Dispatches are stored at PerpetualTravel.com
On April 28, 1996, the day our Laos visas were due to expire, we reluctantly left the tribal areas of Muang Sing as the monsoon season was arriving. We changed money in Nam Tha, then caught a songthaew (pickup truck) with eight Lao people from Vientiane heading across the Chinese (Zhongguo, pronounced jhong-goowo) border on a buying trip. Others had warned us about hassles when trying to clear immigration and customs, but when we arrived at the Boten (baw-ten) border post in the northeast, the passengers escorted us through like we were on a family picnic.
Another five minutes along rapidly improving roads and we were in Mohan, a small but modern concrete village that is the Chinese border post. In the first office we were welcomed by two well-dressed military men who see about six Westerners a day. They were nice to us, surprised us with a smile and enough English to communicate easily, then stamped our passports.
We declared our camera and cash in the second office, but were stopped in our tracks at the third office where they had us fill out a form stating we were in good health, then gave us a bill for forty yuan (8.3 yuan to the US dollar). When we asked what the fee was for, we were simply told that we had to pay it. Determined not to pay without knowing what we were paying for, we sought assistance from one of the men in the first office and soon found out that the fee was for the all-too-familiar International Health Certificate, also known as the Yellow Card. We produced ours and were again on our way, deeper into Red China.
Our new Lao friends had chartered a small bus and were waiting for us. The bus followed a good, tree-lined road along a small river, through orderly fields of watermelons, rice terraces, and forests of rubber trees, which they label "Nature Reserves"! Behind one of these signs, a small mountain had been cleared leaving the orange dirt, which will be bulldozed with shelves to plant cherries and corn, like all the others, regardless how steep the slope.
Just as in Laos, there were men walking along the road, hunting with ancient muskets. The houses were of the same design, but they used boards instead of thatching for the walls, and clay tiles instead of tin for the roof.
We arrived at dusk to their 'safe' hotel in Mengla (moong-LAH). They only had four-bed dorms, so gave us our own inexpensive room. You have to pay up-front and don't get a key to the room since every floor has a desk with a floor attendant. The room was clean, with a thermos of hot water and porcelain cups. The beds were wood-slats covered by a thick blanket, with a mosquito net over the top. The toilets down the hall were as clean as could be expected, however, all of Asia hadn't prepared us for the stench -- a very popular topic among travellers in China, and one we will try not to obsess on!
The room also had another item we hadn't seen in quit a while, a television. We were intrigued by the travel documentary of Sweden, and the ethnic dance and music shows from the Muslim areas in Western China.
Our friends gave us their addresses and invited us to visit, really making us want to return to Laos immediately. That evening, they took us to a lively night market, where the national sports of gambling and billiards were energetically under way.
We stopped at a street vendors table for large bowls of dumpling and noodle soup at very affordable prices. The vendors were friendly and glad to help us learn a few words of the language, and as always, they stared at Karin's hairstyle, sort of a French braid. Nobody seemed surprised to see us, but they certainly noticed us. When we asked for the bill, the vendor did something we hadn't seen in a long time: she totaled the bill on an abacus.
We came to China expecting the worst, but found it to be more of Southeast Asia. It feels just like the 1970s, instead of 1890 to 1910 in Laos. The construction sites work day and night, and the government has torn-up all the main roads in town to put a super-highway through, as they are planning to ship goods through Laos to Thailand. The shops already carry a variety of goods from Thailand.
This was a great place to start China, slowly transitioning our way out of Southeast Asia, and eventually into Northeast Asia, just like Singapore helped us get accustomed to Asia before venturing into Malaysia and Indonesia.
The next morning, we decided this was no place to stick around, packing up and heading out. While boarding a bus at the station, a rough-looking guy followed us on board, and stayed close until we waited for him to pass. He sat in the backseat watching us for four minutes, then got off the bus. We checked all the bags and pockets and nothing was missing.
When we stopped for lunch a few hours later, Karin had a shocking experience at the roadside toilet-shack -- wood slats to squat over a ditch that had a life-threatening odor! Waiting for the bus to leave, we pulled out the language books and let the men onboard look at them. Two of them could pronounce English words pretty well, and everyone had a good laugh hearing our attempts at Chinese.
More of the same scenery, but some very nice rainforest in a couple of spots during the bone-jarring, five-hour ride in a small bus with defective front-wheel bearings. The windows were enormous pieces of thick glass that rattled noisily the entire time, but what a view.
Following the Lancang (lahn-chahng) River, also known as the Mekong, through the Xishuangbanna (sish-hwong-bah-na) Region, we arrived at Jinghong (jean-hoong). It is a small concrete city with short palm trees, giving us the impression that someone paved a South Pacific island. Plenty of construction and Han (rhymes with on) Chinese tour buses, since this is their favorite 'Las Vegas', a tropical tourist destination for the working proletariat.
