Monday, February 04, 2008

Yunnan and Hong Kong Travels

I've just completed almost a month of traveling with my girlfriend Nissa, and rather than writing a lengthy post about it, I thought I'd select a few pictures and just make some brief comments.

A familiar face in Chengdu.

About two weeks were spent in Yunnan province, including Lijiang, renowned for its picturesque streets, surrounding mountain scenery, and unique Naxi minority culture. It is getting a bit Disney Land-esque and is a shadow of its former self (as evidenced by reading Peter Goullart's fantastic Forgotten Kingdom), but still an enjoyable visit.

Not far from Lijiang lies Tiger Leaping Gorge, which boasts some of the most beautiful natural scenery I have ever seen. The first part of the hike was a strenuous 7 1/2 hour day that at times taunted our inadequate physiques.

The view from our guesthouse. US$15 for a pleasant double room on a mountaintop. The second day of hiking was much shorter and less exhausting than the first.

A change of scenery and some long-awaited tropical atmosphere in Jinghong (景洪), southern Yunnan. It is the major city of the area known as Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), a taste of southeast Asia and minority culture not far from the Laos border.
I'm often unimpressed by the food when traveling when I compare it to what I know and love in Zhangye, but Yunnan delivered. The cafes of Jinghong serve some delicious and unique Dai minority dishes.

In Xishuangbanna there is a Wild Elephant Valley, a protected area home to around 50 elephants. The entrance was a bit off-putting, with fake minority performances, a deer chained to a tree, and a bear in a muzzle for the entertainment of the tour groups. However, the jungle trail was pleasant and we anxiously awaited the possibility of seeing the elephants.

We opted to stay overnight in the unique tree houses in the middle of the jungle. It was remarkably peaceful, as we were the only visitors to stay there. The short and smartly-dressed hotel keeper told us that our luck must not have been good that day, as we had just missed some elephants who had come down to the pool. She promised to inform us if they spotted any more elephants.

After a short time, luck was with us. We saw the friendly hotel keeper racing up the stairs from the staff building on the ground towards our tree house. Two elephants had been seen, and she guided us down the path towards the spot. We watched in fascination as the mother and son, who were soon joined by the father, lounged in a muddy pool and drank their fill for an hour or so. The father had a less than graceful moment while attempting to walk across a thin tree trunk, and fell hard onto his stomach. Eventually they crashed their way back into the woods, but we spotted them again in the pool beneath our tree house as it became dark. We watched and listened for a long time but they were still out there drinking when we went to bed. It was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.If you get a little outside of Jinghong or any of the other small cities in the area, it is a good opportunity to see some of China's minority cultures still living a fairly traditional lifestyle. The dominant group of the area is the Dai (傣族). Traditional Dai houses, far and away more appealing than the gray and lifeless modern housing of Chinese cities, generally are supported on stilts so that livestock (or apparently in some cases, a car) can be stored underneath the home.
The Dai are Buddhists, and their temples bore a strong resemblance to those I had seen in Thailand and Cambodia.

On our last day in Jinghong, we decided to go for one last bike ride outside the city in search of Dai villages. As luck would have it, a local Chinese high school boy with the English name Alan was renting a bike at the same time as us and was happy to become an improvised guide to the area. He took us to some villages that were closer than we expected and that we had already completely overlooked, and we were invited into the home of his Dai classmate in the first village. The room we saw was quite simple and without furniture or electric light, though we were given low stools and there was a television and refrigerator, neither in use. We took Alan to dinner as thanks at the end of the day.We were reluctant to leave the Banna area, and we disliked the next brief destination, Guangzhou, in almost every way (other than its free delivery Papa John's pizza). Actually, we didn't really see the city, as we spent the day frantically organizing our onward transportation. China has been hit by its worst winter weather in 50 years right at the time when the whole country goes home to celebrate the Chinese New Year, which has spelled a disaster of such proportions that it's gotten decent coverage in the Western media, even the cover of Time Magazine. At the time we didn't know anything about this, and were surprised to find a scene at the train station resembling a refugee camp in a war zone. Later when we read the Chinese news we saw Guangzhou's train station specifically mentioned as holding 150,000 or more migrant workers who were spending days there waiting for the chance to go home to see their families. We worked it out, but unfortunately for my budget it involved plane tickets.

We found Macau, on the other hand, to be an extraordinarily likable and unique city. Its years as a Portuguese colony (under more harmonious circumstances than long-time British colony Hong Kong, it seems) have given it a pleasant European feel and lovely architecture, churches in particular. Though an expensive destination by our standards (it's also a massive gambling center increasingly on par with Las Vegas), the food was good and the city unusually clean and organized. It was a fun place to simply walk around, window shop, and enjoy free samples from the bakeries.

Unique incense sticks at a temple dedicate to the sea goddess A-Ma.

Our last destination was Hong Kong. It was a good choice for the last stop in that it's an exciting, world-class city that we had looked forward to seeing, but bad in that it was outrageously and stupendously expensive on our Zhangye salaries. The highlight for me was a fantastic Cantonese restaurant we stumbled into randomly. I never thought eel could be so delicious. Coming from the mainland, Hong Kong is shocking in its cleanliness, level of organization, diversity, and English ability. A bizarre thing happened every time we paused on the street while trying to find something: a local would immediately stop and assist in flawless English, oftentimes physically taking us to where we wanted to go to make sure we found it. This happened no less than 10 or 12 times, and when in doubt we learned to stop, look confused, and wait. This never happens on the mainland, where locals and even those in the service industry tend to be impressively ill-informed and though often friendly, will never approach you on the street on the (very reasonable) assumption that you don't speak any Chinese. As neither of us speak a word of Cantonese, we were able to take a break from Mandarin and enjoy being a world of fluent English again. Unfortunately for the earnest mainland English students who eternally ask us "how can I improve my English?", the best answer seems to be "let your city become the colony of a Western power for 150 years or so."

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