Posts tagged ‘China’
In ways it feels like only yesterday that Gary and I said tearful goodbyes to our Mums and Dads and set off with our names sewn on to our shiny new backpacks, hardly able to breath for all the excitement/nerves/sadness/happiness and general overwhelming flow of emotions vying for our attention. Yet somehow, we have found ourselves a few days short of halfway and, even more alarmingly, out of Asia. Somehow we have become semi-seasoned travellers. Gone is the lettering on our bags – the victims of a hundred careless baggage handlers – and the brand new look. Now everything we own smells like Asia; all our clothes have bobbles around the waist from chaffing backpacks; we don’t bounce out of bed at 7am every morning; we barter for everything even when it’s inappropriate; and we start sentences with the ever-infuriating “Well when I was in Laos/Cambodia/China/East Timor…” We could be gone for years or it could have just been days.
Leaving Asia, after having such a fantastic time, was more bitter than sweet. Granted Oz could offer us all the comforts of home – chocolate, television, air conditioning, home cooking, cleanliness and the ability to communicate – but would it surprise us with impromptu religious processions in the street? Would we have the fun of blind ordering creamed yams because we couldn’t read the menu? Would there be the same backpacker solidarity that we found in rural China or Vietnam? Would we be able to buy and sell motorbikes without a drivers license? Would we be able to afford even the most basic of things? Hardly.
As a tribute to our favourite continent we decided to compile a bit of a nostalgic top ten list. After much squabbling and a few punches we came up with a list that surprised even us. Whenever asked we always say that we loved Japan and Thailand most yet China seems to have housed most of our best memories. The main difficulty lay in choosing just ten – how could we leave out watching the Hong Kong skyline come into focus from the Star Ferry or the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan or having our teeth rattled out of our heads in Timor Leste? It was hard but here it is – our ode to Asia. It’s been emotional.
10.Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Choose getting wet. Choose taking off all your clothes in front of strangers. Choose sunburn. Choose throwing yourself into a fast-flowing river. Choose drinking from a bucket. Choose falling out of a tractor tyre. Choose dropping your camera in the water. Choose dancing on tables. Choose 100 new friends, Choose killing your liver. Choose falling asleep at 5pm. Choose writing on your face in permanent marker. Choose risking your life for the best matinee party ever. Choose tubing in Vang Vieng.
9.The onsen experience, Japan
For most people being naked with a big group of people is about getting dirty. In Japan it’s about getting clean and let’s face it, there are very few times in life where you will have the opportunity to perch between two naked Asian women in an outdoor thermal mudbath high in the mist-shrouded mountains. The Japanese onsen experience, be it in the dedicated town of Beppu or a public facility in Tokyo, will change the way you feel about bath-time forever.
8.Food, just about everywhere
Slurrping down bowls of ramen at noodle bars; discovering mango and sticky rice at a roadside stall; bagging 20 Indonesian fried bananas for 40 cent; eating an entire fish on a stick; figuring out where M&S steal their recipes from over a bowl of fish amok; and the endless search for the best Thai curry. Who said eating in Asia just meant pad thai and fried rice? Yes there was enthusiastic vomitting and 100 odd boxes of immodium but it was worth it to be able to say – “Can you make that Thai spicy, not farang (foreigner) spicy?” And thanks to fantastic cooking classes in China and Thailand we may never have to eat western food again…
7.Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
The phrase ‘fresh sushi’ never rang as true as it does in Tsukiji Fish Market where fishermen and chefs meet to haggle over a 70 tonne tuna fish or a handful of live prawns. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, skilled tradesmen gut fish with one hand while texting with the other and demonstrate just how easy it is to turn an eel inside out.
6.Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was one of those extremely rare, heart-stopping moments. We’ve seen our fair share of religious sites from simple wooden structures in Kyoto to the ancient stupa of Borobudor and even the gold-plated royal temple in Bangkok but nothing has come even close to seeing the light change Angkor Wat from a vague black shadow to a spectacular glowing pink, orange and yellow marvel. Never has getting up at 4am been so worthwhile.
5.Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
There are very few places in China where you can find peace and quiet but over three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge our only human interaction was around a camp fire on our last night when we finally met the eight other hikers doing the trail. During the day we edged across cliffside waterfalls, dragged ourselves by the fingernails up the last of the infamous 28 bends (more like 128 bends), clung onto fraying rope ladders for dear life and sat and stared in awe at the mighty Yangtze as it roared past Middle Tiger Leaping Rock.
4.Diving in Thailand
“Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered by water. How can you call yourself a traveller if you’re happy to settle for less than a third?” reads a sign in Ko Phi Phi. Diving in Thailand opened our eyes to an entirely different, entirely superior world full of vibrant colours, swaying reef and curious fish. Away from the blaring music, honking horns and obnoxious tauts we perfected our backflips and were adopted by schools of Sergent Major Fish.
3.Biking in Vietnam
Yes there were near death experiences, crashes, break-downs on mountain peaks, monsoons, burst tires, broken engines, dodgy chains, hit and runs, guilty pay-offs, police bribes and painful sunburns but as the saying goes – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Biking around Vietnam we managed to get off the very sticky tourist trail and see a whole other side to a very beautiful country. Of course it didn’t hurt that we got to know some great Aussies on the way too.
2.Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is a spectacular blanket of silky water broken by hundreds of dark shadows – giants hunched over as if in sleep. Add to that a traditional oriental junk, some fantastic food, a handful of great new friends and a liberal serving of alcohol and you have a New Year’s Eve to remember (or not remember). And as we all know, the only cure for a hangover is to run out of bed and leap straight from the deck of a boat into freezing cold water. Heaven.
1.The Great Wall of China
We had been on the Great Wall of China for around an hour and a half before we saw it. It’s hard to miss something that big (some say you can see it from the moon) but in the blanket of fog that had fallen over Beijing that cold winter’s morning we were more concerned about getting off the damn thing alive than we were about visibility. Subzero temperatures had left the wall coated in black ice, making an already precariously delapidated wall even more impassable. As we shuffled along, using our hands and bums to keep us from falling off the edge and into the abyss, the strangest thing happened. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the fog cleared and the sun came out. Stretched out before us was an endless stretch of sandy brickwork zig-zagging its way up and down the hilly landscape. We stopped dead, totally speechless. Bloody hell, we were on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!
