On the move again
The ever-friendly and helpful Sam at Sam’s Backpacker Guesthouse sorted our train tickets out. This time I made sure that we were not going to have upper berths where the fan is as noisy as an aircraft engine wedged against your ear, and it does little to move air around the top where the odours and heat from below rise and prevent you from sleeping.
Sam provided a tiny van to take us to the railway station. We were not alone in making this trip down South out of Sichuan and into Yunan, (destination Lijang) A Swedish couple, Nena and Morgan and an Israeli, Dror, joined us.
The train trip was an overnight, fourteen-hour affair. It would have been acceptable if it wasn't for the position of our berths. Whilst I intimated that we did not want upper berths, I'd not mentioned where in the carriage we'd like to be. Top tip for Chinese trains, make sure you are in the middle of the carriage. Avoid Berths 19 and 20 like the plague. This is where we found ourselves. In close proximity to the latrine. and with the apparent Chinese tolerance of stench, and an inability to close the toilet door after their business, it made for quite an unpleasant and sleepless night.
Tug of war
7.15am and we are in Panzihua, a tiny town with not much going for it except for the bus out of it. We walk to the busses and there is the usual commotion and chaos of bus terminals of these parts. Touts furiously plying for your business- 'get on my bus it is just about to leave', 'he is a crook, get on my bus it is comfortable with air-con' and the destinations yelled out loud 'LijangLijangLijangLijangLijang....' Now I'm heading in the general direction of the call for the Lijang bus and the others are following me. Why am I taking the lead? A determined and ferocious Chinese lady with the blue striped uniform of her bus company is urgently shouting at me, 'Lijang?' and she grabs my left arm and she frantically pulls me towards her bus. And now my right arm is being tugged by a disheveled young man pointing at a rickety bus that is clearly about to leave and he is also shouting 'Lijang!' at me. And to these two shouting voices joins a third, "Get off him" Lindsey shouts, and is pulling at the woman's arm, but she just tightens her grip and I'm being pulled in two directions and I'm laughing at the situation, and asking everybody if they can just please chill out....
Things calm down and we go with the woman. We are sitting on her bus and it is a Karaoke bus, awaiting to leave on a ten-hour trip and this is going to be hard work! Chinese rock music plays loud, and on the television precariously hanging from the ceiling at the front of the bus, the music video plays with words to the song displayed. But even with our excellent phrase book we're never going to be able to follow these rock anthems. But the gentleman in the seat behind us is. He is Mister Karaoke. He is crooning away behind and he is quite tone deaf and this is going to be some bus journey.
But then we are an hour out of Panzihua and we have to change busses. we pull into a bus terminal, the woman who accosted me in Panzihua goes to the ticket office and buys everybody from her bus bus tickets and marches us into the bus park. I'm seeing three busses in the direction we are headed. A luxury European affair, the sort that has a toilet and mini-bar and all mod cons. we can but hope... The second bus looks new,- it is quite large and has sealed windows that suggest air-conditioning. The third bus looks older than the others. It is a workhorse. It looks uncomfortable. The seats look closer together than the other busses - this equals little legroom. All the windows are open. It is already almost full. And I know which bus we will be taking....
The woman makes sure we all have seats then starts barking at the Chinese men who are smoking, pointing to the no smoking signs. But they ignore her. The driver gets into his seat and switches on the air conditioning. So it will not be all that bad. And the woman is now telling everybody to shut the windows... and put out those cigarettes... but many of the passengers are questioning her sanity. Why close the windows in this heat. A long heated discussion follows as is so often the case in China. Eventually the cigarettes are finished, the windows closed and we are on our way.
Twenty minutes later the bus stops. The driver has pulled over on the roadside by a small street stall and is engaged in a debate with someone or the other and naturally the inquisitive passengers on the left hand side of the bus want to know what is going on so they all open their windows and lean out. With no woman to tell them to shut them, that is pretty much the end of the air conditioning for this trip.
We cut through several sprawling towns before the road starts to wind its way upwards into the hills. for the first time in China we are beginning to see scenic beauty away from the seething urban holes we have found ourselves in to date. Through the terraced landscape, with paddy fields in the valley and maize growing in the terraces. Up and up and the agricultural landscape changes to an alpine one. Hills washed in dark green hues from the thick dense pine forests. Here and there a patch of brown ochre from a recently cultivated field. Blue skies, deep Wedgwood blue with cotton wool clouds, hanging about, casting mellow shadows on selected areas of the forest. Up and up and then stop. A traffic jam. How long will we be here? Maybe ten minutes, maybe two hours. They are still building the road ahead. We are stopped for an hour and then we are on our way again. we pass the road works and begin to descend. Twisting, winding we go, a luscious green valley is below us. Then climbing again and the landscape has changed and we are surrounded by a rugged mountainous terrain The mountains see the back of the blue sky, a curtain of gray clouds has been draped in front of the sun. And it is getting colder. We travel through a gorge,with towers of brown rock either side of us.
