Sunday, April 30, 2006

scent of Shangri-la?

let's go
let's go,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
Standing around a couple of stone lion statues, perhaps a little too relaxed, thinking the buses would stop here.

Eventually the Nescafe kicked in and we realized two things:
  1. Zhongdian is the destination, but you want a bus to Shangri-la.
  2. Buses going to Shangri-la often don't display their destination signboard and only stop in Qiaotou if they feel like it.
The centre seat in the back row was the last available. I sat between 2 pairs of Chinese boys falling asleep all over each other and ignoring the snowy mountain-scape. The mild stench of rotten humanity permeated throughout the bus, save for whenever someone lit up.

Investigating the options for travel to Tibet:
welcome to Tibet Tourism Bureau
  • overland would be awesome if you went with plenty of time, stacks of cash, and a handful of indestructible friendships;
  • Waiting 8 days in this nowhere land, for an agency to organize the mythed permit is not on;
  • The TTB can fly us in for 2570 yuan each, but the earliest is Wednesday because the next 2 national holidays are booked solid.
Back to the Shangri-La Travellers Club (hostel) I calculated that I have enough cash to get there, back to Shanghai, and little else! I would have to sacrifice all other China travels... Merche and Javier are out - instead their journey will head along the 2,140km southern route of the Sichuan-Tibet highway, an adventure itself.

The expected Lhasa train completion is soon, and also the consequential effects on the region; and the fact that I am now closer than ever to a long desired destination; I bought the ticket.

Samosas and momo in a cosy Indian/Nepali/Tibetan/Chinese restaurant, we say our farewells from the edge of old town.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

tiger leaping

On the tenth day of Christmas... Okay, wrong lyrics. This is Tiger Leaping Gorge, not 10 lords leaping.

IMG_1316A saksushka omelette sounded different... and tasted great. With Javier and Merche, we walked down the road then up the trail behind Tina's GuestHouse. Listening to their Spanish banter, I gradually remembered words from years ago.

Tina's GuestHouse is where it all startsA morning tea break at the Half-Way GuestHouse I shared out the Nescafe sachets - compared to the freshly ground Yunnan coffees I'd been having all week, this tastes pretty bad.

Javier and MercheNext stop was lunch at the Tea Horse. The food here was pretty good and with views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from every bed, it certainly rivals others around for a place to stay.

At the high point of the track, a man will offer you views from 5 metres down his sidetrack for 8 yuan. Honestly it can't be the best viewpoint because the gutsy mountain finishes around here. So tell that entrepreneur he can shove it.

IMG_1344Down the 28 Bends, we are glad to be hiking in the opposite direction. These suckers hiking in the common direction look exhausted - except the mum who rented a horse. (see Sean's map)

Naxi family guest houseWe pulled into the Naxi Family GuestHouse and knocked back a couple of Dali beers before carrying on out merry way.

No ticket gate / entry fee man could be found so we marched into Margo's Gorged Tiger Cafe. A fantastic hike all ended with a great meal and a nice shower.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

old towns

getting around in old town
getting around in old town,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
Jin and Yak cruisin'Was it The Pogues or some other Celtic band who wrote Dirty Old Town? Jin, Yak and I rented some cool dragster? style bikes and free-wheeled it to Shuhe Old Town. The only thing dirty about it is the scoundrel entry fee. Luckily for us, Yak has a knack of finding a way around some barriers.

Just 4 kilometres from Lijiang's old city area, this more humble version is barely touristed. Somehow Shuhe's look and feel is more Chinese version of Mad Maxauthentic - it's more rustic. If you're ever down in this neck of the woods, you owe it to yourself to spend an afternoon there.

metalwork artisanhot artistcafe / bar / restaurant / lodging all-in-1Artists, artisans, crafts and markets line every corner along with cafes and more lodging, all set with the Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) poking into the clouds in the background.

boy playing ball in the old town

evening view from the hostelIt's back to Lijiang for the hustle and bustle and the beautiful view of rooftop lights after sundown. Also in the hostel, now that I have just polished off a roasted spaghetti, absolutely scrumptuous, I believe I have eaten everything on the menu.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

temptations to Tibet

HimalayaMy sunburn has not yet subsided. Yunnan coffee is awesome. The hash brown, scrambled eggs, super-thick toast, vegetable salad and sauces, even the funky salt and pepper shakers make for one of the best breakfasts I've had in China. The atmosphere here in Ancient Town Youth Hostel is the sort I dream of. In fact this whole town kicks arse over Dali.

Lunch in the restaurant that has been frequented by China's first, and still most famous rock star. I can't read the menu, but I have my own hero, Yak, ordering for the 3 of us again.

