There are the obvious reasons why one travel blogs. To share travel adventures, through photos and words, trying to encapsulate an experience to the reading and viewing audience. To imbue in others the same excitement, curiosity and inspiration that the blogger felt whilst traveling. To pinpoint exact emotional exaltation.
This is also the general sentiment of why I travel blog as well. The intricacies of it are way more personal. Solo travel for me only started at 24, with a trip to Brno, Czech Republic with a theatre show that ended up, with a very unexpected job in Prague and then a 4-month expedition, tracing my family’s heritage through Eastern Europe. I had never a train before and was thrilled with sticking my head out of the window, letting the wind make my eyes squint, a tornado of my brown hair, like a dog in a car ride. That same trip, I was introduced to couchsurfing. Travel took on an entirely new meaning, where it wasn’t simply placards and buildings and other travelers, it was local people, personal accounts, trans-ocean humour, Ipod music exchanges, one or two dance sessions, a game of golf in Dijon, foraging for dinner in Groningen. All I had read about travel came from books and those books laid out the foundational blueprints of how to travel. Yet there had to be something else, something more expansive and less focused on the MUST SEES and the MUST EATS.
So blogs. First big websites like Trip Advisor (which I still use as a base for exploration), then more obscure travel sites like Atlas Obscura (which, if you haven’t checked out, is the best source for Off the Beaten Path travel oddities), to the worldwide blogosphere of adventurers, trippers, dream followers and spontaneity experts. I was hooked to their words, as many of them weren’t simply telling me what they saw, but how they felt, how places impacted them or didn’t. Blogging is personal creative writing, an individual’s take on the world through their eyes, through their pens, through their keyboards. It can be laced with superlatives, poetics, judgment, digressions, failure, no words at all, all visual. I blog, even if only a few read it, to show them my version of cities and towns, of nature and of bike trips. They are my visceral accounts of the world. They are my endorsement of decorative language, trying to squeeze out the true emotion I felt in a singular moment, possibly written days after. I cannot prescribe nor would I ever want to, a reaction to what I write or how it effects where people decide to go. I hope that the few who do read it, have an opinion or an idea that sprouts from it. I hope, as that’s all one can do with putting writing into the public’s glance, that it pushes people to either travel or challenge themselves, ask questions, look unto other blogs to continue planning or imagining a more complete global sphere.
I frequently embellish memories. I cannot remember exacts, so I shameless fill in the blanks. I blog because I love to write. I love to reimagine what I have seen, to reinvigorate the recollections with verbose imaculations and neologisms (such as imaculations). Though, recent travel, via bicycle gives me the space to write as I travel. I stop where I want and if I feel the urge, I jot down the day, in summation or elongation. I write in a blue tent, where one of the poles is partially snapped due to a crow landing on it, by the waning sun, drifting behind the red mountains just outside of Santa Monica. That is an actual memory. The things that I lock into my brain vault are sometimes obscure fragments. Sometimes, due to my prior habits during travels (drinking copious amounts at night), memories are literally slits of narrow light with broken and blurred images. I write as form of self-preservation, because one of my greatest fears is loosing it all to time. Not necessarily as a legacy of what I have accomplished, but more as something for myself to look back on and simply account for what I have done. Not as somewhat of a CV for pomposity, but more as a timeline that I existed.
While my travels include people and places, I also consciously set quests for myself. I blog to uncover gems, maybe not ones that were necessarily covered by layers of sediment, just ones’ that maybe overlooked, underappreciated, the map to get to them has been used as scratch paper or made into papier-mâché for a birthday piñata (what I am saying is that no one cares where this place is). Blogs and websites are full of hints and my duty with these hints is to test them out and confirm their validity. This description seems quite vague without an example. The city of Xian, China, was the ancient capital for hundreds of years. Tourists flock here to cycle the ancient walls and see the UNESCO approved Terracotta Warriors. What very few people know about, is that at the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, a ways out of city, another burial plot was opened to revealed, miniature terracotta figurines, along with terracotta livestock and chariots. In total, over 50,000 pieces are on display. Along with this amazing experience, is a very beautifully set up underground museum, with large vaulted glass walls revealing the digs, but beside and below you, you are free to trapes around the tomb area, see several of the tomb gates, and watch an AMAZING hologram film about the history of the site (no 3d glasses required). This place is completely under the radar and when I got there, I basically had free range of the place (think Night at the Museum, minus the reanimation of historical items). There were a handful of different directions as to how to get to this place, since it was in an odd location of the highway, leading north of the city. Armed with a few of these Internet found directions, plus the Chinese characters to this place, I ventured out to confirm this place’s existence. Luck had it that the #4, the first bus I got on and was on my list, was confirmed by the bus driver to be the correct bus. For me, that could happen is I end up going somewhere else and possibly exploring something unexpected. So it’s a win win for me.
