Land of the Lost

Trip Start Jan 16, 2006
Trip End May 21, 2006

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Where I stayed
Re Hai Hotel

Flag of China  ,
Sunday, March 19, 2006

I set off at midday from Dali for Tengchong, in southwestern Yunnan near the border with Burma, and apparently a place that no foreigners go to. I'd hoped to get a lot of photos uploaded in Dali before I left since there was, amazingly enough, a cafe with wireless internet where I could upload directly from my laptop. Alas, the best laid plans....No electricity since major construction work was under way in Dali. After throwing my stuff into my bags in the dark (the night before I had moved to a cheaper room which didn't have windows-incomprehensible in the US and probably against firecodes, but a pretty normal thing in cheaper SE Asian guesthouses), I made a mad dash to find a taxi to take me to Xiaguan, aka New Dali, or Dali City. I'd gotten one of the women at reception in the Dali Youth Hostel to write in Chinese "I need a direct bus to Tengchong" and showed this to the taxi driver who nodded and seemed to understand. But when we got to the Xiaguan bus station, there seemed to be a problem after he spoke with the attendant guarding the gate. Through gestures and a drawing of a clock, I gathered he was trying to tell me that there was no 1pm bus and the next one to Tengchong wouldn't leave until 7pm, even though three different travel agents had told me that there was an afternoon departure. A real problem since it was about 6 hours from Dali to Tengchong and I had no intention of arriving in a remote Chinese town in the middle of the night. I continued to point at the "1" on the clock drawing and something must have clicked, because he called out to a bus station employee who shouted something back. The taxi driver frantically grabbed my bags, hurried with me to the ticket window and bought the ticket for me and then rushed me to the waiting Tengchong bus. After paying and thanking (xie xie!) the driver, I sat down in my seat, relieved and delighted that I was right afterall and would, with luck, arrive in Tengchong around 7pm. We ended up sitting in the bus parking lot for another 20 minutes, so I don't know what all the rush was about, but at least it was a nice big bus with free water included.
When we finally left the bus driver at least seemed to be making up for lost time, speeding down south-western Yunnan's very nice, very large and very empty highways. The scenery was great, too: rolling green hills and pointy little mountains as we moved closer and closer to Yunnan's volcano country. And since this was a "luxury" bus, the usual members of the Nicotine Fiends club were not on board. All was well for about an hour and a half, until we came around a bend in the hills and saw an endless line of trucks and cars literally parked on the road. With the hills and curves, it was impossible to see what was causing the jam, and as the bus came to a stop, I tried to stay optimistic and told myself that it couldn't be anything more than just an accident around the corner.
As first one hour went by, then two, I started to think I would have to go back to Dali and spend the night there. We were entertained by kung fu movies and Chinese pop videos, but this wasn't enough to placate most of the passengers and soon enough, the cigarettes came out. As the third hour sitting there came and went, I started to have visions of spending the night on the bus in a cloud of smoke. To make matters worse, there were no signs of police or emergency vehicles anywhere nor was there any attempt to set up a detour. Like salt to a wound, we sat there as traffic flowed quickly in the opposite direction. There was a businessman (looking official with a cell phone and brief case) in front of me, who didn't really speak any English but did make an attempt to communicate, although he seemed as lost as the rest of the passengers as to what was going.
Almost three and a half hours later, the traffic finally started to move. As we went around the hill, I was expecting to pass the scene of a grisly accident, or to see three or four tractor trailers turned over and blocking the road. Insead, nothing. Not a sign of anything. No police, no skid marks or blood, no smashed cars or debris. Whatever it was, they got rid of it fast. A total mystery. Maybe they just randomly stop traffic in China to test people's patience.
At any rate, I calculated that we would now get into Tengchong around 11pm, and since Tengchong isn't exactly a major destination, I figured it would probably be too late to eat and maybe too late to check into the Post Office hotel, where I planned to stay. With one eye on the setting sun, I did manage to enjoy the spectacular scenery of green mountains, rivers, and small towns. As we headed first west then south, the landscape became more tropical with palm and banana trees appearing here and there. Unfortunately, the last two hours were in the dark but I was just relieved to arrive in Tengchong on the same day. When our bus finally stopped at an intersection, I couldn't really see much of a town. Just a couple of small, newish buildings and the Chinese equivalent of a convenience store. The helpful businessman said "Tengchong!" so with some trepidation, I got off too. Fortunately, my guide book had the Chinese characters as well as English transliteration for all the hotels and other important places in and around Tengchong. I showed this to the businessman and pointed at the characters for the Post Office Hotel. He nodded, then said something to the bus driver, who replied, then the businessman said "20 minutes, you take taxi." Strange, I thought we were in Tengchong. The businessman called a taxi driver over, mumbled something to him, he nodded and then they loaded my bags into the trunk of the car. With the language barrier, I couldn't figure out why it was 20 minutes to the Post Office hotel, about a $5 taxi ride. Tired and hungry, I figured that maybe the bus stopped in some village outside of Tengchong since it was so late or that the bus station had moved.
