Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

China
Crouching Tiger, Crippled Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Crippled Dragon

Life is full of endless possibilities, one possibility that I have firmly ruled out is shaving my head and becoming a Monk. After nearly two weeks spent living in the woods, eating veg and sleeping with the mice, I can assure you that the monastic life style in not for me.

But you know what is for me? KUNG FU!

I know Kung Fu!

Vinnie and I joined the Wu Wei Si monastery ready to learn how to kick ass and take names. Instead we spent almost two weeks completely crippled by the early and endless workouts. It turns out that learning Kung Fu is difficult. And painful. And that we were sorely out of shape.

Each morning we woke before dawn, jolted out of bed by the sound of drumming, chanting and the ringing of a 1,000 pound gong. A gong that massive will reverberate for several minutes, repeatedly reminding your beat up body that it’s time to get out of bed. The next hour is spent in a battle between the forces of sleep and the power of Aaaa-mi-ii-to-o-o-o-fuuu chanting from Buddhist Monks. The Monks always win.

As the chanting came to an end, we hurriedly struggled to get dressed in the complete darkness, using all of our strength just to place one foot into the dirty pants that were worn the day before. Putting on socks has never been so difficult – knees refused to bend, leg muscles couldn’t support your weight, and lifting your arms above your head caused minutes of searing pain. It took all of our mental and physical strength to limp down the stairs and begin the day.

Our new home

My monastic bed

Seconds before the sun rose, we began our workout: a run to a nearby river bed where we grab a small boulder and haul it back to the monastery. On the way down, each step on the cobblestone road felt like an electric shock. You could feel your body asking: “Why are we doing this again! We haven’t recovered from yesterday! Stop running! Go back to bed!”

And on the slow walk back up, carrying that huge stone on your head, your body realized that once again it is in for some serious punishment. You began to feel your sore muscles loosen, your back straightened and suddenly you were ready for early morning Kung Fu.

Another Gorgeous Sunrise

Running to the river

Pick your stone!

Better than sit ups!

Early Morning Kung Fu

Kung Fu is basically the art of squating. Squat-punch, squat-lunge, squat-block, and the worst, the squat-jump. On the first day our 12-year old teacher, a budding ShaoLin Monk and professional Sadist, had us squat jump, squat jump and then jump into the air to touch our feet. By breakfast at 8AM on the first day, we could not sucessfully walk up the stairs.

It only got worse.

Each morning we would stretch. Our teachers seemed to take great joy in our relative inflexibility but even Mary Lou Retton herself would be considered inflexible next to these men.  It was totally normal to see a monk stretch his ankles around his neck – and smile. The Monks would jump in the air, spreading their legs in split kick that went above their shoulders. They could bend backwards to touch the ground with the top of their head.

We needed help from two other people just to stretch our legs…

Stretch those legs!

More Stretching!

After our early morning workout we grabbed breakfast and because we were living in a Monastery, certain rules applied.

  • No talking!
  • No eating before the Kung Fu Master eats.
  • You must eat everything in your bowl and anything that doesn’t make to your bowl (so don’t spill your food because you’ll have to eat it off the ground.)
  • To leave you must wait until the master has left, and then you must bow and say Amnituofo to each table.

At first we were amazed at how delicious the food was, it almost didn’t matter that there was no meat!  We soon found out that the cooks has perfected exactly five dishes, and they were served for every lunch and every dinner. The exact same meal. Everyday.

The same meal every day

After breakfast we were back at it, squat-punching our way across a large courtyard.  The Monks didn’t speak much English, and what they did know had obviously been taught to them by other foreigners.  Everyday we heard the same commands:

“Qui-kuh-ley! Move your S!” (Quickly, move your ass)

“Prak-tees! You! Prak-tees!

“Change arm! Switch leg!”

“Bad. Very Bad.”

It was hard to react seriously when a 12 year old Monk is telling you that your deep knee bend isn’t low enough. You can’t help but think, ‘I can’t possible squat lower than this’.  And then the Monk walks right up and smacks you, “BEND LEG!” he shouts, forcing your beleaguered body into a lower squat, “BEND LEG!”

We prak-teesed for six hours a day, everyday.

Now you- go lower! Bend Leg!

Block!

Move your S!

At first we could barely make it through one workout. Each new move brought a wave of pain to muscles that we didn’t know existed. But after a week or so, our squats got lower, and punches got stronger. I found out that, at age 32, I can still do a front handspring!  Vinnie discovered a heretofore unknown aptitude for one legged squat punches.

We may not be the ass kicking KungFu masters that you see in the movies, but we cameout of Wu Wei Si with some serious moves. We managed to survive the monastic lifestyle, and dare I say, enjoyed it?

Squat Punch!

Squat block!

My friends are jealous of my low squat

 

Smile and say KUNG FU!

 

 

 

Learning to Straddle the Tiger

Learning to Straddle the Tiger

We’re back in China and instead touring the country, we’re heading up a mountain to get a good ass kicking from some Shao Lin Buddhist Monks.

Not your typical tourists...

For the next few weeks we’re going to once again wake up at 4:00am to meditate 5:30 to carry small boulders, and submit our bodies to several grueling Kung Fu workouts each day

The next time you hear from us, perhaps we’ll be able to show your our Smashing Claw and Double Flying Legs…

Hi-ya!

China part deux: What were we thinking!

