Here are some of my photos:
Here are some more of my Muslim Quarter photos.
Here are some of my photos:
Here are some more of my Muslim Quarter photos.
I learned a lot during our talk. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think in the comment section below.
In 1974 some farmers were digging a water well near Xi'an, China. They accidentally made one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the twentieth century, the terracotta army of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇). Construction of the necropolis began shortly after Qin Shi Huang rose to power at age 13 in 246 BC. By the time of his death in 210 BC, the three pits containing the Terracotta Army contained 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 510 horses and 150 cavalry horses. This army was built to accompany the emperor in the afterlife. There's a ton more info about the army here and here and here.
I spent most of a day visiting the Terracotta Army. For me, the site lived up to the hype. The most impressive part was the minute level of detail. Every soldier had a unique face. Each strand of hair was individually carved. There was even tread on the bottoms of their shoes. Besides the opportunity to look at the soldiers themselves, there was a lot of information about the history of the army and its discovery. In fact, the Terracotta Army was one of my favorite sites in all of China.
Here are some of my pictures:
Here are the rest of my Terracotta Warriors photos.
The more I travel, the less I like zoos. The magic of seeing animals in cages is gone, especially when said cages are far too small for the megafauna they're housing. So it was with much reservation that I decided to visit the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, China. I just couldn't resist the draw of so many pandas in one place.
Luckily, from the moment I stepped inside, I could tell this was more than just a zoo. There were lakes and gardens and wide walkways, lined with bamboo. There was even a museum that informed visitors of the history of giant pandas and of conservation efforts. But of course, I had come to see the pandas. What were they like?
I got to the park early in the morning, and the pandas were busy munching away at bamboo. Once upon a time they ate meat, but for some reason they switched to a bamboo diet. Unfortunately, bamboo doesn't contain many nutrients, so the pandas spend almost every waking hour eating. Watching them for five minutes provided me with a week's worth of entertainment.
The park also had red pandas. They appeared almost as vicious as their raccoon cousins. In fact, one of them had even gotten a large chunk of its tail bitten off. The scariest part was that they were allowed to roam freely, among the human visitors. No joke.
I hope you enjoy these photos and a short video of the park. To see my complete photo set, you can click here. Have you ever seen a real, live panda? Where were you? Leave your comments below.
Josh is also the voice behind Reverbal Communications, which manages social media for companies with a variety of budgets. I can attest to his expertise – he has helped me to grow my presence exponentially.
Finally, Josh is the editor of my first book, 1000 Days Between. He did a great job of bringing my book from draft to final copy. If you want a sample, you can read the first twelve chapters for free, right here at 1000daysbetween.com.
My conversation with Josh was great. We talked about travel in a number of different places, as well as what's happening in our respective lives on opposite sides of the planet.
And of course, you can always leave a comment in the section below.
Show notes and corrections:
I was the only foreigner on the bus. Nobody aboard spoke any English beyond “hello.” When we left at 7am, our guide was presumably going over the plan for the day, though I didn't understand much of what he was saying. Four hours later, he was still going strong.
The previous day I had signed up for a three-day tour of 九寨沟 (Jiuzhaigou) National Park, located in Sichuan Province, near the Tibetan plateau. Normally I don't like to go on tours, but it was cheaper than going on my own, and far easier. The hostel employee who helped me sign up explained that the park was about ten hours from Chengdu by bus. She also warned me that there probably wouldn't be any other foreigners on the tour, and that our guide would probably try to sell us stuff. But she reassured me that I wasn't required to buy anything.
Eventually our guide stopped talking and walked the length of the bus, demanding that everyone give him 300 rmb for extra activities. I didn't even understand what these activities were, so I refused to pay. I don't think he liked me.
In the middle of the day we stopped in a little village. I had no idea what was going on, which was quickly becoming a theme for this trip. As it turned out, we had stopped for lunch. I sat around the table with some of my fellow tour-goers. Everyone else was highly skilled at chopsticks, so they finished eating within a few minutes. I wasn't nearly as good, so I was still shoveling food into my mouth when the bus began to back out of its parking spot. I ran out and jumped aboard before it pulled away without me. I was still hungry.
Snowy mountains surrounded us as we followed the Minjiang River (岷江) for most of the day. Tunnels, some of which were five kilometers long, took us through the mountains. Just like a few days earlier on my way to Kunming, I was amazed by the giant engineering projects of southwest China.
