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Published: August 19th 2009
Celebration in Dali
There is a large chunk of information I out of my bog at this moment, that’s the things we
saw and did before we left the car. In all honestly I must confess that I don’t recall most of it without a map and without the pictures I took, which stayed behind when I left my computer in the car. I deemed the computer too heavy to carry along, based on my previous experience a year ago. What I’m writing about Laos leaves out all the glitz and splendor Ann has related in her latest website addition under the heading Laos and for anyone interested in the incredible things that await the curious traveler in that country I strongly suggest you look up www.vrolijksontrek.com. So I take up the story after we left the car:
The next day we took a bus to take us over the border, leaving behind us a country I don’t know much to write about at this stage. Except the fact that the use of wood is astonishing. Not only are most o0f the dwellings, nearly all built on poles (sometimes wood, sometimes concrete) from thick timber, most of them along the
The lusty life of Buddha's
same design with a small veranda in front, airy and simple but comfortable it seems. Facilities as we know them like running water, electricity and covered sewerage seem to be generally unknown and domestic animals stay nearby. Further to the North it becomes more common to have the space under the house bricked up or covered otherwise, so a more efficient use can be made of the available space.
We in the Western world are not used to see wood in such abundance, But later in the West of China I would see the same seemingly unrestricted use of wood for the building of houses, bridges and almost any other thinkable structure.
People in Laos seem to be happy but poor, friendly and have no problem with a camera being pointed at them, even happy to pose.
Laos is, by the way, the most heavily bombed country in the world because of the Ho Chi Minh trail, I’ve been told. If Bremen was worse, it’s because it’s a town, with people in it, and the trail was just that: a trail in the wilderness.
Crossing into China was a breeze: pass control only, no luggage control. To begin with, there
Artistic wall painting
wasn’t much to tell about China. No lively conversation with people you meet by chance, no animated explanation where to find a cheap hotel or bus stop, no communication at all in fact.
Chinese people not only speak Chinese only, they also don’t understand our Western alphabet . and even if a lot of Chinese magazines, places and even buildings like banks and museums are adorned by their name in English (in addition to the Chinese characters), for most Chinese it’s just decoration, they can’t read it. But in most cases I found them friendly and helpful, often to the extend of finding someone else who would be able to understand your question.
Not everybody has that experience though. There are people who have complete different ideas about the service and general helpfulness in China. But I have a sneaking suspicion that they are to blame themselves mostly. The tourists I’ve met on the street are invariably aloof and “offish”.
They come to peel an impression off what there is to see and leave without trying to
communicate with other tourists. Strange.
The bus rumbled on and stopped in a small place past the border, Jinghong I think, where I
Waterwheels in Lijiang
stayed the night and moved on the next day to yet another small place without a hotel, but a sort of lodge, a bus stop cum restaurant with sleeping facilities out of town. Sleeping was cheap but eating not.
After that I decided to go to a big town, Kunming, because I was fast running out of money and needed an ATM.
A year ago I was in that town and stayed in “the Hump” a youth hostel so called in memory of the - mostly - Americans who, in World War II, flew in supplies for the forces of Chang Kai Tjek who was fighting the Japanese along the allies at the time. (It is said that he mainly helped to make the pockets of the Americans lighter.)
I arrived there late at night and accepted the offer of one of the people who hang around in those places to help me find an ATM. I did not have the energy to go scouting about until I found one. After paying him handsomely for his help, which was really not without merit, I took a taxi to the hostel. As usually I had the feeling that the driver took
Wood carving in Shangri-La
me for a cruise about town until he dropped me off, but I may have been mistaken.
I stayed here a couple of days. Not that there is a lot to see in Kunming, but the hostel is nice to stay in, clean, rather spacious with good facilities, nearby shops and eateries.
Eventually I was ready to go on and, as it has been my intention to go to the West and follow a route marked in the Lonely Planet as a “route less taken”, I first went to a place called Dali. I arrived there on May 16. It has an old town and quiet a few interesting things to see, but as always is infested with tourists, mainly from China itself. It is actually interesting to learn that millions of Chinese tourists seem to be traveling, much more so than happens in Western countries. It’s true of course that Europeans have little space (and maybe reason to travel in their own country and of course there is Spain. Europeans are still coming here in relative small numbers and there is the problem that people from Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Mongolia and other indo-China countries look close enough to be
Giant prayer cylinder in Shangri-La
taken for Chinese.
I found a hostel that had opened it’s doors only recently, Jade Emu, and was run by an Australian by the name of - no, not Bruce, but David. Married to a Chinese woman and, while I was there, celebrating the 100th day of his son’s birthday with a free meal for all. It was a real feast!!
