Namaste! Yup, I’m traveling again. This time I’m far out in the Far East, from Kathmandu to Shangri La!
Namaste my friends and fellow travelers. This new journey takes me to Nepal, land of the majestic Himalayas, including Mount Everest, and the ancient, mystical world of Kathmandu. From Nepal, the Far East journey continues to China, land of many, many Chinese people!
1ST POST: KATHMANDU, NEPAL
Namaste, I’ve finally made it to Kathmandu, Nepal. A fascinating, provocative world would be an understatement. A vibrant tapestry of an old world society, a visual feast, Kathmandu’s narrow, outrageously congested streets provides the traveling Westerner an instant submersion into an exotic land. Ancient medieval temples, vibrant colors, Hindus, Buddhist, Tibetan and Nepalese, chaos and commotion. Oh yeah, and holy men and holy cows!
Religious ceremony is an ongoing way of life hear for both Hindus and Buddhists, ceremonial practices and offerings that date back several thousand years continue today like a recurring mystical dream.
I walk several blocks from my hostel and you see Hindu women dressed in their colorful saris and scarfs. Round the corner, several Tibetan monks, dressed in their traditional maroon and yellow robes, idle along the road chatting. Further still you pass several holy men, known as sadhus, enroute to the sacred temple compound, Durbar Square. You’ve also passed several thousand touts, bycyclists, peddle-powered rickshaws, cars, motorbikes, local Nepalese opening up shops and early morning travelers like myself. Space is at a minimum here. The aromas range from pungent curry and roasted corns to pungent garbage and who knows what else. Yet, through this maddening, crowded Far East labyrinth, all the people I pass are courteous and polite.
Even the python named Madrina was affectionate. Two Hindu men sitting on a street corner begin playing music. For some reason the music sounded like an Irish jig. One gentleman began to open a basket which I presumed to be for donations. A wrong assumption in Kathmandu. This particular basket contained a small cobra. The man opens another basket, out pops another cobra, the final, largest basket containing python Madrina. Which member of Monty Python was she? Yes…these men were snake charmers and I was quickly indoctrinated with Madrina draped over my shoulders. How lovely!
The Kathmandu business community is definitely on an enlightened path, judging from their marquees; third eye restaurant, nirvana paint supplies, dharma massage, and Siddhartha bike repair.
That afternoon I trekked through Kathmandu neighborhoods, along rubble, dusty streets, to reach the spectacular Buddhist stupa Swayambhunath, affectionately known as the Monkey Temple. Hiking up the steep steps to the stupa, a holy man suddenly approached me, put a red dot swab on my fourhead and draped flower petals in my hair. My initiation ceremony?
The stupa overlooks the Kathmandu valley. Numerous Tibetan monks, as well as Hindus, consider this a very holy place. Always reverent to tradition, pilgrims pay tribute, giving offerings and in a clockwise movement, circumnavigate the stupa, spinning the heavy metal prayer wheels as they walk around. Several of the prayer wheels are three meters high…spin that!
Graced on the top of the stupa, are the penetrating, ever-watchful, omnipotent eyes, that follow you wherever you go.
There truly was a special, spiritual presence to this place, enhanced by the present and pass spiritual souls that have ventured up the steep steps to get here.
2ND POST: HIGH IN THE HIMALAYAS
So where’s Mike? Oh, he’s high in the Himalayas.
I just returned from an exhilarating five day trek in the Annapurna Himalayan mountain range.
Earlier this evening, I was sitting at a restaurant roof top terrace, enjoying Santana music and the waning pink-colored evening light over tranquil Phewa Tal lake. I was back in the city of Pokhara. The city of Pokhara sits at the base of the Annapurna Range and just to prove that point, the massive snow-white head of the mountain Annapurna South bid one last day’s appearance before disappearing behind the clouds. I know the mountain was calling me back. I strongly felt the urge to oblige. Most of the folks I met up with along the trek were still up there, probably finishing their approach to Annnapurna base camp before nightfall. Five days earlier, this same restaurant vantage point crystallized my plan to attempt the trek and it went something like this….
I arrived late afternoon on the 5th of November in Pokhara under gray skies so the next morning, drinking my first cup of coffee, I gazed across the lake. I was still getting my bearings as to the direction the Himalayas were in relation to the lake. Morning clouds were obscuring my view. The waiter then had me shift my chair, and look to the right. Ka-boom…bigger than life, that massive snow head of the peak Annapurna South glared back at me.
