Mopping up some remaining temples and parks in Beijing. The Temple of Heaven is the most famous temple in the world, says the Chinese guide. If you didn’t know that, kindly consider yourself informed now. It’s very pretty and harmonious. For the ancient Chinese, the earth is square and heaven is round, so there are many round temples here, with blue glazed tiered roofs, built on white terraces. The emperor held ceremonies here requesting a good harvest, and they sacrificed animals. I stood on the Supreme Ultimate Stone in the middle of it, I suppose all the other stones in the world are either less supreme or less ultimate, or both.

My Tibet expedition is all set. I have my permits and will pick up the train ticket later. Tonight I’ll be on my way to Lhasa, riding the train for 48 hours over passes in the Himalayas more than 5000 meters high. Tibet travel is tightly regulated, more so than in recent years: all my stops had to be approved, and I’ll have a guide at all times. I’ll spend two nights on the train, three nights in Lhasa, and one each in Gyatse, Shigatse, Tigeri, and Zhambir (sp?) on an overland jeep trip to Kathmandu in Nepal. I had to join a tour group, it can’t be done any other way. I am the only member of my group. For money they’ll sell anything.

Not sure what the Internet situation is in Tibet, I’ll try to blog if I can. Otherwise see you all in Kathmandu!

The Emperor didn’t want to be holed up in his little Fobidden City all the time, so he also had a summer palace north of Beijing on the shore of a fairly big lake that he had dug. The layout and architecture is pretty similar to the Forbidden City, minus the big reception halls, but a lot smaller. On the other hand it’s scenically built up Longevity Hill, which they created with the earth excavated to create the lake. No expenses spared. The three-story theater is basically a copy from the Forbidden City.

Much of it was destroyed by the Western allied powers in 1860 and rebuilt for Empress Cixi’s birthday parties. Cixi was faced with an unsolvable problem – repelling Western invaders with far superior weaponry – but she had a knack for not solving them in singularly inept ways, like squandering the treasury on her lifestyle. The money for the summer palace was supposed to be used to create a navy; she had a huge ugly marble boat built instead. When she died, she named a hapless three-year old boy, Pu Yi, as her successor, but the game was up three years later and more than two millennia of Chinese emperors came to an end.

The palace is in a quite pleasant park. There are lots of tour groups here, even though it’s a Thursday and I am still surfing the edge of the low season. Fortunately tour groups never stray far and clog a few major sights while leaving everything else blissfully empty.

Also went to the old Bell and Drum Towers, the center of Beijing in Mongol times. Lots of old hutongs (narrow lanes) around them. There is lots of repair and construction work done there – it looks as if China had decided that Chinese culture and historic quarters are valuable after after all and worth preserving, not only the buildings but also the style of the neighborhood (Dirk, your cue). Shadows of Pingyao. (But only shadows.) The quarter could do with fewer pizza restaurants though.

These days, the Forbidden City is forbidden only to smokers. The big sights that everyone knows come first – three huge halls, separated by gates, and the gigantic yards with the elaborate stairs leading up to them. After that it gets down to business; lots of smaller halls, the bigger ones with thrones for the emperor, the smaller ones for princes, concubines, and government functions. They all have flowery names like “pavilion of mental cultivation”. The smaller buildings are in the back of the Forbidden City, and look a little like the Pingyao youth hostel, except bigger, more elaborate, and less well maintained. They show huge collections of jade, silver filigree, bronze, gold, precious stones, and ceramics. They also have a pretty bizarre clock collection; one can paint Chinese characters with a brush.

In regular intervals there are loudspeaker announcements in Chinese, introduced by a chime that every time makes me expect something like “flight 444 is now boarding at the Gate of Supreme Harmony”.

I spent seven hours in the Forbidden City, it’s just endless. The audio guide makes it interesting, it’s quite good except when it gets confused and plays the wrong message and I don’t know what it’s talking about. There are a lot of guards in military uniforms; two of them patrol the outer wall with walkie-talkies set on full volume, noisily squeaking instructions punctuated by short beeps. Sounds like two Apollo capsules slowly orbiting the city. I don’t know how they manage to look so prim in these stuffy uniforms, it’s another hot and sunny day.

Outside the Forbidden City is a pleasant park, admission charged, with many old trees, ponds, and lots of flowers and blooming trees. Lots of Chinese photographers with gigantic cameras take pictures of tulips.

I had dinner at the Wangfujing snack street. Lots of food stalls there that sell everything on sticks; you point at some and they fry them: chicken, pork, tofu, tentacles, sausages, starfish, seahorses, live scorpions, toads, and thumb-size grubs. I am not kidding. Apart from the tentacles, nobody I saw bought the more exotic options. I loved the sweet ones with what I thought were strawberries, but were some other tangy fruit with large hard seeds.

