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Dicing With The Big Drop

CHINA | Sunday, 25 September 2005 | Views [672]

Well it just continues to be a mad dash around China.  After leaving the email the other day, i went to the 'opera' in Chengdu.  It turned out that it was less of a traditional opera and more of a Chinese variety performance, with lots of spinning of heads, removal of multitudes of facemasks and lots of other generally bizarre acts - it was a good evening, but not exactly what was expected.
 
The next day we went to the Panda Sanctuary (i've still been travelling with the couple who i met in Beijing) and this was very sweet.  The giant pandas (the black and white ones), thankfully, are kept in quite good conditions and are free to roam around - there are about 40 there in total and are completely adorable - even the hardest nosed people there were ahh-ing and ooh-ing in front of them.  Also there was a baby panda who was only born about 3 weeks ago and so miniscule it was unbelievable - so much smaller than baby humans.  The scientists there seem to actually care about the animals (which s nice to see in a country which isn't exactly famed for either its human or animal rights).  Also at the sanctuary there were a few red pandas - these weren't either as cute or adorable, but still nice to see all the same!
 
After the panda sanctuary, it was a time to board another train - this time to Kunming (in the South West of China).  This had to be the best train journey i think i've ever taken - despite being on another top-bunk hard sleeper (i'm getting used to the nine inch space between you and the ceiling of the train) and spending 18 hours on it, we started chatting to a group of chinese people who were all in their fifties.  My Mandarin phrasebook was perfect and before we knew it we were being fed with fruit, nuts, sweets - you name it.  When this started, other people on the carriage started to get a bit jealous and then came over with more food and drinks for us - as soon as we looked like we had had enough of one thing, another would be there waiting! We had brought our own food as well, but no-one would take anything from us.  We were singing together and it was a really fun journey - we even had to do 'The Birdie Song' dance (in the middle of the carriage, with people taking pictures and videoing us!).  It was all very surreal and just something that you can't help laughing about days later.
 
We arrived in Kunming, only to try and get out as soon as possible - it is the Yunnan province's main city and has lots of people (about 6 million), but little charm.  We booked immediately for an overnight sleeper bus to Lijiang and just wasted the day wandering around the skyscrapers and shops.  Now after the most enjoyable journey, came the weirdest.  The South America trip had led me to forget how bad the buses in Asia can be and i was picturing the full monty with reclining seats, a waitress on board and decent toilets - however, the 'deluxe sleeper' that we took is pretty much impossible to describe.  If you can imagine the American yellow school buses (or a normal single-decker) with all the seats taken out, scaffolding put in and beds so small that even the Chinese people couldn't fit in them you'd get near to knowing what it was like.  Ead, Neil and I were allocated the 'beds' on the back row (with three other people) - imagine 6 people even fitting on the back seats of the bus, let alone with rucksacks and trying to get to sleep.  This was the night when the three of us all got a bit too close for comfort and were sprawling all over each other - i was in fear of going through the window, so sleep was hard to come by!  The landscape was also very bizarre - as if we had entered Middle Earth, with lots of industrial furnaces burning for as long as the eye could see.  It was all a bit too hysterical and even more so when they started blasting out Bruce Lee films in the middle of the night!
 
We arrived at 6am in Lijiang - however, what really happened was that i woke up (after finally we all managed to get some sleep) to an empty bus in what looked like a derelict area. Panic ensued for a few seconds, before we realised that we had arrived and then that none of our bags had been taken (once again, i'm astonished by how safe a place China is).  A lot of people we'd met along the way had raved about how beautiful the town was, but it looked awful!  It was only after the taxi ride from the drunken Chinese guy that we arrived in the old town and it was like entering another world - the first thing we saw were a group of people doing Tai Chi in the sunrise air.  The old town of Lijiang is stunning - cobbled streets and full of Naxi heritage.  Another World Heritage site ticked off the map!  The streets dwindle through the old town and are connected by lots of bridges.  The place where i am staying is the oldest building in the town with a beautiful courtyard (and it is only cost about 90 pence a night!).  The weather here is bizarre - we are at about 1800 metres altitude and you can see the rain coming from behind the mountains with blue sky further behind - it never rains for long, but when it does there is so much havoc and the cobbles become particularly slippery.
 
After a couple of days in Lijiang, we decided to do the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek (so named as legend has it that a tiger leaped from one side of the gorge to the other across the Yangtze River - no mean feat!). It was a 2 day trek in which on the first day you climbed 900 metres in a few hours and quite tiring.  The views down into the gorge were stunning, but it was a bit hairy as you were inches from the edge of a 2000 metre cliff straight into the gorge and passed many falling rocks along the way.  It wasn't helped by the fact that it had rained and the rocks became slippery - however, the views more than made up for the risk....or so we thought.  On the evening, we stayed in a guesthouse on the trail that had the most beautiful view over the gorge and the mountains and it looked straight from a postcard.  On the second day, when descending we had a few near fatal accidents (as instead of being rocky, the terrain was more soil which had become wet), as a German girl, who we were doing the trek with (there were 5 of us), slipped and fell only to be held from the drop by a very loose tree.  We rushed to grab her legs and pull her back over the side and that started a series of events where all 5 of us lost our footing at different points (my scars from it are just grazings on my arms and legs).  When we had nearly finished, we met a group of elderly people walking up and advised them to be particularly careful and described what we had happened (you barely see anyone on the trail - maybe a total of 20 people in the two days).  We got to the bottom and were trying to organise a way out when we met a girl from the US Embassy who were with that family (the elderly group) who had returned to look for their son/brother who died last year after slipping on the surface - no-one has been able to find him.  This put a bit of a sense of reality on how close we had all come and made the heart beat faster as we walked a bit further.  However, in saying this, it was a stunning trek and well worth doing and maybe it was better that we didn't think of the risks at the time.
 
Got back last night and stumbled across the English Pub (which had proper toilets for the first time in a while - squatting may do wonders for your leg muscles, but you're never sure if you've got the right angle!) that was run by a guy from Castleford and his Chinese wife and we ended up in there until about 5am this morning on a true drinking session (that ended up costing us each about 8 pounds!).  If any of you ever make it over here, you'll see a few photos of me behind the bar (one particularly embarrassing one of me with very little clothing on!).
 
Tomorrow, i'm going for the flight option to Shanghai as i'm running out of time and already thinking that i've been here for a lot longer than i have - it's amazing how quickly you can adjust to the backpacking life again and forget the nuisances of life back home.  Ah well, better start saving for another trip.....
 
 
Matt
 
PS - Top 5 IPod Tunes of the last week:
Walkin 2 Hawaii - Tom McRae
Fake Tales of San Francisco - Arctic Monkeys
Hard Times Send Me - Kaiser Chiefs
C'Mon Chameleon - The Research
Please Stand Up - British Sea Power

Tags: I should have known better!

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