Monday, May 30, 2011

Where have you gone, my folly of youth?

You know how you feel invincible to injury when you’re young? Well, we are officially no longer young. It’s always been a weird goal of mine to study kung fu in China and when I got Juan on board it seemed nothing could stand in my way. Boy was I wrong.

Nothing could have prepared us (except maybe 5 or so previous years of intense martial arts training) for what awaited us at the Rising Dragon Martial Arts Academy in the Fujian Province of China. Sold by RealGap, a company that organizes gap years and similar programs for all ages, the program (anywhere from one-month to years) was marketed as being for “people of all levels and abilities.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. Within the first two days, we were being asked to do squats with people on our shoulders, run a minimum of 6 miles a day, do knuckle push-ups with our feet on the wall, perform backward somersaults into hand-stands, crawl down stairs on our hands, do headstand flips and more. Seven hours of training on about 3 oz of protein a day and often no running water for showers… It didn’t take long to realize we were in over our heads; every aching muscle and daring stunt further convinced us that we were likely to sustain some sort of injury if we stayed. Oh, how I miss the folly of youth that would have scoffed at my present self’s aversion to risk.

We quickly retreated to the class where everyone else of lower ability was hiding: the internal tai chi class. Unfortunately, performing the same basic movements for 7 hours a day was mind-numbingly boring and we decided to high-tail it out of there. Sadly, I think this means I’m about 10 years too late to become a kung fu master. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll find a more suitable area for self-improvement. Suggestions welcome.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Scouting the next big sci-fi set

It's hard to get excited about rocks. This may come as a surprise given some of the other stuff I find it easy to get excited about these days (i.e. not carrying my own toilet paper around with me). Nonetheless, we motivated for the 2-hour trip to Shilin for a visit to the Stone Forest. We even convinced a hungover stranger from our hostel to split the cost of the van with us. Score.

At first glance, this place was all tourist trap, no untouched beauty. But promptly after Adam exclaimed ,“This is the worst place in the world” we found the narrow, hidden pathways that the tour groups don’t explore. We wound ourselves through the Lord of the Rings inspired landscape, had underwater tea parties, surprised little kids into squeals of terror and generally made this sci-fi inspired landscape our playground for a few hours. Take it from us – a couple of people who generally can’t entertain themselves at tourist attractions for more than a couple of hours – this place deserves almost a full day.

Bring a picnic. And binoculars. We still don't know what that thing we dubbed a bumble-dragon was...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Crotchless for Comfort

It's been a common sight to see kids with crotchless pants.

The purpose?

Easy access for when you want to squat on the street.  Why are children allowed to take care of business on the street with impunity?  Apparently because the by-products of children are "pure."  Yep, pure.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Real life fantasy

Ah. Now we find yaks. Not agreeing on what they looked like, we kept mistaking hairy water buffalo for them on our way north. Until our journey led us to the legendary city of Shangri-la where we beheld them at last, grazing in the scrub hills, back-dropped by blue, snow-capped mountains. Sounds like something out of a storybook? Well, technically it is. A few years back the Chinese government unilaterally decided that the city of Zhongdian would be renamed to Shangri-la to spur tourism. There is no such place.*

Still, that didn’t stop us from going. Equally intrigued by the name as much as tales of yak butter tea and Tibetan monks trained in French wine-making techniques, we hired a car along with two Brits to get there. Didn’t end up trying the butter tea or the wine, unfortunately, but we did manage to find a Tibetan-style Buddhist monastery that transported us to the set of Seven Years in Tibet: medieval-looking buildings with thatched roofs, long set of stairs leading up to the main temple, blackbirds circling overhead, brightly (almost gaudy) murals, expansive views across a majestic landscape, and a very big Buddha. Not all has remained as it was years ago; the monks could often be seen chatting on mobile phones and had cars parked next to their straw and mud brick buildings.

Danielle inhaling oxygen for altitude sickness
At 3,300m altitude it took us awhile to make it up the stairs and every time we spoke for more than a few seconds we had to take a deep breath… and continue. Luckily, Danielle had started taking altitude sickness pills the day before and had a miraculous recovery; just in time to explore the winding, cobbled roads and exquisite artisans of Shangri-la’s old town.

* - It’s actually based on the novel, Lost Horizon, by James Hilton

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gorge 1, Travelers 0

Our next stop north brought us to Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest chasms in the world. Described as an arduous hike where a few backpackers have died, we figured this was just our cup of tea. The majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain stretched 3,202m from the base of the churning river and we hiked along the neighboring mountain with a complete view of both. We noticed that the busloads of Chinese tourists that crowded the streets of Dali and Lijiang were conspicuously absent from this part of Yunnan— although, a quick glance below at buses congregating alongside the ravine confirmed that they clearly just think Westerners are crazy to hike a trail when they can get the same view comfortably from their seats.
A lot of the talk about how hard the hike was turned out to be over-hyped. Yes, it was difficult to breath at such a high altitude and, yes, the 28 bends (a series of switchbacks taking you to the highest point on the hike) required a few stops but then you could also hire one of the horses from riders that followed you up the hardest parts, a little bell ringing with each step to remind you they’re there. In fact, there were even ladies selling Snickers bars (and, of course, ganja) before and after the hardest parts so you were in little danger of suffering the fate of the 4 Americans in the 1980s who took the river route.

