Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Back to poverty

It's really noticeable on crossing from China into Laos that the average income is alot lower. Not since Sumatra have I seen so many bamboo walled houses, and the cost of travel has dropped accordingly. But most of the people I meet have arrived from Thailand, and are all complaining about how expensive Laos is. Perhaps if they stepped out of the tourist restaurants and ate at the local stalls they might realise it isn't that expensive at all!!There are many ethnic minority groups in the north of Laos, and the in word around here is "ecotrekking". This is a very expensive way of creating a monopoly trekking system, with exorbitant prices for the experience of staying in traditional villagers' homes. On perusing the price breakdown, sometimes only 10% is actually going to the villages. Instead I cycled around town, and took a motorbike to a few places further afield. The local Hmong and Akha tribes have been stopped from growing their traditional crop of opium poppies and are instead being encouraged to grow other crops. So our western sensibilities mean that entire families have lost their livelihoods. The people are wonderfully friendly , with people of all ages smiling, waving and wishing me Sabai-dii. And I've already noticed some interesting food in the market, but more on that later.

Click on the links for photos of Luang Nam Tha and Udomxai

It's Xmas Eve and I am looking at a 10 hour bus ride tomorrow into the very northern province of Phongsaly. It's quite close to some of the places I visited in NW Vietnam, so should be quite colourful. Am also hoping the trekking prices are just a little more reasonable.

So Merry Xmas to you all.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gardens in paradise

Jinghong, on the Mekong river, is just another city. But get out of town a little and there are still Dai villages and lots of vegetable gardens. I didn't stay long, it was time to move on to Laos.For more photos of Jinghong

On the way south to the border is a small town called Menglun, where a world famous research institute of tropical plants is situated. It's built on a couple of islands in a bend in the river and is definitely worth a visit for anyone with a botanical bent. It has huge gardens showcasing almost every tropical plant species you can think of, as well as a tropical rainforest walk and a museum. I spent hours here, including photographing my favourite tropical plant, the heliconia.For more photos of Menglun

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Under my skin

What was going to be a quick detour out of SE Asia into Yunnan Province to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge has turned into a month long trip. It's the first country since Indonesia that has really got under my skin (well I could have stayed in Penang eating food for a bit longer I suspect!), and I am almost kicking myself for taking 20 years to return to this fascinating country.

But 20 years ago it was a vastly different place, where travel was restricted, you had to stay in hotels designated for foreign visitors, and there was a two tiered monetary system. Travel on buses and trains was also 3-4 times the price that locals paid, and you were continuously being looked at, touched and having your personal space violated. I remember that sense of relief when mum and I returned to Hong Kong after a month of being fish in a fishbowl. In retrospect I realise we were somewhat traumatised by the experience.

Even without speaking or reading the language it's easy to find your way, once armed with a Lonely Planet or equivalent guidebook that is! My few days without one wasn't pleasant! Usually you can find an English speaking person somewhere (top tip: try a five star hotel reception desk) who can help you out. The people have seen enough foreigners, even if only on satellite TV, not to treat you like a zoo exhibit, yet are still very friendly. In fact yesterday I had a small girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, stop me in the street to say hello to me and tell me her name. Super cute!!

I'm now heading south into Laos, unsure what the internet service is like there so it may be a while till the next post. All I can say is it won't be 20 years till my next visit to China, and mum, we're going to Taipei next year OK?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Tea plantations and rapidly disappearing customs

Modernism also comes to the ethnic minority people. They don't want to live in drafty wooden houses if they can afford to build a nice brick one, and the youngsters don't want to look different from any others of their age. That's what satellite TV does, turns us all into one homogenous global society. In fact walking around in any Asian city these days you'd be hard pressed to identify people's ethnicity without seeing their faces, it's all the same fashions as the west. Though the boys are much more adventurous with their crazy anime haircuts!I spent an entire day getting to a small village in Xishangbanna called Xiding, which is home to a famous Thursday market. The road south from Menglian was under construction as it is prone to huge landslides. Our bus driver inched his way around trucks with only millimetres to spare between the wheels and a sheer drop into the valley below. Definitely the most scary trip I've done so far!Xiding is up in the hills, almost permanently shrouded in mists, and still cold! Bummer, I'm not yet back in the tropics. It's also a tea producing area and the predominant ethnic group are Aini. Only a few old ladies still wore their traditional clothes, and the market itself was a bit disappointing, though I did enjoy watching them butcher entire pigs. They brought them dead and already scarified, but whole, to market on the back of a motorbike then proceeded to hack them to pieces. There is no part of a pig that can't be used it appears! Vegetarians and those of certain religious persuasions may not appreciate the following photo!If I'd walked for a few hours I could have reached some more traditional villages (Xiding being a modern uninspiring town) but the only bus back left at lunchtime so it was on to the capital Jinghong on the Mekong River.

