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China

CHINA | Sunday, 19 April 2009 | Views [2001]

Pine trees and white rocks - what a nice combination!

Pine trees and white rocks - what a nice combination!

Our last steps in Vietnam take us from the bus to Vietnamese custom building, then in rain we need to walk 200m bridge across the river which divides two countries. Chinese officials look very strict and while Iva is checked rather quickly, my passport seems to be rising many eyebrows; I am asked to sit down and wait for "few more computer checks". I have no idea what's wrong, however ten minutes later everything seems to be ok and I am also allowed to enter China. Oh, what a bummer! We've just missed our pre-paid bus (allegedly 9 hours of comfy ride) for Kunming because of these extra checks, but station attendant finds a quick replacement - next bus for Kunming leaves in 5 minutes. Sounds good? Hm, bit sus as this vehicle reminds chicken buses we used in SA and we squeeze in last few empty seats. Outside it's still raining, windows do not seal and floor is wet, many people lit up cigarettes and road is very bumpy. Iva's first toilet break is a shocker - no doors, no walls, only five holes in concrete sharing with locals, no privacy. Two more stops later afternoon are not any better and we start to think that China might be a challenge, not to mention complete lack of english so far. Views from window are very different to what we had seen before - roads are busy with heavy trucks (not a single motorcycle in sight), landscape is dotted with heavy industry and lined up with a web of high voltage electric lines. Late afternoon we are getting hungry, food offered in local shops does not look anyhow appealing and our diet relies solely on dried stuff in our bags. Finally after twelve hours we arrive to Kunming at 10pm, tired and with cravings for a nice chinese meal. Luckily we spot a reasonably looking hotel not to far from the bus station and by 11pm we are on street again searching for a good stir-fry. Not be able to find what we want we settle for a soup with rice noodles and bits of meat look alike substance. Considering our desperate position we really had no other choice and ate it all despite excessive chili content. Our first day in China is over and it is time to go to bed - we also need to put our wrist watch forward by one hour.

Kunming is pleasantly modern and clean capitol of Yunnan province. We wake up into cloudy morning but thanks god it is not raining. Spotting a fast food restaurant with mouth watering pictures of breakfast menu we order omelete and bread sticks. Another disaster! Flour based omelete is totally soaked up with grease and bread sticks have strong odour of ammonia. We pay (well, after all we have ordered the stuff) and walk out hungry. Few biscuits and coffee back at the hotel will keep our energy level up for few more hours. Later we find few bakeries and reasonable restaurants near lake where we spend the most of the time over next couple of days - getting around town is easy with dense and efficient public bus network. Strolling around the lake or walking through shopping boulevards mainly fills our days and we are happy to move further north in Yunnan. Buses for Dali leave every half an hour and bus station is only few hundred meters from our hotel. Easy! Just point to chinese characters in Lonely Planet depicting Da Li, pay tickets and hop on the first available bus for a five hours trip.

Dali elevates our spirit to high levels - cobblestone streets and beautiful old buildings combine with relaxed happy atmosphere to make this place truly unique. This authentic historical town surrounded by high stone walls has beautiful position - from one side you can take a hike to mountains peaking at 4000m, from the other a short walk to lake which spans over 40km. As usual our first day we spend strolling around, having coffee and basically absorb vibes created by large tourist crowd, by far the mostly Chinese. This weekend Dali will host spring festival (not easter though, chinese do not know of follow christian traditions) and many market stalls pop up everywhere. We would like to hike those hills and Thursday is the day - morning looks sunny with bright blue skies. After breaky we walk through markets trying to find the entry to national park and with help of hand sings we finally there. For 60 juan (12 AUD) we get in, for another 60 we take one way cable car to the hiking trail up in mountains. What a quiet and peaceful place compared to town below! With not many tourist around we truly enjoy few hours of mostly flat or downhill trek. Strangely enough the trail is fully concreted or paved whole way so city sleekers can "hike" here as well. By late afternoon all market stalls are opened and on our way back to town we are stunned by weird stuff on display - dry snakes and frogs, scorpions, herbs, animal parts and all sorts of black magic items. Hmm, no thanks! Friday is rainy, a perfect day for internet & photos sorting and we can use computer in our hostel free of charge (Four Seasons Hostel). I noticed unusual files with .exe extension appearing on camera memory sticks and flash drives, it looks like we picked up a virus. Not happy! All computers have operating systems installed with Chinese characters and nobody here is computer literate or speaks any english. Very frustrating, maybe we can fix that tomorrow in Lijiang where we are going next.

