It’s almost the end of 2017 and this year just seems to have flown by in a blur. People are making New Year resolutions and I’m looking back to those that I made one year ago. I said I wanted to see some more new countries, and I certainly managed that! I also wanted to get some serious work done on a book I’m writing, and two weeks ago I finished the first draft. But one other resolution I had was to get better at photography. It’s a hard one to measure objectively, and honestly I’ve not spent nearly as much time as I should studying or practicing, but I think I have taken some decent photos this year.
Here are a few of my favourites:
First up is a photo I took almost a year ago, shortly after arriving in beautiful Sri Lanka. At Yala National Park, I was incredibly fortunate to see this leopard. It stepped out right in front of my car and stayed in full view for almost a minute.
I really like the challenge of shooting birds. I especially liked this one, of these really colourful little bee-eaters. Again, this was at Yala in Sri Lanka.
This year I have taken many photos underwater but honestly most of them haven’t turned out that well. In 2016 I had much better luck as I swam with mantas and through untouched reefs in Indonesia. This year I saw dozens of sharks and turtles but usually the photos turned out quite poor quality. I really liked this photo, though, of a school of fish in Sri Lanka.
My girlfriend and I went to visit Mt Fuji at the beginning of the year and we were lucky enough to have one day when it wasn’t completely cloaked in cloud. Just after the sun disappeared behind the mountain, I took a photo of her standing in front of it. The sun cast amazing colours on the few clouds that passed by.
I was playing around with black and white photos last winter and shot a few that I liked, including this one outside my school. The sky didn’t turn out well but I really like the harsh contrasts and the loneliness of the tree.
Look at this smile! Back in February, my girlfriend and I moved into a new house and found it had some occupants: a group of lizards lived there. They help us by keeping the mosquitoes under control and generally look quite cute if you can get up close enough.
Back in Scotland for a few weeks, I went out walking around Fife with my family. On one such walk, with my younger brother, we spotted this fox. In all my years, I had never before seen a fox in the daylight, but this one was out chasing rabbits. Thankfully my camera was able to zoom in far enough to get a picture. It did come close but was cautious and hidden in longer grass.
I really enjoy taking photos of wildlife (obviously) and near my parents’ house in Scotland I went out walking and saw this little fawn. I managed to get close enough to shoot a couple of photos before it barked and bounded off into the trees.
This statue of Rubens in Antwerp made for a great photo set against the dark sky and the jagged tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady.
There’s something about ominous skies this I just love, like this one in Bratislava.
This is perhaps my favourite photo of the year. Budapest was an unbelievable city to photograph because everywhere you turn there are beautiful buildings. However, I spent many hours up on this hill trying to catch the perfect light for getting the whole city in one shot. Although I had a few cameras with me, amazingly it was my old iPhone 5 that I used to snap this stunning panorama.
It’s cliched but I do like shooting the sunset over the sea. This one was taken somewhere in Koh Tao, Thailand.
I took dozens of photos around the little town of Shangri-La, high in the mountains of Yunnan. I wanted to capture the big sky and the incredible animals that you just don’t see back in the east of the country.
This photo was taken in Shangri-La a few months ago. I liked the sense of movement in the picture. It’s almost like looking at a video.
Although perhaps not a technically very good photo, I really liked this one from Yubeng, near Meilixueshan, on the Tibetan border of China’s Yunnan province. I took it around midnight with a GoPro.
It’s winter here in Huainan and my semester draws to a close. Pretty soon it will be time for the exams, and shortly after that I will take off for India and Sri Lanka. I resurrected this blog a few years ago to post my notes and photos mostly from my travels, and this year I have made almost forty posts.
It’s been a pretty good year for me in terms of travel. It began with a trip to Jiuhuashan at New Year, and after that I took off for a fortnight in Sri Lanka, where I saw whales and leopards. Next, I headed to Japan with my girlfriend to see Tokyo and Mount Fuji.
After another semester of teaching here in China, I headed home to Scotland for some time with my family, and then toured Europe. Mostly, I spent time in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bratislava, and Budapest, but in doing so I took a long bus ride through a number of European countries: Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary!
After all that, I got back to China in time to pick up my girlfriend and take her to Thailand for a few weeks on Koh Tao. I’ve been to Thailand many times and even spent a few weeks on Koh Tao back in 2015, but it’s such a pleasant part of the world that I was happy to go again.
In October, during China’s National Week, we headed to the southwest of the country. Last year, we saw Dali, which was mobbed by idiot tourists, and so this year we headed further off the beaten path through Lijiang, Shangri-La, and Yubeng.
What a year! Thirteen countries visited – even if only by bus for a few hours. 😉 I hope my readers have had an equally rewarding 2017 and that 2018 is even better for all of us. I’ll be in India for 4-5 weeks, and then Sri Lanka once again for another week, before I return for one final semester of teaching in Huainan.