Within minutes the striking fishtail feature formation of Mt. Machapuchre loomed into view as well. Easy response….WOW !!! I’m going tomorrow to those mountains.
After a serpentine drive through the rugged lower valley hills, I was dropped off at the beginning of the trail at the ramshackled village Naya Pul. I slung my backpack on my shoulders, looked at the Nepalese Annapurna Circuit welcome sign and dirt path before me, and began to walk to the Top of The World.
I was thinking as I took those first steps my few mental references to Nepal were limited. There’s Bob Seeger’s emphasis on traveling to Kathmandu, of course, and a favorite book of mine when I was a teenager was Annapurna, a book about reaching the peak summit.
Otherwise, the Himalayans were only a distant wilderness, where only people associated with National Geographic ventured to travel. And yet…here I was, crossing rivers, walking through Nepalese villages, stepping higher and higher on thousands of granite steps toward that same Annapurna. I was trekking the Ghoripani-Gangdruk loop, a path that would take me close but not within the massive cluster of Himalayans peaks which included Annapurna 1 through 4 and Machhapuchhre, all 23 to 26,000 ft. peaks. Weather conditions were not optimum; overcast with brief hints of sunshine. No views of the mountain peaks. The passing scenery was stunning: aquamarine-colored pristine waterfalls; rice paddy terraced fields. Other hiking groups, all nationalities, joined me along this stretch, all of us forging upward, ever upward. All progress stopped however when we came across a Maoist rebel outpost.
No overt threat i.e. no weapons, merely a table, a red Maoist flag and three attendants. No voluntary contribution to the cause anymore. Contribution is now mandatory and is a sliding scale fee for all travelers. Several tour guides were engaged in heated debate with the young Maoist over the legitimacy (which there isn’t) and price of the fee.
Brief update on Maoist situation: word among Nepalese is after a year since their king was dethroned and parlimentary procedure established with Maoist representation, Nepalese are disenchanted with Maoist. Their great rhetoric to “help the people” appears disingenuine. There is no evidence that money collected goes to the villagers. One fellow I met later said he saw the Maoists spend the money on booze for the upcoming Tihar festival. Also, Nepalese government already collects 2000 rupees from all foreigners who trek in the Annapurna Sanctuary Area. If Maoist are now part of government, why not take their part of the 2000 rupees and leave trekkers alone.
These were the questions being raised at the outpost and would enhance a lively discussion later that night in Ulleri at the lodge around the warm fireplace. Since the debate quagmire was causing a distraction, I slipped in with two folks who had paid and walked away with them. Hee, hee, ho, ho, an independent trekker I go. I figure at the next checkpoint I’ll try the “My permit ticket fell out of my pocket” trick. (The next day I did try this to no avail…oh well, 300 rupees or $5 to “the cause”. )
Travels continued through the lush, mysterious rhododendron forest up ahead. These reddish, gnarled trees conjure up images of Lord of the Rings and Grimm Bros. fairy tales, tangled, eerie, and altogether beautiful.
From village Tikedungha a straight ascent 1000 ft. up stone steps toward the evenings final destination, Ulleri, where a bare essentials lodge lay waiting for weary trekkers. Take baby steps; a few steps, catch breath, wipe sweat off brow, continue and repeat.
That evening, right before sunset, the clouds above parted and a view of the peak Annapurna South appeared before our eyes. A visual treat and a motivator for tomorrow.
3RD POST: HIGH IN THE HIMALAYAS PART II
Early morning stars retreated behind new morning gray clouds, visibility low; an auspicious beginning for day two. Mood enhanced that morning however with hot mint tea, omelette, and mueslic. Warmed, fortified, I slung my backpack over my shoulders and joined the other early risers up more slick, steep rock steps, out the village and further into the next forest.
By midday, I reached the village of Ghoropani, elevation, 2900 meters (Start of trail at 1000 meters) Dozens of bells clanged, louder and louder, telling me a mule caravan was approaching. This caravan was driven by a family from the remote region of Mustang, a community located on the barren high plains that border Tibet. This trek route is also part of the longer Jomsom trek which continues to the dry zone north of Ghoropani and eventually links with the Annapurna Circuit trek, the highlighted juncture, Thorung La pass, a mere 17,000 feet crossing. Travelers I met who have come from that direction say there is snow already at the pass.
