Sucked into an elaborate tea ceremony con in Shanghai, China.
Actors perform during a Beijing opera at the Yifu Theatre in Shanghai, China.
SHANGHAI, China — I’m walking down the Bund, Shanghai’s tourist center, which is essentially a monolithic concrete walkway adjoining the waterfront of the city’s polluted Huangpu River. Chinese tourists yell needlessly loudly into their cell phones as they gaze across the water toward a particularly ugly continuation of Shanghai’s soulless sprawl, the newly built Pudong skyline. The hodgepodge of glass and steel skyscrapers is so disorganized and tacky that I can only assume they were designed by 1950s-era elementary school children imagining “the future.” Above, a blanket of dark clouds, swallowing the blue sky, hides any hint of the sun’s existence.
“Where are you from?” asks a passing twenty-something Chinese girl, walking with two female, Chinese friends near the infamous Huangpu Park. The park, open only to the British during colonial times, is known for having had an entrance sign reading, “No dogs or Chinese allowed,” though no sign with that wording ever existed. (Still, the actual sign didn’t exactly warm the heart.) When I tell the girl that I live in California, she fires question after question at me excitedly, as though I am the first foreigner that she has ever met. She asks me if this my first visit to Shanghai, and she lobs questions about my life in the US. She tells me her name is Liu Sha and that her two Chinese friends, who don’t speak English well, are visiting Shanghai from out of town. She tells me that the three of them are on their way to experience a “traditional tea performance.”
Shanghai’s new Pudong neighborhod’s skyline as seen from The Bund.
“Do you want join us?” Liu Sha asks, smiling. She seems breezy and warmhearted, and I’m excited that I’ve already found a Mandarin-speaker to help guide me on my first day in Shanghai. I’ve been frustrated that almost no one, not even most hotel employees, speak English, and most written material and signs are written only using Chinese characters. I’m embarrassed by my ignorance of Mandarin. Trying to deal with Chinese bus schedules and restaurant menus and city maps has already overwhelmed me.
But Liu Sha’s suggestion that we visit a “traditional tea performance,” makes me suspicious immediately. I’ve traveled to almost 40 countries, mostly without guides and groups, and I’ve been subjected to countless touts and scams. Partly due to luck and partly due to stories from other backpackers and guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, I’ve mostly avoided being tricked, and I vaguely remember reading a sentence a few days before in my China guidebook warning single men to avoid being dragged to “expensive cafes or Chinese teahouses.” But Liu Sha’s backstory and demeanor were so convincing from the beginning that nothing seemed strange to me until she suggested the teahouse.
The world’s highest observation deck sits on the 100th floor of Shanghai’s World Financial Center.
“How expensive is the teahouse?” I ask her warily.
“We’re not sure,” she says credibly. “We’re students and don’t have much money, so if it’s too expensive, we probably won’t want to go either.”
I’m starting to feel like I’ve stumbled into a David Mamet script, but I’m so tired and so relieved to be speaking English with someone that I decide to play along, if for no other reason than to see if, indeed, I’m the target of a con. How will the movie end?!, I wonder. These girls are too sweet to be con artists!
The three lead me down colonial-building-lined Yuanmingyuan Road, and I’m happy that they’re helping change Shanghai from a cryptic puzzle into a pleasant adventure. I can almost feel the cloud of jet lag and anxiety hovering over my head starting to evaporate as we arrive at the teahouse. We’re shown into a private room and, immediately, a Shanghainese-speaking tea pourer begins delving into the rich details of Chinese tea-drinking traditions.
A couple on the Bund running the tea ceremony scam waits to pounce on an unsuspecting tourist.
Liu Sha translates the narration for me. She seems suddenly uninterested in the cost of experience. I ask to see the tea menu, which lists each tea tasting as Y60 (US $10), which, by the way, is ridiculously expensive for tea in China — even high-quality tea accompanied by a “performance.” But, even now, I’m not totally convinced that I’m being conned, and I agree to try three teas, though it’s not clear to me exactly why. I think I’m falling in love with the idea of being the target of a real-life House of Games, Matchstick Men, or The Usual Suspects. Meanwhile, Liu Sha deserves an Oscar for Best Performance in a Shanghai Tea Con for her convincing acting. I feel myself starting to sympathize with those lonely, elderly women that you hear about on the local television news, conned by phone hucksters relieving them of thousands of dollars for “investments.” I realize that, they too, must realize, on some level, that they’re being defrauded.
A woman pours tea during Shanghai’s well-known tea ceremony con.
The tea pourer begins the “performance” by pouring hot water over a tea-god frog statue, then proceeds to serve us four teas in quick succession: ginseng, jasmine, fruit, and lychee. The teas taste great, and we enjoy talking about life in China and America with each other. Liu Sha tells me about the competitive job market in Shanghai, and she acts shocked when she discovers that I don’t have a girlfriend. Her friends tell me that they’re studying architecture at a college in a small city in northern China. I tell them about life in Los Angeles and my planned route across China. As we’re drinking, they teach me how to correctly position my pinky finger (men keep it curled), and we all affix wet tea leaves to our faces below our eyes, meant to prevent “panda eyes” (dark circles). It’s genuine fun.
When the ceremony is over, the tea-pourer asks if we want to buy any of the teas, and two of the girls take her up on her offer. The girls also want to taste more tea, but at US $10 per tea, I announce that I’m done. Then, our tea-pourer hands over a bill reading: Y1200 (about US $200). Liu Sha acts shocked.
“Since my friends are just visiting students from out of town, would you mind helping them out with the bill?” Liu Sha asks me, seemingly innocently. Of course, by now, though we’ve had a legitimately enjoyable afternoon, I know that this is the big reveal: it’s definitely a con. (If it’s not clear, the fraud requires the girls to convince a foreigner to pay an outrageously high, full bill for a large group of people drinking tea, tea that probably has a real value of no more than US $10 total. The teahouse even gives the girls some money in advance to make them seem sympathetic when they pay for a small part of the surprisingly-large bill.)
Chinese acrobats jump on trampolines at Shanghai Circus World.
“I’ll pay for the three teas that I ordered, but nothing else,” I say to Liu Sha, sternly. She flinches. I give the tea-pourer Y180 (US $30). This astronomical price for tasting tea is still a huge rip-off, but it’s a far cry from the US $200 bill. (I’ve read that other travelers have been tricked into paying US $500 and more: see this video, this video, this blog entry, and this blog entry, the last by a guy who still hasn’t realized he was tricked.) The other girls reluctantly “pay” for their portions of the bill — but, of course, the money they’re using isn’t even theirs. I realize that I should completely refuse to pay, but, I’m grappling with the fact that, for better or worse, I verbally agreed when we arrived to pay for three teas for myself. Strangely, the four of us continue the ruse as we leave the teahouse, as though we’re still friends. The girls don’t want to be embarrassed, and neither do I.
The Shanghai Museum
Over the next couple days, I go on to discover that many other bad reports I’ve heard from other backpackers about China are true. Locals seem to love spitting huge gobs of saliva and mucus whenever and wherever their mood compels them. People play music loudly with their phones in public, ignoring appropriateness. Mobs push and shove (instead of queuing) to get service at ticket booths and stores, with no concern for those around them.
All of this makes me think of Liu Sha and her friends. I find myself feeling dumbfounded, still, that someone so seemingly similar to me could be so soulless as to take such blatant advantage of the trust of a peer and disregard her moral obligations. Though Chinese Communism is based on being collectively minded, the tea con is an example of people acting more selfishly and carelessly than one might expect in such a culture. As The New Yorker writer Peter Hessler notes in his excellent Peace Corps memoir about his time in China: “But such collectivism was limited to small groups, to families and close friends… The average [Chinese] resident appeared to feel little identification with people outside of his well-known groups… Collectively the mobs had one single idea–that tickets must be purchased–but nothing else held them together, and so each individual made every effort to fulfill his personal goal as quickly as possible.” Maybe, when people feel that a government is systematically taking care of them, they feel less obligated to care for strangers and are more likely to try to take advantage of them.
Actors perform during a Beijing opera at the Yifu Theatre in Shanghai, China.
Yet, despite my having to become accustomed to pronounced cultural differences, I still manage to enjoy Shanghai. I watch the acrobats at Shanghai Circus World fly through the air, contort themselves in unbelievable ways, and pilot motorcycles inside a huge metal globe (a fantastic daredevil act that no one should miss). I eat breakfast looking out at the view from the top of the insanely high World Financial Center in Pudong. And, on my last night in the city, I visit the Yifu Theatre to see a Beijing-style Opera. The opera, in Cantonese, is subtitled in Shanghainese. I can’t understand anything the actors are saying, the music is far from melodic, and the story isn’t visual, so I can’t follow the narrative. But the costumes are beautiful, and somehow the absurdity of me, an English-only speaker, sitting in the Yifu Theatre, persuades me to enjoy it.
After the opera, I find myself strolling through Xintiandi, an upmarket outdoor mall with stores inside rebuilt traditional Chinese houses. As I’m walking, a beautiful Chinese woman with long, black hair, black tights and a short skirt stops me.
“Hey! I was sitting in that coffee shop and I saw you walk by! You’re so handsome. Where are you from?” she asks me in impressive English. She shoots a big smile at me.
“Sorry, I’m on my way to dinner,” I tell her, coldly. As I walk away, I have no idea whether I have avoided a con — or just a beautiful Chinese woman. I feel sad. In China, I’ve been taught to think only of myself.
Dining with strangers
How I left my virtue at Huangshan, China’s Yellow Mountain.
Chinese tour groups hike up stairs on China’s Huangshan (Yellow Mountain).
HUANGSHAN, Anhui, China — I’m walking down a street lined with noodle shops in Shanghai. I’m hungry, but all of the shops’ signs are written with Chinese characters, so there’s no way for me to tell one from another. I pick one at random. Inside, I find a small room with white, concrete walls and black and white, flower-printed lanterns hanging overhead. The restaurant is crowded, but one wooden table is empty. Since I can’t read the menu on a sign above the cashier, I order by pointing at one of the promotional pictures on the wall.