Once again, let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for what to see and do in Southern India.
It’s getting cold here in China and pretty soon I have a long winter holiday. I’m taking off for Chennai in early January, then hopping over to Sri Lanka in mid-February so…. the question is, what should I do in Southern India for a month?
It’s very nearly December and here in eastern China the weather is finally turning cold. In the middle of the day, it’s still warm but at night it is getting perilously close to zero. The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees now as the autumn winds kick up. Sadly, people don’t view the fallen leaves as beautiful, and sweep them away almost as fast as they can fall. But for the few weeks while the hang on the trees, and for the hours that they lay on the ground, it is actually quite beautiful. Autumn is probably my favourite season in Huainan, although it is exceptionally brief, sandwiched between the excruciatingly hot summer and the biting cold of winter.
I live in a quiet (by Chinese standards) little 小区 (that means “community”) here in Huainan. It’s actually a rather pleasant little enclave in an otherwise quite ugly city. I think at this time of year, it is about as nice a place to live as one would find in China.
Despite being among the world’s most visited cities, London also seems to be one of the more misunderstood tourist destinations on Earth. People have ideas about London, gathered through everything from history books to postcards, and while those ideas are grounded in reality, they often present the wrong picture. The best way to clarify that picture is to go to London and spend some time there – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But to give you a head start, I wanted to write a few words about five things in particular you should now about London by now.
1. Londoners Are Perfectly Friendly
The idea that “everyone’s so unfriendly” was included in a list of misconceptions about London, and I have to say I agree it’s the wrong idea. You can go to just about any big city, particularly in a foreign country, and think that the population is by and large unfriendly. It happens when there are millions of people in a single place, and it’s also something you can feel more vulnerable about as a visitor or tourist; you’re more self-conscious about how the locals are looking at you or treating you.
Of course there are unfriendly Londoners. The first time I was ever in the city there happened to be a Champions League football match going on between two English clubs, and I had things thrown at me on the street because I was wearing a shirt supporting one of these clubs. But you know what? I kind of love the passion. Londoners are proud and passionate, and they can certainly eye visitors with suspicion, but they’re perfectly friendly by big city standards.
2. About Half The Sights Are In One Place
Okay, this one is a little bit presumptuous of me, because I’m professing to know what “the sights” are that the average tourist would want to see. Still, think about the iconic landmarks of London – the backdrops in movies, the images on postcards, the backgrounds in selfies your friends posted on Facebook…. I bet the list looks something like this: Big Ben, Parliament, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, and Trafalgar Square. Close, right?
Well, many who haven’t actually been to London don’t realize that you can cross about half of the popular sights off your list in an hour or two. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Palace of Westminster are all located in what amounts to a single large city block. Not to mention, the beautiful Parliament Square Garden is there as well, and 10 Downing Street – the residence of the Prime Minster – is about two blocks up the road. Really, it’s all quite convenient and gives you more time to truly get to know the rest of the city.
3. The Food Is Sensational
The idea that British food is bad has kept many a traveler somewhat unenthusiastic about London and the rest of the country. It certainly used to be the case, at least in the wider reaches of the country. But in London it’s far from the truth. This city has become something of gold standard for international cuisine, with fine restaurants boasting influence from France, India, Mexico, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, and many other nations known for interesting and delicious cuisine.
It’s also home to some establishments that belong to world-famous chefs. For instance, Raymond Blanc has a brasserie in town and Judy Joo has a Korean fusion restaurant. London is also the de facto hometown of Gordon Ramsay, who’s probably a better chef than you realize. He’s now known for television and for attraction-like restaurants. Indeed just recently he was written up for putting a restaurant in the heart of the Las Vegas strip (and focusing on burgers, fries and milkshakes). But Ramsay has a trophy case full of Michelin stars and eating at one of his London venues is an unforgettable experience.
4. You Don’t Have To Shop At Oxford Street
I’m not a huge shopper, so this isn’t one that I’m writing about with a whole lot of personal experience, I’ll be honest. But I was doing some research for this piece to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything out and found a few different people talking about the different shopping options aside from the famous Oxford Street. One piece even wrote that shopping on Oxford Street is hell, thanks (as you’d likely guess) to massive crowds. Basically, all the other tourists have also heard of Oxford Street, so they’re on their way just as you are.
As it happens, London is home to a lot of other streets and neighborhoods known for awesome shopping opportunities. Regent Street might be the most famous aside from Oxford Street, but the Westfield Shopping Centre comes up quite a bit, as do Covent Garden and Tottenham Court Road.
