Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 2: Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk

This train ride was less eventful than the last, probably because we were sleeping for most of it. Our train departed Ulaan Baatar at 9 p.m. and after traveling for a night, a day, and another night, was due to arrive in Irkutsk around 7:45 on the second morning. We were traveling by second class again, but this time there were only two of us (Liz and my mom had left a few days prior.) It turned out that of the two carriages bound for Irkutsk (the others would be detached at Sukhbaatar, on the Mongolian border,) most berths had been booked by foreigners. Our carriage, with the exception of our compartment, was full of people on a guided Trans-Mongolian tour, bound for Ulan-Ude. We shared our compartment with a friendly Scottish couple who had booked a Trans-Mongolian package, including transportation and accommodation but no guide. It seemed we were the only ones who were traveling completely independently.

Ulaanbaatar Irkutsk map On a map, Ulaan Baatar and Irkutsk don’t seem so far apart. Though the journey time is similar, the distance covered isn’t nearly as far as the Beijing- Ulaan Baatar leg. After our first night on the train, we discovered the reason for the drawn-out timetable was the border crossing. We didn’t have to change rail gauges this time (thank goodness,) but the time spent waiting at the station far exceeded our expectations.

We pulled in to Sukhbaatar station around 5 a.m., but the immigration officials were not yet at work. Sometime a few hours later, our passports were collected. It didn’t take long to get them stamped and returned, since there were only two carriages. Our cabin attendant, a Russian man, told us that we’d have a couple of hours before departure at 11 a.m., so I got off in search of fresh air and a mailbox. I had forgotten to mail two postcards before leaving Ulaan Baatar, so I walked all around the station and tried to ask the ticket vendors where to go, waving my postcards in front of the window. They pointed away from the station, but I was afraid of venturing too far, so eventually I gave them to a receptionist at the station hotel, gesturing that I would be so obliged if she could send them for me. Hoping they’d get to their destination, I hopped back on the train for the short ride to Naushki.

The Russian border procedure was similar to entering Mongolia—we handed over our passports, had the compartment inspected for contraband, filled out a customs form declaring how much money we were bringing into the country, and had our passports returned. Most of our time was spent waiting for officials to arrive at our compartment. They weren’t slow about their work, but they weren’t exactly fast either, and while the train is off, the AC is also off. Each minute felt longer and sweatier than the last. Finally we were allowed to get off the train and wander around Naushki, a dusty border town if there ever was one. I even saw tumbleweeds blow through.

Considering that international trains pass through Naushki on a regular basis, there seemed to be very little commerce. We made our cup noodles on the train and carried them off to eat, and were we glad we did. There was one mini-mart, where everything was behind glass cases and only obtainable by asking a grumpy Russian woman, and a small market with five or six stalls, where there was some candy for sale among the clothing. After determining that there was nothing tempting in Naushki, we headed over to the park in front of the station and planted ourselves on a shady bench for a couple of hours, waiting for our 4 p.m. departure.

Returning to the train, we saw that extra carriages had been added, but we still weren’t sure why we had stopped for so long. Crossing from Mongolia to Russia, we put our watches ahead (due to Russia being on Daylight Savings,) but even allowing for that, over the past ten hours, we had progressed maybe 20 kilometers. I can see why some travelers opt for buses over trains on this section. The best theory we came up with to explain the delay was “so we don’t get into Irkutsk in the middle of the night.” Which I admit, I am grateful for.

We had traveled through northern Mongolia in the middle of the night, so we hadn’t been able to watch the scenery, but between Sukhbaatar and Naushki, we had seen real, tall trees: a suggestion of the scenery to come. After departing Naushki, the landscape became even more green and lush. The colors and the barrenness of the hills beyond still reminded me of Mongolia, but we were moving out of the desert. Siberia

Even more shocking, we saw a river. I had not seen such a large body of water since… I don’t know, maybe Chengdu?river in Siberia

Perhaps most shocking of all was all the houses. After the emptiness of Mongolia, I was surprised to see so many signs of human life. They were just small cabins, but there were so many of them. They were probably summer homes for people who live in towns or cities. It’s very common for Russians, especially city-dwellers, to have a small summer home, called a dacha. Siberian dacha

When we weren’t looking out the window, we played cards and chatted with the Scottish couple. I wanted to stay up to see the first view of Lake Baikal, but as everyone else predicted, I fell asleep (and it was too dark to see anyway.) Early in the morning, I woke up due to the sunlight streaming in my window, and rolled over to go back to sleep, but Bob told me to look out the window. Wow. There it was. I was too sleepy to get my camera out, but I knew I’d have plenty of chances to take photos in the upcoming days.

