March 26th — April 20th
Kunming, April 2nd
After spending the last week Shanghai recuperating from our adventures in India, we moved to the city that Raphaël, who is one of Anaïs’ high school friends, is currently studying in. Kunming was presented to us as a small time city, almost podunk some might say. Well it turns out that podunk is all just a matter of perspective! From my point of view at least, it seems like a big city with a freeway ring around it, tall buildings, broad roads, traffic, lights, etc. Maybe about as big as Lyon intra muros.
We were warned that the city wasn't much to visit. We still spent a day there. We might have been better off taking a cab outside to see some other sights but I still found our time here worthwhile. It was a Saturday, not that we would usually pay attention to what day of the week it is, but it happened to be a day where everyone and their mom seemed to be out in the city, and in the park in particular. It was special to witness what a Saturday afternoon looks like for normal Chinese people. It was just authentic, no show put on for us or any expectations to meet. People were just being themselves. We could usually spot a westerner or two, but not this time around. We were like flies on the wall.
The city is centered around an artificial lake which doubles as a park with multiple islands. The whole thing reminded me of the night market in Chiang Mai because so many people got together to play music, dance and recite poetry. The first attraction that caught our attention was a large group of people gathered along a wall in a small alley. It looked like some kind of market so I got curious and went to see what it was all about. It was a market alright, but nothing was for sale, properly speaking. The wall was plastered with small notes, some printed, some handwritten. The folks gathering around the wall skewed old, and everything was written in Chinese. Hard to tell exactly what it was all about but we figured it must be an old fashioned classified section, out in the open.
The truth wasn't far from that. Anaïs suggested using the google translate app to take a picture. So I VPN’d, snapped a picture and asked the app to scan it. As a side note, this app is incredible. After scanning a picture with text, it highlights what it could parse and you are then able to swipe over a portion of text that Google translates for you. So we did just that for a couple of ads on the wall. Here's a picture of the first one:
The translation is rough, but from what I gathered, this is an advertisement by a mother, trying to marry her daughter. She then goes on to tout her daughter’s merits and describes what she's looking for. My mind was blown right then and there. First of all, the concept of parents wedding their children is a little foreign — although obviously not unheard of. Indian culture is notorious for this, but Chinese not quite so much. When marriages are arranged by parents to some degree, the assumption is that the match is carefully selected with precise strategic criteria to be fulfilled. But not here. This ad cast a wide net.
Walking a little further down the road, the small individual notes were replaced by entire folders of profiles. Blue folders for men, pink for women. We translated another one. This one was a profile of an older man, probably widowed, maybe divorced who was looking for love and companionship. His way of describing himself and what he sought was completely endearing. At that moment it struck me that we weren't just seeing a crowd of parents wedding their children, it was probably a majority of people who came out to the park on a Saturday afternoon looking for love. There was something earnest, unassuming and candid about the people there. You could just tell from the notes on the wall, even in the broken translations that were available to us.
Seeking companionship also means being vulnerable by opening oneself and also by acknowledging the potential for rejection. That's why dating sites in the west happen behind a screen, not in the open for everyone to see. The people in Green Lake Park really put themselves out there. Many waited next to their poster to see who would be interested. The whole endeavor was so innocent and old fashioned that it just made me melt. What an awesome sight!
We snapped a couple more pictures and headed toward the end of the alley. We stumbled upon a large group of people of all ages dancing in a circle to a traditional Chinese tune, with an EDM backbeat and some locals playing percussion instruments. They were into it. People were just enjoying life in the simplest of ways, dancing away seemingly without a care for how they looked or what others might think of them. They were just enjoying themselves. Most of them had traditional Chinese garments, others went for more fabulous looks with tall feathers in their hats. What surprised me the most was the mix of people. Men and women of all different ages took part. I projected myself into a similar situation. A) dancing in public, B) dressed up, C) with children and elderly folk? I'm way too self conscious to do anything like it.
I left the park with the impression that Chinese people are a pretty happy bunch who know how to have some clean, good old fashioned fun in a way that I had personally forgotten to. That shattered so many preconceived notions that western media feed us, namely that Chinese lead bleak lives, are censored, poor and work an ungodly amount of hours in horrible factory jobs. Maybe some of these things are true to some extent but that afternoon at least added a few shades of grey to the mix.
