December 2nd, 2011
WildChina | Categories: Adventure Travel in China, Chinese Culture, On the Road
China folk lore Haba Snow Mountain Tiger Leaping Gorge wild China WildChina WildChina tour leader WildChina travel .
This note was written by Devin Corrigan, a WildChina tour leader & travel consultant who recently traveled to Haba Snow Mountain on an educational trip.
I stared at the summit of Haba Snow Mountain for the better part of 3 days before I actually reached on top of it, and then for another day afterward as I descended – at 5,396 meters tall, Haba doesn’t hide very easily. In this time, I had come to think of the summit as cresting wave of snow, paused in mid-surge on the western lip of Tiger Leaping Gorge, that dramatic gash in the earth between Haba and Yulong (Jade Dragon) Snow Mountain to the east.
The Haba summit towers over pine forest on the first day of a three-day approach
In local lore, however, it turns out Haba has quite a morbid backstory. The frosty rip curl of rock that sits atop the mountain may look like a frozen wave to me, but some locals will tell you it is in fact the decapitated remains of a shamed prince.
Long ago, the King of Heaven had two sons and three daughters; the sons were Haba and Yulong (Jade Dragon), the daughters the Mekong, Yangtze, and Salween rivers. The King desired that his daughters marry suitors from the south; two of them, the Mekong and the Salween, did as they were told, flowing into the South China Sea and the Andaman Sea, respectively.
But the Yangtze had other ideas. She yearned for the east, and her father knew it. He therefore charged his two sons with a critical task: to stand guard and block the path between the rebellious river and the plucky prince that was the East China Sea. And guard they did, while cutting (nearly) the same intimidating figures they do now.
One night, Yulong slumbered while Haba took the night shift. Drowsy, Haba struggled mightily to stay awake, a struggle he ultimately lost. With both her brothers asleep, Princess Yangtze seized her chance and sliced between them – creating the massive Tiger Leaping Gorge – and began her long, winding journey to the east.
The Yangtze river flows east after thundering through the 15-kilometer length of one of the world's deepest gorges
When all awoke and discovered what had happened, the King was overcome with fury. In his rage, he struck Haba, sending his “head” tumbling into river below. That giant boulder still lies in the Gorge, and the waters still churn around it as they rush towards what we now call the Yangtze River Delta.
This story doesn’t just explain the shape of Haba as it exists today; it also tells us why Haba doesn’t quite match up to the 5,596 meters of his taller and more famous brother Yulong.
November 18th, 2011
WildChina | Categories: Adventure Travel in China, On the Road, WildChina Experts, WildChina Explorer Grant
Chube’ka Jeff Fuchs Karmapa Spring Nang Tong La wild China WildChina WildChina Experts WildChina travel .
Winner of the 2011 WildChina Explorer Grant, Jeff Fuchs says, “Nice as it is to sleep within walls, I feel slightly claustrophobic and long to get out to the fresh air and unencumbered sight-lines again.” From his Tea and Mountain Journals, here is the latest update from his journeys in southwest China…
The kora, for Buddhists and Hindus, circumambulating in a clockwise direction follows the apparent movement of the sun. The sun in question is now hidden as we wake in the camp of Chube’ka. Tucked into the valley there is only cold air seeping out of the earth and into us. Sleep was touch and go, though there are no immediate reasons as to why – sleep isn’t always a comforting time in the mountains.
Another of the faces that stay with me. A nomadic pilgrim, having just dunked her head in a stream wipes the remnants off. Toughness in the mountains is a minimum requirement and it is never something flaunted...it simply is
Reke has slept badly and his normally patient face is tight and explosive looking. Michael wants a tough day and he is impatient to push the bodies into the redlines. Kandro looks at me over tea telling me that today will be “up, up, up”. Drolma is ever-smiling steering our morning with liquid, food and the kind of quiet care that women the world over can provide. Our big man Tseba sits quietly away from the fire with a bowl of tea with those big chocolate eyes straying into the skies. I find his moods a good gauge of the days to come for us.
With every day, new arrivals, new destinations and always new departures
Pushing the pace we make good time catching and then falling into pace with a large group of nomadic pilgrims, led by a slightly deformed young man whose strengths seem realized in the ascents. He is a mess of dust, disheveled hair and of magnificently wild eyes that flick everywhere in a moment. He wears a suit coat slung as only a Tibetan can sling a piece of clothing: loose, one arm out and tied in a casual knot at the waist. The young boy’s back is hunched and one arm appears longer than the other. His being looks like he has been hunted for his entire life. He moves with the uncanny smoothness of a cat. It is as though his distorted body has become his supreme vessel. I suspect he pushes himself to punish and purify his past and future lives respectively…karma, in his mind at least, may be to blame for his malformed back. I cannot stop looking at him.
he young man that made such an impression on me. Bent by disfigurement, his simian strength and agility ate up the kora in gulps
His chin seems perpetually puckered as though he has been engaged in the effort of simply living. And of course I am aware that I, in my way, I maybe creating an entirely different picture in my head than he really is. I cannot help but feel though, that every pilgrim group we encounter has a titan or self appointed guardian leading it. This face is one that stays in the mind long after the features have disappeared.
We make it up 1000 metres before lunch to Nang Tong La, lunching at the auspicious ‘Karmapa Spring’. Around us are entire clans feasting away in a yellow plastic enclosure…and there he is, the misshapen boy running every which way preparing, arranging and creating for his band of travelers. Our eyes meet and I smile and he doesn’t, but there is a millisecond of something from those haunted eyes before moving on.
Lunch tents became populated during mid-day and would empty out in minutes only to wait for the next day's hungry
For the full account from Jeff’s journey, visit his blog Tea and Mountain Journals. To travel with Jeff on a WildChina journey along the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road, click here or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos & post by Jeff Fuchs.
November 17th, 2011
Guest | Categories: On the Road
Burning Yak butter candles & incense Circumambulations in Tibet Four Points Sheraton in Lhasa Jokhang Temple Potala Palace Prostrations Sangye Tungu Sera Monastery spirituality in Lhasa Tibetan Buddhism travel to Tibet with WildChina wild China WildChina WildChina travel .
Continuing with the travel series written by WildChina travelers Janet Heininger and Jamie Reuter, we move on to their next destination. Stop 2 – Lhasa, Tibet…
On Tuesday, October 19, we flew 3,000 km to Lhasa, Tibet on Air China, changing planes in Chengdu. Our Air China flight was just fine, even in economy class. Leg room was barely adequate but people didn’t seem to lower their seat backs as much as in the US. All internal Chinese flights advertise a strict weight limit of 20 kgs per checked bag and 5 kgs for a limit of one carry-on (plus a purse or small bag). While we met these requirements on all seven of our internal flights, we ultimately decided that the rules weren’t very strictly or uniformly enforced any more than they are in the US. The new Lhasa airport is way out of the city (90 kms.). After being met by our guide, Nyima, and our driver, we went to our hotel and crashed.
