Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Paved Paradise Put Up a Parking Lot!

Too many days on the tourist trail in China. Sometimes when in NZ I despair at our abandonment of the mountains. The vast areas of land preserved for eternity in their queitness, slowly and methodically being stripped of their biodiversity by an array of specially designed predators. But in China the despair is not quite so insidious, its in your face. Its the red panda skins hanging on the walls of guesthouses...above pinned up furry bear head skins...on sacred buddhist mountains. Its in the concrete slab monstrosities of tourist development. Square organised photo opportunities. Nature is reduced to 2D, a trophy on the wall a place you've been.

This is the worst we have encountered so far. The ugliness of the entrance to Luoji Shan. Half mentioned in the Lonely Planet as a lovely place to explore. It has now been found. We didn't make it much past the gate. The mana of the place has been spiked. The Joni Mitchell song springs to mind "Big Yellow Taxi", you know the one that goes, "They paved paradise and put up a parkin' lot, With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot". Its more than "a dollar and a half to see them" though, in China you get stung on average about 80 yuan ($20 dollars at the moment) for every natural feature you want to cast eyes on. We wouldn't mind if the money went to environmental protection.

Out of curiousity I followed my train of thought to investigate what motivated Joni Mitchell to write these lyrics. I didn't have to go far. Wikipedia quotes her,

I wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart... this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song.

Hawaii as I have encountered in other reading (Song of the Dodo is recommended) is the extinction capital of earth, half of its 140 historically recorded bird species are extinct. Theres still plenty of trees in Hawaii though. It gets back to my point about New Zealand, things look nice on the outside, but there is no equilibrium, bird populations are getting smaller and more isolated and vulnerable to disease. If Avian influenza, hits us like it hit Hawaii with its vulnerable species, we can say good bye to a few more species. But I digress Penny and I are on holiday...

From Xichang we took a night train sitting up (rather than lying down) to Emei Shan. Tourist attraction supreme. This is the place where all those Chinese painting of enchanted looking landscapes (like the photos we took below at the Sichuan Art Gallery are from). I especially like the one with the train, as it shows the composers eye for reality!

Our reality was cloudy. We got off the train at 3am and accepted a touts inflated taxi to the Teddy Bear Hotel, famous and very comfortable backpacker hang-out. You can't bargain on prices at 3am in the morning. We didn't even try. We weren't in any hurry that morning our only deadline was checkout. Emei Shan was a late addition to our plans, we didn't really know anything about it. We packed a light pack expecting an easy stroll for an afternoon up a bit of a hill and ended up walking for 12 hours up 3000 metres up an increasingly dark train and staying in an old monastery, complete with nightman with flashlight and limp, under huge eiderdowns.

It was a fantastic day though. We checked out the museum at the bottom, which is worth visiting , if only for satirical value, before strolling up the windy and rolling concrete path through a succession of small monasteries. Regular sprite sellers plied us successfully with sprite. The paths were quite apart from at the Pure Sound Pavillion where an instantaneous infusion of Chinese tourists injected themselves to hear the rushing waters of the gorge and to visit the valley of the monkeys (Tibetan Macaques)and its crazy little fluffballs.

We escaped the madness by heading up, and of the thousands, there were only a handful that joined us. We ate a lovely dinner in the forest at the hard wok cafe just below the Venerable Trees terrace. The path was going seriously up by here, steps, thousands of them. All these vegetables are carried in. Hard work!

We pushed on past the Magic Peak Monastery and the Elephant Bathing Pool. The latter was where one of the legendary figures landed his flying elepant for a wash. The Lonely Planet seems obsessed with the small size of the pool, but I'm thinking that it would be a perfect size for washing your flying elephant as after all your flying elephant would probably be quite small wouldn't it? And its certainly a nice pool, in an improbable place. (the photo is taken on the way back down).

In the dark we got to the last road end and pushed on past the empty hawker stalls (pondering the shelter and warmth they would give us if we were forced to camp out in our shared thin sleeping bag) to the next monastery, this one. Penny liked it, I didn't, I thought it was creepy and I was looking forward to roughing it for a night and sitting dishevelled and dazed on the summit in the morning feeling like I had just done an adventure race.

Instead next morning we extricated ourselves out of bed at an early hour (in the dark) and slogged for an hour up the hill to narrowly lose the race to the first massive group coming out of the cable car. Theres actually two cable cars they must have decided the first wasn't big enough. The summit was sort of surreal. Pretty, but.

