January 27, 2009

Up The Yangtze River

Ever since taking a Chinese art history course at college, I have dreamt about a trip on the Yangtze River, gently drifting through an ancient landscape, which has been rendered so delicately by artists for centuries. These paintings seemed to express the respect, gratitude and fear that the inhabitants living along its’ banks felt toward the source of their sustenance, their trade and, also, sometimes their demise. At twenty years old, through the skillful brush strokes of people long gone, I had started to romanticise a far away and exotic place, and fourteen years later, with my boat ticket in hand, I was carefully about to paint my very own experience up the Yangtze.
In Wuhan, Ville and I were discussing our options for a tour with the nice girl at the hostel desk. We wanted a cruise. She made a phone call.
“Mmm, I think you can not go this time. There are no boats,” she said.
“What!?” I cried. There I was, standing on the edge of a dream come true, and it was about to slip away. “Really, there isn’t any boat?” I pleaded.
“Mmm, well, there is a Chinese boat. But this is not for western. It is for local. No western boat until March. Mmm, this will be very uncomfortable boat and many people. Mmm, many people traveling for spring festival. I don’t suggest this boat,” she tried to dissuade us.
Not realizing at the time just how “on board” Ville was about the trip, he replied matter-of-factly and without hesitation, “Yeah, but does it float?”
Well said, my friend. You read my mind.
The night before our departure up the Yangtze, on a local passenger boat, in winter, during peak travel time for Chinese New Year, Ville and I were like two kids eagerly awaiting summer camp the next day. Giggling in the supermarket while stocking up on provisions of cookies, chips, instant noodles and strong rice wine, we kept brainstorming all the fun activities we would initiate on the boat:
“Hey, you can be Kate Winslet in Titanic and yell ‘Jack, I think I can fly’ from the front of the ship.”
“Yeah, and you can scare everyone with your height and your blond hair or challenge some locals to a game of Mahjong.”
“Yeah, and we can drink our rice wine and I can play the harmonica and we can sing the Yangtze Blues on deck.”
We unknowingly boarded the wrong boat, and when it looked as though we were going to be sharing about 10 square feet with six other people, not including the human sized luggage or the extra un-ticketed family members, I was only silently worried. After a handful of people looked at our ticket and pointed us in all different directions, back and forth and forth and back again, we finally found the correct boat and boarded with just three minutes to spare. It was official. I was going up the Yangtze.
Our cabin, luckily, only had four beds, Ville and I in two of them, an older man who liked to sleep in another, and finally, a young kid with a floating “cinema center” in the last; he had a high def Kung Fu movie playing on a big computer screen when we walked in, but he was so culturally considerate that he immediately switched it to an American action movie with Chinese subtitles. One moment it looked as though we were going to be sweating in a noisy cabin of eight, and in the next we were gliding in the lap of local luxury, kicking back, watching movies and listening to music with our newfound friend.
Out on deck that evening, it became clear that people’s respect for the river has waned over the years. We were stunned to see plastic bottles and noodle boxes being thrown overboard with out even a flinch of remorse from the offender. I was a little disappointed to spend my first night on the Great Yangtze dodging burning cigarette butts and flying trash. Not quite the picture they sold me on in art class.
While it remained foggy the next day, once you start drinking rice wine, which we did, you quickly lose clarity of vision anyway, so I was perfectly content to have a mask for the floating trash and only be able to catch small glimpses of the green mountains which fit much better in my romanticized vision of the river.
With our inhibitions fading like the view outside, Ville and I soon became the onboard entertainment, not only for ourselves by successfully completing the proposed Titanic “Jack, I can fly” skit and singing the Yangtze River Blues to the rhythm of the harmonica, but also for the locals, who were so focused on getting to their final destination for the holidays, that an American girl running around in a bright kimono yelling “Wo Eye Zhong Guo!” (I Love China!), seemed to unite us all under the common flag of comedy. Our crowning achievement came at dinnertime when we found a discreet moment to add to the International Almost Naked Photo Series, and while everyone else was inside eating, we were on deck stripping down for our photo op. And we were told this boat would be crowded and uncomfortable?
While the reality of my Yangtze River experience turned out to be much different than the fantasy I had painted in my mind all these years, the final canvas, in my opinion, was a masterpiece.