I blog to interact with people. Blogs are a dialogue, a community of shared experiences and responses, where the responses may come in the form of words or in exploration of what the blogs’ describe. I hope that as this site builds that this dialogue fills the forums and itinerary of the new site (which will be up THIS MONTH) with evolving dialogues and information that result in people testing the waters, unburdening themselves with limits by asking questions and seeing the blog reflect your inquiries, with maybe not always answers, but further explorations, adding points to the map that I will travel to confirm experiences and places or discover errors, saving you the hassle of a fruitless expedition to nowhere. My blogs and my travels will mirror your dreams, aspirations, desires, or highlight your wonderful memories, follow your deep incites, possibly making travel a more tangible possibility instead of something you do on free weekends or something you’ll do when your decrepitly old.
I blog, because it makes me feel wonderful. It’s me facing my fears as well. I travel around the world, yet I am scared of publishing my writing. I believe it is good, that it is informative and well written, but am afraid of it being said to be otherwise. This is my version of being bold and it holds more importance that what many would be considered a blip, not part of any creative career. But blips are my greatest assets. Microcosms are my favorite worlds. I am worried about not getting anywhere; I am worried about denouncing things in favor of acceptance.
“It not a Great Wall. It’s an alright wall. It’s the Alright Wall of China.”
-Karl Pilkton, An Idiot Abroad.
After reading information about The Great Wall in his Lonely Planet China Guide and realizing many of the tourist sections of the wall were rebuilt in the 1980s, to include such ancient devices of revelry such as massive, German engineered slides, hawkers selling you skull caps with a single braid of black hair coming out of the back of them and pits filled with suicidal brown bears, Karl was left unimpressed by what some would consider one of the greatest feats of human skill and endurance of all time. Like Mr. Pilkington, I was very wary to see “The Wall”, as I was not interesting in see Great Wall 2.0. Not even 2.0. Mavericks upgrade. Shitty, cheap and simply a money grab.
The GREAT thing about the GREAT Wall is it is humongous. One, I shouldn’t be so judgement, so….yes…one…fine…gentleman attempted to walk the entire length of the wall. For starters, there isn’t just ONE wall. Regardless, He failed. Like not, you were SOOO close. No. He failed miserably. It goes over ice mountain ranges. Like, your ability to walk isn’t how it is in Skyrim in real life, sir. Its Lord of the Ring’s helicopter shot BIG. Back to the Greatness of this, the Chinese government simply doesn’t have enough resources nor care to “tourify” every inch of it and tourists aren’t going to be bothered to trek into the middle of no where to stare at a wall. Or so they think. I wanted to see The Great Wall. Or more so, the Real Great Wall, not the Fake Wall. Luckily there are enough people on the internets that feel the same way.
For all your up-to-date Wall needs, check out: http://www.greatwallforum.com/
Huanghuachang, the Great Wall that goes into a river, due to damming was the planned destination. Buses were researched and on a rainy weekend morning I headed out on a somewhat empty bus from Dongzhimen Central Station. Our excitement was a sweet as sugar, but the rain would not melt it. So maybe it was as sweet as honey as I think precipitation has no effect of that sticky substance. Through the outskirt hills of Beijing, in Huirou city. A few stops. Nothing unusual. Faces come on and off. Sits empty and fill. A pair of eyes meet mine.
“You going to Great Wall”
“Oh. It’s closed.”
Pause. From my research I knew that this was an unregulated part of the Wall. This means no ticket booth or official check in procedures. This SHOULD mean no opening or closing time. I was confused and in my confusion, we got off the bus and loaded into his vehicle. It was like so trance. Like trusting the white panel van full of candy.
“Where are we going?”
