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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Giant Pandas, Big Buddhas and Holy Hills in Sichuan

CHINA | Saturday, 30 July 2011 | Views [718]

China is ..........

..........ENORMOUS!  Where else in the world can you travel all day and still only cover a couple of millimetres on the map?  To then reach a city of over 5 million people that no one’s ever heard of, let alone it register a pinpoint dot on an atlas!!  We’d gazed at China on our map over the years but simply didn’t know where to start so always pushed it back to the bottom of the list.  Once again a browse on Air Asia’s website gave us the inspiration / impetus we needed – cheap flights to Chengdu.  We planned to pop in on the pandas then hop over to Tibet which is one place that has been high on our list for many years.

So Plan A began to take shape with the bulk of the trip being within the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) where we would need a guide and permit on top of our visa for China.  We finally narrowed our choice of treks and which travel agent to use when our plans had to be scrapped.  The Chinese government decided that they didn’t want any foreigners in the TAR as the 60th anniversary celebrations of the ‘peaceful liberation of Tibet’ were taking place.  Hmmm.  So then we had to decide; do we ditch the flights and go somewhere else or take the plunge and have a peek at China?  It seemed daft to lose the money from the flights so we formed Plan B where we’d spend the month travelling around Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.  This plan was almost derailed in its infancy too as we had to go to the visa agency several times and jump through hoops to get our visas.  Considering they would only give us a month to get a taste of this vast country we seriously pondered whether or not it was worth it.  Armed with cheap flights, visas and a breeze block sized Lonely Planet we set off!

Chengdu

Immigration at Chengdu airport was surprisingly efficient, slick and the staff even knew how to smile.  As promised someone from Lazybones Guesthouse was waiting for us and although it was late we managed to check in and order some food just before the kitchen shut.  Backpacker places aren’t our accommodation of choice these days but at times they’re the best option; plus they offer a range of rooms not just dorms.  Many of them are in great locations and the tours and information services provided are often the best around.  For us; it was important to have our first experience of China in a place where the staff could speak English.  Our private double, en-suite room was good value; it’s generally the rest of the clientele that we find difficult to tolerate.  For some reason dormers in backpackers gaffs tend to be very loud and many of them are too young / stupid to be allowed to travel without a responsible adult!  The staff in Lazybones were very good and incredibly patient.  We were waiting to book a trip to see the pandas and had to wait ages while the people in front of us asked question after question.  If I’d been behind the counter I’d have politely pointed to the shelves full of second hand travel guides for sale.  It seems that travelling with a Lonely Planet is so yesterday – a laptop is the only travel accessory you need.  However, these particular travellers obviously don’t know how to use them to enhance their independence.  We lost patience on hearing the question; “How many people will there be at the bus station?”

We decided to book our trip later and ventured out to wander around Chengdu armed with 2 words of Mandarin and a phrase book.  We walked towards The People’s Park via Tianfu Square and had a look at the huge statue of Chairman Mao on the way past.  The People’s Park is a lovely and much needed green area in the city.  We had the obligatory stint in a tea house but declined the on-the-spot ear cleaning service!  Steve had bamboo leaf tea and seemed surprised to see bits of jungle bobbing up and down his glass.  I hit the jackpot on ordering lemon tea – lemon with hot water and not a tea leaf in sight.  I love hot lemon and actually dislike tea – not very British of me I know!  We enjoyed sitting by the lotus pond watching the world go by.  The next port of call was Wenshu Temple in the new ‘old’ part of town.  Yes, you read that correctly – the Chinese have a passion for razing and recreating old places instead of restoring what they’ve got.  By the end of our trip I came to the conclusion that China hasn’t got the ancient history it likes to bang on about.  I reckon the truth is that they are the best copiers in the world.  We all know about the copy luxury products, DVDs etc and everywhere we went they would have McDonalds and Starbucks style places but they’d be Chinese copies.  

Anyway this temple is supposed to be from the Tang-dynasty (whenever that was) but you’d not know to look at it!  To be fair it was gorgeous with a very calming atmosphere and was so empty we could wander around at leisure. This temple complex turned out to be one of the best value activities available in China at only Y5 about 10-bob.  We then looked round the rebuilt old town and although it was a bit plastic it was okay.  With being in a tourist area we looked around for a place with an English menu but failed.  It didn’t take us long into our trip to realise that touristy meant Han Chinese travellers not foreigners.  In fact proportionally foreigners spend so little that we’re insignificant and generally not catered for.  Never mind, we had the phrasebook so any interesting looking food stall would do.  We rummaged in our bag only to discover we’d conveniently left the handy little book back at the guesthouse so resorted to good old pointing and gestures.  Throughout our travels our grasp of Mandarin only improved by one word but we found people very helpful.  Often students with a smattering of English would approach us and offer their help.  That, pointing to Chinese script in our books along with gesticulation and we got around a treat.

