The Laos - China border is one of the few places on Earth where one can cross an imaginary line into a different world. It's not as radical as swimming with sharks and turtles, but it is drastic... From dirt roads to super highways. From wooden structures to concrete and steel. From a lack of infrastructure to massive public-works projects. From primitive tribes to modern business women. From jungle to gardens. From banana pancakes to noodle soup for breakfast. From ubiquitous English to none at all (or at least not much). I have been using my Mandarin phrase book and gesturing a lot. That's part of the challenge of China. But there is a payback for the effort: China is amazing!
In the cities, there is a huge effort for everything to appear modern and clean (except for the public toilets which are pretty gross). In the countryside, the farmers appear to be busy and productive. And then there's Dali; according to my guidebook, it's one of the few places that escaped the modernization boom, maintaining its historic charm. That's why I'm here. As Dali sees plenty of Western tourists, banana pancakes are back on the menu, in English. It seems too easy!
Crucially, my new friend Qin Lei has taken time from her job to tour China with me! As she gets herself organized, I enjoy Dali, discussing politics with new friends, and so on. I have heard quoted many times that "Democracy is the worst political system on Earth, except for all the other ones." All agre that democracy is surely flawed, after all Bush is president. But is it the least worst? Wheras Americans must be well-informed to vote wisely, in the Chinese system there is no requirement for the people to be well informed as there is no vote. Advocates of the Chinese system say that China's human-rights issues are small compared to America's war issues. The debate of the day is this: with 1.5 billion people in China, Does democracy even make sense? People say no. People say a single party is efficient; the Communist Party gets things done. No doubt. They say that China's One Child Policy is an example of a necessary reform that would be impossible under a democracy. The Three Gorges Dam is another. They say the needs of the collective outweigh the needs of individuals. I think it's a fair debate as to where to draw that line. Dear USA... For democracy to be the better system, the people must be well informed, especially regarding how to rein in corporate greed and its influence over policy. For the future.
It is great to travel with Qin Lei. She is charming, and makes an excellent personal guide and translator :^) This is travelling in China made easy! Our first stop was to see Lijang's well-preserved old town, definitely worth seeing if you don't mind tourist crowds. Next we visited Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-La, with an interesting mix of Han Chinese and Tibetan culture. Zhongdian has a Buddhist monastery, one of the few that the Chinese did not destroy during the Cultural Revolution, because they used it as a storage depot.
We wanted to go to Lhasa, but even if I had a Tibetan visa, the road is closed for foreigners, the airplanes are sold out for weeks, and it's cold up there! But that's OK. We will still be able to visit Tibetan areas. The cultural influence of Tibet extends far from the political line drawn on the map.
For a big city, Chengdu is relaxed. The bicycle seems to be the preferred mode of transportation, and nobody acts like they're in a hurry. But the air is not so clean due to the polluting industries outside of town. It's a big city. We visited the Giant Panda Research Center. Cool.
It took five days to get a thirty-day visa extension in Chengdu. Meanwhile, Qin Lei and I went to Le Shan and Emei Shan (Shan means mountain). Le Shan is the home of the World's largest Buddha, built around the year 800. What can I say? It's pretty big. One truism about tourist sites is that to escape the crowds, just walk uphill. And sure enough, two minutes up a hill we found beautiful gardens with zero tourists. Emei Shan is a "holy" Buddhist mountain. I'm not sure what Buddha would have thought about charging money to visit a "holy" mountain, but the trail was beautiful, through a cloud forest with monkeys and zero trash. We slept at a monastery. The hordes of tourists all took the bus to the top.
From the small town of Songpan, we hired horses to ride into the Himalaya Mountains and Tibetan culture. We made it as high as 4300 meters, a delightful experience.
When we left Songpan towards Gansu, we crossed the Tibetan plateau (high grasslands). The main road was closed for improvements (infrastructure projects abound, including nuclear and coal power plants), so we detoured through Ruo Er Gai. The locals all stared at me, the white guy. Despite the snowy cold, it was great to be away from big cities and tourist areas.
Now we're in Xia He, home of the second-largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery (after the one in Lhasa). Monks and pilgrims visit from far away. There is also a Muslim influence thanks to the ancient Silk Road. This makes for great people watching.
Shaanxi and Shanxi are two Chinese provinces; the names sound different when spoken with the proper tones. We visited the 2300-year-old terracotta army near Xian. Very cool. Then we visited Qin Lei's auntie in Changzhi, a city that sees few foreigners. People routinely stopped doing whatever they were doing to watch me do whatever I was doing, as if I were a Giant Panda or something. For my birthday, Qin Lei's auntie made a cake with Giant Panda icing. I gained a kilo with so much home-cooked food :^)
Some people can be downright rude. One time on a bus, a passenger tried to make me put my backpack on the roof, despite the fact that there was other luggage inside the bus and plenty of room. Qin Lei argued on my behalf. Other passengers then accused her of being unpatriotic for supporting a foreigner in the dispute! Qin Lei says she sees more rudeness when she's with me than when she's alone. In another incident, while discussing the fair amount to pay to a dishonest taxi driver, rude people on the street also accused Qin Lei of being unpatriotic for not siding with the Chinese guy. I'm not a fan of extreme nationalism. Qin Lei thinks television propaganda is to blame for creating this xenophobia. On Chinese TV, the Americans or Japanese are always doing something bad or stupid. Unfortunately, it is easy to make the USA look bad with W in charge! And of course, the TV always makes China look good. Sound familiar?