I couldn’t sleep for much longer, though. Our train was due to arrive early, and I knew I had to get to the bathroom before it was locked. The carriage attendant stopped by again to hand back our tickets. Seeing that I was still under the covers (I was getting dressed under there,) he waved his arm and repeated in insistent Russian that we were going to arrive in Irkutsk very soon, looking disdainfully at this lazy foreigner who was still in bed. I told him that I was just getting dressed, but he rolled his eyes and left. On the whole, though, he was much nicer than the Chinese carriage attendants, and actually did his job properly.

Shortly before 8 a.m., we chugged across the Irkut river and into Irkutsk station. We bid our Scottish friends farewell, promising to find them on Facebook, and went off to start our Siberian adventure. Irkutsk and river Irkut


Erdene Zuu Monastery

Most Mongolians are Tibetan Buddhists. This seemed strange to me at first. Tibet is pretty far from Mongolia, and most people living in between the two regions don’t practice the same form of Buddhism. I was really curious about how this had happened. The story goes like this. Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia by Tibetans in the 16th century. The Mongols originally believed in shamanism. Though the Buddhist doctrine had been spread across all of Central Asia, it had not been very successful in Mongolia, until one Mongolian leader wanted to use religion to unite his people. He invited a Tibetan Buddhist abbot up to Mongolia to hear what he had to say. He converted to Buddhism, and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on the abbot who had come. The word “dalai” is actually a Mongolian word.

Erdene Zuu monastery was built shortly after these events. Legend has it that, after his conversion, the Mongolian leader was instructed to build a monastery in a river valley that was also near mountains. Coincidentally (or maybe not,) it’s near the ancient city of Karakorum, which was the capital of Mongolia way back in the 13th and 14th century. Whatever the reason, it’s a stunning setting.

Prayer wheels, Erdene Zuu

Parts of the temple have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, then during the Soviet years, most of the temple was destroyed, as were most religious buildings in Mongolia. The Communist leaders wanted to eradicate religion altogether. During purges in the 1930s, over 10,000 monks were murdered, and more were exiled to Siberia. Religious activity, which had been a huge part of Mongolian life, became nonexistent, and would be so for sixty years. The only two exceptions to the assault on religion were Gandan Khiid monastery in Ulaan Baatar and a section of Erdene Zuu, which was allowed to keep operating as a museum only. While many temple buildings were destroyed (there had been dozens,) a few of them did survive, as well as the surrounding wall.

Wall, Erdene Zuu monastery

In Tibetan Buddhism, colors are of special significance: I can’t remember which was which, but the five colors white, red, yellow, blue, and green each represent one of of the five elements. Temples are always decorated with these colors, so they’re very bright inside.

Buddha statue Like in Mahayana Buddhist temples I have visited, there were guardian king statues near the doorway of the temple buildings. They’re always fierce-looking, but this was the first time I’ve seen a guardian riding a donkey (?), using a gutted human body as a saddle.

Guardian king

Things have changed a lot since the Soviet days. Religion is thriving, and most other visitors we  saw at the temple were Mongolian. It’s a working monastery again, so monks live there, without fear for their lives.

Monks at Erdene Zuu

For foreign visitors as well, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mongolia. The country has incredible natural beauty, and there are many opportunities to get outdoors, but due to its nomadic (and recently turbulent) history, there aren’t many places to experience Mongolian culture, or imagine its past as an empire. Erdene Zuu is one of those places. There wasn’t much we could see of the old town of Karakorum, but, at our driver’s insistence, we did take a detour to see one stone tortoise statue near the monastery. Later, I learned that this was one of four stone tortoises that guarded the north, south, east, and west boundaries of the city. Stone tortoise, Karakorum

I have to admit that, before going to Mongolia, I was primarily interested in outdoorsy activities and didn’t care about visiting any temples. I only went because my mom wanted to go. But Erdene Zuu was enthralling. Though it’s hard for any attraction to compete with the beautiful scenery, I forgot all about it, just for a little while. IMG_1820

What’s in a Ger?

