"The Sleeping Dragon" Yunnan Sheng Travelogue by travelinxs
Yunnan Sheng Travel Guide: 2,049 reviews and 5,873 photos
Yesterday is a dream
Tomorrow only a vision
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope
24 April 2004
This dreamy fantasy continues onward and I find myself drawn into worlds never previously imagined. "What the hell am I doing HERE?" frequently resonates in my head followed by an involuntary smile.
Here I sit on a Chinese train. A soldier and his wife and baby sleep at my side. Becks is crashed out on the opposite seat. Out the window a stunning countryside of wide forested hills punctuated by occasional stepped rice fields roll past. I listen to my walkman and dream on. And I pray I never wake.
Before we left Hanoi Paul had his foot checked at a more modern hospital who assured him it wasn't broken, just very badly sprained, and much to his relief removed the plaster cast.
After they had spent the afternoon with the Philippino ambassador (during which time I went underpants shopping - some of us still have at least one foot in reality) Paul escorted us to the train station and we said our farewells. We are not too sure when we will see him again, either.
A clean and comfortable sleeper train whisked us north to the border. As we entered the immigration building an official approached us and told us a message had been received to say Paul was very sick. We ran to the nearest telephone and called the Hanoi guesthouse only to discover Paul had sent the message only to ensure it would reach us and we would call him. It was in fact all because Becky still had the jeepney keys in her bag. Oops! Fortunately, we had just been chatting to the only other foreigner at the border who was traveling south and who kindly took the keys with him and they were delivered a couple of days later.
Miraculously, Becks just strolled across the border without any penalty for her overstay, which should have been in excess of one hundred dollars.
We spent the day chasing around officials in the Chinese border town of Hekou without much success. We were trying to cross-reference 'Tibetan Tours' and their paperwork, a Chinese tour company who were arranging entry into China for the jeepney. It is strictly illegal to bring a private vehicle into China or even drive a Chinese vehicle across the country, but they claim to have contacts at the top in Beijing to achieve the impossible.
A bazaar 'sleeper bus', complete with teddy bear duvets, took us through the night to Kunming, Yunnan's provincial city. With its wide, clean streets and glass towers it felt more like a sleepy Hong Kong than a south China city.
We based ourselves in the Camillia Hotel. I visited the PSB (Peoples Security Bureau) and had a meeting with Rem from Foreign Affairs. Although facilitating little, it was another official befriended and another contact number for the book. We met students from the Thomas International Language School and winged our way into meeting Thomas Nixon, a famous Chinese language expert who was renowned throughout the country for his huge seminars held in stadiums on the promotion of the English language. He instructed his students to translate a letter of introduction into Chinese for us, which may prove invaluable. In return we were compelled to visit again in the evening to give a short talk on our country and the expedition to around fifty students, which was not actually too bad on a couple of 30p Dali beers.
An evening in a strange but wonderful ethnic bar getting to know Dali a little more.
And now on a train west with the town of Dali our destination!
Our brief glimpse into the strange world of China has been fantastic. There is the shocking, (pick-your-own live beavers and lizards outside of restaurants), the surprising (modern and efficient cities) and the rewarding - some of the warmest and most friendly people in the world.
local restaurant menu;
'The Very First Kiss' - (fried pig mouth)
'Sweet Words' - (fried pig mouth and ear)
The ancient city of Dali has some extraordinary architecture. Heavy wood beamed homes with sweeping boat roofs brightly decorated with Chinese motifs. A maze of cobbled streets with an atmosphere so relaxed even the invading Chinese tourists down for the weekend could not create a stir. This is the home of the Bai people who exude friendly warmth not encountered elsewhere so far. With huge mountains rocketing skyward on the western periphery and a lake bordering to the east, it is just beautiful.
Becks and I booked a room for a couple of pounds a night (US3.50) in the characterful 'No.3 Guest House' with its own restaurant and lovely courtyard and garden with wicker chairs and tables. As the only guests, a haven to escape it all, though in truth there was really nothing you could wish to escape from.
Opposite was our hangout, the Top Sky Bar, run by a motley bunch of characters. 'Indigenous Chinese hippies' is the closest I can come to describing them. Cheap beer, good food, great atmosphere and a huge DVD collection which we could help ourselves to whenever we fancied chilling out in front of a film for a change.
There were very few other foreign travelers, though there were always a few locals, some of whom amazingly speak some English, who were always keen to befriend us.