“To the Great Wall”
“What? I thought it was closed”
“Mutianyu is open”
Mutianyu was one of the horribly touristic sections of The Wall I had wished to never encounter. We had been duped. The man, who was wearing an official bus staff uniform, removed it. He was a Black Taxi Driver and we were at him whim, along with another white couple that sat in the car with us as well. I counted my wad o’ money. I knew that Huanghuacheng was no longer an option anymore, but I was damned if I was going to pay a zillion dollars to go pay a zillion more dollars to hang out with a zillion tourists on a 5 year old’s macaroni art project, deemed The Great Wall. We came to a “reasonable” deal. Exiting the black cab, we were suddenly drenched from above and from all angles, by rain and dripping hawkers. Pretty sure I don’t need a 4 foot statue of Mao made of the finest plastics. No, thank you, that’s awful kind of you, I just don’t think I am in the mood to buy a pet bird or cat or dog or ?. Though we did need an umbrella. Again, hard bargained, including using the line, I live in Beijing, I know how much this should cost, don’t fuck with me (yeah, I totally have no idea how to say that last line, but imagine that reaction). The adult umbrella was ridiculously priced, so we bought two kid ones. It was like walking on a tight rope, balancing the circumference of the small umbrella perfectly above our heads. Through hawkers row, lined with booths, flashing blinding lights into your retina, like maybe if you were blind you wouldn’t be able to see the piles of shit, drinks, t-shirts, shit and more shit being sold. But, to be honest, they are people just trying to scrape by, so I get it. I feel for them, but on a day where the clouds had opened both physically and metaphorically, I had very little patience to gab. Purchased expensive tickets with a glib smile plastered to my face plastered in wet hair. Climbed numerous stairs up and up and up. AND Viola! On the Wall. Or were we?
The fog, which was as thick as being surrounded by a legion of Santa beards, made it difficult to tell exactly where you were. It felt as if we were on a road in the clouds. The rain was actually a blessing in disguise, as it cleaned the wall of most of the tourists and hawkers. Yet, with map in hand, I had alternative plans. I was heading to the greyed out area at the edge of the map. I was going to see the REAL wall. And no, you can’t go beyond this point sign or cement blockade was going to stop me. Up an over the blockade and finally, we were face to face with antiquity. The fog felt more appropriate here, as if it became part of the myth of the wall, something that existed on a scroll in waves of black ink. We stood atop a crumbling tower, one of the many guard towers that appear along the wall. We followed The Wall for a bit. Old growth vegetation fought its way up through the crumbling structure. At points it was hard to tell where The Wall was and if we were just aimlessly meandering, lost in a sea of evergreens. But then a small rock, a patch of rubble would lead us onwards. We walked for 40 minutes until the underbrush, became the overbrush and we had to turned back, in fears of being engulfed. This part, getting to touch the real stone of this magnificent work, the same stones that the builders had assembled hundreds of years ago at the orders of their Emperor, was the pay off. Done with the Real Wall, the rest of the Wall was simply the elaborate pathway back to the bus stop. But wait! The story doesn’t end there!
I had to go to the washroom. Not being completely savvy in ways of the public washroom at tourist sites in China, I thought there’d be toilet paper. There was definitely not. My favorite game ensued. Check your pockets and see what will work. Several receipts and the umbrella cover. FINALLY, I found an alternative use for those things. Velvety soft.
Famished from the walk and not interesting in indulging in the extremely out of place Great Wall Subway or Baskin’ Robbins, we tried the local inn. The food was meh, but it filled the gap. Unfortunately, the slow service led to us missing our bus. No problem, we’ll just cab somewhere and bus from there. Black carred it to a bus stop. A bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Like NOWHERE. Wait. Wait. Wait…..RAIN. NIGHT. Finally. Bus…..bus comes and takes us into Huirou, where we catch a connecting bus back to Beijing.
The Great Wall is an interesting place to visit and can make a wonderful great day trip from Beijing. Just realize what you are getting into, what you want out of the experience and research alternatives. I ended up making it to Huanghuacheng and it was more of the experience that I wanted. Again, if you want to see an easily accessible, no hassle part of the wall, Mutianyu, may fit the bill. One note: Bring some information about The Wall with you, as it will truly enrich the experience.
More photos and info BELOW! If you enjoy this blog SUBSCRIBE and CHECK OUT the YOUTUBE CHANNEL. A busy summer for EACH MILE!
Quick Dos and Do Nots of the Great Wall of China:
DO your research. There are many sections of the Great Wall to see. Make sure you find a section that fits what you want to get out of the wall.
DO NOT listen to people telling you alternative information than watch you researched, especially shifty guys on the bus. They might be simply black taxis trying to get you to pay exorbitant fares to go with them. The bus will get you there.