The view from Deorali pass, where now stood, was sufficient for me. A breathtaking summit that separates the tropical wet zone south of the Himalayans from the more arid dry zone to the north. I could see the mighty Annapurna peak, the king daddy of the Annapurnas, from this summit. I checked in at a lodge, saw familiar faces, then stepped back outside. Within minutes, the winds whipped into a frenzy, hurling a steady regiment of whispy white clouds up from the moist south to the peaks to the north, the clouds attaching themselves to the peaks like mistletoe to an unsuspecting tree. A harbinger of a storm? Yet, this was November, a typically dry post monsoon month, with monsoon season normally ending in mid September. Not this year. The monsoons patterns were still in the air, even with winter soon approaching. Is this evidence of climate change? Earlier in Ecuador, August is typically one of the driest, clear skies month yet this year was mostly cloudy with and abnormal amount of rain.
Drought in Southern California…drought in the American southern states…something is changing.
Ghoropani weather sure quickly changed. Within the hour we were bombarded by hail and rain, leaving an extensive dusting of snow in the mountains above in its wake. That evening we clunk close to the fireplace to stay warm, ate delicious mixed fried noodles and drank many cups of hot mint tea. The lodge manager predicted clear skies tomorrow for mountain viewing from Poon Hill, which was a steep 1000 foot hike directly above us. I was wondering which clan of hillbillies migrated through this region to get a name like Poon Hill? Anyway, saying a prayer for clear skies I slipped into my sleeping bag and tried to stay warm.
4:30 AM, people stirring, the word is stars visible, we’re going to have a clear viewing from Poon Hill at sunrise. YAY ! Better news…I had a terrific healthy bowel movement, which meant I was completely recovered from my earlier ills. I was elated!
Pre-dawn dark, steep, cold, humid trek up the hill to arrive before dawn’s early light on hte mountain peaks. A string of peoples’ flashlights marked the trail. Huff, puff, drudge, drudge.
Was it worth it? Absolutely ! Brilliant panoramic view of the Annapurna Himalayans as well as Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest peak in the world. Friggin cold and incredibly special…top of the world baby! We were all well rewarded after two less than perfect weather days.
The journey continued east, toward Tadapani. The same flow of travelers were heading in the same direction so by the third day I had found an extended family. I was the only one traveling solo, no porter or guide….fancy that! Obviously you don’t really need either for this trek.
More fantastic scenery, steep initial hillside trail, followed by a precipitous descent on wet, muddy granite steps and twisted tree roots. One funny Japanese lady was on the move with her porter, and could be heard from a great distance as she had attachd a bell to herself. You could hear her say, “Make way for mule lady!” as she buzzed pass slower trekkers.
This trek definitely had its share of extreme up-down, tricky footing hiking conditions. And people who live in these mountain villages carry their goods up and down these trails all the time. More power to them!
Absolutely brilliant close-up views of most of the major peaks from the village of Tadapani, both that afternoon and early the next morning.
Most everybody else venture north, into the valley toward the Annapurna bas camp amphitheater while I headed back south troward the colorful village of Grangdruk. That day I had mostly to myself, bouncing through jungles and hanging out with langur monkeys (black face, white fur, long tail), passing through ancient villages, watching people go about their business in the fields or in their rustic house courtyards, washing, separating rice by beating it from the husks, building a house out of straw, you know, the usual. Lots of “Namaste!” greetings and smily faces.
Dropped nearly 6000 feet that fourth day, starting with winter jacket, stripping down to t-shirt,enjoying hot sun and sweaty face by late afternoon. Stayed in small village that night and early next morning caught local bus to Pokhara. A thoroughly satisfying experience.
In less than two weeks…. Mount Everest !
4TH POST : TOP OF THE WORLD – MT. EVEREST TREK
“Is it not easy to be wise man on top of a mountain”.
W. Somerset Maugham—- from The Razor’s Edge
My room was basic, quiet, and achingly cold. Begrudgingly, I shuffled my body away from the warm multi-layered blankets and sleeping bag, turning my head toward the window to view outside into the night.
The prior afternoon, I was climbing the steep mountain ascent above Namche Bazaar when suddenly a series of clouds swiftly vanquished a previously gorgeous blue sky, enveloping the lower peaks and cloaking myself in a sea of ethereal chilled clouds. The stunted alpine trees and grassy hillsides I was trekking through abruptly took on a mysterious tone.
Soon descending, distant human and animal sounds breached my ears, telling me my destination, the sherpa village of Khumjung, was near.
By evening, the fog had gradually lifted over the high mountain village, however, the Himalayans still remained a mystery.
