Sichuan-Tibet Episode Five: China’s National Park Emei Shan

Posted on August 31st, by matt_schiavenza in Sichuan-Tibet Highway Trip. 3 comments

Before we get started, allow me to apologize for the delay. I started school this week and so have been busy with that as well as handling some other things I do here in Kunming. Also, if you’re wondering where my photos of Emei Shan are, the truth is…I didn’t take any! The ones I found on the web didn’t really impress me, either, so you’re left with nothing. My bad! Now read on…

Litang marked the mid-point of my journey, as well as its deepest immersion into the Tibetan world. Gradually, I would be heading down the eastern part of the plateau, re-entering the familiar terrain of Han-dominated China.

Litang, for all its charm, was not the most comfortable place to visit. Due to the cold nights, I slept in my jeans and a fleece. None of the buildings we went in had running water, and the much-advertised “hot shower” in my guesthouse turned out to be a cruel joke. No bathroom mirrors meant no shaving, no laundry places or washing machines meant dirty clothes, and all these factors left me in a rather disgusting state. It was time to move on.

I stopped for two or three days in Kangding, a small town located in the geographic center of Sichuan Province. With its mixed population, town square dance performances, and market atmosphere, Kangding charmed me into extending my stay longer than an intended twenty-four hours. Tibetan monks greeted me with friendly hellos and I bought a sweet dessert from a Uighur street vendor. I spent an hour discussing American universities with a Chinese teenage boy.
“What about the Harvard. Is it a good school?”
“Yes, very good.”
“If I want to go Harvard, what SAT score do I need?”
“A very high one”

And so on.

Walking through Kangding I felt I could live there for a while, enjoying the bustle and the fine weather and the company of friendly locals. But the big city of Chengdu beckoned. All of the things I try to avoid while traveling suddenly appealed to be greatly. I wanted to sit in a youth hostel, drink beer, and listen to backpackers brag about their travel adventures. I wanted a cup of real coffee. I wanted a burger.

First, though, I was to go to Emei Shan. Billed as one of China’s four holy Buddhist sites, Emei Shan was the first “essential” tourist spot I visited during my tour of Sichuan Province. As I arrived at my guesthouse, I felt a blast of pure humid heat for the first time since arriving in Kunming five months earlier. I was at sea level again! I breathed in as deeply as possible, but felt no difference from how I breathe normally anywhere else. Such is the adaptive power of our lungs.

The guesthouse manager, an unctuous young Chinese man, frowned when I asked him if any rooms were available.
“There’s one, but it’s very expensive. Very good though!”
“How much is it?”
“100 kuai (~$13) a night”
“I’ll take it”
“You want to see first?”
“No need”

The room contained a king-sized bed, an air conditioner, a TV, a desk, two night stands, a private bathroom with a hot shower, and a clean Western toilet. By Tibet-Sichuan Highway standards, it was pure luxury. My fatigue from enduring a series of long and difficult bus rides soon manifested, and after a shower I barely had enough energy to make it downstairs for dinner. By 9 o’clock, I could barely keep my eyes open. Nonetheless, I was satisfied. I would wake up at dawn, eat a hearty breakfast, and prepare for the two-day hike.

I woke up at 10 the next morning, well-rested after a thirteen hour sleep but angry that I missed the boat on the hike. “Don’t worry,” the manager said, “You can still make it to the monastery if you go fast”.
“Is it a difficult hike?”
“Not too bad”.

I considered the math. I was to walk a distance of twenty kilometers, climbing from sea level (actually, 500 meters) to about 2,000. Could it be done? Not being a tremendously experienced climber, it seemed reasonable. And after all, the guesthouse manager probably advised hundreds of people. He’d know what he was talking about.

As I reached the national park entrance, I knew I’d hardly be the only one on the mountain that day. Busloads of camera-toting Chinese tourists filled the parking lot, queuing to buy the entrance ticket. At times, the walk was so crowded I actually had to slow my pace. Not that it mattered. The walk was killing me.

After an hour and a half, I was covered in sweat and huffing and puffing. Pint-sized Chinese porters asked me if I wanted them to carry me. My pride compelled me to say no, and I continued up the thousands of steps leading to the next temple. With my clothes sticking to me and my legs shot, I wondered whether I should just throw up my hands and say, “to hell with it”. But I carried on. It couldn’t be much further, could it?