The Chinese Great Wall is not like a road. Roads follow convenient low paths like rivers. The Great Wall, on the other hand, unfailingly picks the most impractical and difficult points of the terrain imaginable – the highest and steepest ridges and peaks no matter how they curve. I wouldn’t want to have to carry even one stone up there, but they built 8000 kilometers of it in 1368 to 1567, of which 2000 kilometers remain today.

Most tourists visit the wall at Badaling close to Beijing, but that’s a crowded zoo crawling with tourists and souvenir vendors. I joined a group that went to Jinshanling, three hours by bus north of Beijing. We hiked ten kilometers on top of the wall to Simatai. There are very few people here, and the group quickly disperses until I rarely see another visitor. There are at least a few people selling warm water, Coca Cola, and beer (it’s a hot sunny day again and the Chinese neglected to properly plan the wall with power outlets).

“Hiking” doesn’t properly capture the situation though – since the wall is constantly climbing some hill, so are we. There is never a flat section, always stairs that are often extremely steep and in poor repair. Away from the endpoints, it’s sometimes just rubble; even the crenellations are missing in some places. There are guard towers in regular intervals; a few are in ruins. It’s quite exhausting but the views are fantastic. How they could ever hope to move an army up there to the right spot to defend the wall, without satellite reconnaissance and back roads, is a mystery to me. The wall was not very effective repelling invaders, but if nothing else it makes a terrific Unesco World Heritage site.

At Simatai we need to cross a river on an Indiana Jones suspension bridge, complete with wooden planks with gaps high above the river. There are no natives shooting arrows at us and hacking away at the cables though. Past the bridge, there is a dammed reservoir fed by the river with mountains on both sides. I could have walked down to a little village where the bus waits, but I hear some people in mid-air over the lake scream and whoop, so I investigate and opt for a cable ride across the lake.

You get a belt harness, basically three loops of rope around your legs and waist, which is hooked into a steel cable that runs across the lake. You sit down on a ledge high up the mountain on one side, looking down the precipice below with cables descending steeply, wondering if this was a good idea after all. Then you kick off and rapidly shoot down the cable across the lake with the mountain panorama all around you. It’s totally exhilarating, and over much too quickly!

Embarked on a five-hour odyssey to get my onward travel booked. If all goes well, I’ll be on a train to Lhasa on Friday. Tibet requires two special permits, which take five days to process. All aspects of the tour must be submitted and approved by the authorities. I am greatly looking forward to Tibet.

I decide that my first Beijing experience will be authentic Peking Duck. Everybody offers that here but I choose the upscale Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, and order half a duck with all the options. Shortly after a chef rolls up a workbench to my table and deftly carves the duck into bite-size pieces, with the best part of the skin on a separate plate. A waitress demonstrates the proper procedure: take a thin pancake, arrange some duck dipped in a dark mu-shu sauce, vegetables, skin, and roasted garlic on it, and fold it to a small pocket. It’s absolutely delicious. The meat is tender, the skin is crisp yet glossy with grease, but it somehow doesn’t taste greasy at all. Wonderful. You haven’t eaten Peking Duck if you didn’t eat it in Beijing. Of course it was fantastically expensive – 15 euro!

Tiananmen square is huge, but not as large and as forbidding as I expected. I guess we all associate tanks with the name, but there is a lot of green, with tourists strolling and taking pictures, and a fat obelisk in the center. It’s sunny and quite hot, and a van sells drinks at low supermarket prices, is that supposed to be capitalism? In order to get onto the square, you have to pass a police checkpoint and have your bag inspected. A few soldiers guard the square, but it’s all very civilized and friendly.

In the late afternoon a wind comes up, it gets cooler, and the sun disappears into a yellow haze. It’s a mild sand storm, very fine sand gets into my eyes and my ice cream. I hear that these sand storms can become quite serious in summer. So I take a tuk-tuk back. I have seen very few cyclists, cars have taken over Beijing. Right of way is determined by mass – bigger is better. Even old ladies at zebra crossings are mercilessly cut off. Like last night, the driver is confused by the hutongs (narrow old lanes) around the hostel; about a third of the old hutongs have escaped modernization and road widening. They are not ancient like in Pingyao, but much nicer to stroll in than the big roads packed with traffic.

Spent the morning and early afternoon walking around Pingyao, since this is probably my last chance to enjoy a beautiful old town in China and its cuisine.

Taiyuan is a few hours north of Pingyao by bus. It’s an unremarkable modern town, but much enlivened by plants an little parks. Ailing trees line its main boulevards. I sat in a green square for a few hours waiting for my train, watching children skate.

The high-speed train to Beijing is more functional than elegant, but it’s modern, new and spotless, and quiet, like European intercities. It goes 160 km/h most of the time, 200 for some sections, and reached a top speed of 250. I was in Beijing after only three hours, but by then it was way too late to do any sightseeing.

