Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mighty China: The Return

Almost two years to the day after I left China to return to living in the United States, I got on a plane and went back once again, this time with a great friend. Right back to the cities I have spent so much time in, that I know so well: Hong Kong and Shenzhen. This time, the visit also included a stop in Sichuan Province, where I had never been before, and therein, a brief flirtation with the grand Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

Thus, the following post is not a play-by-play history of our trip, but rather reflections on the major themes of each destination. In all, it was a great joy to be on the road and carefree once again in what has become one of my favorite world regions, and something of my home-away-from-home.

Hong Kong: The Great Pearl of the Orient

Eternally vibrant, the great modern jewel of Asia rarely disappoints. It has its rough edges, like damp alleys where bamboo scaffolding prop up partitions of crumbling sixties apartment complexes as large cockroach scavenge in the rain-soaked garbage, but Hong Kong always amazes me for its modern feats of sheer audacious engineering. The city is literally built on the steep slopes of a subtropical island that was not long ago covered in the lush green foliage of rain forest. Its ultra-modern subway connects seamlessly to its many razor-sharp skyscrapers and massive shopping malls filled with high-end brands. Outdoor walkways connect most of these malls, and can even take you halfway up Hong Kong island's peak in escalators. I returned to that peak again with my friend for this trip, and wondered to myself how many times now I had been up there, snapping photos of that eternal skyline like a giddy tourist, time and again.

Indeed, it won't surprise you to hear the city is damn expensive, especially compared to the Mainland in terms of the cost of food and lodgings. All that opulence and public amenity does come at a price, like it does in all the great metropolises of the world. But that was always something that struck me particularly about Hong Kong, this visit more than ever: how uppity it truly is. The designer brand malls (though there are plenty of great street markets, like the Night Market at Mong Kok) and fancy restaurants, wine bars, and bistros seem to be taking over. My friend and I walked past the fancy storefronts and wine bars, around the area of Lan Kwai Fong, and felt very out of place in our grungy, backpacker appearance. I don't know how anyone who wasn't a rich, western banker clad in Marks and Spencer apparel wouldn't feel the same. So we drank a couple beers that cost about 70 Hong Kong Dollars a piece (that's 10 USD a beer!) and then left, seeking a place to hang that was a bit more down to earth. Alas, despite trying the well-known expat bar named Carnegie's in the seedy Wan Chai district, we could not find one. Though we liked the tone in Carnegie's much better, at the stroke of 11pm it quickly degraded into a nightclub-type atmosphere with rainbow strobe lights and strange people dancing on the bar top. That may not seem so bad as I write it, but good ole Midwestern boy types like myself and my friend just wanted something a little more down to earth.

In my own style of making the self-effacing caveat, it should be noted that these observations come from a guy who prides himself as seeing the value in the 'salt-of-the-earth' type things, and who would rather spend his time working with the downtrodden as a social worker, than working to make rich people richer as an investment banker or something. So if all the highbrow life of Hong Kong appeals to you, by all means, there's nothing wrong with it. Hell, I can appreciate the joy of browsing in a Marks and Spencer as much as they next guy. And perhaps Hong Kong has historically been this way. But to argue it's not just me, I'm quite certain Lan Kwai Fong has appeared a little less fancy and more universally appealing in the past (and cheaper, I might add). But things seemed to have changed. Now, I really felt out of place there. But as I say, all that opulence comes at a price. And I'll always love Hong Kong. I just have the luxury of not having to live there.

Shenzhen: The Pearl of the Southern Mainland

Ah, Shenzhen. My home for almost 1.5 years and Southern China's shining economic powerhouse. Not a typical destination for those less familiar with China, and known more as a gateway to the Mainland via Hong Kong.

As I have written in posts before, many are critical of Shenzhen, saying that it lacks culture, feels plastic, and is purely a city that works its people, with a colorful shell of an exterior hiding a much less refined, third world type of existence. And they're not entirely wrong. Shenzhen is a largely new city, and as I have confirmed with various Shenzheners themselves, was sprung from ideas rooted in jealous pride: it is no doubt the Mainland's attempt to rival Hong Kong. The Mainland Chinese were clearly making a statement with Shenzhen, saying you think you know commerce and engineering with your western influence? We can do it, too. Perhaps that is reminiscent of a culture driven by the concept of face, in which so long as outward appearance is preserved as virtuous, the inner details can be spared. I believe that is not a bad metaphor for all of modern China, and Shenzhen may be the best example.

But I, for one, will always defend Shenzhen's charm (See: this old post or this GoNomad article). Though it is no doubt a mega metropolis, it feels less cramped and stuffy than Hong Kong. It's cheaper to live in and visit than Hong Kong (at least in terms of eating, sleeping, and drinking) and still doesn't seem to be a huge drop off in terms of amenities or living standard: Shenzhen has an ultra-modern subway, nice buses, plenty of great restaurants, bars, nightclubs, lush parks, modern malls, a massive, super-modern airport, and some of the tallest, most advanced skyscrapers in Asia. But if you so choose, you can escape all that, diving into
many of the less refined parts of town, like a slew of street food stands, or a traditional seafood market in what feels like a slum (I won't be so bold as to say that Shenzhen has slums the way some developing countries, like India, have slums, but it surely has its poorer areas). Shenzhen does not have all the world-class hotels, hospitals, schools, designer stores, or overall developed standard that Hong Kong has, no. After all, for all its progress, China is still a developing country where many people are still quite poor. But as my friend and I dove into an epic seafood meal on Shenzhen's Le Yuan Lu, accompanied by one of my best Chinese comrades, surrounded by the light and sound and passersby of the busy Shenzhen street, I didn't care. I was breathing in the sea air, the smell of fried fish, and the cigarette smoke of laughing diners around us. What more could you want in a visit to China? Yep, I'll always have a soft spot for Shenzhen.

