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:
Being able to connect with the locals, allows for one to access a ground level view of a city from through the eyes of the resident populace. While blogs can uncover the hard to reach places, the obscure museums, they gloss over mundanities and other unassuming treasures, that may be kept secrets only locals are privy to. Not that they are necessarily hiding them, like a Smegal-ish character and a ring, they just never had due cause to tell anyone of them and never considered them as anything out of the ordinary or worth mentioning. One of these places is Black Dragon Pond, located in Miyun County, some 93KM northeast of Beijing.
The reason I found out about this place is that we were going there on a work outing with the company I was with. In fact, even as we headed there, trying to a get the name of the place and it’s location were a difficult task, as no one on our bus seemed to know where we were going and if they did, they weren’t able to translate it into discernable English. The ride on a rented bus, went through some beautiful countryside, mountainous, lush green covered cliffs overhead and even a glimpse at small, crumbling watch towers, curiously peaking out over the foliage like fearful, but interested rodents, their black window eyes, part of the Jiangjun Pass of the Great Wall. The ride was accompanied by a barrage of Chinese singing, laughter, charades, mocking of the three foreign teachers who understood nothing and were attempting to sleep off hang overs, which was near in possible by the vocal screeching, the over zealous chants and the electronic screech of an unnecessary amplification device.
Finally, the suddenly subduing of the amplified yammering and sing-song indicated that we had arrived. The group waddled off the bus. First stop was the barely distinguishable rest room. We cued in a line for the single revolting stall, with mixed emotions. The two foreign male teachers sought elsewhere to relieve themselves, knowing of the terror that waited them in that bog of horrors. When the foreign teachers had finished, we scampered over (trying to find creative movement terms) to an unmarked white building, and upon entering it, realized we were in some sort of information center for the Miyun area, complete with a Houston Control like archaic observance display.
After everyone had completed their one, twos or a combination of both, we entered the Heilongtan area through an ominous structure that served as a ticket booth. The Natural scenic area comprises of a 4km hike, through a cavern, along what appears to be a manmade river. This isn’t a rural hike through nature. There are well-maintained stairs, benches and trash bins as well as the occasionally overpriced food and chachkas kiosk for all your necessary and unnecessary needs. You can also rent boats to survey the small droplets of water by boat. Oh, also, none of the drops of water are connected, so the boat rides are constrained to the area of a children’s pool to pouring out the contents of bottle water into a bread tin. Surprisingly, there were English signs, that are ultimately comedic components to their Mandarin counterparts. What one can draw from this, is that no matter how vast China is and how little the components that make it up are, China’s pride and drive to dominant and control, make naming even the most bereaved of interest things, an important undertaking. The names of each tiny pond and cave echoes this concern, with names like The Miren Caves, the Suspending Pond and what it titled “the masterpiece”, the underwhelming “Black Dragon Pond”. Oh, but don’t miss the “Dripping Pool”, the mysterious “Reed Pool” and the where the fuck is it? “Hedgehog Stone”. All worth to read the signs and stare down upon these stagnant beauties.
After several steps, many of my coworkers, who never take more than several steps, were exhausted. But with a lot of encouragement and several taunts, most of them were rallied to make it to the top. On the top, we admired the pools from above from the viewing platform, had a snack, one of 85 snack breaks we had that day and headed down the same stairs, greeting other coworkers who were sill trying to make it to the top. Dejected, many of those who were ascending, started to descend with the rest of the group. Lucky no one had to be fireman carried. I was prepared to do so. Never the bottom, a red foam pad bridge, attached by ropes, had several of us attempting to cross it, without flipping the pads and sending yourself into the drink. It tempted several of us, including my boss and myself, to attempt, fail and fail some more, soaking our prides and clothing, in water that smelled of the sweat of the elderly. After leaving Heilongtan, we drove for ten minutes for a 100-course lunch and beer. After consuming ten times my weight, we went to a pool, where we were allowed to boat, play ping pong (which I actually was able to hold my own against others, which surprised myself), as well as go in this big inflatable ball that floats on the water, which you run in to make it spin. It’s hysterical, when several people are in it and are completely out of sync, flipping each other laughing at their incompatibility. Several drop kicks to the face it’s not as fun. Yet even more amazing than this wondrous tool of revelry was that some of my coworkers opted out participating in this part of the day because the hike had tired them out and they needed to sleep in the bus. Wow. Wheelchair ‘em now, Dan-O.
Directions are below, as well as an additional gallery. If you liked this please follow, like and share as well as follow me on twitter @pedaleachmile. Follow my adventures on here and at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL59E469A3DF414464.
DIRECTION AND COST:
ADMISSION: 35 RMB
I have to say, I have not personally gone here by public transit, so what I am pulling off the internet is a conference of several sources.
- Take bus 980 or 980 (express) at Outside Dongzhimen Station, and then get off in Miyun Drum Tower Station. Walk southwest about 656 feet (200 meters) to Miyun Theatre Station. Then take buses Mi-60, Mi-61, Mi-62, Mi-63, Mi-65, Mi-66, Mi-67, Mi-68, and get off at Black Dragon Pool Station. A
Again, before getting on a bus, show them the symbols for Black Dragon Pond, just to verify as buses change frequently.
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!
Follow me on twitter @pedaleachmile
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…).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?