I was, for the second night, the only guest at a Sherpa family-operated lodge that I had chosen for my stay. The warm fireplace stove situated in the center of the dining room was a great welcome and relief, especially since heating sources are a scarce commodity. The food was tasty and filling. The family’s husband lent me a book on Sir Edmund Hillary, the book dedicated to the 50th anniversary of his Everest summiting. I asked if he and his wife had met Hillary and he said, yes, many times, including the big party thrown in Kathmandu three years ago celebrating the 50th anniversary. I said very cool and we shared a cup of tea. Beyond reaching the summit, Sir Edmund Hillary had continued to contribute a great portion of his life, up to present day, to the betterment of the Sherpa people, a people he had become so fond of and admired.
Bedtime is always early in this cold region. I scrambled under my blankets and prayed for clear skies in the morning.
My prayers were answered. I was awestruck when I looked out my bedroom window.
A moonlit, abundant horizon of Himalayan giants, including the “Big Guy”, Mount Everest, glowed in the near distance, while crystal-clear, sparkling stars danced over their heads. The uniquely shaped Ama Dablam was regally crowned with the Southern Cross constellation. The time was 2AM. I could not wait for daylight.
Morning light marked a truly memorable moment. I was staring at the “top of the world”, Mount Everest and friends; Nuptse, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and other snow-frosted, steel gray masters of the Himalayan range. The grandeur of the landscape was breathtaking, humbling. I shared many respectful salutations with the peaks, ranging in languages from Nepalese to Navajo. I joyfully shouted the Basque cheer and even did an Irish jig. It was, you may guess, an exciting moment.
Close yet still worlds apart from where I now stood, these peaks held their own court, lived on their own terms far from humanities’ influences, though many mountaineers try. This was the realm of the snow leopard and the yeti, a fiercely frozen inhospitable glorious region.
I thought, if I did come across a yeti on the trail, he’d probably freak, immediately reverse direction, hightailing down the mountainside muttering “I’d heard the stories about the existence of the PecosKid but…I..I really didn’t think he existed !!”
To no avail, I’d call after him saying “But I thought we’d have espressos!”
So how did I get to this place? The Everest Himalayan trek journey began with a Yeti Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. The small aircraft rises over the Kathmandu Valley and within minutes is within view of the approaching Himalayan mountains. The journey climaxes with a swift descent to a narrow mountain valley where a small inclined runway in Lukla assists arrivals.
I grab my backpack, say “no guides, no porters” to many an anxious Nepalese, lift the bag onto my shoulders and proceed briskly forward through Lukla to the beginning demarcation of the trail. Even from Lukla, there are dramatic views of several peaks, their shimmering sections of bleached-white snow set against the steel gray granite rock peaking above the green canyon valley I now traversed.
The initial six odd miles of trail is fairly level sloping first down to the river, past several villages, and gradually rising higher running parallel to the river. You have to crisscross the river many times across Swiss-built, steel cable reenforced bridges. They don’t sway TOO much, depending on how many yaks and porters are also on the bridge. Let your eyes drift downward and you realize how small the river looks down below!
This particular trail is heavily traveled. First there are the series of large group processions of trekkers, accompanied by their guides and porters that you have to maneuver around. These processions however pale in size compared to the leagues of sherpas, and their yaks, each labored beasts of burden, that regularly traverse this trail’s steep stone steps to deliver supplies to the trail’s linked villages, some many miles away. You skirt along a narrow section of the trail and bang! you have to find a safe spot to position yourself as a long team of yaks come lumbering in your direction.
The scenery along the trail is simply beautiful; crystal blue river, occasional waterfalls, interesting villages and the occasional glance from one of those big Himalayan guys.
To my surprise few people, trekkers and locals alike, bothered to take a moment to find a spot to rest their gear and marvel at the surroundings. I did as often as I could.
The scenery directly on the trail usually consists of gray slippery stones, gravel, loose dirt, wet mud and plenty of yak dung! Several Buddhist stupas are positioned along the trail offering comfort to those laboring sherpas. The sherpas, men and women, all ages, carry everything; four full cases of beer and whiskey, propane tanks, beds, wood beams, you name a product..it’s on their backs!
My first night stay with a Sherpa family was quite pleasant. Besides the spectacular moonlight enhanced views of the mountains, waterfall, river, and forested canyon, I gained a friend…the family’s pet dog. He took a liking to me and sometime in the middle of the night, had pushed my poorly latched door open so he could sleep on the bed next to mine.
