Sunday, October 28, 2007

so i bet you've all been biting your nails away, wondering whether i made it back to beijing in time for the halloween party. i got to the airport saturday morning, ready to wait all day if necessary. i asked the woman at the elong counter, and she told me again that all the flights were sold out. after explaining that i'd wait and see if people didn't show up, she took me to the air china booth to talk to them. unfortunately, the guy said that because of bad weather the day before, there weren't' even standby tickets. the elong woman took me to another airline's booth, which was also full. then she took me to a third booth, i don't know what it was, but they said they had tickets. hooray! although the flight was delayed about two hours, i did make it to beijing by 6 o'clock. the weird thing was, the ticket was for an air china flight. so i don't know what the hell that booth was, but i guess the air china tickets were not really entirely sold out.
i got into town, reached nick and mandie's, and by 930 was drunk and ready to go. we didn't get into the yen fetish party though, as it was too late to by tickets. but still, a fun random beijing evening, a nice return for my last week in the city.

Friday, October 26, 2007

argh, china. as soon as you' ve started to have a fabulous time, thinking you're really going to miss this place, it screws you over yet again. but first, i'll tell about the nice part. in kangding i met up with an english couple i'd met in chengdu, with whom i'd planned to travel to litang, in far western sichuan. i'd changed my plans, so i wouldn't be going in their direction any more, but we still spent an enjoyable night together. i got to eat what is probably the last yak i'll have for a very long time, and then we went out to a tibetan dance hall. this was an experience i'd mostly describe as strange. it was a disco filled with drunken chinese people sitting at tables and watching the dance halls staff sing traditional chinese songs to techno beats, and occasionally coming up and singing a song of their own, or dancing awkwardly around the stage. we were positive that one of the performers was a tranny, though no confirmation on that one. not a very late night though, as we had to get up at six the next day to catch our respective buses.
i was planning on going to danba, a city set in the mountains at a lower altitude than the frigid sichuan-tibetan highway. but when i got to the station and asked for a ticket, the woman said they didn't have any. actually, i'm not clear on whether they were sold out, or whether the hostel worker had confused the times of the buses. for a minute i didn't know what to do, because here i was up before dawn and nowhere to go. "tagong?" i asked, saying the name of the grasslands that i'd decided to skip in favor of the warmer-weathered danba. they had a 7 o'clock bus, confirming my belief that the hostel worker had confused the 6 o'clock bus to danba and the 7 0'clock bus to tagong. so i headed to tagong, a ride during which we traversed some breathtakingly beautiful snow covered mountains with clear blue sky overhead. the tagong are along the sichuan tibet highway, a part of china that is known as "more tibetan than tibet," because its tibetan peoples are not hindered by the strong chinese presence of the tibetan autonomous region, nor china's plan to chinesify towns like lhasa. after an amazing ride, albeit an hour and a half longer than promised, we arrived at the grasslands. green fields full of yaks, a blue sky you could almost touch, clear fresh air, and tibetan cowboys playing pool and riding motorcycles around the small town. unfortunately, it was freezing. and i don't like the cold, especially not when its only october. so i walked around for a couple hours, then caught a bus to danba, my original stop. you might ask, if tagong is on the way to danba, why didn't i plan the trip this way originally. but actually there is an alternate road to danba from kangding that takes four hours, whereas this sichuan-tibet highway road makes the trip about 9 or 10 hours. oh well, it was completely worth it to catch this glimpse of the most beautiful place i've ever seen. onwards, in a minibus with four locals, who were amazed at a foreign girl travelling alone in these parts, which don't see many westerners. they talked to me a bit, but their local dialect was pretty difficult for me, and finally they left me alone.
at one point however, the driver pulled over to the side of the road and pointed to a spot across the river "wen quan," he said. it was a word i didn't know. "we're going to go shower. are you going to come?" this didn't sound as strange or threatening as it looks, and i couldn't tell if i was understanding him right. i could tell it was some kind of a tourist sight i was supposed to see. "okay." we left the car and crossed the river, and as we walked i tried to figure out what "wen quan" meant. i broke it down into its two parts, and tried to think what either of them could mean. "oh! wo mingbai! i understand!" quan means spring, so it must be a natural hot spring. they gave me an odd look when i shouted that. anyway, we arrived at the spring and the men all undressed to their skivies (again, somehow in china this is not strange or threatening) and jumped into the concrete square into which the spring ran, making a large hot tub. i took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and stuck my feet in. it felt great, coming from the icy grasslands.
then we got back into the car and drove the rest of the way to danba. i arrived at my hotel, which was completely booked, but they let me stay in some little room on the first floor with two beds for only 20 kuai. i spent a day in this beautiful town, which is built along the cliffs towering above two intersecting rivers. its actually composed of a bunch of little tibetan towns, and tibetans walked along the road with me carrying their goods as i strolled along the river. my back has been killing me since tiger leaping though, so in the afternoon i stayed in my room and finished listening to my harry potter book on tape.
the next day i returned to chengdu, and uneventful 10-hour drive. i planned to go straight to the train station and buy a hard sleeper back to beijing, the end of my trip. after waiting in line for 45 minutes at the station, i got to the front and was told that for the next three days, there were only hard seats for the 26 hour ride back to beijing. pardon my french, but fuck that. so i came back to my hostel and tried to figure out getting a flight back. i figured even though it was loads more expensive, it could be worth it to make it back to beijing in time for the halloween party tonight. apparently all the flights are booked though, so i'll be spending the day at the airport begging for a flight. we'll see if i'm successful. oh, i forgot. after they told me about the trains, i was so mad that i broke my "only eating chinese food" rule, and went to kfc. i started crying a little when they told me they didn't have the sandwich i wanted, a residual from a long bus day coupled with the bad news about the train. but i pulled myself together and ordered a different one. biting into it, i discovered that the chicken was packed full of corn and peas and carrots. argh china!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