If Dali was "wow" then historical part of Lijiang is double "wow". First moments after we step off the bus we are lost and cannot find our way - Lonely Planet map is useless but people are very helpful and there is no shortage of assistance to us. Noticing how desperate we look, one local man leads us through maze of narrow streets to accommodation we pointed. The hostel is full, we need to find an alternative and soon we find one. From this moment we can start enjoying this magic and very picturesque village spiced with Tibetian essence. But stop! First we need to clean that nasty (Trojan?) virus. Here computers are also installed in chinese and not many have any descent virus scanners. At the end of the day we decide to burn existing pictures on two DVD's and format all cards - local Kodak shop cleaned the virus beforehand. Now we can relax! Time for dinner and after stressful day we deserve something above average - smart looking restaurant with one man band looks promising. Iva ordered fried rice with chicken, I picked one of more expensive meals - Sichuan style chicken with chillies. My impatient taste buds make me to frequently peek towards kitchen, and here it comes! Meals are served and I can not believe my eyes! Chopped chicken bones with handful of dried red chillies. Where is the meat? I like spicy and hot food but my mouth is burning and I am definitely not going to crunch those bones with my teeth! I complained to waiter, then chef came surprised with my reaction and at the end we walk out without paying for this particular dish. Iva's rice was very basic but at least edible, I lost all appetite for any more chinese cuisine tonight. Our time in Lijiang is almost entirely spent on browsing through endless web of streets, small craft shops and taking many pictures. Dried Yaka meat is local specialty, with its rich meaty taste we can eat only few pieces. Restaurant Praga and Lamus-House Of Tibet soon became our favorite cafes serving good chinese and western food. We explore nice views from surrounding peaks - walking up and down fills up one day, but of course the real gem in Yunnan province is Tiger Leaping Gorge, some two hours by bus north from Lijiang. After few lazy days in town we miss hiking and this is THE place exactly for that. We start from Jane's guest house about 3pm on Tuesday 14 April, leaving our large bags with Jane - for next few days we'll need only a bare minimum. If today's weather is any indication it should be nice hike - snow covered peaks contrast with deep blue sky and there is no sign of clouds. After 6km and two hours of easy walk we arrive to Naxi family GH where we are going to stay overnight. Views of many 5000m peaks from our bedroom's window are just stunning! Chat with other hikers before dinner and get good sleep before we attempt the hardest part tomorrow morning - 28 bends winding steeply up and we are looking forward to this challenge. Exhausted when finished but definitely awarded with even more stunning views while we continue to hike on leveled part of the gorge ridge. Last few km's seem to be even more difficult then 28 bends as we need to descend to Tina's GH through fairly rough path. Today's 15km hike was definitely not boring (waterfalls, goats hopping on seemingly vertical walls, amazing rock walls going up and down, and Yangzi river thundering down below) but apparently the best part Middle Gorge is coming tomorrow, as we are told by other hikers over couple of beers in Tina's GH. Hike through Middle Gorge is not very long, total of approx 8 km is usually done in 3-4 hours, but the elevation difference is the killer. Steep descent to the bottom of canyon is a definite adrenalin blast and we both struggle with both physical and mental reserves in our bodies. Breathing is heavy and fast from excitement when we look almost vertically down to raging river. Slipping here would be very unpleasant indeed, if not fatal in some places. Finally we make it to the bottom, few more big boulders still in way between us and Tiger Leaping Stone - an enormous piece of rock in middle of river where we take some breathtaking pictures. Ceremonial wash of our faces with water from Yangzi river completes our mission and it is time to ascend back to where we started hours ago. It is very hot and we have a long way up, water we drink seems to evaporate before it can cool our bodies and we stop frequently to catch breath. Oh no, do not look down - keep your eyes up! A 20m vertical ladder adds even more spice, by 2pm we are out of canyon and certainly we deserve a beer! At 4pm we catch bus back to Lijiang for one more night, then on Sunday, 19 April we go by sleeper bus to Kunming, directly to the airport heading for Shanghai.

Basically we have only one reason to be in Shanghai - get Russian visa. Presenting emailed invitation letters (colour print) and our passports to an officer at Russian embassy seems to be going without major hick-ups and after paying 1300 yuans we are asked to return next Wednesday for visas. Hm, but today is Wednesday so what can we do whole week in Shanghai? Hang on, somebody at Tina's GH mentioned Huang Shan south-west of Shanghai, so why not to spend a week around there? Sleeping train is comfortable and clean, at 6am we arrive to Tunxi where we spend a day or two, with one day visiting nearby historical village Hong Cun. Learning about daily Huang Shan national park entry fee 200 yuans p.p. and very expensive overnight accommodation at mountains (1300 yuans per night!), we decide for one day hike only. Early start at 6am will guarantee plenty of time and we should have no problem to complete east and west trails by 6pm in order to catch a last bus back to Tang Kou. First glimpse of Huang Shan range peaks leaves little doubt as to why this area has been proclaimed as the most beautiful mountains in China. Enormous crowd of Chinese tourist is the only nuisance, sometimes we queue minutes to scramble for a lookout, but as we progressively move to western trails the crowd significantly thins out and the nature remains just for few keen. Soon we realize why - easy eastern trails get more steep and difficult here, the most of suit-dressed Chinese tourists are not prepared to hike through Grand Canyon, negotiating 500m drop and many thousands of steps in both ways, down and up. Scenery of west range is simply amazingly spectacular, this is definitely one of top highlights of our world trip! Light gray vertical rock walls, in places 300-400m in height are made accessible by means of suspended concrete paths and bridges - our senses are tested when walking on a 1m wide space with hundreds of meters below. It is quite unbelievable piece of construction and one can only wonder how it was built. The hike through canyon was in fact more challenging then we thought and we just make it to the top cable car station minutes before its closing time. Twelve hours of strenuous hike was more then enough and we gladly take cable ride down to valley instead of walking further 1500 steps downhill. Tonight we will sleep like babies, tomorrow back to Tunxi where we catch sleeper train back to Shanghai. What a wonderful week we had!

