by Breanna Draxler
This year’s winter break marked my last in academia. From here on out I will either be overworked and underpaid as a journalist, or overeducated and unemployed. Neither is a particularly happy prospect. As such, I decided to make the most of my five (stretched to six) weeks off. I packed my backpack and headed east. Destination: China.
The first stop, not counting the trio of layovers, was Shanghai–a literally breathtaking city. The Westernized Asian metropolis is home to 20 million people and an (un)healthy dose of smog. In the two weeks I spent there, the sky was only clear for one day. The difference was remarkable.
To give our lungs a hiatus from the pollution, my Swedish travel companions and I headed southwest to the Yunnan Province. Here the skyscrapers were replaced by vertical karst formations known as the Stone Forest, or Shilin ( 石林). This geological wonder was formed some 270 million years ago when the ancient sea in this area began to retreat. Erosion dissolved the soft limestone until only giant, petrified basalt “trees” remained. Shilin is now considered the first wonder of the world, as evidenced by the constant stream of tour buses that circulated through the park’s vehicular veins. We snuck away from the tourist pack to do some scrambling, unfettered by the constant cadence of camera shutters.
Further south, it wasn’t tourists holding us up on the trails, but mountain goats. As we trekked through Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峽) we saw far more of these agile ungulates than people. The gorge itself is 15 kilometers long and takes its name from a Chinese legend in which a tiger escaped a pursuing hunter by leaping from one side of the gorge to the other. I cannot attest to the veracity of this story; we saw no tiger tracks.
The gorge is officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and unofficially the world’s deepest river canyon. I would also vote it among the most spectacular views of the trip.
As the site becomes an increasingly popular destination for backpackers, local entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the income potential by selling bottled water, locally-grown walnuts, apples and Snickers candy bars in trail-side shacks. The most creative among them simply sweep the pebbles from the best viewing points along the trail and charge for the right to take pictures. One elderly gentleman went so far as to construct a wooden gate between the path and his self-declared overlook. He ushered us through with a friendly smile but then barred us from getting back on the trail and berated us until we paid his photo site maintenance fee of eight yuan (USD 1.27).
Along with tourism, agriculture plays a major role in the Yunnan economy, much of it in the form of subsistence farming. Rice terraces etched into steep hillsides are still maintained and cultivated by hand. This didn’t appear to be a problem in China, though, where there is an abundance of available labor. Perhaps even an excess.
In the stores and restaurants, for example, the employees often outnumbered the customers. But there are advantages to working in Chinese retail. Of all the people with whom we conversed during our travels–students, chefs, store owners, mothers, fisher people, hoteliers and farmers–it was the young women selling knock-off clothing that spoke the best English. Their vocabularies were much more impressive than the dozen or so words I managed to grasp during my time in the land of the character-based, tonal Mandarin: ni hao (hello), xie xie (thank you), bu rou (no meat). Only the stereotypical tourist essentials, I’m afraid.
We rounded out the Chinese chapter of the trip with a two-day mountain bike tour around Lake Erhai (洱海), which translates to “ear shaped lake.” Socio-economic development in the Lake Erhai basin has led to a number of water quality issues in recent years. We pedaled past many aqueducts and climbed one that carries water from the lake to the surrounding fields. It also provides a good view of the mountains.
While weaving our way through the narrow streets of one of the many lakeside villages, we happened upon a celebration of sorts. The host ushered us through the stone entryway into a courtyard teeming with hundreds of people and enough flies to make every surface crawl. Food was served out of buckets and moonshine out of a teapot. An instrument-bearing ensemble shrieked some semblance of music over the drone of the conversations, which all fell silent as we entered. Every head turned to face the four of us.
Since we were already making a spectacle of ourselves, we broke out in a rousing rendition of “The Muffin Man.” My singing has never been applause-worthy, but our performance was well-received and the tune declared the trip’s official theme song.
Stay tuned to find out what adventures we enjoyed, and what environmental issues we encountered, during the next leg of the trip, this time in the Philippines.