Yunnan province, south of China – set aside the Tibetan Himalayas on one side, Vietnam to the south and Sichuan to the East– we visited Kunming (briefly), en-route to Dali then Lijiang before heading to the highlight – Tiger Leaping Gorge. Turns out this was quite a popular route and it was the first time in China we really felt we were on the ‘backpacker trail’ - we saw the same 30 western tourists everywhere we went.
Dali is touted as chilled-out travellers’ paradise and it’s obviously been that way for a while with lots of forty-plus (gasp) ex-backpackers, fronting English bars and looking far too chilled for anyone not out of ‘the Beach’. To blend in we got into the spirit of things and spent a sizeable chunk of time hanging around bars. On one of our more active days we also fitted in a 50 km cycle ride to a rural market selling everything from Kevin Kline pants to oh-so-safe off-the-back-of-the-lorry meat cleavers. Friendly people and a wonderful noodle meal (50p for two) at the market almost made it worth the trek in 35o heat and reduction in life expectancy from roach-less exhausts on the smog-filled, two lane highway. On the way back we detoured to an untouched, old village near lake Erhai that runs alongside Dali where we were an interesting but ultimately not too bothersome distraction from haggling for 3 chickens and an angle-grinder. We got our first taste of Yunnan food in Dali which we will remember for a while. We were prepared for spicy but this was off the scale - spicy and sour fish in an almost luminous red broth - our taste buds still have a long way to recover. Deceptively the food was decorated with flowers in the Bai tradition (minority Chinese ethnic group in Dali); there was nothing flowery about it. The other highlight – appropriately so some might say following our intoxicating bike ride were 50-60-year-old ladies whispering ‘ganjia?!’ every 10 minutes. Bit of a shock but then it’s a feature of Chinese society that everyone – perhaps even more so old women – work all day every day – so I guess this is inevitable when there are this many ‘expats’ of a certain variety.
Lijiang was our next port of call after our time in Dali. A once-picturesque village town, Lijiang is now overrun with (pah) bl00dy tourists – mainly Chinese actually. Walking around the historic town, fantastic to see the old trades, the welcoming restaurants and street-food, the main observation was that it was probably a beautiful town before everyone realised it was a beautiful town. As we learnt earlier, the best thing to do in these situations is to escape the crowds lamenting the time when the beautiful town used to a beautiful town before everyone else realised, and escaped to higher ground. Fortunately there was an idyllic, peaceful park called the Black Dragon Pool, with a picture-perfect lake replete with koi carp, all set against the backdrop of the mountains. An important place for cultural heritage, this is where the local Naxi people (Chinese ethnic minority with matrilineal families and an interesting pictorial-script language) used to worship the water gods. More steps and more blood, sweat and tears up the ubiquitous ‘Moon Hill’ rewarded us with views over Lijiang which, to be fair, were much like looking over the messier bits of London at the top of Hampstead Heath – probably best to have the binoculars round the wrong way. Undeterred by our Dali experience we sought out the local food again and had our fill of “Naxi snacks” – grandma’s potato with a manageable amount of chillies, baba bread with a variety of yummy fillings (the Naxi Sandwich) and even a Naxi pizza – this was maybe one for the tourists but tasty nonetheless.
Although it’s a relatively small place with old winding streets, Lijiang almost took on the quality of a Chinese Blackpool by night. Packed bars featuring U18-style school disco lights, cabaret acts detailing the cowboy roots of local Lijianians and the unstoppable clap-clap-clapping of wooden bricks by appreciative patrons. This was the first time we encountered anything remotely like Chinese binge-drinking culture. Beers were mostly sold by the dozen. Embarrassingly, or maybe inevitably, we ended up in the first Irish bar of the trip (‘Stone the Crows’, not a patch on Beijing’s ‘The Irish Volunteer’ sub-header ‘the Real Irish pub’ - observed from afar, we did not go there). We hooked up with a few British teachers we met on the 5 hour bus from Tiger-Leaping Gorge and spent the night reminiscing about Blighty and confidently pronouncing on the problems facing the country (as one does when one is far too far removed from being able to comment with any real insight)… and that was before the riots started.
On to Tiger-Leaping-Gorge – apparently no. 6 or 7 in China highlights according to the guides – and we were not disappointed. We think the pictures tell the story better than we can but suffice to say it was colossally magnificent – massive, sheer mountains either side of the mighty Yangtse River. Hiking along the gorge we contemplated the etymological origins of the word gorgeous, and learnt the complex brother-sister dynamic of Kiwi-Aussie relationships with our heroic Antipodean ‘Outdoor activity specialist’, Jess, who joined us for the hike. 22km on the high path one way followed by 20km back along the lower road was packed full of ‘no, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen since Osborne’s Bullingdon club photos’ and meant the trip back required much recovery and solace inside said Irish bar on return to Lijiang. To be honest, although TLG was great, mount Huangshan in Anhui was overshadowing it slightly until we hiked back on a clear, bright day and you got the full glory of 3,000m peaks coated in clouds. When you have stood in the face of the Yangtse at a set of rapids and seen the full force of this magnificent force of nature, you cannot help but love China and its spectacular topography – with or without the two-hour hike down uncovered 30ft ladders and calf-busting, H&S-less cliff-sides. Magnificent. Again.
Off to Chongqing by plane (boo, hiss). Even more stupidly hot in Chongqing, known as ‘the furnace’ of China. At one point we just went from air-con building to air-con building via of course, air-con taxis (fortunately very cheap). Combined with all the tune-less hot air we let out during our four hour karaoke session this was overall not a good stop for global warming. Also, as it was Alice’s birthday, she was treated to a ¥15 (£1.50) pedicure that was surprisingly good given the dark, latrine-like, staircase we ascended before sheepishly pigeoning ‘hi’ to the four families’ houses we walked through to get to the ‘treatment room’. We tried and very much enjoyed the local hotpot – a constantly boiling extra spicy broth that you dip meats and vegetables in to cook. The combination of half the country’s supply of Szechuan pepper and chilli numbs your lips and tongue (and tingles like popping-corn) without overpowering. Taste buds still maturing.
Hope you’re all lip-smackingly delicious. Missing you all.