Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Mount Kawa Karpo, a holy mountain at the entrance of Tibet

This past week has been absolutely amazing, thanks to the very unique encounters I have made along the way. After a tiring two day trek in the "Tiger Leaping Gorge," I stayed in Lijiang for a couple of days in order to plan out the rest of my farm visits. Instead of directly going back to Kunming to continue my investigation on eucalyptus and citronella oil, I decided to go North from Lijiang, to the start of the Tibetan world.

Hence, I hopped on a bus from Lijiang to Zhongdian, where I was lucky to meet an English guy who spoke perfect Chinese. Zhongdian is a small city marking the beginning of the Tibetan world. It is surrounded by treeless hills, where sheep and yaks graze freely in the middle of large white Tibetan houses, which are so welcoming with their colorfully decorated wooden doors. The dark and cloudy sky that seems so close to the ground as well as these endless fields bear the marks of a region regularly sweeped by cold waves. In the streets, most of the women wear traditional clothes, the most impressive part being their hair-do. They roll up their braided hair around a very pink hat... I'm always amazed by these women, working in the fields, carrying weights twice as heavy as them and then at night, dancing with all their energy to Tibetan tunes on the main square of the old city. During these dances, the normally quiet and empty square fills up with people, both men and women who follow each other in circles, hopping from one leg to the other. Some moves actually reminded some of Greek dancing, or it may just be the very friendly atmosphere.

From Zhongdian we explored the biggest Tibetan monastery in the Yunnan province. This monastery looks a miniature version of the Potala palace in Lhassa. It houses about 780 monks, who may enter from the age of 5-6. As we were strolling through the many rooms of the monastery, observing Buddhist paintings representing the Buddha or Buddhist hell with a myriad of colors, we bumped into the chief monk who kindly invited us into his abode. There he offered us some tea and cheese- you all know how much I love cheese and especially stinky cheese, but this one was just pure fermented bacteria and was almost inedible.

The best part of my expedition to the North-western part of Yunnan came about during the following two days. We left Zhongdian to go to Deqin, the last city in Yunnan before entering the political border of Tibet. Zhongdian and Deqin are located in this county called Shangri-la, where the majority of the population is ethnically and culturally Tibetan. On the way to Deqin, we stopped in this little village, Benzilan, lost in the middle of very dry hills covered with cacti. It was surprisingly warm in Benzilan, maybe the region has a microclimate of its own. Anyway, at times I had the impression of being in a hilly Arizona. When we arrived in Deqin, we were a bit disappointed, it was just another Chinese city. Ok, this time it was a small Chinese city (which is quite rare, at least for European city standards)- but it was a city nevertheless, busy, crazy cars, people spitting everywhere. At least it was cold, very cold and I had to wear my fleece to keep warm.

We left the city as soon as we arrived, and headed south, where we stopped 10km later, close to another monastery, but most importantly at a place where we could have a breathtaking view of the Kawa Karpo, a holy mountain that reaches heights of more than 6 000 meters. In Tibetan Buddhism, Kawa Karpo is sacred, not only because lamas used to pray and meditate in front of it, but also because to this day, no one has ever been able to reach its summit. During the last attempt, the 17 courageous climbers were killed in an avalanche, only 200 m from the top. The mysterious part is that most of the bodies haven't been recovered, and some of them have been found on the other side of the moutain...

So we sat there all afternoon, waiting for the clouds to unveil the peak of the mountain covered in snow. Apparently, in the past weeks, people had rarely been able to see the summit as the clouds always hung around it. When we arrived we could already distinguish some glaciers through the clouds... we waited and waited... and little by little the clouds moved and let us see larger parts of the mountain.

While we were waiting, we met three Tibetan pilgrims. I was quite lucky to be with Tom (the English guy who spoke Chinese) because without him I would have never been able to interact with them. Originally from Western Sichuan, the three brothers had been walking for the past 4 years on a pilgrimage to Lhassa. They walked, carrying their tent and covers and pulling their mother in a poorly made wooden cart. They had arrived in Deqin a couple of months earlier. There they started to walk around the base of the holy mountain Kawa Karpo. They went around the mountain twice, which apparently took them two months. Later, when the clouds revealed the summit of the mountain, I realized that they had been crawling (not walking) around the mountain twice. As soon as we were able to distinguish the peak, the three brothers started to bow and lie in front of the mountain, just as they did when going around it.