Later we stopped at a village, parked next to a bunch of other tour buses and walked into a large building. I thought we were getting some kind of tour because someone was charging one rmb to enter. I paid my money, walked around a corner and learned the truth: everyone was going to the bathroom.
Afterward our group started walking together and my guide pleaded for me to give him 100 rmb. There was a big wall surrounding the village, and it appeared that the fee was simply to walk on it. I refused to pay and started walking on my own. My guide grew frustrated and told me to meet him at the bus in an hour.
In 2008, an earthquake struck this part of Sichuan Province, killing 70,000 and leveling most of the buildings. The village looked like it had been completely rebuilt since then. It had some remnants of Tibetan culture, but was mainly filled with Chinese people selling cheap souvenirs. I rejoined the tour an hour later; none of the other tourists were raving about their trip to the top of the wall.
At the end of the day we stopped in another village that I assumed was near the park, though I still had no idea what the plan was. Our guide said a bunch of stuff that I didn't understand and people slowly shuffled out of the bus. Were we at our hotel? A souvenir shop? Another bathroom?
We were at dinner! But unfortunately, we only got a few small dishes that we had to share between six people. I easily could've eaten eaten them all. Judging from the ceremonial sashes everyone was wearing, this place was about much more than just food.
After we ate, an emcee got on the microphone and taught us a few basic words in the Tibetan language like “thank you” and “cheers.” Just when I thought he would instruct the wait staff to serve the main course, he started singing. Then a girl, decked out in traditional Tibetan clothing, came in and joined. They got the crowd to join in the chorus. Finally, they walked around the room and handed us each a small boiled potato. And then I was singing, too.
Just as I was getting into the celebration, the music abruptly stopped and everyone left the building. I had been waiting for the main course; now I was waiting for the punchline. But it didn't come. The appetizers and tiny potato were all we were getting to eat. The other tourists danced around a “fire” made from tin foil with one of the Tibetans. Starving, I went back to the bus.
Continuing along the highway, we passed a huge amusement park and a few resort hotels, all Jiuzhaigou themed. We pulled into one of these places and I thought we must be at our hotel. We walked inside and were led down a hallway, where I was expecting to find my room. Instead, we entered a giant theater, where a dance performance was beginning!
For me, this show came totally unexpected. I didn't remember seeing it on the itinerary, and my Chinese wasn't good enough to understand what my guide was telling me. But I highly enjoyed it nonetheless. It had just the right combination of quirky costumes and elaborate, choreographed dance routines to make my night. The strangest thing was that after an hour, the show ended without any apparent warning. The cast never bowed or did a curtain call; the audience never applauded. Everyone just left the building in silence.
After the show, we piled back into the bus, and this time, we actually did go to our hotel. I was ready to pass out, preferably with my pillow pressed against my stomach to suppress the hunger. Once again, I was surprised. This time, a fellow tourist knocked on my door and insisted that I come with her. She led me down the hall, where the whole tour group was eating dinner. And there weren't just appetizers – we had a full-fledged Chinese meal with all the fixin's. I almost cried tears of joy. I wouldn't go hungry tonight, after all.
As we ate, our guide went over the plan for tomorrow. I didn't understand much of it, but luckily, he came over and told me, using slow and clear Chinese, to be ready to go at 7:20 the next morning. I thought this was rather late, considering that we were going to spend our day in a national park. Shouldn't we take advantage of the short amount of daylight available to us? Nevertheless, I agreed and repeated the time to him so there could be no mistaking it. I would be in the lobby at 7:20.
I was in the lobby at 7:20. Alone. There wasn't even an employee at the reception desk. All sorts of possibilities went through my head. Had everyone in our entire group slept late? Had I misunderstood our start time? Had everyone already left without me? Before panicking, I decided to wait a few minutes.
At 7:30 the oldest man on our tour came to the lobby. I tried asking him where everyone was but he didn't seem to understand. He was cheerful, though. And I felt comforted, knowing that at least I wasn't alone in the hotel.
At 7:50 the others started coming into the lobby. I figured we were about to leave, but then at 8:00 we sat down for breakfast. Was 7:20 supposed to be our wake-up time? I still didn't understand.
