HuangYao Ancient Town

Often Every day I am struck by how things are filtered through the China lens to produce something familiar but also so, so different. For example, the Western-style weddings that take place at our building that I watch from my bathroom window feel very much like a game show, complete with an emcee with a mic and applause lines to deliver to the audience–er, family and friends.

The same performative phenomenon happens with tourism, and Colin and I experienced this when we spent MLK weekend in HuangYao Ancient Town (黄姚古镇), a dot on the map in the next province over with ancient banyan trees, narrow stone-paved pedestrian-only passageways, and a creek that bisects the town.

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You pay an entrance fee that grants you access to the town. You get a ticket and a sticker as your proof of payment (about $25). Nice clear signs in four languages highlight the truly magnificent trees (“named Dragon Gate Tree because it looks like a dragon and is next to the gate”), or note significant buildings or viewpoints (“this view was featured on a postage stamp”), or lay out the rules for being a tourist in what is still a community where people live something like a normal life (“don’t be a loud jerk”).

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This view was featured on a postage stamp.

It appeared that everyone who resides within the limits of HuangYao Ancient Town lives and breathes the tourist economy. Shopkeepers mostly sell the same ten spicy, fermented sauces and oils but sometimes clothing and cheap souvenirs. The riverfront is lined on both sides with open-air restaurants. Buildings that aren’t shops do double duty as guesthouse/eatery, but the whole town was so sleepy that when we stopped into one looking for a beer, the elderly woman in charge confusedly asked us, “Beer? What kind of beer?”

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We walked down every passageway.

IMG_20180113_163606.jpgWe saw the sights on the first day. I read all the signs to Colin while he snapped photos under the overcast and polluted sky. One of the dozen boat captains talked us onto his pontoon by warning that it may be raining the next day, so we took the tour under the charming stone bridge and past the bend in the river that collects so much of the litter. On foot we followed the stone passageways to each end of town, separately coming to the conclusion that HuangYao felt a little bit like Venice, Italy.

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We were not alone in being charmed; the second day of our stay we had to walk through (again and again) a very serious film crew that was shooting something in the very bar we managed to find a beer in the night before.

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Some sort of ritual in involved wearing squares of white cloths, banging drums and cymbals, and the regular lighting of firecrackers, the sounds reverberating through the stone alleys and more than once scaring the shit out of me because we were nearby when they were lit.

Our guest house was right on the edge of the tourist town, and there was a manned post right outside the front door, which we only realized was an issue when a sign on the inside of the door the next morning warned us to go out the back door unless we wanted to pay the entrance fee again. We didn’t, really, so out the back door we went. It emptied us into the middle of what was once a larger compound that had been parceled out–I think.

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The architecture in HuangYao is all low buildings walled off on the passageway side that open into courtyards once you’re inside. Thresholds within the compounds are round, and those to the outside are raised and with holes bored into the curb that would allow a door to be barred closed. The building materials are grey and dark stone and bricks, but red-painted wood is fashioned for the windowsills and eaves of the roofs, and red lanterns cover the fluorescent bulbs that light the town after dark. To complete the scene, giant Mao-era advertisements for things like light bulbs and tonics adorn the walls at intersections. I couldn’t tell if they were genuinely historic or added afterward to boost the historic vibe and because they are so arresting as photo backgrounds.IMG_20180114_175909.jpgIMG_20180113_181734.jpg

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Colin gets this photo cred.

I do believe the food we ate was authentic. There were four or five outfits set up on one side of the river and another across. The women would bring out more folding tables and plastic chairs as needed, and menus were offering identical fare. The specialty was tofu in broth that had bits of pork inside; Colin had it the first night but didn’t order it again. I twice tried eggs scrambled with tomatoes, a combo I really like but was underwhelmed by in HuangYao. Noodles and rice porridge were breakfasts, plus I found a tasty, thicker-than-I’m-used-to soy milk. We definitely dropped the most coin at the chic-for-HuangYao tea shop that had both a snuggly cat and a heater.

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We spent four hours of our second day in that tea shop because, well, we’d already seen the town and it was a really wintery weekend and my coat (actual vintage, formerly grandma’s) was way cuter than it was functional because I missed the memo that I really needed to pack a puffer coat. So we sat in this shop and ordered round after round and wrote postcards and read and it was really pleasant.

