Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Returning to Hong Kong, August 22nd – 25th

I woke up Sunday morning in Lijiang to a wonderful sound: silence. For a minute the blue, semi-transparent curtains of my room tricked me into thinking the sky outside had turned blue, but when I pulled them back, the sky was just as foggy and gray as ever. Still, it wasn’t raining…yet. So I decided to suck it up and go hiking in the nearby mountains as I had planned. I set out around 8:30am on what was suppose to be a six-hour hike (round trip) to find a village in the mountains near a lake called Wenhai.

No sooner had I left Yuhu village then the rain began again. I was wearing all quick-drying athletic cloths, but in the interest of packing light, I had left my rain jacket in Hong Kong (real smart during the rainy season, I know…) and was only wearing a semi-water proof running jacket. I took shelter under a pine tree for about 20 minutes until the rain lightened up and then trekked on. The rain continued off and on all morning, and I continued to find shelter under trees and ledges. As I continued into the mountains, the trail began to diverge into several different paths. I had been given rough instructions on how to get to the lake (stay on the main trail, heading Southwest, and when you pass a dam you know you’re almost there), but it was getting increasingly difficult to tell which trail was the main trail, and on several occasions I found myself on the wrong trail and had to back track. It has already been two hours and I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.
One of my hiding places from the rain 
I began to hear a stream or river running in the distances. Was I supposed to cross a river? There was no indication of this on the very touristy-looking, imprecise map I had been given. As I crouched under yet another ledge in the middle of the forest, about ready to give up and go back, I began to hear voices shouting near the river. Even though it was still poring, I began running down the trail, hoping I would come across someone who could tell me which way to go. As I emerged from the trees at the edge of the stream, the rain began to stop and on the opposite bank I saw a group of men leading a family traveling on horseback. I crossed the stream and asked the men how to get to Wenhai. They told me they were heading in that direction and that I should follow them.

These men were local Naxi who had made a business out of leading tours on horseback of the valley and mountains surrounding Yuhu (I’d seen their office in the village earlier), and the family that they were leading had come from Kunming. As does every Chinese person I meet, they asked me what I was doing in China and where I had learned Chinese (I’ve gotten pretty good at answer these questions by now). Most of them were from other Naxi villages nearby. They walked this trail almost every day, which was evident by the horse tracks and droppings in the mud, and by how well they knew the trail. Every so often they would pick berries and nuts off the trees and give me some to eat. I’d normally never eat strange berries and nuts in an unfamiliar wilderness, but these men were native to the land and seemed to know it very well. When they stopped for lunch they also offered me a bun with meat and vegetables, which I gladly took since I realized I hadn’t brought enough food. Finally we reached the top of a pass between the mountains and the dam that was shown on my map came into view. The men pointed me along a road that circumvented the lake and disappeared off into the fog. “It’s about another 30 minute walk to Wenhai from here,” one of them told me.

Sure enough, after about a half hour of following a windy dirty road through another mountain pass, I spotted Wenhai lake down below me. I descended to the village, which was even more remote and ancient looking than Yuhu. There were horses grazing and farmers working in rice patties in the lush plane at the lake’s northern end. Aside from a few cars and electric wires, there was no evidence of modern civilization anywhere. It was already 3:00pm so I didn’t spend long in the village, but began following the road back to Yuhu. Suddenly as I came around a bend I was greeted by a startled pack of wild horses, who half trotted, half galloped off the trail. Still, I was able to get pretty close and take some good pictures.
Dam at the top of the mountain pass
Wenhai village - view other pictures from the hike here.
When I finally returned to Yuhu, the guesthouse was bustling with activity. It turned out it was Javad’s niece’s birthday, and his wife’s whole extended family had come over for dinner. Javad’s sister in law also had some friends visiting from Japan, and there were two more Americans who had come to stay at the guesthouse. As I was talking with one of the Americans named Conrad, he mentioned that he was currently at graduate school in Geneva. “Oh, I just spent the last two months not far from there, in Talloires, France,” I said. “I just graduated from a University called Tufts…have you heard of it?” “I just graduate from Tufts a few years ago.” Conrad said.  What a small world.

