China Revisited

Back in China- just

The border guard, a tiny Chinese women with tied back hair under a peaked cap stamped my passport. I was back in China. Lindsey slid her passport and entry card across the marble surface to the woman. It was not the formality it was for me. The Chinese border guard did not believe the photograph in the passport belonged to Lindsey. To be fair she had a point. Lindsey's passport is new and she has her photograph scanned in. The resultant image bears little likeness to my wife. She looks pasty with thick eyebrows. Her make up is accentuated and she resembles a plastic doll in the photograph. The Chinese woman babbled to one of her colleagues. Lindsey mimed putting on Lipstick and pulling her hair down as she appeared in the photograph. But her hair is now much longer and this did nothing to convince the officious woman that Lindsey in the flesh was Lindsey in the passport. A senior manager was called over and more babbling ensued.. Eyes down on the passport, eyes up at Lindsey. Shakes of heads. Another officer is called over. Even more Babble. And finally a nod of the head. Husband and wife are together in China.White tiles and blue glass

We instantly know we are back in China. The buildings that line the road up to the border are flat roofed concrete boxes clad in shiny white bathroom tiles. The windows are blue glass. This is modern Chinese architecture that is as common in China as noodles and rice and tea. And a damn sight more unpleasant.

Mohan must be the only international border in the world that has no bank or money changing facilities in it. Or if it does we couldn't find them. It is a one street town with the border crossing at the top and bathroom tiled buildings either side, petering out a few hundred metres down. At the end, where the shop fronts house pool tables and men are either idly sitting about or shooting pool, we turned round, heading back up to the border (gotta be a bank round here somewhere) when a tubby little man drove up to us in his tiny Suzuki van. "Mengla?" he asked. "Yep" I replied, "but we need to find a bank coz we've got no Yuan so we can't pay you". I didn't really say this to him. This isn't one of the stock phrases I try to learn in every country we visit, more, hello, goodbye, please, thank you, the bill please, how much, too expensive, you are ripping me off, your mother is a cheap whore! So not speaking sufficient Mandarin I communicated this with hand signals at the same time pointing at the limited expressions provided at the back of the lonely planet guide. Clearly they don't want to help you; they want you to buy their phrase book. We agreed a price; he'd drive us to Mengla where we'd find a bank and change money and pay him there. Sorted.

The Suzuki van was designed for people smaller than us without large backpacks. It was a squash. An uncomfortable squash, the roads were under construction and we were bounced around on the two-hour journey. The suspension on the Suzuki had seen better days and the botty took a bruising. But nothing worse than we had experienced in Laos and Cambodia and our arses are now toughened from all the bad roads in South East Asia.

No Worker

Mengla was just another Chinese town. Lots more bathroom tiles and blue glass, only several storeys of it. There was only one bank with a foreign exchange counter (I know this because I saw the inside of every bank in Mengla). And this counter was closed. It was two o-clock. Come back at 3.30 I was told by a bank clerk. Our driver took us to other banks and then to a decent hotel. All three of us sat in the lobby, waiting for the appointed time. Half past three and I am back in the bank and back at the foreign exchange counter. It is vacant. Two counters down is a woman sitting idly, talking to a colleague out back. Change money? I ask her. She shakes her head. "No worker" she says. 'Eh?' She gets irate. "No worker" she barks. I wander along to the first cashier I had spoken to who had told me to return at 3.30. I said, "Change money" and she said no worker. I said "I've got no money" but she didn't understand, passing me a blank piece of paper to write on. I wrote, "I have just entered China. I have no money. I cannot pay for a hotel. I need to change money or I will have to sleep on the streets." I passed it to her and she nodded. She could understand written English, but could not understand my south London drawl. Clearly in her English lessons she had never heard a real English voice. She picked up the phone and babbled at someone before handing me the handset. I repeated to the man at the end of the line what I wrote on the note and he said "no worker". I explained my predicament again, putting more tension and fear into my voice and he told me to wait by the counter. Ten minutes later he appeared. He was well dressed, spoke reasonably good English and I presumed he was the branch manager. He explained that there was no worker to change money for me. He then asked how many dollars I wanted to change. He looked at the board for the exchange rate, took a large calculator from behind the counter, a speaking calculator that are annoyingly popular in China and punched in the rate and my amount of dollars. He nodded and Mmmmmed: then took out his bulging wallet and began counting out hundred yuan notes from his stash. He asked the woman behind the counter to change one large note into smaller denominations, then handed me the cash in exchange for my crisp dollar bills. "Personal favour" he said. I kow towed, nodding up and down, "Oh thank you, oh thank you" I said as I backed out of the bank and returned to the hotel, finally able to pay the taxi driver and get us into a room.

