[The road to Lijiang]
Yunnan is a remarkable place. Sharing borders with Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Tibet, a region comparable in size to Germany is drained by six major rivers including the Yangtze and Mekong. In the north, Yunnan’s snowy mountain peaks reach almost 7,000 metres. In the south the Tropic of Cancer runs across dense tropical terrain. One day you could struggle for breath visiting a Tibetan monastery at altitude; the next, take an elephant ride through the jungle. What is more, 50 per cent of China’s bird and mammal species are found in Yunnan and is, apparently, home to more flowering plant diversity than the rest of the northern hemisphere put together. Of China’s 30,000 varieties of higher plants, 17,000 are found in Yunnan; and let’s not forget the fungi – Yunnan boasts 800 varieties of wild mushroom. The ethnic makeup of the province is just as diverse: Of China’s 56 recognised ethnic minorities, 25 are found in Yunnan including the Yi (former slave owners) The Wa (former head hunters), Tibetan, Hui (practitioners of Islam), Musuo of Lugu Lake (a matriarchal society) and Naxi (users of the Dongba script; the only pictograph script in use in the world today). Languages spoken are categorized into four groups: Tibeto-Burman languages; Tai languages; Tai Nua or northern Lao dialect; and Hmong-mien languages. Rice, Tea, tobacco, coffee, corn, barley, wheat, rapeseed, soy beans, sweet potato, sugar cane, cotton, and bananas are all cultivated in the region. Of all provinces in China, Yunnan has the largest reserves of zinc, lead, tin, cadmium, indium, thallium, and crocidolite. With an economic growth rate of 13.7 per cent in 2011 it is still considered one of China’s least developed regions with relatively high rates of poverty, and is presently considered the main source of plague in China. What is most remarkable of all however, is Wikipedia’s ability to make it look like I have done my research.
I had crossed into Yunnan at Lake Lugu which straddles the border with neighbouring Sichuan; staying at Lugu for a couple of nights before facing the mountain roads between here and my next destination to the south, the old town of Lijiang. I had cycled by myself since abandoning Neil in Xian and was excited to see two bicycles by the side of the road with rucksacks strapped over the back wheels. Their owners were drinking tea which they kindly shared with me along with a fire-baked potato. They invited me to ride with them. I accepted but conveyed in mime and minimal English that with more luggage will be slower.
Luckily the Chinese are not, as a rule, the most sporty of nations. These two, students from Chengdu, on a bike tour during a break in study, are slow. One has a GIANT bike with derailleur gears but the other, Feng Wen, tells me when he heard his friends were going on a cycle trip he rushed out and picked up a 300 Quai bicycle. And a thirty quid bike is what he got. One brake lever has already fallen off during the trip, and when he changes into certain gears his bike sounds like a wind chime. His gear ratios are rubbish and when we begin a hard climb and I pull away with his friend on the GIANT bike we can hear him scream with effort and frustration at every downward stroke.
[Climbing away from Lake Lugu]
I can’t help showing off, clicking effortlessly through my Rohloff gears as the incline increases. With little mechanical understanding of bikes, it has taken me until now to truly appreciate my machine.
They stop occasionally to phone a friend they have lost, apparently he went off to clean his bike at a garage. Clean bike? What?
[Cobs of corn drying under the eaves]
As the sun sets we begin looking for a place to camp. This I find interesting, and let them scout places to sleep. We stop by some fields with a small stream running through. One dismounts and tests the water and shakes his head. I ask Feng Wen what is wrong. “We cannot wash our faces in the water; it is not pure.” Wash face? What?
[Feng Wen trails behind]
We find an abandoned building and they set up their tent. I role out my sleeping bag and climb in with a book. Looking at me they ask if I have a tent. Yes, but we’re indoors and my sleeping bag is good. “I believe you,” the GIANT boss says uncertainly.
In the morning I awoke to the call of nature and scrambled off to find some lonely bushes. When I returned they were packing up the tent. I ate biscuits and apricot cakes as I packed my bike. Were they going to eat before setting off? No - and within thirty minutes their pace was slacking. You’ve got to eat before you start cycling lads. I suppose I could have offered them some biscuits…
Anyway, after a late breakfast, we begin climbing again, Feng Wen alternately screaming on the pedals or pushing his bike way behind us.
