Deprecated: Methods with the same name as their class will not be constructors in a future version of PHP; plgContentembed_google_map has a deprecated constructor in /var/sites/a/aaltenvoogd.com/public_html/plugins/content/embed_google_map/embed_google_map.php on line 21

We had mulled over overnight whether to push on today or stay and get our Laos visa’s sorted. We know we can get a fourteen day visa at the border but having done an overland border crossing in South America (Peru to Ecuador) neither of us really fancied having to deal with what will probably be a longer process with our packs on our backs.

The Laos Consulate is five minutes away from where we are staying so we opted to stay another day in Kunming and get them sorted here. More form filling and photos and Y900 poorer we left our passports for the express service so that we can pick them up tomorrow. On the way back to the hotel we booked our bus to Dali, a four and a half hour trip assuming all runs on time.

The rest of the day we spent holed up in the comfort of our room watching films, writing diaries and updating stuff on the internet. With us both still feeling a few degrees under it was a much needed and very welcome rest day. We ambled into town later on to try to find batteries for our camera (we failed), found somewhere for a late dinner and then crashed out.

Happy Birthday to Stef!

Today is Stef’s birthday. He has finally caught up with me and is now also a grand 38 years old. We had agreed that there was no point in buying each other presents because they are simply more stuff to carry around with us. For my birthday Stef had bought me a cute little bear and I reciprocated with a very cuddly black bear from Canada, now named Jasper.

We had breakfast in the hotel, or at least Stef did as travellers tummy has finally caught up with me, and them went to pick up our passports and visas. We wanted a thirty day visa to have flexibility but they have given us sixty day visas. Playing a bit dumb when you apply and being friendly to the Consulate staff seems to work wonders.

When we bought our bus tickets yesterday they said that a free shuttle bus ran from the ticket office at 11:50 to get us to the depot for the 1:00pm bus. Knowing that the bus station was only about fifteen minutes away we blew out the free shuttle and spent the extra time in the comfort of our hotel room. When we checked out we asked how to explain to the taxi driver where we wanted to go. It set them off in a state of panic and we were told that we did not have much time to get our bus. Our bus did not leave from the main bus station but from a different part of town and the man behind reception rushed round the desk and bundled us into a taxi with such haste that I thought we would miss the bus. It was all a panic for nothing as we were at the bus station forty minutes before the bus was due to go. I had hoped for a luxury comfortable bus but it was the standard fare. The seat in front of Stef was broken and in permanent recline mode. Fortunately the bus person who was due to sit there saw sense and sat elsewhere.

20051228_P_0001
Driving through the Yunnan countryside

The trip to Dali new town, Xiaguan (no buses stop at the old town), took about five hours, longer than we had been led to believe which really comes as no surprise. It gave us our first taste of this area, much greener and more picturesque than any other part of China so far. We spent over an hour crawling through yet another heavily built up part of Kunming before hitting the expressway. I had a nasty feeling that we were not on the express bus after all when our bus turned off the main road and onto a potholed dirt track. I had visions of a long and nightmarish journey all the way. Relief came after a couple of hundred metres, the bumpy bit simply connected the town centre expressway to the motorway, which looked as if it was still being extended further east.

Our journey took us to higher altitudes and through a very green landscape. It contrasted to where we have been so far where most crops have been harvested and the ground is simply covered in straw. The frustrating thing about bus travel is that you cannot stop to take photos and the language barriers mean we have no way of finding out what the crops were.

On this bus we were spared the pain of a film but instead were treated to Chinese music all the way. Every so often the chap behind us would also pipe up and start singing to himself. I think he was possibly praying because once or twice a small group were all chanting away. This made a change from the inevitable grunting, throat clearing and spitting.

We arrived in Xiaguan at about five in the afternoon and went in search of the number four bus to take us to Dali old town. The people at the bus depot pointed across the road and round the corner and off we set. We found a bus stop and I asked a chap standing there if is was the right direction for Dali. It was just as well we checked because we were on the wrong side of the road. When we crossed over a couple of giggling schoolgirls asked if they could help us and confirmed that we were finally at the right stop.

In a few minutes an already quite full bus turned up. People were standing all the way down the bus but we squeezed on, or so we thought, with our packs. Stef was stood by the driver and I was in the stairwell leading down to the door. At the next stop, three chaps crammed in behind me and more people got in through the back door, their bus fares passed down through the passengers for me to put into the fares pot. This process was repeated a couple of times until people gradually started to get off. It is amazing how much stuff people have with them on the bus. One woman squeezed in with a huge wicker basket on her back. With hindsight it was probably no larger than our backpacks.

We ended up standing all the way which meant that we could not really see where we were. Buildings suddenly came into view as did the old city wall. Ellie and Eric, the English couple we had met en route to Kunming, had sent us a text to say that the bus stopped right outside the hotel we were aiming for and that they had got off way too early. We showed the driver where we wanted to go and he waved for us to get off. We should have known better as we also got off way too early and had about a ten minute walk with our packs on, not really sure where we were going.

We had decided to stay at the Old Dali Inn, the same place as Ellie and Eric and the better looking option from those listed in Lonely Planet. It is a Hostelling International hostel otherwise known as Hostel no. 5. Ellie and Eric had reserved a room for us which is basic and cosy. The only real downside to it is the bathroom. There is no separate shower cubicle and the sink is propped up on a grate on the floor, which I think just leads down to the sewer, and the taps dip. It is lit by a low brightness neon tube and has paper stuck on the wall telling you that the red tap is for cold water and the blue tap for hot water. But for Y80 a night, about £7.50, you cannot really complain too much!

Once we were settled in our room we met up with Ellie and Eric in the hotel’s bar before heading out for dinner. The hotel is a real backpackers place. There are terminals with free internet access, a basic but tasty sounding menu under the glass of the tables and people coming and going with backpacks, walking boots and al the other standard gear. Listening to people talking around us there is also a wide mix of people from different countries and spanning different ages from early twenties to those in their fifties. Some are very strange looking characters, one French guy in particular, but most seem OK. In the open courtyard outside there is table tennis and a large screen pulls down on the wall to make an impromptu cinema.

Ellie had spotted somewhere earlier in the day that we could go to for Stef’s birthday dinner, Café du Jack. It had quite a Western feel to it but was at the same time still very Chinese. The staff were really friendly and congratulated Stef on his birthday, bringing him a crème caramel pudding as a birthday gift. They did a mix of western, Mexican, Chinese and Bai, the local minority people, dishes. Ellie opted for Shepherds Pie while the rest of us shared some Bai dishes – chicken with green papaya, eggplant with fish sauce, fried potatoes with chilli and sweet and sour beef. The beef was a bit disappointing but the rest was really tasty. Ellie and I had a bottle of the local Chinese wine which was not great but it was certainly very drinkable.