Second day included a huffer, puffer, 2000 foot climb to Namche Bazaar, the busiest town of the Sherpa Khumbu region. The third night I stayed at the Khumbu lodge. I thought if Jimmy Carter and Robert Redford could stay here, so could I.
Always the day’s highlight for me was spent gazing upward at those massive monoliths of snow and rock, the day’s altering light and moonlight providing many different shades and moods to the Himalayans.
This was still an ancient landscape, watched over by a centuries old traditional mountain people. Admittedly, ancient and traditonal may not describe those sherpa individuals who oggled over newly acquired cell phones and internet; after they’d spent the afternoon grinding corn the same way they had for centuries of course. The old and the new worlds colliding again.
As I left Namche Bazaar, a more bazaar group of ninety marathon runners were going to run a marathon, passing Everest base camp, crossing a 18,000 ft. mountain pass that circled over to Gokyo and back down to Namche. What’s the phrase…whatever floats your boat!
I do like the response a young Swede gave me who decided to see Mount Everest by plane. As the plane passed Mount Everest, he was going to raise his gin and tonic glass, look out the window and toast the poor fools down below struggling up the mountain.
Still, the sweat and struggle of the trekking journey just makes the view of the “top of the world’ that much sweeter and a heck of a natural high!
5TH POST : ROYAL CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK
Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright In the forest of the Night
An ethereal mist hung thick over the jungle canopy, dawn’s awakening light lazily permeating through the fog and the tree branches. The female elephant that I sat upon moved slowly through the jungle, a steady lurch forward jerk backward motion with each methodical step she took. Suddenly, an excited shout came from behind us. Another elephant driver had spotted someone important. Our (our includes myself and three young Israeli girls) elephant driver nugged at the elephant’s ears with his bare feet, shouted a brief command in his native Tharu tongue, turning the elephant in the direction of the excitement.
A definite viewing advantage can be gained from the top of an elephant for spotting rhinos,or even a Bengal tiger, in the thick vegetation.
As hoped, we did find a rhino, and soon later, another, both a bit startled yet still undisturbed by the elephants, and, our presence.
Lumbering further, we meet a baby deer sitting quietly below our elephant’s feet. Perhaps responding to her own motherly instincts, our elephant raised her trunk, trumpeting loudly for the baby deer to search for its mom. The baby deer quickly obeyed.
Pushing the dew-moistened tree branches aside as we blazed a path through the jungle, we came to a clearing where some deer and a wild boar were grazing. Our presence didn’t bother them however suddenly, their heads jerked up, they let out a shout, and all quickly vanished into the jungle. Could a hungry tiger be lurking in the trees behind us?
We never would know, yet I knew he was there. I could feel his breath.
And such is life at the Royal Chitwan Naional Park, back to a distant land, a time of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book with lil Mogli.
Chitwan, a sensuous, exotic landscape, is located in southern Nepal, a low plains agricultural region known as the Terai. The people and the terrain is more a reflection of India yet without the mess of modern India. Oh its messy alright in the villages and neighboring city here in Nepal but only a fraction of the debri and chaos of India, which is physically just south of the Chitwan border.
The inhabitants of the Terai are the Tharu people. Their houses are still constructed of basic wood frames and plastered with a mixture of clay and cow dung. I admit, it’s an enterprising recycling usage of the immense supply of holy cow dung, however, can you imagine the aroma inside the hut on a hot afternoon!
Many of the daily tasks, including the process of harvesting the rice, are still performed much the way they were done centuries ago. Not far west of here is the village of Lumbini, where one Siddhartha Buddha was born under a large tree some 2600 years ago. It feels like not much has changed in this region since that time. Elephants are still ridden down the village streets.
Besides the ventures into the park, the most exciting event of the day here in Sauraha, the village across the park river, is grabbing a lounge chair by the river and watch the sun settle over the jungle before you, and the gleaming white Himalayas in the distance. That’s Nepal !
It’s an international viewing audience as well; Indian families, Israelis, Japanese, a Polish tour group, Germans, Swedes, Brits, etc., etc., …and me, splurging on a bottle of San Miguel beer with free popcorn.
Jokingly, as I settled in to a sunny spot on the hotel grounds, my hiking guide, who works for the hotel said my quest for sunshine on my body was similiar to the crocodile (who also live nearby). I thought, that’s true, and we do share similiar grins as well.
In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the tiger waits for me……………..
6TH POST : Chengdu, China
ONE IN A BILLION
As the sign says when you enter China,” if you think you’re one in a million, in China, that means there are a thousand people just like you.”
