// 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 After months of applying for a visa, from Chinese embassies in three different countries, I was finally granted permission to visit. I flew into Beijing from South Korea and while I stayed in Beijing only a few days, the city was facsinating. It seemed to be caught between the desire to preserve it's old neighborhoods (the hutong districts of narrow alleys and historic stone homes that, if preserved, could easily make it the Paris or Rome of Asia) and the desire to tear them down, to bulldoze centuries of history overnight, all in the name of modernity (which sadly means generic super blocks and twelve lane express highways leading to no where of interest). I'd like to come back, maybe 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 (many 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, including burning down ancient temples, the Forbidden City was targeted and parts were destroyed, but Premier Zhou Enlai saved it from further destruction by sending an army battalion to guard the palace from the country's own student revolutionaries.
TURPAN XINJIANG UYGUR AUTONOMOUS REGION I had entered China in the east, but circled around through Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan to reenter in the west at Urumqi in Xinjiang. I didn't actually take any photos in Urumqi, the city was more or less occupied by police forces. But I did manage a trip to the ancient ruins in the nearby 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 the city's many Buddhist temples. The city was destroyed in the 1200s AD by Genghis Khan, who sadly wiped a great many cities and peoples off the face of the earth.
LANZHOU GANSU PROVINCE From Turpan I took a high-speed train to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. Once outside of Xinjiang, the country seemed normal again. Speaking of trains, 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 (magnetically floating) trains capable of reaching commerical speeds of 350 Miles per hour (600kph). I stayed only a few days in Lanzhou which is home to China's Muslim Hui people. The city has a population 3.6 million, which is not very big by Chinese standards, and sits on the banks of the historic Yellow River.
LABRANG GANNAN TIBETAN AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE GANSU PROVINCE I was put in contact with another American and her Tibetan husband by a mutual friend in New York. They lived in Gansu and since I was coincidently already there, I took a quick detour to meet them in the Tibetan regions some distance from Lanzhou. Labrang, where they lived, was breathtaking. I hadn't realized that the ancient kingdom of Tibet stretched far beyond the borders of what constitutes the modern-day province (I province I couldn't visit without special government permission). Labrang was in a part of the Tibetan Plateau called Amdo, one of the three historical regions of ancient Tibet. Here was a storybook Tibetan city sitting nearly 10,000 feet (3000m) above sea level, surrounded by green mountains and home to the gold roofed Labrang Monastery, one of six great Tibetan Monasteries.
LANGMUSI GANNAN TIBETAN AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE GANSU PROVINCE After visiting Labrang, I decided to explore more of Amdo. I made my way to Langmusi, another Tibetan city, again located high in the mountains, but bisected by a river that put half the town in Sichuan Province and half in Gansu Province. In fact, there are two monasteries in Langmusi, one in each province (the Sertri and Kirti Monasteries respectively, though I can't remember which is which now). As in Labrang, I was enchanted by the whole region, beautiful mountain valleys, quaint towns, and impressive temples.
ZHAGANA GANNAN TIBETAN AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE GANSU PROVINCE Sometimes fairytale villages are real. Zhagana was unbelievable. The name Zhagana means 'Stone Box' in Tibetan and the small city 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 paradise green valley, with primitive forests, rustic Tibetan villages, a few golden-roofed monasteries, and miles of hiking trails in every direction. The local Tibetan family I was staying with brought me here (there's a photo of us below).
ABA NGAWA TIBETAN AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE SICHUAN PROVINCE In the last few photos below you can see the village of the host family I was staying with which was an hour up a winding mountain road leading to a tiny cluster of houses overlooking the ends of the world. I have no idea the altitude, but we seemed to experience all four seasons in a single day, with snowy, blinding 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 Tibetan villages. China might be the world's most populated country, but these villages were as tranquil and quiet.
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 though it's been rebuilt 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 its 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 during China's Civil War (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 Back to mega-China. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, is home to 14.5 million people. I'd wanted to visit Chengdu for a long time --- not just because this is the home of China's famous pandas but because it was a very historic city known for its relaxed way of life (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 for which I'd come. They were so overrun with tourists and tourist shops and tour buses they'd put Disneyland to shame.
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 many estimates, is the largest city 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 (or the European nation of Austria). Even so, this is a BIG city.