Bedside buttons and mayo noodles

The room was the same as every other hotel room in China with bathroom attached. Two single beds separated by a bedside cabinet with switches on it for the bedside lights, the do not disturb sign, the TV, the air-conditioning (even if there is none), the night light and the room light. There is a TV, a wardrobe with extra blankets in and a low table. In the wallet that includes writing paper is a list of all the objects in the room and their replacement cost. A drinking glass is 35 yuan whilst the plastic sandals are a bargain at only 20 yuan. Hot water flasks are ubiquitous and it is not unusual for the maid to unlock the door and wander in to replace the hot water after a few hours. More often than not, she leaves the door open. It is clear that the Chinese are not a nation of door closers. They leave toilet doors open, on trains they leave the compartment doors open, even if they find them closed. Restaurant doors are wide open allowing icy draughts to rush in and no one will shut the door...

To complete the room description I enter the bathroom. The toilet is usually western; a bath is more common than a shower, although a bath-shower attachment is usually provided. And by the sink is a tray with soap, shower cap and box with toothbrush and toothpaste. This I would not use, I have opened several toothbrush boxes to find the tiny toothpaste tube squeezed and empty and clear signs that the brush has previously ventured into someone else's mouth.

This description is valid for all hotels that have a reception desk with a row of clocks above them, telling the time in Beijing, London, Tokyo and New York. These clocks are an indication that the hotel will be relatively expensive, (hopefully) relatively clean, and will definitely have that bedside cabinet and toothbrushes in the bathroom.

All the restaurants in Mengla are Chinese. Clearly that comes as no surprise; what I really mean is that they all have Chinese menus with no English translations. We go into one clean place (with an open door) and after pointing at the limited selection of dishes described in the Lonely planet to hear the waitress say "mayo" to each of them, (obviously 'mayo' means do not have') I stood up and pointed at the kitchen to the back. We walked to the kitchen, which was surprisingly clean, and I pointed at rice, and vegetables saying 'mayo' at the block of pork in a bowl. Five minutes later a surprisingly good dish of egg and vegetable fried rice arrived at the table.

Wei does my head in

We returned to the room. I tuned into World service and Lindsey read. It was then early to bed.

At about midnight the phone rang. I picked it up. "Hello". "Wei!" shrieked the woman at the other end. "Hello?" "Wei!" this continued for a few 'hello- Wei's' before I put down the phone. Prostitute I decided. An hour later and I was awoken again. "Wei!" "Wei wei wei" "Oh piss off" I grumpily barked down the phone. And now everywhere we go in China I hear "Wei." Mobile phones are everywhere and you can't go more than a few metres without hearing someone shrieking "wei." For me now, "wei!" (Pronounced like 'Whey') is the sound of China? If I exclude the karaoke!

Banna for short

Carp in pond at Tropical Plant InstituteThe bus from Mengla to Jinghong was what you would describe as a local bus, which meant it stopped every five to ten minutes, and had all forms of life on it. Most annoying was the cat in the bag that meowed for the duration of the trip. I said, "I'm dying to let the cat out of the bag," to the man sitting across the aisle from me but he didn't get the pun. Probably because he didn't speak English and it wasn't very funny either.

At Jinghong we checked into a place that had bamboo bungalows on stilts. It was grotty and the first bungalow we went into had rat droppings on the bed. But after a long bus journey the last thing we wanted to do was traipse around town looking for somewhere better, and once installed, inertia prevented us from checking out. Despite the advertisements of a solar powered hot shower the water was cold. The only good thing about it was the Internet cafe next door and the news that a trip was leaving from Zhongdian to Lhasa in a couple of weeks.

