CHAPTER FOUR

MASTER OF DISGUISES

China

We team up for a hike along this beautiful, unrestored portion of the greatest wall ever built. We progress along this wall that jumps up and down the many hills, and marvel at this wonder of human creation


A push. Simple push that brings me back to reality. My well mannered break in Japan comes to an abrupt end as I board the city bound metro at the Beijing International Airport. I have crossed through this airport, which has been made so imposant, though it's mix of grey and washed out red gives it a sad aura.

I find my way through a cloud of pollution, to a hostel at the heart of a cute Hutong, or residential street. At first sight, Beijing is somehow uninspiring. It gives me a glimpse at modern China, which I suspect to be the emblem of the quick and cheap. Rows of already-run down building are copy/pasted along busy streets in a concern to accommodate a maximum of people, and large avenues display business building that seem to be built in order to impress but are likely partly empty. I explore the city center in search for coffee or a meal, and end up in the many unavoidable shopping malls. I convince myself not to pay too much attention to this first impression, and give Beijing a chance.

My first visit takes me to the Lama Temple, one of the major Buddhist temples of the country. For a while, I enjoy the ancient Chinese architecture, as well as the impressive statues of the worship room. In the courtyard, people are burning incense and spinning praying wheels. After a while, I take off for a lunch of Hot Pot which I ruin by asking vegetarian and non-spicey. What offence!

The next day, I make my way to the unmissable Forbidden City. I spend a short four hours exploring the immensity of the ancient district, which used to shelter the elites of the many dynasties of China. I move from one red palace to the next, navigating the impossible crowd that the opening times do not allow to dodge. The many palaces, temples and garden are overtaken by tourists and a crazy amount of school children who bath in a cloud of pollution. Luckily, I find shelter from the mass as I explore the palaces on the edge of the city and learn about the many artefacts the dynasties have passed down history.

Dee, a kind Indonesian man I have met in Beijing, escorts me to a small streets with stalls where they sell specialties. Mostly food. We venture passed the fried scorpions and tarantulas to find friendlier snacks. We struggle with the alien food and undecipherable price list the stall owners point at, impatiently, when we ask questions. Money is tossed back at us when we give one too many notes, and we are aggressively told off. The few exchanges we have are unpleasant, and I have the feeling that people are actually trying to be unfriendly. I tell myself that Beijing is simply faithful to the stereotype of a capital, and especially the touristic areas.

I run away for a four days trip to to the North. Gubeikou, a small town where I will hike along the Great Wall, and hopefully meet kinder locals. I get off the bus in a part of town that is a part-military, part-industrial looking street where truckers stop for a break before or after going through the police checkpoint. The people seem friendlier though, and I stop in a bar where I am offered a cheap ride to the hostel. We drive over the hill, through the uninspiring ancient town, and up into a valley where a village sits quietly. That's where the empty guest house is. For the next two days, I wave hellos and goodbyes to the couple who run the guest house, and the woman's parents who send me cheeky smiles as they garden. I take six kilometers return trips to the town's grocery store, where I buy packaged food. My only option for lunch. I tell myself the trips to the store are a nice warmup before I conquer the Wall. Night winds offer me a pollution-free second day on the Wall. I walk towards a discreet entrance the guest house lady has tipped me on, and meet a European fireman on the way. We team up for a hike along this beautiful, unrestored portion of the greatest wall ever built. We progress along this wall that jumps up and down the many hills, and marvel at this wonder of human creation. Later, we cut through deep valleys with farming fields until we reach the edge of the Jinshangling section of the wall, where we part ways. My fleeting adventure partner plans on sleeping on the wall and progressing further onto the touristic restored section, I will return to the village and prepare my next-day trip back to Beijing.

It is with mixed feelings that I return to the capital. The city has so much more to show me but it hasn't treated me well so far. I decide to take the easy option and venture no further than the old city walls. For my last evening, Dee offers to take me to a nice little restaurant where Chinese barbecue makes a Beijing apology.