Visas are ready as promised (though the pick up time is strictly 14:00 - 14:30! Not the friendliest embassy by any means) and immediately we board the fastest train in China "Maglev" reaching 430km/hour speed on the way from Shanghai city to Pudong airport, an 8 minute trip which took over an hour by bus when we arrived to Shanghai one week ago. We need to catch 17:40 flight to Xian. Why Xian? Terracotta warriors buried under ground for over a thousand years and discovered in 70's, placed this town onto world's travel destinations. As we do not have sense of days in a week, we pick the worst possible day to visit the site - 1st May is the biggest Chinese public holiday with thousands of locals having today the same idea - visit Terracotta Warriors. Almost an hour of queuing for bus, people just everywhere and it is almost annoying but at the end of the day we enjoyed every minute. Our Chinese visa expires in five days and we still want to see Great Wall, it is time to hop on another sleeper train this one to Beijing - we just love overnight trains.

Beijing is clean and tidy, many improvements from Olympic games are still visible. Staying in City Central Hostel was good choice due to its excellent proximity to public transport, metro and train stations are nearby. Normally an easy task to buy train tickets soon becomes our nightmare as no tickets (domestic or international) to Mongolian border or Ulanbatar are available before our visas expire on 5 May. How do we get out of China in time? It is still many hundreds of kilometers to the border and we are left with only one option - sleeper bus to Erlian (last town in China) and then we'll see. We hear about hefty fines for overstaying in China, in the worst case we cross border on foot and then we'll find a hostel on the Mongolian side. With clear instructions from hostel staff in our hands we manage to get to the Muxiyuan bus station only to find out that tickets can not be issued even one day before departure, instead we need to buy them the morning of the day we want to travel. F...F...F...!!! We have wasted another half day, some things here are very illogical. Ok, calm down, we have one more day reserved for The Great Wall. We select the least visited segment Simatai, three hours bus ride from Beijing but definitely good choice - only few tourists share this unusual but admirable construction with us. Few hours of walking up and down is enough, we return to Beijing by 6pm pleasantly tired and hungry. Any nice Chinese food tonight? Why not the famous Peking Duck? Tasty but little bit too fatty.

4th May morning we go back to the bus station for tickets leaving our backpacks at the hostel so we can walk around town lightly. By 5pm we leave Beijing on bus which is not the cleanest and best smelling. Hmm, it is also very warm evening and it might be a challenging travel. Twelve hours later we are dumped into very cold morning in sleepy Erlian, no shops opened, no people around, nowhere to worm up and the border apparently closed till 8am. Brrr... we keep warm by walking and incidentally we find the train station, however cannot get any decent answer from staff as to what time any train would leave for Mongolia. Well, that should not be surprising, past thirty days we struggled to communicate in many ways - sometimes we felt that locals expect us to speak Chinese. Two hours later we make decision - let's cross the border on foot and be done with this drama! Big mistake! Uniformed border officer tries to explain something (in Chinese, of course) and from his body language we understand that he is not letting us walk through the gate. Standing there for half an hour we are confused and not sure what is wrong. Finally we take a taxi back to the train station from where we are navigated to some obscure street shop for Mongolian train tickets. Very bizare day indeed! We leave China on 5 May at 4pm with no hustles about passport formalities.

Our picture of China is marked with major observations - enormous industrial progress gives Chinese people high sense of pride and national identity but the same aspect seems to make them self-centric. We could not resist our feelings that China does not need to interact with the rest of world, they are self sufficient in every way. Very large tourism industry seems to be strongly promoted by local advertising but only for Chinese tourist - any needs of foreigners are almost completely neglected. People on street were helpfull when asked for direction, children were very shy when photographed, Chinese have the fastest train in the world (?) but toilets are the worst we have seen. Food did not come to expectations as to what we are used to, national heritage is amazing and admirable. China is country of extremes and we are glad to have chance knowing that.

 

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