Jinghong is the capital of Xishuangbanna. And what a great name for a region that is. It just rolls of the tongue doesn't it. Xishuangbanna. That's why it is usually just called Banna. Banna is the Chinese transition from South East Asia into China proper. It is still reasonably tropical in its climate; people seem more friendly and relaxed with one third being Dai. The Dai are Buddhist and so Banna is dotted with Buddhist temples (most of which have been rebuilt after their desecration and destruction during the cultural revolution). The architecture continues the theme from Thailand and Laos; wooden houses on stilts, living quarters above the animals below.

Zhou's rubber treeLindsey at the Jinghong Tropical Plant Institute

The Lonely Planet remarks that the tropical plant research institute is 'one of Jinghong's better attractions.' We trust their judgement and check it out. It is so-so with lots of plants and flowers and is a more spread out version of Kew Gardens only the glass hot houses are not required here. We are sweltering in the tropical heat. The leaflet that we were given informs us that 'Many Communist Party and national leaders have inspected the garden." Well that made me feel so much better, treading in the footsteps of such distinguished persons. No more so than Zhou Enlai, to whom a memorial has been constructed (Enlai is one of the more favourable figures in modern Chinese history). He was clearly enthralled by his visit in 1961 because the pamphlet tells us "stroking a rubber tree he said feelingly and proudly: "This is our own rubber tree." Bet he's in the afterlife delighted that he is remembered for his encounter with a rubber tree!

Ganbei in Ganlamba

We took a small minibus to Ganlamba from Jinghong bus station. We sat in three other minibuses, getting on board after the nod of the head following the question "Ganlamba?" only to find when comfortably seated that we were on the wrong bus. The Ganlamba bus was all but full. We squeezed in to the seats at the back. A couple of old ladies grinned at us as we scrambled past them.

GanlambaThe back of the bus is always the worst place to sit. We were catapulted up and down over every pothole and bump in the road. The plan was to arrive in Ganlamba, hire a couple of bicycles and then cycle around the neighbouring villages. The plan never came to fruition. On what appeared to be the main street in Ganlamba most of the passengers piled out of the minibus. Only the two grinning ladies and a man stayed on. As we climbed out of the minibus one of the women patted her hand up and down, an expression I took to mean 'stay on the bus'. Lindsey wasn't so sure, but sometimes you've got to go with the flow and see where circumstances will take you. So we got back on board and sat closer to the grinning ladies. The driver drove out of the main town and soon entered a 'minority park'. The Chinese love putting arches up over entrances, and here was no exception. We sped past the ticket office and drove into a gated enclosure full of small Dai hamlets. Clearly the Chinese authorities know a tourist opportunity when they see one. For them tourism has to be organised and so they have created roads and put up signs making the traditional Dai villages accessible to their New Tourist Army. Photo opportunities of locals dressed up in Dai traditional costume abound, 'visit a traditional Dai house' and there are gift shops all over. Luckily we avoided all this, being driven on a private excursion to a hamlet on the far side of the park. Still not sure what was going to happen we got off the bus and the man, the husband of one of the women walked with us to a nearby Buddhist temple that was straight out of Laos. The women put the finishing touches to the 'things' they were carrying.

The 'things' were a couple of tripods made from straightened coat hangers stuck into plant pots. Clipped onto the tripods were a plethora of small objects such as you may get in a Christmas cracker. Nail clippers, combs, sweets, thin orange candles, safety pins, and lots of paper made the tripod look more bulky. Small denomination notes were stuck on, with a larger one reserved for the top. The picture of Mao on the note became the 'angel' on top of the tree. And in the pots were soap, socks, silk scarves, fruit and larger objects that couldn't be clipped on to the tripod. With everything securely clipped and the 'things' being approved by both the women they picked them up, called the husband and us back and we walked down a dusty lane between large wooden houses on stilts.

Something was going on, everyone seemed to be in their best party frocks. We arrived at the largest house and were ushered into the compound. We removed our sandals and left them near the wooden steps, by the dozens of others that had been removed suggesting it was busy upstairs.

The upstairs consisted of two large rooms. These must be the living quarters. Everything else including cooking etc. was performed downstairs in the courtyard. In the corner of the room on the right was an elderly man sitting cross-legged on a carpet. More of these tripod things and a bundle of cash on the carpet surrounded him. In front of him people knelt down, gave their offering and in return he gave them a long mumbling blessing. The remainder of the room was filled with people sitting round circular tables eating and drinking. The left hand room was not quite as full and had a couple of free tables.