All our pictures from Asia are available in the gallery
From the second we stepped over the border in Shenzhen train station we knew that we were in a whole new China. Instantly the cigarettes went out, the spitting stopped and order returned to the world. And it was even more convincing after we got off the subway on Nathan Road.
“Watches, handbags, copy watch for you my friend!”; “Tailor for you sir! Suits, shirts, ties, ladies’ tailor for you Ma’am!”; “Hostel for you sir, cheap room for you!” We were so overjoyed to hear the hawkers speaking english that we didn’t care that they had completely surrounded us and were following us down the road. We gawked at the colours of all their hands – black, brown, yellow, white – after seeing only Chinese faces for an entire month, the multicultural population of Hong Kong was a shock to the system.
Our first three nights in Hong Kong were spent in the notorious Chungking Mansions – a grimy, never-ending block filled to bursting point with curry houses, mobile phone retailers, porn stalls and reasonably priced accomodation. Here hawkers are more persistent than anywhere else in the city, the bugs are huge, the queues for the lift can be half an hour long, the men will violate you with their stares and the building could fall down at any moment but the prices and the curry make it all worthwhile (especially The Deli Club on Floor 3 Block A.)
Curry aside though, it would be silly to argue that Hong Kong isn’t first and foremost about the views, the technology and the shopping. For ease of use, all of the above are packaged into nice little bite-sized bundles too. Around Tsim Sha Tsui for example, there are more stores selling Prada, Gucci, Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton than you could shake a Miu Miu bag at and even at that the flagship stores still manage to conjure queues of 40 or 50 people waiting to get in at any given time. Around Nathan Rd on the other hand, everyone deals in electronics at prices that would cause you to wonder if they were flattened when they fell off the back of that truck.
Knockdown Canons included, the best part of Hong Kong is the Star Ferry which runs from the terminal in Kowloon across the bay to Hong Kong Island. At only HK$1.80 (€0.16) for a place on the lower deck, spending 10 minutes watching Hong Kong skyline twinkle to life in the burned light of dusk is an epiphany moment you can have every day. And since daylight and darkness are equally kind to the view, it takes a lot of restraint not to drag your boyfriend (along with his seasick belly) over and back 23 times in 5 days. Not that I would do that…
The view across the harbour is at its best at 8pm every second day or so (Mon, Wed and Fri) when speakers in Tsim Sha Tsui harbour belt out the music to accompany the light show. The show admittedly starts a little slow with spotlights timed to Disney-esque music but it quickly picks up, switching into Star Wars mode as dozens of green lasers dance across the sky to computer game music.
There is another side to Hong Kong though – a side which makes it different from Tokyo with its fabulous shops, fabulous cars, fabulous women, fabulous architecture and fabulous technology – a side which gives it a little more character than the average high strung, high rise city. Wander a few minutes away from the mid-level escalaors (outdoor escalators that stretch uphill for blocks) and you will quickly realise that as different as this new China is, it’s still China. Fish flop about on chopping boards, old men sit on benches with their songbirds and chicken’s feet are ten a penny. As it turns out, Hong Kong – for all it’s capitalist glamour, Soho elite and Blackberry-toting chaos – is never too far from its roots, and that is why we love it.
Having finished the Tiger Leaping Gorge in more or less one piece we decided to make our next stop a tamer, more low lying one. According to our trusty guidebook, Yangshuo was as tame as you could get, the kind of place where you handed over a few yuan at the front desk of your hostel and they did the rest – choosing and booking tours, organising a guide to walk you 100m to the bus station and hiring a motorbike to take you 5 minutes down the road to the Li river in time for your evening appointments.
In a word, it was everything we had spent the last two months trying to avoid but were just about ready to give in to. It also had the advantage of being pretty damn scenic, with karst rock formations jutting up between houses, looming over lakes and making what should have been a drab, flat town one of the most iconic locations in China. Add to that the fact that Dan and Ashley were heading that way too and were willing to let us leech off of their travel arrangements and we had a sure fire winner.
So we arrived at the Li river and dutifully booked two tours the second we landed in Flowers Hostel. The first up was a nighttime cormorant fishing excursion. Cormorant fishing is an ancient local practice whereby a savvy fisherman uses a flock of trained cormorant birds to do his work for him. The birds skim along the water beside the fisherman’s bamboo raft, diving below the surface occasionally to catch fish. Appetising as his catch probably is, the cormorant is unable to swallow his prize because the fisherman has placed a tie or ring around his neck. Instead, he hands it over to his master and in return, the fisherman allows him to eat one in every 7 fish.
At least that is the idea. The section of the Li around Yangshuo is now so over-fished and polluted that there are very few fish living there anymore, one-time cormorant fishermen now make their living through organised tours like ours although the practice is still widespread in central and southern China (I hear it is possible to hop onboard with a fisherman at Er Hai if you are really determined).
Not that that bothered us massively though – truth be told, you have to take every “authentic experience” with a pinch of salt in China when it comes in packaged tour form and nowhere is this more true than in Yangshuo. The cormorants however, were not so impressed by the developments. During our 50 minute punt about the river, they managed to come up with only one large fish between the six of them. Or so we thought. As it turned out, they were harvesting a dozen or so more between them, hidden in the depts of their bills and halfway down their throats in the hope that their master wouldn’t find them. No such luck, the shrewd old fisherman (who, with his withered but wistful face, bearded chin and faraway look was everything we were hoping for) eventually pulled in the boat, chased them down, grabbed hold of their feet and, holding them over his basket, expertly milked their throats like a cows teat.
Fruitless and commercial as it was, the trip left us in high spirits so the next day when the alarm went off to wake us for our second organised tour, we leaped out of bed in record time. This tour was to be an old-school trip down the Li river on an old-school bamboo raft. First though, we would have to get a bus to another town and a taxi to the boat followed by a 45 minute boat ride and then a three hour trip home on the bus. A little excessive perhaps but we had heard that the Li was wonderful, magical, not to be missed.
