Posts tagged ‘Yunnan’
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.
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