Thursday, July 29, 2010

Floating on the Li River.

When my alarm went off early in the morning, a storm was raging outside and I went back to sleep, thinking in a haze what a shame it was that my original plans wouldn't work out that day. The plan was to see the two villages of Xingping and Yangdi on foot by hiking the 25 kilometers between them, following the Li River.

A few hours later it was no longer raining, and I started out anyway despite the ominous clouds. However, upon arrival at the starting point of Yangdi, I learned to my dismay that the hiking trail towards Xingping had been closed due to flooding. After a good deal of haggling, I decided to take a bamboo raft and float downstream to my destination instead.

This alternative was a good one. Having spent the last few days simmering in the humidity under a searing sun, it felt to me like the entire earth had cooled with the rain, and that the mountains had grown more lush, more green, now shrouded in white fog.

The peaks were giant men with their heads in the clouds, and I put-putted my way down the river, peering up at them towering over me, my jaw agape.

A few hours later, we reached Xingping. Not quite done soaking in the view yet, I walked through the villages surrounding Xingping for a few more hours.

Lush groves of bamboo.

Later that night, back in Yangshuo for dinner, I revisited the same Sichuan restaurant where I ate the previous night. The owners had clucked over me the night before like two old mothers, sat and talked with me, and had let me order two half-dishes for the price of one, extra spicy, pickled vegetables free. They had made me bitter melon stuffed with minced pork, the sauce loaded with enough Sichuan peppercorns to numb a person’s mouth for days. And now, hungrily, I was back for more.

This time, they invited me to dine with their kitchen staff. With the owners and the cooks, I had a small feast of fried river fish, spicy pig lung in garlic sauce, and raw cucumbers doused with vinegar and chili oil. My favorite dish was the button mushrooms stuffed with minced pork, each piece bite-sized and fiery. It was a memorable meal.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Climbing karst peaks.

On my second day in Yangshuo, I headed out to the limestone towers surrounding the town to sample what is reputed to be some of the best rock-climbing in Asia. The area has some 250 routes and growing, which is not surprising given the sheer vertical faces on all the hundreds of karst peaks. My guide and I joined a handful of other climbers at the peak they call the Wine Bottle.

I started with a 5.7, and then did a 5.8, 5.9, and two-thirds of a 5.10b, in that order.

My performance was less than graceful. I hadn't climbed outdoors since my newbie days in Australia, and despite improving my overall form, indoor climbing has thoroughly spoiled me when it comes to looking for holds. I spent an inordinate amount of time at Wine Bottle fumbling around, which made me more tired more quickly.

Oh! Fingers! Jelly!

My guide leading the next route.

I lost steam by the 5.9 and the 5.10b was a struggle. It wasn't so much that the holds were difficult, but the moves were physically demanding. There were many spots where I had to just use brute force, which I'm not so good at and try to avoid - not to mention it made me unbelievably sore the next day.

Cursing life on the 10b. I just couldn’t get over that first big ledge. In my defense, my guide took a nap on the ledge before finishing up the route.

Still, despite (nay, because of) these difficulties, I'm already looking for opportunities to go back. Even as I was shamefully hanging on the rope and getting frustrated, the countryside panorama from fifty feet up made even the most impossible overhangs absolutely worth it.

Yaks near the foot of the wall.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Yangshuo arrival.

Sleeper buses are a bad idea. Tired of taking trains everywhere, I decided to try out this new method of transportation, and at first glance it seemed alright. There were a dozen bunks inside the bus, a clean carpet, TVs (alright, they didn't work), and thick comfy blankets. But once the bus got going, I found that it was impossible to sleep with all the bumping around. I could swear we were going over gravel for the entire ten hours.

What's more, I arrived at my destination at 4 a.m., hours before sunrise. I found my way to the main street of town, which was so eerily quiet that I gave up trying to find a place to stay and sat in a 24-hour McDonald's until daylight (yes, they're everywhere). When the sun came up, I checked into a small hostel on the pedestrianized, tourist-stricken West Street, paying 25 yuan ($3) for a bright and clean dorm room shared with a young Swedish couple.

Bamboo House, my first hostel experience in China.