Of course it was wonderful and magical and we were glad we went but more to the point it was bitterly cold. Dressed in our thermals, hats and gloves we were still the coldest we had been in a long time and with the wind biting viciously at our still-sunburned faces, there was only so long that a pretty river was going to hold our attention. After we tired of discussing how absolutely lovely it was and what a wonderful time we were having we put an end to our charade, started shivering uncontrollably and, to take our minds off it, sang Christmas carols at the top of our lungs (much to the amusement of our boat driver and the other tourists punting their way downriver.) The best bit of the trip was when we got off the boat and our boatman (Tony) brought us to his beautiful village to meet his Mum, Dad and dog and to try some strange orange-like fruit.
Our final organised activity was definately our best – a Chinese cooking class in Cloud 9 restaurant. The lesson, taught by a 19 year old girl with fluent english and 4 years of full-time work experience under her belt, started out at the local food market shopping for ingredients (but thankfully not any of that nasty dead, rigermortis affected dog.) After explaining all of the products to us our pint-sized teacher brought us back to the restaurant where she taught us how to cook Gongbao Chicken, Sizzling Beef and Fried Noodles in a purpose built kitchen on the roof. She was a bit of a slave-driver, always shouting “Don’t cut your fingers off” this and “Watch that wok doesn’t go on fire” that but we had a lot of fun and, in the end, managed to whip up a pretty tasty three course dinner if we may say so ourselves. And we may because this is our blog.
There was something missing the whole time though and, try as we might, we just couldn’t shake that strange feeling of loss. Finally we put our finger on it though – since we were staying in different hostels and they were a day behind us, we hadn’t seen Dan and Ash in ages. Leaping into action we grabbed our bags and ran, falling over our own feet in our eagerness, to the hostel where we knew they were staying – Monkey Jane’s. True to form we found them drinking in the rooftop bar where a game of King’s Cup quickly ensued (we have been making it our mission to spread the word/intoxication).
On our last day in Yangshuo we helped Dan tick of the last box on his To Do In China list with a scenic cycle through the countryside which took in Moon Hill which – if you ever get to the top of the ridiculously long and steep stairs – you will see notice has a hole the shape of the moon in it. Technically you have to pay 15 yuen into the hill but, having gotten carried away at happy hour again the previous night, we were all pretty tapped so under Jay’s recommendation we opted for the “local route”. For 5 yuen a pretty old and harmless woman led us down a quiet street, shushing us all the way, over a wall embedded with shards of broken glass, through some dense bamboo trees, up a dirt track and finally, to the official route. As earnest as she was in urging quiet, it was pretty hard not to giggle at the sight of her stealthily hopping the wall and the image made the subsequent climb up the stairs a little easier.
As nice as Yangshuo was and as much fun as we had in Monkey Jane’s though, Yangshuo looked predictably overcast, overcrowded and overtouristed after the wide open spaces of Tiger Leaping Gorge so it was with a fond farewell but dry eyes that we said our goodbyes to mainland China and headed for Hong Kong. Next stop, Chungking Mansions.
More pictures from Yangshuo are available in the gallery
Afraid to approach Medusa to ask for breakfast, we left the Halfway House with empty bellies. While we were pretty impressed by all the scenery the day before – the green mountains, bleating goats and nearing snow-capped peaks – it turned out that our scenic walk had not yet begun.
Rounding one of the first bends of the morning we saw a waterfall diving from the top of a mountain over the dirt path and down to the bottom of the gorge. From the distance we could see a herd of what looked like cows but eventually turned out to be goats, picking their way gingerly through the spray. Crossing the waterfall meant choosing one of two paths – you could stick close to the wall and be pounded by sheets of water or you could keep your distance, shuffling precariously along the edge of the drop. The goats chose the latter so we followed suit, hopping from one slippery stone to another as Gary recorded a video post for the blog on my (now lost) camera.
Having successfuly negotiated the first hurdle of the day we ploughed headlong into the second – the steep decline down a rocky dirtpath to Tina’s guesthouse. Tina’s by the way, was not the colossal 600m tall monster that our doodle map had made it out to be. The restaurant did do a mean stir-fried potatoe dish though and the waitress provided very ambiguous onward directions. As is a re-occuring theme on the gorge, directions to every guesthouse were clearly signposted on every rock, tree or animal that would stand still long enough to be painted. Once we got passed the guesthouse though, we were more or less on our own.
After we left Tina’s we decided to head for the Middle Tiger Leaping Stone without fully knowing what a Middle Tiger Leaping Stone was supposed to be. Was it just a pebble? Or a rock with a plaque on it? Did it have a statue of Chairman Mao? Devoid of any useful map or directions, we decided to follow the small dog who had tagged along from Tina’s. He looked like he knew where he was going – like an ugly Chinese Lassie.
As it turns out Chinese Lassie did know where he was going and the rock pretty much did what it said on the tin. It was a massive hunk of stone sitting in the middle of the ferocious river which you could get onto by crossing a questionable rope bridge. “You could be killed…” The words of the guard we met yesterday kept floating through my head. Eventually though, they were drowned out by the deafening roar of the great Yangzi. Never really one for rivers, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed lying stretched out on the Middle Tiger Leaping Stone with Chinese Lassie as Gary clicked and whirred at the towering gorge from every angle.
There was of course, a catch. Having descended around 30 flights of stairs (some so steep that we had climbed down backwards on our hands and knees, bellies flat against the rough stone), we had to go back up. Que the Towering Ladder of Death. “Let’s take the ladder back up so we don’t have to retrace our steps – those stairs were a killer.” I remember saying to Gary who unfortunately agreed. So we climbed up to the base of the ladder where there was a sign pointing in one direction to the “Safe Route” and in another direction to the ladder. Hardy and well-endowed as we are, we decided to take a gamble on the ladder which looked like a relatively short iron structure bolted into the rockface. Wrapped in ivy and sheilded from the halfway point by a round metal cage it appealed to my romantic notions of what a real ladder should look like – an adventurer’s ladder. And what the hell, we were in China, doing a 3 day hike in the most scenic gorge I had ever seen. We could handle it.
