Published: February 11th 2011February 9th 2011
Little did we realise, but there's all sorts of mad stuff going on elsewhere. Outside of our snow-encrusted little igloo of a town, there is a massive continent-sized country misleadingly labelled China, in which there is an abundance of variation. It is a world we had forgotton. A world within which exists a myriad fabled magical gems such as cocktails, pizza and the indescribable aniseedy joy of 'Fishermans friends'.
A couple of weeks back, we blindly boarded a train heading from the town of Zhangye, (pronounced Jangye) around two hours from where we live in Minle, to Lanzhou, (Lanjou). 'Spring Festival' had just begun, thus we were expecting it to be a little busy and had only been able to buy 'standing tickets'. Cunningly, forseeing a busy carriage, we had purchased two tiny metal travel stools on which one might perch one's posterior in an emergency. The true scale of the problem only reared its ugly head when we left the biting cold wind of the railway platform and climbed the stairs. The carriage we were assigned (along with every other bastard car) was packed wall to wall with bodies. We managed to force our way 15 metres inside the
carriage and no further. Finding a tiny baggage place up top to fit our bags was nothing short of a miracle, but I then realised we were stranded without food or drink for the next 8 hours barring some kind of extraordinary gymnastic feat. Possession of 'Standing tickets' effectively means standing in the 70cm wide aisle for 8 hours vying for a place to rest your elbow intermittently as a steady stream of Chinese folk squeeze past you through the bodies at a rate of two a minute, on the way to the space between the carriages where they can smoke. Every ten or twenty minutes, a 60cm wide trolley is pushed at breakneck speed up the aisle and passengers must squeeze into tiny invisible spaces under seats and inside other passengers armpits in order to escape. On the hour, every hour, a couple of cleaners literally sweep their way through the carriage, brushing the ton upon ton of detrius including nuts and seeds and their packets, weird chewy fishy shit, shrinkwrapped chicken feet, pot-sans-noodles and assorted whatnot into a mountain of rubbish as folk jump and climb onto seats and neighbours to avoid the approaching wave of shite. The
strangest part of it is that there is little or no sign of irritation or frayed nerves. People are extraordinarily tolerant of the discomfort and even seem to enjoy the communality of it all.
In any case, all of this makes utilisation of said stool virtually impossible. However, after a few hours of suffering, an tough old sinewy Mongolian woman , sacrificed one of her buttock spaces for Sarah, and some time later I managed a short time share of a seat with one family before they negotiated for me to squeeze my tiny stool between the legs of an adjacent family I'd previously been chatting incoherently to. It's difficult to put into words just how thankful I was. In a country with over a billion inhabitants, if you can't cooperate you're essentially screwed. To put our suffering on this trip into context, Li had a 31 hour trip in similar conditions cross-country to the east coast to get back to his family home. He found somewhere to perch his tiny metal stool, however it broke after just 6 hours leaving 25 hours of pain remaining.
When we arrived in Lanzhou, we had this unexpected culture shock, walking
into a supermarket. Inside was a huge four storey complex of endless aisles of modern goods that I hadn't seen the like of since we'd left. It was all shiny, bright and twinkling.... We walked around in a kind of daze, marvelling at the vast array of alchoholic beverages including various kinds of whiskey. The city itself is flanked by big mountains on one side beneath which the Yellow river runs through. We didn't have much time though, as we were taking a two hour flight down South to Kunming in Yunnan later that day.
Just getting off the plane, you could immediately feel the difference in the air. It was 10pm but the temperature was still close to 20 degrees C and there was much more moisture in the air. We walked out of the airport doors into a scene more akin to Bombay...a massive throng of people shouting and waving cards and clamouring to drag you off to 'suspect' taxis...but we eventually found our way to the taxi rank queue.
Ah...the joy of arriving at the Hump Hostel in Kunming was indescribable. A bar...which serves every drink you could imagine....people who all speak English...a pool table...a
menu you can read full of familiarities including 10 variations on a fried breakfast. This was Kunming but it was a veritable Shangri-la (which incidentally is relatively close but we never quite made it!)