We had noodles and quickly headed down. 2000 metres of steps is many. The pain comes about a day later to the calfs, and stays for at least two days (we still have it). We went down the short way past some more monastery and tuck shops and lovely forests, back to the numbers and the toots and the beauty of the valleys. In Tibetan areas it was music drifting up the valleys here it is traffic noise (note to Chinese censors, ban tooting an Emei Shan, its a sacred mountain for goodness sake!!).

Next up for the day was Leshan and its Giant Buddha. It was big, 71 metres they say. And ancient, construction started around 700AD. I can imagine the awe of observors over the ages, but as discussed against the massiveness that is project China, you sort of expect it. My highlight for the day was the poetry of Dong Po...something along the lines of,

"Good to be the governor of Leshan Better to sit on Leshan's hill and drink tea".

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Trying to Decide What to do

We are sitting in a hostel in Lugu Lake, the famous home of the Mosuo Matriarchal society (see here), the sun is shining on the hills outside, but its cold in our room and we can't quite decide where to go. It centers on whether we start travelling back overland towards Hong Kong or decide to take a plane trip in there somewhere.

Lonely Planet describes arriving in Lige as "arriving at the ends of the earth". We arrived in a convoy of tourist buses and spent 20 minutes trapped, 10 minutes from the village by roadworks. As soon as the digger cleared out of the way both lanes of traffic zoomed in causing a traffic jam. Comical. The signs here are classic, "watch your fiery safety" and careful "anxious torturous path". The town is made up almost entirely of two story wooden guesthouses, backing onto deforested hills. You can't swim in the lake. Indeed a sign on the waters edge warns you of a slippery bank!! (and we think NZ is PC).

Dinner here consists of either a splurge or a bbq. We go for the bbq, self cook on a little table with chopsticks. We avoid the roast piglet and go for chilli, zucchini, mushrooms and corn, great fun and warm too.

The decision is made we are off to Xichang, skipping out Yading this time, mainly because I have had enough tramping and want to see some of the real China and get off this tourist trail that we have been largely stuck on for the last week. Really looking forward to seeing some big cities, ie Chongching with 30million people. Used Skype with video this morning to chat to Aaron and Karin over in rainy Gothenburg. Awesome!

Tiger Leaping Gorge

I'm not quite sure to say about Tiger Leaping Gorge. So much has been said and so much of it bullshit. Despite the carnage that tourism, wealth and ohh too many roads have wreaked on the landscape it is still a pleasant stroll, a nice way to spend a down day. Several years ago Simon Winchester described it in a blog here, making the tame path sound like a scramble up and around the gates of Mordor. But he also predicted what has come to pass:

"The pleasure that one took particularly in Tiger Leaping Gorge, by virtue of its peace, its isolation and its beauty will now soon have gone forever. By tarmac and pollution and crowding, it will have been utterly and comprehensively ruined. The village of Walnut Grove will, in a way, have lost its soul. Somewhere special will have become merely commonplace, and worse."

Tiger Leaping Gorge is now merely commonplace. And soon they will probably drown some more in another lake and kill the rumble of the river. Anyway our day out...

The path was scraggled with dead and dying worms. We tried to hypothesise what their story was, were they shat out by all the horses? No I think they were too big. Were they enticed onto the track by the piles of dung in the rain then stood on, or then stranded when the track quickly dries? Whoknows. The strange things you think about when you are walking.

Apart from the amazing rock walls of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain rising across the gorge and the continuous rumbling and occasional sighting of the whitewater of the Yangtze (both which you soon forget about) the track is highlighted by the continual advertising for guesthouses. The Naxi family guesthouse is first, red paint on rocks. There are Nashi pears at the Naxi house. The track steepens after here shortly, the infamous “28 bends”, a good hill for an old man with a stick carrying a basket of potatoes. Tea Horse Trading Inn was next, the yellow brand on the rocks. We stopped here for a relaxing lunch, what a view!!

Halfway House (someone has a sense of humour) was probably the most obtrusive of the lot. Their graffitti was constant. We rebelled by not even sticking our heads in for a beer, but stopped for a photo.

The track now followed a water-race around a steep face, akin to the lower Yubeng but less spectacular, before rolling down to the road at Tina's guesthouse. Thats it? The famous Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is a pleasant romantic stroll and would have its purpose as a pub crawl.

Before wandering the 40minutes back down the road to (the lovely) Seans Guesthouse in Walnut Garden, we stopped at the Bridge Cafe for an orange juice.

