It's been a week since I arrived in China with my friend Shepherd. It's an amazing country, and backpacking through it has been quite the experience so far.
I'm currently sipping on green tea while sitting at a cafe in Lijiang, an incredible city in the beautiful Yunnan province. Above the computer reads a sign, "intel net Y5/hour", which translates to Internet, 65 cents/hour. There's very little English to be found here (even Blogger is entirely in Chinese with no "English" link to be found), and the attempted translations on both homemade and official signs continue to give me a little chuckle. With Shepherd's help, my Mandarin has been improving exponentially.
We started off in Hong Kong, by way of Tokyo. Hong Kong was as I had seen on TV and in movies and had read about. The best way I can think to describe the city is bustling up close and beautiful from afar. We hiked through the city all the way from the water up to as close to the peak as one can get on foot. The mid-levels of the city have a one-way escalator (I had seen once on the Travel Channel), which changes direction based on the time of day. Of course, we were going up during rush hour when most are going down, so we instead climbed hundreds if not thousands of stairs. It was an amazing trek, with lots to see (and take pictures of!) along the way.
We then took the ferry over to Kowloon, and had lunch with an amazing view of Hong Kong island's skyscrapers disappearing into the clouds above, with its green mountains in the background. We did some shopping, and at night ventured out into the quite Westernized Lan Kwai Fun district which was one big party of ex-pats and foreign tourists.
After two nights in Hong Kong, we took a train into mainland China, passing Shenzhen and arriving in Guangzhou, Shepherd's home city. The train was my first opportunity to see "real China", and I was incredibly surprised by the scale of just about everything and the level to which the country is developed. One must keep in mind that china is massive, with something like 1.2 billion people. Everything here is done on a massive scale. While apartment buildings in the US have perhaps tens or hundreds of units, buildings here have thousands, often with up to half a dozen matching towers. While washing machines have arrived, dryers largely have not, and it's interesting to see people hanging clothes to dry off the 30+ floors (and to see this on every floor of the buildings). Thiefs in China also apparently climb buildings, so even units on such high floors sometimes have bars covering the windows!
Guangzhou was certainly one of the highlights of my trip thus far, primarily because we spent 3 nights living with Shepherd's family. When asked, I said I did not have any dietary restrictions and wanted to eat whatever they ate, and all the food I got to try was absolutely amazing. Shepherd's Mom made some fantastically tasty dinners, and we had by far the best Dimsum for breakfast that I have had to date. Guangzhou is in Canton where Cantonese is spoken over Mandarin, and unlike Hong Kong, it's rare to encounter people who speak much English (outside of perhaps the business/academic circles). So, I learned a few important words in Cantonese (along the lines of "Thank you", and "Yep!"), dropped a few words in Mandarin here and there, and otherwise let Shepherd and his family do the talking for me.
The size of Guangzhou was like nothing I have ever seen before in a city (and I'm from Los Angeles). One can drive hours in any direction and continue to be surrounded by huge towers. The polution is problematic, but once we escaped from the city to visit some beautiful gardens, the air quality improved drastically. Two things I began to notice while in Guangzhou were 1) how apparent China's emerging middle class is and 2) how great of an effort the government (at multiple levels) is putting in to improving the quality of life -- from city infrastructure to the environment. I had heard about the former, but the latter especially surprised me (and would continue to be apparent, especially with respect to the environment, as we traveled to Lijiang). Guangzhou has a beautiful, relatively new subway system, highly developed infrastructure (water, power, phone, mobile, internet), taxis are full at rush hour, teens chat on their cell phones while shopping at the malls which have AMC-like movie theaters inside, etc. China's middle class is supposedly numbered at roughly 300 million people -- the size of the entire United States.
In any event, after spending three nights with Shepherd's family, and meeting some of his friends from back home, we headed to the airport to catch a flight to Lijiang, by way of Yunnan's capital city of Kunming. Like everything else in Guangzhou, its airport was massive. To board our China Southern flight, we had to hop on a shuttle bus at the gate, which we assumed would take us out to a stairway at the plane (despite very modern jetways). Surprisingly, it took us all the way to another wing of the massive airport where we re-entered and boarded through a jetway. The wing seemed connected, so nobody was sure exactly what was up with the shuttle bus. :)
When we touched down in Lijiang, we hopped on a very nice bus that played Chinese pop music videos (with lyrics for Kareoke -- or "Kuh-lee-oh-kuh" in Mandarin) and took us into the city, where we took a short cab and met our hostel/guest house host, who, like everyone else in Lijiang, has been incredibly friendly and helpful. We picked out a nice room with wooden walls, 2 beds, and a private bathroom, which is costing us about $10 (US)/night, or $5 each. Did I mention everything here is insanely inexpensive? Things like bottled water, ice cream, and coke cost about 25-50 cents. Today, we had very tasty and filling Sezchuan pork noodle soup bowls (homemade noodles) for lunch that together cost us less than $1.50. And they're building very beautiful new homes in the newer areas of Lijiang which sell for about $50,000 -- a very tempting proposition (apparently, other foreigners -- Chinese and not -- are indeed buying).
The old city of Lijiang has certainly been another highlight of the trip. It is incredibly peaceful, with beautiful traditional Chinese architecture dating back many hundreds of years. Even new buildings are built with the same style of architecture, which I hope will help preserve at least some of the feeling as it continues to transform into quite the tourist destination. Interestingly, most of the tourism to Lijiang is now Chinese (again, signs of emerging middle class market?), whereas 10-20 years ago it was almost entirely foreign travelers. At night, the streets of Lijiang are lit up with hundreds of red lanterns, and rivers/waterfalls run alongside and under the streets, which are filled with shops and bustling nightclubs. Last night, we saw a performance of singing and dancing by local Naxi people, whose culture and history have become the pride and joy of the city.
The views in Lijiang, during the day and at night, are staggering. Today, we hired a guide with a car to take us outside the city to some of the local sites (about $15 for the entire day). We visited some sites that highlight the history of the Naxi people, a beautiful temple, gardens, and ended the day by going horseback riding through the wilderness. The temperature has been consistently in the 70s, sunny, and hardly humid. It's clear the government is doing a lot to preserve Lijiang while also building it into more and more of a tourist destination. Today, I asked our guide, a Naxi woman with 13 generations of history in Lijiang (who works in the tourism industry), what she thought of the local tourist economy. She didn't like it, and instead preferred the older days where even though people had less, neighbors would help each other more and were less corrupted by the new money. The old city, where people used to live, has turned into a collection of small hotels and shops geared towards tourists. To improve the environment, local people can no longer wash their laundry in the rivers that run through the city -- good or bad? You tell me.
Well, after checking email and jotting down these blog notes, the evening lights and lanterns have been illuminated at the intelnet cafe, and my 65 cent hour is long past up. Shepherd and I are off to get some "Chifan" (dinner), then perhaps "yi ping pijou" (a beer) or two, and then back to sleep to rest up for our journey to the Tiger Leaping Gorge and Zhongdian (recently renamed Shangri-La by the government to increase tourism) tomorrow.