Sunday, May 6, 2007

May Holiday in Chang Bai Shan

May holiday was a compact traveling experience farther into Northeast China. The destination was Chang Bai Shan, meaning “ever white mountain.” We travelers made a colorful group of personalities heading into Jilin province. We began as three: another American teacher from my school, a Chinese teacher from my school, and me. The American teacher is a hilarious guy from LA, with good Chinese, knows NBA like he was betting on it, loves conspiracy theories, practices Tai Chi in the middle of public places, and cracks himself up consistently. The Chinese teacher, "Colin" is a short, round faced 24 year old who loves speed metal, wears cheap sunglasses and a fanny pack, and eats faster than anyone I know. He smokes an extra cigarette while bartering for taxies/busses and hotels, though rarely actually takes a puff. Rather, just waves it around in the air with his elaborate gestures.

We took an overnight train ride in a smokey sleeper car with sounds of cellphones playing pop music late into the night. I watched Colin engulf an entire bag of little dried squid parts way too fast and wash it down with a light sudsy beer. He suffered from a stomach ache for hours.

The morning arrived all to slowly. As we chugged into Tonghua the hallway filled smells of instant noodles, more cellphone amplafied pop music, and a long line of people waiting to use the sinks for their ritualistic morning face wash. (I don't know seems to be a big deal here) We missed a connecting train to take us to the little town of Baihe so we had to take a minibus over roads that would make a Forest Service Fire crew cringe. One hour into the 6 hour bumpy ride, the driver handed out barf bags. Thirty minutes later we saw and smelled last night's squid parts and beer all over again. Miserable. While I turned the other direction to avoid getting sick myself, I befriended the young Korean guy beside me on the bus. He spoke a little Chinese and a little English, but insisted on writing everything on his hand with his finger before verbalizing. Good thing it was a long bus ride.

Baihe was a sleepy town with a mix of Chinese and Koreans. The women drove motorcycles and no one was trying to hustle us white people. Refreshing! The next morning we got a taxi to take us to the gates of the Chang Bai Shan nature preserve, which is China’s largest Nature preserve. I didn’t know that places like that existed in China. There was still a foot of snow on the ground in the forest and the air smelled like pine sap. It was raining in Baihe, meaning snow on the mountain. After a good hour and a half climb up hundreds of ice covered steps, we reached Tian Che (Heaven Lake), which was still frozen. We walked onto the lake and into North Korea! Thrilling, but a little eerie considering the white out blizzard conditions.

The trip back was two long train rides. However, the second will be the most memorable. Everyone warned me not to travel during national holidays. Now I know why. We arrived in the city of Shenyang (about a 6 hours north of Dalian) only to find that there were not only no beds for the night train to Dalian….but no seats period! So, do as the Chinese do, pay half the price and just stand. So from 11PM to 5AM, I stood on this smoky, crowded, hectic, smelly, stuffy train. I have heard of people standing for much longer, like 40 hours all the way across the desert. The lesson learned is to fly if you can afford it.

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