China Travelogue – 21: Chinese sightsee, westerners hike

Posted in Travel at 14:06 by RjZ

When you book a tour a day trip anywhere, it’s not always clear what’s going to happen. In China, the language barrier and a few shady operators can make you even more unsure, yet, you never know unless you try. We met on the corner of the street where the tour office told us to go and a few minutes later we were directed to hop on a bus with several tourists from China and all around. Our first stop was ‘the great bend of the Yangtze river’ an overlook with a shop selling a wide range of unidentifiable medicinal herbs from the area along with some pickled creatures and a chance to shoot an arrow at a target for no obvious reason. We switched to a smaller bus along with two other westerners and four Chinese and headed toward the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

We bounced along a dirt road through the tourist gate and to a park and overlook near the beginning of the hike. Everyone stepped out to look down nearly 1000 m to the the river below where more tourists were gathered on a lower overlook shouting at each other over the sounds of the river crashing and cascading past them. Their shouts floated up to us and were softened to earnest whispes by the time they arrived. After brief glimpse we were asked to board the van we travelled a bit further up the very rough, narrow, and pitifully unprotected road for about a kilometer before we suddenly stopped and Daniel stepped out and asked just the two of us to join him. The van managed to turn around and drive back towards the overlook while we discovered that Daniel would be our guide and we’d be hiking up a series of switchbacks to the Tea Horse Guest House, our first stop on the trek.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

What about the others? Daniel said that Chinese don’t hike. “They just want to look at sites and then move on to the next one. Never spend any time…,” He likes westerners better anyway, he explains; “not so rude.” And indeed, while we definitely didmeet Chinese who hiked down to the river, we didn’t see any on the trek.

The gorge itself (Hǔtiào Xiá) is one of the deepest in the world, flanked on one side by the 5,596 m Jade Dragon Snow mountain (玉龙雪山; Yùlóngxuĕ Shān, ) and on the other by 5,396 m tall Haba Shan (哈巴山; Hābā Shān). The river is 2000 m below the peaks and 25 m at its narrowest, the spot where a legendary, but very impressive, hunter leaped across to avoid being eaten by a tiger! The gorge is just16 km long although we only hiked about 13 km of it. Check here for a map of of the area.

Hemp plants

The trail, above the main road below, is a well used dirt path mostly easy to walk along, although occasionally steep, narrow, washed out, or covered over with small landslides. It’s used by local farmers herding their goats, carrying supplies, and foreign hikers. Along the way graffiti marks rocks with directions to several guest houses like billboards on American highways telling you you’ve only got four more miles to go before a cool beer.

Daniel is a helpful guide and very considerate that we may not be able to go as fast as him; he does this once or twice a week, or that we might need to rest. We’re from Colorado, damnit, we have to represent! Fortunately, the views are stunning so there are plenty of chances to stop and take a breath take pictures (even if the light is all wrong….) and to admire the tall five leaved plants that smell suspiciously like an illicit substance gaining popularity for its purported medicinal value. Daniel explains that, yes, they’re hemp plants. The farmers harvest them for rope…also. To be fair, they don’t seem to be growing in any organized fashion; they are simply scattered all over the place.

Tea Horse GH

After our peaceful lunch at the Tea Horse, we continue on the trail looking up at Haba Shan and across to Jade Dragon. The river below is milky gray and silty and an enormous distance away. In autumn there are a few late summer flowers and the occasional western trekkers (both with and without guides). As pretty as everything is, it’s hardly undisturbed country. Above us is the tungsten mine where Daniel, a chemistry student, used to work. There are power lines cris-crossing the area and leaking water pipes 20 cm in diameter zig zagging around us. To be fair, many hikes in Colorado can be spoiled by old mine tailings and rusting, abandoned, equipment as well.

