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// MY NAME IS DANIELAnd after years of dreaming I've sold everything I own and set off on the open road. I've made this site as a sort of photo journal of my travels. The map shows where I've been (red), where I've stayed a month or more (yellow), and where I plan to go (white). And so, armed with little more than a backpack, a camera, and a dream, I now take the road less traveled by. So it goes.


BEIJING I arrived in Beijing from South Korea, though I did not stay long, a few days only. The city was really just a stopover. My plan was simple, catch the Trans-Mongolian Railway to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. That trip would be a three day journey by train across the expansive Gobi Desert. It would be nearly four months before I would return to China to see more of the country. But even given my short time here, I found Beijing to be a fascinating city, caught between the desire to preserve it's old neighborhoods and become the Paris or Rome of Asia, an opportunity the amazing hutong districts of narrow alleys and historic stone homes certainly offered, or the desire to bulldoze it all in the name of modernity and become a monotonous city of generic super blocks, sprawling super highways, and isolated glass skyscrapers. I'd like to come back to Bejing in 30 years, and see which path was ultimately chosen.
THE FORBIDDEN CITY Located in central Beijing, the Forbidden City served as the Imperial Palace from 1420 to 1912. It is walled and moated and contains a total of 980 buildings, most of stunning grandeur. Construction took 14 years and required more than one million workers. During the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guard were zealously destroying relics of China's pre-communist history, the Forbidden City was targeted, parts were destroyed, but Premier Zhou Enlai saved it from further destruction by sending an army battalion to guard the palace from the student revolutionaries.
THE SUMMER PALACE Also located in Beijing, the Summer Palace is an equally impressive complex and served as the Imperial Gardens for the Qing Dynasty, though the history of the palace and grounds date back all the way to the Jin Dynasty in 1153 AD. In all the grounds cover 1.1 square miles, nearly 75% of which is lakes and water ways.
TURPAN XINJIANG AUTONOMOUS REGION From Beijing I left China, traveling by train to Mongolia, then taking the Trans-Siberian across Russia, before heading southwards into Kazakhstan and Central Asia. But I knew I'd return to China and so finally from Kyrgyzstan, I flew an hour over the border to Urumqi. I didn't actually take any photos in Urumqi (I didn't feel comfortable given the rather oppressive police presence and lack of other tourists) but I did manage a trip to the ancient ruins in the city of Turpan. The ruins here are of a city once called Jiaohe, which sits on an island between two rivers. From 108 BC to 450 AD it was the capital of the Jushi Kingdom and an important stop along the Silk Road. What you see are the remains of mud-constructed neighborhoods and Buddhist temples, of which there were many in the city. The city was destroyed in the 1200s AD by Genghis Khan, who sadly wiped a great many cities and ethnic groups off the map.
LANZHOU GANSU PROVINCE From Turpan I took a high-speed train to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. In only a matter of years, China has created the largest high-speed rail network on Earth. In fact, 65% of all high speed trains in the world are located in China and the country has even begun testing mag-lev trains capable of going 350 Miles per hour (600kph). I stayed only a few days in Lanzhou, home to China's Muslim Hui people (see the Hui Noodles below!). The city has a population 3.6 million, which is not very big by Chinese standards, and sits on the banks of the famed Yellow River.
LABRANG GANNAN TIBETAN AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // GANSU A friend from New York put me in touch with a friend of hers who was living in Gansu, so since I was already there, I took the opportunity to take a quick detour to Labrang to meet them (a detour from which I never recovered--- instead of continuing east as originally planned, I somehow kept going south, until hitting the Laos border. oops.) Labrang was really breathtaking. It's part of Amdo, which was historically part of the Tibetan Kingdom and therefor a great many Tibetans still live here in Autonomous Prefectures (which are not really as autonomous as they sound). While I needed special permission to enter Tibet Proper, which is only granted through expensive tours, I was free to wonder around the Tibetan areas of Gansu with no restrictions. The Labrang Monastery is one of six great Tibetan Monasteries and was once home to thousands of monks. Today it is still home to several hundred.
