It’s fair to say we had a lot of expectations when it came to China, and yet it somehow managed to shatter every single one of them. There’s so much to say about this huge monster of a country, and yet one thing is for certain: there’s no middle ground when it comes to China. It may not be the most divisive country that travelers visit (that crown is probably still held by India, or maybe Vietnam), but China is one of those countries that people either love or hate. The only way to find out is to visit yourself and see on which side of the divide you fall.
With a PhD in Psychology, I’ve accrued tons of information over the years that our switch to a full-time travel lifestyle has largely made irrelevant. Ok, not entirely, since Psychology is all about the scientific study of the human mind, and as it turns out, the world is populated with people… so while, I may not be putting my degree to its obvious purpose by pursuing a degree in academia, I still get to observe psychological tenets in action every day and feel smugly superior to those around me who are oblivious to the principles that they are unknowingly guided by.
Few things during our week in Shanghai were sufficient to tempt us from the cozy little den we created for ourselves in the French Concession—I’ve already recounted our somewhat disastrous foray into traditional sightseeing, an outing that only served to make us less interested in stepping out our front door. Only one curiosity was powerful enough to draw us into the city: the many foods on offer in Shanghai stoked a hunger in our bellies we were powerless to resist. Feast your eyes on what we indulged in during our stay!
If you have never traveled long-term before, it is hard to appreciate just how exhausting an endeavor it can be. Ironic though it may seem, sometimes as a traveler the greatest luxury you can indulge in is a respite from the road and a break from traveling.
Sometimes you don’t even know that this is precisely what you need, or maybe it’s an understanding you develop with experience. With just a few weeks of our new lifestyle under our belts, the prospect of spending an entire week cooling our heels in Shanghai didn’t exactly appeal, but we had little choice and decided to make the best of a bad situation.
Given that we’re in the midst of Chinese New Year Extravaganza 2013, it seems only right that I should tell you about how Tony & I handled the last major Chinese holiday, one we actually had to face while we were in China proper. Although Chinese New Year is celebrated on something of an international scale (heck, there’s a large enough Chinese community in Toronto that you can ring in the year of the snake half way around the world in Canada!), Golden Week is a 7-day holiday that occurs in the autumn and is a special brand of hell inflicted on those in China proper.
It isn’t often that a place or an event has the power to change you. Most of the time change seems gradual, the sum of a set of experiences that just kind of creeps up on you, until one day you realize the person you were is just that: the person you were. But. Sometimes something is so singular that you can feel yourself changing, feel your understanding growing. Maybe this thing changes a lot of people, or maybe only a few. For us, the rice terraces of Dazhai was such a place.
I’m sure by now our astute readers have cottoned on to the fact that our time in China was filled with plenty of ups and downs. Truth be told, it probably featured a lot more downs than ups. And no one is more disappointed about this than we are. Seriously. I never sat down and tried to transform my dreams of what our time in China would be like into words, but it’s fairly accurate to say that they were about as large as the country itself.
Not 10 minutes after stepping out of our hostel in Guilin, he was upon us. Like a shadow—albeit, an extremely charming and talkative one—he kept pace with us, smiling and asking us about ourselves and our interests. It’s a sad thing to admit, but the very fact that a local was being so friendly to us in a country where we had rarely felt welcome or wanted immediately made us wary of him and his motives. Our second warning that something was likely afoot was the fact that his English was not just passable, but exceedingly good. Some countries we had visited thus far had enough of an English presence that someone speaking with near fluency wasn’t out of the ordinary; in China, it is.
Sometimes when you go to a place there’s a story about a mishap or a dislike or something wacky that happened, and sometimes there just isn’t. Sometimes everything works out just the way you want, expectations are met and you get to go home and feel like you did what you set out to do, saw what needed seeing and that’s just about right. It doesn’t necessarily make for the most hilarious or exciting story, but sometimes it’s really nice to be able to look back and simply think, “yeah, that was really great, just like I thought it would be” and not have to add an asterisk, caveat or rationalization.
On this trip, Tony & I have been walking the delicate tightrope that balances visiting the well-known tourist attractions with trying to uncover the sides to the countries and cities that often get overlooked. As much as we love a UNESCO world heritage site (or most of them, at least), we’ve found that they often provide a very different perspective than one simply gains by spending time in a place, observing the local people going about their daily lives.
In my last post, I said that although we loved Xi’an, it was hard for me to identify precisely why that was.
That statement may have been a lie.
I mean, come on! If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, if there’s one thing about a city that is going to capture our affections, it is obviously food. And Xi’an just so happens to have excellent food. Even if some of it is ethically questionable… But more on that later!
It’s true that in travel, just as in life, there is no accounting for taste. Though some travelers have tumbled head over heels for China, our time in China started off about as rocky as we could imagine. Though there had been a few bright spots during our 10 days in the country, there had been enough bad/frustrating/disappointing/exhausting moments that we were seriously considering packing it in and had started contemplating exit strategies.
Playwright Christopher Marlowe lived by the motto “That which nourishes me destroys me.” Given that he was killed in a bar brawl, it’s likely he died by those same words too.
The parallels between Marlowe and the ancient Chinese city of Pingyao might not be immediately apparent, but I’d argue that Pingyao could easily adopt Marlowe’s philosophy as its slogan. Our time in China prior to visiting Pingyao taught us many things about the nation’s utilitarian world view, not least of which is that the value of old, historic places is generally viewed solely in terms of cold hard cash; if it can’t make money, then bulldoze it to the ground to make room for something that does. So long as something pulls in a profit, it has a purpose and is viewed as worth keeping around. Although Pingyao is one of the country’s oldest and best preserved examples of a traditional walled city, the reason it continues to exist today is not by virtue of its age or historical significance, but simply because it has proven to be an extremely lucrative tourist attraction.
Following our escape from Beijing by the skin of our teeth, we set off for a city called Datong, home to two more of China’s wonders: a series of caves filled with 1600-year-old Buddhist carvings known as the Yungang Grottoes, and a Hanging Monastery. Given our experiences so far, we were skeptical about how good either of these things would be, especially given that our guidebook pulled no punches and described Datong as “charmless”.
We tried the best we could to enjoy our time in Beijing, but in the end, we had to admit that it was not a place we liked really at all, and we anxiously looked forward to our departure. Given that this was the case, you would think that on the day we had tickets booked, we’d be at the train station at the first light of dawn, not dawdling at our hostel, going so far as to order breakfast (mango pancakes) 90 minutes before our train was scheduled to depart. What’s more, even with inflated hostel prices, surely no one would pay $24USD for pancakes, right?
Unfortunately, that is exactly what we did. Here’s how: