June 15, 1997 to September 3, 1997
To catch up and finish this story we are sending out China now and will finish up with India and Nepal. Everyone seems interested in what we are going to do now and where we will live. We donít know now but weíll get back to you on that one. If you know of any great jobs in the health physics world or the occupational therapy world, let us know.
To capture Chinaís uniqueness is difficult in a short story. Weíll start off by going over some of the things we found odd and than give a brief overview of our time spent.
TOILETS ó No words can describe the toilets. Of course not all toilets in China are nasty (I'm sure there is a clean one somewhere) but some of them have left everlasting memories. The countryside is basically shocking. They are all squatters, often just a shack with rickety dirty boards over a pond, trench, or cesspool serves as the facilities. The farmers use "night soil" and being a precious commodity they vie for the bus passengerís gifts of nature. Sadly, the toilets are only cleaned every few dynasties. Cleaning is a demeaning activity to the Chinese, so they avoid it at all cost. Aside from the filth there is NO privacy past ladies this way and gents that way. Westerners fascinate the Chinese anyway and it carries over here too as they like to see if the mechanics are the same.
SPITTING AND NOSE BLOWING óAside from the toilets, this is perhaps the hardest thing for westerners to get used to. People spit everywhere: restaurants, elevators, buses etc. Hacking coupled with frequent respiratory ailments adds to the joy. Nose blowing was also mind-boggling. The Chinese have a unique system of blowing. It requires only 1 finger and no hanky (you Aussie's know it as the bushman's hanky). As with spitting, this is not restricted to outside.
TRASH- throwing it anywhere, anytime takes some getting used to. We finally came to realize, if we disposed of it properly the trash gets dumped off to one side anyway. Besides the fact that you are adding to the ill appearance of the streets, this part of China was fun after awhile. A friend we met said it was one of China's little pleasures. Of course you had to stay clear of moving vehicles to avoid being pelted by chicken bones and other unidentifiable objects.
BARGAINING The Chinese love money, they also live to haggle. This complex process takes westerners by surprise. As long as you donít take it personally and keep things light it can be fun. We took a short language course and learned the following: (in Mandarin of course)
Us: "How much is this?í
Them: "20 Yuan"
Us: "Oh, that is too expensive, maybe 2 Yuan."
Them: "no, no 15 Yuan"
Us: "But you pay 1 Yuan, Chinese people pay 2 and American person pays 3. 3 is a good
By this time they were either taken aback that we knew one word of mandarin or so confused by our poor language skills we usually got our price. The trick was admitting that we agreed to pay more than the Chinese but we didnít want to be ripped off too badly.
If you ever go to a bargaining country the key is persistence and humor. Once you lose patience or get angry- give up and go. This advice is important throughout Asia.
CULTURAL DIFFERENCES- The Chinese think somewhat differently than we do. This can lead to problems if you donít realize this. One of the funny things that go a long way towards explaining the difference is the fact there is no Chinese word for NO. Through their history it has been proved that the word NO causes trouble, so it has been eliminated. Another thing is that they really donít know what to make of us. They are always looking for clues on how to deal with you. For best results, dress well-no shorts. Shorts are for peasants! Many simply refuse to deal with foreigners at all to avoid embarrassing (face losing) encounters. I canít tell you how many times I asked a Chinese person for help and they just ran off with a terrified look on their face. Another frequent encounter is when they look at the hair on our arms, legs, or face and say, "monkey-monkey!"
TOUTS- Traveling to the big tourist spots is great except for these guys. Touts are paid handsomely (The annoying part is their commission is paid by you) to make sure you choose their tour, restaurant, hotel, gemstones, etc. They are persistent to the point of annoyance, often grabbing or getting in our face. We often had to get tricky and sneak away, or just go get some tea until they left.
BUT ALL I WANT IS SOAP
This is one strange phenomenon in all of Asia. If you want tires you go to the tire street and there are numerous vendors selling exactly the same thing. Pants, of course, the pants street. If you see the orange juice guy look no further, there will be at least 2 other people right next to him with exactly the same set up. Now the strangest part, in a city the size of Beijing this still goes on. Maybe itís how they make sure that no one gets too far ahead.
FOOD- One time through the meat market and we became vegetarians (for Asia at least). It is no myth; they really do eat anything that walks crawls, flies or slithers. Bugs, slugs, monkey brains, you name it. They eat anything with its back to the sun. Live stuff is especially sought after "Oohh, please pass another live cock roach swimming in luscious Soya, I donít believe Iíve had my fill." For us it was rice, noodles and vegetables 2 times a day for 10 weeks.
