Yunan Province continued
The night before the Swedish couple and Dror, the Israeli left Lijang, we went out for a meal with them. We dined ordinarily then returned to our guesthouse where we sat out on the verandah talking. Morgan announced that it was a Swedish holiday, celebrating Midsummer's Night, and in good Swedish tradition we should make a toast, (we were excused from the other tradition of dancing around a pole singing about frogs). He then produced two bottles of local liquor and cracked them open. A shot was poured into cups we had found and one by one we attempted to down the drink. I say attempted, because this liquid burned the throat as it went down. It had a slightly perfumed aroma that failed to disguise the fumes of alcohol. In the mouth this perfume flavour was a powerful mask to the foul aftertaste that lingered on the palette. An aftertaste that was not unlike that which hangs in the mouth after a particularly wretched case of vomiting. The other bottle was not much better. And attempts to mix it with coke were futile. Both bottles were akin to battery acid.
Lina then produced a small tub of something and pulled out a black lump wrapped in gauze about the size of an unshelled peanut. She handed Morgan one and they stuffed the lumps above their upper lips onto their gums. I was intrigued. They offered me some. Snoose, it is a form of tobacco. They warned me that I could expect a dizzy high from my first hit of the stuff. I rammed it up between my gum and upper lip and waited. A mild buzz, but nothing to write home about (which is clearly a lie because I am doing do right now). And then it became clear that the Swedish guy who I wrote about way back when, who I thought had serious dental problems, in fact had a fat wad of Snoose stuck on his gum and teeth.
The following morning we awoke, naturally with sore heads, and outside our room Lena and Morgan had left us a note and a bottle of locally produced wine. Cheers guys! But out of fear of it being far from the rouge nectar we may desire it remained unopened, languishing in the bottom of my back, another object that weighed me down as we travel (when it was opened it was hardly a Chianti, more grape juice fortified with neat alcohol!)
Packaged and posted
And I thought we'd made a valiant attempt to reduce the weight of our packs. Having collected so many gifts, antiques and paintings, along with the items of our wardrobe that should never have squeezed their way into our packs for this trip, we decided to send a parcel home.
Which we did. Now please excuse me, but the mind tires and to be honest, it wasn't such a great adventure and is not of great importance or interest, so please excuse me if I do not write about our trip to the post office. I have obviously kept your attention up to now, and I fear that the mundane trip to the post office, with its only redeeming feature of the phone call to customs and the beautiful female customs officer who later appeared may loose your interest. My interest has certainly been lost. I should never have started this subject at all. Let's pretend I never started it. Whilst I have gone too far to delete the above paragraph - maybe at a later date I may decide to turn these rambling notes into a book and could turn the story, like the ugly frog, into a handsome prince of anecdote. Probably not. I am waffling on at a tangent, doing neither of us a favour. You read this, presumably, because you want to learn about our travels. Well you have learnt little in the last collection of words. Stop! I am going on, dragging, writing nonsense for the sake of it. I must return to the plot. Something interesting. Let me tell you about Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
After Emei Shan, Lindsey was not very keen to go trekking again. It was with much delicate negotiation (and bullying she will tell you), that I persuaded her that the trek would be an adventure. Not that the guide books made my life any easier "...not to be undertaken lightly" "...landslides are a more serious hazard and killed a party of seven hikers in 1994 - do not attempt either route in bad weather." We are on the bus from Lijang to Qiaotou, the start point of the trek, and it is pouring with rain. It is coming down in sheets. We are not supposed to be doing this. Qiaotou is a dull Chinese market town with nothing going for it. Our umbrella has difficulty in withstanding the downpour and we get drenched as we try to find the start of the trek. We cross a bridge and a black board is propped against the wall of a dingy cafe. "Backpacker info here." Definitely what we need. We are not so much greeted, rather fleetingly acknowledged by the Australian woman who runs the place. She is in the corner, sitting at a computer.
