Size: 9,600,000 sqkm
Population: 1.3 Billion
Time Zone: GMT +8
Part of 2006 World Trip, arriving from Hong Kong
and going on to Laos
Travelling through the incredibly beautiful, and largely unspoiled, south west of China was a great way to see this country at its best.
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My travels in China started by catching a train to Guangzhou. I didn't stop here but caught a night train straight to Nanning. This was the first experience were there was next to no English. I had spent the past few months learning a little Mandarin but this had given way to Japanese with the discovery I would work there when I finished my travels. I did, however, have enough basics to be polite and there are inevitably people want to speak English if look for them. The train was ultra-modern and very combatable. At the station I met a girl travelling to from Hong Kong to Hanoi via Nanning and we had a good chat that evening and met up for breakfast the following morning.
Just as she left for her next train and I was about to find a place to stay the skies opened and the city was bombarded with torrential rain. I waited for a while, watching gallons of water pour off the roof into a small bucket that had, I presume, been placed for value of humour. Not being the sort of person able to sit still for long, and also wanting to give my new umbrella a try, I quickly headed off into the downpour. I found a cheap hotel and didn't have to wait long for the rains to stop. Nanning is renowned for being humid but the rain had temporarily freshened the air as I walked through the centre of the town and down to the river.
What struck me was just how modern it all was. New buildings, roads, everything seemed new. Down at the river there were some old boats and tattered buildings - development hadn't reached this far yet. What I learned later was that the Chinese stock market is extremely volatile and this, coupled with the government control, makes property the only sound investment for companies. Apparently many of the buildings I saw here and Kunming were probably still empty, waiting of a middle-class China to develop and fill the vacant rooms.
This seems to be a general truth, as yet China lacks much of a middle class, creating a strange atmosphere of people who grew up in villages but now have a modern city to live in. It also surprised me to find that China is still a spitting culture - everyone everywhere is at it all the time and it takes a while to get used to, although coming from India, again that wasn't too difficult.
One aspect I particularly like about China was the cloths shops. These sold cheap and fashionable cloths while pumping Techno music into the street. Sometimes there would also be Break Dances as well, adding to the party atmosphere. Nanning city centre had many nice looking cafes, but all required you to go to a window and order you food. Still not knowing the words for what I wanted and unable to point to a menu I weakened and went to KFC - that was easy.
In the afternoon I caught a bus (the right way on my second attempt) to the Qing Xiu Shana park on the outskirts of Nanning. This is a really great place with a few temples as well as gardens, woodland and the longest bamboo sheltered walkway in the world - yes I was so impressed and walked the whole length twice. That evening I decided to be a little more adventurous and ate in a little cafe in a street behind the hotel.
The people were friendly and after some general smiling and nodding I got some reasonable food (I perfected conversations via the medium of smiling and laughing throughout my travels; an art form through which you can communicate almost anything).
The following day I wandered the squares in the city centre, watching the older people ballroom dancing, playing chess or gambling. This was a lovely atmosphere, a quaint reminder of times passed - throughout China I always had to remind myself that the older generation have lived through some of the most horrific times of the past century, and yet seem to have recovered, or at least are able to shut these thoughts out. That evening I caught another overnight train up to the city of Kunming.
This train ride was again good, although the train itself was somewhat older than the one I had taken previously. After the usual saying hello and introducing myself in Chinese and the people in my surrounding bunks reciprocating in English (the trains are set out in berths, each containing two 3-level bunk beds) the conversation dried up a little and I went and sat at the little table by the window. I was shortly joined by a Chinese man of similar age to me who worked in an electronics factor in Kunming. He had been to university and spoke good English. We talked about our countries and I learned a lot about his views on modern day China, although the government media censorship was apparent in some of his views. While we were taking I was watching some of the most spectacular scenery pass me by. Later I would see pictures and really wish I had stopped here - I had considered an extra stopover but decided against it, something I regret a little now, but there is always next time.
On the first overnight train I had noticed that boiling water was provided for the passengers so they could brew tea and make pot noodle dinners. I though this was a great idea, so for the ride up to Kunming I was prepared with a king size pot noodle and a set of children's chop sticks (I didn't know these were provided in the box and wanted a cheep plastic set). On the previous train the water had been provided through taps at the ends of the carriages, however in this train the guard filled small vats and then everyone took this water and put it in smaller containers in the bunk areas. This meant that there was no hot water to be found by the time I got there. After my third carriage I met an English girl travelling the other way, also pot noodle in hand. Together we continued a full search of the whole train and concluded that the water had all been used. Returning to my berth we explained this predicament to my new Chinese friend who at once disappeared and somehow returned with a flask of boiling water. The girl, whose name I have forgotten, had been studying Chinese in Beijing for a few months and was now just starting her travels. She boosted my confidence by saying she still had trouble ordering food and introduced me to the word 'Jiga' meaning 'that one' which she used when pointing to a menu or after running around a restaurant pointing to peoples dishes.