Enjoying the signs here. Near rests the lodging, the foot cures the massage, Lei Lutei’s residence is built 180 years from now, Mr. Qu gets married if every tourist is interesting in this, in order to be fit of requirement of the plenty tourist, tell you tong xing gong escort service mind glass…

It’s warm and sunny, so I walked about town for eight hours straight, including halfway around the top of the city wall. Pingyao’s old town is *big*. They have many little museums and sights – temples, residences, banks, and government offices, many dating back to the 16th century. They all follow the same pattern: an entrance building facing the street with a number of courtyards behind it. The first and final buildings are usually larger, and sometimes have two floors. Everything is built with gray brick and wooden pillars and flaring shingled roofs with dragon ornaments, and latticed windows with paper instead of glass. Bedrooms (even in banks and offices) have large heated brick beds, and there is always a little shrine somewhere. But after a while you get the idea, and the places sort of blur together.

The bus from Yuncheng to Pingyao dropped me off right on the six-lane freeway. The driver pointed at the nearest exit and off he went. Apparently this is common practice, some people with motorcycles are waiting a short walk later. One leads me through a barbed wire fence, and he takes me downtown, first across the fields and then through the modern part of the city.

I am staying in the Yamen Youth Hostel. I seem to have better luck with hostels than hotels, and this one is great – it’s in a 400-year old governer’s residence, in the original rooms furnished in the old style with a gigantic bed that fills a third of a large room. I bet the governer didn’t have a bathroom though. It’s in Pingyao’s old town, where vehicles can’t go.

Pingyao was rich during Ming times in the 16th century, but it’s been poor for the better part of the century. Too poor to tear down all those beautiful low Ming-era buildings lining all its streets and replacing them with ugly concrete boxes with white bathroom tiles on the outside, and too poor to replace the imposing city wall that keeps the concrete outside with tour bus parking lots. Most of the old town is in good repair, and it really feels like an authentic Ming town and not dolled up for tourists. Of course it can’t possibly be five hundred years old and still look so good, but they did an excellent job. There aren’t even a lot of souvenir shops. Once again, I am paying for the absence of tour groups with gray skies.

I bought the city admission ticket and visited a 14th-century government complex (quite spartan rooms), a more elaborate Taoist temple complex for all sorts of gods including a kitchen god, and a Confucian temple complex. After that I felt kind of templed out and went to the hotel to write it all up.

PS. The hostel hat a “dumpling party” that night, and I learned how to make Wan Tan like dumplings. It’s all in the way you hold your hands when folding the dumpling.

Yuncheng is a modern city but decidedly not shiny an unkempt. Many buildings downtown are totally hidden behind billboards. I stay in the LP-recommended hotel, but it’s dank and not too clean, and very noisy at night. Yuncheng does have some lively side streets with markets, good street food here. It seems that no Westeners go to this city, people keep staring at me…

The reason to see Yuncheng is a very large Taoist temple dedicated to Guan Yu. Lots of Ming-era (16th century) pagodas and a long series of elaborate but decaying gate buildings, in a park with blooming trees and little ponds. The final gate consists of two cavernous floors, but there isn’t much of a view. There are very few visitors, just a group of Chinese tourists who wanted their picture taken with me. They also have a shooting range with palm-sized paper targets and two huge naval guns with bores bigger than the targets.

The main attraction in Xi’an are the terracotta warriors. Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese emperor who unified the whole of China under his rule two thousand years ago, appears to have had tastes that ran into the extravagant, so he had a huge mausoleum built for himself (yet unexcavated), plus an army of 7000 terracotta warriors. Maybe a lot more, 7000 have been found so far. They were all highly detailed, with faces believed to match those of people they represented, and armed, although very little made of wood survived.

The place got sacked soon after he died, so many of the statues are headless and broken, but archaeologists have put most of them back together. Others were left like they were found, to document the damage; and a large number were buried to protect them. They were painted but the paint decays very quickly when exposed to air; all statues on display showed no colors. The warriors are in three “pits”, roofed over; one small officer’s headquarter and two large arrays of 1300 and 6000 soldiers. A walkway runs around the actual pits so one can’t get really close to the army, but it’s still a stunning site. They also have a museum and a 360 degree movie theater that runs an documentary. I have lots of great detail pictures but the one I chose for this post is of the big hall, because what’s most stunning about this site is its monumental size.

I spent the rest of the day in Xi’an. Most of the city is modern and, as usual, uninteresting, but they have a Muslim quarter that has escaped modernization. Lots of atmosphere there, narrow streets, busy craftsmen working on the street, Chinese shops, and lots of carts that sell food. Had great Dim Sum at several carts. The Muslim quarter also has some tourist streets where the tour groups get funneled through to buy souvenirs. It always amazes me how tour groups concentrate on the proscribed route and never stray to the places that are actually interesting and (more or less) authentic, maybe just a few meters away. The contrast between the souvenir streets and the rest is extreme.