"I suppose you'll be wanting breakfast" she sighs, eyes glued to the monitor. She gets up from the computer and shuffles to the counter, picking up a couple of menus and passes them to us.
"So is the trek possible today?" I ask her.
"Sure, we haven't had the rains yet." What is that outside I'm wondering and try to make small talk about how dangerous the guidebooks say the gorge trek. She is not interested, just saying 'you'll be alright' and shuffles into the back room to knock up a banana pancake that Lindsey has asked for.
The Australian woman has been living here for five years, is married to a local, so we trust her words. We will be all right, besides, as we walk out of the cafe it stops raining. Nice one.
The walk commences easily enough, a path through a school ground then gradually climbing through the green hills above the river below. And then hell commences. They call them the 24 bends. I am sure there are more of them. The path zigzags up, the incline getting steeper with each bend. It saps the energy, my heart pounds faster, it has metamorphosed from the usual tortoise to a leopard. It is racing. It no longer beats to the laid back rhythm of jazz, its now got it's white gloves and bandana on, shirt off and giving it some hard core techno. It's hungry, yet I can't feed it enough. The dizzy blood cells are crying out for oxygen, yet the lungs; those inefficient beasts that wallow in my sedentary life style are just not up to the job. I am in pain. I am unfit. And there is worse to come. It is my fault we are doing this. I have to shoulder the responsibility, and shoulder a lot more whilst I am at it. I am now carrying both my pack and Lindsey's pack. They were lightly packed, but still... And then the sun comes out. It pulls its punches. The body fights back, the sweating mechanism swings into action and liquid oozes from every pore. But it just gets caught between my clothing and the packs - one on my back, one on my front, and added to the pain is the lesser equal of discomfort. A couple of Germans, bound past us on the way down. "Still a long way to go," they laugh. I am unable to curse at them through my panting and wheezing. Mental note. Go to the gym and get fit when we return home!
And then the summit. A couple of minutes after we get to the top of the 24 bends a couple of American girls from San Francisco appear. "When did you leave Quiatou?" I ask them. "11.30" comes the reply. An hour and fifteen minutes after us. How slow are we? And another four hours of walking still to do.
We walk for a total of seven hours. After the bends it becomes easier. We pass through small hamlets, perched on the hillside, dotted around worked fields and fruit trees. And then we turn a bend and the silence is broken by a thundering roar. The gorge is now in full view, way down there the Yangzi is squeezed through a gap that seems no wider than my little finger.
The chocolate coloured water is beaten into a froth as it thrashes through the rapids. Awesome. On we walk. Little sign of life other than the occasional mountain goat. Yellow arrows painted on rocks guiding us on our way (along with red and blue ones pointing to different guesthouses, but our mission is yellow). Only once do we think we are lost, where have the arrows gone? We double back and there they are again, and in the same yellow paint 'Sean is your trailblazer!'
Just as it starts raining we arrive at our chosen destination. Half Way Guesthouse. It is a simple wooden affair, with a number of rooms with plywood walls, a simple shower, or rather a trickle of water from a hose pipe, heated by primitive coal fired heater on the terrace, and a terrace where we collapsed on wooden chairs and ordered beers. We deserved them!
We were not alone at the Half Way. Staying with us were the two American girls and two Englishmen. They were father and son, the son, Richard worked in a shipyard in the north of China, his father was taking the opportunity to visit his son and was travelling around the world after. Finally there was a Chinese woman who worked for the British Council. As we watched the clouds part to reveal the mountains opposite us, and then be cloaked in darkness, they were a good mix of people who made for interesting conversation.
Conversation that I had every intention of documenting here. But as I write, I find myself falling further behind in chronicling our travels, in the desperate goal of getting up to date (all this happened a couple of weeks ago, so much has happened since) I decide to omit details of the travelers' tales. Only to mention in passing Richard's father's story about taking a package for his son to the post office in Beijing and having to show its contents to the customs official. Shaving balm, Durex and blue tac. Explaining these got progressively harder. But the unanswered questioned was why they were being sent at all. Richard squirmed in embarrassment as his father told the story. Shaving balm Durex and Blue Tac!!??