5. You Do Have To Go To The British Museum
Okay, I just steered you away from one iconic tourist destination in London. And if you’re reading an article like this, you’re probably ready for me to tell you that the museum is an unnecessary, touristy detour that’s no different from other museums you’ve been to a dozen times. Well, I just can’t do it. The British Museum is legitimately special, as one of the largest collections of art and artifacts in the world. Only a few other museums – perhaps the Louvre, the Met, and the Hermitage – are on par with this one.
You really ought to make the time to visit if you have a few days in London. Naturally, as with any major museum, there are exhibitions that pass through and give people a particular reason to go. But exhibitions aside, this museum will stun you with the breadth and quality of its artistic displays. You can legitimately spend an hour in the museum and leave with a new (and better) perspective on human history and creativity.
I’ve been living in China on-and-off for more than seven years. It’s a place I both love and hate in equal measure, but ultimately one that baffles and fascinates me. People ask me why I stay here and my answer is usually the same: “Because life is never boring.” There’s always something truly weird happening nearby, and if you ever ask why, you’ll get the same answer a Chinese person will always give to such a stupid utterance: “没有为什么” – there’s no reason why.
I thought long and hard about what to call this post. I toyed for a long time with “Things I Don’t Understand About China” but instead went for the more internet-friendly “X Weird Things” title format. Sorry. Besides, some of it I really do understand… it’s just still sort of weird.
You might read some of this and say to yourself, “Hey, I visited Shanghai and it wasn’t like that.” Well, no. Shanghai isn’t real China. Take a bus or train out to the provinces and you’ll get an eyeful of weirdness that will blow your fucking head off.
They poop in public
Visitors to China are usually assaulted quite quickly with a sight that is rather distasteful to Western eyes – that of someone crapping in the street. The further from Shanghai you go, the more you see it. Sometimes they go slightly off the street, but it’s always just there. It’s usually people holding babies out with their legs splayed to the world, but oftentimes it’s adults. The result is that any public walkway is absolutely covered in shit. If you are foolish enough to go hiking, for the love of all that’s holy, please DON’T follow any little paths that lead off the main trail. If you’re lucky you’ll see giant piles of poop and tissue paper. If you’re not, you’ll step right in it.
The public bathrooms are nightmarish places to go, which probably explains why so many people would rather take a dump in public. However, when you do go to the bathroom, many don’t have stalls or any sort of divider. The ones that do tend not to have doors, and the ones that have both doors and dividers… well, people just don’t like closing the doors. They prefer to have strangers watch them go. It is somehow comforting for them.
No one washes their hands
I mentioned above that Chinese bathrooms are awful places. You simply avoid them at all costs while you live here, but sometimes that’s impossible and you just have to go. What you are presented with are holes in the ground and no toilet paper. They don’t believe in bleach or any other cleaning chemicals, so they never actually get cleaned and so they stink to high hell. There’s no soap, either. Why? Mostly because anything that isn’t nailed to the ground will be stolen. Who am I kidding? They’d steal the goddamn nail.
People here are somehow happy just splashing a little cold water on their hands after visiting the bathroom – and that’s only the fancy people. Most wouldn’t go that far. This disturbingly applies to people who work in the food service industry. A few years ago I sat at my favourite restaurant looking out on the burning piles of trash when the chef took her kid out to shit in the street – right in front of the restaurant! – and when he was done she wiped his ass with a tissue and immediately went back to cooking. Needless to say, I was damn near sick.
…even after handling raw meat!
The Chinese just don’t seem to believe in germs. Not only are they happy not washing their hands after literally touching human excrement but they will go to the market and pick up raw meat with their hands and just keep on shopping! It is something that completely sickens me because not only are they spreading germs from the meat to themselves, but also the other way round. I’ve stood and watched old woman pick up all sorts of meat, cough and splutter all over it, and then toss it back on the heap for someone else to eat later. Gee, I wonder why I get sick every few weeks…
Babies on bikes
If you’re reading this and wondering, “How the hell did they get to 1.5 billion people with no awareness of basic health!?” then this will just astonish you: People always drive around with babies on their motorbikes and ebikes. This is, of course, not just limited to China and it’s something that I do understand. For most people, owning a car is out of the question and taxis – though incredibly cheap here – are too expensive to take every day for short journeys. Yet everyone just sticks their baby on the front of their bike and takes off into the most reckless traffic on earth. (Okay, maybe that award goes to Vietnam.)
