Guilin is supposedly like Yangshuo, but it has a larger commercial centre, so we decided to skip it. Can't do everything, says the woman who's going to die trying! Only an hour away from Yangshuo, however, we had to pass through it to get to our final destination of PingAn, another couple of hours away. The road was windy, but spectacular, as we we made our way over and across breathtaking landscapes, rice paddies and minority groups, mainly women. In the area, is a small village, Zhonglu, notable for its long haired women from the Yao tribe, who supposedly hold the Guinness Book of World Records.....for the longest hair in the world. Whilst we passed this place on our way to the terraces, we had no desire to stop or do a tour here at a later point. These people are humans and not animals, and should be treated as such. I know this makes me sound "old" (which in light of the fact that I turn 40 on October 14th, may not be too far from the truth!), but "in the olden days", when I first started travelling nearly 20 years ago, visiting hill tribes was much more of a cultural experience. Nowadays, it is more like an outing to visit "the freaks", complete with the recipients having a digital camera thrust 2 millimetres from their faces (yes, 2 millimetres, not centimetres. This IS the era not only of digital cameras, but a macro zoom as well!). No thanks!
Some two hours after leaving Guilin, we arrived in the 600 year old Zhuang village of PingAn. But certainly not before someone jumped on the bus and sold us our tickets! As I mentioned before, everything costs in China, with nature being no exemption! Set perched up high above the rice terraces, there are no cars, narrow walkways, and the way to reach it is......foot power! The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces is an engineering spectacle, that reaches all the way up a string of 800 metre peaks. You can have one of the villagers carry your bags up, or alternatively, you too can physically be carried up in a type of rickshaw with no wheels. As you would expect, we walked it! Twenty minutes of constant uphill climbing, complete with backpacks had us both oohing and aahing over the views, whilst sweating like beasts. It REALLY is good to be alive! Our bodies are our temples, and I never underestimate how incredible it is to be and feel so fit and healthy, especially in times like this. The vista was truly amazing, bags and all!
We spent a beyond peaceful two days in PingAn, sleeping in, making new friends, exploring the countryside, marvelling at the rice terraces, and taking in the majesty and the beauty of our surrounds. All of the houses and hotels up here, are traditionally built from wood, and look as if they have been superimposed, precariously perched on the steep and rolling hills. The advantage of "steep" however, definitely includes less tourists. Definitely not a hike for the feeble or faint hearted. The two main terraces are "Seven Stars Accompanying Moon" and " Nine Dragons and Five Tigers". They look as spectacular and exotic as they sound. Sitting down at the top of these peaks and viewing these marvels simply left me speechless. Yes, these moments are rare!
Our next destination would be Dali, heading way out west. In order to get there, we had to take an overnight train ride to Kunming followed by another five hours or so up north by bus. Kunming was only a "drive through", as we are both over the big city thing at the moment, but we were still stunned and overwhelmed by all the people at the Kunming train station. I have to keep reminding myself what a lot of people 1.3 million actually are! The overnight train was....bearable.....just! With six bunk beds to a cabin it was not too bad, and we were on the bottom, so nothing really to complain about, well....I have seen cleaner sheets in my life, and the cacophony and symphony of sounds were exasperating! Yeh, those guys and gals were hocking up those greenies like no tomorrow! I knew I had not brought my ear plugs with me in vain! Then, of course it was "no smoking" in the cabins! So, just take yourself one little guess where that smoke gets redistributed when people are chuffing at either end of the carriages? Nothing like recycled air via the air -conditioners! I am not going to hold back here. It's a vile and repulsive habit, and I will ONLY tolerate if and when it does not effect and involve me!
Located about 120 kilometres southeast of Kunming, we passed through Shilin, which is home to a massive collection of limestone pillars. The area consists of rocks and boulders which have been created via the erosion of wind and rain, some reaching up to a height of 30 metres. In true Chinese style, they have levied a fee to enter, which of course is disproportionate and illogical. So, if you are a tourist or a wealthy Chinese person, please enter, if not, talk to the hand! Don't you just love communism! Such a fair and just system! We got a fairly good, albeit brief, look from the train! Soon enough we were at the Kunming train station, where we met an Aussie called Katrina, and the three of us walked to the bus station where we negotiated a bus to Dali! China's bus stations seem to vary a lot. In some the destinations have a set price and in others you need to bargain. Here it was all about bargaining, and bargain we did! If the air-con was our god in Japan, it is definitely the calculator in China! I no speaka the Chinese, you no speaka the English, but we both understanda the numbers. And on the 7th day, he (or she!) created the calculator!
It was not such a long ride, well almost 6 hours, but after all night on a train, we were keen to get to our destination. We arrived in Dali at around 6.00pm, and although not entirely exhausted we were not up to hours of searching for a place to stay (which, incidentally, is wearing very thin after almost 14 months!). We managed to find a quiet and cheap place run by a Chinese family, The Bai Family Inn. Again, it was sign language and calculators, but our hosts went out of their way to make us feel welcome and at home. The hotel seemed to be set within the walls of an old temple, the rooms were spacious and the beds , rather comfortable. A word on Chinese beds; Whilst usually exceptionally clean, they are as hard as a rock! It's the way they like them, I suppose. But usually this can be "fixed", by placing any extra doonas, blankets or whatever you can find underneath! It's called being resourceful!
