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.
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.
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.
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:
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! 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.
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?
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!