JOURNAL ENTRY 15: CHINA
(taken directly from his Journal as Johnny travels the globe)
Long-term journal readers will already know that I went to China back in 1995. It was a great introduction but I knew I needed to go back to see more of it. I never even saw Chinaís two biggest attractions: the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
Nicolet and I crossed the Pakistan/China border at the Khunjerab Pass along the Karakoram Highway. At immigration we sat with a Chinese woman wearing a mini-skirt. After the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, we hardly knew where to look. It wasnít too long before I had my first reminder of China as the conversation amongst fellow travelers quickly shifted towards the state of the toilets. I know I previously wrote a lot about Chinese toilets but they are a good source of entertainment and you donít really know how bad something can smell until youíve visited one of these human waste sites.
You canít really blame the Chinese themselves. They just donít know what a flush toilet is and are used to having shit lying around and maybe, one day, having it cleared away. Some toilets do have a flush system but many Chinese donít know about it and hence it never occurs to them to flush after they use it. Some toilets even have doors, which are quite rare, because most toilets are open i.e. everyone gets to see what everyone else is doing. The Chinese rarely close these doors because once again they simply arenít used to it. Itís like India whenever you come across a western toilet with a really dirty seat, you know that the Indian thought he or she had to stand on the seat in order to get into that necessary squat position.
It was really pleasant entering Western China because the inhabitants are almost all minorities (i.e. not Han Chinese). We found the locals to be reasonably friendly which is a big change from the Chinese of my 1995 memories- quite unpleasant at times. The landscapes were also very different from what Iíd previously seen. The first stop was at Lake Kara Kul, which is a big beautiful lake surrounded by two giant mountains each over 7,500m. From there we moved to the end of the Karakoram Highway to the oasis of Kashgar. In Kashgar, we were back in a big city for the first time in ages. We ate well there. Kashgar is well known as a trading area along the Silk Route and, as such, has a great Sunday market. I always love markets full of various ethnic minority groups. They are always very colorful affairs with lots of activities. Itís a place full of life where "people watching" is the thing to do. Iím always curious to see how other people live. Itís so easy to accept living the way we do at home without questioning it. Here thereís an opportunity to see another way.
From Kashgar we went to Urumchi, a typically Han Chinese city, which is the farthest city in the world away from the seaÖnot a place for a beach bum like me to spend too much time. Next came Turpan, which is the lowest and hottest spot in China. Itís actually the second lowest depression in the world after the Dead Sea. After that came the beautiful Buddhist caves at Dunhuang. This is one of my favorite places in western China. The sand dunes on the outskirts of Dunhuang are great fun to play on and a breathtaking sight. It reminded me of the multi-colored sand dunes in Namibia. Itís amazing how you travel through the Gobi desert for ages and then out of nowhere you come across green vegetation and a Chinese city or town appears. I really enjoyed the oasis towns in western China. The desert from the west of China more or less ends at Jiayuguan which is also where the Great Wall of China ends. Here itís more than 5,000 kms journey from the east. It was the first time I saw the Great Wall. At Jiayuguan it doesnít look like anything too spectacular but the fort there was worth the visit.
From Jiayuguan we headed south towards Chengduon on one of the Tibetan highways. This area was originally part of Tibet before the Chinese invasion. Many of the people still living there are Tibetans. It was great being in "Tibet" again surrounded by the colorful Tibetan people. Itís such a contrast to Chinese towns and cities, which generally lack character and charm. We were fortunate enough to be in Langmusi at the time of a Tibetan festival. It was a dream day watching all the Tibetans in their Sunday best. At the end of the day many of them just got on their horses and rode out of town. That day has to rank as one of the most colorful days in all of my travels- I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Tibetans, one of my favorite and most interesting peoples.
