After an amazing three weeks of Imprint China tour, I set out on my own again, exploring parts of China we missed on the tour. My first stop was Yunnan Province, in the far south, bordering Myanmar.
On our tour of Morocco last November the beauty of the country, the kindness of its people, and the richness of its culture inspired several on the tour to express their impressions in poetry. Some of them were serious, some were just for fun. Some, require having been on the tour to completely appreciate. But all of them were inspired and enjoyable. I even took a hand at the end with "Ode to Imprint" - a recap of our many adventures. "Its not a Competition" is an ode to one of our favorite sayings on tour (thanks Ron) and was inspired by our tour of China. Here they are. Enjoy! A Busload of Imprint Tour Friends
My second day at Jiuzhaigao I decided to make the trek to neighboring Huang Long, another National Park in the area. I was too late to book a seat on the public shuttle, so I had to hire a car for the day. Fortune smiled on me and when I came down to depart, another traveler had joined me. So I spent the day with the lovely Anithra from Singapore.
When I arrived in China 6 weeks ago, my post-tour plans were not yet solidified. As I pondered how to best spend my research efforts, I debated whether the Jiuzhaigao region was worth the relatively expensive flights necessary to access this remote area of northern Sichuan. In the end I decided to go for it, and the travel gods rewarded my boldness. I’m sorry to retreat to my overused expression, but WOW!
Jiuzhaigao National Park (JNP) is tucked into a remote valley in the far north of Sichuan. Primarily, it is culturally Tibetan, which I thoroughly enjoyed. On my personal spiritual sojourn, Buddhism has been resonant the past few years. Exposure to the Tibetan version was all bonus for me. I liked the music, architecture, and art and the people were friendly and welcoming. And the omnipresence of prayer flags and wheels were pleasant prompts to be mindful of loftier issues. And for me, time in nature, particularly the mountains, is an aid to moral and spiritual centering. As an added, more secular pleasure, the food was delicious. My favorite was Yak beef – yum.
JNP consists of three valleys, two of which converge to form the third, forming a Y shape. I was put in mind of New Zealand’s south island, parts of the Alps, and Plitvice NP in Croatia. Pristine alpine lakes, surrounded by coniferous forests, granite mountains, and snowy peaks are connected by babbling streams and multiple waterfalls. I arose early to be at the park entrance for opening, along with half the population of Sichuan apparently. I jockeyed for position and got my ticket and joined the zig-zagging cattle chutes that funnel visitors to the entrance control gate. As always, the Chinese have dealt with the tremendous crowds in commercial fashion. Shuttle buses by the dozen line up to fill and depart, transporting a load (about 70 visitors) every minute. The shuttles drive to the top of the two valleys, without stops, alternating destinations with every other departure. Then the shuttles return to the Tourist Center at the confluence, stopping at scenic overlooks to deposit and collect visitors along the way. I lucked onto the shuttle I wanted, taking me to Bamboo Lake.
At Bamboo Lake, I alighted with my 69 new Chinese friends, to join several hundred more already at the overlook, wielding their selfie sticks like sabers, chattering at the top of their lungs, and putting on Tibetan costumes for yet more photographs of themselves. That sounds like a complaint, but I’ve learned about managing the Chinese tourist juggernaut – just walk. The Chinese seem not to care about being in nature, just photographing themselves there (or in front of whatever tourist site is the current objective). Their version of a perfect day in JNP, is to ride the shuttles down the two valleys, stopping at each scenic overlook for 10-15 minutes, take selfies, eat snacks, be loud, repeat. Which is fantastic for me! I left Bamboo Lake and started hiking down valley. Within moments I was alone, treading the perfectly uniform planked walking trail, passing other equally pristine and beautiful lakes, vistas, and streams. And it was all downhill – what a country!
