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Entries about china

Expected Beauty

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View A long way home on Porticaeli's travel map.

It was a long trip out of Lijiang丽江 to the coastal cities of China. I spent 36 hours on two trains to Hangzhou杭州, then took another train and a plane to Beijing北京. It was a good trip, but in a lot of ways it was exactly what I expected.

That is the thing about big cities in China, they are what I expect them to be. Hangzhou’s major pull is the massive Westlake, but it’s like so many other places I have seen before. Smaller cities trying to capture the beauty of the coast by copying their style. The buildings were bigger and well maintained, but there were no surprises. Everything looked clean, like most tourist zones in China, with an army of people to keep it beautiful.

And that is the thing. Hangzhou is beautiful, but it’s such common beauty that I get bored. Another lake with flowers and bridges. Another group of people, well dressed and on their way to a club. Another temple that could be in any major city in China. There is no mystery, no surprise, and nothing to grab my attention or inspire me. Nothing to really make me feel.

There is a reason I loved going to the small towns in the middle of nowhere, with my friends who never really understood why I am so fascinated by places like that. Places where the paint is peeling, the walls are crumbling, and everything is worn by use and love. Hole in the wall dumpling shops that have been run by the same family for decades, using the same old pots and made by people talking and laughing. Cobblestone streets worn bare by a century of street markets, or just watching the endless stars above with a friend, shining through the darkness away from the big cities. That is what I remember. That is what I love.

Beijing wasn’t much different. I met up with some friends, and we traveled to a few sites together, but I don’t really care about seeing the ancient palaces and squares that have been copied in so many other places. I wandered by a few old sites before finding the parks and gardens I preferred. The sky was clear and the sun was hot, but there were plenty of places to rest in the shade. I understand why Chinese people would want to see everything, their country, their history, but I lack the attachment to it to find it interesting.

What I enjoyed was talking to my friends, wandering through side streets and small parks, and the view from the Great Wall. It’s an amazing thing to see, and actually a short but hard climb. There were far less people than the pictures always suggest, but we went after school started and everyone had to be back to work. It was worth going to Beijing, but that is not the kind of place I love.

I still miss Guilin with its strange rock spires, sleeping under the stars in Dunhuang, the silence in Lijiang, and the homes of my friends in Longnan, Wanzhou, Wushan, and so many other places. I still want to see the Tibetan areas and make it out to Xinjiang one day, but I have such a thirst for something different that I am glad to be out of China for a while. I will be back, but for now I am thankful for the change of scenery.

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Posted by Porticaeli 04:00 Archived in China Tagged nature travel china great english wall photography american Comments (0)

Between Stability and Adventure


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It can be hard to explain to people why I miss building things and breaking things down so much. Teaching is fun, and I love it, but the work never really ends. Maybe if you spend five years with the same students you can get them close to their goal, but you never really finish learning a language. There are still parts of English that I don’t know, law, science, medicine, but for the most part it is enough. I am not done learning, but it is enough.

When I build something, it is done. The wood is piled and ready to keep people warm for the winter. The garden wall is built and ready to be filled with plants. The chicken coop has been taken apart, broken down to something useable again. I am sore, dirty, smelly, and covered with what looks like spider bites, but I am done. Teaching doesn’t work like that. The semester is done, but the students still have so much to learn.
I was glad for a week of dirty work, where I can let my mind think deep thoughts as my body moves things around. Where every meal is earned, and rest is wonderful. Where I sleep easily because I am truly tired. It’s been a long time since I felt that way, and to do it in a place that is a paradise is so much better.

I was in Da Mai Di 大麦地 outside of Li Jiang丽江 in the south of China. I was high in the mountains, surrounded by trees and rivers, with sharp cliffs for climbing and tobacco fields woven throughout them. A quiet place where the stars were like an ocean above. Even more so than the desert outside Dunhuang. I spend a week working and reading, swimming in the river before the rains began, and a day remembering how much I loved river tracing. But always in the back of my mind was a question.

Why am I here? I could have just gone home. Or found a job in Chengdu right away. Something stable, something simple, something where I could build a life. Part of me wants that, but there is still so much of the world I haven’t seen yet. Part of me wants to never come back. To go to Japan and work in Kyoto or Osaka. To find a new place I have never been. I am in the middle of a fight, between stability and adventure.

