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The Many Faces of China
by Trey Archer - Jan 10, 2015
My goal: travel from Beijing to Helsinki along the former Silk Road during the coldest months of the year without touching an airplane all by myself. The dream of crossing Eurasia, from one side of the planet to the other, entirely by land was one that lingered in my thoughts since childhood, so when I finally saved up enough cash, I went for it; no questions asked. Still to this day I have no clue what the hell I was thinking! The first leg of this trip was a counter clockwise circle around China (starting in Beijing) in order to grasp the essence of the nation. Previously, I had spent some time in the Middle Kingdom, but after this long, strange trip, I discovered that China is so much more than one could ever comprehend; it truly is a land with many faces.
The Tourist: Beijing to Xi’an
The trip started in Beijing at the end of August, 2011. As luck would have it, my Chilean friend Anna, whom I randomly met at a hostel in Bolivia during my first backpacking trip in 2007, finished her Trans- Siberian trip from Moscow to Beijing the same time I was started my trip, so we reunited in the capital for a few days.
I had been to Beijing before and had seen it all - the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, etc. But my friend was there and I wanted her to love Beijing as much as I did, so I revisited the sites with her and took on the role of her tour guide.
The Forbidden City
Initially, I thought it would be boring going back, almost like reading a book again. But seeing some of the world’s most renowned architectural marvels for the second time changed my mentality completely. I noticed tiny details that didn’t catch my eye the first time, and gained an entirely new perspective of the significance these monuments had to offer.
For me, someone who always preferred extreme travel journeys injected with large doses of adrenaline, museums and monuments (for better or worse) always came second during my world travels. But right there in Beijing, that perception changed and I felt a new affinity for the old, the historic and the ancient. I still can’t put a finger on it, but after touring Beijing for the second time around, I wanted more.
With Ana returning to South America a few days later, I went solo to see what the rest of China had to offer. I set off on an overnight train and arrived in the historic town of Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its preserved ancient architecture, to admire the antique, dusty village that was formerly known as the Wall Street of China. I stayed in a traditional courtyard house, sipped tea with the locals and wandered around the old city walls in the narrow hutongs. Maybe I was getting older and more mature, but I was really enjoying just taking it slow and admiring a true work of art.
Pingyao Ancient Town
From there, I boarded an overnight bus to Xi’an to scope out not only another UNESCO World Heritage Site, but one of the most famous archaeological sites ever unearthed by the human race - the Terra Cotta Warriors. My camera nearly overheated with so much snapping. Each one was originally hand crafted and none are identical, not even the horses. A Chinese tourist even came up to me and pointed at a warrior, telling me that I looked like the statue. Was that me in a former life? Um, probably not., but you never know.
The Terra Cotta Warriors
I certainly had my share of UNESCO World Heritage Sites from Beijing to Pingyao to Xi’an with more than five in a two week period. Though I was really enjoying the intellectual side of life and felt like a real historian after learning about China’s rich past, but it sure is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I was in need of something more "up-tempo."
The Partier: Chengdu, Sichuan
I took another overnight train from Xi’an to Chengdu, but this time I was in a hard-seater. Spending 18 hours on a hard bench cramped between a few strangers with smelly BO wasn’t comfortable by any means, especially when the babies begin to cry, the farmer passes out on your shoulder, and the hip teen chain smoking reds doesn’t turn off his deafening cell phone; it’s enough to drive anyone insane. Nevertheless, I made the best of it and I practiced my Chinese and kicked back a few beers with the salt of the earth; learning about new lives, culture and beliefs.
After throwing back a few drinks with some coal miners on the train (their treat), I was feeling good that afternoon upon arrival in Chengdu. Let’s just say I was in good “spirits.” It was also Friday night in one of China’s most vibrant, party cities, so I threw my belongings in Holly's Hostel and went straight to the infamous Jiuyan Qiao Bar Street for some (more) drinks.
Jiuyan Qiao Bar Street is like the Bourbon Street of Chengdu minus the beads, strip clubs and flashing. It’s a stretch of thirty or so bars each specializing in different themes from rock, pop, karaoke and hip hop right along the Jin River and radiant lights of downtown Chengdu.