IMG_20180114_083840.jpgLogistics: Take the train into Hezhou, walk past the touts at the station to find the bus to HuangYao by yourself in the adjacent parking lot. The bus ride is roughly an hour and drops you right at the ticket window, but then you have to walk maybe half a mile to get to the town itself. This would have been a tough trip to do without at least some basic Chinese or a hardy sense of adventure–be warned.

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Come on, ride the train

A nice surprise awaited me when we boarded the Trans-Mongolian train at 7 a.m.—it was far nicer than any of the overnight trains we’d been on in China (we’d paid a bit more, too). There were only four bunks to a compartment and the door slid closed for privacy. And we had plenty of storage for the three of us who started out in our room.

The inside of our 2nd-class compartment

Our compartment-mates included a Finnish woman who recently completed her schooling in fine arts, is currently living in Thailand, and is studying Estonian. I don’t think she had a single nice thing to say about Estonians. She was almost helpful when it came to interacting with the Mongolian carriage attendant, who spoke no English or Chinese but could sometimes catch the idea of the gal’s Russian. Our fourth roommate was a Mongolian guy studying in Beijing. He was very friendly and not at all upset that we hadn’t left him much storage space.

Besides an incident involving some early-morning instant coffee (the attendant brought it to our compartment without a word, then expecting payment seven hours later), the ride was uneventful. We watched China fade into Mongolia, but didn’t reach the border until nightfall, which comes quite late so far north. The Soviet-laid tracks in Mongolia are different than the Chinese tracks, so our train’s bogeys had to be changed in a two-hour long process for which most passengers got off.

By the time our passports were returned by the Mongolian border agents, it was 1 or 2 a.m., but we pulled into Ulaanbaatar mid-afternoon the following day well-rested and eager to see Mongolia.

The traditional nomadic tent of Mongolia

Beijing wrap-up

Great Wall photos up, and more to come!

To my occasional frustration, Beijing was often no more than a chance for us to run errands. Trips to the post office were an every-day affair; an errand to the doctor’s office ate up half the day. Such is the price for moving and traveling at the same time. We had about two days of dedicated sight-seeing— Temple of Heaven Park on a fading afternoon, a whole afternoon at the 798 art compound, the Forbidden City on a chance cool morning (temperatures hovered around 90 degrees and humidity was through the roof)—as well as two nights out with friends: on the whole, not something to complain about.

Urns that held water to save the Forbidden City in case of fire

I also spent two afternoons at the Pearl Market, which sells three floors worth of things utterly unrelated to pearls.

We found the food mostly disappointing, but we must have been looking in all the wrong places because everyone else we’ve met who have gone through Beijing say the opposite. The city is absurdly big (population 20 million and counting), so walking around to get a feel for what’s available is a daunting task, and the Lonely Planet guide book lists only atmospheric that charge more than we wanted to spend.

The great Great Wall, part 2

Colin wanted to see the sunrise, so it was up at 4:00 for that. Clouds made it so we didn’t see the sun until 7 or 8, and then only a shadowy one. But we were grateful for the hours of cloud and even the spattering of rain drops, for a military base had forced us off the wall and back into the underbrush and occasional corn or leek field.

By 10 or so, we reached the wall again. A farmer had tampered with the system of blue arrows, dots, and Xs to redirect people to his farmhouse, where he would gladly sell you water then point you in the correct direction. Colin outwitted him, scouting it out a bit and keeping us on the correct path.

Back on the wall! You can kind of make out the trail in the green behind us

We foolishly stopped for a nap in the first guard tower we reached, while it was still cool enough to be chilled sitting in the light breeze. We would regret that not many hours later when the sun had burned the clouds away and we were huffing up terribly steep steps. At the top of those steps, though was our camp for the night, a guard tower in not quite as good repair as our first night’s lodgings. It was July 4, so Colin and I split his headphones and listened to the handful of patriotic songs he had on his iPod, wishing we had firecrackers, though that probably would have attracted the wrong sort of attention.

Home for the night

We walked 15 km through two very different sections of the wall on our trip, a crumbling, overgrown bit and an area that had been restored. While we met next to no one on the original wall in Gubeikou, recently redone Jinshanling was busy with families and student groups. Walking was easier in the restored area was easier–no surprise–but the charm of the old wall was missing.