DO Bring supplies. Food, water, rain coats, toilet paper. It’s for sale there, but at three times the price. PLUS, I don’t think toilet paper is for sale out there. It’s just a good idea to bring it with you everywhere.
DO NOT listen to the DON’T WALK HERE signs. They are simply trying to prevent you from walking on the part of the Wall they haven’t charged people to walk on. It has nothing to do with Wall preservation. Do you see anywhere else “preservation” happening?
DO bring info about the Wall. It’s a magnificent marvel, but context makes each part of it that much more awe ridden.
DO NOT expect that you will be alone on the tourist parts of the Wall. It will be you and 85 billion people trying to get a picture of the pristine Wall, without dude picking his nose not in the shot.
DIRECTIONS and INFO
The Great Wall – Mutianyu (慕田峪)
Cost: 45 Yuan
The fastest way is to take bus 916快 (express) or 916, which run from Dongzhimen to Huairou Bus Station first, get off at the terminus (or Qingchun Road North End or Huairou North Street), Walk to the bus stop on the diagonal corner of the intersection and take bus H23, H24 or 936 (Huairou to Dongtai) and get off at Mutianyuhuandao. Again, these buses’ numbers change frequently. Best to show the symbols of Mutianyu to the bus driver.
In, Vancouver, having millions of dollars gives you access to the easy life and many people make that quite visibly apparent. From the fantastical, to the ridiculous, it’s not to hard to sound like the narrator from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in our not so humble city. Yet with such an influx of millionaires, the castles, the ridiculous cars, the restaurants with “homecooked” meals costing more than your home (or whatever hovel you can rent), none of it really surprises anyone. The gentrification of Vancouver replaces shelters and iconic structures with vegan donut shops and while it all seems distasteful, sadly, we are use to it.
In Beijing this gentrification process is happening as well. The old “hutong” living quarters are being replaced by malls and apartment blocks, but with the such limited space and possibly also the language barrier of not knowing exactly the purpose of the new buildings, the replacement facades don’t seem to delve into financially engrossing statements. Yet once you leave it’s epicenter, get out into the outlying districts, Beijing doesn’t seem as Beijing-y anymore. There is space, vast amounts of unused land, fields, even rivers (though the water in them looks like a liquefied rainbow). People with money head out into these vast expanses, that boarder along some of the poorest areas in the city and recreate worlds they have seen in advertisements and on the television. Since travelling to and from China yields a wealth of it’s own problems, this is the next best option.
Two and half hours of cycling north from my little hutong in the centre of the Dongsi District, which is 15 minutes on foot from the Forbidden City, I was first struck by image of trees. Not planted trees, but trees that were growing on their own accord, wild, uncontained, unplanned. Passed the last subway stop, the wide road heading towards the northern mountains is covered in dirt and garbage falling off and out of trucks, and buses and commuters who come from hours and hours a way to go to work in the hub. The financial pressure of city life allows for nothing better. People live in packed rooms of 10 or 12, in dorms, many miles from their places of work, just to say “I am a Beijinger”. Then again, I can’t say that their lives would be any better back in whatever province they came from.
Yet I wasn’t riding out this way to investigate this phenomena, but actually the polar opposite situation that Beijingers live, lavish and drape themselves in. Messing around on Google Earth, the night prior, I clicked on a picture from the north of Beijing that revealed a beautiful French chateau. What? That couldn’t be right. This was a rouse that would have been ending up in the middle of nowhere with nothing to show, having me grasp for photo ops of cool vegetation to justify my journey to myself and others. Searching “French chateau Beijing” in google peaked even more interest. The house, according the Chinese news, which made it a tad more reliable than google, said that this house did, indeed, exist. And here I was, standing in front of a replica of 1651 French Chateau. Specifically a replica of 1651 French Chateau, called Château de Maisons-Laffitte, located in the unknown, quaint village of PARIS, FRANCE. The replica, built on land that use to be occupied by wheat fields, is actually a luxury hotel and conference centre built by Mr. Zhang for a whopping 50 million. That’s dollars, not yuan (that would be like 5 followed by 75 billion zeros yuan). The landscape, the baroque architecture, the moat surrounding the house, even the staff wearing French period clothing, attempts to and succeeds to mimic it’s source material. Zhang originally wanted to shoot for the Palace of Versailles, but said it was “too big”. Mr. Zhang, I think we’ll let that one slide. No, what you have done here, complete with helicopter landing pad, wine museum, spa and French named restaurants, seems like the logical choice compared to that. The opulence is immeasurable, though I find it laughable, that with such a wealthy history of extravagance, rather than focus on exoticism, a proud Chinese business owner wouldn’t draw upon the his own history filled with massive palaces, temples and gardens. It seems to be a thing in China to idolize the outside world, that rich is better when it’s foreign rich. That’s whooole other post.
