Without a Guide – Stumbled Upon Places of Awesomeness – Part One

Random "film studio?" somewhere in Greece.

Random “film studio?” somewhere in Greece.

The best travel stories come from discoveries you make on your own. Sure, everyone knows where the BIG tourist sites you MUST see are, but sometimes the off-beaten-path places are infinity more personal, engaging, interesting and variant from the norm, making them some of the most fulfilling finds. Some of these places may be local secrets or the locals don’t see any reason why anyone in their right mind would be interested in seeing/experience them. Either way, this is part one of my highly subjective list of alternative tourist/non-tourist destinations that that stand as triumphs to wandering/nomadic jaunts and may also spark a flint in you to explore beyond the travel books, the hearsay, the MUST SEES and the Checklisted. Enjoy.

The Alkmaar Beatles Museum - Decked out Beatles bedroom, Lonely Hearts Club Band figures.

The Alkmaar Beatles Museum – Decked out Beatles bedroom, Lonely Hearts Club Band figures.

Beatles Museum – Alkmaar, Netherlands

Alkmaar is a tourist destination in the Netherlands, famous for it’s Friday Cheese Market in the central square, where droves of tourist pile into the stands (yes, as if you are watching a baseball game) to view men, dressed in pork pie hats, white shirts and pants, carry cheese on “sleighs” attached to suspenders to and fro from the old weighing house. Yes. Sleighs and suspenders. I’ll explain another time. Alkmaar also has it’s staple Dutch things to see, such as canals, churches, old architecture, beer houses (and coffeehouses) and ridiculously gorgeous, accomplished people. But a specialty museum hides a somewhat out of place collection, just at the north edge of old town. The Alkmaar Beatles Museum. Why? Did the Beatles ever come to Alkmaar? Sadly, no, but John Lennon’s first guitar was made here. Still. Why? The answer to that, as well as many other questions can and will be answered by the museum’s owner, curator, creator and guide to everything Beatles. On his personal tour through the museum, the proprietor of this small, but extensive collection of memorabilia, will share his insights into his collection (“I have a bigger collection of Beatles stuff than the museum in Liverpool”), about Yoko Ono (“She’s the devil, she tried to buy John Lennon’s clothing back from me. I would never sell it to her”) and general odd anecdotes (“I mean, I have Beatles mothballs, it’s pretty impressive, ya?”). Though it is a single room establishment, the detailed information plaques, plus the amount of stuff shoved into this location, will easily occupy an hour or more of your time. Really worth the sidetrip and a SUPER awesome stumble upon! I took the tour twice, because, MAN, is this guy a Beatles fan (ticket stubs, original contracts, moth balls and all!).

DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:

Address : Kanaalkade 48, 1811LS Alkmaar, North Holland, Netherlands.

Admission: 2.50 euros

Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 4:30pm and Sunday 12pm to 4:30pm.

From the Cheese Market, which is located on all tourist maps of Alkmaar, head north of the Waagplein, along either Houtil (Pieterstraat) or Voordam (Kaarsemakersgracht). When you hit the canal, make a left. Paul and John’s faces will greet you at the entrance. Lots of random Beatles gack for sale as well.

Chinese Museum of Women and Children - Toys, miniature examples of cultural practices, and wheelchair games

Chinese Museum of Women and Children – miniature examples of cultural practices, and wheelchair games

Chinese Museum of Women and Children – Beijing, China

Beijing is a very popular tourist destination, where people cram into tight spaces to see the sights: The Lama Temple, Forbidden City, The Drum and Bell Towers. Usually, tourists do not have over a year to explore this city, but since I was teaching there, I had oodles of time to venture into every nook and cranny of this massive, forever growing city. Through some blog posts, I had heard about The Chinese Museum of Women and Children. It was somewhere near my house, but I was not exactly sure. Asking friends of mine who had lived in Beijing for many years, turned up nothing, but, “there is a museum for Women and Children? Well…enjoy!” Thanks. Scouring the alleyways near to the train station, I finally found it, a big glass and metal structure, abnormally round by Chinese architectural standards, hiding down a side street. So what is in a museum dedicated to tykes and the better sex (at least more mature and organized sex)? Well…a lot of random exhibitions. It’s true, this museum doesn’t really have a said direction, but that’s part of the beauty of it. The general subheading, Women and Children, allows this museum to basically run the gamut of weird and crazy ideas that it’s creators came up with, one dark night, ten bottles in of Baijou, Chinese white wine (imagine sweet turpentine (ps I love it)). From a history of customs (marriage, death, birth), a section on clothing from the various ethnic minorities, to toys, to a video game that allows you to be a wheelchair bound child for a day, this museum wins on entertainment and education levels. Again, worth the scavenge and great to fill up more than a few hours, if you are a keener to read things and play wheelchair games  and kick digitized water in a digitized puddle, as I am. Oh and the “We are the best country of all time, forever, infinity, win all the games and wars and beauty competitions” style propaganda abound, including a hilarious section about pollution.

DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:

Address: Beijigelu 9, Beijing, China.

Admission: Free

Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm

Metro Station Dongdan on Lines 1 or 5. Take exit B, take first alley to your left, heading east and then first right. The museum will be on your left. Quite tricky to find as the address on their website is completely wrong. It’s behind a building called Chinatex Mansion. The Chinese characters if you get lost are 中国妇女儿童博物馆

Tuzrakter - Art and open air bar serving Hungarian beers and MEAT together = perfect.

Tuzrakter – Art and open air bar serving Hungarian beers and MEAT together = perfect.

Tuzrakter – Budapest, Hungary

First off a warning. Do not attempt to find Tuzrakter, because it no longer exists. But when I visited this art coop/film space/activist hive/squatter den/bang up food and drink spot in 2010, it was very much alive, debating, swilling, loud, sexy and spilling out into the streets. I was doing a charity bike ride with a group of Canadians, raising funds and awareness for microcredit, so stumbling upon this place on Couchsurfing was pretty much planning a outdoor wedding in Vancouver in Spring and it being a clear, sunny day (if you don’t get that local reference and are use to the more traditional, religious based reference, here it is: “it’s a miracle!”). This place wrote the Hungarian autobiography on cool, without even attempting to define themselves as such. Like a 1920s Parisian café, yet not with a wine and smoke odour, but a beer, burning incense, bike lube and oil, and a twinge of hashish aroma, every night was drum circle night, with rhetoricians, theorists, radicals, avant gardes, raging heat, fire, manuscripts, scripts and manifestos, screaming and rebutting above the rhythm. A cultural hub full of hubbub. Art in non-conventional spaces, on unconventional terms. All of this ended with a price hike in rent from the government, a ploy to shutdown this meeting place for the “ill repute”. Not that shutting such a place will squash the hill. The ants go marching on…

DIRECTIONS: None. “It’s too late to apologize…it’s tooo llllaaaate”

Yi Ta - Peaceful lone tower of the Bai Kingdom.

Yi Ta – Peaceful lone tower of the Bai Kingdom.

Yita Si – Dali, Yunnan, China

From Tuzrakter to something a little more ancient and still open to the public. Dali, the ancient capital of Bai Kingdom, is a reasonably relaxed city (China wise) in Western Yunnan to soak up sun, use as a jump off point for further exploration in the region and one of the few places in the entire country that has CHEESE as part of their diets. Without getting into a lengthy digression, while food and living costs in China are quite reasonable, the tourist sites, demand ridiculous fees for sometimes little return or a poorly fabricated cultural anomaly that is both laughable and depressing (they charge you to climb random mountains, enter parks, touch statues…). One of the biggest tourist attractions in Dali, are the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple, standing at the based of the Cangshan Mountains. Scouring the Internets, I found a website that showed you possible, unobstructed photo ops without paying the ridiculous entrance fee to the temple. I am all about the experience, so photos are nice to remember how something felt, but do not amount to having done anything. Looking over Dali through Google Earth, I found something just down the road from the Three Pagodas. Yita Park. I knew that “ta” is tower and I knew that “yi” means one, I wonder…Again, onto the interwebs to find some more information about this singular tower, which from pictures, I could see existed. Was it accessible? Was there an entry fee? The only info I could find, were short blurbs, noting that it was a derelict 10th century tower, that was in a neglectful state. Curiosity sparked, asking locals through a series of hand gestures and interpretive dances, no one understand/knew/cared what I was talking about. After several tens of minutes of wandering in the general area where the map said it was, as this blog post insinuates, I stumbled upon it. Passing through a car gate and a crumbling exterior wall, passed an military watchtower and a temple, where workers sawed, hammered, chiseled in a cloud of sawdust, with a curious eye on my girlfriend and I. Upon a dirt mound, surrounded by green pines and long, uncut grass, the solitary tower rose, not derelict, but more defiant to drooling tourist mongrel, which bites at its heels, demanding it to be repainted, stocked full of gaudiness, false priests and boxes to place money for its “upkeep” and the upkeep of fatcat officials. Not yet. It was still free, but I presume that the workers weren’t simply fixing up the old temple for good will. This is the ancient, untouched China that people chase and try to touch. I climbed up to entrance, which was open and peered inside. It was black with darkness and soot from years of burning fires and sacrifice. It’s yellow exterior peeled and chipped with sun and rain and it was such a glorious, phallic like, momentary “fuck you”, to the lion tamers of natural, wild history, which tells its tale through wind, not written words.

DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:

Address: Entrance at Y juncture in Yita Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China.

Admission: Free!

Hours: Whenever!

From Chongsheng Temple, walk south along the main road (214 National Road). Travel for about ten minutes and make a right on Yita Alley (一塔巷). You will run directly into the park. Ignore all the blockades and fences, run free (both imagination and physically) in history and nature.

t6

Dr. Guislain’s Museum – Ghent, Belgium

Housed in a work psychiatric facility, the museum’s purpose is to inform the public of the history of psychiatric practices and dispel any misnomers or prejudices people may have towards the field. As it says on the website, through its exhibits, it focuses on destroying highly suggestive and value laden terms such as “madness” and “mental disorder”, by presenting the artwork, writing and stories of current and former patients. Both beautiful and inescapably haunting, the museum presents a part of society we tend to ignore, attempt to conceal or pity. This museum is not grasping for pity tears, but rather, evokes honest to goodness awe from the inspirational tales and works of these individuals. A museum, an art gallery and an emotional, humanist rollercoaster all rolled up into one highly effective collaborative effort. Something well worth spending more than a few hours immersing oneself in, reading, watching, emoting, while coming face to face with raw output and sincerity. Even in the museum section, the focus is not on demonizing the profession, but rather showing the charity and positive outcome of the brotherhood that started this hospital. This is truly an experience, which words do little justice to encapsulate, so I will stop at that.

DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION:

Address: Jozef Guislainstraat 43, Ghent, Belgium.

Admission: 8 euros

Hours: Tuesday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Saturday to Sunday 1pm to 5pm

From Sint Pieters station, take Tram 1, stop at Guislainstraat. Spin around and a BIG sign will state that you are at the riiiiight place.

Rome at Night – Untitled Gallery

Realism. An art movement attempting to capture the world as it is, without the idyllic visions of the romantics, the lamenting nature of the elegies or the beatified chiseled warriors of the heroics. The photograph took up this charge of the realistic painting, opening up an opportunity for those with no artistic skill to capture a second in their life. The monumental images and glorification of war, society or the satire  of government could still be staged and snapped and framed as art, but also the simple recollection of a banal moment in time could fill the pages of any amateur scrapbook affectionado. Here I present with little introduction, my amateur hour of manipulation, without schema or plan, simply an attempt to indicate a feeling, an individualized experience with the nights of Rome and how special they were to me.

The city breathes at night and wafts scents and sounds through haggard and higglypiggly lanes and chipped doorways, spilling with intoxication, conversations of love and hate and exploration. The yellow streets, though old, cannot overshadow the history crusted fountains and ruins, that give power to the casting shadows, over the juvenile flickering lights.

A map and no plans are some of the best days in Rome. Stumble upon secrets, recommendations and a blog or two pick of some hole in the wall vouched for by some subscriber to Tripadvisor. Do it, taste it, inhale its smoke, smut, savoriness and centuries.

Ira

The Guilty Nomad – The Path of Unapologetic Happiness

Heading north to the Wadden Islands along the Ocean. Solo and Alive!

Heading north to the Wadden Islands along the Ocean. Solo and Alive!

It’s hard to consider living on the road without the feeling that you are shirking your duties. What these duties pertain to, at least in myself, relate to a sort of “suppose to” list of life stages that at certain ages in on the relatively short stint on this earth I have been indoctrinated, through all forms of nurture, that I must hit. Part of the process of living on the road is considering the validity of this society-enforced template of growing up. For me, it didn’t work.

Eating on the road isn't always fine dining. But it is, fine dining. Local cheese, meat and some sort of sugar bread sandwich. Nom Nom!

Eating on the road isn’t always fine dining. But it is, fine dining. Local cheese, meat and some sort of sugar bread sandwich. Nom Nom!

Since this is a travel blog, I hesitate to address bold life statements, so I will keep it as a series of personal revelations. I was introduced to travel by my parents. We did the traditional North American family trip to Mexico every other year. It was nice, but felt surreal, cultural mummification, as if everything you saw was in stasis, ready to perform for the next tourist. That sounds quite ignorant, but I was younger back then and that’s what family trips to those tourist meccas kind of enforce. It wasn’t emersion, but simply a dip in a highly regulated pool.

When I was 24, I was invited to perform in a play in the Czech Republic. I had never been to Europe before and had never travelled on my own. As part of the trip, I planned to do a sort of quick jaunt around the country. I planned meticulously and was very excited to finally travel at my own pace.