WHERE DID ALL THE COOL STUFF GO? The Red Guard did a thorough job and the Cultural Revolution took its toll. Most monuments, temples, art works etc are reproductions. Plaques nearby state the original age of the sight and the fact it was destroyed. Of course the wonderful government is proudly preserving this part of Chinasí history. The details are left out. We also saw many empty rooms "that were once filled with beautiful books, paintings, instruments, furniture etc." All burned and trashed during the Cultural Revolution.
One story I found interesting is the Tomb of the first emperor of China. They always knew where it was, but being superstitious, they didnít want to mess with it even during the Cultural Revolution. Apparently the first emperor was a pretty nasty guy and they didnít want to disturb his Spirit. The Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered a few miles away "guarding" his tomb.
GETTING AROUND- China has this one covered. We found travel simple and comfortable. We took 2nd class sleepers on trains. They are clean, cheap and fairly reliable. We rode 1st class sometimes, which was real luxury (and easy to get). The sleeper buses are wonderful alternatives. These are buses with beds in them. They are comfortable but we rarely slept well. We learned to purchase tickets by writing down what we wanted in Chinese characters. Other tourists got really frustrated trying to obtain the same tickets and it was the biggest complaint we heard about China. Even in the height of the season we always got the ticket we wanted. The secret was to say as little as possible, just show your sign. The one drawback to public transport is the carryover of nasty habits to the inside of buses and trains-yes; by the end of a trip it is really dirty.
CITIES AND VILLAGERS- China is basically several huge cities, hundreds of medium towns with .5-3 million and thousands of small villages. Modern cities cling to the eastern areas and industrialized towns dot the central and eastern portions of China. Despite the immense cities 80% of Chinese still live quiet village lives. Most villagers are farmers, feeding a billion-four people year in and year out. Every inch is cultivated (and I mean every INCH). We opted to spend most of our time in the small villages were people are friendlier and you got to see the ethnic groups There is no typical village as the minority groups are so diverse though most use tile roofs and wood or mud walls around a family/animal compound. Each group has its own dress, culture, building style etc. In one province alone there were 60 different groups.
ETHNIC GROUP VERSUS HAN - Everyone knows the plight of the Tibetans but few people realize the same scenario is played out throughout China wherever ethnic groups live. The official policy is to move ethnic "Han" Chinese (the majority-95%) into the area that all the uniqueness of religion and culture is eventually wiped out by the sheer numbers of Hans. There is no blame to be placed on the Hans; they are simply following orders and being given large incentives to move. The incentives often come at the expense of the locals.
STARING SQUADS-This one will make you laugh one minute and irritate you the next. Westerners fascinate the people. Imagine living in a world where everyone was approximately the same size, color, same hair eyes and dress. We never ate, shopped, sat or walked alone; many pairs of eyes always accompanied us
DATES: June 15, 1997 to September 3, 1997
Food- $1.00 to $3.00 a meal, way out in the countryside much less.
Lodging-$ 1.00 to $10 00 a night for a simple double or dorm bed in a large city.
2nd Class sleeper train ticket Kunming-Chengdu-$l0-15 pp
This is Mel for now and I am going to begin by confessing I had no desire to see China. Rob wanted to. I was curious but wary and didnít have much of an opinion about going. The day we left, by train from Hanoi, I was nervous although I canít explain why, I had never been nervous to cross a border before.
I should have known China would be different from anything Iíd ever experienced when we changed trains at the border. We were placed onto a luxury train and great pains were taken so we didnít mix with the locals. This was excellent for us- a whole compartment to us. Huge comfortable sleepers complete with feather duvets, 2 pillows, lace curtains, even potted plants and horrible music. As all good dreams come to an end ours finished in Guilin. As we exited the station 5 touts were grabbing us pulling us toward their taxi or bus. We pushed everyone off and found a local guy to help us find the regular bus. Guilin is a large city on the tourist track where you do boat tours of the limestone areas of China. We headed toward Youngshou, a small town and a backpacker (cheap) version of Guilin.
Youngshou and Guilin
China has two foreigner "hang-outs" and Youngshou is one. These consist of lots of budget accommodation; Chinese versions of western cuisine and bars playing old rock music and bootleg movies. We found our spot and settled in.
