Sleep late after a tormented night. Partly due to having chatted until late to a group of Slovaks that I met in my hotel upon my return (and I was verging towards allegro con brio already when I eventually made it back, to be quite honest), partly due to having been waken up by something big running in my room in the middle of the night. I managed to convince myself that whatever the creature was, it wasn’t actually inside my room, rather on the roof above it, but I was too scared to switch on the light and face the truth. Task number 2 of the day: catch the cab to the train station, or rather, explain to the cab driver where I need to go. This involves showing him the actual sentence written in mandarin (but it seems he’s illiterate), showing him the journey on the map (cannot read maps either), miming the sounds the train does, and at the end, drawing the actual train. Thank God there is only one train station in town. It’s only 2.5 hrs to Dali, but it may as well be the longest 2.5 hours of my life, as the “lady” seated next to me spends them snacking on a fried carcass of some poor animal, sucking every bone and spitting it sometimes in the bag, more often on the floor, all this accompanied by assorted indescribable sounds. The person opposite me is watching a film on full volume without headphones, but I am the only one who seems to be bothered by any of this.
Anyway. Dali looks good. Set on the shores of lake Erhai, the ancient city lays about 20 km (1 hr on the public bus) north from the new town (where the train stops). There is a big university, and the students like to hang out in the old town, which I am told is the chinese capital of indie rock (of sorts). I walk into a bar that plays live music (incidentally, Bad Monkey, craft brewery, apart from a concert venue, and even though their IPA is a bit too sweet for my taste, it’s still by far the best brew I’ve had in China. So, there is this live band playing covers of rock’n’roll classics, and playing them rather well. The singer and the bass guitarists are very handsome, too (in fact, they are Thai). Apparently I am not the only person who appreciates the aesthetics of the band, as the audience is predominantly feminine (and drunk). I am again the only westerner in the pub, except for an unlikely matched and very drunk pair performing some sort of nuptial dance next to the stage. Alcohol: helping ugly/shy/English people to have sex since … probably forever.
I meet Olga and Robin, an austrian couple I had met during the Leaping Tiger Gorge trek. It’s a beautiful day, so we rent bicycles and ride north along the lake, through many tiny villages towards the Haiste ecology park (about 30 km from Old Dali, so the roundtrip makes for a nice day of relaxed cycling. There are massive black and yellow spiders everywhere. They build the webs between the power wires, so some villages actually have a roof of webs and spiders above the streets. The lake is exceptionally clean. There are hotels everywhere on the shore, but no beach. I ask whether there is anywhere we could swim, and the reply is that “it’s too dangerous” – I would expect nothing less in China – and although I try to insist that we can actually swim, they remain adamant. Too dangerous. Actually to be quite fair, I later learn that there is a certain species of sweet water snail that can have some sort of parasite, and if you step on it, it could get into your blood system and later on develop into liver and kidney cancer. However, they all eat what I suspect is the very same snail around here, so they either don’t know, or don’t care, or maybe cooking the thing kills the parasite. Either way, I don’t risk either the swim or the local delicacies.
September 10 – 11
Transfer to Kunming. Me and the Austrians are actually staying in the same hostel, but they take a train, while I fly. I actually end up not doing anything at all, I need a little rest after everything. There is not much to see in Kunming anyway (most attractions are around it), but it has a good nightlife, huge western expat community, it also hosts China’s second biggest university, all of which makes it a fun enough city.
Half decent shots from a walk in the Green Lake Park.
Shilin Stone Forest – about 90 minutes ride from the Kunming East coach station (buses leave when full). It is quite pricey (175 Y for foreigners), but there is an unofficial way in (if you don’t mind walking a little bit). Check out this article – it’s pretty accurate. The group of us (me, the two Austrians and a Basque couple we also met on the LTG trek) decide to try a bit of adventure, but we end up doing something completely different: we walk around the Shilin lake and end up entering in the grounds via the employees’ parking lot. The guard was trying to prevent us from doing that, truth be told, but ignoring people normally works pretty well in China. Mind you, this approach may not work every time, especially if the guard is a bit more fervent. However, we don’t hang around the main entrance for too long and disperse among the crowd, and just to be sure no one will be waiting for us at the main gate when we try to exit, we decide that we’ll try to leave by the path described in the wikitravel article, and it works out perfectly (if you don’t mind a bit of walking, the double carriage road that leads back to the main gate is quite unpleasant as il leads through bizarre constructions like a Disney castle or a future indoor skiing centre). Enough about non complying with the rules in China (somewhat of an adrenalin sport); the Stone Forest: a region of karst rocks formed by rainwater and wind erosion into razor-sharp blades. It is unlike any other landscape I’ve ever seen (or imagined). The national park is quite vast, and as soon as we wander off from the main scenic point where everyone takes pictures, we’re pretty much alone.
The original plan is to go see the Chinese next big thing – as soon as they manage to build all over it – the Dongchuan red lands (which are actually nowhere near to Dongchuan). It is an area of terrace agriculture, where the soil is red, and according to the season different plants flower, so the views over the farms and terraces can be quite breathtaking. Problem is, the places have no name, the locals call them by the kilometre of a local road along which all there places are situated. Supposedly there is a guesthouse on km 110 and supposedly the owner speaks english and takes the tourists around the photographic paradise. Supposedly. We are armed with three sentences in mandarin: 1: “A ticket to Fazhe, please.” 2: “Can you let me off at Huagou valley.” 3: “How do I get back to Kunming?” So you understand, the project is quite adventurous. Unfortunately, Robin has a tooth infection that requires attention of a chinese dentist (which is probably an even bigger adventure than wandering around some nameless road in the middle of nowhere). I toy with the idea of trying to go on my own anyway, but finally decide against going alone not knowing exactly where, how, but with the certainty that no one will speak english there. So next time – if I ever get the visa again (unlikely after the big chinese brother reads my blogs). Instead I just chill in the hostel backyards, write and hangout with some expats.
Kunming Green Lake Park:
I have seen many bizarre english signs all over China, starting from the ominous fire prevention warnings along the Leaping Tiger Gorge trek, to “no horseplay in the elevator” in one hotel. Then there are T-shirts with english-sounding writings, that either make no sense whatsoever, or whoever is wearing them has no clue what they mean. Thus there was a middle-aged men in a huge gold “please call me girl” T-shirt; or a lady well in her 80s with big bright green “BITCH!” all over her chest. However, this guy clearly must be the proud owner of the most absurd piece of clothing. (Morale: don’t wear, of God forbid, tattoo anything chinese, unless someone reads it first. Or you’ll end up with “sweet and sour pork ribs” tattooed on your shoulder forever).
Dali: Yimoxuan Guesthouse – 5 minutes walk to the old town, fantastic view over the lake from the roof terrace and the girl at the reception speaks excellent english
Kunming: Uplands Hostel – helpful staff, nice yard, VPN wifi