29th July – Beijing.
Back in Beijing after a year. Many signs that the Olympic Games will start very soon. In the national Museum of China there is a big modern art exhibition. Very impressive large scale paintings from the Chinese army helping to rescue survivors of the big earthquake earlier this year. Still the same heroic style of the many war paintings I have seen before. Last year in 798 there was an exhibition of North Korean art – paintings of the North Korean army defeating an US Army unit. The same heroism on a somewhat different topic.
Tomorrow we will take a plane to Haerbin and from there further north by bus and/or taxi.
July 31st - Beyan.
We have reached the North. A cab driver takes us around to a small village. Earthen houses with thatched roofs, that have seen better times. An old man – Mr Dzong – shows us around. He fled the famine from Hubei in 1968 with relatives and other farmers. Together they build this village. The houses are very old, but well prepared for the cold climate. Not only is there the big stone bed – the kang – that is heated by the fumes of the cooking fire. Also the walls can be heated by a separate stove in the entrance.
Now life is very hard. The village produces most soja beans and it even has his own tofu factory. But the road is too bad the sell their products outside the village. Mr Dzong has a special message for me. “World Peace” he says. “Your son is in the army, my son is in the army. They both get a little money to shoot and kill each other. What is the sense of all this.”
August 2nd – from Heihe to Mohe.
After a long train journey we arrived yesterday in Heihe. Heihe is on the border to Russia. Here there is a bridge over the Amur and a border station. Many Russians in the streets. Here we found a driver who is willing to take us to Mohe – the most Northern point of China. It is still not very clear whether the government will allow us to travel in this area. We drive through several villages with earthen houses. Most villages in this area will be re-allocated as their wells are falling dry. There is a large water shortage. When the farmers see us foreigners, they start to protest loudly in the street. They think we are journalist and try to get our attention. The village eldest calls in the police. After two hours in the police station, we are told it is all a big misunderstanding. We better return to Heihe for the night, but we are allowed to travel on the next day.
August 3rd – Village “section 131”
A new start in the early morning, but soon the next drawback. The road we wanted to take seems to be closed. A bridge is in repair and we have to make a large detour, which brings us deeper into the forest. Village section 131 exists of 3 houses on a hill, about 10 min. on foot from the road. A stream runs through the meadow full of wild flowers. The houses look very drab. The cattle certainly drew the better lot. The two families moved here from Hubei, because this was good cattle ground. Next to their cattle they also produce soja beans. We are met with a 1000 questions in 5 minutes. The Olympic games did not only open up China to the world, but also many Chinese became aware of a world outside their country. On the wall there are several maps and I have to show them where I come from.
“How much does a teacher earn in your country? What is the price of a cow, of a tractor, of a car? What do soja beans bring in the market? How much costs a house, how much to travel. Do I live in an apartment in a block?” Difficult questions to answer in a sensible way. Fortunately they were engaged in a game of Mahjong, so we can leave in a short time. Although there are many flowers around the house, there is nothing in the house to make it a little bit more cheerfull.
In Sanka, a somewhat bigger village we stop for lunch and I am hit by a terrible headache. In the shadow of a tree we take a rest, from where we can watch some young army recruits doing their gymnastics. Next to us some very nice Chinese girls try to attract the attention of the boys. All at once big panic! An army jeep with screaming brakes, some high officials and we are put up in a hostel and under house arrest. I am only glad to have found a bed and fall a sleep. When I wake up after 3 hours it has all been solved. Again we are allowed to travel on to Mohe.
August 5th – Mohe
Yesterday big trouble. In the evening the driver and the guide got into problems. According to the guide, the driver wanted much more money and had started a fight. He is certain the man was a member of the Chinese Mafia. So the last bit of the trip to Mohe we have taken the bus. I do not take this mafia thing too serious, but my guide stays very upset. He wants us to leave the North straight away and go to Yunnan, where he comes from. Well that was not my plan and we will see. The guide stays nervous. Mohe lays on the river Amur, the border river between Russia and China. I have dreamed for years to come here. In the surroundings there are many mines and there is certainly a lot of money around. So far the mafia story could be through. I never saw so much luxury in the hotel. In front only SUV’s and big Mercedes’s. The breakfast European and Chinese style. 10 different brands of coffee alone. Bread and noodles from almost vanished kinds of wheat. Plenty of salmon and other fishes I do not know. Which brand of grapefruit juice do you prefer? I would prefer my thin rice porridge, but for one day it is nice.