Lijiang wakes up at 9:00, and is very peaceful before that. Shops are shuttered, and people squat at the little canals and brush their teeth. Pink rose bushes are everywhere. Tried a “Naxi Pizza” for breakfast, but it was an inedible thick pancake soaked in grease. When I checked out, Mama Naxi gave me a little bag with bananas and joghurt, and hung a little charm around my neck. If you ever make it to Lijiang, you know where to find the only accomodation option that makes sense. Call 0888-5100700, Mama speaks English. 50 Yuan for a dorm bed, 150 Yuan for the best room with its own covered patio (mine).

The China Eastern Air plane departure time at 12:00 to Xi’an came and went. First it was “delayed”, a Chinese word that means “in a few hours, maybe, or cancelled”, then it had a very minor technical fault and an engineer would be flown in, then it was officially cancelled. They put us on another plane to Kunming where we’d transfer at 22:00. In the meantime they put us in a quite decent hotel to rest and for dinner; the staff was always quite helpful. Back at the airport, 22:00 passed, no plane, it’s “delayed”, a Chinese word that means “you are dead”. Sometime after midnight they found a plane for us; we boarded and sat around the runway for a long time because there was a “delay”, a Chinese word that means “gotcha”. Some passengers actually got into a shouting match with airline personnel (unfairly I think). Chinese is very well suited for cursing. (The picture above is hard to see, red text in the last column reads “delayed”, a Chinese word that means “go climb a tree”.)

I arrived at the hotel in Xi’an at 4:30 in the morning, eleven hours late.

Ok, coming from Hong Kong it’s easy to forget that China is not like a modern European country with bad taste in architecture. It’s a country with twice the population of the EU, where oxen plough rice fields and large numbers of people subsist on less than two euro per day. Lijiang airport looks like a Tokyo subway station and Kunming airport is a large but cheaply built shack with a corrugated metal roof that is deafening in a rain shower. You can’t go from zero to Lufthansa in a few years. Maybe the ox that pulls the airplanes back from the gate had a headache. (Just kidding about the ox. I hope.)

Tiger Leaping Gorge is a very deep and long canyon two hours north of Lijiang. Most people there do a two- to four-day trek, but I made it a day trip to the most scenic spot. As I write this, I am sitting on the Daydreaming Rock down at the foaming Yangzi river at the bottom of the gorge. In the middle of the rapid is the Tiger Leaping Stone that gave the gorge its name; legend says that a tiger used it to cross the river. Why it would do that I don’t know, there is a vertical rock wall on the other side; the highest mountains on the sides rise to 3900 meters with 80 degrees rock walls! That’s more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Yet the sun reaches the bottom at 13:00.

It’s a 340m climb down a rocky path from Tina’s Guesthouse, a popular stop at this point. We got a few people together and hired a guide. The views are fantastic. The climb back up, using another route, was far steeper; an almost uninterrupted series of narrow steps, hugging the edge of an almost vertical rock wall. Ropes are strung on the wall side to hold on to. There is a very long ladder at one point where no path could be built, and another shorter one later, that lead straight up the cliff face. The ladders are made from steel rebar, welded and strung together with wires (so they shake a little) and have steps only every 50cm or so. Quite tiring. It’s less dangerous than it sounds because it was dry.

It seems that the Chinese modernization rampage, here building another Yangzi dam that would flood the gorge, is temporarily on hold. Still, I am very glad that I had the chance to see it before it might get destroyed.

Had lots of rain at night, and a short shower in the morning too. There is a hill that cleanly divides the old and new town of Lijiang, with the very tall Looking At The Past Pavilion pagoda on top. The panorama from its top over both towns and the mountains in the background is fantastic. I took a panorama series of pictures with cloudy skys, and went back down to see the nice wooded park around it. Then the sun came out and I had to run up again and do it all over.

Walked around in Lijiang for a few hours. There are quite a few tourists here (it’s a Sunday), but they are all in a few prominent streets, and just ten meters away I pretty much had the place to myself. It’s easy to get lost in this maze, and there are beautiful views everywhere.

Went back to the guesthouse and had Mama Naxi book a flight to Xi’an for Tuesday. When the ticket arrived, my name was misspelled, and Mama Naxi sorted that out with furious bursts of Chinese. I also booked a bus to the Tiger Leaping Gorge for a day trip. It’s normally a two or three day hike, but the weather report said thunderstorms and the trail on the edge of the cliff is steep and slippery in places.