"One sleep until Sichuan!" - I tell myself, onboard the Chengdu bound train. I am sitting across a thirty something Chinese woman who is helping me put my hands on a vegetarian meal. The gentle woman strikes a conversation and I learn that she is a Sichuan-born mother of one who works a government job in Beijing. The train will take her for a visit to her parents and daughter. It is not surprising for Chinese grandparents to mind their grandchild, and overall families are pretty close, but I cannot help but be surprised with the element of distance in her case. She explains that she has arranged a winter escape for her daughter because of the usual peak of pollution in Beijing. It is undeniably a noble sacrifice, and I wonder if anybody would be willing to make it, where I come from. The conversation moves on to the one-child made two-children policy and eventually, we say goodnight. And farewell. The woman has made me friends with China again, and only in Chengdu I realize I will never know her name.

I exit the Chengdu subway into yet another polluted street, though I have been warned it would not be any better than Beijing in that regard. Through the window of a local bus, I observe a city which looks different. Modern districts are arranged in a more aesthetic manner, and they seem to blend with the more traditional side of the city. On a first impression, it looks like the city planners have been working more carefully to develop a healthy architecture.

Eventually, I reach the police-infested Tibetan neighborhood where the hostel is located. From there, I start exploring the city and its famous old streets, which are tourist-targeting pedestrian alleys where restaurants and shops elbow small Sichuan opera venues. Observing the young men and women is typical costumes -who invite the passerby into the many opera show- I take enjoyable walks through the beautiful streets, wondering still if I will have a chance to get off the beaten track and see a more authentic China.

Chengdu proves to be an enjoyable city. The people of Sichuan balance hard working days with endless games in the many Mahjong cafes. They seem to have a relaxed lifestyle, and exchange smile-fueled chatters on a Sunday morning at the tea houses.

On a chilly morning, I meet a couple at the bus station where I am to take a bus for Leshan. The young man asks me if I know where the bus is. Follows a day of mingling. We are headed to the Giant Mountain Buddha of Leshan, and the couple helps me decipher the information we are given exclusively in Chinese. I stick with the love birds for a visit around the impressive monument: a seventy one meters high Buddha carved into the mountain, along the river. We progress further, through a fishing village and past ancient cave tombs. We continue across a bridge and up a hill, until we stumble upon a charming hidden temple where statues of the late monks have been made and displayed over the past centuries. On our way back, we stop for a quick lunch of cold noodles, and I learn more about the couple: she is Jiamin and he is JiaJie, a sweet couple from South-East China. They work for the same bank, and live three hours drive from each other. We stick together through the day, and for a diner they have offered me to join. They want to show me Hong Kong food, and we conclude the evening with a beer at a concert bar. With this encounter, I make peace with China further. I cannot believe my luck, meeting people with such great hearts. People who happily sacrificed a day out of their romantic getaway to help a stranger and make a friend out of him.

Unfortunately, my exploring of Chengdu finishes on a cringe, as I visit the Panda Breeding Center. Despite the noble cause and success of the center, I cannot help but feel quite unsettled by the crowd of inconsiderate tourists ignoring the silence signs and shouting around the animals who usually thrive in silent environments. I suffer a half hour of finding the pandas and finding the exit, and leave with a guilty feeling that mass tourism destroys everything.

Chengdu proves to be an enjoyable city. The people of Sichuan balance hard working days with endless games in the many Mahjong cafes. They seem to have a relaxed lifestyle, and exchange smile-fueled chatters on a Sunday morning at the tea houses

Xin Min and He are my new Chinese allies, following up on my travels and making sure I do well. I reflect on such kindness. I have met such good hearts in China, and yet the reactions I receive from the West are plagued with reticence and stereotypes


On the overnight train to the YunNan region, I strategize to get a fish-free meal yet again. This time around though, I am not even dreaming of meat-free. Between the strong presence of meat in Chinese cuisine, and my struggle to make myself understood, my vegetarian diet has more or less gone out the window. We had a good run but the party's over, send some chicken this way please! I target a young man who's found me looking for boiling water earlier and pointed at the tap. For some reason, I assume he speaks English. When I throw a sentence at him, he is left wondering and instantly gets on a translation app. After looking after me and making sure I get my hand on a fish-free meal, the man introduces himself as He and offers me a late night conversation over translator. He explains being from Sichuan and being headed to Panzihua for work. Eventually, the ambitious young man and I wish each other good night, he declares his heart being lifted by our meeting on the train. Shall I return to Sichuan, he would have me as a guest and see that I have a great time. One thing is clear, I am now far from Beijing, in both kilometers and people.

