Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Northern Yunnan: Hike to Yubeng Cun (雨崩村)

Note: I'm actually in the Seattle Airport now. In China I had to blog through email since blogspot is blocked, but apparently this one never sent and was relegated to drafts, so here it is.

I didn't get to Tibet. But I got a good slice of the Tibet experience: I saw the beginnings of the eastern Himalayas, I got winded climbing stairs at 3,000m, I saw a giant monastery that Chinese administration has sucked the authenticity out of, I saw massive public security buildings, I met Tibetan monks and laypeople who readily complained about authoritarian rule, and I saw shiny new schools with huge dormitories (necessary for far-flung village kids) and enviable sports facilities - hearts and minds campaign?

After Shangri-La I thought I was done with scary bus rides. Ho ho. The five-hour trip to Deqin was fine for the first half - new roads, good weather - but the second half was fogged in. Hairpin turns. Remains of several landslides that reduced the road to a single-lane. One overturned truck stuck in a gravel pile. Our driver was careful, but still, high up on a foggy mountain top, it felt like with any turn we might swing off into free fall.

Arriving in Deqin, the last major town before Tibet, I hooked up with an Israeli couple who'd also rode the bus. They were nice and grateful for my Chinese skills. I like when I can help people, but as anyone who has played translator can probably attest, people start to feel entitled to requests they would never dream of if you weren't there to mediate. Best example? "Can you tell him [waiter] how to make an omelet?" Answer: "No."

We linked up with two other hikers and the following morning took another horrifying hour-long van ride to the trail head. I was afraid the altitude would make it tough, but the five-hour hike to Yubeng Cun (translation: Rain Collapse Village) was easier than expected and included passing convoys of mules loaded with village supplies and forest alleyways dressed in prayer flags. Pictures to follow when I'm back in the US.

Yubeng Cun is tiny. Just 35 families, all Tibetan, and the economic mainstay is guesthouses. The trek has become popular with Chinese hikers and some foreigners, but we saw a lot less of the latter.

As it was Saturday when we arrived, that evening a bunch of village guys congregated in our guesthouse commons for drinking, darts and karaoke. To really get the party started, they ordered a whole chicken i.e. one that had to be snatched up from the yard and slaughtered.

Fine by me. But one member of our hiking group was a bald Buddhist French lady. So when a guy went out to take care of the chicken, she walked in a circle around him chanting a Buddhist mantra. Imagine me rolling my eyes farther back in my head than you thought humanly possible.

Why did this annoy me so much? For one, she didn't chant a Buddhist mantra for the stir-fried pepper and beef the rest of us ate for lunch earlier that day. Plus, these Tibetans have been Buddhist a lot longer than she has. Plus, the next morning she (jokingly?) told the sole remaining chicken to run away. 

Westerners are privileged in their dietary choices (especially those who can afford to travel). This village is a one-hour car ride plus a four-hour hike/mule ride/iffy tractor trip from the nearest town, and the people live - to relative extent - a subsistence lifestyle. So, ugh, don't tell their chickens to run away. 

The following day we hiked into the "Mystic Waterfall," where hardier people than me make pilgrimages to bathe (this waterfall is located above the tree line and there was snow on the ground).

That night I had a chat with a local guy. We talked about Buddhism, his family members who've ran away to Dharamsala, and life under Chinese rule. A lot of the Tibetans I met seemed especially happy to meet an American. In two days, I wound up trading away all my remaining American money to people excited to see dollars. I suspect this has to do with the notion Americans are sympathetic to Tibet. 

Favorite passing interaction of the trip? This one with a van driver outside Deqin.

Me: Oh look, there go the soldiers. [as military jeep passes by]
Him: Yep. Soldiers.
Me: Do you like them?
Him: [grinning] No.
Me: Yeah, me neither.

On a somewhat related note, the people least enthused about my Americanness on this trip were Laotians. There when I told my nationality, people quickly and politely changed the subject. No wonder as to why.

The following day we hiked out. It was downhill the whole way until we had to hike up to the van because there were rocks obstructing the path to the parking lot. This van ride was even scarier because it was just a gravel road with a bunch of switchbacks carved into the side of the mountain. At one point I was reduced to "Oh my god oh my god oh my god." We all sat on the mountainside of the van, as if that would save us from the precipice. Our driver was all, "Don't be scared, I do this every day!"

In Deqin, we switched to another van bound for Shangri-La. Two Tibetans rode along and I chugged a beer at their request (China: no open container law), which helped take the edge off the drive. 

It's amazing the lengths of construction up there to service relatively few people. I'm talking three-story concrete retaining walls built into the mountainside for stabilization (some of them crumbling in places...) Would've loved to do this drive with an engineer for an informed opinion.