hello blog, now i really am in the last days of my travels. on sunday i took a 7 hour bus to hailuogou glacier, in western sichuan. unfortunately, when i woke up monday morning to head up to the glacier, the entire town and surrounding mountains were covered in a dense fog. i and the israeli girl who was also staying in my hostel decided to wait till the next day, but i was a bit worried about that because on tuesday evening i had to be in kangding to meet up with a couple i'd met in chengdu. so after an inspirational nap, i decided that we should try to make it up that day, even though it was around 12 oclock. so we headed out and bought student tickets without a student id. this was the last stroke of luck we would have on our five hour journey. the travel book at our hostel had said that it wasn't necessary to buy tickets for the buses that shuttle you from camp to camp, so we started walking, and hitched a ride with a guy in a truck. but when he reached a checkpoint at camp 1, they discovered that we didn't have the ticket and so we ended up having to pay for it anyway. so we got on a bus at camp 1, and headed for the top. but then, at camp 2, the driver told us we had to get out and he was turning the bus around. when i asked why, all he would say was "traffic."
exasperated, we started walking, but it was still about 12 kilometers to the spot from where lonely planet recommends starting the 1-2 hour hike to the glacier. so we walked for about 6k, complaining the whole time about how much we hate chinese people (this was after two more buses had driven past us without stopping). then a bus picked us up, and we rode to the hiking point. by that point, we were at a fairly high altitude, so the 1-2 hour hike was more difficult than we expected. at the end of this hike, we discovered that the path we were on did not lead to the top of the glacier where you get a guide to lead you around and walk on the ice, but to the very bottom of the glacier where you could not. so we headed back. the only other stroke of luck we got was that we caught the last bus down the mountain, so we didn't have to walk the 30k back. on second thought, i bet there were some after that, but the other bus driver had told us the last bus was at five, so i'd like to believe we did have some luck. oh, and then the driver's steering wheel broke and we had to wait a half hour in the dark and cold for another car to pick us up. but we did discover that what the driver had meant by "traffic," was a car accident. still though, he could have said that. grr.
anyway, this morning i headed to kangding, where i've decided that i'm feeling to crappy to continue along the tibetan highway to litang, which is at 4012m altitude. so in about three days i should be on a train back to beijing, and thence east.

