From January - July 2010, we are roaming the Indian Subcontinent (and beyond, as it turned out)...

...during that period, this blog page is the temporary home of

Thursday, July 1, 2010

China's Yunnan

Wow, where to start?! A lot has happened in the week and a half. Best if I just dive in...

That super-comfy train journey left us off in southern Sichuan province at the sprightly hour of 4am. A 3hr wait in the dark preceded a 9hr bus journey across some pretty rugged country. I'd previously raved about the beautiful, clean Chinese countryside. This journey was a bit of a counterpoint to that. Gorgeous scenery - in theory: towering hills and lush green-ness, fields of young rice and corn. But really scarred. Horrible concrete buildings, a nuclear power plant with homes a stone's throw away (and on a hill, level with the cooling towers' nozzle), crumbling secondary roads that looked post-apocalyptic, gray monstrous-looking factories, and lots of trash strewn everywhere. This is the other, uncharming, side of China, built in the 1970's/80's (my guess), a brutal-looking attempt at much from that era would be better off completely erased I think - actually, most construction pre-2005 for that matter.

Anyway. We enter Yunnan province - nice place! First stop: Lijiang. The town's lined with canals and pretty bridges and cobbled lanes and striking facades that look like pictures from old China. Those photos...they don't quite capture modern-day Lijiang...if they did they'd be too full of tourists to appreciate! Regardless, the place had charm...getting lost in its old town, walking around before the crowds woke up, finding its local produce market, wandering at night amid the glow of red Chinese lanterns hung from awnings. And undoubtably, it was all very picturesque.

Our current location, Dali, is like Lijiang in that there are a lot of tourists and souvenir shops about. In contrast to Lijiang's narrow alleys and canals, Dali boasts wide lanes, a few tall towers, and a bit of reconstructed wall (that once surrounded the city). On one side of town, a huge lake; on the other side, big hills that have been enshrouded in clouds since our arrival. It's been a great place to hang out. We've found some fantastic places to eat, and enjoy our daily walks in the old town.

Between Lijiang and Dali, we've sandwiched in a few other destinations far from the crowds. First, Shaxi, a cute village described by a local (well, from Shanghai) travel writer as "what Lijiang was like 20 years ago." There, we stayed at the end of a skinny flagstoned lane, just beyond a cluster of chickens and a pig stable. Our loo was a hole in the ground out back by the garden. When we first arrived, as if as testament to its picturesqueness, a film crew and cast was blocking our path, evidently making a Chinese TV series just down the alley from us. Not far away, rice fields and a Buddhist temple and a pretty main square.

And Shuanglang, a nice little fishing village on the opposite side of the lake from Dali, where we stayed at a water's-edge hostel full of Chinese backpackers and had some lovely food.

And our highlight: Weishan (described by the aforementioned Chinese guy as "what Dali was like 20 years ago"). This place was fantastic! Medieval towers, old lanes and crumbling facades, and NO tourists. As everywhere in China (and much of India...and all of Europe), there was modernity surrounding the quaint old section of town... But it was still wonderfully authentic: said lanes were full of barbers and noodle-makers and family-run eateries and residences. Against the wooden buildings were street-food vendors and guys playing mah jong or Chinese chess on squat tables and stools, and singing birds hanging in cages from rafters. We visited a Ming-era mansion with a small courtyard surrounded by fantastic wooden outbuildings. Happy dogs wandered about. People smiled and laughed at us (not an uncommon event as white-skinned people in China, but much more frequent here!). At 8pm, hundreds of the town's women got together in the central square and danced together - for no one but themselves, just for the fun of it. We had some of the loveliest food we've had here as well...cheesy-tasting jaozi (steamed dumplings) and noodles cooked/served in clay pots.

We tried our damnest to track down a market reckoned to take place each five days in the city, where colorfully-dressed Hui and Yi minorities from the surrounding hills come down to buy and sell wares (we've been to two such markets in other areas in the last week), but this was enormously unsuccessful. We've no Mandarin phrasebook or dictionary, and I speak just enough Chinese to where people think I know what they're saying when I clearly don't. Despite numerous conversations and pantomiming, even drawing a marketplace on a scrap of paper, we succeeded only in being pointed to two different daily produce markets in opposite parts of town, not the big, more irregular market we sought.

But this is the fun of travelling in China...being in a place where no one speaks English, lost and bewildered and happily frustrated. All you can do is laugh.


We've ordered most food by the "point at that dish" method, but I did finally talk Rebecca into ordering blindly the other day. We found a hidden courtyard full of Chinese and sat at a table, then chose three cool-looking strings of symbols from a mind-boggling 14-page menu. We didn't do too badly: a large omelet heaving with veggies, a cold noodly plate, and a heaping pile of green chilis (okay, this one wasn't quite ideal). Along with a wooden bucket full of steamed rice and a pot of green tea, it was pretty good. Actually, we did worse the next day at the same place when we tried to order something specific. We'd memorized the word for mushrooms to get at least ONE plate we'd know in advance, and ended up with stir-fried beef or pork lung (we think).