LANGMUSI GANNAN TIBETAN AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // GANSU Like Labrang, Langmusi is another Tibetan city, though much smaller, located high in the mountains at the Eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau on the border between Gansu and Sichuan. In fact half the town is on the Sichuan side, separated by a river, and there is a massive monastery on both sides, one for Gansu and one for Sichuan (the Sertri and Kirti Monasteries respectively, though I can't remember which is which now.) Like Labrang, I was enchanted by the whole region, with beautiful mountain valleys surrounding charming pedestrian towns.
ZHAGANA GANNAN TIBETAN AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // GANSU Sometimes the fairytale villages are real. Zhagana, which means 'Stone Box' in Tibetan, sits on the Northeastern rim of the Tibetan Plateau, a full 3200 meters (10500 feet) above sea level. After crossing the mountains, one comes to this green valley, with primitive forests, rustic Tibetan villages, a few golden-roofed monasteries, and miles of hiking trails in every direction. I know I used the word breathtaking before, but this place was unbelievable. The local Tibetan family I was staying with brought me here (there's a photo of us below).
ABA NGAWA TIBETAN AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // SICHUAN I left one Tibetan prefecture in Gansu and stayed in another across the border in Sichuan. Here I stayed with a Tibetan family a few days in their mountaintop village (the last four photos), which seemed to get all four seasons in a single day, with blizzards at night and warm sunny skies during the day. While here, I met another traveler and we rented bikes and cycled between some of the local villages. China might be the world's most populated country, but in these villages it was as peaceful and rural as it comes.
SONGPAN SICHUAN PROVINCE Sadly it was time to leave the Tibetan Plateau. My last stop before entering the lowlands was the ancient city of Songpan. Much of the city is actually a modern recreation of the old city (only bits of the old wall actually remained), though it was re-built by the government well enough to fool nearly anyone. The city was originally built during the Tang Dynasty, somewhere between 618 and 907 AD and has been an important military post for most of it's history. For anyone familiar with China's more recent history, this was an important stop along the Long March, when the Communists were forced to retreat on foot, being chased, harassed, and pushed further and further west (only to famously circle back around and take the country). Reportedly they marched over 5600 miles in 370 days. Songpan sits at the confluence of four ethnic groups, so the city is made up of Tibetans, Hui Muslims, Qiang, and Han.
CHENGDU SICHUAN PROVINCE Well, back to mega China. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, is home to 14.5 million people. Actually I've wanted to visit Chengdu for years, not just because this is home to the famous pandas, but because it's well known as a historic city with a relaxed atmosphere (and spicy foods -- note the rabbit head fried in hot chilis below... his intestines and brains are in the salad). I stayed 20 days here, in a nice apartment, my chance to rest a little after a whirlwind tour of the Tibetan regions of Gansu and Sichuan. I enjoyed Chengdu, though ironically not the historic parts, which really would put Disneyland to shame as far as tourist traps go.
LESHAN SICHUAN PROVINCE South of Chengdu is the Leshan Giant Buddha. It was built between 713 and 803 AD during the Tang Dynasty. At 233 Feet (71m) tall, it is by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world, and the largest stone Buddha even today. Impressively the cliffs face a river, so the Buddha is best seen by boat.
CHONGQING FEDERAL MUNICIPALITY From Chengdu it was a short train ride to Chongqing, which with 30.5 million people, made Chengdu look like a podunk village. Chongqing, by most estimates, has the largest city proper in the world. Populations though are hard to compare, given that Chinese cities often include areas far outside the city center. For example Chongqing's official area is roughly the same size as the US state of Maine. Even so, this was by far one of the largest cities I've ever seen, and I saw only a tiny piece of it.