Lhasa’s urban area is at 11,800 feet and has a population of around 300,000, up from around 10,000 in 1959. It was one of our favorite places on this trip. Due to the risk of altitude sickness, we both took Diamox as we had in Peru and had no problems with headaches or the altitude at all—even when hiking. As an oddity, you should know that, in spite of its size, China operates with only a single time zone. In any other county that large, you would expect to have 4 or even 5 different time zones. But here, everyone is on Beijing time. People in the western sections merely follow the sun more than the clock when it comes to scheduling things and routine work hours vary accordingly.
The political situation in Tibet is fairly complicated. But in very brief summary, Tibet was founded as the religious and administrative center of Tibetan Buddhism in the 7th Century. Until 1959 when the most recent reincarnation (literally) of the Dali Lama went into exile, the Potala Palace was also the earthly home of the leader of the Yellow Hat branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetans clearly feel they should be independent. China, with the backing of its armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), clearly has indicated that it has no intention of giving up its jurisdiction over the Tibetan plateau even though it has given it the cosmetic, official name of the “Tibetan Autonomous Region.” With PLA forces clearly in evidence, China continues a not so stealthy take-over by sending ever more Han Chinese (the ethnic group most prevalent in Beijing and NE China) to live in the area. Roughly 1/3rd of the population and ½ of Lhasa’s population is Han Chinese. It had one very good hotel, with a super luxury St. Regis Hotel to open just after we left (11/15).
Our hotel was the very good one, the Four Points run by Sheraton. It was quite nice (4+ stars) but not spectacular: very comfortable, clean, modern, good service, quiet, good breakfast (the standard fare), good views of mountains, and walkable distances to main sites (although taxis and pedi-cabs are both cheap). It had a spa (as did most of our hotels), but we never seemed to get around to using them. Our guide, Nyima, was terrific.
The dominant characteristic of Lhasa is its spirituality. To begin, there are simply all of the local monks, monasteries, nuns, and nunneries, and various temples and holy sites. According to our guide, we happened to be there at a special time on the calendar – the first full moon after the harvest. As a result, thousands of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims and nomads, many in traditional, tribal costumes, were in the city and surrounded its religious sites. Pilgrims had lots of traditional activities including:
- Circumambulations: walking clockwise around a religious temple (or site, or city, or monastery, etc.). As an example, there was a huge crowd (6-10 people wide) that made a continuous ring of people walking around the Johkang Temple. Always clockwise. A few very rude tourists might go the other way, but Nyima (our somewhat spiritual guide) never would have let us do it.
- Prostrations: repeatedly stretching out face down on a mat, arms and hands extended out toward a temple or icon and then returning to a standing position, hands folded. Repeat indefinitely. This was like watching an aerobics show in slow motion. Whole crowds would be doing it, each independently. Old people. Young people in stylish clothes. Kids. Nomads in traditional garb. Sometimes they did this in place. Sometimes they would embark on a circumambulation made up of repeated prostrations. So while circumambulating, you might suddenly see this person stretched out on the ground, making their way around a holy site, one body length at a time. The crowd barely noticed, and simply flowed around them on their own circumambulation path.
- Burning incense: Scattered around the holy sites were huge, white, 15 foot tall incense burners. Actually more like furnaces, they spewed out clouds of white smoke and smell. Once, one was so full that flames were shooting out of the top. People constantly tossed in more incense as offerings.
- Burning Yak butter candles: mostly an indoor activity. In and around temples, there would be these urns of yak butter with 10-30 burning wicks. Pilgrims carried tubs of yak butter and they would periodically add a scoop or so to a candle as an offering as they passed through a temple. Sometimes the floor was greasy with spilled yak butter and you had to be careful how you walked.
- Donating money: All of the local religious institutions survive on community donations. So everyone is constantly leaving money behind. Even our guide, Nyima. While I’m sure that he visits many of the sites with tours 2 or 3 time each week, he still (very discreetly) would take a one Yuan note (about 15 cents) and stick it in a crack by a Buddhist statue, or drop one in a pile of other bills near a particular altar. Sometimes he prostrated himself before a particularly important shrine. Once, after we spoke with a group of nuns who were burying a new pipe (in very rocky ground) for the water supply for their nunnery, he walked out of his way to drop off the equivalent of $3 US to (according to his instructions) buy some extra food for the four hard-working nuns.
I could go on and on about prayer flags, monks and monasteries, religious icons and art, and so on. It was never overwhelming at any particular moment (unlike the tourists in Tiananmen Square). But after 3 days of being confronted with this stuff, it became a little awe-inspiring and deeply moving.
Food in Lhasa was just fine–nothing special but a lot better than in Beijing. One of the hallmarks of Wild China is that meals are covered and they were mostly in local restaurants – generally ones not patronized by other westerners. We really appreciated and enjoyed our eating experiences, even when we weren’t crazy about the taste. They did have really good cucumber salads. I had yak steaks a couple of times. One night we went to a very tasty Nepalese restaurant. One night we went to a small restaurant with an OK buffet dinner and saw an after-dinner show of traditional Tibetan music, costumes and dancing – interesting and worth while.
In spite of the altitude, the weather actually was warmer than in Beijing. We had partially cloudy skies with some sun that provided stunning views of the surrounding, snow-covered mountains. (Weather.com said 80% chance of rain daily for our entire visit to Tibet). It would be quite cold in the morning and at night, yet warm up during the day so we’d have to roll up the sleeves of our travel shirts.
Our first day in Lhasa began at the Potala Palace. This iconic red, white and gold building has over 1,000 rooms and 10,000 shrines, and sits atop a 1,000 foot tall mountain in the middle of the city. The first palace on this site was built in 637 AD. The most recent version was completed in 1694. The white parts are a blinding white. They were close to finishing the new, annual coat of white wash. Apparently, they just pour it on (the walls angle out slightly) and it just runs down the side. As a result, you have to be careful where you sit or what you lean against because white dust is everywhere. The only way up is a long series of stairs which you share with pilgrims. Pilgrims get in free, tourists pay and are limited to 2,300 tickets per day. Pictures and words really don’t do this place justice. You can just feel its age. Once inside, you’re following a path through murky, dark rooms, up and down ancient, wooden stairs, through chapels and shrines, mixing with various pilgrims, while smelling burning yak butter and incense. It has to be experienced to be believed. 2 hours after entry, we popped out on the other side and made our way back down a long series of stone stairways.
We then went to a very odd place known as Sanje Tongu–also spelled Sangye Tungu. As far as tourist guide books or even encyclopedias are concerned, this place doesn’t even exist. It’s tucked in behind Chokpori, one of the three “sacred” mountains within Lhasa. After walking through several narrow streets lined with market stalls (too narrow to drive), you come to a small open space. One side is a tall, flatish stone surface on the backside of Chokpori, 60 feet tall by 120 feet wide that is covered with sacred carvings and paintings of 1,000 Buddhas. Nearby is a smoking incense burner. There is also a flat surface for people who are doing their prostration rituals. There is also a special new sort of pyramid. It is made up of tens of thousands of flat pieces of slate on which special prayers have been carved. This stack of slate prayers is 50 feet tall, and you can circumambulate around it (clockwise of course) while spinning prayer wheels and chanting a mantra – om mani padme hum. (We did the walk and the spinning but didn’t chant much.) It was a quiet, private place where people came to pay spiritual homage and a special place to visit and experience. Apparently, this site is considered very sacred and used to be the location of a Tibetan school for traditional medicine which was destroyed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. But it is slowly being recreated by Lhasa’s devout residents.