Did I mention in my last newsletter about how the Chinese tend to fight and shout at each other a lot. I donít think there is such a thing as a quiet conversation in China. In Zoige, on the Tibetan highway towards Chengdu, we ended up staying in a crappy Government hotel. We were only going to overnight there and so it wasnít such a disaster. We were told that there would be hot water showers until 10:00 p.m. At 9:00 p.m. we went to the showers and they were closed. We went to ask the attendant to open them for us as we were clearly told that they would be open until 10:00 p.m. From the moment Nicolet starting talking to the attendant, the attendant started shouting at her. Nicolet tried to explain but gave up. We then asked her to open the door to our room. (In China you donít get room keys, attendants let you enter with their keys). She was mad at us and angrily opened the door. As she exited she collided with me slightly. She started shouting at me. I just tried to ignore her. I couldnít work out why she was so angry. I wanted to avoid any confrontation and went into our room closing the door behind me. Then the attendant started banging on the door and started banging on the window. She smashed the window. I opened the door and she came in and hit me with her keys. Fortunately, a guy wearing a uniform appeared and I tried to explain to him that I didnít know why the woman was so angry. Finally she left with the guy. It will always be a mystery what really happened. Some Chinese people definitely have a very violent side to them.
Further south we went on a three-day horse trek from Songpan. It was here that I first met Arnoud and Lunette from Holland. Some travelers have all the luck and others donít. The day before I met them, Arnoud and Lunette had taken a bus from Chengdu to Songpan to do a horse trek. Itís about a 9 or 10 hour journey. A couple of hours into the trip the bus stopped for a toilet stop. Arnoud walked over to the menís room and noticed that there were already men inside. He decided that he would go behind the toilet and just relieve himself in public. Itís common to do it in public anyway, besides, it meant that he didnít have to go inside the smelly toilet. He saw a flat concrete area behind the toilet and went for it. Meanwhile Lunette was already inside the ladiesí doing her business over the open squat toilet. She noticed that there was a Ďwaveí in the shit and piss below her. "Thatís unusual," she thought, "I wonder what caused that." Arnoud had stepped onto what he thought was concrete. It wasnít. He found himself sinking in human shit and piss. He sank deeper and deeper. The shit and piss was up to the top of his neck, above his chin but just below his mouth. Arnoud is a tall guy and he was close to two meters deep in human shit and piss. He managed to drag himself out cursing loudly. He immediately pulled his wallet out and then proceeded to quickly take off all his clothes. He was fast. In no time he was down to his boxer shorts and he jumped into the nearby river to wash himself. Lunette had to get some clothes for him from his backpack. They put the dirty clothes in a bag on top of the bus. Arnoud spent the rest of the bus journey half hanging outside the bus window. Nobody sat directly next to him, not even Lunette his girlfriend, who sat one seat away from him. At the next stop, Arnoud pulled out some soap and had another wash but apparently it didnít help too much. He ended up washing those clothes a bunch of times and still had to throw them all away, except for his trousers. Heís a tall guy and you canít get his size of trousers in China. The Chinese are short people. Another couple we met, Giyora and Anat, some Israelis who were on the same bus, confirmed the story. Giyora took great pleasure in repeating the details. We laughed a lot that evening.
The Songpan horse trek first went to a beautiful waterfall and then later to some hot (lukewarm to be more exact) springs. Great scenery. At times I found it hard to believe that I wasnít back in the beauty of Brazil. It really is impressive how much diversity China has to offer. The only bad thing is that I had a really sore arse afterwards. A strange thing happened as we tried to enter one of the parks in the Songpan area. For some reason unknown to me one of the guides had a fight with someone from the park entrance ticket office. It was pretty exciting and I took a few photos of the action. Other people were shouting for them to stop fighting but nobody was physically getting in there to stop them. I then decided that Iíd seen enough fighting in China and went and stopped the fight myself. It was remarkably easy and in no time was all over. One of the locals there wanted my camera film, as he knew Iíd taken photos of the fight. With the support of my fellow travelers we told him what we thought about him wanting to take my film and left.