China part deux: What were we thinking!

Six months ago we bought multiple entry visa’s for China. Four months ago I left China, cursing the craziness and swearing that I would never be back. This week we walked across the bridge from Vietnam back into China.

Leaving Vietnam in proper fashion - on the back of a scooter!

What a shock!

Six months ago we were comparing China to the places we’ve visited: to Europe, South Africa and Latin America. Today we’re comparing China to other countries in Asia. And with that small shift in expectations, our perspective on China has radically changed.

There are three lane highways and skyscrapers! The traffic that I once ranted about seems orderly and controlled, rather than chaotic. The restaurants and shopping centres are indoors, rather than strewn on the sidewalk. China suddenly appears clean, functional and tremendously modern.

Walking across the bridge to China

And the screaming, the smoking and the spitting that once drove me insane? Somehow in the last few months all of those things have become understandable. Suddenly the tonal Chinese language doesn’t sound like someone cursing at you to “eat shit and die, motherfucker.” Now the same sentence sounds more like, “Ahh, hi there! Welcome back, have you eaten yet?”

My favorite thing about China - DUMPLINGS!

We’ve come to understand that in China some people believe that spitting rids your body of it’s impurities. It’s still utterly foul to watch an old woman clear her throat, whip out a plastic bag and into it hawk a huge, flemmy loggie. But now at least we can accept why it happens and move on. (In typical Chinese fashion the government has gotten involved, punishing people for anti-social behavior like spitting, throwing trash out the window and drying laundry on fences.)

And the smoking? It’s totally normal. Asia is like New York City in 1956 before people started dying of emphysema and suing the tobacco companies.

Vinnie and our Chinese Taxi

It’s exciting to be back and to realize that China hasn’t changed at all – but we have. The past six months have given us a new understand of the world and our place in it. Surprisingly we’re pretty sure that Asia is going to play a key role in our life moving forward. We love the people, we love the food, and we even love the loud, smoggy, dense urban landscape.

In fact, the only thing that remains utterly crap about China is the internet. All US websites are throttled, the wireless connection never works and you’re forced to use internet cafes – all of which run IE6.

There is a special place in internet hell reserved for the Chinese government and the developers of IE6.

Attack of the Commie Zombies

Attack of the Commie Zombies

A Mausoleum is not the same thing as a Museum, a fact that Vinnie didn’t know when he ventured into Mao’s final resting place last November.

A Commie-style tomb

Those commies keep Mao on lock down.  You can’t get into the Mausoleum if you have a phone, a camera or any method of recording what you see inside those four walls. Vinnie and I were running late for our visit with the Chairman, arriving just 30 minutes before he was due for his 12:00 nap.

After standing in line and being frisked by the police, we found out that only one of us could enter the Mausoleum, the other had to wait outside with all of our electronic devices (of which there were three).

That’s how I ended up waiting outside the exit, watching a maniacal Vinnie run past hundreds of Chinese patriots. From yards away he began shouting:

V: “Do you KNOW what’s IN THERE!”

K: “Mao?”

V: “YES!  There is a dead body in there!!”

K: “How’d he look?”

V: “I didn’t know that I was going to see a DEAD BODY! I thought you were saying MUSEUM. I walked in and thought, man, this feels like a funeral home and all at a sudden there was a dead body! Mao’s dead body is inside there!”

K: “MAUSOLEUM. Dead bodies. So! How’s he look?”

V: “Ummm…. He’s wearing a lot of make-up.”

And he is. But you know who’s not? Ho Chi Minh.

The Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum is decidedly less grand than the Chairman’s. It’s hard to compete with the Chinese when it comes to massive showings of Communist strength. Tiananmen Square is the king daddy in display of state power.  A sea of pavement stretches from the Forbidden City to the Zhengyangmen, the front gate of Beijing’s ancient city, and right in the center of it all sits Mao’s cavernous final resting place. Your every move is observed by the watchful eyes of Chairman Mao whose oversized painting looks over the plaza (along with the thousands of strategically placed video cameras).

This way, Comrade!

Outside the gate of the Mao mausoleum a line of Chinese tourists sporting matching neon orange baseball caps wait impatiently, occasionally running, pushing and jumping the queue when space opens between people.  It’s highly controled chaos.

But the Vietnamese also know how to paint a grand post-mordem scene. The squat marble Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum overlooks the large square where the Vietnamese declared their independence. The grass and the nearby colonial-style Presidential palace gives the entire complex a genteel and inviting, rather than imposing, presence.

Vin and Uncle Ho

Uncle Ho’s mausoleum is smaller, more intimate.  The entire complex is approachable. The line is short. The guards quickly dispatch your camera without much hassle or confusion. Inside the Mausoleum there is no towering marble statue greeting you at the front door. The air is chilly. You walk up a short flight of stairs and suddenly a very pale, very dead Ho Chi Minh is lying just feet away.

Mao and Ho were embalmed by the same Soviet embalmers who first worked on Lenin. Along the way they learned some tips from Cher’s makeup team.

Everything in the Mao mausoleum is imposing, except Mao himself. Inside his crystal coffin, a halo of light beams down on Mao’s waxy, overy-rouged face. His hair is perfectly oiled in place, his fleshy pink cheeks are still plump and his body is shrouded under a wrinkle free blanket.  It’s entirely possible that Mao is just a head. A brightly lit floating head.

