Location

China - Hekou - Yuanyang - Kunming - Da Li - Lijiang - Tiger Leaping Gorge - Shangri La - Daocheng - Litang - Kangding - Chengd

 ... Vietnam was astonishing and the ladies unforgettable. I would've liked to have stayed a week longer as planned but China, and especially the bereaucratically entangled Tibet, beckoned. Getting across the Lao Cai - Hekou border was easier than anticipated, except for the heat and my excessive perspiring and body odour. Though the latter two issues may have advanced my passage through. As expected, all my bags and parcels were opened and inspected. The only query was with regards to the packets of Imana super soya mince I was lugging around. I explained to them what they were and that under no circumstances were they going to confiscate any of them after all the kilometers we'd traversed together. Once out of the immigration office I was bombarded by everything Chinese. Vietnam was just a few minutes away but the culture, signboard, alphabetic and other differences were mind boggling. Fortunately whilst in Sa Pa I had received some directions to the bus station and to the Bank of China from some visiting Japanese tourists. That aided me in forging ahead ...

        
... Yuanyang, the area famous for rice terraces, was my first stop. Just on the outskirts of Hekou our driver was stopped by traffic officials. A short while later we were stopped again by immigration officials. They checked everyone's identification documents and recorded mine. This process of recording foreigners details happens often and especially in areas closer to the Tibetan border. The back road drive to the terraced town was scenic and enjoyable. Along the way we were delayed by a construction vehicle which had mechanical problems. While waiting around I noticed the massive earth moving operation taking place on the opposite banks of a wide, muddy Red River. Later along my journey I would learn just how enterprising the Chinese aim to be. I'm not sure if Mother Nature is going to allow them all the liberties they seem to be taking. I thought Vietnam was speeding ahead in terms of development and reconstruction, but China is leaving all it's South-East Asian neighbours literally and figuratively in it's dust ...

... at this particular point the surrounding mountain was being carved out and dumped into the Red River to make it narrower like a bottle-neck, for a future dam wall possibly. There are many other such schemes being implemented. I've seen mountains being carved, moved, held back and tunnelled through. I've seen concrete pylons facing a hill or mountain, standing idly like soldiers in a line, waiting for the rail or motorway tunnel to break through. I've also seen rivers being temporarily re-directed or dammed up. All of this is amazing but I'm not so sure how practical some of the projects are. As with most things 'Made in China', I fear a lot of the projects are doomed for disaster with time to come, and a lot of lives will be affected. I hope and pray my words don't come true ...
      
... unfortunately Yuanyang was not as appealing to me as it is made out to be. I saw many rice terraces but due to the lingering mist did not have any impressive views to be inspired by. The pictures one sees in brochures, postcards and magazines are actually taken a few kilometers away from Yuangyang and during a certain time and season. Admittedly I hadn't really thought about that at the time. The town itself is like present-day Hillbrow on a mountain side and without the exotic night-life. There is one road which winds it's way up the hill with homes, stores, offices, schools, etc. lining it on either side. In between some of these buildings are little alleys which stumble down and disappear around corners. The town also had a nauseas smell due to the open drainage system and poor hygiene conditions. Yuanyang probably has it's beautiful days but not while I was visiting ...