Remember this scene from Bruno:
Yeah, that’s comedy because it’s something so amazingly hard to believe. Yet in China it’s perfectly normal. Which is especially disturbing considering…
They drive on the wrong side of the street
And by that I don’t mean that they drove on the right instead of the left, which they do. Nope, I’m talking about honest-to-god driving into traffic at high speed! People here drive the way they walk, and that’s with a level of flabbergasting arrogance. If you see a turn, you don’t wait for the oncoming traffic to pass, you just go and hope for the best! It’s truly amazing to witness… and yet terrifying. Countless times I’ve seen people lying dead in the street, or others just slightly hurt, and everyone clusters stupidly around, taking photos but not helping… and it’s always caused by someone driving into traffic on purpose. Yet no one ever thinks of this as wrong. A few years ago I was in a small accident myself. A woman driving down the wrong side of the street while playing on her phone crashed straight into me. She shouted, “You foreigners don’t know how to drive!” and everyone crowded around, tsskking at me and muttering about silly foreigners. No one even thought twice about a person going the wrong way down a street. It’s the most normal thing in the world here.
Walking in the street
As if it weren’t bad enough that people careen the wrong way down almost every street in the Middle Kingdom, people casually and very slowly walk in the middle of the road, too. The rest is pure chaos and more than a few fatal accidents. Yes, the pavements are poor condition almost everywhere. But does that really make it worth your while to walk in the middle of the street? To be fair, the roads are relatively new and people have been walking these pathways for decades without getting hit by cars, but now that everyone and their mother thinks they need a car, sauntering down the middle of a street is no longer really a safe thing to do. Because of this, drivers feel the need to beep their horn almost continuously. Which brings me to my next point.
They love loud repetitive noises
Everyone knows that the Chinese love fireworks. It’s been a part of their culture since way back in history. But for some reason this has lead them to a love of (or at least a tolerance for) all loud repetitive noises. In the paragraph above I mentioned car horns. You simply cannot overstate how common these are. In most cities, there are signs that say “No Car Horns!” but as with all signs, the Chinese will choose to ignore it. Buses are among the worst offenders, followed by construction site workers on motorbikes. They will drive at top speed through residential areas not even looking at the road. In China, the rule is this: if you beep your horn and later hit someone, it’s not your fault. So rather than slow or swerve or check a mirror, they beep loudly and repeatedly and just go.
It’s not just the car horns or fireworks. It’s everything. Every shop attempts to woo customers by blaring monotonous lists of items. At my local market, a man in a blue truck full of small mangoes has been sitting in his cab playing Angry Birds while a recorded message drones: “big mangoes… big mangoes… big mangoes…” It has gone on for more than a year. People don’t care. They actually seem to like this sort of thing, and flock to whoever has the loudest and most monotonous recording. Another common tactic is to play that 小苹果 song over and over. I’ll never understand how people can hear the same part of the same song several thousand times and still think, “Hey, that’s original – I’ll go give that guy my money.”
Staring at foreigners’ feet
I could write a whole book about the weird ways Chinese deal with foreigners. (Hey, that’s actually a good idea…) However, by far and away the most odd and yet predictable of these is that whenever a Chinese person meets a laowai, they will look at our feet. It is astonishing, really. I have no idea why they do it and I didn’t even notice until a few years ago when a friend pointed it out to me. I had noticed that most men look me up and down carefully before asking me an absurd question, but I didn’t realize how long they lingered on the feet. My feet aren’t particularly big, so that’s not it. I don’t wear unusual footwear, either. They just always look at a foreigner’s feet.
Smoking in hospitals… or anywhere else
Across all of Asia, men smoke. Smoking is the coolest fucking thing a person can do, apparently. The smoke from a young age until they mysteriously die around fifty of old age, with their teeth rotten stumps and their fingers completely yellowed. Sure, there are signs up everywhere that tell you not to smoke. But Chinese people know better than to follow namby-pamby signs. Smoking in an elevator is perfectly acceptable, for example, even if there’s a “No Smoking” (or sometimes “No Somking”) sign right there. But in Chinese culture, doing the wrong thing is fine… but calling someone out for doing the wrong thing is bad.
What really amazes me is that if you go to any hospital, you’ll see old men staggering about the halls with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. They’ll even do this around newborn children. Doctors will smoke a cigarette while telling you that you’re sick because of the wind or moon or because you had ice in a drink one time. It is staggering how little people understand cause and effect in this odd corner of the world.
They wear pajamas… outdoors
I was reluctant to put this in here because every other “weird China” list includes it – especially ones written by Chinese. However, it is mid-November now and every time I go outside I see people shuffling around in giant fluffy pajamas. I get that it’s cold and you want to wrap up. That makes sense. But does it really make that much sense to wear your pajamas outside? Don’t they get dirty? Don’t they get all wet and gross? I asked one of my friends and he proudly told me that he has indoor and outdoor pajamas. Why the hell wouldn’t you just wear clothes then?!
Two days I was just leaving the gym with my girlfriend when we heard a small noise. We looked over to a cluster of bins and saw a small cat sitting among them. White with black markings, the little kitten looked at us and meowed again.