Finally at 8:40 we boarded the bus for the short drive to the park. We stopped at the back of a giant parking lot and started walking, painfully slowly, toward the entrance. It was now 9:00 and we had already wasted three hours of daylight. Once we reached the entrance, our guide took out a long rod and pointed to all of the places we could go on a metal map of the park. This took another fifteen minutes. Just when I thought we would all enter the park together, our guide turned around and walked away. So he wasn't even going inside. Before he left us, I confirmed with him multiple times with me that we were to meet at that point at 5:30. I thought I understood him this time, though I couldn't be certain.
Our group stood in a long line, where identical buses picked people up every three minutes. These were the only vehicles allowed in the park. That still didn't stop them from getting into accidents, though. As we drove past the park's beautiful scenery, a TV in the bus played tranquil music and explained to everyone all of the beautiful scenery the park had to offer. The bus continued uphill for around twenty minutes before dropping us off, picking up a new set up of passengers and heading back downhill.
Park employees led everyone onto a wooden boardwalk. I shuffled slowly down the hill, in the center of a cluster of Chinese tourists, past a turquoise lake, surrounded by pine trees, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. The lake was so clear, I could see all the way to the bottom. The air was crisp and clean. Not one piece of trash was on the ground. This was a dream landscape. If only I could get away from all of the people, I might be able to enjoy it.
I walked around the boardwalk, looking for a hiking trail. All of the routes that led away from the lake were closed, supposedly to prevent wildfires. I couldn't believe it. This didn't seem like a dry landscape. In fact, it was winter. The ground was still frozen. And how would walking on a trail put me in danger of starting a fire, anyway? If I couldn't take the trails, maybe I could walk down the road to get away form the crowds. As soon as I set foot on the pavement, a guard yelled at me and told me to turn around. This was some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen, yet I couldn't even enjoy it. Instead, I shuffled back aboard the bus, along with the throngs of tourists. I felt like a caged animal.
The bus took us to another viewing platform. Again, the trails were closed. Using my best Chinese, I asked a few people what was happening. None of them could give me a clear answer. Worse yet, they didn't seem to care. The peaceful hike I wanted was right in front of me, yet I couldn't take it. I was going stir-crazy.
I began to question everything I thought I knew about China. When crossing the road in a city, you can run through ten lanes of traffic, risking your life the entire way, no problem. You can also drive down the wrong side of the road and park in the middle of it. But you can't even take a leisurely stroll down a hiking trail in a national park. The longer I was in China, the less I understood. At this rate, by the time I left the country, I would understand nothing at all.
I found a group of women from my tour and they invited me to have lunch with them, near the edge of one of the lakes. They were extremely nice and insisted that I take their food. I ate pig spine and chicken gizzard. They refused to try my peanut butter. I looked around and noticed that they were all enjoying themselves immensely. Maybe, just maybe, I was beginning to understand something about Chinese culture: This was exactly the nature experience most Chinese wanted. They valued shared experiences, something they could talk about later with each other. And they wanted to observe nature from afar, like they were watching it on a really high definition TV. Whereas I (and most Westerners, I imagine), wanted to be a part of nature, to walk through it alone, to listen to the chirping of birds and the blowing of wind, to feel snow crunching under my boots, to smell the flowers, to camp outdoors, to really take it all in, not just look at it. Maybe that was why I was frustrated and everyone else seemed happy.
The park closed at 5pm, two hours before sunset. Jiuzhaigou was a national treasure, yet you couldn't even watch the sunrise or sunset, hike or camp within its boundaries. I thought: What a strange world China is.
I took the last bus of the day to the park's entrance and got there at 5:20, ten minutes before I was supposed to meet the group. Nobody was there. This should not have come as a surprise, given the SNAFU this morning at the hotel. I remembered that my guide had given me his phone number, so I asked a girl who spoke English call him. He screamed at her, until she was almost crying. Apparently I was supposed to meet the group in the bus parking lot, not at the park entrance. I apologized to her for putting her through that treatment. I had just met her a few minutes earlier; she wasn't even part of our tour group.
I jogged down the road to the bus parking lot, where I was directed through a giant shop of cheap souvenirs. When I reached the other side of the shop, I found my bus and climbed aboard. Our guide screamed at everyone. I understood a few words, such as “phone call” and “late.” It seemed that he was mostly mad at the others for not looking after me and making sure I made it back in time. It was 5:31. I was one minute late. His tirade continued for a solid ten minutes.