We did eventually get to the front desk in the hostel to book our panda trip so we were up bright and early the next morning.  Going to look at the pandas is THE thing to do in Chengdu and we found it just as cheap and infinitely more convenient to book the tour through the hostel.  Mini vans are used so the group size doesn’t get too ridiculous.  The Panda Research Base is located about 10km from the city but we were still in the thick of the pollution.  The park’s area is much larger than we’d anticipated and the grounds are beautifully kept.  There’s lush vegetation everywhere with wide, well maintained paths.

The pandas’ enclosures are huge and the authorities have restrained from using high fences or caging.  They are as natural as possible and there are indoor enclosures for when the pandas get too hot.  These latter enclosures are concrete and spartan but at least the air conditioning makes the pandas more comfortable.  In the wild pandas would be living in mountains at over 2000m so Chengdu’s midday heat is too much for them.  I felt a small door could have been left open for the pandas to decide whether or not they wanted to be indoors but other than that I couldn’t pick fault.  The staff appear to be doing a great job but of course it’s a shame we need these places.  The research centre is successfully breeding pandas but as yet there’s no talk of rehabilitation – let’s hope that’s their next step.

There were 3 young pandas tucking into bamboo in the first pen and we got a close-up view of them.  They really are lovely and it was great watching them roll onto their backs while pulling the bamboo stem down to munch on.  It was interesting to note that they carefully and systematically strip the leaves off, form a perfect bunch and then tuck in.  As we continued on the guided tour it was lovely to hear birds chirping away – the first of the trip.  It’s good to know that the park is a haven for local feathered friends and well as big furry bears.  The next pen was a real treat – 5 red pandas pottering around.  They are stunningly beautiful and as delightful to watch as I’d hoped.  How can you not love their impressively long, bushy, stripy tails and that cute face?  Again we got to see them up close but we were whisked away from this enclosure far too promptly for our liking.  The next highlight was another large panda enclosure with big mature adults and frisky juveniles to watch and admire.  Obviously, everyone loves to see the pandas and we agree that they are wonderful creatures and we should protect their remaining habitat and resurrect wild populations.  However, the red pandas were the overall highlight for us.

Back at the guesthouse it was a bit of a rush getting changed, finishing the packing and checking out but again the staff were efficient and amenable.  We jumped in a taxi and hopped out at the bus station.  Although it was busy the queues moved quickly and by 1pm we were sat on an Emei bound bus.  The bulk of the journey was on the highway but we got glimpses of fields and trees through the pollution layer!  On getting down in Emei town we were pounced upon by a taxi lady and we allowed ourselves to be talked into her vehicle.  We think we were slightly overcharged but certainly nothing outrageous.  Our final destination for the day was Baoguo which is the town at the foot of Emei Shan (Mount Emei) and you guessed it we fully intended to get to the top.

Baoguo

We checked in Emeishan Hostel C which was new and therefore spotlessly clean.  It was excellent value at Y138 a night B&B and although the staff had limited English they seemed delighted that we’d chosen to stay there instead of the usual backpacker place.  Foreigners tend to flock to Teddy Bear but we couldn’t bring ourselves to stay in a place named after a child’s toy!  We ended up popping in there for breakfast after our walk and were very glad we’d not stayed there.  More loud backpackers and the staff were far from on the ball.

Emie Shan (3077m)

Most people cheat their way up the mountain with a combination of bus and cable car but we were going to use shanks pony – of course.  To be honest we did have to get a bus to the beginning of the trail as we were hoping to get up and down in 2 not 3 days.  We started at Wuxiangang at around 600m (where we had to buy the expensive Y150 each entrance ticket) then 40mins later were at Quingyin and the start of the trek proper.  From there it was a further 40mins to Wannian Temple and we popped in to have a look.  Well that was the intention but it was so busy we had a quick peak and carried on along the trail.  The path was very clear and easy to follow with sign posts along the way and we had a map too.  There were very few people walking so it was quiet most of the way.  We didn’t encounter many people until later in the day as it seems most choose to only walk down.

