Published: June 23rd 2008June 20th 2008
We were ditched unceremoniously on the outskirts of Dali with no idea as to where we were. A girl on the bus made some effort to help us by talking at us in Chinese and pointing at Chinese signs. The bus driver revved his engine and eventually shouted at her to get back on the bus.
We spent some time on a couple of local buses and finally made it into the old town, with the help of a bus driver gifted in sign language and guesswork. We walked in the wrong direction, staggering under the weight of hiking and cold-weather-gear-laden packs. When we finally made it to our choice of guesthouse, we found it had been knocked down to make way for the town's first five-star hotel.
Luckily Dali is the kind of place that is instantly lovable even if you find yourself in an utterly loathable situation. After all of our tusslings with hawkers and touts in Yangshuo, we were delighted to discover that the no-strings-attached 'hello' is the favoured variety in Dali.
In our initial, unintended walk around the town we passed streets of tiny, narrow shops specialising in either just one product or almost
everything. We passed cloth shops, hardware stores, and old-fashioned pharmacies with steaming teapots full of mysterious Chinese teas. We saw a shop dedicated to the humble bucket; a mindboggling choice of sizes, shapes and colours, with two young girls doing their homework on a couple of large overturned buckets. Everywhere we walked children peeked out with shy waves or bold 'hellos'. Shop owners grinned and probably wondered what two backpackers were doing stumbling through the 'wrong' part of town.
Dali old town is full of beautiful wooden buildings and laidback locals who don't seem to mind all that much whether you are going to be giving them money any time soon. That might be because of the abundance of weed growing in the hills around Dali. The only vocal hawkers you get are the 'Granjas' (Ganja Grandmas) who offer you hash under the guise of selling you trinkets: 'BRACELET! NECKLACE! VERY NICE!' they shout followed by a wink and mutter under their breath of:
ganja, ganja very cheap!
These women look to be well into their 70s and some appear to be knocking a hundred, with broad toothless smiles and twinkling eyes.
We moved on to Lijiang with its heavyweight UNESCO World Heritage status. The place has more than earned the title. It's stunning and, thankfully, genuinely old, as opposed to the faux old that China often seems to favour. The place has 'ancient Chinese town' stamped all over it with shiny cobblestones, moss-covered bridges and communal wells. We arrived at dinner time to Mama Naxi's guesthouse and were immediately ushered to partake in her infamous communal dining with a whole table crammed full of delicious Chinese dishes. Mama Naxi herself was extremely friendly and self-styled crazy. Feeding herself with her fingers and missing more often than not, she spoke to you with food all around her mouth, constantly referred to herself as 'Mama' and insisted that you did too. Speaking to her was a challenge due to her unique blend of speaking non-stop with startling confidence and having almost non-existent English.
'You bus?! Mama bus yes! Yes Mama bus! You tell mama! Mama bus!
Asking about the details of the bus (when, where, how much?) resulted in much the same response but with more conviction. She inspired me to be a little more Mama-Naxi style when speaking a second language. No more mumbling or worrying about grammar, just shout random words in varying cryptic combinations allowing other people to make whatever sense of it they can... probably completely ineffective, but a lot more fun.
We were out at seven the next morning to see the city tourist-free (I was fairly surprised that I resisted the temptation to swat the alarm). It was just us and the occasional local on the cobblestone streets: girls washing at the city wells; old men in suits on rickety bicycles; Naxi women lighting up stoves to cook Naxi bread and corn. You can climb the narrow streets as they twist and turn upwards, for uninterrupted views of wooden rooftops and narrow, tangled streets, wondering how long it would take to know your way around.
Mama's confusing comments with regard to buses were deciphered with the help of various people staying at the guesthouse and we managed to make it onto a bus to Qiaotou to start a trek of the fantastically named ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’.
My hiking boots for the trek were labelled with the all too familiar 'Made in China' and a not so familiar price tag of 70 RMB (5 Pound). 'Made in China' is an excellent label when you are actually in China.