GUIYANG GUIZHOU PROVINCE The heat in Chengdu and Chongqing had been brutal, and the forecast for the cities I was planning to visit next was even worse, so I tossed my entire itinerary out of the window and headed towards the southern highlands where it was cooler. To get there, I had to pass through Guiyang, a city I had never heard of and knew nothing about, but ended up liking quite a bit. I stayed in a pod hostel, which you can see below. I'm not sure what is was I loved about Guiyang. Maybe it was because not everything had been ripped down and replaced with fancy-lifeless glass buildings and not all the old neighborhoods turned into twelve lane super highways. The city wasn't particularly beautiful. There were a lot of concrete housing blocks from the 60s and 70s, poorly aged and ugly --- but they were full of life and character, packed with tiny family run shops, ad-hoc markets, children running around, old folks keeping an eye on them while playing games of mahjong on the sidewalk. This is a type of street life and community that doesn't exist when the entire block is demolished and turned into a fancy glass bank lobby with a stale corporate cafe tacked on to one side and the entrance to a parking lot tacked on to the other.
KUNMING YUNNAN PROVINCE Kunming, known as the City of Eternal Spring, had exactly the weather I was looking for. Kunming and Yunnan Province in general turned out to be nothing short of amazing, home to the largest number of China's ethnic minorities, each with their own languages, histories, and culture. Of China's 56 'officially recognized' ethnic groups (there are actually many more than that) 25 are found in Yunnan. Together they make up almost 40% of the province's population.
DALI BAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE YUNNAN PROVINCE 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 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). I wanted to see places more off the beaten path so I rented a car. But first Dali:
SHAXI DALI BAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE YUNNAN PROVINCE Wanting to see more of the province, I rented a car for a 21 day road trip through Yunnan. My first stop from Dali was Shaxi, a Bai and Yi market town and 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 last few photos). Shaxi also sits on a beautiful river, complete with arched stone bridges and meandering horses. 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 PROVINCE 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 PROVINCE Continuing on, the next town, Weishan, was unbelievably picturesque, a medieval Chinese town oriented with towers at each of the cardinal directions. Weishan is predominately home to Yi and Hui people. In fact, on the right side of the signboard below (next to the potted plants) is an example of Yi Script. Many of China's ethnic groups were once their own independent kingdoms and had their own languages, scripts, cultures, and religions before being conquered and colonized by Han dynasties.
BAISHA YULONG NAXI AUTONOMOUS COUNTY YUNNAN PROVINCE 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 the Naxi 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.
NANYAO YULONG NAXI AUTONOMOUS COUNTY YUNNAN PROVINCE 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 auspicious 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 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 PROVINCE 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 truly amazing.
MANZHANG XISHUANGBANNA DAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE YUNNAN PROVINCE Finally I ended up in southern Yunnan, which was so unlike the rest of the province that it seemed almost a different country. This was partly because the climate was more tropical, but it was also because southern Yunnan is dominated by the Dai people, who are closely related to the Thai of Thailand. And like the Thai, they practice Theravada Buddhism, which is very distinct from the Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhists found in the rest of China. You can see the difference in the temples, with their steep roofs and ornate details covered in spirit guardians. Manzhang is a traditinoal Dai village but also home to the Bumang. 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 and attracts tourists wishing to take classes with local masters. Traditional paper-making is particularly well known in the village (see the old man below).
ELEPHANT VALLEY XISHUANGBANNA DAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE YUNNAN PROVINCE The Elephant Valley is a National Rain Forest where wild elephants (and a few domesticated ones at the entrance as you can see below) still roam in China. There are elevated foot bridges through the jungle, and even ski-lifts, offering a chance to see these troops of wild elephants. But since the park is so large one is not always guaranteed a sighting (sadly, I saw only monkeys... which according to one of the signs below are haunted?)
DAI VILLAGES XISHUANGBANNA DAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE YUNNAN PROVINCE A few of the Dai Villages I passed, note the distinctive architecture.
JINGHONG XISHUANGBANNA DAI AUTONOMOUS PREFECTURE YUNNAN PROVINCE Jinghong is the capital of the Dai Autonomous Prefecture and therefor a major center of Dai culture. In fact, in developing the city, the government has chosen to use local architectural styles, something every city should do (before the entire world looks a generic copy of downtown Dallas). Jinghong 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 long relationship with Lanna, another Tai Kingdom, whose capital was Chiang Mai (now in modern day Thailand). My China journey ended, from here I crossed the border into Laos. And so it goes.