Saturday, June 6, 2009

China my china, i've wandered around and you're still here

The mist, clinging to the bambooed hills changed into a rain as we descended newly tunneled roads to China's border with Laos. With China at our backs my memories will be bitter sweet. China is a beautiful country, and its people are among the most friendly and helpful I've encountered on the planet. There was never a time when, looking lost and defeated, that someone didn't help us out. The landscape, punctured by limestone kartsts or blanketed by amoebic rice paddies, is otherwordly. I am envious of the smoothness of China's rail, and how easy travel is. Perhaps more Americans would actually see America if our rail compared to taht of China's. China has a sense of humor, too. Some of the funniest one liners I've seen in my life have been derived from mistranslated Engrish. (Actually, China does have a standup scene which seemed to be based around its musical traditions and opera... but I couldn't understand the jokes... and Jackie Chan can be a pretty funny dude, but he doesn't count, he's Cantonese.)

But China has a dark side that we butted up against periodically on our trip. The Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966 was a period of social upheaval. Mao wanted to purge the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Intellectuals were sent to farms, books and musical instruments were burned, and temples were raized. China has moved on, from this philosophy, but the vestiges of the thought that led to the Cultural Revolution still remain and influence China's decisions.

The last province Shannon and I visited was the Yunnan province. The Yunnan province is unique in that it is host to many minority cultures in China, each with unique religion, architecture and language. While we were traveling in the province we began to read a book given to me be my mother's friend: The Rivers Tale by Edward Gargan which detailed his trip down the Mekong River from its source in Tibet. Gargan's trip happened to begin in the Yunnan Province and his interviews with people along the way who lived through the Cultural Revolution changed my perception of the vast country a bit. If you're traveling in China or Southeast Asia, I highly recommend this book. It has added a new layer of meaning into my travels.

China is still out to stifle the Four Olds. The government has little care for old architecture, music, and religion unless it serves the purpose of lining the pockets of communist Beuracrats. Much historic architecture has been destroyed in China to make way for drab high rise apartments. The Yunnan province is a remarkable example of China's attitude towards the old. Because they are so far from Beijing, the old cities of Lijian and Dali managed to escape the wrecking ball however what exists of them now looks more like shopping malls or Disneyland than anything of historic significance. We had the privelage, while in Lijian, to see the Naxi Orchestra. This orchestra is composed of ancient men playing 1000 year old musical scores on ancient instruments. The performance was great, except for the thumping bass of techno music filtering through from nightclubs which have taken up residence across the street. We made our way south of Lijian to the city of Zhongdian (dubbed Shangri-La by a local beurocrat). Zhongdian used to be part of Tibet and houses one of the priniciple Tibetan monastaries. As we ascended the stairs to the top of the hill in which the monastary is perched, the scars of the Cultural Revolution become apparent as the monastaries main building still lies in a heap of rubble. Though the Lamas are currently in the process of rebuilding this intimates the heavy role China is playing in modern Buddhist practice. Gargan speaks a lot about this.

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