In Chengdu I saw the endangered Panda at the Giant Panda Research Base. Itís not the same as seeing them in the wild but I donít have forever to travel. The chances of seeing Panda in the wild are pretty remote. I have to say that Pandas definitely come high on the cute scale. Itís strange when you actually see one in front of you. I couldnít help but think how precious each one is and what a shame it would be for them to become extinct.
Chengdu is such a great city. I really like the outdoor teahouse and eating scene there. Itís the city that has the most character for me in China. I loved it in 1995 and this time I loved it again. One day we went to see the Sichuan Opera. We went to a teahouse opera which was a very, very colorful performance. The audience consisted of lots of older Chinese people sitting in bamboo chairs, drinking endless cups of tea and constantly using a hand fan to cool themselves in the afternoon heat. The band was a bunch of old guys in vests pulled up to their shoulders and long trousers pulled up above their knees due to the heat; sitting, dozing, smoking and talking to each other. Performers were happily walking across the stage as they entered and left the theatre. Itís not exactly what we would call professional but there is something special about the laid-back atmosphere of the place. It was generally very loud and the singers hit high screeching notes that I hadnít heard since India. When the star of the show was singing the audience bought plastic flowers from a teahouse near the stage. For just over a $1, a bunch of flowers was placed on stage in front of the star attraction. When the star finished, all the plastic flowers were presented to her. Before the show was complete you could see the flowers making their way from backstage back onto the bookshelf for tomorrowís show. I think this is the only form of recycling that I have ever encountered in China. At least itís a start.
We were planning on doing a boat trip along the Yangtse River but opted not to due to the flooding that had caused havoc in China this year. Instead we moved to Xian where we saw the Terracotta Warriors. The Chinese claim that the discovery of the warriors is the archaeological find of the century. Itís certainly an impressive place with life-size warriors and horses in battle formation guarding the tomb of Qin Shihuang the first emperor of all China. Probably the most impressive thing about the warriors is the ego this man must have had. It is believed that about 700,000 slaves built these warriors for the god-like emperor and all of them were then buried alive in order to protect the location of the tomb. You are not allowed to take photos of the Terracotta Warriors. Strangely enough, President Clinton was given permission when he visited earlier this year. Xian is a safe place as the sign on the street says, "The policeman promise earnestly: Help you out of the difficulties. Give service to you whole heartedly." Yeah, I sure felt safe there after I read that sign.
Finally we came to the capital, Beijing. The city itself is nothing special but there are few cities in the world that can match Beijing for attractions. Both the Temple of Heaven where the emperors prayed for good harvests and the Summer Palace were superb. Chinese architecture at its best. The Forbidden City is nothing short of spectacular. I had high expectations and I wasnít disappointed. One thing that really added to the joy in being in The Forbidden City is the cassette-recorded guide that I listened to on a Walkman. The guide is none other than Roger Moore. He really brings the place to life at times. I kept expecting him to say that his name was "Bond, James Bond."
In Beijing, we met "Shit Happens" Arnoud and Lunette again. Together we went to Simutai to see the Great Wall of China. As I said before, Arnoud and Lunette donít have all the luck. On the day we met them, they were on a packed bus when Arnoud noticed that he no longer had his wallet. He told Lunette who freaked out. The bus was at a bus stop and she physically pulled the bus doors open and starting shouting, "I want my money back. Money, money, Yuan, Yuan, Kwai, Kwai!" (Yuan or Kwai is the name of the Chinese currency). Arnoud, seeing his girlfriend freaking out, thought heíd better give her some support so he started shouting, "Drop it, drop it now on the floor!" Whatever they did, it worked because moments later Arnoudís wallet was magically found on the floor.