... I've found that in the south-west of China most of the meandering and mountainous drives are breath-taking and the destinations themselves mostly places to rest. Kunming, the first big city I stopped at, is presently under huge scale redevelopment. The highways resemble the suspended, disorderly mish-mash of electric cables one often seen in South-East Asian countries. Traffic is congested. People are in a hurry. You don't often get to see a blue sky let alone a sunrise or sunset. My intention of getting to Kunming was primarily to get information on how best to get to Tibet and Kathmandu from there. The agents I approached were very pessimeistic and not of much help. However, some of the backpackers I met at my hostel on the other hand were very optimistic. Kuis, a Netherlander sharing the dorm with me was very laxsidasical about getting to Tibet and advised me to get closer to the surrounding areas of Tibet and sure enough there would be a way of getting in. An affordable way ...   ... Da Li (Gucheng - Old City) is a major stop-over along the South-West tourist route. Many of the 'old' buildings had been damaged/destroyed and have been restored/rebuilt to resemble the old and original appearance. For those who may have past through the town years ago, they would probably say the town has lost it's charm and become a town of sourvenir shops, tourist guest houses and hostels and restaurants. It is still worth a visit to go hiking in the Zhonghe Shan Mountains or cycling along the shores of the lengthy Erhai Hu Lake. There is even a monastery where one can spend some time learning Kung Fu. I considered taking a week long class but thought that if I cannot beat off a crocodile or side step a charging rhino it's not of much good to me ...  ... it was a wet, misty morning when I met Kuis at the Tibetan Travel Lodge. He was going to hike in the Zhonghe Shan Mountain that morning. I thought perhaps I should join him but was concerned about the path and slippery conditions. Kuis was convincing and said most of the path was paved and we should be fine. Possibly it may even be clear and dry higher up. I got my neon yellow and orange poncho out again and off we went. I hadn't planned on trudging through streams on the main road but we were forced to. The bus stop was even flooded and water gradually seeped into our boots. After a 15 minute bus ride we took a minivan ride up to the cable cars and hopped onto one for a 20 minute ride to the top station. It was still raining and more misty when we got higher up. Fortunately the poncho was keeping me warm and dry. Kuis and I wound our way around the mountain side. It would've been a lot more interesting if we could see down to the valleys, lake and old town, but the mist and clouds never cleared or lifted sufficiently. We could hear fast-flowing streams and waterfalls below but never saw many. As much as we appreciated walking on the cobbled slabs, from a hiking perspective it would've been a lot more fun if the path were left rough and bare and the foliage wild and unrestrained. We appreciated some of the barriers though because there were a few sheer drops down the side of the mountain ...   ... it persisted in raining for the entire duration of our stroll. The roasted acorns I had bought were a welcome snack and source of energy. When we got to Zhonghe Temple at 17:00, the end of our hike for the day, Kuis took a cable chair down as he had had a few slippery incidents. I back-tracked 2,5km and hiked down 3,5km to the main road and back to the old town. I bought some vegetables to make sandwiches for supper and headed for the hostel. While walking along an elderly cobbler offered to repair my boots even though they were in good condition. He made me sit down, take off my boots and did some stitching. Initially he wanted to charge me 180 yuan for the labour and in-soles but I managed to negotiate him down to 50 yuan, though I think that was still much. I looked at it as payment for a day well spent other than a day wasted sitting around avaoiding getting wet ...   ... the next day was the 'Torch Festival' and Da Li is reputed to celebrate it in a lively manner with people throwing gun powder at one another. Unfortunately due to other priorities I thought it best to move along and celebrate in Lijiang. When we arrived in Lijiang I paired up with Junki, a young Japanese backpacker on the same bus as me. We inquired at two youth hostels and three guest houses for dorm beds or a twin room and eventually found a twin room at Mama Naxi's. Like Da Li, Lijiang is a maze of cobbled alleys and old buildings. It is more haphazard though and has an artery system of free-flowing canals which used to serve as a water supply for the community. Now it is mainly used to dump dirt, wash the dishes and send down candle-lit prayer rafts. That evening people lit up columns of wood and flowers for the Torch Festival. After supper Junki and I wandered about the alleys of the old town, enjoying some hot walnut cakes as we strolled about aimlessly through the throng of other backpackers and Chinese tourists. We had no map of how to get back to our guest house but made it back safely before midnight ...   ... after a filling breakfast Junki and I paired up with Awena (French Girl) and Chan Yuen Kiu (Englsih-speaking girl from Hong Kong) or Doris if you prefer. The four of us hired a minivan and went to the scenic and expensive mountain resort of Yulong Xueshan or Mt. Satseko. Mt. Satseko soars to approximately 5,500m. We had hoped to do some hiking at the top but at present there are no hiking paths except a cable car to the top and a short stroll a bit further up. It was an expensive outing but we were blessed with a variety of views and climates whilst at the top. We all had to adjust our physical activity due to the thinner air higher up. The highest point we got to was 4,680m. The highest point I've ever been in terms of altitude. There was a glacier we would've liked to get closer to. Unfortunately we were restricted to a path up and down, with good reason. Some of the crevices we saw looked really narrow and deep. The mountain peaks were a sight to see when the clouds cleared briefly. They made me yearn even more so for the Himalaya's, provided I could find an affordable way into Tibet ...   ... Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world, measuring 16km in length and ascending approximately 3,900m from the raging Jinsha River to the snow capped peaks of Haba Shan in the west and Yulong Xueshan in the east. Our minivan from Lijiang arrived at Jane's Guest House at approximately 11:00. We left our backpacks there and some people still wanted to have lunch. We convinced them that we would stop at one of the guest houses along the way for something to eat. Our group consisted of six of us, Sharon and Hila (Israel), Poli (Greece), Xabier (Spain), Neil (U.S.A) and me. We were one of the last groups to leave, with the exception of those who hired horses and guides to lead them up. I separated from the group when we got to a sign demarcating what I thought was the higher and more scenic route. It turned out I was just on a path the locals used to get to their homes and horse stalls. Fortunately an elderly lady pointed me back onto the correct path and 40 minutes later I caught up with the group. Sharon and Hila were lagging behind, with Poli keeping them company. The girls were really slow, and stubborn. Poli and I offered to haul their daypacks but they absolutely refused. They made many lengthy stops and even held up horses wanting to get past. To show their annoyance some of the horses sabotaged the path once they got ahead. I don't blame them. Some of the guides following us with horses even offered the use of the animals but the girls refused ...   ... we were fortunate though because we got to the second guest house just as it began raining. We had lunch hoping the rain would dissipate by the time we finished but it didn't. Some of the guys had to purchase plastic raincoats as they had not brought along any wet weather protection. Everyone was amused by my neon yellow and orange poncho. It was even brighter than my smile so we did not have to worry about getting lost anywhere. Once on the road it took less than 15 minutes for our group to disintergrate again. The girls didn't realise they were holding back everyone else so the rest just continued at their own pace. Poli and I attempted to stay with them but eventually Poli's patiance even ran out and he pushed ahead to catch up with Niel and Xabier. Two French gils even past us very easily. I attempted to subtly push the girls ahead but didn't make much progress. If I had a whip I would've been tempted to use it to get them to go faster. We made it to the top at 16:00. With more bad weather closing in and light fading I explained to the girls the reasons why we had to pick up the pace. Only the bushes and cycada listened. Fortunately we were met by a friendly Tibetan and his American client lower down the path. Without a second thought I seized the opportunity and transfered the care of the girls to the capable hands of the two men. I hopped down the path as fast as I could, keeping track of their position whenever an opening presented itself. I was sincerely grateful for the arrival of the two men, and empathetic ...   ... when I got to the Tea Horse Guest House the remainder of the group were emerging from a break at the restaurant. The two French girls had joined them. It was already 17:30 and we still had 5 km.'s to cover to the 'Halfway Guest House'. We saw many wonderful views of waterfalls on the opposite side of the gorge. For the most part the path was level and we made it to the busy Halfway Guest House around 19:00. Niel was wise enough to call ahead and book six beds for us from the Tea Horse Guest House as the sleeping arrangements were fully occupied. We all shed our wet garments and warmed up, showered and than had supper in the rowdy restaurant ...   ... the next misty morning our group were last to leave again. 50m from the guest house it began raining again. Along the way we encountered two waterfall streams we had to get across. It was fun but not appreciated by our sodden feet. We moved ahead at a good pace and it didn't take long for us to reach Tina's Guest House, the culmination of our hike. Below, at the rivers' edge we could see a group of people making their way down to the rock from which a mythical tiger leaped across the Jinsha River. It would have been wonderful to see the raging river from such a view point, with the mountains caging you on either side and only the river a means of escape. But time did not permit us the opportunity to go down. Instead we had two Korean tourist join us and hired a minivan for a return trip to Jane's Guest House. We had lunch and than the two French girls, Xabier and I joined the Koreans in a minivan to Shangri La, and Niel and Poli joined another group back to Lijiang ...   ... Shangri La is similar to Da Li, only smaller, with more of a Tibetan influence, no maze of canals and less commercialism. Being the closest I've been to Tibet I thought I would receive more information or direction about how/where to get into Tibet and onward. Since Kunming, the closer I get to Tibet the more optimistic referals have become. Sure enough, when I visitted a Tibet travel agency there was a notice board advertising groups planning going to Tibet. I just had to get in contact with one of them who intended leaving close to when I had planned visiting. Poli, who had also got to Chengdu in the meantime also e-mailed me with more positive information. Now I just had to get to Chengdu. I spent two nights in Shangri La and than hastened my way to Chengdu. Perhaps 'hastened' is not the correct word because it took me four days to get there ...   ... the back road to Chengdu was very mountainous, changing from a wetland plateau to a rock bombarded landscape to green grassland to an evergreen forest, with water and winding roads being the constant. I passed through the little Tibetan towns of Daocheng, Litang and Kangding before eventually arriving in Chengdu. It was an interesting journey with me arriving late in the afternoon in Chengdu with just 1 yuan in my pocket and no place to exchange money. As soon as I got checked into a hostel I began making inquiries about getting into Tibet and onward to Kathmandu. It took me the better part of a day and a meeting with Poli and two Spanish brothers to secure a way to Lhasa. It was a big coincidence the four of us meeting but it was worth the time spent waiting. Yesterday I went to see the Panda's and tonight Xabier, Jose, Poli and I leave on a train to Lhasa, Tibet ...

Location

China
24° 53' 11.1696" N, 100° 30' 10.548" E