The next morning we went to the only place in Kunming for budget travellers - the Youth Hostel, that is to say it is probably not the only venue, simply at all foreigners seemed to be there. This is a very clean place near the centre of town. I knew I would be returning to Kunming in a week so opted today to head straight out into the hills for some walking. Armed with my printed Kunming page of the Lonely Planet, I manage to negotiate my way down to the lake at the south of the city using several busses, I was quite proud of this. It was a Sunday so I was joined by a fair percentage of the city's population, walking, cycling or just enjoying the sun. The groups of local women got very excited when I started coving myself in sun cream, coming over and asking for some as well. The most famous part of the area is known as the stone forest, large formations of igneous rock covering an entire hillside. There was even a cable car to the temple on the hilltop for those not wishing to walk - Kunming is a rich city, I would later learn that this is because it is in the heart of a large tobacco growing area and smoking is a big thing in China, as with Asia it seems. I had an interesting lunch at a small street vender, who had large slabs of cold noodle of various varieties and would grate these into normal noodles or dice them into blocks. This was served cold with a selection of herbs and chilli. Feeling I had done my cultural bit for the day I then had an ice cream. The following day I caught the early morning express bus up to Lijiang.
Lijiang is a wonderful place. Situated in the mountains and with limited access, it is one of the few places to truly avoid the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and boasts a substantial old town area made in a traditional style. As with all good things, it is a hot tourist spot, and appears to be the place all Chinese people choose to go. This means that all the of the building of the old town are now bars, cafes, restaurants or shops selling the usual tourist paraphernalia. Although you could hardly say the town was traditional, it does still have character and it is nice to see the Chinese letting their hair down.
Lijiang is home to the Naxi people, a small ethic minority with an interesting traditional form of dress and song. Lijiang appears to be a national tourist hotspot, and so every evening outside the bars young people would be dressed in the traditional style and sing the traditional songs to try to entice the crowds of Chinese holiday makers. Each bar tried to outdo its neighbour so there was a great atmosphere in the old-town centre. The town itself has many small waterways filled with gold fish and small bridges provide access most of the houses. Along with the less traditional mobile phone and television masts, which adorn every hilltop in the world, there is also a traditional temple, which has a fine view over the town. My first evening here I met a guy in the youth hostel who had lived in China for many years and taught me the phrase 'dor shaw', 'how much?', perhaps the most useful phrase since bartering is required for nearly everything. We had a good noodle soup then had a beer in the youth hostel balcony which had a fine view of the town.
The following day I wandered the town and opted to try and order the same thing I had eaten the day before. Unfortunately, my Chinese still being quite lacking, I ended up with dog intestine soup - this is what it looked and smelt like anyway, and I was informed later that it was probably dog. I'm happy to try most things once but couldn't finish this one.
The town also has a large statue of Mao Ze Dong. Not overly hot on my history I had assumed that after instigating the 'Great Leap Forwards' and the Cultural Revolution, following his death his statues would have been torn down. I therefore though this was possible quite rare and took some snaps. I now know that his statue is very common and the official government line is that Mao was 70% correct in the things he did. This seems a little strange but when you travel the countryside in China and see the people in the villages all working in the fields and building houses together it is easy to see how a communist system, and Mao's ideas, can and could have worked.
That afternoon I visited the other famous area of Lijiang, the Black Dragon Pool - even back in the UK and here in Japan I often see photos of this place in travel agent windows (below is my shot of the classic picture). Gardens, a small river, and a number of temples surround the pool itself and I spent the afternoon wandering around the area. There is also a steep hill with a number of temples on top that I climbed to get a better view of the Snow Mountain, the other side of which I would be travelling to the following day to start my trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Bus stations in China tend to be somewhat confusing. This is because there are usually long distance, express and local varieties; all situated in different parts of the town or somewhere on the outskirts. And so after getting up early, putting my rucksack into storage and buying some basic supplies I then spent much or the morning traipsing around Lijiang. After one unsuccessful attempt I popped into an expensive hotel (the best place to find English speaking people) to ask for directions. To my surprise the Clark took me outside, flagged down the correct bus ask the driver to let me off at the right place and then paid the fare! Very nice of him. This messing around meant I arrived at the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek just after lunch, somewhat later than is recommended for the first day. The first part of the trek is not overly interesting as you climb the hillside towards the mountain tops and so I set a brisk pace and made good progress. Mid afternoon I met a group of three girls, Julie an American visiting her Chinese cousin, Achu, and Barbara, a Swedish woman who has live just about everywhere on Earth. This was a great chance meeting as Julie spoke Mandarin and Achu spoke both Mandarin and Cantonese and between then they sorted lots of things out for Barbara and myself over the next few days.
