Privates on Parade

I’m back home. I flew from Shangri-La to Kunming to Hong Kong to London, about 30 hours travelling all told. The only incident en route was that we were slightly delayed on the way to Shangri-La airport by a yak crossing the six lane highway just in front of us. Admittedly it was using the zebra crossing, so I suppose it was fair enough. Julian and Gobi were overjoyed to see me and it is lovely to come home to spring in full bloom.

One last comment on China – the public conveniences. For a nation that is fastidiously clean and well organised, the toilets seem to be a bit of a blind spot. Neither privacy nor hygiene seem to be a factor in their design. At the 3 star end we have western style sit toilets, with doors on the cubicles. If these toilets exist at all, it is in the guise of “disabled access”. For full 3 star rating there also needs to be toilet paper (rare as hens teeth), water in the basins, soap (also very rare) and something to dry your hands with (not a big deal in a warm country mind you). Most common is the 1 or 2 star toilet where some of these things are missing. Doors being the most commonly absent feature. The cubicles are usually in a row over a trench, where water runs through periodically to carry away the waste into a collective hole in the ground. Squatting is mandatory. Used paper is put into a basket in the cubicle – I’m not against this in principle, if the baskets are emptied frequently. What I do find disturbing is that the cubicles are separated by a wall – no door – and so you have to squat more or less in public. My least favourite is where the wall is only about 2 feet high, so that when you stand up to pull your knickers up, your privates are on parade, as it were.

Down from the positive star rated loos we have the minus 1 or 2 star toilets, where you would be infinitely better off behind a bush – or in front of a bush, come to that. My guides helpfully steered me away from these horrors. My first treat on arrival at LHR was to use a lovely western loo, behind a locked door, with hot water and soap to wash my hands and a functioning hand dryer. I love China, I think it is an amazing country, but it does have this one little niggly disappointment. I’ve always found everything about China paradoxical, and this is just another example. Nobody’s perfect.


This morning we went to Potatso National Park. In some ways this is a good time of year to visit – the cold winter is over and the rainy season hasn’t started. However, the land looks very barren and dull as the grass has not yet started to grow. This park is supposed to be home to a great variety of fauna and flora, but the rhododendrons aren’t in bloom, I can’t imagine orchids surviving the grazing by yaks and horses and we only saw a couple of ducks on the lake. The alpine meadow must look lovely in the height of summer, but currently it is a desert.


Poor Shangri-La, being lumbered with that name – even though they fought for it – it sets expectations that cannot possibly be met. The climate and altitude are not conducive to pretty trees and flowers and the fire has ruined the charm of the old town.

This afternoon we visited the Songzanlin Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the largest in Yunnan and established by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1679. It was desecrated during the Cultural Revolution but was rebuilt and repopulated in the 1980s. It is an impressive site, with golden rooves and intricately decorated interiors, with massive statues of the Buddha and other deities. Sadly, though, it feels spiritually hollow and inauthentic. It seems designed mainly for tourists, though apparently 450 monks are in residence. One sign said “respect ethnic cultures and beliefs”. Quite. I’m sad that this is the final attraction on my trip – it would have been good to end on a more positive note. Still, overall it’s been a great trip and I have very much enjoyed visiting Yunnan.


Paradise on Earth

I had a little wander round the old town of Shangri-La. Sadly, the fire in January 2014 destroyed almost all of the old wooden buildings. They are doing their best to rebuild in the traditional style but it’s going to take a while. Meanwhile, health and safety are paramount for the workers. Paradise on Earth it is not.



My little hotel is Tibetan in style – architecture, food, staff. Delightful.

My room is the 3rd door along

My room is the 3rd door along


On the road to Shangri-La

Today we headed north towards the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. First stop was the ‘first bend of the Yangtze River’. Three rivers rise in the north and head south through the mountains. Two of them continue south and join the Mekong, emptying in the South China Sea. The Yangtze makes a different choice – at this spot it makes a U-bend that then leads it eastward across China, ultimately reaching the sea at Shanghai. At this season, before the rains, the river looks charming and benign, but in a month or two it will be an iron-red raging torrent. We strolled through the little town next to the bend and snacked on deep fried potatoes with chilli.