We come across a Japanese sports car on it’s side that’s rolled tackling a bend on the mountain road. The wealthy young couple have been very lucky to avoided injury. As if part of their holiday’s itinerary the women was calmly taking pictures of the car with her iPhone. An expensive SLR camera hung idle around her neck like a piece of digital jewelry.
The boss on the GIANT flags down a truck with labourers riding in the back who help us right the car.
[Boss, left, bossing]
I liked cycling with these guys; they tried to not let a thing like a language barrier get in the way of taking the piss.
Feng Wen to me: “How often do you wash? Once a week?”
Boss: “Once a month?"
Feng Wen: “Once a year?” Followed by laughter from both of them.
At one point on the climb Feng Wen managed to catch us up. “Welcome back” I said. HIs friends laughed. He looked pissed off.
We stopped to buy drinks in a village shop. Sitting outside we watched a pig sniffing about. Feng Wen offered me 100 quai if I could catch it. He then suggested I kiss it. I told him I had kissed worse.
I take back what I said about Chinese athleticism, partially at least. Feng Wen had guts, and with a better bike he would have been dust.
[Feng Wen, left; boss, middle; must clean bike, right]
That second day to Lijiang was hard: one mountain climb had more switchbacks than a cat has nipples.
[According to google, a cat has eight nipples in 2 rows of 4]
We entered Lijiang at dusk, and not a moment too soon – I had been in a ‘God I hope this ends soon’ mood for several kilometres. Lijiang is in a wide open valley surrounded by lowish yellow and grey mountains. The sun was setting as we approached the old town. As host, Feng Wen put a positive spin on our late arrival saying we had arrived at the perfect time, motioning to the sun setting behind a mountain. The boys were heading to a friends, I to Mamma Naxi’s guesthouse. We exchanged emails and went our separate ways. Feng Wen has recently informed me by email he has bought a new bicycle.
As I dragged my bike through Mama Naxi’s front door a Korean traveller named JJ asked for a picture. JJ was dating a local Naxi girl and I jokingly asked if she had a sister. Humour doesn’t always translate, and a few days later there she was. An American teacher came up to me after the Naxi sisters had left: “Oh man, that was awesome. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion.”
Lijiang is a tourist trap. There is no ‘old town’ as such; from what I could gather they knocked that down and replaced it with shops selling dried yak meat and African drums - in fact there are dozens of drum shops, with a listless shop assistant pretending to drum along to the same backing track in every one. The main square has two McDonalds and a KFC. But, at night the houses of the old town are lit up and the houses on the side of a small hill look wonderful. Sometimes during the day you can escape the crowds and find yourself on a quiet, cobbled alleyway between one storey Chinese houses with wooden beams and round doors, with maybe a canal the size of a small stream running gently by the side of the cobbled path.
[Lijiang. Photograph stolen from gokunming.com]
The Lonely Planet says, to paraphrase, “Mama Naxi thinks she knows the needs of backpackers.” I turn up and this diminutive matriarch gives me complimentary bananas and bread rolls and rushes off to the kitchen to fry me some rice. She knows exactly what we want Lonely Planet. If Mama knew you was dissin’ her…
Mama Naxi serves a family dinner everyday at 7pm. It is very popular. It is an opportunity to eat as much as you can of her delicious home made food for a very reasonable price. Pork and cashews, shredded beef, fried beans, deep fried cheese, lotus stem, lake fish and as much rice and tea as you can get down yer gob. Mamma Naxi's husband, cottoned on quickly to my gluttony and started piling up unwanted food from other tables in front of me. I wanted to adopt him.
Mama Naxi has several small dogs. One, a lapdog is old, blind and suffering from dementia. It totters endlessly in a small circle in the courtyard. I was mesmorized by this sad performance and wondered whether this dog would die during my stay. It didn’t, but it got me thinking about my own mortality and the futility of existence – aren’t we all just demented old Chinese lapdogs doing circuits in the courtyard of life?