Yak and I walked to the Black Dragon Pool and discovered yet another price hike. Basically we side-stepped the pay gate and crept through a hole in the fence a hundred metres up. I've since learned this is a popular technique for many of the sights throughout the country!

It was once meatFor 3 yuan I visited the Kanxue Tower and wandered through its flowering garden, the empty card house, the dining hall with its working kitchen for the hotel - for some bizarre unimaginable reason 2 legs of meat have been hung on the wall and left to rot.

Yak again comes through with exciting hopes. During a late dinner in the hostel, he presents me with an airfare quote 1-way to Lhasa. The man should be in politics pulling string like this, but let's see what extra fees I probably have to pay...

Listening to the Himalaya soundtrack makes me think of the region's pre-1950 past. A train line to Lhasa is due to open sometime in the next year. Travel restrictions for foreigners may be dismantled by 2007. I suspect big changes for Lhasa are imminent.

Monday, April 24, 2006

turning wheels

boulder king
boulder king,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
7am street noise pissed me off. Luck was on my side the rest of the day though. Yak helped me get the extra night's unused tariff back, and secured tickets on the last bus of the day to Lijiang.

good bikes, wrecked boatOn pretty good hard-tails, the 3 of us rode through dozens of hay piles spread on the road. The ferry ported us over Erhau Hu (lake) and we clambered up the stairs before burning rubber down the shore-line road.

lunch, a local fish specialtyPast a small shipwreck, a rough downhill single-track made a mess of Yak's machine: 3 punctures! By the time the tyre was repaired and lunch was decimated, we had to bus it back to make the dock in time for the return voyage. Nothing short of the usual logistics nightmare in countries like this - several boats all work for the same company, but require 30 minutes of convincing before agreeing to take us back.

ParashuramaThe 6pm mini-bus gets out on the highway. I thought all the scary road trips were behind me after those in northern India and that road in Bolivia. How stupid of me to think that! I was watching our driver and I kept thinking of the multi-armed deity. He has one hand constantly flicking the high beam, another beeping the horn, one answering the mobile phone, another smoking, one hand changing the destination sign propped on the dashboard, change gears, steer, and of course talking to the conductor requires another 2 hands! I half admire the skill of these drivers for surviving, half wonder if they actually have a license.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

want fries with that?

dormitory accessories
dormitory accessories,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
Among other surprises, our hotel dormitory has an advert for the V-brator! The lads washing dishes don't notice their cigarette ash landing in the wrong place... Don't think I give a shit whether breakfast is included or not. Carl (from Sweden), Shoko and I found a busy dumpling shop down the street and joined the hordes of diners there.

breakfast with Carlfarmer in DaliThe first bus I climbed aboard in China gives a shining example of the growing gap between the nation's rich and poor. This is the most luxurious bus I've ever known: 2-person arm-chair suites left of the aisle and singles on the right. The steward doled out bottled water to everyone. At 100 km/h we cruise past farmers with low-tech tools busting a sweat to barely feed their own family, let alone educate or afford health care for them. Why do we always admire the colourful fashion of old cultures?

typical local textileIt was incredibly good timing when Yak rescued me at the bus stop in Dali new city, Xiguan. Feeling vulnerable before retrieving my backpack, a taxi driver jumped in my way shouting, Y40 to Dali? I was ready to punch him to get to my backpack. Yak sorted me out for catching the local bus (only Y1.5) and the hostel in Dali old city (18km north).

We have good service is printed on the flyer but I'd like to re-phrase it to pretty bloody average for this hostel.

Dali old city3 pagodas in Dali: 空气污染Y120 is a bit pricey when expecting to pay Y10 only to enter the temple at the rear, instead of freely visiting the 3 pagodas. Yak's wife Jin is ex-military and gets free entry. Yak and I jump in a horse-drawn cart to get just a distant view from up the hill.

Yak eating the cheesy thing in downtown DaliMichel dining in DaliA wonderful dinner with the hostel neighbour from Neice (France).

Saturday, April 22, 2006


The landscape rolling by my train window has transformed from the urban congregations to distant misty mountains and nearby cliffs, winding rivers, rice paddies, ox and cymbal-hat-wearing farmers.

In a city where one has nothing to do, Kunming is modern'ish, has plenty of western touches, and sits at a higher altitude than most of Australia - 1,890 metres !