Sitting in the cafe reading a book on the minorities of the Yunnan, we saw many interesting photos of the places we have been and discovered the proper names for a couple of objects, the fuzzy purple flower and the crazy easels and chairs for the gods. Any guesses?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

From Shangri-La to the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Its only a couple of hours by bus from Shangri-La to Tiger Leaping Gorge, but we went the long way (although I'm sure someone could find a longer way, there is plenty of potential).

The bus was supposed to leave at 9.10, it was 9.00. The ticket lady said sales were closed, the lady at the gate said the bus had left. Out in the middle of the three lane street a suspicious looking bus was waiting at lights, "Baishutai?", the door is ripped open and we're in. Our good fortune amuses everyone and gives us a good buzz for the day. The ride to Baishutai, a silica pool sort of tourist attraction, is about 4 hours. The road rises and curves over more of China's endless hills, Penny sits biting her lips!

Arriving in Baishutai we prepare to be underwhelmed. For the first time in China touts ruin the experience, there are not enough tourists here. The attraction is pleasant but its management is shoddy. Water from a nearby stream is water-raced in to spill-over the silica and then halfway down the formation is whisked away to irrigate drops, leaving the bottom half dry and weedy. The tourist infrastructure; giant boardwalks and handrails, is broken down. People walk where they want, all over the formation. They say it is an important part of Naxi Dongba culture...so where is the respect? That said there are parts of it you can take pretty photos of.

We got out of there as quick as we could, which took us about 2 hours in a cafe eating yummy instant noodles and 2 hours sitting on the side of the road getting sold walnuts by insistent old ladies. Eventually when a van came it took us 20km down the road to the little village of Haba where we were surprised and happy to find a very nice little guesthouse called Haba Snow Mountain Inn with photos of trekking and mountaineering in the local area all over the walls. The hostess took us down to Naxi dancing that night at the village square. The big circular group dance with a verry happy feel. We had seen the dance at Shangri-La but this convinced us that it wasn't just a tourist set-up. Awesome thing to watch and see these people celebrating their lives and community

We arranged to join up with a German family that was there to hire a guide for the next day to show us up the hill. They would then all go back leaving us to explore and try and climb the mountain (they also hire ice axes and crampons...we took advantage of the former). It worked a charm. The climb up the next day with the guide and Germans took us from Haba at 2500odd to an amazingly beautiful little lake at 4100 and took us above the bushline.

On the way up one of the highlights was going past a small log cabin where a man was milking his cows, we took the opportunity to check out his pad and some of his tools.

Freed of the larger group we took off up the mountain, rising first then sidling when we could see the obvious route up a vast grey slab. We dumped Pennys pack at a group of rough and wrecked shelters which we presumed was basecamp, only to find just over a minor ridge a new basecamp with a newly completed guesthouse! Wilderness experience blown we made a bid for the top in what would be record time.

It was quick up the slab but things started to slow down when we hit ice, we were running out of time fast. The view kept beckoning out north. All the way back to Meili Snow Mountain we could see, the ridges then dropped as we panned around to the east until the sacred peaks of the Yading raised their snowy heads and the mighty 8000m Gonga Shan thrust itself into the distant skyline.

We gave up just below the big snow dome, nothing more than a plod to the summit, but it would have taken us 90minutes to the top, and broke into the bag of ginger we had saved for a special occasion since Thailand.

We then got the hell out of there, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

Camp that night after we had rejected the advances of the new guesthouse owners was near the ruined huts of the ghost town.

Next day was porridge for breakfast at sunrise.

We had skipped past some of the scenic highlights of the area the previous day, so decided to go back a similar way, checking out a few viewpoints and saddles and of course the gorgeous lake before descending again to Haba Snow Mountain Inn for lunch.

The ladies didn't quite know what to think when we told them we planned on walking to Tiger Leaping Gorge that day (we were either very strong or naive or both as it turned out). I was convinced we got on the right track, it was sidling around Haba Snow Mountain just where I would make it if I was making a track to sidle Haba Snow Mountain into Tiger Leaping Gorge. Then the damn thing stopped, we tried 3 dead ends having to walk numerous times past a vicious looking dog on a small fragile looking leash, which gave Penny the heebie jeebies. Daylight running out again we bolted for the road, 45 minutes down the hill and from a distance we hadn't seen a car all afternoon. 5 minutes later we were safely enconsed with some wealthy Chinese out on a tiki tour who couriered us all the way to our accomodation. Pennys chinese was impressive, there was at least a 10 line exchange, which given our lack of language learning motivation was awesome.

We completed the day by having a nice long yarn to a young couple Matt and Mary, biking from England to Australia, to begin a new life there and build their own dream backpackers on a small piece of coastal land there. And Chinese beer, particularly Dali, continues to impress with its tasty, refreshing and alcoholic qualities.