Yichang, China / Three Gorges Dam Project

My friend Ville and I had hatched a plan in Huangshan to meet up in Wushan, take the bus to Yichang then cruise up the Yangtze River to Chongqing. Now say that three times really fast.
Along with Ville and I, was also Marcel, a nice Swiss boy whom I had shared the same bus with and who conveniently happened to speak Mandarin, which was really helpful when our pack of intricately-detailed, pre-arranged boat, bus and tour tickets were being explained in a very friendly but rather indecipherable Chinglish; if not for Marcel, Me and Ville would have probably ended up on a bus to Burma and a boat to India (wait a minute, that sounds like fun).
Our Three Gorges tour started early in the morning, and without the opportunity to eat breakfast beforehand, we arrived with an appetite as big as the dam. A scenic bus ride following along the bank of the Yangtze, watching, in between tunnels, as the steep mountains rolled by, listening to the tour guide talk incessantly into a high pitched microphone, had me in a kind of pre-afternoon, hunger-induced, ear-deafening fog which matched the fog outside, creating mysterious, grey soaked views of the largest and most controversial dam ever built.
I was snapped to attention by a concrete-inspired adrenaline rush as I stood overlooking a structure and project of such colossal size that it immediately produced a feeling of awe, which was quickly eclipsed by guilt as I thought of all the humanitarian, environmental and cultural damage that has been created in it’s wake.
I was standing on the battleground of human against nature, cost against benefit, and as I spotted two fishermen set against the main dam wall, resembling minute dots in a Seurat painting (Sunday Afternoon at the base of The Three Gorges Dam), insignificant in size and yet vital to the bigger whole, it was unclear who was winning the fight; those small men seemed to represent human against itself, with nature getting dragged along for the bumpy ride.
Plugging the Yangtze? Who on earth thought of that? (actually, Sun Yat-sen did) But even with the haze obscuring the dam's true size, it still looked as though it might have been easier to engineer a bridge from Shanghai to Los Angeles than build this thing. I just hope that if the dam decides to spring a leak one day, that, at least, there will be some Three Gorges Glue on hand …oh, and hopefully I will be standing upstream.

January 20, 2009

Tunxi, Xidi and Hongcun, China

The small city of Tunxi, which is a good base if you want to visit Mt. Huangshan, was a refreshing break from the mixed East-West vibe of my previous destinations, allowing me to the opportunity to get back to playing games of charades when communicating and to wondering exactly how the Chinese get around without any signs written in English.
I arrived in the early evening after a scenic bus ride through mountains that were dotted with tiered rice farms and small villages, which were so picturesque it even had the locals dreamily gazing out the windows instead of engaging in their favorite traveling activity of sleeping. The streets were filled with a vibrant college campus like energy and after walking for a while, I got the feeling that everyone here knows each other and that no one stays indoors during the afternoons, preferring instead to play card games in the park, shop with friends or eat at one of the many food vendors that line the alleys.
I stayed on for a few days after returning from Mt. Huangshan to enjoy the warmth radiating from the people of this relaxed mountain town and also from the electric heating blanket that was placed on my bed which had me clinging to the mattress as if it were the last spare boat on the sinking Titanic.
My new friendship with another guest at the hostel, Ville from Finland, put me in the local company of one of his classmates from their university in Shanghai, who, along with her group of friends, showed us all around. Two of the places Ruby and Vivy took us to were the close-by Unesco water villages of Xidi and Hongcun, where we had a magical afternoon that included lunch with locals hazing us with strong rice wine and delicious food, wandering the ancient streets, photographing the buildings and villagers in the late afternoon light.
After almost a week, it was time to press on in search of more adventures, but as the villages slowly faded into highways out the window of my Chinese sleeper bus, the positive energy and friendships gleaned from Tunxi remained a bright spot on the pages of my travels.