The tourist part of Mohe is like Disneyland. “Sugar castles” Russian style with onions on top of several towers. All in light blue and pink. Then Russian log houses and tipi’s from birch bark, like the reigndeer people used to have and wooden dacha’s hobbitstyle. But a bit further on life is serious again. An old village with loghouses on the banks of the Amur. Fishing is forbidden here and the military is clear visible in the street. Another reason for my guide to get very nervous. But I get allowance to put my feet into the Amur. A great feeling, but very cold. Both inside and outside the houses could have been taken straight from Karelia – Western Russia on the border to Finland. If there had not been the red Chinese festival papers on the wall, I could have swept the pictures with those I made over there 5 years earlier. On the road we meet a black bear . Although I have often travelled through bear country, this is the first bear I meet in the wild.
I have to promise my guide to leave Mohe the next day. Not for Yunnan yet, we settle for taking a bus into Inner Mongolia.
August 8th – The Games are open.
We have arrived in Jagdaqi in pouring rain. Tonight is the big night – the opening of the Olympic Games. I pray that everything will go well. I will not think about what will happen if there is trouble. It could mean the end of the trip.
We try to find some of the people that are still herding reindeer, but they seem to have disappeared and are now integrated into the general population. In the end we find one special street with houses specially build for them. One young reindeer outside on a rope. It marks the situation. In a tipi next to her house a woman is baking a special bread. It is sweet like the Swedish bread with a lot of cardamom in it. From some younger guys we hear the stories.
Nowadays reindeer are only held for their horns. These are used to make several kinds of medicines. It is very special, when a family owns more then 20 reindeer. Many own less and they keep them far away in the forest. A few members of the family stay with them and they still live in their tents. It is not possible to visit them as there is no road. Last year some Sami people from Finland came to visit them and they were astonished to hear that in Finland families could own over a thousand reindeer.
One very old woman tells about here life, when she was young. She has been a reindeer herder for the Chinese army and she used to ride a horse and shoot to kill. She still speaks the old language. The younger ones can understand it, but they cannot longer speak. Their houses are very sad to look at. Although they are brand new, you can see these families are not yet adjusted to live in a house. Families have moved together in one house, the other houses are used for storage. Furniture is put at the strangest places and cloth and other things are laying everywhere. A gun is standing in the corner of the room. A littler boy is allowed to play with it.
In the evening even the restaurants have stopped preparing food. Everybody sits in front of the TV. I see a part of the show in my hotel. The most important – no trouble!! The little girl in red singing the opening song steals my heart. Think about the pressure that is put on her. For several minutes she is the face of the whole country and she stands it marvelous.
August 9th – Amur again
It went all well yesterday, so we travel on. Again in the direction of the Amur, the Russian border. My guide is nervous again. Wants to go home. But this is the route we agreed upon and I want to see more of this mixture of Chinese and Russian culture.
We take a country road again into the forest and there we meet villages with the most peculiar names. Red Flag Village, Great Peace Settlement. These are all former woodcutter settlements. Now only a few people stayed on, doing some agriculture. Not all of them live here in winter too. Most woodcutters are re-allocated to the cities. But also there it is difficult for them to find work. Great Peace Settlement is again almost a Russian Village. Several people also speak Russian. We even meet the son of a Dutch lady and a Chinese man. He was born in Shanghai in 1921. He heard that a Dutch woman was in the village, so he rushed into the street to meet me. Unfortunately he is very deaf. This makes conversation very difficult. He only speaks a few words of Dutch, but fluent Chinese, Russian and some Japanese. Would have been interesting to hear more about his life and how he ended up here.