I walked slowly over, trying to seem non-threatening. I know cats well, and know almost all the street cats in China would run a mile when approached by a human, so I was very surprised when she stayed put. She seemed scared, but held her ground.
When I put out my hand and petted her on the head, she purred and came closer to me. She rubbed up against my leg and rolled on the ground as I tickled her. I noticed that she was very skinny. In fact, when I put my hand around her, I saw she was the skinniest cat I’d ever seen. She was dangerously thin; just a spine wrapped in fur.
I didn’t know what to do. I contemplated running off to get some food from a nearby shop, but she looked like a single meal wouldn’t help her. She needed much more than that. After a short discussion, Vera and I decided to take her home. We said we wouldn’t keep her, but we’d help her get back to full health.
The little cat had no qualms with me picking her up and wrapping her in my sweatshirt, although she was quite scared as I held her to my chest and drove back home through traffic. She was remarkably well-behaved, though, and we were soon back at the house. I plonked her down in the living room and gave her some chunks of cooked beef, and then shot out to find a petshop where I could pick up supplies – several varieties of kitten food, kitty litter, shampoo, etc.
She had dived straight into the beef chunks but it didn’t occur to me until much later – after I’d gotten home from work – that she may not actually have eaten much, if anything. She didn’t touch her kibble or her tuna, and she seemed to sit next to the water bowl for a long time without drinking. In the evening I began to grow worried. Maybe something was wrong with her mouth or stomach?
She was very affectionate and well-behaved, meowing a little but never getting into trouble. When I left the house she would wait by the door until I came back, then flop at my feet and purr when I got in again. At night she sat quietly in her little bed, not howling like some felines do. She was the perfect cat.
The next morning I went to work but decided that at lunchtime we would go find the nearest vet and get Pearl – as she was now called – checked out. However, when I got home at lunchtime she ran over to me to say hello, but moments later started vomiting. Then she collapsed and just lay in her bed unable to move. I scooped her up and carried her in my arms to the vet, who said she was the skinniest cat he’d ever seen, too. He checked her out, giving her a few shots and some medicine we had to feed her later. He said she’d probably eaten something bad on the street and gotten so sick she was never able to eat again from the damage she’d done herself. He recommended us to use a syringe to get water down her throat. If she survived the night, he said he could put her on an IV drip the next day.
We took her home and did as the vet suggested but within ten minutes she’d thrown it all up again. We tried again and again, with the same results. She deteriorated quickly, unable to keep anything down. By ten o’clock at night it was clear she wouldn’t see the morning. The cat who was so cheerful just twelve hours earlier was now barely able to breathe. Whenever she tried to stand or even move herself about on her bed, she fell back down. She couldn’t even lift the weight of her own head.
Before going upstairs to bed, I sat down next to Pearl to say goodbye. I knew she wouldn’t be there to greet me in the morning this time. I put my hand on her tiny body as her ribs rose and fell ever so slightly. She had long since stopped purring when her petted her. I felt horrible for having not been able to save her. I killed me to watch her suffer and die. I wondered what would have happened if there had been a decent vet anywhere in the city, instead of the tiny backstreet one I’d had to visit that lunchtime. Could a real, qualified vet have saved her life?
Just as I was about to get up, she dragged herself off the little red bed and across the floor to my feet, somehow raised her head, and rested it on my lap. She lay there, unmoving, for ten minutes. Reluctantly, I picked her up and returned her to her bed, then went upstairs to my own, knowing she would be dead in the morning.
When I woke up and went downstairs, I found her lying with her eyes and mouth open. She was cold and stiff, and her face was filled with fear and suffering. She had not just slipped peacefully away in the night. She had died alone from starvation and dehydration – a horrible fate that nothing in this world deserves, not least a baby cat. I tried telling myself that nothing could have saved her, and that I had given her a day of happiness she otherwise would never have experienced. For that first day, she had seemed so delighted to receive attention and to be warm. She purred constantly and was in her element sitting on either of our laps. Yet her short life had been filled with a suffering I thankfully have never known, and I had tried and failed to save her from the awful fate that awaited her.
It should seem inevitable that this was her fate. The life of a cat in a place like China is almost invariably one of prolonged suffering. The cruelty of nature is doubled in such an unfriendly environment. But something tricked me into putting aside my cynicism and having hope for Pearl. A week earlier, I had begun reading a book called The Travelling Cat Chronicles. In it, the protagonist, who is a cat, is badly hurt and seeks out a human to help him. Neither man nor cat expects their relationship to go beyond a trip to the vet and a few weeks of recuperation, but they became the closest of friends.