Mongolia is one of the strangest places I’ve ever visited. It still boggles my mind, for example, that in a country with fewer than three million people, about half of them live in one city. Outside of Ulaan Baatar, there are only a few towns. There are a couple of provincial centers that could be called small cities. But the difference between life inside and outside of the capital couldn’t be starker. Outside of UB, most people are nomadic or semi-nomadic, living at least part of the year in a ger. They herd sheep, cows, yaks, and goats, and move their homes and livestock every few months.

Fun Fact: A ger and a yurt are the same thing. “Yurt” is a Russian word, while “ger” is a Mongolian word.

Tourists to the Mongolian countryside can experience the nomadic lifestyle by staying in a ger camp. These are basically campgrounds with permanent gers erected on concrete bases. Before I went, I thought it sounded gimmicky, but this is really the only place to stay in the countryside. There aren’t any hotels out there.

Plus, they’re actually really cool inside. On the outside they’re always white, but on the inside they’re quite colorful. Traditionally, an entire family lives inside one ger. The beds are arranged in a circle around the edge of the ger. Some of them also had cabinets next to the bed, others had drawers built into the headboard and footboard. IMG_0406In contrast to the greens, blues, and browns of the Mongolian landscape, ger furniture is always painted bright orange or vermillion, and embellished with curlicues and cloud designs.The floors are carpeted; traditionally it’s probably wool. At the places we stayed, the walls were covered with  an extra layer of fabric—usually cotton. DSC01086-1I wasn’t sure if this was for extra warmth or for decoration—probably both. In the center is a wood-burning stove and a table with stools. The stove is particularly important because Mongolia, for most of the year, is a chilly place. For guests at ger camps, fire-starting service is provided by the staff. If they’re really good hosts, they’ll do it twice: once before bed and once in the early morning.

At one camp, we arrived when a ger was being erected. It doesn’t require many pieces, and apparently they are available for sale at the Narantuul Market in Ulaan Baatar. I started to seriously consider taking up residence in a ger. If only they could be shipped cheaply to the US. Here are all of the pieces one would need: IMG_1878IMG_1880

On the left: the center columns, a roof, a couple of supports for the roof, and felt and canvas coverings. On the right: a door and a piece of the wall. The walls are made of several accordion-like wooden pieces that can be easily folded or extended. First, these are assembled by tying them together in a circular shape. IMG_1879 It’s nice if you have a lot of friends to help with this part. IMG_1881 Next, the two center columns are put up. I asked our tour guide how the guys knew where to place the columns; if there were markings on the ground or something. She said no; they just eyeball it. IMG_1885 After that, the roof can be raised, two supports are secured, and the door can be put in place. IMG_1886 After the door is up, some ropes are tied around the walls, to keep them in place. Next, additional supports have to be put in place. The felt and canvas roof coverings are very heavy, so there are a lot of supports. On the inside, they’re brightly painted, so it’s also important to make sure to lay them properly. IMG_2029 Without the cover on, a completed ger looks like this: IMG_1887 At this point, the guys building the ger took a break. Also very important. The next step would be to cover the entire ger with a giant felt blanket. The blanket has a slit in the center, creating a flap. Once it is on, the flap is usually folded back, so natural light can enter the ger. Also, this is where the stovepipe goes, which, as I said, is an essential fixture in every ger. Finally, a canvas cover goes on top of the felt, for added warmth and probably also to help preserve the felt. Extra ropes are tied around the outside of the ger, possibly to keep the whole thing from falling apart. It reminded me of butchers’ strings tied around pot roast. IMG_1783

And you’re done! When a nomad family moves house, they complete this whole process (dismantling, traveling, and rebuilding) in just one day. In the past, the ger pieces were transported by yak-drawn carts, but nowadays they drive cars and trucks. To think, every time I’ve moved, I’ve struggled to get all my stuff packed up; I didn’t even have to take my house apart or put it together again.