On about the third rung of the ladder I realised that, far from being bolted into the mountain, the iron ladder was loosely tied to a rotting wooden structure underneath it. Any attempt to look upwards therefore resulted in the ladder swinging violently away from the rockface and out over the crashing river, now at least 100m below us. “Two people have already died on this Gorge,” warned a sign down below, “be careful, we don’t want to make it more.” Four or five rungs later, as the ground started to spin below me I remembered that I have a crippling fear of heights – oh well, it can’t be much further, I thought.
Looking up I saw that Gary was still climbing, 15 minutes after getting onto the ladder which, from the bottom, hadn’t looked like it was more than 20 or 30 rungs high. By now he looked to be at least half way to the sun. “Why didn’t we take the safe route?” I thought as my hands became sweaty and my legs started to take on the muscle density of jelly. Then, just as I thought it couldn’t get worse, the wind picked up, buffeting violently against the rock and forcing the ladder to sail further away from the safety of the mountain. Too afraid to move a muscle I flattened myself against the ladder and contemplated going back down and taking the safe route. A quick glance below me convinced me that that wouldn’t be such a great idea – going down would be harder than going up. So, taking a few deep breaths I ploughed on, taking at least 5 years off my life in 15 long, sweaty, mentally disturbing minutes.
Finally I reached the top, panting, soaked through and terrified. Throwing myself up the last few feet and clinging to the dusty path I heard Gary’s muffled voice penetrating my relief. “I think that’s the first of the three ladders. And from what I can see this path doesn’t rejoin the safe route.” Oh crabapples.
Thankfully he was wrong, the Towering Ladder of Death was the second ladder, the third was a short 10 rung number which presented no risk of falling to a watery death. After that it was a steep but – in light of my ordeal on the ladder – pretty easy going 40 minute climb up a winding path, the top of which left us a merciful half hour away from Sean’s guesthouse, our rest stop for the second night.
Sean’s turned out to be a highlight of the trip for us. Located in Walnut Garden, the guesthouse has a majestic view over rice paddies, farmhouses and a full quartet of goats, chickens dogs and screaming children. Settling into seats on the flagstone patio we were thrilled to discover three things:
1. The rest of the travellers were now following the same schedule as us so we had company for the night in the form of an architecht, a civil servant, a forest ranger, an archaeologist, a Parisien, a Texan and a South American
2. The hostess had lit a massive fire for us to sit around
3. It being only 5pm we would get full enjoyment out of happy hour which stretched until 9pm and promised bottles of Tsing Tao for a bargain 4RMB (40c).
And enjoy it we did. Sitting around the fire with our generous host family comparing scars and listening to stories about Dan and Ashley (who we were to spend the next week following) almost being chased over the edge of a cliff in the Bamboo Forest by a runaway bull, The Towering Ladder of Death was soon forgotten. As the night went on and her shyness was replaced by curiosity, we also made another addition to our merry little band of misfits – a beautiful little Chinese girl. What started out as a friendly game of ball with Gary soon developed into an entire procession of her favourite foods and for me, a lesson on how to eat sunflower seeds properly, spitting out the shells with appropriate Chinese gusto.
The plan for the next day had been to hike the last few kilometers up to the ferry which would take us across the river to meet the early bus back to Lijiang. Our hostess kindly informed us however, that the Chinese authorities had caused a blockage in the river while they were playing with their dynamite during the day so the ferry was no longer running. We decided to order a fleet of minibuses to drive us back instead only to wake up the following morning, hungover and with swollen feet, to hear that another explosion during the night had blocked off the only road out of the gorge. Never fear however, our minibus drivers were willing to go anyway.
The minibus ride back to the town was what you would call an experience. Taking some small comfort in the knowledge that our diver was born and raised in the gorge, we spent a nerve wracking 2 hours peering over the edge of steep cliff drops as he trudged along, one wheel skimming over the drop. When we did meet the rockfall we had to wait an hour while two diggers lifted boulders out of our paths and threw them carelessly down the mountain.
Thank God that was the end of our journey rather than the beginning. After spending two days watching puffs of smoke and dust rise over the sites of explosions that were too close for comfort, we weren’t exactly clambouring to go back. Had we the gift of foresight when we decided to brave the hike, chances are we would have decided that we valued our fully intact limbs too much to risk it. But the gorge was more than worth the risk – one of those fantastic, adrenalin filled once in a lifetime experiences – totally surreal at the time and, once it was finished, seeming more like a strange shared dream rather than something we had actually done together, oohing, ahhing, singing, bickering and laughing ourselves silly.
It was Tiger Leaping Gorge-ous!
More pictures from Tiger Leaping Gorge are available on the gallery
As it stands the Tiger Leaping Gorge is closed to hikers. This is because construction work is taking place on the lower road – work that involves frequent haphazard explosions – so there is a guard posted at the entrance to ward off idiots like us. As you will see, he is a particularly useful cog in the wheels of the Chinese government.
Guard: “Where are you going?”
Us: “Just to that guesthouse there behind you.”
Guard: “You aren’t going to hike the gorge are you?”
Us: “No of course not, it’s closed isn’t it?”
Guard: “Yes, it’s closed for construction so it would be very very dangerous for anyone hiking the route.”
Us: “Of course.”
Guard: “Here, take this sheet of paper which says that you shouldn’t hike the gorge because if you do, you could be killed.”
Us: “Okay, thanks. We’ll just go to our guesthouse now. The route starts just over there doesn’t it?”
Guard: “Yes. Goodbye. And good luck.
I would like to say that that was the start of our expedition but unfortunately, having for some reason taken Gary’s directions, we had already walked 5km towards Shangri-la and back.