Mao and his security detail (a postcard)

Ho’s Mausoleum may be less grand but he certainly looks more dead.  The dim light does nothing to put Ho on display. Everything about the man is white – his face is devoid of any coloring, his white hair clings to his head and his colorless goatee flows down the front of his white outfit. Ho’s decrepit hands rest on top of his stomach and they’re clearly attached to decaying white arms.

Obviously, the Soviet’s hadn’t yet mastered Rouge 101 in 1969.

Someone took a sneaky shot! (Stolen from the interweb)

Mao and Ho are quietly resting inside elevated crystal tombs, their head’s positioned as if they’re staring down on the passing visitors. As you walk past the Chairman, you’re only able to peer in from one side before you’re hurried out the door. Mao gazes down at the four guards that are standing watch over his dead body, but Ho!

Ho lies there inviting his guests to view his body from every angle. As you circle around  the base of his coffin his elevated head lies facing you straight on, like he could wake up at any minute and declare, “American! Get out! The imperialist aggressors can never enslave the heroic Vietnamese people!”

And it’s creepy.

Kris and a lifesized Uncle Ho

The Chairman wins the prize for the most fake looking Commie – Madame Tussauds could do a better job! As for Uncle Ho, he simply looks dead.  Which is how a man whose last breath was more than 40 years ago should look (though you know that takes a lot of cash to keep them looking fresh-ish).

Now that we’ve visited Mao and Ho, we ‘re on a mission to meet the remaining two Commie Zombies.  It’s now a life goal to visit the the Eternal President of North Korean, Kim Il Sung and the founder of the USSR, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

We’re taking bets to see if Fidel will follow his fellow commies to a final resting place filled with glycerol and potassium acetate.

Our next dead Commie, Lenin!

 

 

 

 

Don’t say goodbye, say see you again.

As we got on the plane we geared up for our final transportation battle, here’s what we expected:

There would be a olympic-grade race for the gate culminating in a series of shoves, pushes and elbows to be the first to enter the plane. Once embarking the plane, there would be someone sitting in our seats, covertly attempting to smoke their cigarette, or spit seeds on the floor. The woman behind us will receive a call on her cell and shrilly scream “WEI!” as if the person on the other end were deaf. And there would be bags upon bags of red and white striped rice bags being used as luggage.

The scene we expected

Surprisingly, this didn’t happen, or just maybe we learned how to deal with the crazy.

There was a rush for the gate with full out sprinting and elbows to the head to ensure first place. But we managed to avoid it. The cell phone conversation was had by a man, and not a women (that doesn’t mean there was no screaming). And wonder upon all wonders, there were no rice bags used as luggage- they were replaced by cardboard boxes.

Entering the plane we could only laugh at what we know now, at the predictable series of events that we brace ourselves for on a daily basis. From the daily game of charades, the incomprehensible shrill staccato conversations, the squatters, the cigarettes, the smog, the double twin beds, the fellow travelers, the crap internet, the noodles, and the occasional odd piece of meat.  Through it all we’ve learned a little about ourselves and the country that is reportedly poised to take over the world.

Village life in China

I learned that modernity is not always beautiful thing and it shouldn’t come at the expense of history. In China there is a palpable feeling that this is a country on the move – but the move from where and to where is not entirely clear. Every city seemed to want to copy the success of Shanghai and without giving much thought to the external factors that make a modern city successful, they tear down the old and paste in the skyscrapers, business men and stores. As tourists, it became increasingly difficult to find the historically unique aspects to each city as they were being eaten up with the same expensive box chains and luxury stores of the future.

I don’t say this to romanticize the poverty of subsistence farming, or undervalue the massive success of what has been thirty years of economic reform. I’m simply surprised at how modern China has paved over millennia of history.

Smog city, anywhere China

Life in China is cheap, but goods and services aren’t. Everyone of those new name-brand stores are over-employed with bored looking, highly styled men and women who have nothing to do because the high price of the goods keeps the customers away. It’s not just the stores that are full of employees, everywhere you look there are tiny hole in the wall stores manned by little old ladies with raisin faces who are selling poorly made The North Face knockoffs or camouflage army surplus gear. Next door there is a shriveled old man selling the same thing, and so on down the street. One street after another full of stores – the big ones selling crap that people can’t buy and the small ones all selling the things that people can actually afford.

In the United States, people love the expression, “work hard, play hard” but in China the expression should be “work hard, work harder.” Leisure activities are for the financially successful and the huge majority of the country just isn’t there yet. Instead, people work all day – everyday. Temporary houses are set up near constructions sites where hundreds of hard hat-less men pound out projects in days rather than months. Homes are torn down and new buildings appear in weeks. The sidewalks are being built as you walk on top of them.

Temporary dorms next to construction site

China is full of hard working, cheap labor and it’s impossible not to see this as a tourist. On every train sit thousands of migrant workers heading back home carrying rice bags of clothes and mop buckets full of Baiju. In the cities wide-eyed people in cheap, ill-fitting clothes take instructions from subway workers on how to buy a ticket, and how to ride the metro – for thousands of people (perhaps millions) the World Expo was their first time outside of their small village.

It’s amazing to see how quickly China is being built and to see the huge adjustment from farm workers to city dwellers. I’m thrilled to have been witness to the insanity and breakneck speed that life is moving in China, but man, I’m tired.