I stop in Dali for a two days break of relaxation. I find the hostel in the ancient town and soon realize Dali is a tourist magnet. The ancient town is a hive of restaurants and tourist shops, which kills any of my hopes to do some exploring. Instead, I decide to take a short break before I head on to Lijiang. The mass tourism flooding Dali is mostly of Chinese origins, and I spend a lonely -though relaxing- two days navigating the absence of English language anywhere. Still, I manage to befriend a gentle twenty-two year old student who sells yogurt at a small shop. His name is Xin Min, which I insist is beautiful. We exchange numbers and he promises to tip me on YunNan. Xin Min and He are my new Chinese allies, following up on my travels and making sure I do well. I reflect on such kindness. I have met such good hearts in China, and yet the reactions I receive from the West are plagued with reticence and stereotypes.

The time comes for me to move on to Lijiang. I am headed to the city and its UNESCO World Heritage ancient town. My plan is to spend a day, head for a two days hike in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and return for four days. I reach the charming hostel in one of the traditional looking streets just outside the ancient town. The man at the desk, who runs the hostel on his own, seems disillusioned. I strike a conversation which drifts to my plan for the following week. Instantly, he advises me to forget about my four days back in Lijiang. "For the hostel director to advise me not to come back..." -I think. I question him further and he explains how the past ten years have seen gentrification chase the local Naxi people away and the old town turn into a fake version of Naxi architecture.

The next day, I have no choice but to admit he was right. I walk up and down streets overtaken by hotels, restaurants and shops. A Chinese Disney Land of a ghost town. I explore the ancient town at the earliest hours to dodge the ridiculous access fee. Making my way uphill, through a charming part of the town, I try to catch a vantage point, though cafes have made sure you could only get the view if you bought their well-overpriced tea or coffee. I can appreciate the architecture but still, I am starting to seriously wonder if I will actually see anything authentic in China. The tourism culture of the country strikes me as one of convenience and business rather than one of experience.

I decide to spend no more than the one day I am willing to offer Lijiang, and head for a quick afternoon visit to a village which has also been damaged by tourism. The houses and streets would have you think the village is authentic, if it wasn't for the souvenir stalls in front of the houses and the old ladies in typical Naxi outfits who trade pictures for money. So long Lijiang!

My two days hike in the Tiger Leaping Gorge starts on an uphill paved road that trucks and donkeys share. Soon enough, I come across a house where an elderly woman sells fruits and snickers while the two year old grandchild observes the hikers passing by. I buy some fruits and wave at the child, who giggles. The old lady points me in the direction of a little dirt way that takes off onto the steep slope of the mountain. Without thinking twice, I venture onto the track, for a hike that will test my strength. The track is steep and cuts through fields where donkeys and cows feed quietly. I walk up the mountain and through pine tree forests where locals arranged small stalls to sell water and snacks. These spontaneous marchants and the few horsemen browsing the mountain for tired tourists try to make some money off the gorgeous hike. When I decline their offer, they point bags of weed at my face and shout "Ganga?!"

I stop for lunch at the first village, where the guest house lady runs after me with a five yuan banknote, because "tea is free!" The hike through the villages is going to prove to be quite different from the tourist areas, I already feel. In the afternoon, I progress further into the track, and up the 'twenty-eight bends' which are a true walk of redemption! I pull myself up the endless track zigzagging up the mountain, and reach a higher section of the hike. I progress now between breathtaking views and intimidating slopes, on a cliff track that could prove fatal to a clumsy person. The 'walk of redemption' is now consequently less physically demanding, and the lonely pilgrimage in the gorge is inviting me to contemplation. I look back at my travels and how being on my own in China has proved easier than I had anticipated. For a moment, I ponder whether I have become emotionally more independent, only to realize something crucial: we are never emotionally independent. We need one another. Being away from my loved ones here in China, hasn't my heart bounced from one person to the next, creating unexpectedly special bonds? I think of Ye, a man I met in Chengdu for a long afternoon of discussing Chinese culture and politics, from LGBT rights to the one-child policy, or Tibet. Would I have been so engaged had I met him, or Dee, Jiamin, JiaJie, He, Xin Min... back then when I was not left with myself?

