Email to friends.07/12/2008
First, I need to correct a mistake I made in my last email: the Qin Dinasty did not take place in the 6th century BC, but at the beginning of the 3rd century BC.
Sorry about that.
For this 3rd installment of our trip, we went to 2 awesome places.
The first place was, in the Sichuan region. Mount Emei is actually not just one mountain, it is a series of mountains in a national park where a network of monasteries was built centuries ago. Originally Taoist, these temples were at some point turned into Buddhist temples when Taoists, tired of the influence of Buddhism in the area, decided to move to another place.
For a few days, we explored this very special location, staying at 2 different monasteries, while visiting the monkey territory and hiking the surrounding mountains, shelter to incredible artistic marvels that made you wonder if you're not lost on a movie set.
Contrasting with the beauty of the place is the hard life these people live everyday.
I have to say the hygiene side of things there was somewhat...interesting (it is actually the case for a good part of China, but that specific location was making the matter even more of an "interesting" issue).
The life of a Buddhist monastery is equally a bit of a challenge as a visitor if you are sleeping right next to the place where monks are chanting - except, of course if you are an amateur of pre-dawn Buddhist chanting. Especially if you have been hiking for hours in rough mountains. The chanting would begin at 4am, with gongs and hyperactivity all around until about 7am, at which point the monastery would go back to silence...just when our group needed to get up to start the day. Not much sleep, there.
Anyway, it still was a highlight on this trip, and the way these communities seem to be, somehow, suspended in time, almost generating a medieval atmosphere, was quite fascinating.
Next, we headed toward the city of Chongqin, which, even though is not the capital of China, is technically the largest and most populated city.
We did this by bus.
On that matter, I should probably address a note about Chinese driving.
Here, you only need 2 things to drive:
-A developed sense of "creative driving". Very creative.
Whether you are a pedestrian, moving with a bicycle, a car or any other vehicle, almost anything is permitted (including crossing by foot a 6 lane street outside of the pedestrian walkway, or driving against the regular traffic direction), as long as you make it to your destination alive. The safety belt is a very loose option (as are red lights), and if you start putting your belt on when you get into a taxi, the driver will quickly remind you that you don't need to.
2-lane roads will frequently transform into 3 lanes when you are passing someone at the same time another vehicle is coming toward you: all you need to do is to squeeze the guy you are passing on the right, and pray that the guy coming toward you will squeeze on the left. After passing, change your underwear.
Simple. Oh and if you see cops, just smile and go on your way. It should totally work, except if they're in a bad mood that day. I'm not kidding.
DUI seems to be an alien concept here, as they would have to arrest everybody for all other violations first.
Long story short, traffic in China is a happy mess that relies heavily on how well you can use your horn and your brakes. Once you understand that, you'll be fine.
In Chongqin, we had tickets to embark on a boat trip along the, to the giant dam that was just finished.
A big surprise was awaiting us at the docks when we found out that, for some odd reason (we were vaguely explained that it was because of low tourist season this year), our boat had been upgraded to a 5 star cruiser (!) So, for a few more dollars, we were able to have individual rooms with private balcony and very nice service. Quite different from the rough ride I had envisioned, and certainly a welcomed rest from the roughness of the mountains.
One of the reasons why I wanted to do this trip now is that the filling reservoir of the dam (larger than the Grand Canyon) will reach its maximum water level in october. At this point, there are still about 30 meters left, and a few villages and cities are not under water yet. I wanted to see this before they are gone for ever.
And I did.
One of them was White Emperor city. A 150 000 people city that has been almost entirely submerged by the waters, except the White Emperor's Gardens at the top of the hills, from where you can see the Kuimen Gate, entrance to the.
In the white Emperor's Gardens is exhibited a coffin dating 2000 years ago, from the tribe of the Ba people. Their funeral customs was to take coffins high in the cliffs and either plant them into a handmade hole, or just install them into crevasses. They believed the dead should be as close as possible to the skyes to reach Heaven. Most of these coffins have already been submerged by the waters, and 2 or 3 will remain intact.
Monumental, controversial, visionary project, the dam is both a huge hope and a great risk for modern China, but also a tragedy for the older generations who are torn apart between the need for change and the severance from their very deep roots.
After going through the two first amazingly beautiful Gorges, we got to go through the massive 5 stage- ship locks (the biggest in the world. It took us 3 hours), but because of the very thick fog and rain, we were only able to see the small back part of the dam, at the very top; not the front...bummer.
So, all you see in the pictures is the back of the dam, and the the model, which still shows you how gigantic this thing is.
Finally, after the dam, we navigated through the third Gorge, where we had a separate excursion on canoe-like boats, to discover an area that was still closed to the public in the early 90s, populated only by a tribe of fishermen and artisans.
During the whole trip, it was important that we get in direct contact with the locals, so we could buy their products directly from them and they could keep the full amount of money for their hard work. The average income for these people per person, per week, was 20 Yuans (about $3).
We finished this beautiful river trip in Yichang, where we took another bus for Wuhan, and staid for the night.
The next day, jumped on the train again in direction of Yangshuo and later, Hong Kong.
But that's for the next and last email.
Meanwhile, here are the Mount Emei and Yangtze pictures:
Talk to you guys soon,