Yuanyang

On the way here we were stopped at a police checkpoint and I was asked for my passport. Apparently there has been some muslim extremist activity in Yunnan recently and they are monitoring foreigners movements. No problem, but I did think I was out of harm’s way as far as terrorism went!

The area around Yuanyang rises to 3000m and lies just 50km north of the Vietnam border. The steep sided mountains have been cultivated for hundreds of years by the Hani people, growing rice that is regarded as among the best in the world. Having had some for dinner I’d say it has a delicious nutty flavour, much more interesting than basmati, say. I also had a delicious dish with meat, garlic, scallions, ginger and chilli. Outrageously expensive meal at £2.50, but then it is a 4 star hotel. The other local minority are the Yi people, who wear gloriously colourful costumes. The rice terraces, now a world heritage site, look stunning at sunset and sunrise. I didn’t use filters or photoshop – these show exactly how it looked.

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Yi girl, age 3

Sunset at Yaohuzui (the tiger’s mouth)P1040309 P1040313 P1040320 P1040322

Sunrise at Daoyishu (a type of fruit tree)

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Commuting, Yunnan styleP1040364

We came back via a farmers market, where the locals can buy and sell vegetables, meat (on the hoof), herbs, household goods, fabric and agricultural equipment.

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Well, Well..

My guide, Lucy, has taken to mothering me (necessary, I have to admit) including taking me out in the evening to search for dinner. In theory I have enough Mandarin to cope with menus, ordering, paying etc, but in practice finding the right restaurant is the biggest difficulty. Plus, no-one, my guide included, seems to understand a word I say in mandarin – the subtleties of correct tonal pronunciation elude me. So – forgive me Laoshi T for being pathetic – Lucy took me to her favourite restaurants where she ordered local specialties. Last night we were in a charming restaurant, popular with locals, and had peanut soup with wild mountain vegetables, along with fried rice. Absolutely delicious and a bargain at £1.50 for the whole meal including tea. The locals’ table manners were interesting to observe. A family at the table opposite left behind a lot of detritus on the floor – packaging from the chopsticks, used tissues and the like – which the staff dutifully swept up before the table was reoccupied. Then a woman at a table in the corner started spitting food onto the floor. Lucy told me she was spitting out the bones from her meal. I explained that we would use a plate for that and this too is usual in China, but not for everyone, apparently. Before we left Jianshui we visited a couple of ancient wells, still very much in use. The quality of the water is regarded as a key ingredient in the making of the local tofu, but people also use it for watering their vegetables, washing clothes and so on. Clothes washing is done by foot as well as hand. P1040278 P1040282 P1040283 Just out of town we visited Twin Dragon bridge, which looked impressive in the morning sun. P1040288 We continued to Tuanshan village, one of only a few traditional walled villages left in Yunnan and now being hastily conserved for tourist consumption. It’s moment in history was at the turn of the 19/20th century the Zhang family made a fortune from mining and had the Yunnan-Vietnam railway built to allow for export. The family were communist sympathisers and so the village and its Buddhist shrine were not torn down in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s. P1040295 P1040296 Now we’re heading up to the mountains to see the rice terraces at Yuanyang. Can’t wait!

Fashion

Chinese girls are very fashion conscious. When we visited the stone forest almost all the girls were dressed as if they were going for tea at Buckingham Palace, including wide brimmed hats and the ubiquitous stratospherically high heels. The aim is to pose for photographs in front of whatever attraction it is that they are visiting, so they want to look their best. The attractions oblige, as previously mentioned, by having concrete walkways everywhere so that you can totter about to your heart’s content.

Tops sporting words in English are very popular, being exotically foreign I suppose, even though the wearer might not know what the words mean. I don’t think the girl wearing a white T-shirt with “Acne” written in large letters across the front can have understood what that means! Some Western clothing manufacturer’s little joke? Or maybe a Chinese clothing manufacturer’s ignorance/mistranslation.

Jianshui

Although I am in a small hotel in a traditional style building, I had coffee and brioche for breakfast! Things are looking up. We went for a stroll to the Chaoyang gate – one of the old entrances to the ancient walled city. Men bring their caged songbirds to the gate for an outing and to chat to the other birds. The men just stand and watch the birds, as a sort of hobby.