When Pearl appeared in my life, I immediately felt she had sought out help. As silly as that seems, it is just so abnormal for a cat her in China to allow a person to approach her and pet her. They learn very early that people equal death or worse. But Pearl came to us and came into our life, and immediately she made herself the perfect pet. Both Vera and I, within an hour of Pearl staying in our house, felt that she would be with us for years – even though neither of us had wanted a pet. It just seemed so perfect, like it was all meant to be.
It is odd how much an animal can affect a human’s life. Or perhaps it is not odd at all… Many animals have affected my life, but normally it takes much more than a day to do so. Pearl was a tiny but powerful force that turned my life upside down very quickly and then left, leaving it a whole lot emptier. Her death has caused me more sadness than I could have imagined, and yet I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’m still glad she had at least some happiness and comfort in her life before she passed away. The majority of cats, or any other animal, for that matter, endure their pain without respite.
After spending a little time in Lijiang and Shangri-La, my girlfriend and I took off for a more remote part of China. We were keen to see something different and to get away from the crowds. To use an old cliché, we wanted to get off the beaten path.
From Shangri-La, we took a four hour bus ride up into the mountains. Shangri-La is already at a high altitude. Walking up a flight of stairs there is enough to leave you severely winded unless you’re used to breathing such thin air. But the road north-west leads quickly up into the mountains. It’s slow going on the narrow mountain roads that wind up through the jagged hills. But it’s scenic and the time slips by easily enough. For much of the journey you are following the Jinsha River, which is an early incarnation of the Chiangjiang River (better known in the West as the Yangtze). However, soon this is replaced by the Mekong. I’ve seen the Mekong many, many times in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia, so seeing it here in the high Tibetan Plateau is just bizarre.
Our destination is uncertain at this point. My girlfriend has found a mountain online that seems to hold a peculiar allure, and so we’re going close to it and hoping that there’s something to do in the area. We certainly can’t climb the mountain. Aside from being about 7,000 meters high, it’s actually never been climbed before. Well, not successfully. In 1991, a team of 11 Japanese climbers attempted to summit Meili Xueshan but were all killed by an avalanche. Some Chinese climbers attempted to climb it five years later but failed, too, although they at least escaped with their lives. The mountain has been closed to climbing ever since as it is considered sacred to the local Tibetan Buddhists. This makes it the first and only mountain in China that’s entirely closed to the public for cultural or religious preservation.
Our bus took us to the tiny city of Deqin, embedded in the side of a mountain. It is a remote city and one that looks precariously balanced – in threat of falling thousands of meters down to the river below. The people there look as tough as mountain goats and the buildings suggest that they may indeed have been replaced every few years after falling into the valley. When our bus arrives, we expect to take a car to the nearby town of Feilaisi, but the bus driver tells us he’s going that way and we can just give him 5rmb to stay on.
Soon we arrive in Feilaisi, a tiny tourist town comprised almost entirely of hotels. It’s also built into the side of a mountain, and exists almost entirely because it offers a perfect view of Meili Xueshan. Or rather, it would were it not for the massive cloud bank that engulfs everything around us. Instead, we are stuck in a tiny town with nothing to do, in a grossly overpriced hotel, looking at the inside of clouds.
We take a walk around the nearby hills but the stunning views are entirely hidden. A lonely path takes us on a long walk through a forest. As we get to the farthest points, the winds pick up and the temperature drops suddenly. Then the rain begins to fall hard around us. It is a tough environment here in the mountains. You can’t breathe, can’t see anything, and it’s freezing cold. Yet, as we found out later, despite the cold it’s incredibly easy to get sunburned.
We debated what to do next. Meili Xueshan seemed to have been a waste of time. The stunning mountain views were nowhere to be found. Even the locals told us that it’s very rare to see the mountain. A man in Shangri-La told us he’d taken five spiritual pilgrimages here and never once seen its peak. I decided what we needed was to get closer. Feilaisi was famous as the best place from which to view Meili Xueshan, but if even one of the mountains was enveloped in clouds, there was no view to be had. It made sense that we ought to be closer, even if we ended up viewing the damn things from the bottom.
The next morning we stood with a small gathering of tourists (most of whom had large cameras mounted optimistically on tripods) at 5am, looking out at where the mountain should be. Meili Xueshan’s sunrise is supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in all of China. Alas, we could see almost nothing. We stood around in the freezing morning air until it was apparent that there would be no sunrise of any kind, and then headed for our bus.
The next destination was Yubeng, a tiny village near to Meili Xueshan. I didn’t know where exactly it was, and there wasn’t an abundance of information available, but we had found a man driving a minibus that way for just 20rmb, so we hopped on. They say that Yubeng was closed off to the outside world until a man one day appeared and no one could figure out where he came from. They followed him back through the mountains and found his home under a rock. That story pretty much tells you how easy it is to get to Yubeng.