On this trip I have met many travellers far smarter than I am. And I have hated everyone of them for it. William was no exception. As far as I could tell his Chinese was excellent. Studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies with a year in Beijing, his intensive course required he learn to write in both traditional and modern Mandarin. I put my personal feelings regarding his intellect and work effort aside and recruited him as my unpaid translator, China expert, and orderer of food. Thanks Will.
Bored of Lijiang and encouraged by an excitable Mexican I floated the idea of heading north to Zongdian to Will. “I’ll go if you go” was his response. I said we had to wait for a friend from Chengdu, Denise; an English teacher from Sunderland who had celebrated her birthday at Sim's Cosy hostel during my stay there. As is Chinese tradition Denise had ended up with a face full of birthday cake. I remember she was still trying to remove bits of sponge and icing from her hair and tiara in the taxi to the club. Chengdu will be a dreary place when Denise leaves.
The night of Denise’s arrival there was trouble in the house of Mama Naxi. A fuse had blown in one of the dorms and now the electric blankets were not working. Queue a 30 minute rant in the dining room in Chinese and broken English about starting fires and the police turning up. Mama had been in the kitchen, her foot tall chefs hat pushing her height to an imposing 5 feet; and wearing a surgeons mask Mamma looked capable of anything. In her blind rage Mama turned on entirely guilt free Denise, who had only just turned up. Backpackers hanging around after dinner tried unsuccessfully to hold back laughter.
Denise quickly picked up Will was a linguistic gold mine and we both swam comfortably in his slip stream for a few days. Think of it as good practice Will.
[Passing Tiger Leaping Gorge on the bus to Zongdian]
[Moon rise, Zongdian]
To get the punters in, Zongdian is touted as Shangri-la, no one telling Chinese tourism the place doesn’t actually exist. Will was adamant it should be called Zongdian.
This area of Yunnan borders Tibet; one minute we were in China then we reached a tree-less plateau dotted with Buddhist stupas and sturdy looking, what I can only assume to be, Tibetan style houses.
And Will was off – he bought a map of the town stuck his nose in it and marched off in the direction of the bus stop with the hiking boots tied to his backpack clunking against each other at every stride. “He’s a man on a mission”, Denise would whisper to me as we tried to keep up with him.
We jumped off the bus at the old (read: tourist) part of town, passed a youth hostel, and went round in circles looking for one that didn’t exist for about an hour before turning back and checking into the first one we had passed.
[Gentleman, scholar, poor reader of maps]
The tourist area of town was quiet; we assumed most people were put off by the cold, but it wasn’t that bad. Denise kept warm by dancing with the locals who had formed a large circle in the main square. The circle slowly revolving as the dancers – old and young, wearing their every day clothes - performed graceful moves in unison to music played on loud speakers. I happily watched Denise get stuck in from the sidelines, too self-conscious to join in myself.
After the dancing we went to a Tibetan bar and drank tea and beer, whilst one of the barmaids fought feedback on the PA system as her friend placed several long white scarves around her neck. They then played Gangnam Style 5 times in a row.
I hate this song. It has traveled with me for almost a year now. It’s global popularity is an unwelcome reminder the world has become a suburb, as veteran BBC war correspondent John Simpson once wrote in his book, Why do I keep doing this and How the hell am I still alive? Or it may have been called A mad world, my masters, I’m not sure. Good read.
The next day we moved to a Guesthouse run by a Tibetan women who treated us to a traditional - for the tourists - Tibetan breakfast of Tsampa bread (made from Barley) and Yak Butter tea. She also made us these little balls of Barley dough that had bits of fried Yaks cheese in them. I loved the tea: it reminded me of the stuff in the Wakhan. I found it makes your lips greasy.
And then the obligatory monastery visit. This Tibetan monastery was big – housing 700 monks, it was a little town in it’s own right, and at over 3,380m the steps to the main hall left me short of breath. Building started in 1679 under the patronage of the Chinese Emperor, bombed by the Communists in 1959 during their invasion of Tibet, with restoration beginning in 1981 - a lot of the interior wooden structures and murals looked new, but the drawings I thought were beautiful; complex narratives of what I can only assume the horrible consequences of straying from ‘the way’ and a lot of many headed and armed deities Hindu style.
Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is another good read. Just thought I’d mention it.