We had another really enjoyable evening, which was great for Stef on his birthday. Ellie and Eric bought Stef a muffin for a birthday cake and a Chinese signature block carved with his name in Chinese characters. Considering we have only just met them we were both really touched. We chatted about plans for the next few days as we are again both heading to the same place, Lijiang. It is highly likely that we will spend New Year together trekking through the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

20051229_P_0026
Orange temple roofs
20051229_P_0034
Oil lamps inside the temple
20051229_P_0052
View over Dali and Erhai Ru from the Cloud Path

We had both slept pretty well although I woke up with freezing cold feet. Our basic bathroom delivered a surprisingly good shower and set us up well for the day. We briefly caught up with Ellie to firm up plans for Lijiang before heading out for the day. Our plan was to take the chairlift up to the Zhonge Temple, about 1000m up, walk down and spend the afternoon exploring Dali.

A little side road took us out of the walled city. It was not so small that it was free of touts and one latched on to us immediately fully knowing where we were headed. We declined their services but quickly realised that we did not really have a clue where to go. When we hit the main road an old chap was going past with his horse and cart. He stopped and said that for Y5 he would take us to the chairlift.

The horse was small but sturdy and our cart was one of many lining the roads. A burgeoning tourism industry here, mostly for Chinese tourists is having quite an impact on the local way of life. We turned off the main road, went through a Chinese gate and into a newer section of town. Here modern buildings, in a Chinese style, line the street with clean looking shops, hotels and restaurants. The road was a slight uphill and as we do when we walk the horse slowed down. When we turned a corner at the top and he was back on the flat he broke into a trot, not much fun going for us on the cobbled road! Further on still when we reached tarmac the poor thing could not get a foothold and kept slipping but the old man driving refused to stop and let us walk.

By this stage we were well and truly glad that we had not tried to find our way on foot. The one kilometre distance shown in Lonely Planet was definitely on the light side and the entrance to the chair lift was set back quiet a few blocks from the old city wall. Touts along the way, aided by the horse cart driver, tried to sell us tickets for the chairlift but Stef politely ignored them, even though they had thrust the tickets into his hand. I am not sure if it would have given us a better deal but we had no way of knowing what the tickets were really for so we declined to accept them.

At the chair lift there was the usual collection of stalls trying to sell you tourist trinkets that you do not really want. About five tour buses were in the car park, a sure sign that we would see a lot of Chinese tourists here. We bought our tickets, not at the ticket office which was shut, but from a man sat in his car. It all seemed quite bizarre.

The chairlift was just like the ones you see a ski resorts. It swung round, knocking you backwards off your and two chaps pulled the safety barrier down over you. It was a long journey uphill, about twenty five minutes, and as we went up loads of Chinese tourists were coming down, most with a friendly “hello”. Below us we could see some of the many trails leading up the hill and there were a couple of people walking up. It must have been a hard climb because there were a few pretty steep sections along the way.

The sides of the mountain were covered in pine forest and the scent of fresh mountain air tinged with pine accompanies us all the way. Today is the first day since we arrived in China that we have been somewhere where the air is fresh and clear and unpolluted. The sun, which broke through the clouds for most of yesterday, was still shining and away from cloud cover it was beautifully warm. For most of the trip up we had a clear drop below us but a few times our feet swept the tops of the pine trees.

Nearing the top a very cold looking lady was perched on a stone with the now inevitable digital camera, a photo we declined to buy. At the top a short path lead to a square below the temple. Here stalls had been set up offering food – corn on the cob, grilled tofu, skewers of shrimps. In bowls below the stalls they had live fish and what looked like huge clams. If you wanted the fish it was definitely fresh.

The patio provided fantastic views down and across Dali, the fields beyond it and over Lake Erhai Hu. The mountains on the other side of the lake looked barren of vegetation and reminded us both of the altiplano we had seen in South America. All along the shore of the lake were small settlements and villages surrounded by fields of green vegetables and rice. The challenge they will have is to keep them small and not let development turn the lakeshore into one big urban sprawl.

We had a look around the temple. It was the usual deal of three buildings lined up behind each other facing back toward the mountain. In the side buildings there was the hustle and bustle of life. A group of old women were sat outside one building preparing vegetables. Walking around were a couple of monks in black tunics and hats, unfortunately very camera shy. At 12:00 a cry went out followed by frenetic activity. People appeared out of different doors with large enamel bowls and a pair of chopsticks to hand. They rinsed their bowls under the tap and then headed off round a corner, returning a few minutes later with rice and a steaming stew of some sort. Eating is normally a social activity for the Chinese but here everyone went off to find their own perch to eat in isolation.

The enamel bowls are something we have seen a lot from the main streets, to hotel staff on their breaks and people who work the buses. They come in all sizes, sometimes with lids and sometimes highly decorated. Other people have plain metal billy cans with fold down handles like the one you see soldiers using in films. For a country so rich in heritage and colour there is still a very utilitarian feel about much of daily life.

A man from one of the food stalls helped us to get our bearings to find the Cloud Path, a trail leading along the mountain either side of the temple. He pulled out a map that showed a big wide path leading eleven kilometres away from Dali to another cable car. Ellie and Eric had followed this for a while before heading down a set of steps to back Dali but we thought we would do the full trail.

To the left of the temple, steps lead up to the Highland Café and the start of the trail. Part way up we met and Australian-Chinese chap who was staying at the same hotel as us, although in a dorm room. He unsettled us slightly as he told us how his room had been broken into and all his stuff rifled through, although nothing was stolen. We both had visions of seeing the same when we got back to our room later but our room and our bags were secure.

Just before we reached the Cloud Path the local police were sitting eating their lunch and they waved to us as we walked by. The path itself was a surprise. I had expected to see a good track in the dirt but this path was about two metres wide and it was paved all the way making for an easy walk. Old women were keeping the path clear of pine needles and were trimming back the branches, bundling them up for firewood.

The path made for a beautiful walk. Part of it was through the pine forest but most was open, following the contour of the hills and taking us back into the depths of the valleys. It was pretty high up and there were steep drops down to the side for a fair chunk of the way, although a protective railing lined most of the route in these parts. At the point where Ellie and Eric had turned down we met a Danish man and his son. They live in Dali and Hong Kong and are very familiar with the path. The route down is a long flight of steps through the pine forest which is punishing on the knees and thighs. The son, who was a very confident teenager, says he has run up and down the steps more times than he cares to think about. Even he abandons the path and walks on the mat of pine needles and the path is so hard. They recommended the walk along the path to the other cable car so we followed our instincts and kept going.

It was a fantastic walk and they have really designed it so that people can relax along the way and enjoy the views. Around most corners there is a bench where you can just stop and sit a while and look out over the valley below. Marker stones count down the kilometres left to the end of the trail and shortly after most of these was a pagoda style pavilion, a great place to stop for a picnic. For the majority of the walk we were in the sun and it was lovely and warm despite being quite high up in winter. Around the back of some of the valleys sunlight had not penetrated and the temperature dropped noticeably, so much so that where water crossed the path some bits were frosty and there was one patch about three metres long of black ice. Thinking it was just water I marched boldly on promptly slipping and falling flat on my arse!

