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.
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.
The hotel beds in China are thinly disguised floorboards – I have to make myself into a sausage roll with duvet pastry in order to be able to sleep. This morning it is misty and grey for my Li river cruise. The landscape is one of Slartibartfast’s finest – limestone outcrops (karst) in the shape of snails or horses or dolphins or woman with baby on her back or clutching hand, dotted about like a sculpture park. The local tourists were glued to their iphones or tablets but I just stood on deck for 3 hours feeling overwhelmed by beauty, oblivious to the rain and wind.
We arrive at Yangshuo and head down West Street, home to a ribbon of tat-erias with the odd jewel thrown in. Most interesting is the handicraft shop selling work by the ethnic minorities – the Miao and Dong peoples, who are in much the same state as others around the world – by turns marginalised, romanticised, disenfranchised, patronised and held up as symbols of human rights magnanimity by the ruling elite. They produce intricate and numinous textiles, in spite of it all.
The Li River Retreat is my home for the next couple of nights. My gorgeous room has a balcony overlooking the river and the mountains and is disturbed only by birdsong and crickets. I shared a glass of wine or two with a couple of Aussies who I met on the boat and who are also staying here. It’s great to have some company – so far I have been the sole European/English speaker. Peter has fluffy Pooh Bear complimentary slippers from his room, while I only have standard issue plastic jobs. Am I a second class citizen? Should I get over my slipper envy? I think I might need a little lie down.
View from my room at Li River Retreat
I’m reading “The Magnetic North” by Sara Wheeler at the moment. I’m thoroughly enjoying her mix of travelogue, science, history and ethnography of the Arctic, but it is also reminding me of the context of Dad’s youth. He was born in 1914 and in the ‘20s and ‘30s the papers would have been full of Mallory’s exploits on Everest, aviation feats and endless attempts to reach the North Pole. It was an age of adventure and exploration. It wasn’t just Dad’s duty as an officer to escape from the Japs: he was a mountaineer, he’d been learning to fly, he was a fearless rider – he wanted an adventure! He must have been happy as a pig in muck to be striking out across the unknown interior of China in wartime.