Later in the afternoon, we went to the Sera Monastery on a hill at the edge of town. The unique aspect of this place is its school for monks. Every afternoon at 3:30, the students and teachers come to the “Debating Courtyard” for debates. That is, they have a lesson in the morning. They meditate on their lesson. Then in the afternoon, they gather in little groups of 2-10 monks, some teachers and some students, and begin a question and answer style debate. It was very loud and boisterous. They speak loudly. They laugh and obviously challenge and argue with each other. And when they make what they think is their best point, they do this combination loud hand clap and pointing gesture. It was very interesting to watch. Some monks appeared to be playing to the 50 or so tourists watching with video cameras from the edges though that might merely have been our interpretation since there apparently is a set of ritual gestures used for these debates. Others were clearly involved in serious, intense discussion and debate. Our guide said that most of it was kept real by the teachers present who guided the discussions. We found it fascinating to watch.
On our second day in Lhasa, we begin at the Pobonka [also known as Pabonka] Potrang monastery. It was 7 kms outside the center of the city and up about 1,000 feet (12,800 feet altitude). Its principal claim to fame is a small cave that was used by the founder of Tibet for meditation during the early 7th Century. Currently, it has only small number of monks. After a brief visit, we hiked up a trail (gaining another 500 feet in altitude) to the even smaller Thasi Shu Lin [also spelled Thasi Chöling] hermitage. While climbing slowly and steadily to avoid oxygen deficit, we saw thousands of strings of prayer flags hung across gullies to catch the wind. The wind is presumed to spread the beneficial thoughts on the flags across the valleys below. So, the more wind the better. Thus, you always see collections of these flags in places with good wind, like the tops of mountains or across rivers, streams and gullies. After crossing a ridge, we descended a winding path to the Bakhue [also known as Chupzang or Chubzang] nunnery. Here we encountered the nuns burying a new plastic water main to bring fresh water down the mountain into their cistern. This nunnery is also known for its political activism. Many members were arrested during political demonstrations in the late 1980s against Chinese occupation. This political activism may be due, in part, to the fact that the original nunnery was destroyed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution and was only recently rebuilt.
After lunch we visited the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred temple in Lhasa. It was originally built in 642 AD. By now, you can guess the drill: lots of pilgrims (some in native dress), burning incense and yak butter candles, crowds of people doing circumambulations and prostrations, dark shrines with statues of various protectors, each stuffed with one Yuan bills. Inside, this temple has one of the most venerated statues of Buddha. Outside is the Barkhor, a key path for the circumambulation around the Jokhang Temple. It is also the central marketplace, lined with stalls selling a whole variety of stuff to the pilgrims while their do their walks. For sale is everything from everyday clothes, to religious stuff, scarves, art, and even a few very high quality shops. Jan and I spent some time shopping and came home with an original thangka painting of a Buddhist figure known as the “White Tara” (the bodhisattva or goddess of longevity, compassion and health), whose male counterpart is Amitayus. We almost also bought a really fascinating picture of Jambhala, the Buddha of wealth and prosperity. After some consideration, we decided that displaying it at home would be a little too much like creating a private altar to greed. So we passed (although we probably shouldn’t have since it really was a cool painting). We also shopped for a Tibetan rug. However, it turns out that hand-made Tibetan rugs cost just as much ($2-5 K) as hand-made rugs in Turkey or Morocco – or Tibetan ones in NYC, and though we need a rug for the breakfast room, we don’t need one at that price.
During the morning of our last day in Lhasa, we went back to a couple of sites (Jokhang Temple, Barkhor and Sanje Tongu—) to complete some purchases. We also took the opportunity to tie several long white scarves we had been given as traditional greetings around a pole near the Jokhang Temple to seek protection for the remainder of our trip. Nothing bad happened over the next week or two, so it must have worked. In addition, this was a most special, full-moon holy day, and so the pilgrims were out in huge numbers and the incense furnaces were belching smoke. There was even a line of pilgrims doing a circumambulation of the entire city.
Given the density of pilgrims, the Chinese army had to make sure that their presence was obvious and noted. Periodically you would see small patrol units marching to their assigned areas around the city. They would just march down the middle of a busy city street, ignoring traffic and lights and basically expecting everyone and everything to get out of their way. This is, of course, very rude. But it probably also is very effective as demonstration of their literal dominance and control.
We drove back out to the airport around lunch time. We had a great noodle soup with fried bread sandwiches stuffed with beef at a little dive near the airport. It was the best meal of the trip so far.
Janet and Jamie traveled with WildChina in October of 2010. For journeys to Tibet, check out our website here or contact us at email@example.com. To read the other parts of their journey, see the following articles:
- Thrilled with our tour company, but not seduced by China
- It’s not rudeness; it’s simply cultural norms.
Photos & post by Janet Heininger & Jamie Reuter.
October 24th, 2011
WildChina | Categories: On the Road, WildChina Announcements
Australia Global Eco Conferences in Sydney Veronique d'Antras wild China WildChina WildChina at PURE Life Experiences 2011 WildChina travel Zhang Mei Zhao Bei .
Our team is preparing to travel outside Beijing soon, and we would love to meet you while we are out and about! If your schedule allows, join us for a coffee, lunch or a brief meeting to learn more about our China programs.
We invite you to meet us at…
Veronique & Zhao Bei at PURE: firstname.lastname@example.org. For meetings with Mei: email@example.com
We look forward to meeting you soon!
The WildChina Team
October 17th, 2011
Guest | Categories: On the Road
Beijing Chinese tourists Forbidden City Great Wall new China Opposite House Peking Duck Tiananmen Square traveler's voice wild China WildChina WildChina travel .
A couple months ago, you heard from WildChina travelers Jan Heininger and Jamie Reuter saying that they were thrilled with [their] tour company, but not seduced by China. Their journey in October of 2010 took them through Beijing, Tibet, Yunnan Province. Guangxi Province, and finally to Hong Kong. Here is the second part of a series of articles detailing their experience. Stop 1 – Beijing…
We flew to Beijing via Toronto on Air Canada. Our plane was equipped with lie-flat, business class seats. OK food. Great lounge with free dinner in Toronto. The tickets were half the price of other airlines. Definitely recommend Air Canada for anyone travelling to China or other points in the Far East. 12 hour flight with 12 hour time change meant we didn’t have to reset our watches which was sort of weird. It took both Jan and me several days to get past the time shift. 12 hours is tough (though Jan thinks it’s easier than 8 hours).
Oddly, we arrived a full day early. We had figured: depart on Thursday (10/14), cross international dateline and arrive Saturday. So our hotel and ground arrangements all were set up to begin on Saturday. I’m still not quite sure how or why we went wrong, but we actually arrived on Friday. So there we were in the Beijing airport: no Chinese money, no one to meet us, and few people with any English to help us sort out what to do. After an hour-long comedy of errors (cell phone with locking key-pad and no instruction booklet, low volume on cell phone, receiving text message instructions in Chinese characters, etc.), we finally convinced our tour company that we were actually in town and received their instructions. We were asked to take a mass-transit “airport express” train into town because it would take too long for our actual guide, Andy, to come pick us up. We didn’t really understand this at the time but our subsequent experience with traffic jams demonstrated the wisdom of this suggestion. Eventually, we managed to get our luggage, get money, find the train, buy tickets, get off at the right stop (the last one) and meet up with our guide who then took us to our hotel. By this time, we had finally sorted out that the timing screw-up was actually our fault, and not an error by our tour company.