China has been the great equalizer: all foreigners are foreign no matter if your French, American, Chilean or South African. We met friends from around the world and we all had one thing in common – culture shock. Never have I seen Vinnie lose his shit the way he did on the bus to Litang. He actually yelled at Monks! Never have I felt more frustrated when trying to understand just why the peanuts that I was pointing to were “mei yo” or “don’t have.” (How can you not have them, you’re holding them in your freaking HAND!)

All people traveling to China have to learn that things won’t happen the way you have come to expect. Don’t try to sell the idea of baby diapers when going in the street is just as easy, and cheaper!  Don’t attempt to explain that driving at night with the lights ON is a safe idea, when driving with the lights off saves electricity. Why should you expect to buy a train ticket online, when everyone knows you have to go to the train station three days in advance to book your trip.  It’s just the way it’s done. China has created it’s own rules and you’re expected to figure them out, whether they make sense or not.

China, no diapers

Diapers? No need!

By the end of these two months, we were just beginning to figure out those rules. Part of me feels like we should stay longer, join in on the frantic pace of modernization and take advantage of all the obvious opportunity that China has to offer. The other part of me is simply spent. It takes a lot of energy to keep up with China and I’m ready for a vacation!

One thing that I’m sure of is that I will be back to China and by the time I do,  I’m sure it will be a completely different country.

Vinnie’s look back on China – Part II of II [Politics]

communism.jpg

Communism

Some of my thoughts before arriving at China was that of a communist state.  There is just one political party, the Communist Party of China (CPC/CCP).  I knew there was a mix of capitalism thrown in, but I didn’t know what that would feel like.  Walking down the streets of Shanghai, we visited the building where the CCP first convened with Mao heading the round table – if the “veil” of communism wasn’t appearent to us before visiting, then the Jaguar dealership 2 blocks away, the yuppie high-rises across the street, and the Chinese people sporting Nike ‘Just Do It’ t-shirts in the building that birthed the CCP definitely showed us just how transparent the veil is.

The political atmosphere in China feels more like it’s a large corporation – China, Inc. Everyone is behind the brand – speaking out about it might get you fired, and you’re pretty content as long as you’re A) getting promoted and B) your salary increases each year.  Maybe that’s the sweetest thing for a large multinational corporation –  instead of multiple international conglomerates, they’re alll owned and controlled by one entity, who also sets the laws.  But I now have a clearer understanding of why the Party really wants to starve off inflation (forgot decreasing exports) – if prices rise to fast and the majority of the population is left struggling to afford the basics, you’ll get angry mobs (which sounds familiar back home).

However, I absolutely adore the old Communist Propaganda, from our tin mug with a worker’s message, to my Mao bag, to my CCP hat.  Beijing had lots of this, from public statues and museums, to hip little resturants sporting 1960’s posters and military dishware.   Before my visit, I was pretty ignorant on the past 50 years of Chinese politics.  But my curioustty took over and I was fascinated with reading up on the history of China and it’s neighbors.  I’m really glad I did and I *highly* recommend reading Wild Swans.

After reading the horror stories of how communism came into power in China, with the red guards, the cultural revolution, and a number of other atrocities.  Along with my vague awareness of communist systems in other parts of the world (former USSR, North Korea), I’m led to belive that communism only leads to corruption and brings out the worst in people.  I’ll be adding Karl Marx to my Kindle readings.

The irony is that communism continues to be pushed forward in China. We met young card carriers and non-card carriers.  But most people pointed out to us, that if you want a good career, i.e. a government job with great secondary benefits, power, and respect, then you’ll need to be a card carrying member, attend the meetings, and repeat the mantras.  And so the party continues to propel itself forward.

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Capitalism in the CCP

Capitalism is alive and *booming* in China.  There is a free spirt for anybody to setup shop on the corner and hock some goods or delicious street food.  If anything, it would seem easier to setup your on stall in China then the U.S. because most U.S. cities are burdened with permits, food inspections, etc.  However, the one thing that stuck out to me in China, is that when you walk down a street of stalls, everybody copies each other, there was very little differentiation.  Why would I choose one vendor over another?  The goods are exactly the same, the price is the same, so where’s the differenation?  In nyc walking down the street, you might seen t-shirt vendors, hat vendors, sunglass vendors, etc.  But they don’t oversaturate each other and all sell exactly the same things.

There are lots of high end fashion stores in China, catering to the small percentage of upper middle class and foreigners.  However, many of the shops sit empty most of the day.  I think the costs for running the store and paying rent is met on the slim revenues.  I didn’t see the capitalist  ‘consumer’ demand we’re so used to in the US (however, Walmart in China is just as packed if not more, than Walmart in the U.S.)

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Censorship

One thing I really did not enjoyed in China was the internet censorship.  It’s ridiculous, backwards, and ineffective.  China blocks any service that allows one person to communicate with many people (which the government cannot directly control).  And while they allow a number of Chinese run forums, blogs, and twitter-like services to be run inside of the country, the government has direct control to censor and remove specific data or profiles (something that western websites will not allow).  It’s why they block foreign services such as facebook, twitter, blogger, wordpress, tumblr, youtube, meetup, etc. yet allow Chinese versions of these companies to be used.