The hostess seats me at the empty table, but within a minute, she seats a Chinese couple with me. We greet each other (“Ni hao”/”Ni hao”) and then sit awkwardly, waiting for our food. I’m immediately frustrated by my inability to speak Mandarin. Even when I’m not in China, I hate myself for so many reasons: avoiding the gym, gorging on cheese, forgetting to water my living room plant, being unable to affect accents, screwing up on my life on a daily basis, and then dwelling on those screw ups. The list is endless. But the hate I harbor for myself for not being able to speak Mandarin in China is uniquely frustrating. I’m frustrated that the only pre-college languages classes offered to me were Spanish, French, and German. (In retrospect, the short-sightedness of American school administrators when I was young is terrifying, considering that, today, more native speakers speak Mandarin than speak English, Spanish, German and French combined.) I’m frustrated that Chinese is such a difficult language to learn. But, most of all, I’m frustrated that I feel like I’m the rudest person in the world, wandering around a foreign country without having learned enough of its language to have a respectful conservation with a couple in a restaurant. I incompetently fumble with my chopsticks as we eat our unidentified (but tasty) Chinese food in silence.
The hot springs resort, covered in snow, near Huangshan.
On the following afternoon, I’m surprised when the bus I’ve taken from Shanghai to Huangshan (China’s famous “Yellow Mountain”) drops all of its passengers in front of a newly-built hotel on the outskirts of town. This bus-driver behavior is a frequent ploy to get tourists on the bus to stay at the hotel, but I’m the only Westerner on the bus, and everyone gets off with me. So, I don’t know what to think.
A sign advertises White Goose Villa as the Best Photographic Point of Mount Huangshan.
Instead of being the sleepy mountain town I expected, Huangshan turns out to be a huge, modern resort town amidst major construction. This isn’t a huge surprise to me: across China, it seems, everything — every road, hotel, restaurant, and train track — looks like it’s being built or rebuilt. It occurs to me this is what a major industrial revolution and economic boom looks like in Communist country that has turned to capitalism (known in China as the “economic miracle” or “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics”).
I’m sitting in the hotel’s lobby trying to decide what to do next when a short, pudgy Chinese woman with a beaming smile, sitting with her tall boyfriend on a couch, says to me in weak English, “You staying at hotel?”
“I haven’t really decided,” I say. “Are you staying here?”
“Yes, my boyfriend booked it online for us this weekend.” she explains. “The rate very good and room nice. You stay here with us!” She says something to the xiaojie working at the desk — hotels, restaurants, and shops in China are staffed almost exclusively by pretty, young women often referred to as xiaojie — and she takes me to see a room.
“Good, yes?” says the woman on the couch when I return to the lobby. “I will help you check in to the hotel. This is my boyfriend Ricky, and I’m Meggie: like Maggie, but I put an ‘e’ in it.” (Even Chinese-speakers in mainland China usually have both a Chinese name and a self-picked English name that they use when speaking English.) I immediately like the couple, partly because of Meggie’s name creativity but also because the hotel rate they’ve negotiated for me is great (about US $20 for a room of a quality that would go for $150 in a US city). Meggie goes on to help facilitate my entire transaction with the xiaojie. I can’t overstate how helpful small gestures like this from (even weak) English speakers are, turning my travels in China from a train wreck into, well, a smaller train wreck.
A sign warns Huangshan hikers to “not enjoy the views while walking.”
“We going to hot springs now,” Meggie demands. It’s clear that her “we” includes me. I look at the drab, overcast sky above Huangshan and decide that tomorrow might be a better day to start my two-day hike up and down the mountain anyway. Meggie thankfully arranges for the hotel driver to take us to the nearby Best Western-run spa resort with a bunch of outdoor hot springs pools. It’s snowing outside, but Meggie and Ricky drag me from one pool to the next: one’s vinegar-infused, another’s red wine-infused, and one’s even filled with small fish that bite the dead skin off of your feet. (No, I don’t understand it either.) I keep trying to give Meggie and Ricky some privacy, but they keep insisting that I follow them from pool to pool.
A porter carries food and supplies to hotels atop Huangshan.
“Get your free melon and other snacks over there,” Ricky tells me. “Then we’ll try the wine pool and get Chinese foot massages!” I’m the child not yet able to speak, and Ricky and Meggie are my fun, Mandarin-fluent parents. I’m not complaining.
But, like most parents, Meggie and Ricky want to wake up much earlier than I do to start hiking the following day, and they plan on spending only one day on the mountain. So, we part ways, and the next morning, I begin climbing the thousands of stairs that make up the eastern path up Huangshan. The deep vistas of wispy fog rolling across the valley, circling the jagged, blue peaks of Huangshan keep me occupied, though the climb is relentlessly steep and I can feel the freezing air (it’s about 25°F) seeping through my skin. It’s hardly an ideal wilderness experience, also because I’m surrounded by flabby Chinese tour groups, led by obnoxious tour guides with bullhorns using cable cars to get their followers up and down the mountain. Huangshan’s scenery is beautiful, but I’m disappointed to see that China’s current environmental ethos is on par with America’s (now changed for the better) 1950s National Park philosophy: build hotels, pave the wilderness, herd tourists like cattle, and scare away wildlife.
Chinese tourists admire a view near the summit of Huangshan.
About halfway up the mountain, I see a sign reading, “Best Photographic Point of Mount Huangshan.” It’s so cold and I hear so many bullhorns that I’m tempted to take the “best” photo and head back down, since the views apparently won’t get any better higher up. But my willpower stays strong. About ten minutes later, I come across another “Best Photographic Point” sign. Okay, which is it?! I think, and set up another photo. Then, a few minutes later, I see yet another sign, and I realize that the mountain is covered with “Best Photographic Point” signs. Apparently the translator didn’t know the difference between “best” and “recommended.” Incidentally, China has, hands down, the funniest badly-translated English signs that I have seen anywhere in the world; my other Huangshan favorites are: “Congratulations for your children growing taller” on an entrance sign defining the height limit for kids’ tickets; “Please get closer to the urinal” in a public bathroom; “Don’t flirt monkeys by feeding”; the dubious “Leave your virtue in Huangshan and the scenery in your memory”; and the forceful “Please do not enjoy the views while walking!”
The sun shines on a particularly beautiful day on Huangshan’s Bright Summit.
My progress up the mountain is especially slow because Chinese tourists (even grown men) frequently stop me to ask if I’ll pose for a picture with them. (As far as I can tell, I’m the only Westerner on the mountain). When I finally arrive at the top, it’s almost dark, and I’m starving, exhausted, and cold. Unfortunately, the handful of summit hotels are all closed for construction or booked by the bullhorns. I wander around the summit, begging hotels to give me a room, when, finally, I find a bed in a six-person dormitory in the Baiyun Hotel. I’m totally drained when I open the door to the room and find four other Chinese men hanging out, watching Chinese television and hocking loogies. I’m hiding from them under my bunk bed’s quilt, letting the sound design of the iPhone’s “Sword & Sorcery EP” game try to soothe my misery, when another Chinese man’s head pops up in front of my face.
“Hank?!” he asks in disbelief. It’s Ricky, who has, by coincidence (or fate?), found the last room with the last empty bed on the mountain. “We were too tired to walk back down today. We getting dinner!” I know he means me too.
Ricky and Meggie lead me to one of the restaurants in the hotel: “This one’s cheaper but they make us the same food,” Ricky says. My Chinese parents order me something mostly unlike chicken noodle soup. I admit: the food and the company makes me feel better.
“We getting up at 6:00 AM to see the sunrise,” Meggie announces. I don’t really have a choice; they’re my Chinese parents.
At 6:45 AM the next morning, the three of us are standing under a pagoda on a high summit above the hotel, but there’s so much fog that the sun is still nowhere to be seen. We begin walking down the mountain together. The two of them get ahead of me for a while because I’m exploring some side trails, but we eventually meet again at the cable car station about halfway down the mountain. Meggie’s face makes it’s clear that she’s done hiking in the cold.
The “Greeting Pine” welcomes tourists who arrive on Huangshan by cable car.
“We taking the cable car,” Meggie says. I shake my head. I tell them that I really want to hike the rest of the way down. This time, we know we won’t see each other again. We take a photo together at the Best Photographic Point of Mount Huangshan.
“Good luck,” Meggie says, sadly. “Without us, you must learn to speak Chinese.”
“I know,” I say. “Thanks so much for all of your help. Be sure to leave your virtue in Huangshan.” She looks at me, puzzled, as though she thinks her English has failed her. Then, I watch them get into their cable car, and I continue hiking, trying my best not to enjoy the views while walking.
Further down the mountain, a six-person Chinese family stops me at the Best Photographic Point of Mount Huangshan to take six photos with me (usually, each family member likes to have his own). Afterward, without explanation, they pull assorted Chinese foods out of their backpacks: boiled eggs, kebabs, shaobing (sesame seed cake), Chinese jerky, and foreign candy.
“Eat,” one of them says. Though I’ve already eaten, I know that these new Chinese parents will be as equally stubborn as Meggie and Ricky. I sit down and begin with a bite of shaobing. Everytime I try a bite of a new food, the family laughs when they see my expression. I laugh too.
I’ve never met these people. I don’t know what I’m eating. We can’t talk to each other. But, somehow, I’m not frustrated anymore.
Crouching Tiger, inscrutable Mandarin
How my wish to become a flying martial artist came true in rural China.
The bridge across Hongcun’s South Lake was featured in the opening scene of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
MÙKĒNG BAMBOO FOREST, Ānhuī, China — Having parted ways with my friends (and indispensable Mandarin translators) Meggie and Ricky, I’m sitting next to the xiaojie (young woman) at my hotel’s front desk, typing furiously into Google Translate. We’re trying to have a conversation via translation robot about visiting Hóngcūn and Xīdì, two ancient villages and UNESCO World Heritage Sites which boast an elegant architectural style dating back to the Qing dynasty (1736-1796). It’s not easy.