After the initial climb the scenery continuously becomes more spectacular as you walk through the gorge itself, with snow capped mountains on either side of the raging Yangtze River. The sense of scale is impressive with the path often clinging to the cliff face. We walked to about half way through the gorge and stopped in a guesthouse with a stunning view of the Snow Mountain. The girls ordered some excellent food and we chatted with a Chinese guy who had live in America for a time; much of what I have learned about China came from these conversations.
The following day the scenery continued to improve with several impressive waterfalls crossing our path. The people on the trail know a business opportunity when they see one, they are after all Chinese and the best viewpoint of the stone supposedly jumped by the tiger had had a charge - something I refused to pay out of principle - and today there was a change to use a path that dropped right down to the river. The four of us were of similar mind so we continued on the normal route and found a sheep track down to the river instead. While the nights in the mountains are cold, the shelter of the gorge along with bright sunshine made conditions rather hot going - especially climbing up from the river and I was glad to reach our lunch spot for a cold beer. From here we had to walk quite a few more miles along a road then get a ferry to collect a bus back to Lijiang. However, there was some confusion as to whether the ferry was running and at what time the last bus was. After another hour walking along the road we though it better to try to hitch back to the start and get a bus from there.
This proved difficult with the absence of traffic but when a car finally materialised the girls got to work and after a 15 minute conversation, and managing to create a traffic jam on a road almost absent of cars, we got a taxi all the way back to Lijiang.
It is fair to say that with native speakers ordering the food, the meals I had over the next two days were the best I had in China - probably the cheapest as well with Achu spending the first 10 minutes in animated argument with the owners to get the best price before each meal. I tried water buffalo hot pot and learned the useful phrase 'hun la' meaning 'very hot'. After Lijiang I caught the bus back to Kunming and spent another day wandering the centre and temples here before making my way south to Jinghong.
Things in China are done on a large scale. The road from Kunming to Lijiang, for example, is a 6-lane expressway that carries a few busses and the odd truck. It appears a similar road is also being built down toward Laos. I suspect the building description was to make a road in a straight line and at constant elevation because much of it is on bridges through valleys and if hills get in the way they are removed or tunnelled through. While it is a shame to see such colossal building through pristine countryside I welcomed the roads completion as my night bus bounced and slowly meandered its way south on the old road network; and this was to be the start of a long day. Pulling into Jinghong bus station around 4 am after missing a night's sleep I had my first experience of the true south East Asian heat and humidity. In the darkness I gathered up my rucksack and consulted my small printout map (having only a few weeks in China I had opted to photocopy relevant pages rather than carry the somewhat cumbersome guide itself). This indicated that the place I planned to stay was about a kilometre south, just off the road I was on, and so with a glance at my trusty compass, I set off into the sticky blackness. After a few kilometres it became apparent that the lights I was heading for were not Jinghong central but a small village in the distance. Retracing my steps I discovered that again I had been dropped at a new out-of-town express bus station, not shown on my map, instead of the long distance station (also on the same road). When I finally reached the guesthouse it was only just dawn and no one was around, I dozed for a while until a fellow Englishman, James, joined me. After some time a woman appeared and we attempted to get a room for the night - here in the south the Chinese dialect is different and we found it very hard to communicate anything, even James who had good Chinese.
To make matters worse it was the day after the Laos New Year (this is also celebrated in the south west of China, I had planned to be in Jinghong for this but, unfortunately, was too late in reserving a seat and had to go a day later - I later saw photos of the celebrations where the whole town spends the day having a huge water fight, something which would have been great to experience) and so prices were raised and most rooms full. Not wanting to pay the excess price we headed over town to another guesthouse but this was also full. After breakfast we weighed up the options and having assessed that there was nothing much to do in this town we headed to the local bus station to continue on our journeys. James got a ticket to where he was going (I would subsequently bump into him every few days in Laos; Laos is that sort of place) but I wasn't so lucky - everyone was going home and all the busses were full. I headed back to the first guesthouse and after a lengthily phrase book conversation ascertained that there were now no beds available. Feeling a little worse for ware I headed back across town again and this time (thankfully) I was lucky and got a room and a reasonable price. After some much-needed rest I looked around Jinghong and got my first look at the mighty Mekong River, which I would loosely follow for the next few weeks. That afternoon I planned my Laos trip and then had a nice meal and a beer in the local foreigner's cafe.
The trip to the Laos border is something that takes time.
The next day I caught a bus Mengla, an interesting town near the Laos border which seems to specialise in expensive stereos, flat screen televisions and clinics - from the street you can see rows of children of IV drips. I'm not sure quite what to make of this but we came to the conclusion that there is probably a lucrative drug trade passing this way to account for the goods and probably quite a bit of Malaria to account for the clinics. At the start of the bus ride a man placed two large boxes of eggs on the floor next to me and by the end of the trip these had all hatched into chicks! This, coupled with the massive hold ups and the girls in the front soaking everyone travelling the other way with high-power super-soakers, made this one of the more memorable bus journeys. While not making much progress I was slowly working south and the following day I finally made it to the border with Laos