Nearly blown off of cliff trying to take a picture with this dude.

These were potentially the most stunning mountains I’d ever seen in my life. With little lodges perched along the high trail, we stayed overnight at Naxi Family Guesthouse and awoke in time to see the sun rising behind the craggy range. Believing we’d mastered the hike turned out to be a mistake, however. Once we left our lodge, Danielle, feeling nauseated and lightheaded, collapsed on the trail after a dizzying five minute start (and vomiting next to a pig sty). Realizing that there was no way she’d be able to continue we carried her back and hired a van out of the trail. You win this round Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Just (Not) Enough Chinese

I suppose it comes as no surprise that vegetarianism n’existe pas in a city whose streets are permeated with the smell of dried yak meat.   Still, it was funny watching Danielle try to communicate the concept to our very confused waitress one night.

Danielle:  Gestures to a vegetable dish on the menu.

Waitress:  Bú (No).  Starts pointing to alternative dishes (e.g. yak hot pot, sweet and sour chicken).

Danielle:  Opens our Just Enough Chinese phrase book and points to the words for meat, fish, etc in Chinese and says “Bú” after pointing to each one.

Waitress:  continues suggesting dishes like “Hoof with special sauce”.

Two things happened as a result:  (1) Danielle promptly inserted the word “not” in big, bold letters on the front of our phrase book; and (2) we ended up at a much cuter, more reasonably priced little place run by a guy with a mohawk who was really enthusiastic about us being there.   The live music was pretty good until the musicians’ girlfriends started to sing along.  Don’t quit your day jobs, ladies.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

We are the world's most discreet criminals

Lijiang’s old town is all charm with its canals and cobblestone streets lined with shops where artisans hand-make their goods while you watch. Which, I suppose, is why the city thinks it is entitled to charge a general entrance fee. The catch is that this fee isn’t collected unless you visit one of 3 or 4 city sites, including the city’s main draw: the Black Dragon Pool Park, where the contrast of the lake with the 10,000 ft Jade Dragon Mountain in the background is considered an obligatory photo opportunity.

After all our traveling, we are leery of paying more than a couple of dollars for local sites – most of the time it’s all hype and we’re inevitably disappointed. So, upon arrival at the park, we told the ticket-taker that we had already paid the city fee but had left the paperwork in our hostel. Unfortunately, she didn’t buy it. As we stood outside the entrance discussing whether to pay the $12 per person fee (yes, looking back that seems like very little money, but at the time it seemed silly to pay the equivalent of three nights at our hotel), Juan noticed they were only charging white people the entrance fee and as he became more and more indignant we decided to find an alternative entrance.

After following a parallel path for about 5 minutes, we came across a construction site, which we ducked through only to find ourselves inside the park precisely at the lookout point featured in all the brochures. We laughed and took a bunch of pictures documenting our caper... It didn't take long for a security guard to notify some ladies in uniform. We stuck to our story about the paperwork when they approached us, but were asked to leave. In retrospect, we’re probably lucky they didn’t follow us to our hotel and ask to see our tickets. I’m sure people have been locked up for less in China. Oops.

Monday, May 16, 2011

You want ganja?

After just one day in Kunming, we were off to Dali so we wouldn’t miss the annual Third Moon Fair.  Turns out all we would have missed was lots of PETA violations.  Baby chicks dyed neon colors, turtles piled on top of each other in little cages (pretty sure these weren’t being sold as pets) and, worst of all, the racehorses with permanent sores on their flanks from the use of riding crops.  This last point meant that despite two trips to the track and waiting around for hours for the races to begin (we were given lots of conflicting starting times), we left after one race because we felt too sorry for the horses.  Oh, well.

Minus the festival, Dali is a stunning city – nestled between majestic mountains and a glimmering lake, its moody weather lends the city a rather otherworldly vibe.   This vibe might also have something to do with the wrinkled old ladies wandering the streets selling drugs.  They look so harmless when they approach under the guise of selling silver jewelry but it doesn’t take long for them to lean in and whisper, “You want ganja?”  Seriously, the older and more wrinkled the lady, the more likely she was to offer us drugs.  

We also made a trip to the famous three pagodas (some of the oldest standing structures in southwest China) but decided a couple of pictures from the main gate would suffice since forking over an entrance fee that was more than our nightly hotel room bill seemed a bit unnecessary.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Reinforcements have arrived!