From Wannian to the Elephant Pool is about 14kms and we took 5 hours to cover this section – to be fair we weren’t as fit as we could have been and the going is quite steep in places.  Mind you we did reach this point of the walk 2 hours sooner than we anticipated.  By this point we’d reached 2070m but there was still another thousand meters before we’d be on the top.  Our efforts were rewarded on seeing a bit of wildlife – monkeys and cheeky ones at that.  It then took us 1 ½ hours to cover the 7.5kms to Leidong Ping from there it was only another 1.5kms to reach Jieyin Hall where we intended to spend the night.

We reached this point with lots of time to spare and very little to do.  We checked into a room in Jieyin Hall Monastery which was as gloomy as we’d expected and at Y90 not particularly cheap.  Obviously relaxing in our room wasn’t an option so we decided to carry on and get to the Golden Summit a further 6kms away and 500m ascent.  We must have timed it so that the day-trippers had had their fill at the top.  We were up there at the right time of day to see the atmospheric sea of clouds rather than views of the surrounding area.  On the peak there is an impressive golden temple and a lovely golden elephant and goddess statue.  As we were making our way back down we encountered many people going up – it seems people sleep out so they are there for sunrise.  We were very glad we’d made the decision to summit that afternoon as it turned out to be quite a peaceful experience. 

We were doubly glad the next morning when we were walking against the flow of bus load upon bus load of people making their way to the top.  Steve had woken up full of cold and with sore knees (he is getting on a bit now!) so we did the sensible thing and got the bus back down to Baoguo.  We’d have only had to retrace our steps and the walk up hadn’t been so exciting that we needed to see it all again.  The bus almost turned out to be the not sensible option as the driver slewed the van down the narrow twisting road at breakneck speed.  Rattled, but alive, we had breakfast in Baoguo’s Teddy Bear and believe me it was no picnic! (Very funny Emma).  Then we grabbed the bags we’d left in the guesthouse and jumped on a bus to Leshan.

Leshan

Once again, despite still not having mastered any extra words of Mandarin, catching a bus was easy.  Pointing to the place name in the Lonely Planet works a treat every time – thank you to whoever thought of that addition to travel guides.  Leshan is famed for its gigantic Buddha statue and turned out to be quite a pleasant town.  Travel is easy but the bus stations tend to be out of town and so getting into town can be a bit of a bother.  Luckily we spied a local service bus that we thought was heading into town and indeed it did.  What was even luckier (I promise you there was no judgement involved!); we jumped down right near where we needed to be.  We were headed for the snappily titled Post and Telecommunications Hotel that not surprisingly was located out the back of the post office.  It was okay at Y148 but a little run down and would do for the one night that we required.  We dumped the bags and headed off to find the Buddha.

This sight is so popular that it would be almost impossible to jump on the wrong bus!  It was very obvious where we had to get off and that’s not because we could see the wonder – there was just throngs of people.  We were quickly beginning to realise that Chinese tourist sites are incredibly popular and you have to share the experience with thousands of others.  On top of that the entrance fees were ludicrously high with the only saving graze that locals and foreigners are charged the same.  We joined the long, snaking queue that would eventually lead us down the cliff face that the Buddha has been carved into.  It was hot and tedious but we did eventually get to see what all the fuss was about.  Oh my goodness – now I’ve seen some big statues in my time but this knocks spots off the lot!  You’ll have to check out the photos to give you some sense of scale as to just how humungous this thing was.  If I was to sit on his hand I’d look like a speck of dirt under his fingernail!

Well worth the bother and I hope they can preserve it from the elements for many future generations to enjoy.  The Buddha is located in quite an extensive green area with other temples and points of interest.  We found that walking beyond the Buddha and away from the main gate we rapidly lost the crowds.  Before long we were wandering along through woodland without a soul in sight.  The path eventually led us to Wufu Temple that unfortunately was a bit of a building site – but there again where isn’t in China?!  We clambered past the piles of bricks and found a serene, traditional temple.  We found a back door to the Buddha area and wandered back towards the bus stop having enjoyed our afternoon of sightseeing.