The bridge across South Lake in the ancient village of Hóngcūn was featured in the opening scene of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Truthfully, it’s not the villages’ nerdy architectural attributes — homes with special courtyards designed to serve as kind-of air conditioners, carved-stone door frames, windows with complex latticework, and visitor viewing verandas — that interest me as much as the fact that scenes from Chinese martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the most successful foreign language film in American history) were set in these villages. The movie tells the story of a young woman (Zhang Ziyi) who yearns to escape her imminent arranged marriage to live as a warrior with total freedom. Her life is further complicated by her lover, a young desert marauder (Chen Chang), who tells her that, according to legend, God will grant one wish to anyone who jumps from the top of a mountain.
Hóngcūn’s beautiful, crescent-shaped Moon Pond sits in the center of the town.
Like most Americans, when I first saw the movie and its scene in which Zhang Ziyi’s and Chow Yun-fat’s characters fight against each other, soaring through a lush, green bamboo forest, I had never seen anything like it. Afterward, newly interested in wuxia (Chinese martial arts) films, I saw House of Flying Daggers, a movie directed by the talented Zhang Yimou, who went on to direct the 2008 Beijing Olympics ceremonies. I was so astonished by the movie’s bamboo forest scenes — scenes photographed so deliciously that at times they seemed like forest pornography — that I promised myself I’d hike someday through a Chinese bamboo forest. I admit that taking a pilgrimage to a forest from a movie isn’t the best reason to travel somewhere, but, well, sometimes a tiny key opens an enormous door.
Xidi’s Huwenguang Paifang three-tiered entrance arch hails from the Ming dynasty.
It’s a strange kind of fun, trying to negotiate travel arrangements to ancient Chinese villages using Google Translate — so strange, in fact, that sometimes it can be the opposite of fun. When the woman at the desk’s bus station directions from Google appear — “Bus station is just short four year walk past dragon” — I decide to accept her other offer to join a group tour of the two villages instead, to simplify logistics. Soon enough, I’m in a mini bus with nine Chinese tourists (I still haven’t seen a Western tourist during the entire week I’ve been in China), heading toward Hóngcūn, the town with the sparkling lake and traditional entrance bridge featured in the first scene of Crouching Tiger. When we arrive, a xiaojie tour guide, who only speaks Mandarin, leads us through Qing dynasty homes and the town’s intricate maze of cobblestone streets, dazzling us with fascinating historical narratives about the town. Or, at least, I imagine that’s what it would be like, if I were in an alternate universe where I could understand anything she’s saying. At one point, a stray Chinese architecture student named Rose starts talking to me, managing to explain that she’s a Chinese architecture student named Rose. Then, her English runs out. Eventually, she succeeds in making me understand that she’s in Hóngcūn doing research for a college project. I want to impress her with some intellectual architectural analysis, but instead I blurt out how excited I am to be seeing some of the gorgeous sets from Crouching Tiger in person. She looks at me like I’ve just arrived from another planet. I realize that, essentially, I have.
Stone carvings greet visitors at the entrance of Xidi’s Yingfu Hall.
So, I mostly try to stay as close as possible to my gaggle of Chinese tourists, hoping I won’t get lost in the labyrinth. While they’re (presumably) talking about the importance of the Moon Pond, I imagine arriving in the town from the desert of China’s Xinjiang region, flying over the city’s slate tiled rooftops and skipping across the crescent-shaped, shimmering Pond. While they’re looking at the intricate stone carvings above the entrance to the Chengzhi Hall residential compound, I imagine swooping in with the Green Destiny Sword to save the beautiful Zhang Ziyi from an arranged marriage and spend the rest of our days together traveling across rural China.
Chinese tourists hike through the Mukeng bamboo forest.
During our tour of Xīdì, I become separated from my group for a while after being sidetracked by a bunch of Chinese students who want me to pose with them for photos in front of the town’s ancient Huwenguang Paifang entrance arch. When my photo shoot is over, I latch on to another tour group to lead me through the town — or, at least, I think that it’s a different tour group. I’m not sure because most tour groups have an identical composition: a young, recently married couple, two middle-aged Chinese couples, and a fourth couple carrying a two-year-old boy. As we walk, I guess that China’s one-child policy, which restricts urban couples from having more than one child through a system of heavy fines, is one of the reasons for this uniformity. It occurs to me that the overrepresentation of young boys among these middle-class Chinese tourists is, most likely, a result of this policy’s tendency to incite sex-selective abortion of girls. (In 2009, the gender ratio of Chinese males to females was 119:100.)
Green trees abound in the Mukeng bamboo forest.
After the tours, with the help of the Google Translate iPhone app (if you don’t speak Mandarin, do not visit China independently without it or the offline-capable Jibbigo), I tell our tour guide that I am going to separate from the group instead of returning to the hotel. I plan to take a taxi by myself to the nearby Mùkēng Bamboo Forest, the same bamboo forest used for the backdrop of the fight scene in Crouching Tiger (not part of the tour). Some of the tourists in the group look strangely startled that I am deviating from the tour’s itinerary before its planned completion. I’m kind-of hoping that the group’s younger couple will jump at the chance to hike through a sparkling, emerald bamboo forest and join me, but it appears that diverging from the group is taboo. I get the strange sensation that I am the first person, ever, to split from a Chinese tour group’s itinerary and go off on my own. (To be fair, separating from an American tour group in the US would probably elicit a similar reaction, though I might find it easier to recruit followers.) I say “xìng huì” (“Nice to meet you”) to each couple and jump into a taxi. (But, since Mandarin-ignorant Westerners usually are incapable of affecting Chinese tones correctly, it’s also possible that I accidentally announced to the group that my hovercraft is full of eels.)
Mukeng bamboo forest employees ready the flying fox.
At the Mùkēng Bamboo Forest, I’m relieved to find many fewer tourists as I climb steep stairs (the Chinese seem to hate leaving the wilderness wild) through the verdant forest onto a ridge encircling the glittering forest floor. I spend a lot of time trying to take photos of green trees that match the beauty of House of Flying Dagger‘s photography. I don’t succeed.
After about 30 minutes of hiking, I encounter a small wooden shack with an inscrutable sign. When I go inside, a woman greets me and points to a flying fox — a zip line with an attached harness — leading across the valley. Before I can use Google to ask her in Mandarin whether the cable undergoes regular safety checks, she ushers me into the harness.
Standing high on the ridge, I make a wish. Then, I jump into the abyss. I feel a strong blast of wind on my face and see a rush of blurred emerald green as I soar above the bamboo forest. I’m wielding the Green Destiny Sword. Zhang Ziyi is at my side.
Rock climbing and Taylor Swift in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.
Climbers stand below The Egg, a karst in Yángshuò, GuÄ?ngxÄ«, China.
YÁNGSHUÒ, Guăngxī, China — If you’ve been worrying about Canadian pop-punk star Avril Lavigne’s declining career, don’t. China’s 1.3 billion people love her. They also love American pop-country star Taylor Swift. The first time I rode the Shanghai subway, I found myself absent-mindedly humming along to a muzak version of Taylor’s “Speak Now” — “I’m not the kind of girl/Who should be rudely barging in/On a white veil occasion/But you are not the kind of boy/Who should be marrying the wrong girl” — which, to my utter confusion, was being piped into the train.
Despite my Shanghai subway experience, China’s fascination with these particular Western pop stars is still a mystery to me as I cycle toward Dragon Bridge (Yùlóng Qiao), a 400-year-old bridge about 10 kilometers northwest of Guăngxī province’s Yángshuò, one of China’s most popular climbing and cycling destinations. Earlier in the morning, I rented a bicycle from Bike Asia owner Scott, who helped me map out a route alternating between rocky, dirt paths weaving among marshy rice terraces and newly paved concrete roads winding through small Chinese villages along the shore of the Yùlóng River. As I ride, I watch boatmen ferry Chinese tourists down the River on rickety bamboo rafts. Mist-enshrouded limestone karsts, which look like bent cowboy hats, painted green and turned upside down, are sprinkled throughout the landscape. Farmers, tending to lush orange trees in fields, dot the countryside. I stop for a lunch of Yùlóng River beer fish at a restaurant in a family’s home near the ancient bridge and then take an alternate route back to Yángshuò, biking through a maze of rural farmland to Moon Hill, a hikeable mountain with a rising-moon-shaped arch at its top. From the arch, I watch the sun set behind the alien karsts. Darkness falls, ending another grueling day for the farmers.
Karsts serve as backdrops to the streets of Yángshuò.
I cycle back to Yángshuò in the dark and, after returning my bike, find myself walking by the Luanle Café and Bar. From inside, I hear a young woman singing soulfully and playing an acoustic guitar. The lyrics are in Mandarin. I can’t understand the words, but I can tell easily that it’s the kind of tune that you might turn on when you’re home alone, crying on your couch, gorging on caramel chocolate cheesecake ice cream, after the love of your life has just announced his or her engagement to someone else.
Bamboo rafts wait for tourists on the Yulong River in Yángshuò, GuÄ?ngxÄ«, China.
Beckoned by the live music, I walk inside the café, sit at the bar, and order a banana milkshake and a Coca-Cola (my signature, sugar-filled beverage orders when I’m exhausted by traveling) from the waitress. While I’m sipping my milkshake, the musician — a young woman in her early 20s with long, black hair, an attractive, round face, and dimples — continues to croon, performing song after song as though she’s the most forlorn young woman in China. I order dinner by pointing at some Chinese characters on the menu. There’s something yin and yang about the fact that, in China, I almost never know what I’m ordering for dinner, but, when the food appears, it almost always tastes great. When my dinner arrives — a traditional Yángshuò dish of crispy Lí River shrimp — the singer takes a break, and another musician, a man ten years older, takes the stage. He, too, begins singing a song that makes me think that the love of his life just announced her engagement to someone else. Meanwhile, the first vocalist sits next to me at the bar.
A bicycle sits in front of the otherworldy karsts of Yángshuò, GuÄ?ngxÄ«, China.
Into my iPhone’s Google Translate app, I type: “You have a very pretty voice,” and show the translated Chinese characters to her.
“Thank you,” she says to me in English and blushes. “But he is much better?” she asks, pointing to the man on stage.