Our hotel in Beijing was the Opposite House (don’t ask about the meaning behind the name; I don’t know it), an ultramodern, minimalist-design hotel in the embassy district. Very, very nice—the kind of lovely boutique we prefer. In fact, tourists (both Chinese and western) routinely came in to photograph the interior spaces. Good bed, wooden sinks and bath (a little odd), good shower, great service, and a very good breakfast. The breakfasts were fairly uniform (and excellent) across all of our hotels. By a large, they were based on large and diverse buffets with egg stations, bacon, cheeses, breads, rolls and muffins, cereal, yoghurt, etc. In addition, they had a whole range of stuff for oriental breakfasts. If you’ve never seen this, it includes broth, noodles, and a wide variety of meats, vegetables, fish, seaweed, sprouts, tofu, etc that are combined in a big bowl as a sort of breakfast soup to be eaten with chopsticks. The broth itself is simply “slurped” down. We looked at it. We tried it and poked around a little. But basically we stuck with the western fare for breakfast. We excused ourselves by saying that two good Chinese meals a day was enough and who wants seaweed for breakfast? There were no really good breads or hard rolls anywhere in China until we got to Hong Kong. Maybe it has to do with the types of wheat they grow or something?
Once settled in Beijing, we did all the usual things. We went to Tiananmen Square (covered with tourists). We toured the Forbidden City. We had Peking Duck (greasy). In the rain (on our third day) we visited the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. We drove past a couple of Olympic sites (the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest Stadium). We took a pedi-cab tour of a hutong, a traditional Beijing neighborhood jammed in between all of the various high rise apartment buildings. The hutongs are sort of like old, single story, traditional ghettos that are slowly being consumed by new high-rise construction. But the Chinese who live in them love their traditional way of life, though they have no private baths or toilets. The pre-Olympic destruction of several hutongs caused such a fury that it seems that the local “Central Committee” is trying them out as tourist attractions to see if showing them off can provide a positive financial return.
Our favorite things were the Ceramics Museum within the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. The museum was a quiet, deserted haven away from all the crowds with very good signage in both Chinese and English. The Great Wall looked exactly like all the pictures you’ve seen of it. But actually experiencing it was special. We visited the Mutianyu section, which is a partially restored but far less touristy section of the Wall. Jan and I took a long (2.5 hour) hike along its top. The Wall actually just follows the crest of a mountain ridge. The path along the top of the Wall can be extremely steep in places. We both ended up with sore thighs and calves from climbing up and down some really steep and long stretches of steps, but loved the experience.
The food in Beijing was very so-so. They seem to use a lot of oil so the food was very greasy and not all that flavorful. Even when we went to a restaurant that specialized in Peking Duck, we were pretty underwhelmed. We were not terribly adventuresome in our choices, so we probably missed a lot of what a real “foodie” would find interesting and good about Beijing food.
One of the oddities of being in China was the Chinese tourists’ fascination with us. It started in the Tiananmen Square where this nice couple asked if they could have their picture taken with us with the Forbidden City in the background. According to our guide, this was due to the inherent weirdness of westerners in general, and a tall, bearded westerner like Jamie in particular. While this first incident was unique in that it included Jan, 10 or 12 times during the trip some couple or group of giggling girls or whomever wanted Jamie to pose with them for a photo – more or less to prove to their friends back home that they had seen, and even touched, a foreigner—but mostly because Jamie was so tall and looked even taller with his Australian Tilley hat. Another tall American that we met on the trip had similar experiences. After a while, the whole thing became a bother and bit irritating. It was, in some small way, like having paparazzi chase after you. It eventually made me feel like a creature in a zoo that people gawked at. Weird. And yet, despite such experiences and our reaction to the hordes and hordes of Chinese tourists, we found the Chinese, as individuals, to be friendly and welcoming.
We spent hours in traffic going to and from the Great Wall, and trying to get around inside the city. Drivers are crazy there. They push and shove in traffic using cars, trucks and buses pretty much the same way they push and shove in queues. As one guide told us, there is no concept of personal distance in China (unlike in Japan where they create their own). It’s not rudeness; it’s simply cultural norms. However, they always beep their horn when passing (they are taught to do this). And when passing, they pull back into the right lane when the front seats have barely passed the front of the car being overtaken. Several times, I was sure that we would clip the front of a car being passed but we never did. Crossing a street on foot was also a challenge. Initially I thought that cars were aiming at us on purpose. Later, I realized that there just wasn’t any concept of pedestrians having the right of way. A car making right hand turns just keeps going. It was up to the pedestrians to get out of their way. Given that the city was laid out in huge squares, Beijing was not a walkable city anyway.
Beijing was clearly an example of the “new China.” Designer stores were everywhere. Many young people clearly had lots of money and were stylishly dressed. There was a long line outside an Apple Store near our hotel, as people waited to buy iPhones at five times the US price. High rise condominiums and office buildings were everywhere. Some brand new, some older and clearly showing their age. Construction cranes were everywhere. Our guides quipped that China’s national bird was the crane (i.e., steel crane, not feathered; get it??). But the old neighborhood (hutong) near our hotel didn’t have a sewer or clean, public water. Beijing was clearly a city of contrasts, with rapid change being driven by the “new” China economy.
Stay tuned for more tales from Ms. Heininger & Mr. Reuter’s journey. For more information about adventures in Beijing, see a sample itinerary here or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Ms. Heninger & Mr. Reuter. To see all of their photos, visit WildChina’s flickr page here.
September 16th, 2011
WildChina | Categories: On the Road, WildChina Travel Tips
Destination Expert Alliance glamping Gobi Desert Mongolia Nomadic Expeditions travel around the world wild China WildChina WildChina travel .
At the beginning of the year, WildChina founder Zhang Mei attended the Condé Nast Traveler Exchange in Las Vegas and met other Top Travel Specialists around the world. In sharing their unique ideas about travel to (literally) their areas of expertise, a few of the Conde Nast travel specialists soon realized that their passion for travel could be, and needed to be, extended even further! Thus, a small group including WildChina, has come together to form the Destination Expert Alliance (DEA)
WildChina frequently receives requests for quality tour options around the world, and while we would like to serve our clients’ needs in this area, we only specialize in China. For this reason, we feel it has become necessary to provide out clients with touring options around the world that match the WildChina standards of service and responsible travel.
Last week, we were honored to have the president of one of DEA partners visit our WildChina office in Beijing. We would like to introduce Mr. Jalsa Urubsharow, founder and CEO of Nomadic Expeditions in Mongolia…
As the founder and CEO of the top travel company in Mongolia, Jalsa sure does look the part — his wide smile, wriggling brows & whiskers, and his rosy, wind-swept cheeks give off the impression that he just recently dismounted a camel in the Gobi Desert to come talk to us. (His just-off-of-the-grasslands appearance made his American accent and humour quite the surprise!)