This is the area famous for its karst formations. These limestone pillars rise up from the lush countryside and in the morning mist are ethereal. They have been captured on silk by hundreds (or seeing how we are talking about China maybe we should say millions) of Chinese artists. We chose to explore by bicycle, the best choice in my opinion. It was in this town we took 6 hours of private language tutoring, $20.00 well spent. We never quite got the hang of the tones (really the key to the language) and Iím sure we said things like "smashes car baby dig cheese" from the confused looks we received. Rob was more proficient than I was as my southern accent got in the way.
Travel through the Countryside to Guiyang
For our next adventure we headed off the tourist trail toward Guiyang. This area is one of the more remote and untraveled areas of China consisting of mountains and small villages. Taking local buses and boats we really enjoyed exploring this portion of the country. We didnít see another foreigner for over 2 weeks. The Dong Minority lives here in the small villages. Their beautiful stone and wooden homes, dress, rice terraces and water buffalo made nice pictures. In the area were also huge water wheels used for irrigation.
The Dong are known in China for their unique wind and water bridges. These are constructed of several tiered pagoda style structures strung across the rivers. Each one is different and a town of 500 might have 6 or 7 large bridges. In this area we got a feel for what most of China is like. Away from the big cities, these villagersí lives havenít changed much in a hundred years. There is some electricity, but most things are done the old ways. Traditional buildings, buffalo carts, hand woven fabrics, shoes, and simple wooden tools are ever present.
Once in Guiyang we caught the night train due west to Kunming. Near the train station we saw several tiger paws and monkey skeletons for sale. Apparently the authorities turn a blind eye to illegal poaching. Like everything else in the east Iím sure a bit of legal grease was applied. Kunming wasnít our kind of place so we quickly made our way to Dali. This is the other foreignersí hangout and is clean with a wide variety of food, movies and music. A great respite from the road, Dali is a darling town in the heart of an area with a number of diverse ethnic groups. We visited a local market, did some small hikes, explored the local pagoda and met the author of "Mr. Chinaís Son". This excellent book is about the authorís life during the Cultural Revolution (CR). He is an older gentleman now and runs a cafe in town. For a look at what the CR was all about give it a look. It is published here in the States.
We were in Dali for the hand-over of Hong Kong and saw it on TV. The Chinese called it "the end to 100 years of humiliation." For some reason there were many Hong Kong Chinese in Dali that day, probably to escape the masses swarming into Hong Kong.
In Dali we met up with some other travelers and headed to nearby Lijiang. This ancient town is known for its Naxi (pronounced Nash-i) minority. This group went to great personal danger to keep their unique culture alive during the Cultural Revolution and has preserved their way of life. A story was told of how one monk watered a tree near a monastery. If he were caught they would have executed him. The goal was to eliminate all remnants of the old (including old trees) and bring on the "new". Those days are gone (for now anyway) and we enjoyed an evening of music performed by 60-80 year old men, many with original family heirloom instruments-hidden away during the bad years. The older ones often nodded off between songs but their music transported the audience back in time. It was said to be the only remnants of an old Chinese Dynasty courtesan music. A former Ruler from this area went to Beijing to sit in the court there. He gained favor with the Emperor who granted him 1 request. Instead of asking for riches (he probably already had that), or more land, he asked that his people be given the music he so admired. The Emperor granted this request, and this music was introduced to the area of Lijiang.
Tiger Leaping Gorge and Tibetans
After the usual hard bargaining at the local market, and taking in the local sights our group headed toward Quinto. This town holds no promise on its own but is the jumping off point for an overnight hike into Tiger Leaping Gorge. The area is near the first bend in the Yangtze River close to the border of Tibet. After an early 5 am start and several hours of hiking straight uphill it started pouring, 3 of our group bailed out. We slugged on with Petr (the only Czech we met on our trip). The rain really let loose and we lost the trail before long Pressing on anyway we decided to pick up the pace and make it before nightfall. Several villagers pointed the way. The gorge itself was breathtaking. A sheer 1000 Meter drop on both sides to the raging Yangtze River below. Because of the rain, all the creeks were swollen and there were a few small landslides to cross. After dark we reached our destination, Walnut Grove. We stayed at Woodyís guesthouse where goodies like beer and hot soup are made possible by weekly burrow trips out of the gorge. It was cozy inside, raining outside and the menu was good, not to mention the scenery, so we stayed an extra day. Our way back was tricky with new landslides and raging creeks to cross. After 10 grueling hours we were back. We made a side trip up to Zhongdian and visited a Tibetan Monastery and pretty much froze. The monastery was excellent and we had a great opportunity to visit with some Monks who shared butter tea and looked at our photos.