A much needed shower later and we wandered down to the river front where we’d read you could get views of the Buddha.  Granted he was a long way off but it was good to see him from a different angle.  Many people choose to see the Buddha from a boat that goes to the foot of the cliff and seeing the large boats bobbing around looking like corks again gave us a sense of perspective.  We enjoyed taking this all in from a river front bar / restaurant that we’d stumbled upon.  A chilled Harbin beer, tasty food with the Buddha in the background and locals fishing in the fore, a lovely end to the day but the highlight was yet to come.  I spotted a movement in one of the trees and was amazed and delighted to see a snake – we watched as surreptitiously as we could.  We’d read that 10,000 tonnes (count the zeros) of serpents are dished up every year in China and we didn’t want this lucky one to join the statistics. 

The next day was going to be a travel day – so an early bath was in order.

Travel to Kanding

The day didn’t start auspiciously with first a cash point failure and then the Leshan to Kanding bus full.  So we were on a bus that would take us back to Chengdu where we hoped to link up with a more regular Kanding service.  We quietly wondered how often we’d end up back in Chengdu.  As I have said; up to date we’d found catching buses easy and they are all clean, comfortable with plenty of leg room and storage in the hold.  Plus they work out at very good value and tend to go bang on time.  The bus dropped us at some random bus station on the southern edge of Chengdu which wasn’t in our Lonely Planet or on our map.  We thought we’d take a chance on Kanding buses going from there instead of trying to get into town.  I lurked with the bags and a couple of minutes later Steve came dashing round the corner waving tickets for the 11am daily to Kanding.

It was 10.55am – we dashed across the station, chucking the bags through the scanner en route and made it to the gate in the nick of time.  For the first time to date the bus was late!  Still by 11.30am we were on board and back out beyond the city limits hoping that our luck was changing.  The journey became more interesting past Xa’an as we were in more rural areas and had left the highways behind.  The obligatory food stop even provided us with a tasty meal.  Plan B was now in motion and we were heading towards Tibetan territory.  Obviously we knew we wouldn’t be able to cross the TAR line but geographically speaking we’d be on the Tibetan plateau.  Plus we’d read that the Chinese side of the TAR line is actually much more Tibetan as the local communities have been left to their own devices.  We still hope to get to Tibet one day but in the meantime a trip to an area that hasn’t had a Chinese make-over would suit us just fine.

On leaving Xa’an we were on a single carriageway road following a wide river in a pretty gorge.  The scenery and the ride became more dramatic.  The road is dominated by buses and wagons on the Lhasa to Chengdu route and it’s only just wide enough for these vehicles to pass each other.  We’ve been on much more hair-raising road trips but still witnessed the usual daft antics and near misses.  It was a case of drivers feeling blind corners and hairpin bends would make excellent over-taking points!  The scenery kept our minds off this nonsense as we passed pretty villages perched on the edge of the river or up the hillsides.  At every turn we had views of steep narrow gorges and the landscape was dotted with waterfalls.  This is what we’d come for – so we sat back to enjoy the ride.

Well we would have done but on rounding the next corner we encountered a huge line of traffic in front of us and the queue quickly lengthened to the rear.  Since there was no traffic coming downhill we could only presume that the road was blocked or there’d been an accident.  We ended up being stuck for over an hour and when we did start to crawl up the hill the impatient over-taking just added to the congestion.  It turned out the jam had been caused by a tunnel followed by road repairs.  For some reason the Chinese block lengthy stretches of road in both directions when building the roads – no concept of traffic flow in the slightest.  We got stuck a couple more times on en route which led to even more maniacal passing.  In the end both lanes were full of vehicles going up so all the downhill traffic was stuck with the uphillers having to force their way back in.  Hey ho!  Steve likened it to an F1 grid start and then promptly dubbed it Wacky Races!

Despite the delays the journey only took 9 ½ hours to Kanding but it was 8.30pm and already dark.  The bus station was where we thought it would be but we’d expected it to be out of town.  It appears that the crazy rate of development isn’t limited to big towns and cities and Kanding town now stretches right out to the bus station.  We were pounced upon by all manner of people shouting at us in Mandarin and showing us business cards with a proliferation of Chinese characters on.  No amount of card flapping or shouting was going to help us to understand what they were trying to offer!  Steve declared he knew where he was going and it was only a couple of kilometres so we’d walk to the guesthouse.  It was dark, the streets were busy and the packs were heavy but we weren’t to be defeated.  We were headed in the right direction but town had changed so much that we couldn’t spy any of the landmarks on our map.  Still we pressed on and without too much difficultly tracked down Kanding Youzhe Hostel.

