Chinese Holiday: Part One | Colleen MacDonald


Over the Chinese New Year holiday, many awkward events can transpire when several foreign adults set out on a mission to experience as many of the extremes they can tackle (and China can offer) in a six week period. Here, I offer a few examples.

It started, as things usually do in the far north of China, in Har’bin (or Chinese Siberia, as I call it). The temperature reached a daily average of -30 F and would drop down to a cool -37 at night. Once in five days did we remark that, “Oh, it has warmed a bit”, only to realize there wasn’t much warmth in -20f. Our vacation having been characterized by spending thirty minutes to layer on appropriate clothing to leave our dull hostel, frocking through the streets like blind zombie sumo wrestlers, and drinking beer that cooled more once it left the freezer, arriving back in Hangzhou in 30 F and rain made us kiss the ground – figuratively, not literally, of course – anyone who’s been to China knows the ground is not kissable.

Having survived China’s coldest and coming out on top, we decided rock climbing was next. Not content to reach our climbing destination of Yangshou directly, we chose instead the back-ass-wards way of a flight, bus ride, river ferry, and half a dozen halted conversations in Chinglish. Arriving in Yangshou revealed the promised land of climbing: Karst peaks abounded, teasing with promises of virgin rock, little know crags, and world-renowned routes. Appropriately losing ourselves in all things rock climbing, we surfaced on regular intervals to consume overpriced beer, disappointing two-foot-long ice cream cones, and to marvel at a painfully tacky life-size replica of Mothra somehow attached to the side of a karst mountain. We concluded the Chinese like such things, as the cave through the mountain Muthra was perched upon seemed to be doing a brisk business of relieving locals of their holiday cash.

With the taste of Yangshou rock still in our chalk grubby hands, it was time to take on Yunnan. We landed in Kunming, no thanks to the wind and pilot, who together seemed to have conspired to make the three hour trip more jolly by performing all manner of altitude drops, sudden turns, and wing wobbles. It was the first flight where we did not take our seat belts off the entire time. The feeling of fear may have been mutually shared amongst all passengers – the bathroom stampede once disembarking was African Savanna worthy.

Kunming disappointed us, so we contorted ourselves into tiny mini-bus seats and took off for Dali. Somehow dodging the horde of visors, straw hats, and ear pieces of a tour, we were able to tear our eyes away from tasty delicacies of corn and pea ice cream being sold in push carts in order to take in The Three Pagodas. Having survived the Cultural Revolution mess, 1000 years of earthquakes, and several other acts of God/nature, the Three Pagodas takes a high spot of the list of ancient, badass, stubborn architecture that provides enviable holiday photos.

There may have been more leg room on the bus to LeJiang; we hardly noticed as we were focused on contemplating proper beer from the night before, the distinct smell of pickled chicken bits, and the probability of me being able to sit on a Yak. LeJiang cleaned up smart and put on a twelve-hour show of fireworks, had masses going everywhere/nowhere, and served stale street food. We hardly noticed the street food, as ten o’ clock in the evening found us shambling drunkenly about after a serious ‘Ganbei!’ session in which we took pulls of homemade Biju from a gas canister. The Biju, the group of five Naxi men told us, was special and would not give a head or stomachache. This seemed as good a reason as any to empty a few glasses (or in this case, fifteen) and to partake in Chinese New Year festivities.

Once recovered from the Biju – which, due to gleefully imbibing far, far more than the recommend amount – had not delivered in the ‘no headache’ department, we once again contorted ourselves into ridiculously twisted shapes in a silly-small vehicle and headed toward the trailhead of Tiger Leaping Gorge. After a few minutes, our journey came to a halt once we realized our luggage had freed itself from the back trunk and hurled itself onto the pavement at 40 KPH. After some time, the trailhead was reached without remarkable further incident (the packs having been relocated to our laps, obstructing any view out the windows), since by this time in our holiday Chinglish conversations, getting lost at least twice and stepping in large piles of stray animal feces no longer counted as remarkable.

Situating ourselves behind two regularly pissing/eating donkeys and five Chinese on holiday, we started the trek up Tiger Leaping Gorge. Six hours later, after being offered “weed” by an old lady, climbing 1,000 vertical feet, and drooling over snow-capped mountains, we finally made it to the conveniently named “Half-Way Hostel”. There, as we’d heard claimed, the view of the gorge from the squat toilets is worth the price of the room. This proved to be true, with the view being really quite pleasant, especially if one likes ones natures served with the sounds of hikers suffering from Mao’s revenge…

 Part Two to appear in Issue Twelve…

The hidden, derelict and marginalized attract her; with a desire for adrenaline rushes and a love of heights, Colleen has photographed everything from abandoned highrises in Detroit to Particle Colliders in Russia. With an eye for portraits, a belief that everyone has a story, and a love of drains, she has been wandering through foreign countries since 2007. Accused of being a spy, a prostitute, and a missionary; having repelled down elevator shafts, been caught up in political protests and nearly arrested, she has developed a fearless approch to photography seeking out the moments both violent and peaceful that give life meaning.

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