At about the one kilometre marker the cable car came into view. Worryingly though as we watched the cable car it ground to a halt for a few minutes. We both had visions of having to walk back to the chairlift we had first come up, a prospect neither of us relished. Before long though it was back up and running. The cable car climbs up and over a ridge before descending to a terminal part way down the valley. A steep flight of steps leads down from the Cloud Path to the cable car station. We had definitely come the easier way round. It looked like there were a few things to see and do here but it had the feel of a mini amusement park. A monkey, dressed in a yellow coat, was scampering around and I am sure a man was lurking somewhere ready to extract cash if you wanted to take photos.

The wind was picking up as we started our cable car based descent ad our little car swayed and rocked a little as we went. Below us was dense forest all the way and we were both pleased that we had no mid air stops. At the bottom was a highly commercialised strip leading down yet more stairs to the car park. As well as the usual mix of tourist stuff the route was lined with fruit stalls selling different types of melons, pomegranates, grapes and the inevitable oranges. They were also selling something they claimed was honey but it was a dark orange and covered in moss so I am not really sure what it was.

A little minivan taxi took us back up the road to Dali. He stopped en route to drop off a local woman and her son at one of the villages along the way, running down narrow bumpy streets with what were probably open sewers on either side. The road led us out to the town’s “industrial” area. The region is renowned for its marble and for a few hundred metres the main road was just one place after another hacking away at big slabs of stone. Going up in the chairlift we had seen what looked like tombs, arched tunnels carved from marble and with decorative fronts. Here they were on display in all shapes and sizes along with marble lions and other decorative statues. Electric saws were in action along the roadside with no protection either for the people using them or for anyone who happened to be walking by.

Back at the hotel we relaxed for a while with a beer in the hotel bar while writing our diaries and then went to book our bus tickets to Lijiang. The hotel could not get tickets for the 1:30 bus so we used a ticket agency across the road. We went back to Café du Jack for dinner and received another friendly welcome but neither of us thought the food was as good second time around.

We spent the morning ambling through old Dali town before getting our bus to Lijiang. As with all parts of China we have seen so far, building work is in progress throughout the town. If it is not pavements and roads being dug up it is new hotels and housing blocks going up, presumably where traditional old style houses stood not so long ago.

20051230_P_0073
Old town Dali

When we arrived in Dali Stef had been given a card for the DaliHigh Café which had internet access and our search for this café this morning shaped our meanderings. We did find it eventually, tucked away off the main drag. It is run by an ageing American and only opened a week ago. In all the time we were there we only saw local people walking up and down outside so we were not surprised when he said he got little passing trade. He was one of those dropped out hippy types who seem to migrate to backwaters like these.

Old Dali is a mix of very picturesque well maintained streets and areas badly in need of renovation (which here means demolition and rebuilding). The main Fuxing Lu is a wide street with narrow canals running down the sides and weeping willow trees with Chinese lanterns hanging down from their branches. Shops line the street on either side, all geared for the tourist trade, and touts are on every corner trying to entice you onto boat trips or the cable car up the mountain. It is a colourful scene but somehow knowing that it is all tourist driven takes away from the beauty of it.

As soon as you turn off Fuxing Lu the story is very different. Here there are the traditional old houses with ornate wooden and bamboo beams and tiled roofs. Some of the buildings almost seem to be sighing under the weight of the years worth of activity that has taken place inside them. Others are sagging and have a slightly drunken appearance. A market led off down a narrow side street and everywhere there were local people going about their daily lives. Here too the streets were lined with shops but these sold everyday items rather than tourist tat. Huge towers of steamers were keeping the dumplings warm and if the places they were in had looked cleaner I would have been tempted.

Further south on Fuxing Lu the road reached a square with a large pagoda style building in the middle but with no indications of what this was for. This area seemed to be full of shops selling jade and silver jewellery and ornaments, different to the shops closer in to the centre but still all geared to the tourists. Beyond here a large open square was home to a huge golden statue of a soldier and a flag pole with the Chinese flag flying. A few military looking types were busy doing something around the flagpole and when they saw Stef with camera in hand they said “no photo”. Stef pretended not to understand and snapped away getting in his shot the large brass plaques which clearly say “no photo”. The military types simply shrugged and walked away.

We worked our way around the city wall and back to our hotel, checked out and then killed time until our bus was due. We were meant to be picked up at the ticket agency at 1:30 but got there early just in case there was a problem. A different lady was at the agency and she just waved for us to sit on the settee and wait. As 1:30 came and went we tried to ask what had happened to our bus. It was one of those usual travel sagas. Our tickets have never been for the 1:30 bus. We will be picked up at 2:00 (or 2:20 or 2:30 depending on how late it got) by a minivan that will take us to the main road where we get the bus.

20051230_P_0087
City gate with traditional girls (all show for the tourists!)

The language barrier did not help and by this stage we were both getting very dubious about what was going to happen. The mud cleared a little when a Chinese lady, who is married to a New Zealander, stopped by asking us to drop leaflets in Lijiang for her brother’s hotel. She acted as translator and confirmed that all was OK and that in China we should not really expect things to run as they are timetabled to.

She used to live in Dali and told us that the increase in tourism has changed the town a lot. House prices have more than doubled in the last few yeas making it difficult for local families to afford to buy. Much of the renovation of the town is trying to copy the look and feel of Lijiang which successfully gained UNESCO World Heritage status. Dali’s application at the same time was rejected.

As we waited for the bus my tummy started to play up and I asked to use the travel agency’s loo. The lady there hopped up beckoning me to follow and to me to the local public toilets. They were clean and they did have a western loo but there is absolutely no hope of privacy. Walls about two feet high separated the toilets and there were no doors so everyone gets to see everyone else while they do their business. It is probably the one thing I would recommend that China changes if it wants to attract lots of foreign (western) tourists.

With the lady in the travel agency getting more and more frustrated at the delay, the minibus finally turned up and with two other people on board it was full once we were in with our packs. That did not prevent it from stopping at another hotel where an Australian couple with two backpacks and a large case were also waiting for their lift to the bus. We were then driven out of town and to a lay by on the main road where other people were waiting. The bus was our first Volvo bus experience and it lived up to the expectation of comfort that we had.

Our route took us north along the lake and past the village we had seen from the Cloud Path yesterday. Leaving the lake behind us we started to climb up into the hills and mountains. Here the villages looked more traditional, with less concrete and breeze blocks in evidence, and the fields were terraced up the sides of the mountains. Pretty much every last available space was used, A we climbed we were back in landscapes similar to those we had seen in South America with wide valleys stretching out for miles beneath us. SO far the landscape has not been ruined by vast cities or express roads but no doubt that will come in time.