The street cafes gave it a 1920s US Swing feel, and a 1930s Paris or Shanghai look. Everywhere we looked, there were tall and elegant Dai women in sundresses and straw hats, like Southern Belles in Gone With the Wind. The area is populated by Dai people, whom the government recognizes as a 'minority group'. They look like tall and thinner versions of the Lao, and speak the Lao-Thai dialect. Some Akha tribal people also live here, as well as in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
The country had been growing twenty percent economically, and this place definitely reminded us of the excesses of Thailand, including its thriving sex industry. The children had new clothes and bikes, plus money for snacks. Like Laos, 'communism' wasn't readily evident, except for the flag outside party headquarters. It felt more like the socialism of Scandinavia, seeing the social needs being met, and all the development in progress. With the organization and education they had, you know this country is going somewhere. Travel permits were no longer necessary, except in Tibet. Even monks were running loose again.
We managed to find a very nice place to stay: bamboo huts in a quiet courtyard. They were owned by a Dai family living in a traditional ricefield house, but the development surrounded them and the ricefields are kilometers in the distance now. Real beds, the cleanest toilets in town, and our first hot shower in months meant we would be staying awhile.
Our first meal in town was similar to typical Cuban food: roast pork with rice, and fried bananas. We soon found the Forest Cafe run by Daisy, a young and smiling woman who used to teach Chinese in Beijing. She had plenty of support from the few foreigners in town, since she had been learning to cook Western food just the way they like it. Her claim to fame in the four-table open garage was real beef burgers with fries, banana bread, and homemade cookies. We spent many days listening to the reggae music, reading books, watching life happen, and meeting interesting backpackers, all telling us that it only gets worse from here to Beijing.
Twice a day, old women would wheel in their snack carts and wait for the colorful, playful bunch of schoolchildren, some in sunhats, others carrying or wearing pool-floats for the river. We couldn't resist, so had Daisy explain the snacks before we bought one of everything.
One day, a Finnish man arrived on the back of a bicycle rickshaw, paying the driver six yuan. The seven-year-olds nearby, led by a particularly vocal and not-too-happy twelve-year-old, were not in favor of this and were giving the driver a hard time. The driver yelled back, pointed at Aki, saying he had agreed on the price, then tried to peddle away, only to be followed by the kids and blocked at the end of the street and surrounded.
Our hero of the day soon came in and handed three yuan to Aki, as the price was fixed in town. He then disappeared, and Daisy tracked him down so Aki could thank him properly and give him a gift. He ran off and was the center of attention again, in the middle of the street, as he related his adventures to all the other kids. He is going to be quite an activist when he grows up. This place is very different, the adults gouge and the kids defend!
Another day, a taxi pulled up with a Western couple and two Chinese girls. Lloyd was an Australian biologist teaching environmentalism to Chinese teachers, and the girls were his assistants, English Literature majors with a hilarious sense of humor. He showed us a video of elephants at the Sancha River Nature Protection Region, then invited us to join them the next day.
We hiked thirty minutes into the rainforest along a river until we reached our bamboo huts perched on a concrete path elevated 9m (28 ft) above the ground. We had a good view of the lower treetops, at a bend in the river where the elephants come to bathe and play every few nights. A military group was using it as a campsite, so we went for a hike along the elephant tracks, dodging droppings and peeling off leeches before they got to our skin. On the way out, we saw where the elephants had been the night before. At the park entrance we met some of their relatives used in shows for the busloads of Chinese tourists going to and from Jinghong.
Back in Jinghong, we went to a modern, but empty, four-star hotel to cash traveller's cheques. Many of the young men and women at the front desk spoke a bit of English and were very happy that we stayed awhile to talk with them so they could practice their skills. Many had degrees, but they could not find jobs, or ones that paid nearly as much as this. One explained that she went on a vacation in Laos, and didn't care for the trees and nature, nor the lack of people! Chinese tourism is a phenomenon in itself. As a rule they go to famous, historical sites.
Eventually, we told the manager we were having problems getting flights out, so he called all his contacts in town and at the airport, but no luck. When we went to the airline office, they had tickets specifically reserved for tourists due to the system the manager tried to use, known as the 'backdoor'. We decided to fly north rather than take the 24-hour bus ride through the mountains -- our backs and necks were still suffering from the punishment they received from the roads in Laos. Flying isn't cheap in China, as they were still applying a fifty-percent tourist mark-up over normal, already-expensive fares.
The new, but small, airport was packed with impatient people. This airport had recently opened to international flights to and from Chiang Mai, Thailand and Vientiane, Laos. Three shiny A320 Airbuses at a time line up on the tarmac. Suddenly, it's time to go, the gate swings open, and a plane-load of people rushes across the tarmac, so we join the race. Guess it is just an old habit of theirs since everyone had an assigned seat.