Dinner was great again. It seems that whenever someone mentions an exotic and out-of-the-way place in Asia, half the people at the table has been there, and give recommendations on hotels, train schedules, and sights, and report funny stories. Mama Naxi’s is an information nexus of Lijiang. The picture shows our dinner table.

So which is nicer, Dali or Lijiang? My vote goes to Lijiang. Dali has wider boulevards, beautiful gate pagodas, and the lake. Lijiang is a maze of narrow alleys lines with old and low buildings, many small canals with little bridges all over the place, often lined with ancient dark wooden houses with little plank bridges leading to their doors like in the picture. There are many tourists, but they lose themselves in the many side streets, and the souvenir shops aren’t quite so obtrusive.

And Lijiang has Mama Naxi. Mama Naxi operates a guesthouse and restaurant with elan and irresistible good nature. She serves dinner communal style: a dozen delicious dishes on large tables that are shared by everyone. There are many experienced travellers here, some of whom have been on the road for a year, and we share stories and compare notes on all the places we have been. I am sure that between us we have covered the entire planet. A botanist describes how he travelled through Tibet illegally, hiding under blankets at checkpoints, or being hidden from the police by soldiers. We sit and talk until late at night.

There are inspirational signs all over Lijiang. One reads “Civilized behavior of tourists is another bright scenery rational shopping”.

A short bus ride brings me to Caicun, a village at the large Erhai Lake close to Dali. From the bus stop, I join a trek of over a hundred old women with large straw hats, wicker baskets, and the occasional plastic bowl with fish, through the narrow streets of Caicun, along the lake, to a market square at a pier on the lakeshore. It’s packed with vendors with carts, tables, or just bowls on the ground, selling vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish. Chickens are slaughtered, plucked, and sold on the spot.

There is a small temple where people bring bowls of offerings, like fruit and fish, and return with incense that is burned on a pyre in the middle of the square. It’s quite crowded everywhere. Even Chinese tourists are aliens here; I saw only two.

They have tour boats on the lake, but they take all day, so I went back to Dali and rented a bicycle to visit several other nearby villages, and to keep kirikou happy. Some of those villages, and the paths through the fields, don’t seem to get any tourists so children stare and smile at me and call out “hello” all the time.

Also took a chairlift up the mountains behind Dali. It takes 20 minutes to gain some 600 meters, gliding between and above the treetops. People call out to me and take pictures, I guess they don’t see many Europeans here… Loudspeakers mounted on the chairlift towers play official-sounding Chinese announcements.

There is a temple complex at the top, and many hiking paths. The views are great, but some clouds have come in and the valley and the lake are a patchwork of sunlight and shadow. When I return to the chairlift station at 18:05, they had just shut it down. Walking is impossible, there is only a very steep dirt path and it’s only an hour till sundown. So the officials confer and restart the chairlift just for me!

I am having a hard time selecting a picture of the day, so I’ll pick one that captures the mood of Dali, rather than something more exciting.

The bunk beds in “hard sleeper” are comfortable and – surprise – long enough for me. The train arrives in Kunming at 7:00. It’s another boring modern city, although fresher than Huaihua; I take one look at it and decide to move on. Twenty minutes later I am in an express bus to Dali. As apparently happens frequently, the bus doesn’t follow the schedule and terminates in Xiaguan, where hordes of drivers want to drag us into their cabs and tuk-tuks for the remaining distance. I opt for a local bus, together with a British/Australian couple I met on the way. In Dali, we checked into the Tibetan Lodge, which has cute but tiny single rooms.

And it’s sunny with a deep blue sky! Goodbye hazy Hunan, welcome to Yunnan!

Dali is a walled square of mostly pedestrianized streets lined with old wooden houses, against a backdrop of a mountain range that is so high that there is still a little snow on top. Quite beautiful. Lots of shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, clothes, and tours; also lots of restaurants and a few pagodas and guard towers along the city wall (the picture shows one) sprinkled in. Like in Fenghuang, there are no American chains like KFC, McD, or 7Eleven. English is understood here, a little. It’s very pleasant to stroll about town. It’s still off-season so there are few tourists here, this time including a few Westeners.

Hat dinner at the Tibetan Cafe. They have hors d’heaves, fried glory with garlic, and gees (eggs). Not bad but a little uninspired apart from the diction. I like this town and will stay another day before taking off for its more famous cousin, Lijiang.

The day starts with a cold drizzle. Took the bus to Huaihua and walked about town for two hours. It’s typically Chinese, both modern and run down, with heavy traffic and no soul. They had cleared a huge area south of the train station for new construction.

I got on the train to Kunming 30 minutes late. I had a bottom berth (the best one, I can look out the window and stow my bag). Some guy wanted to trade but I pretended not to understand – the language barrier works both ways… Later he starts smoking, spits on the floor, and drops sunflower seeds on the grubby carpet. Then he gives me an orange and some seeds and a minty-tasting dried fruit to chew, and he is my friend. I am easily bribed.