More photos of Xiding

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Burmese temples and another authentic market

The bus ride south was long, like about 18 hours on a sleeper bus. I'd vowed I wouldn't take any long bus trips, but that too had gone out the window along with cold showers and dormitories. You can't be anything but flexible when travelling like this. Anyway, I slept well and was booked in to a hotel by 10am and ready to look around.Menglian is a small town near the Burmese border, which is quickly modernising with new buildings and apartment blocks going up all over the place. But there is a small relic of the old town, complete with a couple of temples and an old Dai meeting house and residence which is now a museum. Behind the old town is a hill which has huge dragon trees growing in it. It was certainly nice to see some fecund growth after the dry lands of the north of the province.More photos of Menglian

I then got lucky. I decided to jump on an early morning minibus the following day and head out to a small village called Fu'ai. I figured I might have got it right as the bus was full. To my great relief I had indeed managed to arrive on market day, and the town was full of people of Lahu and Wa ethnic groups. The ladies were so friendly and accommodating in letting me take their portraits, though I did buy quite a bit of tea from them!Prices were ridiculously cheap and I'm afraid I did a bit more souvenir shopping, including an entire Lahu outfit and Wa pipe. I don't think I'll be wearing any of those earrings though!The hills are surrounded by tea plantations, and a walk out of town finds you amongst traditional stilt houses and friendly locals. I was the only westerner at the market, and from the stares I got I doubt many make it this far. Definitely a great day out.

More photos of Fu'ai

It's warmer here, but now I head further south and hopefully can stop wearing the woolly hat!

Monday, December 15, 2008

The old tea and horse caravan oasis

Chinese tourists far outnumber westerners, and there's lots of them. After struggling through the crowds in Lijiang it was time for a change of pace, so myself and Angela, a German woman I met at Mama Naxi's Guesthouse, headed off for the small town of Shaxi. We booked into a traditional guesthouse, complete with courtyards and a very productive vege garden, then stepped outside to tour the town. We were immediately caught up in a wedding procession and ended up walking through the streets with the families, and being invited in for a feed. Everyone in the valley was like this: during our wanderings we were frequently invited in to family compounds for a cup of tea, or for a meal, the people being so friendly and welcoming. Shaxi was an important town on the old tea and horse caravan route, where tea from Yunnan was traded with horses from Tibet. Apparently it is the only surviving oasis on the old trail, and a huge restoration project began in 2000 to maintain the buildings and encourage ecotourism in the town. There is a temple complex and a theatre with stage, both of which required alot of work as they were wrecked during the cultural revolution. The explanation in the exhibit puts it better!!In the valley they are mostly Bai people, with some Yi villages up in the hills. Everyone comes down to town each week on market day, which is Friday, and this market is huge!! There are separate markets for clothes, for fruit and vegetables, butchered meat, fresh fish, poultry, and right up the end of town there's a special enclosure for all the livestock. The main street is stacked end to end with stalls, some selling some mighty weird stuff like the mouldy tofu which has 2 inch thick hair on it!! Angela decided to get herself invited to a Yi village and was last seen heading for the hills on a three hour trek, straw basket on her back. I considered going as well, but decided instead to head on, then changed my mind and stayed another day in order to climb a mountain. Typical, huh?More photos of Shaxi

Shibaoshan is only a small mountain by my trekking standards, but it did have alot of steps to climb. It's home to a monastery and a number of grottos where very old rock carvings of Buddhas and Bai deities are carved. Unfortunately most were locked up in little wooden temples but I managed to get a few shots. The real highlight was walking through pine forest, with patches of wild azalea, gorgeous rock formations and blue blue sky. The dog from the guesthouse accompanied me the whole way, yes I thought of how much Hazel would have loved it, and I had made a new friend for life! The walk back down, through stands of eucalypt trees even made me feel a bit homesick, dog and all!
More photos of Shibaoshan

I then took a minibus out of town and another bus down to Dali where I stayed the night. Next I head south back into tropical weather, can't wait to shed the warm clothes!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Old town, airbrushed

Lijiang, in northern Yunnan province, is known mostly for its preserved Old Town. It's a maze of narrow cobblestoned streets with courtyard houses, crisscrossed with canals and cute stone bridges, and very easy to get lost in.There's a great market just south of Old Town, and the place is beautifully lit up at night. But it's also cheek to jowl tourists and most of the houses are now shopfronts selling all sorts of tacky souvenirs so it feels airbrushed and not quite authentic. It does have excellent clean public toilets though! And the nightlife is hopping!I cycled north of town for a few hours, visiting a village called Baisha which has become famous for a man called Dr Ho who is a physician of herbal medicine. He's been featured in all sorts of international documentaries, including Michael Palin's "Himalaya" and will happily show you all his business cards from his visitors. But he's also completely down to earth and a genuine healer, I particularly liked his "healthy tea", which he gave me a sample of. But Baisha too is scattered with rather pushy shopowners wanting you to buy their souvenirs. It was time to head off to a less touristed town and chill out.