Emei Mountain is best described as a national park with Chinese characteristics. The entire walk up the mountain is covered in concrete steps, with vendors at every turn selling everything from bottled water to flashlights to sliced-open cucumbers. Each temple had a bright, modern looking hotel and restaurant, identical to their counterparts in urban areas. Everywhere I turned, I saw bi-lingual signs with one instruction or another. My favorite one reminded visitors of proper “socialist” etiquette in national parks. Redistribution of income, I noticed, was not included.

In Fuzhou sometime last year, a Chinese friend showed me a photo album of her trip to Yunnan Province. Each photo was of a particularly well-known sight, such as the Black Dragon Pool in Lijiang or of the Stone Forest near Kunming. In each photo, too, was my friend, wearing the exact same smile and sticking her fingers in the air like Nixon on a helicopter. There were no candids, nothing out of the ordinary, no landscape-only shots, and nothing but postcard images with my friend seemingly pasted in. I imagined that millions of people throughout China possessed the exact same photograph, with only the individuals substituted.

Emei Shan reminded me of her, and of how commodified the travel industry is in China. The Chinese rarely travel independently and are usually surprised when I mention preferring to travel alone. In a country full of adventure opportunities, areas of unspoilt natural beauty, ethnic diversity, and vast rural spaces, its inhabitants primarily wish to travel among a limited number of destinations neatly outlined in tourist brochures. Show up, take your photo, and leave. This seems to characterize the overwhelming majority of travel experiences in China.

To be fair, I’ve heard the same criticism lobbied at Japanese travelers, who, unlike most Chinese, have long had the affluence needed for overseas travel. Some Western travelers, too, seem to only travel to gather evidence that they set foot in some well-known place or another. But Emei Shan in particular depressed me, because all of its unpredictability was swept away in order to provide the greatest degree of comfort and familiarity for its incoming tourist hordes.

These ideas, however thought-provoking, were not pertinent to me as I trudged up the mountain. Sometime in the early afternoon, I found that I couldn’t walk for longer than five minutes without stopping. I imagined that I was climbing a stairway to heaven, and would have hummed the Led Zeppelin song had I possessed any extraneous oxygen.

A French couple bounded down the steps toward me. “How much longer is it to the monastery?” “Uphill? Oh, I would say another three hours”. Three hours?!

I glanced at my watch, and calculated that I would arrive just in time for sundown. I fantasized about my warm hotel bed back in Emei town that I had foolishly forfeited to attempt this grueling climb. I wondered whether they’d have a room available if I were to, say, give up climbing for the day and head back. A minute later, I decided to find the answer to that very question.

A small part of me felt ashamed that I didn’t meet my morning goal of twenty kilometers, but mostly I just felt relieved. Back in the guesthouse, which fortunately had a vacancy in another nice room, I told an Australian about my day on the mountain.
“Aw, that’s cheating, mate!” he said.

Why do Australians always try to out-macho everyone when they travel?

In any case, I had one more day to spend on the mountain. Not sure what to do, I met a Chinese-born Brit and a Singaporean traveling together. Their plan? To take the bus up to the top, snap some photos, and then come back for a massage. I heartily agreed, and after a short yet productive day, we made it back in time for a nice meal in town.

Perhaps the Asian method of traveling isn’t so bad, after all.…

Sichuan-Tibet Episode Four: The Horse Festival in Litang

Posted on August 24th, by matt_schiavenza in Sichuan-Tibet Highway Trip. 1 Comment

Having made up my mind to go to Litang, I set out in Zhongdian to discern two logistical elements: How long would the journey to Litang take, and would it be possible to find accommodation in Litang during its popular annual horse festival?

Responses varied wildly. Everyone said the journey to Litang required two days, and that I would have to spend the night in a transit city called Xiangcheng. But nobody was certain how long it would take to get to Xiangcheng, or whether the road was in passable condition given the recent rainy weather. Some estimated the bus to Xiangcheng would take six hours, while others said twelve. Some assured me that we would have to stop to clear debris from the road, while others said no such interruptions would occur. The bus to Litang would take four hours. Or maybe eight. One person heard from someone else that once it took twelve. Clearly, it would be difficult to pin down precise information on the nature of this trip.