Now, I have seen in Beijing a reconstructed medieval Austrian town, which I will post pictures of once I have found them. Yet, once you get up and close to it, you can see the amateurness of it all. The uninspired murals, the lack of attention to detail. This copy, on the other hand, is a work of art on it’s own. Yes, ridiculous, absurd, out of place, but it’s there, so all one can do is admire it, walk through it’s vast dining rooms, ornate sitting rooms, ball rooms, rooms you have no idea what their function is, but possibly they are functionaless rooms just to remind you that when you have lots of money you don’t have to have a purpose, you can simply be.
After a exploring the grounds, the fountains and purchasing a 4 dollar water! (water in the city costs for the same product like 20 cents at most), I left this place, feeling I had discovered something not many people who live in Beijing know exists. Well now you do, so you have no excuse not to try and see this remarkable anomaly.
Of course, there is a sad side to this project. The land that use to be wheat fields fed up to 800 now landless peasants, before being occupied by this singular property. It’s depressing to think that a golf course, use to be fertile ground that provided life sustaining food for many people. Mr. Zhang DOES give the people, as a collective a $45 a month stipend and offers to hire them to maintain the land for $2 a day… Check below for directions and more info!
INFORMATION: Name of Place: Beijing Zhang Laffitte Chateau (定泗路) Directions: Get on Metro Line 5, heading north to Tiantongyuan North. Get off at Tiantongyuan North, exit on the East side, Exit A. Cross passed all the vendors, across the small street that is jammed with taxis, walk north a bit until you hit an intersection that is coming out of the parking lot. Make a right and cross over the main street. Walk north for a bit along the sketchy big road (named Litang Rd or S213). You will come to a bus stop, which should have a bus called 860路. Show the bus driver the name of the Chateau, which should help him tell you when to get off. If not, you can also show him the stop which is八仙庄南大街. Don’t be shy to ASK, even if you don’t know basic Mandarin, people are quite willing to help if you are persistent and simply show them things they can read, as opposed to trying to explain yourself with wild hand gestures and your mom’s dance moves (also awkward looking in front of a packed bus full of locals, trust me, it’s been done). If you have any other questions, tips, ideas, please email or comment on this post. Plus, if you want a moving visual of China and other adventures of have partaken in, check out my youtube page. PS – Really? 6 subscribers? Are cats knocking shit off tables THAT much more entertaining. If they are…. Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL59E469A3DF414464 Twitter:
Episode 6 – Into the Swing of Things – Part 1 -Cuandixia
For the video check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOq2LDegb1Q&index=11&list=PL59E469A3DF414464
Some of my foreign friends hated Beijing. They hated the smog. They hated the crowded streets. The noise. The Chinese-ness of it all. To be fair, many of them had never been outside of their own countries before. They were mostly young, teaching kids who only understood half of what they said and were use to a life filled with peanut butter and cheese and alcohol that wasn’t Baijou. Yet for them, Beijing was perfect, for as a metropolitan, they could engage on all of these luxuries. They didn’t ever have to go beyond their comfort zones, eat food they didn’t know, see anything besides the inside of chi-chi bars, malls and Mcdonalds.
My girlfriend and I, on the other hand, had come to Beijing to experience Beijing. To meet the people as best as we could, to eat as much delicious food as we could shove into our hamster cheeks and to explore, explore, explore!
Part of that exploration was food. Not just going to restaurants, but Rachel is an excellent chef and to have all these new products at your fingertips, it would be a shame not to get creative, try local recipes, and use new products to create new spinoffs. The wet markets were a blast to visit, loud, chaotic, unrefrigerated meats, hand-pulled noodles, life fish, frogs sold out of garbage bags, you name it, we saw it, we bought it, we ate it. That became a weekly event in our household. Going to the local market, seeing familiar faces, trying new veggies or fish, buying a new treat from the bakery upstairs, fitting in as best as we could.