Left Nepal yesterday for Chengdu, China, home of spicy Sichuan cuisine and the lovable giant panda. The flight provided incredible views of the Himalayan mountains and the rugged, desolate Tibetan high plateau. Eastern Tibet looked really rugged. Not a place you want to be stranded.
For a city with a population of 4 million, Chengdu’s city streets are pretty mellow and very clean and orderly, certainly when compared to the chaotic and not so clean Kathmandu.
I have to say one thing about Chinese cities. It’s very easy to find the Chinatown neighborhood. Just step outside and start walking!
My hostel is located in an interesting section of the city; bordering the Tibetan neighborhood and across the city from a nice park and temple. At night, there are Sichuan opera performances within the temple grounds as well as a very chic shopping/restaurant district. At the opera performance, they serve you tea and give you a basket of peanuts. How civilized.
Today’s Chinese woman is certainly a fashion statement. Leather boots and tight blue jeans. Leather boots and hip hugging short pants that go just below the knees. Leather boots and sweater dresses. Not that I noticed. Leather boots and a mini skirt….
Walking the city streets is easy and a colorful experience especially while walking through the Tibetan neighborhood. Every shop offers an interesting selection of products or services; tea shops to electronic repair, Buddhist statues and prayer wheels, a Monks Are Us clothing store, sowing shop, interesting looking food, fashionable clothes, and of course, a place that does laundry.
There are products that are uniquely Chinese: shops catering to teaware and specialty chopsticks, caligraphy artisans showing their wares, and sports equipment shops specializing in tennis, badminton and ping pong. Watch out Forrest Gump!
You also see red Chinese lanterns everywhere, lovely park ponds with orange and white colored carp, and everyday people in the park practicing their taichi movements and exercises.
There’s a Don Henley verse that goes something like this: I saw a Deadhead sticker on a cadillac, you can never look back, never look back.
Here’s my version of that song verse: I saw a Nike wool cap on a Tibetan monk, I can never look back, never look back!
People along the storefront sidewalks seem pretty relaxed; guys playing various games of Chinese chess, checkers, and other games, people taking a lunch break or chatting with one another.
You see almost as many people traveling on the road by bicycle as you do cars. One middle-aged gentleman in a suit looked like he was riding his daughter’s bike. That might be slightly embarrassing to explain at the office.
I tried to look up in the phone book a gentleman I met on the plane to Shanghai who lives in Chengdu. His name is Carl Wong. It sure was a difficult task.
Chengdu has a lot of Wong numbers!
Ok, ok, I’ll stop with the Chinese jokes.
The air could be a little cleaner. There’s a definite thick brownish gray layer that separates the ground from the relatively bluish sky above and it’s not fog. Now that I’ve visited three of China’s larger cities, Shanghai, Ghangzhou, and Chengdu, I think an apt description for these modern cities would be the Many Shades of Gray. Shanghai had that overcast pollution gray tone, Ghangzhou the drizzly rain gray and Chengdu has the fog smog gray motif. Now if I can just clear my throat!
This morning was “when in Chengdu, see the giant pandas”. They are a special treat to watch, those big, cuddly funky looking bears. They do enjoy munching on their bamboo too; rolling on their backs, smacking their lips as they chew those succulent bamboo stalks.
Of course, I’m like that when I’m eating watermelon.
7TH POST: EPILOGUE TO CHINA
Hong Kong, China
In life, as in one’s travels, timing can be everything. Apparently my recent stay in China this past December was occurring during a respite calm, the type of calm that lingers tentatively while awaiting the next impending storm. As the clock ticks closer toward the upcoming Olympic Games, the world’s attention will soon be focused on Beijing. Since I left in late December, the country has garnered numerous headlines, mostly tragic in form, in places I had briefly passed through during my travels: Lhasa, Tibet, where Tibetan protests against the Chinese government were met by subsequent brutal suppression by said same Chinese government; Guangzhou, in southern China, where abnormal snow storms stranded thousands during the busy Chinese New Year holiday; and Sichuan province, where a horrendous massive earthquake wreaked havoc, killing tens of thousands throughout the rural countryside outside Chengdu.