Aided by the uber-efficient Chinese system, I spent the entire day on manicured walkways, accessing spectacular natural sights, strolling ever and always steadily downhill. Highlights included Mirror Lake, Tiger Lake, Sparkle Lake, Five Color Pond, Long Lake (a mini version of Lake Louise in Banff NP Canada - see above), Lying Dragon Lake, and Nuoriling Falls. You gotta love the Chinese penchant for flowery language and names. I like waterfalls. I like them a lot. Some day I should analyze why. But on this day I just indulged in the refreshing experience. So the day’s big winner for me was magnificent Pearl Shoals Waterfall. It is no Victoria Falls, but it is nonetheless splendid. Hundreds of sparkling rivulets tumble down a sprawling travertine terrace. In addition to viewing the great stretch of splashing streams from below, it is easy to get an up close and personal view/photograph from the steps built next to the falls. I had to share the experience with hundreds of selfie sticks with Chinese tourists attached to them, but, you guessed it – WOW!
One last sight bears mentioning. Next to Shuzheng Lake the Tibetans have built a series of water-powered prayer wheels. Kept in constant motion by the flowing, living waters, the monks have created a perpetual prayer machine. It is not terribly picturesque, but it is truly fascinating.
After my full day of walking, I indulged in a taxi ride back to my hotel, sought out a Chinese massage, and finished the day with a sizzling plate of yak steak and green vegitables, accompanied by some homemade barley wine. Yum.
After the “Big Gun” sights of Beijing and Xian, our Imprint tour moved on to Sichuan Province. We had four nights in Sichuan and engaged in four top drawer activities while there. An early flight departure from Xian was trying but bought us an afternoon activity on our way to the sacred mountain, Emai Shan. After a spicy Sichuan lunch we boarded a boat on the Minjiang River. Our waterborne excursion led us to one of those jaw-dropping sights most Americans don’t even know about. We visited the Leshan Buddha. Carved from a sandstone cliff, the LB is nothing less than the largest seated Buddha statue in the world. The Buddha, which faces out over the river, is 1200+ years old and a whopping 230+ feet tall. His big toes are 5 feet long. Pilgrims and tourists climbing up, over, and around the Buddha are dwarfed by it's tremendous scale. We had the perfect vantage from the top deck of our excursion boat. Leaving Leshan behind, we continued to Emei Shan, the Golden Mount. We settled into our hotel and had another spicy meal together before retiring. The next day we made the long trek (OK, shuttle bus and cable car) up to the top of one of China’s most sacred Buddhist mountains. ES has been revered by Buddhists for centuries as a place of spiritual enlightenment. For the first time on the tour, the weather was against us. It was lightly raining as we departed and dense clouds covered up the views as the shuttle bus wound up the switch back mountain road. A brisk, uphill walk brought us to the cable car station and we were whisked to the summit in comfort. At the top our positive tour karma exerted itself and a slight breeze swirled the clouds allowing peekaboo views of the surrounding landscape. I’m sure on a clear day the views are truly stunning. But the clear highlight of ES is the tremendous statue of Samantabhadra the crowns the summit. It is spectacular. The clouds parted several times for us, revealing the dazzlingly bright, gilt gold statue of Samantabhadra mounted on four immense elephants. At the foot of the stairs leading to the religious figure are braziers of and for incense. The faithful buy incense sticks, light them, and place them at the foot of the steps, much like Catholics do when lighting candles in a church. Tourists mingle with monks and porters. The porters carried building materials on their backs up, up, up the many steps to the temple.
The following day was had our cultural connection experience for the tour. At Imprint we always try to build in an activity that connects us as genuinely as possible with some everyday locals. On this tour, we visited a rural Sichuan tea farm and learned about tea cultivation and preparation from the host family. Another lightly rainy day did nothing to dampen our spirits as we were taken out into the terraces to pick tea leaves. Then back to the farm to learn about processing and “roasting” the leaves. A big highlight was the ancient patriarch who insisted on participating in the explanations though he knew not a word of English. But his passion and pride were evident in any language, and he charmed us thoroughly. We concluded our visit with a home-cooked meal, one of the best of the tour. Traveling with Intent!
