inside thoughts on China and beyond

Travel Journal

The Italy Connection

Sitting on a small balcony overlooking Firenze, the medieval city of Florence, with it’s Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio towering over red-tiled roofs with muffled city-noises echoing up from the sunless alleys below, a strange thought came to me: Chinese and Italians have a lot in common. Let me explain. (more…)

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Shangri-La experience (1)

Shangri-La experience: Heavenly Hotels (1)

Does the name ‘Shangri-La’ ring a bell? A chain of classy and exclusive hotels, sure. And they are popping up in every self-respecting city around the world. Correct. But here in China, more then anything else, Shangri-La is a widely desired name of the town and lamasery that was the setting for James Hilton’s book ‘Lost Horizon’. The true heaven on earth in a rustic, harmonious valley of peace: Shangri-La.  And who doesn’t want to live in a heavenly city? Can you imagine the economical gain this would give? Streets of gold! So, not surprisingly, there’s not just one Shangri-La in China; towns are literally tumbling over one another to prove their authenticity and change their century-old names in to, yes, Shangri-La.

I still remember my first visit to Shangri-La quite some years ago. Yes, I found my Shangri-La; the real one, if you ask them. But it isn’t so much the special destination that I most remember; it is the journey that got me there. It was winter. A very cold winter. The bus ride from Lijiang, an old town deep in remote west Yunnan, took the whole day.

A bus ride to heaven; a trip through hell. As it is written: heaven is reached only by a narrow road. And, as I soon discovered, by steep climbing roads. And wild winding roads. Narrow valleys far below and falling rocks from far above. An old bus with direct view on the road underneath through its rotten floor. Several stops were needed to re-secure the loads of bags and boxes and goats piled on its roof. An overcrowded bus with only Tibetan men. Fierce looking men. Rough and smelly. Men in over-sized coats with sleeves twice as long as their arms and knives even longer. Cowboy hats nonchalant on their thick dirty black hair that hung long over their shoulders. Their sunburned, leathery skin black and scarred. I traveled with wife and kids and for some reason we didn’t blend in well. As it was, we quickly became quite an attraction. They stared at us with curious and burning eyes and threw comments up and down the aisle causing laughs among the gang. Very funny. All armed with beer and smoking at least 2 cigarettes at the same time. The next cigarette waiting behind one ear, a beer bottle behind the other. A big ‘no smoking’ sign right above the driver was reminding us all of the good intentions of some far-away-never-present official. Must be a Han. But the sign was hard to see through the smog of smoke produced by the driver. Then what can you say?

My family was sitting in the back row, flying up from their hard seats each time the bus hit a rock or dived into a hole. Windows and door in the front were all open, letting in biting cold air that blew the smoke to the back of the bus where the windows could not be opened, choking my by now purple looking frozen kids and making my wife vomit. Changing seats was the only option. But none were available. The men were still laughing. A car passed. A black VW. A German Volkswagen. A sign of Europe and civilization. For a moment I felt relief; I was not alone in this God-forsaken land after all. If there’s a western car, there must be a western salesman somewhere. A companion. But it didn’t last. An unsolicited thought reminded me of a highlighted note in the Lonely Planet guidebook warning us for robbers and murderers in this area. Their knives seemed to grow by the minute.

But I needed seats. I mustered all the courage left in me – and believe me, not much was left: I’d much rather just jumped of the bus deep down the cliff- so, with that much courage I rehearsed silently what to say and how to say it in Chinese. I asked two men in a front row to give up their seats for my family members and pointed to the back seats for them. Their stares seemed to dissect me. Seconds past and nothing happened. It seemed hours. Mumbling behind me. They looked at each other. They looked at me. Then they looked away. Someone started cutting his nails with his dagger. More mumbling and shuffling behind me. A cough. Why can we not just disappear now? How fun, these holidays and trips! Who’s idea was this??  I vowed never to use public transport again, ever. I tried again, this time not asking them but already thanking them for giving up their seats. Why troubling them with a choice if, really, there wasn’t any. And again I pointed to the back seats and my suffering family. It was a lucky shot. But what had I to loose? I wasn’t even sure they understood Chinese, let alone my Chinese. Another smile, but then the man by the window started to move. I could hardly believe it, but he stood up -slowly as not to loose face too much- and went to the back saying something abracadabra Tibetan to his friend. The friend just stared at me. Not my friend. But, alas, one gone, only one more to go.