Dali, April 3rd-5th
This is my ritual each morning. Some noise or a ray of light wakes me up in the morning and I struggle with the same decision: do something about it (put some earplugs on, close the window, pull the curtain, maybe roll over?) or just try to go back to sleep? By the time I've settled on an answer, I'm usually up. That happens around 9am at which stage I'm ready to get up and do stuff. I look to my side, Anaïs is sound asleep. I feel bad waking her up, but I want to start doing things with my day. That's usually when I turn to my phone. VPN, Twitter, Facebook, nyt, gmail, Quartz, maybe write a bit. Now it's 11am and she's still sleeping. At 11am, I'm fine with waking her up. Add a bit of tossing, turning, the occasional complaining, getting dressed, then makeup and we’re out and about at the crack of noon. This is the story of how a quarter of my trip around the world was spent lazing around in a hotel room.
That Sunday morning was a little different though. We knew we had to catch a bus somewhat early if we wanted to make it to Dali at a reasonable time. Catching a bus in China is easy: there's a big terminal, a ticket counter, gates, buses, and off you go. The bus for Dali left at noon and would take us about five hours. The road isn't anything remarkable, mostly a string of buildings popping up on the sides of the highway. The scenery is nothing to write home about. What made the whole affair rather dull was that for once the quality of the roads was good. We essentially drove on a two to three lane highway, separated from oncoming traffic. After India, this was a good kind of boring. Sure there was some rogue passing, a few sudden slow downs, but it was a piece of cake compared what we dealy with in the past month.
We reached Dali in the evening and settled in at the Dragonfly Inn. This was a mix between a guest house and a hostel with a combination of nicer rooms and regular dorms. They hosted a barbecue on the rooftop and the food was decent and cheap. They mostly did this to foster a good atmosphere at the hostel. The roof revealed a view on the imposing Cangshan mountains. A blanket of clouds rolling over the range reminded me of San Francisco. It was warm, we ordered some beer, and a couple of Korean students introduced themselves to us. We spent the rest of the night talking about languages (they were studying Chinese), culture, career paths, and travel. We snapped a commemorative group picture and bid them farewell as they went off to Lijiang and the tiger leap gorge.
The ritual unfolded once more as we prepared to explore the Chongshen temple and its three pagodas. After much deliberation, we picked a lunch spot and walked to the temple. At first, we thought it would be a quick visit of the pagodas, so the entrance fee (~$20) felt steep but we went all the same. The temple was so much more than that! It was hard to tell at first because the temple is laid out in a straight line up Cangshan mountain, which means that each temple hides the subsequent temple. As we walked up the hill, we never knew which temple would be the last one. The more tired we got, the more amazing it became to discover a new set of temples and buildings. The higher we went, the more sophisticated the structures were. The complex of temples was built in the later half of the 20th century, fairly recently all said and told, which can sometimes feel a little cheap. You don't get quite the same experience as you might when visiting places like Uxmal, Hagia Sophia, the colosseum or Epidaurus that have witnessed centuries go by, but the architecture, the landscaping, and the views more than made up for it.
We came back to our hostel and got ready to go out for dinner. We went out to a Chinese place full of locals. The decoration reminded me of places you might find in the mission. I figured it must be a decent spot. The menu was all in Chinese — no pictures. So we whipped out Google translate and scanned the pages. Against all odds, we got what we ordered but we weren’t head over heels about the food. There was no hiding it from ourselves: we were having a bit of a falling out with Chinese food. We had tried so many different places on all ends of the price spectrum but it never really hit the spot. There was some good stuff but it was far and few in between. We tried so many different types of dishes: completely novel dishes with new flavors and textures, to the more secure options. At the end of the day, I had some decent rice dishes, some okay broth and noodles and some excellent braised pork belly, but I wasn’t consistently delighted like I was in India. In fact most of the time I walked away slightly disappointed.
We explored the old city by night. We went with no specific expectations and found that the old city of Dali was abuzz with lights, shops, crowded streets, bars and live music. It was quite an experience! It feels odd to say it in such a way, but for lack of a better word, the whole area felt very, very hip. Almost hipstery if it weren't for the fact that there was nothing haughty or pretentious about the atmosphere. The Dali night scene might teach SF a thing or two… the vibrancy and the abundance of shops, the attention to decoration, colors and atmosphere was delightful. Eventually, we walked our knees to a pulp and hit the sack, but what an impression Dali left on us!
I read about hiking in the Cangshan mountain range and was eager to check it out. We made it out the door at the usual time, then found a deli and stocked up on bread, cold cuts and cheese. After subjecting our pallets and bowels to such novelty, we craved something a little closer to home.