Sichuan: Southwestern China's Promised Land

Sichuan was the final major destination of our trip and its apex; it would be the deepest we would travel into the Mainland herself. After reaching our hostel in Jiu Zhai Gou, we retraced our steps exactly, back through Chengdu, Shenzhen to Hong Kong, and Hong Kong to the West.

We hit Chengdu via Shenzhen after a long-delayed flight (typical in China - although our return flight to SZ was right on time like clockwork). As I mentioned, I had never been to Sichuan, a pretty marquee place in China as Sinophiles would know, but I had been to southwestern China before with a visit to Yunnan. So therefore, in my naivety, I expected Chengdu to be a place not unlike Kunming: a major city, yes, but a smaller feel to it than the massive Chinese megacities, clean air, less traffic, views of surrounding mountains, and a sense that you were on the Chinese frontier.

Chengdu was sadly not this at all. It was another sprawling, smoggy, densely populated, loud, and trafficy Chinese megacity. Not that I don't think these cities have their charm, as I have been explaining with Shenzhen. But Chengdu did not seem as dynamic and tidy. It had the worst smog I think I've ever experienced with the exception of maybe Shanghai, it had no views of surrounding mountains, and it did not feel like a frontier city in the slightest. Instead, I felt right in the thick of modern Chinese urbanism. Perhaps I should have done more homework on the place.

But of course, the visit was not overall a bad experience. Once established in our fun little hostel, we paid
our respects to the famous Chairman statue, hung out in some beautiful parks drinking tea among relaxed Chinese retirees, ate some deliciously spicy hotpot (on my birthday!), stopped briefly at the largest building in the world, and yes, saw the famous "panda base" home to close to 100 great pandas. We also bumped into an old chum of mine who works in Chengdu with the US Foreign Service who treated us to some homespun hospitality and showed us around on Chengdu's riverside bar strip. While hanging out there, I got slapped in the mouth by a monkey. But that's a story for another time.

But the coup de grace, the real reason we ventured to Sichuan, was not to hang in smoggy Chengdu, but to visit Jiu Zhai Gou national park (literally "Nine Villages Valley"). Stunning pictures of Jiu Zhai Gou (like the one above by yours truly) have begun circulating widely, and though relatively unknown a few years ago, the park has become a major travel destination in China. And why not? Tucked in a remote, mountainous destination on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the place has a striking natural beauty to rival any natural park or preserve in the world. It was seeking this beauty that drove us halfway around the globe and deep into the exotic Min mountain range. It took 11 hours on a winding bus just to get to Jiu Zhai Gou from Chengdu (though it took a lesser 8 hours on the way back down). We had come all this way, and were expecting a place of great beauty, serenity, and peace.

In fact, Jiu Zhai Gou, is also very Chinese. It is not at a loss for beauty, no, the pictures do not lie, and one feels among a great natural wealth when there: within an ancient forest, gazing at sapphire blue alpine lakes, and wondering if the distant white-capped peaks are the start of the Himalayas themselves. But it is also not at a loss for people, either, Chinese tourists to be more specific. All the paths and boardwalks, which one is forbidden to venture from, were crawling with tourists, snapping their photos with their iPhones and iPads. Despite our best attempts to avoid them, they were everywhere, even in the park's most elevated and remote parts. And a busing system that takes visitors around the park was a vicious adventure itself: boarding was a free-for-all mosh the likes of a Cannibal Corpse concert. But we just joined in and had fun with it, bowling our way through the people who tended to be smaller than us. Although I would have liked to feel a little more solitary and serene without as many people in place like Jiu Zhai Gou, what are you gonna do? It is the most populous country on earth, and at least people seem to value the beauty of the park. (Actually, our second day there we hiked up from the main entrance instead of taking the buses, and this kept us nice and solitary for several hours on our own, so it should be noted.)

In retrospect, I still know I viewed a pretty special place in Jiu Zhai Gou. How many people alive get to visit a place like that? (Though the number is growing, as one can plainly see.) But if there is a moral to the story here, I would say that it's this: I hoped that our trip to Jiu Zhai Gou would feel more wild, have more of a mythical quality, and really feel 'off the beaten path', a la a Peter Mattiessen journey or something. And although we felt like outsiders the further we delved into China, the ceaseless tourists and developing attractions around the park did not seem to say we were that far from civilization or off the beaten path at all. Alas, the commercialized world is becoming too interconnected for that; everywhere on the planet is well documented, explored, and achievable, and word of a new attraction with commercial potential spreads like wildfire. And with technological innovation so ubiquitous, people from nearly all walks of life around the world will learn about and visit the destinations that become notorious, permanently changing these destinations in the process. Not that this is overall a bad thing, nor do I wish to go back to what once was. It's a fantastic thing that more people can visit the great destinations in the world; natural beauty like Jiu Zhai Gou should be cherished by all. I'm just making the point that with each wave of development in civilization some delicate things are lost, a point that has been made time and again by nature and travel writers before me.

But hell, I got to visit China for 16 days with one of my best friends. And what a joyous trip it was, one whose memory I will cherish till the day I die. 

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