Kunming turned out to be a very green city with a wonderfully relaxed pace of life. the state of Yunnan had once been independant, then had been beseiged by the Mongals and Kublai Khan in about the 13th century. Kunming was even opened to the West by the British and French in the early C20th, the latter building a train link to Hanoi. It's very modern and most of it's expansion came during World War 2 when many Chinese fled this way to escape from the Japanese. It became the recipient of American supplies from the 1000km Burma road through the mountains.Before that, Nowadays, the shopping centres in Kunming are vast and you can buy anything if you hunt hard enough. We even found the complete 6 season set of 'The Sopranos'.
We spent the best part of a day wandering around in Green Park in the sunshine, where people come to feed a billion seagulls that race around the lake. Ahh...it was T-shirt
weather...heaven! Despite the beauty of the surroundings, nothing could change Paterson's mind as to the fact that seagulls are tantamount to 'vermin' and should all be exterminated. We ate pizza and explored the area around the university which is a kind of bohemian quarter of cool coffee shops, the kind of places you'd find in Hampstead in London.
In the evening we sat by the bar, drank endless cocktails and chatted to 'foreigners'. By the time I woke up the next day, my throat was so sore it was unreal and I had the beginnings of a vile cold that was to well up gradually and eventually silt up my every tube with a barrage of luminous yellow snot that would stretch Paterson's compassion to the very limit. Apparently in the Paterson family, there is an agreement that one is allowed 24 hours of compassion during time of illness followed by a sudden and irrevocable reversion to normal procedings after the 24 hours has duly elapsed. This ruling was laid down by Mr Ian Paterson at some fateful time in Paterson history. Fortunately, under such extreme circumstances, I was able to stretch extensions of sympathy over a three to
four day period without any real dip in nursing and care, however I was forced to display a will to battle the germs and make the occasional sightseeing visit. Now, finally, we are safely back in Minle, the germs have virtually subsided and Paterson is 'coming down with something'
On return to Kunming after our travels to Dali and Lijiang, we spent a day out at Xi (pronounced Shi) Shan, which are the beautiful mountains west of Kunming. Fortunately by this time, I'd recovered a lot and it was boiling hot. We negotiated our way there via buses and stopped off at a culural museum for ethnic minority groups. There are loads of minority groups in China and a lot more interest and attempt to preserve them nowadays, though often in a slightly tacky touristy way. Unfortunately, whilst China is open to the West now, tourist sites often have yet to adapt to catering for international visitors so there may be few or no signs and explanations in English, even in very popular places. Thus, we didn't bother going in, but headed onwards to the mountains and temples.
Xi Shan was beautiful and the hike up and down
Many old people like to find a quiet spot, often under a tree, for their morning tai chi.
the steep stone staircases to the crows-nest temples, some perched precariously on the side of the rock face, was rewardingly arduous. Most entertaining of all, we took the excruciatingly slow chairlift back down and the kiwi was virtually paralysed with fear for about 10 minutes;)
Lower down the mountain, we explored Arhat temple complex which was amazing. Amongst the statues of buddha and varioius buddhist deities, the walls were made up of thousands of stone carvings of figures of monks, men and animals, some pious, some average, some disfigured, some bleary eyed holding opium pipes, some vicious-looking, all protruding towards you. It was amazingly lifelike work and you could've spent hours just gazing at all the faces and expressions. No flash photography allowed, but I managed a couple of shots without...it's difficult to truly capture quite just how extraordinary the place was though.
There is extremely amusing part to Paterson's story of this day, which unfortunately I'm unable to discuss due to fear of recrimination, but it will be duly retold to those who can be trusted with the information when we are safely back on British soil! Laugh, I nearly wept!
In the tiny space between
leaving Minle and returning, I seem to have learned how to speak some form of intelligible practical Mandarin, although I'm not exactly sure how or when it happened. Sarah has also started using a bit more, and her listening is much better than mine. Suffice to say, life is much easier now than it was. In addition, in the same period of time, our wee bathroom has become infested with tiny flies. You can't have it all.
Okay, that's enough waffling for today, and I guess I've got work to do once more. I'll post up the tales from Dali and Lijiang, which were by far the most beautiful places we saw, and the additional pictures/vids later this weekend.
All the best.X
There are more photos below