In any event, I was certain I would be without creature comforts for awhile. During my last day in Zhongdian, I indulged in whatever Western culture I could find. My breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee. I ate a pizza for dinner, at the same restaurant. I spent two hours horsing around on the Internet, catching up on the latest news, gossip, and sports from distant America. At night, I wandered into a bar populated by Zhongdian’s small expat community, where we listened to Frank Zappa and discussed politics. I even spotted a Rancid poster.
Rancid Poster in Zhongdian’s Raven Bar

The journey to Litang, in the end, lasted two days. First, there was a cramped eight-hour bus trip to Xiangcheng, a city on the Yunnan/Sichuan border most accurately described as “grim”. After one night there, I boarded a pre-dawn bus with a few other foreigners, a gaggle of Tibetans, and various livestock to Litang. Our arrival was delayed by our bus drivers’ inability to get us out of the Xiangcheng bus station without getting stuck, an ordeal that delayed us by more than an hour. Apparently, having a muddy lot serve as a bus station has its disadvantages.
Bus stuck in mud at Xiancheng “Bus Station”

Litang, a city of 50,000 people in west-central Sichuan, was the first and only purely Tibetan city on my itinerary. I immediately had the impression I had left China. The men wore dapper fedoras and stylish coats or else cowboy hats, and the women dressed in full-length gowns reminiscent of Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic”. I distinctly felt trapped on the set of a Western film, though here the brown-skinned were the ones wearing the cowboy costumes. Several Tibetan boys as young as six wandered in their Buddhist robes, some impiously smoking cigarettes. Other robed boys, their heads shaved, shouted obscenities as they played ultra-violent video games imported from America. The best of cultural exchange, one could say.
Photo of Litang girls by Flickr user iamtonyang used under a Creative Commons license
Photo by Flickr user rheanna2 used under a Creative Common license

Even on a sunny day in early August, Litang’s weather was uncomfortably cold. I wandered around town in a windbreaker and fleece, slowing my pace to compensate for altitude illness. At 4,050 meters, Litang is one of the highest cities in the world, and even 200 meters higher than Tibet’s holy capital of Lhasa. In a shop, I bought a beer from the shelf. No refrigeration necessary. It was ice cold.

The horse festival began the day after our arrival. I walked two kilometers out of town into an open grassland area and spotted a small grandstand, guessing it would represent the central venue of the festival. Surrounding the grandstand were tents, visible in for miles. Tibetans walked around tending their horses, eating noodles, or else squatting in circles and smoking. Mostly, though, there was openness- such a rare phenomenon in China that I noticed it immediately. There were no construction cranes, neon signs, blaring karaoke halls, honking taxi drivers, or anything else that characterizes a typical Chinese setting. It was a place one could commune with nature, no small feet in a country of 1.3 billion inhabitants who typically prefer a more landscaped approach to natural beauty.
Photo by Flickr user meitingting used under a Creative Commons license

I wandered among the tents and horses, exchanging smiles with the assembled Tibetans. They had come from all over the Tibetan world, in typically nomadic fashion, in order to attend the ten day festival. Their tents were sophisticated and colorfully adorned, and inside they had assembled comfortable mattresses and mini-tables. I had an idle thought- do thousands of years of sedentary agriculturalism represent progress? Aren’t these nomads, able to pick up and leave wherever they are for any purpose, truly free? The Tibetans I encountered at the festival struck me as contented and at ease.*
Two Tibetan girls dressed in traditional costume
Tibetan boy wearing monk costume and Miami Heat jersey

After a brief display of dancing in the morning, the festival resumed hours later with its featured event: the horse races. I had imagined something akin to a Western-style race, in which horses with uniformed jockeys raced around in a circle, meticulously timed. Instead, the horse racing had a far looser structure, and in most cases two manned horses simply raced in a straight line until one’s superior speed proved evident.
Horse racing man

The jockeys were having a ball. Dressed like cowboys, several performed macho tricks such as standing on their horse, or else falling to the side and riding just inches above the ground. A Tibetan wielding a stick brushed back spectators he felt encroached upon the racing space, and would-be journalists stood on their toes attempting to get a better shot of the horses flying past.