Five minutes later, we were airborne. The moon was directly outside the window during an uneventful forty-minute flight north. The flight attendants passed out warm Pepsi, canned mango juice, pens, and a keychain, which an elderly couple next to us kindly accepted.
We arrived in Kunming (coon-ming) at 11pm, but by the time we got the bags, everyone on the plane was gone. We had no idea if there were any buses running, so stood near the airline's private bus to town. We drew a crowd of people and taxi drivers who told us that the bus didn't run until morning, but we were in no hurry. We heard another plane land and decided to wait and see what the new arrivals would do.
The crowd around us dissipated. Eventually, the English-speaking taxi driver, a friendly and helpful woman, pulled up with a young lady from Beijing who was willing to split the cost to town with us. She was a finance teacher who read Time and Newsweek, and listened to Voice of America to maintain her skills, however she was shy and no amount of prompting could get her to keep talking.
We took a very modern highway into a concrete city with small skyscrapers. The dorms are expensive at the cheapest places we were allowed to stay, and the toilets were trying -- a 20cm-wide (five inch), sloping, tiled trench with the stalls above being separated by two, 1m-low (3 ft) walls.
We checked out early the next morning and spent the day at Wei's Place, a backpacker restaurant run by a Dutchman and his Chinese wife. This city can be difficult for tourists and he had all the answers to combat it, as well as good books, magazines, and food.
One noteworthy spectacle we saw for the first time were people standing at a major intersection, with a handful of instruments, offering a seat and an ear-cleaning.
We bypassed the ticket office, bargaining with the driver of the Hungarian-made 'bunkbus' with its completely-flat berths, unlike all the others in China, which are small, with a sudden, uncomfortable incline. We prefer not to take night buses and had never taken one willingly, but our options were limited. The nine-hour ride up into the mountains was smooth and comfortable, but next time we will fly into the new airport that had just opened near Dali.
We arrived in Dali (dah-lee) at six in the morning. This ancient but tiny city is a popular backpacker hangout by a lake in the mountains, with twenty cafes and relaxed attitudes. Three hotel touts waited, but we eventually found a guesthouse with a beautiful bamboo and pine garden, a pond with ducklings, and a friendly proprietor willing to bargain.
We dropped the bags and went for a stroll as it was the last day of the annual "Third Moon Fair." We followed the crowd towards the mountains right to a market of basic goods, and vendors with bullhorns shouting loudly. The Bai and Naxi women still wear traditional tribal clothing at the market.
Many friends had suggested a visit to Mr. China's Son Cafe, run by He Li Yi, a 65-year-old man who speaks English very well. The cafe was named after his book (published in the States but not China) about living through and surviving the Cultural Revolution. He was an English teacher sent to a re-education center due to his knowledge of the language.
Mr. He offers his friendship and it is returned by all whom he meets. He and his book were so popular that the BBC gave him a full scholarship for a three-week English course in London. A group of people in Europe paid for his visit, and the government let him go. His friends send him Western books, magazines, recipes, and music, so we had found another place to relax. The cafe is a cozy museum of Bai village life, and the menu has a selection of delicious Bai and Western food.
Like many of the tourists who go to Dali, we also got sick. It started with coughing, fever, and chills, then muscle pains, dizziness, nausea, and the runs. The fragrant toilet system taught us just how long we can hold our breath without fainting. By the third day, we had throat infections with congested sinuses and lungs. We thought it was bronchitis, then malaria, then pneumonia, but it was just a classic case of Chinese Influenza. The cold and rainy weather here only made it worse.
A young woman working at the hotel kept us alive with chicken soup and tea. She took us to the pharmacy, and to a doctor who wanted to give us "fever injections". We had not used any antibiotics for the entire ten months of the trip, and wanted to give the traditional Chinese folk medicine a try. After a few days, we were in good enough shape to move on.
We boarded a tiny bus heading north out of town on cobblestone roads along the lake, passing through terraced ricefields in all stages of cultivation, from mud patches to fully-grown stalks. Adding a splash of color to the fields were groups of Bai women working in traditional clothing and bonnets. There was an hour delay since the roads were kept open waiting for a government motorcade of Peugeots, Audis, and Chevy Pickups to roar down the road. Our driver seized the opportunity and raced behind them in order to make up the lost time!
He slowed down pretty soon: the farmers are smarter than your average panda bear, spreading their golden wheat in the road to allow traffic to do the threshing for them. These roads are lined with weeping willows and eucalyptus trees, and it is quite an eyeful. The trucks, buses, cars, and motorcycles are all honking for the farmers to get out of the streets, as they move the wheat around with their rakes. It sounds like small firecrackers as the tires crush the stalks, fibers flying everywhere, even into the bus. They sift out the millet, fill their wicker baskets, load them on their backs, and trudge off.
