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10.9.12

Concluding China

We left shanghai and made our way out west to Xian. We boarded our "hard sleeper" bed train at about 2:50pm, and it was just that. A small bunk attached to the side of a wall three bunks high. Once we put our bags away we walked the length of the train just seeing what was around. We tried our luck sneaking into first class cabins. Our first attempt was quickly thwarted when a conductor came by and told us to leave. We played dumb for as long as we could. Then she started yelling. So we left, walked around for 5 minutes and just went into another cabin. This quiet respite lasted a little longer, buy it too was ended abruptly. We had fallen asleep in this room and were awoken by a man who thought it was absolutely hysterical that we were in there. But it was his cabin do we went back to our coach seats. As karma would have it, back at my bed, there was a man pretending to be asleep in my bunk. I say pretending because when I walked up he opened his eyes and then when I looked over at him he closed them quickly because he knew he wasn't supposed to be there. In the end, he gets moved along and we all settle down. Lights go out around 10pm. It was difficult to sleep, but after tuning out the snoring, laughing, crying, and cigarette smoke that permeated every corner of the train it wasn't so bad. The train arrived in Xian at around 11:30am. A solid 21 hours after we boarded.



Xian was nothing like we expected. It is a much bigger city than any of us had imagined. And maybe it is just the density of the population, but it seems way more crowded here than in Beijing and Shanghai. Outside the station, among the masses of people we were getting heckled by locals trying to sell us stuff or take us to our hostel in their respective cabs or buses. Before we left Shanghai we arranged for the hostel to pick us up. But hadn't heard back from them so we were ready to hop on a bus. Thankfully, from out of the crowd, there are two Chinese people holding a sign that says, "Matt Wetherington." A sight for sore eyes. So we get to our hostel and relax a bit. It was too late to do any of the major stuff so we decide to walk around the famous Muslim quarter which turned out to be awesome. Tons and tons of local street vendors, little side streets that stretched on for what seemed like miles, each and every one of them just as crowded as the last. As we were strolling down one side street we see a fight almost break out between a middle aged women on a motor bike, and a younger looking women, maybe late 20's. It was a hilarious exchange because the younger girls boyfriend got involved and somehow the tables turned and the young girl started hitting the boyfriend in between spurts of yelling at the other women. We were confused as to what happened being that we didn't understand anything they were saying, but enjoyed the culture lesson nonetheless. We also saw vendors dumping large amounts of waste and oil into the sewers which could explain the water problem here.

The next day we were part of a tour to see the Terra Cotta Warriors (picture 4). It was a rainy and miserable day, but the tour pressed on. Despite being constantly wet, the tour was really cool. We made new friends and our tour guide "lady Jyajya" (seriously) was entertaining enough to keep us all on our toes. The terra cotta warriors were quite a sight to see. A lot of them were smashed to pieces and in the process of being restored. There were three areas where they were found and each one had different conditions of the warriors. The best, most famous one was the first pit. It is the one you normally see on the post cards. Being that the place is still an active archeological site there were areas that were off limits for the tours. But that didn't take away from the sheer magnitude of the warriors themselves. Each warrior had a different face, said to resemble the face of the person who made the actual warrior. After suffering through the huge crowds we were led to a nice restaurant with some great food. Then bussed back to the hostel.

The next day we made our way south west to Chengdu, in the heart of the Sichuan province. Upon arrival we indulged in the famous Sichuan hot pot for dinner and paid dearly for it later in the evening. But no doubt it was delicious. The next couple of days were spent seeing the sights in the surrounding area. We took a trip down to a small city named Leshan to see the biggest stone Buddha in the world. It is 230feet tall and carved into the side of a cliff (pictures 5&6). We got there very early an didn't bother with any of the side sights because the line was already very long. As usual we fought the crowds all the way to the viewing area. Thankfully, we got there when we did because by the time we left the line made 6 flags look like bush league. We hurried from there to catch a bus to a another small city named Emei Shan. This place is famous for a big mountain with a monastery at the top. Most people spend two days hiking all the way up, but we were pressed for time and did only a half day walk to the middle section before making our way down. The area was beautiful and at some points on the trail there was no one else around, so we just sat and listened to the silence. The first time being able to do so in quite a while since we've spent so much time in the cities. Alas, it was short lived and we made our way back down so that we didn't miss the last bus. Once at the bottom, we had to take another bus and as we were walking to the stop we come across the cutest little puppy. We play with it a bit then on impulse decide to take it with us. At first it was more of a joke, and as we walked away with it we were waiting for someone to stop us. But no one did. When we get to the bus stop we spend about 20 minutes weighing the pros and cons of having a dog with us on the trip. It was a very serious discussion and it pained us to decide against it, so we took him back where we found him. We carry on an catch the bus then a train back to Chengdu.