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We continued on to Tiger Leaping Gorge (still the upper Yangtze, here known as Jinsha river). I had toyed with the idea of hiking the gorge for a couple of days but all the guidebooks say it is extremely steep and demanding, especially on the knees. Not for me these days. Instead we drove to the inevitable visitor centre, with walkways, viewing platforms and tat shops. Even so it was a considerable descent to reach the river and a stiff climb back up. No matter all the trappings of tourism, it is still stunning. Hydro power is growing massively in China and there was talk of flooding the gorge to create a dam. As well as affecting tourism, this would have displaced about 100,000 Naxi people. In a rare response to public outcry, the dam project has been shelved. However, there are still plans for dams higher up and lower down, so it is not all good news.

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We climbed from 2400m at Lijiang to 3200m at Shangri-La, via spectacular mountain scenery. We are close to Tibet here and the flavour of the town is very much Tibetan rather than Chinese. Goats gave way to yaks, pagoda style roofs disappeared and traditional Tibetan houses started to appear, signs started to be in Tibetan script as well as Chinese characters and prayer flags were flying everywhere. It’s also much colder here, but still good weather. There was a major fire in Shangri-La last year that destroyed about 400 houses in the old town. I’m not sure how much that will affect the look of the place.


Small Miracle

This evening a small miracle occurred. My guide recommended me to go to a Tibetan restaurant called Lamu’s. I can now navigate the maze of alleys in Lijiang old town well enough to find my way there (and back!). The restaurant turned out to be the best and most user-friendly place in town. Or province, come to that. I ordered cheese balls and fried “noddles” with chicken and…a….glass…of….red…wine!!! No really, it’s true. A restaurant in China that sells wine, by the glass. Miracle! And it had a charming view of cherry trees in blossom and a distant pagoda. Bliss.


Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

I grabbed a quick shot of the ancient bridge in Lijiang this morning, before the crowds took over. You can see goldfish in the water.


We had a slow but pretty journey to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain cable car – most of the Chinese tourists went up the nearest one, but my guide had something more remote in mind and we headed for the cable car to a Yak Meadow, where there is a small Tibetan Buddhist monastery. We walked a slow circuit to admire the view – I reckon we reached about 3800m (over 12,000ft) but I am reasonably acclimatised now and I felt fine.It was a beautiful morning, sunny and still. Not long after our descent the clouds thickened and a light rain began to fall. I never cease to be amazed by my luck.

Ascent through Azaleas

Ascent through Azaleas

from the Tibetan Buddhist monastery

from the Tibetan Buddhist monastery

view from about 3800m

view from about 3800m



Sign of the day

Sign of the day

My guide told me about her life. Her birth parents were teachers, employed by the Government, her mum Naxi and her dad Han Chinese. They already had two children, but as they were both girls (i.e. duds) they tried again, but another little girl was born. If they’d kept her both parents would have lost their jobs, Instead, they handed her over to some Naxi relatives who lived in a remote village. It was an hour’s walk to the nearest road and then a bus to get to school. The adoptive parents were peasants earning about £100/yr, too poor for proper shoes or umbrellas, so when it was winter the little girl had to walk to the school bus through the mud and the rain in home-made shoes (this is only 20 years ago). They were often hungry but her adoptive parents could see she was a bright girl and spent all their money on her school books. She eventually won scholarships for university and through sheer hard work and determination she has succeeded in achieving a much happier life. Her birth parents went on to try again and this time they had a boy, whom they kept and paid for. I cannot imagine how she feels about all of that, but she tells the story in entirely neutral tones.She did say that she has a better relationship with her adoptive parents than she does with her birth parents.