“I like your voice better,” I say. She smiles and asks my name and where I’m from. I tell her, and she tells me that her name is Ping and that she grew up in Guăngxī Province (where we’re sitting). I’ve spent the last few days reading Red Dust — Chinese dissident Ma Jian’s seminal work about traveling across China — and I chuckle to myself because every woman with whom Ma Jian falls in love in the book is named Ping. This Ping tells me that she’s studying statistics at a college in Guìlín, the province’s largest city. She travels about 90 minutes away by bus at night to earn extra spending money by singing in the bar.
“What will you do when you graduate?” I ask, annoyed at myself for asking the question universally hated by college students around the world.
“I’m not sure,” she says, sheepishly. “I want to play music, but it is hard to make money.” I get the feeling that China’s high-pressure college placement tests didn’t put her on a track that she’s particularly pleased about. Unlike in previous decades, now that the country is moving toward Capitalism, Chinese college graduates are no longer guaranteed a job. Our conversation is interrupted when she’s called to return to the stage. I listen to her sing for another hour.
The next morning, I drop by Insight Adventures (formerly ChinaClimb) to ask climbing guides Wade and Nick if they’ll help me climb to the top of one of the many limestone karsts I passed during my cycling trip the day before.
“Sure, we were about to take him too,” Wade says, pointing to a scruffy, 30-year-old guy with a ponytail and long, thick sideburns.
“I’m Amit from Boston,” the guy says in a thick Boston accent. I introduce myself and ask him how he ended up in Yángshuò.
“Well, it’s a little complicated: I auditioned for an Israeli-backed, touring musical version of Zorro in Boston and got the part of the bad guy,” Amit explains. “We rehearsed for three months in Israel and then planned to tour across China, but the show ran out of money. So, I’ve spent the last four months just hanging out in China. The rest of the cast went home. I don’t understand why, since we had a free flight here.” It’s easily the strangest story I’ve heard of how someone ended up on a backpacking trip across China.
Orange light makes Moon Hill glow at sunset near Yángshuò, GuÄ?ngxÄ«, China.
The four of us take a minibus to The Egg, a large, limestone mound that looks particularly like an upside down cowboy hat covered with tufts of green underbrush. I put on a harness and climbing shoes while guide Wade zips to the top of the karst to anchor two top ropes above two routes rated 5.9. The bad guy from Zorro and I start climbing simultaneously. For me, it’s not an easy climb. The jagged limestone cuts into my hands as I search desperately for adequate handholds, and I spend a lot of time resting on the rope, exhausted. Halfway to the top, the muscles in my arms already feel totally worn out. (Tired arms are a dead giveaway of an inexperienced climber using poor technique; good climbers use their legs almost exclusively to reach the top of a route.) I look about as elegant as a sumo wrestler in a ballet, but I manage to beat Amit to the top (though only using brute strength as a substitute for good technique). From the karst’s peak, I admire the green and brown rows of rice terraces and the rolling horizon created by a range of bulbous karsts. I watch a grey, fat water buffalo with curved, razor-sharp horns saunter by. Then, I rappel back to the ground, embarrassed by my poor performance.
The Luanle Cafe & Bar serves up local singers nightly in Yángshuò, GuÄ?ngxÄ«, China.
“For someone who doesn’t climb regularly, you did great,” says Wade. He’s spent four years in China — two years teaching English and two years guiding outdoor-adventure trips for kids from private schools in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Korea. “You should see the Korean kids: most of them refuse to climb because they have never participated in an outdoor activity in their lives. They think that their favorite extra ‘extracurricular’ activity is studying, because that’s all their parents let them do. The worst, though, is the expat teachers from Shanghai who think they’re superior to everyone in China because they’re paid so well. They don’t realize that they’re just puppets that the Chinese schools use to have a Western face and please Chinese parents. Back in America, they’d just be badly-paid teachers. I know. I was one of them.”
Chinese vendors play cards while waiting for customers in Yángshuò.
“Perspectives become warped easily, I guess,” I say. “One day you think you understand the world, and the next day, you hear a muzak version of Taylor Swift being piped into the Shanghai subway. I thought Taylor Swift was as American as it gets.”
Though I complain that I’m too tired, Wade sends me up two more routes on The Egg. My arms are jelly, but he won’t let me give up. He’s a good climbing guide.
In the evening, the four of us join the company’s other guides and clients at their climbing gym for a hot pot, a kind-of Chinese stew. Three young, Chinese women spend a half-hour teaching me how to make pork-filled dumplings, though mostly they spend the time laughing at my lack of inherent dumpling-making ability. Afterward, a big group of us surrounds the simmering pot, and we throw vegetables, tofu, the dumplings, and whatever else we can find into it. We’re all ravenous and, by my estimation, we eat about 400 dumplings in 20 minutes. On the table, there are more empty beer bottles than I can count. (In China, empties are always left out as a kind-of badge of honor.)
“The best thing about China is that you can sit on the toilet, take a shower, drink a beer, and smoke a cigarette all at once,” Derrick, another climbing guide, explains to me. (Usually, Chinese bathrooms are one room shared by the toilet and shower nozzle, and smoking is permitted pretty much everywhere.) Derrick tells me that he traveled to China ten years ago to help expand a family business. He never left.
Afterward, I’m so tired that I’m ready to return to my hotel, but I remember that one of the great pleasures of traveling at your own pace is the luxury of spending many days in one spot, establishing habitual haunts and getting to know the people whose paths you cross daily. So, back at a table at the Luanle Café, I again order a banana milkshake, a Coca-Cola, and a random, unidentified dinner from the menu. Ping is performing her never-ending catalog of love ballads.
Climbers walking toward The Egg in Yángshuò, Guangxi, China.
When Ping takes a break and shares my table with me, I tell her that I’m on a pilgrimage to the west to hike China’s famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. I’m surprised when she tells me that she’s never been there — it’s purportedly one of the most beautiful places in the whole country.
“I’ve never left Guăngxī Province,” she explains. When she’s called back onto the stage, I spend the rest of the night in this café in rural China, writing about my trip and responding to e-mail. Again, I think of Ma Jian’s Red Dust: “It is nice to spend a day writing letters. It feels like traveling through space… I want to think on my feet, live on the run. Never again can I endure to spend my life in one room.” All the while, I’m listening to Ping’s melancholy ballads.
On my last morning in Yángshuò, I rent another mountain bike and decide to tackle a more adventurous cycling trip toward nearby town Xīngpíng on a rolling mountain road above the Lí River. I cycle for about five hours, powering up steep hills and flying recklessly down mountain valleys, stopping frequently to admire the views of bubbly karsts and endless ribbons of orange fields covered by plastic to protect crops from the cold. The route is confusing, and I keep running into intersections not shown on my map. At one, a few young, curious Chinese boys, come to investigate me and my bike, and they point me in the direction Xīngpíng. But, after continuing to cycle through the mountains for a long time, I realize, now, that the road has been veering away from the town, and I’ve missed a turn, probably many miles and many steep hills ago.
A woman climbs The Egg in Yángshuò, GuÄ?ngxÄ«, China.
In a small village in the mountains, I stand on the road, too weary to pedal another minute, hoping that a fluent-English speaker will magically appear to help me. Instead, a line of about 20 middle-aged men walks by, and I use Google Translate to explain my predicament to them. But, they don’t understand how to use my phone to respond to me with translated messages. Instead, they manage to explain that they’re headed to an all-village dinner, and they continue onto a path into an adjacent forest, leaving me alone. I get the feeling that I’m going to be sleeping here, on the side of the road, in the mountains of Guăngxī province.
The small town of XÄ«ngpíng sits near the Lí River in GuÄ?ngxÄ«, China.
But, about ten minutes later, a younger man appears from the forest path. He pulls keys out of his pocket and motions to a nearby pickup truck. I imagine that the conversation, at the village-wide dinner, about what to do about the exhausted Westerner standing cluelessly in the middle of the village road, must have been a good one. For Y100/US $16, the young man agrees to drive me to a nearby town. There, he directs me to a bus that takes me back to Yángshuò.
Drained from my cycling adventure, I again stumble into the Luanle Café and order a banana milkshake and a Coca-Cola. I imagine that I look like I’ve just been beaten up by China, but Ping, who’s singing on stage, smiles at me anyway when I sit down.
“Which Chinese movie and pop stars do you know?” she asks me when she finishes at the end of the night and joins me at my table. This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question in China, and my answer is always a letdown.
“The only Chinese celebrity I know is Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” I reply. “We almost never get Chinese movies or music in America.”
“Well, Zhang Ziyi is very beautiful,” she says, but she seems disappointed that I don’t know any Chinese pop stars. “I like American music.”
“Oh, really? What do you like?” I’m secretly hoping that I’ll get to hear her ethereal voice sing Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” or REM’s “Nightswimming.”
“I like Avril Lavigne, and I love Taylor Swift,” she says. I ask her if she has heard of Don McLean, Oasis, or REM, but she looks at me blankly. I’m disappointed.
“Oh, well,” I say. “Will you play one more song for me, in English?” She nods and then giggles and blushes. She returns to the stage, says something to the café’s Chinese crowd, and starts singing, directly to me, in English. At first, the song sounds like yet another from her endless Chinese love song repertoire, until I realize that she’s singing Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” — the same song I heard in the Shanghai subway:
Plastic covers protect crops from cold weather in front of karsts near Yángshuò, GuÄ?ngxÄ«, China.
I am not the kind of girl Who should be rudely barging in On a white veil occasion But you are not the kind of boy Who should be marrying the wrong girl…
So don’t say yes, run away now I’ll meet you when you’re out Of the church at the back door
Don’t wait or say a single vow You need to hear me out And they said, “Speak now!”
The song sounds a bit jumbled because Ping’s weak English requires her to sing phonetically, but I barely notice because of her emotional performance and sweet voice. As she sings, I see the Chinese tourists in the café mouthing the words. They all know the song. Suddenly, the mystery of teenage American pop stars in China reveals itself to me. Avril and Taylor’s unrequited love ballads go perfectly with couch crying and caramel chocolate cheesecake ice cream. They sound almost identical to the Chinese pop music I’ve been hearing for the past three days.