The cattle farmer has the best house. Again just like the houses in Karelia. I see high chairs and even some potted plants, quite uncommon in most Chinese farmhouses.
More Russian villages on the way. Some houses with icons in the east corner of the room. All decorated with paper flowers. In a restaurant there is only Russian food. We are on the Amur again, but here we cannot reach the water. Barbed wire on the shore and watchtowers everywhere
Affluent Chinese tourists everywhere. The first time we meet so many. This is really going to be big business and many new log houses are build. All new boarding houses for inland tourism. Again very expensive cars and guys with 5 camera’s around their neck. They take pictures of everything. For us it is time to leave.
The road along the Amur is too bad to take. So we move inland again. We stay overnight in a real Bonanza village. All new log houses, not very well build. But they will only be used in summer. Shrewd Chinese ladies are standing in the middle of the street to pick up their guests. One nice treat for me - there even is a real sauna!
August 11th – from Russia to Mongolia.
We keep driving through Russian villages. We meet baboeska’s, who all came from Russia. It was very common in this area that Chinese man went to Russia to find a wife. Now it is difficult for the young men to find or keep their Chinese partners. There are many single and divorced men living in these areas. Haerbin offers enough opportunities for the women to live independently.
In one of the villages there is a new Orthodox Church. It is not consecrated, so the people refuse to go there. The church is situated behind the major’s office. He can keep good track of who is coming and going. The villagers have always held their services in the mountains, also in the time that it was forbidden. Now they keep to their old places to worship. The houses here are in a very poor condition. In spring the village is often flooded by the river, so many fundaments of the log houses are rotting. But it is interesting to see, that they all have the Russian cellars. Only here no potatoes to put inthem. But I see a lot of pots of preserved berries, mushrooms and pickled vegetables.
According to our driver originally there were only few Russian and Chinese settlements along the border. But from 1960 onwards more and more Han Chinese migrated here from the more southern provinces, that were heavily overpopulated and were food was hard to find. You could earn a lot of money by felling trees. There were many competitions between settlements and prices were usually trips to Beijing or to the coast for a few days of holiday. Now there is a lot of unemployment and many would like to return to their old places as that is were the prosperity is nowadays. But they have no place to go to anymore.
A special problem – again according to our driver - are the women. Because of the one child policy the women are bored. They have nothing to do and only sit and chat and play Mahjong together and get silly ideas into each others heads. Our driver bought a littler sweet shop for his wife to keep her busy. In this way he hopes he can keep his wife at home.
Nearer to the Mongolian border life seems to be a bit better. The climate may be a bit better here with less snow in winter. Many cows and horses in the fields along the road. Also the villages are bigger and the population younger. Russian influences get less. Now the immigrants are Mongolian. They moved up here to find work or water and food for their animals. The grasslands further south are more and more threatened by the upcoming desert.
August 13th - the tablecloth
We have reached Inner Mongolia and set out to find the nomads, but nobody seems to know where they are at this moment of the year. The vast grasslands seem to have been invaded by cities, factories and the early signs of shopping malls. We have asked around and our driver has been sent different directions. I decide to take good luck as a help and show them a road on the map, which leads us further away from the main road. We are all very tense. Then up in the hills there is a small tent next to the carcass of an old buss. The grass is flat enough to drive the car up.
We find an old men with his grandson in the middle of a flock of sheep. The boy is clearly taking care of the old men, who can hardly stumble along. His sight seems very bad. The interior of the buss is hard to describe. A bit of foam to sleep on, some rags, a gasstove and flies, flies and more flies everywhere. No way to make a picture. The boy tells us his parent have their tents higher up on the road. He more or less points out the direction, but we can’t see anything. We drive on and after half an hourcrossing up en down over the grasslands we find tents next to a small house. A number of cows and two huge, shining motorbikes outside.