The wikileak’s U.S. cables release wasn’t even’t mentioned on the news in China.  A search on China Daily just returns information about Julian Assanage.  I think the concept of wikileaks really scares the Chinese  government.  And to make matters worse, they blatently lie publically about their censorship, such as Liu Zhengrong, the Deputy Chief of Internet Affairs quoted as saying: China is no different from Western nations such as the United States and Britain in the methods it uses to regulate the Internet” – really, then why has the viral quote “My father is Li Gang!” mouthed by his intoxicated son after killing a girl with his VW sedan been censored from Chinese forums?

Or tell the Deputy Chief’s statement of: “You can compare China with Western countries. Chinese people have easy rein to express their opinions” to Zhao Lianhai, the father of an infant who died from contaminated milk who tried to raise awareness via online communities and has been recently jailed for “inciting social disorder”.

Another great example of this insane paranoia on speech – Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient.  Liu’s an author and a political activist, he co-wrote Charter 8 for free elections, freedom of expression, and a democracy inside of China.  Where is he now?  In jail.  What does the CCP’s Foreign Ministry think of the Nobel Prize committee? “The erroneous decision not only has met with firm opposition by the entire Chinese nation, but is dismissed by the vast majority of countries upholding justice in the world.”  And so they’ve decided to start their own, “Confusius Peace Prize” it sounds like a joke but it’s not.  They even went so far as to strong arm other countries to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony this year.  To me, that level of paranoia and belief that you can control worldwide information is borderline insane, it’s not sustainable and it will have a breaking point.

After reading Wild Swans and seeing the smirking portrait of Mao looming over Tianmen Square, my impression of Chinese politics really soured.  It is my belief that in 20 years, his portrait will be taken down from Tianamen Square.  With so many students of the younger generation studying oversees, I can only imagine that when they return to China, they will want to shed the politics of control and censorship and turn a new leaf.  Currently there is apathy, we found that most people we talked to didn’t buy into the CCP or the need for censorship, but the idea of it just led to a shrug of the shoulders.  So my big curiosity – what’s going to lead to that change?


Read Part I of my look back at China.

Vinnie’s look back on China – Part I of II [Culture]

China is an adventure!  For me, China has been a story filled with amazing images, new ideas, fascinating history, interesting people, and a number of frustrations that are part of any exciting adventure.

We’ve spent slightly less than 2 months exploring China, traveling through a dozen cities and a handful of provinces.  China is a big country – although the same size as the US, there is a distinct flavor to each province, from culture, to people, to food and unique traditions – making it feel huge.

When we first arrived, it was a real slap in the face of east vs. west, modern vs. not so modern.  For a country that is jumping by leaps and bounds to the front of the world stage, this came as quite a surprise to me. In hindsight, I don’t know if Shanghai was the best starting point, nor very representative of greater China.  However, from talking to fellow western travelers, it almost seems as if the city you visit first in china is your least liked city – as nothing fits within your expectations.

The ‘Middle Kingdom’ (as it is better known) really places you in the middle of different social behaviors.  You’ll encounter rude people and you’ll encounter the warmest hosts.  You’ll get frustrated at the elderly old man with a cane cutting dozens of people in line while laughing… just to be dumbfounded with humbleness when a young stranger comes up to you speaking english and offers to help you buy your train ticket (as they can see you struggling).

And then you’ll visit the outskirts of small villages, with locals washing their clothes on the sidewalk who also know how to work an iphone and want to see pictures of your trip around China.

China can be a Delorian trip a few hundred years into the past, while other areas can feel as if 300 years have been fast forwarded in less than a decade.  So not only is there an east vs. west culture clash, but there’s also a 18th century rural vs. modern/urban cultural clash.  This really plays out in the cities, with a mix of young urbanites and migrant workers who come in to the cities to build and support the infrastructure.  As China-Mike points out, there is a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde of Chinese etiquette, the past century in China has gone through a lot: from political clashes, to wars, to the Cultural Revolution, so one minute you’re getting elbowed out of a ticket line, and the next you’re being treated to a full dinner by a gracious Chinese host.

I find it difficult to lump a story of the whole kingdom into one post.  It’s impossible to compare the hip cultural urban lifestyle of Beijing with the beautiful scenic mountains and lush gorges of the southwest.  So I’ll just highlight a few of my favorite experiences.

Beijing

Beijing is awesome, it’s China, it’s international, it’s young, it’s hip, and it kinda reminded me of NYC.  We got a chance to catch some live music shows, feast on Peking duck, tour the iconic Tiananmen Square, and visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World – The Great Wall.  It’s the one city in China that I really felt like I could live there.

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Pictured above: Hua Acid Jazz Live.  Read more of Beijing Highlights.

Hua Shan

Hike 2km straight up, and stay overnight at the top of the mountain.  The hike is intense, the cliffs are strenuous, and the hobbit caves in the side of the mountain make you think you’re in ‘The Prince Bride’ movie.

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Read more on hiking Hua Shan.

Chengdu

A great city with a great mix of culture and smack in the middle of some of the spiciest food on earth in Sichuan province.  The city seemed to encompass a lot of China’s different aspects into one place.  From a nearby ‘old village’, to a modern city with bustling construction, to food markets with livestock running around, to a incredibly large statue of Mao – Chengdu has it all mixed into one.  The free tours at Lazybones/Mix Hostel helped us experience more then we would have on our own.

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Read more on getting Chengiggy with it.