More photos of Lijiang and Baisha

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Crouching Dragon, Leaping Tiger

The Yangtze River begins on the Tibetan Plateau and flows south, parallel with another great river, the Mekong. But just north of Lijiang it takes a mighty U-turn and heads north, therefore becoming China's famous river and irrigating its plains. On its northward travel it passes between two mountain ranges, Habashan and Yulong Xueshan, creating Tiger Leaping Gorge.This was the reason I decided to loop out of SE Asia into China, having found a reference to it in a magazine in North Sumatra, and it had been beckoning me ever since. So now here I was at last, off the bus from Shangri-La at 6pm, therefore avoiding paying the 50 Yuan entrance fee as the ticket office had closed. Good start.

I'd bought a bottle of Shangri-La wine, so over dinner at Jane's Guesthouse I shared it with an English couple on their honeymoon, and discussed our trek up the gorge.We left at 10:30 after a massive breakfast, and began the steady climb to Naxi Guesthouse. From here it's a steep climb up the 28 bends to a superb lookout over the rapids in the upper gorge. If walking uphill isn't your thing, there are men with horses only too happy to transport you for a fee, or you can purchase some happy weed for helping you up those inclines!Once over the bends the path descends some way and then becomes a traverse along the high path, with glorious views down to the river and the changing colours of the autumn vegetation. We stumbled into Halfway Guesthouse around 6pm, to stay in dormitories looking out on the most spectacular views of the mountains opposite. Even the toilets have views!An early morning start got us down to the road, and Tina's Guesthouse, by 11am, where we breakfasted while watching the sun rise over the peaks opposite. I can highly recommend their hot chocolate!Next was the descent to Tiger Leaping Stone, where a tiger is said to have leapt across the river. There's a number of paths, but we just took the one from Zhang's Guesthouse which was fairly painless, though steep in sections. Getting down to the river itself, and watching the power of the water through the rapids, was fantastic.At the top, I parted ways with Jason and Ellie, who were heading back to Lijiang, while I was walking further down the gorge. I continued on to Sean's Guesthouse in Walnut Grove, where I shared the evening with a cycling tour group on an Oxfam fundraiser. It's strange to be amongst a group of people on a short holiday, whose minds are still irrevocably tied to their home lives and loved ones. It almost feels like being in a parallel universe.The next morning I was actively discouraged from continuing further up the gorge, mainly because it would cost me lots of money to get back the other way (more on that later), and it wasn't very interesting. Well for a girl without a budget and with a stubborn wish to find out for myself, I headed off regardless. The walk is along a paved road, but this end gets little traffic as most tourists don't stray past the paths down from Tina's. I shared the road with a few trucks and minibuses and the occasional flock of goats. I passed small villages going about their daily lives, and got views of the much narrower lower gorge as the mountains recede and rice terraces stretch out into the distance.After three hours I took a dirt track across terraced fields and down a dusty road to the river. The water is calmer here and a small ferry came to pick me up but I must pay 20 Yuan for the ferryman to take me across the mighty Yangtze to the other side. Expensive, but a wonderful way to end the trek.
It's a steep heartstarter to the top from the ferry berth, then a gentle stroll into Daju, where I stay at the Daju Inn. I am the only westerner in this tiny village, where the houses are made from mudbrick with stone foundations, and the walls are very thick. I am toasty warm wrapped up in my duvet overnight.More photos of TLG.
The next day begins before dawn, with a Naxi sandwich for breakfast and a mad dash in the dark by minivan to meet the bus in the larger Daju town. As I board the bus the first rays of sunlight are hitting the snow covered peaks of my destination for today: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

