Sunday, December 16, 2018

China: In Search of the Past: Part 4: The Four Olds, From Coastal Hunan to Mountainous Yunnan

Eternal Audrey at Changsha Airport newsstand
After many detours, it's back to China. We've been heading north from the Vietnam border of Guangxi Province to Hunan Provincestill in the south yet far from the rural, traditional countryside we've been traversing. It's a shock arriving at the huge railway station of capital Changsha. Hunan is the birthplace of Mao Zedong, who has been resurrected as a figure of reverence by the current leadership. His home village is a place of pilgrimage. We did not visit.

At Changsha's Mayishun 89 hotel, a beautifully restored mansion, I get my first glimpse of how precious are pieces of the past in a land where 20C history was erased. For the rest of our travels, I'll see the value placed on historic artifacts, mostly destroyed during Mao's Cultural Revolution against the Four OldsOld Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. This loss is still felt today.

As my book is partly set in 1940s China, I'm "scouting" locations. Perhaps this will be the secret police chief's sitting room. And bath.

My daughter calls breakfast a social construct. Why not greet the day with spicy noodle soup with eggsand a side of watermelon?

Outside the courtyard gate, Changsha's summer humidity makes it difficult to move. We're not sorry to board our cross-country flight to the mountains of fabled Dali, Yunnan Province. This southwest region borders Thailand, Laos, and Burma, creating a mix of bloodlines with several indigenous peoples. From the days of warlords and warring kingdoms... Dali's old city walls.

The Old Town walls and temple at night.

Avoiding China's pervasive over-development, Dali has followed a wiser path. As a result the natural beauty and traditional culture are a big tourist draw. Especially for the majority Han Chinese, who are drawn to its village-like charm, clean airand again, sense of a lost past. Everyone hits Old Town's rousing night market.

The Cangshan mountains provide a stunning backdrop for the old market street. 

Dali's traditional style is reflected in these views from our homey yet refined Old Town guesthouse, Yunxi Boutique Inn. It's a fine place to chill after our busy travelespecially its peaceful terrace.

Yun Xi Boutique Inn
The next day, taking a bus up the mountain to Lijiang, we have another view of the old city walls.

Reaching Lijiang two hours later, I'm seething at the tragedy of tourism run amok. Even so, this old tribal village is insanely lovely.

Lijiang is a World Heritage site, which "deserves protection for the benefit of all humanity." Seeing this tourist Disneyland, I doubt the cynical development is what UNESCO envisioned.

Yet Lijiang's natural charm can not be denied, every angle massively photogenic.

Conflicted by the pull of past and present, we take the bus back to Dali for more Night Market fun.

Next stop: Kunming, Yunnan

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

China: In Search of the Past: Part 3: Guilin/Yangzhou

We leave Nanning's pristine train station and after a spectacular two hours of Guangxi Province scenery reach Guilin. Guilin is revered in China for its winding Li River and sculptural limestone mountainsan eternally popular subject for Chinese poets.

However, coming from Guangxi's deep-deep south, I know these staggeringly beautiful mountains exist throughout the region and down to Vietnam. As far as branding, though, Guilin got here first.

Whereas we stayed at a slick new resort in Nanning, here we have chosen the elegant yet homey Zen Tea House along the river. 

Just in time we arrive to see boaters practicing for the Dragon Boat Festival, a major Chinese holiday.

A lively hotel guide, Alice, takes us on a walking tour of the city, including its traditional covered market and trendy exterior mall. There are parks and universities, and the quality of life is one of the best in China. Many people are leaving the big, congested cities and choosing more tranquil yet cosmopolitan towns like Guilin.

The next morning we leave with hotel guide Jackie for a day in the country. He is eager for us to experience the real China. We begin with "Husband Hill," which bridal couples climb before their wedding for photos, hugely important here. It's a very steep "hill" and I imagine hiking it in an elaborate gown or tuxedo. 

But such a backdrop for the memory book!

At the top, thoughtful Jackie prepares a traditional tea service.