This is a lovely little Tibetan style place with a decorated central stairwell run by a friendly family.  The room was lovely and very clean with the all important hot water shower and kettle – it was great value at Y120.  It was already 9pm so too late to explore town.  We found a Tibetan restaurant and had some very tasty momos and a warming bowl of noodle soup.  The little place didn’t sell beer but he indicated that popping to the shop and bringing the bottles in was perfectly fine.  So a slap up meal plus beer each for a grand total of Y30 – bargain.

Kanding

When we’re on holiday no matter how long or short (though usually a minimum of a week) we have a day when everything seems to go wrong.  This is usually day 1 or at the latest day 3 but in China we had a delayed reaction and cruised right the way through to day 6 before hitting the forehead slapping day.  We’d had a cracking night’s sleep and the day started off well with a brew in bed and a chat about that day’s plans.  Then the water went off so we couldn’t have a shower.  Never mind we’d had one just before retiring the night before and you don’t do too much sweating at 2000m!  We pencilled in an hour of ‘chores’ leaving us the rest of the day to explore Kanding to see if we could like the place following the previous evening’s less than ideal introduction.

The skies were blue and on rounding the street corner we got our first glimpse of the nearest mountain.  I do mean near – we could touch them as their base forms the valley that Kanding nestles in.  Town was already getting busy with an unprecedented amount of horn beeping.  You’d think we’d be used to that having lived in Asia for eons but these guys took it to the next level.  Anyway, first port of call – the cash point.  Transaction refused – bother.  Okay we’ll try another bank – same message – double bother.  Back to the guesthouse to garner as much banking details as we could to find an Internet cafe to get things back on track.  Couldn’t find an Internet cafe for love nor money but eventually got logged on in a backpackers place.  Following a lengthy on-line chat to a helpdesk we were assured that the card would work but we weren’t confident.

Next stop – the bus station to buy tickets to Litang for the following day.  A big rude –NO!  Obviously we couldn’t find out why not so we went to find a guesthouse we’d read about that was run by westerners.  We hoped they be able to give us some travel information and rustle up a decent lunch.  We walked for miles and miles but couldn’t find the guesthouse; so no information and no grub.  However, we found another place and although they were open food wasn’t on the menu.  They did tell us that foreigners weren’t being allowed on buses to Litang but we may be able to find a taxi to take us.  Hmm, that all sounded a tad dodgy.

Just to recap; no money, no food and no bus ticket – see what I mean about those days that go wrong?  We walked back to town and found a nasi kandar type place so pointed to some veggie options.  It was the grimmest food we’ve been served up in many a long year.  Stone cold, way too salty, swimming in lard and all round yuk – we paid and left.  We’d been walking for hours without really getting anywhere and certainly hadn’t achieved anything.  It was time to try and salvage something from the day.  To be fair in among the frustrations we had stumbled upon a couple of good moments.  The hunt for the guesthouse took us beyond the town’s building sites and we could see snow capped peaks in the distance.  They were exactly where we were hoping to go next.  Plus during our fruitless search for a nice lunch we stumbled upon a lovely, peaceful monastery where we had a good look round and left feeling much calmer.  The most unusual aspect of Jingeng Temple is that is has an 8-sided pagoda.  The monks were more than happy for us to wander around and take photos.

We decided to walk up a hill to another monastery but more importantly we hoped to get some views of the surrounding area.  On studying our map there was a short cut through town up a flight of steps.  Well there used to be but it’s now part of yet another building site.  So we retraced our steps, walked all the way back through town and tried an alternative route we’d spotted earlier.  You can reach the monastery by cable car or pony and more recently they’ve widened the pony track to take vehicles.  Luckily there’d been a minor landslip so 4-wheels couldn’t pass.  Even though 4-hooves would still be able to pass not one pony passed us and not one pony man tried to prize any money out of us.  They’d obviously heard about our cash point woes!

It was lovely to be away from shouting crowds, honking vehicles and booming construction machinery.  All we could hearing was a rushing stream and bird song – you can imagine that was going a long way to restore our spirits.  The gate near the car park was closed and no one was manning the ticket booth.  So we slipped under the barrier and saved ourselves Y100.  We had a good wander round the grounds, looked longingly at the distant mountains and wandered back down a set of stone steps to town.

