After a week in Yunnan with Simon, I’m now safely ensconced back in Shanghai at Simon and Charlotte’s place, freshly showered, cup of coffee on the go, with their cleaning lady Ayi buzzing around me. This is a different world from where we’ve been for the last seven days.
I’ve been going on about how before last year I had never been on an airplane before – as of yesterday, I’ve taken eleven flights and I’m starting to feel like a veteran. Sitting on the plane from Kunming back to Shanghai yesterday, full with Shanghai Airlines’ finest noodles and packet of salty nuts, and cleansed and fragranced to perfection by their moist towel, numerous thoughts went through my head:
- How much energy could be saved by turning off the no smoking lights on all planes everywhere, and just putting up no smoking stickers, now that you can’t smoke on planes? They’re on all the time, this must be a drain of energy.
- When fossil fuels are depleted and planes can no longer fly, necessitating some new form of mass transport for people, will the guy behind me still be able to piss me off by kicking the back of my seat?
- If there’s the old question about whether planes could be made of the same thing as black box recorders, if they’re made of the same thing as seat-back tables, should we not really worry?
- What percentage of airplane seats refuse to recline, or alternatively recline when they feel like it? I’m estimating 30%.
- Should air stewards be given tranquilizer darts to use on the people that ignore the seat-belt lights or use their mobiles when you’re taking off?
- What do mobile phones do to affect the plane when you’re taking off? If enough people are using them, does the plane just keep rolling off the end of the runway or do the wings fall off?
- When the guy with halitosis sits next to me and I have a window seat, and he keeps leaning over me to look out of the window and breath his acrid stench directly up my nostrils, is it fair to tell him to brush his teeth and get out of my lap?
Yes, the romance has gone from flying for me now.
Anyway, back to Yunnan. Si and I got into Lijiang after a hop and a skip from Shanghai. Lijiang is the tourism capital of Yunnan province, the high province of China bordering Tibet. Lijiang was made famous by the 1994 Channel 4 series ‘Beyond the Clouds’, which as I recall painted Lijiang in a very romantic light, and has been revisited recently by Michael Palin in his series ‘Himalaya’. Palin describes Lijiang as a ‘tale of two cities’, and he’s not wrong – a modern, bustling town with new buildings backs onto an immaculately tidy old town of traditional style buildings, so tidy you could almost eat your noodles off the cobbled streets. Lijiang is in an earthquake zone being on a tectonic fault line, and a large earthquake in 1996 killed 300 people and injured thousands, destroying many of Lijiang’s newer buildings.
Old Lijiang felt like a bit like ChinaWorld theme park, not that such a place exists, but it could here. The narrow streets wind around each other and over narrow canals, and every fifth shop is almost exactly the same. Chinese tourists trawl around the old town wearing wicker Marlboro cowboy hats, following loud tour leaders with yellow flags, or more often than not, not following them at all, and leaving them to walk around the streets waving their flags and shouting in complete solitude. Shops sell pashminas by the dozen, dried sea cucumbers and other snack foods I still can’t help but find disgusting, carved figures, hand-painted T-shirts, and of course, wicker Marlboro cowboy hats. Shopkeepers stay open until midnight in many cases, many looking bored to tears.
One of the biggest surprises of Lijiang was walking along Xinhua Jie late at night and seeing hundreds of Chinese people sitting around, eating popcorn or full meals, drinking beer and spirits, and singing noisily. This scene, reminiscent of Hou Hai in Beijing, was one of young Chinese who have money to burn. Simon remarked that the Chinese didn’t usually eat late – they did here. Some say that the Chinese don’t drink much – they do here. This was a million miles away from the people of the Beijing Hutong or paddy-field workers in the countryside.
After a night or so in Lijiang we headed to Qiaotou for the highlight of our stay in Yunnan, a hike along the high trail of Tiger Leaping Gorge to Walnut Grove. We spent the night in the shabby village of Qiaotou before an early start the next morning along the trail. Qiaotou is a bit of an ugly place, with lots of hotels being built or having just been built for guests that don’t appear to have come yet. Most travelers flock to the Gorged Tiger Cafe to be fed, advised, and stocked up on Snickers bars by Margo, an aussie who married a local guy some years back. Margo cooked for us and mothered us, and got to looking slightly flustered whenever more than about five people were in the cafe. It’s a slightly incongruous picture to say the least, when surrounded by swarthy looking locals in the middle of nowhere in China, to see a short aussie lady in what looked like a negligee, sprinting around like a blue-arsed fly shouting at hikers – but she’s great, and she looked after our bags.
Simon and I started the high trail at 7:30 a.m – and it was the hardest physical exercise I have ever done, though in the most stunning natural scenery I have ever seen. The whole walk was about 25km in length – with the most difficult part being the 28 bends, a zig-zag path leading steeply up the side of the gorge to a summit of over 2600 meters. Simon and I were rather put out when, having done what we thought were the 28 bends, we found out that we hadn’t actually started them at all – we’d walked 28 or so curves, but they weren’t the bends. The maps handed out by locals are mostly pretty hopeless, so we took them with a pinch of salt after this. We had good pace-setters for the walk – a Dutch girl Carla and her brother Michael – who I think may be part mountain goat, and I mean that in the nicest way. Michael probably would have done the trail in four hours flat if Simon and I weren’t moving a bit more slowly. Aside from a hair-raising deviation from the path into decidedly unsafe territory up the side of a hill of scrub and rocks, we kept a good pace.