When we arrived at Lijiang it was at first sight yet another city, although not on such a large or high rise scale as most we have seen. We got a taxi from the bus station to the old town with the driver on his mobile all the way checking directions, despite having assured us that he knew where he was going. As a world heritage site, the old town is closed to vehicles and he finally dropped us as close as he could to our hotel. An old chap was conveniently on hand with his bike, which had a trailer attached to the back, ready and waiting to wheel our packs through the streets for us. It is just as well he did because although we would have found the street our hotel is on, the name outside is only in Chinese characters.

A long passageway leads through to an inner courtyard, one of three in the hotel. The courtyard is lined with old wooden doors and shutters behind which old style houses have been converted into smart hotel rooms. Ours was on the second floor and gave us a view down into the courtyard below. It was very clean and modern, had comfy beds and a heater that worked – true luxury!

Ellie and Eric came to meet us and we went out and about in Lijiang. As we had just arrived we followed their lead as they took us down and into the heart of the old town. It is based around two streets that run parallel to each other. One is full of shops selling the usual tourist stuff, the other is chock full of restaurants and places to eat. Both are lined with Chinese lanterns and the overall effect is very welcoming and beautiful. On the restaurant street there seems to be a nbightly competition between the eateries to see whose staff can sing the loudest. It is quite a cacophony of sound but adds to the local colour.

We did not have the best meal ever but it was good to catch up on what we had all done over the last day or so and to finalise our plans for New Year. Stef and I had spent some time on the internet before we left Dali looking at people’s experiences of trekking through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Not wanting to walk along the road we were all agreed that we would take the high path. It sounds like it is a long walk to the Halfway House point and with no option to bale out if you get knackered along the way I was wary about committing to do it. We asked at the local tourist information desk and I have to say we got sketchy information. For a staggering Y350 per person they will arrange transport, accommodation and entry into the park for you. At our hotel they said that a taxi would probably be about Y200, a much cheaper option and the one that we opted for.

Ellie and Eric met us at our hotel and we set off in a taxi for Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was a warm and sunny day and it boded well for a good hike. The taxi was a little mini van, a bit short on leg room and bumpy in the back but bearable for the two hour drive to the gorge. We were soon out of Lijiang and into the Yunnan countryside which still gets better and better the further west we go.

20051231_P_0151
Taking a break at Tiger Leaping Gorge

We passed through very peaceful rural countryside with people out working in the fields. The local villages were very traditional with courtyard based houses lining the roads and chillies and sweet corn hanging out to dry from every available balcony or piece of wood. Sometimes we would come across trucks piled high with straw with a few locals perched precariously on the top, fully expecting the whole lot to come tumbling down as they rounded a corner. The road wound up and into the pine covered hills climbing quite high. There were steep drops down to the valley below which again reminded us of the central valley in Ecuador.

Our driver was up to par not wasting any time and being quite happy to overtake big trucks going uphill and round blind corners. Considering they have spent five weeks in India where the drivers are also nuts, I kept chuckling to myself as Ellie and Eric quietly muttered to themselves desires for the driver to slow down or not to do such crazy overtaking. I think we have just got used to it on our various travels in South America and India and I thought he was actually reasonably cautious compared to many we have had.

We crossed a range of hills and then started to descend down into the river valley below, passing the first turn of the Yangtze River along the way. For some reason our driver opted not to take the nice new road that runs along the left hand side of the valley and he kept on the bone jarring and potholed original road that winds down through the villages. Along the new road were dotted what looked like very new towns and industrial plants, one belching smoke out into the clean air.

As the driver finally crossed the river and joined the new road, his mobile came out and he dug a business card out of the bits and pieces at the front of the car and started to call. Soon after we reached the village of Qiaotou which is at the start of the gorge and he pulled to a halt in front of some shops. We had expected our taxi to be able to take us to where we wanted to start our walk but again local connections came into play and we were passed over to another taxi, the person he had been calling as we drove.

This new chap provided us with a good walking sketch map of the gorge which heavily promoted Sean’s Guest House at the other end. It was an additional Y10 each to take us through the gorge and we also had to pay our entry fee of Y50 each. With me being wary about making it from Qiaotou to the Halfway Hostel in the six hours or so of daylight that were available to us we had agreed to start our walk just beyond Yongsheng Village, about half way through the gorge.

The drive to our start point climbed gradually up and through the gorge. For most of the way it was a tarmaced road but sections clearly showed the evidence of the rock falls they get here in the summer. In some sections rocks were still piled on the road, with the road only being cleared enough to allow the tour buses to get through. Whole sections of road have obviously been obliterated by falls and it’s a very bumpy ride over a rocky surface for a good couple of kilometres. This in itself is not too bad. It is just the combination with the view outside the window that gets your heart going – a sheer drop down to the bottom of the valley.

To get from the road at Yongsheng Village up to the path was a steep two kilometre uphill climb along a series of switch backs. I think we were all surprised at how hot it was in the sun and soon layers were being peeled off and attached to packs. Mountain goats kept us amused along the way as they scampered around on the rocks and we were all pretty hot and dusty by the time we got to the top. The views along the way were fantastic with the gorge opening up below us. All the way you could hear the sound of the water thundering through even though the water level is low at this time of year.

As we reached the top of the path, which is really a dirt track road, some of the local villagers came past in a truck and it was tempting to hop in the back. At the top though the path levelled out and before long we had made it to the Halfway Lodge hostel. The hostel has great views down the valley and to the gorge below. It is fertile land here and the slopes are all full of crops. There is a small sheltered patio where you can stop to catch your breath, have a thirst quenching drink and a bite of lunch while you ponder the view and consider how far you think you will make it by the end of the day. People who start from Qiaotou Village usually make it this far and stop here for the night. This includes dear old Michael Palin who did this walk as part of his Himalayas series. He does not seem to have created a very good impression with the owner who seemed quite unimpressed by the fact that he had had a figure head of the Beeb at his place.

The increase in tourism and the popularity of the gorge were evident here with work underway to add more rooms to the hostel. It was a sight we were to see several times along the way as there are now many more hostels along the trail than those listed in Lonely Planet. It was also something we found strange as incredibly, the Chinese government currently has plans to dam the Yangtze River which would see Tiger Leaping Gorge buried under water. No doubt these hostel owners are either just cashing in for the short term or they know how high the water will come and are planning to switch from looking after trekkers to looking after people out and about on the water. Lobbying is still ongoing to try and stop the dam project but I suspect that there is too much money at stake so another natural wonder will be lost.

Refreshed after lunch we continued on our way aiming to make it to Tina’s hostel by the end of the day. The path wound round the side of the mountain but with sheer drops down to our right we both stuck as close as we could to the mountain side of the path. After a while we came across a small waterfall, easily passable at this time of year but I bet it is a bit more challenging in the rainy season.

