Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Channel to China! -- Dali

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Fuxing Road in downtown Dali. Click on the photo to see the album.

There are some places where backpackers go and never leave. Dali is one of those places. It vies with Lijiang and Yangshuo for being the top backpackers' hangout in China. Traditional architecture, beautiful natural scenery, loads of cheap guesthouses, and restaurants serving Western cuisine are the ingredients for a travelers' paradise.

Aside from Kunming, there aren't many trains within Yunnan province. There is a train between Kunming and Dali, but it's usually faster to travel by long-distance bus. I know some Chinese people who prefer deluxe buses to soft-seat trains. Deluxe buses have cushioned seats, TVs playing Hong Kong movies, hostesses, and sometimes even on-board toilets.

Travelers talk about the toilets in China the way soldiers tell war stories. Some of the worst toilets I've seen are at the rest stops during long bus trips. Probably even worse in remote villages.

Again, the possibility of finding a Western toilet in a hostel pretty much ends after Kunming. I stayed at the No. 5 Guesthouse (a.k.a. Old Dali Inn) my first night in Dali. It's really big and social, with a jungle treehouse atmosphere. The rooms were uninspiring: the beds consisted of a wooden board on chairs at each end, with a paper-thin mattress on top. Then I saw the bathrooms. The urinals were carved-out wooden barrels! The urine-stained squat toilets were the last straw.

I visited every hotel and guesthouse on Huguo Road, the main drag for bars and restaurants in Dali. I saw lots of clean beds at reasonable prices. The deal-breaker was always the bathrooms. The rooms with private bathrooms had Western toilets, but those rooms were too expensive. When an 80 RMB ($10 USD) - a- night hotel room was "too expensive," it meant that I'd been in China too long. I could have gotten a cheap private room and use the common bathrooms, but they had squat toilets. Unacceptable.

At long last, I came across the No. 3 Guesthouse. It's attached to a good Korean restaurant. The shared dorm rooms were spotless, with wooden bunks that allowed you to draw a curtain across your bunk for privacy. The showers were nice, with lots of shelves and coat hooks to put your stuff. The finishing touch was that the common bathroom had a Western toilet! All of this was mine at 20 RMB ($2.50 USD) a night. I moved in the next day.

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Now that I had proper accommodations, I could get on with enjoying the city. I booked a trip to the Shaping Market. One of the interesting things about Yunnan was the abundance of minority groups. The main minority in Dali were the Bai. Shaping Market was supposed to be a great place to observe them in action.

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I was walking around the stalls when I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks. It wasn't some weird Chinese thing. Not snakes in a jar or little kids shitting on the street. No, instead it was a reminder of a place that was as far from China as I could imagine.

It was a girl wearing a university sweater. I could have been more polite when I said hello, but instead I said this:

"HOLY SHIT! You went to Redlands?!"

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She froze and said, "Oh my God."

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"I was studying up in Beijing. What are you doing here?" Jenny asked.

"I was teaching English in Shanghai. How could this happen?" I wondered.

"Whoa," Jenny said. "Like the other side of the world!"

There were so many factors against me meeting someone from my own university. First of all, my university was small. The student population increased to over 2000 only recently. Second of all, we didn't stumble into each other in a major city like Beijing or Shanghai. We were in the Shaping market, which was an hour away from Dali and 5 hours from Kunming. This was in the middle of nowhere.

Once we settled down, we caught up on what what we'd been doing in China. Jenny talked about how she was into "social entrepreneurship," promoting local business as a way to preserve indigenous culture.

Luckily enough, we ran into her business partner when we got back to Dali. The woman took us back to her shop. The colorful patterns and designs of the Bai minority were a far cry from the usual Han Chinese things I'd seen.

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While Jenny and her talked business, I wandered around the shop. In a back room, I found the coolest blue shoulder bag.

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On the outside, it looked ordinary. But when I turned up the flap, it revealed an intricately-woven picture underneath. I wasn't planning on buying any souvenirs, but I had to have this bag. I needed a smaller bag anyway to hold a map, umbrella, and other traveler essentials when I walked around a city.

The woman gave the bag over to her older sister, so she could adjust the shoulder strap for me.

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The next day, I had lunch with Elmer, an American I'd met at the Old Dali Inn, before I moved over to the No. 3 Guesthouse. Elmer was one of those backpackers who came to a place and just never left. After we finished eating, he spotted a Chinese guy he knew and waved him over. Turned out that this guy knew kung fu. I told him I was interested in wing chun. Some of my friends who study kung fu recommended wing chun for its practicality. It's designed for little people fighting against big people. Maximum damage using minimum effort. The kung fu teacher agreed to give me a lesson.

We said goodbye to Elmer and he took me to a park. Some of the moves he showed me looked ridiculous, until he explained what they were for. There was this one hopping sideways move that looked stupid, until he said that it was one method of deflecting a kick. The one thing I learned from that afternoon was not to use high kicks. There were too many ways to take someone down if they tried to kick you.

