Geographical Therapy

What is geographical therapy? It’s the idea that all you need to turn your life around is to move to a new place. Also known as geographical fix, geographical cure, or simply a geographic, it’s escapism in every sense of the word. You run away from discontentment, disappointment, the disillusion of your present condition, to a new place where you discover the perfect life you were meant to have all along. But of course, once you relocate, you realize nothing has changed, you are still discontent, just in a different space. So you begin the search again, for a new city, a new country. Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.

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It begins again

The rigmarole of applying for visas, selling my soul to the government for money, finding places to stay, packing/selling/donating items I can’t take with me, poring over course catalogs, and of course, scouring the internet for travel itineraries (I have to keep reminding myself that I’m going to study, not to play. This isn’t undergrad anymore).

The visa application is pretty convenient–almost all of it is done online, through a surprisingly modern website (from what I’ve seen, the UK has their shit together when it comes to gov websites). It is also way more expensive than I anticipated. $500 for a one year student visa! My Japanese visa cost a tenth of that, and even my Chinese visa was only about $150. But nothing for it, I guess. For all its convenience though, it takes forever. I sent in the application June 30, and finally received an email July 21 saying my visa was issued, but it still hasn’t been actually mailed out yet.

I just want to get going already.

So this is the end of my travels in China. It was an interesting experience, and there are a lot of places I would still like to visit (Tibet and Mongolia for starters), but I don’t know when that’ll be, if ever. Plus I don’t know if I have the guts to brave the bathrooms a second time, now that I know what horrors I’m in for.

I’m going to be in Taiwan for two weeks. Every time I go, the only thing I ever do is eat, shop and generally pursue a very hedonistic lifestyle I usually don’t/can’t indulge in. But it’s especially exciting this time after having lived in some podunk town for two and a half months. Whoo

There probably won’t be any more posts, except maybe some bathroom stories if I think of any. So in closing, here’s a picture of all the tickets I’ve collected on the trip.

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Bathroom Break 04

IMAG0178Introducing, the train privy. This is what it looks like at its cleanest. It smells like death, like those mothballs asians LOVE using, just 400 times stronger. I wonder if they realize those things are carcinogenic, but hey, gets rid of the dung smell, right? You use the bucket to flush, and I assume you use the green scoop to nudge whatever gets stuck to the toilet down the hole. (edit: my bad, it’s a brush. I see the bristles on it now. Same idea though)

While we were waiting at the station, there was a repeated announcement that went over the rules of the station. One of them was, “There are bathrooms located in the station, please do not let your children urinate or defecate on the floor.” Because that is actually a legit concern here.

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Yangshuo

Here, I must confess a lie. I haven’t been on a real roadtrip. Until now, I’ve been flying to various cities then taking cars from there (though those car rides were long enough on their own). We had every intention of roadtripping, but work kept popping up intermittently for my dad that cut off any possibility of a long-term trip.

Anyway since I’m leaving soon, we finally went on a short car trip to Yangshuo (陽朔), a county in the neighboring province of Guangxi. It’s famous for having beautiful mountains like the kind you usually see in asian paintings. (The picture up there is the same as the one on the back of the 20RMB bill.) Annoyingly, we had the bad luck to run into super hazy weather the day we went up the river, so the view really wasn’t that great. Plus all of us agreed that it paled considerably in comparison to Jiuzhaigou.

Yangshuo West Street is packed with Chinese and foreign restaurants (lots of pizza since it’s the quintessential foreign food?), tons of mango-centric cafes, and little shops and stalls selling various knick-knacks. It’s crowded and noisy and you can’t take two steps without someone pushing a menu in your face advertising the famous local dish of “beer fish” (which doesn’t taste like beer, by the way), or waving pictures of the Li River at you and asking if you want to take a boat tour. Around dinnertime there are tons of buskers wandering around outside the restaurants with a list of songs you can request for 2RMB per song. The place has its appeal I guess.

Jiuzhaigou

This place is amazing, ahhh! I really want to just leave it at that but that would be a waste of a post, so I’ve cobbled together some tips for traveling in Jiuzhaigou (abbreviated JZG).

1. Alternatives to flying

Although there is an airport near JZG, Jiuzhai-Huanglong Airport, unless you’re coming from a big city, you’ll have to transfer and the second leg can be expensive. Also, flights are often delayed for hours on end at the slightest sign of bad weather (apparently, flights here almost NEVER leave on time). An alternative is to hire a car from one of the major cities that the planes transfer from. We took a car from Chengdu for 1500RMB (~246USD) per car. A plane ticket from Chengdu to JZG on the other hand, was around 1300RMB (~213USD) per person. It took eight or nine hours for us to drive to our hotel, so it’s kind of a long ride, but much cheaper than flying.

2. Food options

When you buy a ticket to the park, the lady will ask if you want to buy a ticket to their lunch buffet as well. Most travelers highly suggest that you don’t because the food is apparently overpriced and really nasty. Judging from a buffet we went to in Zhangjiajie National Park, I’m inclined to agree with them. Plus the places are just plain hazardous because the floors are covered in a film of oil. It’s like trying to walk on ice. You can bring your own food, or buy instant noodles and other snacks from the small stores around the park.

And I don’t know if this is just paranoia on my part, but I wouldn’t ask any taxi drivers for restaurant recommendations outside the park because I suspect they may get a cut from the restaurant. When we went out to dinner, the taxi driver asked why we were going to _____ street. Upon hearing that we were going to eat, he immediately said, “Oh, I know a better place. Good and authentic.” So we went, and it was beyond disappointing.

3. Inside the park

There are tons of buses running throughout the park, but there are also a lot of well-maintained paths connecting just about every sightseeing spot. You get a lot of nice views and it’s a very relaxing walk. When you do take the bus pay attention to the stops. Some only have buses going in one direction, either toward or away from the entrance.