With the previous blessing complete, one of the ladies led us to the old man and we knelt down and he mumbled at us. This seemed to last for ever. I'm not the best at kneeling and I winced at the pain growing in my shins. I was then invited to give a donation, I dropped the first note I retrieved from my pocket onto the carpet. The old man looked disapprovingly at me. It was only five yuan. Less than fifty pence. It nestled amongst twenties, fifties and hundreds.

Blessing over we walked to the left hand room where we were invited to sit down. "What's going on" said Lindsey under her breath. Joining us around the table were the couple who had invited us. Their names were (or should I say, sounded like) E-pen and Loa Tay. The other lady and her husband sat to the right of me. A well dressed man who was from the city and visiting relatives for this festival sat opposite me and a middle aged man whose drunken bloodshot eyes were the same colour as his cheeks sat to the right. Soon the table began to fill with plates and bowls of food. "What is it?" said Lindsey through gritted teeth. "No idea" I said under my breath whilst smiling. E-pen offered me a dish to take from. It was a bowl of red jelly with green herbs floating in it. It would be rude to refuse so I plunged my chopsticks in and scooped up a healthy mouthful. I tried not to wince as it slipped down my gullet. E-pen smiled. Using hands and facial expressions I asked for confirmation of what I thought it was but hoped it was not. I motioned to slit my throat then went oink. Yes they all nodded and laughed. Congealed pigs blood.

Some dishes were pleasant. Some were foul. Full credit to Lindsey who normally makes the fussy panda bears look like vultures. She tried a bit of everything (except the blood), much to the delight of our hosts.

A milk bottle and a large Sprite bottle with a clear liquid were produced. The lids were removed and the fumes could be smelt immediately. I don't know what sort of liquor it was, probably rice wine, but it had the kick of something that would make you go blind.

Shot glasses were produced and topped up to the brim. The drinking commenced. The red-eyed drunk was knocking them back, I downed a glass and winced and shuddered. It was then that I remembered the word for cheers "Ganbei" and with a fresh glass I proposed a toast, "Ganbei!" The drunk downed the glass in glee. I could manage only a half. I then saw that I had made a cultural faux pas. Loa Tay babbled at me. It was clear that Ganbei means more than 'cheers'. It means 'down in one.' So that was why Redeye was so happy. Loa Tay did not want this festival lunch becoming a major piss-up and I was soon put in my place. E-Pen sensing his wife's annoyance encouraged me to take little sips, one at a time. This I had no problem with. My head was beginning to feel light and fluffy. The women were encouraged to drink as well, but it was more an act for them and spilling nine tenths of the glass before the liquid reached the lips was quite acceptable. Lindsey took note of this and poured the contents of her glass 'accidentally' onto the floor much to the laughter of the women.

Had this been a western meal we would have found ourselves in the uncomfortable position at the end of the meal of having everyone around the table chatting in a foreign language whilst we would sit embarrassingly waiting for the meal to come to an end. In China you never have this discomfort at the end of a meal. No coffee and chit chat. As soon as the food is finished everyone just gets up and leaves. Eating is about the food. Once that's done there's none of this sitting around nonsense.

On our way out we passed the old man giving blessings and I motioned to Loa Tay that I'd like to give a larger donation. Only seemed fair after all the food we'd just consumed. I had wanted to just slip another note onto the carpet but Loa Tay had other ideas. So once again I found myself kneeling in pain as the old man babbled his blessing.

As we walked out from the living quarters, down the stairs we were handed small bags containing gifts of sticky rice and nuts and sweetmeat wrapped in banana leaves. We said our goodbyes and left pondering what that was all about.

Loa tay and E-pen spoke no English. No one back in Jinghong seemed to be able to give us a decent explanation as to what we had experienced in a small hamlet outside Ganlanmba, other than it was a Buddhist festival. Well that explains it then. So we remain clueless as to what it was all about, but thankful to our hosts for sharing their culture, food and happiness with us that afternoon.