It was one of the best hostels I ever saw. Free inter net, free film-viewing, no deposit and 5-star dorm with bathroom en suite, very helpful staff and good food. What a pleasure!
After visiting the old town behind it partially intact old wall and taking pictures left right and center, I went on. Not to the next place on my trip over less trodden trails, but making a round-trip further to the West and closer to the border with Burma . My first stop was in Lan Gin where I was directed to a hotel. Prices were steep here and when I was told there was no bus on the 19th, I moved to a cheaper hotel, a few blocks away. By the way, it’s common practice here to pay for your room plus a hefty deposit, sometimes
Traditional horse saddles
more then twice the price of the room. Looking at the state of the furniture in many cases, you wonder what people do in those rooms: broken hinges, cracked bathtub, furniture that at best could be called celebrated firewood and no lights working nor the shower in some cases. The TV is OK though. Even the cheapest room still has a working TV, although for Westerners of little use, as all the channels carry Chinese war films, (mainly the “glorious” Red Army fighting either the Japs or the Nationalist forces of Chang Kai Tjek), soapies and period, magical kung-fu films. Further to the East where more tourists go and the facilities are better, one may watch the filtered news on CTV 9, the English channel and endless but sometimes excellent documentaries about China’s culture, history, minority information (how happy non-Han Chinese are to be part of the system) and so on.
Here. there was nothing much to do but walking around. Next day I was told the bus had left. Come back tomorrow at 8am. I was there at 7 the next morning, but no bus.
Maybe the bus departed very early, at 5 or 6 am what happens sometimes,
The man with the glass eye?
or my watch showed local time instead of Beijing time, (2 or 3 hours difference) or something else was wrong, but the only alternative seemed to be a taxi. R200 to the next place, about 6 hours driving. The town we got to was so disappointing that I decided to go straight through to the next town, Dian Non. Then Jackson showed up.
Jackson told me he was a Christian, what made him, he insinuated, a very honest person with very honest, honorable intensions, AND he spoke English. He had his own company, the nature of which he was rather obscure about and on his way to visit a couple of friends here and there. He would be happy to help me out, take me closer to the Burmese border (where there is more old Buddhist culture, so he said) and then back in the direction of Dali. It sounded good and in hindsight it was a good choice.
We got bus tickets and started the trip, which took many hours. The road was not bad at places, not good at all the others. But we got at our destination and went to a hotel he had been in before,
Mud-wall houses in Litang
booking a room to share. No problem. Then we went to see some friends which proved to be some giggling teenagers in a coffee shop where there was no coffee and after a while we retired.
Next morning, with Jackson still sleeping the sleep of the righteous, I got up at 6.30 and was just in time to catch the 8 am bus which departed at 7 am.
Glorious, magnificent mountainous landscape with roads partly under construction (wait an hour before you can get through with the rest of the waiting cars), and then sit in the bus as if in 007’s martini shaker for one or two hours until the bus reaches tarmac again. After that it’s more like being stirred instead of shaken, but it’s a happy moment to get out at the end of the trip.
In Dali I took the bus to LiJiang, on the route originally chosen to get at the “route less traveled” Which started much further North. In LiJang which also has an old city attached, I found hostel Pamba where I was given a double bedroom for 60 Yuan (about same value as the Rand) instead of 100 Yuan.
The next day
One of many monks in Litang
I did some washing first and went into the town later. Like in Dali most houses here have white plastered outer walls with very decorative paintings on them. Trees, birds, waterfalls, mountainsides or flowers, you name it somewhere there will be a really attractive wall painting if it. Apart from that, the cobble stoned streets with their red lampions, the colorful fronts and many restaurants with their inviting menus, the aroma’s that waft past your nose and all the friendly faces make this an excellent reason to stay here for a few days.
On the 15th of May I went for a trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge, the more spectacular gorge compared to the “Three Gorges Dam” where we went to by boat and sat two days on calm water gazing at relatively gently rising mountain sides. Since the building of the dam, a km long and 80 meters high, the Yangtze river has lost most of it’s ferocity at the cost of a lot of ancient forbearer’s settlements, culture, not to mention villages and communities. But it has also saved the lives of thousands of people who, in the past, drowned when the rains or melting ice in Tibet
caused the river to rise several meters and caused havoc along it’s borders.
Of course that’s not the reason the dam was built: electric power was the reason for China is an awakening economic and manufacturing giant that needs power. The building of the dam, at astronomical cost, was a feat many experts out of China were convinced it could not be done, financially and technically. But the Chinese made it an engineering triumph that made a lot of people look up and take notice.