The great Great Wall, part 1

Despite getting an early start, we didn’t get on the bus headed to the Great Wall until around 11. A couple of hours later, a man jumped on our bus and said to get off to go to Gubeikou, just like the Internet said he would. Once we’re off the bus, he goes on to tell us there’s no other bus, but that he’s got a friend who could take us there for a reasonable price, just like the Internet said he would. We went along with it, just like the Internet said not to. It’s like we never learn. We left a quarter-full yogurt container in the back of the van to curdle in revenge.

“This is your stop,” says the driver. “Wall’s over there.” He points off into the distance, in the wrong direction. An hour of asking strangers how to get to the Great Wall followed, and we were met with more questioning stares than I can recount–“What wall? Oh, that wall.” Plenty of people told us it was too far to walk, though distances ranged from 6 to 40 km. Colin’s GPS assured us it could not be more than about 10 km to our end point, so there was no way the nearest hopping on point was 40 km away.

Finally a man took us to a spot of road that met a wall-like structure, though it was hard to see through the brush.

Through the brush we went. Colin proposed powering through the part that looked like an easier ascent but was thick with chest-high bushes. Already smarting from the short bit we’d walked through, I figured it would be better to scramble up a steeper area that had less vegetation. We split up.

The very opposite of fun. Also the very opposite of a trail

I realized too late how foolish this all seemed. By that time, I was a good eight feet above flat ground, clinging to rocks that had been baking in the sun for four hours, with one solid foot hold, trying to wretch my sleeve from the grip of some wicked thorns. There was no turning around at that point. It never got so bad or so high that I was afraid of serious bodily harm, but a fall would have hurt with only a cushion of thorn bushes to break it.

Colin made it up first, but his climb hadn’t been any easier, especially since his pack had all of our supplies.

“Oh my gosh I’m on the Great Wall of China.”

But not quite. The wall was too crumbled to walk on just yet, so we picked our way for over an hour along a faint trail beside the wall, bright green thorny plants the whole way. By the time we climbed up (steps, this time), blood seeped from cuts and puncture wounds on the back of my hands and all down my bare legs.

We passed a man herding goats; Colin assured me the rattle I’d heard was coming from cicadas, not rattle snakes; we ate apricots off trees to find maggots inside–in every single one! But our first good view of the wall stretching ahead and disappearing over the horizon struck us speechless.

It was easy going after that; there were a couple good ascents and a few loose bricks, but walking on the thorn-free pathway was infinitely better than that first hour.

We made camp inside a guard tower and watched the bats flit around in the dusk. It was even warm enough to sleep on top of our sleeping bags, which made the stone floor a little more forgiving.

A rough start in Beijing

We arrived in Beijing at three, and immediately set out, with our bags, to find a place to stay. The city is absurdly big, and accomodations are scattered all over. What’s a backpacker to do? Get really tired.

After asking at I think just one place recommended in the Lonely Planet (300 yuan for their cheapest room!), we headed to the area I’d visited before that I knew has some cheap accomodations. They were full–almost. We managed to get a room for that first night, but we were turned out to the streets the next day.

We spent a couple hours at an Internet cafe searching for information on other hostels, couch surfing opportunities, and the Great Wall–the next day’s destination. We had very little luck on all counts. It was a rough day all around, really, and Beijing is so big (I know I’m being repetative) that it takes a long time to get anywhere. Stumbling back from the train station in defeat (no luck getting tickets to a section of the Wall), we stopped at the Drum Tower Hostel. Cheap rooms, and they helped us with info for the Great Wall. The TV in the room wasn’t working, so we missed most of Holland beating Brazil because we were too busy repacking the bags so we could carry only water, food, and sleeping bags to the Wall.

More warriors and more sickness

We met Andy and Pascal the next morning outside the Drum Tower to catch a bus to the tomb of Emperor Jingdi. In the museum there were hundreds of thigh-high dolls that had been carved and dressed as soldiers, eunuchs, and dancers. Dozens of statues of different kinds of livestock were on display too. When we got to the actual tomb, we were given blue booties to put over our shoes, as we were to walk on glass above the excavation work. Very neat, very dark, and very cool (a relief from the mid-90s outside).