One sight we cannot get over is the very small women in standard, blue, Mao clothes, shuffling down the street, bent over nearly ninety-degrees at the waist, with the top of their heads pointing forward, and their eyes looking at the ground. They have to turn their heads and bodies to the side to see forward. Years of carrying massive, heavy baskets on their backs while working the fields have left them 'broken'. We only saw one old woman with bound feet. She shuffled along in Kunming, wearing pretty shoes appropriate to binding, as if to say she could live with it.
As you look across the fields of planted veggies and grains towards the landscaped mountains, with their neatly and unnaturally aligned trees of one kind or another, you realize that the earth is slaving to keep everyone fed. Even the flowers serve the purpose of sustaining honey production, which flourishes in this area -- it is on every restaurant table.
The ride would have been perfect had we figured out a way to disable the horn, which sounded like a trumpet blasted at full force. We passed a truck lying upside-down along the road in a rice-paddy about 3m (9 ft) below road-level. Still, our driver tried to pass a slow truck around a bend, nearly colliding head-on with a truck coming downhill.
Four hours into the trip, we started the final climb up to 3500m (10,850 ft). The first twenty minutes had fifteen switchbacks with magical views of a bright-green lake, and a large village extending up a valley to misty mountain tops with unobscured peaks. Endless photo possibilities. Then at dusk, there were silhouettes of 5500m (17,050 ft) peaks, including Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, with its snow-cap peeking through a beautifully illuminated swirl of clouds. Now we understand the expression "Top-of-the-World."
In the dark, we descended to 2400m (7440 ft) in another valley, arriving in Lijiang (lee-zhong) at 8pm. This village was the place we wanted to see the most in China, after seeing a National Geographic documentary a few years ago. We had given up after a 7.0 earthquake devastated 330,000 homes and killed 250 on February 3, 1996, just three and a half months prior. They received a great deal of international assistance, so the recovery was pretty quick. There were cracks in most walls around town, and missing sections of plaster used to cover the adobe bricks -- plenty of repair work being done, and left to do.
The newer, concrete buildings didn't fare so well, and many were condemned, so finding a room wasn't so easy. One guesthouse was renting space in tents left behind by the Red Cross, but stories of rats kept us away. All the better, as we stayed in the Old Town and found a dorm at the San He (sahn her), a traditional, wooden, Chinese mansion with carved doors and windows, for just a few yuan more.
About an hour after getting to bed, we thought the building was struck by a sonic-boom, but it kept shaking for ten seconds. The bed was definitely moving, but nothing fell in the room. Guests scurried around in the courtyard, while we slept very well knowing we were in a soundly-tested structure.
A bright, sunny morning of dry air, perfect for wandering aimlessly through the alleys of Old Town, past the market and rows of shops, most run by Naxi women in traditional blue shade of dress, vest, and hat, with fur rugs covering their backsides for cushioning the heavy loads they carry. It is a matriarchal society, and they are quick to smile back when you smile at them. One man went out of his way to help us when we had obviously got ourselves lost in the maze. One of our roommates in the dorm was even invited into a home, which we hadn't heard happen anywhere else in China.
Our favorite place to eat was Mama Fu's. Their specialty is the Naxi sandwich, a thick, pita-like bread, stuffed with goat cheese, tomato, and fried eggs, rivaled only by their fluffy cheese pancake. Maybe the elevation and flu affect tastebuds, but the Naxi cheese sure tasted like buttered lobster. Even better, the young chef noticed that Karin was sick, so he took her to a clinic. The prescription was vitamin-C and herbal tea. If we were over-cautious we would have refused to go, but had little to lose. We still thought there would be some catch, but nothing was asked or implied, so we resorted to a big tip.
In another cafe we met a young Chinese man who had a degree in printing, but was working in a hotel thanks to his English skills since there were no printing jobs here, and the government wouldn't let him transfer to the east coast unless he could find someone to transfer here. The twenty-ish crowd are much more open than others, and he let us know, like his friends, that he aspires to move to the States for the freedom.
Most tourists didn't know this was a special town, and were only using it as a base for The Big Hike. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest in the world at 3900m (12,090 ft). It is known for its landslides, and quite a few tourists were trapped during the quakes. There is a controversy about the level of difficulty, but suffice it to say, experienced hikers find it an easy two-day stroll.
Due to competition between boats at the river crossing, the markers are very confusing. The best tip we heard for those who don't feel the need to prove something, but rather go for the beauty, is to hike in from the south end, stay a couple days in the middle, then go back out the south end.
