Dawn's China Trip, March 2003

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In writing this, I have decided not to be quite as detailed as I might be because, well, if you want to hear more, you should just talk to me...or go to China yourself. :)

I did not have as much of a culture shock as I might have expected. Perhaps because it is in my genes, perhaps because I was exposed to parts of Chinese culture from my grandparents, perhaps because I grew up in California, perhaps because I expected it. But it was my first trip to a foreign country, where I needed my passport and visa, and it was an exciting adventure.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I discovered I was the last in my tour to arrive, so was taken to meet them at the restaurant where they were eating. The group was eleven people, including the leader, and came from Australia, Britain, Holland, and America, ranging in age from 20 to 60s. They were friendly people, and it was great to have a tour that gave me 60% free time.

The next morning I walked around the neighborhood of our hotel, and discovered a cacophony of sights and smells- raw meat being chopped on the ground in alleys, dingy vegetable stands, neon signs, cages stuffed with live chickens, every internal part of an animal hanging on meat hooks, boxes with live fish too crammed to swim, huge laundry bundles tied with string... The visit to Kowloon Park was calming. People were practicing martial arts, the trees and fountains were beautiful, it was serene and people would just sit quietly. Other places had the hustle and bustle of upscale shops in tall mirrored buildings, nestled right next to run down high rises, and constant construction behind bamboo scaffolding.

Crossing the border to mainland China required stopping twice- once to leave Hong Kong, and once to enter China. There was a lot of pushing to get into the train station in Guangzhou, but once we were on board, our hard sleepers were pretty nice- padded dorm bunks three high, boiling water (you can't drink the water in China), fluffy comforter, squat toilet that flushed. I had a good night's sleep and woke up to see we were passing through country- rolling slopes, mountains in the background, clouds in the sky, trees, a river.

We got off the train in Guilin, and onto a bus to take us to Yangshao. Watching the scenery go by, I start noticing the different mountains. They look like the mountains in Chinese landscape paintings, just in person. Limestone karsts, I'm told, and people climb them. They were beautiful and amazing, and I was very excited to learn I could go climbing. Which I did the last day I was there.

There were many things to buy in Yangshao, and many local guides to take you places and teach you things. I had a Chinese top and skirt made, talked to a local very interested in getting a hold of a China Lonely Planet guidebook, ate a Yao minority dinner, took a Mandarin lesson, went on a 35km bike ride on local roads through rice paddies and villages, saw women and men working in the fields with tailored jackets and carrying baskets on either end of a bamboo pole, had a Tai Chi lesson by the river, went climbing, and "helped" a Chinese girl with her English (she only had trouble with silent e's.) The countryside was pretty there, but it was cold, yet apparently it had been very warm the week before.

We flew to Chongqing, a terribly dirty, huge industrial city, to get on a Chinese boat for a three day cruise down the Yangtze river through the Three Gorges. The boat was fine, although a bit smoky. I forget how lucky I am to live in California, where you can't smoke anywhere. Perhaps the most fun on the boat was playing Mah Jong with the locals crowded around pointing at tiles and impatiently giving us advice to move the game along faster. The gorges were high, the lesser gorges were pretty. The Yangtze is polluted, the water in the lesser gorges is clearer. We docked at several towns along the way and saw things such as the Ghost City and a 12 story pagoda. The dam is an amazing feat of engineering, although I didn't get to see it in person- too foggy.

Many bus rides and a flight later, we arrived in Huangshan, the Yellow Mountains. I counted about 4300 steps in our hike around the mountain, after we took the cable car up. It was nice to be out in the open, although there were hordes of Chinese tourists at times, and it was very cold and foggy. We took a tour around the area and saw villages, tasted teas, and had a good meal. It was amazing to see the contrast between the river filled with rubbish, flowing through the village, and the clear waters of Emerald Valley. The valley had gorgeous swimming pools and waterfalls; many shades of green in the water, trees, rock, bamboo, and mountains. I was very disappointed it was too cold to swim, and that the hot spring pool nearby was closed for the season.

In Hangzhou, on West Lake, we went to the Temple of Inspired Seclusion/ Soul's Retreat. It was horrendously crowded, but quiet nonetheless inside. The Feilai Peak Grottoes housed hundreds of Buddhist carvings and statues of many faces and time periods, and were amazing to see. This was a popular weekend destination, and coffee houses were expensive and dozens of wedding couples took pictures at the lake. There were many parks and gardens with winding paths, bonsai, willows, blossoming trees, and ponds.

My tour ended in Shanghai. Shanghai is a big city with strange shaped skyscrapers, industrial neighborhoods, many lights, big financial buildings, and lots of people. Perhaps my best meal was one I had at a local restaurant, with their specialty of BBQ pigeon. It was cold there, but my hostel was stiflingly hot.

Some of the tour group was continuing on to Beijing, and their first stop was Zhouzhuang. I hitched a ride with them to this quaint little canal town, where the locals loved to sing, and would take you on a boat tour along the canals to see the bridges. There were many historical residences and museums there, and we got a glimpse of some beautiful courtyards and artifacts of Chinese culture. Back in Shanghai I had a visit to the museum, and learned more about Chinese history, art, and life. On the way into the museum I was lured into ballroom dancing with many old Chinese men practicing outside.

On the way out to meet Patri, I had a slow conversation with a Chinese girl learning English...she would say something in English out of her phrase book, and I would look up the answer in Chinese in mine. With Patri, I toured many parts of the city. Visited the Jade Buddha temple (amazingly sweet natural green tea), the Bund (enthralling both day and night), Pudong (with distinctive skyscrapers), the aquarium and zoo (fancy goldfish and polar bear), Nanjing Rd. (all about shopping and lights), and saw acrobats (do they have any tendons and ligaments?)

I spent the last week in Hong Kong. John had brought guidebooks, which he spent most of his 15 hr plane ride reading, so he had many ideas of where to go. Hong Kong is a big place too, with many islands and districts. Buildings are very tall, and the people often speak English in the places we visited. Patri and John both had several gorgeous suits tailored, and we went to the jade bazaar and night market. Ate at many fancy restaurants in Kowloon, had a beautiful view from Victoria Peak, and found serenity at the Big Buddha on Lantau Island. Admired the exhibits at the art museum, and saw adorable pandas at Ocean Park. We also went clubbing, and saw a good modern dance show. Rode the MTR subway everywhere, and took ferries.

Yes, many people wore masks because of SARS in Hong Kong. No, I haven't gotten sick yet. But the CDC did hand out lists of symptoms I should be watching for...by licking her fingers each time to lift the next piece of paper. I still have a slightly strange sleep schedule. But I am very excited about telling you all more about the parts of my trip you are interested in.

-Dawn, "Super Adventure Travel Girl"
2003 April 6

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