Fun Fact: Everyone who has ever been inside a ger has hit their head on the doorframe.

Gers are short. I mean really short. Take a look at Bob here:  IMG_1789I imagine it has to do with the weather: Mongolia is cold and windy, so the best kind of dwelling would be one that is short and squat. It’s really a clever design. I came up with that theory when I was trying to distract myself from thinking about my throbbing head.

The gers at the tourist camps have electricity, as do the ger neighborhoods around Ulaan Baatar and in small cities, but none have running water in the ger itself. As in the tourist camps, in the ger neighborhoods there are shared toilets (often pit toilets) and shower facilities. Out in the countryside, the people can wash themselves in rivers or streams when they have the chance, but that’s about it when it comes to bathing. Washing clothes regularly is also impossible. Cooking is done over the stove in the center of the yurt, but I think that would be really difficult since the space is so small. On the upside, there’s very little cleaning to be done.

Considering all this hardship, why would anyone want to live this lifestyle anymore? Because you can open your door, look outside, and say, “This is my backyard.” IMG_1659

Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 1: Beijing to Ulaan Baatar

And so begins our “original trip,” which was, when leaving Japan, we thought we’d take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Asia to Europe, see a couple of European countries, and then fly home. Obviously, the itinerary got longer and longer. But I still thought of the Trans-Siberian part as a sort of centerpiece of our trip.

Technically, we didn’t do the Trans-Siberian, which would be a seven-day train ride from Moscow to Vladivostok. We did the Trans-Mongolian, which is more popular among foreign travelers, between Moscow and Beijing via Mongolia. In early summer, many travelers head eastward, arriving in Mongolia in time for Naadam, which is Mongolia’s biggest festival. We went against the tide by heading west.

As I mentioned previously, by this time, my mom and her longtime friend Liz had flown out to meet us. After five fantastic days in Beijing, we said goodbye to the Chinese capital and headed for places unknown. We had booked the direct train between Beijing and Ulaan Baatar, traveling second class. Our little compartment had four bunks. The two lower ones had storage space underneath, and the two upper bunks folded up against the wall when not in use. By the window, there was a little table with a white tablecloth, and on the wall, there were hooks for hanging our coats. We felt like real, turn-of-the-century travelers, albeit with more potato chips and Cup-A-Noodle. Our spirits were high as the train pulled out of Beijing Station.


Our carriage was nearly empty—out of six four-person compartments, there was just us, a Mongolian couple, and three male carriage attendants. The carriage attendants, who worked in shifts, are supposed to keep the toilets clean, make sure the hot water heater is filled, and lock your compartment, on request. In reality, they didn’t ever go near the toilet, much less clean it; and only filled the hot water heater once. After riding trains all across China, I was shocked. On IMG_1389 Chinese trains (and in the train stations as well,) hot water is always available. Passengers carry their own commuter cups and make their own tea. When we first got on, there was hot water, but it ran out after several hours. They didn’t even bother to refill it the next morning. I tried to get water anyway and one attendant took a break from eating his breakfast to stop me, motioning that I should go to another carriage. However, when I did that, the attendant in that carriage got mad at me and told me to go back to my carriage. She needed the hot water for washing dishes. Every attendant on that train was more interested in preparing their own meals than anything else.


At least they cleaned it before the journey

They also smoked like chimneys. On trains, passengers are supposed to go between carriages to smoke; the cars themselves are non-smoking. “Non-smoking” has a very flexible definition in China, but in our experience on Chinese trains, no one actually smoked *in* the carriage. On other trains, the passengers did go between the cars, but they did sometimes blow their smoke back into the carriage. So I can’t say I was surprised, but I was disappointed to see them walking up and down the halls with cigarettes dangling from their mouths. They also smoked inside their compartment, with the door to the hallway left ajar. I opened the hallway window to freshen the air, and five minutes later, they closed it. Feeling passive-aggressive, I went to open it again. This time one of them stopped me in my tracks. I pointed at his cigarette and held my nose, making a face. He got the picture and went back in his compartment, shutting the door behind him. That helped for about thirty minutes, until they decided to open the door again.