Several other foreigners I met decided to spend the night out in the tent city, but I retired back at my guesthouse in town. Being an relativist, I determined that a smelly squat toilet was superior to no toilet at all, and that despite my rugged appearance taking a hot shower wouldn’t be a bad idea. I also had to sneak into a internet cafe to keep track of which players changed teams during the previous day’s trade deadline in Major League Baseball.

Litang’s restaurant and bar scene, such as it exists, is not what attracts people to the town. We found one restaurant advertising a “Western breakfast” and discovered it consisted of sweet Chinese bread, sugary coffee, runny eggs, and a piece of bacon so small I expected it to be accompanied by a microscope. The town’s lone pub refused to allow us to stand at the bar and instead attempted to shuffle us into the karaoke room, something we refused to do to the pub owner’s consternation. Finally, having decided to buy a bottle of wine and share it among three people, we drank the wine in our guesthouse, felt unwell, and woke up with hangovers so bad we all stayed home from the festival that day. Never before had I experienced the sensation of having a bad hangover without having been drunk the night before.

Yet I don’t think I was alone in feeling a slight sadness at leaving Litang, a neat city high in the mountains with miles of grass on each side. Discomforts aside, Litang had a far more friendly atmosphere than most anywhere else I’d been in China. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence, after all.

* I’m about as urban a creature as they come so having hippieish thoughts is a very rare occurrence.…

Sichuan-Tibet Episode Three: Entering the Tibetan World at Zhongdian

Posted on August 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Sichuan-Tibet Highway Trip. 1 Comment

What is Tibet?

This might seem like a silly question, yet the varieties of possible answers might surprise you.

First, there’s the simplest explanation. Tibet is the name of an “Autonomous Region” within the People’s Republic of China, similar in stature to other autonomous regions such as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

Yet how Tibetan is the Tibet Autonomous Region? Many Tibetans and outsiders alike claim that the Chinese government has promoted the settlement of Han Chinese within the region in order to dilute the percentage of ethnic Tibetans. The Chinese dispute this, yet there’s no question that Tibetans comprise a significantly smaller portion of the population in their own province since their “liberation” by the Communist Chinese government in 1951. And, like all regions in China, Tibet’s political leadership is appointed in Beijing, thousands of miles away.

(Map of Tibet from Tibet’s Wikipedia entry)

So if Tibet isn’t really wholly Tibetan, does “Tibet” exist beyond its present borders? The answer, as I found out as I traveled northwest to Zhongdian from Lijiang, is an unequivocal yes. Zhongdian, recently christened “Shangri-La” in a Chinese government inspired effort to attract more tourism, represents the beginning of the Tibetan world. For the next nine days, I would travel in cities that were either partially or totally Tibetan, yet I remained completely outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Zhongdian follows the peculiar Yunnan tradition of comprising a bland, featureless “new town” to stand aside its decidedly more interesting old town. According to Lonely Planet, construction of the new town has been fueled by an rise in tourism, which if true seems to be a perfect illustration of Chinese backward logic. Noticing that tourists are attracted to the old wooden buildings, monasteries, and cobblestone streets of the old town, the Chinese government builds an adjacent city which….lacks all of these charming characteristics. Socialist town planning apparently has outlasted the economic system it was named for.

(photo of Zhongdian’s new town by Flickr user dan-m)

The old town lies about three kilometers from the bus station, so I decided to hoof it to the guesthouse I had circled on my guidebook map. After about ten minutes, I felt lightheaded and short of breath, the first signs that Zhongdian’s altitude (nearly 10,000 feet) was beginning to affect me. My brisk walk slowed, and only forty-five minutes later did I finally spot the old town. Like Columbus spotting land.

From a walk around the old town, I could see that Zhongdian’s planners have tried to replicate Lijiang’s success. Ersatz tea and minority clothing shops abounded, and the town square consisted of several booths manned by minority women (mostly Naxi and Tibetan) selling either hand-made jewelry or barbequing skewers of meat. Travelers, though, were conspicuously few in number. I walked about freely and my only interruptions came from friendly boys shouting “Hello!” to me as I strode past.

Zhongdian’s most prominent sight is its monastery, a large religious structure on the outskirts of the new city. I didn’t go, though, preferring the sleepy atmosphere of the old town. I also had a job to do. I had heard rumors that roads to Litang, my main destination on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, were clogged with landslides. I had also heard that due to the upcoming Litang Horse Festival would make it impossible for me to find accommodation in the town without camping equipment, which I had no intention to buy or carry around. Should I continue on my trip? Or should I give up and buy a flight to Chengdu? I decided I had to find the answers to these questions before I went any further on my trip.