The house is halfway underground, the entrance protected from the wind by a low hill in front. It is the former winterhome of the family. It is now used for cooking and eating, but the families sleep in the tents next to the house. They have all got used to having more space and more privacy. Two brothers are together taking care of the herd. In winter they live in the city. The interior of the house is incredible. The mud on the wall crackled like a beautifull wallpaper. A fashionable table with a lace cloth. Some vegetables and a pair of modern sunclasses from one of the women. The driver and my guide have to sit down with the men and take a stiff drink. It is only 11.00 in the morning. All women have to stay outside. I am happy that I am not allowed to join the party.
August 15th - green shoes
We have moved further south and try again to find the nomads. This time we are more l;ucky. Our driver takes us to the family of his girlfriend. She is Mongolian and her parents stay on the grasslands for a part of the year. She agrees to come with us, as she speaks Mongolian. Our driver is Han Chinese, so he wouldnot be able to assist us. Her brothers tell us were to go.
Many nomads live only partially on the grasslands. Inner Mongolian cattle herders belong to the most affluent part of the population of this province on the border to Mongolia. In many places the government is loosing the battle against the upcoming desert. But meat-prices have been rising steadily.
A cattle-herder has to stay with his animals all the time. Otherwise the wolfs will have a luxureous diner. But not the whole family has to stay on the grasslands at any moment. So brothers and nephews stay there by turns. The others can then live in the often luxureous appartment in the city. Also sisters and wifes take their turn. Women have their tasks on the grasslands too. In the tent the nomad life goes on as always. The intestines of a sheep are hanging to dry and the high-heeled shoes are standing ready for the party.
August 17th - Tipi
We are in Arshan on the border to Mongolia. Lonely Planet promissed me hot springs here, so I intended to give myself a treat. But it is not as easy as I thought. Chinese Spa culture is very different from ours and in this region mainly a men affair.
We are on the road into the mountains. Another road block. This is the border between the autonomous region Inner Mongoilia and China. My guide gets very nervous again. We had several road blocks the last days, but never there has been any problem. I hand over my passport to very young Chinese military guy. He holds it upside down as usual and then takes it inside the little office on the side of the road. He returns with a smile on his face and a warm“ Welcome in China”.
The road gets worse and worse. This is not going to be a shorttrip by the speed we are able to maintain. Along the road a few houses, but most herdsmen are out in the forest with their cattle. Then after a bend in the road there is this little felt tent – I have seen many of those before on the border to Kazakhstan. Next to it the rest of a colorfull billboard as a roof over what proofs to be the kitchen. In here everything moves. All furniture and foodstuffs are black and buzzing with I donot know how many ugly greenish shining black flies.
Nobody seems to be at home but from the forest I hear the sound of approaching sheep. The owner is coming home. The tent is not bigger then a double bed. It feels surprisingly warm, until I see the smoke. There is a heating place under the bed to keep it warm in the evening. We are high up and the evenings and nights can already be pretty cold. Above the bed the most amazing mosquito netting. The felt has been repared on several places with big pieces of birch bark. The same method I have seen used by the Sami in Finland. But the paper lanterns are very clear Chinese. There must be a lady in the house.
A bit further on another house. A young couple is living here during the summer. They own 200 cows, but seem to live in utter poverty. They do not seem to care. Just as the owner of the tipi, they live this kind of live for a couple of years and then they have earned enough to start a business. The driver gets a bit jealous when he hears how much one can earn by raising cattle.
This is our last day in Inner Mongolia. From here it goes back to Haerbin and then on the plane to Yunnan. I really hope my guide gets more easy to work with, when he finally is back in his familiar surroundings.
August 30st – visum problems
Becauser of the Olympic Games getting a 3 month visum was impossible. Instead I got a double entry visum for 2 x 30 days. So I had to make a short trip into Laos. Onreturn there were still problems with my visum. I got only a ‘sailors visum’ for 10 days “to return to my port of destination”. The trip in Yunnan has to be cut short. A serious set back, but we will make the best of it. Today we looked around Mengla. Some places are incredible. We have reached the tropics and for me a complete different culture. Hard to relate to my own feelings of home.