Foraging with couchsurfer in Groningen for stomppot. http://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CB0QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2Fwiki%2FStamppot&ei=j3b7VNbOFYmAsQSgl4GoDg&usg=AFQjCNG2rg_r914SAY-RfyV2FLXlaWrRkw&sig2=Fhfg9U3wLLTp2cHtIxIoHg&bvm=bv.87611401,d.cGU

Foraging with couchsurfer in Groningen for stomppot.

I planned for two weeks and ended up living in Prague for an additional 4 months teaching and then three more months travelling around Eastern Europe. I returned back to Canada for a girl. As I stepped off the plane at the Vancouver International Airport, I realized how seriously mistaken I was for doing so. I felt a sudden void inflate inside of me. And that was it. I was infected with the travel bug. Right away I knew this could not be a sometimes thing. I had to figure out how to make this an all time thing.

The traditional aspects of life weighed upon me. Yet in my own rebellious way I had started to challenge, question and answer them.

TA = Traditional Aspect

R = Response

TA = If you get tattoos, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

R= I am dead, who cares where they put me. Throw me into the ocean, I don’t need to waste land.

TA = Okay. Well, if you get a tattoo, make sure it’s something you REALLY want.

R= It’s just skin. And don’t use the “but when you’re old it will look…” Because when I am old, “I will look”.

TA = Get married, have kids.

R= Monogamy works for some people. It sounds nice in a pastoral poem. You have kids, I’ll be the cool uncle that your kids want to be.

TA = Get a stable job, you don’t want to be poor!

R= International teacher and adventurer is a full time job. It’s stability is concrete in that I am not tied to a steadfast location. Contract ends, I find a job here or move! The world is my job market oyster. I am never poor, as I always have enough to eat, cloth and roof myself. The rest of wealth is stored in the emotional bank and I am pretty happy with the numbers.

TA= But that’s not normal.

R= I strive to be as abnormal as possible. No! It boils down to happiness. That is why I hesitate to generalize. If a suit and tie and Lambourgini make you excessively happy, then do it up. For me, a suit and tie are constricting and a car as a representational of more than cutthroat work ethic, an unshakeable faith in class delineation and sad attempt at becoming the human superlative is as confounding as you may find my excessive facial hair at times, my spontaneous tattoos and my amplified emotional states.

Living on the road (Lovely campsite in Arnhem). Note the bike used a drying rack.

Living on the road (Lovely campsite in Arnhem). Note the bike used a drying rack.

This is not a woe as me narrative, quite the contrary. You should be not just proud of the quirks you are allotted, but the quirks you develop out of experiencing life and discovering what you want of it. Because as I said before it’s a short stint, a snap of the fingers and I did not want to wait until I had to sit on a geriatrics filled bus to be hurled around this planet. I want to see it by bicycle. I want to see it in slow motion. I want to see it now and bask in it all.

Extended family dinners are awkward at times. The question, “what are you doing?” is always asked. I respond in earnest and a lot of the times they smile, in confusion, as if that will remedy their feelings of judgement. I know many of them don’t understand me, but at the same time, they all came around and support me. Good family will always do that, so don’t worry about the disowning factor. You can’t live as a source of vicariousness for people anyways.

So dream. If it’s in line with their dreams, great. If it is off the beaten path, unconventional, constantly moving, great as well. Pursue it all. Fail. Pursue more. Succeed. Nothing is damning. Love your careers and families; maybe I’ll see you somewhere on the vast highways. And it’s not our cup of tea, but we’ll understand why each other like to sip it. Because it makes us happy and that’s the crux of it all the why questions you can ask about existence.

Selfies are important to document solo travels.

Selfies are important to document solo travels.

Checklist Traveling – Seeing the World as Opposed to Experiencing It

Originally posted on .each mile.:

Sometimes it's tough to just sit and let nature entrance you. I use it during stressful times in travel as "a bring me back to earth" tool. Sometimes it’s tough to just sit and let nature entrance you. I use it during stressful times in travel as “a bring me back to earth” tool.

Tourism in China is a weird thing. The Olympics of 2008 in Beijing spotlighted this once stigmatized powerhouse in a new light and the influx of tourists, curious to discover it’s rich history and culture, came pouring in from all directions. And the Chinese government sort of understands the process to deal with this. People want to be able to access the sites, the flavors and people that Maoist China tried to subjugate, repress and ultimately uniform (They use none of those terms, nor did the Maoist government do ANYTHING like that).

A temple way out of Beijing. Jietai Temple and Tanzhe Temple were beautiful daytrips, off the beaten path, that we could enjoy at our own pace without the throngs of people, as well as not feel the need to SEE it out of innate urge to complete something. Temples way out of Beijing. Jietai Temple and Tanzhe Temple were beautiful daytrips, off the beaten path, that we could enjoy at our own pace without the throngs of people, as…

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Checklist Traveling – Seeing the World as Opposed to Experiencing It

Sometimes it's tough to just sit and let nature entrance you. I use it during stressful times in travel as "a bring me back to earth" tool.

