|A straight forward and comfortable bus ride got me to the 740 000 strong city of Guilin. By Chinese standards a small city. I was thinking of taking a look around but the city doesn’t offer much in the way of sightseeing and the smog there was terrible so I instead opt to head direct to the train station. Besides, I only have a couple of hours till my train to Kunming is due to leave.
Upon taking my seat in the waiting hall I met Chris, an American, who’s just finished a stint teaching English in Yangshou and is on his way home for Christmas via Laos. Before long it was time to board the train to Kunming, 18 hours away. This being the first of many overnight train journeys over the next 6 weeks I am excited to find out what it’s all about. Not sure what to expect, I find my “hard sleeper” carriage. “Hard sleeper” is basically a second class of sleeper carriage; it has 6 bunks in each doorless compartment with only a basic mattress, blanket and a pillow.
As the train pulls away from the station I settle into the top bunk, about 7 feet from the floor. It’s the cheapest of the 3 levels and on this particular train quite good as you get your own little storage shelf. I don’t stay here long though as I prefer the little fold out seats out in the aisle as they offer a superb view out the window. From here I watch China roll past the window until sunset. Once dark, I seek out Chris in the next carriage as he told me he would teach me some survival Chinese. After about an hour I return to my carriage for some dinner, a culinary extravaganza of instant noodles and a beer. According to the slogan on the can this particular brand is “popular with people”…. good to know.
After dinner I settle into some T.V shows and a movie, the little netbook I bought in Hong Kong proving its worth. At 10 it’s lights out and time to catch some shut eye.
I wake the following morning refreshed and more than a little surprised at how well I slept. China is still rolling past the window as I settle back into my fold out chair, only moving to put hot water in my breakfast noodles. Finally at around 10 am we rolled into Kunming, another smog shrouded metropolis and the capital of Yunnan Provence. I had thought about exploring the city but upon arrival all I want to do is get away from the smog. So after some internet time and some food, Chris and I head for Xiaguan, a four hour bus ride away.
Xiaguan holds no significance other than being the place to change buses in order to get to Dali, a further 30 minutes away. So with this in mind we make our way to the number 8 bus, past a couple of Jack Russells with no concept of public indecency. Half an hour later we arrive in Dali. The walled city of Dali is thought to be around 7 or 800 years old, although the population of Bai people are thought to have been around much, much longer. It sits between the 4000m Cang Shan (Green Mountains) and the massive Erhai Hu (Ear Shaped Lake) at an altitude of 1900m. It’s lovely, the air is clear and the streets are quiet despite the population of 40 000.
Our hostel, The Dali Hump, lies against the western wall on a pedestrian thoroughfare called Waterfall Street due to the cascade running down its centre. The Hump prides itself on being a bit of a hub for artists and musicians, offering free night’s accommodation if you paint on the walls or play music in the bar during your stay. The aircraft propeller in the courtyard hints at the reason for the hostel’s name. During WWII Sichuan and Yunnan Provence became a safe haven for the Chinese escaping from the Japanese occupied territories to the east. Supplies came from India via Burma on the famous Burma Road. However once the Japanese captured Burma, thus cutting the supply line in 1942, supplies had to be flown in by the USAF from India over the 500m “Hump” or Himalaya as we know it.
Once settled in our spacious room we hit the streets for a filling but relatively unremarkable meal. I return to the hostel bar for a beer, an impromptu jam (which abruptly ends at 10.30 due to the neighbours being a Communist Party retirement home), and some good conversation.
The following morning Chris and I hit the town choosing to eat breakfast as we walk Dali’s supposedly ancient streets. Before long we found ourselves at the city’s south gate where there were a few little stalls selling fresh fruit. One item in particular caught my eye. It was a large yellow fruit filled with these little red balls, this Chris told me was a pomegranate. The owner of the stall gave me a sample, delicious, so I bought one. These things are amazing, getting used to the little seeds in each ball the only challenge.