The lesson went well, until he got too excited once and backfisted me in the face. NOT COOL.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Channel to China! -- Kunming

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Tourists dropping coins into a fountain for good luck at the Western Hills. Click on the photo to see the full album.
By the way, I think those Tibetan hats are awesome. Makes those guys look like Chinese cowboys!
* * *
Now I could relax. After Beijing and Xi'an, I didn't have to endure an endless marathon of sightseeing. Time to kick back and take it easy.

Yunnan province was actually the place I was the most excited to visit. If you could only backpack through one province in China, then Yunnan was it. It's one of the most culturally, racially, and environmentally diverse places in the world. The northern part of Yunnan leads into Tibet. The southern and western parts of Yunnan share borders with Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma). In between you have a rich mixture of minorities to balance against the dominant Han Chinese.

The first stop was the provincial capital, Kunming. It's nicknamed "The Spring City" because it's supposed to have great weather year-round. It didn't live up to the hype. Rain dogged my entire visit there, but it didn't diminish the charm of the city.

On the surface, it looked like any other Chinese city: big billboards, department stores, etc. I stayed there a week to hide from the onslaught of tourists during the National Day holiday, so I had more time to appreciate the differences. People seemed more casual and laidback than Shanghai. I was grateful for the wide, relatively clean streets. That made Kunming much more pedestrian-friendly than good ol' SH. There were a lot of cafes and restaurants that catered to Western backpackers; later I found that this was a trend throughout some of the other main cities in Yunnan.

I stayed at the Camellia Hostel. It's actually a hotel with a floor in another building set aside for dormitories. I was relieved to find that it was clean and had good service. They're also a good place to get visas for Laos and Vietnam.

The best thing about Kunming was the backpackers. Kunming is the closest major city in China to Southeast Asia. I met tons of travelers going down to Southeast Asia or coming up to China from there. As cheap as I thought China was, I heard from my roommates that SEA was even cheaper! They were full of stories about their adventures: crappy sleeper buses where everyone smoked, finding strange animals in their soup, and motorcycle trips through the jungle. I was so jealous of them.

Although I swore off sightseeing after Xi'an, I did drag myself to a few sights. I went to the Western Hills first. It's a string of pagodas and temples on a mountain with great views of Lake Dian.

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Getting there was easy: take Bus No. 5 to the Yunnan Hotel, then switch to a minibus going to the Western Hills. Getting back to Kunming was a nightmare. There were a million tourists pushing into the cheaper buses. I almost wanted to give up and splurge on a taxi. Instead, my friends and I hunkered our shoulders and charged into a bus.
I slacked off for the next few days, afraid of having to deal with crowds again. On my last day, I summoned up the courage to see another local attraction: the Stone Forest in Shilin. I'm really glad I did. The scenery was beautiful and the rocks were different than anything I've seen before.

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Another interesting thing is that I'm meeting different kinds of backpackers. When I backpacked through Europe, it was mostly Australians, Canadians, and Americans. In China, I'm running into lots of Europeans. Many are French-speaking -- Swiss, Belgians, and well, French. It's a trend I've encountered before. When I go somewhere, I meet more travelers than locals. I've made more British friends in Shanghai than when I studied in England. Strangers in a strange land tend to flock together.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Channel to China! -- Xi'an

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The Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an. Click on the photo to see the full album.

I heard bad things about Xi'an, so I made my visit short. Just three nights. I was hoping that my friends were wrong.

Unfortunately, they weren't. Xi'an is an ugly industrial city, especially in the surrounding outskirts. As I rode into town on a bus, I saw demolished buildings, huge trucks hauling construction materials, and miserable weather.

Things improved at the border. Xi'an has a well-preserved city wall that encloses the city center. After Beijing and Shanghai, Chinese cities are all starting to look the same. I keep seeing the same big billboards and department stores everywhere. That's what happens with central government planning. I've heard Hong Kong has been the prototype for the modern cities springing up all over China.

I stayed at the Han Tang Inn. Big mistake! The outside looked nice enough, but the inside might as well have been a condemned building. Graffiti lined the walls, empty beer bottles littered the stair landings, and the concrete floors were dirty.

I took one look at the grim bunker that was supposed to be my dorm room and immediately switched to a private double room. I should have changed hostels altogether, but I was too lazy to find another one. The room was a little nicer. But the bathroom wasn't much of an improvement. There was no curtain to separate the shower from the toilet, so water would splash everywhere. When I flushed the toilet, water leaked out from the base of the bowl. Totally disgusting.

Going to the Terracotta Warriors lifted my spirits. In Beijing, an Australian backpacker told me it was better to go there by public bus instead of taking a tour. If I took a tour, I'd get up way early in the morning, be led to one tourist trap after another, and get only a little time with the Warriors.

The best way to see the Warriors is to take the green 306 bus. It picks up passengers across the street in front of Xi'an train station, near a China Post office. Costs 7 RMB for a one-way ticket and takes about 1.5 hours to get there. It's always cool when you can dodge the tourist vortex and bask in local culture on the cheap.

I met Sophie my last night at the hostel. She worked there part-time while studying to become an English teacher. When she talked about her aspirations, I was struck by how similar they were to Americans. She wanted to move to Beijing or Shanghai to find a better life. Going to the big city to make your dreams come true; that's a story everone can relate to. I guess the Chinese aren't always so different from us.

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