Along the way signs in red and yellow tell you how far away you are from the various different hostels. They are really useful signposts, it is just a shame that it is paint that has been daubed onto the side of the mountain rather than signs that could be removed. We reached the highest point of the climb and took a well earned rest until the wind picked up and forced us ever onwards.

About an hour and a half after leaving the Halfway Lodge Hostel we could see more buildings down below the high path and started on our way down to Tina’s. The paths down were little more than goat tracks and being steep it was hard going on the knees. A little girl tending her goats in one of the fields waved and said “hello” and I almost sensed that she was saying “nutters” to herself as she watched us go by.

As with the Halfway Lodge Tina’s is expanding. Her original hostel is still standing but over the road there is a one year old new block. We had wanted to call ahead and book rooms but Lonely Planet has no phone number listed. I thin that we were lucky and got the last two rooms that they had. Certainly no-one else came in after us. Expansion was also reflected in the price which has doubled from the Y10 in Lonely Planet to Y20 per person for a room with shared bathroom. The rooms were basic with two beds, a desk and a coat stand but they were clean and came with a thick duvet and electric blankets. We had not needed to bring our sleeping bags with us after all! The shared “bathrooms” were hole in the floor style toilets with a shower attachment stuck to the wall.

Outside there is a little patio and we decamped here to relax, rest weary feet and watch the sun go down. A rather drunk Australian called Jeff latched on to us. He was harmless enough but having a conversation with him was a bit tricky, partly due to alcohol and partly because he just did not seem all there. Someone asked him what had brought him to China, meaning why had he come here, and he answered “a plane”!

It was beautiful watching the sunset. To our right the sky was still brightly lit b the sun and it was very definitely daylight. To our left the colour was darkening to a mauve/blue colour as the sun started to set. In front of us the mountain gradually became a dark silhouette blocking out all the light from behind it as if someone was pulling up a curtain. We were all quite relaxed but as the daylight waned it started to get pretty cold. None of us really wanted to move and it almost became a battle of wills to see who would cave in first and want to go inside. Not that inside was much warmer as none of the buildings have any heating in them!

20051231_P_0167
Ellie and Eric and no, not Robin Williams but drunk Aussie Jeff

We were the only Western tourists in the hostel, which seemed to be full of a Chinese tour group. The men spent the evening chain smoking and playing cards and mah-jongg, the women simply disappeared after they had finished their meal. One large room served as kitchen, reception, bar and dining room and this is where we spent the night. In the middle of the room a small charcoal brazier was perched on a couple of bricks. A square metal table was placed over the top with a hole in the middle which was lined up over the brazier. We had earlier seen the staff and the ladies from the tour group sitting around this table to eat and we followed suit.

It was a typical and traditional Naxi (the local minority people here) hot pot dinner. Essentially it is similar to a fondue but with a much bigger pot. The pot comes to the table full of boiling stock. You then add into it different bits of meat, vegetables, tofu and noodles and munch your way through it all as it colds. It was great fun social eating and tasty too. We had asked for chicken and to flavour the stock they had left the chicken’s head and one of its feet in the bottom of the pot. It is not a sight that we are used to seeing and it was one that Ellie could not bear. Each time the chicken’s head appeared she shuddered until we finally hid it out of sight in a bowl.

Before dinner was over Jeff the Aussie stood up, wobbled badly and confirmed he was off to bed. He was tiddled when we arrived at 5pm and now three hours later he was well and truly worse for wear. He had been getting the evil eye from Tina for quite some time after he knocked over his bowl of food. Lonely Planet says that the staff here are friendly and for the most part that was true. Tina herself though was a real misery guts. She had a really sullen look on her face and only seemed interested in watching soap operas on TV.

Once we had finished our hot pot the table and chairs were moved away so that only the brazier remained in the middle of the room, which was then turned into a dance floor for some traditional Naxi dancing. A DVD provided the music and the dance steps and any aspirations we had of being spectators entertained by the staff dancing were soon dashed as we found ourselves dancing with them.

In some ways the dances are very simple. You stand close to the person next to you, interlocking your fingers. The dance is then just a series of steps, each dance apparently mirroring the movements of different animals. The line gradually moves from left to right bending round in a circle as you go. I suppose it is really just a Chinese form of line dancing. Once we had mastered the steps it was easy to do, unless you lost your rhythm, and the learning process created much laughter all round. Having been cold before dinner, food and dancing round a brazier soon warmed us up and I think we all peeled off layers and for a short while regretted that we had put our thermals on.

The dances seemed to last for ages and each time one finished we all laughed and clapped. It was a really good atmosphere but our tiredness from the walk soon kicked in and we left the staff to dance while was watched from the sidelines. It was difficult to gauge how old they all were but I reckon they were late teens/early twenties. They certainly loved their dancing and kept going for a couple of hours. Just as we were contemplating sneaking out to one of our rooms they finally exhausted themselves and flaked out in front of the TV.

We then resorted to the standard New Year’s Eve practice of finding things to do to keep ourselves awake until midnight. Packs of cards came out and we played Shithead and Rummy. Just before midnight we went up to look at the stars from outside of our rooms. Without any light pollution nearby we could see thousands, all brightly blinking and winking away at us. As midnight came and went we hugged, kissed, tried Auld Lang Sine (but none of us knew the words) and whizzed inside to the comparative warmth of our rooms, duvets and electric blankets.

This is a pretty amazing place to see in the New Year. The scenery is stunning and it is somewhere that you can quite happily just sit and contemplate life, taking it easy and not rushing around. We had both slept pretty well and had only just dragged ourselves out of bed when Ellie called to see if we were ready to go. We told them to carry on without us and that we would meet up with them at Sean’s Hostel, our rendezvous with our taxi, further along the gorge later in the day.

20060101_P_0012
View from Walnut Garden

Yesterday had been a pretty hot and dusty day and much as I wanted a shower I was not desperate enough to perch over a hole in the loo toilet to have a shower at Tina’s. I think we were the last people to get up and out and about. AS we were finishing our breakfast, very tasty omelettes and good coffee for Stef, a large Chinese tour group arrived. They were expected but the staff went from quietly looking after a couple of people to frantically running about to sort out the group. The hostel’s little puppy, christened Noodles last night by Eric, was woken from his snooze curled up around Stef’s bag and then was spoilt for choice of people to play with him and to give him some fuss and attention

My knees were killing me after yesterday’s steep up and down hill walks so I did not argue with Stef when he said he did not feel like a long walk today. Rather than climbing back up onto the high trail to continue up the gorge to Sean’s hostel we simply walked along the road. From here we got some stunning views up and down the gorge, a different perspective to those on the high path. The sun had not yet made it over the mountain and it was pretty cold in the shade. As we walked the man from the Halfway Hostel went by waving. He was off to a friend’s wedding.