After the song ends, the entire audience applauds. Ping and I walk out of the Luanle Café together. It’s night, but I can make out the outline of an otherworldly-looking karst, towering above us at the end of the road. As we walk through the streets of Yángshuò, passing café after café, the saddest songs that I have ever heard waft over us, in the dark.
Chinese propaganda, in miniature
Have you ever missed a flight and ended up at Genghis Khan horseback battle reenactment?
Actors perform a reenactment of a Ghenghis Khan horseback battle at Splendid China in Shenzhen.
SHĒNZHÈN, Guăngdōng, China — I’m incredulous that my cell phone reads 7:45 AM and I’m still in my Hong Kong hostel in Causeway Bay. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE!? I wonder. Okay, if I leave now, I can still make it to my flight, I tell myself. But I’m in total denial. Boarding my 9:55 AM flight to Guìlín at the nearby Shēnzhèn airport is a preposterous fantasy, because the bus trip from Hong Kong requires a stop at both Hong Kong’s and mainland-China’s immigration checkpoints (under the same roof), a trip which, at a minimum, takes 90 minutes.
A sign in the Shenzhen Metro encourages Chinese citizens to try queuing.
Nevertheless, the obvious obstacles don’t faze me. I WILL MAKE IT, DEFINITELY! I tell myself. I’m a religious airport optimist, believing that I can make it to any flight departure on time, if I just have enough faith. I pack up as fast as I can, almost murder the hostel owner for taking ten minutes to find my deposit money, sprint to the Hong Kong subway, and slide into the bus station just in time for the 8:15 AM bus to the airport. Maybe the immigration officers are running efficiently today, I think, continuing my insane optimism.
Amazingly, they barely look at my passport — apparently, there’s no one on Earth trying to sneak illegally from Hong Kong (considered the world’s freest economy) into mainland China — and I speed through both immigration checkpoints in about ten minutes. Still, I don’t arrive at the airport check-in desk for Air China until 10:10 AM. Even now, I continue my delusion, sure that the woman at the desk will tell me that the flight has been delayed. Instead, she tells me matter-of-factly, without any sense of apology, that the flight departed 15 minutes before my arrival. She tells me that the next flight isn’t for another 12 hours.
A miniature, hand-crafted Temple of Heaven is on display in Splendid China, Shenzhen.
In my American way, every possible flight and airport permutation runs through my head, and I ask her to search for flights from all airports within a four-hour bus ride to all airports within four hours of Guìlín. The fear of the inevitable destruction of my eternal airport optimism combined with the prospect of being trapped for the day in Shēnzhèn — one of China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ), in which the free market reigns, but the beautiful outdoors does not — is making me ill.
In her Chinese way, she pushes a few keys on her keyboard and reports back: “It impossible.” She smiles. I frown.
I AM GOING TO VOMIT ON THIS CHINESE FAMILY, I think as I take a bite of a cheeseburger in the Shēnzhèn airport’s McDonald’s (apparently, Communism is dead in the SEZs). I realize that my rule about never eating non-native food in foreign countries exists for a reason; I don’t know what I’ve put in my mouth, but it shares no DNA with American fast food (which, admittedly, is bad to begin with). The families in the McDonald’s look at me like I’m crazy when I spit out my bite of “hamburger” and discard my entire inedible sandwich and inedible French fries. They should just be happy that they’re not covered in vomit, I think.
Actors perform in Splendid China, Shenzhen.
I spend a couple hours moping. I wish that a band of Chinese con artists would appear and try to scam me out of $10,000, because anything would be more fun than sulking in this airport, I think. The word “anything” arrives in my brain as a realization. I check my backpack at a luggage storage desk and jump aimlessly onto the Shēnzhèn subway. (Though the US has a woefully inadequate, crumbling transportation infrastructure, China has 16 major cities with mass transit rail systems and 16 more cities’ subways scheduled to be completed in the next three years.)
Actors perform in Splendid China’s Yao Minority Village.
As I analyze the subway map, two stops catch my eye, mostly because their names are abnormally written in English: “Window of the World” and “Overseas China Town.” Using my phone, I learn that Window of the World is a Chinese theme park boasting 130 miniature reproductions of the world’s most famous tourist attractions. I’m intrigued, but, then, I read about another theme park called Splendid China Folk Village (at “Overseas China Town”) which has miniaturizations of China’s important historical sites and faux villages featuring clothing, architecture, and the daily life of China’s 56 ethnic minorities. Though I’m a little worried about what will happen to my ego when surrounded by miniatures — already, my six-foot tall height makes me huge in China — I’ve been interested in learning more about China’s minorities since I set foot in the mainland. I’m also excited to see The Great Wall (even in miniature), because it’s not on my itinerary for this southern-China-only trip.
Actors perform a reenactment of a Genghis Khan horseback battle at Splendid China in Shenzhen.
In the park, overwhelmed by its size, I try to consult a posted “Total Navigational Chart” — seriously, it’s like all Chinese translators are trained at Getting Your Point Across in the Wackiest Way Possible University — but the Chinese characters on the map seem to negate my inherent map-reading ability. So, I wander around, without direction, past a traditional dance show and toward a street of food vendors, where I buy and eat a sweet, unidentified Chinese pastry. Soon, I start feeling like Alice in Wonderland, towering over both the miniature historical sights and the park’s Chinese tourists. BEWARE OF ME: I’M A TERRIFYING, ENORMOUS GIANT FROM CALIFORNIA! I want to yell.
Shenzhen apartment buildings tower over a miniature reproduction of the Great Wall of China at Splendid China in Shenzhen.
Yet, stomping around as some kind of off-kilter, Western ogre, seeing all of China’s important historical landmarks as miniatures, in a single hour, feels hollow. It’s sad to see the Leshan “Grand” Buddha Statue — the 233-foot-tall original is the tallest pre-modern statue in the world — at a height of only 40 feet, despite the park’s nonsensical boasting of the reproduction’s “excellent facilities like awful posture, bold lines, concordant proportion, serene expression, graceful bearing.” Beijing’s Forbidden City looks more like more like a Playmobil toy than something awe inspiring. But, I do get my only chance to see the Great Wall of China — in miniature, made with six million hand-laid bricks, with Shēnzhèn apartment buildings towering behind it.
I hope this guy knows that I know that this isn’t the real Great Wall, I think, when I ask a miniature tourist to take a photo of me in front of it.
Next, I galumph through the park’s “folk villages,” which, to my Western eye, seem a lot like Chinese government propaganda exploiting the country’s ethnic minorities. The People’s Republic of China takes great pains to appear magnanimous toward its minorities, but international watchdogs frequently criticize the government for human rights violations and its brutal treatment of its Tibetan and Uyghur minorities (not unlike the US’s historical treatment of Native Americans). Incidentally, a Splendid China theme park operated in Orlando, Florida between 1993 and 2003 frequently attracted protesters claiming that the Chinese-government-owned park was just a huge piece of Communist propaganda. I try to think of an equally-dubious, analogous U.S. propaganda piece — like a Native American theme park with a miniature village for each tribe — but only Epcot’s (very different) World Showcase comes to mind. But, since I seem to be the only person in the park worried about the park’s affected tone, I sit back and enjoy the shows. I watch members of China’s Yao minority compete in a top spinning competition, the Miao minority harvest coconuts, and the Bai minority perform a folk dance in traditional costumes. I don’t learn much, because, as usual, I can’t understand anything that anyone is saying. If only it were possible to learn Mandarin in three weeks, I wish.
Statues stand in front of Splendid China, Shenzhen.
After the folk dance, I notice that everyone in the park seems to be heading in one direction, so, I follow them into a stadium in the center of the park. Everyone in the stands seems intensely excited. Soon enough, I’m watching a gleeful horse battle reenactment titled “Unparalleled Hero,” in which Mongol-leader Genghis Khan “complete[s] the great undertaking to unite all tribes and establish Great Mongolia Empire via years’ hard warfare based on his firm will and outstanding military talent.” In short, it seems, the show is about Genghis Khan forcing the region’s ethnic minorities to succumb to his military might.
A billboard in Shenzhen advertises Splendid China.
I have no idea how to reconcile the assimilation theme of the horse battle show (a sort-of gloating reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand) with the minority village shows I’ve just seen.
After the show ends, as I tramp out of the park — looming over the miniature Great Wall of China one last time — nonsensical Chinese propaganda messages tumble through my head. I make a mental note to delve more into China’s relationship with its ethnic minorities, once I’ve shrunken back to my normal size.
A battle of wills
Trekking China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the world’s deepest canyons.
A farmer herds goats on a newly-paved road in China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
TIGER LEAPING GORGE, Yúnnán, China — “Sean advertises on his web site that he was the first person in the Gorge to marry a beautiful foreign woman,” Maren tells me while we’re standing under a red People’s Republic of China flag, looking out from a viewpoint above the lush expanse of China’s rugged Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yúnnán Province. “He also says that he was the first to do business with foreigners and is the only person to speak out about protecting the wilderness area of the Gorge.” I chuckle, but I realize that, after three weeks of backpacking through China, I’m starting to take the country’s eccentricities for granted.
A kumquat tree in China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge
“Well, he sounds like an interesting guy,” I say as we continue hiking. “Let’s agree that we won’t leave the Gorge without seeing an actual leaping tiger and meeting Sean and his drop-dead-gorgeous, Swedish wife.” After some further iPhone research (Chinese 3G networks, which seem to penetrate every obscure corner of China, further prove American suspicions that US cell phone networks are managed by idiots), I discover writer Scott Carrier’s “Greatest Fishing Story Ever Told,” a 2001 Esquire essay partly about visiting Sean in the Gorge. I realize that we’re on a quest to meet a Chinese celebrity.
I met Maren and her husband Joseph during breakfast in a small guest house (Jane’s) earlier in the morning before starting our hike, and I’m relieved to have run into them. They’re the first native English speakers who I’ve encountered since beginning my China backpacking trip three weeks ago, and it’s a pleasant change to have some friends during the two-day, 22-mile hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Gorge, one of the deepest canyons in the world, measures 12,795 feet from the waters of China’s Jinsha River to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hābā Xǔeshān and Yùlóng Xuěshān.
