April 3, 2012 − Thailand and Cambodia

Welcome to Chapter 1 of this China travel blog. I'm starting a new blog on zoa.com because I've heard that Wordpress -- like Facebook and most other social networking sites -- is blocked within China. So, feel free to bookmark this URL because here's where I'll be posting photos and stories for the next few months.

Three weeks ago, I left one of our planet's most unattractive, depressing and restrictive societies. Five months in Afghanistan was a worthwhile and educational experience, but not one that I need to repeat. 24 hours after my flight took off from Kandahar, I was at one of Asia's most colorful, playful and uninhibited vacation destinations: Pattaya, Thailand. The culture shock was invigorating and delightful. Exactly what I was looking for.

Pattaya is everything that Afghanistan is not. It's a non-stop party town, full of cold beer, friendly Thais and European tourists -- especially Russian men. I didn't come here to meet Russian men, though. The food is fabulous, and there's lots of entertainment ... like Thai kick boxing.

After a few days of loud music, spicy food and cold beer, I was ready to do some serious relaxing. So, I took a bus, a ferry and a jeep to the southwest corner of Koh Chang, which is an island about 400 km southeast of Bangkok. I found a bungalow under the palm trees for $13/day at a place called Nature Beach Resort. And then, I sat on the beach for a week, reading Don Quixote (volumes 1 & 2). Pretty exciting, huh!

Russians in Pattaya

Thai kick boxing

The ferry to Koh Chang

A quiet beach
Next, I went overland to Cambodia. Typical of the inexpensive transportation costs in southeast Asia, it cost $18 to go door-to-door from my bungalow on the Gulf of Siam to my hotel in Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. Note: This is an all day journey involving three vehicles, a boat, a border crossing, and a motorcycle taxi at the end. The best part: You'll meet friendly and helpful folks all along the way -- especially in Cambodia.

Traveler's note: Cambodia is currently a terrific travel bargain. The country has started to open up to tourism. The roads are paved. English is widely spoken. The locals are eager for your tourist dollars, and the US dollar is the standard currency. Food, hotels and services are wonderfully inexpensive. Dinner with drinks and traditional Apsara dancing might cost $6 per person. You can sip a cold beer while your feet are being cleaned by Doctor fish (Garra rufa) for $1. If you go to Siem Reap, try the Angkor Park Guest House in the old town. It's near the river, right around the corner from the Night Market, Pub Street and lots of great food, shopping and other entertainment and services.

Of course, the main reason for going to Siem Reap is to spend 2 or 3 days wandering through the jungles looking at the stunning ruins of a lost civilization's temples and palaces. A thousand years ago, Angkor Wat was the capital of southeast Asia, with an estimated population of about 2 million. Wow! Other fascinating things to do in the area include a free tour of the silk farm and Artisans d'Angkor. Did you know that a single strand of silk nine kilometers long weighs just one gram?

Angkor Wat

Apsara dancers

The encroaching jungle

Extracting silk threads
From Siem Reap, I doubled back through Bangkok, spending two nights in a touristic neighborhood called Banglamphu. It's near Khao San Road. This is a lively part of Bangkok, with more bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors and music venues than one can count. Tourists are well-entertained here.

From Bangkok, I flew to Hong Kong, where I'll stay for a week or so. Yesterday, I stood in line for two hours at the Chinese visa office to submit my passport and visa request.

Gloucester Road, Hong Kong

If all goes well, I'll return to the visa office on Thursday to collect a visa allowing me to spend the next few months in China. And that'll be the start of this next adventure.

April 12, 2012 − Hong Kong, Macao, Guǎngzhōu

While waiting for my China visa, I spent a week seeing the sights of Hong Kong. This city has fantastic public transit, and it's a very pedestrian-friendly city, too. Taking the Star ferry back and forth to Kowloon is a delight, just to watch the boat traffic in the harbor. The subway system is clean, fast, cheap and easy to learn to use.

Hong Kong harbor

Marine traffic

Transbay subway
There's lots to do in this city, starting with the excellent museums and public parks. They're a great place to meet people. Most Hong Kong residents speak English, so it's easy to start conversations. At the Man Mo Temple, I found the Tao goddess of healing. I lit some incense for a friend, and prayed for good health. At home or on the road, there's nothing more important than one's health.

Hong Kong Park

Fresh air for man and lizard(s)

Goddess of healing
On Easter Sunday, I joined the crowds for a ferry trip to Macao. Here's where old-world Portugal mixes with modern China. I can't read Chinese (yet) but found the Portuguese street names and restaurant menus refreshingly understandable. In 1835, a fire destroyed everything but the facade of the cathedral of St. Paul. Today, it's a treasured landmark. The most impressive thing about Macao are its mega-casinos -- which together generate more gambling revenue than Nevada.

Busy streets

St. Paul's Cathedral

A few casinos
With China visa in hand, I took the train from Hong Kong to Guǎngzhōu (aka Canton). There's nothing socialistic about this city. It's all business and commerce. I did some shopping here, and then found an oasis within this city's hustle and bustle, just a couple of blocks from the main train station. A photographer allowed me to take a photo of his model, and then bought me a beer. Friendly people! The restaurant hidden within the garden feels like the set for Crouching Tiger, Leaping Dragon. But dinner cost less than the cost of a movie ticket. Nice.

Orchid garden

A photographer's model

Dinner in the orchid garden
From here, I'm heading north and west into Guǎngxī, China's province known for its bizarre karst topography.