We took the night bus from Jinghong to Kunming. It was a luxury bus but this did not make sleeping any easier. Leaving Jinghong we passed smoke stacks and plooms of yellow smoke. You can see why nine out of ten of the world's most polluted cities are in China (thank you Lonely Planet for that fact!) At the first break for food I found the only passenger on the bus that spoke English and started talking to him. His name was Joe. Well that was his English name. His real name was Xu Hui but like most Chinese who speak English, he quickly seized upon a Western name. He looked no older than twenty-five but was in fact thirty-eight. The Chinese can hold their looks very well until one day it all goes pear shaped and their faces sink and wrinkle almost overnight. He had one young son; when we talked about the one child policy he had no problems with it and wanted no more. Additional babies would cost him dearly, with a large fine, additional tax burden and hiked school fees. "China is changing," I said to him. "How do you know? Have you been here before?" he defensively replied. But I only have to point to the old building across the street being torn down and the new blue glass and white tile China Mobile building to make my point. I steered our conversation towards politics. I asked him about the party leadership and would Zghang Zemin hang on or would he go. "How do you know about that?" said Joe. "That's top secret". Top secret for the people in China; item number five in the BBC world service news headlines.

I asked Joe about the Cultural Revolution. Did he remember it? Yes, a little, but he was very young at the time. His sister was a red guard though; she liked the red armband but disliked the violence. "Who was responsible for it?" I asked him. "Oh, Mao, for sure". Joe was critical about Mao. The official line is that Mao was 70% good and 30% bad and most people I talked to about him agreed with this. "Some people view Mao in a positive light, some in a negative light" cryptically answering my question about what history about Mao does his son learn at school, "I view Mao in a negative light". I later spoke to someone from Malaysia who had studied Chinese political history at school. She had used Chinese texts written in English and Mandarin. They gave different accounts.

Joe talked about the hypocrisy of Mao, "Mao had five wives, he liked women. Yet he would not let people sleep together out of marriage. They could be thrown in jail for sleeping with a woman they were not married to. Now it is different. We can sleep with whom we want to. If we are not happy we get divorced and so". Strange sentiments for a 38 year old married man. "So times are better now," I said. "Oh yes. People have more. In east coastal region they have money. They can stay in five star hotels and play golf. But most people are still very poor." Funny how his qualifications of wealth were the ability to stay in decent hotels and hit a small ball with an iron stick. "The Mao time was not good" he told me, "everyone was the same but people were hungry. No one is hungry in China. Now we have too much food! If it weren't for our millions of people, now we would be as rich as your country!" And he probably has got a point. There is little left of communism in China. Marx wouldn't recognise it at as a utopian socialist state. The Chinese are making money, and, to quote an American NGO worker I met with many years experience of working in China, with no personal morality to hold them back China is more capitalist than most. And so what, the government stinks! So what it is repressive and denies human rights and freedom of speech. Who needs these things when you have cash in your back pocket? Look at western democracies where the percentage of the population who vote is ever decreasing. Look at the apathy towards politics amongst the young. Politics doesn't matter to them as long as they've got cash, a mobile phone and all the trappings of the western consumerist society. This is the road China is on.

Kunming revisited

The first thing we do in Kunming is visit Mr Chen, a representative of the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB)who arranges overland trips to Lhasa from Zhongdian. I don't like Mr Chen. He is a small, weedy man with thick round glasses and a pockmarked face. I didn't want to deal with him, particularly after he had failed to respond to emails I'd sent him. So I'd dealt with the TTB representative in Zhongdian, a young man called Oscar Yang and was annoyed when I found out that they both worked for the same organisation. I'd have to talk to Mr Chen. This didn't bother me at first, because Oscar had told me that a trip was leaving imminently and all we had to do was meet Mr. Chen and he'd sort everything out for us. Mr. Chen didn't. Chen had filled the seats on the trip that Oscar had promised us. It took me a while to realise this.

Mr. Chen speaks with an annoying staccato rhythm and over pronounces his words. "Yessssss, " he says, yet despite his repeating the words I misunderstood him. "There will be a trip going on the twenty thurth" he says, it takes a good five minutes for me to work out that he means the twenty forth, not the twenty first. "The thing to do is to go to Zhongdian and it will be sorted there. We will find people. We will advertise here and Zhongdian. You will go on the twenty thurth". The twenty forth. "You sure?" I ask him. I know there is a trip going on the 2nd October, but he tells me there is no need to wait that long. We will be leaving for Lhasa in a few days. Get to Zhongdian quick.