At the far end of the main hall were several giant Buddhas with huge yak butter candles in front of them. One Buddha looked down at me with angry, accusing eyes. I gave a little donation in front of that one.
[Giant Buddha statues viewed from mezzanine]
[Scene from mural]
Can’t get my head round what I was seeing: some scenes depicted violence some sex, one both. Will and I stopped and looked at a mural showing a couple making the beast with two backs, the man (or deity) thrusting a knife into the back of his lover. Graphic and violent. Not really what I was expecting from a Buddhist monastery.
Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge wasn’t all that appealing after cycling up mountains for the past few weeks, but as it was on the way back to Lijiang - where I had left the bike - I thought, why not. Denise wasn’t so sure; she had come to Yunnan to see the elephants at Xishuangbanna [pronounced Xis-huang-banna]. I had to give her quite a severe Chinese burn to change her mind.
The gorge is about halfway between Zongdian and Lijiang. We said goodbye to Will as he was heading back to Lijiang - fed up with being exploited as our unpaid translator, and failing to give his map reading skills the respect they deserved.
We only walked a bit of the Gorge the first day as we had arrived in the afternoon and so stopped at the first guesthouse. When you enter the gorge you are met by a row of jagged mountain peaks like a row of dogs teeth on the opposite side of the gorge. It was from behind these a full moon rose brilliant that night as Denise and I sat on the terrace of the hostel. Why is it that only a full moon rises?
[Entrance to the gorge]
The walk is ideal: not to short, not too long; hard, but not too hard. It was also surprisingly quiet; we met only a handful of other walkers, all except one being western. The Chinese, preferring to take a tour bus to the gorge, climbing a short ways down to the river and then taking a pony back to the top. Makes sense really: you’re on holiday why would you want to get all sweaty and tired?
The hardest part is the twenty-eight bends – the small path snakes up the side of the gorge for about a kilometre; an old lady with a small shop at the beginning sells red bull and marijuana ‘to help tackle the 28 bends.’ Denise said I could go off at my own pace and so as a true gentlemen, I took her for her word, and off I went. I would wait for her though, getting plenty of reading done.
At the halfway point we stayed at the Half Way Guesthouse, the name practically invites you to stop there. It advertises the following on a rock face by the path:
[Yes, the last line does say ‘scenic toilet view’]
I think this is the hostel that very nice man Michael Palin stayed at. You can see his documentary on this area of China here. I had better weather. There were a few of us that night in the hostel, mostly ex-pat English teachers and foreign students from Beijing or Shanghai escaping the cold and pollution.
[The scenic toilet view]
[Denise visibly upset with me for leaving her behind]
I had left my head torch in the first guesthouse: I decided to go back for it. I love that head torch; it is one of the few pieces of equipment that hasn’t broken on me and I have only changed the batteries once in a years’ use.
The lady selling red bull and marijuana at the 28 bends was surprised to see me, even more so when I passed her a third time on my way back to Denise, and was incredulous when I refused any herbal stimulant. I caught Denise on the way down to the river where legend has it a tiger leaped the gorge to escape a hunter. Impressive leap.
Denise was hanging with a bunch of Chinese tourists. She told me one girl had attempted the walk down to the river in heels, which would have been bone breakingly impossible. She swapped them for a pair of plimpsols provided by one of the locals selling snacks and cans of red bull – the latter seemed very popular with the wheezing, sweating mass of Chinese tourists; there was a huge midden of empty cans where we had stopped. Denise said this girl was almost in tears at having to part with her fancy shoes.
“You have to pay to climb onto the rock where the tiger jumped from.” Denise said, but I had already paid twice to get this far.
“Bullshit.” I said. The group of assembled Chinese tourists sniggered.
You can take the ‘sky ladder’ down to the river - bolted to the cliff face and about 20 metres long. I felt a bit nervous doing it; at the top the ladder leans out from the cliff. Fun though. Not sure it would have passed EU health and safety.
In order to reclaim my torch I had essentially walked the length of the gorge twice. Consequently I was shagged. I crawled back to the top of the gorge to our last hostel. Denise had sensibly ridden a pony back to the top. I drank a beer, had some rice and went to bed early.