Despite the gorges best attempts my feet came out of the boots at the end of it reasonably unmangled with just two blisters to show for what was definitely the hardest and most spectacular walk I've ever done. The hardest part of the walk was the so called '28 bends' (although anyone who can be bothered to count agrees there are more). Its unrelenting gradient means you have to stop every few minutes just to reassure yourself you're not going to die (I developed three excuses for my not altogether impressive performance during the hike: the heat, the elevation and unusually small lungs). Luckily, like any good hike, the powers of pleasure/pain were very much at work and soon after we were rewarded with stunning views of the gorge.
When the trail isn't bending it runs along the gorge with occasional glimpses of the river rapids far below, it crosses waterfalls and winds through villages and alongside rice terraces. The Naxi's (the local minority) herd their goats or try to get you onto a donkey. It seems the locals have benefited from the average backpacker's fitness levels and manage to make a bit of money scraping them off the floor and carting them up the hard bits.
Next stop Zhongdian (or Shangri-la as the Chinese government has non-too-subtly renamed it to squeeze some more tourist money out of the town). Our trip was almost thwarted by the Olympic torch, which was rather inconveniently taking the same route. No public buses were running but we managed to get a minibus to take us (and permission from the police that we were allowed to go, despite rumours that they were trying to keep foreigners out as much as possible). The journey was repeatedly impeded by the trucks full of soldiers that were also heading up to Zhongdian to keep the torch safe from pesky fire extinguishers. We kept getting pulled over by the police to let processions of trucks, police and media pass. The army trucks were so slow we kept overtaking them and then getting stopped further up the road by police to let them pass again. We weren't the only ones being pulled over; there was a tour bus on the same road, which was full of torch groupies who kept pouring out of the bus to chant and wave flags as the convoy of vehicles passed us. The soldiers seemed somewhat bemused to see some foreigners standing by the side of the road (especially because we had acquired some flags from the torch groupies), but there were plenty of big smiles, waves, 'hellos' and even a few photos taken as well.
The next morning we got up at six to get a good position for watching the torch go past at eight. We followed the crowds to find the best location for torch spotting. Yunnan province has over 20 different types of ethnic minority and they were out in force for the event, wearing their detailed, beautiful traditional costumes. Women with plaited hair woven around ornate head-dresses, Tibetan fur hats, silk dresses with embroidered belts, leather riding boots and western suits; everyone carrying flags: Olympic flags, Chinese flags, mascot flags. The military were somewhat killing the celebratory atmosphere with trucks full of troops in combat gear in wait just around the corner. Zhongdian's location right next to Tibet meant it was the first largely-Tibetan town the torch was scheduled to pass through. It seems the government wanted to make a statement by putting on a big ceremony in the stadium, but they were fully prepared for it to go horribly wrong. Or maybe the show in Zhongdian was a dry-run for the main event of Tibet proper.
We tried to get into the stadium for the ceremony (which as far as we could hear involved shouting, cheering and drum banging) but were stopped before we even reached the front of the queue. They zoomed in on Paul and found him unsuitable on a number of counts (namely: skin colour, sex, height and his increasingly impressive beard). They didn't even bother to find out that we were ticketless and so could have been rejected on far less discriminatory grounds. We joined the rest of the unsuitables to line the road and pass the time people-watching and annoying the police by such subversive acts as touching the rail.
When the torch finally finished doing its thing in the stadium, it headed out to meet its bored and fed-up public; two hours after the aptly named Chinese Whisper had led us to believe. People jumped into action and got on with some earnest flag waving and
chanting. The road was lined with torch bearers waiting to receive the flame in a relay of cheesy high-fives and jubilant air punching. The crowd were eager to get more than a few seconds of flame and so followed it along the road, streaming across the field and stumbling on churned up ground. We joined in not because we particularly wanted to but because that was the way we were heading.
Note the oil. Sometimes you get a little food with your oil.