I was starving from my hike, and wolfed down my food as I listened to people speaking Japanese, Naxi, Mandarin and English around the table. I also talked with Javad’s brother in law, who was originally from Chengdu and was quite an avid mountain climber. He told me that he had climbed the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a 4,000 meter (12,000 foot) mountain that boarders Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s one of the largest mountains in the region and also is the most southern, glacier-covered mountain in the region. He told me that if I returned to Lijiang again he would guide me up the mountain. After dinner we had a birthday cake for the little girl, who had just turned nine, and who insisted that we all perform something for each other (she was really taking advantage of being the only kid among 15 or so adults). For my performance I told the story (in Mandarin and English) of how I got “married” to one of my classmates in a role-play of a traditional wedding ceremony in Lishui, China. I’m not sure if the story made sense to the Japanese speakers (who spoke very little English and Mandarin), but it was fun and confidence building to know that I could tell this story in Chinese.

After wondering why I had come to Lijiang the night before, this day had turned out to be quite an adventure. I may not have found Shangri La, but I did find a small, tranquil Chinese village in the mountains, and meet some really interesting people. And in the end, that’s what really counts.

The next morning I began the long journey back to Hong Kong. This time I took a train rather than a bus from Lijiang back to Kunming. Once again I was squished into a series of seats crowded around a table with five Chinese people. It turned out that these people were all traveling together and had never met a foreigner before. I spent a good part of 10 hours answering their questions and talking about differences between China and the US. It was really interesting to see what Chinese people who are not as exposed to the international community (unlike a lot of the Chinese people I’ve met in the past) think about Americans and the US. We even talked about the war in Iraq and the US Presidential elections.

When I arrived in Kunming it was late at night, and I immediately headed for the ticket window to buy a ticket back to Guangzhou before going to my hostel for the night. I first went to the ATM to withdraw some money, and noticed a homeless man sitting outside the door to the ATM room. There are so many of these types of people around the streets of China’s cities that I did what I usually do and ignored him. Fifteen minutes later I opened my wallet at the ticket counter to pay for my ticket, and noticed that my ATM card was missing. I suddenly realized I’d left the card in the ATM! Cursing myself (I’ve done this before in a foreign country) I ran back to the ATM, vainly searching to see if I’d dropped it on the ground or by some miracle someone had taken it out and left it near the machine. When I arrive at the ATM the homeless man suddenly got up and started excitedly babbling in what I think was Mandarin, but his accent was so thick it was hard to tell. He pointed off down the plaza and I eventually realized that he was pointing to a police car. I ran over to the car and asked the police if they had found an ATM card. They thought for a minute, and then one of them reached into his pocket and pulled out my card! Thanking them I ran back to the homeless man, preparing to give him a 10 or 20 kuai note so he could go buy some food. But when I got there he refused my money. “If you want to thank me, go buy me a cigarette!” is what I finally discerned from his babbling. So for the first time in my life, I went to a convenience store and bought a pack of cigarettes. I returned and handed one to the man, who nodded his approval and told me to continue on my way.

The rest of my journey back to Hong Kong was pretty uneventful. I had a bed this time on the 26-hour train ride, so I spent most of the time reading and sleeping. When I arrived in Hong Kong I retrieved my other backpacks from Jenna’s mom’s office (with quite a bit of difficulty as my phone battery had died and I didn’t have any way of getting in touch with her) and finally arrived at the home of my new host Sean, whom I’d found on, at 10pm. Sean lives in a small apartment with his mother and two brothers. On top of this however, his apartment has become couchsurfing central in Hong Kong in the last few weeks, as his endless generosity has made it difficult for him to say no to anyone (in fact me and the other couchsurfers staying there began calling his place “hostel Sean”). So the night I arrive there was also an Australian and three Germans staying at his apartment. I slept on a yoga mat on the floor. But it was an improvement from Chungking Mansions, and I was just happy to be staying in one place after a week of traveling.

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