IMG_1488 At lunchtime, we decided to check out the offerings in the restaurant car. (Of course, we couldn’t find our attendants to lock the door for us, so we just took our valuables with us.) As expected, the prices were inflated, but not as badly as I’d thought. Dishes that might cost Y15 off the train cost Y25. A small Heineken cost Y10. It wasn’t as tasty as the other food we’d had in China, but the excitement of eating in the dining car of a train traveling through Inner Mongolia overshadowed anything else. We were glad we’d brought plenty of snacks, though, and didn’t need to rely on the dining car.

The real appeal of this trip was the scenery, and that did not disappoint. After Beijing, it wasn’t long before the cityscape faded to desert, which seemed to go on forever. It was interesting to see thousands of saplings planted out in the sand—China’s “Green Wall” to prevent the Gobi Desert from moving closer to the capital.


Every once in a while, we’d pass a small, dusty town. We always knew one was coming up because we’d pass by trash dumps. Before I ever saw a real dump, I always thought of them as looking like a single, impossibly tall pile of trash. I probably got that image from reading children’s books, whose illustrators opted for something more picturesque and hilarious than the real thing. I’ve now seen plenty of dumps during our travels, and they never look like towers of trash. It’s more like a thick layer of garbage covering the ground. In a place like Inner Mongolia, you can imagine how windy it is, so the trash doesn’t stay contained in one place. The population density out there is very low, so it’s not as if the landscape were covered in garbage, but I didn’t like seeing any amount of trash. It really detracted from the scenery.


We arrived at the border right on time, about thirteen hours out of Beijing. Chinese and Mongolian trains run on different gauges, so here the trains have to be rolled into a shed and have the bogies replaced. The whole process takes a few hours. During this time, we were hoping to get off the train and stretch our legs for a while. But almost as soon as we’d arrived at Erlian station, immigration officers boarded the train and took our passports. We were in a predicament. In practice, I’ve never been asked, but legally, all visitors to China must carry their passports with them at all times. This being a border town, we didn’t want to push the envelope. Plus, we didn’t know when the passports would be returned. We wanted to make sure we were in our compartment when the immigration officers came back.

As we were deciding what to do, the Mongolian couple in the compartment next door disembarked the train. We thought we could go too, but then our carriage attendants appeared and blocked our way. Our decision was made for us. We stayed on the train.

We sat in our seats, confused, as the train was rolled into the shed. The guidebook had said that usually, everyone must get off the train while the bogies are changed. Those passengers who are interested in watching the bogie-changing process can stay onboard until the train is inside the shed, then they can get off and walk back to the station. We weren’t sure what was going on. Were we going to be allowed off later?

As the air in the train turned stale and we started to sweat (the AC had been turned off,) we heard a loud whistle, then felt a powerful back-and-forth jolt. A few minutes later, it happened again. It was strong enough to toss small items around the cabin. I held onto the seat with one hand and steadied my travel mug with the other. After this had happened several times, we figured out that these two things were connected: the whistle was a warning, or an all-clear; the jolt was the shunting engine separating the carriages. It seemed like there were two jolts per detachment, and there were a lot of carriages. It was like an intermittent, half-hour long earthquake.

As the train slowly rolled into the shed, we were suddenly parallel with  the other carriages, and I could see other tourists excitedly taking photos of the process. While I guess it’s not something you see every day, I just didn’t get the appeal. DSC00546Seeing as how now we were quite sure we were not going to be allowed off the train, we congratulated each other on our foresight to eat dinner early. Eventually, though, another problem presented itself: while the train is in the station, as well as twenty minutes before arrival and after departure, the bathrooms are locked. No amount of arguing will get the attendants to unlock them for you, and you just have to stay aware of when the train will be stopping (especially if there’s an extended stop.) In the end, we weren’t able to use the facilities for six hours. To quote Liz, “That’s a long time for an old lady!”

Shortly before midnight, after the carriages had been jolted back together into one train, the immigration officers came back with our passports. Then there was a perfunctory customs inspection, and we were on our way to the Mongolian side of the border. At Naushki, the same process was repeated: someone came and took our passports, then a customs official came by. Despite the late hour, the Mongolian staff seemed to be in a cheerful mood. We lifted up the lower bunks to show that we weren’t smuggling anything. Grinning, the customs official asked us if we had any marijuanas. When Bob said no, he chuckled and left.