I spent the rest of the day getting to know the area. Yangshuo is famous among the Chinese for its uniquely shaped mountain formations that thrust their vertical peaks up around the Li River. The main part of Yangshuo is home to a fast-developing tourism industry, but the surrounding countryside is still largely unblemished and beautiful this time of year.

I rented a bike from my hostel for 20 yuan ($2.50) and for the next several hours, rode westward out into rice fields, then looped back towards the town where I then continued riding south along the river.

Later in the day, I went to a restaurant right on West Street with my Swedish roommates, an older French couple, and a young guide from my hostel. We made sure to order pi jiu yu, or beer fish: a whole fish from the river stewed with local beer and the usual garlic, ginger, and scallions.

The foreign women in the group were promptly embroiled in a rousing drinking game with a large group of drunk-and-getting-drunker Chinese outside. Hilarity ensued.

West Street is catered to every taste and whim of a foreign visitor. Cafes, gelato shops, oodles of souvenir stalls, bars, cooking classes, pseudo-Western food, and annoyingly, a disco right underneath my hostel. At night, everything lights up.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Guangzhou with friends.

My journey from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was a stressful one.

I have a friend in Guangzhou who lives more than an hour away from the city center. The plan was to get on a bus to the downtown, and then make several additional bus connections from there. The problem was, right before the bus got into Guangzhou, it started storming severely. By the time I arrived, half of downtown was flooded. I had to walk in the torrential downpour with my huge pack looking for a way to get on the bus connections, which involved wading through knee-deep water, only to realize that no bus was stopping to pick up passengers because of the flooding.

So there I was with nowhere to go, no way to get to my friend, no hotel to stay in, and un-navigable streets, with all my luggage in tow. It was probably the most alone I've ever felt in my life.

Then as I was standing on the street, a stranger approached me and asked me if I need a hotel room, and realizing that I really had no other option, I reluctantly agreed. A subway and rickshaw ride later, we arrived at this dreary place, where the receptionist guy hit on me, my room had no windows, and every time I wanted to get in my room, I had to ask the receptionist to open it for me because I didn't get my own key. The fact that everything I owned was wet and I couldn't make any outgoing phone calls didn't help my mentality. I pushed my dresser against the door and went to sleep in a nervous state.

It was a lesson learned the hard way: never go to an unfamiliar place without knowing exactly where you're staying and how to get there, and for the love of god, invest in a waterproof pack cover.

The day after, things looked way up when I left that hotel in a hurry and finally met my Polish friend Janusz. He and I met in India, and after having said goodbye there with only a meager hope of meeting again, I was very excited to see him again so soon. We spent a lot of time reminiscing about the past year - the parties and the people and all the sensations of living abroad.

Guangzhou is an industrial city, and by definition, drab. There isn't much here except a marginally pretty river front and some great food. Janusz introduced me to some of his Chinese friends living just outside the city on an enormous college campus of - get this - 300,000 students! Ten schools joined onto one campus, with all the amenities and provisions any student would ever need - shopping, food markets, a small lake, bars. Not surprisingly, these young people rarely step foot into Guangzhou proper.

New friends and Janusz on the right.

For two nights, I slept in a female dorm, which was an experience in itself. Four people in a cramped room on wooden beds lofted above desks, no air conditioner in the heat of summer, no laundry facilities, and ravenous mosquitoes. Looking out from their balcony at the rows upon rows of adjacent dorm buildings made me think about how much privacy is a western concept and space is such a rare luxury.

After a few days with hospitable Janusz and friends mostly around the campus, I said goodbye again and boarded a sleeper bus for the riverside town of Yangshuo.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hong Kong: Lantau Island.

While Hong Kong proper lies on the hub of Hong Kong Island, the city spreads out over a series of islands and territories, including Kowloon and the New Territories to the north, Lantau Island to the west, and hundreds of smaller outlying islands.

On my second day in the city, Matt and I took the train to Lantau Island, which is suitably removed from the urban rush. Once there, we got on a cable car with panoramic views of the ocean and skyscrapers rising from land. As we neared Lantau Peak, the highest point on the island, however, a thick fog obscured our view entirely, and threatened to thwart our plan to see the crowning attraction of the island: the 35-meter-tall Tian Tan Buddha statue.