For the last few days we had been to-ing and fro-ing over the prospect of hiking the gorge and had eventually dismissed it as a terrible idea akin to cycling 150km around a lake. That was until the boredom set in. As much as we enjoyed Dali and Lijiang and the rest of our trip, it was starting to become worryingly same-y – an endless whirl of temples, bike rides, winding alleyways, quaint towns, lukewarm hostels and snap-happy tourists. In short, we needed to shake things up so we threw a spare pair of underwear, a hand drawn map and some suncream into our tiny day packs an headed for the hills.
The first few hours were pretty mundane – we rounded the first few mountains, stopped for a lunch of fried rice and caught our first few glimpses of the gorge. We weren’t realy tired at all so when we met other hikers who tutted at my Berkenstocks and Gary’s grip-free runners, labelling them “inappropriate footwear” we laughed them off. What was all the fuss about – this was only a mere 3 day hill walk. Any old granny with half a hip could do it in her slippers. Soon after lunch we started to choke on our arrogance.
Of course we had heard of the 28 bends before we left Lijiang – what prospective hiker hasn’t? According to backpacker folklore they were the 28 steepest turns ever to wind their way up a mountain. They were bends paved with fire, glass and screaming babies over whom you had to trod to get to the top. Once you had trampled the screaming glass fire babies, you would, according to eyewitness accounts, have to battle a troll, a witch and a flying goat before crawling on your hands and knees over stones made of the strongest, most jagged, razor-sharp titanium to the top. However, since it appeared on our omniscent hand-drawn map as a squiggly line no more than half an inch long and around one-sixth the size of Tina’s Guesthouse we figured we could take it in a mere bound or two.
How wrong we were.
The first 35 bends (we counted them) were a little strenuous but manageable for such hardy, world-worn travellers as us. We stopped frequently under pretenses such as admiring a particularly large beetle, staring wistfully into the distance, letting a kid (of the goat variety) pass by and as we ran out of ready-made excuses, gasping desperately for water.
At the end of the 35 bends we tripped over a small woman selling chilled drinks, snickers bars, pipes and chicken’s feet at a makeshift shop. “Alas, the end!” we rejoiced. “No, no!” she said, the pleasure evident in her shining eyes, “28 bends that-a way. This not 28 bends!” She produced a hand-drawn map and pointed to a spot a few centimetres below the short squiggly line. “You here.” Timing her pitch perfectly she waited until panic and despair filled our faces before driving home the sale. “You want some ganga? Hashish?”
Oh God. I couldn’t think of a single thing I wanted less at that moment. Some altitude sickness medication, a piggyback, even a hug would have been nice. But some ill-gotten sleeping potion? Before crawling over titanium babies and fire kids? You’re having a laugh.
No, we said, we were okay for ganga and hashish. Even if we could chew it. Even if she would chew it for us. Even if she would carry us up the bends on her back afterwards. Even if the pixies would carry us up the bends on their backs afterwards. No, we would go onwards and upwards over screaming goats and flying babies.
And onwards we went past ten, fifty, one hundred bends; over glass, fire and infants; battling Nintendo boss after Nintendo boss; crying bitter tears of blood as we puffed, panted and crunched our way to the end. The view, we said, would be worth it all. Worth the broken bones, the soiled underware and the bloody feet. The views, we said, would be spectacular.
When we finally reached the top of the bends we were still 10 metres short of the top of the mountain. The trail, as it turns out, doesn’t go the whole way up and the panoramic view promised by our all-knowing crayon map is monopolised by a particularly mean looking woman who demands 10 yuen to take your photo at the edge of the mountain. Far from trusting her with our cameras, we weren’t confident that we could trust this enterprising member of the mountain community not to push us over the edge just for the giggles so we sighed and slogged onwards in the hope that we could reach the Halfway House before nightfall.
According to the backpacker community the Halfway House was the best place to stop on your first night so when we passed Teahorse and we saw a group of half a dozen hikers sitting on a mountainside terrace drinking beer and laughing, we ignored our better judgement and kept going. Common sense said that they were the only other people on the gorge apart from one other straggler who could be anywhere. Common sense also dictated that at 5.30pm when you have altitude sickness and are horribly sunburned, exhausted, starving and salivating at the thought of a cold bottle of Tsing Tao, you should pack it in and embrace the propect of a night spent exchanging horror stories and friendly banter.
Common sense however, seemed to have taken up the glassy-eyed ganga woman on her offer earlier and was doubtlessly sitting at the bottom of the mountain marvelling at the talking, flying goats. We, on the other hand were stumbling urgently along the last 6km to the Halfway House.
Thankfully we arrived before sunset and were greeted by a twenty-something girl who, according to her scowl, was carrying the weight of the starving masses on her shoulders. The conversation went something like this:
Us: “Can we have a double room please?”
Girl: Tuts and rolls eyes.
Us: “Is that a no then?”
Girl: “Fine, follow me.”
Five Minues later:
Us: “I’m sorry, there doesn’t seem to be any power.”
Girl: “No power.”
Us: “Is there going to be any power tonight? It’s getting dark.”
Us: “Is the power broken or is it just turned off?”
Girl: “No power.”
Us: “Oh, how about dinner? Will there be dinner?”
Girl: Shrugs and rolls eyes. “Maybe later.”
Us: “Oh, well the window in our room only meets the wall on two sides so it’s really cold. Can we see another room?”
Girl: Runs through every Chinese curse word she knows while rooting through her massive pile of keys looking for the dingiest room she can find. She eventually leads us to such a room in which there is a wooden board balanced on two garden benches. It is covered by a sheet.
Us: “I think we’ll keep the one we have. Thanks.”
Girl: Shrugs and leaves.
Despite the initial hiccups the Halfway House wasn’t that bad in the end. It turned out that the other hiker had arrived – a German with a very workable grasp of Chinese. The three of us had a lovely candlelit dinner of delicious stir fried potatoes, pumpkin soup and Tsing Tao. Eventually the power did come on and we flopped into our beds which, as it happens, were equipped with electric blankets. The guesthouse also made good on its promise of ‘scenic toilet views’, offering guests the unique experience of balancing on the balls of their feet (westerners cannot squat on the flats of their feet just as fish cannot ride bicycles) over a rancid hole in the floor while gazing upon the most spectacular moutain vistas.