Breathtaking descent

Breathtaking descent

To Lijiang

Strange things I saw on the way from Dali to Lijiang: snow capped mountains, tanks on exercise, a film crew, harvested wheat gathered into stooks in the field, Cezanne style haystacks, roadworks separated from the highway with cones and bunting, a town called Xiyi (West One) with very little in common with the Harley St area of London. Road construction is advancing at such a pace that you must need an update for your satnav every week – we came along part new dual carriageway, part widened A road, part old mountain road. My favourite local vehicle I call the bike-truck, a motorbike front with a small flatbed truck in rear (3 wheels in all). There are handlebars, a faring, rear mirrors like a bike, but with a bench seat. You can have a driver and a couple of relatives up front, plus a little one on the driver’s lap, and then in the truck you can either have the rest of the family or a load of wood, stones or vegetables with just a couple of family members on top. No helmets or seat belts or protection against the elements.


Bike-truck (2nd Class - no faring. 3rd class has a bicycle instead of motorbike)

Bike-truck (2nd Class – no faring. 3rd class has a bicycle instead of motorbike)

Lijiang surprised me by being extremely pretty – it lies at 2400m on a plateau with mountains on all sides, including 6000m peaks visible in the far north.The whole city has maintained the traditional tree lined streets and pleasant architecture that is so often absent with modern expansion in China. The old city is a maze of alleys and canals, all lined with willows, cherry trees and climbing roses. Almost all of the buildings in the old city, sadly, are devoted to the sale of tat and (God help us) there is a McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza hut. We wandered about and called in at a teahouse. A tea master made me Pu’er tea, green tea and 200 year old black tea. All delicious and fascinating to watch the care with which they make tea here.


My bed at the Zen Garden Hotel, Lijiang

My bed at the Zen Garden Hotel, Lijiang

The locals are mostly from the Naxi minority. They have an animist religion presided over by shamans. Today happens to be ‘sweeping the ancestors tombs’ day (this seems to apply to all the major religions here) so the shamans were not around town – too busy doing ceremonies at tombs in the mountains.The Naxi prize fat, dark women, on the grounds that those characteristics mean they are strong and hard workers! I could be in luck. My guide is half Naxi – when she was a child the government weren’t interested in minorities and she only learned Mandarin. Now, the government wants to preserve minorities and so the dialect is taught in school. She told me about the ‘one child’ policy. Essentially you can have a second child but you have to pay, the amount depending on your salary and the area where you live. For a tour guide in Lijiang the cost is about £18,000 – prohibitive for most.


When Dad visited, Dali consisted of a walled city about 1km square. This is still present but now forms a very small part of a larger city of about 3 million people. The city lies between Erhai Lake (ear shaped lake) and the Cangshan mountain range which has several 4000m peaks. Most of the locals are Bai people, including my guide. First up we visited a Bai village and had a wander around, admiring the market, the electrics and old architecture.

Baby carrier with Chinese Characteristics

Baby carrier with Chinese Characteristics

Electrics with Chinese Characteristics

Electrics with Chinese Characteristics


Horse with Chinese Characteristics

Next we had a “cruise” on the lake. The cruise ship was actually a rowing boat holding about a dozen passengers and rowed by one person. We were taken out to see a cormorant fisherman and then landed on an island where they were barbecuing lake fish. All very touristy but pleasant enough.

cormorant fisherman on Erhai Lake

cormorant fisherman on Erhai Lake

The 3 Pagodas at Dali (copy - original destroyed by earthquake)

The 3 Pagodas at Dali (copy – original destroyed by earthquake)

We then took the cable car up the mountain – I was a bit concerned about the electrics for this, given what I had just seen, but apparently the cable car was installed by the Austrian manufacturer. The rules state that drunken, hypertensive and insane persons may not use the cable car. Luckily no-one actually checked. We were taken up to about 3500m and had a stroll around. As usual, the Chinese state has funded stone walkways, bins, toilets, restaurants, viewing platforms and so on. Part of me wished I had more time for hiking in these lovely mountains and part of me was glad not to – I prefer wilder places. It was great to go up though – the weather was lovely and the views magnificent. My guide was very worried about the weather getting windy and the cable car being closed as a result. Having been on a few of these things skiing, in whiteouts, blizzards and assorted unpleasant weather, I thought this was a bit far-fetched. Apparently a common concern though – I was at a viewpoint when there was a little gust and two girls next to me gasped “feng lai le!” (it’s getting windy).