We sleepily awaited the moment when we could use the toilets again. Sometime between midnight and 1, I fell asleep, only to be woken up when the immigration officials came back to return my passport. When we finally pulled away from Naushki, it was about 1:30, and we’d all been up since 5:30 the day before. I knew that the bathrooms would be unlocked shortly, but I couldn’t make it. I fell asleep again, all my clothes still on.

My bladder woke me up a few hours later. I climbed out of my bunk and tried to open the door as silently as possible. Then I saw the view. We were crossing the Gobi Desert and the sun was just below the horizon. I had to go back for my camera. Looking out at the vast expanse, no other living thing visible except for a few tiny shrubs, I was in awe. I’m really in Mongolia, I thought.


We spent the morning looking out the window, taking in the emptiness. Later, the desert scenery faded into rolling hills and pastures, with more signs of life. We alerted each other whenever we’d see animals. It really shouldn’t have been so exciting to us, but before this train ride, we’d spent the last three weeks in cities and hadn’t seen so much as a cow.


Once in a while, we’d spot white gers dotted against the green grassland. At first, this was thrilling. We couldn’t imagine people actually living permanently in tents, and we had a lot of questions. How do they send their children to school, or receive mail? Where’s the running water? Do they cook inside the ger?


In late morning, one of the carriage attendants knocked on our door. We all looked up from what we were doing, to see what he might want. He held an American five dollar bill in his hand. “Who… is… this?” he asked? First thought: where did he get that? Second thought: wait, he can speak a little English??

We told him it was Lincoln, who was a president, and he nodded and said “Lincoln!” as if he were saying “I knew that one!” Then he stepped out for a few seconds and came back holding several more bills of different denominations, including a fifty. Holding up a ten, he asked, “Washington?” The answer, Hamilton, confused him. We tried to explain. “Secretary of the Treasury,” Liz said. “Washington’s friend,” I said. Close enough.

We never did figure out why he had so much American money, but after that, relations between us improved. They allowed us to open the window so we could take photos, and they might’ve even cracked a smile or two.

As we got closer to Ulaan Baatar, the grassland turned to dirt and the gers grew closer and closer together. Just outside the city, there were lots of gers, all contained within fences, next to brick and wood single-story dwellings. We later learned that these were the “ger districts,” for people who live semi-nomadic lives. At first, to us, it was a novelty, but it’s actually really common. Something like 25% of the population is truly nomadic, and another 25% is semi-nomadic. The entire suburbs of Ulaan Baatar look like a surreal, multicolored campground.


We arrived at Ulaan Baatar station a few minutes early. We’d only been in Mongolia for half a day, but I already felt like I’d seen a lot.

Searching for China’s Kyoto


“Wherever we went as we traveled down the Yangtze we saw the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution: temples smashed, statues toppled, and old towns wrecked. Little evidence remained of China’s ancient civilization. But the loss went even deeper than this. Not only had China destroyed most of its beautiful things, it had lost its appreciation of them, and was unable to make new ones. Except for the much-scarred but still stunning landscape, China had become an ugly country.”

–Jung Chang, Wild Swans

Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over one thousand years, and still today is considered the cultural heart of the country. Famously, it was spared from bombing during WWII, so unlike most major Japanese cities, it retains its traditional architecture, dating as far back as the 15th century. Modern Kyoto also has its share of ugly IMG_4562 apartment blocks, neon, and concrete, but the overall atmosphere of the city remains genteel. It’s in a beautiful setting, bisected by a river and surrounded by mountains on three sides. Traditional festivals still take place as they have for hundreds of years. Alongside the fast-food restaurants and accessory stores of the shopping arcades are “old Kyoto” restaurants and inns. Traditional woodcarvers, painters, potters–and the occasional geisha–still make their livings there. It claims several imperial palaces, historic buildings, and supposedly, over a thousand temples and shrines. On the cultural side, Kyoto is the origin of Japanese haute cuisine, and is the best place in the country to see traditional performing arts. Many small towns boast historic centers or “samurai streets,” but none can compare to the significance of Kyoto. Just as many American schools take field trips to Washington, D.C., Japanese schoolchildren are packed off to Kyoto.

