted a slightly more authentic experience. Songpan was a charming little town that was 8 hours by bus north of Chengdu. It was sill enclosed by ancient walls and had impressive bridges and watchtowers. I embarked on a two day horse trek with some other foreigners and a few Chinese. The guides took care of everything and we had a solid time.

When we were arranging sleeping accommodations in the tents, one Chinese person said off the cuff, “Well, there are five of you and four of us.” To which my new Israeli friend promptly responded, “What are we? Two football teams?” It is difficult to explain the hilarity of this brief exchange, but let me try. I was the only lone traveler, everyone else was in independent couples. Meaning, the couples did not know each other prior to getting on the horses. Therefore, the assumption that somehow the Chinese people could not sleep in the same tents as the “laowai” was a bit much and the idea that we were two separate entities and not one group of travelers is a bit ridiculous. If you were traveling in your home country with your girlfriend, another couple of the same nationality, but one that you have never previously met, two other couples from a different country (each couple being from different origins and nations) and a single voyager from another nations; would you say, “well, there are five of you and four of us”? It is a curious habit of Chinese to group themselves together and to group all other non-chinese together. Perhaps it will pass with the opening and industrialization of the country, but it remains a bit condescending and in my opinion reflects poorly on Chinese people. It implies indirectly that you could never be “Chinese” or even at home in China because you are not Han. I hardly think that applies to a Han in Canada, France or any other western nation. Just some food for thought.

After Songpan, I traveled all the way back to Chengdu and to Leshan where there is the largest Buddha in the world. Sitting down, this Buddha is taller than a ten story building and is very impressive. Not too much to report, but the island where the statue is located also contains other interesting caves and carvings, but be sure to steer clear of the modern carvings that are reproductions and of no historical importance.

From Leshan I traveled to Chengdu where I caught a bird back to Beijing and thus ended my first long journey in China. It was an amazing trip and there are too many stories to tell here, and some that will not be told in public, but I suggest nearly all the places that I visited.

Published on December 30, 2005