At the Tea Horse, where we stopped for lunch halfway along the trail, I found a toilet even more basic than the standard Indian/ eastern squatter. This basically involved squatting over an open channel, your squatting area divided off from the next by a short wall. With a gentle breeze blowing in from outside and a charming view of the mountains at the opposite side of the gorge, it was an almost spiritual experience to commune with nature in such a way.
So after about ten hours of walking over rock, through alpine woodland, over waterfalls, in the rain, utterly knackered, with knees and ankles about to shatter, we arrived at Walnut Grove and the shelter and warm food of Sean’s Guest house – Sean is Margo’s hubby, and between them they have this hiking route all stitched up. I snored that night and woke everyone in the dorm up – this is why I don’t like dorms. There aren’t that many Chinese tourists doing the high trail at Tiger Leaping Gorge, probably because most of them smoke like chimneys and would be shagged out after climbing twenty steps – the Chinese take buses along a low road of the gorge to stop and look at the water before getting back on the bus and heading back to Lijiang. It was this low road that we took a bus along to get back to Qiaotou and pick up our bags from Margo, and the bus ride back was practically hairier than any of the hike – it’s never a good sign when the driver is peering upwards out of the window of the bus to look for falling rocks the size of family cars.
From Lijiang, after an abortive attempt to cycle to Baisha where my back, legs and spirit weren’t up to the task after the previous day’s hike, Si and I did some sightseeing around Lijiang, including Spruce Meadow, Baisha (by taxi this time) and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Spruce Meadow’s highlight is a fantastic mountain view that wasn’t there due to cloud, and Baisha felt like an annex of ChinaWorld, replete with Chinese tourists and a bunch of women in traditional dress that started singing and dancing when Simon and I made the mistake of wandering into their yard. In the queue to take the ski lift up Spruce Meadow, one woman said in Chinese in Simon’s direction, “You’re too fat to go on this – I wander if he understands me?” to which Simon replied in excellent Mandarin “I do understand, and no I’m not!”. Simon’s Chinese is very impressive – enough to negotiate good rates on hotel rooms and pashminas, and enough to make a rude tourist eat her words.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain felt like a place people should not be – nevertheless the Chinese have built a cable car that takes tourists up to over 4500 meters, to walk around a beautiful glacial plateau. Women totter around after their husbands over snow and rock in high heels, and chain-smoking old men hold cans of oxygen to their faces – the air here is very thin. Only ropes and signs that say “Do not play past this point” stand in the way of oblivion in the shape of a hundred-foot drop onto rocks below. One of the most insane features is a taboggan ride that, if taken fast enough, would surely launch you clear over the side of a cliff.
It was a good change to get away from Lijiang to Dali, two hours south on a bus designed for people with short legs, not for Si and me – we had to sit sort of ‘buckled’ through the journey. Dali is a bit rougher around the edges than Lijiang, arguably more charming, but certainly aimed more at the Western traveler. We stayed in the Old Dali Inn, a youth hostel hosting a group of Israelis with portable trance music, one of whom looked exactly like Dave Gorman, and a rabbit warren of rooms and restaurant tables, in a place that never felt quite dry. There are drug dealers in Dali, many of them – and they’re women in their fifties in traditional dress. Walking around certain areas we were bombarded with offers of something to smoke by these grannies, under the pretence of going to look at their range of pashminas in their locked shop. How do I know? Because Si decided to go and look at their range of pashminas. I followed him in something of a daze to the courtyard of one of these women, and was happily sat reading Lonely Planet when the curtains were drawn, the door locked, and Simon, upon seeing the woman’s full range of narcotics, said to me “Nathan, we’re leaving.”. It’s the first time I ever nearly scored drugs without even realising it.
The Chinese have a range of reactions to the sight of a laowai – you say hello to someone, and they:
- Say hello back in a very friendly fashion
- Stare at you very, very hard until you look away because your eyes are watering with all the staring
- Laugh, and laugh, and laugh (perhaps the most disturbing one)
- Grumble and spit
I have a theory as to why this last one happens – fortunately not too often. Many Chinese must be grumpy because of lack of sleep or noise. When many Chinese people use mobile phones, it seems necessary to shout so loud down them that using the phone is almost redundant – Simon’s comment on a recent shouter was that the age of the cup and string was over but no-one had told him. I was in Starbucks earlier when I thought two Chinese men were having a fight – I turned round to see they were both just on the phone. Also, a street sweeper moved past our youth hostel at Dali playing a tune so loud at six in the morning, it was like an ice cream van doing a meter an hour, and a solitary man stood outside our room in Lijiang at three in the morning shouting at the top of his voice for no apparent reason – he may have been cabbie trying to wake up a customer, serenading his love with the most tuneless song ever, or just drunk. Coupled with him shouting, a car alarm was going off, playing so many different tunes it was like someone playing with their mobile to find the most annoying ringtone.
We left Dali yesterday after some more walking, including a rainy walk through paddy fields to Lake Erhai, and got back to Shanghai yesterday night to warm showers that actually spray water out of all of the nozzles, a washing machine, and a bed that isn’t just damp enough to foster mushroom growth. It’s luxury.
Ayi just handed me a bowl of something hot, black and soupy. I’ve no idea what it is but it’s tasty so it’s time for lunch.
Next stop Hong Kong and on to Bangkok.