The climb out of the Daju valley is spectactular, though the hillsides are covered in frost and the water is frozen in the roadside ditches. It's cold, real cold. But the mountains are gleaming with snow and I'm off to see a glacier. And if I follow the instructions of my hosts at the Daju Inn, I'll avoid paying the 160 Yuan entrance fee as well!If you take the bus back from Daju to Lijiang, the bus is stopped at the entrance to the National Park and a fee of 160 Yuan is extorted from you, despite having only traversed the park. This fee only applies to foreigners. But if I stop off in the park, and take the local bus back to Lijiang, this doesn't get stopped as there is an assumption that you've already paid. And after watching numerous Chinese tourists ignoring the signs and sampling pieces of lichen and funghi to take home, I wasn't too keen on paying a "Preservation fee".I took a cablecar up to a spruce lined meadow, a perfect site for some wideangle shots of the mountains. But the real McCoy was another two bus rides and a 170 Yuan cablecar ride up to 4060m, then a 600m climb up steps in oxygen depleted air to the viewpoint at 4680m.
I immediately became a major tourist attraction myself amongst the many domestic tourists, as I posed with them for their photos. I befriended a couple on their honeymoon from Beijing, and some other tourists from Malaysia. What a lot of fun we had.
The cablecar back down and the busride back to Lijiang went by in a blur - I was exhausted! And I got away without paying the fee, what a bonus!!

Following the dollar

Back last century an English writer in a flat in London wrote a novel about some people who survived a plane crash and ended up in a town in Tibet called Shangri-La. It's called Lost Horizons. He'd never been to China and probably used the articles of an eccentric Austrian botanist as reference. The Austrian, Joseph Rock, lived in Yunnan Province for 20 years or more and collected a huge amount of plant specimens and even was taking colour photographs back in the twenties! He wrote for National Geographic, and studied the local Naxi culture as well.
So a few years ago, with tourism becoming a huge money spinner in Lijiang, the Chinese government, with help from a Lijiang historian, declared that a small town in a valley in northern Yunnan province was the "real" Shangri-La. They used references to local landmarks in the novel to prove their argument. One problem, it's a work of fiction, but that hasn't stopped Zhongdian from being rebadged as Shangri-La and making alot of people richer!

All the same, a trip to Shangri-La is worth the effort as it's only a scenic four hour drive by bus up treacherous passes to the valley at 3200m above sea level. It has a lovely "old town" full of traditional houses and narrow cobble stone streets, and a Tibetan hill temple with a huge prayer drum which you can help the old ladies rotate. The weather is warm and sunny during the day, but the moment that the sun dips below the horizon you need to seriously rug up.The town is predominantly Tibetan, with some more interesting outfits for me to photograph, and is surrounded by cute Tibetan villages and yaks grazing the fields. A bicycle ride north of town requires a little more effort at this altitude, but affords views of nearby mountains across a marshy wetland complete with waterbirds.The greatest draw in Shangri-La is the Tibetan Monastery on a hill to the north. I had a lovely conversation with one monk, who showed me around, pointing out the various lamas and making disparaging comments about the Chinese government sponsored successor, whose photo must be displayed. His eyes lit up when I recognised the photo of the current Dalai Lama, and for that I got an apple to eat!
More photos
But it was cold in Shangri-La, so I hopped a bus south again, down the pass which now had frost and ice on it, and off to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A weekend in Kunming

The China I visited 20 years ago has all but disappeared under the marching modernity of this economic powerhouse, at least in the cities, where very few old buildings or districts still exist, and the locals dress like everyone else in the western world. I particularly like the astroboy haircuts that the boys sport. To find an echo of the past it's easy to head to Green Lake Park in Kunming to watch the locals enjoying the sunshine, playing music on traditional instruments and singing old Chinese songs. While the oldies sit around reminiscing and screeching in falsetto, the youngsters mill around, draping themselves against pagodas or beside cherry blossom trees and taking photos on their mobile phones. No not much has changed!Photos here

After arriving in Kunming on an overnight bus I wandered around and into a five star hotel where I got directions to a cheap hostel. Then I purchased a new guidebook so am now feeling much less lost and directionless. If ever a guidebook is worth its money it's in China, where the use of "Pinyin", Chinese written in arabic characters, has not taken off and everything is written only in Chinese script, including the maps. And not too many people speak any English at all in this neck of the woods.

The Stone Forest is 120km from Kunming and a perfect day trip. What actually takes just over an hour from the outskirts of the city is unfortunately prolonged by numerous diversions to shops and temples en-route. Despite my best attempts to take a public minibus, after waiting an hour and a half to leave I was shunted onto a tour bus, and three hours later we reached my destination.But it's hard to stay pissed off long, even with the exorbitant entry price, because the Stone Forest really is spectacular. Even though it was Sunday, the crowds weren't big and it was easy to lose yourself within the maze of karst peaks and feel like the place was all yours. There were traditional Sani dancing and singing performances, and places where you could dress up and have your photo taken (like would I do something that tacky??), and the ubiquitous souvenir shops and roaming ladies selling trinkets. But the star attraction of acres and acres of these limestone rocks made all those small annoyances totally trivial.Judge for yourself.

I now head north to Lijiang, Shangri-La and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Ah the Chinese love their metaphors!