Is there a place in China that so perfectly captures the rich history and traditional culture of the country? Where is its cultural heart, so to speak? We started our search in Dali, an old walled city in Yunnan province. While it impressed us with its traditional architecture and beautiful setting, it was lacking in the cultural and artistic department.


Souvenir shopping, Lijiang

Our next stop, Lijiang, struck us the same way. The shops all sell the same mass- produced stuff. I’m pretty sure that there are only four or five stores in all of Lijiang and Dali, copied a hundred times over. Each city puts on concerts of traditional music, but other than that there was very little to see or do. In Dali, there is a temple complex, which costs a steep Y121 to enter. In Lijiang, there is an old house belonging to the former clan leader of the area. That’s it. After seeing these attractions, there is nothing left to do but eat, shop, and turn down old ladies offering you ganja. Dali had a few interesting independent cafes, but on the whole, it seemed like there was nothing original in either city.

Yunnan has dozens of ethnic minority groups, so a trip to the area does offer a chance to learn something about non-Han culture. However, Lijiang and Dali are so touristified that any encounter with minority culture will probably be in a restaurant. To experience anything more, an excursion to a minority village (and probably a guide) would be necessary.

But we were searching for insights into Han Chinese culture, not minority traditions. Maybe Xi’an is a better place to look. The first capital of unified China, it was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Nowadays its main claim to fame is that the 2200-year-old Terracotta Warriors lie just out of town. The city itself retains a traditional feel. Like most old Chinese cities once were, it is a walled city. There is little traditional architecture, yet to me, it had an older atmosphere than Dali and Lijiang. Vendors sell much of the same mass-produced junk, but there were some more interesting shops along the Artist’s Street, plus the food scene was much better than in Lijiang or Dali.


Section of Xi'an's city wall

Although Xi’an is not that big, its long history means it has interesting attractions (besides the Warriors) and unique traditions, especially due to the ancient traders’ Islamic influence. Like Kyoto, it both epitomizes traditional China yet maintains a distinct culture. Something was still missing, though. I think that while Xi’an certainly has the history, it doesn’t have the culture.

Our final stop in China was Beijing. By far a much bigger city than any others we visited, I hadn’t expected to find much history in Beijing. But it could also lay claim to being the Kyoto of China. While many sites of importance were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, a few imperial palaces, and parts of the old city wall still stand.


Hallway at the Forbidden City

But for every one of these, there seemed to be a thousand new, functionalist buildings, so it was difficult to feel like I was in an old city. The only time I felt I’d stepped back in time was when strolling through the hutongs. They reminded me very much of the narrow back alleys of Kyoto. They’re being destroyed, however, and without them, Beijing looks a lot like any other modern Asian metropolis. Like Kyotoites compared to other Japanese speakers, Beijingers are also considered to speak with a more refined accent than other Mandarin speakers. But that quirk alone wasn’t enough to convince me. I guess certain things were similar, but the old, refined atmosphere was missing.

Ultimately, China may not have a Kyoto. Thirty-five years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, I think the situation has improved, since traditions that were banned are now allowed to flourish. There’s still a long way to go, however. Many countries worry about how best to preserve their traditions. China doesn’t just have to preserve their traditional culture; in some cases they have to recreate it. As of right now, China’s cultural heart remains fragmented.


An Afternoon at the Opera

Being a big fan of the performing arts, I had hoped that at least somewhere in China, there would be the possibility of seeing some Chinese opera. I didn’t really care what style of opera we saw—Sichuan, Peking, it didn’t matter. In Chengdu, I checked the entertainment listings for information, and found that there are daily shows put on for tourists, but the price was US$30 per person. It seemed awfully high for China, but I really wanted to see a show, so I was prepared to pay it.

Then we met Tray Lee. Self-billed as a cultural tour guide, he hangs around Renmin Park, chatting up foreigners and handing out business cards. (He’s also listed in Frommer’s China guide.) One of the tours he offers is to go see Sichuan opera, at a “local’s theater.” Including the price of the show, transport, snacks, and his services as an interpreter, it cost $5 less than the tourist show. His English was excellent, and he promised us our money back if we saw any other white people at the show. With that guarantee, we agreed to hire him for Saturday.

