Saturday, April 11, 2009

Enjoying the signs here. Near rests the lodging, the foot cures the massage, Lei Lutei's residence is built 180 years from now, Mr. Qu gets married if every tourist is interesting in this, in order to be fit of requirement of the plenty tourist, tell you tong xing gong escort service mind glass...

It's warm and sunny, so I walked about town for eight hours straight, including halfway around the top of the city wall. Pingyao's old town is *big*. They have many little museums and sights - temples, residences, banks, and government offices, many dating back to the 16th century. They all follow the same pattern: an entrance building facing the street with a number of courtyards behind it. The first and final buildings are usually larger, and sometimes have two floors. Everything is built with gray brick and wooden pillars and flaring shingled roofs with dragon ornaments, and latticed windows with paper instead of glass. Bedrooms (even in banks and offices) have large heated brick beds, and there is always a little shrine somewhere. But after a while you get the idea, and the places sort of blur together.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The bus from Yuncheng to Pingyao dropped me off right on the six-lane freeway. The driver pointed at the nearest exit and off he went. Apparently this is common practice, some people with motorcycles are waiting a short walk later. One leads me through a barbed wire fence, and he takes me downtown, first across the fields and then through the modern part of the city.

I am staying in the Yamen Youth Hostel. I seem to have better luck with hostels than hotels, and this one is great - it's in a 400-year old governer's residence, in the original rooms furnished in the old style with a gigantic bed that fills a third of a large room. I bet the governer didn't have a bathroom though. It's in Pingyao's old town, where vehicles can't go.

Pingyao was rich during Ming times in the 16th century, but it's been poor for the better part of the century. Too poor to tear down all those beautiful low Ming-era buildings lining all its streets and replacing them with ugly concrete boxes with white bathroom tiles on the outside, and too poor to replace the imposing city wall that keeps the concrete outside with tour bus parking lots. Most of the old town is in good repair, and it really feels like an authentic Ming town and not dolled up for tourists. Of course it can't possibly be five hundred years old and still look so good, but they did an excellent job. There aren't even a lot of souvenir shops. Once again, I am paying for the absence of tour groups with gray skies.

I bought the city admission ticket and visited a 14th-century government complex (quite spartan rooms), a more elaborate Taoist temple complex for all sorts of gods including a kitchen god, and a Confucian temple complex. After that I felt kind of templed out and went to the hotel to write it all up.

PS. The hostel hat a "dumpling party" that night, and I learned how to make Wan Tan like dumplings. It's all in the way you hold your hands when folding the dumpling.
Yuncheng is a modern city but decidedly not shiny an unkempt. Many buildings downtown are totally hidden behind billboards. I stay in the LP-recommended hotel, but it's dank and not too clean, and very noisy at night. Yuncheng does have some lively side streets with markets, good street food here. It seems that no Westeners go to this city, people keep staring at me...

The reason to see Yuncheng is a very large Taoist temple dedicated to Guan Yu. Lots of Ming-era (16th century) pagodas and a long series of elaborate but decaying gate buildings, in a park with blooming trees and little ponds. The final gate consists of two cavernous floors, but there isn't much of a view. There are very few visitors, just a group of Chinese tourists who wanted their picture taken with me. They also have a shooting range with palm-sized paper targets and two huge naval guns with bores bigger than the targets.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The main attraction in Xi'an are the terracotta warriors. Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese emperor who unified the whole of China under his rule two thousand years ago, appears to have had tastes that ran into the extravagant, so he had a huge mausoleum built for himself (yet unexcavated), plus an army of 7000 terracotta warriors. Maybe a lot more, 7000 have been found so far. They were all highly detailed, with faces believed to match those of people they represented, and armed, although very little made of wood survived.

The place got sacked soon after he died, so many of the statues are headless and broken, but archaeologists have put most of them back together. Others were left like they were found, to document the damage; and a large number were buried to protect them. They were painted but the paint decays very quickly when exposed to air; all statues on display showed no colors. The warriors are in three "pits", roofed over; one small officer's headquarter and two large arrays of 1300 and 6000 soldiers. A walkway runs around the actual pits so one can't get really close to the army, but it's still a stunning site. They also have a museum and a 360 degree movie theater that runs an documentary. I have lots of great detail pictures but the one I chose for this post is of the big hall, because what's most stunning about this site is its monumental size.

I spent the rest of the day in Xi'an. Most of the city is modern and, as usual, uninteresting, but they have a Muslim quarter that has escaped modernization. Lots of atmosphere there, narrow streets, busy craftsmen working on the street, Chinese shops, and lots of carts that sell food. Had great Dim Sum at several carts. The Muslim quarter also has some tourist streets where the tour groups get funneled through to buy souvenirs. It always amazes me how tour groups concentrate on the proscribed route and never stray to the places that are actually interesting and (more or less) authentic, maybe just a few meters away. The contrast between the souvenir streets and the rest is extreme.
Lijiang wakes up at 9:00, and is very peaceful before that. Shops are shuttered, and people squat at the little canals and brush their teeth. Pink rose bushes are everywhere. Tried a "Naxi Pizza" for breakfast, but it was an inedible thick pancake soaked in grease. When I checked out, Mama Naxi gave me a little bag with bananas and joghurt, and hung a little charm around my neck. If you ever make it to Lijiang, you know where to find the only accomodation option that makes sense. Call 0888-5100700, Mama speaks English. 50 Yuan for a dorm bed, 150 Yuan for the best room with its own covered patio (mine).

