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?


  1. I spent over a month in Yunnan in 1984. Westerners were a rarity. I was standing between cars on the Guilin Kunming train. A man saw me as the train pulled away. "Foreign fliend!! he cried out, shocked to see a red monkey/white ghost. I know I was the first foreignor many people had seen. Dali opened just as I arrived in Kunming. No. 5 Paying Guesthouse dorm rooms were $0.12. I stayed about a month in the Dali area. Got arrested hitching to Lijiang. Closed city. "Nothing for tourist.", the PSB man told me. The bus from Kunming was every other day & took 10 hours. Now there is a freeway & a train, I read. Black market money exchange in a Kunming restaurant was made under the table after closing. The owners were terrified because the punishment was death. There were about 35 places foreignors were allowed to see in China. And, yes, language was a very difficult. No one understood English. Guide books were not available except for a very basic book you could find in Hong Kong. China was the most difficult place for solo travel I had ever encountered. I returned in 2010. All students were learning English. If you wrote a question, they would write an answer. I returned to Guangzhou. Unrecognizable. Crossing to Shenzen in 1984 & taking a train to Canton was through farms. In 2010, a new city of 12 million & skyscrapers to the horizon. I flew to Chengdu. Again, a new city. I spent about a month in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan. Wonderful. Kangding, Tagong, Ganze, Derge, Palpung, Dzongchen, Katok, Sertar, Baiyu & so many other places. I highly recommend this area if it is open. Yunnan/Sichuan got under my skin, too. Michael

    1. Michael, you are a true adventurer. China is so much easier to get around in than in the old days. We did it the easy way back in 1989, on a tour, not like you. My next trip to China will indeed be to Sichuan and the Tibetan areas. Some of the political strife is unfortunately spilling over into this area though and the police have closed the area on and off to tourists in the last few years. Usually only for a few weeks at a time though. I hope they don't make it as draconian as TAR.