The following morning we were up, bright and breezy, hitting the trail by 7.30am. The path became more hazardous as we continued on, in parts less than a foot wide, with vertical slopes to the gorge below. At other points gushing waterfalls obstructed our way. Slowly stepping over wet slippery boulders trying in vain not to get our feet soaked. And then I fell. I slipped off a ridge and fell a metre or so to the lower path. Not such a distance to fall, but as I went my side grazed down a sharp rock that protruded against the ridge. The rubber tyre rolls of flab on my side took the full force of this outcrop and ended up a bloody and bruised mess. But I'm strong. I will survive. And did. Two hours later we were at Sean's cafe waiting for a taxi back to Quiatou and ultimately back to Lijang.
What Dali does not have in the way of the quaint Lijang buildings and narrow cobbled streets, it makes up for by being a backpacker's hangout, with streets solely serving the budget traveler. All sorts of interpretations of western food (including the ubiquitous banana pancake) and souvenir shops selling textiles, embroidery, batiks and the brand new antiques we are now very familiar with. Walking down these tourist-focussed streets is an army of local women in traditional costume, pushing small photograph albums in your face with pictures of their embroidery. And my 'no thanks' is met with a whisper in the ear, "You wanna something else?" A blank look. " Eh?" And a quieter whisper directed right into my ear. "Smoka - you wanna cheapa ganja?" I politely decline. I don't know why I would want to buy pot from these old dears when it grows so freely around these parts as we witnessed on our forays out of town.
A bicyle made for two
To explore the area beyond the touristy streets we decide to rent out bicycles. Or rather a bicycle; we find ourselves peddling around the countryside on a tandem. Lindsey is giggling as we pedal past the paddy fields. And what a laugh the tandem is. Running alongside the road is a ditch and on the far side of the ditch are the most enormous marijuana bushes. Beasts of plants that tower above me. And they are ripe for picking. Juicy, fat glistening buds at the tops of the plants. But any thoughts of pursuing a herbal high are destroyed by the fear of crossing the ditch, with its long grasses, muddy banks and threat of snakes. I stick to the Chinese beer and its high calorie count. Far from loosing weight on this trip I am turning into quite a porker. Roll on India and the intensive weight loss programme, AKA dysentery.
Our noisy friends
Half past one in the morning and we are abruptly woken. The walls in the guesthouse are paper thin, late at night it is polite to keep quite, even whisper. The guests in the room next to us are obviously unfamiliar with this concept. They enter their room, turn on their stereo and start talking loudly, almost shouting at each other, singing to the music and laughing. The rude bastards. I'm listening to them and they are Israeli, no doubt straight out of military service, travelling in a large group, and sadly living up to the negative stereotype that Israeli backpackers are often tarred with. Rude and arrogant. Lindsey is up as well, we try to ignore the din, but it is too much. I get dressed, walk across the corridor and bank on their door. "S'cuse me guys, but d'you think you could keep the noise down..." I received a grunt of acknowledgement and the music was turned down slightly. I returned to our room. But the noise continued. What do you do? Chill. It's ephemeral, won't last. We both eventually fell asleep to the mantra of cursing the Israelis...
Bus to Kunming
Adios to Dali, destination Kunming. The guidebook stated that the journey would take between 12-14 hours. It actually took 5.5 hours, more evidence of the speed in which China is changing. Kunming was another sprawling city; it was pouring with rain when we arrived so we shared a cab with a couple of Israelis who were on the bus with us to a hotel. When the rain subsided we ventured out, jumping into a cab, pointing at the guidebook to the Chinese for 'Pet Market.' The driver took us round the town, finally dropping us of at a market. The route he took didn't seem to correspond to the guidebook map, but we have found that is often inaccurate anyway. We walk around the market and there is nothing special about it. I approach several people, pointing at the words in the guidebook, yes we are at the right place, but this isn't the 'Pet Market.' I imitate cat's "miaow" and dogs, "woof woof," and a babble of Chinese makes it clear that this is not the pet market- that is elsewhere. The words in the guidebook were wrong. Nothing surprising there (remember folks, avoid the Rough Guide to China!). We jumped in another cab; I pointed at another landmark, close to the pet market, that the cabby could not get wrong. Fifteen minutes later we were driving passed our hotel and five minutes later we were at the Pet Market. Ho hum.
