Sunday, August 29, 2010

Looking for Shangri La, August 17th – 21st





What am I doing here?

This is what I started to ask myself, as I lay in bed at a Naxi guesthouse in a small village 20 kilometers from the city of Lijiang, listening to the soft pitter-patter of the rain outside. It wasn’t one of those existential, “what is the meaning of life,” questions, but the simple question of why I had come all this way, traveling more than 38 hours by train and bus, to arrive in a cloud-covered valley with little prospect of doing what I had come to do: go hiking in the mountains.

Lijiang sits in a valley near the edge of the mountain range that eventually becomes the Himalayas about 500 miles to the west. Lijiang is also a few hundred kilometers north of the capital of Yunnan province, Kunming, the “city of eternal spring.” Yunnan is a highly biologically and geographically diverse region, from glacier-covered mountains to temperate plains, to rainforest in the south. Ever since I unsuccessfully applied for a Fulbright grant a year ago to do research here on China’s solar energy development, I had been itching to travel to Yunnan. Just north of Lijiang, only a few hours by bus, sits the region that is supposedly the basis for James Hilton’s “Shangri La” in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Shangri La has come to be synonymous with a utopia, isolated from the modern world, were the people never grow old and everyone is always happy. I had hoped to travel there, or at least near there, to go hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. After two months in the beautiful French Alps, I seemed to have this idea that I was going to find another paradise in the mountains and valleys of Shangri La. It turns out my expectations for this trip however were highly unrealistic.
Lijiang Valley during the rainy season
As I prepared to leave Hong Kong only a day after I had arrived, I received multiple warnings that there was currently flooding and landslides in the west near the mountains that I wanted to travel to. “It’s the rainy season,” everyone kept saying. Still, I ignored these warnings and decided to base my expectations on the weather.com forecast that “weather in Yunnan is just as varied as it’s geography,” and hope that I would be lucky enough to hit a patch of sunny days.

In order to get to Yunnan however, I first had to find a long-distance train from the Pearl River Delta to Kunming. Perhaps the most industrialized and densely populated region in China, the Pearl River Delta is lined with the mega cities of Honk Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, as well as many other cities. In order to get a train ticket to Kunming, I first had to travel three hours by subway and train up to the Guangzhou railway station (there is no way that I know of to buy train tickets remotely in China) at the northern end of the Delta. I left Hong Kong Tuesday afternoon after lugging most of my bags to my friend Jenna’s mom’s office in downtown Hong Kong, where I would be leaving all but a small backpack for my week-long journey. Between navigating my way through the transportation system, going through customs into China, and waiting in a long line at the train station, I finally reached the ticket window around 9pm. “One ticket to Kunming with a bed please,” I said in Chinese. “We don’t have any sleeper cars available until Thursday” the attendant told me. I had been told that I shouldn’t have any problem buying a train ticket for that evening or the next day, but it seemed that Kunming was a popular destination this week. Slightly surprised and annoyed, I ended up buying a non-sleeper for the following evening. Looking back now I’m not sure why I bought a non-sleeper – perhaps I was just too tired to concentrate – but this would prove an interesting choice.
Waiting outside the crowded Guangzhou railway station to get a ticket 
After spending the night at a cheap hotel and an afternoon walking around a park in Guangzhou (I decided this is one of my least favorite cities in China), I boarded the train to find myself sitting in a hard, upright seat next to six other seats crowded around a small table. Not only was every seat filled, but there were people standing and sitting in the isles – for a 25 hour train ride! Where did they expect to sleep? I would soon find out just how resilient the Chinese can be.

As the only westerner for at least 3 train cars, I began to draw people’s attention and I soon had a cadre of Chinese people crowded around me, listening to me explain in my rusty Chinese what I was doing in China, traveling in a non-sleeper, non AC car, to Kunming. My main interrogator, A 26 year old man who had originally been standing in the aisle, squeezed himself between the three women sitting across from me, and proclaimed me his new “Waiguo pengyou” (why-gwuo pung-yo is the best pronunciation guide I can come up with), or “foreign friend.” He then ordered a 25ml bottle of bai jiu, the Chinese hard alcohol, for each of us, along with some spicy chicken legs and cow tongue. Thinking I might as well make some friends for what would otherwise be a nearly unbearable train ride, I spent the hour from 12 to 1am eating chicken legs and cow tongue to rid myself of the disgusting taste of the bai jiu, and then drinking more bai jiu to counter-act the spiciness of the food I was eating. After we had finished, my new friend invited me to smoke with him near the door connecting our train car to the next. Throughout high school I was vehemently anti-smoking. Even now I’m still generally against it and smoke very rarely, but I’ve come to realize that 1) So many other things in modern society are giving us cancer too and 2) like drinking, smoking can be a social lubricant, especially in developing countries where the social stigma against it doesn’t exist as much as in the US. In fact, so many men in China smoke that exchanging a cigarette is a form of social currency and a way of building valuable social capital in a country where foreigners are often distrusted (as I would learn on two other occasions during my trip). So I reluctantly joined my friend for three cigarettes over the course of the night. Thanks John for teaching me how to hold a cigarette correctly.
Sleeping on the train to Kunming
After we’d been talking for a while, my new friend ask me if I wanted to come back to his home city of Chengdu with him, meet his family and see the city. This struck me as pretty bold request considering we’d just met six hours ago. It sounded exciting, but it would mean another 18-20 hours of train riding once I reached Kunming, and who knew what I would find when I arrived in Chengdu. Maybe this guy wanted something from me and had been buying me drinks and calling me his friend to get me to come do… I don’t know what. I think I was just making up excuses not to deviate from my plan, as my mind was still set on hiking. I declined as politely as possible. With people sleeping in the aisles, either slumped against the seats or sitting on stools leaning over themselves, I tried to sleep in my hard, upright chair, without much success.