Jiuyan Qiao is a lively place with all the Sichuan locals (who are known to be laid back folk who place heavy emphasis on having a good time) and it’s a great place to drink and listen to music. As it almost always seems to happen in China, the locals noticed me, a lone foreigner, and began pouring me drinks to uphold their hospitable reputation. One thing lead to another, and gulps of Tsingtao and baijiu began pouring down my gullet like monsoon.
Chengdu Jiuyan Qiao
After a few days in Kunming, I took the bus down south to Xishuangbanna (aka Banna for short). Away from the tourists, it seemed like an interesting place with patches of ethnic minorities scattered throughout remote villages. In fact, some of the ethnicities are related to the peoples of Southeast Asia - particularly Thailand, Laos and Burma - so their culture in this remote part of country actually resembles Southeast Asia more so than China in many ways.
I was thrilled when I arrived in Jinghong and saw the street signs translated with the local script of the Dai ethnic minority that resembles Burmese. I literally thought I was in a different country! Keen to explore more of these ethnicities and cultures that I knew nothing about, I rented a mountain bike for a solo, two day excursion into the jungles of forgotten Xishuangbanna.
The little monks of Xishuangbanna
My hubris always seems to get the best of me, and it did again this time since I didn’t bring any supply, water or food, just the clothes on my back. Fatigue was always a factor, especially in the flesh-melting sun, but luckily along the way there were numerous little coconut stands and places to grab bites of food. Every few hours, I’d give my burning legs a rest and hydrate with some cold water and sweet, cool, coconut milk. These little breaks were life-savers and enough to get me all the way down near the Burmese border to a town called Damenglong.
I was alarmed in Damenglong at first since the main road was completely torn up with construction projects, but scooters still managed zip by while street vendors shouted loudly in a strange language. Sure, it was a bit startling at first, and culture shock really nipped my ankles, but this backwater town with no foreigners was just what I was looking for; a true off the beaten track experience.
Strolling around town, I passed a market. Being the only white-faced in town caused everyone to stop, drop and stare (a very uneasy feeling for me to say the very least), but they invited me to sample food for free and check out their goods. One of the ladies was even selling snakes and asked if I wanted to buy one. I declined because I hate snakes. Throw anything my way: spiders, alligators, wooly mammoths, cannibals, anything, bring it on, just no snakes please.
After a night in a cheap hotel that was also under construction just like the rest of the rickety town, on the second day I was on my way back to Jinghong ready to tackle anything that stood in my path. Well, almost anything… I discovered a route through the jungle that would bring me to the Mekong River. From there, I could cross the river by ferry and then take a direct route straight back to the capital. With little contemplation, I had made my decision and was on my way.
Several kilometers later, I was at the entrance of this jungle route and entered the dark and mysterious world. The roads (should I even call them roads?) were lanes of thick sludge and the occasional tire-popping rock sticking out of ground. Pedaling was difficult and the blanket of humidity was asphyxiating, but the journey into the unknown kept my legs twirling like a tornado.
I crossed small villages not even mentioned on the map, and you could tell by their dress and language that each one was inhabited by a different ethnic minority. The diversity of Banna was surreal, almost as if I were in some weird Hollywood film full of lost tribes who’ve never seen a foreign face before. Actually, that’s exactly what it was! (minus the Hollywood movie part).
I’d wave, they’d wave back, we'd both laugh; two world’s colliding.
Then I saw one of the most memorable sights I had ever witnessed in all my international travels. It was a glorious temple hiding in solitude. It was gorgeous, sparkling with bits of sunlight shinning through the canopy, reflecting bright red and gold walls. The feeling of discovering such a thing unknown to so many outsiders was the true beauty of it all; surely this Buddhist shrine in the middle of nowhere is a place seen by very few blue eyes.
Mesmerized, I couldn’t help dropping my bike and walking toward it to see more. I took off my shoes to enter, then walked around to explore a shrine that was unique to me and only me at that specific place and time. I prayed to the gold Buddha in the apex of the temple, then respectfully walked out and continued on my way towards the Mekong. That was it, the impermanence of it made it even more beautiful.
Manfei Dragon Pagoda Tower, Jinhong, Xishuangbanna
Eventually I crossed the Mekong on a chugging ferry, and later got invited to lunch by a family living in the jungle. We ate stir fried pork with green peppers, drank hot soup and inhaled bowls of stale white rice. Though I wish I had more time to stay and chat, I knew I had to keep on moving forward for the last 10 km (6 mi) to the capital. I thanked them and waved good bye as I took off into the horizon.