We continued to stroll south along a street lined with shops selling beautiful Chinese furniture, most with intricate carvings adorning it. We stopped at one shop to photograph a particular table that caught my eye. A short exchange between Chris and the owner saw us invited into his workshop, an OH&S inspector’s wet dream. The place was littered with offcuts and all the power tools sat out in the open, most on uneven ground. We watched him use a table saw without using any sort of safety gear. Chris and I left before he lost a finger, eye or something much worse.
As we continued up the street we were greeted with a “Hello” coming from behind us. We turned to see a young Chinese man with a big grin on his face. Chris began to talk to him in Mandarin as we continued up the street. He told us his English name was Bruce. However, I would say that is more of a selection than a direct translation, my theory is further strengthened by his enthusiasm for Kung Fu and Bruce Lee. He gives me an uneasy feeling. I get the feeling that if you were to become too friendly with this bloke you may wake up in a bath tub filled with ice, missing some vital organs. After a while he shows us to his home and his parent’s workshop. His parents clear us a place to sits and his father offers us a cigarette. For the next 10 minutes we watch on as his parents make what looks like tambourine frames and Bruce shows us his collection of Chinese/English exercise books.
From here he showed us to the Wai Mao Concourse, home of the “Live Exhibition of Intangible Bai Culture”. Basically a complex filled with souvenir stalls and a suspiciously new looking temple at the far end of a courtyard. Inside the temple are three figures. The largest a menacing looking chap with a long flowing beard posed leaning forward reading a book. Due to Bruce’s limited English and my non-existent Chinese I am unable to find out who the big fella is or the name of the temple that houses him. Not even Lonely Planet or Google know of the existence of this temple. Bruce tells us the temple is 2000 years old. We find this a highly dubious claim.
From the temple Bruce shows us to his Kung Fu masters classroom also in the Wai Mao Concourse. He then tells us that the master is only in on Saturdays and Sundays so it’s a little odd that he has brought us here on a Tuesday. That pretty much sums Bruce up though, “a little odd”.
After lunch we gave Bruce the slip by telling him we were going for an afternoon nap, leaving to harvest some other poor bugger’s kidneys. For the next hour and a half we cool our jets in the dorm reading and playing solitaire on the laptop. When I emerged to take a walk on the city wall there was Bruce. I put my head down and steamed for the exit. Once out on the street I slowed only to hear a pair of joggers shuffling hurriedly up the street behind me. A feeling came over me similar to what a burglar in the states might feel when he hears the word “freeze” followed by a ‘chick-chick’, while trying to sneak out of someone’s house with their son’s PlayStation under their arm. I turn to none other than my Kung Fu loving, organ thieving friend. He tries to initiate a conversation in Chinese. Has this bloke not been paying attention! He has spent the entire morning with me and he hasn’t realised that my Chinese extends no further that the pleasantries. I tell him very clearly that I would much rather be alone at this point in time before turning and heading for the wall. He follows but finally gets the point when I resort to ignoring him completely and increasing my pace. I’m not proud but the guy was really starting to get on my nerves.
Finally alone I was able to enjoy a pleasant walk around the wall of the old town. The wall offers a fantastic view of Dali, right down to the lake. Although the place is supposedly very old, many of the buildings appear to have been built rather recently, just in the traditional style. Dali is still a lovely place but the experience doesn’t feel entirely authentic. Returning to the hostel I find Bruce camped on the computer outside the dorm. He has headphones on and is blissfully unaware of my presence. I sneak past him to the sanctuary of the dorm.
The internet at the hostel still isn’t working, it hasn’t been since my arrival in Dali. A major pain considering I am supposed to be arranging to meet up with Elizabeth whom I met in Yangshou and Kelly, whom Elizabeth met in Kunming, so that we can all travel onto Tiger Leaping Gorge together. I resort to the old leave a message at reception routine in the hope I am able to meet up with them and find out their plans. In the end it proves unnecessary as by the time I return to the hostel, Bruce still insitu, China Telecom appear to have restored services. Only 26 hours after they planned to. Through the wonders of the interwebs I am able to arrange to meet them at 10 the following morning.