And then another traffic jam. More road works, more hold ups. It is three o-clock and we have stopped yet again, this side in a roadside cafe and everyone piles out of the bus and the dishes are being ordered.
Lindsey has a bowl of rice. I am more adventurous, I order a bowl of what looks like pork, pepper and chili. And what a dish. This is like eating sunshine, a taste sensation. No doubt it will disagree with my guts, but then they are already not the happiest of bunnies. A bowl of Shredded beef with noodles in Emei Shan did it. Several hours later the doors to the bowels are creaking and groaning, they can hold it for not much longer. A crazed dash to the toilet (which was luckily in our hotel) and those intestinal doors give way and the yellow liquid uncontrollably gushes out. The pain! The ring stings. but the relief. Oh diarrhoea!
The stools are still of questionable consistency (Lindsey, lucky thing remains firm), but no longer desperate dashes to the dunny. Which is a good thing because Chinese toilets are an experience that I prefer to avoid...
The Chinese dunny
At the beginning of our trip, Lindsey was greatly concerned about toilet stops as we travel. But over time her worries have slowly evaporated, and now she has no qualms about going for a wee anywhere. I mean we can always find somewhere- even if it means finding a hedge by the road to hide behind. And on this trip she didn't even need a hedge! Go there girl!! After all, this was far more pleasant that the average roadside cafe shitpit we have encountered. Very much like in Ancient Rome, toileting is clearly not something to be embarrassed about, indeed it may even be a social event. You go into the crapper and there are no cubicles. Everybody just squats down in a row, side-by-side, shitting into the same pit, or in the more refined establishments, a common gutter. And the guy beside you's turds float by under your arse as you squat.... Now I don't know about you, but I like to stand up when I wipe my arse. And I'm thinking I'd be wiping my arse in the face of the bloke squatting beside me and I decide no thanks, this communal toileting is not really my scene. When the poo comes I'll clench my buttocks, shut the intestinal door and keep it for later..
Until we come to a hotel where the toilets are of the communal sort and I have no other option but to shit in public. There is a low partition, about a metre high separating each hole in the floor. I select the furthest squatter and commence doing my business. I’m hurrying and squeezing and gotta get outta here quick and then this Chinese fellow comes in and nonchalantly squats down beside me and I can just see the top of his head over the partition. Circumstances force me to wipe my arse in the squat position and there is a bin conveniently positioned for me to chuck the paper in (Don't want to be blocking up the drains- they are bad enough already) and hey! that wasn't that bad. Maybe I can handle this communal shitting. After all, us men pee in urinals side by side in the west. (But in the west we don't look. There I am taking a leak in the toilet at a petrol station we've stopped in and I get this feeling I'm being watched. I'm minding my own business, staring at the grimy whitewashed wall - trying to ignore it, but no, I'm definitely being watched. I look to my left and -bloody hell he's just staring at me! This skinny little fellow has his eyes down at my crotch, and they say that the rural Chinese stare at foreigners, but I thought that was just at your face! I zip up and hurry back onto the bus. Oh Chinese toilet experiences! Not for the squeamish!
Enough of toilets. Fourteen hours later we arrive in Lijang. And the face drops, it's another Chinese city with the neon and high rise and urban sprawl. We jump in a taxi and point at the guidebook, 'old town'.
This is more like it. The old town is a warren of Naxi buildings, piled on top of each other, fronting cobble streets. It is not exactly all old- an earthquake destroyed much of it a few years back, but it's been rebuilt in the traditional style. We take a room and venture out.
This is like Katmandu, only cleaner. We get lost in the narrow cobbled lanes. We are beside a stream, cutting through the town, quaint stone bridges cross the major lanes, wooden beams the minor. We cross one of the latter and enter a cafe, weeping willows overhanging, red lanterns swinging in the gentle breeze. Very twee, very mellow. The food is western, and I mean proper western traveler fare. Banana pancakes de rigueur. We have arrived! We are in the backpacker Mecca. Time to kick back, mellow out and enjoy. We'll be here for a few days. And the quest for the sweetest, juiciest, smoothest and fruitiest mangos commences. Forget the beer Garcon, I'll have a mango smoothie! Mmmmmmm. Now we have _really_ arrived. Now we are dancing. Dancing with mangos. Dancing Mango. Dot Com.
So this is it, the big one, the one we've set our diary against. And we've found a bar, on the market place and it is full of people. We've got here early so have seats. The beer is ordered and we settle down. The venue is cramped. It is a restaurant-cum-bar tailored for western travelers. The menu has the perennial favorites of banana pancakes for a start... The clientele are a mixture of westerners and young locals who have attached themselves to the traveling scene. They wear the hippy clothes, have the Celtic/ Tibetan tattoos and speak the language of the backpacker.