After one day doing exceptionally little, guilt overcame us and we arranged to go fishing on the lake. The following day we took a local bus down to the lakeside and joined two fishermen on their small tin boat along with fourteen trained cormorants. These huge but beautiful birds swam out into a lagoon alongside the boat, diving and catching fish. They are prevented from swallowing the fish right down by a small length of string tied around the lower part of their necks. The fishermen, on seeing a bird with a catch, use their oars to bring it along side, haul the bird out the water and force its beak open and the fish is regurgitated into the bottom of the boat. But the birds show no fear or signs of distress and make no attempt to fly off. In fact, croaking away, they look extremely healthy and content with their working lives. All are male, bar one solitary female kept for breeding, as the males are better at fishing. On a good day the team between then can net a haul of 50kg.
After an hour or two we pulled in alongside a houseboat where the fishermans wife took the catch and prepared lunch. The cormorants were lined up on the bank perched on a long pole so they could spread their wings out to dry and Becky threw herself in the lake fully clothed to 'freshen up a bit'.
Lunch of fish, fried shrimp (eaten whole, head and all) vegetables and rice. Scrumptious. We heard the noise of firecrackers from a local village so bade our fisher friends goodbye and joined the hundreds of old women in their traditional Bai attire celebrating the birthday of their Buddhist temple. A few joined us on a horse-drawn cart for the trip back up to town.
Another surprise about communist China. Marijuana plants grow everywhere around the outskirts of town like stinging nettles do back home. Six-foot plants are scattered amongst the grasses on patches of wasteland or beside the road. It is smoked openly in some bars and little old ladies trying to sell traditional clothing in the street always finish their sales pitch with, "You come to my house and smoke ganja?"
Also, the GPS cannot pick up a signal here and other travelers have experienced the same, possibly the only place on earth. That the satellites they use are US military satellites is probably not a coincidence!
The next day we were up quite early to arrange a couple of horses to take us up to the 'Highlands Lodge', nestled within the forest on the slopes of Jade Mountain, a 4100m snowcapped peak looking down on Dali. The horses struggled to negotiate the steep and narrow paths among the pine trees and I struggled to hang on with my 25kg pack swinging from my back. The trip took us from an elevation of 1950m to 2580m. We jettisoned our packs at the lodge and with just daypacks continued the climb on foot.
It is springtime. A heavy scent of pine is infused with a myriad of aromas streaming from flowers of rhododendron, unknown red, white and pink blooms and wild mountain herbs.
The vegetation began to thin out as we hit 3665m and Becky was hit by AMS (acute mountain sickness) from such a dramatic single day ascent of 1715m. But Becky being Becky, she defied all previous research into AMS and actually enjoyed the 'dizzy, spinning experience', though to continue higher would have been potentially dangerous. We were already into the snowline. It took two hours to the lodge; a cold, wet and slippery descent as the rain came in. A relaxing night on Jade Mountain, then time to move on.
Without leaving his door
He knows everything under heaven
Without looking out of his window
He knows the ways of heaven
For the further one travels
The less one knows
Therefore the sage arrives without going,
Sees all without looking,
Does nothing but achieves everything.
Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu
5th May 2004
From the Highland Lodge, a relaxing chairlift ride took us back to town and a bus ride on to Lijiang. This beautifully preserved town, restored after a major earthquake in the 1990's, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. A maze of cobbled streets and traditional homes dissected by a cobweb of tiny canals and streams with the magnificent Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looming dramatically out in the distance.
This is the home of the Naxi ('Nashi') tribe, a matriachal society where the women definitely wear the trousers. They inherit all, control all finances and own all property. Relationships with men-folk are often on an open, casual basis and do not necessarily involve cohabitating and any children born are the sole responsibility of the mother, often without any declaration of paternity. Fair play to them!
We quickly became acquainted with every backpacker in town (around fifteen, including the legendary 'Nobi', a Japanese 'Rainman' who was definitely socially challenged yet knew seven languages and had seen most of the world) and all joined up for evening meals, though its surprising how you can lose your appetite after munching on a snack of fried praying mantis! Travelers who have made it this far all have fascinating tales to share and are on intrepidly diverse journeys.
Whilst in Lijiang I visited a respectable looking massage parlor to have a sprained shoulder treated. The sweet and innocent looking Chinese girl delegated to my therapy concealed a hidden strength I would have not believed. Using just her thumbs into my shoulder she lifted herself clean off the floor and had me screaming blue murder, which she found hysterical. The only English word she knew was, "Pain?" I had just been introduced to the original Chinese torture, though once the swelling from the treatment had died down my shoulder was better.