The Chinese Railways

Train rides in China can be 300km maglevs that zip you to your destination in minutes, to overcrowded K series trains – with the air filled with cigarette smoke and the floor covered with sunflower seeds.  Both are unique experiences and both provide amazing views of the country.  By far my preferred method of travel around China, the only draw back is typically you have to buy tickets 1-2 days in advance, in person! (hello, internet?)

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View more photos of the country side out our train windows.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

A 3 day hike through a beautiful gorge, green farms on one side, snow capped mountain peaks on the other.  With over 2km of vertically hiking to the roaring river floor, it’s strenuous and gorgeous.  I strongly recommend spending at least one night at Sean’s Guest House for the full experience.

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Read our posts on hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Litang

Literally at the top of the world, over 4km above sea level, there is no higher city in the world.  The multi-day bus trip is beautiful and nothing like I’ve ever seen before – I was glued to my bus window.  The town will take you back to the wild west with cowboys strutting down the sidewalk and cattle crossing the street.  The winter wasn’t the optimal time to visit, but I’ll never forgot the feeling of zipping around icy one lane cliffs in our bus.

Litang.jpg

Read about our trip on the Sichuan Tibet Highway to Litang.

Other memories I’ll take away:

  • On two occasions, we saw police offers grab somebody by the lower ear lobe and drag them around because they caused some trouble or harassment.  That’ll put you in your place!
  • I now know why no transit employees enforce the no smoking signs posted on trains & buses – there is only one tobacco company for all of china (which is sold under dozens of brands) and it is owned by the government. Think about how much money that is! Chinia is 30% of al the worlds smokers! Phillip Morris can only dream of that much money.
  • 95% of Chinese people have never heard of a queue!

My next post will cover my personal perspective of Chinese Politics.

p.s. I’d also liked to give a big ‘Thank You’ to Bonnie Wang who helped us so much with planning our travels around China and for introducing us to friends and family around the country.

Hello Dali!

We were warned. We were told that we would never want to leave, we heard tales about people lost in time, spending endless days in the sun and drunken nights at the Bad Monkey. But we chose to ignore those warnings and proceeded to Dali, and now we know why people love Yunnan. It is the Capital of Chill in China (which is saying a lot because China is NOT Chill).

Dali is sandwiched between a tall mountain and a huge lake.  The sky is always blue and even in the beginning of winter, there is no need for a jacket. I don’t actually know what we did in Dali, a lot of nothing for sure. We wandered the cobble streets, ducked into delicious dumpling stores and grabbed fresh pizza made by the local Bai people.  We learned new drinking games and drank copious amounts of plum wine. We biked around neighboring villages and  hiked the mountain trail.

Everything in Dali seemed to move a little slower, the food tasted a little better, and the beer – well, there is always plenty of beer to drink in Dali (particularly with our new friends like ours – the Italian, the Englishman, the Irish guy and the Aussie.)

I don’t have a lot to say, other than I loved this city.  We cut the rest of our trip short, just to stay a little longer. Maybe you can see why when you look at the pictures:

Vinnie and the Naxi’s

And from Tiger Leaping Gorge we began our descent south, spending our last week in China doing what we hadn’t done in two months – relaxing. This doesn’t mean that we were out of the mountains or that we had heat (Lijang is 2,400 above sea level), but all of this was forgotten when we met some excellent friends and enjoyed what Yunnan has to offer.

Litang is a gorgeous, ancient town overrun with Chinese tourists. What a shit show. Naxi women, who are known for their strength and matriarchal family structure, dress up in disneyland ‘ethnic minority’ costumes and show off their traditional skills of weaving and waving tourists.  Men on horses and fur hats paraded around town selling horse rides and photo ops.  Seeing how tourism impacts China’s minorities is always depressing, but Lijang is the worst.

Very authentic pony rides

The real example of the Naxi people (Na-she) was the owner of our hostel, Mama Naxi. The woman never took off her apron, never put down her mop – she even washed her hair in the outdoor sink in between chores. And in traditional Naxi style, her husband sat on his ass and played solitaire all day. As we were leaving Mama presented us with necklaces and gave hugs and kisses.  After kissing Vinnie she grabbed his beard, “Ma-arsh!” she exclaimed.

We had no idea what the woman was saying.

“Ma-arsh, Ma-arsh!” she continued to shout while stroking Vinnie’s beard. She pointed to the wall and with giant sweeping arm movements made a square, “Ma-arsh!”

In garbled Chinese-English she explained that years ago there were four important men in China: Leee-neen, Ma-arsh, Sta-leen and Mao. In every village there were huge paintings of these four men and now it appears that Vinnie and his beard closely resemble german philospher and communist revolutionary, Karl Heinrich Marx.

Vinnie and Karl Marx

Lijang is worth the trip if only to stay at Moma’s and enjoy her unique brand of Naxi love.

Moma Naxi guesthouse

Moma Naxi and Karl Marx

The Tiger has Leapt the Gorge

After such an extreme introduction to the gorge, I was happy to find that our accommodations for the evening was well stocked with cold beer.  Though when drinking a lot of beer, you often have to go to the bathroom.  This was the view from the toilet – while it wasn’t exactly outside, I’m fairly certain that a nearby farmer could hear me pee:

View from the squatter

The next day we picked up a few friends and started down Tiger Leaping Gorge.  This is the day when we met one of the most interesting men in the whole world and picnicked on the rock from which the Tiger leapt.