As expected, there was not much to see up top, even after climbing the long steps to the statue to get in front of the fog.

Much more interesting, however, was the Tai O fishing village, located on the western edge of the island. We started out perusing the markets, which had all kinds of intriguing goods from the ocean, from tiny dried shrimp to hanging salted squid and medicines made from fish parts.

We spent the next few hours walking along the waterfront through the village, passing houses on stilts, multi-colored boats, fish hung up to dry, and tiny housing complexes made of what looked like tin and framed with aging wood. Picturesque, to say the least.

To top off our day, we had a huge dinner at a seafood restaurant in the village: greens in a broth with dried seafood, scallops with celery, and shrimp with cashews - tender, not at all overcooked, and obviously straight from the sea. To have food from the ocean every day like this would be a dream indeed.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hong Kong: a sample.

My China trip started off with seven days in Hong Kong with my friend Matt who is there working at a university. Though the city’s name mainly conjures up images of sparkling high-rises and hoppin’ night life, we spent most of our time away from those things, concentrating instead on getting a more multi-faceted picture of the sprawling metropolis.

Hong Kong has got it all figured out – it is the ultimate example of smart city-planning. The metro system is so fast and efficiently laid-out that it makes me embarrassed we’re still riding those old rickety trains in Chicago. Utter genius is the ‘Octopus’ card, which you load with cash and can use for virtually all small purchases, including the metro, buses, corner stores, bakeries. I never had to fish for change. The city itself is so well-organized and navigation so intuitive that I seldom needed a map to get around. There are maps drawn everywhere, and signs every few feet on the streets pointing toward landmarks. Cities of the world, take notes!

One interesting thing about Hong Kong is that it’s about 70 percent jungle and mountain. One of the first things I did when I arrived was take the ultra-touristy tram up to Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island. The way up was so steep that the tram was nearly vertical – a hair-rising ride indeed. The view was expansive on top, though a bit hazy. I hiked all the way down from the peak on a path that took me past enormous gated mansions on the mountain, through some jungle, then down an 800-meter-long escalator (the longest outdoor one in the world) right into the urban center of the city.

As always, I ate very well – easy to do accomplish in a city with more restaurants per square meter than I’ve ever seen. Fresh seafood for cheap(-ish), street snacks of meat-on-a-stick, international cuisine, noodle shops, cake shops. Even the food at Matt’s university canteen was good, such as fried fish with carrots and a sweet brown sauce.

Below, sautéed chicken in black bean sauce at one of the city’s countless Sichuan restaurants. Below that, roasted pigeon, far more flavorful than even duck, and clams in a curry sauce - washed down with Guinness Foreign Extra, deliciously toasty and sweet, but unfortunately unavailable in the States.

Other sights: The Hong Kong Museum of Art. Four floors of Chinese antiquities, classical art, and contemporary. While I was there, an exhibition by the artist Wu Guan Zhong took up a whole floor, and I was instantly taken by his merging of Chinese classical styles with spots of color and abstraction. Genius use of negative space as well. Sadly, Wu passed away just a few weeks ago.

Matt and I also managed to make it to a weekly horse race at the Happy Valley racecourse. I think, however, that my first race outing will also be my last. Thirty minutes of waiting around a horde of a well-heeled, pretentious crowd, for twenty seconds of racing – not worth it.

Most sights in Hong Kong are located southwards, but I spent one afternoon exploring some spots in the northern New Territories region. A highlight was the Tai Po fish market, a gigantic complex of fish vendors selling all kinds of sea creatures in every color.

If there’s one thing I didn’t like about Hong Kong, it was how almost robotic and uniform everybody seemed. It’s a hypermaterialistic culture, where ever-higher purchasing power is everyone’s goal and high-end retail stores are packed before noon on a Tuesday. Young people dress exactly the same. The same neo-nerd glasses, the same haircuts, the same sneakers, the same bohemian-esque fashion. As far as I could tell, the city lacks any substantial independent music or art scene. New musicians play Canto-pop and people go to museums to look at art. These are reasons why I would find it hard to call Hong Kong home, but for a week, I had a pretty good time.

Next: a trip to Hong Kong's Lantau Island.