At around 8pm fed, watered and thoroughly exhausted, we fell into a well-earned slumber until the beaming sun woke us up for a second day of fun and misadventure on the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
For every western tourist in Dali there are around 20 Chinese tourists in Lijiang. They come in their hoards, snapping photos and toting the canary yellow caps assigned to them by their enthusiastic, flag-wielding guides. They fill the tiny winding alleys of the old town to bursting point, oohing at the beautiful curved roofs and ahhing at the gurgling streams that run through the cobbled streets. They take it in turns to pose next to the slowly rotating water wheels and hop on the Tibetan cowboys’ horses. At night they file into the hundreds of overpriced traditional Naxi restaurants spread across town, wolfing down courses of fried baba, hotpot, pigs ear, mushrooms with meat stuffing, yak and the odd insect. After dinner they retreat to the local bars to view and often partake in Naxi dance shows. On their way, they stop to light a floating candle and watch it disappear as the river snakes its way under bridges and between houses.
The idea, according to the guidebooks, is to get up before the tourist rush kicks in. What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that Chinese visitors are so thorough in their tourism that long before you even think about getting up they have already taken close to 200 photos, have devoured half a yak and have lit incense sticks at 6 temples across the city. Your best hope of avoiding the scrum, as we found out, is to elbow your way out of the old town and head for the beautiful Dragon Pool Park.
Unfortunately Gary’s hard-drive corruped and he lost a lot of pictures from Lijiang. Here’s a picture of the park from Google Images.
With Jade Snow Mountain (or mini Everest as Gary likes to call it) for a backdrop, even a rubbish pile could look picturesque but there is something pretty magical about spending an afternoon sitting in the sun watching the reflection of Deyue Pavillion in the rippling water. Although the park gets its fair share of tourists, and a steady stream of beautiful brides posing with grooms dressed in top-to-toe white, few seem to make it past the pavillion so its easy to find a quiet spot overlooking stone bridge. We didn’t time it well but word on the street suggests that the local orchestra practice in the park every afternoon.
For the more adventurous it is absoultely worth renting out a bike (if your backside has recovered from the trip around Er Hai yet) and visiting one of the local villages. Once you get out of Lijiang it is pretty easy pickings with vast fields, traditional rural towns and mountain vistas. If your behind has not yet recovered you can seek out Dr. Ho, a legendary local doctor who will brew you up a tea and spin you a yarn for a generous donation.
Our favourite day trip was to Shuhe, 10km outside of Lijiang and by far the superior of the two. The small town is pretty much what Lijiang would look like if no tourists visited it – women banging out metals on their doorstep, people lounging at outdoor tables drinking tea and freshly picked corn hanging out to dry. Of course there is the usual mishmash of clothes and souvenier shops and a western restaurant or two but the whole thing smacks of authenticity more than Lijiang which, despite its traditional architecture and old world charm, was only recently built after an earthquake destroyed the original, less picturesque version.
Most importantly, Shuhe hosts a free outdoor song and dance performace daily at 3pm and 7pm. Technically you have to pay a pretty hefty admission to visit both Shuhe and Lijiang in the first place but if you don’t use the main gates no-one will ever ask. The dance recital is absoultely fantastic, and well worth the trip for its vast array of traditional costumes, beautiful girls and skillful boys who, despite wearing fur bellytops manage to look surprisingly threatening and manly. While traditional Chinese music often sounds like a bag full of wailing cats, Naxi music is far more palatable and is the perfect backing track for all of the love stories played out onstage by the startlingly attractive cast.
More pictures from Lijiang (those not lost to the corrupted HD) can be found in the gallery
Tired to the bone, Gary and I pulled up our bikes on the side of the road, around 40km into our first day of cycling around Er Hai, the lake beside Dali in Yunnan, China. Panting and groaning we grabbed desperately for our water bottles and started to plonk down on the dusty bank when we both stopped dead, opening and closing our mouths silently and pointing like kids who had just found Santa dozing underneath their Christmas tree.
We had heard that the cycle route was beautiful and it was this, combined with an urgent need to escape Dali before we became alcoholic hippies, that had convinced us to undertake a 150km trip on banjaxed bikes in the first place. Beautiful we had expected, mind blowingly serene we hadn’t. Before us spread a vibrant patchwork of terraced rice fields, snaking down the hill to the lake which was sparkling in the dusky pink glow of the evening.
Over the day we had been forcefully violated by our saddles, harassed by a fish-wielding old woman, blared off the road by hundreds of buses and trucks and, as we would later discover, burned by the sun and wind so badly that we would blister and peel three times over the following two weeks. Tomorrow our feet, legs, bums, faces and arms would be so sore that we would have to double back on the 50km we had already completed rather than labour through the rest of the scenic route.
As we stood and watched the last of the day’s workers pack up their harvested rice and conical hats however, none of that mattered. We were in a postcard – in one of those painfully beautiful moments that you think only Lonely Planet writers and professional photographers ever get to experience. It was hardly a snapshot from a rural town only a few hours outside of Dali with all of its neon signs and western bars.
The rest of the day had its moments too – weaving through Bai villages past traditionally dressed women with their babies tied to their backs; kids screaming “Hello! I love you!” at us and chasing our bikes laughing hysterically; slowing down to watch fishermen on bamboo boats casting their excessively long wooden rods with a dramatic flourish; working our way through Shaping market between rows of knock-off Nike runners and dentists practicing ad hoc surgery on unwitting patients who sat on wooden chairs placed firmly in the mud. Even our fish-head stew, which we had ordered by urgently pointing at our bellies and at a nearby table scattered with leftovers, had been an experience.