Our visit to the Great Wall at Simutai was really a dream. Itís much more impressive here than at Jiayuguan, where weíd seen the Great Wall and in the Gobi desert. We all slept in a watchtower away from everyone. It was a great experience. We shared the food we had brought and ate well that night. Great Wall red wine topped the evening off well. Nicolet especially enjoyed her visit but told me that she didnít like the part when the mouse tried to make a nest in her hair while she was sleeping. The Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the moon. The hotel I was staying at in Beijing had this to say about it the Wall at Simutai. "While visiting Beijing from our various countries, make the effort to see the Great Wall at Simutai. This will present you with such amazing sights and thrills that even a trip to the moon canít match." As I said, it was a great trip but I think Iíd rather visit the moon. I have often been asked what travel goals I have left having now visited so many places. Before I went to Antarctica my goal was to go to there. I never thought Iíd make it and I did. Now Iím really dreaming big and have set an idealistic, non-realistic target of the planet EarthÖ. as a whole planet from outer space. I would like to see the whole Earth in one goÖnorth, south, east and west. If youíre going to dream, you might as well dream big. It worked for Antarctica.
I also saw the Beijing Opera, which was very different from the tea house opera that I saw in Sichuan. This one was a professional show with lots of color and some impressive acrobatics too.
One of the more unusual "attractions" in Beijing is Maoís Mausoleum. I was in two minds whether or not I should visit the mausoleum of such a monster. In the end I decided that it would be worth it if only to see the devotion of the misinformed Chinese who still think he is some kind of god. It was an interesting experience. You donít really have time to stare (or spit) at him because they move you along so quickly. Itís funny how a man who changed history so much has ended up with the same fate as a stuffed parrot.
You canít go to Beijing and not eat Peking Duck!. Yummy! Beijing must also have the cheapest beer in the world and it tastes good! Now thatís a good reason to visit China.
From Beijing we flew to Bangkok, Thailand. We originally were hoping to enter Southeast Asia over land but decided to fly so that we could spend more time there. We also needed to book flights out of Bangkok before the planes fill up before Christmas. After having crossed the whole of China from west to east I think we deserved to fly somewhere.
I have to say that I really did enjoy myself in China a lot more than I expected. I have more respect for both the Chinese government and the people. This was highlighted on one of my last days in Beijing when Nicolet and I were trying to find the Summer Palace. We asked an old man if he knew where the bus stop was for the Summer Palace. He didnít speak much English but did his best to communicate. He told us to follow him and so we did. We walked for a few minutes and then we waited at a bus stop. He waited with us and boarded the bus. He insisted on paying for us. We were a bit embarrassed because he was an old man and didnít look like he had too much money. He then told us to get off the bus and so we did. I knew we werenít at the Summer Palace and thought that the man was taking us to the wrong place. Then we started walking again and reached another bus stop. He told us, in the little English that he knew, that this was the bus stop for the Summer Palace. He waited for us to get on the bus and then went back. He had gone through so much effort to help us! We were deeply touched by his kindness. Apparently the Chinese have become more aware that their natural mannerisms are offensive to foreigners and the government has taken steps to educate those involved with tourism. At least itís a start. In general, I found China much more relaxed this time. Itís changing really quickly and thereís a lot of free enterprise nowadays. Business is booming and so too are the number of BMWís.
Johnís café which caters almost exclusively for tourists is obviously trying to be more welcoming to tourists and has the following sign on itís menu.
On the subject of food is anybody hungry? How about some of the following Chinese specialties: eggs boiled in horse urine; chicken feet Ė you eat the whole foot and spit out the toenails; sheepís head Ė I donít even know where you start to eat this one; five flavored cattle tripe; five flavored cattle liver; five flavored pigís head; cold pigs head in sauce; cold heart and tongue in sauce; edible fungus with slices Ė whatís that?; braised pigís trotters; stewed pigís elbow; fried pigís intestines with brown sauce; fragile skin fish Ė any guesses anyone? The above were almost all copied from a single menu. In China the choice is endless. If you bring your granny, Iím sure they could make something tasty out of her too. Donít worry there wonít be any parts wasted!
I am currently in Saigon, Vietnam about to head up north to Hanoi and then across to Laos. Then Iíll in Australia. I will be there from December 12th to Christmas Day.
My next journal entry will probably come from Laos.