I wasn’t alone in worrying about the route. Back in Lijiang, Michael and I had met an American who introduced himself as Dumpster, “Dumpy for short.” Disheveled and unshaven, Dumpster seemed exactly like the sort of person I’d normally avoid: a burned-out loser who landed in Asia seeking cheap girls and drugs. I eyed him warily.

Yet Dumpster turned out to be sensible and wise, unassuming and nice. He certainly had his eccentricities: years of traveling alone on the barest of budgets conditioned him to tolerate sleeping under awnings and in bus stations, and his name derived from his propensity to find sustenance among other people’s garbage. Yet Dumpster was good company, interesting without being pedantic, and remarkably careful about his diet. I spotted him in Zhongdian and had a beer with him a bit later on.
(photo of Dumpster in Lijiang by Michael Moewe)

Dumpy was convinced the road to Litang was fraught with trouble, and thus decided to alter his route. He pulled out a Lonely Planet and marked a town roughly half-way between Zhongdian and Chengdu, his eventual destination. That the town merited no mention in the Lonely Planet nor in the conversations of anyone either of us had met bore little meaning to him. “They’ll have a awning somewhere”.

I began to worry somewhat. Dumpster, a man who has spent a considerable amount of time traveling cheaply in countries like Indonesia and Bolivia, felt travel to Litang would be too risky. I imagined myself huddled up next to Tibetan peasants in an impromptu tent pitched on the side of the road next to a broken-down bus.

Fortunately, the wisdom of crowds prevailed. Several other sensible people reassured me that the road was fine, just in poor condition. The trip would be uncomfortable but safe. Others added that Litang would have plenty of accommodation and that the only question would be how inflated the prices would be during festival time. Dumpster, for all his wisdom, was outnumbered here. I made up my mind. To Litang I would go.

But then I still had some time in Zhongdian. Instead of visiting any recommended sites, I spent a few hours traveling around on city buses, getting a feel for the town’s demographics. Women in costume (Naxi, I think) carried bundles on their backs while Tibetan men in hats chatted away and smoked. Small children greeted me with hellos, more friendly than predatory. A city in thin air, overcast and damp in late July, and with an atmosphere covered with particle dust from nearby construction sites, seemed to me far friendlier and warmer than the more comfortable cities I had visited earlier on the trip.
Roofs in Zhongdian
Tibetan man on bus

Tibet has many names, the Land of Snows and Shanghri-La being two of the best known. A third name I heard struck me as the most apt: the rooftop of the world. Like urban apartment-dwellers who sneak up to the roof of their building for a peaceful evening of star-gazing, the Tibetan rooftop seems a place well-suited for a laid-back break from the lower places in the world.…

Sichuan-Tibet Episode Two: Mama Naxi and the Sexy Tractor

Posted on August 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Sichuan-Tibet Highway Trip. No Comments

For a woman who claims the honor of being your mother in China, Mama Naxi doesn’t disappoint. Short, fiery, and with a voice that could break a pane of glass, Mama Naxi is the proprietor, cook, maid, travel agent, caretaker, security guard, and all-around presence at her eponymous guesthouse, located in Lijiang’s Old Town.

Michael and I spent a half-hour walking through the Old Town, unsuccessfully looking for a guesthouse I had stayed at a year before. Feeling lost and sick of lugging our packs around, we asked three young Dutch women for a recommendation, and with flawless English they told us Mama Naxis was the solution to our problem.

Within minutes, Michael and I were seated with the Dutch girls around a table in Mama Naxi’s courtyard, being served tea and snacks of Naxi bread with oil and tomato. In a staccato burst of pidgin English, Mama said, “You stay dinner. You like food. Mama feed you. You sign here. You pay for room tonight.” Baba Naxi, Mama’s doddering husband, merely slouched and grinned at us.

(photo by Flickr user Martin Callum)

And so, in Lijiang, a small town located in a remote Yunnan valley, felt just like home.

The Naxi, like Dali’s Bai, are a Chinese ethnic minority based entirely in Yunnan Province. Lijiang is their crown jewel; a beautiful UNESCO heritage town of traditional architecture, cobblestone streets, and narrow creeks.