We headed back to Lijiang in time to find out I had picked up a friend or two in Walnut Grove-Giardia. The local doctor fixed me up and I was okay in a couple of days.
We also had time to squeeze in a visit to the local medicine man residing in a town near Lijiang. Dr. Ho is a self-proclaimed medicine man made famous by roving photographers and reporters covering the people of China in a few big name magazines. He looks the part with a triangular beard, white lab coat and funny hat. Dr. Ho is best known for an herbal tea he blends and claims can cure anything. Selling this tea to unsuspecting tourist has made him the richest man for miles. He asks that you pay "what you think it is worth".
From Lijiang we were drawn back to Dali for a wonderful time of eating, shopping, and eating some more. We met some great people there and were surprised at the number of American tourists, a rarity in our travels.
Leaving Yunnan for Chungdu and Parts North
From here we went further north looking for a northern loop to Chengdu. The jumping off point for this loop is in a town on the Tibetan plateau called Zhongdian. This town sits up above 3000 meters and was cold. We looked into the trip north and found that you might make it, or you might be stuck for a while (only a month or so) as landslides block you in this remote area. We decided to go back the way we came as it was raining fairly steadily. Meanwhile we went to the local Monastery, a large complex with hundreds of Lamas. They were very nice; letting us poke around and even gave us some Tibetan butter tea. We couldnít communicate very well, but our lonely planet book had lots of pictures. They really liked the picture of the Dali Lama
We decided to head to Chengdu by way of Kunming. I am sure Kunming has lots to offer but we only explored the weird and wonderful Bamboo Temple. A couple hundred years ago the monks of this Temple commissioned an artist to adorn its walls with beauty. For several years he worked in private, creating a collection of several hundred-life size caricatures of the monks around him. Then he set about creating the surfing Buddhaís, each whimsical and surprisingly life-like. From the chapel walls waves crash out with monks "hanging ten". Each "surfing" a different animal or bird. He obviously poured his heart out. The story goes that at the big unveiling the monks were none too pleased and he disappeared. This was a refreshing laugh in serious China.
We also talked with a few older Chinese who fondly remembered the Flying Tigers and other Americans who were stationed here during WWII
In Chengdu we joined a million or so people by peddling our way around. We explored temples, tombs, palaces, museums and monasteries. We also visited the nearby Panda Research Institute and watched three large pandas frolicking and eating only 7 feet away from us. If you happen to go, get there early as they sleep in the heat (post 9am) heat of the day.
Songpan was great Basically all you do there is go on the horse treks. The touts start on you when the bus driver picks up the first one about 50 miles out. He smiles at you and shows you pictures of happy backpackers as he tries to get you to commit to his trekking company. By this time in China, you probably have met someone who has done the trek. We already had a company in mind so we did our best to ignore the fact he was in our face constantly for about an hour. Usually if you totally ignore these guys for about 30 minutes they leave you alone.
We decided on a 3-day tour. With another small group we made our way out on horseback. The scenery was truly beautiful with fields of wildflowers, cascading waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, tiny villages and a Tibetan Monastery high up in the hills. If we had known we would have signed up for 5 days.
Nest stop, XiíAn and the Terra Cotta Warriors. I was unsure after all the hype but was wowed by this amazing sight. The excavators have left them in their original tomb and simply glued them back together. There is an entire army ready for battle; some smaller garrisons nearby and 2 life sized copper horse drawn chariots. Ian also boasts an excellent History Museum and Stele Museum holding the worldís heaviest library (stone tablets). If you go, be sure to spend the whole day at the warrior site, as there is quite a lot to take in. Most tours speed through on their way to some really boring places, we went by local bus and were there all day.
Heading toward Beijing we stopped for the day at the Longmen Caves near Luoyang, Around 1500 years ago monks carved over 100,000 images, mostly of Buddha, into the sides of cliffs lining the river. The images are set in manmade cubbyholes. Most were smaller than 2 X 3 feet but some images up to 40 meters tall. Sadly, many western "collectors" and museums now house many of the images. Luckily, the Red Guard did not touch them during the CR.
