A few words of advice from someone who knows…

10 Feb 2000

1. Don’t lose your phrasebook just as you leave the last town where anyone speaks English.

2. Never travel with your sister – everyone thinks you’re married. This leads to a number of interesting predicaments, which we don’t need to go into here.

3. If you ever make it to China don’t bother lining up for something – you’ll never get it. Instead elbow your way to the front and thrust your money under the nose of the attendant like everyone else.

4. When trekking over a few mountains it’s wise to leave behind your large pack and just take what you need. Otherwise you’ll feel like the donkeys you keep passing on the way.

5. Don’t bother to bring shoe polish. Every where you go people will obligingly spit polish your shoes for you. Even if you’re sitting on a long distance bus, don’t be surprised if the person next to you noisily clears their throat and drops a big slimy golly on your boots. Free of charge and without you even asking. Now that’s service …

Nihao everyone! Thanks for the emails. Sorry I don’t have time to reply to everyone – the clock’s ticking.

Hmmmm … where to start? It’s been an amazing week. We finally got out of Kunming by train and made it the old town of Dali. It was a nice little town, though over-rated if you ask me. If you like sitting at a western-style cafe drinking Dali Beer or cappuccinos, eating banana pancakes and smoking pot then Dali is the place to be. If you’re like me then this sounds like home (well the western bit anyway) so it was no great loss that I was only there for 2 days. We did mange to get out of town and into the farmland though, which was fairly interesting.

The next day I climbed to Zhonghe Temple, a Buddhist temple perched on the mountain overlooking Dali. There was a cable car to the top, but that’s only for idiots with no sense of adventure, right? No prizes for guessing who felt like an idiot an hour later. If you’re feeling unfit at sea level, that’s a small clue you’ll also feel unfit at 2000m. However eventually I made it to the top and was once again a legend in my own mind.

The western influence on a small Chinese town like Dali is pervasive. You have to accept the fact that even lost tribes in the Amazons sell Coke. When you see the local kids wearing CNN Sports caps you get a
little worried. But when you’re looking at some traditional handcrafted Tibetan knives and find one embossed with a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio you know the town is as doomed as the Titanic …

I think I mentioned I was sick of people trying to sell me stuff I don’t need – like Rolex watches. So it was ironic when I lost my watch (never buy a watch band from Crazy Clarks) and then couldn’t find a cheap watch for over a week. Finally I succeeded. A genuine Rolex for less than $5. I know what you’re saying, but trust me, I know it’s real. A day after I’d bought it only the second hand had fallen off, and who uses the second hand anyway? That’s the kind of quality and thoughtfulness you expect from Rolex.

Next stop, Lijiang, at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains. The old part of town is a fascinating maze of canals, cobblestone alleys, ancient Naxi architecture and marketplaces. It’s a World Heritage area, so unfortunately a little touristy, but even so you can’t complain. I’ve been staying at a small guest house in the old section and you soon forget that modern urban sprawl is only 10 minutes walk away.

The night we arrived was New Years Eve and along with the other backpackers at the guest house we prepared and consumed a traditional dumpling feast, washed down with Dali Beer. As the night went on we
spilled out onto the main street where the fireworks were literally going off. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. The closest analogy I can think of is a warzone. Flowers, fountains, whizzers, rockets, whistlers, crackers, ufos – every firework imaginable was for sale for a few dollars on the footpath and being set off a few metres away. The sound was deafening, the stench of gunpowder was heavy in the air and the night was lit up with the glow of a thousand colours. I got hit a few times – from shrapnel and rockets – and not accidently either: westerners were fair game. A group of us soon learned, however. The idea is to keep moving and watch your back.

We had some fun with with little strikers you light like a match then drop near some unsuspecting victim. Then we discovered what I can only describe as grenade sims, for about 80c each. The possibilities were endless, and we fully exploited them. It was like everyone young and old were pyromaniac children. Needless to say I fitted right in. The joy of sneaking up on a group of bystanders, secretly lighting a grenade and placing it behind them before making a speedy getaway and watching the resulting brown jocks moment is difficult to describe.

The fireworks didn’t stop there either. They’d been going off for days before New Years and continued for the next few days (I had rather a rude awakening at 6 the next morning when some cute little Chinese kid let off what sounded like a machine gun under my window). I was surprised at how close people were letting them off to the tables piled high with what amounts to unsold dynamite. So I wasn’t so surprised when, on the second night, a table ignited. I was right across the street when it happened. What an explosion. It spread from one table to the next in a massive, noisy and colourful chain reaction. People were diving all over the place in a futile attempt to escape the inferno. As far as I could tell no one was injured, though when I told a Chinese person about it later she wanted to know how many people had died! I guess it must be a common occurance, despite what the official media says.

I’ve had lots of other interesting experiences in Lijiang which I can’t fit in now (like getting invited into the home of a 92 year old Naxi elder in a nearby village or listening to the Naxi orchestra play Taoist symphonies over 1000 years old on 400 year old instruments – very cool) as I have to mention Tiger Leaping Gorge.

After my sister left for Guilin I hooked up with an American and a couple of Canadians for an assault on the Gorge: a huge canyon carved by the Yangzi River, 16km long and 4km high. We did the low road on he way in – about 21 kays in 4 and a half hours. That was the easy bit. We stayed with a very friendly local family overnight then the next day we got a guide to take us down to the river. Lucky we did – I guess they call them goat paths because only the goats can see them. Let’s just say you wouldn’t want slip and leave it at that. Eventually we made it to the point where legend has it a tiger fleeing hunters leapt the entire gorge. Awesome view. Deep blue sky, snow capped mountains towering over you, copper green river roaring by over huge pieces of marble. Our guide Mr Xia (a tiny leprechaun with mountain goat blood) asked if we wanted to go further and we agreed. He confidently led us over some loose gravel and along a narrow ledge about 100m above the river to a cave in the side of the cliff. When we got there he told us no other westerners had ever been game to do it. That’s when we looked down and understood why. Having come this far we decided to press on. Mr Xia took Heather along the ledge and across a small waterfall, before disappearing around the corner and leaving her clinging to the side of the cliff. Basically rockclimbing without ropes. Then he strolled back as if wandering along a highway. By this time one of the Canadians was getting vertigo *really* bad so we all decided to turn back. Heather was not happy at having to come back, but then she wasn’t too keen to scale up the side of the waterfall on the other side either …

Yesterday we took the high path back. 28 kays in 8 and a half hours, including two mountains. What a killer. But worth every blister. The view was, well a word hasn’t been invented yet. Awesome, spectacular, all that sort of stuff. There’s only so many times you can say holy shit before you run out of words. I took a roll and a half of film all up, but I’m afraid they’re not going to show very much. You just couldn’t fit the sky, the mountains and the drop into one photo, though I tried. Today I learned that someone died yesterday in the gorge taking a photo – he fell into the river and was swept away. Fuck.

Tomorrow I head out to Lugu Lake, a hair-raising 9 hour bus trip through the mountains, to visit the Mosu people, a sub-group of the Naxi who still practice matriarchy. Hopefully I’ll be able to find out what it’s like to be a lowly male. On that note I have to go – I think I’ve clocked up over 60 kwai chatting away. Alive and loving every minute.


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