Kite flyer in KunmingWe spend a day in Kunming. A more relaxed day than our last visit when we left with a negative impression on the city. We aimlessly walked and found some gems in the place. Like the small paved square with a line of men standing with what looked like small chunky fishing rods with huge reels on them. They all adopted the same pose, slightly leaned back with the rod supported just above the navel. Cigarettes with more ash drooping at the end than white paper hanging from their lips and their gaze stuck fast to the sky. It was hard to tell what at first, the line from the rods vanished into the sky. Only with careful inspection was it possible to make out tiny dots, of the kites they were flying. Now for me, the enjoyment of kite flying is the adrenalin of being pulled and lifted by a power kite, trapping the wind above me. The Chinese way is clearly far more serene. Just let the wind gently take your kite and see how far it can go. And we are talking distances of a kilometer or more, I am sure. Hence the enormous reels on their rods.

We discovered clothing shops that sold 'technical' clothing made in China really cheaply. So we armed ourselves with Gore-Tex jackets and Wind stopper fleeces for the impending trip to Tibet. I considered having a massage in the hotel, as my limbs were stiff from the recent bus journeys but time didn't allow this. Good job too. We later met Stuart, a jovial English teacher who had opted for a massage in the hotel supposing it to be, as I did, an above board type of place. The masseur placed a tub of oil by the bed and said "700 yuan." That's a lot for oil thought Stuart so he said " too much." "OK" said the woman nonchantly, and moving her wrist up and down with a clenched fist she said "300 yuan". Shocked, Stuart got off the couch and walked out. "I only wanted a massage to relieve my aching limbs after walking up Ermi Shan" he told us, "not a bloody hand job!"

So I think the best advice in China is do not trust anyone who offers masseur services. The only masseurs you can trust are the old blind men you see sitting on the street corners with white lab coats on and a small stool in front of theirs. They'll be no hanky panky with them on the street corner. And besides, they are blind.

Moving to the tune of ChenRainbow over Lijang

We take the bus to Lijang. It takes all day and we arrive in the early evening. We return to the guesthouse we stayed in last time and are unceremoniously told we are not welcome. "Mayo Lawei," no foreigners. This is the same for every guest house we visit and we are beginning to get desperate. Some officious sod in the Public Security Office has forbidden foreigners from staying in any hotels in Lijang during the month of September. Things like that can happen in China. Finally we find somewhere that allows us to slip in through their back door, provided we eat in their restaurant, so if the police do come when we go out back we can say we are just using the toilet. I ring Mr. Chen, "yesssss" he says, "get to Zhongdian quickly and you will go on the tweenty thurth."

Early in the morning at Lijang bus station and we are waiting for a bus to Zhongdian. A German man rushes up to us and anxiously asks, "have you heard ze news?" He strikes a chord of panic in me. What news I am thinking. Global news- Bush has invaded Iraq? No, didn't hear that on the World Service this morning must be local. "Don't tell me all the roads out of here are blocked?" I said to him. "No, no, no" he replied, "ze results to ze German elections!" Good job I'd heard the World Briefing this morning.

The bus was little more than a minibus. Like every bus in China it instantly filled with smoke. And because it was cold as we gained altitude the windows remained closed. When Lindsey opened the window a grumpy Chinese man with fag merrily burning away would slam it shut Kill yourself, but don't take us with you. It is an interesting fact that of the 50 million people who globally die each year, 17 million die from cardiovascular disease. Surprisingly, 80% of these deaths are in low-middle income countries. China must take a large slice of this percentage, with so many smokers. and to ensure early mortality, they take every last ounce of pleasure out of their cigarettes, smoking right up to the butt, and then try to smoke the filter. As with other busses we had our obligatory cat in the bag miaowing all the way.

The road was dire with a thundering white water river torrenting down just inches from the side of the road. Lindsey sat by the window- bad move- and saw exactly how dangerous the road was. "I'm fed up with this overland thing" she said, "I want to start flying." The road was that bad.

As we climbed, we passed a dam. The Chinese like their dams. The wild white water was choked and an expanse of dirty brown water waited to flow through the dam. We left the dusty yellow plains that Lijang nestled in and climbed through pine forests on hilly slopes. The road was dreadful until we reached a plateau of scrub vegetation with wonderful patches of red foliage. There was a Tibetan feel to this landscape, with large mud brick constructed houses, and large drying racks. This area the authorities have deemed to be the real Shangri-La and have thus renamed the province. Even Zhongdian has officially been given the new name Shangri-La, and everyone seems delighted that this part of the world has been conclusively proven to be Shangri-La. It doesn't matter that Shangri-La is the setting for the novel 'Lost Horizon' written by James Hilton. You can't tell a resident of Zhondian that it is just fiction.