The Baluta Experience

(dredging up some Indonesian stories now, have a few of these forthcoming)

Our work on Pulau Pulau Batu was mainly focused on the central island Pulau Tello. Tello is a transport and social hub to the hundred or so other, and often larger islands around it. It commands the trade routes from both Nias and mainland Sumatra. While Tello itself can safely said to be out of the way the outer islands are another step into the void.

Mother, baby and protective face whitener

It was a Wednesday, we had finished morning clinic and we were still thinking about going to Baluta. The stars had aligned and there were 14 of us, a Troppodoc record. We weren't going to squeeze into the local boat Dr Derek had lined up, it was only really a canoe with a small shelter, and it was already piled up with supplies and locals. Dr Derek and the sick baby Leone squeezed in, along with Bronwyn the nurse, Johanees the physio, and their children Rose and Brianna.

Bronwyn and Leony, ready for a voyage!

“Maybe you can find another boat, or maybe tomorrow” Derek suggests as they putter off across the bay.

I agitate along the wharves, “Baluta”, “Baluta”, “Saya harus pergi ke Baluta”. I'm getting funny looks. Back on the main street, the ripples have spread and a tout approaches.

“You want Baluta?”

We bargain and I drive him down a bit, then he drives me down to the boat hiring mafia on the Chinese side of town. It turns out his boat is broken but maybe we can hire the speedboat, “berapa (how much)”

Twice what we agreed. His boss shows up, and everyone else. They debate. I try my indonesian on them “We medicine to Baluta gratis, Dr Derek already gone, me medicine have here need to go to Baluta”, they're not looking keen, “Arrghh we help your wives, your daughters, now we help Baluta please”, still double, “Arrghh, I'm healthy I don't need to go”, they laugh,

“We'll take you for the petrol money”.

I race back to Hati Saro's and grab the others. The two young translators Udi and Denny are coming to. We find Kate and Eban passing back through town,

“Be there in five”

We are stoked at the boat, massive single hull canoe, and bright blue with big curved outriggers. You want to be at the front though. The girls in the back get soaked as we pick up speed through the chop. The boat steers through some narrow channels between smaller islands before we emerge in the open ocean the long green mass of Tanah Masa, Pulau Pulau Batu's largest island, stretching away to our left. Baluta refers collectively to a stretch of coastline maybe 7km long including 13 or so villages. Our first problem arises, we don't know exactly where on Baluta Dr Derek is. Or where for that matter we are, as the speedboat drops us off in a sandy bay and we wade ashore

We walk straight into a village. Wooden houses with intricate carved framing surround a large rectangle. Wealthier houses have corrugated iron roofs and maybe even a tiled floor. Pigs and chickens forage in the jungle behind each row of houses, sweating and clucking in the watercourses. Villagers unsurprisingly stare at us, white people emerging from the sea. Regrouped we ask around for the Doctor...blank expressions the only response. They gesture that we head south along the coast and we turn that way, a line of porters. Suitcases of medicine slung over shoulders.

We pass through several small villages, creating much excitement, but the team is increasingly sceptical of our chances of finding Dr Derek. In the end it is Penny and myself sent ahead to find him. We walk several miles of beaches and tracks through coconut palms, before stumbling into the village Derek had chosen. They are already engrossed in a chat and clinic in one of the larger houses. As always people fill the room and those only interested peer en masse through the windows. The locals look amazed as we struggle in one by one, although Derek assures us this is nothing compared to when he put down in his chopper on his last visit (to recap Dereks chopper is currently being held hostage by the Indonesian police following a dramatic rescue of an Australian surfer from the distant Siberut). After a night time foray to the next door village we had secured enough instant noodles to feed the team. Penny slaving out back over the fire did us proud. Noodles and rice a great 2 carb meal.

We figured for our one whole day in Baluta we would try and cover as much ground as possible, maybe stopping in every second or third village relying on sick people to visit us at the neighbouring village (this is only about 50m to 500m distance). Baluta isn't that simple. At te first village we came across we told the head honcho that we were setting up a clinic at the next village,

“No, that is bad, that village is no good, no good, have clinic here”.

Turns out the villages aren't on speaking terms. How crazy is that, such a small world they live in, yet they make it even smaller. We split the team, half going to the next village. The patients were generally old woman sick, way too hard a life in a place without good drugs. Although one very malnourished baby was presented. The mother couldn't feed her and they hadn't managed to figure out the milk powder properly. The mother and baby went on the list for temporary removal to Tello for a bit of education.