It was not long before we reached Walnut Garden, less time that the forty minutes they state in Lonely Planet. The signs telling you how far you still had to go were soon replaced by “Sean’s Café and Hostel, well done you’ve made it”. Both expecting to have walked for longer we ambled on down to the end of the village. Here we were befriended by a little dog who followed us back to Sean’s and kept us company. Not long after we got there we saw Ellie and Eric walking down the road in the same direction we had come from, strange as the maps we had indicated they would come from the far end of the village.

They said that the high path route was a long uphill climb, higher than we were yesterday, then a loop back down to the road. As such it was not far in terms of progress along the gorge but it was a two and a half hour trip for those who do it. Deciding they had not yet done enough, Ellie and Eric left their bags with us and went to walk down to the river to see the rapids. The dog who had latched on to us followed them down to the gorge and back, another steep climb that took them just over one and a half hours. Meanwhile Stef and I sat on the terrace at Sean’s enjoying the sunshine, writing our diaries and taking in the spectacular views around us.

20060101_P_0021
The end, finally in sight

Our taxi turned up to take us back to Lijiang, this time on the new road and after another couple of bumpy hours we were back in town. As we were driving through the gorge, the drive gave us the latest count of people who had met their deaths in the gorge, 10 in 2004 and 5 in 2005. He had brought a friend with him for the ride and when at one point they slowed down and both looked out of the window up a rock slide an uneasy air filled the taxi. They said that there had been a very recent, within the last twenty four hours, rock fall here. This and the steep drop were too much for Ellie who hid beneath her coat!

Back in Lijiang hot showers were top of the menu to wash away the dust and sweat of the last two days. The rejuvenating power of water still amazes me and we both felt relaxed, fresh and clean. In the evening we met up again with Ellie and Eric for dinner, going to a place called Café du Paris on the main “hungry hill” drag. We had great food, local plum wine (a bit like sherry) and we were entertained by the singing competitions between the restaurants outside and the nightclub volume music blaring away inside. We ambled to the Prague Café for a final coffee and then said our farewells to Ellie and Eric. We have arranged to meet up in London when we all get back. It will be great to see then again and share storied from the rest of our trips but it will also be strange to have such a tangible link to China back in the UK!

20060102_P_0010
UNESCO prettiness of Lijiang
20060102_P_0024
Dongba shaman

Neither of us could get up the will power to do much today so we ended up having a very lazy day indeed. Our room rate included breakfast at a local café and we made it in time for a bowl of noodles that tasted like Spaghetti Bolognese to me. We popped down to the flight shop that Ellie and Eric had used to check times of flights to Jinhong and then went back to our room and back to bed for a few hours. I am sure we have had lie ins before now on our trip but not as late as today’s. I got up at around noon but Stef stayed in bed for another hour or so. It was absolutely great!

We spent some time catching up on bits and pieces so it was about four o’clock before we made it out into town. It was a really sunny day and very warm, my coat came off and my fleece was not far behind. With no real plan of what we were doing other than stretching our legs we just ambled about for a bit, soaking up the sun and the atmosphere. Lijiang is a really pleasant place to stroll around despite the hordes of tourists and all the tat that is on sale for them.

At one of the cafes on “hungry hill” we stopped for a late lunch/early dinner, opting to go for another Naxi hot pot. Having enjoyed the one we had on New Year’s Eve so much we should have known that this one would not be as good. It was a bit on the bland side and the meatballs turned out to be bits of fatty meat covered in some sort of batter than disintegrated gradually the longer they were in the hot pot. I think other tourists had more fun looking at us eating the hot pot than we had eating it. The fire came from lumps of paraffin gel that were a bit hyperactive in the breeze that was blowing. I came close to losing my eyelashes and eyebrows a couple of times.

Having had some fresh air we headed back to the hotel to chill out again only venturing out again later at night for a bit of supper. We went across the road from the hotel to Lamu’s House of Tibet, which comes highly praised in Lonely Planet, who recommend that you try their momo dumplings. We should know better by now but we tried the dumplings and were both very disappointed. There used to be a small Tibetan restaurant on Leicester Square in London and their dumplings and Tibetan butter tea were much better than Lamu’s. The place had no character either, although this could have been due to the chain smoking American backpackers who were happily sharing their conversation (as well as their smoke) with everyone else in the place.

Unimpressed we headed back to our hotel which good intentions of getting up earlier and being more active tomorrow!

20060103_P_0050
Lady in traditional Naxi dress. She did smile, honest!

We did manage to get out and about earlier today. I have still not been able to shake off the cold I have had for a couple of weeks and finally decided I needed something proactive to get rid of it. We found a local pharmacy around the corner from the hotel and were in the middle of looking up how to say “do you have something for a bad chesty cough please” when my system saved the day and I let out a racking cough. They nodding knowingly and pulled out a bottle of Pei Pa Koa, a traditional Chinese herbal cough syrup.

There was information in English on the side of the box together with a long list of ingredients most of which mean absolutely nothing to me but it did not seem to include any endangered species which I though was a plus sign. Ignoring Lonely Planet’s warning that buying medicines over the counter is not recommended I paid by Yuan but waited to have a look on the internet to see if there were any bad reports about this stuff before I tried it. I could not find much either way so later in the day opened it up and swallowed a glug of very thick medicine that tastes a bit like marzipan. It felt good going down so hopefully it will do the trick.

Having had a bit of a wash out day yesterday we have decided to spend an extra day in Lijiang and booked flights down to Jinhong for tomorrow night. From there we will work our way across into Laos for the next leg of our trip. The rest of the day we spent ambling around the old town of Lijiang, finding out that it is much larger and more varied than you would ever imaging based on the write up in Lonely Planet. It is maybe good that they only concentrate on the very central part because hopefully that means the outskirts of the old town will keep it’s lived in look and feel.

We walked down to Sifang Jie, the old market square, and from here turned right and walked up to Lion Hill. Outside the little shops here women were sat at every corner with a wok full of hot oil cooking potatoes, tofu, mushrooms and slices of black pudding. Stef tried some on the way back down but I think the flavour was probably wiped out by the very generous dose of chilli powder that was added to the top.

At the top there is a small park (Y15 each to get in) which has a large patio with views down over the old city. On the top of the hill is a new pagoda style building called the Looking at the Past Pavilion. It has been built and decorated in traditional Chinese style and is quite a sight to see. At night it is lit up and acts as an illuminated beacon for the town. The views of the town from here were even better.

The old town is a rabbit warren of little streets, all lined with canals, running off in lots of different directions. All you can see from above is the tiles of the roofs, mainly dark grey but some with decorative borders and patterns in a lighter shade of grey. I could just about make out the two main streets in town and tried to follow these around to our hotel but it was impossible. What you do see though is that the houses are all built around a central courtyard that acts as a garden, very similar to the Spanish style houses we have seen in South America.