We spent the next couple of days wandering around the 'old' town which is all in the process of being knocked down in order to make it a little bit more 'new-old.' It's still a pretty place with its cobblestone streets and prayer-flag-lined square, but it’s a shame that along with its fake moniker it seems largely an attempt to make money out of nothing.
We walked through the new town in search of a bus station and amused ourselves with the shop signs, which had obviously all been written by the same sign-writers and included such gems as:
Permanent letter literary style big world
a sign belonging to a household goods shop
Fragrant only the department store
neither a department nor a perfume store
Ambition soldier shoes to do store
where real men do their shoe shopping
Travel in China
With most countries comes some kind of ranking as to its 'difficulty.' By general consensus China gets quite a high ‘difficulty rating’, higher than pretty much all the countries in South-East Asia but lower than that of India.
Lack of English seems to be one of the main reasons for this (and a reason for not visiting or for booking a tour) but really it's incredible how little you need to actually speak to convey what you require.
• Walking up to a counter at a bus or train station and simply stating a place name is a sufficient, if not slightly less elegant, substitute for, 'Please may I have a ticket to xxxx if that isn't too much trouble, thank you kindly.'
As for the details: you can write down the date you want, they can point to the available times and the price. Nine times out of ten we seemed to get through the whole procedure quicker than the locals.
• In a restaurant with no English, pointing at people's food is more likely to result in you receiving the same dish than the waiter removing their food and giving it to you. With the pointing technique, most the time you're more likely to get something you like than by reading a menu with oddly translated English.
• Standing up in a restaurant and looking around for mere moments will no doubt result in someone showing you to the bathroom not hours of shouting 'bathroom' at the waiter and doing embarrassing actions while they dumbly shake their heads and only realise what you want when you wet yourself.
If you had the time and energy to learn a decent amount of Chinese in order to travel in China, you would no doubt have an amazing experience and a much easier trip, but it is possible to survive on the minimal 'hello’, ‘please’, ‘thank-you' and it shouldn't be a reason not to come or to rely on a tour. ‘Struggling’ around a language barrier is certainly part of the experience in itself.
What I do think makes for a more justified reason for China being classed as 'difficult', is that certain parts of the culture are a little grittier than in South-East Asian countries. Your definition of the word 'food' widens in unexpected ways. The toilets are places to have your white bum giggled over by fellow squatters in open toilets. The spitting is Olympic in both quantity and 'quality’. Smoking is never off-limits; even on a sleeper bus in the middle of the night you'll be getting a hefty dose of passive. People stare, and with all those people that's a lot of eyes. The people are tough. But you have to be tough when you live in a country of 1.3 billion and an estimated one out of every eight people live in absolute poverty. How very nice for the stereotypically reserved and polite English to be able to say:
'No, please I couldn't possibly! I insist after you!'
In China the style is more elbows and shouting than social niceties and indirectness, but no one will be offended (apart from the cotton-wool wrapped blunt-elbowed tourist). China offers excellent lessons in how not to be a complete wimp. Learning how to see those lessons as a positive thing is the challenge.
True to form China gave us one last spectacular kick up the ass with our bus journey to the Vietnamese border. We reached our bus and were greeted by a despicable weasel trying to con us out of our last few Yuan by claiming there was a charge to put our bags under the bus. He started well with excellent English, smart clothes and a clipboard. We were utterly China-ed by this stage and so wore suitable expressions of disbelief as we politely suggested he was talking utter crap. He lost his cool and his credibility with an offer of a student discount. He completely blew it by threatening to call the police when we were still arguing the toss five minutes later. So don't be fooled by an official-looking clipboard at Kunming bus station. In fact, the mere presence of a clipboard should be enough to make alarm bells ring: Chinese bus stations really aren't that organised.
We got onto the 'sanctuary' of the bus and found we had evidently just missed a water(?)/food fight. Or perhaps it was from several weeks previously; it was impossible to tell. What we didn't miss were the cockroaches or the man with a cigarette-stuffed water bong right in our faces. The former were ignored and the latter was dealt with in a suitably non-English way.
There are more photos below