April 28, 2012 − Guìlín and Yángshuò

From Guǎngzhōu, I flew to Guìlín, in Guǎngxī province. The plane ticket cost less than $100, and saved me a 10-hour bus ride. (Domestic flights in China are cheap and can be purchased on short notice. A good place to shop for discounts on hotels and airfares is http://www.elong.net/.)

Guìlín skyline

Sun & Moon Pagodas

Yángshuò from atop Xīláng Shān

Guìlín's scenery is stunning. Fantastic towers of limestone pop up everywhere -- in back yards, behind schools, and in parks in the middle of the city. I spent a couple of nights here at the Riverside Hostel and strolled around town admiring the scenery. Guìlín is a pedestrian-friendly city with a big central plaza, a pedestrian avenue lined with shops and restaurants, and a park with two elegant pagodas. From Guìlín, I took a bus south to Yángshuò, which is even more beautiful.

Xie Jie (West Street)

The Li River (Lí Jiāng)

Jinbao River (Jīnbao Jiāng)

Fellow students

In Yángshuò, I enrolled in a two-week intensive Mandarin program at Omeida Language College. Although one can travel throughout China without speaking any Chinese -- thanks to the fact that most of the younger generation know some English -- traveling in a foreign country is always easier and more fun if you can speak some of the local language.

So, I spent two weeks as a full-time student in this gorgeous little town. Omeida Language College is a private school that teaches Chinese to foreigners and English to Chinese. There's a good mix of about 80 Chinese kids and 20 western travelers. All of us ate, lived and studied together, which gave both groups a chance to practice what we were learning with each other. Everyone talked to everyone all the time. There were constant spontaneous activities, like bike rides in the countryside, shopping trips in town, evenings out drinking beer and listening to music on West Street, and hiking and rock climbing. It was delightful to be in such a socially active and engaging place.

Orange blossoms

Country roads through karst towers

Village backstreets

Hand-made fans in Fúlì

After two weeks of Chinese lessons, I can now start short conversations, buy bus tickets and find the bathroom. My pronunciation is terrible. The tones drive me crazy. But I'll be in China for a few months, so there's time for me to get better. Coming to Yángshuò and signing up for school was an excellent idea. It was also great fun and I made lots of new friends.

As you can see from these photos, the area around Yángshuò is wonderful country for bicycling. There are three rivers and many rural villages.

More karst landscape

Xīngpíng & 20 yuan

Rice field reflections

Evening over Yángshuò

If you're planning a trip to China, Yángshuò should be on your itinerary. Next stop, the Dong villages of northern Guǎngxī.

May 3, 2012 − The Dòngzú

In the mountains between Guǎngxī, Guìzhōu and Húnán provinces is a semi-autonomous region of China inhabited by about three million Dòng people. The Dòngzú are a matriarchal society with colorful traditions of architecture, food, music and shamanism. They speak a language that's more like Thai than Chinese. Their territory is about the size, climate and terrain of West Virginia. And they're some of the most hospitable and friendly people I've ever met.

Terraced tea and rice fields

Harvesting tea

Village houses

Traditional construction

These mountains are forested with fir trees and carved by swift rivers. The Dòngzú are famous for their carpentry skills and, in particular, for their sturdy, yet elegant, Wind and River bridges. There are at least 120 of these bridges throughout their mountains. These bridges are the primary tourist draw of the area. The longest of these bridges is the 78-meter Chéngyáng bridge. It's especially remarkable because, as with all Dòng construction, it's built without any nails or bolts.

A typical Wind and River bridge

Bridge and waterwheel

Nail-less joinery

Rafter construction

To get to this remote area, I took a bus going north from Guìlín to Sānjiāng. From Sānjiāng, I took a cycle taxi and a minivan to the hamlet of Mǎ'ān. This journey was easy thanks to the help -- by cell-phone, in English -- of Michael at The Dòng Village Hotel. If you visit the Dòngzú, be sure to stay at The Dòng Village Hotel, and tell Michael I sent you. All of his guest rooms have picturesque balconies, with views of the river, covered bridges and water wheels.

Framing a Dòng house

Dòng carpentry tools

Village of Mǎ'ān

Village matriarchs

Of course, the real reason to visit this region is the people. The Dòngzú are independent and resourceful mountain people who enjoy a vibrant and healthy lifestyle. Although they've got electricity and cell-phones, they're self-sufficient and maintain their way of life centered around families, food and festivals.

Home-made car

Fresh fruits -- cheap, too!

Preparing for a festival

Dòng jewelry

While taking a walk through a village last Sunday afternoon, I heard singing. I walked towards the music and was welcomed enthusiastically into the festivities. First, there was a judging of this year's rice crop. Then, there were fireworks and the blessing of a grilled boar's head.

The welcoming committee

The rice judges

Performers in waiting

A chorus of píipas

The official ceremonies were followed by an hour of dancing, singing and a brief opera -- performed to the delight and laughter of an appreciative audience.

The parasol dance

Sweet melodies

Much dancing and singing

Preparing the feast

Finally, we came to the One Hundred Family Feast, for which each family in the village prepares a table of its favorite foods. The guests are invited to wander from table to table to sample everything. The primary dishes are glutinous (sticky) rice, pickled meats (duck, pork, fish), fresh vegetables and hot peppers. The giant salamander is a rare local specialty, but I think it was all gone before I could find one. However, there were plenty of toasted grasshoppers. It was an unforgettable and delicious luncheon. A giant pot-luck picnic -- for free! At one point during the meal, I looked around and realized that I was the only westerner at this event.