Sometimes it’s tough to just sit and let nature entrance you. I use it during stressful times in travel as “a bring me back to earth” tool.

Tourism in China is a weird thing. The Olympics of 2008 in Beijing spotlighted this once stigmatized powerhouse in a new light and the influx of tourists, curious to discover it’s rich history and culture, came pouring in from all directions. And the Chinese government sort of understands the process to deal with this. People want to be able to access the sites, the flavors and people that Maoist China tried to subjugate, repress and ultimately uniform (They use none of those terms, nor did the Maoist government do ANYTHING like that).

A temple way out of Beijing. Jietai Temple and Tanzhe Temple were beautiful daytrips, off the beaten path, that we could enjoy at our own pace without the throngs of people, as well as not feel the need to SEE it out of innate urge to complete something.

Temples way out of Beijing. Jietai Temple and Tanzhe Temple were beautiful daytrips, off the beaten path, that we could enjoy at our own pace without the throngs of people, as well as not feel the need to SEE it out of innate urge to complete something.

Their solution to this semi-new venture, tourism, is what’s strange. Like a flawed translation on many English signs throughout China, there seems to be a bit of a miscommunication of what international tourists are interested in seeing and how what their interested in seeing is expected to be presented. That’s a vast generalization, but for myself, if fly half way around the world to see something, I want to see something that is at least somewhat authentic and real. That’s the difference between seeing it in person and via media. Attached to this authenticity is an indescribable feeling of achievement, a connection to something beyond one’s own world, and the thrill of experiencing, immersing and discovering something new for yourself. Yet China’s approach to their unique cultures, languages and especially places, is reconstituting, rebuilding, modifying rather than preservation. Many of the historical sites that survived the Red Guard are being remodeled to provide a Disneyland-like, rather than an emerging experience in history. The grit, the real businesses, even the buildings themselves, have been replaced by five star accommodations, vendors selling chachkies and pre-fab, historical facades. One of China’s famous UNESCO heritage sites, Lijiang, almost lost it’s heritage status for attempting to rebuild the ancient black tiled roofed town as a resort, after one of it’s many earthquakes. It’s everywhere. Look in your China guidebooks. 9 times out of 10, the historical building you are standing in has been rebuilt. From Qianmen Business District in Beijing (torn down and rebuilt exactly the same) to large sections of the Great Wall.

Lamont, Alberta. Never heard of this place? Very cute town near Edmonton. Buildings, like Churches, for me, act as inspirational places during travel to just sit in, engage with, immerse yourself in and possibly be inspired. These structures, are many intricate parts woven together that are worth paying attention to, exploring and considering. Imagination runs wild in these places, all you need to do is let it.

Lamont, Alberta. Never heard of this place? Very cute town near Edmonton. Buildings, like Churches, for me, act as inspirational places during travel to just sit in, engage with, immerse yourself in and possibly be inspired. These structures, are many intricate parts woven together that are worth paying attention to, exploring and considering. Imagination runs wild in these places, all you need to do is let it.

Though maybe this is a very North American stance on tourism. Maybe China is focused on local tourism, since for Chinese nationals, it’s very difficult to impossible to leave the country. On that subject, I simply have my observations of large buses, unloading their leader with their volumed up megaphones and umbrellas, followed by hoards all wearing the same hats, so they know who they should follow, blending into an earthen colored mass, filling up quaint, quiet and historical places with bursting commotion, noise and refuse. Pictures are snapped, mechanically, fingers are held in peace signs, or two hands come together to complete an unbelievable heart, occurring in no matter what venue, winding cobblestoned street or tranquil holy temple. I fear though that the “real” China that the international community strives to locate is fast becoming theme parks, parades or simply, like the hutongs of Beijing and Shanghai, being demolished for shinier, newer facilities, that cheaply emulate something that could have stood for a thousand more generations.

The Details. Yes it's a butterfly. They exist everywhere. but this specific butterfly lives where I was, within a specific moment I saw it in. That alone is special enough and can be appreciated without adherence to a standardized hierarchy of importance.

The Details. Yes it’s a butterfly. They exist everywhere. but this specific butterfly lives where I was, within a specific moment I saw it in. That alone is special enough and can be appreciated without adherence to a standardized hierarchy of importance.

Hidden Places – Chengyang – Wind and Rain Bridge, Peaceful Meandering, Chasing the Authentic

Where we were heading to!

Where we were heading to!

Our bus from the famous karst landscape of Yangshuo sits on the highway in a nameless, industrial spread. The only movement that exists is on the bus, as people squirm in the uncomfortably small and metallic sleeper bunks.