Anyway, already China has a lot of renewable power in use: wind-farms, solar power and also, something I think is in use in Israel but, as far as I know not in third world countries, sunray reflection units. Small but very economical for heating food or water in small quantities.
Back to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. There is a story attached to that name, but I don’t know the details. It has something to do with a tiger, or some cat, or a man called Tiger fleeing from the infuriated father of his (underage) lover, who knows. I don’t think that underage lover is correct, but it would make a nice story.
Normally, that is
The biggest Buddha on earth in Leshang
when there is an average water flow, I think it could have been a spectacular sight, lots of foaming water fighting to get through a narrow opening between towering mountain sides. But there was little water and although some foam could be seen from a distance, it was anything but spectacular. I was glad I had taken the bus instead of opting for an exhausting walk of one or two days, just to seen some water having a problem getting past this obstacle. (sour grapes, of course!)
At night I had pizza, not a bad one this time, and learned about a horse festival in a couple of days in Shangri-La (Zhenjiang), the Chinese idyllic equivalent of Avalon. It was always great fun and colorful, it was said, and it would be very busy with tourists and I would have to be in time to get a hotel room. Me, eager as can be when it comes to horses (amongst other animals, mainly) got in the bus the next day and found a hostel in Shangri-La, in the old town and quite a way from shops, who weren’t there in great numbers anyway, but close to a remarkable temple with
Baby panda at play
a gigantic, 10 m high praying cylinder or whatever the name for such a thing might be, and the stadium. No-one was very excited or knowledgeable about the forthcoming event and, not only because the hostel was so far from all amenities, I was the only guest for several days.
As you guessed, the festival, starting on May 27, wasn’t much to talk about. More a people’s gathering than anything else. There were a couple of thousand people the first day, some in colorful attire and the same plus about a dozen horses the second day, many of them more colorful bedecked than their riders. One by one they were encouraged to sprint around the stadium with their riders trying to pick up blue lints from the ground. But the horses weren’t all that keen on those blue strange obstacles, tried to avoid them and earned the fury of their riders when they failed to finish the course with any trophy. Great fun.
The third day was even worse, so it was time to look at the town. A long walk from the hostel, partly through the old town with it’s quaint wooden houses and shops. There are a lot
Come rain, come shine in Chendu
of new houses being built here and it is, for a Westerner, quite a strange view to see a series of very large square wooden poles being delivered at a site where builders, woodcarvers and stonemasons are busy cutting and (hand)sawing the wood into desired parts for the construction, shaping rock blocks and carving the various decorations for panels, support beams and so on. The houses in the new city are, by contrast, downright ugly. Square, squat, without beauty or elegance, they are boring and unimaginative.
Shangri-La, by the way, also has a little story attached to it. And especially after my description it will surprise you that the name was given, not to this town, but to an imaginary place in China by an author who has never been here. But the book became famous and eventually the government officially allowed this place to bear the name Shangri-La, to stimulate tourism, it is said.
Left this not SO idyllic place on 31st of May at 7:30 am, after Maggie, the manager of the hostel had summoned a taxi the previous night to fetch me at 7. It was a nine-hour drive from Shangri-La to Xingcheng, halfway to Litang where this secondary road ended. It wasn’t so bad and the landscape was breathtaking. Fantastic mountains and green valleys, magnificent! Fist stop at 12 noon at a bus-restaurant. Then another 4,5 hours, to arrive at our destination, Xingcheng, at 4:30. Right at a simple hotel, how convenient! It was here that, for the first time I notice kids having a new kind of skate-board, a swiveling affair with which they can propel themselves forward. Very nifty. Here also, like in other places, there is a big, paved central square where people gather to dance in large circles, show off their babies and socialize. At sidewalks, groups of men sit cleaning dry clay from (dead) worms, which then are offered for sale. There are places where the number of people try to flog these things are really getting a bit much, moreover because I don’t know if they are meant to be eaten, like meat or so, or are supposed to be an aphrodisiac, it’s difficult to find out in this world where your spoken questions are experienced as unintelligent sound in the ears of the listeners.
The houses here are also squat and square, with sloping walls made of 50cm thick mud or clay. The houses, as well as their occupants, reminded me of pictures I have seen of Mexico, rather than of China.
I stayed one day and tried to sort out how to get to the next place, which would be Litang. After a fashion I was told by the daughter of the manageress of the hotel that there would be a bus early the next morning. “Be ready at 6 am”.