My first family

The feast goes on

Blocking the horse

Evening back at Chéngyáng bridge

When it seemed as though it was time to leave the festival, I found my path blocked by women singing songs and bearing cups of rice wine. It's a Dòng tradition for the hosts to "block the horses" of departing guests because it's bad luck if all the guests leave a party. No one wants to be a cause of bad luck. There was another festival scheduled for the next day in a nearby village. And, of course, it's important to respect local customs and traditions. So, I accepted the wonderful hospitality of the Ying family and returned to my hotel in Mǎ'ān on Tuesday!

(Note: Most of the photos above were taken in the villages of Guándóng and Gāoyǒu.)

May 13, 2012 − Guìzhōu Province

From Guǎngxī province, I went to Guìzhōu. Why Guìzhōu? After all, Guìzhōu is one of the least visited provinces in China. That by itself is a good reason to go somewhere. Places that tourists don't go are often the most interesting and authentic places to go. The second reason for going to Guìzhōu was because family friends live in the capital city of Guìyáng. I was looking forward to a home-cooked meal.


View of Guìyáng from Qiánlíng Park (on a hazy day)

Máo & Dòu DìZhú

With only 1.2 million people, Guìyáng is a small city by Chinese standards. Wide streets, clean air, inexpensive hotels, excellent public transport, and friendly people make this an easy city to visit. Guìyáng is surrounded by hills and forests. Qiánlíng Park provides a refreshing oasis from the city's traffic. A statue of Chairman Máo stands in the city's main square ... as he salutes Walmart, which is right across the street. Guìyáng was a good place to get my visa extended and replace my camera.

Rescue robot

Jiǎxiù Pavilion at night

Qīngyán fortress gate

Qīngyán shops

I did some volunteering with two schools in Guìyáng, which gave me a chance to get to know many Chinese students. I was impressed:

  • Because of China's one-child policy, most kids born in China after 1979 are only children. So, they've received the full attention and resources of their parents. No child has been left behind.
  • Chinese students start studying English in kindergarten. Everyone under 30 can read and write English, even if they can't speak it very well.
  • Education is free in China. 70% of Chinese students go to college. Of those who don't go to college, two thirds forgo college by choice, not because they can't pass the placement tests.
  • Chinese youth are ambitious and creative. They're excited about what they're going to do with their lives. And they hope to get passports soon so that they can travel. (Note: In order to get a passport in China, one must pass a rigorous English language proficiency test. An interesting rule!)
China's one-child policy may seem extreme to those of us in the West. Twenty years from now, China will face a crisis with not enough young people to take care of their parents. However, China will have an entire generation of mature, well-educated, motivated, loyal, confident and socially aware people. These people will command the most powerful country in the world. What will our global culture be like when our planet is run by people who grew up without siblings?

Catholic church

Fans for sale

Xījiāng -- the largest Miao village

Miao welcoming committee

Guìzhōu has lots of sites to see and things to do. The generous friends I was visiting in Guìyáng took me to see Qīngyán, a former Ming-era military outpost dating back to 1378, as well as Xījiāng, which is Guìzhōu's largest Miao village. The Miao are similar to the Dòng, who live in the mountains south of here. The Miao are famous for their embroidery and their silver ornaments. Silver is believed to dispel evil spirits -- and they wear plenty of it!

Silver horns

Main street of Xījiāng

Xījiāngyuè Hotel

Miao covered bridge

My hosts and I stayed at the Xījiāngyuè Hotel (86-0855-2228888), which is a handsome restored inn, right on the town's main plaza. If you can't find a room there, don't worry. This town is full of charming inns and guest houses at all price ranges.

Miao jewelry

Opening ceremonies

Miao chorus line

My hosts: Mei & Mr Li

Xījiāng is a well-traveled tourist destination, complete with gift shops, restaurants and traditional performances at 11:30am and 5:00pm every day. This was a contrast to the more primitive experience that I enjoyed with the Dòng people in Guǎngxī, where I ate in people's homes and slept on a futon on their floors. Both experiences are worth doing, of course.

Western Guìzhōu

Huángguǒshù Falls

Park gardens

Huángguǒ for sale

My students took me to see the remote areas of western Guìzhōu. We took a day-trip to Huángguǒshù Falls and Lónggōng Caves. The waterfall is purported to be the third largest waterfall in the world -- but at 78m high and 81m wide, I don't think so. Still it's a pretty waterfall, surrounded by beautiful gardens. The best part was driving through the dramatic karst landscape that makes up so much of southern China.

Angela, Jackie & Steven

Zipping thru the karst

Buddhist caverns

Lónggōng Caves

The cave area was fun. We rode a zip line from one karst tower to another. Inside the caverns, we received Buddhist blessings and rowed a boat through travertine tunnels lit with kitschy colored lights.

All in all, Guìzhōu is a province worth visiting. In my ten days here, I met only two other westerners. I felt as though I had the whole province to myself -- and I got lots of opportunties to practice speaking Pǔtōnghuà (i.e. Mandarin).

May 25, 2012 − Yúnnán Province

The Lonely Planet China guide says that if you have time to visit only one part of China, it should be Yúnnán province. The scenery, the people and the cultures of Yúnnán are indeed wonderful. To get there, I took a night train from Guìyáng to Kūnmíng. From Kūnmíng, it was another 4 hours by bus to the historic town of Dàlǐ, located on the shores of Erhǎi Lake. This lake, surrounded by mountains, is home to about 1.5 million Bai people who are thought to have settled in this area about 3000 years ago.