Finally, I jumped down from my bunk, unable to hold on anymore. I had to pee and no traffic jam or on bus facilities would stop me from accomplishing this goal.

In broken Chinese I told the bus driver my intentions and he reluctantly opened the door. Seeing this act of rebellion, several other Chinese men jumped down from their bunks and followed me out of the bus, into the resonating heat of the valley we were in. They followed me in a line as if we were on some sort of school field trip. I had no idea where I was taking this cohort of mostly suited Chinese men.

Fuck it. With limited options I resorted to the tried and tested, pee on a tree (a lemon tree, to be exact). The men, crowding to see what I was doing, looked flabbergasted.

“Peeing on a tree! Good lord! What’s next? Eating cheese???! Barbaric!”

So logically for them, the best place to urinate was in someone’s shed that they found open.

After relieving myself, I climbed up onto the wide highway to see what the hold up was. It was a gruesome scene. A car vs big truck scene, where the body of a man now lay splattered on the road, face covered by a poorly weighed down napkin.

Me being super creepy in our creepy room in Sanjiang.

Me being super creepy in our creepy room in Sanjiang.

We got into Sanjiang at night. With no leads on accommodations, we found a random lady waiting at the bus stop, whose broken English promise of a ‘warm bed’ seemed like an oasis in the dark. Our room was in a non-descript building near the bus station. It had running water, two beds, slippers and lock. Heaven as far as I’m concerned. Satisfied, we quickly ate some foodly food and went to sleep.

Crossing the river!

Crossing the river!

The next day, we were up early, as we had to find this mystical bus to Chengyang, our final destination on this leg of our South China Adventure. I refer to the bus as mystical, not because it’s driver is Greek God or a Wizard, no, it’s because finding buses in China is somewhat of an epic task, as they are constantly changing numbers and services. Crossing the river, following the much-lauded Ipad GPS, we found the bus stop up a hill and miraculously purchased tickets and got on the right bus in one fail swoop.

Forty-five minutes later through farmland, following the Linxi River, we had made it to Chengyang, in the Guangxi Province of Southern China.

Tourist map of the villages within the Chengyang "scenic" area. Scenic = pay.

Tourist map of the villages within the Chengyang “scenic” area. Scenic = pay.

Chengyang is a series of 8 villages of the Dong Minority that the Chinese government has made into somewhat of a tourist attraction. What this means is, along with sleeping accommodations, such as ours, the Dong Village Hotel (which was a lovely wooden structure), there is also an entry fee and hockers trying to sell you “local products”, which look oddly similar to items I could purchase in Beijing.

Traditional Dong celebration dress.

Traditional Dong celebration dress.

The local Dong Minority are friendly people. They have their own language, but from what I found, many of them understand basic Mandarin. They are known for the Wind and Rain Bridges and their polyphonic choir singing, which is a UNESCO recognized intangible cultural heritage. Their songs and stories are about nature and agricultural work, which are still very much part of the Dong peoples’ lives. Like elsewhere in China, they were curious about us as we walked through their towns, but seemingly were happy to have us there and were excited when they interacted with us, especially the kids. On a random side note, I also found out these people were traditionally involved in bullfighting! That is nuts and doesn’t fit with the image of this truly tranquil place.

People in the village just hanging out, cleaning veggies, laundry.

People in the village just hanging out, cleaning veggies, laundry.

We quickly dropped off our stuff at the hotel and went to explore. To gain perspective of where we were, we climbed up some random steps into the forest, past some tea terraces where we found an observation deck that looked out onto the whole valley. If we followed the river to the horizon, we could see the villages, nestled into the green trees and hilly landscape, with their easily identifiable dark wooden tiled roofs and their central cone shaped drum towers.

Our first view of our surroundings.

Our first view of our surroundings.

Not a lot of movement going on below, which in China, is an odd feeling, since even in the remotest of places, hustle and bustle seems to be a national credo that all adhere to.

Kids in villages are always so curious. My beard is quite a popular item to point out.

Kids in villages are always so curious. My beard is quite a popular item to point out.

No, Chengyang is a place for the somewhat slower paced. Though the bridges are UNESCO heritage attractions, it’s remoteness and lack of anything to do (completely subjective, as I found LOTS to do), make it still a safe haven for travelers wishing to just walk around and be with the locals. And that’s what there is to do.

Lifestock seemed free to just roam about. How do you know which one is yours?

Lifestock seemed free to just roam about. How do you know which one is yours?

Over the two days we spent there, we made our way from town to town and stopped and sat with people in the traditional drum towers, that act as a meeting point for each town for ceremonies, such as dancing, smoking tons of gross cigarettes, playing cards, washing the town TV (wonder who decides on the channel) and simply a hangout spot:

“Hey, where you at?”

