Saturday, June 6, 2009

Escape from the Gulag!

Dear readers, we are finally free of China's ban on blogspot! Upon arriving in Beijing where we last left you, we found that blogspot had been blocked. We thought perhaps it was blocked only in the capital, but when we saw that it was blocked in Pingyao and Xi'an and so on, we assumed China was cutting back on people's freedoms with the approaching twenty year anniversary of Tianemen Square (June 5). The worst part was that we couldn't post to say we couldn't post! We didn't stick around to see when our right to blog might be restored. Despite its governmental shortcomings, Laos does not seem to have a problem with blogging.

I wrote this "Summary of our Chinese Travels" post in my head on a windy, bumpy, sleepless sleeper-bus from Zhongdian to Kunming a few days ago. Since we last wrote, this is what we have been doing in the lonely absence of our blog:
  • In Beijing, we saw older people waltzing to Christmas songs on our walk from the bus station to the hostel. People often whistled Christmas songs in May in this Buddhist/atheist country. Our hostel was located in one of the many hutong alleyways that have mostly been demolished to make way for 10-lane avenues. There are so many sights in Beijing you could stay for weeks. We saw a handful of famous ones, all very impressive.
  • We celebrated my 28th birthday in Pingyao, an ancient walled city, a tourist shadow of its former thriving village self. All the authentic action has moved outside the historic gates and inside people hawk glass jade bracelets and dubious antiques. John rented the kitteh from the shop next door by writing down the characters for "girlfriend" "birthday" "cat" "one hour," which made it an exceptionally memorable birthday. I love that the word for cat in Mandarin is "mao."
  • In Xi'an, we ate delicious Muslim mutton soup with bread crumbled in it, then we fought our way through armies of tourists to see the terra cotta warriors. We were also offered a kitteh for free, but the logistics of traveling with a xiao mao boggled our minds.
  • Rather than petting pandas in Chengdu and floating down the Yangtze in Chongqing, we got off the beaten path in Zhengzhou and for lack of English signage and Hostelling Internationals, we could not find a place to stay. We looked dejected enough that a girl with a pocket translator offered to help and lead us to a nearby hotel and got us a room, which we were promptly thrown out of for reasons that could not be fully explained with our pocket mandarin - english dictionary. We think no foreigners were allowed to stay in the hotel, but still don't know why we were allowed into a room in the first place... eventually we found a new hotel on our own. The whole point of going to Zhengzhou was the Shaolin temple, birthplace of Chinese kung fu, home of Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wutang sword-style (if what you say is true, the shaolin and the wutang could be dangerous).We saw several of the kung fu animal style (listed in the poll in the right side bar) in fist-flying action.
  • Our next stop was Wuhan, which we imagined might be what Shanghai was like twenty years ago, with a Bund that was not completely under construction and concession-era architecture falling into ruin, but we were itching to get a taste of the Chinese pastoral.
  • We did not quite find idyllic countryside in Fenghuang, which was very pretty by day with narrow alleys and houses supported by stilts hanging over the river, but discordantly thumping with booty jams by night. The crush of the stinky-tofu-eating tourist hoardes in town for a dragon boat racing holiday also made it difficult to soak up the scenery.
  • Dehang finally satisfied our search for small village life with the added bonus of some amazing hikes through limestone karsts and rice paddy-covered landscapes.
  • We caught a scenic train ride up to Yunnan province only to see more rural Chinese tourist disneyfication in Dali and Lijiang, where it was hard to see the historic architecture underneath all the tourist schlock and people putting on ethnic clothing and posing for photographs. Unlike in South America, the majority of tourists in China are Chinese and they seemed to be shameless consumers of whatever was on sale, such as local ethnic minorities' dignity.
  • Thankfully, the tourist hoardes did not make it all the way up the Himalayan foothills to Zhongdian, also known as Gyalthang to Tibetans, also known as Shangri-La to the Chinese tourist bureau. We sampled yak burger and yak yogurt and gaped at the ruins of what used to be the most important lamasery in southwest Tibet, which had been trashed by overly enthusiastic Red Guards in the cultural revolution and is still being slowly restored...
We are now inadvertently following in the footsteps of Edward Gargan as he flowed with the Mekong from its headwaters in Tibet to its delta in Vietnam. 'A River's Tale' is a very good read, but I got a little nervous holding it in China where it is undoubtedly banned.

After a minor scuffle with the Chinese officials over some "suspicious" creases in John's passport, we made a run for Laos. We are now in Luang Nam Tha and just enjoyed our first $4 steak, coconut milk soup, and lemon-mint drink. Tomorrow we are hoping to see some tigers (from a distance) in the neighboring jungle. Hopefully we will now return to our regularly scheduled blog posting.

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