Sadly we only made it as far as the Double Corridor Village before we fell into bed in an old hotel and bathed our wounds. The last 10km had spanned the most horrendous road we had ever seen – the kind of road that lists ‘pothole’ as one of its more positive attributes. We had been overtaken by old women pedalling tonnes of hay up a steep hill, tuk tuk drivers talking on their phones and man driving a horse and cart. Tired, dehydrated and full to bursting point with self-pity, we called it a day and dreamed of the floating pavillion, mud streaked villages and glorious paddy fields that the next day would bring. Unfortunately all we got was kilometers of dual carraigeways, an almighty headwind and third degree burns. No regrets though, Er Hai is a slice of China that is absolutely worth a visit – whatever the cost.
More pictures from our cycle in Dali are available in the gallery
Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure that this isn’t a dream – that this is actually my life. This week alone my disbelief has resulted in three dead arms and a dead leg, most of which were Gary’s. Here are some snapshots from the last few days – me dancing on a bar in jeans and runners with my new best friends; Gary having to get off his bike and stare, open-mouthed at the sight of an old woman hunched over at work, dwarfed by a never-ending patchwork of rice paddies; the two of us devouring delicious Tibetan yak and goat’s cheese goulash; dozens of kids in canary yellow caps screaming “Hello! I love you!” at us and then running away giggling uncontrollably. I repeat, this is my life. Mine. Not Bruce Parry’s or David Attenborough’s (although I’m not convinced that the local Chinese boys would be as impressed by his ass waggling on a bar), just mine and Gary’s lives for the next 11 months.
More to the point, this is Dali – miraculous, sunny, westernised Dali. According to my guidebook Dali is “China-lite” – still China but in theme-park mode, with everything the average starry-eyed backpacker or bohemian expat needs to survive. From what I can see this means more western toilets, more souvenier stands, more english menus, more neon lights, more burger bars, more English pubs, more cobbled streets and far more pale skin. Put simply, Dali has everything that most travellers will spend every day trying to avoid but will begin to crave once night falls on another food-poisoned, isolated day and with the risk of incurring the scorn of seasoned travellers and Lonely Planet devotees worldwide, we love it. After feeling like fish out of water thus far in China, the familiarity of the city and its residents emboldened us to try more new food and befriend a lot more locals than we did anywhere else. Hell, we even attempted a three day, 150km cycle without a map. China-lite or no China-lite, Dali is China with training wheels – perfect for backpackers still a little wet behind the ears.
It has to be said that a lot of our Dali experience centred around the city’s focal point, or as Daniel so eloquently put it “the point around which the world turns” – Bad Monkey bar on Remin Lu. Owned by two english expats, Bad Monkey is a bit of a hippy haunt with great live music (ranging from Chinese numbers to Johnny Cash when JP and the lovely Nicole are knocking about town with their guitars) and epic burgers. I’m not sure whether it was our excitement at meeting so many like-minded Aussies, Brits, Kiwis, Canadians and Americans or the fact that it was such a great atmosphere in which to chat to locals or debate the price of cooking oil, but what started out as one drink and an early night on our first day in Dali quickly became a nightly event and then an all-day affair. There’s just something about walking down the street and seeing a big group of dread-lock headed people sitting in a beer garden playing the guitar that is incredibly attractive on a sunny day. It always makes you think “oh wow, I wish I was one of them!” and for a few brilliant, painfully relaxed days, we were.
I had expected this to happen in Vietnam, Thailand or Brazil. In my wildest dreams I even imagined finding a special corner of the world in Cambodia but in none of my musings did I ever see us finding home in China – awkward, dirty, smelly China. But we did and it changed everything. One minute we couldn’t wait to get to Hong Kong and the next we were talking about cancelling our reservation for a five-star room in favour of Christmas in Bad Monkey. It’s not just Dali though, I think Yunnan is different from the rest of China – friendlier, more accepting and more colourful. Where you saw a hawker in Beijing there is a Bai woman in traditional dress selling fruit and whispering a conspiratorial “You smoka the ganga?” as you wander past.
Of course there is always a catch and in Dali it is that the beautiful winding alleys, traditional architecture, grand stone walls and imposing gates are not, as you would like to believe, hundreds of years old. The town is a concoction by the tourism board much like Lijiang and Shangri-la, built recently with western tourists and their deep pockets in mind. This might taint it for a lot of people but Dali certainly shouldn’t be ruled out for this reason alone as it’s not all make believe – parts of the town are as old as the hills and it’s perfect location nestled among the mountains next to the scenic Er Hai lake is very real. The town also offers some great opportunities for day trips like our attempted journey around the lake (post on the wonderful and agonising results to follow).
Anyway, who says that travelling always has to be about the most authentic experiences, the most out-of-the-way towns and the hardest-earned meals? Dali is beautiful and laid back and in my opinion, just as valid a destination as that rural town in remote Sichuan that took you three days to reach by donkey and cattle truck. If it makes you smile, it makes you smile and I dare you not to smile as Carl lords over his bar roaring in his thick London accent “Cooking oil! That’s where the money is. We’ll close Bad Mokey and go into the cooking oil business. This country f***ing runs on cooking oil! They paint the walls with it, they paint the f***ing chef’s hair with it! How many litres of cooking oil do you think we could fit in here? We could get at least eight barrels under that pool table!” I’d bet that pretty soon your planned one-day stopover will start looking more like a week-long stay too.
More pictures from Dali are available in the gallery
December 1st, 2009
It’s so strange how it happens. You think that you hate a country, focus all your strength into picking out its flaws – the lack of clean air, the manic drivers, the man on the street who fires a pellet of phlegm at you – and then all of a sudden it wins you over. Something as simple as a maternal old woman on the train or a shy toddler with a crush happens across your path BOOM，you have to re-evaluate all of your prejudices. Prejudices you had put valuable time and energy into developing.
While we simultaneously became aware of our misconceptions on a train somewhere between Chengdu and Dali, I would like to think that it had been coming for a while – that it wasn’t so instantaneous and that we therefore are not so fickle in our racism. Chengdu certainly softened us up a little, or maybe it was Beijing that ruined us. In a city where tourists rarely pluck up the courage to stray from the designated tourist route, it is difficult to meet any locals that aren’t selling something or trying to lure you to their “art exhibition” (just say no!)