“I’m at the drum tower”

“Ya? What you doing?”

“You know. Sitting around smoking, around a fire, with a bunch of other dudes.”

“Sounds like a blast! See you there!”

One of the many towers we saw.

One of the many towers we saw.

Though we couldn’t speak to the older generation that asked us to sit around a fire as they chimneyed smoke from their cracked mouths and blackened teeth, we shared a few international laughs at our situations and shook numerous outstretched hands, liked celebrities. The towers themselves look like wooden Christmas trees, with beautifully painted and decorated interiors.

Old people sitting around, staring at us.

Old people sitting around, staring at us.

The main attractions are no letdowns. The Wind and Rain Bridges are defiant marvels, spanning over the Linxi River. Since the turn of the 20th century when they were originally built, hey have survived the elements, without a single nail in their wooden structures. And they aren’t simply covered bridges. Like the drum towers, they are also focal points with many functions to them. They act as a thoroughfare for vendors, a safe haven from the rain and as a place of tranquil prayer at one of the many alcoved temples.

The Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge

The Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge

The meals we ate in town varied in quality and if you asked me, I couldn’t name you exactly where or what we ate. And that’s the joy of exploration, the spontaneity of trusting new situations and just putting whatever they have labeled food into your mouth. Though, the food in Chengyang isn’t ex-factor level. It is simple fair of veggies and meat. There are a few local specialties, such as rice wine and cooked pumpkin, which are both delicious and apart.

Pumpkin Fritters

Pumpkin Fritters

The towns themselves are fun little mazes to wander through. The buildings are two storied or on stilts (Ganlan houses), tightly compact, intersected by small cobbled passages. Life exists up and down, left and right, and of all variations and species. Where you’d expect a human head to poke out, a rooster stares down at you, head cocked sideways, listening. The sun is all but blocked out of these wooden crevices, and black figures make their way from one house to another, pausing for a curious moment to see us making out way towards the light.

A visual: Rooster staring down at you.

A visual: Rooster staring down at you.

Though the hotels rent bicycles, the immediate villages are easy enough to explore on two, semi-affluent of hiking all day, feet. I, myself, are always curious what’s beyond the tourist map (literally a map outlining the 8 walkable towns), so we did rent bicycles and cycled beyond the Chengyang area. What exists there are other Dong Villages that are also attempting to build up their tourist cred to attract new visitors to their towns. Though, it’s hard to say if this new infrastructure is a local endeavor or the government’s moneymaker.

View from our hotel.

View from our hotel.

It’s a place of deep reflection and nature. Sitting by the river and staring at the wooden villages, like stilted reminders of the past, I realized how utterly dense this country is and how diverse it’s makeup is. Many of these people were force fed nationality, of a country they couldn’t be farther from being apart of. And yet that underlying animosity that exists slowly flows downstream. What you’re left with is nature sounds, the window flipping through my book novel. Thank goodness I folded the page to remember my spot.

Peaking through the stilt houses.

Peaking through the stilt houses.

Some would say that once you saw one village, you’ve seen them all and there’s only one lousy museum with NO English. This is culture at its rawest, real people who have to get up and work the fields or they starve, wells in use, because there isn’t enough water, fires in pits used to heat the room. The museum isn’t MOMA, it’s what some MOMA artists use as inspiration or as reflection upon. It is a room filled with preservation, a rare feat in China, of usable items, of tradition, of belief. But above a basket or a drum tower, the people in these small pocket communities, have the twinkle of a deep routed, energetic spirit in their eyes and are well worth the several bus rides and train rides to get there. Did I mention they use to be in BULLFIGHTING? Ernest Hemingway approved! Travel details and gallery below!

Another shot of this beautiful area of the world.

Another shot of this beautiful area of the world.

TRAVEL DETAILS!:

GETTING THERE:

If you arriving from Guilin, you will arrive at the HeDong bus terminal. To get to He Xi bus station walk out of HeDong bus station, turn right and then turn right onto the bridge, when you come off the bridge, keep walking straight across the intersection and the bus station is a little way up the hill on the right.

The address for He Xi is: 三江河西客运站, located in 71 Xingyi St. Sanjiang.

If all else fails, the word Gong Gong Qi Che (Gong-gong-chee-ch’uh) means bus.

Simply saying Chengyang Gong Gong Qi Che should get someone’s attention.

At the end of saying that phrase, if you want to add a bit of flair to your random blurt, you can say “Zai Nar?” (Z-eye N-uhr), which means “where is”.

The word for ticket is “piao” (pee-ow! – like a laser sound).