Unfortunately, one cannot enjoy Lijiang’s beauty in silence. Virtually all semblence of ordinary life no longer exists there, or has shifted to the bland, adjacent “new town”. Lijiang exists solely for the purpose of serving Chinese mass tourism. Each shop, tea house, coffee shop, clothes shop, or restaurant has the same Disneyland feel- whatever locals do live in Lijiang never seem to appear.

Dali’s old town has pockets of authenticity. Lijiang’s doesn’t. At every corner, Chinese tourists and various backpackers navigate through the sea of umbrellas, consulting Lijiang’s pretty but useless wooden street maps. Town squares feature Naxi women in traditional dress leading the tourists in a dance, or Naxi men mounting horses for photo ops with wide-eyed Han children. Everything seems scripted.

And yet…despite my revulsion at its fakeness, Lijiang remains a very pleasant place. More than any other place, Lijiang represents a break from China. There are no car horns, crazy taxi drivers, filthy sidewalks, or terrible smells. The food, albeit overpriced, is reliable and familiar.

And there’s always Mama Naxi. I spent a day in the courtyard just watching the daily hum of activity. Mama truly never rests. From early in the morning (when her voice acts a human alarm clock as Michael noted) to late at night, Mama never stops running her business. The dozens of backpackers who stay at one of her buildings (there are three in Lijiang) all feel catered to by Mama or a member of her staff, younger Naxi women with the same inherent hospitality.

Each night, Mama and her “family” prepare a massive dinner for guests, a bargain at 10 RMB per head. Seated around a table, we were handed friend eggplant, steamed rice, potatoes, pork with vegetables, corn-style bread, and other Naxi and Chinese dishes faster than we could finish them. At Mama’s, nobody is allowed to leave the table hungry. In fact, guests had to beg her employees off from slapping more rice in their bowl. Backpackers with food comas then staggered away from the table, unable to contemplate food until Mama cooks them up a pancake the following morning.

(photo by Flickr user edward.lei)


Someone once said that wherever you are in the world, no matter how remote, you will find an Irish pub. Even Lijiang has one, albeit one that bills itself as an Irish/Naxi bar, surely the only one in the world who can claim that distinction. The unlikely watering hole calls itself Sexy Tractor, an odd name for what amounts to a no-frills establishment. John, an Irishman in his late 30s who co-owns the bar, keeps it simple. A sofa was created from empty bottles of Tsingtao. The liquor space was a wooden cabinet John threw together in an afternoon, and the bar has an atmosphere more akin to your buddy’s condo than a place of business.


We went to John’s bar each night, sometimes arriving before any other customers. He usually sat with his feet up on a barstool, fiddling with his iPod. His Naxi girlfriend of three years had told him to get lost a few months earlier, so John was waiting for the right moment to shut the bar down and hit the road. In China, foreigners face enormous difficulties in owning a business, so John prudently put the bar in his girlfriend’s name. Alas, things didn’t work out and now John faced the dissolution of a bar he put together so carefully.

What are you going to do? I asked.

“I don’t know. I might just drink all the alcohol meself, then I’d like to ride my bicycle. To Thailand.”

So I’m afraid that before long, Lijiang will be missing one if its few authentic businesses. But for now, foreigners and Chinese alike still trickle into Sexy Tractor night after night, enjoying John’s special mojitos as well as bottles of cold Tsingtao.


On one of the walls, a sign sternly reminded Mama Naxi’s guests to come back by 1 am. After all, you wouldn’t want Mama to worry about you, would you?…

Sichuan-Tibet Step One: Kunming to Dali

Posted on August 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Sichuan-Tibet Highway Trip. 8 comments

Dali, a town nestled between the mountains and an odd, ear-shaped lake, often marks the first stop after Kunming on a tour of Yunnan. It isn’t difficult to see why. Dali represents the three elements that attract people to Yunnan in the first place: beautiful scenery, minority culture, and a laid-back vibe.


Like its northern neighbor Lijiang, Dali has been transformed by tourism. The “ancient town” is lined with souvenir shop after souvenir shop, catering to mainly wealthier Chinese tourists hoping to bring a bit of minority culture into their homes in Shanghai or Beijing. Package tourists wearing identical pink hats followed a colorfully-dressed Bai woman as she barked into a megaphone. Dreadlocked backpackers wandered around amidst local women hissing “Ganja! Hashish”

Down a side street, I walked past cafes offering the same stale combination of western and Chinese food, dodging umbrella-wielding tourists who all inconveniently appear to be eight inches or so shorter than me. (I hadn’t ever had to wear sunglasses to avoid being poked in the eye before).

