Coke & Som Smith Photography & Travelogue

China From Chengdu to Guilin

Kuming's great Stone Forest, on the Tibetan Plateau of western China


I really had no desire to travel to China when Lien and I went there in 1994.  This was another so-called "compromise" trip.  Lien really wanted to see the country that gave her own so much of its culture.  Although, once again, I would have rather bushwacked my way through the African wilderness, or the Australian Outback, or some other equally exotic and wildlife-filled location, the trip to China was in fact fascinating!

Lien allowed me to plan the basics of the trip, so I put together a program that involved visiting some the the sites that I had some interest in seeing and that actually provided some wildlife-viewing opportunities, or at least some spectacular natural scenery among all of the history and ancient culture.

Our month-long journey of China included a 10 day cruise of the Yangtze River (pre-dam!), Guilin and a Li River cruise, Wuhan, Chongching, Guang Zhou, Chengdu (pandas!), Da Zu and many other locations. 

We booked a tour and pretty much expected to be part of a giant busload of tourists following flag-holding tourguides throughout the Chinese countryside. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that we were in fact on a private tour and we had our own private guide in each location the entire time!  Most of our guides were very excellent.  The worst part of our stay in China was the hotel staff in many of our destinations.  Most of the hotels we stayed at in China had the basic attitude that we, the tourists, existed for their benefit.  I have never been treated so rudely by anyone anywhere in the service industry.  Overall, we were not impressed with the Chinese people on this trip as most of our interactions were negative and abrupt.  While I am sure that most of our negative experiences were due to extreme cultural differences and misunderstandings, we were dismayed with the direct, in-your-face approach many of the people we encountered practiced.  We would have spent a LOT more money if people just left us alone.  I will never forget watching Lien actually full-force punch a man in the face for attempting to take her bag from her at the Chongching docks after our cruise finished there.  The man nearly hauled off and smacked her back until he saw me coming right at him (I was a tad larger, and he probably thought Lien was Chinese, not a foreign tourist...not that this should matter at all...). 

While at the end of it all, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip to China, we both concluded that we (to quote Lien) "enjoyed China despite the Chinese!"

On a more positive note, I have had the pleasure of traveling to China a couple more times in more recent years, and my experiences have been far more positive.  I think most of Lien's and my initial experiences can be chalked up to being on a tourist circuit, and my experience has shown me that folks directly involved in the tourist industry are not representative of the people and culture of the countries they represent.  My more recent trips were more of a business and student-exchange nature and my interactions with local Chinese folks have all been very great and have left me with a far more positive view of the culture of China. 

And in my more recent trips, I have been able to see much more of China.  In 2001, I had the pleasure of traveling to China for three weeks representing Port Angeles School District on an exploratory trip for future student exchanges.  While there, I was given the grand tour of Nanning and Guangxi Province in southeastern China.  Well off the tourist track, this area was outstanding.  We visited hill tribe areas as well as massive caverns and many natural sites in Guangxi Province.  Sadly I did not take a camera with me at all on that trip!  I cannot tell you how many trips I failed to capture on film and how much I regret this now.  I will never make this mistake again.

In 2001, I was also able to spend some time in Beijing and experience the city and the surrounding countryside of Inner Mongolia.  My high point of course was my visit to the Great Wall.  We avoided the touristy area by recommendation and spent an entire day trekking the wall at Simatai, a much more rugged, less restored and much more spectacular area than the more conventional sites.


Be sure to visit our Photo Galleries for more spectacular images of our travels! (Pbase Galleries)


Here are some of the images from my trips to China:




The spectacular Three Gorges, on the Yangtze River.  We enjoyed our slow, 10-day cruise of the river.  On our "luxury" ship, there were only about 20 tourists.  We had a marvelously relaxing and spectacular voyage.  We saw tons of great forest and scenery, and even a new species of Macaque - Pere David's Stump-tailed Macaques, which were fairly common along certain parts of the river.



The Shibaozhai Pagoda temple was arguably the most spectacular cultural site along our voyage on the Yangtze.  We saw so much history during our cruise.  When I recall the places we experienced, I cringe at the thought of how much of it is now under water.  I read an article about Feng Du, a great town we visited with some outstanding hill-top temples (called "Hell Temple") that would be virtually completely underwater when the Three Gorges Dam was finally completed.  Now that it is, I would like to visit the area again to see what damage the Chinese have done to their own culture and landscape.


