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.
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.
The minibus from Rize, Turkey got me to Camlihensin, and in that wonderful little mountain town in the Firtina valley I jumped in a van whose driver was apparently accepting money for rides. (The music selection on the radio was all his, I soon discovered)
Finally, I made it to the day’s destination, the Middle Ages era castle Zil Kale, first a defense and lookout post for the Black Sea towns for eastern threats, later an important point along the trade route further west into today’s Turkey.
The trip from the coast south into the Kackars mountain range of northern Turkey would have been worth it in itself, but the castle was fantastic.
My next destination was the village of Ayder, further to the east in the mountains. This didn’t seem too over ambitious on the map, but doubts arose when there were no buses from the castle back to the main road, 13 kilometers down a cliff side road.
Luckily, two friendly local Turkish fellows found this strange lost American curious enough that they crammed me the back seat along with their fishing gear, a few watermelons from a mountainside farm, and a pile of freshly caught river fish.
To my surprise the driver broke out in fantastic English, explaining that he lived in southern Georgia, USA for about ten years at some point.
“I didn’t have a green card or anything, I was jus working in some Turkish restaurant there. But no one helped me out,” he trailed off, leaving me to assume he came home before he would have liked. “America is the greatest country on earth,” he concluded.
I made it to Ayder, an admittedly gorgeous valley town, but it has become such a tourist trap as to make it unpleasant, unfortunately.
The town, with its majestic waterfall and full service hot springs spa, has for some reason become a favorite among tourists from the Middle East, many of the women and girls slowly swaying up the cobblestoned streets of Ayden in full black Burkas. The minibus back to Rize, my own “base camp,” was me and one large Saudi man, his three wives and seven children.