I checked in to a hotel near the station. Also checking in, Shouko, a Japanese girl from Osaka, mentioned that the showers were dirty. At first I was shocked to meet a Japanese traveler in China, especially so far from the east coast business cities (like Shanghai). Next I realized how long I hadn't spoken any Japanese and how quickly I am losing the language basics! Finally I was shocked in the bathroom; not just at the fact that it was co-ed and lacking a door, but the common trough that I began shaving over is the exact same sink used by the kitchen staff to wash the dishes - mental note to self: do not eat in this hotel's restaurant!

bikes and flowers - unusual mixIt's a sunny beautiful day. Shade and cleaner air courtesy of the trees lining the footpaths make for pleasant walking. I wandered into a restaurant / bar named Sakura - good idea since I missed hanami in Hiroshima. Full of cheery rasta colours; Enya, Deep Forest and other enjoyable music; revolutionary characters (Cuba's Che Guevara, Russia's Lenin, China's Mao); wood decor and soft couches Wow! I am quite suspicious that I am their only customer...

best pizza I've ever eatenFurther tempting fate, I ordered a meat lover's pizza and an iced coffee. The iced coffee wasn't; it was pretty lame in fact. On the other hand, this pizza supersedes any I've ever had! After my 3 complete failure attempts in Japan, I was about to give up on pizza in Asia altogether. I could comfortably sit here all afternoon, but I should sort my onward travel. You can even order lamb chops from New Zealand here!

Friday, April 21, 2006

choo-chooing the distance

The Ludao Binguan is coping well with the masses. After a needed shower, the news from the hotel travel agent is that I can take a soft-sleeper, but tomorrow night. I'm not surprised - a typical marketing tactic to eke one more night's tariff; also the staff are so occupied fielding stupid questions from dumb-arse tourists, they haven't much time for any ticketing service - in spite of their commission!

Given Xi'an has 1 of China's top 3 attractions, I can understand why the 7 Sages HI hostel is left out of guidebooks. A very hospitable respite from the riff-raff, and so cheap - in fact cheaper than the price listed on their flyer given to me from a hostel mate in Shanghai.

all aboard the night train20th April: I slept like a log and was a little dubious that I was the only person looking for breakfast at 9am. A cool, drizzly day spent eating and listening to some good music in the courtyard / restaurant / cafe / bar of the 7 Sages hostel.

eating choo-choo food
eating choo-choo food,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
The day shift of hair-dressers / masseuses / prostitutes have shut their doors already as I walked to the station. My bag was X-ray scanned once again. Luckily there are mini-supermarkets inside the station. Snickers, Kit-Kat + coffee, bananas and water are the better purchases. Aboard the train an affectionate married couple and Mister Mobile Phone share compartment #7 with me.

part of 52,000 km of railway...21st April: Amazing to that back home I think of 2-minute and cup noodles as a waste of effort. Today at least, they formed my staple food! And why is it rude to slurp soups and noodles in our culture?

At any given time over 10 million Chinese are travelling on 52,000 kilometres of railway lines. From Xi'an to Kunming it's only 1,942 kilometres.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

stairway to triumph

the crew and I, triumphant
the crew and I, triumphant
Originally uploaded by vfowler.
With water, head-torch, and some clothes in my flash new day-pack, the comical adventure began. Practicing some back-of-the-book language on my bus buddy, coincidently this Chinese chap is also going to Hua Shan, a sacred Taoist mountain.

Cheers!The bus dropped us off outside a restaurant in Huashan village and my new friend, Youe, insisted that I stop in to eat - great idea! The entire bus load sat in the restaurant and listened to the (half-hour) mission briefing from a guy equipped with an extendable pointing rod and wall map, a head-set microphone and a blairing PA system, a booming voice and a bit of Chinese humour. You might say he was a local crowd pleaser or a foreigner's ear-drum breaker.

Over lunch, some extra last minute supplies and confusion about timing the ascent, I somehow had joined this clan of Youe + 8.

more stairs!let's rest here for a while...The easy 4 kilometres was done when the team decided to stop and rest for a few hours in a ... dwelling. We ate seeds and crackers, listened to some pop music, danced around, chatted (via Chinese to Japanese to me and back in 3 broken languages), and crashed out.

steep stepstime to get on upWe set off again at 1:30am. The occasional lamps and our torches lit the path, steeply up stairs. Giant black pits of darkness hid the dangerously deep drops to death.

incoming sunshine on East PeakDawn broke as we arrived at the East Peak and the sun emerged amidst a fog layer. Scarlet skies turned pale blue and what a beautiful day to spend in the mountains. Given my lack of fitness and the average Chinese punter's attire and equipment, to summit truly was triumphant.

The Changkong cliff footway'Ni hao' to the sunCompleting the circuit over the 2160-metre South Peak, along a cliff edge to West Peak and back down the Green Dragon Ridge, the scenery is jaw dropping and simply stunning.

resting the weary legs for a secEscape via the gondola cable car was a fun, quick and easy way to descend and insure against any potential knee injuries. Sitting on a stool in the aisle, I fell asleep on the bus back to Xi'an, again missing the screening of Fearless on the TV.