 I will never forget the reaction of our boat guides when I took off my shirt and jumped right in to this small tributary to the Yangtze.  Two of them jumped in, fully-clothed, to "keep me safe".  They tried to actually grab me to, "keep me safe", but I was insistant that all I wanted to do is enjoy a cool dip in a beautiful river in China.  They really freaked when ALL of the other European tourists (there were only Euros with us...and the Chinese tourists would never jump in a river) jumped in the river themselves!  We all enjoyed a great dip and our guides were terrified.  All ended well.



While we were exploring some of the small gorges along the cruise, the river levels made progress difficult.  After a couple hours of struggle, we finally made it to see the Hanging Coffins and the ancient cliff-face wooden trails which were the main trade highways thousands of years ago.




The journey of the "Little Three Gorges" tributary.



I still think our two days in Wuhan were the hottest days I have ever experienced.  If I did my conversions correctly, the temperature was 105 degrees F!  With 100% humidity! God what a hell hole...  But we still enjoyed exploring the city and its surrounding lotus-filled parks.  This is an image of the massive and spectacular Yellow Crane Pagoda in central Wuhan.



My personal favorite spot on our trip was the Panda Reserve in Chengdu.  We did see several Giant Pandas in wild-like settings (although they are all captive as the reserve's purposes are conservation and breeding), and the experience was far better than any zoo I had ever been to.  I wasn't thrilled however with the conditions of the Red Pandas, which were basically kept in stinky cement cells.



One of my top wildlife viewing goals is to return to China to track these amazing animals in the wild. One day...


Perhaps our most spectacular destination during our China expedition was Kunming's Stone Forest.  We spent an entire day exploring the karst limestone forest.  I remember flying in to Kunming and watching from my window the massive geologic formation that seemed to stretch so many miles in every direction.  Once we were in the middle of it, the massive scale of this maze of stone spires humbled me. 





The Stone Forest is situated on the Tibetan Plateau and is much cooler than other parts of China during the summer.  This was nice.  We spent some time trekking to hilltribe villages in the surrounding hills this afternoon.  Although it was somewhat touristy, we enjoyed the cultural exchange.





I was thrilled to see this fossil mandible of the massive primate, Gigantopithecus, seen in a museum in Chengdu.  I have always been fascinated by this primate that was basically discovered in the medicine cabinets of Chinese traditional pharmacists in Chengdu!





I had various names of this hill tribe given to me while in China.  I believe this woman is a member of the Yi, or Lahu Yi hill tribe.  We spent part of our day with this group of people. Communication was fun as they spoke absolutely no Chinese so our guide was basically useless.  They really liked Lien and I think they were telling us that she looked like on of them!



Lien was talked in to dressing up in their traditional clothing.  With the exception of her hair, I really think she could have passed for one of them too!



We spent about three days in Guilin.  Aside from just checking out the city and the surrounding countryside, we took a Li River Cruise.  Wow!  These hills are from another world and represent to me, the quintessential Chinese landscape.  I have since visited this region two more times in recent years. 



Guilin is situated in a spectacular moonscape!



These Chinese Bamboo Rats most likely ended up on someone's BBQ!  Yummy!



Of all the cities we visited in China, we most enjoyed Kunming.  Not only because of its cool, comfortable climate, Kunming was a great place to see the simple Chinese lifestyle of the local people.



A lovely lakeside pagoda in a central park in Kunming.



While in college in Japan, I took an Asian art history course that discussed "Da Zu" and other remote cultural sites. Many of these sites were not included in our program, but I was able to get us to see "Da Zu".  This spectacular assemblage of thousands of ancient Buddhas was one of the more beautiful places we were able to visit.  And there were no tourist there at all!




Had I not been paying attention in Asian Art History in college, I would have never even known this place existed!



As a wanna-be naturalist, I was thrilled one day during a trek in the mountains outside of Chengdu when we entered an old-growth stand of Ginkgo biloba trees.  These ancient forest giants are evidently one of the last remaining assemblages of this species left in China.



The mountains north of Chengdu.  Giant Panda country!  One day...



Our expedition to mainland China started and ended with a few days in Hong Kong. This is a view of the amazing city from Victoria Peak.



In 2001, I was able to trek the Simatai portion of the Great Wall.  This is no trek for the out-of-shape.  All in all, I trekked over six miles, most of it up with giant 1-meter+ steps!  My knees ached the next day!  This location was reported to be much less touristy and more authentic than other locations.  Once you get to some of the higher and more remote portions of this stretch of the Wall, it becomes far less restored and you find yourself ploughing through scrub and Great Wall skree to continue. I absolutely enjoyed this day!  And there were no tourists at all.

Be sure to visit our Photo Galleries for more spectacular images of our travels! (Pbase Galleries)