Taipei, Taiwan, cityscape, including Taipei 101
Downtown Taipei, scene of many late-night strolls
(photo by Chris; click to enlarge)

During the period of my life when I was studying abroad in Taipei, Taiwan, I was an inveterate walker. Whenever I visited a new place, I would buy a map and set out on a peripatetic exploration at the first opportunity. And while in Taipei, I routinely spent long stretches of time walking around the city by myself at all hours, familiarizing myself with its geography and making serendipitous discoveries.

One of those discoveries occurred late one night when I was walking down a narrow sidestreet. I came upon a forklift that was unceremoniously picking up cars parked on one side of the street and depositing them on the other, proceeding car by car down the block. The scene was so surreal, and yet the manner in which the driver was going about his work was so casual, that I could only stare for a moment, chide my lying eyes, and then resume walking. In the years since, I’ve sometimes wondered whether that strange sight was actually just a product of my febrile, sleep-deprived brain, which was on constant stimulus overload back in those heady days abroad—especially since it was the dead of night, and I had quite possibly been drinking beforehand. Now, however, after a quick search online, I have video evidence that such things do happen (in Taiwan, at least):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pu83oVW6qo

For all I know, this sort of thing is a routine occurrence that the locals don’t even bat an eyelash at. At the time, it felt as if I had wandered off into some kind of Bizarro World where people with forklifts could do whatever the hell they wanted, where Dude, Where’s My Car? had a radically different plot, and where street cleaners had a better option than punishing hapless residents with $40 parking tickets. (I make this comment as a former San Francisco resident who, like many others, unwittingly helped fill the city’s coffers by sometimes forgetting to move my car.)

But just as one person’s geeky is another person’s cool, what seems absurd in one society is completely normal in another—a fact I’ve often been reminded of during my adventures in China (and probably just as often living in the United States, which I’m well aware is by most international standards a strange country). In any case, it’s nice to know that this, at least, was not something I merely hallucinated.

In 2004 my wife and I took a trip with some friends to Jiangxi, an inland province that, while no doubt changing rapidly, is still lagging behind the coastal regions in terms of development.  Although it wasn’t the most luxurious trip I’ve taken in China, a little less comfort and a little more local flavor make a trip more memorable, and this one was certainly both fascinating and stimulating.  While there, we visited Mount Lu (廬山, Lushan) and a truly poor local village, among other places, but one experience that also sticks out in my memory is the raft trip we took at Longhushan (龍虎山), whose name literally means “Dragon and Tiger Mountain.” (I was told that the area’s ridges and peaks suggest the forms of a dragon and a tiger, though as in many other places I’ve visited in China, the resemblance seemed pretty vague to me.)

One thing about China is that you can truly get away from it all there, especially in inland rural areas like Jiangxi.  This raft trip was a profoundly relaxing experience.  Check out the trained cormorants catching fish for the fisherman on one of the rafts!

On our Yunnan Highlands Local Culture 11-Day Tour, you might see cormorant fishermen in action on Lake Er at Dali.

Waaaaaarm beer!  Peanuts!  Get yer warm beer and peanuts!  A bamboo raft trip at Longhushan: just like a baseball game, but without that loud obnoxious drunk shouting and crowding your space, and without the threat of a foul ball bashing your head in unexpectedly, and…Ok, it’s nothing like a baseball game; it’s much better, though that beer could have used a little refrigeration. And that raft vendor could use a little more charismatic sales patter.

Our tours that include Guilin feature a raft trip like this one; those that include Dali, the Three Gorges, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Zhouzhuang, and/or Suzhou all feature gondola or boat trips that you may find even more relaxing or stimulating.

