I just love this. Walking into a Tibetan restaurant in Kangding – an old trading town perched on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan Province, China – and there is not an English word in sight. Everything is written in Tibetan and Chinese and not even the smattering of “survival” Chinese words I have learnt seem to make any sense to the poor guy serving us.
I tried the Chinese for “beef” and “chicken” and got blank stares. So Mel started doing an incredibly life like interpretation of a chicken – arms flapping and eyes popping – as I turned away in embarrassment and a fair dose of cultural cringe. But when I turned back the guy had his fingers raised on his head like horns and there were smiles all round. Mel was getting through.
He ushered me into the kitchen and showed me ingredients and bowls and did more horns on the head routines. I said yes excitedly and went out and sat with Mel. The restaurant owner’s beautiful 8 year old daughter was soon immersed in a craft session with the girls on an adjacent table. Complete with drawings and a snow of Edward Scissorhand’s like shards of paper spewed across the table.
I sat down and said to Mel “I don’t know what is coming but the kitchen smelt incredible!”
Minutes later we have our heads over huge bowls of steaming yak broth filled with noodles and vegetables. Followed up by mouth watering steamed beef buns. These white, doughy puffy balls of chewy bread stuffed with delicately spiced yak mince. We looked out through the open restaurant doors and watched the temperature outside drop down to zero and just eased into seventh heaven. THIS is travelling.
So we have really changed gears now. Crossing the Chinese border and the dramas of Zoe’s broken arm seem like an eternity ago but it was only 10 days. Crossing the border was like someone had flicked a switch from “tourist” to “traveller” on the whole world. Merely kilometers from the popular destinations in Vietnam and the whole planet had been rearranged. No English spoken, no street signs in English, the food had changed, the shops had changed and suddenly the whole vibe had changed.
After the Zoe incident we took a train from Hekou to Kunming, 6 or 7 hours of too-upright seats and the first taste of the sheer volume of humanity that is China. We had our own seats but the people around you seem to overflow allocated seats and crowd you in. Smoking inside the train, people eating their rice and noodles, whole extended families chattering away and even the train guard delivering a 30 minute Amway-like sales pitch to the whole carriage before he wandered up and down selling his wares. Spare cash on the side.
It was good to be moving again and to settle into learning how a new place works. Kunming was a great start – a sort of “reboot” to the China experience after the dramas with Zoe. I am pretty sure I had no idea what to expect but all the media I had ever seen of China showed huge, hectic, smog filled cities. But after the sometimes too intense frenetic vibe in Hanoi, Kunming was this oasis of order. More Singapore than the standard bustling Asian city. There was a wealth disparity when you looked into some corners but everything seemed to work. Some beautiful parks, amazing food and even a McDonalds which – I must admit – we resorted to for the girls after they had turned down every offer of Chinese food we had made.
But a strange phenomenon had crept back in after such a long absence. We were a novelty again. I suppose we should have expected it now we were treading a less common tourist route but I wasn’t ready for the extent of it. In remote or small towns where few Westerners go you expect to be a point of interest. In Eastern Indonesia the girls were often mobbed by groups of young girls who just wanted to stroke their faces and touch their hair – then of course have 158 photos taken. But this was different. It wasn’t just the young girls giving the attention (or just our girls getting the attention) it was everyone. People stopping mid stride to gawk at us. Young girls giggling then having frantic conversations with each other before creeping over and demurely asking for photos. Young guys just walking up and shoving their phone at me and standing next to the girls. Today we even had a lady ask for a photo of Tully – then proceed to GROOM her for God’s sake. She fixed her hair and tucked he collar in. It was all I could do to stop myself saying “Ok…Ok…now you are taking the piss. ENOUGH!!”. But unlike Indonesia I just don’t have the language ability to politely explain that they are the 125th person today that has stopped us in our tracks for a photo – so I am sorry for not expecting my daughters to stand there stoically smiling once again.
