Saturday, June 28, 2008

Geography Lesson

My five weeks of blissful (and blister-ful, see the entries about my sunburn) traveling have come to an end. I'm in Beijing now being pummeled with Chinese at home and school. But I start this entry with a map of where I went, partially to congratulate myself on having been so adventurous, and partly because I'm pretty sure even people who read my blog regularly don't know where Chengdu is.

I've reopened a years-old account on Photobucket just so I could upload a high-resolution version of this picture, so you should be able to click it and view it a lot larger. You'll notice Chengdu is about halfway up just to the right of the crease. That's where I lived all spring.

Geographically, Chengdu is in about the middle of China, but you'll see the whole brown part, which is Lonely Planet's rough topographical map, and that's Tibet. No one lives there. North of Tibet is another huge region called Xinjiang. I went there, but it's not really the same as the rest of China. So the most Chinese part of China ends at about Chengdu, which is why the school I went to was called "The Southwest School for Minorities."

But enough about Chengdu. From there follow the dotted line for Alex and my flight to Urumqi in the far northwest. We went to Kashgar together, and back again. Then Alex left and I had the great idea to go to Kyrgyzstan. I flew to Bishkek without a visa, which I successfully got in the airport, spent most of my time getting a visa but had time to visit nearby Karakol Lake, and then went to Almaty and met all of Borat's relatives (a joke for readers under 35). I took a brutal 30+ hour train ride back to Urumqi, then went on a multi-day public transport marathon to Turpan, then Dunchuang, then Lanzhou, then Xi'an, then back to Chengdu.

I stayed in Chengdu long enough to ship my luggage to Beijing, then flew to Yunnan province, where I enjoyed Lijiang and nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge, then went to Shangri-la, then bussed south to Dali, and then to Kunming.

I stayed four hours longer than I wanted to in Kunming because right when our flight to Beijing was going to come in, a storm was pouring its fury on the city and the plane was rerouted. By the time the storm stopped, the plane came, and they cleaned it, it was pretty late at night, but my sketchy study abroad program came through and had a driver waiting for me at the airport when I arrived at 3 am.

And then I was in Beijing.

This is Beijing on a sunny day. If I think these two months will pass as if in a haze, it's because they will. I hear that walking around in Beijing for a day is the equivalent of smoking 70 cigarettes. That's a pretty high number. After being here for a few days, though, I can relate. I didn't have a problem with pollution in Chengdu, I didn't feel it in Xi'an, but I step outside here and I feel like I'm licking the sidewalk every time I take a breath.

Beijing, while I'm talking about geography, is similar to Washington D.C. It doesn't belong to a province; it just is. Officially, I think, it's a "municipality," but China has so many special cases (Tibet is one of five "autonomous regions," Chongqing is one of three "municipalities," Taiwan is something else, I think Macao has yet another title) that I can't say for sure.

Beijing the city (what New York City is to New York) is huge. It's organized into five concentric "ring" roads. Chengdu had three. I live in the north-northwest part of the fourth ring road, and it takes forty minutes by bus just to get to the north part of fourth ring road where I have classes.

And Beijing the municipality is the size of Belgium. So I can travel all over China (and have) but two months won't be enough time to see everything one city has to offer. And that's China for you.

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