Friday, October 19, 2007

back in civilation, after a nice few days of rest. on arriving at lugu lake, i (and the busload of chinese tourists i was with) was disappointed to see that it was raining. i settled into my comfortable youth hostel, where beds were only 15 kuai (a bit less than 2 dollars). luckily the rain had let up for a bit, so i explored the surrounding area with three taiwanese people i'd met on the bus and a chinese girl who'd come travelling alone. now, sometimes chinese girls brag about how they can go travelling alone, but they are honestly the most clingy travellers in the world. the two chinese girls travelling alone that i met at the lake had asked if we could travel together within five minutes of conversing. i felt a bit awkward saying no, as it feels like rejecting someone, but honestly i didn't even know their names. the second single traveller was staying in my dorm room, and even after i turned her down as a travel buddy, she invited me to see the lake with her and two other girls the next day. i figured it'd be easier and cheaper than doing it alone, so i agreed.
the next day, through rain and icy wind, we set out. at that point, i really wanted to cancel and sit by the fire all day, but i figured that wouldn't be fair to them as they'd have to pay more for the car they'd rented. it was a nice day, looking at all the minority villages around the lake. my companions for the day were my roommate, who was cantonese and spoke with an accent that was incredibly hard for me to understand, a shanghaiese woman with a german boyfriend who spoke pretty good english, and a beijing girl with whom i didn't converse much, despite our shared place of residence. so off we headed in our bus.
the mosuo, who live in little villages around the lake, are a minority famous for being the only remaining matriarchal society. they have a unique system called a walking marriage, where they spend nights with their lovers, but during the day live in different places. the women, i believe, live in their own houses and raise their kids, and the men live with their parents. i gathered this in chinese though, so it could be wrong. during our journey we met an old mosuo women who told me about a french woman who had come to live with her for three months, and how they had both cried when she left. i noticed she was wearing a new york hat, and in my excitement i told her "your hat is the city where i live!" the other girls i was with straightened it out.
for lunch, the chinese girls were very keen to eat some traditional mosuo food, so they insisted on knocking on random people's doors and asking if they would cook for us. dandan also wanted to do this, and with the same consequences- we ended up being accepted into the house of a han chinese family, and so we did not get to sample the minority's food. it was still interesting to sit in the house of this poor farmer family and chat about their lives. i wish i could connect my camera to the computer, because i'm sure i could illustrate this better with pictures. oh well, maybe when i get home. anyway, we ate a simple meal of potatoes, greens, and pork fat, and then gave them a lot of money.
when we got back to the hostel, i noticed a young american guy, one of the few foreigners i'd seen since arriving at the lake. i sat down to eat with him, and discovered that he'd grown up in philadelphia and went to upenn. i was only struck by it later, but really, what are the odds of going to a remote lake in china and meeting someone who went to college 20 minutes away from you? but when it comes to foreigners, china is a small world. we had a nice talk about our experiences in china. he'd done a year in new york in investment banking, and then got bored out of his mind and decided to take some time to live in dali. the backpacker town of dali, with its stoner expats, is probably about as far from new york investment banking as you can get.
oh! and i noticed he had "one hundred years of solitude," which i've been trying to find for my whole trip. as i was just about to finish my murakami book, i asked if he'd be up for a trade, and he agreed. this was just perfect, and now i'm happily reading my gabriel garcia marquez.
the next day i had to head to a hostel on the other side of the lake, nearer the bus to sichuan, and adam joined me as he was making for a peninsula near where i was going. on the way, we ran into a belgian that adam had met on a bus. he told us that he had been talking to the owners of one of the guesthouses about an hour from our hostel, when the woman had started making sexual advances out of nowhere. he was not a very sexual guy, one of those eternal travellers whose goal is to observe rather than to interact, so we were pretty surprised. he said she hadn't wanted money or anything, so we wondered if this was part of the mosuo custom. certainly, according to lonely planet, many han chinese men think the mosuo village will be a great place to get their own one-night walking marriage, and apparently prostitution is growing in the area. the guesthouse was on our way, so we stopped in for a meal. we were able to ascertain who the woman was, a quiet moderately attractive woman in her mid-thirties. the man, who was sick, had told her that he would come back the next day, so actually we were there to give her this message. we asked the family if they'd seen a european the day before. the woman seemed embarassed, but an older woman who must've been her mother, said yes enthusiastically. we told them he wouldn't be able to make it, and the woman looked sad. i wonder, maybe it was a prostitution thing. anyway, we will never know.
i made it to my hostel, crunching on local dried apples, and checked in for the night. it was freezing, but beautiful. a few hours later, a large dutch tour group checked in. i asked if i could eat with them, and they kindly agreed, so i got a nice free meal and the company of many friendly middle aged dutch people. after that we all went to see a mosuo traditional show. i had been avoiding going to these, as they are quite obviously geared for chinese tourists, but i had nothing else to do. i actually had a great time, dancing with the mosuo and some nice chinese tourists from chengdu and chongqing. they were very nice to me and enthusiastic about my chinese, and took lots of pictures with me. unfortunately, when we reached the singing portion of the evening, i was the first one they made stand in front of the crowd to sing for everyone. i should've had a song ready, as i've been warned about this kind of thing by many travellers, but my mind was blank, i finally sang a verse from "the times they are a-changin" and then was thrown up in the air three times by the mosuo men.
the next morning at 8 i boarded a bus for xichang in southern sichuan, from where i could take a sleeper train to chengdu. i struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me, who then proceeded to ask me for my number four or five times. arriving in xichang, i discovered that i could only buy hard seat tickets, and so i resigned myself for a miserably uncomfortable night, after which i would be able to sleep all day in my chengdu hostel. luckily, when i got on the train, i was able to upgrade to a soft sleeper, though this time i had to pay 130 kuai. it was worth it though, as i slept quite well.
i arrived in chengdu at 630, and walked to my hostel as the sun rose. as i waited for them to prepare my bed, a group of foreigners approached me and asked if i'd like to go to leshan with them that day. they were leaving in about 20 minutes, and had rented a van. i figured that if i didn't take this opportunity to see the biggest sitting buddha in the world, i never would. so i dropped my stuff on the bed, and went with them. the buddha was kind of a letdown, but we had a fun day anyway. today i am resting up, as tomorrow i'm going to try to go see a glacier about 8 hours west of here.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