There are more than enough reasons to come back, and I don’t think I am ready to completely leave yet. Lanzhou was not the best place for my health, but I think that Chengdu can be. Kungfu friends to keep me working out. A place far enough from the western world that I can’t eat all the tacos I want to. And there are people I still want to see. People I miss already.

In the long run, I don’t really know what I will do. The plan to stay in Chengdu is fine for the next couple years, but then, who knows. The world is still open to me, and I want to see all of it before I am too tired to go on. Before I find a place to stop and rest, and find I don’t really want to get up again. In a lot of ways, I wish I had started when I was younger, so I would have all that energy and time.

But that is not how my life worked out. I wasn’t ready then, and I am lucky that I am now. There is conflict, but that is part of finding balance. Balance for me is often the center of conflict, not a place of serenity. It is being pulled in two directions, and trying to find the line between. The trick, I think, is to find the joy in that conflict, the peace in the eye of the storm. For now, I chose adventure.

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Posted by Porticaeli 03:34 Archived in China Tagged travel china english photography lijiang american Comments (0)

Pear trees and Spiderwebs

I was in Chengdu, finishing the paperwork and trying to see as many people as I could before I left, trying to decide if it was my final time or not. The idea of finding work in Chengdu after the New Year is sticking with me. I could go somewhere new, struggle through the adventure of a new place and a new language, but for now, I have bills to catch up with. There are other places in China I could go, but my friends at the Peace Corps know most of the people I would want work with, so it might be better to go through them. Guanxi is a useful thing sometimes.
For now, I am heading south for a while, first to Kunming, then back into the mountains outside Dali. I teach a couple hours a day, and my foot is finally healing after my body rejected my effort to take up running again. I see old friends, and the food is healthier than I have had in a long time, but part of me just wants rolled tacos and a quesadilla. I am not yet looking forward to the adventure ahead.
Part of it is still being in China, like my time here hasn’t really ended for now. I’m not in anyplace new, and there isn’t much here I haven’t seen yet. Eryuan is still beautiful, surrounded by pear trees filled with spiderwebs, but it feels like I’m waiting, not traveling. Part of it is that I still have too much stuff. I need some fall clothing for Mongolia and my camping gear will be useful in the Philippines, but I should have shed more of the clothing I am still carrying around. Part of it is that I kind of envy the people who just went home.
There is something tiring about living in another country for so long, especially when home is so far away. In Mexico, I wasted a lot of time and money on trips home because it was so close. That was part of the reason I began there, that I could walk away if I needed to. Now, home is a city where my family doesn’t live. Part of the cost of travel is that the worlds you leave behind keep changing without you.
The same will happen in Lanzhou I am sure. I was a part of so many lives, and hopefully I did more good than harm, but I will never really know the result of all of my work. I will go back and visit one day, but I can’t possibly see all that will come of my time there. It makes me think of the dream of final judgement after death, the idea that we will finally know exactly what changes we enacted on the world. For good or bad, at least there would be an answer.
Most of the time I am okay not knowing. I choose to believe the people who have thanked me, or told me what a change I wrought, and I choose to forget that there is so much of the story that I will never know, but there is always a whisper of doubt waiting for my attention. The things I say and do are based in the facts that I am an outsider and an American. The people here who follow my advice are not. There is always a question of the damage that will be done if they follow me because where I am tolerated, they may not be. More important, they have so much more to lose here than I do.
Pear trees and spiderwebs. It’s easy for me because I have no fear of the spiders, but that is because they have never really hurt me. That is a privilege I wish everyone had, the ability to reach through danger because they can never really hurt you, but that is not the world we live in. All the people who are afraid for my safety as I travel have been harmed in ways I haven’t. So I travel on, with caution, but no real fear. Anxiety, yes. True fear, no.
The next place I go will be Lijiang, up the mountains toward Shangri-la. I have time, I may continue up or stay in Lijiang and leave something to the imagination, but in truth, nothing will be new until I reach Mongolia. A new language, new food, and a whole new world awaits.

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Posted by Porticaeli 20:40 Archived in China Tagged nature travel china english dali american Comments (0)

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