We had a relaxing couple of days in Dali, and found a great place to eat at. A tiny hole in the wall, it offered 10 vegetarian wontons for about 50 cents AUD. Now if that was not cause for excitement, the sign that went along with it was, "No MSG"! What a bonus! The Chinese love their MSG (wei chin) and use it like the Italians use olive oil. The difference (and a big one at that!) is that the latter is good for you! We visited some surrounding temples, walked around the old city walls, and hung out at a few places drinking some fabulous Yunnan coffee (the state in which Dali lies). I want to make a special mention here. The "Lost Angel Cafe" is run by a young Beijing couple called Jessie and Dio. Helpful, friendly, and honest , they are wonderful people. If you go to Dali, be sure to drop by and say hello. The coffee is great coffee, and the internet is free.
Dali lies on the western edge of Lake Erhai, and at an altitude of 1900 metres. Its backdrop is the imposing 4000 metre high Jade Green Mountains. There are supposedly some great hikes around both the lake and the mountains, but we just took it easy, and the most strenuous thing we did in the area was a day trip to Xizhou which is renowned for its well-preserved Bai architecture (the Bai are one of 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by The People's Republic of China), where we just strolled around, chatted to the locals and observed the architecture . We were the only tourists around, and so we got lots of stares, but it was fun. Throw in a few Chinese words, and the people love it. It's always an ice-breaker and shows that you actually care and are interested in other people's lives and cultures. I should mention that being so high up, the climate around here was by far cooler than what we had experienced thus far, and we found ourselves wearing long pants, polar fleeces and even rain jackets for the first time in ages.
Heading even further north, we also decided to visit Lijiang. We would be arriving just before the Chinese Golden Week (which is from the 1st to the 6th of October), and had been warned that not only do prices rise astronomically, but that the likes of Lijiang become a veritable Disneyland. Hard call! But, we decided to go, as it would be the closest that we would get to Tibet...on this trip, anyway! Or, so we thought! We ended up at a place called the Old Town Carnation Hotel, set in an old Naxi home, and run by a gorgeous Chinese lay called Li Shu Ju. She was so gentle and helpful, and nothing was too much or a bother. We have been so fortunate on this trip, predominantly finding terrific places to stay, with marvellous people who run them. It was quite cold here too, and it rained a lot. So much actually, that we wondered if we were going to be able to do one of China's 10 "must do's ", a trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. We would have to wait and see!
Lijiang is truly very picturesque. With its maze of cobble stoned streets, old wooden buildings and canals at every turn, it one of Yunnan province's most visited sites. It has often been referred to as the "Venice of the east"! (Having said that, there are several other places on Earth that have made similar canals, oops, I meant claims!) Its popularity has grown and continues to rise, and I was blown away by the number of "flag brigades" overtaking even the smallest of cobblestoned streets! Not only do the Chinese LOVE to travel in groups, and big ones at that, their guides come complete with "traditional minority costumes"......give me a bucket! Like many other countries, the Chinese minority groups are shunned and down trodden, unless and until they can be used to make money! Not even going to go there! If you want to hear more about our experiences on this, it'll be over a coffee or two back in Oz!
Having said all of this, venture out, in and around Lijiang, either very early or very late in the day, and you will be duly rewarded with some breathtaking sights. Without the masses and Disneyland style enterprises it's a gem of a place! Sadly, some of the "natural" things to see around Lijiang are so expensive that I found it akin to extortion, and bluntly refused to either pay or visit. Again, I wondered how the poorer, local people do it. Quite bluntly, they do not! It has been rather interesting to watch China grapple with it's identity. Communist? Socialist? Capitalist? I am not sure that they know really? And to be truthful, neither do I? China's like a little kid who has its cake and wants to eat it too!
Unfortunately, it rained a little too much for our liking, and whilst we got out just before the real Golden Week mayhem was about to begin, we were not altogether convinced that the trek we wanted to do would be dry or safe enough. Would we have to miss out? We were running out of time as we had to leave China by the 9th October (or so we thought..... more on that later). What should we do? It seemed like such a pity to miss out on something which was meant to be so unique and spectacular. So, we decided to buy ourselves a little time, and head even further up north, to a place called Shangri-la (or Zhongdian). This town is home to remote temples, rugged mountain scenery and the start of the Tibetan world. So....... it appeared that we were going to get much closer to Tibet than we ever thought we would! The last frontier!
NOTE::"Ganja? Marijuana? Hash? Hashish?". The question we heard so often was coming from the mouths of the locals, predominantly women from one of the several Chinese minority groups. Where did we hear this? Anywhere there were tourists really! How very, very, very sad! So, this is their impression of us.......that we are pot smoking, drug takers! By the amount of times we were asked, it was pretty obvious that both they were selling, and that tourists were buying! Whilst I am not about to pass any judgement on drug taking, I will say this: Be a responsible tourist! If you do drugs, then do them at home, and if you do it overseas BYO! Buying from locals goes far beyond giving us a bad reputation, it makes these people rely on making a living from trading illegally. Think about the impact that your "cheap drug fix" will have on all those involved in the transaction!
"And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in all the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual." - John Steinbeck, "East of Eden".
(Photos: 1.-The long haired women of the Zhuang tribe, walking through the rice fields of Longsheng. 2.- The rice fields of Longsheng. 3.- Drying corn and chillies, PingAn. 4.- Locals going to work, Kunming train station. 5.- One of the many faces of the people of Dali. 6.- Pagoda and a typical street in the centre of Dali. 7.- Another one of the many faces of Dali. 8.- In the streets of Xizhou. 9.- A typical Lijiang house, with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background. 10.- Lijiang and one of its many canals. 11.- Tibetan prayer flags fluttering above the town of Shangri-la, taken on a short hike. 12.- That's me signing off for this blog....until next time.)