Erhǎi Hú (Ear-shaped Lake)

Bai market woman

Fresh fish for lunch

A Bai picnic

The Bai are farmers and fishermen. The Bai women are famous for their batik fabrics, and can be identified by their red vests, round hats ... and easy laughter.

Traditional batik

Backstreets of Lìjiāng

Yuhe Square

Black Dragon Pool

A couple hours closer to Tibet is the well-preserved mountain town of Lìjiāng. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (elev. 5500 meters) can be seen from the center of Lìjiāng in Yuhe Square. The most photographed view of this mountain is from Black Dragon Pool, a short walk north of the old city.

Lǐjiāng canal

Dinner companions

Entrance to Shùhé Town

Naxi gourd flute

Lìjiāng and Shùhé are home to the Naxi people, who are ethnically Tibetan Qiang tribes. In good weather, the Naxi residents of Shùhé light a bonfire for their nightly public dance festival, which is open to locals and tourists.

Nàxī dancers in Shùhé

Chatting with a friend

Hǔtiào Xiá (Tiger Leaping Gorge)

From Lìjiāng, I organized a 2-day trek into Tiger Leaping Gorge. The name alone was enough to entice me to see this breathtaking canyon. From the snow-capped peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the Jīnshā River below is a vertical drop of about 3500 meters, making this one of the deepest gorges in the world.

A local resident and my guide

The narrow trail

A long way down

Tea Horse guesthouse

There are comfortable guesthouses along the trail, with real beds, hot showers, cold beer and great views. My trekking group was just me and my guide. It was a very pleasant hike.

The Jīnshā River

Lúgū Hú (Lake)

Tibetan stupa and prayer flags

Muósō costume

From Lìjiāng, another day on mountain roads brought me to Lúgū Lake (elev. 2690m), where I purchased a visa to the Women's Kingdom. Here, I found the Muósō people, who still maintain remarkable matrilineal / matriarchal customs and traditions, such as:

  • The village elders are women. Grandmothers are the final authority on all matters.
  • Women are the primary property owners. Homes and farms are passed from mother to daughter through inheritance.
  • Children live with their mothers for their entire lives.
  • The Muósō do not marry. When a Muósō woman decides that she wants to have a child, she selects a man whom she likes. She determines the length and nature of their courtship. When she finds a good man, she invites him into her home for a night or two so that she can get pregnant. The man returns to his mother's home before breakfast.
  • If a woman is fond of one man in particular, she designates him as her zǒu hūn, which literally means "walking marriage". This ensures an exclusive relationship and that other women won't invite him to sleep in their beds. However, even in a zǒu hūn relationship, the man does not live at the woman's house. In the daytime, he returns to his mother's home to help her, to help his sisters, and to take care of his nieces and nephews.
  • When a woman wishes to end a zǒu hūn, she simply tells the man to take a walk, and that's the end of their "marriage".
  • There are no words in the Muósō language for "husband" or "father". There are no issues or questions of paternity.
  • A woman's father and brothers provide the male figures in her child's life. While Muósō women are busy with their businesses or village government, the men and boys are the babysitters, caretakers and teachers of the children.
  • Since the men are relegated to non-authority positions within this culture, they have leisure time to engage in sports, music and dancing. Muósō men are good dancers and musicians. The horseback riding competitions are impressive.
  • At festivals, the Muósō serve two types of wine: Wine for women and wine for men. The women's wine isn't very potent, but the wine that the men drink gets them drunk. The women are too busy to waste their time getting drunk, but they enjoy seeing their men get drunk and stupid because it allows them (the women) to laugh and to take advantage of the men if they want to.
  • Living at the edge of Tibet, the Muósō men often go off and wander around in the mountains. They come back to the village from time to time to see if any of the women want them. And if not, they can always find a place to sleep at their mother's home.
  • Meanwhile, the villages are run the way that the women think things should be done.
Although the Muósō are the last practising matriarchal society in the world, paved roads and tourism are causing the Muósō to evolve towards patriarchal customs. Still, the dancing and costumes are well-preserved.

Muósō women

Muósō men

Muósō dancers

Morning on Lúgū Hú

Yúnnán province is as far west as I can go in China for now because I still haven't been able to get a travel permit for Tibet. Also, my first China visa will expire soon. So, from Yúnnán I'll head north into Sìchuān and then circle back through Shànghǎi to Hong Kong to get a new visa.

May 31, 2012 − Sìchuān, Chóngqìng and Húběi

I traveled more than 1000 km this week on China's transportation systems. I followed Paul Theroux's advice and took trains whenever possible.

Chéngdū train station

Intercity train

A sleeper car

More new friends

Every major city in China has a busy and efficient train station offering inexpensive transportation in all directions. China's trains are full, but not crowded. They run on time. And they're clean. I got a good night's sleep from Xichang to Chéngdū. Trains are a great way to meet people, too. When we arrived in Chéngdū, this group of bright, young engineering grad students ensured that I enjoyed at least two outrageously spicy hot pot meals that Sìchuān is famous for.

Pandas at work, i.e. eating

A well-fed panda

Pandas at rest

Sìchuān is also famous for its pandas. The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base is a good reason to come to Chéngdū. We've all seen documentaries about these fascinating animals, but there's nothing like standing mesmerized for an hour while watching a family of pandas go about their daily business.