A large number of backpackers were heading to Tibet through various paths, some still trying to take roads through closed military areas. It used to be a challenge for many to do this, others doing it as a form of protest about the occupation since 1950. Most are turned around after awhile, and then their visa runs out. It was cute years ago, but now it is so trendy that the government has grown tired of them all, fining them repeatedly, and deporting a few. It has gotten harder since they started fining the drivers who give the tourists a ride. After all the fines, it usually works out cheaper to fly.
The latest batch of tourists were in for a big disappointment a week later, since there was a crackdown in Tibet, just like in 1987 and 1989. The government was sending monks to re-education camps. They also banned the Dalai Lama's photo and started ripping them out of monasteries. Some monks protested, three were shot, and one died. All the tourists were told to leave for awhile. Later in the year, the government admitted that they had five 'incidents', including some unclaimed bombings, which we heard many stories about, especially while in Nepal.
Our colds came back with a vengeance, attacking our sinuses and lungs, so we decided to head to the warm lowlands and start some real medicine. We caught the bus back to Dali, ate dinner, then boarded the night bus back to Kunming. This driver had an interesting bargaining strategy for filling the bus quickly once on the road. Instead of yelling, he just let off the brakes and rolled a meter or two downhill; they gave in rather quickly!
Most tourists like Dali, but we found it to be full of pests: flies, beggars, and women trying to sell junk, but won't take 'no' for an answer. It is a nice break from China for some, but Lijiang is a much more positive place to be, however, a few months after we left, it was struck by another heavy earthquake. Maybe you too are noticing a trend of disasters following in the wake of our departures: hurricanes, floods, eruptions. More to continue!
We arrived at dawn, and like usual we were off the bus as fast as possible to secure the bags. Much later, we learned that it is good habit here since gangs work the station, knowing that tourists are sleepy coming in on this bus. A friend told us of her experience there: one guy distracted her while another ran off with her daybag; she chased them down, but lost a few things. We felt in no hurry to go hotel hunting, so took a peek at the train station, but we were too early, and nothing was in English.
Knowing we would be here a few days, we found the Camellia Hotel for more reasonable living conditions this time. They sell Ampicillin at the hotel, and in two days we were back to normal health -- so much for traditional Chinese medicine. There was also a Lao consulate on the same floor as our room, and we received a warm welcome when we stopped in to say "Sabaidee." We tried not to take this as a prophetic sign.
The next day we visited the Public Security Bureau. A young, happy, and well-spoken woman extended our visas one-month for US$3, instead of the $50 we paid for the initial month. We would have liked to take her all over China with us, but she had to work seven days a week.
The Holiday Inn near our hotel proved to be a good landmark, as we headed down some alleys behind it and unexpectedly found a beautiful Flower Market, which lead to a Fruit Market full of delicious mangoes and sweet peaches, followed by a real treat of China, fresh yogurt drinks in old-fashioned, miniature, ceramic, milk bottles.
The Japanese supermarket next door was where we stocked up on muesli and Western treats, after being away from big cities for two months. Five-hundred meters (1550 ft) north, we were surprised to find real Western-style restaurants serving authentic pizzas, burgers, and Cordon Bleu to name a few. Apparently, the Holiday Inn-trained chefs decided to start their own restaurants at more affordable prices.
This city has a certain charm and convenience that would make it a nice, remote location if you were interested in learning the language. There is some attention to style, but it still has a village or frontier feel to it.
Kunming is a big city, but they still bicycle here in large numbers. The bike paths are nearly equal in size to the traffic lanes, with tall trees separating and protecting them from the traffic. During rush-hour, there are traffic police at the larger intersections to keep 200 cyclists from running the light. No matter how populated China is, they are very orderly automobile drivers compared to most places in Asia, which could be due to the high value of the vehicles in comparison to their annual income.
One night on the way to dinner, we were approached outside our hotel, in a poorly-lit section of the sidewalk. He was selling a magazine about Human Rights Abuses in China, so that he could make enough money to buy computers and cameras for his cause. As if we didn't know enough already, we decided to err on the side of caution this time.
We didn't miss the chance to visit Lloyd and Lisa, the environmentalists who took us to Sancha to see the elephants. China is very industrialized in the cities, and it was quite a surprise to see a real Western apartment in the middle of the dirty and drab monotony.
Marc took a local bus to the train station, but it took hours to interpret the characters for the destinations, prices, and train numbers. To quote our roommate Brahm, "This is what it is like to be illiterate, or unable to read or speak." An English-speaking woman working there told Marc that all the tickets to Guizhou had been bought, and gave him an address of a hotel he could get tickets at the next day -- a pure scam.
Learning from this, we went to the hotel CITS (China International Travel Service) agent, who used to be a structural engineer in Mauritius. He tried to charge sixty-six percent over regular fare, then a forty percent commission on top of that. We told him we would take our chances at the station again and asked him to write in Chinese the information we needed to hand to the ticket window clerk. We were surprised when he agreed.