Our little minibus wound its way down almost 2,000 meters in an hour and a half, along some sickeningly steep mountain roads. At more than a dozen places, the mountain had collapsed and consumed the road, and some of these seemed to have occurred in the last few hours. We came to a bridge that had also been hastily constructed to replace the other, just fifty meters away, that had collapsed into the Mekong. When we finally reached a place called Xidang, and were told it was our final destination, we were glad to be off that death trap bus.
Unfortunately, given the lack of information available, we had failed to realize that Xidang was the final stop on the road to Yubeng, and that the rest of the route was done on foot. This was a 12km hike over a mountain – another few thousand meters up and down. The trek would take some six hours and I did it with two people’s luggage on my back. It would have been a beautiful walk, but in fact it was excruciating.
At about 3,800 meters up we summited our own mountain and began the walk down into the valley where Yubeng was located. At this point, the agonizing journey became entirely worthwhile. The clouds that had covered Meili Xueshan broke and we were in a perfect place to soak up the view. What appeared in front of us was a perfect snow-capped mountain and a lush green valley. It was straight out of a picture book.
We stumbled down the hillside to Upper Yubeng (the village is divided in town, on either side of a river) and tried to check in at our hotel, Lobsang Trekkers. It went something like this:
Me: Hi, I have a reservation…
Owner: Oh, is that from Booking.com?
Owner: Oh, well we don’t accept those bookings.
Me: Yes, you actually did accept it. See, it says here you confirmed the booking.
Owner: We meant to stop using Booking.com a few months ago but we never actually got around to doing it.
Me: I made this reservation yesterday. You confirmed it. You agreed to it. You have to let us stay here. We just walked six fucking hours over a mountain to get here!
Owner: I’m sorry, we’re full.
It went on like that for a while but there was no reasoning with these bastards. They had sold out all their rooms and refused to let us stay. We ended up at a shitty guesthouse a mile down into the valley. Granted, this new place had a stunning view, but it lacked just about every other feature you’d expect from a hotel.
We wandered about the village but by now it was late afternoon and the sun was already going down over the mountains. There wasn’t much to see, but it certainly was quaint. Little mud or wood shacks were tiled with wooden slats for roofs, and people lived together with their horses and pigs. Everything was on a slope going down to a raging river, and walking what would have been 200 meters as the crow flies could take half an hour or more of climbing. We sat and watched the sun go down over the mountain from Lower Yubeng and then called our bus driving friend about how to get out of Yubeng after another day.
There was some bad news: We simply wouldn’t be able to get back to Lijiang in time for our return flight several days later. We had to leave first thing the next morning.
Now this was extremely difficult news to take. We had spent days travelling to get here, not to mention a six hour hike over a mountain with heavy luggage. My legs were dead weight and the thought of climbing back over to Xidang was too much to bear. We weren’t even going to get to explore the valley. There were waterfalls and glaciers to see… but all of that required at least 4-5 hours solid hiking. Yet we had to get out at first light and make a break for the morning buses in Xidang.
The next morning we woke in bad moods anticipating a difficult journey back to Xidang. However, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise:
After that, we started up the side of the mountain. We got only a short distance before I said, “Fuck it, let’s hire horses.”
That wasn’t as easy as you’d think in a village filled with horses. For some reason it took a good two or more hours to get horses, and they weren’t much faster at going over the mountain than we were. I suppose, in fairness, they were actually more like donkeys than horses. Worse, my horse/donkey was incredibly aggressive and kept making sharp runs towards the edge of the path, threatening to throw me over a thousand meter drop. It took four hours to get back, and it was far more exhausting than walking. And besides, we’d missed our damn bus.
The horses cost me 900rmb and our only option for getting back was a mini-van full of idiots that cost me another 300rmb. Thankfully, though, it drove us all the way back to Shangri-La. After a quiet night there, we got another bus to Lijiang and the following morning headed to the airport for the flight back to Hefei.
The trip was quite exhausting but absolutely worthwhile. It killed me that we didn’t actually get to spend any time exploring the Yubeng valley, especially considering it took us so many hours flying, driving, and walking just to get there… but the views were stunning and most people simply never get to see that when they visit. I’ve done a lot of travelling during my time in China and the lesson I normally come away with is that it’s just not worthwhile… it can be too stressful and crowded and you just come to some disgusting, expensive, polluted shithole in the end. But this time it was different. Meili Xueshan was a real challenge to see, but it was by far the most beautiful place in China I’ve visited.
High on the Tibetan plateau, surrounded by soaring mountains, is the dusty little frontier town known as Shangri-La (or xiang-ge-li-la, as the Chinese call it). You may think that the name rings a bell, but you’re probably thinking of James Hilton’s Shangri-La, from the novel, Lost Horizon. In his famous novel, Shangri-La was the name of a utopian society somewhere in Asia. Since then, it has become a stand in for perfection. “My own Shangri-La,” you might say of a place that is impossibly beautiful.