Mt. Huangshan, China

Wanting to imitate the little hand drawn monks I saw roaming the cliffs in the old scroll paintings hanging in the Shanghai Museum, I decided to embrace the cold and ignore the persistent voice in my head telling me to run (run!) south into the warm arms of Vietnam, running instead to the base of Mt. Haungshan.
I was looking forward to channeling my newfound inner heater as Mt. Huangshan, famous for it’s steep and jagged granite peaks covered in pines and surrounded by clouds, stands 1,800 meters above sea level.
Rising before the sun, I made my way downstairs and was greeted by a 6’4” Finnish boy who, like me, was waiting for the bus to the mountain. My fortuitous meeting with Ville provided me celebrity-by-association status as many, many Chinese were absolutely fascinated with his height and either stared in wonderment or made excited requests to have their picture taken with him. Some were even kind enough to include me in the photo after registering my disappointment at not being regarded as special.
Although we condensed a six-hour hike up thousands of steps into an 18 minute tram ride to the top, there was still plenty of climbing from peak to peak to be done. After a few blissful hours wandering through uninterrupted nature, it was not my thighs or calves that ached from all the exercise, but rather my jaw, as it kept dropping with each new spectacular panorama.
One of the highlights to spending the night at the top of the mountain is the opportunity to catch the much-hyped sunrise. Ville was kind enough to silently judge me when I told him that I was planning on sleeping in and I am glad that I changed my mind when his eyes pierced through my words, because as we sat on the rocks early the next morning, above the clouds, watching the sky turn brilliant shades of orange and pink, I was not only happy to be awake, I was happy to be alive.

January 15, 2009

Hangzhou, China

Ask any traveler that has been through China what their destinations were and you will almost always hear “Hangzhou”. Famed for it’s West Lake and surrounding gardens that have inspired poets and artists for centuries, Hangzhou’s beauty seems to be a blend of a timeless esthetic and a tourist manufactured “must-do”.
Just a short train ride from Shanghai, I arrived in Hangzhou in the thick of winter. After dropping my bags at the hostel, I took a walk under grey skies drizzling rain, among trees that were bare until Spring and braved temperatures which had me carefully choosing pictures so that I wouldn’t have to take my hands out of my gloves too often. But even with all of this, I agree…Hangzhou is beautiful.
Chancing upon bonsai tree forests while watching Koi fish chase raindrops as little boats carry young lovers around the lake can start to feel pretty romantic. Unfortunately for this solo traveler, I had no one to hold gloves with or gaze at the weeping trees by the waters’ edge, so in my self-imposed solitude, I released some romantic frustration by learning about how larvae turn into moths at the silk museum.
The pro to visiting this relaxed city alone in the wintertime is that you can have sprawling gardens all to yourself whereby peacefully wandering through the landscape can make you feel like a frozen line of poetry or a human stroke in a calligraphy drawing. The con to visiting this relaxed city alone in the wintertime is that the concept of indoor heating hasn’t really made it to these parts of China, and without a warm person to snuggle up with, the cold nights can produce an American inspired hissy fit.
Even though the common area of the hostel felt like the inside of butcher’s freezer, the small heater in my room gave off the illusion that it would provide some warmth. But when cold air continued to blow from the vents I felt myself uncontrollably becoming “that demanding Westerner”. In frosty desperation I took the “heater” control to the front desk and calmly tried to explain that it wasn’t working, but when the maintenance guy gave the temperature a “thumbs-up”, I nearly burst out with a tearful complaint of “Hey, I am paying a good twelve bucks for this room!”
I am happy the better half of me stopped this from being said, and when I finally accepted that this is just the way it is in China, I put on my all my winter clothes, burrowed a cave under the blankets and gave myself a nice, warm hug.


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