Knowing that civilization was close, I shifted my legs into sixth gear and began an Armstrong-like sprint to the end. I was singing to myself and getting in a good rhythm, but suddenly, out from the heavens above, a force of pure evil crossed my vision and slammed into the pavement right in front of my wheels. Smack!!!
Snapping out my day day-dream, and noticing the beast that lay in front of me, a tremendous shudder of total fear ripped my soul into pieces. My heart pounded with deep throbs while a frozen shiver pinched my skin. Instinct quickly twisted my bike around, away from the enemy.
Shaking, I looked back to see if it was still there, and sure enough, it was. The 3 meter (9 ft) long, thick, slimy, black snake slithered on the road and hissed with Satanic verses. I stood in disbelief as it took one last look at me, knowing he almost got me, and rolled back off into the jungle below. In awe, I couldn’t believe that a massive snake came inches from falling right over my head!
Throw anything at me, just not a snake!
The Criminal: Kunming, Yunnan
After biking to the regional capital, I hopped on the bus back to Kunming, where I encountered another terrifying event. About half way between Jinghong and Kunming, the police stopped the bus for a routine drug inspection. A lot of drugs from Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle are smuggled into China through Xishuangbanna, so the authorities have set up dozens checkpoints to stop the flow of illicit substances.
The police checking the bus after us
The police entered and began patting everyone down. My turn was up, and they gave me a quick rundown and found nothing. The Chinese boy, not a day over 21, sitting right next to me, had a different fate, though.
The cops touched his stomach once and immediately screamed for back up. Shouting in Mandarin, they stormed the entrance, grabbed the kid off the bus and brought him outside. Lifting up his shirt they revealed packets of powder enclosed in plastic bags duct-taped to his torso.
They forcefully opened up his bag and began ripping through the seams with a knife, tearing out more powder filled baggies. The boy, wearing a brand new pair of clean Adidas tennis shoes and a matching fake Adidas sports jacket, was handcuffed immediately, but his face remained stone with no emotion; almost stoic if your will. Two hours later, after a huge delay, the boy was carted off to meet his destiny and live his final breaths of existence in a dark and lonely Chinese dungeon. He was a real dead man walking.
I looked at him once in the eyes, and he looked back at me. That was the last time I saw him, and I’m sure I was one of the last people he saw before being executed.
After renewing my visa in Hong Kong and passing through Hunan, I ended up in Wuhan, Hubei. In typical Chinese fashion with a surprise around every corner, I just so happened to stumble upon a freestyle rap competition in an underground dance club.
The DJ spun original beats while the crowd of young Chinese flashing the latest street fashions of basketball jerseys, baseball caps and Jordans hedonistically indulged in drink, smoke, fine ladies and smash mout lyrics. China astonished me once again. I mean, was I actually in China or had I somehow been teleported to Compton? I had to assure myself numerous times that I was still on the banks of the Yangtze.
I met the locals involved in the Wuhan rap game and head bobbed my way through the night until the finals. In the end, one winner - a lanky, shirtless guy with sagging jeans, red boxers, hundreds of tattoos, and long cornrows past his shoulders - defeated his competitor - a plump guy with a blue flat-rim LA Dodgers cap, a plain white T-shirt, baggy jeans, a glittery platinum chain, and flashy Nike court shoes - to become the freestyle king of Wuhan.
The Martial Artist: Shaolin Temple, Henan
After the rap battle, I switched things up with a visit to the Shaolin Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Henan Province that was made famous for its kung fu fighting monks. Martial arts had always been a fascination of mine so it was great to experience it in its legendary place of origin.
Little Monks exiting Shaolin Temple
I’ve practiced just about every martial art from tai chi to Taekwondo, but I consider myself a Muay Thai guy more than anything else. Nonetheless, I had to taste the local style so I enrolled in some classes inside the actual Shaolin Temple and learned some of the basics from true monks. Even with all my previous martial arts training, it still made my bones ache and muscles cramp, but no pain could stop me from learning martial arts inside the one and only Shaolin Temple.