Conde Nast Top Travel Specialists: Jalsa Urubshurow & Zhang Mei
Jovial and enthusiastic, he talks animatedly about Mongolia’s natural beauty and all that it has to offer tourists and visitors:
“Everyone says, ‘Come to my 5-star hotel or come to my 5-restaurant or whatever’; I say come to Mongolia where 5 million stars in the night sky can serve as your breathtaking rooftop.”
From the natural lakes, the coniferous forests, and the mountains of the north to the vast grasslands and the Gobi Desert in the south, Mongolia offers a huge range of unspoilt wildlife for travelers to explore.
A couple of suggestions Jalsa had were:
The Nomadic Expeditions’ Three Camel Lodge. A form of “glamping” or glamorous camping, the Three Camel Lodge is a luxury ger or yurt camp in the heart of the Gobi Desert. It is located as close as one can be to the Flaming Cliffs, named so by the blood-red color the rock face turns under the setting sun. (These are mountains located on the eastern edge of Xinjiang province of northwestern China). As part of Nomadic Expeditions’ efforts to sustain the local economy and promote their culture, much of the material used in both the construction of the gers and in their outfitting and interior decoration comes from the surrounding tribes.
Lake Hovsgol is the cleanest freshwater lake in the world – if you throw a rock in, says Jalsa, you can see it for more than 90 meters (almost 300 feet) down. This pristine body of water is where Jalsa is constructing his new lodge. Like the Three Camels Lodge, it will be almost 100% self-sustainable, with solar panel powered light bulbs in each ger.
In 1999, Jalsa founded an NGO, the Berkut Association, in Bayan Ulgii to promote the great Kazakh tradition of hunting by Golden Eagle. Today more than 60 hunters gather every year from all over northern Mongolia to partake in the Golden Eagle Festival motivating younger members of their tribes to preserve this once almost-extinct tradition. Join in on the fun by traveling to Bayan-Ulgii province in western Mongolia in the fall.
We thank Jalsa for the great tips & hope to meet again on the grasslands!
To learn about travel to other destinations such as Africa and Southeast Asia by members of the Destination Expert Alliance, please visit: http://www.wildchina.com/about-wildchina/travel-partners
August 2nd, 2011
Guest | Categories: Chinese Culture, On the Road, WildChina Travel Tips
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The following post was written by Jan Heininger and Jamie Reuter, WildChina clients who traveled with us for two and half weeks in October of 2010. Their journey took them through Beijing, Tibet, Yunnan Province. Guangxi Province, and finally to Hong Kong. This is the first of a series of articles he wrote detailing their experience. We begin with their overall impression of China…
Some people come away saying they “loved” China. We didn’t. Don’t get me wrong. This was a great trip. China was fascinating. It had beautiful scenery. It had lots of history and culture. We had many very unique experiences. Tibet was wonderful. We saw the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. We saw amazing scenery including the karst mountains in the Li River valley. We saw and experienced (in our own way) the spirituality of Tibet and China. We visited towns and areas still dominated by minority populations and tribes. We had, alas, only a few great meals but we stayed in a number of really outstanding hotels. We had excellent guides and drivers who gave us meaningful insights into China, its history, its culture and its peoples. We came away with a much greater appreciation for how some of the more recent aspects of Chinese history (end of the empire, Mao, the Cultural Revolution and the change to the “new economy”) have molded how people live their lives today. We walked through “old towns” and markets established a thousand years ago. We got a better understanding of how life works under central control. But we didn’t “love it.” We were fascinated. We will go back to visit other areas of the country. We were thrilled with our tour company and will use them again. But we weren’t seduced by the country’s charms.
Part of our difficulties was due to the constant and sometimes overwhelming presence of Chinese tourists. Chinese tourists are an odd group and not terribly accommodating or pleasant from a westerner’s perspective. According to conversations with several people, Chinese tourists are less interested in seeing, learning and understanding, and much more interested in taking home pictures of themselves and cheap souvenir gifts to “prove” they had been to the big city and seen the elephant (so to speak). In the context of China’s economic growth and the spread of wealth down into the middle classes and rural communities, millions of these tourists are on their initial trips out of their local communities. They smoke a lot. They spit. They talk, stand up or even walk around during performances. They push and shove to get to the front of a line – a survival skill, no doubt, in a country with 1.3 billion people. In small numbers (anything less than several thousand), they are no worse than any other population of large groups discharging from parked ranks of tour buses. You ignore their presence and carry on. But for some reason, we were flooded with them. Clearly, it was worst in Beijing, and our experience there may have made us hypersensitive to the issue throughout the remainder of the trip. But our guides uniformly reflected on how they were seeing substantially many more national tourists than expected. In prior years, the number of Chinese tourists had substantially diminished following their big national holiday (October 1). This year, they just kept coming. As an early example, I expected Tiananmen Square to be this huge, open square, just like the pictures I’ve seen. Instead, all we could see were the heads of tens of thousands of tourists jamming an open space between a few monumental marble structures. There was a 4-6 hour wait to get into Mao’s tomb (we skipped it). Given the number of people present, the square itself didn’t even seem all that big. For communities all across China, hanging out a “UNESCO Site” sign means you’re guaranteed millions of dollars of revenue from tens of thousands of Chinese tourists jamming little historic streets lined with shops selling plastic crap and cheap reproductions (mostly made in Viet Nam). You can’t fault the Chinese for wanting to visit the hotspots within their own country. But their numbers and manner definitely reduced our enjoyment and, in some cases our appreciation, for particular sights or experiences.
Second, China is clearly struggling with the size of its population, the extraordinary rate of growth in its economy and the rapid changes that are occurring in its distribution of wealth. Improvements in their infrastructure (highways and airports in our experiences) just can’t keep up. So in any largish city (and a country this size has lots and lots of cities with 5-10 million people), traffic jams, litter, pollution, clean water, lack of functional sewer systems, crowded public transport, crowded airports and disruptions due to construction are real problems. I saw more Ferraris in Beijing in 3 days than I’ve seen in Washington D.C. in 30 years. But most of them probably never get out of 1st gear due to the endless traffic jams there. They’re like enormous pinkie rings, serving only to demonstrate the wealth of their owners. Our trip included many, many hours in cars and vans averaging anywhere from 10-20 kilometers per hour – both in urban areas and while driving between rural towns. Most tourist areas are struggling to deal with the explosion of tourism by Chinese nationals and foreigners, and some sites are, frankly, failing. For example, we had to stand around for 15-20 minutes waiting for our guide to purchase tickets to get into the Forbidden City. There was no way to pre-purchase tickets to get into sites. And it wasn’t just for our small group of two. Even the large groups stood around waiting, increasing the sense of congestion and crowding around key sites. They just haven’t learned the secrets of how to move people along.
Finally (and there’s no polite way to say this) but… Squat toilets were not our favorite Chinese experience. Particularly when there aren’t any doors or walls between the “stalls.” And you’d better bring your own toilet paper because you won’t find any outside of luxury hotels and airports (and even some of the airports only had squat toilets.)