View from the train to Kunming
After 26 hours with very little sleep, lots of bad food and plenty of alcohol, I arrived in Kunming around 11pm, found my way to my hostel, and passed out. The next morning I began trying to figure out the best way to get to Lijiang and looked for a hostel in Lijiang for that night. In China you have to buy any train or bus tickets at the station that they leave from. This makes it quite difficult to plan ahead if you only arrive at your destination a day or two before you want to leave, because as I learned there is no guarantee you will be able to get a ticket for the time, or day that you want at that short notice. Consequently I didn’t have any trains, busses or hostels booked more than a day in advance. But as I searched for a hostel in Lijiang and everything was booked, I realized it was Friday and Lijiang must be a popular weekend destination. In desperation I got on the website couchsurfing.org and began looking for someone living in Lijiang that I could stay with, although these people often want a little more advanced notice than half a day. And that’s how I found the Nguluko Guest house in Yuhu village, 20 kilometers north of Lijiang city. I contacted the American manager, who said they would have a bed for me that night and he could even pick me up at the bus station. The price was a little more than a hostel, but it included meals.

The staff at the hostel directed me to a bus station where I could buy a bus ticket pretty short notice to Lijiang. Even though Lijiang is only about 300 kilometers away from Kunming, it took about 10 hours to get there. On the way we traveled over some pretty treacherous, twisty, pot-hole filled roads with cliffs straight up on one side and down on the other. When I arrived the American, Javad, greeted me and then drove me out of the city to the small Naxi village of Yuhu. The Naxi are one of the 55 ethnic minority groups in China. While they look Chinese to most westerners, there are subtle differences in facial features between them and the main ethnic group, the Han Chinese, which constitute the vast majority of the country’s population. It was once again late when I reached my final destination for the evening, and after a quick tour of the guesthouse I went right to sleep.
Nguluko Guest house (taken from their website)

It had been sunny in Kunming the day before, so I was hoping I would wake up the next day to a beautiful view of the mountains. Instead, the first thing I noticed as I became conscious was the steady sound of falling rain. With a slight dread growing in my stomach, I slowly got out of bed and descended to the courtyard, which I had to cross in order to get to the Kitchen for breakfast. Almost all the houses in the village are designed in a traditional Chinese style with an ornate courtyard surrounded by a two-story building on all four sides. While Javad was the business manager, the guesthouse was the home of his parents in law, two Naxi Chinese. They both dressed in very traditional clothing, spoke very little English and some Mandarin with a heavy accent.  In fact the man looked as if he had just come from the Chinese military, as he constantly wore a straightjacket and cap. They were very friendly however and cooked great food. Yuhu village itself is quite remarkable. Aside from some modern conveniences like cars, electricity and running water, the Naxi seemed to live much like they probably had for the last several hundred years. According to Javad, even though the Naxi were traditionally a nomadic tribe, they had built permanent settlements in this lush valley. Their beliefs and way of life is actually much like that of Native Americans – they are mainly animists and live close to nature. They are also one of the few cultures in the world that still uses a hieroglyphic language.
Naxi elders playing Mahjong - for more pics from Yunnan, click here.
That day I decided to go into Lijiang city and see the “old city” there, although after Yuhu this actually proved quite touristy. Still, I found a cool little Tibetan cafĂ© to hang out in, drink coffee and use the Internet. As night fell, the bars of the old city began to come alive with lights, music and dancing. I thought about going to hang out in one of them, but I didn’t know anyone, and Javad’s parents in law had already cooked dinner for me. Even though it was very interesting staying in the Guesthouse, there never seemed to be anyone around except some Naxi (whose speech I couldn’t understand very well) playing mahjong. And since it was still raining too hard to go hiking, I was beginning to wonder what I was going to do here. I grabbed a cab back to Yuhu, but in the dark my cab driver got lost and had to stop several times to ask for directions. It was dark and foggy and for a while I thought we would never find the village. The third time we stopped, the driver rolled down my window to ask directions from an old man. As he did so, he passed the man a cigarette.  I have always had a hard time getting accurate directions from Chinese people (even if they don’t know, they will pretend like they do to save face), but I suddenly realized that somehow, this little gift was going to motivate this man to give us accurate directions. We eventually made it back to the Guesthouse and ate dinner and then went to sleep wondering what I was doing in Lijiang during the rainy season, with no friends and no sun. Paradise, whether it’s Talloires or Shangri La, felt especially far away…

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