Most people would recommend that you spend about two days at the park because trying to see everything in one day is really rushed and at some point it’s like your mind can’t handle the awesomeness anymore and you get really tired. The thing is that the tickets are really expensive when it’s not off-season, which can be a major deterrent for some considering entering twice. In order to skip on ticket costs, some travelers stay in the Tibetan villages inside the park. This is actually illegal, but still an option if you really want to do it. You just have to hide from the rangers when they come knocking. (AFAIK, nothing too terrible happens if you get caught. I think you just have to pay for the second ticket.)

Apparently there’s a new option for camping inside a certain area of the park with a guide accompanying you. Sounds pretty cool!

4. Go, already!

I’m not usually into those “Must-see places in _____” type posts, because, I dunno, who are you to tell me what I must and mustn’t see? But JZG is seriously beautiful, probably the best out of all the places I’ve been so far. The parts with snow were my favorite, but I’m sure it’s great in every season.

Bathroom Break 03

lonely bathroom high atop a windy mountain

As we left Qinghai for Gansu, we drove over the Qilian Mountains and made a short stop at one of the peaks to take photos (not of the bathroom, there were slightly more interesting things in the other direction).

This particular bathroom was built on the very edge of the mountaintop; if you took a couple more steps past it, it would be a long, unpleasant roll to the bottom. There are no doors here, and like the one from the previous Bathroom Break, it’s just a slab of cement raised up above a pile of excrement. Except in this case, it’s not really a trench; the cement floor kind of hangs over the edge of the mountaintop, so everything falls on the slope without walls or anything to enclose it.

Anyway, it’s really windy up on the mountain and the wind manages to gust right up the hole in the bathroom floor. I think you can imagine what happens then. Kinda like spitting into the wind. Thankfully I had a scarf I could pull over my face. (Poor scarf never smelled the same after being in so many bathrooms.) But then there was the problem of throwing toilet paper down the hole. You know those plastic bubble-rooms that people stand in where wind blows up from the bottom and there’s paper/money flying everywhere? (What are those called?) This was a really shitty version of that.

So here, I leave you with some very serious advice. If you ever encounter a windy toilet, don’t go. Pee out in the open. I promise it’s 300% more pleasant and less smelly. Plus Chinese people are pretty used to seeing people go wherever the hell they please. No one’s going to bat an eye unless you’re in a big city.

Heshen

One of the places we visited in Beijing was the former residence of Qing dynasty official, Niohuru Heshen. Heshen is considered one of the most corrupt officials ever in Chinese history and one of the richest people to have ever existed. He had some strange obsession with one-upping Qianlong Emperor and reportedly said, “What the emperor has, I must have. What the emperor doesn’t have, I must have as well.” For the record, at the time, it was actually illegal to be better than the emperor. He only got away with it because Qianlong Emperor doted on him, supposedly because he looked like a woman the emperor used to love (that’s the story the guide told us; Wikipedia has a different story).

It’s almost mind-blowing how much money he managed to amass in twenty-four years. Some interesting tidbits from the tour:

  • The worth of all of his property was seventeen times the amount of money in the treasury at the time and more than the wealthiest man in China right now.
  • After Qianlong Emperor abdicated, the new emperor went to arrest Heshen. It took six full days to cart out all the valuables in his 150-meter long “treasure room”.
  • There were several black painted archways in the corridors of his house that were later discovered to be stuffed from bottom to top with gold bars.
  • He stole a piece of calligraphy from Kangxi Emperor, made an eight-meter stele out of it, and built a mini-mountain around it in his garden so that no one could take it. And it worked; even though all of his other valuables were been confiscated by the emperor, the stele is still there. (If you’re wondering how to fit a mountain in your garden, the first step is to own a 60,000 square-meter estate)
  • His wealth included 3,000 rooms in his estates and mansions, 8,000 acres (32 km²) of land, 42 bank branches, 75 pawnbroker branches, 60,000 taels of copper alloyed gold, 100 large ingots of pure gold, (1,000 taels each), 56,600 medium silver ingots, (100 taels each), 9,000,000 small silver ingots, (10 taels each), 58,000 livres/pounds of foreign currency, 1,500,000 copper coins, 600 lb of top-quality Jilin ginseng, 1,200 jade charms, 230 pearl bracelets (each pearl comparable in size to large cherries or longans), 10 large pearls (each the size of apricots), 10 large ruby crystals, 40 large sapphire crystals, 40 tablefuls of solid-silver eating utensils, (serves 10 per table), 40 tablefuls of solid-gold eating utensils, (serves 10 per table), 11 coral rocks (each over a metre in height), 14,300 bolts of fine silk, 20,000 sheets of fine sheep-fur wool, 550 fox hides, 850 raccoon dog hides, 56,000 sheep and cattle hides of varying thickness, 7,000 sets of fine clothing (for all four seasons), 361,000 bronze and tin vases and vessels, 100,000 porcelain vessels made by famous masters, 24 highly decorative solid-gold beds (each with eight different types of inlaid gemstones), 460 top-quality European clocks, 606 servants, 600 women in his harem. (Wikipedia)

I mentioned earlier that it was illegal to be better than the emperor; when Heshen was arrested, he was charged with twenty crimes, over half of which were basically variations of “one-upping the emperor”. For example, he had a pond in his garden that was filled with water imported from the same spring that supplied the emperor’s drinking water. Another instance was the furniture in his bedroom being made of extremely valuable wood only the royal family could use. In the end, he was sentenced to death by suicide. Usually, if you committed crimes against the imperial family, you and your relatives would all be killed. But Heshen’s son had married one of Emperor Qianlong’s daughters, so his family had a certain degree of protection and only Heshen died.