Part of that fitting in was going beyond, seeing the MUST SEES and partaking in leisure activities. That includes visiting places beyond central Beijing. Weekend trips, being able to escape Beijing for a couple days to investigate it’s outskirts, it’s green, quieter, cleaner, mountainous surroundings, where life is still lived at a slow pace, possibly an echo of a Beijing long ago, was a way of contextualizing Beijing and it’s people. One of those places was the Ming era village of Cuandixia.
Public transit in China is like Russian Roulette. Nerve racking, ridiculous, yet in this instance, the cause of death will be being lost somewhere in the mountains or missing essential organs. Eeny Meeny Mino Mo. The bus numbers constantly change, have infrequent hours, don’t go to where they say they are going to go and sometimes, stop for inordinate amount of time, as the drive smokes ten packs of cigarettes, has a swig of some that is definitely not water and inhale food equivalent to 2 meals and a half.
Yet the process to get to Cuandixia was quite seamless. One switch and a few hours and we (myself, Rachel and our friend, the wonderful, quite Mandarin fluent, Cian) were there, Cuandixia.
Though it is granted a quick blurb in Lonely Planet, no one I knew (surprise) had been there or knew it even existed. And really, without any basis for considering the pros and cons of coming, left us delightfully surprised and in unexpected awe (though I am in awe of Velcro shoes, so it’s not that much of a stretch). Like many ancient place in China, the government has caught on to the conceit that people are interested in visiting them. So before you enter the town, there is an authentic, ancient tollbooth, with ancient tollbooth guards, appropriately dressed, charging you an entry fee, for which you receive ancient relics (tickets). You can see that the town has received some reconstructive surgery, some botox injections, that may have one questioning the authenticity of some of the structures, some of the quite quaint activities that were going on, in the open, as if for demonstration and entertainment purposes. And yet, beyond the signage, the hotels, whether it was a ruse or not, I did feel as if a slower pace of life had been maintained undisturbed here.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644CE) era village has a wealth of sites and activities to see. In a backyard we saw a guy making doors from scratch and in another yard we saw a guy, smile plastered on his face, messing around with bees with just his bare hands. There are numerous temples here, including the Temple of the Goddess of Fertility and Temple of Dragon King Subduing Demons (basically temples for all important occasions), restaurants to indulge in local cuisines like edible plants, mushrooms and wild rabbit (all very simple, but tasty) and old Maoist graffiti to see (basically the Chinese Banksy…kidding…they usually say stuff like “Mao is dope” or “follow Mao, YOLO!”), as well as a lot of old ancient structures to climb, peak into, smell, taste and attempt to move (well covers are heavy). There are even local knickknacks you can pick up, like scary cat stuffies and honey from the dude who was asking to get stung (wackjob!).
For a worthwhile panoramic view of the town within the lush green trees and mountainous surroundings, I recommend you walk up the path on the otherside of the road from the main village, passed the Temple of the Fertility Goddess (love me some fertility), and climb as high as you can up the stairs. Tons of photo ops, meditation points, plus moments where you feel like you are in a real life Skyrim, climbing up rock face to get the ultimate view, forgetting exactly what the hell you are suppose to be doing in this mission. From above, you can see into the ancient courtyards, see the lovely veggie gardens, the ancient grey slat roofs, and the picturesque retaining wall that surrounds the village, as well as people walking around performing their daily chores. Looks straight out of Chinese Lord of the Rings mixed with the Chinese version of the opening scene from Beauty and the Beast (NIHAO, NIHAO).
After exploring the town for several hours and eating, we looked at the map and noticed there was another town up the road a little bit named Baiyu. Rather than staying put for the night, we decided to head up to this other town, thinking possibly it was beyond the tourist machine. From a smattering of reading that exist on the internets about Baiyu, one can conclude that no one visits this place or only pass by, recording as many details they can from a fast moving vehicle.
The day was hot and the sun reflecting of the road was cooking us. Smoking some not so great hasheesh made our slow jaunt towards heat stroke a little more hilarious than it should be. But Cian and I had other plans besides simply getting to Baiyu. As we walked through the valley, rocky cliffs on either side, lush green peaking over their ledges, branches, swaying the breezes, catching and releasing the twinkling light of the sun, we noticed the numerous caves that pocked the side of the incline on either side. They beckoned us like Amsterdam window prostitutes.
“Rachel, wait here, we’ll be right back!”
Rachel looked doubtful. The last time I said that I had left her in a Chinese cemetery alone and got lost in 800 meters of nettle bushes, only to return to her after 45 minutes, scraped, bleeding and guilty as charged of abandonment.