During the last part of the trip, we walked overland as the bamboo rafts were portaged past an impassable section of the river.  It was a good opportunity to get some footage of the beautiful farmland in the area, record the deafening sound of the obnoxious local cicadas, check out an ancient Taoist temple (where an immortality pill was created by a Taoist master, who unfortunately doesn’t seem to be around any longer to tell us how he did it), and take a rickshaw ride.  At one point during the walk, a local man started to talk with me, and you can hear him saying that I look like an American before the conversation is cut off.  (The identification of “Caucasian” with “American” is very common in China, and comments like that always make me want to launch into a lecture about why such assumptions are wrong—but maybe he just meant that my flagrantly casual clothing and wide-eyed, foolish manner were unmistakably American, in which case I can’t argue with him.)  After the raft trip resumed, we watched a flashy “cliff acrobat” rappel down the side of the mountain as a prelude to a “hanging coffin” show; the area was once home to the Guyue people, a minority (non-Han) culture that placed its coffins in grottoes in the cliff face.  Unfortunately, either my battery or my tape ran out at that point, so I was unable to record what followed.

If you’re interested in these “hanging coffins,” our tours that include the Three Gorges feature a boat trip that will allow you to see similar ones.

Although Jiangxi attractions like Longhushan and Mount Lu aren’t featured in our tour packages since they aren’t popular destinations for Western tourists, we welcome you to contact us to arrange a custom tour to Jiangxi (or anywhere else that isn’t included in our tour packages).  I highly recommend both of these places for adventurous tourists.

The boy held out a piece of fruit and looked into my Western eyes.  With the confident familiarity of someone who frequently came into contact with foreign tourists, but with no discernible greed or manipulativeness, he asked me for some paltry sum for it—an amount that he no doubt knew would be insignificant to me, though I’m sure no local would have paid half that much.  He and his brother smiled, along with the other village residents standing around us, and their smiles were genuine.  Their warmth touched me across so many divides: age, ethnicity, upbringing, culture, geography, material wealth.  But it also made me intensely conscious of all of those divisions.  I was moved both by a kind of sympathy for the limitations that I knew this boy’s life would be lived within and by an unexpected jealousy that I would never experience the kind of life he seemed to be living quite happily—a life uncomplicated and untainted by the questionable influences of modern American life.  More than anything, what touched me was a profound sense of the beauty of the place and the people in it.  Standing there on that long staircase that climbed up the side of the gorge from the waters of the Yangtze, I felt that this moment was the culmination of many years of dreaming for me.  For so long I had wanted to stand in this place, to see these sights, to talk with people like this, to feel these feelings, and it was all more meaningful than I know how to communicate to anyone.

I gave the boy what he had asked and thanked him in Mandarin. I was caught so off guard emotionally that I didn’t think about what I was doing, and I’ve often wanted to smack myself for not saying more, for not giving more.  It was such an inadequate gesture, inadequate to express all that I wished I could somehow share with him and with everyone there. But maybe in the end that simple response was the best thing I could have done.  Would offering more money have seemed like a kind of insult?  Was there anything I could have said that would have been understood better than a heartfelt “thank you”?

That encounter occurred during a Three Gorges cruise on my first trip to Mainland China in 2001.  Although I’ve had any number of memorable experiences in China of every kind, probably the most emotionally profound experiences I’ve had have been in my contact with people living in China’s rural areas.  The sense I always get when I’m in China of life being lived more deeply, with more immediacy and more vitality, is magnified in areas that are less touched by modernization and Westernization.  The people living in these areas seem more there—less distracted, less needy, less divided, in the way that modern media technology, consumer culture, and the faster-paced life of cities seem to make us all.

On a trip to Jiangxi a few years later, I had a similar experience in a small rural village, a place that was definitely not part of the China promoted by flashy tourism advertisements and government propaganda.  A member of our group of friends had grown up there, and we were invited to spend a day with the locals.  I was told that I was the first foreigner (or perhaps they meant the first Westerner) ever to visit their village.  Who knows whether that was literally true, but I definitely felt like a bit of a celebrity, with a group of local children constantly crowded around me.  They were fascinated with my camcorder and had me play back recordings of them several times so they could see themselves.  As  with the boy in the Yangtze village, the untainted joy of these children left a deep impression on me.  But instead of trying to capture the experience in words, I’ll let this video footage tell a little of the tale:

I hope that everyone who travels to China is fortunate enough to have experiences like these with the local people.  They’re easy to find, even while in a tour group and even within a big city, if you’re open to them.  To say that they can be life-changing may be a cliché, but it’s not an exaggeration.

 

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