Soldier dolls

Back in the city, the four of us went to the Muslim Quarter for some chicken kebabs, then they followed us back to our hostel to hang out. Before we got there, Colin got very ill with an upset stomach. He stuck it out, but it was good it was an early night. We would later learn that Andy and Pascal both had terrible stomach aches not long after–I alone escaped.

Luckily we hadn’t made plans for the next day. We checked out of the dorm, but took over the hostel’s movie area. Colin was feeling better much later than night, just in time to gather our stuff and walk to the train station to catch an overnighter to Beijing. I was lucky enough to have a guy smoking in bed below me.

A walled city and some warriors

I came down with a head cold as we pulled into Xi’an, and that put a damper on the first couple days we were in the walled city. I’m going to blame the air on the train, but it really could have been anything.

We literally walked from one side of the city to the other looking for a cheap place to stay, but the hostels were booked and expensive, so we ended up in a dirt-cheap Chinese hotel trying to be Western. The bed was wedged between the wall and a column that took up a quarter of the room, and it was the kind of carpet you didn’t want to walk around on, even in socks.

On top of the head cold, there was some confusion with our departure plans, and we ended up at the train station every day we were there, buying tickets, returning tickets, buying new tickets to the same town, returning tickets, buying tickets to a different town… Train stations are quickly becoming one of my least favorite kinds of places.

When we weren’t hanging out at the train station with all the people sitting on what look like all of their belongings, we walked. Xi’an has a lovely Muslim Quarter with interesting alleys and tasty food. We lunched on hand-pulled noodles covered in tomatoes and scrambled egg or potatoes and bell peppers. The boys pulling the noodles roll them out then swing them around, smacking them against the metal work surface. Hand-pulled noodles taste better, and they’re more fun to eat.

One of my favorite Chinese dishes made better with hand-pulled noodles

The Drum Tower surrounded by swiflets at dusk

On what we thought would be our last day in Xi’an, we caught the bus out to see the Terracotta Warriors. They’re a good 45 minutes outside of the city by public bus. I wasn’t expecting much; I’ve learned not to after so many disappointments. These guys were pretty neat, though. We should have splurged for an audio guide, but even without one it was clear how remarkable these warriors are. They have them as they were found, standing in wide trenches (walls, actually, but the roofs are long-gone), separated by their specialty: archers with the archers, officers with the officers, etc. At the back were a few dozen they’ve been able to piece together from the broken bits–talk about the most epic puzzle ever. There are three pits to walk through, all set up a bit differently, and then a museum that had a couple interesting exhibits, though all in Chinese.

We caught the wrong bus back (we were lied to); it made more, and longer, stops. It also drove the wrong way up a freeway off ramp, but in the driver’s defense, he wasn’t the only one.

A check with the Internet informed us that our Taipei pals Andy and Pascal were also in Xi’an. Thinking this too good an opportunity to miss, we changed our train tickets and checked into a different hotel.

The Chengdu Boogie

They do a funny thing on the trains here. There’s a smoking section at the end of each car, but they recirculate the air throughout the train so you end up breathing in the stale smoke anyway. It gives me itchy eyes.

View from the train on the way to Chengdu

We stopped in Chengdu to take a break from riding these trains. After checking in at a cute hostel on a very touristy pedestrian-only alley, we strolled through the comfortable heat (~28 degrees C) to People’s Park.

Watching a handful of kids play with water guns in a pond was entertaining, but the highlight was a wide-open area hosting some ballroom dancing. A song we couldn’t figure out was playing, so we watched the ten or so couples dancing. That was followed by a waltz, Auld Lang Syne! (They play it on trains too!)

We did a pretty waltz in our sandals and with our bags knocking, and as the song ended, a gum-smacking woman came up and demanded 1 yuan. With a disgruntled, disbelieving look, I held it out. (1 yuan is less than 15 cents, but we’d only danced one song and pretty clearly weren’t there to take advantage of the sound system.) After a second’s hesistation, she indicated it was 1 yuan each.

Suddenly we were swarmed by shouting people waving their finger at her. The next song started and a woman asked me to dance, pulling me out of the commotion. Colin had several people approach him to apologize for the scrooge and welcome us to China. The woman herself apologized to both of us–one of the most aggressive, though not hostile, apologies I’ve ever received.

After my second dance ended, we made a quick and blushing exit.