Traveling in China during the Lunar new year has its up and downsides. On the one hand, if you travel on the actual days of the holiday, the eve of and the first day of the new year, you can have popular places to yourself (if they’re open) and the roads are quiet. On the other hand, you risk getting stuck somewhere as the rest of the country cares more about family and dumplings than a tourist waiting for service.
It was worth the risk this year, mostly, and the quiet of Wudangshan, a famous Taoist site in central China, was wonderful, fireworks planting in the city below aside.
Yu County, in western Hebei Province and about 4 hours from Beijing, has a high density of old temples, though many are abandoned, neglected, and quickly losing their valuable paintings and decorations to thieves/antique dealers. During the Ming Dynasty, many towns were consolidated into garrisons, building walls and even moats, as part of the empire’s defense system, along with China’s Great Wall, against Mongol invaders. Some of the temple and shrine sites were originally built during the Qin Dynasty, over 2,000 years ago. Many of the standing structures are around 800 years old, including much of the painting that remains on the walls of the crumbling buildings.
I parked my bike and found a coffee shop just in time, as I look out the window and watch people scramble for shelter from the sudden downpour. Beijing has been in unfathomably hot and humid for a few weeks, broken only recently by some rain. It’s the first Sunday in quite a while that it’s comfortable enough to get on my bicycle for a ride across town, look for streets I’ve never found before. It’s good to remember that Beijing is so much bigger than the diplomatic and business quarter of the eastern Chaoyang District.
I did take a few days off last week to visit Penang, Malaysia. I still remember when, in fall 2004, new passport in hand, I left North America for the first time to spend a year there as an exchange student. It was incredible to go back, and striking how familiar it felt.
I remember many walks through the tree lined streets of the campus of Univeritas Sains Malaysia, and many bowls of noodles at the lively food courts, above.
It’s wonderful that much of the downtown became a UNESCO heritage site a few years ago, so a lot of what makes the island state unique are still there.
And of course, with its blend of Chinese, Indian, and Thai, Penang’s cuisine is famous.
I made my way to the western Hunan national park area of Zhangjiajie at just the right time, two weeks after the Spring Festival, in the middle of the February lull. The fabled towering cliffs, deep canyons, silent caves, and crystal clear lakes, along with the fancy new tourist infrastructure like the world’s longest glass bottom bridge across the Zhangjiajie canyon, drew record numbers of domestic tourists this year. I had many of the spots nearly to myself, however.
The blue skies, and huge fluffy white clouds towering above the almost-barren first steps of the great Tibetan plateau didn’t stop amazing me the entire time I was in Qinghai, in the west of China. Â Sure, it was only a long weekend, but what a striking;ly different place from Beijing. Â Hardly enough to purge Beijing from my lungs and skin, let alone my spirit… but interacting with Chinese people who are not directly invested in the business or government happenings in the capital is an important experience that I don’t have nearly enough.
By Qinghai Lake, the largest inland lake in the Middle Kingdom.
A lot of Tibetan and other cultures and religions represented in Qinghai.
On lazy Saturday mornings, when the weather suits a bike ride, I sometimes find myself heading to the center of Beijing to see the newest exhibit at the National Gallery. Â While one needs a degree of tolerance for the sucking up to the Communist party that seems to be required of all public institutions in Beijing these days, there is also, quite often, some genuinely good, or at least fun, artworks. And some of the art from China’s recent history is interesting as well, such as the current exhibit on the first picture books in China, which were commissioned by the Communist party during the Japanese resistance days.