With our bellies full, we started our walk up the mountain for what would be a tortuous afternoon. We hiked through the dark side of Dali, up a steep hill towards what I thought would be the cable car to bring us to the top of the hill. “Cable car? Some hiking!”, one might think, but getting up there was hard enough to begin with. There was a bit of an issue however: the cable car station was nowhere in sight. Anaïs was already tired from the climb up and I felt terrible for having lead us astray. We stood at a crossroad, me fiddling with my phone, trying to VPN and use google maps to find our way to the cable car station. We were about to give up hope when we spotted a woman at the crossroad, walking with her elderly parents. I used the bilingual dictionary app to ask for the cable car. They seemed to know the way, so we followed them through a forest trail until we reached the building, 10 minutes later. But it wouldn't be so simple: the cable car terminal was fenced off entirely from our path and we were forced to crawl under a rusty padlocked gate to get there. Paying $15 per person for a cable car ride seemed steep, but after having scaled so much of the mountain and hiked under the rain, we succumbed to the sunken cost fallacy and bit the bullet.
If you're scared of heights, challenge yourself and take a ride up a mountain on a Chinese ropeway. Add a gust of wind or two and turn around to contemplate the terminal fading further and further into the distance and if you're anything like me, your stomach will start to feel quite light. After a steep 10-minute climb, the suspended wagon dipped back down before reaching the halfway station. At this stage, a stunning vista revealed a deep gorge, complete with waterfalls, vertical cliffs, gorgeous wild flowers wrapped in steamy mist befitting the stereotypical Chinese mountains that movies had planted in me all these years.
I was ready to hike, but the weather took a turn for the worse just as we arrived. I was so stunned by the arrival that I decided to wait almost an hour for the weather to clear up. With the cold building up, we only lasted 45 minutes before we went back the other way. We left a little disappointed that we couldn't go much further into the mountain, but the view coming up was well worth it.
We stumbled upon another breathtaking temple on our way down the hill. Yet again, the landscaping was incredible. They've done a great job of preserving Dali’s heritage. The rain brought out all the colors in the flowers and we were almost alone visiting the area. It's incredible to randomly discover this type of place. Dali is amazing in this respect.
We made it back to the inn late afternoon, hunkered down in front of a movie and ate the bread and cold cuts we had purchased earlier that day and hibernated until it was time to go back to Kunming.
Shanghai, April 20th
We woke up in Kunming on the morning on April 7th, checked out of Ji hotel late and headed to Salvador’s cafe to wait for Raphaël, a high-school friend of Anaïs’. It was good to see him and Anaïs reconnect. I thought back to my reunion with No-No just a few months back and it seemed like they went through something very similar. He caught us up with his life in the past few years. Moving to Malaysia, then to New Zealand, the breaking up with Cédric, and his decision to move to China on a Chinese government grant to perfect his Mandarin.
It was also nice to travel on the same flight. We arrived at the airport with a good head start and killed some time browsing the shops, talking about Chinese customs, and poking fun at the people taking pictures of us. The flight went smoothly and we arrived in Guilin late. We couldn’t see much coming into town, which I like because I get a kick out of discovering an entirely new place in the morning’s light. Our hotel room was a little cramped, and very humid — Guilin was reminiscent of some of our earlier Southeast Asian destinations in that sense, minus the heat. It was late and we were both hungry. Raphaël went to bed but we went scrounging for food. The only place open for business that our stomach could bear was KFC. I know. KFC. I didn’t think I’d eat at a KFC, but that just goes to show how desperate we were becoming for food in China.
We both came to China excited to learn more about the food there. After all, it’s common in the US to hear that Chinese restaurants aren’t anything like real Chinese food. It makes it seem like you’re missing out on something great. I wish I could claim to have fully experienced Chinese culinary traditions, but that’s simply not the case. In the first half of our trip, I was very curious to try out new stuff, even food that might look very different, or unappetizing. So I tried holes in the wall. I’m talking about places packed with locals, menus with no photos, necessitating a VPN connection and google translate. I tried high end places. My experiences were pretty consistent: either the food was passable, or it was really out there. I hadn’t given up but Anaïs lost her patience faster than I did. She quickly found herself craving western food at every meal. I resisted it for a while, partly because I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, partly because even the western food wasn’t up to par, and partly because western food options are 3-5 times more expensive than what we could find at a simple noodle joint. Ultimately, I caved in. I was just hungry, and my stomach turned at the mere sight of most restaurants.
It didn’t help that I fell sick again. I forced myself to throw up a little bit until I felt better. The next few days would be a mix of queasiness, diarrhea, and paranoia about whatever I ingested, which culminated in the first night in Beijing when I got very sick once more.