I spent the night in Shangri-La and today took the most hair-raising bus ride yet. I pray/doubt that it can be topped: It was much flatter and all paved, but we actually saw a long-haul truck come around a curve, bust through the concrete guard blocks and roll over into the adjacent grass. I assume he took the curve too quickly, but I also saw a woman running out of the way, not sure if that was related to the cause of the crash. I hope the driver is okay. We didn't stop, but there were people in the area. I'm glad I only have three bus rides left. They're all day-time rides on well-maintained roads and will be of relatively short duration. 

Tomorrow I'm going up to Tiger Leaping Gorge for one more two-day trek, weather permitting.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Shaxi: A one tea-horse town

Yesterday I completed my Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. Anyone who likes hiking and plans on seeing China should do this hike. It was just excellent. And every few hours there are people selling sustenance, so it's pretty relaxed. I stayed in a $5/night dorm halfway through (the place is called Halfway Hostel, btw) and all you had to do was step out on the porch and you were eye-level with an epic mountain view. Oooh, it was so great. I'll post more details when I can get photos up.

This morning I took a bus and then a minivan to Shaxi. I met a German sinologist at the gorge who recommended I check this town out. Way back in the Tang Dynasty, Shaxi was a trading post for tea and horses and supposedly the buildings are relatively well preserved for China. Plus the surrounding countryside is bike-able.

I arrived in time to see the Friday market where all the local Bai people come down from the villages to sell and buy stuff. There were even a couple gentlemen selling bags of hair ... to put on your head.

I walked around for a couple hours but then it started raining so now I'm drinking coffee in the hostel with an adorable hostel doggy curled up in my lap. In a few minutes I'm going to go look for some local fried goat cheese. Mmmmm..

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ray's Grill, Vientiane

I've staggered my posts so as not to inundate the blog, thus by the time you read this I'll be in Yunnan, but I have one final note for Vientiane.

Vientiane. Didn't do much. Woke up several mornings telling myself I was going to bike around town to see temples, stepped outside, decided it was too hot. Temples-schmemples. Read books in a cafe instead. And you know what else? I didn't even eat the local food

I mean, I ate some of it. When I felt like it. I've been permissive with myself on this trip. And that means eating Western food where it's available. At bus stops where the bearded white dudes in harem pants are loading up on plates of slimy noodles (rest stop food: never good), I'll go to town on a trusty sleeve of Pringles that costs twice as much. 

On the backpacker trail, there's this subtle pissing contest over who's being the most adventuresome traveler (never tourist). Alas, I'm traveling alone and sometimes the best comfort is a Snickers. I'm a shameless flashpacker. 

That said, I hadn't had any remarkable Western food on this trip. Until Sunday.

Ray's, located conveniently up the street from my hotel, got good reviews on the Vientiane wikitravel so I decided to check it out and ordered a Philly cheesesteak. Sweet Jesus, it was so good the first bite made me feel patriotic. 

Bread. Melted Cheese. Red meat. Carmelized onions. They say a Western diet leads to early death. This sandwich? Worth it. I would describe my feeling while eating it as akin to the deep gratitude I get snuggled next to James on a Saturday morning when the old thing on the agenda for the day is making brunch and reading books. I'm a bit embarrassed, but I think this is my favorite thing I've eaten on the trip. I'm going back tonight.

The chef, the eponymous Ray, was manning the grill next to my table. Turns out he's from Seattle. Used to deal in antiques and had a company that built websites. But after the dot-com crash he moved to Asia where life is cheaper, not so tied to debt. 

If you find yourself in Vientiane in need of a melty, savory American fix - make this it. 

North to Deqin

I'm in Kunming, headed into Yunnan's Tibetan hinterlands on the night bus tonight. 

I could've cried at immigration: the extremely nice customs guy flipped through my passport and decided it was perfectly fine for me to enter China on my work visa. "But I'm not working anymore!" He said it was fine, that way I could save my tourist visa for next time, which is all fine and well except it expires July 26. Curses! $160 and one passport page down the drain...

On a related note: Chinese customs officials are doing something right. They are so much faster and friendlier than what I'm used to returning to the US. 

In the 24 hours I've been in China, my mood has oscillated between poles, one being "aw, this is nice, just like I remember, I could live here again." The other: "THIS IS AWFUL!" The latter I usually succumb to seated in front of a computer, unable to open almost anything remotely interesting - Facebook, myriad blogs, Twitter, the New York Times app on my iPod, Gchat... 

Guess I'll just have to look at scenery or something.