Cian and I saw our cave and scrambled up some “stairs” towards it. The footing was far from stable and sunstroke didn’t help us keep our balance. But finally, we made it, into the mouth of a cave. Headbanging session and photos? Of course!
Getting down from the cave was a bit trickier. I went first, which was a terrible idea and involved me dodging falling rocks from that were being loosened by Cian’s decent. The final bit, involved surfing on a large rockslide, almost being partially covered by it. But what a way to go, right? Rockslides would be great without the “rock” part. I love slides! So misleading they are!
Anyways, after an hour more of slow meandering, we made it to Baiyu. The ancient town with it’s old courtyard grey stone houses, its wandering chickens, dogs and cows, its villagers who looked aghast to see us wandering down the main street, was the real deal. There were small signs of infrastructure, a sign here, a new pavilion there, but nothing complete. The houses themselves were dilapidated, unaltered and ultimately looked as if they had been lived in for 600 years, which undoubtedly, some of them may have been.
We explored the main streets, the alleys, looking over walls, trapsing into open courtyards, waving at villagers, who simply returned our flapping hands with wide-eyed stares and concerned expressions. The village, not surprisingly was made up of mostly the old and young. Presumably, the adults had to find work elsewhere. We stumbled upon a building plastered red posters and caligraphied writing. Entering the partially ajar door, we noticed it was the town hall of a bygone era, complete with 60-year-old sound system, pictures of Mao, Stalin, Marx and Engels on the wall. Free condoms were sitting in an ancient rack in the front. The condoms, like the rack, were ancient, but it was tempting to see, like milk, how far past the expiry date would they still be good. Kidding. Horrible joke. Cian is a proud father and regrets nothing (another joke).
It was getting dark and thanks to Cian, we found a place to stay, inside of a local family’s courtyard home. For dinner we had wild hare and beer as the owner of the establishment, chainsmoking, watching Chinese game shows and smiling and simultaneously watched the crazy foreigners approvingly eat his wife’s food. Though it was hot out, we slept on a traditional “kang” bed, which in the winter, can have a fire lit under it to heat it. The next morning, tea, eggs, blechy millet soup and no plans. We asked the proprietor of the establishment if there was anything worth exploring around here. He handed us a brochure with pictures of The Great Wall. We laughed thinking he thought we meant in the Beijing area in general. He turned to Cian and rattled off some Mandarin. Cian explained that there was a section of the wall an hour and a bit by foot around here that no one knew about really and was discovered by shepherds who used to area to graze their goats in. We hadn’t the time to see it, but made an oath that we would return to find it.
Walking back to Cuandixia and visiting some small pools hidden in deep crevices along the road, I realized that’s what exploration is about, going to the edge of the tourist “map” and then going beyond, simply walking off the grid and realizing the world isn’t flat and you will not fall off. Many pleasant “wow” moments are out there to discover and share.
For directions to Cuandixia and more information, scroll to the bottom of the page!
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Again, the video of the trip and more China, cycling, travel videos are at:
DIRECTIONS and INFORMATION
Cost: 35 RMB
Recommended Time: Meh…I hate saying, TAKE ONE HOUR or it’s GOOD FOR FOUR HOURS. There are temples to see, food to eat, activities to see, walking to do, relaxing to partake it. An easy overnight or weekend could be made of exploring.
Bring: Toilet paper is a MUST, water, sunglasses, hiking appropriate shoes.
DIRECTIONS: Metro out to the end of line 1, to the Pingguoyuan station. Take bus 892 to Zhaitang (斋堂镇) (6 RMB with subway card or 16 RMB without). From Zhaitang, taxi to Cuandixia (10 RMB per person). Buses are infrequent, but the last bus from Zhaitang to Beijing is 5pm (supposedly…).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
Do and Do Not List seem to be popular these days, as reading has become somewhat of a lost art. Kidding. There are just not enough hours in the day to read elaborated written paragraphs, so I thought I’d try at least one point form list of travel via velo:
DO – updated your passport. If it looks like mine aka waterlogged, an over-read novel, a coffee coaster, you may have issues at the border of certain countries and they may try to deny you access. Not to name any names, Croatia.
DO NOT – Pet the wild life. This isn’t a zoo and certain animals that seem cute and cuddly, are most definitely not. Specifically DOGS. To you it may look as if some kind owner trusted his best friend to run around off the leash with a bunch of his pals. No. These are wild dogs. They want to eat you. Don’t let them eat you by using cutesy voices and trying to lure them to you with food. They will eat the food and then you are desert.