I was planning a day excursion to Denang, a small peaceful village two hours north. But I was the only passenger at the bus stop, and they kept cancelling buses. The weather had always been overcast in the morning with a hazy sun in the afternoons, but today it was cold and miserable.

Further away from Fenghuang’s old downtown, the enthusiasm for the old building style evaporates, and Fenghuang becomes one more of these drab Chinese cities that have successfully obliterated their history and culture.

So I went back downtown. Mothers here have tall baskets slung around their backs in which they carry a baby, stuffed with pillows so that only a happy face sticks out like a cherry on a cake. Minority women with tall turbans (some three times the size of the one in the picture) sell souvenirs; it seems that the designation “minority” is more a profession than a heritage. In the evening, they sell paper flowers with a candle in the middle that people float down the river.

All in all, a lazy day.

More wandering in Fenghuang. Down at the steps along the riverfront, women sit side by side, washing clothes and washing vegetables in the murky blue-green water. There are even fewer tourists here today, although I actually met two Germans today.

Restaurants have headless unplucked pheasants, and drying fish and flattened pig faces (really!) hanging out front, and countless little shops sell dried fruit, cigarettes, firecrackers, and lots of crossbows. I don’t know what these people have about crossbows.

Also went to the new part of town. Less scenic, and there is car traffic that is almost absent in the old downtown, but they do make sure that the architecture doesn’t descend into bland modernism like in other towns. They have a covered market too that is noticeably cleaner and less smelly than other such places elsewhere; people have lunch there on long tables. Bought excellent Dim Sum in a plastic bag from a street vendor. Outside there is a T-shirt shop where Osama Bin Laden and Harry Potter peacefully hang side by side.

Also did the museum circuit of Fenghuang. A number of pretty temples and homes of important people, and a collection of fossils, but no must-sees there.

Actually I wasn’t interested in Huaihua, it was just too late to continue. My destination was Fenghuang, and today I took a bus there. It’s only 40km as the crane flies, but takes two and a half hours because the road is almost never straight and goes through one gut-wrenching curve or switchback to the next.

I had been unable to reserve a hotel because the two numbers given by the Lonely Planet did not reach someone who speaks any English. So I just walked around in Fenghuang until I find a hotel I like, and check in. Of course, no English at the reception, but they have an Internet PC and we discuss the rooms using the Yahoo translator. Cool. They also have a talking calculator that chirped a cheery comment in Chinese on every key press. The Flowers Procumbens Hotel – who comes up with these names? – is modern, very uncharacteristically stylish for China, and generally pleasant.

Fenghuang is a beautiful old town on both sides of a river. The waterfront with its old but renovated wooden houses is exceedingly scenic in the evening sun. I really love the place and will stay here for a few days. There are tourists but not many, although I bet that it’s completely packed during holiday seasons. They are all Chinese, again no Westeners in evidence today. I am standing out so much that Chinese tourists ask me if they can take pictures of me.

It took a while to find a restaurant because of the language barrier. In the first I asked for a chicken dish by pointing at a huge chicken in a coop outside, and all seemed fine, until the cook grabbed the chicken and carried it to the kitchen before I could stop the impending massacre… The strategy works at another place, and I get my chicken. Preparation is easy: they simply chop it into rectangular pieces, bones at all, and fry it in a wok; I wolf it down with chopsticks except the head and the feet, couldn’t find any meat on those.

This Internet Cafe in Fenghuang has well-maintained Windows PCs that don’t put a virus on my flash card, and I type this into and not into a Google search box before cut-and-pasting it into a mailer with a maximum lifetime of 30 seconds between crashes. Even picture uploads work without sending IE south, so I added a few to previous posts.

In the morning, the fog is so dense that I can’t see more than 10 meters. I take the bus to Longshen, then another to Sanjiang. Both towns are modern and unremarkable. The road is scenic between along a river valley, but many of the occasional small rice terraces look neglected and overgrown, and the villages are dilapidated, with leaning wooden buildings and rusty satellite dishes.

The theory was that I’d find a bus north from Sanjiang, but no such luck. Nobody speaks any English except a machine that says that the bus to [unintelligible] is cancelled. The lady at the counter suggests a complicated route that *may* go where I want, but I can’t read her instructions and don’t risk it. When trying to pattern-match the names with the schedule, I am soon surrounded by friendly people trying to help, in Chinese of course. Finally they agree with my conclusion that I should take the train, give me a time I know is wrong, and send me off. Nice people, too bad we couldn’t communicate…

Trouble is, the train leaves seven hours later and arrives in Huaihua (pronounced why-wah) at midnight. So I while away the time walking to two nearby villages, where people look at me with astonishment, watch people in the station, and with train-spotting. Relaxing, but it’s cold. People in the waiting hall smoke, spit on the floor, and drop peanut shells and orange peels on the floor. They do this in buses too.