We drove back to the motel and had the same food for dinner again. It was still rather early, but I was mentally exhausted, so I didn't feel like going anywhere else. Nobody told me what time to get up, so I tried to figure it out for myself. Our itinerary for tomorrow simply had us driving back to Chengdu, arriving at 8pm. It had taken us ten hours to drive here, with numerous stops along the way. Even if we went back slowly, we wouldn't have to leave until ten in the morning. On the other hand, breakfast was at 8am today, so that time seemed like a safer bet. But just in case I had missed something, I set my alarm for 7am, planning to be in the lobby, ready to go, by 7:30.
A loud and persistent knock on my hotel room's door woke me. I rolled over and looked at the clock. Six-twenty in the morning. What. The. Fuck?
Two women were in the hallway, shouting at me to get moving. I told them to wait and went into a mad scramble to pack everything. The women wouldn't stop shouting and pounding, no matter how many times I told them to hold on.
I made it to the hallway at 6:30, packed and ready to go. The women were the same people I had eaten lunch with yesterday. Apparently they picked up on my seething anger, because now they seemed concerned with my well-being. I asked if there was still breakfast. They looked at each other awkwardly and I knew the answer. They asked what was wrong. I was too mad to think in Chinese, so I said in English, “Why didn't anybody tell me we had to get up two hours earlier than yesterday?” and stormed into the lobby.
We were the last three people to board the bus. Our guide still looked furious, but he refrained from shouting. One of the women seemed to indicate that she had explained our 6am wake-up time the previous evening. I didn't understand why she hadn't made this more clear. It's not like I simply got the time wrong; I literally had no idea she had told me something important. Apparently, nobody on the bus even realized that when you're talking to a foreigner, you have to speak slower than you would with your friends, and maybe even repeat yourself. It wasn't like my fellow tour-goers were from tiny villages in the middle of nowhere. They were from big cities. And they were middle-class. They owned houses and cars and iPhone 6's, and they could afford to go on trips like this one. Yet somehow, they seemed to have gone their entire lives without meeting someone who wasn't Chinese. Normally I found it endearing to be in places so far removed from the Western world, but today I just wanted to eat, sleep and get back to the city.
Soon after we left, the bus stopped and we all got out. I had no idea what was coming. The building we entered was filled with crystals for sale, some of which cost 500,000 rmb. Everyone walked along the showroom floor, staring at the crystals in awe. I returned to the bus early and fell asleep.
Next we drove to a Tibetan village and went into an old house. A Tibetan girl with a black fedora and a nose ring started talking to us. She wore a traditional outfit, and the house was old, with stone walls and a fireplace, so I figured she was teaching everyone about her culture. But then she passed around some bracelets and I realized she was trying to sell us cheap souvenirs. She continued to talk and talk and talk. I fell asleep for a few minutes and when I woke, she was still talking. Twenty minutes into her sales pitch I returned to the bus and passed out while waiting for everyone else.
We stopped at three more places, and each time I asked the others if this was our lunch stop. Nope, more shopping. I stayed on the bus and slept. Finally, at about 3pm, we had lunch at the same place as two days ago. I was so hungry, I could barely eat. Or maybe I was getting sick. At any rate, I probably slept for six hours during the day. Everyone else shopped.
We made it back to Chengdu at 8pm. I said goodbye to my fellow tour-goers, but I didn't have the energy to say much else. The tour was any eye-opening look into Chinese culture. And the nature was world-class. I was glad I got to see Jiuzhaigou, but it would be difficult to convince me to go on a Chinese tour again.
Carson currently lives in Hong Kong, so when I made my way to his city, we met again for some hiking and chatting about travel. On a Saturday night in a lively park in the middle of the city, we spontaneously sat down to record one of our conversations. We touched on a variety of subjects, from travel in Vietnam and China, to designing comfortable clothing, to podcasting and photography. Special thanks to Carson for coming on the show.
As usual, let me know what you think of our conversation in the comments section below.
A bus dropped me off in Lao Cai, Vietnam and I walked toward the Chinese border. A few minutes later I heard a telltale screeching of tires, followed by a crashing of vehicles. This was such a common occurrence in Vietnam, I barely even looked up. In fact, with so few road rules in the country, I was surprised I didn't see more accidents.
When I reached the border gate, I met two Germans named Philip and Jan. They weren't particularly moved by the motorcycle accident, either. The three of us went through the formalities of getting stamped out of Vietnam, walking across a bridge over the Honghe River and getting stamped into China. It was good to be back in my old stomping grounds. If nothing else, I was comforted by the sound of Mandarin, a language I was at least somewhat familiar with, for the first time in three months.