Central Dali does have a certain charm; or at least it’s clear to see that it once did. The neat buildings today all look pre-fabricated, as if the government had them carried across China in trucks. I couldn’t help but wonder how Dali would have been twenty, thirty years earlier before mass tourism placed it firmly on the map.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wonder for long. A mere ten minute walk from Dali’s old-town has a perfectly preserved old-town, simply without any of the tourists. In fact, there weren’t many locals either; it’s clear that the Dali natives who remained either flocked to capitalize on the tourist trade or else went to Xiaguan, a larger modern Chinese city about a half-hour up the road.


So what’s left amounts to a veritable ghost town, untainted by China’s modernization whatsoever. There were no banana pancakes or Beer Lao bottles here- just cozy little dumpling stands and old women selling fruit. Wandering even further away from the old town, I came across a field with nothing but a scarecrow and a few menacing dogs. The road had stopped, and only a muddy path remained.

Last year, at about the same time, I remembered Dali as a great cycling town with plenty of tall hills and narrow dirt paths leading to the lake. This year, Yunnan’s incessant summer rain kept us indoors much of the time. Fortunately, Michael and I stumbled upon a Japanese-run cafe/guesthouse with cheap beer and a very groovy courtyard. Hardly the worst place to while away an afternoon.



The Sichuan-Tibet Highway Trip- Introduction

Posted on August 14th, by matt_schiavenza in Sichuan-Tibet Highway Trip. No Comments

From July 19 to August 12, I traveled from Kunming to Chengdu, capital of China’s Sichuan Province, via the minority towns of Yunnan’s northwest and the Tibet-Sichuan Highway. In the next series of posts, I will provide vignettes and photographs of some of the more memorable and interesting moments of the journey.

First, though, a few words about the general route I chose.

Usually I don’t really choose a “route”. I always have a general idea of where I’d like to go, but the places on my itinerary have no particular link; they’re simply included together due to geographic convenience.

On this trip, for whatever reason, my route took on added importance. I wanted to travel clockwise, avoiding any backtracking, detours, or flights. In a sense, my trip represented a progression from one place to the next, as if there were clear, rational reasons for going where I was going.

The trip began in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province. It ended in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province. Despite some great differences, both cities are large provincial capitals that bear little resemblance, demographically or otherwise, to the provinces they represent. Both cities are quintessentially Chinese: big, crowded, polluted, and undergoing great change.

Yet Yunnan and Sichuan are extremely diverse provinces, containing more than two dozen of China’s fifty-four ethnic minority groups within their borders. Both have towering mountain peaks that contrast with low-lying valley land, and both have as much climactic diversity as the whole of China.

Beginning in Kunming, I traveled first to Dali, home base of Yunnan’s Bai population, and then to Lijiang, dominated by the Naxi. From there came Zhongdian, a town 3,200 meters high comprised of equal parts Naxi, Tibetan, and Han, and finally into the Sichuanese towns of Xiangcheng and Litang where Tibetans comprise the vast majority.

Heading east from Litang, I stopped two nights in Kangding, a town shared equally between the Tibetans and Han, and finally onto Chengdu, a Chinese metropolis a world apart from the Tibetan lands to the west. From there, a swift train journey brought me full circle back to Kunming, where I sit now back in my familiar apartment.

The journey took just three weeks- but I managed to pack plenty of good memories in that time. I’ll do my best to convey them to you in the next few days.

Boys at Zhongdian Monastery

Stay tuned!…

Welcome to

Posted on August 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

For my first-time readers, welcome to my home on the web. Sit back, grab a drink, and stay awhile. For those of you who read No Borders No Limits, welcome to the new pad. Beginning today, all new material will be presented here, and NBNL will lay dormant, so please change your bookmarks accordingly.

NB: is definitely a work in progress, and I welcome any suggestions on how to make the site look better. Leave suggestions in the comments section or e-mail me at matthew.schiavenza *at* gmail *dot* com.

For now, though, enjoy the show.…