The Huaihua Great Hotel (that’s its name) is modern and very comfortable. Of course, nobody speaks English. In the room, the minibar includes underwear, two kinds of condoms, lubricants, and aphrodisiacs. Figures, I was wondering about the tenacity of the hookers outside, although the hotel itself is a straight business hotel.

Didn’t see a Westerner all day.

This Windows XP computer, too, is so slow, buggy, virus-infested, and generally unusable that it takes me forever to post to my blog. If this is what nonprofessionals have to deal with, it's a miracle that Windows users aren't jumping off high buildings all the time. What a disaster.

More walking among rice terraces. They have pretty much carved up most of the mountains around Ping’an. Most rice paddies are less than a meter wide. Like the fields, the path follows the contours of the mountain, and is mostly paved with slippery stones. Fog rolls over the hills all the time, sometimes I can’t see anything and sometimes a vista opens up, and changes again a few minutes later.

At strategic points, local women in colorful dresses and hairdresses, carrying baskets of souvenirs, waylay tourists. But like elsewhere in China so far, they are friendly and never tenacious.

There are no streets in Ping’an, just narrow winding paths between the wooden houses. Most of the time, the paths are stairs. There is much new construction, but fortunately using wood and traditional designs, using concrete only for foundations.

Took another local bus to Longsheng. Quite crowded. The first nine kilometers went through Guilin’s urban sprawl, no less ugly than downtown Guilin, just highrise concrete boxes that hide the peaks behind them.

The scenery improves after Guilin, first rolling hills and soon the road winds its way up to 630m, then back down to 250. There is a burnt smell, and the driver stops and cools his brakes with a water hose; steam rises. At one point the driver looks at me, asks Ping’an?, and when I nod, he stops and I get oiff and catch a bus stopped on the other side of the road. After numerous switchbacks, the new bus reaches the small hill village of Ping’an at 825m.

It’s a marvellous view – many old ornamented wooden houses cling to the side of the mountain on stilts, with every bit of space used. I am staying at the Countryside Inn, all wood, slightly creaky and unheated (it’s fairly cold up here) but very nicely renovated with friendly English-speaking staff.

People come here not only for the village, but for the rice terraces. They cling to the side of the mountains, following its contours, just like the village itself. They are huge – dozens and dozens of terraces, usually no wider than one or two meters, and some as narrow as 30cm, separated by artificial walls and an ingenious irrigation system. There are several paths that climb up to over 1000m and allow fantastic views over the endless terraces. Wisps of fog add atmosphere. In the evening, the fog creeps up from the valley until it’s difficult to see.

Took a local bus to Guilin, the other end of the usual Li River cruises. This town is totally different from Yangshuo – lots of traffic, asphalt, concrete, modern Chinese architecture that is supposed to impress but only manages to depress with its mindless rows of bland office buildings. They have narrow green strips along the rivers that escaped destruction. Maybe Guilin was once a nice town but no more. I went to the Seven Star Scenic Area, a tired park with a few monuments and low peaks.

I’ll be charitable and post a nice picture from the park.

The Internet PCs I am finding on this route become slower, more virus-infested, with broken browser installations. I hope this post makes it. No more pictures.

In the morning, I went out on a bicycle and with a guide, David Wong, the manager of the Hongfu Palace Hotel. He speaks English well. It took a while to find a bicycle that was large enough for me. David used an electric scooter because he was afraid that I’d outrun him, and in fact I did a few times because he was faster only uphill on smooth asphalt.

First we went to Moon Hill, a peak with a large crescent-shaped hole. I took a minivan ride up to Dragon Cave. The road is terrible and the van shook pitifully. Where other drivers keep car wash coins, he kept a collection of rusty bolts. The cave is huge, with a long convoluted path cut through its many caverns. The first leg is by boat. Later some sections are under water too, with Indiana Jones bridges complete with broken logs (but at least they weren’t suspended high up with ropes). The path was only a meter high in some places. My guides pointed out several dozen rock formations with flowery names like “dog rides golden lion”. They knew all the places where I should take pictures and wouldn’t continue until I did so. They spoke no English at all, and could only point at names on an English/Chinese map.

After returning from the cave, we continued by bicycle through the most marvelous scenery, through a valley of farm land, along Yulong River, surrounded by Yangshuo’s trademark sugarcone peaks. The road quickly turned into a narrow trail through the fields and small villages, most of which cannot be reached by a regular road. Eventually we reached Jiuxian, a historic village that really looked like it hadn’t been touched in centuries. We had excellent steamed fish there, caught the previous evening. The last stop was the Dragon bridge, an ancient stone arch in another old village. But what made this ride so fantastic was the scenery around us, not the monuments.