I shared a taxi with the Germans to the train station at the other end of Hekou, on the Chinese side of the border. Along the way, I learned of Philip and Jan's ambitious plans: they were only going to spend a week or so in China, then cross into Mongolia and Russia, and finally take the Trans-Siberian railway all the way to Europe. If all went well, they would travel from Vietnam to Germany in three weeks, without flying. Their itinerary was a bit too crazy for my taste, but I still wished them well.
When we reached the train station, the cab's meter said that we owed 12 yuan. I handed the driver a 20. Instead of giving me change, he said something in Chinese that I struggled to understand. Then I figured it out: he wanted 30 yuan for the ride. The Germans couldn't believe his audacity and refused to pay any more than what the meter said. But the driver had the upper-hand – our backpacks were locked in the trunk. I finally caved and paid the man. I was elated to be out of Vietnam, where many people saw me as a walking ATM, but now I understood that this treatment would continue for a bit longer. If you are a Chinese taxi driver and you can read this, please understand that foreigners are human beings who do not have infinite money. It is disrespectful to your country to charge them two and a half times the going rate for a ride.
The three of us boarded a train bound for Kunming, a small city of three million, about five hours away. Our tickets were for a sleeper car, with beds stacked three high. But instead of using all of the bunks, everyone sat on the bottom one, four to a bed. I ignored this convention and went straight to the top bunk, where I organized my backpack. Soon I felt a yank on my foot, and then I heard a continuous, angry shout. I turned around and saw a train employee who reminded me of Nurse Ratched. Apparently, the “convention” of sitting on the bottom bed was actually a “rule.” After I climbed down, Nurse Rached yelled at me some more, then stormed off. Per an eery custom in China, everyone else around us was locked into a distant gaze, as if completely unaware of the scene unfolding before them.
I sat on the bottom bed next to the Germans and listened as two of the Chinese passengers played violent shoot-em-up movies on their phones, loud enough for everyone in the car to hear. Nurse Ratched had no problem with this. But whenever she walked past, she always stopped and checked the top bunk to make sure I wasn't there. I crouched low, though not by choice – the middle bunk above my head prohibited me from sitting up straight. I bit my lip whenever Nurse Ratched made her rounds, not wanting to find out what they did with rule-breakers in China.
The train soon entered a dark tunnel. It took a full five minutes for us to emerge into the bright sunshine, and then we promptly entered another tunnel. This pattern continued for two hours. I marveled at this fete of engineering. Kunming is about 200 miles from Hekou as the mole burrows, and for a while I thought we would spend the entire trip underground. But then we exited another tunnel and crossed a long bridge, high over a canyon. We were gifted with jaw-dropping views of the gorge far below, and of the mountains, towering overhead. Later the sun set and the full moon rose from behind the mountains, putting the final touch on our scenic ride.
We arrived in Kunming at 10:30, with necks and backs sore from crouching. But before stretching our bodies, or even leaving the train station, we bought tickets for the 17-hour journey to Chengdu the following night. There were no sleeper tickets left, so we would have to sit in hard seats. This trip was turning into a repeat of my journey to Inner Mongolia, half a year prior.
The taxi drivers were all over us when we left the train station. We gave one of them the name of a hostel; he wanted 50 rmb for the trip. That was far too much money, but at least he told us his price beforehand. The Germans could not accept this. They insisted that we find a driver who would use his meter. Obviously they hadn't been in China very long. We wasted half an hour in our search, then finally caved and negotiated one driver down to 30 rmb.
The ride to the hostel was shorter than the price justified, but still not within walking distance. An old man wearing a brown fedora and smoking a cigarette was working at the desk. He clearly didn't speak a word of English, because he handed us a card explaining that we would have to wait until morning to check in. Then he led us to a nice room with rock-hard beds. I blew up my air mattress and passed out, after one of the longest and most bizarre days of my trip.
The next day, while the Germans slept in, I walked to Green Lake Park, one of the largest in the city. As I neared the lake, the sound of screeching seagulls overwhelmed my ears. We were nowhere near an ocean, so I didn't understand how so many of these pests could be concentrated in one place. I looked around and soon understood: vendors were selling little loaves of bread to the locals, who broke off small pieces and held them out for the birds to swoop in and take mid-flight. The locals were having the time of their lives. The boats, and everything else near the shore, were covered in guano.