Accurately predicting the foreseeable future may forever be mankind’s unattainable goal, save for the few seers like Nostradamus; yet, in retrospect, there were palpable signs that hinted at several of the unfortunate events’ outcomes. In Chengdu’s Tibetan neighborhood, as I strolled past the local Tibetans I did sense a subtle tension in the streets, revealed in the facial responses, including the Tibetan monks, whereas I felt no such tension or discerning looks from the other fellow Chinese, merely their bemusement at this goofy bearded guy walking in their midst. The Tibetan response may have been an indication of the growing frustration Tibetans were feeling toward the Chinese government and by some odd linkage to foreigners as well that, in less than two months, would manifest itself into national protests in the streets.
Another event, the unusual snow storms in early February, may have been precipitated by a government program I was reading about during my travels. The article spoke about China’s governmental intervention in weather patterns, utilizing an advanced yet untested form of cloud seeding. When are we, the human race, going to learn not to mess with Mother Nature.
My first and final observations of China could easily serve as a metaphoric study in contrast for China both culturally and geographically. My initial view came from high overhead. Leaving Kathmandu for China, our plane’s flight path would immediately take us across the massive Himalayan range, mountains which form the political border that separates Nepal and Tibet. Inside Tibet, we touched down briefly at the Lhasa airport, then continued eastward across Tibet into mainland China’s Sichuan province, ultimately landing in Chengdu. The view crossing into Tibet was spectacularly dramatic; the massive glistening white Himalayan range, with Everest rising at the range’s apex, gradually giving way to lesser yet no less imposing Tibetan barren peaks. Tibet’s desolate rugged terrain followed; endless sweeping vistas of sparse brown-colored mountains and valleys, only occasionally distinguished tonally by a layer of snow at the higher elevations, or by the brilliant aquamarine-hued mountain lakes. This Tibetan landscape was a no man’s land of wild natural beauty, inhospitable terrain, with few indications of human settlements.
In sharp contrast, my farewell view of China rested at sea level, overlooking the bustling Hong Kong harbor. Here, every square inch of space is crammed with millions of Chinese sequestered within the confines of skyscraper walls. The space for people is so limited that even the skies are crowded, inundated with tall apartment buildings that house the humanity overflow.
As I settled in for my last evening in China, I leaned against the seawall railing that overlooked the Hong Kong harbor. Earlier I had spent most of the day in transport, either by metro, taxi or train, maneuvering myself through the noise and congestion of two premier Chinese cities. I will say the methods of transport in China today are very modern, clean and efficient, greatly reducing the exhausting effect of traveling. However, checking in at the lone source for cheap accommodations in Kowloon, the Chungking Mansions, was a stressful experience, a crass bombardment to the senses. Squeezed among the prime real estate along Nathan Road, the well worn Chungking Mansions still provided budget conscious travelers and recent immigrants alike with cheap albeit cramped, basic accommodations, as well as a slew of money changing and visa-oriented paperwork facilities, where eager overbearing hawkers accost you. I think every nationality in the world was represented on the crowded elevator that led to the narrow sweatshop-looking floors above. My room apartment managed to squeeze a bed, bathroom, and TV into one tiny space!
My seawall vantage thus provided the perfect respite, as I allowed the sea air’s refreshing scent to curess my face, enabling me to think calmer thoughts. Once Britain’s flagship for capitalism and commerce in the Asian theater, today Hong Kong and its neighboring city Kowloon, where I currently stood, now epitomize China’s recent transformation to a capitalistic economic powerhouse. An ironic twist, considering the fears in the late 90’s that the former british colony would fall to ruin under Chinese communist rule. Instead, communist China transformed into a capitalistic mecca like Hong Kong. Seems money trumps ideology.
As dusk slowly faded into night, I watched Hong Kong’s skyline transform into a neon glow, each sign marking the location of another multinational corporation or bank that had established its presence in the city.
Suddenly, a pang of nostalgia entered my thoughts. I had stood in this exact location over twenty five years ago as a US Navy sailor. I could still picture my ship moored in that very same harbor, dwarfed by the shadows of the skyscrapers and the taller, ever-watchful Victoria Peak. One never knows where and how our future paths will crosslink with the past.
Just within the few hours since my arrival to Kowloon, I could see that many changes had occurred in those twenty five years: first, Hong Kong was no longer a British colony, instead an autonomous economic zone under the auspice of the Chinese government. Second, an even greater concentration of monlithic giants existed, both in Hong Kong and in Kowloon. Gone was the aromatic, colorful open air food market I remembered in downtown Kowloon, replaced by an expensive glossy retail district. The famous luxuriant Peninsula Hotel still shined, although the years had taken their toll on its former grandeur.