All eyes are on the screen that sits on the bar. Hanging below it is a large flag of St. George. There are a fair number of people in the bar. Maybe thirty. A twenty something Chinese man is walking round painting St. George crosses on people’s faces. Someone has a drum and is beating it, someone else is shaking a leather strap with bells attached to it. The mood is one of expectation. Come on the England!
There is an English girl who has obviously been hanging around here for a while, she knows the locals and many of the westerners in the bar. She is loud. She likes to be the centre of attention. The national anthem plays and she stands up. Come on! She is banging the drum, she is singing, eng-ger-land, eng-ger-land, eng-ger-land...
Kick off. Cheers. The English girl is in full swing. Danny Mills has a good run, 'go on Danny' someone cries. The English girl hears this and a bit louder 'COME ON DANNY', and it is funny watching part time football fans getting into a game. But mustn't judge. I look at Lindsey and can tell what she thinks of this girl- too full of herself. She is your archetypal single girl traveling. Tough and strong, loud and full of ego. She wears the obligatory nose stud, blonde, she oozes confidence. And has an ample chest that she is clearly proud of. 'All this and my Dad's loaded' on her t-shirt. She enjoys catching the attention of the local youths, and the gnarly old man sitting beside me who smiles knowingly at her. And then at me. Seaman has caught the ball but landed awkwardly, face first onto the ball. The old man pushes his head to his face and gives an expression of pain, copying that of Seaman on the television. He's a funny old dude this one. A bit incongruous sitting amongst the westerners and all the young local dudes. He shakes his head at bad decisions. He gives a wicked smile when the ball is kicked wide. His face is quite a picture, maybe seventy years of age (but it is hard to tell in these parts), it is sallow and wrinkled. Large ears protrude from under the peaked cap he wears. His jacket is that typical Chinese drab blue affair and on his feet he wears tatty old slippers. And when he smiles he reveals a mouthful of teeth that are as alien to the dentist's probe as I am to the Chinese language. Small brown teeth attached to a pink and brown gum. What is he doing here? So out of place, but enjoying the game... and Owen places the ball in the net and COME ON THE ENG-GER-LAND!!
And then injury time and the equaliser and it is going to be a tough second half. Half time and it is clear that this bar is the centre of a scene that we are not part of. I feel out of it. Is it because we have just arrived in this town? I'm wearing England on my sleeve but feel excluded from the cacophony of support. It's not that I don't look English, I’m wearing the three lions on my shirt after all. But maybe this is what comes of staying in double rooms, of traveling with a partner rather than alone and in dormitories. Traveling is different this way and to be honest I prefer it. Lindsey, our experiences and me.
And the second half is underway and a local youth has got the drum and he is banging it and the English girl is clapping but they are not quite coordinated. 'clap-clap-clap clap clap' and the local man repeats it but the English girl goes to finish.. '-clap clap clap clap- ENGLAND!'
And two Englishmen have sat behind me and I listen to them with half an ear. They sound like public school toffs, on the year out, the gap year. Or maybe not, one of them speaks basic mandarin... and he's talking to his friend about football and he is another armchair supporter. He knows a bit about football and takes that as licence to wax lyrical about the game. But like the English girl he takes his cue from others in the crowd to pass judgment about player’s names. and when he mistakes Ashley Cole for Emille Heskey I just know...
And he's spouting on about some conspiracy theory about the world cup referees and yawn and then Brazil get another goal and my heart sinks.
They are now down to ten men, but a feeling of despair overwhelms me. Come on England, but I know we are never going to do it. My hand is rubbing my face. Why is this? Why when you are anxious or fearful do you find yourself rubbing your face. And I am biting my nails. Shit, I never bite my nails! And my legs are shaking and I've downed the dregs of my beer and COME ON THE ENGLAND!
Four minutes of injury time. I'm sinking. I can feel the tear ducts starting up, all ready in anticipation. Hell, it's only a game...
Love me do
We are out of the world cup. My head hangs. the television is switched off and the sound system sparks into life. the Beatles. Love love me do!
I look round to see the old man grinning and shaking his head at the same time. I look further back to the open door at the back of the restaurant and suddenly the heavens have opened. As if by divine providence a torrential downpour on final whistle. The Gods are unhappy with the result! We pay our bill and walk away. And as we walk through the narrow cobbled streets, carefully in the wet, it is slippery and the booze has adversely affected my gross motor skills of walking, the clouds part and snowcapped mountains are visible for the first time.
But ho hum. The world cup is over for us. Which is probably a good thing- now we are no longer restricted to traveling according to dates dictated by FIFA. No longer will we seek out expensive rooms with televisions. Maybe now we can begin our holiday in peace!