I walked across a bridge and the seagull madness gradually abated. The cacophony was replaced with something much more pleasant. Many groups of Chinese people were singing, dancing and playing instruments to large crowds. Most of the performers were middle-aged or elderly. Spring was in the air; the peach blossoms and tulips were in full bloom. It was wonderful to stroll through the park, constantly taking in the flowers and the song and dance. In my time away, I had forgotten how alive Chinese parks felt.
I also walked through an outdoor market with lots of trinkets for sale. It wasn't very different from many other Asian markets I had been to, apart from the fact that nobody pestered me to buy anything. This was a pleasant change from Cambodia and Vietnam, and it showed me that China (or at least much of the country) had yet to be spoiled by mass tourism.
The Germans and I reunited late in the day for our trip to Chengdu. Luckily, our train car was nearly empty. Philip and Jan each took two seats across the aisle from me. I sprawled across my three-seat bench and fell asleep. Luckily this time there was no Nurse Rached to chew me out.
I felt a yanking on my foot sometime in the middle of the night. Nurse Rached? Nope. I sat up and saw that the entire car was now packed with people, including two who were none-too-happy that I was occupying their seats. Many of these new passengers were shouting at each other, apparently to decide which of them would have to stand for the next eight hours. Eventually a family occupied the remaining seats around me. Two filthy four-year-olds with mohawks sat to my left. One of them fell asleep right away, but the other one struggled. I felt bad for him and handed him my pillow. His mom crawled onto the floor – the same floor where people were spitting and throwing their peanut shells – and fell asleep under the seats. I wished I had thought of that first. Instead, I leaned forward and lay my head on my hands, on the table between the benches. When I woke, my hands were numb. I awkwardly flopped them onto my lap and lay my head directly on the table. Fears of amputation kept me awake for most of the night. Eventually I must have drifted off, though, because I opened my eyes and was disoriented by the darkness. Shouldn't dawn have come by now? But then I was blinded by the light of the outside world. We had just exited yet another scary-long tunnel.
The train remained packed all morning, to the point where I couldn't even move my feet without hitting a neighbor or someone sleeping on the floor. The kid I had given my pillow to was now slapping his brother and laughing. Occasionally one of them would tackle the other onto my lap. I liked the fact that kids were free to be kids in this culture (or at least in some facets of it), but not when it came in the form of pouncing on my sleep-deprived body.
We arrived in Chengdu, a medium-sized city of five million, at one in the afternoon. Hundreds of people shoved their way off of the train and funneled through a tunnel. We reached a single narrow staircase with no escalators, and everyone had to drag their suitcases up, forming a giant bottleneck. It seemed to take another 17 hours just to exit the station.
Once we were finally outside, the Germans and I parted ways. They had slept as little as me the previous night, yet the crazy bastards were going leave in a few hours for yet another overnight trip. I wished them luck in maintaining their sanity for the next few weeks and made my way toward a hostel. After a couple of really long days of travel from Vietnam, I was now deep into Chinese territory, and in great need of a nap.
Este podcast estaba grabado en español. Lo siento, no había usado mi español en mucho tiempo, pero no se preocupen. Jesús de España y Elisa de Chile hicieron la mayoría del hablando. En el podcast hablamos sobre varios paises, incluyendo China e India. También hablamos sobre la alerta roja de contaminación en Beijing y porque es tan importante viajar por el mundo. Espero que ustedes desfruten nuestro conversación. Dígame lo que piensas.
Información sobre el ladrillo de la contaminación en Beijing
I left Hanoi well-rested and looking forward to the next few weeks. My plan was to travel to the small town of Sapa, where I hoped to spend a few days with a local family. From there I would cross the border into China and travel to Beijing by train. Along the way I wanted to see a national park and the famous Terracotta Army, but who knew what other adventures might happen between here and there?
There were no cockroaches on my overnight train ride to Lau Cai, on the Chinese border. As soon as I stepped off the train, I, along with every other passenger, was hounded by bus drivers looking to take us to Sapa. I bargained one driver from 100,000 dong to 50,000. He put his index finger over his lips and said, “Shh” as I paid him. Apparently he didn't want me to tell any of the other passengers that they had gotten ripped off. Or maybe they had paid even less than I had, and the driver didn't want me to find out. In Vietnam, one never knows.