Sìchuān opera

Sìchuān opera masks

Dance of the masks

The other must see in Chéngdū is the opera. Before I came to Chéngdū, I was familiar with these colorful masks. What I didn't know is that the performers change their masks in a blink of the eye -- less than 1/200th of a second according to one photographer. You have to see this to believe it, so click here to see a youtube video that shows off this theatrical magic.

River boats ready to sail

Leaving port

Qútáng Gorge

Sometimes it's nice to travel via a deck chair with a cold drink in one's hand. So, from Chéngdū, I organized a 4-day cruise down the Yangtze River aboard the Blue Whale. It was a 4-star experience at a 2-star price. At 6300 km, the Yangtze is the world's 3rd longest river. The standard tourist cruise covers 660 km from Chóngqìng to Yīchāng, passing through the fabled and historic three gorges, the first of which is featured on the back of China's 10 yuen note.

Touring temples

A misty day on the river

A mountain god

The first port of call is Fēngdū, nicknamed the City of Ghosts because this is where lost souls linger before being sent to heaven or hell. We had rain and mist this day, which added to the mystery of the temples.

Life on a cruise ship can be quite relaxing. One can fill a whole day with cards, conversation and eating, while watching the scenery float slowly by. For those of you who avoid cruises because of concern about sea-sickness, try a river cruise. There's calm water the whole way.

Shipping on the Yangtze

New cities along the Yangtze

Three Gorges Dam

Unlike an ocean cruise, a river cruise offers sights to see all along the route. In addition to the three gorges and lots of barges, we saw dozens of new cities. When the Three Gorges Dam flooded the Yangtze in 2008, the Chinese government relocated 1.3 million people. New cities and bridges are still being built above the new water line.

Going through the ship locks at night

Ship lock watergates (open & closing)

Near the end of the cruise, the ship passed through the locks of the Three Gorges Dam. As the world's largest concrete structure, the Three Gorges Dam is an engineering marvel. I was told that the rebar in the concrete, if placed end to end, would exceed the diameter of the earth. I believe it. The ship locks move ships and barges vertically 110 meters, which makes this the world's highest vertical ship transport. We passed through these locks during the night. It was too exciting to sleep. I'll sleep when I get to Shànghǎi. ... sure!

June 3, 2012 − Shànghǎi

Shànghǎi's skyline looks like something from a video game. If I hadn't seen it for myself, I might not have believed that any city could look so other-worldly. Yet, this is also a vibrant city full of people who lead normal lives playing cards in the park, buying fresh fish for dinner, and visiting temples to pray for what they need or want.

Shànghǎi skyline

Cards in the park

Neighborhood fish market

The old and the new

I came to Shànghǎi to visit my buddy Jaime, with whom I collected earthquake and tsunami data in Chile in 2010. Natalia is from Belarus. It was good to be with friends for my birthday.

Jaime and Natalia

Waltzing in the plaza

Shànghǎi at night

It's no surprise that Shànghǎi is alive 24 hours a day. On a warm summer's evening, one can see hundreds of couples waltzing in the parks and plazas. Delightful!

June 7, 2012 − Hong Kong revisited

I'm now halfway through my 4-month China tour. My previous China visa, which allowed only two visits of 30 days each, expired last Monday. So, I had to return to Hong Kong to buy a new visa. This time, the China visa office gave me a visa allowing multiple 30-day visits, good until December. Hint: If you're planning an extended visit to China, get your visa in the US. You'll probably be given 90 days on your first visit.

I was in Hong Kong for the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Few people in China talk about what happened in Beijing on June 4, 1989. But Hong Kong holds a memorial to this event every year. Last Monday night, about 180,000 people showed up at Victoria Park. It was an orderly demonstration with 2 hours of speeches, videos and songs as the crowd applauded and held candles. A scale model of the Statue of Liberty was the centerpiece of the demonstration. The full moon overhead added to the drama of the evening.

Perhaps as a consequence of recent protests in Hong Kong and Tibet, China has stopped issuing travel permits for foreigners wishing to visit Tibet. Darn. I was hoping to visit Lhasa next.

Victoria Park, June 4th

Taiwan independence

Demonstrators in the streets

A Statue of Liberty

Hong Kong and China are very different culturally and politically.

  • Hong Kong is democratic.
  • Hong Kong allows freedom of speech.
  • Hong Kong recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation.
  • Hong Kong's banks operate as independent corporations, not controlled by the central government.
  • China limits internet access to many websites, including Facebook and WordPress. Now that I've mentioned June 4, 1989, this blog will probably be blocked in China.

The view from Victoria Peak

Nightfall on Hong Kong harbor

Politics aside, Hong Kong was clear and cool this week -- unusual for June. For the best views in town, take the tram to the top of Victoria Peak and walk the nature trail around the peak. That's where the two photos above were taken. Watching the city lights come on as night falls is magical.

June 23, 2012 − Qīnghǎi Province

Tibet has been closed to foreigners since early June. So, I followed the Silk Road up to Xīníng in Qīnghǎi province. Almost half the population of Qīnghǎi live in Xīníng, a modern city of more than 2 million. The rest of Qīnghǎi is a sparsely populated region bigger than Texas, full of vast pastures, deep canyons, snow-capped mountains, large saline lakes, holy sites, and rugged Buddhists -- and a few Muslims -- who've made lives for themselves in this harsh and beautiful land.

