I am a source of endless amusement

Trip Start Sep 15, 2007
Trip End Dec 15, 2007

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

when i left lauren, ellen, and char in xi'an we agreed to meet up again in wudangshan to climb the mountain together. wudangshan is a taoist mountain with a peak about 1600m high where tai chi was supposedly invented. it's also where the martial arts school in 'crouching tiger, hidden dragon' is supposed to be located...although the one scene of the film that takes place there (the final scene) wasn't actually filmed at wudangshan. i made my way there via guoliang while lauren, ellen, and char went to chongqing followed by a boat down the yangzi to yichang (i'm about to do the same thing but in reverse). i made it to wudangshan by train by around 2 pm on thursday, but the women discovered that the only train from yichang arrived at 10 pm and so they decided to take a bus (a brave decision). after a flat tire and a lunch stop where whatever was on their plates still had fur on it, they made it to wudangshan just after i did. we reunited at the train station and shared the success of having navigated from xi'an to wudangshan in our own respective ways without too much drama, all things considered. we made it to a little village called nanyan at the foot of the hiking trail by late afternoon. it was very empty, but i could imagine the chaos of a week previous when the national holiday was in full swing. lauren and i managed to haggle a good price on a room with four beds and a private bathroom for two nights, aided in our efforts by the relative lack of other hotel guests. the hotel staff were very friendly and we ate our meals in a little room just off the kitchen. the food was good and i was happy to be able to peek into the kitchen to see that it was kept quite clean. we tried to eat at other restaurants during our stay, but we quickly discovered that for some strange reason the menu for the entire wudangshan mountain area had been standardized...so every restaurant had the same menu with the same prices. i'm not quite sure of the reasoning behind this, but we decided to just eat in our hotel. there aren't really any independent restaurants in wudangshan...they're all attached to a hotel. i guess that the standardized menu encourages people to act as we did and eat where they're staying, as there's no point in going any further really. that might explain the gauntlet of hotel touts that we had to run when we got off the bus...people in beds brings food revenue as well.

we woke up the next morning to rain, rain that lasted all day. we had planned to do the climb that day but postponed it to the following morning. we spent the day lounging around, playing cards, and eating cookies. supposedly chocolate cookies, but real chocolate is hard to find in china. the women had scored a jar of skippy peanut butter at a supermarket somewhere in their travels and dipping the cookies in it made them much, much better. feeling a bit lazy and stir-crazy, we braved the rain to check out a taoist temple about a 25 minute walk south of nanyan. we took the bus there and then hiked back on a trail. the mountain was completely cloaked in mist and so we couldn't see the temple complex until we were right beside it. the mist made the temple feel as ancient as it really is...we all agreed it added something to the experience. the other thing we all agreed on was that we hadn't seen the sun since beijing...it's been cloudy, smoggy, or raining (or some combination of all three) for almost two weeks now. i hadn't really thought about it until the weather was very obviously impacting our time on the mountain. we woke up the next morning to the same sky, but a brief respite from the rain. we agreed that it would be silly to come all this way and not do the climb (about 3 hours up, 1.5 back down) and so we checked out, left our bags with the hotel and started hiking hoping that the rain would hold off. it didn't for long. i think that there's a point where you have to make a conscious decision as to whether you're going to let a certain set of circumstances ruin something for you or whether you're going to enjoy the experience for what it is. i think that we all did very well at accepting that we weren't going to get clear skies and beautiful views from the top. and once the decision is made you can appreciate things that you might otherwise have overlooked. at the lower parts of the climb the mist drifting in and out of the trees was beautiful. and at the top where the mist and clouds were so thick that we couldn't see more than 5 metres in front of us we all agreed that it felt almost dreamlike to be wandering around the peak and its old temple buildings and walls with nothing but white behind them, with no point on which to focus...we could have been floating in the sky. we made it back down to the village and collected our stuff with just enough time to bus back to wudangshan town for lauren, ellen, and char to catch their train to wuhan. my train to yichang left an hour afterwords. the women from chicago are going to hong kong after wuhan and then on to yunnan and south-east asia. our paths won't cross again in china. i may get to meet up again with ellen and char in india as they plan to go there after thailand. lauren is going home after thailand though, and so i won't see her again unless we meet up back in north america. there is a strange hollowness to being alone again after having had the pleasure of traveling with friends. i mentioned the positive aspects of traveling alone in a previous entry, and now i'm reacquainted with the negative ones, for the first time on this trip. but i will try to remain as open to my surroundings as i've been so far...and tam wanting to come with me to tibet and nepal seems genuine. so i can't imagine that i'll feel like this for long.