By noon we're glad we going down, rather than up in the heat of the day. We drive further in the countryside to Yangshuo, a serene farming area with smartly managed tourism. We rent bikes and ride through rice paddiesit's early July, planting season. Magical!

Lunch is in an old brick village at the edge of some fields. Across the lane is the restaurant kitchen and home, a mix of worlds.

The beer was named for Bill Clinton, when he visited the area.

Now we're off on a bamboo boat ride down the Yulong River.

  The waters are placid and gentle as we push off.

But things soon turn choppy as we rush down the rapids. 

Before long, the river quiets, returning us to a state of timeless peace.

Too soon we reach shore, but a lovely shore it is.

 With a traditional water wheel.

The perfect site for more wedding photos.

Next stop: Dali

Sunday, August 26, 2018

China: In Search of the Past: Part 2: Nanning and Vietnam border

Detian Waterfalls
From Hong Kong, it's a short flight to Nanning, capital of Guangxi Province in China's deep south. During the French colonial era in Indochina, their railway connected Vietnam with Nanning and Kunming, which we'll visit later. When I ask about visiting the old part of townthe hotel clerk gives me only a blank look. This is my first indication, but by no means the last, of how much of the Chinese past has been erased.

Modern Nanning is a vast construction site of towers, bamboo scaffolding, bulldozers, cranesand empty towers. From our brand-new Wanda Resort we glimpse more high-rises across the river.

Behind us are streets of upscale facadesalso developed by the Wanda Corporationcompletely empty. All this might be a sign of great optimism, or of severely over-extended banks. The boom has enriched manyapartment flipping is commonand provided many jobs. It has also destroyed much of China's heritage and gutted the environment. However, the general prosperity is breathtaking. We discover, next door to our hotel, the fabulous Wanda Mall.

June-July is the rainy season in southern China. If it's not raining, it's humid and cloudy. Under turbulent skies, we board the bus early the next morning for Detian Waterfalls, known in Vietnam as Ban Gioc, located on the border between the two nations. Our journey will take at least six hours. Each way.

Shortly after we leave Nanning, the gasps begin... the Guangxi landscape is like no other. I am jet-lagged and dazed, which makes for an even more dream-like experience.

To call it lush is an understatement. Every bit of land carpeted with dense fields. Sudden upthrusts of jagged velvet-green stone rising into lowering clouds, heavy with moisture.

Soon the road begins rising into these mountains.

The scenes are timelesswater buffalo plowing the rice fields, terraced hills dotted with white stone tombstones. Generations stretching to antiquity.

After a time, a muddy river appears, and I have the sense of wildness. How easy would it be for jungle to overtake these fields. How hard these people must work to hold their own against the power of nature.

Five hours into our journey, we approach a prosperous regional capital. Streets filled with shops and shiny foreign cars. 

In the Daxin County bus terminal at the end of town, a passenger who lives here tells us we must change vehicles. He waves us off. "Hope you enjoy China!"

In the smaller bus, we wind our way uphill through wilder, more rugged terrain, the Guichun River gathering force. 

And now we arrive. A short muddy path takes us to our first sight of the thundering cascadethe world's fourth largest transnational waterfall.

We push on through 100% humidity, rain, and river spray. It's been a rainy season, the river expanding over its banks.

Moving through pure jungle, soaked...

we reach the boundary marker between China and Vietnam.

Heading back, I turn time and again, awed by this extravagant display of nature's magnificence and power.

I imagine the French colonial official who once lived here in splendid isolation.

Drained and drenched, we board our small bus to the large bus terminal at the end of town, setting off in late afternoon.

I see new sights, smaller moments in an ancient land where nature still reigns supreme.

After dark, a heavy rain begins to fall. During a fuel stop, I glimpse the village night life. 

Across the road, a woman cleaning her restaurant...

Two doors down, the action continues.

And inside the bus, a raucous video draws laughter and keeps the driver awake. Fourteen hours after leaving Nanning, we return to our hoteland our welcome beds. Tomorrow we must rise early to catch the train.

Next stop: North to Guilin