The new town is very different. So far it is still mainly low rise buildings but it is expanding quickly. Not only are there new buildings almost nearing completion but you can see where the next plots have been marked out ready for the builders to move in. With no natural barriers to block expansion I suspect it will soon spread out along the surrounding valley and no doubt the locals here will have the same affordability problems that they now have in Dali.

On our way out of the park we saw a little café with a rooftop patio and decided to stop off to have some tea. When we were in Hong Kong we went to a museum that explained all about the rituals involved in making and drinking tea but have yet to have a proper tea ceremony. The young lady who runs the café (who had the worst teeth I have seen in ages) duly pulled out the stops and got out her Pu’er tea and associated bits and pieces and we went through the motions. I liked the tea when it was fresh and weak, Stef only warmed to it when it was well and truly stewed and bitter.

We worked our way back down to the main Sifang Square and watched a group of Naxi women dancing. They were all old and very weather beaten. It is almost as if this is the equivalent of Tai Chi for this part of China as they all still seem to be very supple. In the middle of the circle they formed an elderly man was responsible for making the music for them to dance to. I am sure that in day’s gone by he would have played one of the local flute type instruments but today he accompanied them with a tape recorder.

20060103_P_0093
Naxi dancers

Having had our fill of dancing we spent the next couple of hours just ambling about. The map in Lonely Planet stops at the square so we just took a right here, a left there and did not really care where we ended up. Throughout the old town they have wooden panels with a map of where you are and the few streets around you so you can always easily find your way back. What surprised me though was how far the tourist shops ran for. Bearing in mind that they all sell pretty much the same stuff and that most of them had no customers it is amazing that they can make any money.

The further away from the square we walked the more we left tourist-ville behind and we came upon the part of town where local people actually still live. Here people were surprised to see a foreign face. I suppose not many people bother to come here but for us this is what Lijiang is all about. People were sat about chatting, knitting (a Chinese passion and always with three needles??), preparing food and entertaining their children. The narrow canals that are an ever present part of Lijiang still flowed here but in parts the water looked stagnant and dirty. The people who keep the canals clean must only work in the centre of the old town where the tourists go.

We came across a small market which, like the others we have seen, was primarily for fruit and vegetables. Again it was full of colour and full of things we cannot put a name to. For the first time in a market/shop in China I saw bean sprouts. They have only been served up as part of a dish once in the last month although they seem to be a staple part of the Chinese diet in the UK.

In the evening we went to see a performance of the Naxi orchestra. They play in a small theatre in the centre of the main drag. The orchestra’s leader, Xuan Ke, spends a fair amount of time talking, in Chinese and English, and although he probably talks a bit too much he was an entertaining person to listen to. When we saw Ravi Shankar in Ottawa we bought his CD and it starts with Ravi explaining about the principles and background to Indian music. Xuan Ke reminded us both of Ravi.

The orchestra has just under thirty members and of these about ten are very old looking men who are in their eighties. All of the orchestra are dressed up in traditional dress and play an unusual mix of instruments. Some had elongated guitars that they held as if they were playing a cello. Others had wooden cylinders with a long pole coming up from them and just one string attached. A couple of horizontal harp type instruments were at the front, there were a couple of flutes and then there was percussion – a big drum, a huge gong and other smaller bells and cymbals. The cymbals were sort of scraped over each other so they made a rippling sort of noise.

20060103_P_0141
Traditional Naxi musician. Spent a lot of time stroking his beard.

Although it was called Naxi music it is in fact Han Chinese music brought to the area in the thirteenth century when a large military force was sent to this area by the Emperor. The music has been lost in all other parts of China which is why the Naxi now claim it as theirs. Compared to the Western style music that we are used to it was very discordant and a bit hard on the ears, especially when the women started to sing as they had not set up the speakers correctly and it was at an ear piercing volume and pitch.

A few of the performers did solo’s and Xuan Ke over stressed the fact that these people had had no formal education. One man had a syrupy baritone voice and Xuan Ke heard him singing last year as he worked in the fields and asked him to join the orchestra. The female soloists were equally talented but the stilted composition of the music and the screech from the speakers made it difficult to really enjoy their pieces.

The orchestra has travelled far and wide throughout Europe, Asia and Russia and they have pictures of many dignitaries sitting and enjoying performances. It would be a shame if this musical tradition were every lost and I suppose Lijiang’s world heritage status will help to ensure that it is preserved. However, with few orchestra members in their twenties I think it is something that has a risk of disappearing when the existing players pass on.

Today is our last real day in China as from this evening we start our travels down to Laos. We spent most of the morning repacking our stuff and trying to weed out yet more surplus weight which we sent home. We divided and conquered and I went to the China Post Office while Stef went for breakfast. At China Post it was the usual process of them choosing which box to fit your stuff into and parcelling it up for you. The people in front of me had a big box already full to bursting and they then decided they needed more stuff in it. The Post Office person simply crammed it in squashing what ever was below it, hopefully nothing breakable!

20060104_P_0168 croplight
Line dancing, Naxi style (click to enlarge)

We spent the next couple of hours in Black Dragon Pool Park just north of the old town. To get there you just follow the river out of town, past a whole new area of buildings that look like they are more shops and restaurants waiting to be opened up. At the park we were surprised that we had to pay to get in and doubly surprised that it was Y60 each as that is a steep entrance price compared to other parks we have been to. We later saw that if you walked further up the park there seemed to be a gate where you could get in without having to pay. By the number of locals, who mainly looked like students, in the park I think the entrance fee is probably a gringo tax only.

The park was yet another haven of peace and quiet and again I said to Stef about how well the Chinese do their parks. A wide path led around the pool and through gardens on either side. A main feature of the pool is a bridge with five arches, relatively new from the 1960’s, behind which there is a great view of the snow capped mountains. In the water there were huge fish swimming around trying to keep in the shade and at one point lots of bubbles coming up from the bottom where there is a natural spring.

About halfway up on the right had side there is a small building with a stage. We got there at about one o’clock just as a small orchestra were starting to play and about six young people were performing traditional dances to the music. Later a big group of older Naxi women got up to do their “line dancing” this time weaving patterns in and out like a snake rather than just going round in a circle. As with the ladies yesterday, one or two had very western “wedding” style hats crammed onto their heads over their traditional blue caps.

20060104_P_0176
Lijiang skyscape

After the park we ambled back into town, had a late lunch/early dinner, got our bags and headed out to the airport for our flight to Jinhong. It was about a thirty minute drive back down in the direction of Dali. It was a small airport and it looks quite new. We checked in for our flight with Sechuan Airlines trying not to laugh too much at the uniform the staff were wearing. It was a really horrible shade of pink. Not too bad for the ladies but I did not think it really did anything for the men.

The staff on the plane were very friendly and spoke English. Even the announcements were given in English which I had not expected. The plane was full and it looked like most people were from tour groups. A high proportion had brought small suitcases on board as hand luggage rather than checking them in and they, and the hostesses, were having real problems getting them all stowed away. The pilot’s did not seem to care though and started taxiing off down the runway to prepare for take off. It was a short and uneventful flight, a bit bumpy over the mountains but we landed again about fifty minutes later.