Pingyao is home of China's only completely intact ancient city wall, a place that recently saw few tourists, but now is packed with them (almost all Han). Vendors grabbed me on the street to try to sell stuff. With such fast adoption of capitalism, some people cannot control their greed instinct. I find Chinese capitalism to be similar to the American version, but with a different variety of credit-card-carrying ape.
There are two must-see tourist attractions in the Beijing area: the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Every sign inside the Forbidden City is "brought to you by the American Express Corporation." I wonder what Chairman Mao would have thought about that? The Wall is Great. I recommend the hike from Jinshanling to Simatai (about 10 kilometers). At Jinshanling, the Wall looks new and there are tourists galore, but after about 1km, the Wall is a ruin. We didn't see anybody on the trek to Simatai. Fantastic!
Beijing is modern and efficient, but it does have its quirks. For example, it's illegal for me to share a hotel room with Qin Lei because we're not married; it took us a while to find a place that was willing to look the other way. Only in Beijing. When I tried to renew my visa for the second time, the police woman said, "This cannot be done in Beijing!" We had to leave the city ahead of schedule.
Beijing will host the 2008 Summer Olympics, and one cannot ignore the propaganda. The Dalai Lama is calling for a boycott of The Games. He is the political leader-in-exile of the once-independent Tibet, and he is calling attention to the Tibetan cause. But it seems clear that China will never allow Tibet to be free. Tibet has natural resources that China needs, and if you control the military and the media, that's power!
The Han Chinese population is convinced that:
A) Tibet has always been part of China.
B) China is a positive influence on the backward region, building schools and roads, etcetera.
C) The Dalai Lama is a criminal separatist. Pictures of Mao Zedong are everywhere, but it is illegal to have a picture of the Dalai Lama.
If you want to tour China, plan on staying more than 30 days (tourist visas can be extended to a maximum of 90 days). China is too big and interesting to rush through. And it's easy to travel here for little money. Hotel prices range from US $2 for a bed with little privacy to about US $10 for a room with private bath. It would be easy to spend more, but I never do. Note however that cities in special economic zones such as Shanghai surely require spending more. A meal in a small town runs about US $1 for anyone who likes noodles with spicy peppers and fresh veggies; a fancy meal for two runs about US $8.
All the food I have eaten in China has been wonderful (I avoid all meat). The degree of spice varies regionally. Chinese restaurants in America always have "fortune cookies" but I have yet to see one here.
Chinese hotels always have boiled water available for making tea.
There are no foreign news magazines or papers. Internet censureship is primarily related to internal matters such as democracy and the Dalai Lama, so it has not been a problem for me.
In my limited experience in the better hotels with telephones, prostitutes have called every night to offer their services. Massage?
People smoke everywhere, even right in front of signs saying DO NOT SMOKE. People also spit a lot, with a hacking noise first, and drool afterwards; other people complain about this, so maybe it will change.
People tell me that between the Cultural Revolution and the Capitalist Revolution, there is nothing left of Old China. I'm not sure this is true, yet. I found Tibetan culture to be strong. Plus there are the Uyghur people and other minorities. China is vast. Note from 2009: I have a Uyghur friend in New Zealand, a political refugee. Her sister is in prison for 3 years for forwarding an email. My friend does not look Chinese. Her mother language is related to Turkish, not Mandarin, but she was required to master Mandarin in school as a top priority. She is a Muslim. She carries a Chinese passport but cannot return to China. Political movements against the government are not tolerated, full stop.
The Chinese yuan, or renminbi, does not trade on the free market like other major currencies. China controls its exchange to enable cheap exports, and to prevent speculative capital flight (as happened in the Asian financial crisis of 1997). China is wedded to America, as it buys US debt and depends on American consumers for its exports. This is unsustainable, and one wonders how the imbalance will eventually correct itself. Americans cannot continue to buy stuff with borrowed money forever.
Macau and Hong Kong are both officially China now, but I could get entry visas and Qin Lei could not. Such is the China security state. Guangzhou is where we inevitably parted company, as China would neither let me stay nor let her go. So I'm in Hong Kong, alone. Guangzhou (also known as Canton) is the biggest city near the former European colonies, a region where cheap stuff gets manufactured for export (a good place to shop). One can see where the factory workers live in concrete apartment blocks. Not what I would call luxury accommodations.
In most every way, Macau and Hong Kong are not China, but separate little countries. To enter, one must pass through immigration control and get passport stamps. Both have their own currencies (the Macanese pataca and Hong Kong dollar). Both allow foreign news magazines. The official languages are Chinese and Portuguese in Macau, Chinese and English in Hong Kong. Macau has the feel of an ex-Portuguese colony, complete with Christian churches, but the modern economy gets its patacas from gambling; it's Asia's prime destination for casino tourists. The focus for most visitors to Hong Kong is shopping, but it's expensive compared to Mainland China, and there's nothing I want to buy. That's why I just went to the Filipino consulate to get a visa, and I'll be on the next flight.