Returning to a favorite country such as Colombia or Italy is great, but nothing beats exploring someplace new. Call it the Law of Diminishing Travel Returns. Having spent the last couple of trips bouncing around Europe, I was ready to venture someplace more exotic. Someplace…..Asian. My twin brother Thomas lived in Hangzhou for a couple of years and I had never been to China, so it all fell into place: A trip to China it was. I figured Thomas, as an experienced expat, would have tons of great advice to facilitate my adventure. When I finally got hold of him through Skype, however, he simply told me to “go to the nature.” Thanks, bro.
Seeing as I had never been to China and had no idea where “the nature” was, I set out to craft a rough itinerary from my hostel room in Hong Kong. At first I figured I would simply travel north along the coast similar to the classic traveler’s route in Australia, but a few conversations with fellow travelers and a brief flip through the travel guide convinced me that to miss interior China was to miss China. The diverse ethnicities, traditions, and food to be found far from the major coastal cities compelled me to start my trip by heading west and to let the itinerary unfold along the way.
My first stop after Hong Kong was Yangshou in the Hunan province, and it was a total homerun. Within hours of my arrival I was enamored with China, as the charming cultural atmosphere and beautiful landscape completely won me over. Perhaps best of all, the food was fantastic and dirt cheap. During the days I climbed at the excellent local crags and cruised on a rented motorcycle through the surrounding countryside—both highly recommended for anyone traveling this way. From Yangshou I headed to Kunming, a quaint Chinese city of 6 million people. That’s right, Chinese cities you’ve never heard of have more people than the entire country of New Zealand. Kunming is pretty nice, but more of a place to live than visit I’d say, as it feels very functional. The highlight for me was getting to fish goldfish out of a public pond and then losing my money in a host of rigged carnival games at the park.
To get from Kunming to my next stop, Dali, simply take an overnight train that takes, oh, I don’t know, one year to get there. Well, maybe it wasn’t an entire year, but it felt like it. When traveling in China you get accustomed to riding trains and buses for 10 to 20 hours like its no big deal. It’s not entirely that the transportation isslow (the fastest train I’ve ever been on was the one from Shanghai to Beijing), the country is just that big. And a word to the wise: take trains when you can. There are sleeper buses that are cheaper, but the beds are absolutely tiny and there issome sort of cage around them that prohibits you from stretching out your legs. Also, as a foreigner, I got a seat in the back corner every time, which sucks because it is right over the wheel, making it bumpy, and instead of an aisle next to you there is an unbathed Chinese peasant cuddled up close. When you do book a train ticket, get a sleeper train, it doesn’t matter what class, and pay the extra couple of dollars to get a bottom bed. That way you can use your bed to sit on as well, which is better than being confined to a bed 15 inches from the ceiling for the entire trip.
Dali is a cool tourist town situated next to a lake. Here you can do a cooking class or go fishing with the locals who use birds to catch their fish in much the same way falconers hunt rabbits. I spent my time just walking the streets and eating food, and the restaurants here are excellent. My favorite aspect of them was probably the presentation, as in front of each restaurant the family/owners place all the ingredients on display, from the vegetables to the guinea pigs. I came away very impressed with this system, as it gave customers a direct look at the food they were going to eat. When was the last time you saw the m
eat you were going to eat back home? Because there is a pretty significant language barrier, this arrangement also makes it easier to order as well by just pointing at what you want.
Not speaking Mandarin does make it somewhat challenging to by in China, especially as you head west. Download Google’s translate app and have the front desk at your hotel write down any notes or instructions you might need for the next day. Also, I recommend learning at least a few key phrases to facilitate everyday activities such as ordering food. Personally, I learned how to say “hello,” “how much is this?,” “that’s too expensive,” and “thank you.” The Chinese always laughed when I told them it was too expensive, “Thai guela.” I actually found the bartering custom mellower than I anticipated. Like most cultures that barter, in my opinion, it’s not so much that the price is flexible as it is that you need to get burned a few times before you learn what the true, unspoken price is. Once you know the rates for taxis and whatnot, you can pretty quickly settle the exchange.