The next morning, Marc was at the station at 7:15am for the 8am opening, but it was an eerily empty line at window number eighteen. Suddenly, at 7:40am, a guard marches forty people, who probably had been lined up outside for a long time, straight to the window. The only sensible thing to do was jump in line. The guard numbered everyone in line with chalk on their shirts at this point, and there was a tense moment until the neighbors told the guard that the twentieth member could stay. The guards are pretty brutal to those they catch cutting in line too many times, like the line-sitters who make money by buying tickets for people who walk up to them when they get close to the window.
The window opened forty-minutes late and it still took another hour to get to it, only to find out that they couldn't sell a sleeper ticket to Kaili in Guizhou Province. On top of this, they don't sell sleepers more than three days in advance, in an attempt to keep the scalpers from hoarding all of them. An elderly gentleman in a fine tweed jacket wrote everything Marc needed, in both Chinese and English, for the next day's attempt. Exhausted from the crowd, Marc needed a four-hour nap to recover.
That evening, we listened to our new roommates from Australia. They had just come from the Guizhou Province, but it turned out to be a long, hard, uneventful trip, and the roads were rained-out since the monsoon had started earlier than expected. They suggested starting from the other end at Guilin (gway-lynn or kway-lean), as a side-trip, instead of travelling straight through. When we got closer a week later, we found out how popular tour groups in the area had become, and how the 'rich minority culture' had learned to hound the tourists with trinkets, and gouge on the prices. When a guidebook tells you an area is neglected by travellers, you are too late.
Back at the station the next morning, Marc waited in line with three Israeli women, also going to Guilin. An elderly gentleman tried to help us, and a well-dressed woman translated. He said we were in the wrong line, so two of the Israeli women waited in the other line. It was difficult to see each other, and impossible to yell across the crowd, so they resorted to sign language. Things happen fast at the window, so one of the groups was going to have to run across the packed hall to get their tickets, but the man was wrong, and they returned after an hour. The 32-hour sleeper only cost US$21 each. Foreigners used to pay double the Chinese price, but that had ended recently.
Later that evening we met them at the Happy Cafe, a place that had better service than most in the West, and not the surly attitude we find in many cafes in China. The spicy, stir-fried, Sichuan (sesh-wahn) eggplant and tofu (bean curd) on rice was to become our favorite meal in China. The Israeli women weren't in such a good mood. They had met a woman posing as an English teacher and accepted her offer to take them to the minority villages. It turned out to be the 'majority' dressed-up in a fabricated village, and a bunch of souvenir shops she would make commissions from, plus she started begging for gas money.
This was the end of an interesting month in Yunnan (yoon-nahn) Province, as we boarded our first Chinese train. There were twenty tiers of bunks, three to a tier on one side. On the other side, a hall ran along the windows, with small seats and shelves next to the windows. There were bathrooms at each end, and speakers at the ends and in the middle. We were on the "Iron Rooster".
The beds were cushioned, and just long and wide enough to be comfortable. We had middle bunks to avoid: the smoke, the lack of room and inconvenience of the top bunk; and to rest whenever we wanted to since other passengers sit on the bottom bunks during the day. Later, we realized that if we had bottom bunks few people would sit with us since we were Westerners, and if anyone was on our bunk, we could have asked them to move so that we could lie down.
The bags were locked to a shelf above the windows in the hallway. The Chinese had little luggage, but all had their tea-jars, and small face towels which they hung from the luggage rack. They seemed very happy to be together.
Around noon we gotten our last glimpses of Kunming, and started talking to Rej. She was raised by a French couple in Algeria until she was six, then went to a French school in the Netherlands. At eighteen, she moved to Marrakesh for a year and a half, dressing like them, including henna in her hair and on her hands. She lived in Strasbourg and Marseilles, and now lives in Lyon. She was a social worker for the last ten years, teaching French to immigrants. Like most backpackers in China, she was travelling long-term throughout Southeast Asia. She taught us Yahtzee and Tarot; and we broke out the peaches and mangoes.
One unique thing that we came to appreciate in China was the complete availability of free boiling-hot water. We made soup with our dry noodles using the thermos provided to each set of tiers, then watched the world go by. The Chinese in sleeper-class are not the poorest of people in China, and a few speak English, so we were able to talk a few times, but no lengthy conversations. They were having a real party, gambling at cards, but not drinking much alcohol, just refilling their tea jars full of leaves with hot water. It was interesting to see the lights and speakers turned off by 11pm, and without anyone complaining. We fell asleep to the rhythmic motion and sound of the train.