In Lijiang we teamed up with Ken (UK) and Andy and Katie (US), forming 'The Band', to travel out to the wonderfully named 'Tiger Leaping Gorge', close to the Burmese Tibet borders. This is possibly the deepest gorge in the world and reputedly the most dangerous. From the raging torrent at its base to the highest point the cliffs rise a mind-bending 3900m! Almost 4km from a semi-tropical climate of bamboo and pine forest to the snow and ice covered peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The gray and white turrets of the mountains are straight out of 'Lord Of The Rings', a very topical analogy these days!
Atypically, (though more typically in China), I had not researched our trek one iota and took off along the trail with a twenty kilo backpack, having only jettisoned back in Lijiang a couple of books and the useless GPS. Not comfortable with her daypack, Becks bought a traditional wicker basket with wicker straps in the market town before the start, which looked like a pretty waste paper basket on her back, for all of 99p. Classic!
I had not expected much in the way of climbing, but we soon hit an 800m ascent, which almost killed me! Later, Becks took my pack to give me a rest, which, although appreciated, meant I was then forced to carry her basket earning me the nickname of basket-boy and rising a few humiliating grins from local villagers along the way.
By dusk we made it to the Five Fingers Mountain Guest House. A wonderful traditional Naxi home set around a central courtyard enclosed by mountain views.
I only had my soft Merrell shoes, my beloved Italian Scarpa boots having been jettisoned in Thailand and nasty blisters burst out on my ankles. The following day we remained at Five Fingers to climb to a ridge above for the views, but I was forced to remain behind. By late morning, however, I had become restless and went trail running around the gorge with my walkman, which probably was not the most sensible thing to do in such a condition. Later, I dug out my Frisbee (part of my essential trekking equipment) to play with the kids and Andy. Unfortunately, it became stuck on a roof and the odd tile or two became broken, along with a few cuts, during its recovery!
An evening of wonderful food served up by our ever-smiling hosts and the legendary 'thumbs-up granny'.
We trekked to the end of the gorge by lunch the following day, stopping off at Shaun's for a bite to eat where Jeremy (US) joined The Band. While the others trekked over the hills Becks, myself and our injured feet hitched on the road to Haba and a lovely guesthouse. It was wonderful to see the Naxi women in traditional costumes even when working in the fields. Their red, yellow and maroon dresses and huge flat hats in black a colourful contrast among the greens of the terraces.
It was a 32km hike the next day to Sam Ba village. For some peculiar reason I was on a guilt trip from hitching the previous day so speed-walked the trip. Somewhat predictably, my right shoe was swimming in blood by the time we reached the village and what maybe the worst hotel in China. The squat bug stains on the wall looked like a yak had been slaughtered in the room. As for the toilets, you just do not want to know (though I have photographs if you are really interested!) Having eaten, we played snooker and then they opened the village nightclub for us and a load of locals piled in. Of course, this being China, it had to involve a couple hours of karaoke. My rendition of 'Fields Of Gold' would have brought tears of pain to Stings eyes, but The Band's version of 'California Dreamin' had the locals going wild (in a sort of conservative Chinese way!)
Andy was examining my multi-tool knife as I explained how my parents had bought it for me and they had even had my name engraved on it. He studied one side for a moment before saying, "What, Pulse Leatherman?" And hence a new nickname was born, though shaking off 'Pulse' looks like it might be difficult. A couple hours around a bonfire built indiscreetly in the middle of the hotel drive and a minor dehydration attack later and off to wallow among the bug-blood stains.
And so the journey continues. Which direction often depends on spontaneous decisions over a Dali. I have yet to open a guidebook on China, as I sit back and allow fate to lead me onward. It is a great way to travel.
'Pure flavour. Elegant fragrence. Joining hands to create a ruby like brilliant life.' -printed on a Honghe cigarette packet.
'Richard Gere. Grow a beard. Shave your face. Leave your 'tash...where's me pants?' -somethings in life have no explanation...
We felt no one wanted us to leave Sam Ba village as any attempt to arrange transport to the nearby lime terraces were met with obstacles, so we walked instead. The terraces were only small in comparison to those found in Turkey, but interesting all the same.
We dropped into a roadside cafe whilst waiting for the bus to arrive and I routinely inspected the toilets, confirming what I already knew; that the toilets in China are without exception the worst in the world. The pools of filth in this wooden shack 'moved' with an infestation of maggots, earning it a respectable eight on the World's Worst Toilets scoreboard.