DO – Talk to people. Anyone and everyone is worth getting to know, whether briefly or over a pint. If language fails, beer never does. Humans, in general, communicate beyond language barriers with hand gestures, charades and laughter. It doesn’t matter if you can’t ask him or her about the adverse effects of the rise of neo-facism in his or her country. I shared a wonderful moment in Romania drinking with some Serbian priests and laughing at who knows what. You can have that much fun too, if you just keep open, listen and respond a lot. The worse thing that could happen is that don’t respond or chase you with a weapon of some sort. The second option, from my experience, doesn’t happen to much, unless that weapon is ice cream.
DO NOT – Be culturally insensitive. World War One monuments are not jungle gyms and religious icons aren’t photo ops for getting your cleavage pic with Jesus. Some people will tend to ignore you, even though inside their head they are running at you with a pick axe. Some may actually run at you with a pick axe. Not only does cultural sensitivity rely on your common sense, but it also begs you to learn a thing or two about the place you are visiting, so that you don’t blurt out something that is rude, disrespectful or in some cases, could have you trying to learn the phrase “not guilty” in a foreign language.
DO – Learn the traffic rules and regulations. They aren’t the same all over the world. In some places, bicycles rule the roads, yet in others cyclists live parelous lives in a world of no signs, lights or lanes. Only bike in areas that fit your comfort zone. Exiting that point blank may add unwanted stress, panic attacks and a silly mistake that could prove not good at all. I am not saying to challenge your comfort level, because that is a very important thing if you want to get anywhere besides your back alley, but always have an experienced cyclist with you, to spot you, talk to you, and lead you in the ways of pedal wisdom.
DO NOT – Click click click photos like it is part of some part of automatic, necessary response system. People always look so desperate to capture moments and will do pretty much anything they can to get that right shot. There are a few problems with this. The first, being, that while you may have captured the image of a moment, and even color corrected later to the proper exposure and tone, a camera has no functional quality in capturing the feeling of a moment. Since you are taking the picture, you also reduce your chances of just being in the moment, taking in the smells, feeling the gentle breeze at the top of the Eiffel tower, really admiring a piece of art, nature or architecture. You then can only remember the moments in between the pictures and nothing beyond the pint size image your glued to in your view finder. And to be honest, the awful truth to some who think they are taking the most unique photograph the living earth has ever witnessed, will be distraught to realize that millions of pictures have been taken, from every angle you can think of, of all historic monuments, natural phenomena and other tourist interest points that you visit. I recommend being selective of what you shoot, because later, when you are sifting through your 8 billion photos, thanks to the digital age of mass proportions of knowledge, the images will quickly stream by with little care to what they were and are. Take photos of things that spark your interest, details, funny people, human moments, friends doing things, meals, a non-tourist destination. Those are the moments that you can use photos to jog memories, but again, they can never replace them.
DO – Explore. Seems simple, but most people are drawn to the big signs that say “YOU MUST SEE THIS THING BEFORE YOU DIE” and then tend to ignore everything else. For me, I think it is important and interesting the see and understand a place beyond what the tourist bureaus tell you to go to. Go inside buildings that look fascinating, find out from locals cool neighborhoods, follow odd signs that catch your fancy, go beyond the map of the city centre, with all it’s advertisements for rip off restaurants and silly guided tours (not all silly, but sometimes they are substitutes for a lazy type of 5 star tourism that does not appeal to me).
DO – Couch surf. I won’t get into the grand scheme of couch surfing philosophy, but to get an in depth, personal and cultural experience that is unique to the individual perspective of the person you are staying with, this is the best way to go. This is the only way to be part of the local scene, go to the best local haunts, try the best local cuisine, see a slice of everyday life among thousand year old church spires and plazas. Maybe play golf in Lyons? Irish dancing in the Czech Republic? Who knows!.
DO NOT – Wear bike gear or purchase bike “stuff”, that you aren’t comfortable wearing or using. Okay, tools may be excluded from this, but clothing and pedal type and panier placement, that is all a personal choice. If you are going for 16 hours a day and you hate the sound of rain pants to the point that the swishing sound gives you a headache, chances are you should not wear them. The travel portion should be as just as much fun and stress free as the places you visit.
BE SPONTANEOUS! EAT NEW FOODS! MAKE FRIENDS! TALK TALK TALK! HAVE FUN! LAUGH UNTIL YOU ACHE!