I reach the fourteen kilometers milestone earlier than I had expected. I will take a rest for the night, in a village of this high valley. I venture around for a while, to observe the villagers working the fields. When I return, two Australian and a Canadian have reached the guesthouse and will be sharing the room with me. They are the first westerners I mingle with since Beijing, and this night I forget to ask for their names. Funny how the more I travel, the less I ask for people's name. As if the trip had moved beyond names, to something free and fleeting.

The sun has only just rose behind the mountain when I take a start for the remaining part of the trek: another eight kilometers down to the gorge and a few back to the road. After nearly two hours, I reach the road where I will be taking a bus to Zhongdian later that day. From there, I venture onto a steep downwards track that lead me to cliffs along the river. The torrents is extremely powerful and noisy. I follow the track upstream and into a part of the gorge where locals block the many ways and bridges, claiming I need to pay them a fee to go further. Regardless, I am able to enjoy the place, where the impressive Tiger Leaping Rock lays in the water. Legend has it, a tiger was spotted jumping the large gaps between the rock and both banks of the river.

After a while, I embark on the last leg of the journey: an exhaustive way up the steepest face of the gorge. I climb the 'sky ladder', which is not for the faint hearted, and walk my way back to the road. I stop at a small guesthouse where an elderly man serves lunch while carrying a baby on his back, and finally I reach the departure place of the buses. There, I meet my roommates of the previous night. The Australians are Peter and Blake, the Canadian is Mark.

I stop for lunch at the first village, where the guest house lady runs after me with a five yuan banknote, because "tea is free!" The hike through the villages is going to prove to be quite different from the tourist areas, I already feel

I feel grateful for Zhongdian. It, and more specifically its surrounding, has offered me the peak into real China I had long awaited. A taste of the authentic and, which is more, an encounter with the Tibetan people and their culture


I join Mark and Peter on the bus to Zhongdian. The two will catch a next-morning bus further North, I will spend a few days exploring the city and its surrounding. Zhongdian -renamed Shangri-La in an attempt to attract tourists- is a prefecture of the Autonomous Region of Tibet in the YunNan region. The city inhabitants are part-Naxi, part-Tibetan and include other ethnies. The surrounding country is fully Tibetan.

After a short night at a noisy hostel, my fleeting travel companions and I split ways. They are headed for the bus station, I for a hostel I have heard of. It is located in the part of the old town that has been spared from the massive fire of two years back, or has already been rebuilt? In any case, it is soon apparent that the city is in a transition and I ask my way to locals who seem as confused as I am with the street names. Eventually, I bump into a group of early-twenties Tibetans who shout hellos at me. Two of them offer to take me to the hostel, though they seem to be getting lost. They hold an advantage over me and ask directions to the shop keepers in Chinese, while I take advantage of the search to strike a conversation. The most English-proficient introduces himself as twenty three years old Nell. He has grown up in India and moved back to Shangri-La only a year back. The second is Kunga, a twenty two years old local who was born in India but grew up here. He is both shier and cheekier. The pair of waiters struggle around the old town but show no sign of letting me down. Their perseverance pays off when we finally find the place, a corner away from where we met. We say goodbye and agree to meet again for a thank-you beer. Shangri-La beer surely!

After settling at the hostel and getting lighter of a few things, I start discovering the old town and its imposing central temple. I marvel at this glimpse into Tibetan culture, and venture on the hills surrounding the old town, in search of a vantage point. I arrive at the Baiji temple where no monks are to be found, but a dog greets me. After a while, I decide to complete the discovery of Tibetan culture at the museum, though I find only the one open exhibition room where a Chinesed version of Tibetan culture show me the glorified arrival of the red army.

The following day, my plan is to visit the Songzanlin Monastery -the biggest in Southern China- and take a chance-trek towards Napa Lake, where I am hoping to find a modest guesthouse for the night. I walk to the monastery, which is covered by a ridiculous entry fee. Regardless, I decide to explore the special place, which sits proudly on the face of a small mountain. The monastery has been -and is- going through important renovations but it adds to the charm of the place: a white spiritual block under gold and sun. I happily get lost around the narrow alleys, hoping to encounter some of the six hundred monks who reside there. However, the few encounters I make are somehow disappointing. The monks seem frustrated with the visitors stepping into their territories, they give disapproving looks. When I see a Tibetan Buddhist Monk slap a tourist across the face for ignoring the 'no pictures' sign, I decide it is time to go before my image of Tibet is forever ruined.