Addendum to Monday’s entry: at night I went to the Impressions Liu Sanjie, which is an enormous ballet of 600 actors that uses an entire lake and the mountains behind it. They use floats with little palaces on them that look like snowflakes, long floating platforms spanning the lake, lots of boats, long colored ribbons, and very sophisticated illumination. Dancers seem to walk on water, glitter, change color, while boats with lights were swirling around like fireflies. I had a good seat and got some surprisingly good pictures despite a handheld camera at full 400mm.

Took a local bus to Yang Di where I had reserved a private boat on the Li River. The boat is made from bamboo and the bamboo is made from plastic.

The scenery on the Li River is magical. It’s slightly hazy, and we glide on the
river between the huge overgrown stone pillars, forming a jagged skyline all around us. Some are in sunlight, others recede in the mist. There are few other boats, and when the motor is off, I can hear only the wind, the birds, and the voices of other boatmen echoing off the cliffs.

The scenery is so fantastic that it’s shown on the 20 Yuan note, and my boatman’s cigarette pack; he stopped in both locations to show me.

The water level is very low, so there are gravel banks along the shores and in the middle of the river. People have set up tents there and sell food, mostly crawly things with way too many legs on skewers.

After reaching the Xing Ping, we took a minibus to the center of this smart little harbor village. I spent some time wandering about before returning to Yangshuo by bus. This was a grand day out!

The bus from Guangzhou to Yangshuo takes eight hours, but there is so much to see that it’s never boring. All the long-distance buses are reasonably modern and comfortable, and unlike other buses I have used in Asia, quiet (both the engine and due to the absence of soap operas on the TV set). It makes three rest stops. Before one is allowed to enter the bus, the baggage gets x-rayed, as always.

At first, the towns we passed through were all well-maintained sterile concrete affairs with wide boulevards with flower beds in the middle, without any sign of the seediness one can find in Guangzhou. A bit like Wolfsburg with flowers. But later on, towns look like Asian towns are supposed to look like – a little run down, busy, alive with merchants and cyclists and animals and shopkeepers going about their trade. The freeway is new, wide, and smooth, except in a few places where construction isn’t finished.

About an hour before reaching Yangshuo, the karst mountains begin. They consist of countless conical pillars of rock that form a violently jagged skyline all around the road. Yangshuo itself is nestled in between of several karst pillars. It’s a busy little town that caters mainly to tourists, but manages to preserve its soul. The main street is Xi Jie, or “Western Street” as it confusingly shown on signs even though there is very little English signage in this town. It’s a pedestrianized street lined with modern shops and restaurants, in old two-story or houses. It’s sort of pleasant despite all the glowing ads and tourists. Virtually all the tourists are Chinese, I saw perhaps a dozen Westerners all evening.

My hotel is the Hongfu Palace Hotel. The rooms are a little cheerless despite the wooden floors, stucco, and old furniture, but the building is in is a magnificent 400-year old guild hall. Most of the other hotels are either backpacker hostels or sterile Chinese tourist hotels. And as it’s off-season, I haggled the price down to less than half the rack rate with little effort. But, no WLAN.

Using the express train to Guangzhou (a.k.a. Canton) is easy. Bags are x-rayed, visa are checked, and exit and entry cards are needed, but everything is much faster than the same procedures in Macau. At the station, the candy store sells palm-sized chocolate coins, but only ancient Chinese motifs and Dutch 2-Euro coins. The train is roomy and comfortable; the car attendant stands to attention as we board. The very slowly scrolling LED display in the car shows instructions for sneezing properly.

I am staying at the Elan hotel. Trendy, modern, clean, and bright, much better than the hotel in Hong Kong. Oddly, they want a deposit of 350 Yuan…

In Guangzhou, there is much less English. Street signs and the metro show English, but there was a lengthy notice in the train station in which the only English word was “notice” at the top (very helpful guys), and the long-distance bus terminal where I bought my ticket to Yangshuo for the next day had no English signage whatever and the ticket agents didn’t speak english either. I got my ticket by pattern-matching the Chinese characters, and pronouncing “Yangshuo” until there was rapport. No problem.

Large sections of Guangzhou are ugly concrete and chipped paint and glass towers separated by a maelstrom of traffic and endless asphalt. So I went to Yuexio Park close to the hotel; the park is very large and contains hills, ponds, lots of banyan trees, a waterfall, flowers, and a few shrines. Very relaxing. I then took the underground to Shamian, a small island just beyond a tangle of freeways and highrise construction. Shamian is a quiet refuge of colonial charm, with lots of trees and a narrow park down the central avenue. Finally I walked for a few hours in the western part of Guangzhou, which is still untouched by rampant modernization and has shady tree-lined streets, old buildings, and traditional shops open to the street with people working.