The minibus took us from sea level to a mile above, where the climate was cooler. The road skirted the edge of a deep canyon, the walls of which were covered in terraced green rice fields. An eerie fog blanketed the riverbed, far below.
It took an hour to reach Sapa. Before the bus had even stopped, five women jockeyed for position at the door, ready to whisk tourists to their homes in exchange for cash. I hadn't done much research on Sapa, but someone had told me that you can stay with a local Hmong family there. I was looking forward to the cultural exchange. But I wasn't prepared for a cluster of women to grab my arms, pleading with me to pick them.
I tried asking the women some basic questions, like where they lived and what their ethnicity was. All of them were dressed in different traditional clothing, and by their overt animosity toward one another, I figured they came from different villages with distinct cultural makeups. But the clearest answer I got was “Come with me, you'll meet my whole family!”
I wasn't sure who, if anyone, I wanted to go with. But it was only eight in the morning; I was in no hurry. I politely told them all that I wasn't interested and walked away, hoping to think about it over breakfast. Some of the women bothered other passengers, others followed me. I asked the least aggressive one if I could buy bananas nearby, and she said, “Yes, I'll show you.”
Her name was Maiv and she was probably in her early twenties. She lived in a nearby village with her husband and children. She explained that the men were busy working in the rice fields at this time of year, so only the women came to Sapa to “greet” the tourists. She led me down a steep hill, where I bought a few bananas from an outdoor stall. Then we walked up to an empty amphitheater, where I dug out my camp stove. I offered to cook her breakfast, which she declined.
Maiv seemed a little shy, at least compared to her competition at the bus stop. But as I was priming my stove, she finally said, “Do you want to meet my family?”
I put a pot of water on the burner and thought: I came all this way, why not.
We negotiated a price to stay at her mom's house for the night. Then she left me alone, stating that her brother would pick me up in a little while. The cultural exchange really was going to happen. I was happy that my money would go directly to Maiv and her family, and not to some distant travel agency.
When the water was boiling, I made a cup of coffee. Then I chopped up a banana and added it to the remaining water, along with two handfuls of oatmeal. I was sitting on the empty stairs of the amphitheater – it must have been used occasionally for public performances. Tall pine trees were at the edge of the square, and there was a Christian church across the road. Foggy hills surrounded the town. Foreigners occasionally walked passed me, always accompanied by local women in traditional dress. Many people stared at me, a common occurrence when you're cooking in public.
Maiv returned a while later, this time riding on the back of a motorcycle. She said the driver was her brother and he would take me to their village. She also warned me that nobody else in her family spoke English, but not to worry – she would be there shortly.
I climbed on the back of the motorcycle and Maiv's brother drove me out of town and into the hills. We passed several tour groups, walking along the edge of the road that overlooked the foggy canyon. We left the main road and went up a long dirt track. The road got narrower and bumpier as we continued, until my body was so shaken, I was about to suggest that I walk the rest of the way. But soon we reached a village of wood plank houses with tin roofs. Banana palms and giant bamboo stalks lined the roads and flooded rice terraces extended into the valley below. An old lady sat outside of one building, staring as we passed.
We pulled up to one of the larger houses and Maiv's brother led me inside. Their mother, a petite middle-aged woman, smiled and appeared to welcome me to her home, using her native tongue. She led me to the corner of the house's only room, where there was a bed consisting of a thick blanket on top of a row of cinder blocks. At least there was a mosquito net and a curtain for privacy. I unpacked and took in the rest of the house. The wooden walls provided no insulation, not that any was needed in the tropics. A couple of bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling and a small TV was playing a soap opera. There was also a kitchen, with a stainless steel sink and a rice cooker.
Maiv's mother cooked me a plate of rice, scrambled eggs, spinach and pork fat that tasted like bacon. I ate and indicated with grunts and belly pats that the meal was delicious. Then I thought about what to do next. Maiv had told me to wait for her, but I didn't really know when she would arrive. I indicated to Maiv's mother that I was going for a walk. Her only reaction was to return to her soap opera.
I followed the road up the hill, past the village and around the edge of the canyon. Soon I reached a small waterfall and sat on a rock, admiring the view. A large group of foreigners, with several local guides, came walking down the hill toward me. One of the guides asked if I was alone and where I was going. I confirmed that I was alone, but I didn't know where I was going, so I just said, “Up.” They continued down the hill, seeming content with my response.