For dinner I join the staff of the hostel for the nightly communal dinner. They put on an excellent spread of real Chinese dishes, great value at just AU$4. It proves a fantastic opportunity to chat with the other travellers staying here. Following dinner we settle in around the heater with a few beers and before I know it it’s 1.30am. Well and truly time for bed.
While eating my breaky in the courtyard the following morning none other than Bruce walks in and sits down opposite me. “What is with this guy?” I think. The staff asks if I know him and not wanting to lie to the guy’s face I reply,”Yes”. The girl then says under her breath “he’s strange”, I couldn’t agree more. When Bruce enquires about my plans for the day I tell him I’m leaving town, partially true as I plan to visit a village north of town. I just fail to mention I will be back that afternoon. So I scoff my bacon and eggs say goodbye to Chris. He is headed for Laos today, and head for my room de veux with the girls.
Today’s plan is to join a group headed to some markets 45 minutes north of town before hitting some hot springs in the area. The group consists of Cian (USA), Dylan (Canada), Kelly (NZ), Elizabeth and I. So with the introductions out of the way we all pile into an impossibly small van for the trip to the markets. I sit next to Cian (pronounced Sean) who is a particularly interesting guy. He has just left the U.S military following 5 or 6 years of service, most stationed in Korea and Germany. He was also in Afghanistan for a 6 month deployment as a tactical air controller- the guy who calls in the air strikes. He is now hitch hiking and cycling his way home. Starting in Germany he hitch hiked from there to Xian, in central China, via the Stan’s. In Xian he bought a push bike and started cycling south toward Laos. I met him while he was taking a short break from the bike to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge and chill in Dali and Lijiang before returning to Kunming to collect his bike and head for the Laos border-at least a 7 day ride away. We seem to hit it off. He is a likeable bloke and I find his story extremely inspirational. He has seen and done things I can’t even imagine and he can’t be any older than I am.
Dylan is a Canadian here on business. He is having some sort of environmentally friendly, carbon neutral, wood burning stove manufactured in Dali. To be honest it’s beyond me as to how it works. Well not how it works but how its carbon neutral is where it becomes a bit grey. We are going to the local market so that Dylan can sell a few of the prototypes to the local people.
Along the way we stop by the lakeside to take a few photos before heading onto the market. The market is an assault on the senses. If you want it, it’s here. Kitchenware, meat, clothing, sweets, fruit and veg, even replacement teeth. Seriously there was a bloke selling teeth made of stone. I think they it may have even been marble. Down in the fresh produce section there was a wide variety of stuff I have never seen before. Piles of what looks like salt, white pumpkin and lemons that looked like some sort of coral. It was bright yellow but looked like a series of tentacles arranged around a central core. Truly bizarre. On the outskirts of the market was a mason’s yard where you can get some roof tiles, bricks or a beautifully decorated headstone for the dearly departed. To top it off just before we all piled into the van I spotted some marijuana plants growing wild in the car park. I told you it had everything.
From the market we headed a further 45 minutes up the road to some hot springs, stopping along the way for a delicious lunch. The hot springs were just the ticket after a long morning of playing what the hell is that. It was easy to spend the next few hours in the steaming waters while enjoying some great company and a couple of big bottles of the local nectar. By 5pm it was time to head back to Dali. The hostel was hosting an all you can eat barbeque that was apparently not to be missed.
I arrived back at the hostel to find the courtyard packed with a couple of blokes entertaining the crowd with some live music. The smell of barbequed goodness filled the air. I wasted no time in dropping my bag in my dorm, paying my 35yuan (AU$6), collecting my complimentary big bottle and getting stuck in. Talk about a spread! There were 5 different types of smoked meat including duck and pork, barbequed beef and fish, honey mustard chicken wings just to mention some of it. By the fourth helping I was about to burst at the seams. I was joined by the others from the day’s excursion. Following dinner we enjoyed a few drinks and a few games of pool. Tonight was a much earlier night though as the girls and I had an early bus to catch.
I could easily have spent another few days in Dali to further explore this intriguing little town and its surrounds. However, Tiger Leaping Gorge beckons.