Chengdu was, in so many ways, a breath of fresh air after the capital. Considered by the rest of the population to be lazy, Chengdu-ites (as I have named them) have an entirely different attitude to life to the rest of the country. There are two sides to China’s fourth largest city. The first is the more cosmopolitan side that ranges from small one-man shoe-mending operations to massive department stores fit to bursting point with branches of Louis Vuitton and Prada, set around Tianfu square which, as all good Chinese towns do, features a statue of Chairman Mao alongside a variety of fountains and sculptures.
The other side, the side that won us over, is the more laid-back aspect to Chengdu living – the parks. Here, with the kind of ‘joie de vive’ that you never expect in a former communist state, the old and young cut loose battling it out over games of mahjong, hopping up on benches for impromptu karaoke sessions or practicing Tai Chi. Every open space not filled by revelers had been colonised by avid tea-drinkers who stretched out on colourful garden furniture chatting to friends, dozing, reading or, strangely enough, having their ears cleaned with candles.
After an early afternoon wander through the People’s Park, we were about to hop back on our bikes and head for one of the many other parks and gardens across the city when we heard chanting coming from inside the park railings. Never one to miss an opportunity to jump on a bandwagon, I ran back inside with Gary trailing reluctantly behind and was confused to see hundreds of people crowded around two make-shift stages chanting and clapping. The two groups were joined in the middle by a group of people, mostly elderly women, that seemed to be performing the same dance en masse. Like a flash mob, people passing on either side of the group immediately dropped what they were doing and joined in, moving to the same slow, hypnotic pace.
Awed by this spectacle, Gary and I decided to get a better look. Being that we are in China this happily didn’t involve any elbowing or shoving as we could see clear over the dozen or so heads in front of us. What I think was happening in both cases, although I can’t be too sure, was a variety show. The first few performances were terrible sing-song numbers in which, backed up by a band, Joe Average warbled his lungs out. As he sang, people started to stand up and hand him small bunches of flowers, one after the other until you could hardly see his reddening face. Other performance included colourful dances by costumed girls and some sing-along chants led by a woman who, despite the massive grin on her face, looked a little like a very strict school mistress.
Far from being isolated by the crowd as we were in Beijing, their smiling faces seemed to envelop us as one little girl pulled up a chair near the front for Gary to take pictures and another beckoned me to join in the flash mob which I did. I figure that what I lost in knowledge, grace and rhythm I made up for in enthusiasm. For the first time since landing in China, we were completely off our guards and smiling in public.
While our first few days in Chengdu were a lovely mixture of bike-riding through parks, wandering cosmopolitan plazas and sipping tea, we soon got itchy feet and booked ourselves in for two day trips – one to the Giant Panda Sanctuary and Research Base and one to the Giant Buddha in Dafo, Leshan. The Giant Panda Sanctuary did exactly what it said on the tin. It had lots and lots of giant pandas – big ones, little ones and a lovely group of red ones. The whole thing felt more natural because, while the pandas had their own enclosed spaces, they weren’t caged like in a zoo and the primary purpose of the place is to breed the almost extinct species rather than to make spectacles of them. For anyone considering a trip, our only tip would be to arrive before 8am. We got there at 10am and a lot of the animals had already fallen into a bamboo-induced slumber. Turns out giant pandas spend 16 hours a day eating – they have it sussed.
Leshan is home to a 71 meter Giant Buddha which was cut out of the face of a mountain. The grounds also host a variety of temples and religious sites. The Buddha was really really really cool and probably worth the four hours on a cold bus.
27th November, 2009
I have decided that I would never wish fame on anyone – maybe absolute fame, the kind that comes with fortune, private jets and bodyguards – but never just a moderate level of fame for its own sake.
I have been on the train from Beijing to Chengdu for seven hours, with only 24 more to go. Word has spread across the carriages that there is a western girl onboard, a blonde western girl, so everyone has been by to have a gawk. Outside my doorless shared cabin is a cluster of middle-aged Chinese men. Trying to be subtle, they rotate, taking it in turns to stare in at me. Occasionally one breaks rank to go to the sink a few feet away where he violently hocks up the contents of his pollution-damaged throat, spitting his gains down the drain. A few minutes ago a group of new people walked past and one ‘secretly’ took my picture. Pity the flash gave him away.
These are my fans.
While I have gotten used to this kind of attention since arriving in China (it seems that wherever I go I attract a crowd of gawking, photo-taking, video-making onlookers) the blank stares facing me right now are making it difficult to get anything done. Having developed a head cold on the Great Wall of China for example, I want to blow my nose. I also would like to hop down from my bunk and put on my shoes but I am painfully aware that neither my nose-blowing face nor my bent-over-ass-in-the-air-shoe-putting-on pose is particularly flattering should another pap happen past. So I stay put, smiling manically and perfecting my Queen’s wave. They don’t flinch but at least Gary gets the joke. Maybe I should start charging by the minute.
I suppose this is just another culture difference though, and one I should get used to if I am to travel Asia for the next five months. I have often stared at someone different – like an Amish person or a Buddhist monk. In fact only the other day I had the weirdest moment with a Tibetan cowboy when I was staring open-mouthed at him and he was staring open-mouthed at me and we both realized at the same time what was going on. And in fairness to them, I am pretty funny looking with my round eyes, long face, pointy nose and yellow hair. I guess I am their Tibetan cowboy.
At least I’m not the only one though, Gary was big in Japan (in more ways than one). When he went to the hairdressers they all gathered around to stroke his brown hair. And when we were in Nara a little girl came over and presented him with a paper crane that she had made. I let her away with it at the time but if I ever see her again…
Back on the train it seems that my novelty factor is starting to wear off as my captive audience disperses and heads for bed. Thankfully I now only have the regular Chinese train related problems to contend with. Like the huge bugs crawling across my bed, or the thick cloud of cigarette smoke that has enveloped the whole train or worst of all, the upset tummy that the “boiled” water onboard has given me. Being sick in a foreign country is bad but being sick on a rickety train with only a squat toilet – the floor of which is already pooled with urine, blood and the odd bit of faeces – is a whole lot less comfortable.
Sometimes this travel business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.