The hike down the gorge was less strenuous and a lot more dangerous thanks in part to creaky old wooden ladders and waterfalls that had wiped out the trail. Thank God we broke into that mountainside temple and said a few prayers for safe travel.

Prayer flags on the trail

To get to the gorge you have to pay off local families who have blocked the passage to the trail.  Every 30 meters there was another sign explaining that the government had abandoned the gorge and that the lovely local families had graciously begun to maintain the trail. By ‘maintain the trail’ what they really mean is nail together wood beams and call it a toll bridge.  The Chinese don’t seem to be overly concerned with small things like safety regulations or general admittance to public parks.

Very well maintained trail at TLG

Fellow tourists, you must pay!

There is no official map of the gorge.  Instead guesthouses give you a map with their location in REALLY LARGE letters in the hopes that you chose stay there.  After hiking 2,000 meters down to the base of the gorge there was no way I could handle the trek back up, and our map only showed one way out. Straight Up. Back the way we came. Nooooooo!

And not only were we presented with the conundrum of how the hell to get back up the gorge, we weren’t even allowed to step on the Tiger Leaping Rock. One of the families in the gorge patrolled the area and after seeing that we weren’t going to pay, they locked us out!

The rock was locked! Tiger leaping gorge

The rock was locked!

Don't look down! Tiger Leaping Gorge

Don't make me climb back up this ladder

There is a happy ending, and it’s at Sean’s Guesthouse and it includes happy tea. After locking us out from the rock, the scrappy village woman hoofed it back up the gorge on a hidden trail running parallel to the water.   Vinnie’s keen eye took note and when it was time to leave, he promised that the local trail would be the fastest way back up. It was getting dark, and cold, and I was pretty sure that the local trail would kill us.  But we needed fast action and I did NOT want to climb back up the sky ladder, so we took Vinnie’s advice and began the climb.

And this is when we learn that not all trails are listed on the map, and the easiest path out of the gorge is the slow but steady climb up and across. (But even on that obscure trail there was a local waiting to charge us 10 quai. Bastards.)

Map Tiger Leaping Gorge

Our helpful map of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Heading out of the gorge.

Sean's guesthouse, tiger leaping gorge

We made it to Sean's!

Sean is a strange, interesting Tibetan gentleman and the reason why Tiger leaping Gorge is an amazing hike.  He set up the first guesthouse, he marked the trail, he brought the tourists.  And he greeted us with this:

My wife dead! Last year she die. She dead in Tibet. I go to Tibet, I carry pis-tal. I need protection. The police arrest me!!! Send me to jail!! Fuck the police.  You in Gorge, you need help, you call Sean. Police do nothing. Sean protect you.

And I believed him. In fact Sean might be the most enlightened Chinese man that I met this entire trip.  He seemed to understand the system that he lives in and knew that there were better ways of doing business.  I would hike the trail all over again just to hang out with him and listen to his rants about the Chinese governement – they provided more in depth coverage that what I read in the New York Times.

At Seans we rested, enjoyed his happy meals and his homemade whiskey. His guesthouse was the first place I stayed that had heat AND hot water AND satelight TV.  Smart, smart man, that Sean.

We were a happy, if a little sore, band of urban hikers.

Clean and well rested after staying at Sean's

Baby's got the (28) Bends

Baby’s got the (28) Bends


Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

You know the feeling when you’re 3,500 meters above sea level and you’re stuck on the side of a mountain: your head’s down, mouth open gasping for breath, your heart is pounding, ears are burning red and you can’t manage to suck in enough oxygen to survive?  That, my friends, is the bends. The 28 bends of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is the preeminent hike in Yunnan, maybe all of China. It’s known for the stunning views of snow-capped grey mountains and narrow walking paths where you can peer all the way down to the rushing water that’s continually carving away at the rock.  It’s also known for old ladies selling ganga on the side of a cliff.  In other words, not to be missed.

Gorgeous views at Tiger Leaping Gorge

Gorgeous views at Tiger Leaping Gorge

There’s not actually a bus from Shangri La to Tiger Leaping Gorge, you just communicate with the bus driver that you want to go to the gorge and he drops you off in the middle of a road. If you’re smart you have the hotel write down the destination in Chinese, but we’re not smart and as the bus drove away we had the sinking suspicion that we were in the wrong place. Then we saw the big sign telling us the park was closed – no entry permitted! Now don’t get discouraged, we were warned about this sign; it’s always posted in the winter.  You’re meant to ignore the official notice and walk on – the gorge is never really closed. Silly Chinese government!

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Welcome to the Gorge

For the first few hours the path meandered around hill-side villages, between houses and fences and into people’s front yards. There were offers for horse rides to the top, and lovely signs welcoming hikers to their neighborhood. We grabbed a bite at a local guesthouse and soaked in our surroundings. Then with our belly’s full we embarked on the second half of the trek – the reportedly steep, taxing, breath-stealing 28 bends.

This bit is steep. Keep going.