The next day we were up early to go to the famous Panda Research Center. Which is exactly as it sounds. We got to see Giant Pandas munching on their bamboo breakfast then retreat to the comfort of their trees for a nap (pictures 3, 7, 8). We saw baby pandas only a few months old, as well as red pandas, which look more like a cross between a fox and a raccoon. We left the tour early because we had a bus to catch that afternoon. Around 1pm we catch the sleeper bus that takes us to Lijiang. Possibly the longest 20 hours of our lives. The beds were about 5 ft long by 1 foot wide. It was crowded with Chinese people smoking, talking loudly, and invading personal space. Not to mention the roads we drove over were in poor condition. So even if we wanted to sleep, it was virtually impossible to do so without being abruptly woken upper having your head smash into the window. These things might have been manageable had it not been for the fact that the bathroom in board was just a hole in the ground and every now and then the unmistakable smell of feces permeated the air. At one point a lady in front of me took out a plastic bag and peed into it, and shamelessly held it until the next stop.

After 20 hours we finally arrive in Lijiang and vow to never take an overnight bus again. Lijiang is a small city. Our hostel was located in an area called "ancient city." Ancient city seemed to be just that. It is basically a labyrinth of cobble stone pedestrian streets with numerous little back alleys to get lost down. We check into our hostel called Mama Naxi and are pleased when we get a three bed private room when we booked and paid for a 7 person dorm room. That night, Mama, the owner/hostel's namesake, cooked a traditional Chinese meal for the guests. Of course everything was delicious and the ten of us crowded around a small table all ate our fill. Once we were done they kept bringing things out and urging us to eat more. But we had given up. Our second day we had to split up. We were all going to the same place, Tiger Leaping Gorge, but the Jeff and Ariel were doing a two day hike and I was doing the one day hike so I could leave a day early to meet a friend about two day train ride away. So we split and I get on a bus to the gorge. It took about 3 hours by van to get there and every bit of that drive was worth it. The scenery along the way was unreal. Mountains in the distance, red dirt, and the Yangtze River. I was the only one doing a one day hike and basically had my own driver. The road along the gorge was shoddy at best. There had been landslides and falling rocks, very recently, that made some portions of the road one lane only and at one point, entirely impassable. My driver drove precariously close to the edge which wasn't the most comforting. At the impassable part, I had to get out, walk across the debris of fallen rocks and dirt, right on the edge of the cliff to the other side and get into another van that would take me to the start point to hike down into the gorge. (Picture 1).

The hike down took about forty minutes of traversing steep slopes, slippery rocks, and at one point a 150 foot ladder down the side of a cliff (picture 9). Enough to make even the most sure footed climber a bit uneasy. Once at the bottom, in the middle of the gorge, it was awe inspiring just to look around and see towering cliffs above, snow capped mountains right behind, waterfalls gushing into the river, and the raging river itself had to be at least a category four (but I'm no expert). It was humbling being in that place. I spent a solid 45 minutes in complete solitude just watching the water break on the rocks around me. When I was interrupted by some Chinese folks. They wanted me to take a picture for them, to which I obliged. They didn't stop there, they wanted a picture of me, and then with me. On all four of their cameras. I was flattered. After this exchange I made my way back up. It was this activity that made me realize how out of shape I was. I made frequent stops all the way to the top. So it took me about and hour to get back to the drop off point. When I got back, drenched in sweat, I tried to let my shirt dry before the bus took me back to Lijiang, this time with a little more company in the form of people who did the two day hike the day before. Back at the hostel, I gathered my things and took a cab to the train station to catch the 8:56pm train to Kunming where I would transfer to Guilin. The latter portion took 24 hours. Most of which I tried to sleep, but my body refused more rest. So it was just a lot of reading and quiet inner reflection.

Once in Guilin, I met up with Jacek, a dear friend from our days at Seaside Hostel. We spent the day catching up and hanging around the city. The following morning Ariel and Jeff arrived and we all go to the famous Reed Flute Cave. The cave itself was quite impressive but it was filled with cheesy colorful lights all around so that took away from the enormity of the cave. (Picture 2).

Later in the day, Ariel, Jeff, and Jacek all got on a train bound for Hong Kong. Unfortunately, due to some visa restrictions I was unable to go. But I spent the next day on a bus blind for Hanoi. True to form, there were complications at the border. I arrived at the China-Vietnam border around 6pm on the 22nd. However, upon trying to cross I was staunchly rejected because my visa did not start for another 6 hours. So I was forced to ride an employees bus back to a small city and catch a train that would enter Vietnam when my visa was valid and not a second before.

This concludes the China portion of the trip. Next up Vietnam.

Fun fact: in the one month we were in China, we spent over 100 hours on a bus or train. Most of them through the night.

Until Next Time,

Tunas

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