i arrived in yichang last night at around 11 pm exhausted from the hike in the morning and the train ride itself. i needed to find a place to stay and my guide book was short on possibilities. a middle aged woman saw me standing around trying to decide which way to go and put both her hands at the side of her head to ask me if i was looking for a place to sleep. i nodded. she said 'sanshi kuai', which means 30 yuan (kuai is a slang word for yuan that's used very frequently). that was a far, far better price than i thought i was going to find, although i had no idea what the state of the room would be. she motioned for me to follow her and i did. i assumed that she was going to take me to a nearby hotel, but as we made our way into the side streets behind the train station i realized that there was no hotel around. the alleyways were dark and i started to feel like it was all wrong. if it was a man i had been following i would have stopped and gone back to the train station. but for some reason, because she was a woman, i continued to follow her...to her home. she and her husband have two small rooms that they charge people to stay in for the night. the room was clean and pleasant and the bed, although basic, was comfortable enough. it worked out perfectly. i relocated to a proper hotel today because i need to have a key so that i can come and go as i please. i managed to find one just around the corner that, for the price (60 yuan), is the best room i've had in a hotel here so far...a nice big bed with my own bathroom (with good water pressure and big supply of hot water!)

in the past week i've spent more time in places that are a bit more off the well-beaten tourist track..and so the amount of attention that my presence brings has been more pronounced. and i've found myself, for the first time this trip, getting annoyed by it. people nudging their friends and pointing at me, open stares, chicken-shit teenagers yelling 'hello' 5 seconds after i've passed them and then running off giggling, people getting up in my face and blabbing on in mandarin at me well past the point where i've made it clear that i can't understand them. i've discovered that the phrase that i learned to tell people that i can't understand them, 'wo bu mingbai' (literally 'i not understand') has the effect of making people think that i can speak chinese but that they're just not explaining themselves well. i need to learn how to say 'i don't speak mandarin' instead maybe. even on the train ride last night i seemed to provide limitless entertainment to all the passengers nearby. just as i was getting frustrated by it all one of the members of the group that was traveling together, the only one that could speak any english, sat down. he was really nice and gave me some food and a drink. we showed each other our respective pictures from wudangshan and i gave him my deck of cards in exchange for a chinese deck as he'd never seen cards like mine before. as information about me filtered to everyone else around through his translation everyone became much more calm about my presence. i guess it's easy to forgot that i'm the unknown here, and in some sense i'll frighten people because of it. much of what has been annoying me of late is probably driven by unease over my 'strangeness'. it's served to remind me that homogeneous cultures can very easily breed xenophobia. one of the benefits of a multicultural society that i hadn't really considered in quite this way before is the increased ability to accept that which is unknown, that maybe it's only unknown because i lack knowledge about it, not because it's inherently strange.

i leave yichang on a hydrofoil up the yangzi river to chongqing tomorrow morning. yichang is the town closest to the three gorges dam, and i was tempted to go and visit the dam itself but i decided that i need to get going on my way to tibet if i want to have any amount of time there. there are lots of cruises between chongqing and yichang through the three gorges, but most of them run 3-4 days and i don't think i need that much gorge time. the hydrofoils are quick (11 hours from yichang to chongqing) but not at all tourist oriented. my guide book says that because everyone else on the boat is using it as a practical ferry there are plenty of opportunities to stand at the door and watch the scenery go by. lauren, ellen, and char confirmed this for me. apparently the water level has already risen quite a bit (although it's still far from how high it will be eventually) and so the gorges are maybe less awe inspiring than they once were. i'm still looking forward to the boat ride though, even just for the change of pace.
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shangguan on

I just wanted to comment on your blog. You write a good blog. Very interesting. I've lived in China for five years and still get helloed and stared at everywhere I go, even on my own street. I've gotten so that it is so blocked out that I don't even hear or notice people, even my friends when walking around.

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