Prayer flags

Qīnghǎi Lake

Fresh yoghurt

A mosque

Almost 15,000 ft

Travel in Qīnghǎi isn't easy. Many roads are unpaved. There are few buses. There are no hotels or restaurants for foreigners. People who speak English -- or even Mandarin -- are rare. Luckily, at the Lete Youth Hostel in Xīníng, I met Philippe and Nicholas from Switzerland. We agreed to share the costs of a 4WD vehicle and a Tibetan guide named Tashi Wangsu. Note: Tashi gets my highest recommendation for his language skills, his knowledge of the local area and his easy-going style. You can find him at TibetCulture.com.

Yaks grazing

3 months old

Tibetan students

Amnye Machen (6282m)

In six days, Tashi, Nicholas, Philippe and I covered 1450 kilometers. Our highest pass was about 4600 meters, from which we climbed up to 5000 meters. We slept in tents, monasteries and road houses. We lived on yoghurt, yak meat, noodles and zomba, occasionally cooking for ourselves. (Nicholas was an excellent chef.)

Mountain sheep

A new monastery


The altar

Buddhist gods

Rural Qīnghǎi is the home of Tibet's nomads, who follow their herds of yak and sheep from low-altitude wetlands in the winter, to high mountain pastures in summer. Qīnghǎi also has many Buddhist monasteries, all in spectacular locations. We got to know a few monks, who invited us to their celebrations.

Mountain wildflowers

4600+ meters

Nomad tent

A winter home

From the locals, we learned a few words of Tibetan, as well as a few facts about traditional Tibetan medicine. Worm grass is believed to cure cancer and many other bodily ills. Qīnghǎi is the only place where this "herb" is harvested.

Worm grass for sale

Rabgya Gompa

Inside the monastery

Rabgya's oldest monk

Rabgya is the largest and oldest of the yellow-hat monasteries in Qīnghǎi. It was destroyed during China's Cultural Revolution. We had tea and yoghurt with a monk who has lived at the monastery since 1923. He told us stories about his survival and the rebuilding of his monastery.

Ambitious highway and bridge construction


Sandstone canyons

Campground cooking

Parts of Qīnghǎi look like southern Utah, with high, dry plateaus dissected by deep red canyons. Other parts of Qīnghǎi resemble the prairies of eastern Colorado, except that the elevation is 3000 meters. There's wildlife everywhere. We happened upon a recently dead mountain sheep, which the vultures consumed in 15 minutes.

Nomad country

Waiting for their lama

A happy crowd

Mother & daughter

Getting the best view

By luck, we arrived at a large monastery on the day when their lama was returning from India. This was a major event attended by about 500 Buddhist monks and 75,000 nomads. The costumes and the genuine friendliness of the Tibetan people was unforgetable.

Standing ready

Inside the temple


Modern horse

Solstice gathering

The following day, we were welcomed to a nomad summer solstice gathering, held by the stream in a pasture beside another monastery near Zeku. Beautiful.

Amdo nomads

Prayers to the sky

Prayers to the river

Tóngrén (Repkong)

Tóngrén was next on our route. This town is famous for its thangka artists, who spend months creating religious paintings with almost microscopic details. Tashi introduced us to one of the artists who invited us into his studio.

Thangka artist

Years of work

Buddha in a canyon

Jade Emperor Temple

Modern nomads

Guìdé was our last stop. Here we visited a Buddhist temple (not the Jade Temple shown above), which is as important to Buddhism as the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. We also found some hot springs in a canyon where we scrubbed up and had lunch.

Qīnghǎi is a land that seems to have been unchanged for centuries. Yet, the recent introduction of paved roads, motorcycles and permanent housing will change the lives of these nomads quickly. I feel lucky to have seen this amazing place when I did. In all, I spent two weeks in Qīnghǎi. I could have stayed longer. My travel partner Philippe has returned to the monastery in Zeku to be their English teacher. I would have done the same ... except that there's still so much more of China to see.

June 30, 2012 − Gānsù Province

I passed through Gānsù province twice, going up to the Tibetan Plateau and coming back down again. Gānsù is the geographic center of China. Gānsù is historically significant because it contains the 1000 kilometer long Hexi Corridor, which forms the Silk Road's gateway between China and Central Asia.

A mosque in Lánzhōu

Ancient waterwheels

Street food

Flying Horse of Wuwei

For two thousand years, the city of Lánzhōu has been a bustling crossroads and marketplace for the people, products and cultures of Central Asia. I saw my first Chinese mosque here. Ingenious water-powered irrigation systems were developed along the Yellow River as it passes through the farmlands of Gānsù. Lánzhōu's cuisine is a blend of the middle-East, central Asia and China. Archaeologists are still uncovering remarkable treasures here, like the Flying Horse of Wuwei. The original is on display at the Gānsù Provincial Museum in Lánzhōu. Copies of this elegant horse are reproduced throughout the area, including in the plaza in front of Lánzhōu's train station.

Lánzhōu train station

The Great Thangka

Music in the park

Eastern Tibet farmlands

From Lánzhōu, there's a train to Xīníng in eastern Tibet. If you go to Xīníng, be sure to visit the Great Thangka at the Tibetan Culture Museum. This thangka tells the history of Tibet in a painting 618 meters long! 400 artists worked for four years to create this incredible masterpiece. For entertainment, there's music, dancing, food and games in Xīníng's parks. Just outside of Xīníng and Lánzhōu are fertile valleys and dusty mountains.