The bus heading to Chengyang costs around 6 Y and takes around half an hour. From around 7:30am, it leaves when it is full, to around 5pm.

The bus coming back, meets right outside of the main entrance to the park. Make sure you flag it down. The last bus leaves around 5pm.

FEES:

The bus to Chengyang, was around 10 Y. The park entry fee is 60 Y. There didn’t seem to be a way of avoid this, though, if you can it’s not such a bad thing, since the money apparently isn’t going into the pockets of the locals.

ACCOMMODATION:

The Dong Village Hotel cost around 80 Y per night, but had spacious, wooden rooms, wireless, western toilets, BIG balconies, overlooking the Linxi river and the Wind and Rain Bridge. They also have bicycles for rent, which we used and were quite well maintained. There are also a few guesthouses in town that are both labeled and unlabeled. I am sure you could also stay with a local for a really, personal experience, exciting for both yourself and your host.

OTHER STUFF:

I did see some western food on the menu, but why…..would….you? Eat local and try something new. If you are not allergic to anything and don’t have any food inhibitions, point to something on the menu and get ready to eat a mystery meal.

If you are into trying to local foods, you can attempt to ask the waiter (foo-yan) if there are any local specialties:

“yo te se t’eye ma?

GALLERY:

Disneyland – China’s Interesting Tourist Industry

In the ricefields of Yuanyang, tourism means whole towns are reformatted to look older than they are.

Chengyang Villages – Famous for their Wind and Rain Bridges. Like many Chinese towns with some cultural wealth, this group of towns charges an entry fee, though reportedly, the fee does not go to the people, but rather the government. The area remains in constant renovation as the Chinese tourism machine moves in.

Tourism in China is a weird thing. The Olympics of 2008 in Beijing spotlighted this once stigmatized powerhouse in a new light and the influx of tourists, curious to discover it’s rich history and culture, came pouring in from all directions. And the Chinese government sort of understands the process to deal with this. People want to be able to access the sites, the flavors and people that Maoist China tried to subjugate, repress and ultimately uniform (They use none of those terms, nor did the Maoist government do ANYTHING like that).

I could possibly do a whole blog on mistranslated signs that I found. I think I will...

I could possibly do a whole blog on mistranslated signs that I found. I think I will…

Their solution to this semi-new venture, tourism, is what’s strange. Like a flawed translation on many English signs throughout China, there seems to be a bit of a miscommunication of what international tourists are interested in seeing and how what their interested in seeing is expected to be presented. That’s a vast generalization, but for myself, if fly half way around the world to see something, I want to see something that is at least somewhat authentic and real. That’s the difference between seeing it in person and via media. Attached to this authenticity is an indescribable feeling of achievement, a connection to something beyond one’s own world, and the thrill of experiencing, immersing and discovering something new for yourself. Yet China’s approach to their unique cultures, languages and especially places, is reconstituting, rebuilding, modifying rather than preservation. Many of the historical sites that survived the Red Guard are being remodeled to provide a Disneyland-like, rather than an emerging experience in history. The grit, the real businesses, even the buildings themselves, have been replaced by five star accommodations, vendors selling chachkies and pre-fab, historical facades. One of China’s famous UNESCO heritage sites, Lijiang, almost lost it’s heritage status for attempting to rebuild the ancient black tiled roofed town as a resort, after one of it’s many earthquakes. It’s everywhere. Look in your China guidebooks. 9 times out of 10, the historical building you are standing in has been rebuilt. From Qianmen Business District in Beijing (torn down and rebuilt exactly the same) to large sections of the Great Wall.

Around 20km away from Yangshuo, unlike the other famous stone bridge, Dragon Bridge, this 600 year old marvel remains unscathed by tourism and the fleets of river boats. The question is for how long?

Around 20km away from Yangshuo, unlike the other famous stone bridge, Dragon Bridge, this 600 year old marvel remains unscathed by tourism and the fleets of river boats. The question is for how long?

Though maybe this is a very North American stance on tourism. Maybe China is focused on local tourism, since for Chinese nationals, it’s very difficult to impossible to leave the country. On that subject, I simply have my observations of large buses, unloading their leader with their volumed up megaphones and umbrellas, followed by hoards all wearing the same hats, so they know who they should follow, blending into an earthen colored mass, filling up quaint, quiet and historical places with bursting commotion, noise and refuse. Pictures are snapped, mechanically, fingers are held in peace signs, or two hands come together to complete an unbelievable heart, occurring in no matter what venue, winding cobblestoned street or tranquil holy temple. I fear though that the “real” China that the international community strives to locate is fast becoming theme parks, parades or simply, like the hutongs of Beijing and Shanghai, being demolished for shinier, newer facilities, that cheaply emulate something that could have stood for a thousand more generations.

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