China has a rich history, a plethora of regional cultures, it’s been around the block for millennia and is home to the largest population on earth. Because of this, my assumption was that China must have a very strong culinary culture. It’s another one of those relative VS absolute debates that becomes very hard to parse when it comes to things like food. It’s obvious that people in China value different flavors than folks traditionally do in the West. Or else why would the food be so pungent, and why would people go for turtle, shark fin, beavers, dogs, cats? This even translates to the way food appears. It’s hard for me to describe what good western food looks like, but even the presentation of most of the dishes in China became repulsive to me after a while — often for no other reason that I’d been burnt in the past by things that looked new. So people in China are raised to value different looks and flavors in food. What I still wonder about is how Chinese people react when they come to the west and try food that we would think of as refined. I can think of a few different outcomes:
- they are repulsed by how different it is,
- they appreciate it but still consider Chinese food superior,
- they enjoy it as an equal to their usual food options,
- they enjoy it so much that they disown their own culinary tradition, or at least prefer it so much that they seek it out over Chinese food.
At the end of the day, I struggle over this simple question: am I just unable to see what is valuable in Chinese food, or am I onto something when my instinct tells me western culinary traditions are more varied and refined? I don’t think it’s too controversial to claim that some places have vastly superior culinary traditions than others. I’ve found myself faced with that fact when returning from places like Curacao, but saying this about the most populated country on earth feels like taking a big short cut.
I think it was Amanda, a woman from Kansas that we met going to the great wall who ventured that maybe food had a more functional role in China, and that people didn’t put as much emphasis on it because of that fact. I guess I’ll have to talk to people who have lived in China and emigrated elsewhere and see what their thoughts are.
Focusing back on Guilin: we had decided to go there because it came so highly recommended by friends of ours, and I have to say that food and bowel state aside, it did not disappoint. We walked (and climbed) inordinate amounts during our stay — the first day especially. The city is traversed by a river and multiple canals and offshoots of the river, but the most striking feature is the scores of steep hills surging from the ground, seemingly at random, throughout town and far out into the horizon. Most of the hills are well fitted out and easy to climb and explore. We climbed two of them on the first day. The views they yielded were gorgeous, often with a 360° outlook. After the first one, Raphaël and Anaïs grew tired and took a break, but this type of landscape is what makes me want to explore, so despite being so out of shape, I climbed up the stairs two by two and hopped from one peak to the next, with Inner Space playing on my phone.
Once again, It was time to feed ourselves. When you’re in a country whose food you don’t necessarily enjoy, picking a restaurant becomes complicated. The stakes are high because you’re hungry, you want something really good, but you cannot blow it. If you pick something bad, you’ll go hungry with some realistically bleak prospects as your next meal. As a result, we were extremely picky about what we wanted to eat. We wandered the streets of Guilin endlessly in search of a decent place, growing hungrier and more desperate as the night progressed. It was a Friday night, the streets were lively, and despite a plethora of options, nothing convinced us. As we walked, we saw so many people eating all kinds of stuff from street vendors, on a stick, wondering how they could possibly be eating such things. We turned down so many empty restaurants and hotpot joints until we predictably settled on a shamelessly overpriced pseudo western joint. At least we wouldn’t get sick, but we’d once more paid too much for a subpar meal. We were still slightly hungry and longing for something to soothe our nagging appetite.
Alfonso, Raphaël’s new boyfriend flew in that same night. We went to bed and prepared for the tour next morning which would take us down the Li river. This looked like another one of those typical tour experiences with the bus, the guide struggling to make himself heard or understood, and being herded from one place to another at a breakneck pace. Well, it kind of was, but the natural beauty of the places we got to see was such that anything else faded into the background. The first four hours were spent on a cruise down the river. No aggravating tour guide, just me and some friends chilling on the deck, marveling at the majestic hills streaming past us.
The tour guide tried to upsell us into visiting some caves in the afternoon. It’s a little annoying that they don’t present you with the full experience upfront and then pressure until you cave in, but I was on such a high from what we had already seen that we figured we’d give it a try. It was well worth it. The caves were extremely crowded, and it was sad that so many of the stalagmites and stalactites in the cave were so damaged by hordes of tourists, but even that couldn’t detract from how majestic the cave was. The most breathtaking sight was a pool which at first sight appeared to be a gaping chasm in the middle of the complex. The water was so still that it took me a few seconds to realize that it was just a basin. The ceiling of the cave was so high that it gave the pool’s reflection the appearance of a deep underground ravine.
Exiting the cave, we waited for the rest of the group in front of the restrooms. I was knackered from so much walking and just sat there, waiting, staring into nothingness. A Chinese man jolted me out of my daydreaming: “Can I take a picture?!”, At this stage, so many people had asked to take pictures that I figured that this time, I would at least learn something from it. So I asked, “Why would you want to take my picture, of all people?”. An older woman he was traveling with answered in broken English: “Because handsome”. As she said that, a couple of teenage girls I hadn’t even noticed started to giggle. Somewhat flattered, a smile cracked on my face. I decided I’d mess around with them, just to see how they reacted: “Ok, sure I’ll take a picture. Just don’t tell my wife. She’s in the restroom, let’s make this quick.” They snap one picture, then a the second, then I cupped my hand in a half heart, suggesting one of the girls form the other half for a pose. As the camera clicks, Anaïs walks out and I instantly look at her, pretending to be caught in the act of some infidelity. She plays along, gesturing a playful fighting stance in direction of one the girls. The man, visibly embarrassed, begun to apologize profusely at which point Anaïs and I both laughed and explained that we were just having some fun. Everyone smiled, somewhat relieved and delighted to be able to share a fun moment with some total strangers. The man then asked me if he could take a picture with Anaïs. I invited him to ask her instead. We thanked them, said goodbye, and climbed back onto the bus. Small encounters like this are a lot of fun and are so revealing of the differences between our cultures.
One recurring observation is that there seems to be a sort of fascination with white people in China. We had caught onto this fact and it became a regular topic of conversation with Raphaël. Raphaël had been exposed to China for a long time and has interiorized quite a few of the cultural quirks and customs. He explained that there is a fairly well established ladder on which Chinese people rank ethnicities. Caucasians apparently fit way on top, followed by asians, with black people at the bottom… Of course this is a generalization and surely not everyone in China will identify with this, but Raphaël did have some stories that exemplified this in a disturbing way. For example, it is commonplace for foreign exchange students to take up modeling gigs in their spare time. Not necessarily to feature in fashion magazines or runways, but for general purpose advertising, simply because people find them more photogenic. This video made the rounds and kind of says it all:
Now that’s pretty terrible, but on the flipside as a white person, I must confess that it’s fun for people to perceive you in such a different way. I’ve never thought of myself of as being particularly attractive. I grew up with a lot of acne, never kept a girlfriend for more than two weeks in high school and never got the signal that girls found me attractive generally speaking. So coming to China, and noticing heads turn, or having people mistake you for a celebrity is quite amusing. So we played around a bit with this with Anaïs. She purposefully cultivated the undercover celebrity look with a hat and sunglasses. This actually worked. A bunch of Chinese high school kids visiting the temple of heaven mistook her for some kind of celebrity. They did not know who she was exactly, but they were convinced that she was someone famous, and posed with her for five minutes. That same day, Anaïs asked me to lean against a wall, and starting “posing” to see if we could draw a crowd. Sure enough, 30 seconds in, a few people approached, taking more or less discreet glances. Some took out their phones and started taking pictures. All in all, it comes from a pretty similar place as it does for India: seeing a white person is somewhat exotic. The difference is that Indian people will walk up to you and strike up a conversation, whereas Chinese people will try to covertly take a picture, or pretend to take a selfie you just happen to be in the back ok. The most confident ones will stop in front of you and yelp “HELLO, HELLO, HELLO!”. It’s actually really weird. It’s like they dare themselves to do it. My favorite guy to do this was in Kunming airport. He was kind of tall and a little overweight, with a red ballcap and after doing his routine on Raphaël, Anaïs and I, he walked away like a boss. He was so proud of what he had just done. We smiled, somewhat puzzled, but we couldn’t contain ourselves when he slapped a random passerby’s belly in celebration of his accomplishment. So yeah, foreigners are a thing, and it’s fun to see how fascinated some are with you.
It was a tiresome road back from our cruise in Guilin. We got stuck in rush hour traffic. We were exhausted from the walk but still mustered up the courage to go out. We went to the restaurant that I think made me sick for the third time this trip and went out for a night of karaoke, on Raphaël’s insistence. I have never been to a proper karaoke joint, or KTV as they call it in China. You pay for a private room with a pa system, a large TV screen, and a smaller touch screen with a UI to build a playlist with. The room is fairly well insulated from sound and sight and you can just be yourself without singing in front of a crowd, which is how I’ve seen it done in the US most of the time. I have to say it was a lot of fun. I’m not one to sing or dance, but I kind of let loose. Anaïs stole the show, impressing her high school friend who had never heard how well she can sing.