The Labrang Monastery

Yak and temple



A good reason to go to Gānsù province is to spend some time at the Labrang Monastery in Xiàhé. This is one of the six major Tibetan monasteries of the Gelugpa (yellow hat) order. At its peak, the monastery housed almost 4000 monks, although only 1200 live here now. Like Lhasa, Xiàhé is a holy destination, to which pilgrims come from all over Asia.

What's behind door #1?

... door #2?

... door #3?

Young monks at play

The art and architecture is stunning. It's wonderful to see monks as they go about their daily lives. To get a feel for the Tibetan life, make a reservation at the Tara Guesthouse, a Tibetan-run establishment.


Prayer wheels (video)

Assembly of lamas

Reclining Buddha

Xiàhé is the most peaceful and spiritual place I've found in China yet. With an elevaltion of 3000 meters, the fresh mountain air is delicious. The sounds of horns, prayer wheels and chanting monks are magical.







Wax sculpture

Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hum

Solar heated teapot

If you wander through the monastery, a friendly monk will probably invite you into his home for a cup of tea -- solar-heated, of course. Xiàhé was an excellent place to prepare for my next destination: Beijing!

July 14, 2012 − Běijīng

Běijīng is similar to Washington DC. Both cities are national capitals with lots of public monuments ... and with lots of tourists to see them. (Both cities are also very hot and humid in the summer.) I timed my visit to Běijīng in order to meet up with my niece Julia Stifler, who was passing through Běijīng leading a summer youth program called Where there be Dragons. We met at the 365 Inn Hostel, which is an inexpensive and lively place to stay just 3 minutes walk from Tiān'ānmén Square.

Julia Stifler

Gate of Heavenly Peace

Tiān'ānmén Square

Great Hall of the People

I spent 12 days in Běijīng, seeing all the sites. Tiān'ānmén Square is the world's largest public square, and the center of the Chinese universe. There's no place to sit here and security is intense. When I entered the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the guard frisked me and confiscated my subway map. I have no idea why, but decided that arguing with a Tiān'ānmén Square cop would be a bad idea. For 30 yuen, I toured the inside of the lifeless and intimidating Great Hall of the People, which is featured on the back of the 100 yuen note. Immediately after taking the photo above, the guard waved his hands and shouted "No photos!" Noting the Chinese tourists to my left and right who were taking the same photo, I walked away.

In the middle of Tiān'ānmén Square is the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where you can see The Great Helmsman's mummified corpse in a crystal box covered with a red flag. This was a free site, so I stood in line for 90 minutes to see a Mao that looks just like the one at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in Hollywood. Unlike Madame Tussaud's, cameras are not allowed here.

The best thing about Tiān'ānmén Square is the free National Museum, on the east side of the square. This is a good place to begin your visit to Běijīng. The basement houses a vast display of 8,000 years of Chinese history, where one can learn the sequence of the great Chinese dynasties.

Hall of Supreme Harmony

An Imperial Lion

The Dragon Throne

The Nine Dragon Screen

Just north of Tiān'ānmén Square is The Forbidden City, home to 500 years of Ming and Qing emperors. This is a must-see site. It's a huge palace museum and takes a day to see everything once. Wow!

Běijīng subway


Temple archway

The 13 Confucian classics

The Běijīng subways are fast, clean, easy to use, and inexpensive. My next stop was the Confucius Temple and Imperial College. These two, well-restored sites document the philosophical and academic disciplines of ancient China. Here's where you'll find the 13 Confucian classics carved into 190 stellae made of marble. Could this be the world's most massive set of books? This temple and college were a nice change after two days in the intensity of Tiān'ānmén Square.

Imperial college entrance

Imperial professors

Nanluogu Xiang hútòng

Dancing in the park (video)

A short walk from the Confucius Temple and Imperial College is a neighborhood of charming, albeit busy, alleys called hútòngs. Běijīng is modernizing fast. Old buildings are being torn down to make room for glass, concrete and steel. I was glad to find a few tree-lined lanes full of pedestrians and bicycles.

In parks throughout China, I've seen many groups of people dancing, singing and generally enjoying themselves. Běijīng is no exception. I'm told that many of these public social pleasures were forbidden during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which is why folks are enjoying them with such enthusiasm and dedication today.

Temple of Heaven

St.Joseph's Church

My favorite fruit sellers

Běihǎi Park

Every day, I found a new part of Běijīng to visit and explore. The Confucian-designed Temple of Heaven sits in the middle of a 267-hectare park, full of trees, park benches, snack shops, and restored structures, such as the Imperial Music College where visitors are invited to play replicas of ancient instruments. Cool!

Běijīng has a catholic church, first constructed in 1655 and rebuilt frequently after earthquakes and fires. Church-going is not encouraged in China these days, but the plaza in front of St. Joseph's Church is a busy playground during the day and a place to dance at night.

Kūnmíng Hú and the Summer Palace

The 17-arch bridge to South Lake Island

Great Wall at Jīnshānlǐng

Běijīng has many elegant gardens, created for and by China's Ming and Qing emperors. The largest of these is the Summer Palace, which is a must-see site along with the Forbidden City and The Great Wall. This huge park is a marvel of imperial landscaping. There are dozens of graceful, arched bridges, every one different from the other.

No trip to China would be complete without seeing The Great Wall, which is not -- and never was -- a continuous wall. Instead, it was built in many discontinuous segments over the centuries. For tourists, this means that you must chose carefully which part of The Great Wall you wish to see. I took a day trip by bus to Jīnshānlǐng, and was delighted to have an unrestored 10-km section of the wall mostly to myself.