Leaving the monastery, I walk up the mountains that seclude the holy place from the city. I dodge a yak here and a yak there, making my way up to the praying flags and on to the other side, which is steeper than I had expected. Stubborn as ever, I make a slow progression down towards a grassy plain. The plain is wide and swampier than I had expected, I cross it with difficulty and reach a small village. The village that leads back to the highway, and across the road I can see the lake at last. I cross through more grassland and reach another village on the edge of the lake, only to realize the direction I had planned on taking is blocked. The road is under water at this time of year, and I would have to head a lot further to catch the road around the lake. It will not be a safe option, as the day has progressed a fair bit and I am not sure to find accommodation on the other side of the lake. I decide it is safer to head back to Zhongdian for the night, but I have some time left to walk around the village. Two boys, eleven and twelve, decide to show me around the village hill where I catch great views over this minor part of the lake. I gratefully share cookies with them and learn their names, though they are lost on me. They grab a basket ball and we spend a while playing around the rundown basketball field of the village. Eventually I decide to head back, and at the exit of the village I meet the most Tibetan old man I could have imagined.

The following day, and last in Shangri-La, I wake up with a thirst for more authentic Tibetan experience. I head North of the city and hitch a ride for the thirty kilometers that lead to the Nixi village. I walk down the endless 'S' road leading into this deep valley, famous for its black pottery-making villagers. Remains of the pottery has been dated back two thousand years in the village, which is by some miracle still sheltered from heavy tourism. I wander around the road and streets, among villagers and cows. After a while, an old lady I ask points to a house where a man proudly shows me his workshop. The rest of the afternoon is a ballade among the village and fields, trying to communicate with the villagers or to approach baby cows.

My last evening in Zhongdian has come and it is time to meet Nell and Kunga again. I offer them to meet for a the Shangri-La beer I still have not tried. It turns out to be the perfect opportunity to learn about their life and get an insider's look into Tibetan culture. They are a great, kind bunch and I spend a really pleasant time. When the time comes to say goodbye, I am invited to come back and be taken care of. I return the offer and add that I will not forget how they have so selflessly helped me.

On the bus, ready to head back to Lijiang for a connecting train, I feel grateful for Zhongdian. It, and more specifically its surrounding, has offered me the peak into real China I had long awaited. A taste of the authentic and, which is more, an encounter with the Tibetan people and their culture.

I look out the window of a train on my south-bound escape. The landscape is evolving into greener shades, as we ride further away from Kunming. Kunming, the city of eternal spring... I stopped there for a few days of rest under rains that felt nothing like spring.

The weather, as well as my concern to be well rested for the next adventure to be had, invited me to procrastination. I spent a somehow unproductive four days running errands. My only visit was to the Nationalities Museum, where I have learned about the twenty six ethnic groups that inhabit YunNan.

On my last evening in the country, my phone came to light with a message from He. "Are you leaving China tomorrow?" -he asks. I answer that yes, and will he forget me? He returns the question.

I now look back at my first few days in China, and the impression Beijing made on me. I remember looking at the imposing buildings of the business district, or walking around the countless malls, and thinking "China is a master of disguises." Where was the real China?

I leave today, with a humbling feeling. I can hardly say I know China but the few places I have seen and the few people I have met. I have navigated a fairly small part of the country and its culture, for better and for worse, from a smile to a push, and in hope that this master of disguises would take down its mask of tourism.

Real China is out there, somewhere, and we had a few quick encounters. I have realized that it is only shy. It hides in a few shadows, all too aware of the power and disregard the beast of Chinese mainstream tourism can have and show. Though if you think of it, real China is more than just authentic visits to the locals. It is found in the good heart of a young man on the train, or simply in the smile of a student selling yogurt.

China is a unique giant of ambivalence. It will give you the cold shoulder a minute, befriend you the next. You will explore this diverse land, bearing in mind that, at times, you see and learn what China wants you to see and learn. An outsider, you will come face to face with more than questionable politics, and yet you will find incredible people who thrive regardless.


I have navigated a fairly small part of the country and its culture, for better and for worse, from a smile to a push, and in hope that this master of disguises would take down its mask of tourism

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