After a couple of weeks traveling the west to trek “Tiger Leaping Gorge” (do it), visit Lijiang (skip it), and attain total enlightenment in Shangri-La (actually a rough town with an 11:00 curfew for foreigners due to recent violence), I made it to the food mecca of maybe the world, Chongqing. If you like hot Chinese food, this is the place. And the dish to get is the hot-pot, which is a broth of scalding red brew served with dishes of raw meats that you cook yourself similar to fondue. Beyond this incredible dish there are innumerable other plates to try, almost all of them spicy. On the food note, the best fruit I’ve ever had, the mangosteen, is available throughout China, although I think they are from Indonesia, so make sure to eat these Every. Single. Day. When you are in Chongqing, you will hear about the panda zoo. You will also hear someone say it is touristy and tell you to not to go. Don’t listen to that heartless prick, and go see the absolute cutest animals in the world. You’ll be glad you did.
Also located in the Sichuan province is Cheng du, Chongqing’s rowdier little brother; but, again, this is China, so it has 14 million people. Cheng du has a yuppie city center with all the famous stores, and it’s kinda nice just because you’ve spent most of the last few weeks in bus stations and a smoothie sounds nice about then. The real cool part, though, are the labyrinthian side streets that meander throughout the city and have yet to be “improved” by urban development. Down these streets things are a little shady—if you’ve been to other Asian countries, be prepared for a little rougher edge here in general—yet they are filled with incredible action. Around every corner is a snapshot of urban life in China: groups of men gambling, old-timers playing mahjong, or a makeshift restaurant on the sidewalk. Soaring like living mountains on either side of you are fantastically large apartment buildings that house more people than most American cities, and feature a life all their own.
At this point I had to make the decision to either go north and see the famed terracotta warriors in Xian or head east and climb some mountains, and I decided to skip the statues. The first stop was Zhangjiajie, home of the otherworldly quartz-sandstone pillars you see in Avatar. It is pretty expensive to get into the park, like $100 or something if I remember right, so you’ve got to be into mountains to make it worth it. I am and it was. By hiking up the trail instead of taking the cable car you can have the place almost to yourself. I spent my birthday here, just me and a family of monkeys swinging from the trees. Once you get to the top, it gets a little weird, as the only good way to get around to the different viewing points is to take a bus that lets out throngs of visitors.
My next mountain adventure was Huang Shan, and if it was even possible, was more beautiful than the last stop. Climbing Huang Shan is not like climbing mountains in the United States, as there are granite steps that lead the entire way. That or you can take the cable car. Also, at the top are nice hotels and a basketball court. As an American, I can’t play soccer to save my life, so I was thrilled to see basketball was so popular here, and I played games in a lot of the villages I stayed at. The second day on Huang Shan I met a nice Chinese guy who became my hiking buddy. It was great to get to know him as a person, and to get a lens into the Chinese culture. What stood out most was his acceptance of Chinese political dogma. When I asked him what the tallest mountain in China was he looked surprised and said “well, surely you know, it is Mt. Everest.” Somewhat embarrassed, I explained as tactfully as I could that many people outside of China consider Tibet to be somewhat autonomous. Because we had become friends already, we were able to engage in a great conversation about the subject, where he explained to me that his opinion, and that of most Chinese, is that Tibet is and always has been part of China, and that it wasn’t until the 1980s when Americans tried to foment a separatist movement. Not a perspective I agree with, but interesting to hear the other side.
With only a week left in China, I went to see the big dogs: Shanghai and Beijing. Shanghai sucks. Can I say that? There are some cool neighborhoods and the French District is nice, but overall it is just an ugly, soulless city. I didn’t find it overwhelmingly, huge. Despite it’s huge population, it seemed about as crowded as most major cities, and not nearly as hectic as places like New Delhi. Of course, my view might be skewed by my robbery and attempted assault. I’ve traveled a bit, so I like to think I’m somewhat savvy with scams, but I have to admit I got taken here in Shanghai. Those who know the city know the scam, as it is notorious and widespread. Basically, you get invited to go drink tea with some locals, and since you’re a traveler and up for anything you say “yes.” Then you get hit wit some crazy bill. At this point, I thought I was just out with some rich Chinese so I paid half of what they told me, which was still way too much, and just left amidst a batch of shoving and insults with the manager.