IMG_0798 We arrived one hour before curtain, in order to watch the actors get into costume and makeup. The actors and their families were just sitting around and chatting with each other—it seemed to be a pretty tight-knit little troupe. It reminded me of the community and college theater groups I used to be involved in. There were no playbills, just a blackboard listing today’s performances. There were four plays on schedule, but each one is short, about thirty minutes. It being a local theater, everyone put on their own makeup, even though it’s much more elaborate than typical stage makeup. There were also costumes to get into, beards to attach, and wigs to put on.  The  dressing room was small and we were taking up valuable empty space, so we went to go take our front-row seats. The theater eventually filled to about 80% capacity, but except for the actors’ families and us, I didn’t see any young people. IMG_0819There weren’t even any middle-aged people. I commented on this to Tray, and he said that Chinese youth have no interest in traditional performing arts. I asked him what they were interested in. “Shopping.”

Tray himself is forty years old, which is young for an opera fan, but he said that he remembers these stories from when he was a kid. His mother or grandmother would sing them to him. During the Cultural Revolution, productions of all but a few approved revolutionary plays were banned outright. For older people, watching these shows is nostalgic, but anyone born after a certain year (who didn’t have an opera-fan older relative) didn’t grow up with these stories.

We ate and drank throughout the show, and people whispered to each other and occasionally entered and exited the theater. Once in a while, a lady came around and refilled our teacups with hot water. It was a really relaxed atmosphere. The shows are highly visual, but without a guide or prior knowledge, we wouldn’t have had any idea what was happening.

The first piece was set in the Three Kingdoms era of China, and focused on two of the three kings. One king wanted to insult the other one, so he sent him a woman’s dress and makeup. The king who received the “gift” was really mad, so he made the messenger drink lots of wine, who then drunkenly spilled out the entire plan. IMG_0837

So instead he decided to wear the dress when he went to visit the other king, and pretend like he was fine with it. When he got there, he thanked the other king profusely, saying he really liked the dress. Then something interesting happened. Some of the audience members went up to the stage and handed some money to the actors.


Forget flowers after the show- in China you give cash, DURING the show. 10 yuan seemed to be the norm, and the actors would stop what they were doing to accept the money and tuck it into their pockets, while the audience clapped politely. Then they’d go back to performing. Anyway, King #2 told King #1 “if you want me to be a woman, I’ll be a woman.” Then he proposed marriage. King #1, who originally sent the dress, got angry, and realized that his plan had totally backfired. Crossdressing is universally hilarious, isn’t it?

Next was a story of unrequited love. A man is in love with his boss’s daughter, who has gone to work in the city as an embroiderer. However, she’s come back home to visit her father, maybe because he was sick? But she must go back to the city and back to her job. The man is from a poor family and doesn’t think he has a chance with this girl, but he tries anyway, telling her how he will help take care of her father while she’s in the city, and how much he likes her father, blah blah blah. Then she gives him a pair of embroidered shoes.IMG_0856

Apparently, in traditional China, it was a REALLY big deal if a woman gave a man a pair of shoes. That meant she definitely liked him. Heartened by this, the man suggests that they go do something together—go have a cup of tea? I forgot. Anyway, the end.

The third play was another love story, but with a better ending. A fox fairy (I know, bear with me here) has been getting up to no good. A man has been sent to kill her. When he sees her, though, he falls in love with her. They fight, but she’s as good a fighter as he is, and nothing is accomplished. IMG_0875

At some point, I guess, he changes his mind and asks her to marry him. She rebukes him over and over, but really she’s just playing hard to get. He eventually wins her over and carries her offstage.

The last play was quite sad. It was about the family of a man who’s gone off to the city for several months. The women and children all stayed in the countryside. As soon as he left, his concubine kicked the wife and grandmother out of the house. The two women, outside in the cold, cried and bemoaned their situation. The actress who played the grandma was so good, she almost made me cry. IMG_0884

There were no big names (not that I know any big names in Chinese opera anyway,) and the theater was certainly not much to look at, but the actors were superb. This has really got to be one of the great bargains of the performing arts world—to see a show of this quality, with an interpreter, would cost much more in most countries. And, true to Tray’s promise, we didn’t see any other white people.