I remember when my Grandmother Miller visited us in Germany back in the 1960’s and said something like “Germany would be a great place if it just wasn’t so full of foreigners.” That’s been an inside, Reuter family joke for years. I am very uncomfortable with the fact that my feelings about our China trip include even a tiny hint of this incredibly ethno-centric view. I really do believe that I’m much more cosmopolitan than that. But it can’t be argued that in the end, we just didn’t really “love” China as a country, and these were some of the reasons why.
Our tour company was WildChina. We could never say enough wonderful things about how well they actually performed. They provided everything promised, including cars and beds big enough for Jamie. Their guides were terrific: very helpful, informed and flexible. While dealing with our early arrival is the best example of their flexibility, we regularly had conversations with our guides about the various options we had for spending a day. They quickly picked up on our desire to skip the obvious and crowded and go for things that were more unusual and interesting. They knew where the shops with “quality” goods were, and took us there. They were very open about their own lives and experiences. They taught us a lot about what it was like to live in the “new China.” We highly recommend WildChina to anyone planning a trip there. They will work with you to create the type of trip you want, and then deliver it. A very good friend of ours, who has travelled extensively, went on a 12 day trip to Yunnan, departing two days after we returned, and spent time in many of the same places we visited. She used one of the “usual” tour companies. The contrast between the two trips was remarkable. If you’re going to China, use WildChina.
Weather wise, we sort of lucked out. The rainy season was supposed to have ended. But everyone kept talking about how weather patterns had been delayed this year and that we were still in the tail end of the rainy season. Weather.com kept predicting rain – with daily precipitation probabilities ranging from 60-80% for weeks at a time. In reality, we had serious rain for only two days: one in Beijing (when we visited the Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven in our rain gear and under umbrellas) and one in Kunming (when a break in a steady rain let us wander around the Stone Forest without get too wet). On the other hand, it was generally cloudy, overcast and about 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) colder than we expected. While Jamie never put on his wool cap and gloves, he only wore his shorts and polo shirts after we got to Hong Kong. Jan packed too many shirts with three-quarter sleeves and was stuck wearing her 2 long sleeve shirts day after day after day. Neither of us even got close to putting on our bathing suits.
Stay tuned for more tales from Ms. Heininger & Mr. Reuter’s journey. For more information about the destinations they visited, check out our destinations map here.
July 26th, 2011
WildChina | Categories: Educational Travel in China, On the Road, Sustainable Travel, WildChina Travel Tips
Danba Valley Frédérique Darragon Pujiaoding sustainable travel Tibetan Sichuan wild China WildChina WildChina travel .
Traveling is easy these days. Planes, trains and ferries criss-cross the globe, Google maps and GPS can pinpoint your location in minute detail, and thousands of guidebooks, websites and blogs provide real-time information on almost every place imaginable. While this is certainly more convenient, it’s hard to imagine that same sense of exhilaration felt by great explorers doing something for the first time: Columbus setting foot on America; Hillary summitting Everest, for example. Earlier this month, however, I discovered that real off-the-beaten-path adventuresare still possible, if you know how to find them…
Tibetan home in Zhonglu Village
After a painfully early start and an hour’s delay in Beijing, I arrived at Chengdu airport around noon, where I was met by Frederique Darragon. Born in Paris, Frederique inherited a small fortune from her father, an inventor who died when she was 4 years old. Instead of buying things, Frederique chose to spend her money on exploring the world. Despite my tiredness, the 9-hour bucking-bronco journey from Chengdu to Danba, a quaint little Tibetan town in western Sichuan, passed quickly as Frederique wowed me with stories of her travels – hitchhiking across the United States on a shoestring budget, working on a kibbutz in Israel, sailing the Atlantic in the first race from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, living amongst the golden eagle hunters in Mongolia, and being rescued by Tibetan shepherds after suffering a stroke while searching for snow leopards on the Tibetan Plateau. She has been a model in Paris, a record-breaking polo player and 8-time thoroughbred racing champion in Argentina, a lauded samba dancer in Rio…
Twelve years ago near Danba, Frederique came across a tall tower made of cut stone, bricks and timber. Thinking nothing of it at the time, she came across a similar one a year later in Tibet, 800 kilometres from the first. The locals she asked had no idea who built them, how old they were, or what they were used for, and further inquiry revealed that despite their abundance in this area (known as the Tribal Corridor), almost no scientific research has been done on them. They are one of China’s enduring architectural mysteries. Frederique was intrigued, and intent on uncovering their story.
Tower of Danba Valley
Over the next decade, Frederique sifted through journals, articles and ancient texts looking for references to the towers. She wandered the area interviewing local people, gathering data from 250 standing towers and over 750 ruins, taking photographs and collecting wood samples for carbon dating, in search of clues. Using the money that her then boyfriend, media mogul Ted Turner, had given her to buy dresses, she set up the Unicorn Foundation – dedicated to preserving the towers and improving the livelihoods of the people in the area. She also published a book, filmed a documentary that aired on the Discovery Channel and put together a photo exhibition to raise awareness of the towers both in China and the West.
The next morning, inspired by Frederique’s go-getter travel philosophy, I decided to make my own way to Zhonglu, a small village 20 minutes northeast of Danba. The landscape was breathtaking. Dozens of square towers and fortress-like Tibetan houses are visible from the hilltop viewing platform, scattered across both sides of the Danba Valley. Villagers in traditional garb were bent over in fields of crops or drove animals along the narrow pathways through the village, and yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the experience was not completely authentic. From my perch I could also make out a shiny cavalcade of SUVs parked outside the only guesthouse in Zhonglu, and an old lady in a toll booth had charged me 20 RMB to enter the village.
When I mentioned this to Frederique later, she explained that the landscape’s steep contours means that land for cultivation and building property is extremely limited.
Old buildings, including the ancient towers, are typically knocked down to make space for new ones, and the stones are reused as building materials. Her take on the toll fee is positive: if the locals recognize the value of the towers as tourist attractions, they will be more inclined to protect them. They will also be less reliant on harvesting Chinese herbal medicines and logging timber as ways to supplement their limited income, which reduces the pressure on the local environment. The next step is to convince them to think about long term sustainability and ecotourism, instead of trying to make quick money though mass market tourism. That’s where WildChina hopes to help.
That afternoon, we drove a little further down the road to another village called Pujiaoding. The road wound up the side of the valley, narrowed then came to dead end. We hopped out of the car and continued on foot along a narrow dirt track, which opened up to a small primary school. This was the kind of authentic, unpolished, and personal experience that would appeal to WildChina’s clients. Schoolchildren were playing basketball on the concrete playground as the school principal showed us the areas in need of repair. Seeing the multitude of little problems that could be solved with a small donation and a bit of elbow grease reminded me how much we take for granted in more developed parts of the country. Frederique’s local friend Abu then invited us into his home where we brainstormed potential projects for WildChina’s education and community service tripsover steaming cups of Tibetan butter tea, homemade cheese and tsampa, a traditional staple food made from roasted barley flour mixed with water.