China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in China.
As we hike past a small, green bamboo forest with high mountain peaks towering overhead, Maren tells me that she and Joseph live in Washington DC; she’s a teacher and he’s a labor economist for the DC Metro. The two are celebrating the birth of their first child, Adelaide. Imagining a city halfway around the world with English-speaking bus drivers, American school teachers, and a White House seems strangely alien, and I realize that I’ve been enveloped in Chinese culture, without any English-speaking companions, for a long time now. The 50-year-old Chinese man passing us on our narrow dirt trail carrying 75 pounds of hay to feed his cattle somehow feels more culturally relevant to me than Capitol Hill does right now.
Maren and Joseph seem to feel the same way; the three of us spend our time hiking trading stories about Chinese culture and travel, neither to prove our backpacking mettle nor position ourselves as sophisticated outside observers, but instead as an attempt to interpret and understand what we’ve seen during our time in the country. I tell them how devastated I was that, when I arrived in nearby Lijiang, the temperature was 35°F instead of the 75°F that the government-provided weather forecast had predicted. I had spent three hopeful weeks looking forward to a balmy escape from the chilly weather I endured in Huángshān and Yángshuò. To my surprise, Maren and Joseph lament that they also spent their trip fantasizing about the warm weather, only to have been duped by the same false forecast. I tell them that I learned in a book that, as recently as 1999, the Chinese government reported fake (more pleasant) weather forecasts to the Chinese people, partly to avoid giving workers days off due to blistering desert temperatures. (Supposedly, they have stopped now.)
Signs of development are starting to creep into China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
As we walk past a green and brown maze of rice terraces and an ugly tangle of electrical lines covering the side of the Gorge, Maren and Joseph tell me about their visit to the Splendid China theme park and report that they (like me) found their experience unnerving.
“It was a little weird, right?” Maren said. “I can’t tell whether the Chinese minority performers were just being used as blatant government propaganda or whether there’s an authentic feeling of goodwill between the Han Chinese and the rest of the country’s inhabitants.” I’m embarrassed when it occurs to me how little I know about this topic; I haven’t managed to have any lengthy chats with a single Chinese ethnic minority during my trip in China.
Hikers trek through China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
We walk past a canopy of trees sprinkled with orange kumquats, trying to hash out the answers to many other Chinese cultural mysteries: Is there really no privately-owned land? Is it possible to start a capitalist enterprise outside of Special Economic Zones Shenzhen and Guangdong? Why does the Chinese government block access to Facebook and Twitter but allow access to China-based copycats Renren and Weibo? I’m relieved that we’re able to hammer out partial answers to our questions based on what we’ve learned during our time in China, but I’m also embarrassed that we don’t have any great answers. It occurs to me that our discussion would make for a particularly hilarious issue of Modern Jackass: Chinese Culture Edition, the imaginary magazine that publishes expert analysis by non-experts. Surprisingly, it’s taken two Americans to remind me yet again that it’s essential that I break through the Mandarin language barrier before leaving China.
A Chinese farmer takes a break, smoking a pipe in China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
When the sun sets, we decide to stop at the Tea Horse, a small guest house sitting below massive, jagged mountain peaks, to find dinner and a place to sleep. We’re drawn in by a sign advertising a masseuse, but, inside, the innkeeper tells us that the masseuse left many months ago and never returned. We don’t bother trying to ask why she’s still displaying the ad. Joseph, Maren, and I spend the night around a fire pit, chatting with a friendly Korean family, an eccentric farmer’s son from rural Ireland, and a madly-in-love couple from France. While sipping Tsingtao Beer, Maren, Joseph, the French couple, and I make a pact to spend the next year learning Mandarin and then return to China together, better suited to work out China’s cultural mysteries.
On the second day of our hike, we wander down a steep side trail from Tina’s Guest House high in the Gorge toward a place on our map labeled Middle Tiger Leaping Rock, a granite outcrop in the water at the Gorge’s bottom.
“Finally, we’re going to get to see some tigers leap across the Gorge!” I joke. Joseph looks skeptical.
More than a few times, local Chinese farmers occasionally block our path along the way and (illegally) demand, using signs in badly translated English, that we pay a small fee to use the trail, insisting that they maintain it. It’s a common annoyance in China’s badly-regulated wilderness areas, but we comply with their meager demands just to keep the peace. After paying yet another Y20/US $3 to stand on Middle Tiger Leaping Rock in the middle of the Jinsha River — where we see not one leaping tiger — we continue walking toward Walnut Garden, hoping to find Chinese-celebrity Sean. We know we’re nearing his village, because we see crude advertisements for guesthouses spray-painted on boulders bordering the trail. China may know how to build amazing cell phone networks, but effective wilderness protections and the cultural shifts that come along with them are still decades away.
Hikers admire the view from the outdoor restaurant at Sean’s Guest House in Walnut Garden, China.
On the final stretch of the trail leading toward Walnut Garden, a small, 40-year-old Chinese woman stands in our way and demands that we each pay an additional Y20/US $3 to continue. By now, we’ve each paid about Y60/US $10 to these extortionists, in addition to a legitimate Y50/US $8 entrance fee at the wilderness area’s entrance. I’m fed up, and I refuse to pay the woman, since she’s trying to collect fees illegally. Nevertheless, she continues to block the trail. I raise my voice and begin yelling at her in English to move aside, but it doesn’t seem to help, so I forcefully push past her. To my surprise, as I move by, she grabs me and then latches her entire body onto my backpack with both arms, like a boa constrictor trying to suffocate its prey. As I make my way up the trail, I look back and see that I’m dragging a screaming, 100-pound Chinese woman behind me. She won’t let go.
Illegal signs used to extort money from tourists dot the trail in China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Maren and Joseph look at me baffled and helpless, as though this is the first time they’ve ever seen a battle of wills between a six-foot-tall American man and a five-foot-tall Chinese farming woman. As I continue dragging her up the side of the Gorge, I decide that, despite the possible effectiveness of the strategy, I’d never forgive myself if I punched her in the face over $3. (Still, I’m annoyed that she’s depending on my civility to extort money.) I consider phoning the Chinese police, but I can’t imagine that the inevitable ensuing hassle (in Mandarin) would be worth my time. So, reluctantly, each of us pay her Y20/US $3. I feel frustrated that we have been defeated so soundly by a tiny Chinese woman.
A man carries hay in in China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Nevertheless, when the three of us arrive at Sean’s Guest House ten minutes later, we’re thrilled at the prospect of finally meeting Sean, partly because we’ve endured unrealized promises of leaping tigers, propagandist weather reports, and desperate Chinese farmers to get here. The three of us sit at a table in the guest house’s outdoor restaurant, looking out at the severe, dark rock slabs of awe-inspiring Tiger Leaping Gorge. I look down at my menu, which reads unintelligibly:
“If you Are our Friend, you can have OR get Real Good Stuff for smoke or eat in our place, But if you have to pay it!! If you don’t or with out ask, we do not Give You, so you don’t have to worry If you don’t Like it!!!“
I turn around, expecting to see Sean demanding a large fee for a plate of pot brownies. Instead, a very attractive, 30-year-old Chinese woman asks us in weak English if we’d like to order food. My brain starts churning, trying to find inoffensive ways to ask her if she knows that she is being advertised on the Internet as Sean’s beautiful, foreign-born wife.
“Is Sean here?” I ask. “We’re dying to meet him. You know he’s like a celebrity, right?” She looks a little confused.
“No, Sean in town getting supplies,” she says, apologetically. “But, I help you with anything.” Trying to proceed cautiously, I ask her if she is his wife.
“Yes, we married!” she responds.
“And how long have you lived in Walnut Garden?” I ask.
“I was born here and have lived here all my life,” she answers. For us, this information puts into doubt everything Sean has claimed on his web site. Maren, Joseph, and I glance at each other, looking like six year olds who have just been told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
Hikers walk near a waterfall in in China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.
While we sit, I find Scott Carrier’s Esquire essay on the Internet and begin reading it aloud. We learn that the Chinese Red Army killed Sean’s sister and threw Sean into a fire during the Cultural Revolution, burning his body and maiming his arm and hand. Nevertheless, he educated himself (handicapped kids were not permitted in Communist schools) and figured out how to make a living for himself helping tourists in Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Then, sadly, I find a blog post describing the death of Margo Carter, an Australian woman who — to my surprise — purportedly was married to Sean until her death during a trek in the Gorge in 2010.
In my head, Sean’s web site changes from a wacky curiosity to a romantic memorial. As we eat our food, I mull over the tragedies of China’s Cultural Revolution and the difficulties of surviving poverty in modern, rural China. I sit in disbelief that I fought with a Chinese farmer over three dollars. I feel relieved that I lost.
A romantic comedy in Lìjiāng and Dàlǐ, China.
Canals run down the streets of LìjiÄ?ng, China.
DÀLǏ, Yúnnán, China — “Let’s meet at the water wheel,” I say into my cell phone, aware that I sound like I’m reading from a script for a bad romantic comedy. I’m setting up a date with a 25-year-old Chinese girl named Christine or Yin — depending on whether you’re an English or a Chinese speaker — who I met a few days before while she was working as a receptionist at a hotel in Lìjiāng, China. On the way out of my inn, I glance at the entrance sign, which reads: “Mid-Leuelf Haliday Viewing Hatel.” This is going to be a hilarious rom com, I think, as I head toward Lìjiāng’s most famous and romantic landmark.
The rooftops of LìjiÄ?ng, China, seen from a hotel room window.
The 12-foot-tall wooden water wheel at the entrance to Lìjiāng Old Town (an UNESCO World Heritage Site, quickly being destroyed by careless development), illuminated by spotlights, glows golden yellow in the darkness, as I search a sea of hundreds of Chinese tourists for Christine. Though she is attractive, I admit that I’ve asked Christine to have dinner partly because her fluent English gives me a chance to get some of my burning questions about China answered by someone with whom I can communicate. As an added bonus in terms of learning about China, she is a member of the Bai ethnic minority, one of 55 recognized minority groups apart from the country’s Han Chinese majority.
Woman perform taichi in LìjiÄ?ng, China.