Slightly overcast, but the light was perfect to illuminate the orange-clay, adobe-brick houses in the small villages set among the green rice and wheat fields along the mountains. Many awe-inspiring gorges with some waterfalls flying over vertical, karst walls. This was much better than southern Thailand's similar rock formations, and a fine substitute for missing Tiger Leaping Gorge.
It rained lightly most of the time, and still farmers in plastic raincoats could be seen driving water buffalo through the paddies. One buffalo decided to take a morning run, with his owner in hot pursuit. Although the entire 1300km (800 mile) train ride was spectacular, we saw nothing but cultivation, no matter how remote.
A sidenote: Trains to Vietnam were suspended after China invaded in 1979. They were resumed in 1996, and it is now possible to travel from Hanoi north to Beijing, or northwest to Kunming.
After a pleasant, 32-hour train-ride from Kunming, we arrived at 7:30pm in Guilin, a congested city in the southeast. There are always plenty of Chinese tourists here, as Guilin is famous throughout history for its beauty.
We found a minibus and just over an hour later we were in Yangshuo (yong-shoe-oh). It is another tourist mecca, a smaller version of Khao San Road in Bangkok, and the model for Dali. It is still so small, that the hotel touts are old women who offer to help, then just follow you to whichever hotel you choose so they can get a commission. The hotel clerk even tried to charge us for 'insurance', which he couldn't explain. We refused!
The streets were lined with souvenir shops, and salespeople inviting us into their shop or trying to take us on a boat ride on the Li River. The vendors all say, "Hello ____," adding whatever they are selling: shoe (repair), clothes, shirt, chops, "sit down," ear cleaning, bus, painting, boat, bike, cormorant (fishing), etc. They didn't understand, "Who are you calling a ____?" but we still had fun. We learned to just ignore them, even answering "Goodbye" to their "Hello!"
The travel agent at our hotel was relentless, but did share some personal views with us. He listens to the Voice of America in Chinese and said it is always harshly condemning the Chinese government's actions. He also listens to it in English, a much milder version. Then he reads the China Daily newspaper, with the government telling him everything is perfect and only improving. A person could get the impression that there is a propaganda war under way!
It rains often in Yangshuo, so parents put children on a small, bicycle seat in front of them, then cover the kid with their huge raincoats. The only thing you see is a pair of small boots hanging down. Some also put the children on the back, and make them hold an umbrella.
When it was raining, we would park inside the cafes and read. They show Western movies at night to draw the tourists. All the menus look the same, and the food is edible. Some cafes had comment books full of 'hard travel' stories in the 'old' China. For a backpacker, this country changes drastically every three years. They also have large collections of Time and Newsweek, so we had a chance to see what was happening in the rest of the world. Great paradox: The US fears the new China, a growing capitalist economy, more than it did the old, poor, Communist one.
We waited for the perfect day, then biked out to the villages. Incredibly scenic, but anti-climactic after the train ride from Kunming and the limestone formations that were similar to the ones we saw in southwest Thailand. If you haven't seen this type of scenery or haven't been to China before, it is a nice place for a day or two, just watch out for bedbugs in the hotels.
There is also a nice walk along the river, and in town a market full of eels, catfish, mudfish, terrapins, crayfish, and carp, all squirming in their large, plastic trays, tanks, and bowls.
It was time to get tickets again and, because the agents in Yangshuo were not to be trusted, Marc took the bus back to the station in Guilin. Marc's story:
I met Li, a computer programming teacher with a good vocabulary who had just bought his ticket. He approached me, explained the ticket, and said that the difference for Chinese prices is very small these days. He invited me to have a drink, so I followed him across the street and around the corner to a small cafe. He rinsed his glass with boiling water and filled it with beer, which he guzzled half of, while I sipped a Coke.
He was attending a meeting on college entrance exams for 4000 students at his school. He wants to go to the States for a Masters in Economics, after he scores a 600 on the TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language). I think he is long overdue.
He said he needed to buy fruit and make a call. I told him I had to go soon. He was going to eat lunch later, so left his beer and wouldn't let me pay for it. Walking me back to the train station, he ran into his old English teacher -- they spoke fast and clearly in English. He got me on the bus to Yangshuo, and I left town puzzled because he didn't want to talk long, nor did he want anything from me.
We have a method to quickly determine the character of people we meet on the street. We take our time to see if they are in a hurry, listen for typical scams, including the words and body-language, then watch to see if they are following a 'script' or sales pitch. We keep changing the conversation to see their reaction. It frustrates anyone using a script since the sheep won't follow willingly, and it forces them to start over. Dress style and attitude are very important. Bells and whistles go off when they start inviting us to inappropriate places to talk, or ask for our address after twenty minutes.