ah, the next few stops on my trip. i reached dali, which was just as i remembered it, chill backpacker hostels and chinese women offering you pot in the street. i was determined not to stay long, as i already spent a good four days there during my last visit, so i only spent about a day. i did take a nice bikeride around the nearby lake though, finding an unmapped path that traced the shore and went through all of the beautiful old villages along the lake. on the way back, i discovered that i'd biked too far and was totally exhausted, so i stopped to get some food. the owner invited me to eat w/ him and his friends, a meal which consisted of boiled pig skin and another part of the pig i couldn't identify. they kept encouraging me to take a shot of baijiu with them, so finally i did, then another. then i said i had to be on my way, and they said goodbye. uh, i headed back to my hostel, then took a late bus to lijiang which meant that i got in at about 10 o'clock, to a dark rainy night. i hate arriving at cities like that, so i found a hostel as quickly as possible, and passed out.
the next morning i walked over to the hostel i had planned to stay at, Mama Naxi's, which was pretty hard to find so i'm glad i hadn't tried the night before. on arrival though, i ran into a guy who was about to do tiger leaping gorge that day with a few others. i was worried about doing it alone, so i decided to join them. without ever checking into the hostel, i was on my way. tiger leaping gorge was amazing, and i am sooo glad that i had the opportunity to do it. it wasn't the gigantic hike that LP makes it out to be. it only took us two days, and the first day we started at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. but it was a beautiful walk looking at a gorgeous mountain range. by the time we finished i was pretty exhausted. we caught a ride back to lijiang with an older british man who'd rented a cab for himself and said he'd share it for the price of taking a bus back. as chinese buses are dirty and filled with smoking, vomiting locals, we said sure.
now i'm back in lijiang, where i'll spend a day relaxing before taking an 8 hour bus ride to lugu hu, a remote lake in northeastern yunnan.