A few blocks away, however, I realized I had been taken. They weren’t rich Chinese, but scam artists. So I somehow found my way back to the business, which was three stories up in a random building. The lights were off, but I could see someone inside. I went in and shut the door behind me, telling the women to call their boss with my money or I wouldn’t let them go. He showed up, but instead of paying me we got into a long argument that escalated when his “muscle” showed up. To make a long story short, I had kidnapped the wrong people. These scammers weren’t the ones I was looking for—they were down the hall. Oh, okay. Sorry about that. I found my scammers, grabbed the phone out of the boss’s hands and demanded my money. After a comic exchange of goods (picture both of our arms extended with the cash and phone, neither trusting the other), I noticed his friend charging at me with a fire hydrant in his hands. Then the first guy grabbed a steel bar. Armed only with my cheap, plastic umbrella, I yelled that I was going to “stab their f@#king eyes out if they got closer” until our commotion caused the police to swarm in. So that’s partly why I hate Shanghai.
Beijing wasn’t much better. There somebody tried to attack me with a bag of garbage for not buying into his scam. It turns out that my brother was right. If you’re heading to China, “go to the nature.”
Despite my experiences in Beijing and Shanghai, I would recommend traveling to China. Just head away from the coast, as that was far more interesting, cheap, and beautiful. Usually I would say take a guidebook like a Lonely Planet to facilitate the trip; however, Lonely Planet failed completely when it came to China. I wondered at times if the author had ever even been to the country. So leave the book at home and discover for yourself. One thing you’ll notice is that the people are not as short as you expect; but it is too bad they are all deaf. At least that’s what I assume since they are yelling all the time. Seriously, stop yelling. One of my favorite parts of China is the jaywalking. There is no waiting for a walk sign. And, if you do, the cars don’t care. They drive right through them. Instead, you learn the art of the Chinese jaywalk, where you step confidently into seemingly certain death and weave in and out of traffic as the cars whir by. Actually kind of fun.
There is no jaywalking in Japan. Seriously. In an otherworldly display of civic responsibility, the Japanese will wait in the rain rather than cross an empty street illegally. Having just arrived from China, the cultural contrast was immediately clear, and, at the time, gladly welcomed. There were no hustlers waiting at bus stations to exploit tourists but instead an entire population ready and willing to help those in need of help. The cities were sparkling clean rather than, well, filthy. When I asked locals in both countries to explain their national character, their answers were illuminating. A Chinese man explained to me, “we have so many people and limited resources, a man must fight and hustle to get what he needs.” Starting from the same premise, the Japanese arrived at a totally different conclusion: “we have so many people and limited resources, so everyone must cooperate to make society work.”
Needless to say, I loved Japan. Well, perhaps “love” is not the right word, as I have enough rascal in my bones to appreciate the chaos of developing countries. “Respect” is probably more accurate. I respected the organization of the country and the character of its people. In Tokyo and the other major cities, a yellow, bumpy line runs down the middle of the sidewalks, serving as a guide for the blind. Elevators have two sets of buttons, one for the majority of people and one lower for those in wheelchairs. Also, every building designates certain rooms to be cleared of furniture and places a red triangle on windows designed to shatter easily, making entry easier and safer for fire-fighters. Seriously, you have to admire the consideration taken in their urban planning.
More important than the excellent infrastructure, the people themselves exemplify Japan’s culture of respect. Every time I stopped to pull out my map, and I mean every time, someone would come up to me within minutes and offer to help. These acts of kindness weren’t simply about being friendly, although they certainly were that; they were about doing the right thing. Examples of this virtue were abundant. While walking down the streets of Tokyo one is struck by how clean the city is—no small feat in a city of millions. To make this happen, public sanitation employees bring a level of personal responsibility to their jobs that boggles the American mind. It was common to see workers scrubbing garbage cans or plucking grass from sidewalk cracks. Imagine that! All of this is even more impressive when you take into consideration that there are no public garbage cans in downtown Tokyo. After a gruesome terrorist attack in 1995, the city removed them in an emotional, yet somewhat irrational response akin to our increased security measures at airports.
I would be remiss if I portrayed Japan as simply a societal manifestation of respect. There was also tremendous beauty, both natural and man-made. Hiking Mt. Fuji was a highlight, and one that you can do in a day’s hike. Be sure you arrange for an early ride to the base of the mountain, however, as otherwise you’ll get too late of a start. Traveling with my mother, who used to live in Japan as a young woman, I also had the pleasure of visiting one of the simplest, most powerful works of art I had ever seen, the Temple of the Dragon at Peace.