Later that night, they invited us in their tent for a cup of tea. We asked them to write down their names for us first in Chinese script and then in Tibetan. They had great pain to write in the Tibetan script. It is such a shame, and I suppose this is what happens with most minorities. Their culture is that of Tibet, they speak Tibetan at home, but at school, they only learn Chinese script... I'm not sure what role the government plays in that, but if it does then it's probably not in favor of the Tibetan culture. When we left, they gave us a prayer bracelet, one that they had kept with them during the past 4 years. I felt so inappropriate- for sure I don't deserve this gift of huge sentimental value. I was completely blown away by their devotion and their will power. Soon they will go back to Sichuan where they will work in the fields with their father.

I'm now back in Kunming- and leaving tomorrow to a small village lost in the Southern part of Yunnan, in the Xishuangbanna county. There I will work on a citronella farm for a couple of days and then visit a tropical plant research institute. At this institute, they study the potential of producing essential oils from rare tropical plants, which apparently will disappear if they are not made useful.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Geranium fields and medieval cities.

It's been such a long time since I wrote my first entry, and so now, as it is drizzling outside, is a nice time to update you about my adventures in China, where every time I cross the road or hop on a bus seems to be the last, where I have tremendously improved my hand-speaking and drawing skills, and where I always need to be on the look out not to step in someone's spit on the floor.

I very happily left the craziness of Hong Kong for mainland China where I visited the leading company in essential oil exports in China. I went there on a saturday, when David, the person I had contacted over email, had time to show me around. David is in charge of all foreign trade, and so he was not able to explain to me in grand detail the actual plant design. The most interesting part of the visit was when he told me about the history of the company and how it was affected by the Opening-up policy of 1979, when China took a first step towards a more capitalist system. The company is located in the Guangdong province, which many refer to as the "factory of the world" as it is where many "Made in China" goods are produced. It is a booming province, which welcomes many young Chinese graduates who need a job. That's why most companies are equipped with dormitories where the young workers can stay as they are so far away from home. After the visit of the factory, I was eager to go further upstream, to the fields where the peasants produce the crude oil that is then refined by companies like the one close to Hong Kong. So I headed towards Yunnan, a province in the South-West of China that shares borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. There they produce most of the Chinese geranium, eucalyptus and citronella oils.

Since the train journey from Guangdong was going to last 2 days, I decided to stop on the way in Yangshuo, a small village in the Guangxi province, lost in the middle of limestone karsts. To get there, I got on a 12-hour bus ride, and so I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that the bus had beds. I was almost as tall as the bed, and so I thought how miserable Xan and Rory would have been on this journey.

In Yangshuo, the landscape was absolutely breathtaking. It looked exactly like the hilly landscapes of Chinese painting scrolls. I stayed there for a few days, while waiting for seats to free up on the train to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. In the meantime, I tried rock climbing- it was quite hard, especially under the 35 degrees C sun... but I thought of you Fanny, and you really would have been in heaven here with all the rock-climbing opportunities. Yangshuo was an interesting place, a highly touristic place where both Chinese and Western tourists mingle. Hence, in the past 4-5 years, the local population has rapidly adapted to the tourist industry. I was constantly harrassed by people who wanted me to follow them to their guesthouses, or older women trying to sell their bottled water.

After a 24 hours train journey, I was happy to arrive in Kunming, where the temperature was about 10 degrees lower than what it had been in Guangxi, Guangdong and Hong Kong. Yunnan is a very interesting province, as it is home to 28 minorities including the Bai, the Dai, the Naxi, the Yi, each with their own religion, language, and food. Yunnan was always considered by the Chinese dynasties as a far-away province in which they did not take much interest. So Yunnan was always very independent from the rest of China. In Kunming, one can see the Muslim heritage from the Mongol invasion, and apparently down South in the Xishuangbanna region, language and tradition are very close to the Thai culture.

The day after my arrival in Kunming, I met a woman who is in charge of a geranium distillery in the fields surrounding the medieval city of Dali, home of the Bai minority. She took me to her house, lost in the tobacco, geranium, corn, rice and orange fields . It was so nice to go through the fields, and here and there smell glimpses of a sweet and bitter odor, the freshly distilled geranium oil. It is too bad I had not thought of bringing a small vial where I could have taken a small sample of the oil- for sure I ll think about it for later. There I visited the distillery and was able to ask many questions thanks to her cousin, an English teacher who nonetheless did not know how to speak English very well. This was the first time during my trip in China that I really sensed the language barrier. Eventhough I had an "English translator" I could not communicate directly with the farmer and this was a huge handicap, especially when asking more technical questions.