Overall Guilin was an incredible stop on our trip. Sure, the food was subpar, and I got sick, but everything else was great. The city was beautiful, well kept and easy to get around, and the surrounding sights were unique.
We took off on Monday April 11th and landed in Beijing in the evening. I got really sick that night and started a second course of antibiotics in the span of three weeks. It forced us to stay put on Tuesday, which we used to organize our stay and plan our travel to Tokyo. We heard so many great things about Beijing and were really looking forward to it. We ended up having a really busy week:
- Wednesday: Temple of heaven
- Thursday: City center gardens
- Friday: Forbidden City
- Saturday: Drum Tower and city canals
- Sunday: Summer Palace
- Monday: Great Wall of China
- Tuesday: Chill.
In terms of food, we had enough options that we could at least eat local stuff and weren’t forced to fall back on mediocre, expensive western joints. We weren’t quite blown away, but it at least ceased to be the hindrance it was in Guilin. Beijing is an amazing city. At first it seems very artificial, airy and polluted because the streets and blocks are jumbo sized and everything looks recent. It doesn’t help that everything worth seeing is hidden behind imposing walls. Once you get your footing and understand where things are, you get why people love Beijing so much. When it comes to feeling transported to another time and place, Beijing rivals what we experienced in Udaipur. There is a simplicity and a consistency to the style and the materials used. The walls, the tiles, the roofs radiate such character and infuse a distinct atmosphere to Beijing. The Chinese are masters of gardens and landscaping. Beijing is home to many expansive, delicately decorated gardens. Another fun quirk is the naming patterns for their monuments: temple of heaven, hall of prolonging life, hall of supreme harmony, etc. but I have to stay you are overcome by a sense of awe and peace when visiting these sites.
For centuries, the Chinese have displayed an impressive mastery of design and symmetry in their city planning. It shows in their temples, gardens, towers, walls and palaces, no matter how far apart they are in the city, many are built on the same axes. Planning something so vast with such coherence such a long time ago is an impressive feat. It thrusts you centuries back. What it must have been to witness this centuries ago, when Europe was only beginning to hoist itself out its medieval slump!
Walking the streets of Beijing was enjoyable. I think that my favorite part is after 5pm when people get off work and out of school. The streets come alive, people line up at bakeries and get their groceries for the night’s cooking. Our hotel was on a pedestrian street that had this kind of atmosphere every night and it was refreshing. The hutongs are just as picturesque and restful as you would imagine them. People seem busy, but are also enjoying life. People in the Beijing seemed to be thriving. One things we were told about China is that it’s really good at making things look good from the outside, but actually hides many issues. Maybe that’s the case, and maybe China’s success and apparent happiness are hollow, but if it is, they’re selling it really well. It truly seems like the country is doing great, and that people by and large are happy.
Overall, I think China’s been our best travel experience so far. The country is modern, developed and has an undeniable momentum that is electrifying even to a simple observer. The country feels foreign in one of the best ways possible. Not speaking the language is a barrier, of course, but it also contributes to the feeling you get when you realize you are the only white person for miles in every direction. It may be just an illusion, but being the only western folks as far as eyes can see really nails in the fact that you’re in a completely foreign land. It makes it exotic in a subtle way and contributes to your enjoyment of something essentially different. You get things raw. People don’t cater to you as a westerner, no one is waiting for you or expecting you. People are just doing their thing and you happen to be there. China was very immersive in this sense.
In addition to the language, Chinese people and Chinese culture are that much more mysterious because they are so hard to get through to. It’s so hard to get them to smile. The subtle cues of humor don’t really make it through and it seems as if they don’t expect things to go off script. You’re here to buy something, they’re here to sell it, and anything added to that experience often doesn’t get processed. Because of that, it’s hard to find the chink in the amor and get them to show a little bit of who they are. I don’t necessarily mind it. Of course, I wish I had gotten to know some people a little better, but it certainly contributes to making Chinese culture all the more intriguing. It makes you wonder: who do they open up to? If social interactions are all as codified as they seem to be, when do they let loose and express who they are?
China is definitely a country I see myself going back to, in particular to enjoy nature in more detail. I regret not exploring the Cangshan mountains of Dali. The Great wall of China was impressive to be sure, but hiking on it for extended sessions should be incredible. Tibet is also an area we completely forewent that we’ll have to be back for. Till next time...