Resuming my walk, I passed group after group of foreigners, all with guides. The guides inevitably asked where I was going and who I was with. I responded politely, but I wondered why they were so nosy. The foreigners marched down the hill, looking bored out of their minds.
Eventually I reached a pass of sorts, with a stone tower marking the trail's highest point. I climbed to the top and took in the sprawling valley. It was one of those places where you could both see and hear for miles. With daylight running low, I headed back down to the village.
Maiv was at her mother's house. Now I felt bad for having gone on my walk, but she told me not to worry – she had only arrived five minutes earlier. The implication of her words seemed to pass her by: I easily could have sat inside the house all afternoon, waiting for her.
Two of Maiv's brothers were there, along with their children. A few other members of the extended family stopped by as well. The kids played outside while the adults chatted. I loved that the kids had so much freedom here, a relic of the past in much of the developed world. It was also great to see how tight-knit Maiv's family was. The only problem was that all attempts I made to join the fun were met with a cold shoulder. To be fair, there were serious language and cultural barriers. But the real problem was that I wasn't part of the family. I was an outsider. A paying customer.
Dinner was almost the same as lunch. I sat down with the family to eat, and Maiv explained a bit about her culture. They're called Black Hmong because their traditional clothing is black. The women never cut their hair, so it hangs down to their knees. For convenience, they twist their jet-black locks and wrap them multiple times around their heads, causing their hair to flop around like a wig. Maiv also explained that the pork fat we were eating was from the family's pig, which they had killed for the new year. The hooves were still hanging in the kitchen, drying. I felt honored for the chance to eat this special meal.
After dinner everyone sat around the TV and continued their lively chatter. I asked Maiv some more questions, but she didn't have much else to say, and none of the others spoke English. I didn't require constant attention. In fact, sometimes I liked to be left alone. But I had come here to meet the family, not to be served and ignored. I went to bed at 8:30, while everyone else was still talking.
I woke the next morning at 6:30 and had a plate of rice and cabbage for breakfast. While I was eating, Maiv's mother showed me some colorful coin purses. I felt flattered that she was giving me a trinket, despite barely knowing me. But then she held up a 100,000 dong note and I realized the truth: she was trying to sell the purses, at several times their market value. The stitching was clearly done with a sewing machine, so they were likely created in a factory, by someone she had never met. This sickened me. Not long ago, the people of this village probably had little contact with the outside world. But now the place was overrun with tourists, and the locals viewed us as a means to make far more money than they could ever earn by growing rice. I was part of the problem. I had to get out of there.
Maiv's brother drove me back to Sapa on his motorcycle. Maiv was walking around, trying to snag another tourist for the night. We exchanged a cordial goodbye, and indeed I had learned a little bit about Maiv's culture, but this visit still left me feeling empty. In many other places, I had used Couchsurfing to create strong connections with people whose backgrounds were far different from mine. What was different about my time with Maiv? Money. As soon as you introduce money to the equation, you are no longer a guest. You are a customer.
I walked back to the amphitheater and read my guidebook to figure out how to get to China. Immediately a local woman approached me with an armful of souvenirs for sale. I shooed her away and more people approached, asking if I was alone and where I was going. They made no attempt at a genuine interaction. As in many other places in Vietnam, I wasn't treated as human being. I was a walking ATM. I decided that the best thing I could do for the people of Sapa was to leave. Mass tourism was destroying this place. How long until the people stopped farming altogether and only donned their traditional costumes to entertain their customers? Maybe this was happening already. I shuddered at the thought.
I walked a few blocks in search of the yellow bus that would take me back to Lao Cai. I found it, but before I got on, a man told me that the bus wasn't going to Lao Cai, but he could take me there in his minivan. The van was empty, so I expressed my skepticism. The driver assured me that he was about to leave. I decided to trust him and took a seat. Bad idea. The bus pulled away and soon I figured out that the driver had lied. Was there one genuine person in this town? I left the van and after asking a few passersby, I found out that the next bus wouldn't leave for two hours.
In this town of liars, scam artists and opportunists, I decided to have a cheeseburger and fries as a fitting last meal in Vietnam. As I was walking out of the restaurant, the next yellow bus was already pulling away, one hour early. Luckily, I was able to flag it down. I climbed aboard and paid 23,000 dong, less than half of my “bargain” fare to Sapa. On my way out of town, I grew sad with the realization that one of my best experiences in Vietnam would be leaving the country.