Our final Sichuan activity was a visit to the famous Panda Breeding and Research center in Chengdu. Chengdu is another Chinese mega-city of multiple millions. But the previous days’ rain had cleared the air, and we again had blue skies and clean air for our visit. And the visit can only be described with one word (OK, two): UTTERLY CHARMING! My personal expectations were not great for the pandas. It seemed like little more than a zoo visit. But the Panda Center in Chengdu is a massive operation and one gets to see many pandas in nearly exact natural environments. Our guide Dennis got us to the park early when the usually somnambulant bears are most active. We saw very young pandas, full-grown adults chomping happily on bamboo, and adolescents wrestling and climbing trees. It charmed my socks off. And as a bonus, the park was crawling with school groups. Each group marching along two-by-tow in their school uniforms. Many wanted to engage and use their stock English phrases. So the morning was vigorously punctuated by cries of “hello”, “how are you?”, and “What is your name?”. Hand shakes or high fives often followed and the connection greatly enhanced the day’s delight.
We concluded our excellent Sichuan visit with classic Chengu Hot Pot dinner. My lips are still tingling two weeks later.
The Yangtze River Cruise, offered as an extension to Imprint’s China Tour, was one of those experiences for which I had little expectation. And while it did not stack up to much else I’ve experienced in China, it was surprisingly fun and pleasant. We started in Shanghai. Now that city blew me away! Shanghai is bursting with a vibrant and youthful energy and is a fitting showpiece for modern China. The historic Bund waterfront with its 19th century colonial architecture is brilliantly contrasted by the new city across the river. Our guide informed us that 20 years ago there was nothing there to speak of. Now it is like a CGI backdrop scene from a Star Wars movie. The pictures posted her are mere hints to the energy one gets from being here. The scores of skyscrapers put on a light show at night that has your chin scraping the pavement. And the variety of creative architectural design is as pleasing as it is impressive. I saw at least 30 new structures in Shanghai that would be signature buildings in most American cities.
After our one night in Shanghai it was on to Chongqin in Sichuan. They claim a population of 32 million citizens. Our Shanghai (24 million) guide had told us that the claimed Chongqin number includes the entire region (but it’s not a competition). We had some free time so we had a meander through the charming old town, a nice dinner, and then boarded our cruise ship, the Yangtze Explorer. For our departure, we gathered on the very nice forward observation deck to view Chongqin’s skyline “wall” of light show skyscrapers (but it’s not a competition). During the cruise we were to pass many more high-rise, high-tech cities and many new bridges. All the bridges are architecturally creative and beautiful, and at least one came with performing lights: lanterns; Chinese figures; even swimming fish!
The Cruise itself was top drawer – large cabins (bigger than many hotel rooms), everything in pristine working order, a full scale theater, meeting rooms, gym, spa, and clinic. The boat offered many interesting activities. Tai-chi lessons in the morning, other Chinese craft demonstrations, Chinese medicine demonstrations, a reflexology demonstration, and movies shown in the theater. The boat also boasted gorgeous and comfortable public spaces, early and afternoon coffee, great food, sumptuous breakfast buffet, and friendly English-speaking service.
One of the shore excursions, to the Ghost Village (not because it was abandoned, but rather because it is the traditional place where spirits go to enter the underworld) turned into an instant highlight. We stumbled onto the Tomb Sweeping Holiday festival celebration. It was very colorful and fun for us with costumed characters, Chinese music (not so wonderful), a parade-like procession, and plenty of firecrackers (they do love those noise makers!). After enjoying the festivities for a while we continued up to the 2000-year old, combination Confucian/Buddhist/Taoist temples above. Both the gateways and the temples were manned by extraordinarily colorful demons and gods.