The China Eastern Air plane departure time at 12:00 to Xi'an came and went. First it was "delayed", a Chinese word that means "in a few hours, maybe, or cancelled", then it had a very minor technical fault and an engineer would be flown in, then it was officially cancelled. They put us on another plane to Kunming where we'd transfer at 22:00. In the meantime they put us in a quite decent hotel to rest and for dinner; the staff was always quite helpful. Back at the airport, 22:00 passed, no plane, it's "delayed", a Chinese word that means "you are dead". Sometime after midnight they found a plane for us; we boarded and sat around the runway for a long time because there was a "delay", a Chinese word that means "gotcha". Some passengers actually got into a shouting match with airline personnel (unfairly I think). Chinese is very well suited for cursing. (The picture above is hard to see, red text in the last column reads "delayed", a Chinese word that means "go climb a tree".)

I arrived at the hotel in Xi'an at 4:30 in the morning, eleven hours late.

Ok, coming from Hong Kong it's easy to forget that China is not like a modern European country with bad taste in architecture. It's a country with twice the population of the EU, where oxen plough rice fields and large numbers of people subsist on less than two euro per day. Lijiang airport looks like a Tokyo subway station and Kunming airport is a large but cheaply built shack with a corrugated metal roof that is deafening in a rain shower. You can't go from zero to Lufthansa in a few years. Maybe the ox that pulls the airplanes back from the gate had a headache. (Just kidding about the ox. I hope.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Tiger Leaping Gorge is a very deep and long canyon two hours north of Lijiang. Most people there do a two- to four-day trek, but I made it a day trip to the most scenic spot. As I write this, I am sitting on the Daydreaming Rock down at the foaming Yangzi river at the bottom of the gorge. In the middle of the rapid is the Tiger Leaping Stone that gave the gorge its name; legend says that a tiger used it to cross the river. Why it would do that I don't know, there is a vertical rock wall on the other side; the highest mountains on the sides rise to 3900 meters with 80 degrees rock walls! That's more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Yet the sun reaches the bottom at 13:00.

It's a 340m climb down a rocky path from Tina's Guesthouse, a popular stop at this point. We got a few people together and hired a guide. The views are fantastic. The climb back up, using another route, was far steeper; an almost uninterrupted series of narrow steps, hugging the edge of an almost vertical rock wall. Ropes are strung on the wall side to hold on to. There is a very long ladder at one point where no path could be built, and another shorter one later, that lead straight up the cliff face. The ladders are made from steel rebar, welded and strung together with wires (so they shake a little) and have steps only every 50cm or so. Quite tiring. It's less dangerous than it sounds because it was dry.

It seems that the Chinese modernization rampage, here building another Yangzi dam that would flood the gorge, is temporarily on hold. Still, I am very glad that I had the chance to see it before it might get destroyed.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Had lots of rain at night, and a short shower in the morning too. There is a hill that cleanly divides the old and new town of Lijiang, with the very tall Looking At The Past Pavilion pagoda on top. The panorama from its top over both towns and the mountains in the background is fantastic. I took a panorama series of pictures with cloudy skys, and went back down to see the nice wooded park around it. Then the sun came out and I had to run up again and do it all over.

Walked around in Lijiang for a few hours. There are quite a few tourists here (it's a Sunday), but they are all in a few prominent streets, and just ten meters away I pretty much had the place to myself. It's easy to get lost in this maze, and there are beautiful views everywhere.

Went back to the guesthouse and had Mama Naxi book a flight to Xi'an for Tuesday. When the ticket arrived, my name was misspelled, and Mama Naxi sorted that out with furious bursts of Chinese. I also booked a bus to the Tiger Leaping Gorge for a day trip. It's normally a two or three day hike, but the weather report said thunderstorms and the trail on the edge of the cliff is steep and slippery in places.

Dinner was great again. It seems that whenever someone mentions an exotic and out-of-the-way place in Asia, half the people at the table has been there, and give recommendations on hotels, train schedules, and sights, and report funny stories. Mama Naxi's is an information nexus of Lijiang. The picture shows our dinner table.
So which is nicer, Dali or Lijiang? My vote goes to Lijiang. Dali has wider boulevards, beautiful gate pagodas, and the lake. Lijiang is a maze of narrow alleys lines with old and low buildings, many small canals with little bridges all over the place, often lined with ancient dark wooden houses with little plank bridges leading to their doors like in the picture. There are many tourists, but they lose themselves in the many side streets, and the souvenir shops aren't quite so obtrusive.

And Lijiang has Mama Naxi. Mama Naxi operates a guesthouse and restaurant with elan and irresistible good nature. She serves dinner communal style: a dozen delicious dishes on large tables that are shared by everyone. There are many experienced travellers here, some of whom have been on the road for a year, and we share stories and compare notes on all the places we have been. I am sure that between us we have covered the entire planet. A botanist describes how he travelled through Tibet illegally, hiding under blankets at checkpoints, or being hidden from the police by soldiers. We sit and talk until late at night.

There are inspirational signs all over Lijiang. One reads "Civilized behavior of tourists is another bright scenery rational shopping".