The Chinese, always short on innovation and never ones to pass up an opportunity for intellectual property theft, came upon the staggeringly cynical idea of renaming a town called Zhongdian back in 2001. They called it “Shangri-La” and expected the tourist masses to come knocking on the door. Amazingly, they did. Or rather, as many as you could expect to trek way out into the middle of nowhere – because that’s precisely where you’ll find Shangri-La.
An Interrupted Bus Ride to Shangri-La
Getting to Shangri-La essentially requires travel from Lijiang, which itself is quite a remote place. It’s more than a day’s journey from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, and Shangri-La is another four hours by bus from there. Along the way, expect to be accosted by police at road blocks. They come onto the bus, take your ID and process it. China is no Land of the Free, that’s for sure. On our little bus, one poor man’s ID was flagged and the police made him go for a urine test – which they announced to the whole bus. As I cursed the police state that caused these unnecessary delays and impinged upon human rights, the people of the bus began denouncing the poor guy. It didn’t matter that his test came back clean – to the people he was now labelled a drug addict and promptly shunned.
Just behind us, a little boy asked his dad what the hold up was. “The police are protecting us from bad people, son,” his dad explained. I seethed with anger. China has become the perfect police state as no one even cares that their freedoms are eroded. No one here knows about Tianamen Square… and if they did they’d probably tell you those stupid students got what was coming to them for questioning the wonderful government.
In any case, that was strike two against the bastards the seat behind… they’d already let their son piss on the floor and the puddle had very nearly doused my bag. Needless to say, I was keen to get as far from the tourists as possible.
When we arrived in Shangri-La it was a relief to get off the bus and find myself in what felt like a different country. The area is also known as the Diqin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It is geographically, culturally, ethnically, and even politically Tibetan, yet it is not part of the Chinese province (as it sadly is now known) of Tibet. Everything was different here and the awful Han Chinese acted very much as they were in a foreign land. There were fewer of them and more dark-skinned people in colourful clothes. There were probably almost as many visitors from Europe as eastern China. Animals far outnumbered people, too, with yaks, goats, and boars roaming wild all over the land.
We hopped in a taxi to the Old Town (a well-preserved area of ancient and not-so-ancient buildings) and found our hostel for the night. We then proceeded to explore the Old Town on foot, taking in the Buddhist temple and the fascinating wooden architecture. Across the part of China, the various minority groups developed different but similar means of constructing buildings that are totally different from what you find elsewhere. In particular, we really liked the simple roofs with chunks of wood pinned down by large stones. They don’t look remotely watertight, but they certainly are different from anything I’ve ever seen.
We also took the chance to sample some local food, which was delicious. I wonder why I’ve never heard anything about Tibetan food before. It’s as good as anything else I’ve encountered in this part of the world.
In the evening, we sat at a bar window looking out on a square as a little old man in a cowboy hat began to dance. Soon he was joined by a few more people… then a few more… then more and more… At some point even I was in the middle of the square, dancing to Tibetan music with these oddly synchronized dance moves that all came from the cowboy. Everyone was looking to him. Old ladies in pink and blue Tibetan dresses appeared and joined in, yet even they looked to this ancient cowboy for inspiration. He whirled around with a cigarette in his mouth for two hours before the people began to disperse.
Hiking ShiKa Mountain
The next morning we set out towards ShiKaShan – the nearby mountain. We took a taxi there but when we arrived the guards told us that hiking wasn’t allowed and that we must take a cable car to the top. We angrily walked away, intending to sneak onto the mountain, but soon wandered through some nearby valleys and onto the NapaHai – a sea of grass and red flowers home to vast numbers of yaks. As we walked we experienced something that almost never happens in China – peace and quiet. There were no people anywhere. We had come to the edge of China, more or less. In the town there were tourists, but not many, and out here there was simply no one. Wild horses and great hairy yaks wandered about. At first they were frightening but then we realized that they are terrified of us. Big black wild pigs and goats also scuttled around. Streams poured down off the mountain snow and everything was peaceful.
On the walk home – across many miles of grassland – we saw something even rarer than peace in China. We saw a huge unbroken double rainbow stretched over the whole of Shangri-La. Truly, it was the rarest and most unimaginable thing we could have seen. In a light rain, we stood staring at it from the grass. An old man in a tractor chugged by with a massive smile on his face, pointing excitedly at the spectacle.
It was a perfect end to a perfect day, and indeed the end of our time in Shangri-La. The next morning we jumped on a smaller bus on a bumpier, steeper road heading for the very limits of this vast country – into and above the clouds and towards the borders with Tibet and Myanmar.