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Harmonious Transmissions From A Small Blue Planet Inspirations, reflections, creations, and spontaneous ramblings as my soul permeates all time and space.

Journey to the East

CHINA | Tuesday, 26 February 2008 | Views [699]

The Far East greeted Jake and I with some much appreciated showers.  Our ambassador capital to Asian culture seemed fitting...Beijing...a relic of ancient Chinese culture and a vision of its future in the same place...and currently developing at lightspeed to gear up for the 2008 Olympics.  Although too vast and diverse to be summed into a single snapshot, Beijing comes close to defining modern China.  The cuisine, exotic and flavorful; its people show simultaneously where China's been (thousands of laborers roam the streets with weather-worn, yet resilient faces) as well as where the younger generation sees its future (subways filled with teenagers and businessmen alike playing PSPs while talking on cell phones).  Its landscape reflects what it takes to feed and sustain a nation of more than a billion, as not one square foot seemed unoccupied by a farm or factory.  China was my introduction to Eastern culture and philosophy, light years away from anything I've ever experienced...slow moving and mysterious...a place where people's life and work are woven  deeply into the fabric of their community...a place to rediscover myself.

What better welcoming commitee to greet us upon arrival than Jake's sister, Kate and mother, Mama Mary.  How wonderful it truly is to see familiar faces after an extended isolation from your home and culture...the heart indeed grows fonder with time.  Our newly formed gang trekked atop the Great Wall, indulged in culinary delicacies and debacles (although the chicken head and claw soup doesn't seem so gross since it's made recurring dinner table appearances in Vietnam), and explored some of Beijing's ancient cultural wonders.  Shopping at the three-story Wu-Mart was always good for an hour or two of family fun, as it took an average of 15 minutes just to navigate the rat maze of escalators to find the food level.  We also shared barrels of laughs practicing Mandarin in taxis.  In Beijing, I spent my 24th birthday watching some live kung-fu performers punch and kick each other silly, and later that night enjoyed Spanish tapas and cold beer in great company.  Riding one-speed bicycles beside fellow pedallers and rickshaw drivers remain a Beijing personal highligh for me...stopping along the way to visit incense filled pagodas, peruse the enormous Olympic Games park, and sip a cold green tea.

However, I found China's true beauty is the countryside and western lands.  After a couple marathon train rides (56-hours on a hard seat leaves your butt pleading for mercy) zig-zagging around the country's vastness, I felt at home in the small villages of China's Sichuan province.  Famously known for their ridiculously spicy, yet delicious cuisine...more impressive were the parks, pandas, and pagodas of the region. My first excursion from Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, was the stunning Juizhaiguo National Park.  The park is known for its psychadelic-colored streams and lakes formed by mineral deposits deep in the earth...surrounded by dozens of these pools and waterfalls, not to mention groves of birch and maple...I kept my imagination occupied by wandering around the impressive hiking trail network.

Next, I set off with a handful of fellow backpackers and said "Happy Trails" to the small, sleepy village of Songpan.  The accomodations for the next few days...two person tents and blankets; the food...vegetarian soups cooked by campfire; the guides...Chinese cowboys; and the transportation...of the four-legged variety.  My first horse trek!  I was lucky to get a handsome, well-mannered stallion...I named him the Speedy Green Gobbler...he was fast, but only when he was motivated to get a five minute jump on the rest of the group...then, he found a grassy hillside where he could spend his leisure time nibbling on the local flora until his friends caught up...then he was off again!

Back in Chengdu, the zoologist in me couldn't pass up the opportunity to see the charismatic giant pandas in their natural habitat. I hopped on a local bus with my new friend, Lily, and we paid a visit to the giant panda sanctuary just outside of town. Western China is the last island of refuge for the dwindling giant panda population...they're dependent on the massive bamboo groves. However, the development projects in the area seem just as eager to clear and utilize the bamboo as the pandas in the area.  Fortunately, at the refuge, the pandas have four-star accomodations along with some first-class facilities. Visitors can watch adults playing on their jungle gym (although they used it mostly for sleeping in the most akward poses while I was watching), witness the miracle of new life among the incubating apple-sized newborns, and even handle some of the giant pandas smaller cousins, the red pandas. It was great to experience some great conservation programs taken seriously in a country where development usually takes top priority.

My final Chinese destination was an impromptu surprise spurred by an email from my climbing buddy Ranni (see Spain and Israel blogs). After talking with him, I made it a goal not to leave China, without first checking out its premier climbing destination. At first glance, Yangshuo (in southern China), is more of a backpackers party stopoff...as the carless, cobblestone-paved streets are lined with bars and restaurants. But a five minute bike ride into the countryside reveals this region's true beauty. Mammoth limestone karsts (singular pinnacles) tower over endless stretching rice fields in every direction. The ambitious climber is rewarded with a spectacular view over this landscape, including the Li River. Rice farmers are spotted from above by their stereotypical woven cone-shaped sunhats. Particularly impressive is the mystical Moon Hill.  An immense perfect circle sculpted from a 100+ meter karst is the stuff that makes rock climber's dreams come true. Fang-shaped stalactites drip off horizontal roofs...and the strongest climbers test their will amongst the cheers of tourists and climbers alike. Some worked on a single route for weeks...trying, calculating, falling, recalculating, improvising, and finally ascending.

China seems to be sprinting ahead to modernization in the 21st century. While rare to see anything but beam-built wood cabins in the countryside of the Sichuan...4-star hotels and glass skyscrapers dominate the Beijing skyline. I ate silk worms as a traditional delicacy in Guangzhou, but also waited in line for a table at a Pizza Hut at the other side of the country. The mix of culture seems to blend relatively harmonously for now. But a look at projects like the Three Gorges Dam (where thousands of families were forced to relocate to escape the rising flood waters) or the deforestation of the panda's bamboo groves will indicate that big changes await the people and culture of China.

Tags: Culture


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