The most significant change, however, existed further up harbor. On my final day while taking the metro to the outlying Hong Kong airport, we passed for what seemed an eternity the massive Hong Kong/Kowloon industrial port facility. Extending for miles and miles was a sea of cargo containers and freighters, their presence representing the final launching point for the millions of goods now produced in China. All shipments were destined for overseas markets, America the primary recipient. Later, back in the States, while I’m driving back home, I may see those same cargo containers stacked neatly on a Santa Fe/Burlington Northern railroad hurtling through the New Mexico landscape, eastward bound toward awaiting American cities, thus completing their economic symmetrical journey known as global commerce. Won’t WalMart be happy.
My China experience had been brief, less than three weeks, yet sufficient at least as an introductory taste of life today in China. The Chinese I met were very friendly, very polite, very modern and eager to learn Western ways including English, which had become a mandatory subject in China’s public schools.All personal encounters were pleasant with several distinguishing themselves above the rest. Such a case was Lilly, an ebullient young Chinese woman, who was very anxious to join her boyfriend in LA someday soon and experience the American dream.
There was the Chinese American gentleman who was living the American dream in San Diego. He was back in China to visit his mother in Chengdu.
There were the young Chinese girls in Lijiang, who were eager to practice their English skills and learn about American culture and an American’s response to their culture.
There were the smiling Chinese girls that worked in a Yangshuo restaurant who loved the American CD soundtracks that regularly played especially the songs referencing California: California Dreaming and Have You Gone To San Francisco. They wanted assistance on the English lyrics so together through the efficient beauty of the Internet, we printed a copy of the lyrics and were soon singing the songs.
With the exception of backbackers like myself, foreign travelers I met were primarily on business, they the cogs that contributed to the growing wheel of China’s global economy: the American Iranian on business in Shanghai looking for cheap clothing supplies, admittedly tentative to venture away from his four star accommodations, and a young American looking to outsource cheap light bulbs for his business.
The Chinese countryside offers the most in terms of natural beauty and serenity as well as a break from the city pollutants. Here is where you still find Chinese culture’s traditional ways at least as envisioned by foreigners and described in books. Even immersed in the depths of winter I can imagine a winter’s blanket of snow must look idyllic in the Chinese countryside, whether in Lijiang or the upper Li River valley.
And in the cities, its greatest charm exists in the unique character of the Chinese faces and the colorful earthy variety of shops and stalls that line the busy streets. Still, I would not recommend travelling in China during the winter months. Like Europe and North America, China shares the same geographical disadvantages the approaching winter months bring to the landscape: a bleak permeating gray tone and an uncomfortable damp chill which clings to your body. Beginning in Chengdu and following me southward, this chill was rapidly descending from the Mongolian steppes to China’s northern and central interior regions. This oppressive condition is most pronounced in the big cities like Beijing, Xian, or Chengdu, where no matter what the season, the blue skies are rarely witnessed. I met travelers who had spent several months in these cities without observing a clear blue sky, thanks to the uncontrolled growth of urban pollution. I do not envy the Olympic athletes visiting Beijing’s unhealthy skies, no matter what last minute attempts are made to improve conditions. Has the recent rush to emulate the American way of life by China’s leaders and their obliging society proven to be a less than utopian path to follow? Is China’s society just beginning to recognize the adverse effects a robust industrial revolution can create both for the environment and the people?
Of course, certainly as a whole, conditions have dramatically improved for the average Chinese citizen since Chairman Mao’s Communist State reign and his disastrous policies such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. And, as an American, one might say who am I to criticize any other society when one can observe in Nepal and China areas where they are opening their societies to new ideas and greater societal freedoms, and most South American countries are implementing greater democratic processes, yet the United States is constricting its citizens’ societal freedoms.
My response…I still like Cantonese style Chinese cuisine over spicy scary Sichuan cuisine for freedom of expression and how we choose to live our lives is really what we’re all striving for isn’t it?
So, in less than a week the Olympic Games will shine the spotlight on a China not seen by most foreigners, a China that has gone through a dramatic transformation, for better or for worse, in relative obscurity. The Chinese government has already shown an oppressive hand in demonstrating what lengths it will go to present a favorable impression including a spit and polish massive makeover and PR promotion as well as a strict media censorship and civil liberty crackdown against any overt criticism. We’ll see how willing and how able the world press will be toward presenting an honest picture in their coverage of today’s Chinese society.
I did observe a genuine pride y the Chinese people in their country and heritage and I’m sure they feel an honest portrayal would be most beneficial.
I do wish the good people of China well and hope to return someday.