Later that night in the hostel, I met a Dutch who was living in Japan who also practiced martial arts. We decided to have a friendly sparing session up on the third floor while everyone else from the hostel came up to watch. There’s not much to do in Dengfeng except martial arts, so why not? The bout started, and we were on our way, giving our audience a show in the process. A punch to the head, a knee to the belly, a kick to the thigh... In our very own, unique way, we were Shaolian warriors that evening.
The Adventurer: The Silk Road, Xinjiang
I had made up my mind to buy a motorbike and drive it across the Northern Silk Road from Urumqi to Kashgar.
All my belongings
It was late October and it was already getting cold and I also heard stories that one could travel 100’s of kilometers without seeing a gas station in rugged Xinjiang. But none of that mattered to me, I only had a few weeks left in China, and with the two months I had already passed in one of the world’s most fascinating countries, I decided to go all out. Simply put, I bought a heavy jacket, a barrel to fill up with spare gas and a motorbike, then hit the open road.
Rewind. The word “motorbike” is a bit misleading. It was more like a pinkish jacked-up scooter with a leopard skin seat and long zebra tassels hanging from the handle bars. It also reeked of cheap aftershave, but I didn’t ask any questions… Questions only get you in trouble.
Perhaps ignorance is bliss?
Outside of Urumqi, I passed the ancient town of Turpan right in the pits of the Silk Road… literally! These pits were actually the lowest depression in China. Along the valley route, ancient, non-renovated caverns that served as trading posts back in the day were carved inside the cliffs that bled dark reds, burgundies and maroons; an incredible site rising from the barren desert floor.
How breathtaking it was, and with a little imagination I could see the caravans and the traders from the past traversing the silk route on their way to great Chang’an, or Jerusalem, or Bukhara, or Constantinople.
Then, in the midst of my fantasy, I suddenly heard sput sput sput. The motor died, and I won’t even dare repeat the words that came spewing out of my dirty mouth. Luckily, throughout the whole trip, the spirit of good travel stuck by my side and bailed me out of a major dilemma.
While on the side of the road cursing my bad luck and kicking rocks in the blistering heat, two Chinese motor bikers saw that I had a problem and pulled over to help. After a quick examination, we concluded that I ran out of oil. Out of pure chance, one of them pulled out a spare bottle of lube and poured it in.
While filling up, a shaky 18-wheeler suddenly pulled over to the shoulder of the road. Two Uighur men blasting Turkish pop grabbed their prayer rugs, washed their limbs and face with a bottle of water, faced Mecca and began praying.
I stood and curiously observed, gazing at them in the same way I had watched Buddhist monks light incense in the Shaolin Temple, rappers bust a move in Wuhan, and the ethnic minorities of Banna sell fruit on the side of a jungle road.
A new religion, a new life, a new province, yet still one word: China. It was another one of the many faces of China.
A few minutes later, they finished, and they were off, music blaring and all. And so was I, back on the road to the town of Korla.
I had passed a restless sleep in a shady hotel in Korla that night (I’m not going to get into what was going on in that particular hotel amongst some of the other guests, but it was quite disturbing and a bit nauseating), but I tried starting the hybrid zebra/leopard scooter the following morning. Instead, the only thing that ignited was a roller coaster of emotions. It didn't start.
After several attempts, it appeared the beast was dead, but luckily there was a mechanic right next to the hotel. The good spirit of travel saved me again. The mechanic told me he could chop the scooter up into spare pieces (which I'm sure isn't legal) then use that money to help get me a new bike.
Several hours later, I finally got what I was looking for - a nice, second-hand, good looking motorbike, none of that sissy scooter crap anymore. I felt like I had just moved up the ranks of Hells Angles with this new gas guzzler I had just landed!
The road to Kuqa was long and isolated, nothing but gray desert on one side and the lifeless Tarim Basin on the other. Gas stations were rare along the route, but I’d fill up with much needed gas whenever I had the sparse chance to. When I'd run out on the middle of the desert highway, I’d use the spare tank I had tucked between my crotch.
One time, I saw a gas station in the horizon, and jetted the engine out of pure excitement. However, I hit a pile of gravel and spilled out on top the sizzling Taklamakan sand, left lying in pain. It hurt, and I still have a scar left from the accident today, but I merely see it as a reminder or permanent souvenir of my adventure along the formidable Silk Road.