The clinics moved on down the beach, not before we had our lunchtime feed (crackers and crappy biscuits) and swim in the gentle surf. We had plenty of Doctors and Browyn the nurse and Johannes the physio and we also had a great distraction team. Penny Bond (Dr Nicks Penny) led the way in engaging the local kids, drawing and chanting and all kinds of carry-on. Rose and Brianna, 12 and 10 years old, backed up in this and the nursing and the pharmacy. Kate Willimans (a friend of ours come to visit) and her friend Eban also chipped in where there was need. There was not really much for me to do apart from set-up and look dangerous. So once this was done at the 3rd village for the day I went exploring.

Penny Bond reading with the kids

The idea was to find the next village, so I wondered off into the hot sweaty jungle (why I didn't choose the beach I don't know). Thankfully after only ten minutes or so I looked out towards the beach and saw some sheds and fences. I slipped into the village the backway , through the snuffling pigs and scruffy chickens. It was a small place only maybe 5 houses and I found some people playing cards in the biggest. They were somewhat surprised to see me and it took a while for me to explain that I was here with a bunch of doctors and nurses down the way and was there anyone sick in the village. Eventually though ther message got through and I got to do some preliminary diagnosis. Reading back in my journal its is quite amusing,

“my diagnosis of elephantitis in the testicles turned into a hernia, while my infected foot was in fact coated with betadine, the coughing guy that didn't make it to the clinic got a penicillin injection with a blunt needle for his trouble”

Dr Derek and Bronwyn returned with me to this little village that Derek hadn't visited before and it was a very enjoyable clinic watching Derek work for the first time. Very fast and informal with the group. Focusing on the genuinely sick people . Derek walks a borderline with his medicine, by abandoning the western practice paradigm and focusing on the very sick, but so to do the young doctors if they can't move beyond what they have learnt to what they could do, right now with the resources available to them.

We left this last village late and walked fast back along the coast, but not fast enough, the rain engulfed us. The others had left earlier and made it back dry but Bronwyn, Rose, Derek and I slithered back to our accomodation, saturated. It would be pushing things to say our hosts were stoked to have us, but they put up with us, and Penny again joined them out back creating some delicious instant noodles. It reminds me of the best ever Australian movie, “The Castle”....“whats this love?. For some more "The Castle Quotes check here

The next morning we were due to leave and word had got round that the boat guy from the village was going to try and make some money off these “bulli”, white people. We were a little bit pissed off. I tried some calm negotiation with the offender, then a bit of evil stares and co-ercion but nothing was going. Some of the others thought they had found a boat as well but this turned out to be a false lead. In the end we decided that the simplest solution was to walk 50metres down the beach to the nearest village and bribe them with free medicine for a fairly priced boat trip. It worked. The lunancy in these two villages not talking was not lost on any of us. The boat drivers were happy until they realised we had to go up the coast and pick up the mother and baby and an old lady with TB. They through a bit of a hissy fit but we managed to feign enough Indonesian incomprehension to get everyone on board. There must have been about 20 people on board this tiny boat, a very very slow boat. At less than a knot we putted across the pancake like open ocean (fortunately it is the doldrums) pausing occasionally when the motor died and more permanaently when we ran out of fuel, fortunately in the vicinity of a friendly fishing boat. Eventually we made it back to Tello, what an experience!!!

What is this?

After Ross's victory with the prayer wheels, thought I'd chuck this one into the fray. What are these lovely people selling in the markets in Shangri-La?

The Gimpiest Guy in China



(how could I compete look at the size of his yak!)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plan for the next wee while

Since yesterday evening we have been lavishing ourselves in the tourist orientated town of Shangri-La. Last night was calzone and pizza, tonight was tortillas and quesidilla (or whatever that word is). Both were followed by chocolate brownie and ice-cream at our great hostel, Noah's cafe and inn.

Shangri-La used to be called Zhongdian, but in a big marketing ploy the name was changed for a nice summary of the situation read the article here.

Today our main adventure was to hire bikes and totter out to a pretty cool Tibetan monastery, apart from the huge monastery and its associated adobe dwellings, liquid history on a hillside

the highlight of the landscape was the giant wooden chairs or easels made for drying crops. They sit in paddocks or peoples backyards uniformly facing the sun like Muslims face Mecca. Photos will follow if I left our camera at the restaurant we ate dinner at.

Our plan from here is to get up early, find the camera and suss out when the bus leaves for the crazy white water terrace place. From there we will head up onto Haba Snow Mountain maybe, or just walk around it to Tiger Leaping Gorge, then to Lijiang. Take care out there.