On returning to the guesthouse we pondered upon our onward travel plans.  We found an alternative route on the map and our guesthouse owner indicated that he thought it would be a good idea to go that way.  So he phoned his friend to ask how much a taxi would cost – at 300 quid rather than 90p on the bus we declined.  It was becoming abundantly clear that not only Tibet but the border region in that area was also out of bounds to foreigners.  Obviously it was time to formulate Plan C.  So back to the bus station we went and set off using a different road.  Considering all the bad luck we’d had that day I should have known better than to open my big mouth!  We ended up on the other side of the river in completely the wrong area of town and it took us ages to find a bridge back over.  At the bus station we presented the note our friendly guesthouse owner had written for us and promptly received 2 tickets for the 6am bus to a place that wasn’t even in our Lonely Planet.  You carry a travel guide the size of a breeze block around only to find yourself off the beaten track and on your own!  We would have to miss a couple of our intended ports of call but nothing too drastic.

While we were there some other backpackers approached us and asked if we wanted to share a taxi to Litang.  They’d agreed a deal with a driver and it sounded far too good to be true.  Our instinct was to stick to our plan and not venture into that part of China.  If the Chinese authorities didn’t want foreigners in the area then we felt we should respect their wishes – we had no ambition to join the ‘missing person’ statistics.

Travel to Lijiang via Xichang (2 days)

A very early start to fit in a 2-brew strategy before catching the 6am to Xichang.  As we were leaving town armoured tanks were rolling in so we were very glad we’d done the sensible thing and revised our travel plans.  The trip was supposed to take 7 hours but we knew to take that with a pinch of salt as we’d have to double back through a least one lengthy stretch of road repairs.  We also knew there wasn’t much out there so we stocked up on Tibetan bread for the journey.  We didn’t have the best viewing seats on the bus but at least we were seated together.  We were just congratulating ourselves on being at the back of the bus away from the TV when all the smokers sparked up in unison.  To cut a long story short the journey lasted 11 hours and we felt like we’d smoked an entire packet of fags each.  I also decided that the only way to do long distance travel in China was to make sure you were dehydrated.  There was no way I was going to use the loos and I’ve had to brave spectacularly bad loos over the years.

Now as we all know China likes to tell the world that in invented everything and has this wonderful and ancient history.  I’ve already said that I’m finding some of these claims dubious but you can’t doubt that they know how to build things.  So how on earth have they failed to notice the lack of doors on toilets?  Or yet worse – no dividing walls.  Entering a toilet block to be faced with a row of squatting people does not endear one into partaking!  Squatting I don’t have a problem with but I draw the line at being bum cheek to bum cheek with fellow defecators.  Plus they have a bizarre system where instead of individual squat pans everyone is using a continual trough.  Imagine being at the bottom end of the line only to find other people’s evacuations sailing underneath you?  Dehydrated and constipated is the only way to travel - Steve became increasingly amazed at my bodily function control!

Xichang turned out to be quite a calm, pleasant enough town but of course the outskirts consist of the obligatory extended building site.  The bus station was right in the centre for once and there was a basic hotel straight over the road.  It was late and without a travel guide we knew we couldn’t be choosy; the room was cheap enough and would serve its purpose.  Luckily we got tickets for the 7.40am bus to Lijiang the following day so our long journey would continue as planned.  We didn’t see much of Xichang but with the aid of our phrase book we managed to order the best meal yet.  To be honest the quality and tastiness of the food was an unexpected but welcome surprise.

The following day resulted in another long and I mean loooonnnngg bus journey.  We reckon 7 or 8 hours is long but acceptable with up to 10 hours and it’s starting to get tedious.  Anything over that, unless it’s an overnight sleeper, is just beyond a joke.  So you can imagine we weren’t leaping around for joy on arriving in Lijiang at 9pm following a 13 hour trip!  The journey itself didn’t start full of promise as they didn’t really have seats for us.  I was basically perched on the end of the co-drivers bed but at least we were in the front and could see out.  When seats did become available they were the worst possible – on the back row and slap bang in the middle.  Not only did we have to deal with another smoke-a-thon but the lady in front didn’t stop banging on for at least 4 hours that I counted.  To add to our misery Steve was sat next to a bloke who was being proper horrible to his missus.  The piece-de-resistance was when said missus promptly threw up all over the place.  Boy were we glad to get off that bus!