After all that there was nothing special about this market. Stall upon stall selling tropical fish, songbirds, and pet paraphernalia. And there were the sights of cruelty to our western eyes, the turtles in tiny, dirty bowls, far too small for their needs. But no cats and dogs.
We called it a day in the market, got some cash from the bank and returned to the hotel. Taking the easy option we ate in the restaurant closest to the hotel. The food was dreadful, so much for having a memorable last meal in China.
I was polishing off the Dali beer (good stuff the Chinese amber stuff- we'll miss it), we were just about to leave the restaurant when one of the Israelis we shared the cab with came over and joined us. We put a hold on our sharp exit and talked for much of the night with Ron.
Like so many of his fellow countrymen, Ron was travelling after three years of military service. He'd been on the road for a while - already there were papers at home calling him up from the reserve. But Ron had dreams of travelling for some time to come- it was quite refreshing to meet someone with such dreams. I remember when I started travelling and how countries would roll off my tongue - it's taken eleven years from my first independent trip to India to start realising some of those dreams. And here was Ron talking about where to go next. He wants to do it all. "...and then the Galapagos Islands." Only a lack of cash will restrain his dreams.
We then started talking about politics and the situation in the Middle East. Ron's politics leaned to the left, indeed he felt he was a pacifist even though he had done a fair amount of fighting in the West Bank. On our televisions we see pictures of Israeli troops fronting up to young children throwing stones. Ron spoke of his time in Raffah, what we do not see is the armed militia who hide behind the children sniping at the Israeli troops. I mentioned the footage of Palestinian mothers saying how proud they would be if their sons died as suicide bombers. Ron suggested that they were put up to this. "I often think what if I were a Palestinian," he reflected. "Israel was formed through terrorism. One of our Prime Ministers, Shamir was a terrorist you know. We wanted our own country and used terrorism to achieve it and now the Palestinians are doing the same". "I am a pacifist. We need to treat these people with respect, not like animals. I was at a checkpoint and an old woman with a sack of potatoes approached us. The guy I was with went to her with a knife and was going to rip open her bag with it but I told him it was not necessary to be a barbarian. She is an old woman, not an animal. I untied the bad bag of potatoes and there was a pistol in the bag. We had the right to stop her, but not treat her like an animal".
Like so many Israelis I have met, he expressed sadness and regret at the loss of Rabin, and the gaping hole that needs to be filled by inspired leaders on both sides. "We need charismatic leaders" he felt. "But in Israel people seem to think that to be a leader you must be a general. And whilst the generals are leading the country the solution will always be with fighting." "Arafat is useless, and Sharon is the behind many of the problems we are now facing". It was his trip to Palestinian areas of Jerusalem that sparked the current intifada.
The Dome of the rock. Built on the Temple. The temple will be rebuilt when the Messiah for the Jews appears. And so a bunch of crazies are trying to start it's reconstruction said Ron. They talk of the coming of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple and the resurrection of the dead. "I don't want all those dead people around me! Imagine the over crowding!!"
I questioned him about the origins of the peoples of the Middle East, the fact that they are brothers- Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. The Jews are the descendents of Isaac whilst the Arabs are the descents of Ishmael. We talked about the twelve tribes and the two lost tribes- one of whom the Rastafarians claim decendency from. And we talked more and concluded that we can but only hope. With people like Ron there is a glimmer of that hope for the future. But for now it romantically travels around the world with dreams.