GUIYANG GUIZHOU PROVINCE The heat in Chengdu and Chongqing was brutal. I realized, somewhat horrified, that the weather in the cities I was planning to visit next, Wuhan and Shanghai, was going to be even hotter, well over 100 Degrees (40C). I just couldn't take it, so I started googling cities all over China, checking for just one criteria... the weather. I found Kunming was going to be about 75 (23C) everyday for the rest of the month. It was in the wrong direction and it was far, but I didn't care. I upended my entire plan for China to get there. And to get there meant I'd have to pass through Guiyang. I didn't know anything about Guiyang so I didn't budget much time there. That was a mistake. Despite being here only a few days (and staying in a pod hostel, see the photo below) this turned out to be one of my favorite cities in China. I can't say exactly why. Maybe because not everything had been ripped down and replaced with fancy (but lifeless) modern glass skyscrapers. The city wasn't particularly beautiful, a lot of concrete housing blocks from the 60s and 70s, poorly aged, but they were full of character none-the-less, packed with tiny shops, ad-hoc markets, children running around, old folks playing mahjong on the sidewalk; it was a type of street life and energy that just doesn't exist when the whole entire block is just one long fancy glass bank with a corporate chain cafe tacked on the end and for that I really enjoyed it.
KUNMING YUNNAN PROVINCE Ah, so here it was, the city that promised perfect weather. Kunming is known as the City of Eternal Spring and she did not let me down. I was so happy to escape the brutal heat of central China. But Kunming was also a really interesting and dynamic city. Yunnan in general was an amazing place, partly because it is home to the largest number of China's ethnic minorities, each with their own language, history, and culture. Of China's 56 ethnic groups (recognized--- there are actually many more than that), 25 are found in Yunnan. Together they make up almost 40% of the province's population. And apparently, the people in Yunnan eat a lot of bugs.
DALI BAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // YUNNAN Dali is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Yunnan. It was the medieval capital of the Bai Kingdom and the Bai people are still one of the dominant ethnic groups in and around Dali. Today it's a beautifully maintained ancient city, with old walls, guard towers, stone streets with running water (something every city should do), and nearby a massive lake surrounded by mountains. But it was also overflowing with tourists (mostly Han Chinese tourists as it's still not particularly easy for foreigners to get visas into China) and I wanted to see places more off the beaten path so I rented a car. But first Dali:
SHAXI DALI BAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // YUNNAN Wanting to see more of the province, I rented a car and did a 21 day road trip through Yunnan. From Dali I journeyed to Shaxi, a Bai and Yi market town, once an important stop on the Ancient Tea Route connecting China to Burma and Tibet. The town center is amazingly preserved and every day Bai and Yi villagers come from the countryside to sell their produce in the town markets (see the bottom photos). Shaxi also sits on a beautiful river, complete with arched stone bridges and wandering horses. Though still quite touristy, it's a truly magical place. The first few photos are the courtyard of the bed and breakfast I stayed, which must be centuries old.
NUODENG DALI BAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // YUNNAN Nuodeng is a hillside village along a winding river, less well known than Shaxi but no less beautiful. A water-well here historically produced salt and supposedly the salt making practices used in the village date back a thousand years, making it an important stop along the Ming and Qing Dynasty's Salt Route. More famous now, however, is the ham produced in the village. This is also one of the original home villages of the Bai people and Bai culture is still well preserved here.
WEISHAN YI AND HUI AUTONOMOUS COUNTY // YUNNAN Continuing on, the next town, Weishan, was unbelievably picturesque, a medieval Chinese town oriented with towers at each of the cardinal directions. The area around Weishan is home mostly to Bai people, but Weishan itself is predominately home to Yi and Hui people, so many in fact that a special autonomous county was cut out of the (already autonomous) Bai Prefecture for them (yes, I also don't understand the way Chinese local governments are organized either...) On the signboard below, next to the potted plants, you'll see an example of Yi Script (on the right side of the board, with the Chinese translation on the left). Many of China's ethnic groups were once independent kingdoms, developing their own languages, writing scripts, cultures, and religions.