It was a real shame as we went through what looked like beautiful scenery and even circumnavigated Lugu Hu (lake); another tourist spot.  We had thought about stopping in this area but the entrance fee was way too high and according to our information the area was a pain to get to by public transport.  Things seemed to have changed or should I say are changing.  China’s building boom isn’t limited to vertical structures there’s also a great deal of road and rail construction taking place.  I’ll not get onto a rant about the level of environmental damage it’s causing as there doesn’t appear to be any animals left to save and protect.  Anyway had we secured good seats we would have had a free tour of the lake but as it was we were bumped and bounced around the back seat trying to avoid putting the bag or our feet in vomit.  To say the road isn’t finished is an understatement – there’s no way vehicles should have been using the preliminary tracks the diggers have carved out.  But of course they do and we did and we lived to tell the tale!

By the time we emerged from the bus into Lijiang’s out of town bus station we were exhausted and just wanted to find somewhere to stay.  Easy – we’ll flag down a taxi, show him the flyer we have for a place in the old quarter inclusive of instructions in Chinese characters and be there in a flash.  Or then again maybe not!  The first few taxi drivers had clearly attended Malaysia’s school of taxi etiquette and simply refused to take us, or anyone else for that matter, anywhere.  Picture the scene; its pitch black, we’re on the outskirts of town, knackered, starving (the bread ran out at 10am) and in desperate need of a shower.  Welcome to Lijiang!  To be fair we weren’t the only ones struggling to get a taxi and other customers could speak the lingo.  Another passenger spotted our plight and kindly came over to help us.  He had enough English for us to establish that we didn’t need a specific guesthouse we just wanted a taxi to drop us in the general area and we’d walk from there.  We knew many of the streets were pedestrian only but why couldn’t the taxis have simply taken us as close as possible?  He managed to get this message across to the next taxi driver and in we hopped leaving our kind friend still waiting.

Something got lost in translation as we didn’t get dropped in the area we hoped although we did get dumped near the main gate to the old area.  It was horrendous and we could have been in any city in China; modern, bright shops including chains like KFC and people thronging the streets.  The old section actually had a queue of people waiting to get out and there was no way we were going to be allowed in via that entrance.  We wandered aimlessly for a while trying to find landmarks on our apparently ancient may of Lijiang!  In the end we doubled back and plunged into the old section only exit sharply feeling most underwhelmed.  We eventually spied a Chinese business style hotel; The Yangtai Commercial Hotel might not be our cup of tea and at Y230 much more than we’d been paying but at least they had a room and we were beyond caring.  We grabbed a much needed shower and dashed out to find something to eat.

We’d spied a pizza restaurant Buon Appetito and made a bee line for it as it was now 10pm and most kitchens were shut.  We had a cracking pizza, washed down with a much needed cool beer in a quiet, friendly atmosphere and the staff had excellent English.  When it was time for the girls to go home the owner packed them off, but said we didn’t need to rush and could have another drink if we wished.  It was just the kind of welcome and service we needed after the day’s long travel.  We decided to go for a bit of a wander as the streets were now mercifully quiet.  We spied a nice looking little bar that was still open so popped in for a night cap and ended up chatting to the Dutch owner.  We gleaned some positive information about our intended travel plans so the day ended up positively.

In fact while we’re on the positives – let’s go back to that long bus journey.  Even though I didn’t really have a seat at the front, at least we got a cracking view.  The scenery was excellent all the way and we literally climbed up and over mountain range after mountain range.  Even though China has a ridiculous population count we’ve seen vast tracks of uninhabitated land and that includes no factories, no hydro electric schemes and very little road building.  This all led to no pollution and we could see for miles and miles.  The bus chose to avoid the highway route via Jinjiang and cut across country – we may have had dodgy roads but at least we got to see that lovely lake.  We then climbed up and over more mountain ranges and passed through traditional villages belonging mainly to the Naxi, Yi and Bai tribes.  It was great to see people wearing their national costumes and getting on with their traditional lifestyles out of choice – there was nothing touristy about this area.  The villagers aren’t used to traffic and they have little concept of getting out of the road.  It’s their village and if they want to stop for a chat in the middle of the road then they jolly well will!

Up to this point we’d enjoyed China but.... and we were still trying to work out why the but.  It might have been down to the fact that we’d been constantly on the go and all the tourist attractions border on amusement parks.  If only the entrance fees were amusing!  Sharing places with hundreds of noisy, rude Chinese hadn’t helped.  We thought all we needed was time to relax, seriously work out what we’d like to do and see and find some quiet time.  Will Lijiang live up to expectations?  All will be revealed in the next travelogue as we’ve now left Sichuan.  Yunnan province to follow.

 

 

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