We arrived in Zhongdian, and walked through the bus station waiting room to find a taxi. The sign on the wall deserves to be included here as a fine example of 'Chinglish'


Dear friend. We warmly welcome you to travel here in beautiful Shangri-la and we hope you have a good time during your stay here. But whether you have realised or not, that when you get here many lawless persons always fix their shifty eyes on you. Their black hands always put into your pockets at all times. Many friends have been stolen by them especially here. So we will give a special reminder for yur safety. You must be on the alert particularly at the ticket office, get on off the bus or anywhere in the bus station. You also must be careful your articles money and bags etc. Thank you for your cooperation.

Division of Exit and Entry of Diqing PSB March 20th of 2001.

Misery in Shangri la

It is raining in Zhongdian when we arrive and it is cold and generally miserable. Not unlike an English winter day. It had rained in Lijang, but the beauty of Lijang made up for the constant drizzle and downpour.

The lonely planet notes that Zhongdiasn is "perhaps the supreme example of a Chinese construction zone.  By the time you read this, there should be all kinds of new stuff around". That was published two years ago; it still resembles a Chinese construction zone. The pavements on both sides of the road were up and trenches were being dug. Walking into the shops meant tramping thick brown mud on the once clean polished tile shop floors.Herbal doctor in Zhongdian

We took a taxi to the Tibet hotel which the Lonely Planet describes as "cheery... clean and friendly spot". Sorry chaps at LP, but you've got that one wrong. The Tibet hotel was a dive. The toilets were filthy and stank, and there was only hot water between the hours of 7-11. And that involved queuing for an eternity in the cold for a shower to become free. It was so cold and miserable; once you were in the shower cubicle you'd be loathe to leave it. The room was grubby with exposed wiring by the light switch. This gave me no confidence to plug in the electric blanket- I had visions of us frying on the bed. As in many Chinese hotels we had to pay a 'key' deposit. Only in the Tibet hotel we were given no key, and had to wait for a maid, who was often hard to find, to unlock our door and let us into the grimy room. With the rain dampening our spirits as well as our bodies, and with little else to do we wandered off to the TTB to confirm that we would be leaving in a couple of days as Mr Chen had promised. We found the office and asked for Oscar who we had dealt with over the Internet. A lackey in the office who spoke broken English told us that Oscar had gone to Kunming. I asked him about the trip on the 24th. He knew nothing about it. The advertisements that Mr. Chen had told us would be in all the travellers' haunts in Zhongdian were none existent. I was pissed off. The lackey then took a sheaf of paperwork from his cluttered desk and passed me a form. My name was on the top. It was details of the tour group from Zhongdian to Lhasa leaving on the 2nd October. We had only ever been booked on this date. Mr. Chen had lied to us. We had rushed to Zhongdian needlessly. Worse, we now had a week to kill before the 2nd. We were mightily unhappy. So we left Zhongdian the following morning. On the way out of the bus station I picked up an umbrella I thought was ours. It was not. I had inadvertently stolen it. So mine were the black hands the PSB had warned of.

No Rulli

A week in Lijang wasn't so bad. The annoying thing was we'd been there before, and that week could have been better spent elsewhere. I'd wanted to go to a place called Rulli, which is on the border with Burma. It is supposed to have a Wild West feel to it, quite unlike anywhere else in China. I'd hoped to be able to meet some Burmese people. I didn't want to visit Burma, I felt that would be supporting the odious regime there; such a sentiment is backed by the elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi who has been under house arrest pretty much since the nullified elections (Though is there some hypocrisy in this- we are quite happy to go to Tibet, occupied by the similarly odious Chinese government). I wanted to talk to the Burmese people about Burmese politics. Specifically about the military dictator Ne Win who helped ruin the country. The twentieth century had more than its fair share of crazy leaders and murderous dictators. Few can have been as nutty as Ne Win who had a devastating preoccupation with numerology. During his time in office, all events of any significance occurred on dates that were somehow related to the number nine- for example all the numbers added up were divisible by nine. Nine was his bete noir. Overnight he wiped out much of the country's savings by replacing the currency denominations of 100 and 50 with 90 and 45 respectively. The old notes ceased to be legal tender. For the majority of the Burmese who kept their savings under the mattress, in one crazy move, Ne Win wiped their value out.

