The Many Faces of China

My dear readers, if you’re still here I must first thank you for sticking by this blog. Some of you (mostly family) were far more faithful to it than I was. If I were to tell the truth, I would have to admit that this post you are about to read has taken me the longest to write. Perhaps it is because this is the “goodbye” post. The final one. The last hoorah. And up until now, I haven’t been very willing to finish it because in a small way this blog still makes me feel connected to my time spent in Beijing. To wrap it up would mean admitting that it was over, and up until now I wasn’t ready to let that go.

But, as they say, all good things must come to an end. And I ended my stay in China by seeing as much of it as I possibly could. My travels first took me down south to the mountainous region of Guilin. If you can think of any Chinese painting you have ever seen, ever, then you already know what Guilin looks like. But just to refresh your memory…

Guilin Sunset

However, all of this natural beauty does have a cost. In addition to being the most beautiful Chinese city I have visited, it is also the most humid. The heat and the mosquitos were fierce, particularly at night. My travel companion, Yujiro, and I were nearly eaten alive every dinner time. This trip also marked the first time I stayed in a hostel. I wasn’t quite sure what it would be like sleeping a room with strangers, but it turned out to be a great decision. Yujiro, who has the amazing gift of being the most likable person on the planet, was quick to make friends with as many Chinese people as possible. They in turn became our day to day travel companions, negotiators, translators, and language teachers.

Our first hostel roommates (from left: Steamed Bun, Girl obsessed with me, Yujiro, Me, girl’s friend, Older Sister Xie)

Our first group was interesting. It consisted of a man from Hunan who went by the moniker Baozi (literally Steam bun), two girls from Chongqing celebrating their graduation, and a woman from Dalian who was bent on travelling around China until she ran out of money. The last woman, who insisted we call her Older Sister Xie, proved to be a real help. She knew a few people in Guilin and arranged a boat tour for all of us at a fraction of the cost. Of course the term “boat” was used loosely. We were told it would be a bamboo raft. It was indeed a raft, but instead of bamboo PVC piping made up the main body. In the end, probably a safer option but oh so less authentic.

From our PVC pipe boat on the Li River

Sailing along the Li River. Bonus points for safety (we were actually required to wear life jackets)

The following day we traipsed around the city some and decided to tour one of the local caves. As it turns out, in China they use psychedelic colors to light up their caves in addition to pumping music into the chambers. The effect was a bit like walking into someone’s bad LSD trip, but the caves were at least cool temperature and provided an escape from the humidity above.

What lies beneath the mountains of Guilin

Our next stop took us to Chengdu, the capitol of Sichuan Province. Famous for spicy food and spicier ladies, Sichuan Province had a completely different feel from Guilin. Chengdu, with its metropolitan flair but relaxed pace of life, stands in stark contrast to the chaos of Beijing. And what Chengdu is most famous for would have to be these guys:

Can’t go to China without taking a panda picture

If Chengdu is famous for pandas, neighboring Leshan would have to be famous for Buddhas. Mainly this guy:

The Giant Buddha of Leshan

Built into a mountain on the river’s edge, the Giant Buddha of Leshan was meant to protect fishermen from the river’s dangerous currents. And he did his job well, because after he was completed, the number of accidents on the river actually went down significantly. The believers see this as a sign of divine intervention, while the more skeptical attribute it to the rising of the river bed due to the mountain debris being dumped into the water during the Buddha’s construction. Either way, the Giant Buddha still remains an incredible feat of human ingenuity.

Pattin’ Buddha on the head.

Far in the north of Sichuan Province lies the valley of Jiu Zhai Gou. Unfortunately, the transportation is still not fully developed so the only way to get to Jiu Zhai Gou is by bus… 10 hours from Chengdu. However painfully boring the ride may be, the valley is well worth the effort. The Chinese have a saying, “Once you return from Jiu Zhai Gou, you will never look at water the same way.” Very true indeed.

The Five Flowers Lake

Peacock Lake

The aptly named Mirror Lake

Yujiro and I at the Five Colors Lake

Another 10 hour bus ride and we were back in Chengdu. This is where our plans hit a bit of a snag. We were travelling by train to save money, but the problem here is that train tickets get sold out very quickly in China. Chinese citizens are able to reserve tickets online 5 weeks before departure; foreigners only have 2 weeks. So, we had requested a Chinese friend of ours to help us reserve train tickets online weeks before.However, when we got back to Chengdu and went to the ticket box, the rude lady told us we only had reserved the tickets for the last leg of the journey. Somehow half of the message did not go through and our friend did not buy the Chengdu-Xi’an and Xi’an Dunhuang train tickets we needed. With no other option we decided to buy standing tickets from Chengdu-Xi’an leaving at 9 PM that night. We figured, being young and fit, the 15.5 hour journey wouldn’t be THAT bad. Besides, how many people would really be willing to buy standing tickets?…..