It boosted my confidence. Once again I thanked him ahead and this time I simply stared back. Then he too got up and moved, with groaning. Victory!  I could do the dance and give the yell: Shangri-La, here we come! Instead I only smiled an unseen smile and motioned my family over. Suddenly it didn’t feel that cold anymore. Now, the bumps in the road weren’t that high and the kids could breath again. We saw a rainbow in the valley far below us where the Yangtze river made its first sharp turn before heading off into the Tiger Leaping Gorge. My action had changed the atmosphere in the bus. Tibetan abracadabra became an interesting linguistic puzzle; stares became smiles; or did I just imagined this? We continued to climb and it started to snow. I was offered a beer that I politely declined and before I knew it we arrived in a snow covered Shangri-La.

We selected an upgraded, more expensive hotel, convincing ourselves that we earned it. A 3-star hotel. Of course we deserved more than that after a day like this, but then, how much can you get for just a few yuan? Luckily, our 3-star hotel in Shangri-La had a room left. In fact, all rooms were still available. A cleaner quickly chased a goat out of the main hall and dog poop welcomed us in the hallway to our ‘suite’. Mind your steps!

No heating. Frozen beds. It took half an hour for the staff to wake up and another half hour to switch on the electricity. Now we could boil water. We dipped our feet in buckets with hot water but didn’t dare to warm ourselves by showering the rest of the night, afraid that water would freeze on us faster than we could wipe it off. We dreaded the nights but day time was miraculous.

A thick pack of fresh white snow on the gentle hills under a deep blue sky greeted us the next morning. Chicken and cows and pigs and donkeys were lazily moving around in the narrow snow muddied streets that formed a labyrinth between the wooden and mud houses and giving us a look as if they owned the place (that was Orwell’s idea). We chatted with 3 elderly who were trying hard to get a giant 24-meter high golden prayer wheel turning. It stood high on the hill, towering over the village. The wheel didn’t turn, so they did: walking around it again and again. We laid down in the snow and enjoyed the strong Tibetan winter sun. A small teahouse on the snowy dirt road opposite the hotel became our evening refuge against the cold. At least they had a coal pot in the center of the room. No chimney. The thick smoke made breathing laborious and finding your teacup a treasure hunt, but at least it was warm. The coal was kept alive and glowing by an aged and wrinkled old Tibetan lady. A prayer wheel in her hand kept turning regardless what she was doing, sending out her prayers to be picked up by the spirits of the wind. Prayers we surely needed for the remaining nights in our Shangri-La hotel.

Maybe, one day, we’ll stay in the real Shangri-La…


Portfolio – Ways of Worship

Portfolio – Ways of Worship

August 2011

Although in recent history, opposite versions of modernization have erased many of China’s religious sites and practices, all across today’s China, a revival of Buddhist holy sites and rites can be seen, while permitting Muslims and Christians to practice in the shadows… (read more).


Photo Story – in the Shadow of the Drum Tower

Photo Story – The Dong: in the Shadow of the Drum Tower

June 2011

Going over the newly paved highways cutting through the south-eastern part of Guizhou, a poor Chinese province, like a growing spider web, constantly tunneling into mountains and flying over valleys, passing hamlets that till yesterday were only reachable on foot, you cannot but wonder how this will affect the centuries old cultures of the local minorities as the Miao, Dong, Shui and many more.  …. (read more)


Fast Train

For a meeting I had to be in Chongqing. About 350 km south-east of Chengdu; crossing one mountain range and a lot of hills. It used to be a weekend trip. Or rather not a trip at all. Chongqing had nothing. Chongqing was nothing. Nothing but a boiling oven in the summer (one of the four, the others being Wuhan, Nanjing and Nanchang) and a cold flooded mud hole in the winter. Covered with layers of white and gray dust all year round, blown in from the too often deadly illegal mining pits in the rest of this municipality.  You wonder why people live there: each season offers it’s own suffering. Just last year,  much of the area was damaged by flood only to be followed by a long lasting drought that destroyed most of the crop and turned the Yangtze river into a shallow smelly sewage.