Urban Hikers Pre-28 bends

As we hiked the bends, we become progressively cocky about the supposed difficultly of the hike. After Hua Shan we were fairly confident that we could handle any climb China had to offer, particularly a hike with restaurants and roadside marijuana. At 12 bends we were laughing at the stories of tears and meltdowns.  At 15 bends we were passed by a women in high heels who pointed up and said, “Mary-wanna? Ganga?” The guesthouse she was pointing to didn’t appear so far away, we continued on, laughing a bit at the humiliation. About 17 bends into the hike I couldn’t breathe. We were both gasping for breath, lurching up the hill towards the next water stop.

Upon reaching the ganga pitstop we saw a big sign that said, “Get your energy for the 28 bends!”

We hadn’t even begun.

Pit stop on Tiger Leaping Gorge

Pit stop on Tiger Leaping Gorge

Most of what I saw during the climb to the top of the mountain was seen upsidedown with my head below my knees, heaving. I think this part of the hike is called the bends not due to the twisting, turning trail but because you feel as if nitrogen bubbles have formed in your lungs and you’re about to die.

My view of the gorge whilst hiking the bends

And this was just the first day of a three day hike. I haven’t even mentioned the goat herding, the search for trail markers, or trail-obscuring waterfalls.

Goats on the trail

Crossing a very safe bridge

We made it to the HALFWAY HOUSE!

Read Part II of our hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

“Here’s my hope that we all find our Shangri-La”

At this point it would be dangerous for us to return back to the US and attempt to rent an apartment.  To put our living conditions into perspective, in Shangri La we thought that we discovered paradise – a toilet that flushes and a sometimes lukewarm shower that gently spits out running water. Can we stay forever?

About Shangri La, do you know that it’s located in China?  Because I thought it was in India. I also thought it would be warm and tropical with lush trees and fresh fruit.

It’s not. At least not in November.

Prayer flags and blue skies in Shangri la

We pulled into Shangri La and thought that the bus was stopping for a bathroom break. The dusty, double lane roads and modern cement buildings don’t strike you as particularly tranquil. Then we were attacked by the roving bands of taxi drivers and realized that stop was the end of the line.  Utopia my ass.

Shangri La is a concept, not a location.  The best seller and blockbuster hit ‘Lost Horizon‘ took place in the fictional city of Shangri La, and consequently numerous towns in Yunnan, China have co-opted the name. There is actually a raging debate over what city is the true Shangri La.

Stupa-dupa-dopitty-do

We pushed our way through the Taxi bandits yelling back “Mei yo, mei yo” and tried look properly offended so they would lose face and back off.  What the hell were we doing in this nowhere town with square cement buildings and little-to-no atmosphere?  What happened to our gorgeous Tibetan cowboys and wandering Yak?  At least it was warmer, the temperature hovered around a sultry 50F.

We soon discovered that Shangri La is separated into the tourist section, Old Town, and the real-life section, Regular Town.  The bus station was in Regular Town, a place made of quickly constructed commercial buildings, trucks puffing out black smoke and ordinary people going about their everyday business.

The Old Town section is small maze of cobblestone pedestrian streets, women in traditional costume and ancient wooden buildings decorated with prayer flags.  It’s relaxed, welcoming and somehow, western.

Drumming up business

After the death ride from Litang perhaps we needed a little western love, or at least some scrambled eggs and coffee. But after a two days, life in old town begun to ring false:  the women in traditional dress were there to entertain tourists, the reconstructed ‘old’ buildings housed shop after shop of chincy nicknack, there were even Thanksgiving menu at local restaurants!

Thanksgiving Menu

I suppose that we don’t appreciate the easy life because this offended our sense of adventure – we have our Chinese Bus Survival Badge for God’s Sake! – so we bucked the trend.  Our Thanksgiving meal was Barley and Yak, and Tibetan bread with Yak butter. Our German-Belgian traveling buddy happily shared her potatoes (which she ordered at every meal and therefore we ate for three straight days. Hannah, you cracked me up.)

Tastes like Beef

With our stomach’s rolling with beefish-venisony Yak meat, the next day we set out to find what makes Shangri La so famous – the monastery.  God knows we haven’t seen enough of those!

Somehow we didn’t find it. But we did find the real world of Shangri La and it was much, much better than any revived ancient tourist town.  China has a unique ability to mask reality with a thick guise of modernity, allowing tourists to see what they want to see (restaurants with egg and cheese sandwiches, expensive clothing stores and souvenirs).  Leave the city and you that’s where you find real life.

We noticed that Tibetan women manage the bulk of all work: they farm, milk the yak, collect the dung, build the houses, cook the food, raise the children. Enterprising ladies block the road, and make a quick buck by charging 5 yuan to each passing truck. The women don’t just manage the entire house, they build it too. We watched as an entire village worked to build a new home: the women in pink scarves carried wood beams on their back, while men watched from their position on the roof.

We happened upon farm upon farm of yak, baby pigs and horses (all of which I tried to befriend). We wandered down dirt roads where raggamuffin children followed us, wanting to pose or play with the digital camera. As we were playing the kids, a gentle old monk walked over to say hello.  The little boy smacked him in the balls. Real life.

Perhaps this wasn’t the Shangri La that I imagined (lush golf courses and massages at the spa) but I’m learning that luxury can be found in much simpler things.  In Shangri La, luxury was having an internet connection that allowed me to place a Thanksgiving video call with my family. Luxury was having warm toes in my single twin bed thanks to the electric blanket. The small things, you know?

Piao liang!

Peace in the Middle East

Women carrying wood to build a house

Stopped by a Yak

Posing for his Glamour Shot