Our ship sailed through some dramatic gorges and by very nice scenery. The Wu Gorge was particularly dramatic. To visit the Lesser Three Gorges (Longmen, Bawu, & Dicui) we transferred to a smaller boat. More impressive scenery. Then, for the final gorge, we transferred to boats rowed by 4 men, demonstrating the traditional way of river transport. Our guide sang local songs and entertained us with anecdotes of river life.
On our last morning we were transferred by bus to visit the great dam itself. It is a very impressive piece of engineering with immense locks, a small boat elevator (9 min vs several hours), and a nice modern visitor center with handy topographical map. We were then transfer to Yichang where we had lunch in a cave, wandered through the nearby park with nice views and a pavilion or two, and concluded with a visit to the Three Poets Cave. We then transferred to the airport for our flight on to Beijing to begin the regular tour. Quite an adventure.
It is said that Guilin is China’s most beautiful province, and Yangshuo is Guilin’s most picturesque town. I’m not altogether sure that is accurate, but Yangshuo was a favorite stop on Imprint’s China Tour, and it certainly is “staged” in some of Guilin’s most dramatic karst landscape. I say staged, because Yangshuo is greatly developed for tourism (of course) and it is starting to feel like a Hollywood set rather than the sleepy, charming village tucked among karst stacks it once was. But there is enough charm left and if one ignores the Starbucks, McDonalds, shopping mall, and string of uninspired hotels, it makes for a lovely home base to enjoy the surrounding scenery. To arrive in Guilin, our group endured and early morning for an 8:00AM flight, but the sacrifice paid off in an entire free afternoon. About half the group opted for the classic, bamboo raft excursion down the famed Li River. OK, the rafts are now engine powered with comfy seats, railings, awning, and the construction merely hints stylistically at bamboo. But the experience is still marvelous. I’ve seen karst geography in Thailand and Vietnam, but I have to say the Li River “drift” is the classic karst experience. I felt like I was gliding through a Chinese watercolor painting as we passed karst mounds and mountains, both dramatic and simple. A couple of stone villages drifted by and farmers brought their cattle to the river to drink. Ubiquitous white cranes escorted us for long sections and the cares of the world faded away.
For our tour excursion the following day we all mounted bicycles for a leisurely ride through the “dreamscape” of the valley. The trail was flat and mostly devoid of traffic and I found it almost as relaxing as the Li raft trip. We pedaled along with views of the river, a large variety of karst features and shapes, and the occasional rice paddy. The sky was blue and the air fresh. It was the perfect rolling idyll and refreshing to the spirit as well as our pollution-burdened lungs. We finished our wheeled journey at a countryside cooking school. First cold beers, and then we had a class in Sichuan cooking.
Early on during our tour of China we made our obligatory foray to the Great Wall. We had arranged to stay in a guesthouse at a section of the wall further out from Beijing and, therefore, less crowded. The strategy worked perfectly and we found ourselves hiking great stretches of the wall while passing only the occasional other tourists and no tour groups. The weather was fair and we had a splendid morning. I’ve previously written about the GW so won’t comment further here. I’ll let the photos do the talking for me.
As is often the case on a tour, an intermediate stop added to “fill a tour day” turned out to be a real bonus. On our way out of Beijing en route to the GW, we stopped at the Summer Palace. I’d expected more Forbidden City type architecture and had a slight fear of repetition. But the SP turned out to be a a pleasant surprise. The lake-side setting is lovely and residence buildings dot the shoreline, connected by covered walkways and rows of blossoming trees. Courtyard walls sport differently shaped windows, each tastefully painted with a creative image. Pagodas can be seen on the hillside above, arched bridges and willow trees ad to the Chinese painting feeling, and a Suzhou fishing village and shopping street was recreated on the grounds.
The SP was and is infamous as the primary residence of the Dowager Empress Cixi, aka the Dragon Empress, who enlarged and embellished the complex. She was a 19th C ruler who wielded tremendous power and intimidation. For example, her advisors tried to warn her of her excesses with an allegory of a boat which depends on the river and must be careful the river doesn’t rise up and overturn it. Her response: she built a marble boat in the lake to represent her stability and imperviousness to challenge.