Tomorrow off to Dali and from there for this time only a short trip into Northern Yunnan.
September 1st – West for Dali
Old houses with old people. Very kind, but very poor. From one of the old farmers we buy a large glass of local honey. The first time I get something really sweet in China.
Along the road a man with his mule with a wooden saddle. In his one hand a rod to handle the mule. In his other hand a new toy – a plastic helicopter on a push stick. He is clearly a young father. Yesterday I saw a little boy destroying such a toy in a split second. He just hit it one time hard on the ground and it was scattered to pieces.
September 2nd – Nuodeng
A 1000 year old village ready to receive the expected load of Chinese tourists. Large billboards, a good road, a large parking lot and all streets swept clean. Some larger restaurants waiting to do business, but the expected clients did not yet arrive.
Further on the road we climb up to a small hamlet. The path is hard to find and very steep. Luckily it is also used by the cows, so we just follow the dung. An old Bai lady opens here gate for us. She lives alone with here flock of chicken. Mao is hanging on the wall of her bedroom. The Bai people were happy with the assistance of the Red Guards. Before, the wilder tribes like the Ee often acted as bandits and stole their crop or their animals. The Red Guards gave the Bai protection against the tribes. She tells us about here life. First all money went to the children, now to the grandchildren to let them study. The black soot on her kitchen wall shows layers of time. Generations who lived her in happiness and distress. But for how long. Is this the last generation in these hamlets.
We get roasted sweet rice in water. The rice corns have different colours. This is a traditional Spring Festival drink. On the loft a mysterious package hangs from the ceiling, probably a large piece of meat. The plastic around shines like silver. The light shows that we are already higher up in the mountains.
Further in the hamlet an old man shows us the house of his family. The courtyard is very narrow and also here Chairman Mao keeps watch over the chicken. The house is very old and needs repairing. On the loft there are many altars for the ancestors. He knows the last 6 generations that lived in the house by name. That is why he tries to keep the house and have it restored. You cannot sell your ancestors, can you?
Then the cows come home and all at once there is much life in the hamlet. People come out of the houses that seemed before deserted. The road down is now even easier to find, but also much more difficult and slippery.
Further on the road many larger villages on the other side of the river. The village gates are not everywhere still intact, but I see several ones that are very elaborate and beautiful. This is the sunny side of the valley and here there is much more space for farming. But bridges are far apart and none is big enough for a car. Everything that has to be transported, has to be carried by men or mule. How long will these villages stay alive?
A teenage boy herds his goats along the road. Can this be his lifetime activity. Employment is a big problem in these remote valleys. With not enough education, what are his possibilities in the cities.
September 3rd – mountain valleys
We try to cross over the mountain range to the Yangtze – the Pearl River. It is still rain season and the roads are often blocked by landslides or big trucks with broken tyres. Impossible to pass them and we often have to wait for a couple of hours. Other cars that try to pass only make a bigger chaos. Several times we turn around and try to take another road. This is the area of the Pumi and Lezo people. Their houses are very basic. They do not yet seem to live in the 21st century.
Further on the road Bai people again, but also their houses show the isolation of the places. Many of the houses are the big houses or former landlords. During the Cultural Revolution they are divided up into separate living areas. You can still see the former grandeur and elegance in some parts of the house.
September 4th – down to the Yangtze
We have reached the old stone road down to the Yangtze. More old villages and big houses. We take a very steep footpath down into the valley. In a bamboo forest there is a beautiful house. This house alone has the size of a small hamlet. And again this house has been divided up into many different housings. But on the loft you can see how large it has been in former times. A farmer invites us to his house on the other side of a small stream, but we decide against it. It is getting late already and we want to reach the river before nightfall. There are many farms in the valley, but no rods up to the main road. All crops have to be carried up the steep narrow path The farmer explains that this is what they have always done, so he does not see the problem. A man in this area can easily carry up to 100 kg of rice in one trip uphill.
