My last hurrah before heading home...
It’s been a while since I’ve written on this thing, but this time (I think), I have a good excuse. I finished teaching at the end of June and have been traveling since. I started this last trip by flying to Chengdu, in Sichuan province, the home of pandas, VERY spicy food, and the big earthquake last year. While I wasn’t really impressed with Chengdu the city (by now, pretty much all big Chinese cities seem interchangeable to me, and that there isn’t really anything separating them from one another). However, Chengdu is the home of the panda breeding and research center, and I had a chance to get very close to a large number of pandas, which was a lot more impressive and enjoyable than I thought it would be.
I hadn’t realized how old panda bears are (it is estimated they have been around 2-3 million years!) and how much they have adapted throughout those years, including changing from being meat eaters to bamboo eaters, and growing a type of “thumb” that helps to strip the bamboo branches. They also are just fun to watch lay around and eat…
After Chengdu, I spent the next five or so days traveling by bus and (very uncomfortable) van through western Sichuan and down into Yunnan province. Western Sichuan, while technically part of Sichuan, is part of the Tibetan autonomous region, and everything about the area (landscape, people, buildings, language, food) is Tebetan.
I ate tons of yak meat dumplings, yak butter tea, yak yogurt, and other yak products, including something that I have sorely missed while in China – cheese!!! One town I spent a couple of days exploring with Litang, which is over 13,500 feet in elevation, which is actually higher than Lhasa.
The only draw back traveling in this area is that the Chinese government, in its infinite wisdom, decided a few months ago to not allow foreigners to buy bus tickets between these towns, so are all forced to get rides in private vans that are very uncomfortable. Adding the trips together in this region, I have spent more than 24 hours traveling in cramped vans. The “highways” the vans traveled on in this part of China reminded me more of logging roads. Luckily, it was quite foggy a lot of the time below us, so we couldn’t see how far we would fall as we careened around blind corner after blind corner. Some of the trips have been great, though, as one of the 11 hours rides was with me and 8 other Tibetans. I learned that on every mountain pass (and there are a lot of them!) that they throw little paper prayer flags out the window, as well as start signing Tibetan folk songs. Most of the other time is spent signing Tibetan pop songs, which unfortunately, there are not many of, resulting in the same few song being repeated ad naseam. I could probably sing you a couple myself by now.
It is also interesting to note that the Tibetans are more than happy talking about their current "situation" in China right now, whereas Chinese people will not or cannot talk about the Tibet issue (I don't know if it's that they DON'T want to talk about it or that they are ignorant about the issue and CAN'T talk about it - probably some of both).
We (at this point traveling with 6 others – 3 Brits, 1 French, and 2 Israelis) finally got back to “China” by arriving in Shangri-La, which is supposedly the location of the mystical place in James Hilton's book “Lost Horizon” and where that term comes from. Of course, this town was just named that by the Chinese government to increase tourism, and evidently it worked!
Next, I traveled to Lijiang (finally back on proper buses!), which is only one of two fully-preserved Chinese cities in the entire country. It is amazing how large the “old town” is (most large Chinese cities only have a block or two that was preserved, or worse, newly-built to look old) and it really is a very neat town, although it is OVERRUN by mostly Chinese tourists in their Chinese tour groups (if you ever come to visit China, you will learn to despise these groups with their flag-waving leader, the matching hats, and the steely voice coming out of the guide’s portable speaker).
Lijiang is also the home to the Naxi (“Nah Shee”) minority in China. It is the last civilization to still use hieroglyphics as their writing system, and it’s still used today…
After spending a day and a half in Lijiang, I caught another bus south 4 hours to Dali, another town in the Yunnan mountains. Dali is also old, but is much more popular with Western tourists for some reason and includes the most foreign-run bars and restaurants I have ever seen in China. It seems to be the place in China for the old and young hippies to go to live, and is the first place on my trip south that I was offered weed by old ladies waiting near all of the hostels (I always get a kick out of grandmother-aged ladies offering people drugs!) After a day in Dali, I took a bus another 5 hours south to Kunming, the big city of Yunnan to spend the night prior to taking a 9 hour bus ride further south to Jinghong, my last stop in China before I hear into Thailand. Jinghong is part of the XiShuangBanna area, which is much more "Southeast Asian" feeling than the rest of China, and it is. All of the buildings look like they belong in Laos or Myanmar, and there is either Burmese or Lao writing on many of the signs).
For those of you who don’t know, I decided (long ago) that this year would be my only year teaching in China, and I have my flight booked back to Redmond for the 19th of August out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. So, between now and then, I plan to travel down through Thailand and Malaysia, and if time permits, maybe a quick detour to Indonesia. I will try to update more regularly during this next 5 weeks, but I won’t promise anything right now!
I hope that everyone is having a great summer, and I look forward to catching up when I get back to the US. I will try to post the last episode of my family's visit later today...