This looks back on two month of traveling through China, around 4.000 km by bus, 3.000 km by train and 2.000 km by airplane. It was not possible to publish this blog during that time because it was blocked. There seems to be a lot of political tension in the country presently. Together with Alfred Banze this tour through China was a combination of sightseeing, visiting friends, preparing our next project and attending the wedding of Jay Brown who runs the Lijiang Studio.
We are grateful for an exceptional journey without any major troubles like sickness, accident or crime. Despite traveling through the provinces Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu up to Dunhuang during the rainy season, which is dangerous due to the risk of land slides in the mountain areas we passed through, we just witnessed quite a few of those natural events but where not affected by it.
We saw amazing landscapes, cultures and people, but also realized the considerate changes the country is experiencing. Many beautiful landscapes and locations turned into „tourist scenic spots“ since our last visit.
That means landmarks are closed off with fences or walls, fixed with concrete, everybody has to buy an expensive ticket in order to pass through the gate. A huge tourist machine takes care of the people, selling transportation, information and, of course, souvenirs. If you enter such a landmark you become part of a throng of chinese tourists – and there is no gap in the fence to disappear through and find a nice quiet spot for yourself.
Another aspect of these changes can be seen in the multitudes of contruction sites: highways, highspeed train tracks and over and again new sprawling divisions of villages and towns. Big and small houses all in the same style, like in Europe or North America: real estate speculation seems universal.
Let me share the following impressions with you: In the middle of August we arrived in China via Laos (the towns calls Booten) in the deep south. It is a special area called Xishuangbanna, very much influenced by the Dai people. Their culture and language relates closely to Thailand and some Buddhist temples can be found in this tropical zone. First we went to Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna.
Initially we were a little shocked at the high prices in China compared to our journey six years ago: food, hotels, transportation, everything had gotten more expensive. Then Alfred lost his bank card. We tried to get internet access in our hotel, this turned out to be quite impossible. In the public internet cafes we were always asked for a chinese ID card and denied an internet connection on the basis of our German passport. Alfred tried hard to get into contact with his bank online and at last one guy from the hotel gave Alfred his internet registration. We had this problem frequently, except in the major tourist spots where one can find many wifi coffee shops. Jinghong is a cozy town with palm trees along the streets and beautiful parks with tropical plants. We bought a chinese SIM card for our mobile phone, so we could call our friends in case of trouble or difficulties for translation. Life is slow in Jinghong. Unfortunaltely I fell ill, so I spent most of the time in my hotel room.
Then we arrived in Zhongdian, also called ShangriLa (based on the novel „The lost horizon“ by James Hilton, which discribes a hidden quiet paradise in the mountains). But paradise is definitely lost here, the old town grew enormously and turned into a tourist spot. We stayed in an old Tibetan house belonging to a friend of ours. It was nice to return and refresh my memories of exhibitions I had here in 2006 and 2007. l still like the Songzanlin monastery very much, the biggest Lama monastery in Yunnan province which inspired me to do some paintings.
This monastery is situated in a pretty valley a bit out of town. One day we decided to have a bus take us there for a walk but this was not to be: the bus stopped at a boundary-like construction where a policeman told us to get off and buy entry tickets for 15 € each – tourist rip-off, so we decided against it. The next day we visited the “One Hundred Chicken Temple” close to our lodging, on top of the hill. It was a magic place six years ago, but now it is “cleaned up” and I was horrified to see that most of the trees and plants where replaced by a concrete platform.
Since Zhongdian is situated at 3.300m above sea level we had to stay on for a few more days to adapt to the conditions. During the first days we had to walk slowly to avoid getting out of breath. After 5 days we continued to Sichuan.
Litang is one of the highest towns on earth, about 4.000m above sea level. It is located on highlands with soft green hills, surrounded by tall mountains. To get there you have to pass high mountain areas and also rough areas like stone deserts. This is the region of the Kampa people, Tibetan nomads and a freedom-loving people, but underpopulated and with hard living conditions.
In 2008 a rebellion took place in this territory, so it was closed off to tourists for a while. Even now nothing seems to be certain: on our last evening in Zhongdian our friend asked a local guide if the border between Yunnan and Sichuan is still open for tourists or not – that sounded really strange to us. Litang is also famous for the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery. Two Dalai Lamas originated from here and many monks are living here as well. It is still a magic place, hopefully it can be kept this way despite the construction activities.
Repeatedly I had the feeling that the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution“ had never ended: it destroyed the old Chinese culture and buildings and the vacuum is filled with kitschy accessories and art in public spaces.
Also their form of “cleanups” or “making new” involves a lot of concrete construction and, especially in the temples, thick layers of new colour are laid over the existing old colours and paintings. So in effect, the leftovers of culture are being destroyed by “taking care”.
Litang is also a special place because of theTibetan people wearing their very colourful traditional clothes and jewelry.