Many people in China want to practice their English, so we look at it as an opportunity to interact, and when we need a translator we just look around for well-dressed people. Earlier, at the counter, a young man asked questions, but spoke little English and had no sales pitch. He was patient, well-dressed, and harmless-looking. He smiled and said, "bye" when he saw a friend.
The women selling jewelry or bike-rides at the cafes and hotels always surprise us since they play dumb until we were used to them, then they would spring something from their handbag. Naturally, looking at their trinkets or smiling at them only encouraged them. It gets annoying, so we stopped saying "No, thank you," and started saying, "Meiyou" (may-yo), a very rude way to say, "Don't have," which we seemed to be told whenever we asked for things.
The next day, we were awakened by a persistent knocking at the door. The maid had decided to go to work on the one day we wanted to sleep in. We stayed in bed and told her, "Xie-xie, bu yao" then went back to sleep.
That evening we hiked out to the bus stop, getting our last calls for "Hello water" and "Hello Guilin" as we approached the buses. We got on the one most likely to leave soon and were on our way back to Guilin.
The farmers had loaded hundreds of yellow ducklings on the bus in 750cm-diameter (19 inch) bamboo trays, stacked seven-high, just like meter-tall (3 ft) bamboo steamers. On the next bus, the guys were talking about another's Pekinese dog wrapped up in a wicker tube. Just like a boy in Wisconsin can have a pet cow, it doesn't stop today's pet from being tomorrow's delicacy!
We talked to a 23-year-old man from Yangshuo who runs a private English school in Guilin. He had been to Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. He asked about the States, but when we asked him about China, his first reply was that, "Chinese don't like to discuss politics, just business these days."
Nice sunset colors for our last views of the slender towering peaks as we arrived at the Guilin station, with only six hours to enjoy the loud crowds and uncomfortable seats. The parking lot and halls were full of people waiting to get in. We tried to get into the TV room and soft sleeper areas for free, but they weren't making any exceptions.
They did make an exception for us in the general waiting room, where they normally let only one train's group in at a time. Everyone was separated by the type of seating on the train, the expensive-ticket passengers allowed to board first. Plenty of fun watching the hard-sleeper line file out orderly, then the soft-seaters dash by, and the rest of the herd stampede for the overbooked hard-seat section.
When the last herd was gone at 10:45pm, one of the few Chinese left in the room sat down next to Marc. He caught our attention earlier since he was a stocky man with a dark complexion and slightly wavy hair, as well as sporting large wrap-around sunglasses at night, a silver-studded belt, and metal taps on his shoes, besides a red, stuffed Valentine's heart on a necklace that looked like it should have been hanging from a rear-view mirror. He had a beige shirt that made him seem military, but the rest screamed janitor!
He showed us his ticket to Beijing, then tried to give Marc two books full of detailed maps of China. He smelled and acted like he'd had a few beers, so Marc refused the offer. Then he started writing poems in pretty good Pinyin (Romanized Chinese). We got him to write it in Chinese and let Marc write it in pronounceable English. Next, he gave us his address. Two hours later, a Dubliner named Gary showed up and translated some of it, letting us know we had a friend for life.
Gary had lived in the States, South Africa, Ireland, and had been working as an accountant in Beijing while studying the language. He had travelled most of China over the last year, and grown tired of it. He still wanted to work in Asia, but decided to do it from Singapore or New Zealand.
We had planned on visiting the ancient cities in the Shanghai area, such as Yangzhou (not to be confused with Yangshuo). However, after seeing a big city like Kunming and enduring all the pestering in Dali and Yangshuo, our attitudes had changed. We had suddenly grown tired of certain frustrations, so decided to skip the modern industrialization of Eastern China and shoot straight for Beijing, a microcosm of everything we would miss.
At 2:30am we were rounded up and relocated to our new abode. We settled into our bunks in the dark and were soon rocked to sleep by the hypnotic rhythm of the train. At 7am sharp, we were jolted into consciousness by the Chinese sitcom blaring from the speakers directly above our bunks -- a new type of Chinese torture. The boring 2100km (1300 mile) train ride through flat countryside and ugly, industrial cities only got worse as golden sands blew in from the Gobi Desert, blanketing the north in a yellow-brown haze.
We didn't sleep well the second evening since there were two loud snorers, and a man who screamed whenever he coughed. Upper-respiratory disease is common in China -- earplugs to the rescue. The next morning, we had the sheets yanked off at 7:30am by our dedicated train attendant. It was time to turn the beds and nobody was going to sleep-in on her shift! We arrived in Beijing an hour later after a 36-hour journey, one day late for the thoroughly-policed seven-year anniversary of Tiananmen.
For those wondering where we are hiding on this planet now:
probably on an airplane to the Caribbean as you read this.
Marc & Karin
May 5, 1997
Written in Delft (NL) and Miami (USA)
Round-The-World Travel Guide|
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