We caught a train to Beijing and got in early in the morning. Here we checked out the museums and the big sights. Tianamen Square was impressive even though the "Chairmanís"í mausoleum was in the middle. It was closed to visitors so we didnít get to see him. We checked out the summer palace, the Forbidden City, and a few other sights in this interesting city. We also made a trip out to the Great Wall that was very impressive. One memorable exhibit was in the Natural History museum. Here they had numerous cadavers drawn, quartered and floating in formaldehyde for our viewing pleasure....
From here we took a train to visit some friends we had met in Malaysia who were working in China. They were originally from Germany, and were managing a German-Chinese joint venture making heavy equipment. It was great staying at their place and talking with them about their experience living and working in China. They lived in an area where there were no tourists and they had to deal with the Chinese on their terms.
One story they told us was how Tina would go to the market to buy vegetables. Everyday she would go and they would always try to rip her off. It got to the point where she would go there for a week and buy nothing!! After a while they came to realize that she would not pay foreigner prices. Now when she goes they just frown as they tell her the real price... They know better than to mess with her. Of course this does not apply to the busload of wives from a large American company who also shop there. They get ripped off mercilessly. I guess they are worried that Tina will clue them in. She probably wonít, but thatís another story.
We went to Shanghai together and got a look at the prosperous side of China. Shanghai is rapidly returning to its old days with a large expat community pretty much making their own societal rules. The Chinese overlook this as the money rolls in. Huge stadiums and thousands of glassed in skyscrapers make this look like a modem metropolis. I can see how someone would come to this city and get a very different idea of what China is all about. It is hard to find a room for less than $100/night!! This in a country where the lucky people make a dollar a day! We hit a few of the expat hotspots and felt like real tourists for a weekend.
From here we took a train to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is different from China in that these people have money. Everyone has a cell phone and dresses fashionably. We didnít see much grumbling about the hand-over, but were told by someone we met that there is plenty. People here are afraid to stick their necks out (a very Chinese affliction), as the people in power have very long memories. The city is modern and relatively clean by Chinese standards. If you have lots of money, there is a lot to do. We checked out the museums, and Rob finished off a Navy Reserve training course to get credit for another year of service. We took advantage of the great fast food joints and grocers stocked with western goodies. We even got to tour the US Aircraft Carrier Constellation that had come in for a port call. From here we arranged our airline tickets home and first saw the light at the end of the tunnel. We were flying to India, then a short stop in Europe (to try and get a job with the International Atomic Energy Agency) before heading home.
China was a very interesting place to visit. Other than an expensive tour to the major attractions, a trip here shouldnít be considered a "vacation". Itís a tough place to travel, but rewarding none-the-less. I saw it as an opportunity to see how the Chinese people think about life and the world. They basically didnít have a clue about the world. I canít tell you how many times when we had trouble communicating they would write Chinese characters (the languages in China are different, but the characters are always the same) on their hand over and over again. They thought the whole world used them.
The people in the country were like those everywhere else, just folks. I think a lot is made of the cultural differences, but the gap really isnít that big. The 1 child policy is used, but so many exceptions are granted (ethnic minorities can have as many as they want, farmers can have 2, you can "pay" for extra children) that I donít think it is going to make much difference. One fact I found disturbing is that there are 114 boys for every 100 girls born in China. What are these men going to do when they get older and cannot get married (let alone the obvious infanticide)?
Would we live there----NO WAY
Would we go backóMaybe out west to Yunnan Province, along the border with Viet Nam and Burma, and north of Tibet along the Silk Road.
Take care and have a Great New Year.
Mel and Rob
September 26, 1997
Rob and I are now in Kathmandu. We spent one month in Thailand, 3 weeks in Cambodia and one month in Vietnam. We then traveled through China for 2 months and spent 2 weeks in Hong Kong, one month in India (where we bought a motorcycle) and are now 2 weeks into Nepal. As we are so behind we will attempt to do this as a team. It has been difficult to obtain Internet and computer access in Asia. We apologize for losing touch.
January 8, 1998
Hello everyone, we have finally made it home. WE arrived back in the States on December 15 and have been frantically piecing our world back together since. Weíll be traveling around in January and February visiting and we hope to see as many friends and family members as possible. We plan on being in Knoxville by Jan 12, then onto Atlanta and Florida. Our last stop before returning to Dallas will be the Midyear Meeting of the Health Physics Society in Mobile AL. Feb 8-11.
Copyright © 2002 by Robert and Melissa Gunter. All rights reserved.