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Next we went to the Zhu family garden – the Zhus made their fortune from lead and zinc mining at the turn of the 19/20th century. The complex is a maze of rooms and courtyards built in the traditional Qing dynasty style, with ornate doorways, carvings and bonsai trees.

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Next up was a wander round a food market – gorgeous fresh fruit and veg, herbs, spices, live fish in tanks, and somewhat less gorgeous pig intestines and dead dogs. Apparently they don’t eat much dog these days – it is only served in specialty restaurants.

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Dried pig intestine

Dried pig intestine

After a nap break we went to the Confucian temple – the second largest one in China. My favourite part was a huge lake covered in lotus plants (see pic). When they are all in flower in June it must be quite a sight. Around the temple groups of old men sat in the shade playing cards or dominoes. Apparently they gamble to make them take the game more seriously and to make them try their best to win. It’s not about the money, in other words.

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We continued our wander around the old town, popping in to a Buddhist temple and a Daoist temple on the way back to the hotel. Jianshui really typifies the Western mental image of a Chinese town – tree lined stone streets, traditional architecture, decorative archways and red lanterns everywhere.

Buddhist temple

Buddhist temple

Daoist temple - the red ribbons in the tree are wishes

Daoist temple – the red ribbons in the tree are wishes

Apparently Kunming was like this until 30 years ago, when it was all ripped up and started again from scratch. I realize that the modern industrial cities are just as much “real China” as this quaint old town, but I definitely prefer the charm of Jianshui to the traffic choked, smoggy, high-rise, high-speed, high-tech likes of Shanghai or Chongqing.

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Qing dynasty bins

Qing dynasty bins

Stone Forest

I woke feeling better but as the day went on I developed a streaming cold. I now have Chinese Lemsip equivalent so hope I’ll be less like a limp dishrag tomorrow. In spite of not feeling my best, I enjoyed visiting the Stone Forest outside Kunming. This is a limestone Karst formation covering a huge area. Most of the local visitors whizz round on the electric bus, but my guide suggested a stroll through this extraordinary landscape. The Chinese do love imaginative names for their natural formations, so we admired King Kong, a map of Australia, an elephant and so on. It is a typical Chinese tourist attraction – incredibly well organized, efficient, clean, designed for visitor comfort, but with limited respect for the actual natural beauty. There was a large amount of concrete walkways, man made lakes and inscriptions carved into the rock.

King Kong

King Kong

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We then had a long drive to a city called Jianshui, which is on the way to the Vietnamese border. The transport infrastructure in China has expanded exponentially in the last decade and the number of people holding a driving licence has followed suit. In the 30 years to 2008 car ownership increased from 1 million to 51 million. In 2010 China overtook the US as the biggest maker and consumer of cars in the world. Teenagers now tend to buy an electric scooter rather than a bicycle, and you see them buzzing along, sometimes two or three on board, in shorts and T-shirts with no protective gear in sight. Sadly the standard of driving is best suited to empty roads at low speeds. On dual carriageways there is not always a central reservation and, when there is, people are quite likely to do a U-turn without warning. Sometimes the overtaking lane is nearest the central reservation and sometimes it is nearest the side of the road, which causes a certain amount of confusion. Road sweepers, mostly old ladies with a besom, wander along the side of the road clearing debris. There is no hard shoulder. Roundabouts are my favourite – it is the ultimate game of chicken, with no rules other than needing 360 degree vision and courage. I decided that sleeping was the best way to stay calm.

I am now installed in a sweet little hotel in the old town where I am staying for a couple of nights. No driving tomorrow thank goodness.

Green Eggs & Ham

Late in the afternoon I felt as though I had been hit on the back of the head with a brick. I also felt a bit feverish. I hoped that dinner would settle me but the special menu had the opposite effect. What is a yellow croaker? Does anyone order the stewed old duck with gastrodia elata? There’s always the boiled gluten and meat soup. I had previously thought that Dr Seuss’s green eggs and ham was an invention but I am starting to think I’ll see it on a menu here soon. I plumped for fried rice and continued to feel very odd. Eventually, in the middle of the night, on my own and in a very foreign land, I decided I might be developing ebola. Drama queen? Moi? More plausible explanations include trying to accommodate an 8 hr time difference in one day, sudden change of altitude, sudden change of diet, some sort of cleansing effect from the reflexology or sunstroke – the sun is tropical here, but doesn’t feel like it because of the altitude. Suffice to say I feel better this morning, so hold the medevac.