I was, and the minibus with 4 others started off at 7. The trip to Litang was one of the most memorable for a long time: out of the valley with it’s green pastures and over two mountain ranges of which the second was high enough to get us into an magnificent snow landscape. If green hills are beautiful, then white hills are thrilling. And it became even better when we saw a herd of Yaks in that white wonderland, black shapes on a white canvass, just before we passed a large group of horses, galloped through the snow. It was exhilarating, a rejuvenating sight!
It took about 3 hours to reach Litang and later I learned there was also a bus connection, that departed from Xingcheng at 5 in the morning, but I wasn’t sorry about our minibus, at least the heater had been turned on!
The hotel in Litang once again was a kind of strange affair, Potala it was called. No complaints, though. I had a good room with almost everything working in it. The manageress, Medok, meaning flower in the language here, spoke good English but she had no staff. They were on leave or so. She had one girl doing everything from cooking to fixing the internet connection and for all the services the hotel offered, very little could be arranged because the management was busy somewhere else. Nonetheless, it was warm here, beautiful weather with a very religious, Buddhist population busily turning their prayer cylinders and doing what they normally do: shopping, sitting in the sun and chatting.
Just out of town there was a monastery but, although I went to have a look, the rather steep approach turned me off and I kept my distance. But everything here was quiet and peaceful, much more a Shangri-La than Zhenjiang in my opinion. Getting away was not so easy though. There was no transport to the next town, it seems, not even a taxi. Nothing.
Until, of course, it was discovered that I had the name wrong. It wasn’t Yajiang I wanted to go to, (that, although indicated on my map, did not exist), but Yashan. Oh, of course, please forgive me for having it wrong! (No-one offered the suggestion that Yashan could be the way they pronounced Yajiang!). Pummels!
So than, finally I knew where to go to. There still was nu bus connection and I ended up using a private car to get me to Yasjang, a 7-hour drive over mostly a good road. Small place, of course, where a river gurgled through right under my hotel-room window, the most primitive affair I had encountered so far. While lugging up my luggage (that’s where the name “luggage” comes from, I suppose) I was haled from a balcony with the internationally accepted sign language question if I needed a bed and, accepting the invitation to come and have a look, I took the stairs and was taken to the second floor and a room with wooden floor, a hole-in-the-ground toilet in a wardrobe, shower at the end of the passage, no lock on the door, no registration or deposit (!), at 30 Yuan or R 30. Home-from-home!
Once again, there wasn’t much to do. Look at the water flow under the bridge, sort of. The street the “hotel” was situated in, ran steeply from the bridge upwards and, from the bottom, looked very European. Was complete coincidence of course, most people here have little idea what European streets look like.
By this time I had decided to interrupt my trip North towards the “route less traveled” and instead go to Chengdu, a big place, attracted by the Lonely Planet’s write-up about the panda breeding facility there and the biggest Buddha on earth. I had to see both.
I didn’t stay long in Yasjang. Once again though, there was a problem with transport and I would have to take another taxi. “Come early, taxi starts at 7.” Ja, ja, the taxi started at 8. I had been waiting 2 hours because once again my clock showed the wrong time. While we waited a few other people turned up and eventually the driver started up. For 8 hours we drove along a narrow river between steep mountainsides, all green and sometimes breathtaking. over a very rough road, partly under repair and partly as part of a huge civil engineering project that was underway to just before we reached Kangding. Although not very comfortable, I enjoyed it mightily. In Kangding we were dropped off on an empty street in town, but after 100 m hike there were shops once again I was haled, this time by a woman in a mini-office who represented a hotel without a street-side entrance but, it turned out, ever so pleasant and “complete”, nice room, double bed, soft mattress, TV, hot water with cups and tea, bathroom en suite. 60 Yuan. If I had been looking for it, I would have never found it.
Although not much to do, except for looking at some Buddhist mountain paintings and deciding where to eat at night, I stayed 2 nights and bought a bus ticket to Chengdu for the next day.
After another pleasant but uneventful 8-hour bus ride I arrived there and found the hostel that the Lonely Planet had recommended and described as “cozy”, “Sim’s cozy garden hostel” It was just that, with very nice 30-Yuan dorm bed, lock-up storage under bed, bathroom with European toilet en suite.
Internet, good kitchen and nice places to eat, very well organized and run by Sim with his Japanese wife and two daughters..
Originally it had been my plan to go further to the North, to Xining, and from there by train to Tibet. But, as faith will have it, in Chengdo I met a group of 3 people who were looking for a fourth member to go to Tibet from there.
Most of what has to be done was already arranged by the travel department of the hostel, all I had to do was say: “I do” and everything else would follow automatically. And so it happened that I was poised to go on another journey “less traveled”, of which I will give my impressions in the next blog addition.
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