South Rail Station

The Bird's Nest

CCTV Building

Performing Arts Center

Běijīng is full of historic sites. However, more noticeable is all the modern architecture, some of which is stunning. The train station looks like it was built for the sci-fi movie Gattica. (Through its Scientific Outlook in Development, China plans to have 120,000 km of rail by 2020.) The National Stadium, which was used for the 2008 Olympics, resembles a gigantic bird's nest. The 234-meter tall CCTV Building is a bold statement of modernity, despite being dubbed "Big Underpants" by the locals. Lonely Planet describes the National Center for the Performing Arts (where I attended a performance by a Guìzhōu province dance troop) as looking like the futuristic lair of a James Bond villain.

All in all, Běijīng is an exciting city, but it's my least favorite part of China that I've seen so far. There's something unhealthy about this city. At rush hour, people push like kindergarteners to get seats on the subway. Běijīngers are rude, especially to tourists. Five times in 2 weeks, vendors tried to shortchange me. I was searched aggressively by security guards in Tiān'ānmén Square. I was spat at once. Three blocks from my hostel, in an area that's considered fairly upscale and safe, an American was stabbed (and killed) in broad daylight. This summer, there's been some kind of new anti-foreigner program going on that's supported by the government. Běijīngers distribute flyers encouraging people to report and/or turn in foreigners who appear to be suspicious or unwanted. And of course, Běijīng was really hot and crowded. So, I was impressed, but not enthusiastic, about China's capital. I'm glad that I saw lots of other wonderful parts of China before I came here.

I'm looking forward to my next destination: Xī'ān.

August 3, 2012 − Xī'ān, Shaanxi Province

For the past three weeks, I've been a professor at Xibei Gongye Daxue, aka Northwest Polytechnical University. NPU is in the historic city of Xī'ān. NPU is an engineering school, connected with China's aerospace program. Most of my 28 students are majoring in electrical engineers and/or automation.

Like most Chinese students, these guys -- and a few girls -- have taken English classes since middle school. Their reading and writing skills are excellent. Before they graduate next year, NPU wants them to be able to speak English, too. So my job was to teach them conversational English ... in three weeks.

NPU campus

E.E. Department

My students

The Muslim Quarter

Classes were held from 8:30 to 17:30, with a 3-hour lunch break, Monday through Friday. Every evening, a different group of students would take me out to a favorite restaurant for more conversation practice and excellent food. It was a gastronomically fun and exciting experience, to say the least.

Hot meals on the street

Nuts and dates

Dumpling stew

Yangrou paomo

Xī'ān is famous for being one of China's first capitals, and for being the eastern end of the Silk Road. The ancient city walls and the terracotta warriors are proof of the city's former glory. Meanwhile, Xī'ān has kept alive its 2000 years of food culture, especially that of the Hui (Muslim) people. I'll let these photos tell the story of some of the amazing meals that I had.

A kitchen tour

Family dining

Noodle throwing (video)

Evening with students

I've never taught English before, so this job was a challenge. My reward was that I learned a lot about modern China by listening to 22-year-old Chinese engineers. As students, they're a world apart from the U.S.Marines that I taught in Afghanistan last winter. Chinese college students are articulate, well-educated, confident and politically aware. The 3rd week of class, I asked them to give off-the-cuff speeches on what they feel are the problems China will face in the 21st century. Here's what they said:

  • China has a gender ratio imbalance which will create social problems for the next generation.
  • Unemployment will increase because the workforce is growing faster than the number of jobs.
  • China's territorial disputes with some of its neighbors will create international tensions.
  • Continued government corruption will erode the people's confidence in their government. The people's willingness to do what Beijing asks will decline.
  • China is losing the ancient traditions, customs, and cultures that make China what it is.
  • The internet's social networks can topple governments. Beijing's attempts to control China's internet will backfire.
  • For the past few decades, China's government has focused on developing its economy as quickly as possible. China's economy will collapse unless systems are put in place to manage the economy.
I thought these were impressive, unrehearsed answers to a tough question. China's youth seem well-prepared to be tomorrow's leaders. Are America's kids equally ready for the future?

Xī'ān's drum tower

Terracotta Warriors

More warriors

Larger than life

No trip to Xī'ān would be complete without seeing the Terracotta Warriors. Yes, there are lots of them, they're amazingly realistic, and they're all different. What surprised me is that the warriors are bigger than the average Chinese person is today. Did the emperor consistently draft large soldiers? Or did the sculptors deliberately construct the warriors a little larger than life? This is just one of the mysteries surrounding this archeological marvel.

Mid-ranking officer

No two faces the same

Cable car to Hua Shan

Prayers and promises

The other "must see" site near Xī'ān is Hua Shan, which is China's version of Yosemite Valley. Five granite domes rise to about 2000 meters elevation. Climbing all five makes for a vigorous day's hike.

The north peak

Blue Dragon Ridge

East cliff walk

Healthy snacks

As with Yosemite, Hua Shan gets a lot of visitors. But take a look at the snacks for sale at Hua Shan's rest stops. Cucumbers, tomatoes, tea and watermelons are far more thirst quenching than candy bars and soda ... and healthier, too!

This is my final post from my four-month odyssey through China. I've only seen a quarter of this amazing country, so I'll have to come back some day to see the rest. But for now, it's time to return home to friends and family. Stay tuned for more adventures.

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