Kunming Nationalities

I slept really well so I was ready for sightseeing this morning. By midday I was feeling exhausted again, but my guide reminded me that we are at about 2000m altitude. Maybe that is why I feel a bit weird. We started by visiting the ethnic minorities park. The familiar sensation of conflicting emotions and being pulled in opposite directions set in. On the one hand, we effectively have a human zoo for tourists to gawp at minorities dressed in their traditional costumes, performing their traditional dances and selling their traditional handicrafts. On the other hand, we have a celebration of cultural diversity and a recognition of the value of preventing these minorities from being obliterated in China’s race for economic success. I suppose for many tourists it also saves the hassle of touring round this vast country to see these peoples in situ. In a couple of hours I visited Mongolia, Tibet and a number of other far flung provinces.

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More interesting was the Yunnan Nationalities museum, which had artefacts from all the minority peoples including samples of their calligraphy, painting, ceramics, costume, jewellery and day to day tools. Both the museum and the park present a rosy and harmonious view of the minority peoples and one can easily forget that a visit to the actual Tibet, say, would leave a different impression.

I’ll let you write your own caption for this:

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We stopped for lunch at some street stalls in the city centre, where we had delicious noodles and dumplings, washed down with freshly pressed fruit juice. The dumplings resemble tiny Cornish Pasties, but are deep fried rather than baked. I told my guide that when he visits England the ubiquitous pasty will make him feel at home! P1040217 Later we went to the flower market – Yunnan’s climate is well suited to horticulture and a dazzling display was on view. Chinese taste is a little different to ours – I have never seen roses dyed sparkly royal blue, for instance. Or flower arrangements made with cuddly bunnies. P1040220

Arrival

Kunming is known as the Spring City as it has a spring like climate all year round. It is a very pleasant 20 degrees just now. After my experiences in China last time I made sure I maxed out on English Breakfasts and Coffee between London and Hong Kong, as it will be tea and congee (watery rice porridge) till I transit through Hong Kong again. At Hong Kong airport I had a reflexology treatment – I have found in the past that it really helps with jet lag. I complimented my therapist on her strong hands (subtext: that’s a deep enough massage thanks) and she said “Strong? I am being soft soft with you”. Yikes.

Sadly, old Kunming has been dynamited into oblivion, so Dad’s description of his entrance into the city through the North gate cannot be replicated. Still, it is an attractive enough place with plenty of greenery in between the featureless tower blocks. I will explore tomorrow. Meanwhile you can see that my gadgets are working and I have successfully climbed the Great Firewall of China with my crafty VPN software.

The Jinjiang hotel is one of a chain in China. It has many advantages: “the comfortable intelligent air-condition control system offers you the best care; the perfect and advanced network service satisfies your every requirement of world communication. Finger square, peace, harmony and warmth; naturalness delicacy and coziness”. Who could want more?

Yunnan

I leave for Yunnan province in South West China next week. This will be another journey connected to my Dad’s time in China. At the end of his posting to Chongqing, in January 1944, he and a friend flew to Kunming and then drove up the Burma Road to Dali (see Kunming page). He tried to climb a mountain (Cangshan, over 4000m) near Dali but was unable to summit due to deep snow. Obviously, there’s a cable car now so I will be able to go up whatever the weather.

Yunnan lies at the eastern end of the Himalayan uplift and has borders with Vietnam and Laos to the South, Burma to the West and Tibet and Sichuan to the North. The tropic of Cancer crosses the middle of the province. Yunnan has the highest biodiversity in China and about a third of the population comprises ethnic minorities.

I am flying to Kunming, then heading south to see the tropical rice terraces and to meet some of the minority peoples. I return to Kunming and then take the train to Dali, following the path of the Burma Road. From Dali I continue northwards, visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge and the first bend of the Yangtse river, before reaching Shangri-La near the Tibetan border. It should be a really beautiful journey!

I have prepared all my gadgets and I hope I will be able to post lots of photos and words as I go along. Packing is going to be a challenge – tropical to arctic gear needed – but I feel much better prepared this time. My dear friends at My Odyssey Tours are once again providing guides. I have continued to study Mandarin and I hope to have slightly more interesting conversations this time. Six hours on a train should provide some opportunities for practise!