Further on the road is blocked again. It will not be not opened up before the next morning. We are lucky and get a place to sleep in the house of the head of a village along the road. Other people and a large group of youngsters in a buss are not so fortunate. The small village shop is soon sold out for drinks and snacks.
We get a very nice meal and hot water to wash our face and feet. No Chinese goes to bed without having washed his feet. I am to sleep in grandmothers’ bed. When I doze off, she comes to check whether I have closed the curtain of the bed in the appropriate way.
September 5th – the golden sand river
This part of the Yangtze is also called the Golden Sand River. In earlier times people panned her for gold. But no gold for me. It is raining and we are stopped time after time by blockades on the road. All this traffic is more then these roads can bear We do not seem to reach any place and time is running out. Again we turn around and the road along the river, which we were advised earlier not to take proofs to be the best. Perhaps because all the others stayed away from it.
We cross the Yangtze and go up into the mountains again. The driver has a special place in mind he wants to show me. He likes to help with the project and has taken the initiative. The mountain road is fascinating but nor free from blockades either. But without too many problems we reach a small town. Here you can feel that it must be very hot in summer. Many houses are opened up to the road to let as much air as possible into the house. This is now not to my advantage. A late meal in a very draughty restaurant and thento bed in some kind of governmental hotel – very barren, very cold and very dirty as usual in this kind of places. Tomorrow is the last day of the trip. In the evening we have to reach a bigger town from where I can take a bus to Kunming. From there I can fly to Beijing. The driver still promises me one more interesting village. I cross my fingers.
September 6th – looking out for the Ee-people
It was the plan of the driver to visit the Ee people. The Ee’s are still more or less nomads who build very barren wooden houses, which they leave behind, when they want to move on. A friend – a police man - will show us the way. But we first have to pay a visit to the police station. There many cups of tea and a lecture on Chinese housing policy. The wooden houses were regarded as unhealthy and most are destroyed. We cannot expect to find many of them, so tells the policeman. So why are we sitting here. Why aren’t we moving. I get very unpatient and feel unpleasant. And yes – in the end the friend is not coming with us and only gives the driver some instructions. We set off one hour late. A narrow concrete road leads deeper into the valley. This valley was in old times the only field that was wide enough for quarelling landlords to let their armies fight against each other. Some famous local wars have taken place here.
We reach a village over a brand new road. Until a year ago there had not been a bus to this place. People that wanted to leave the valley had to walk the first 15 kilometers. Again we ask for directions to reach the Ee’s, but the place is too high up on the mountain, so they say. We would have to climb up for at least 3 hours.
That is what we have traveled for for two days. Rather frustrated I walk into the village. Again many old large stone houses, that have been divided. One house we enter through a hole in the outer wall. You can still see the rough cut made by the Red Guards. A wooden gate is build in front of it. We come into a very dark kitchen with a staircase to the second floor. This was a back kitchen or perhaps even a storage place in the old days. It comes out onto a courtyard that has been divided by a high stone wall. On this side of the wall at least three families have their kitchen and a place to sleep. But they seem to be very friendly with each other. Although they all make their food in their separate kitchens, they eat togetheraround a large table. Of course we are invited, but I prefer to climb up to the loft. When I turn around to enter the kitchen again, I realize the beauty of the place. The dark wooden wall of the second floor is visible from the kitchen and through the wooden gate just enough light comes in to reveal something of the inner part of the kitchen. The rest of it stays into the dark and you can only guess what all will be there. Away are my negative feelings. This is going to be the last picture of the trip and perhaps even the best of all.
On the way back we have to please the policeman one more time. In the town we stayed overnight there is the former house of an important Chinese general in Mao’s army. Only very important people are allowed to visit. The policeman has got the allowance to show us the house. So off we go and visit a ruin with no meaning for me other then that our visit gives a lot of ‘face’ to both the driver and the policeman. I cannot be bitter anymore. This is China and many people have done their utmost to make my trip as interesting as possible. So gracefully I do what is expected and only hope there will not be another blockade on the road back. We have to reach town in time.