….. Turns out this many people are willing to buy standing tickets.

In case you are wondering what the term “standing ticket” refers to, it simply means that instead of having a seat on the train, you have to find a place and stand. Aisles, washing rooms, corridors between trains, they were all packed with people. From 9 PM until 12:30 PM the next day, I stood, squatted on the floor, and had simply the most miserable night of my life. There was no room to fully sit criss-cross-apple sauce on the floor. All I could do was curl my legs up to my chest, form a small ball and try to sleep. The next afternoon, we finally arrived in Xi’an. After a day of recovery we set off to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Terra Cotta Army, Xi’an

There have been volumes written about the famed warriors, but nothing compares to seeing them in the flesh… so to speak. After Xi’an we boarded a plane headed for Xinjiang Province. To our dismay, we discovered that Xinjiang was still experiencing violence between the Uyghur ethnic minority and the Han majority.

A little background information: China recognizes 56 ethnic groups within its borders. These groups speak hundreds of different languages, each with their own unique history and culture. The difference between the Han Chinese and the Uyghur people is most apparent in physical appearance. The Han people possess the classic features we associate with East Asia: black hair, almond shaped eyes, light yellowish skin. However the Uyghur people in the West display different traits. Varying shades of brown, black, and blonde hair, eye color running the spectrum from black to deep green, and Eurasian faces that were less rounded than their Han Chinese counter parts.

In any case, the Xinjiang region has always been an area of political dispute between the Beijing government and the Uyghur people. In fact, a week prior to our flight there had been an attempted hijacking of a plane headed towards Urumqi, the region’s capital city. We found out this happy fact three hours before departure. It freaked us out enough to consider forgoing travel to that area completely. However, after weighing the risks, we decided that an “attempted” hijacking was not enough to deter our spirit of adventure.

And I am so grateful we continued to travel on. Xinjiang was by far the most interesting region I have visited in China. Located at the very heart of Asia, Xinjiang is home to a clash of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, while remaining steadfast in its Uyghur traditions. The vast desert stretches deep into the region splashing the landscape with vivid saffron hues, broken only by the vermillion oases that keep the land alive. A visit to Xinjiang really does leave the visitor feeling as though they have been swept to another time.

Desert Oasis, Turpan, China.

Desert Ruins. Turpan, China.

Heavenly Lake. Urumqi, China.

A long train ride. Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China.

Apak Hoja Tomb. Kashgar, China.

Id Kah Mosque. Kashgar, China.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Xinjiang were the people who live there. Despite the warnings of terrorism, we found the Xinjiang people to be very welcoming and friendly. The Uyghur language, an offset of Turkish, was lively and pleasant to the ear, very different from the Standard Mandarin heard in Beijing. Ironically, some of the older generation in Xinjiang cannot speak proper Mandarin, despite being citizens of China. It was quite a shock to discover my Chinese was better than some of theirs. Yet despite the language gap, the Uyghur people always welcomed us with a hospitality so unique to their own people. 

Muslim Uyghur woman. Kashgar, China.

Uyghur girl. Kashgar, China.

Selling apples. Kashgar, China.

Going home. Kashgar, China.

My travels in China have taken me all over, from the frigid ice land of Harbin to the balmy rivers of Guilin to the westernmost city of Kashgar. I came here to see China and to learn from it. After one year, I can safely say that I’ve caught only but a glimpse of what this country has to offer. From the glittering cities of Shanghai and Beijing to the bustling bazaars of Xinjiang, China deserves a lifetime of exploration. However, most important to me this year have been the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made. These have been my classmates, teachers, and small community of expats. These relationships which transverse the barriers of language, culture, and nation have made the most lasting impression on me. The memories we share of this wonderful time will continue to bring a smile to my heart for many years to come.

To you, my reader, I thank you for your support throughout my time abroad.

Until the next adventure…

Urumqi

Finally made it to the westernmost province of China, Xin Jiang. Here, I find little of what we would call tthe ypical Chinese atmosphere. Everything from the architecture to the physical features of the Uyghers, Xin Jiang’s primary ethnic group, reflect their Islamic cultural heritage. Despite the clashes between the Han Chinese and the Uyghers, I still find this place a wild, beautiful land.

Jiu Zhai Gou

Legend tells of a mortal man who fell in love with a goddess in heaven. Wishing to gain her favor, the man gifted her a mirror of great value and beauty, but the goddess wasn’t careful and somehow the mirror shattered. It’s shards fell from heaven into the valley below. Their resting places created the colorful pools of Jiu Zhai Gou.

Guilin

Shortly after arriving in Guilin my iPhone went on the fritz. I have a feeling the humidity played a role. Alas I wasn’t able to take pictures or post photos for the past several days. Here’s the last/first photo of Guilin i was able to get.