This pattern of events happened for the rest of the trip. We would stop in relatively touristy spots, particularly at night, but just around the corner there were hidden gems to be discovered: a tiny village that still uses the power of falling water to grind corn into flour; little old ladies that have never seen tourists, let alone foreign ones; unspoilt fields of rainbow coloured wildflowers beyond the pastures. The five days I spent with Frederique highlighted how I will approach all my travels in future, with an open mind, engaging with local people and proactively searching for experiences and adventure.
School in Pujiaoding
Author of this post Samantha Woods is a manager at WildChina. To learn more about Danba and journeys to this area, please contact us at email@example.com.
July 13th, 2011
WildChina | Categories: On the Road, WildChina Travel Tips
bullet train Classic China trip high-speed rail Oriental Decadence: An Affair with Shanghai's Past shanghai weekend wild China WildChina WildChina travel .
A few posts ago, we announced the opening of the commercial high-speed rail that connects passengers between Beijing and Shanghai in less than 5 hours: a remarkable feat. Before the high-speed rail opened on July 1, 2011, the fastest journey via train took 9 hours and 49 minutes. Now, due to trains which travel at an average speed close to 200 mph, the time it takes to travel to Shanghai has been cut in half.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of exploring Shanghai for the first time. Of course, I packed a long to-do list from WildChina’s China Classics Shanghai itineraries, but I had to try to condense everything I wanted to do into a single weekend adventure. I took the high-speed rail from Beijing to Shanghai on a Friday morning, then hopped on the train and rode it back to Beijing on Sunday afternoon. I knew I wouldn’t want to deal with the hassle of flying, which made the rail an attractive alternative.
My experience was fantastic. The seats are comfortable and there’s much more legroom than a plane offers. The attendants were helpful, and everything was very clean. All in all, this train makes travel to Shanghai a piece of cake.
At the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station after disembarking the high-speed train
If you’re looking to take a weekend journey to Shanghai, but not sure what to do once you arrive, here are some suggestions.
1) Yu Garden
Visit this site in the morning to avoid crowds. After a little searching for its entrance in the bustling bazaar outside the garden walls, you will find paradise on Earth in this classical Chinese garden. Commissioned in 1559 by Pan Yunduan of the Ming Dynasty (1368AD-1644AD), the gardens were meant to be a gift to his father for him to spend his old age in peace. Yu Gardens showcase the Southern Chinese garden style: carp-filled ponds, dragon statues, lucky stone mosaics, and bridges are tucked away in the luscious greenery of this famous garden.
Afterwards, stop and grab some snacks and milk tea from the vendors in the bazaar and visit the local artisans hard at work in their stalls.
The site of the first Communist Party meeting, Xintiandi’s historical significance blends gracefully with its modern development into upscale shopping and dining. This modernized area is composed of renovated shikumen, or “stone gate” houses located in narrow alleys. The numerous cafés and the wide range of dining options make Xintiandi an ideal spot for lunch, dinner, or drinks. Most restaurants have outdoor and indoor seating which makes people-watching easy while you relax. Stop by the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party to learn more about the first Communist Party meeting.
3) Pudong: Jin Mao Tower or the World Financial Center
Head across the Huangpu River to Pudong, China’s emerging financial center. Though most tourists head to the Oriental Pearl Tower for a view of The Bund and Shanghai, Jin Mao Tower and the World Financial Center offer incredible observation decks and a dramatically thinner crowd. Jaws drop as soon as the elevator doors opened on the observation deck on the 88th floor of Jin Mao Tower (also home of the Grand Hyatt Shanghai, one of the highest hotels in the world which occupies the tower from the 53rd-87th floor).
Jin Mao Tower
4) Fuxing Park
Hidden among the charming, tree-lined streets in the French Concession district, Fuxing Park exudes a lively aura thanks to the locals who sing, play board games, dance, practice tai-chi, and relax in the park. Immediately upon entering the park, Fuxing’s I passed an older Mao-suited gentleman carrying his lucky cricket in its cage as he ambled on his way through the fragrant rose garden.
5) Urban Planning Exhibition Center
The six-story Shanghai Urban Planning exhibition Centre includes archived photos, information on proposed forms of future transportations, and a computer-generated flyover of the city projected onto a 360-degree movie screen. The most incredible part of the museum, though, is the centerpiece of the entire exhibition center: an expansive scale model of what urban Shanghai is predicted to resemble in 2020.
6) Nanjing Road
If you’re looking for shopping, Nanjing Road, one of the world’s busiest shopping streets, has it all. Renovated in 2000 by the Chinese government in an effort to pedestrianize the street, Nanjing is very easy and accessible to navigate.
7) Din Tai Fung Restaurant
Though this chain is actually of Taiwanese origin, Din Tai Fung in Shanghai promises incredible xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings, a local favorite. Din Tai Fung’s excellent service, fantastic prices, and, of course, delicious cuisine have all contributed to its immense popularity. There are numerous locations throughout the city.
8) Walk Along The Bund at night (before 11pm!)
The Bund, with its European-style Neoclassical and Art Deco buildings, portray the beginning of Shanghai’s financial prowess that began during the British concession in 1842. Commercial houses and banks line the Western edge of the Huangpu River, giving Shanghai the nickname “Paris of the East.” After the sun sets, the lights from the buildings drench the walkway on the bank of the river in a warm glow.
The lights from Pudong across the Huangpu River are dazzling and bright, and represent Shanghai’s constant development and urban renewal. Arrive before 11 pm to make sure you catch a glimpse of the city lights before they’re shut off for the night.
Pudong at night from across the Huangpu River
To prepare for the ride back to Beijing, Purchase some food from the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station before you head back; you can pay for a meal or snacks on the train, but the cuisine isn’t always very appetizing and prices are high. Relax! After a busy weekend, you can lean back your chair and sleep comfortably in the well-cushioned chairs.
To see more activities in Shanghai, check out the itinerary for our four-day journey to the city, here.
June 14th, 2011
WildChina | Categories: On the Road
family travel Financial Times Guiyang Guizhou Panjiang Patti Waldmeir Shiau Xiao wild China WildChina WildChina travel .
Patti Waldmeir, WildChina traveler and Shanghai correspondent for the Financial Times, divulges her interactive experience in China’s Guizhou province with locals and WildChina guides who helped her family embrace the history and pride of the region.
“Mommy, please don’t eat the brown one!” My 11-year-old daughter was pleading for the reprieve of my lunch: a hunk of stir-fried dog haunch that I was determined to stomach, whatever the consequences to her psyche or to my digestion.
Brown-coloured dogs, it seems, are tastiest – or so we were told on our recent trip to one of the least visited, but most spectacular, tourist destinations in China: Guizhou province, a land of karst and culture unique in an increasingly tourist-glutted mainland. Shanghai, Beijing, Xian and Chengdu are rapidly becoming staples of international tourism but Guizhou is an altogether different kind of China: older, friendlier, prouder, and purer. For those who enjoy tourism but hate other tourists, it is a paradise.
One glimpse of Xiao Hong’s dog diner, in the Guizhou town of Panjiang, where almost every restaurant is a canine one, is enough to dramatise the difference. Eating dog is controversial in the rest of China – in April, animal rights activists liberated nearly 600 dogs bound for the wok after ambushing a lorry just outside Beijing – but, in Guizhou, dog is still a valued delicacy. Dog meat from Guizhou’s Huajiang town was recently declared part of the town’s “intangible cultural heritage” and the provincial government promoted Guizhou dog meat at last year’s Shanghai Expo.