Jinhong airport was smaller again than Lijiang and the change in climate hit us as soon as we left the plane. On board they had said it was eighteen degrees outside. I do not think it was that warm but it was humid and you could feel the moisture just hanging in the air. We got our bags and went outside to get a taxi to our hotel. IT was confusing to know who to go with. We naively assumed it was whichever taxi was at the front of the queue but it seemed to be the one who shouted the loudest and who could be bothered to get the fare.

It was a short hop to the hotel. We had decided to go for luxury (as we are expecting Laos to be a bit basic) and stayed at the Tai Palace, a four star place but still very cheap by UK standards. The lady behind reception spoke English but she had got herself so flustered that she was having to do so that she spoke very quickly and it was hard to understand what she was saying. It took a while to realise that “changed room” meant the discounted room rate that they could offer us. Our room was very spacious and with a comfortable bed, worth every Yuan.

We decided that beer was the order of the day and went to find the hotel’s piano bar. The main lobby was like a large atrium and the bar was simply space on the second floor that looked down to the lobby. It was a real give away that it is the off season. There was a grand piano but it was covered up with a large green dustsheet. The bar had no bottles or glasses of any description on display. Next to it there was a large Coca Cola style fridge and when you ordered a beer the waitress came from behind the bar, walked to the fridge, unlocked it and got your beer. As this was described in the hotel blurb as the place for romance, it made me wonder if there was any atmosphere here that would make anyone vaguely romantic.

20060105_C_0006
Leaving Jinhong

Last night, we had asked about buses from Jinhong to Mengla, a town close to the Laos border and the last stopping off place before the border crossing. They told us they went at six in the morning or at twelve noon but then added that they went frequently in between as well. We asked if it was a big bus or a small bus and were told “yes big bus and small bus”. In reality we walked away none the wiser. We considered spending a day around Jinhong to do some sightseeing and to get more accurate information about the buses but decided to just head on, partly because outside it looked very cloudy and overcast although we had no way of telling if that was the weather or the recurring onset of Chinese pollution.

We checked out and then tried to get a taxi into town. There are no cash points in Laos so we needed to make sure that we had a stash of cash with us that we could change into local currency. We then also needed to find the bus station. The taxi driver looked at our Lonely Planet map as if it was of a different place. It has been a bit of a recurring theme but we were surprised that the hotel reception staff looked at the map equally blankly and could not relate it to anything they know. Stef was just starting to get really irate when the manager came out to help us. He could decipher our map and told the taxi driver where to drop us.

With some Hong Kong and Macau money left over we decided to change it here which turned out to be a very long and slow process. Each note was carefully scrutinised by the bank clerk who then handed most over to a colleague for a second look. He then got out a book that has pictures of bank notes from a range of different currencies and compared them to this as well. Finally, after about fifteen minutes he handed over our cash.

We found the No.2 bus station listed in Lonely Planet from where buses go to Mengla. From here it is only small minibuses. We were wary about this as it a scheduled four hour trip, which means five hours in practice, and it would be pretty uncomfortable. We asked if they also had big buses but were just waved around the corner to the long distance bus station. We passed some other backpackers along the way and had a friendly exchange between people who knew they were probably they only Westerners in town. They confirmed we were going in the right direction for the bus station which we finally found.

20060105_C_0029
Tropical all the way

Again there was no coach sized bus but we ended up one that was a half coach size. Stef got a seat where he could stick his legs out into the door well so he had a comfy journey. I was a bit cramped up in the seat behind him. The bus was not full and we kept our big bags with us on the inside. There was not really anywhere else to put them and no one hassled us to put them on the roof. Other people got on with big bags full of stuff and one couple even came on board with a kids bike. Before we left town someone stopped the bus, put on a bag and handed the driver instructions of where it needed to be dropped off – an alternative to China Post. The chap who picked it up at the other end had to pay and I reckon it was half the full fare to Mengla.

We spent the next five hours driving through the Xishuannabanna province. There are signs along the road confirming that the area is a protected nature reserve. We passed through a large banana plantation with lots of people picking the bananas and boxing them up by hand. Knowing that they will end up in supermarkets across the world it made me think about how little these people will probably get paid for their crop compared to the price that the people who eat them will pay for them.

The road was twisty and windy all the way. In some places the drop down to the valley floor must have been about two thousand metres. The road was lined with lush tropical vegetation all the way. It again reminded us of South America and the central valley of Ecuador. We had a few close calls when the bus was overtaking and they had to brake sharply to avoid hitting traffic coming the other way.

Even though it is a nature reserve area all along the valley they are building what looks like a new expressway. Rather than following the contour of the landscape it is going to be a straight road running along bridges and through tunnels. It will no doubt cut down journey times but it is a concrete monster in the middle of this beautiful scenery. It must be devastating some small farms and villages and will inevitably bring change and pollution to the area. It is difficult to see how they will be able to keep the protected area protected for much longer.

We finally arrived at Mengla and were met by the inevitable touts at the bus station. They all know exactly where you are headed and were pretty persistent. Stef handled them well and we just kept walking until they lost interest. Lonely Planet lists hotels to stay bit gives no map, it simply says to ask the locals for directions. We did but they had no idea where the hotel was. They pointed us to a different one just round the corner which for Y80 yielded a very clean twin room with a bathroom and was more than suitable for the night. A couple of other backpackers also came in looking for the same Lonely Planet option. They were after cheap dorm accommodation and decided that this hotel was too much for them.

20060105_P_0184 lightened
Popular Chinese pastime

As we will soon be in Laos we spent some time revisiting our plans and reading up on the places we had tentatively decided to go to. We had initially planned to do a loop of Northern Laos but going through the book again it sounds like it will be lots of very long bus journeys to stay in very basic places with not much to see or do. If we had more time then it would probably be worth our while but we only really want to be in Laos for about two weeks so we decided instead to just head down route thirteen to Luang Prabang and Vientiane with a detour out to the Plan of Jars.

We asked at reception about buses tomorrow to Mohan where we cross the border into Laos. They speak no English we speak no Chinese so it was game of looking up individual words in the dictionary and using our point it book. Tomorrow will be a test to see if we understood correctly that we go right at the junction and that buses go regularly throughout the day.

When we walked to reception they assumed we were looking for somewhere to eat and mimed eating from bowl with chopsticks. With bus sorted we got to next important thing – food – and they pointed round the corner to the right, again with lots of jabbering and hand signals. We stopped at a shop to stock up on water for tomorrow and found a little local restaurant. A basic menu was painted on the front window in Chinese and English. They had a bigger menu inside and a separate book with English translations. We had a very tasty meal with rice, potatoes, vegetables, rotten eggs (the ones that look like brown jelly) and spicy pork and it all came to Y27 - £2.25!!