Daniel showin a tungsten sluice

Daniel showing a tungsten sluice

Daniel is happy to be a guide and no longer working at the tungsten plant. His description is the familiar stereotype of an industrialist: unconcerned about the gorge or the people who live here and only interested in money and digging tungsten out of the top of the mountain. The local people have a few jobs there, but the rest settle literally for the dregs. Because we’ve shown so much interest, Daniel leads us on a detour to a shed housing a farmer’s handmade mechanical sluice. Runoff water from the mine is diverted to the sluice where the incredibly heavy ore is shaken off into buckets to be sold off for extra cash. In trade, the water in the area is not very safe to drink and many of the streams tumbling down to the Yangtze below are polluted. We’re starting to agree with Daniel here.

Moon setting over Tiger Leaping Gorge

The hike winds through another lodge with enough time for us to have a beer and then finally down the slope a ways to our hotel and restaurant for the night. The moon sets dramatically over the high cliffs on the other side of the gorge and we’ll hike down to it the next day. So far, Daniel’s right: we’ve seen no Chinese hikers, but a few foreign travelers. And the tour we’ve booked is turning out to be a fantastic deal: our very own tour guide and a quiet, educational journey up close with Tiger Leaping Gorge. Nope, when you book a tour it’s not always clear what’s going to happen.

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Finding an onramp to the internet highway

Posted in Society, Travel at 17:56 by RjZ

I’ve been traveling lately with my internet enabled smartphone. Alright, it’s an iPhone if you really must know, but that isn’t the point. It’s not like I’ve really used it much. In the United States there are some reliable places to get free wireless internet access including libraries and coffee shops, and there may be similar places Europe or Japan, but I didn’t discover them and certainly not when I needed to. (For what it’s worth, there were considerably more of them in Japan than in Europe.)

Today, the internet access providers are gatekeepers to the internet. Where I live, that’s my work and at home my television cable monopoly: Comcast. Even if Comcast and other access providers don’t see it this way, many of their customers see them like a utility. They provide us pipes to get at the useful data out there on the internet. They charge us to get on the internet superhighway and read the billboards that we’re interested in. Unfortunately, for travelers, this access is fixed to a given location, like where the pipes (cables) go, or maybe better a region, like the service area of our mobile network.

It might be very annoying to have to pay for content use on the internet–I wonder if it would have grown the way it has, but I offer up the idea here to see what you think. Imagine if weather reports, news, movie reviews, Facebook, whatever were on a fee per use or subscription basis. It’s not like we’ve never heard of this: much of the internet is only available at extra cost (Netflix, Flickr Pro accounts, porn sites), except you’re paying twice. First to get on the internet superhighway, and then again to use the premium subscription. Other services, such as the above mentioned news, weather, and Facebook could choose to offer their services free of charge, now as before, funded by ad revenue; it’s not like they’re receiving any revenue from internet access now.

The way it works today, Comcast makes money off the infrastructure they put in place to get internet to my door (earned) and my interest in using it to get a weather report (not earned). Comcast doesn’t seem to get this. They imagine that they, too, are content providers. They want me to use their pipes to get television, HD programming (free over the air), premium programming and on-demand programming. Problem is, I don’t want any of their services. If they are pro-rating the price of just feeding internet juice to my house in an effort to encourage me to pay for their content, it isn’t working. Charge me whatever is appropriate for pipes full of content and stop trying to hoist you’re inconveniently packaged programming on me. The people with local monopoly on internet pipes are highly protective of how they’re used because and worse they’re in competition with at least part of the reason I want to use those pipes in the first place.

Comcast is in the news for this very conflict: it seems they want to charge one of these content providers (indirectly, Netflix) extra. Makes sense to them. Thanks to Netflix, I am using their internet pipes more than I was before, so I accept they may wish to charge me more for that bandwidth, but that’s not the deal I have with them today. If Comcast and other internet access providers would recognize their roles as utlities I think they’d have a much better, and honest, relationship with their customers.

If the internet were offered like a utility it might be more available to travelers as well. I’d have paid a few cents to get the weather anywhere I was in Japan and it’d been easier to view if I didn’t have to download as many ads! Maybe I’d find the weather on an ad-supported free website too. Meanwhile the city would be offering up the internet at a variety of locations like many do with drinking fountains. Mmmm, fresh internet juice. What do you think?

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