Then there is also the unsettling element of crowds sometimes forming to stand and stare at us.
Mel and I have done a fair bit of remote travelling where you expect to be a novelty – but there was something really really strange about it happening in this modern, seemingly open and progressive city of 6+ million people. This is a city twice as big as Melbourne that is still isolated enough for Westerners to be a novelty. At one point on an afternoon stroll we sat down for a rest in this lakeside park. First one elderly couple stopped and stared, then others joined them and within minutes there was a crowd of 10 or 15 people standing about 2 feet away from us just staring and talking to each other. Occasionally pointing and laughing or discussing us.
A funny thought crossed my mind – could I imagine this ever happening in Melbourne? I imagined Flinders St station or the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne. A Sudanese family sits down for a rest and 10 or 15 white Anglo Saxons come up and stand in a circle around them, 2 feet away, taking photos and pointing at them. Of course it doesn’t happen (not just for the fact that it would come across as unnervingly racist in Australia) but for the fact that a complete melting pot of cultures is just not that interesting because it is just so normal. I have sat on a peak hour train into Melbourne’s CBD and as a white Anglo Saxon I have been the overwhelming minority. The train is this incredible rich spectrum of the world’s cultures and ethnicities all happily going about their lives and business. For all the media talk of Australia being “racist” I actually felt incredibly proud of how truly diverse Australia is. But here we were in a city twice as big as Melbourne, with the same inundation of advertising and media and “modernisation” – and people from another country are so strange that you need to stop and stare at them.
Then you realise where you actually are. You realise that beneath the exterior of China’s openness and modernisation there is the deep undercurrent of isolation and also control. Outside of the big international commercial hubs like Shanghai and Beijing things still feel a very long way from the rest of the world.
And a sense of control is everywhere. The police presence on a casual Sunday stroll through a city square makes you feel that something bad has just happened or a major event is on. But it is just normal. At a police roadblock the other day our bus was stopped, a policeman stepped on board, looked everyone up and down and selected ONE person for an ID check.
We are in a country where the government doesn’t trust its people enough to use Facebook or Twitter. You can’t even get onto Facebook as a tourist and mysteriously anything Google related doesn’t seem to work very well. We have had to change our search engine to Yahoo (how 90’s is that!). It is a fascinating mix of open and progressive and yet still tightly controlled and still isolated. You can’t help but wonder what will happen when these two elements collide head on.
So we moved on from Kunming to Chengdu where the cold started to get serious. That cold that creeps down your coat neck and makes your thighs go numb after an hour walking around town. We had a few days exploring a new city then wound our way up to the Tibetan Plateau – to Kangding, where I am writing from now.
Mel is reading, the girls are asleep and I feel weary. I have a belly full of Yak stew and dumplings and my legs are sore from walking in the hills. We had one of those soul recharging days today. After what seems to be an age of planning, visas, cities, emergencies, buses and trains – we got out of this relatively small town and wandered amongst Tibetan monasteries. You could not have written anything more perfect. Air that was “slap you in the face” crisp. A cloudless sky that was that inimitable blue that you get with a little altitude. You could feel the 2700m air (or lack of it) in your lungs. Tibetan prayer flags draped like a fairy land for kilometers amongst thick pine forests. Then to top it off after a nice little climb we emerged onto the forecourt of a deserted Tibetan monastery that just there sat like some nonchalant Buddha looking up at snow capped peaks that stretched their necks towards six and a half thousand metres in height.
An hour later on the climb down it was all “I’m tired /my legs hurt / I’m hungry / when are we THERE???” but you can let the girls go with a bit of complaining when the little troopers travel so damn well. After a drip feed of Snickers bars and my stash of diabetic lollies we were home. Tomorrow we go higher – 3700m to the Tagong Grasslands. Yaks, horses, plains and hopefully more recharging of the soul. Getting us ready for the seriously big cities to our North.
China…I like you.