Monday, October 08, 2007

i'm back in china, didja miss me? in my last few days in vietnam, i did the activities i initially thought i'd skip when i headed south, halong bay and sapa. i'm really glad that i ended up changing my plans, because those were definitely the highlight of my time in vietnam. by the time i got back to hanoi from hue, the taiphoon was just about over. i had to wait a day for my halong bay trip to leave, which i spent watching L word with a pomona student. i know, i know, i didn't give finding the "real" vietnam much of a shot, but sue me. i walked over to the history museum, but it was tiny and unimpressive.
i'm really glad i did the cruise, if only because it gave me the chance to have a real vacation within my "vacation." that is to say, i splurged about on the trip, which was all inclusive, so i got to eat some delicious seafood and lounge on a fancy cruise ship. i also had my only big night of drinking since i've been travelling. trying to keep to my miniscule budget has made the expense of going out drinking with foreigners seem excessive, but once stuck on a boat with about 15 europeans, it seemed like the only option.
the night i came back from the bay, which is, by the way, filled with limestone karsts that emerge from the water in various beautiful shapes, i was booked on a night train to sapa, which is on the way to the chinese border. i was a bit nervous about having booked a hard sleeper, which i've heard is a big step down from china's hard sleepers, and where you are enouraged to have company to prevent your stuff from being pilfered. on arriving at the train station, however, i was told that due to the typhoon, the hard sleeper was overbooked and i was being upgraded to first class! and not only was it first class, it was super first class, the soft sleepers on private cars reserved for specific fancy travel companies. i even got a free banana! this was, possibly, the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life.
i got to sapa, which is a beautiful mountain town most notable for the large number of montagnards (minority peoples) that come to sell their wares in the market. i was only there for a day, but i had a wonderful time, saw some beautiful countryside, and slapped high five with a friendly h'mong woman.
from there, it was a full-day trip to kunming. crossing the border, the third overland border i've crossed (one in lao, two in 'nam) i booked myself on the next bus over, and waited with some americans studying chinese in kunming. the ride wasn't bad, though it did take 12 hours, the first four of which passed through breath-taking mountains on frightening roads. on arrival in kunming, i found i didn't have enough money to get to my hostel, but luckily the americans took me there and paid for my cab. i cannot stress how helpful it is to make friends on trains and buses.
so here i am now, and i'm plotting my next step. i wish i had bought the new lonely planet china while in vietnam, but i was worried about it getting taken at the border. so hopefully i can manage sans LP, which i imagine must be possible. well, i'm off to get some money from the atm, bye.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

been to a few places since my last update, so i'll try to sum up. with my foot healed, i was ready to move, so i bought an open bus ticket to saigon, which allows you to stop at five places along the way. the first stop was nimh binh, about two hours from hanoi. it was a nice town, though the reason i went was so i could ride a motorbike through the countryside, but then the guy wouldn't late me take one by myself. which i guess is fair, because they were manual and i don't know how to work a manual motorbike, but i was disappointed. nonetheless, i had some fun days biking through the beautiful countryside, even though the "blissful back roads" that lonely planet describes turned out to be tiny paths often made of sand or mud or water, and sometimes filled with men holding rifles. well they weren't holding rifles like to shoot me, they looked like farmers going to shoot ducks or something, but it was a bit frightening.
from there i went to hue, which is supposed to be the scene for the art & architecture crowd, as compared w/ the more partyish areas. it was okay, but a typhoon hit while i was there so all my stuff is completely soaked. i took a day trip into the DMZ, the de-mitilarized zone from the vietnam war where, ironically, most of the fighting took place. it was interesting to see some important sights from the war, and we got to walk through the underground tunnels dug by the north vietnam army.
i've decided to change my plans to travel through the rest of vietnam, and am turning north again, where i'm going to travel to kunming and complete the trail i started in may, from kunming to dali to lijiang and the tiger leaping gorge. i figure if i'm leaving china, i should spend the end of my time in china. i'm hoping to get in a trip to halong bay before i go, though as monsoon season has started i'm not sure if i'll be able to make it.
i've had some random thoughts i wanted to jot down while i was travelling, but i've forgotten most of them. oh, one was that its been interesting meeting westerners from random countries that i've barely heard of. so far i've met a girl from tanzania, and one from estonia. i always have to be careful not to let them know that i have no idea where their country is, and usually i figure it out eventually. other than that, most everyone is from the uk, australia, or holland. thats nice too.
also i'm back in hanoi now, i just spent the night on a sleeper bus with an english guy who complained about everything in the world, reminding me that perhaps i shouldn't complain so much, because its kind of annoying. but i mean he was especially bad, because he kept complaining about stupid things like, "why don't they take some of the zeros off their money?" or "why didn't they have loads of buses going to main towns from the lao bao border when i crossed at 12 at night?" anyway, hoping to make it back to china without drowning in all this rain.