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We then dived into Dali old town, which has long been a destination for tourists. This means that you can get pizza, coffee, chocolate cake, wine, beer, etc etc. as well as local manufactures such as jade, silk, and endless tat. One of the tourist attractions there was me! A group of Chinese girls came and asked if they could have their photo taken with me. Selfies were duly snapped on their phones, but they didn’t need to know anything about me – where I was from, name, nothing. I was just a strange object in their path.


Southgate - with Chinese Characteristics

Southgate – with Chinese Characteristics

I’m on the train

I had arranged to travel from Kunming to Dali by train, so that I could see the countryside – the only other option being to fly. My Dad did this journey by truck along the Burma road, so in solidarity I thought I should journey by land. A “hard seat” had been booked for me, which means a variety of things, including the fact that it is not a hard seat. Websites about travelling by train in China warn against this class of seat – the carriages tend to be crowded and smelly and not really intended for waiguoren (foreigners). However, there was no choice on this train, so I submitted to my fate.

Last year there was a terrorist attack at Kunming station and since then they’ve introduced airport style security – passport checks, x-ray scanning of luggage, named and numbered seats for passengers, the works. Luckily it is not that strict and Lucy was able to sweet talk the security man into letting her accompany me into the station. Just as well as all signs were in characters and I’m not sure I would have worked out that I needed to go to waiting area 4 and then gate 26 or 27. I joined a vast herd of people and in due course we were allowed to board. My seat looked perfectly comfortable, there were lacy curtains at the windows and it was very clean. You are advised to place your luggage in the overhead rack and keep an eye on it at all times. Throwing a 20kg suitcase over my head was not so easy, but I succeeded in the end. It would have to be a strong and quick thief to run off with it unnoticed!

Then a woman and her 6 yr old son sat (both of them) in the seat next to me. For the next 6 hours the boy got up, sat down, slid onto the floor, got up, went out, came back, bounced up and down on the seat and sprayed instant noodles everywhere. Joy. I had been warned about dire toilets on trains and told not to drink anything. However, I didn’t think I could keep my legs crossed for 6 hours and after about 4, I just had to ‘try the experience’. Actually it was no worse than any Chinese toilet – a hole in the floor let everything fall onto the tracks, which at least limited the smell.

Everyone was plugged into their phones or tablets so not much opportunity for conversation. I was the only waiguoren on board which pleased me because I knew that my guide would easily spot me at the station when we arrived. Except she wasn’t there – in her place was a vast mob, shouting at the arrivals. I have no clue if they were friendly or not, but none of them had my name on a board. A quick call and a couple of minutes later my guide appeared, all flustered because some accident had caused a traffic jam. All in all it hasn’t been a great day, but I am now installed in a Tibetan hotel in old Dali. I think I’ll have roast yak for dinner.


We had one last viewing of the rice terraces before heading back to Kunming. An enterprising old Hani man had taken up a seat guarding the entrance to a viewpoint on his land, and had settled in with his shuiyandou (water tobacco pipe) for the day, asking 20p a look, with a photo of himself thrown in.

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On the way to Kunming we stopped at a village populated by the descendants of Mongolian soldiers who overran the place centuries ago, in the days of Kublai Khan. We found a gaggle of old ladies gossiping, with wonderful faces.

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Lucy had to dash off after we arrived, as her son (9) had been knocked over at school and had been taken to hospital for stitches. Tomorrow morning I set off Northwards by train for Dali, about a 6 hour journey up into the mountains.