But the 5-8 hour train trip can now be done in about 2 hours. And that’s how I can have a meeting in Chongqing. I decided to take the 8 o’clock. And I was not the only one.

Knowing that by the end of this week the yearly migration for  Chunjie (Chinese New Year holiday) will start in full force, many have decided to leave their migrant work earlier to make sure they have a seat on the train. It takes a week of lining up in shifts to actually get a hard-seat ticket, but last year has taught us: better to loose some income by leaving earlier than to loose your life in the stampede that follows later. As a result, by the time I arrived, the station was an anthill. Young couples with kids tucked away in their pockets, carrying canvas bags on their backs and heads. Old men looking confused, sucking air through their long cigarettes more frantic than ever with the next waiting behind the right ear. The masses move on rumors. When word goes around that a door will be opened on the left of the station, they all move left, when it’s on the right, the wave flows to the right. It does keep them warm, busy and hopeful.

I push my way through this crowd, have my bags scanned and am excused for the full body search. It’s so good to be a foreigner.  I continue to work my way through to the end of the hall, to a narrow door with again some gatekeepers and scan machines, with the number of my train above it. Only the happy few can get through here. I’m one of them. The new smaller hall I enter is an oases of peace and quietness, especially compared with the anthill I just left behind. After a short wait, yet another set of doors are opened –this time no scanning machine, but our tickets are checked again, just to be sure- and we can move to our train. Stewardess-lookalikes with big smiles and icy cold hands (I think; I didn’t check it, but mine were freezing and I didn’t have to stand in the cold for that long) are posted in each wagon to greet us.

The windows are spotless. A cleaner is still polishing the glass when the train starts to take off. The city is quickly behind us. Tucked away in the hills are the ugly concrete boxes that house most of China’s farmers now. They all seem to have hired the same architect. Off and on you still see a traditional old mud house or what’s left of it. Small meter-high dikes slicing up the shallow valleys in thousand little plots of paddy fields guiding little canals to the now slightly flooded river in the center of the valley. An early farmer chases her 3 ducks to the pond, walking bent-over after too many years toiling in this heavy red soil. Smoke is coming from the roofs. Some snow on the round roof tiles. Cone shaped conifer trees ripped of its branches for as high as the farmers’ saws could reach and bushes of meters high bamboo are scattered over the hills and around the farm houses, giving it all a more romantic appearance than the stories of its inhabitants would reveal -especially when viewed from within my comfortably heated train wagon. We are speeding by the farmlands where time doesn’t move.

Two TV-screens in each train wagon show in detail the crimes of the Japanese. Gosh, I’m glad not to be a Japanese! They better take the plane, at least there you can choose your own movie. But why? It’s not that the government need some foreign evil to unify its Chinese subordinates and keep them quiet and their minds distracted. Most of them are too busy making money, the rest are too busy spending it, so why worry?

As it appears, each wagon has their own set of friendly young stewardesses, keeping order in their territory. Not that this is really needed and with a daily income that is already covered by one half of my ticket, they probably won’t bother anyway. But they are helpful none the less.

We arrive at a station north of Chongqing where the farm fields and old factories and nostalgic mud houses of the long worshiped working class are replaced by the villas and skyscrapers and low-tax zones of the new and admired higher class. Fast train. Fast changes. But for China not fast enough. Next year, this trip can be done in only one hour. And on my way back, the anti-Japan propaganda film is resting on the shelf and the successes of China’s national railway development are shown. Two tired looking Japanese business men sitting opposite of me are watching it with admiration and approval, but before long are sleeping soundly.