Our bus took us through the mountains into a new world. Tibetan buddhist influence now decorated the landscape with small monastries, stupas and streams of prayer flags. The Chinese were attempting to build a road through here, though this looked like it may take an eternity with just the occasional group of men and women sitting on the road side with hammer and chisel breaking rocks. For the most part we drove on dirt tracks for the day long journey, The Band entertaining the local passengers with a cracking version of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
In Zhongdian we booked into the International Backpackers hostel. In the evening a jamming session conviened with two French guys and two Chinese on trumpet, guitar, flute and saxaphone. I had not heard music quite like it anywhere and was captivated by the mix of Parisian jazz and Chinese folk.
The following day, having bemoaned the fact someone had stolen my favorite Vietmamese underpants off the washing line Andy, Katie and Jeremy split from The Band and took off back to Lijiang to prepare for a climb of Haba Snow Mountain. Ken and Becks were both sick, so travel was suspended and I spent the day visiting the old town and pottering around.
The jourrney the next day to Minyiong via Dequin was through massive mountain scenery, the rickety old bus taking us over a pass at 4292m.
At Minyiong we stayed at the foot of Meili Snow Mountain in a guesthouse without name, washroom or even toilet, though the setting and hospitality of Dave, our host, compensated for this.
In the pre-dawn light of the following day Ken, Becks and myself began the climb. After a couple of hours we accidently split up and a further hour on I found myself over-looking the astonishing Meili Glacier.
This is the rarest and fastest glacier in the world. At 11.8 km long, 500m wide and 3-400m deep, it moves at an average speed of 500m per annum, or 1.37m per day. There are constant rumbles and bangs from falling rock and splitting ice that echoes through the mountain valley. I spent an hour there, hypnotised by its power and the ever changing colours of the mountain above as the sun rose, sharing a packed breakfast with a Chinese girl who showed up.
Becks and Ken were on a ridge above me, at a small buddhist temple, sharing their view with a mantra-chanting monk. This is a pilgrimage route from the village of Minyiong, where the Great Lotus Buddha once taught, through Tibet, the border of which is straddled by Meili Snow Moutain and on to India.
A series of long-distance buses over a couple of days took us to Lijiang, where Ken took off to connect with his flight home from Hong Kong.
So The Band, from our perspective, was reduced back down to a duet. We were sitting in Nobi's Throne Room drinking coffee, when shrieks at the door signalled a chance reunion with Jeremy, Andy and Katie. It was Jeremy's birthday too. The perfect excuse.
We held our party at the Mishi Mishi bar, which involved a world globe, a number of Irish car bombs and some very miserable French expats who, try as they did, could not quosh our enthusiasm for fun.
Andy and Katie took off for Tibet and I had a couple of films developed. I was still paranoid over the quality of my Indian-purchased camera, though the prints turned out fantastic. What a relief!
That night we went out with the Swedish owner of the Mishi Mishi bar to the edge of town to a bar for the Moshuo minorities people. It was wild. Imagine 'Last Of The Mohicans' set in a Munich beer hall and you are starting to get the picture.
At around 3am we took a taxi out to an all-night market and I ordered a gastronomic feast at a food stall. Huge bowls of dragon fly, locust, maggot and dog intestines set off by a hint of spring onion. And we polished them clean. Yum!
Breakfast. Jeremy bets the girls at the restaurant that he can jump the eight-foot wide canal for a can of coke. To the hysterical bemusement of everyone watching, he launched himself across and parts of him actualy made it. His feet took a dunking and his arms and legs were cut open on impact but, with blood spurting everywhere, he proundly accepted his prized can of coke to raptuous applause. I had been trying to think who he reminded me of. Of course. Gary Vine!
Jeremy took off to complete the tourism program he had been working on and a new member joined in his place, Eliza (US), with whom we keep bumping into.
The three of us took a long-distance sleeper bus overnight to Kunming. Eliza had booked the huge triple bed that spanned the entire back of the bus. It is not too often I get the chance to share a triple bed with two girls. Lucky me!
Eliza returned to her university campus whilst Becks and I to our Camillia Hotel and our ethnic ChaMa bar, to begin finalising the next stage of our journey.
I had left some washing on the line at the hotel three weeks previously and to my amazement my favourite ten year old African tee shirt, complete with travel-worn holes, was still hanging there. Typicaly, someone had stolen my underpants.
Another sleeper bus and here Becks and I are, back at Hekou. A group of men stand around me as I write, al fresco with a coffee, fascinated with my strange language. Twenty meters ahead is the 'Frienship Bridge' across the revine and Vietnam. But this is not the end. This is where it is all due to begin...
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