This is actually great fun, though. Normally, you order your food and a restaurant and then wait in anticipation, wondering, "How's this going to be done, how will it taste?" Here, you simply ask, "What the bejeezus did we order? I hope it's not dog, or intestines (again)." It adds a nice degree of excitement. Rebecca gets nervous at this, but we're both easy eaters so it's all generally been a success, aside from the fried lung which we ate, but only half-heartedly.


China continues to prove it's changed so much!

Communism? Ha. Only in some strange political sense. Somehow, I think that the Chinese Marxist groups that banded together in 1921 to form the Chinese Communist Party would not be altogether pleased with this country's present state. The place is (seems to be) a conglomeration of a huge government, capitalism, and extreme cronyism, minus freedom of information (rather: selective information). Marxism? This country is a materialist wonderland! An ultra-rich Party official/friend on one side; on the other, those that make his rich life possible: a rural peasant, or the street vendor scraping by by selling fried things on sticks, or the old woman rummaging through trash to salvage plastic bottles. Shouldn't they have (more or less) identical incomes? What would those old revolutionaries think of the new bourgeouis, this emergent class of rich urban dwellers? Aren't the privileged (how different, exactly, from the old emporers, or the Kuomintang, other than there are probably just a larger class of them, with modern weapons and communication to hold things together?) precisely what communism sought to eliminate? The poor proletariat has been left in the dust; it's largely a land of have-a-lots and have-very-littles (probably a billion of the latter!). Then again, I'm only an outsider, so what do I know?!

After traveling quite a lot in both countries in 2002/03, I concluded that in a decade India would be largely the same place, while China would be completely transformed. It's only been 7-8 years, but that prediction seems spot on. India? Hotels cost more, the price of bananas has risen. That's about it. The place is still a disaster - and it always will be (but that's part of what makes it an interesting place to travel). China, however, has moved on - and efficiently (if at times misguidedly but with good intention). A big government with seemingly-infinite strength has made it possible to squeeze decades of progress into a span of mere years - the modernization I mentioned in the previous update.

One by-product of that is that travel here has gotten easy. An example. Back in Chengdu, message boards, travel information, and even a special "Tibet Travel Desk" at our hostel indicated that a trip to Tibet is THE thing to do. Get a group together, get a permit, get a flight (or now: a train!) to Lhasa. It's apparently still hard to travel independently there, but otherwise it all seems so...easy! One ad showed a three-week standard (and expensive) itinerary including Mt Kailash and the far West of Tibet. That's a standard itinerary? In 2002 a similar odyssey cost me a few cold, harsh, solitary weeks - I hitchhiked around and froze my ass off and slept on boards and got stranded. Yeah, I felt like I was falling apart after a few weeks and it was abyssmally uncomfortable - travel was TOUGH - but, it was true adventure (in so far as that exists in this modern world)... Elsewhere in China, travel wasn't AS hard, but it still presented a challenge.

The episode is just a microcosm of travel in China. Tourism, like the places, has developed. Modern China is becoming less interesting (the tool of progress here is the bulldozer...for a great but sad example, see this (and better yet, read the accompanying National Geographic article: ...the old city of Kashgar was one of my absolute highlights in 2002!); old things have been razed, tourists are very present, things have gotten far simpler and better connected and more comfortable.

We've still had some great mini-adventures and, admittedly, have not really veered far off the beaten track in China. But even if we'd had more time and made more effort, I feel like a lot of the "adventure" in China is gone. And it's gone expensive. These nice hostels cost a lot more than they used to. Transportation's gone up at least 50%, I think. Admission fees in this country are ridiculous - in many cases more than you'd pay for an equivalent site in Europe or North America. Funny enough though, if you limit yourself to not crossing large distances and entering touristy sights, you can still live cheaply. In small towns, clean hotels are cheap - cheaper than an equivalent in India, even. And food...if you don't care for an expresso and pizza, you can always tuck down a backstreet and find a bowl of noodles or a plate of something mysterious (or not) for peanuts. Beer, too, is fabulously cheap, as is plum wine.

In summary to this aside, yeah China has better roads and plumbing, but I prefer the adventure and ruggedness of days that are apparently bygone, or fast becoming so. The change is happy for many, probably sad for many. I'm generally annoyed by people who talk of "the good old days," so I'll stop there; in conclusion, I just feel fortunate that I saw what I did when I did, and that we're seeing at least some more of that now! In one MORE decade, I'm 100% certain India will still be a cool place to travel. China, I'm not quite as sure. In any case, it's still a fantastic country, and I/we look forward to watching its progress!


Back on short, we continue to whole-heartedly enjoy this period in China, exploring the small chunk of China that we set off to visit. Not only is it like a vacation after all that time on the Indian subcontinent, it's really enjoyable!

World Cup. The USA - Ghana game? England vs. Germany? No comment.

No souvenirs for us. Most of what's around anyway is kitsch. We did spend 18 yuan (about $2.70, under 2 quid) on a little glazed teapot from a dude at a market. And a pot of fresh honey from a Bai woman.

I hock and spit sometimes, just to feel like I fit in (EVERYONE does this here - often and loudly). Rebecca doesn't (she doesn't slurp her noodles, either). She doesn't really like that I do, but she can't really berate me when a thousand others are doing worse.

A new adventure for us begins tomorrow. We enter a monastery up in the clouded green hills...and begin some formal training.