My host, the tour company WildChina, does not normally offer dog on its menu of visits to the karst mountain scenery and ethnic minority villages of Guizhou. But I insisted: if dog is good enough for the people of Guizhou, it is good enough for me. Then I told the children.
I had already warned my two squeamish pre-teens that this would not be our usual China trip: a tour of famous temples and sacred mountains by way of low-rent video game parlours and seedy Chinese amusement parks. This time, we were going to visit the “real China” – Tiger Mom could not have said it any better.
So I left one child cowering in the back of WildChina’s minivan – sucking on a Sprite, munching Oreos and refusing to look out of the window – and marched the other one straight past a wok of simmering puppy paws to the counter where Xiao Hong was waiting to carve up some dogmeat.
I was half hoping she would offer something other than brown dog: in the rigid hierarchy of Guizhou canine cuisine, brown comes tops but is swiftly followed by black, Dalmatian and white dog. But brown dog was what she had, so I banished thoughts of our own brown mutt back at home in Shanghai – the infelicitously named “Dumpling”, himself rescued as a puppy from a cooking pot – and tucked into a fragrant canine casserole laced with mint and garlic shoots, “smelly beans” and Guizhou chilli sauce.
Like termites, caterpillars, mopane worms, goat guts and all the other gross things I have eaten in my life, once was enough for me for dog meat: the taste just isn’t good enough to outweigh the notion of eating Lassie. But once will not be enough to visit Guizhou: I have been wandering the world for nearly 40 years but seldom have I had the sense of travelling so far back in history.
All the guidebooks drone on about the intricate embroidery and elaborate hairstyles of Guizhou’s many ethnic minorities – members of the 55 minority cultures recognised by the Chinese government (and celebrated whenever Beijing wants to trumpet its diversity). I imagined an endless array of fake cultural artefacts, produced by minority tribesmen pretending to engage in authentic traditional practices, right outside the tour bus stop.
But that was before I met Xiao Zesheng, our WildChina guide – a Guizhou native with no more tolerance for counterfeit culture than I have. He marched us off through the rice fields – balancing precariously on narrow dikes separating paddies of mud and dung and water – right into the farmyards and courtyards of villages apparently untouched by much technical innovation since the water buffalo. In the process, he showed us plenty of traditional embroidery and elaborate hairstyles but they were all worn by women chopping wood and planting rice fields.
Guizhou women sport intricate hairdo's, even while performing hard labor
Xiao and Nancy Tan, who is WildChina’s Chinese-American guide and has a broad Tennessee drawl and an unerring knack for keeping pre-teens happy, squired us from the realm of the “Old Han” and the Bouyei people, to sample a few of the sub-groups of the Miao (known in the west as Hmong), described graphically by their dress or headgear as the Long Skirt Miao, the Short Skirt Miao, the Long Horn Miao, the Big Flowery Miao and the Gejia (officially, a Miao subgroup).
|The Huangguoshu waterfall
They collected us in the provincial capital of Guiyang, about a two-hour flight from Shanghai. The highlight of our half day in Guiyang – a relatively charmless city, like most of China’s minor metropolises – was watching city workers dumping mud into the Nanming river as part of Guiyang’s attempt to be named one of China’s cleanest cities. After a lightning visit to the 78m high Huangguoshu waterfall, we drove to Kaili, a convenient if unprepossessing base for three days visiting the minority villages of south-east Guizhou. No one goes to Guizhou for the hotels: ours, the Heaven-Sent Dragon, was the best in town (even if hotel housekeeping seemed to think vacuuming the rugs to be an unnecessary luxury). Our last night, at the newly built Leishan International Hotel in Leishan confirmed the impression that Guizhou people would rather dump mud into a river, than take it out of a carpet by vacuuming.
Leaving Kaili one morning – Kaili means “let’s go to the rice paddy field with the water buffalo” – Xiao took us to do just that: scarcely 100 yards off the main road, we came upon a group of women, knee-deep in a field of mud laced with dung, planting rice seedlings. “Come in and join us,” they shouted – so we did, stripping off socks and shoes to slip and slide into the muck beside them.
Patti and girls planting rice seedlings
After marvelling at the squeamishness of my Chinese-American children – adopted as infants from unknown Chinese birth parents who may also have been farmers – the seven planting matrons collapsed in laughter at our urban inability to insert a handful of rice seedlings upright, at the right intervals, under water. “Don’t waste,” scolded the matriarch of the paddy field, gently, as one child dropped a precious seedling without realising that it would yield half a pound of rice at harvest.
Patti's daughters exploring terraced fields
Soon the children were scampering off to watch a farmer ploughing with water buffalo and to stomp in cow pats with bare feet. After a pit stop at a local farmyard, where an octogenarian villager welcomed us in to wash at his water tap, we had to spend several minutes politely declining the planting ladies’ invitation to lunch. For in Guizhou, hospitality is the default: from almost every villager, a smile, a greeting, an invitation to rest or chat or drink water. One diminutive grandmother of the Old Han minority, descendants of Qing dynasty warriors sent from distant Nanjing to defend the empire’s borders in Guizhou, even thanked me for taking her picture. After nearly three years in Shanghai, with its relentless focus on the making and spending of money, I can think of nothing better than plunging knee-deep in an agrarian cesspool, with such friendly natives.
|A backstreet in Zhaoxing in Guizhou
Of course, it is easy to confuse poverty with charm in Guizhou. Its people are among the poorest in China. They farm on seemingly vertical hillsides, terrace their fields nearly to the top of every available mountain, and plough by hand or with a draft animal – backbreaking work. They carry crushing loads by shoulder pole; beat laundry with a stick in oft-polluted waterways; and every grandma seems to have a sturdy toddler strapped to her back – offspring of the children she has lost to labour as migrant workers in a distant city. And they eat dog, not just because they like it – but because starvation is not something distant and medieval but a part of living memory. Many Guizhou people lost family members in the man-made famine of China’s Great Leap Forward; they still bring it up in conversation.
But more noticeable than the poverty, is the pride: in one village, a young man is making paper, from bark stripped from local trees. A blacksmith makes an axe; a middle aged man beats cotton to make a bed quilt; a potter, the sixth generation of his trade, fires bowls from clay glazed with charred rice bran and quicklime from the nearby hills. Outside every doorway is an old man or woman stripping bamboo shoots for dinner, or knitting, or sharpening a scythe with a whetstone; an Asian version of the world according to Bruegel.
But this is China, the land of economic development on steroids, where highways and railways and whole cities spring up, where yesterday there was nothing but paddy fields. Maybe next year, the sight of ladies planting rice in their embroidery will be gone from Guizhou. Maybe later it will be the water buffalo and, eventually, even the dogmeat. Either way, this is a world that cannot last for ever.
Patti and her daughters
To read this article in the Financial Times online, click here. To learn more about our journeys to Guizhou, please visit our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also watch this video, which introduces our guide Xiao.
Photos from Financial Times article, by Nancy Tan, a marketing associate of WildChina, and by Patti Waldmeir and her daughters.