“Where should we eat?” I ask after finding her, standing five feet tall with black hair and a checkered wool coat, hidden in front of the water wheel. “You know the Lìjiāng restaurants better than I do.”
“Have you had Across-the-Bridge Noodle yet?” she asks. I tell her that I have no idea what she’s talking about. I’m already starting to suspect that I may have judged her English too kindly.
“Follow me,” she says. As she leads me through the maze of narrow alleys of Lìjiāng’s Old Town, she starts telling me a story about a faithful Bai wife who once had to take soup across a bridge to an island where her husband was studying for his imperial exams (the tests used to determine those fit for the government bureaucracy in Imperial China).
“She loved her husband very much, so she was frustrated when the soup always became cold on the long walk to visit him,” she explains. “So, one day, she decided to separate the ingredients and bring him a boiling hot broth covered with a layer of oil. It stayed hot for the entire trip, and her husband loved the hot broth because it let him cook the soup’s ingredients as he ate.”
Clothes hang in shops in LìjiÄ?ng, China.
Sure enough, soon after we sit down at the restaurant, the waitress brings us a boiling hot broth with a variety of raw vegetables, seafood, and meat. Christine and I start cooking our food together, but I keep losing vegetables and meat in the broth due to my incompetence with chopsticks. I’m embarrassed, but Christine laughs and her eyes twinkle. Playing the role of the tale’s dutiful Bai wife, she starts feeding me the hot food with her chopsticks. I feel ridiculous, but our meal ends up seeming a little like the Italian restaurant spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp — transported to a bizarre, Chinese-noodle rom com universe.
Mountains tower behind the streets of DàlÇ?, China.
While we eat, Christine tells me that she grew up in a very rural nearby county, working on her parents’ farm. When she performed well on China’s high-pressure, college-entrance exams, she ended up being one of the few people in her county and the only in her family to go to college, where she perfected her English. After teaching for a couple years in a poor, rural farming town, she decided to move to Chinese-tourist haven Lìjiāng, a city of 1.2 million people, to make more money. There, she got a coveted job as a receptionist at an expensive international luxury hotel due to her excellent English.
Bai wax-dyed cloth hangs from a clothesline in a market in DÃ lÇ?, China.
“Do you like the job?” I ask.
“Sometimes, but I don’t really understand it,” she says. “How can people spend US $1,500 on one night in a hotel villa? It doesn’t seem fair to the poor kids in my school who didn’t even have clothes.” When I ask her about her salary, she tells me that she earns US $2,000 per year and lives in a hotel dorm with four other employees.
“I can’t imagine spending that much on a hotel room either,” I respond. (Though I met her at her hotel, I was there only to have dinner at its restaurant before returning to my US $20/night hostel). “Some people are very rich, though.” She looks visibly distraught.
“My manager, who I work harder than, makes US $16,000 a year!” she complains. “It doesn’t make sense!” I feel like she’s expecting me, an American, to justify capitalism and her hotel’s employee pay structure — or even fix it — but I have no idea what to say.
“Well, it’s clear that China has changed a lot in the past ten years,” I say vaguely. “Do you think the country’s move toward a free market is a mistake? Are you worried about the future?”
“I have a great hope for China,” she says. “Things are much better. But, I’m very worried about economic inequality.”
Bai wax-dyed cloth hangs from a clothesline in a market in DàlÇ?, China.
“Yes, it’s a problem everywhere in the world,” I say, thinking of the woman in Tiger Leaping Gorge who latched onto me for US $3 and wouldn’t let go. When I mention Tiger Leaping Gorge to Christine, she tells me that she’s never visited it — despite the fact that it’s only a two-hour bus ride away.
“You’ve seen more of China than I have,” she says. “I’ve never left Yúnnán Province.”
“If you could go one place, anywhere in the world, where would you go?” I ask her.
“The Sagrada Família,” she says, referring to the well-known, unfinished Catholic church in Barcelona, Spain. “A Catholic missionary once gave me a bible, which at first read I thought was just a fairy tale. But, then I came to believe that God is all powerful, and I became a Christian. I saw the church once on TV, and ever since I’ve wanted to visit it.”
Street musicians play guitars in DàlÇ?, China.
For a fleeting moment, I have an urge to buy the US $1,400 roundtrip ticket to Barcelona for her right then and there on my iPhone. It would be cheaper than staying one night in her hotel, after all. But, I can’t imagine that she’d approve of using that much money for a plane ticket either.
And, then, despite my vehement protests, she insists on paying for our Across-the-Bridge Noodles.
When we return to the water wheel and say goodbye, I get the feeling that I’ve just met the sweetest girl in all of China. I want to tell her to visit me sometime in Los Angeles, but I don’t. Instead, I silently wish that, if she ever gets a chance to take a trip out of the country, she goes directly to Barcelona.
A man sells sugar-covered strawberries in DàlÇ?, China.
I spend the last day of my three-week China trip in nearby Dàlǐ, wandering in the shadow of Cangshan Mountain, through markets filled with vivid navy and white Bai wax-dyed cloth, the textile for which the town is famous. At dusk, I’m surprised to hear U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” drifting from a street corner. I go to investigate, and I meet two street musicians: an American named Scott and an Irishman named Nick. They tell me that they met while traveling in China years ago, started a band, and, like so many other backpackers who I’ve met during my trip, never left.
A woman sells fruit in DàlÇ?, China.
“Chinese pop music is so horrible,” Scott explains, “that we felt like we had to start a rock band. We make enough money playing gigs and on the street to get by.” Nick suggests that I stop by Bad Monkey, Dàlǐ’s oldest expat bar, where they often play live music.
So, after dinner, I walk into Bad Monkey by myself. Scott and Nick see me and nod, as they strum away, playing American rock classics, a welcome change from the sappy ballads I became accustomed to in Yángshuò. I look around the bar, which is full mostly with Chinese tourists, but, a pretty, dark-haired, blue-eyed Western girl sitting with two other Western guys catches my eye. When I ask the girl if I can join her table, she introduces herself as Tessa, and says that she’s a Dutch medical student. She also introduces me to her two friends, whom she just met: Kevin, a student from Utrecht, Netherlands, and Tom, a carpenter from the UK.
A help-wanted sign hands in DàlÇ?, China.
“I think we should start a band,” I tell them, as we drink a table full of Tsingtao Beer. “It’s my last night in China, and I’m not ready to leave. See those guys on stage? They started a band and never left. I think we could do it too.”
“I’m in,” Tessa says as she takes a swig of beer. “Let’s name the band Drunken Horses.” And, just like in any good romantic comedy, I fall in love with her immediately.
The night turns into exactly the kind of night you want to have on the last night of a long trip. The beer keeps flowing (much of it bought for us by a drunk Chinese tourist) as we plunge into a manic planning session for the Drunken Horses’ first album. We decide that Kevin will play drums, Tom will play harmonica, Tessa will be the lead vocalist, and I’ll play guitar. We agree that the album’s first song will be titled, “Mr. Ed,” in keeping with our horses theme, and it will be a homage to the famous television steed. After Tessa tells us the sad story of a breakup with an ex-boyfriend, we write the lyrics for a second tune titled, “When You Break Up With Your Boyfriend and He Gets Rich.” After a multicultural car crash centered around our trying to order French fries, we write a third track titled, “French Fries, Chips, Crisps, and Ketchup.”
An unhelpful “schematic diagram” hangs in a bus station near DàlÇ?, China.
As the night winds down after we’ve hammered out most of the details of our band’s album, Mr. Big’s “To Be With You” starts playing on the bar’s stereo. Tessa and I, sitting side by side, look at each other. We start harmonizing together, singing the song as a duet.
I’m the one who wants to be with you, Deep inside I hope you’ll feel it too. Waited on a line of greens and blues, Just to be the next to be with you.
Even with the abysmal acoustics at this obscure dive bar in rural China, we sound good. I realize that we’d make a pretty great band.
Things to See in Shanghai, China
- OVERVIEW: Fly to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. The fastest way to get into the city is to take the Maglev train (Y50/US $8, 8 minutes) and transfer to the metro. You can also take the metro directly from the airport (Y6), but the trip takes 75 minutes.
- OPERA: The Yifu Theatre (take the metro to People’s Square) stages opera in a variety of regional styles. If you don’t speak Mandarin, you’ll have no idea what’s going on, but I still enjoyed the cryptic performance and gorgeous costumes. Tickets cost Y30 to Y280 (US $5 to US $47), but the theater is so small that the cheapest seats are almost as good as the best.
- ACROBATS: Shanghai Circus World (take the metro to the Shanghai Circus World station) boasts amazing acrobatic performances with impressive artistry and a truly mind-blowing daredevil motorcycle stunt. Tickets cost Y180 to Y580 (US $30 to US $97), but every seat in the round theater except the absolute cheapest tier is very good.
- SHANGHAI MUSEUM: Lonely Planet describes the Shanghai Museum as a “must-see” and a “tour de force,” but I find most museums boring, and this one was not an exception. But, if you’re dying to see seemingly never-ending galleries filled with bronzes, ceramics, and calligraphy, take the metro to the People’s Square stop. Admission is free.
- WORLD FINANCIAL CENTER: You can take the metro to Lujiazui station and pay Y150/US $25 to go to the 100th floor and visit the world’s highest observation deck (in the world’s seventh highest building), or you can simply visit the restaurant/bar 100 Century Ave on the building’s 91st floor (part of the Park Hyatt Hotel) and see almost the same view.
How to Hike China’s Huangshan (Yellow Mountain)
- OVERVIEW: China’s Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) is one of China’s most beautiful and inspiring sights, an outdoor paradise consisting of jagged granite peaks and gnarled pine trees enveloped in blankets of fog. Yet, like so much of China, the surrounding area is all but ruined by mediocre hotels, restaurants, and overdevelopment; the mountain itself is overrun by loud, inconsiderate Chinese tour groups using bullhorns; and the “hiking” trails are paved with stone staircases. Walking up and down the mountain is only a 22.5-kilometer (14-mile) round trip, but the over 1000-meter (3,280-foot) elevation gain will test the knees of even the most fit hikers. For those not up to the challenge, cable cars take visitors (and large gaggles of Chinese tourists) up and down the mountain.