As pleasant as the SP was, the best moment of the visit was a spontaneous cultural connection moment. Apparently, retirees from the area like to come to the SP park to engage visitors. A few have rigged giant calligraphy brushes out of a broomstick, ½ liter water bottle, and a sponge tip. They write large-scale calligraphy on the pavement, in water.
Then it magically evaporates like disappearing ink. One fellow in particular engaged our group. He was overtly friendly and invited us to have a try with his giant water pen. He wrote messages of welcome, hopes for peace and understanding in the world, and friendship toward America. It was a perfect cultural exchange of good will. Two weeks later, on the last night of the tour, several of our group mentioned the experience as one of their tour highlights. This is why we travel.
On my personal travels in China, my last stop before picking up my Imprint Tours group in Shanghai was incomparable Huangshan. Without planning it, I managed to save the best for last. I know I overuse the word, but WOW. I think the best way I might describe what Huangshan is like is to say it reminds me of the floating mountains in the movie Avatar. Huangshan is a mountainous region of eastern China that has been a tourist destination for the Chinese for decades. In fact, they promote themselves as the Origin of Chinese tourism. And they are spectacular! Once again, I had wonderful luck with the weather. Guidebooks warn the area gets lots of rain and can be socked in for days on end. But I had a perfect 24 hours on top with blue skies and clear air. I flew into the regional hub of Tunxi on a Friday, but arriving too late to get up to the mountains that day. But I headed up about midday next day, bussing to the support village of Tangkou, catching a shuttle up valley to the cable car station, which whisked me up several hundred feet to the peak area. True to the guidebook description, it was crawling with Chinese tourists. But as I have often found in my travels, places that are “touristy” and crowded are exactly so for a reason. And the reason here is obvious. The mountains of Huangshan are remarkable. The peaks are jagged, sharp, and splintered to a degree I’ve not seen elsewhere. Pinnacles and spires of rock, twisted and knarled mountain pines, and the amazing rock formations make this a fairytale landscape to explore. The peaks have been twisted into fantastical shapes by the forces of nature and the result is breathtaking. And of course, the Chinese have assigned fanciful names to the various formations. My favorite was Monkey Praying to the Sea (see featured image at top of this blog) – which does not require too much imagination to see. Pinnacle with a Paintbrush was less a favorite, but cleverly named. Big Toe was obvious and truly astonishing, crowded with tourist snapping photographs and selfies like there is no tomorrow.
I got off the cable car about 3:00PM and had a fantastic couple of hours winding my way along well-groomed and railed pathways and through the crowds of Chinese. The infrastructure up here is almost as impressive as the resource. Steps have been cut into rock faces, secure and well maintined stone railings edge every dangerous section of trail, and hanging walkways provide access virtually everywhere. The adrenaline was pumping as I pumped photographs and enjoyed the pristine, fresh air (a real treat in China!). I summited a couple of peaks and stopped at many viewpoints. I reached my hotel about 5:30, got checked in, and headed out again. The rays of the late day sun had turned golden and the photogenic peaks, pinnacles, escarpments, and ridges were even more impressive. I didn’t have to walk far for lovely vistas of golden rocks in the foreground and misty, hazy purple hills stretching out to the background horizon.
The next morning I rose early and headed out for sunrise. It was not spectacular, but it was certainly very nice and I got some nice shots of Monkey Praying to the Sea. I returned to my hotel for a hot breakfast and then checked out. I had intended to hike the short route to the 2nd cable car and go down, but I managed to miss the cut-off (apparently) and ended up hiking clear across the summit area and back to my arrival cable car. No worries, as it was a particularly clear morning, making for many more new, very clear vistas. It was a spectacular and memorable morning and I had the entire afternoon to make my leisurely way back to Tunxi.