There’s nothing more important when you’re travel weary than having someone with fresh eyes around to help you appreciate once more all the interesting things happening around you. Given our present state of mind, you can imagine our relief when Danielle finally touched down in Kunming.  She made it exciting to walk through spice markets again...

...strike Asian poses for pictures...

...and laugh at weird signs (no humping the chains?).

AND, because you can’t be lazy when someone new arrives, we walked an hour to Green Lake Park where it felt a bit like we’d fallen through the rabbit hole. Old men were practicing ancient instruments, a man was writing calligraphy on the sidewalk using a huge brush dipped in water and huge groups of people were doing the Asian equivalent of a Jane Fonda workout or what Danielle likes to call the tai chi electric slide.

Couple all that with an afternoon of drinking on the terrace at Hump Hostel and we’re ready for more.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Oh the places we'll go...

Not sure where I got it into my head that I needed to see rice terraces… Even 12 hours of windy bus rides in two days and Tia stressing out about getting to Kunming in time didn’t deter me. Upon arriving at the Xinjie bus station a lady trawling for backpackers insisted that we come stay at her hostel. She urged us to put our bags in her car and constantly interrupted our deliberations— if she hadn’t ended up helping us find an ATM, we probably would have kept walking.

She and her husband ran a neatish, modest place with bathrooms where it looked like an entomologist had left his prized specimens behind and a little restaurant downstairs that cooked up a mean tofu dish. Her husband, whose attempt to grow a beard only yielded a few long strings on his right cheek, gave us a ride to a scenic point to watch the sunset, where we spent a good deal of time trying to capture the dizzying array of Seussian terraces that ran up the mountains. As per usual, it’s another thing that has to be seen in person to absorb the majesty.

Our bus ride to Kunming introduced us to the dark side of Chinese sleeper buses. Yes, they have a full bed for you to stretch out on, which, when we arrived, was occupied by a random dude eating sunflower seeds and spitting the shells out of the window. After wiping the debris off and making ourselves comfortable, a few guys on the bus proceeded to ignore the signs and began a chain-smoking marathon that would last into the night (the bus driver would later join in). Then a little lady next to us dressed in colorful traditional garb started vomiting in a bag. It wasn’t until we unrolled our damp blankets to watch tiny cockroaches run for cover that we wished we could have taken sleeping drugs. Turned out that we needed all of our senses since we arrived at 3am and had to scale a few 8 ft. walls to escape the locked bus station.

Not much more of this left in us…

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Chivalry is dead

Jinghong isn’t a particularly interesting city. In fact, skipping it on your tour to China is an easy choice. Unless, of course, you happen to time your trip with the Bai New Year that happens in mid-April every year. When we touched down in Jinghong, the streets were full of the colorful, festive side of China’s minority populations. The city looked more like Myanmar or Thailand and the main promenade was packed with vendors’ stalls and ladies out to impress. Under the main bridge, people bathed in the river to cleanse themselves of evil spirits. Later that night we watched a firework show from the same bridge, accompanied by hundreds of glowing Chinese lanterns floating down the river.

On the third day the tranquility was broken. Bucket commandos hid behind buildings waiting for passersby to ambush, trucks filled with people and makeshift swimming pools patrolled the streets, little boys with water pistols aimed at eyes. And the fountains… Don’t even dream of getting close to those. The Jinghong Water Splashing Festival had started and we were sopping wet within minutes of leaving our hostel. Quickly realizing that we were outmatched, we purchased overpriced plastic dishpans to defend ourselves. They seemed to prefer Tia for the shrieks she’d let out when cold water hit her back. At one point, I held up my shield to a pair of men armed with Super Soakers (or Chinese equivalent) and they shook their heads and waved me by. Sensing a trap I kept my eyes on them and, sure enough, watched as they mercilessly drenched her. Hilarious.

The Banna Guesthouse also deserves an honorable mention. We’ve stayed at some strange places in our travels, but nothing’s gonna top this place. We didn’t have a lot of options (true to form, we waited until the last minute to book), but the Banna Guesthouse was listed on Hostelworld and had a 91% approval rating so we thought it was a safe bet.* As it turns out, the “private” room we booked also served as the only entry to the communal laundry area. The four other guests weren’t really the problem. No…the problem was that the whole apartment was constantly full of relatives and the owner’s friends and, in the few waking hours we spent there each day, it felt like someone needed something from that room every 10 minutes. Also, since it was a holiday and the owner was obviously a budding entrepreneur, he and his posse were constantly in the process of making massive quantities of food for sale: chopping onions on the floor of the common room, peeling carrots in the bathroom, etc. It was only when we had to fish the detachable shower head out of a greasy bucket that they used for washing dishes that we decided we weren’t going to write a nice review.