I was born in the 1970s, grew up in the ‘80s and came of age in the ‘90s. Because of this my view of the world is very much a product of the era in which I grew up, namely, that certain countries were good and others, well, not quite as awesome. Naturally this is reduced to a very binary perspective, and while it’s of course changed over the years it’s hard to shake the indoctrination one receives as a young child. The way in which I perceived China before visiting a few years ago was very much a product of this upper-middle class American upbringing. Communism is bad, Europe is tolerable and America is the best. That was the lesson and a certain unreasonable fear of visiting the last remaining Communist powerhouse in the world prevented me from even attempting to go until I was 40 years old. That first trip opened my eyes in a number of ways, not the least of which was fully comprehending the realities of modern China as well as the centuries-old wonders that have always made it a fascinating place to visit. It’s still much more though than a simple vacation, it feels like true exploration and that sensation of adventure persisted during my second visit when I explored China’s vast and formidable Yunnan province.
I remember my first day in Beijing a few years ago and how shockingly normal everything seemed. Lots of traffic, normal looking fast food joints and of course millions of people, but it was what it seemed, normal life. I’m not sure if I expected to find a scene from “pick your favorite dystopian novel” playing out, but I also didn’t expect to find a city just like any other. That same feeling of familiarity carried through on to my second visit, which was centered on the city of Kunming. China’s southern Yunnan province is large and very diverse, and since Kunming is its capital city many of these unique traditions and cultures are on full display right there in the city. Whether it’s attending the “Dynamic Yunnan” show that highlights the music and dance of the province’s many minority groups, or sampling some street food inspired from far off locales, it’s very easy to get a feeling for the province in the middle of Kunming. One of my favorite experiences though was a visit to the city’s historic core, the Guandu. Although Kunming is a large and modern city of more than 6 million people, spending time in Guandu really is like going back in time to a slower and decidedly simpler era. For decades this historic part of the city was essentially ignored but, thankfully, in recent years the local government has invested to bring the area back to life and transform it into a tourist site. Easy to navigate with signs in a variety of languages, it was here where I admired centuries-old pagodas and old-style Yunnan homes that have nearly disappeared. It’s also the perfect place to try some local delicacies, with plenty of street food vendors offering a little bit of everything.
The one aspect that intimated me the most about China turned out to be one of my favorite reasons to return – the food. A picky eater by nature, I was terrified by what I’d find, or not find, but I remember realizing after the first day of my visit two years ago how very wrong I was. Whether it’s modern cuisine in Beijing, hot pot in Chengdu or local delicacies throughout the Yunnan province, there’s a seemingly endless array of delicious new foods to try. On my most recent visit though I was most impressed by a very simple culinary experience. In the morning I visited a tea plantation about thirty minutes outside of Xishuangbanna in the south, near Thailand. It was a rainy day, but the clouds and mist only added to the ethereal experience of traipsing through the mountains in China. After a thorough indoctrination into the region’s very famous Pu’er tea, it was time for us to eat. I asked my guide to just find something simple on the way back into town, and he certainly came through for me. The small restaurant was nondescript in every way; you just had to know that they served food there. It was popular though, cars were lined up in front and I eagerly went inside to the open-air facility to see what it was all about. The process is not one that I would have guessed though. There weren’t any menus, instead patrons go into the kitchen and tell the chef what they want. They had a variety of proteins and vegetables on display, and it was really a make your own meal experience. I let my guide know what I was interested in and he ordered up a lunchtime feast. I have no idea what everything was, but it was delicious and easily one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in China.
I hate to say it, but I didn’t expect that everyone I met would be as kind as they were. But it further proves the maxim that everyone almost everywhere is good and decent and that’s certainly true from my brief experiences in China. Simple kindnesses, like the stranger who helped me figure out how much something cost, to the new friends I made in Chengdu who took the time to teach me the proper way to eat a hot pot dinner – they were all amazingly generous with their time. While at times there was a language barrier, that wasn’t a major impediment and instead everyone tried their best to help me in any way possible. That same welcoming attitude not only carried through to my second experience visiting China, it was magnified. Xishuangbanna is in the Golden Triangle near Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, and the people who call the region home share many of the same qualities as their neighbors, including kindness. Always met with a smile by strangers, everyone went out of their way to help me experience the best of their part of the world. It was through a mixture of my open-mindedness and their hospitality that I left loving the region as much as I did, and for that I am incredibly thankful.
Globalization certainly has both its advantages as well as disadvantages. One of the cons in our shrinking world is that, sometimes, travel doesn’t feel like exploration. Don’t get me wrong, the trips I take are all nice, but many are too easy. I love the sense of adventure and discovery that I get from a true exploratory travel experience, and so far China has provided those opportunities in abundance. On my most recent trip this same spirit revealed itself again, especially in Xishuangbanna. My first night in town, I visited the local night market where attendance was light due to some scattered storms. It provided me the chance though to explore without being bothered, learning more about the region in the process. I looked down at the wriggling bugs and then back up again at my guide and then back down at the bugs. Roasted corn, meat skewers and diced pineapple were all fine, but the worms I just couldn’t do. Just as I couldn’t ever manage to eat them in Thailand, where the night markets mirror the one I found in Jinghong almost completely. Set up in front of a massive, and I later learned new, temple, that religious site put into visual terms what I had been thinking all day. The overall design was Burmese, but the accents were a strange mix of both Lao and Thai elements. It was as if someone picked up the pieces from the region’s temples and smashed them all together. That’s what all of the temples in and around the city were like, a beautiful cross-cultural comingling of traditions that is actually rare to see, especially among temples in China. That night was a simple one, but the effect on me was profound. I once again felt like an adventurer, like I was learning something and it encouraged me to get out there and experience as much of this remarkable part of China as possible.
China is big and I mean that in every sense of the term possible. Its physical size is daunting and while planning my trips I learned quickly that I could spend a lifetime visiting and not see everything on my list. I have visited twice and know that I haven’t even scratched the surface. Longer trips are necessary, but even then they would just be spent seeing the core highlights. No, China is a country that demands time and a lot of it over many years and I’m excited to finally be on that journey.
This post is part of an ongoing project with Cathay Pacific but as always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.