By just the second day, after 12 hours of riding, I was utterly exhausted and all I wanted was sleep. I pulled up to a hotel in the city of Kuqa and asked for a room, but they insisted foreigners weren’t allowed to stay there. Irritated, cold, wind burned, and still a little bloody, I refused to accept this and demanded that they let me in. Still, they denied. Finally, after much heated debate, they said they would call the police from the station next door to see if they approved. If so, I could stay. Their offer sounded reasonable.
The police came and asked for my passport (which I didn’t have because it was in the Kazakh embassy in Urumqi) and my Chinese driver’s license (which I also didn’t have because I never took the time to get one). The officer then told me I had broken the law twice and was in big trouble. He confiscated my keys, brought me to a fancy hotel down the block that he made me check into, and stated, “It’s too late now to do anything, I will get you tomorrow to settle this.”
I couldn’t believe it. My penalty was to drop cash and spend the night in a fancy hotel??? In a way, it was nice sleeping in a real bed while watching Dead Poets Society on TV, but I wanted to be on the road instead. I thought about escaping, but I knew there’d be no transportation out of town at that hour and, sadly, I no longer had the key to that motorbike that I had just bought that day. I also thought I might be able to talk my way out of it the next morning, so I decided to comply with the cop’s command.
Early in the morning, I got a call from the cop telling me he was waiting for me in the lobby. I met him, and he told me that we first had to use my two free breakfast vouchers to eat. It didn’t take a genius to catch on, the cop made me stay at the nice hotel so he could mooch off my free breakfast vouchers.
Really man??? I would have just bought you breakfast instead!
He grubbed like no one I had ever seen, going back for thirds, fourths and fifths, but once he was full we ended up back at the dreaded police station.
While I was waiting for him to fill out the paper work, I noticed a small plaque that said “Allahu Akbar” in intricate Arabic calligraphy. (This wasn’t surprising since most Uighurs are Muslim). Bored, I decided to practice my basic Arabic by reading the script out loud.
The Uighur cop, Mohammad, looked at me with glowing eyes. He asked me, “How do you know that says?”
I kissed a little ass and responded that I respected his religion and his people very much (but that's actually true, it's the same way I feel about every person’s culture and religion in the world). After a quick chat and me showing off more of my basic Arabic, we bonded and he decided to let me go and gave me the key.
Elated, I grabbed my helmet and sprinted out the door to put my key in the ignition. But before the metal made contact, I heard a voice shriek from the distance. In the gloomy doorway, the hideous Han woman police chief stood like a demon, demanding me to stop. I knew right then that my motorbike trip was over when she began walking towards me holding out her hand for the key. A tsunami of devastation drenched my spirit and I fell into a minor state of depression.
Later, she made me pay my fine and brought me to the town’s market to sell my bike. I watched it fall into another man’s hands, and the guillotine chopped. That was the last I ever saw of it, and the disappointing end to what could have been the most courageous excursion I had ever embarked on.
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise…
The End: Kashghar
Kashgar was the end of my China trip and, in many ways, the end of China. Even though Kashgar is part of China, it’s still very Islamic and very Central Asian: many Uighur women still wear the full burka while the men wear Islamic skull caps, grow longs beards of the Hadith and pray five times a day.
I reminisced my mini-odyssey through China as I laid outside in the courtyard of Kashgar’s Old Town Hostel, staring at the stars and bright crescent moon on a crips Tarim night (all while trying to escape some horrid dorm room snoring). At first I thought it was rare to encounter such strong Islamic culture in the Middle Kingdom, but then it all came to me. No, it wasn’t that rare, that’s just how China is.
In such a large country, with such a long history, and with the earth’s largest population, what does one expect? China is not the homogenized country I once thought it was - it speaks not with one mouth and see with one pair of eyes; but with endless. China, in a way, is nothing and everything at once.
China is developed and developing, modern and old, capitalist and communist, diverse and homogenized, open and closed, fast and slow, yin and yang, spiritual and secular… China is Taoist chaos with Confucius order, coming together in perfect harmony with all elements of life to make it one of the world’s most fascinating travel destinations. Whether it’s a rap battle or kung fu battle, an off-road bicycle adventure or UNESCO World Heritage adventure, or finding inner peace or an inner hangover, China certainly has something for everyone. So what is China? Well, China is whatever you find when you get here, and believe me, it wears many faces just like every single one of us.