I was hoping to stay there for a few days and work with the farmers on the field and in the distillery, but when I asked if this was possible, the only answer I obtained was general laughter. They didn't see the point for me to do this, it would be too complicated and how would I know what to do since I do not speak Chinese. I persisted thinking this would maybe be my only chance to work with geranium oil in China, but abandonned as I sensed I was annoying them. Needless to say, I was really disappointed. I guess this is part of the experience. So I left Dali and while I was in the North-West of Yunnan, I decided to go more North, closer to the Tibetan border.
I am now in Lijiang, an old town which is now on UNESCO's World Heritage list, with small houses and their pointy slate roofs, paved streets passing by food vendors proposing dog meat (no I haven't tasted it yet, but soon...), fried caterpillars or "baba" the local type of pancake. It is home to the Naxi minority group, which is extremely interesting as it based on a matrimonial system.
I just came back from a two day breathtaking trek, along the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We hiked up very steep hills in the mountains surrounding the Yang Zi river, which starts in Yunnan and ends 6 000 km away in Shanghai.

I'm staying here for a couple of days, trying to see if other geranium farmers would agree that I work with them, and then I'll head back to Kunming from where I should visit eucalyptus and citronella fields.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Hong Kong

So that's it! This year of travelling around the World following the trails of essential oils, this year I have dreamed of and thought so much about has finally started. On July 31st, I hopped on the plane to Hong Kong and arrived in this bustling city 12 hours later.Hong Kong is divided into 4 main areas, the New Territories from which you can access China by land, the Kowloon peninsula south of the New Territories, Hong Kong Island, the island south of Kowloon and the Outlying Islands including Lantau Island where the new International airport is located. On my way from the airport to the city center, I was able to admire the islands covered in a lush vegetation which was replaced by clusters of tall and thin buildings as I got closer to the center.I got off the bus in Mong Kok, the most densely populated neighborhood (120,000 inhabitants per square km) of Kowloon. I was overwhelmed by the never-ending flow of people, the incessant sounds of the red lights telling the people when to cross the streets, by the numerous shops packed with cell phones, digital cameras or with beauty products.

My first impression was similar to the one I had when I first arrived in New York, oppressed by the tall buildings around preventing me from seeing any bit of the horizon. But here in Hong Kong this feeling of entrapment is enhanced by the neon signs in Chinese characters, which crowd the potential free space above the streets and which make Mong Kok at night seem as bright as during the day. The hot and humid weather that makes breathing difficult doesn't help either.

After this rather unpleasant first encounter with Hong Kong, I reconciled with the city as I ventured to the Central district (the financial district) on Hong Kong Island. It's not that I prefer streets lined with expensive shops, filled with men in suits and topped by 30-40 storeys glass buildings, but it gave me some perspective and made Hong Kong seem so much more interesting than simply a city of outrageous consumerism (I have never seen such a high density of malls in a given city before).

Hong Kong is a city of contrasts, a city where different worlds evolve parallel to each other. These worlds are materialized by the subway stations, cleaner than some of the buildings where I've visited a few hostels; by the busy businessman on Hong Kong Island not far away from Aberdeen where a few fisherman families have settled their homes on boats; or by the teenager feeverishly seeking the latest Nokia or Motorola model in one of the many malls entirely devoted to cell phones in Mong Kok, not far away from Kowloon park where some people regularly practice Tai Chi. I was told that in the New Territories, the city doesn't seem to be as much of a "consumers' heaven." It supposedly hides some beaches and many hiking trails. I'm sure Hong Kong still has many secrets to unveil, but for this, I will have to stay a much longer period of time.

This stay in Hong Kong has been a good transition between home and China because the culture here is Chinese, but with a heavy influence from the West. Also, many people speak English as many only speak Cantonese, which gives me a first taste of what I will be faced with in China where almost no one speaks English. Also, I've met quite a few travellers who gave me a number of tips for travelling in China.

I am leaving tomorrow for Zhuhai in China where I will meet with one of the leading producers of essential oils in China, but I will be back to Hong Kong when I leave for India.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


There were some changes in my itinerary, so I'm posting it here once again so you have an idea where I am on the globe:
August 1st- October 13, 2005: China
October 13 - January 31, 2006: India
January 31- February 26: Australia
February 26-March 31: New Caledonia
March 31- May 1st: South Africa
May 1st-July 1st: Madagascar/Comoros
July 1st- August 1st: Egypt