- LOGISTICS: The fastest way to get to Huangshan is to take the one-hour flight from Shanghai to the Huangshan airport (in nearby Tunxi). You can also take the bus from Shanghai (6.5 hours, Y120/US $20). In Huangshan, you can buy a (still cryptic) English hiking map of Huangshan at any store. From your hotel, walk or take a taxi to the Huangshan bus station to buy a ticket for the shuttle to the Yungu Cable Car Station (eastern steps) or Mercy Light Temple Station (western steps) to start your hike. If you can’t speak Mandarin, just point to the Yungu Cable Car Station on your map to buy the ticket. Regardless of whether you want to use the cable cars, admission to the mountain is a ridiculously expensive Y230/US $36 or, from December to February, Y130/US $20.
- ROUTE: Though this hike can be done in one day, taking two days to hike the circuit will make the experience more enjoyable. Hiking up the eastern steps (7.5 km) and down the western steps (15 km) works best. Both routes in both directions are exhausting due to the big elevation changes, but going down the western steps is a bit easier than going up them. If you take three days, you should include the 8.5-kilometer West Sea Canyon hike on the top of Huangshan (just follow the signs), which Chinese tour groups avoid because of the route’s difficulty. (Unfortunately, this section of trail is closed in snowy or icy conditions.) View the route below or download the Without Baggage Huangshan GPS track in GPX or KML format.
How to Visit China’s Huīzhōu Villages (Hóngcūn and Xīdì) and Hike in the Mùkēng Bamboo Forest
- OVERVIEW: The Huīzhōu villages of Hóngcūn (Y80/US $13 admission) and Xīdì (Y80/US $13 admission) are ancient villages near China’s Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in the province of Anhui. The Mùkēng bamboo forest (Y30/US $5 admission) is only 5 kilometers from Hóngcūn and has a two-hour trail leading through the forest and following a ridgeline. Seven other ancient villages: Tachuan, Nanping, Guanlu, Chengkan, Tangmo, Shexian, and Yuliang also circle the area and are much less popular with tourists. If you despise the omnipresent Chinese tour groups, you may want to try visiting some of these villages instead.
- LOGISTICS: The fastest way to get to Huangshan is to take the one-hour flight from Shanghai to the Huangshan airport (in nearby Tunxi). You can also take the bus from Shanghai (6.5 hours, Y120/US $20). The easiest and most expensive way to visit the Huīzhōu Villages is to hire a taxi (about Y250/US $42 plus Y80/US $13 per village admission) to take you to the two and back to your hotel. For a cheaper option, any hotel in the Huangshan area will happily put you on a tour with Chinese tourists in a minibus (Y260/US $43, which includes the Y80/US $13 per village admission). The cheapest way to visit is from the Tunxi long distance bus station, where buses run directly to Xīdì (Y12, one hour) and then to Hóngcūn (Y14, 1.5 hours). There are also local buses available from the Yixian bus station, which you can get to from the Tunxi long distance bus station.
How to Climb and Bicycle in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China
- OVERVIEW: Yángshuò is one of China’s most popular climbing and bicycling destinations. The area’s remarkable landscape, made up of hundreds of alien-looking karsts — small limestone mountains — will impress almost any adventure traveler. Nevertheless, a warning: that the town has been overrun by Chinese tour groups, and its pedestrian streets, lined with dance clubs playing Chinese and Western dance music, are heavily Westernized. Yángshuò is an excellent destination for outdoor adventure, but the fantasy of visiting a rural Chinese town here is long gone (for that, you can try cycling to some of the nearby towns found on local maps).
- LOGISTICS: Fly to any major international Chinese airport (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Hong Kong). From there, the fastest way to get to Yángshuò is to take a domestic flight to Guìlín in Guăngxī province and then take a bus (1 hour, Y20/US $3) or taxi (1 hour, Y250/US $42) to Yángshuò. You can also take a bus directly to Yángshuò from Nánníng (6.5 hours, Y121/US $20) or Shenzhen (13 hours, Y232/US $39), or a train from Beijing (23 hours, Y416/US $69) or Shanghai (22 hours, Y341/US $57). When trying to take the bus from Guìlín to Yángshuò, be aware that touts at the Guìlín bus station will attempt to usher you onto slower, local buses and/or try to trick you into overpaying for the bus. Keep in mind that the bus driver may be complicit in the scam. Thus, be sure to buy a ticket only at the official bus station ticket counter for an express bus, direct to Yángshuò. When your bus arrives just outside of Yángshuò, it’s likely that a disingenuous taxi driver may board the bus and try to convince you that you’ve already arrived in Yángshuò so that you’ll disembark and take his taxi. Don’t get off the bus until you’ve arrived at the Yángshuò bus station proper (all passengers will leave the bus then). Keep in mind that some local buses may not stop at the Yángshuò bus station, which can make things more complicated. Regardless, do your best to make sure you get off the bus within walking distance of West Street (Xi Jie, Yángshuò’s main pedestrian street lined with bars).
- BICYCLING: The best equipment, maps, and advice for cycling Yángshuò can be found at Bike Asia, located in the storefront to the left of Kelly’s Café in the courtyard where Guihua Lu has a bridge over a canal. Walk northeast on West Street (Xi Jie, Yángshuò’s main pedestrian street lined with bars) from the comfortable Ai Yuan Hotel and take the second left onto Guihua Lu. Note that Bike Asia has moved from its previous location above Bar 98 in this same courtyard. They’ll set you up with a mountain bike, detailed map, helmet, tire repair kit, and bike lock for Y60/US $10 per day. Owner Scott is especially helpful and friendly, and he’ll happily help you plan a cycling trip appropriate for your level of experience. Common day rides include the loop along the Yùlóng River from Yángshuò to Dragon Bridge (4 hours, 20 km, GPS track) and the loop along the Lí River from Yángshuò to Xīngpíng (6 to 8 hours, 40 km, unless you take a 1.5-hour bamboo raft ride from Yángshuò to Xīngpíng and then only cycle the return route). My failed trip to Xīngpíng turned out to be a beautiful mountain route in the mountains above Yángshuò to the small town nearby town of Putao (5 to 7 hours, 40 km, GPS track). It’s a pretty ride, but keep in mind that the route is hilly and strenuous. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the turnoff to Xīngpíng that eluded me (I think it’s a dirt road to the right with a Nine-Horse Fresco Hill sign). Pay close attention to Bike Asia’s routing advice if getting lost scares you.
- CLIMBING: Insight Adventures (formerly ChinaClimb) is located to the left of the House Lizard Bar and a Chinese food restaurant on Xian Qian Street, which you can reach by walking northeast from the Ai Yuan Hotel on West Street (Xi Jie, Yángshuò’s main pedestrian street lined with bars) and taking the last major left turn before the dead end into the Lí River road. For Y250 (US $42), Western, English-speaking climbing guides will take you on a half-day climbing trip to a nearby karst. Trips leave at 9 AM and 1 PM. Insight’s excellent guides provide all necessary equipment (harnesses, shoes, helmets, belay devices, ropes, anchors, and chalk) and will cater to any skill level, including beginning climbers. They can also provide information and gear for independent, expert climbers and can arrange multiday and multisport adventures. Note that some locals block routes to certain peaks and attempt to collect climbing fees illegally. The best way to discourage them is to refuse payment and give photos of the offenders to the local police (though they are persistent enough that you may be forced to find another climbing spot).
Yangshuo to Putao Cycle Details
How to Visit Splendid China Folk Village in Shēnzhèn, Guăngdōng, China
- OVERVIEW: Splendid China Folk Village Theme Park boasts 82 miniature reproductions of China’s most well-known tourist attractions as well as 21 fake villages designed to educate visitors about China’s 56 ethnic minorities.
- LOGISTICS: After arriving in Shēnzhèn, take the Metro’s Green Line to the OCT (Overseas China Town) stop. No, I have no idea what this station name means, but it’s a tourist resort neighborhood — comprising parks Splendid China Folk Village, Window of the World, and Happy Valley — akin to Anaheim, California and Orlando, Florida. From there, it’s a 2-minute walk to the Splendid China Folk Village entrance. Admission is Y120/US $20. Luggage can be checked at the entrance if necessary.
How to Hike China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge
- OVERVIEW: If there’s one place in China that should compel you to put on hiking boots and trek, it’s China’s scenic Tiger Leaping Gorge. One of the deepest gorges in the world, the Gorge is not as pristine as a US National Park, but its snow-covered peaks and sparkling river water have not been destroyed (yet) by development and tourism. The hike on the High Trail from Jane’s Guest House in Qiáotóu to Tina’s Guest House above Middle Tiger Leaping Rock is a (very easy) 15.4 miles. The additional side trip from Tina’s to Middle Tiger Leaping Rock, Sean’s Guest House, and back to Tina’s to take a bus back to Qiáotóu is an additional 6.4 miles and is a bit more strenuous due to the steep trail to the bottom of the Gorge and back.
- LOGISTICS: The fastest way to get to Qiáotóu is to take a flight to Lìjiāng from any major Chinese city, and then take one of the frequent two-hour-long buses from the Lìjiāng long-distance bus station to Qiáotóu (Y20/US $3). At the end of your hike, Tina’s Guest House can arrange for a bus ride back to Lìjiāng. Beyond Tina’s, ask any guest house for help with your route and getting back to Lìjiāng.
- ROUTE: On your first day, try hiking from Jane’s Guest House in Qiáotóu to the Half Way Guesthouse (about 10 miles). On the second day, it’s another 10 miles from Half Way to Tina’s, Middle Tiger Leaping Rock, Walnut Garden, and back to Tina’s for the bus back to Qiáotóu. Resilient and adventurous trekkers can continue to the ferry pier in Daju and then on for at least two more days to Hābā and Báishuĭtái. The trail for this extended hike isn’t as obvious; Sean’s Guest House or Woody’s Guest House in Walnut Garden can help you with a route or arrange a guide. View the route below or download the Without Baggage Tiger Leaping Gorge GPS track in GPX or KML format.