Practically everywhere and every day in this area we experienced problems with power outages. Unfortunately we had to leave Litang after one day because Alfred got breathing problems due to the elevation. The way to Kangding was a horror trip of sorts: all 285 km of road between the towns were under construction. We had a very bumpy and dusty ride, with some traffic jams. Some of the valleys are uninhabitable at the moment, everything is covered with a thick layer of dust, but people have no choice. We used the time of being confined to the bus for observing the strange behavior of Chinese car drivers, it is really unbelievable how rude and rules-neglecting people can be.
We went further to Northern Sichuan which used to be Eastern Tibet before 1950, where we saw different kinds of Tibetan houses to the ones in Danba, and arrived in Langmusi at the border of Sichuan and Gansu, a small town divided by a river. This little town was one of our highlights.
The countryside, called “Chinese Switzerland”, is made up of grassland, surrounded by variously shaped mountains. Langmusi boasts two temples, one on each side of the river. It is touristic but at this time not in an overly industrialized way we saw elsewhere. You have to pay a fee to enter the monasteries, but you pay the monks sitting in small stalls.
We liked the monastery Kerti Gompa on the Sichuan side very much, it was like a big town on both sides of the hills. When you walk through it you can listen to the reverberations of the monks’ prayers if you know the appropriate times. By stroke of luck we could join a ceremony around a mandala and further through the monastery.
On the next day the sun finally broke through the clouds after several rainy days. We visited the other monastery, Serti Gompa, on the opposite side of the river and mingled with a big group of monks praying outside. Maybe they were offering a prayer to the sun?
In Xiahe, very highly recommended in the travel guide for the famous Labrang monastery, we were shocked by the gold-digger mood in town, an expensive place with very little spirit in my opinion. The monastery itself was interesting, while a guided tour seemed to be “cleaned up”.
We traveled the long way to Dunhuang to see the Mogao Caves, a famous oasis on the Silk Road. Buddhist believers offered paintings and also great sculptures for favourable business along the Silk Road for over 1400 years. The climate of the Taklamakan desert kept those artefacts in very good condition. Some researcher from Europe, the U.S. and Japan removed a number of the paintings and sculptures, so you can see artefacts from Dunhuang also in Berlin, for example. More than 400 caves still exist, only around 40 are open to the public, but it is amazing enough to see only those few. It was an old dream of mine, so I was very excited and happy.
Dunhuang is also famous for its dunes, but this is definitely a scenic spot now, a big tourist industry which brings people wearing orange plastic socks by a kind of big gulf cars, camels or light airplanes into the desert.
Xining we passed by to get a train to Beijing. The town is more than 2.000 years old but one wouldn’t realize it any more. It is an agglomeration of more or less attractive new concrete buildings.
One of the biggest mosques of China is situated here but this building is disappointing compared with the great caves and temples we saw.
Finally we caught a train to Beijing. Arriving there our friends picked us up and this was definitely a big change in our travel routine. We shifted from the anonymous state of tourists to a very warm and personal situation, sitting together every day, talking for hours on end, joining their daily lives, visiting other friends and preparing a wedding present for Zhou Quiao and Jay: composing a song and stitching symbols of memorable moments of their love story on a mosquito net.
We also visited the artists community “Homeshop” in an old Hutong, some temples and the Forbidden Town.
We had a quick look around District 978 which is the most commercial quarter of an art market I ever saw and at other art locations, all parts of a big industry. Time was running out and we had to leave, this time by airplane, to Kunming. On Sunday morning we arrived at Jay´s apartment with a view onto the red elephants in the zoo nearby, coloured by the red soil of the area. Kunming was preparing itself for the National Day on 1stof October, this being one of the main holiday times in China and the traffic routinely collapses. Especially the Green Lake Park, a pleasant green oasis in the middle of town and nearby our apartment, was nicely decorated.
In the evening of the moon festival we arrived at the Lijiang Studio in the small Naxi village of Lashihai near Lijiang. The moon festival is a day to visit the family and have dinner together, so we had dinner in the traditional yard of Lao He and the neighbouring family we became very close to during our residency in 2006. Since we like each other very much it felt like a homecoming. Unfortunately a hailstorm disturbed the night and destroyed parts of the harvest. We saw the thick layer of ice and it was a shock for all of us.
A few days later the yard of Lijiang Studio was full of visitors for the wedding and the 3 month old baby Kiran got a Naxi name in a ceremony. The wedding party was a mixture of people from different countries: Jay´s relatives from the U.S., many expat friends, us as foreign visitors, the Naxi orchestra from the village and one from Lijiang – a really mixed bag. The ceremonies were taken care of by a Dongba, the Naxi shaman He Xiudong, whom we also know previously from our exhibition “Another China” in 2008.
At the end almost everybody was drunk, one of the baby pets of the dog Dodo was stolen and the sunny weather arrived just one day too late…
At the end we prepaired a part of our upcoming exhibition Exotika 2013. Mu Yunbai, an artist from Lijiang will join it.