But Rulli and Burma were now not feasible. We found a small family run guesthouse on the outskirts of the old city of Lijang and chilled out there. It rained every day.

Baby Talk

Chinese girlWe met a pleasant Englishman called Stuart who was a teacher and talked to him about the problems with teaching in the UK. We wandered the streets and had several meals with him. Whilst Stuart looked for some hippy trousers to buy- they were aplenty in Lijang, but none would fit round his ample beer belly, Lindsey spotted something in a small shop that sold items not for tourists but for locals. She had spotted one of the baby carrying backpacks that the local women use. Some explanation is required, before you get any wrong ideas here. On the outset of the year I was given an ultimatum. Travel or babies. Lindsey thought I'd never get round to the travel bit. But she was wrong. Babies are never far from her mind (I suppose it comes with working with them. IT is never far from mine. I jest you.) Or maybe it is just that broody maternal thing. I have pandered to this baby thing as we have travelled. It has usually meant buying "things for the baby." If we do have sprogs, I will feel sorry for them. They will be dressed up in peasant clothing from Russia, Mongolian herdsman's overcoat (3 years and up), Chinese waiters clobber, and will play with Russian dolls and Vietnamese dolls and Laotian wooden toys. Or that I presume is her idea. I foresee it all ending up in a jumble sale five years from now....

So there she was, parting with our hard earned cash on a Naxi baby carrier that looks good on the Naxi people. But Lindsey, I asked her. 'Will you really walk to the local shops with a baby tied to your back in that?!"

Back to Zhongdian

For the third time we endured the five-hour trip to Zhongdian in a smoke filled bus with the obligatory cat in the bag. As we entered the town the sun broke through the clouds and for the first time in almost a month we found ourselves basking under blue skies and a bright sun.

Walking through the old town in Zhongdian we discovered another world. There were no signs of Chinese modernisation. Not a bathroom tile or a pane of blue glass in sight. The buildings were whitewashed and Tibetan in their build. And the people were Tibetan also. We walked and walked and found ourselves on a barren stretch of land on the outskirts of the old town. It was the horse market, and local people were buying and selling horses, along with yaks and draught cattle. A man with an enormous fur hat sat cross-legged and I squatted down to find out his game. He tried to sell me some pills. I presumed he was the local medicine man. There was nothing wrong with me so I had no need for his tablets. His hat intrigued me. He gestured proudly that he had shot it's once fury owner and skinned it himself.

Old man in ZhongdianWalking back an old man beckoned us over. He was large and towered over me. He was a giant next to his fellow Tibetans. He led us into his old house that was of wood construction. He pointed to the walls with Chinese graffiti daubed on them, and to the faded posters. He kept on saying 'Mao Zedong'. I took out the phrase book. Mao- good? Yes he nodded. Lin Bao? Bad. Jaing Qing? (Mao's wife) -bad. And he pointed to her name on one of the posters. He grabbed Lindsey by the neck and pulled her close. "Photo" he said. I took one. On a table were letters to him from foreigners, but no clues as to who or what he was about. Only later did I begin to find out. It was his house, and it had been in the family for nine generations. Clearly his family was from the wealthy land owning class because the house was made of wood, the only wood construction in the old town of Zhongdian. During the Cultural Revolution it had been seized by the PLA who had daubed the slogans and graffiti "Long live Chairman Mao" on the walls. The old man had been sent away during the Cultural Revolution. My discussions with the aid of the phrasebook and hand gestures had suggested that he was pro-Mao. In the light of what had happened to him and his family, this now seemed implausible. Which demonstrated to me the shortcomings of such an approach for discussing such sensitive matters.

The next day we met Melanie and Trevor and Stella, and our driver Onedoi. And were waved off by Oscar Yang, the man who would prefix every sentence with "the problem is..." leaving us thinking everything was a bloody problem. No worries, now he had our cash, a fat wad of it and he waved us goodbye as we motored out of Zhongdian on the road to Tibet, destination Lhasa.