BAISHA YULONG NAXI AUTONOMOUS COUNTY // YUNNAN My 21 day road trip through Yunnan continued to the small historic town of Baisha, home to the Naxi People. Like the Yi, the Naxi also have their own spoken and written language but their written script is represented by pictographs (akin to hieroglyphics), which you can see below. I'm not sure, but I believe it might be the only living language to still use pictographs. There is also a large Tibetan Buddhist monastery sitting on a hill above the town (also below). Many Naxi have converted to Tibetan Buddhism, while others still practice Dongba, which is historically the religion of the Naxi people. Baisha was far more peaceful and authentic than many of the other, more touristy, towns that I visited.
NANYAO YULONG NAXI AUTONOMOUS COUNTY // YUNNAN From Baisha I visited another Naxi town, Nanyao, and stayed with a Naxi family there. Three generations lived together in a historic courtyard home (photos below). They even cooked for me every day. You'll also notice every Naxi home has a Tile Cat on the rooftop. Every Tile Cat is different, brought home in a red cloth, and placed on a new home's roof on a particularly lucky feeling day. The cats ward off evil spirits, which I imagine is exactly the opposite of what real cats do.
BAOSHAN YUNNAN PROVINCE Finally leaving northern Yunnan, I passed through the center of the province, specifically to Baoshan, one of the larger cities in Yunnan. It gets very little international (or perhaps even national) tourism, but for that reason I found it very interesting. Bugs and fresh brains, the cuisine of China never disappoints!
EJIAZHEN CHUXIONG YI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // YUNNAN Having a rental car, I was able to make my way into some of the more remote mountains of Yunnan. Here one finds rural ethnic villages on hillsides, surrounded by miles of terraced rice fields. It's a sight to behold, some of the most beautiful rural landscapes I've ever seen. Sadly I wasn't here during the best time, which is when the rice terraces are filled with water and look like mirrors, but even so it was a truly peaceful experience.
MANZHANG XISHUANGBANNA DAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // YUNNAN I ended my Yunnan roadtrip in southern Yunnan, which seemed like an entirely different country compared to the rest of the province, partly because of the tropical climate and partly because it's dominated by the Dai People, who are closely related to Thai and who practice Theravada Buddhism (like the Thai and Laotians) which is very different than the Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism found in the rest of China. Theravada Buddhism has very distinctive architecture, with steeper temples and very ornate detailing. Manzhang is a Dai village, but also home to the Bumang, who were actually only identified in the mid-2000s (before that they were erroneously classified as Dai). They are the descendants of ethnic Khang immigrants who fled Vietnam in the 1800s and still speak a language very close to the Khang. Manzhang has a great many crafts-people. Traditional paper-making is particularly well known in the village (see the old man below).
ELEPHANT VALLEY XISHUANGBANNA DAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // YUNNAN The Elephant Valley is a National Rain Forest where wild elephants (and a few domesticated ones at the entrance) still roam in China. There are raised foot bridges through the jungle, and even ski-lifts, offering a chance to see the troops of wild elephants, but since the park is so large one is not always guaranteed a sighting (sadly, I saw only monkeys, though if you read the second sign below, apparently they are ghosts?) Included below are also some of the Dai villages I passed on the way to the valley. Note the distinctive architecture.
JINGHONG XISHUANGBANNA DAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE // YUNNAN Jinghong is the capital of the Dai Autonomous Prefecture and therefor a major center of Dai culture in southern Yunnan. I noticed that the Chinese government, more and more, is using local styles for new architecture (which I greatly commend) and no where is that more obvious than in Jinghong. Entire districts have been built from scratch and while they do border on a Thai Disneyland, they are quite functional city neighborhoods with housing and shops, and for the most part pedestrian friendly. The city sits on the mighty Mekong River and was founded as Chiang Hung in 1180 AD as the capital of Sipsongpanna, a Tai Kingdom. Sipsongpanna had a close and centuries long relationship with Lanna, another Tai Kingdom, whose capital was Chiang Mai (now in modern day Thailand). This was my last stop in China before crossing the border into Laos.