My taxi drove down wide empty streets lined with buildings, like the ones I saw near Kunming, which seemed to have been built yesterday and appeared to be completely uninhabited. Suddenly, the new paved roads turned into a bumpy dirt road that went off into pitch darkness, not a building or light around. I was beginning to get a little nervous, but the driver seemed to know where he was going so I figured that maybe this was just a shortcut to get to Tengchong, a city that I was beginning to think I'd never see. After about 20 minutes, we finally came to a stop in front of a dimly lit parking lot that was surrounded by a well-manicured lawn and nothing else. No sign of a hotel or town. Through more gestures and a lot of Chinese, the driver indicated that we had arrived. As I wasn't about to be dropped off in a dark parking lot at 11:30pm somewhere in China, I refused to get out. After thinking for a moment, the driver put his hands together under his cheeck, tilted his face, and closed his eyes, gesturing sleep. I nodded yes (what else would I be doing at this time of the night, after 9 hours on a bus, deep in the Chinese countryside?!). This seemed to be the right answer because he started the car again and we headed off down another winding dark road, now descending with steep hills on either side of us. I could hear rushing water somewhere nearby but there were no lights and no signs of civilization. Maybe my guide books forgot to mention that Tengchong is a jungle outpost. About 15 minutes later, we came to a barricade and a uniformed guard; several other guards were walking around on the road. I could still hear the water but now there were lights, a few small buildings, and a landscaped lawn with palm trees and a variety of flowering plants. The guard and my driver exchanged a few words and we were let through the gate. It dawned on me that wherever I was, it wasn't Tengchong. But where in the world was I and what was this place? A secret military or police station? The local mob boss's headquarters? A high security institution for the wealthy but criminally insane?
With hunger, sleep and irritability from being in a bus all day fast taking control of my mind and body, I more than gladly jumped out of the car when a minute later we pulled up in front of a building with lights and a human being inside. The receptionist spoke two words of English but the building was, fortunately for me, a hotel with rooms available. Unfortunately the cheapest room was $25, but given the circumstances, that was fine with me and at least the quality of my room reflected the price, with a very nice deep bathtub and very hot water. Still, I didn't know where I was-somewhere in Yunnan for sure, but not Tengchong. After unpacking, I set about to try to find out where I had ended up, looking in drawers-brochures, all in Chinese, the hotel directory-all Chinese, on the complementary slippers and towels-all Chinese. I looked at the room key again: under the large Chinese characters, in tiny letters were the words "Re Hai Spa." Re Hai....didn't ring a bell so I turned to trusty Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. Re Hai: The Sea of Heat. The taxi driver had taken me to Tengchong's "volcanic" hot spring spa, about 20 miles south of town. I looked at the list of Tengchong places and their corresponding Chinese characters. Re Hai was right under the Post Office hotel. The helpful businessman on the bus thought I had pointed to Re Hai and probably just assumed as the lone westerner (and probably the only westerner who had come through there in months, if not years) that of course what else would I be doing in Tengchong other than going to the spa and staying in the most expensive hotel in the area. And that's where he told the taxi driver to take me.
Nothing to do but make the most of it, so I went to bed after a long, hot bath with plans to get up early and see the hot springs-might as well since I was there-then move to the Post Office hotel in Tengchong. The next morning I was starving since I hadn't had dinner. According to the brochure in my room, the Re Hai hotel had an "international" restaurant, but when I went downstairs to ask at reception (by gesturing "food" and "eating"), one of the hotel employees escorted me out the door and down a small driveway to a concrete block building. It wasn't a restaurant, just a noodle shop, but it looked like paradise to me. More gesturing and "asking" for noodle soup. The hotel employee spoke to the friendly cook, then turned to me and said "hot milk and egg." No noodles? I tried in vain for another minute. This was strange indeed-no breakfast noodle soup in China? Either they had run out of noodles or the hot milk was part of the spa treatment, but either way, this is what the cook and the hotel employee were going to make me eat. I reluctantly nodded ok (for the record, I despise hot milk)and the cook brought me a bowl of milk with one egg yolk floating in it, and some sugar to add to taste. I choked down about half of it, but decided to go back to trying to get some noodles. A couple of other "spa" employees had wandered over at that point, curious to see this strange foreigner demanding noodles. I must have finally broken through, because one of the newer members of my audience said something to the cook who went back to the kitchen and reappeared 5 minutes later with a delicious bowl of noodle soup, which I devoured, and then immediately asked for a second.
Back to normal, I set off to explore the Sea of Heat before checking out. It really was beautiful and very well maintained and the boiling hot springs were intriguing. If I had had more time, I would have done one of the mineral baths but instead limited myself to drinking some mineral water (tepid) in a bamboo cup.
The staff of the Re Hai hotel seemed sorry that I was leaving (I might have been the only guest) and one of them took the opportunity to try out his English one last time before my taxi showed up. This time, the driver had no problem figuring out Post Office hotel and took me straight to my destination. The P.O. hotel also looked like it was built yesterday and was absolutely spotless. Again, it didn't seem like anyone else was staying there. The receptionist was very friendly and welcoming (no English) and seemed very pleased to have a foreigner check in. Tengchong itself isn't too exciting, but it has a laid back SE Asian feel to it and some interesting sites outside of town, including about 20 extinct volcanoes. Since the area is a major earthquake zone, there aren't really any old or large buildings around. I set off for a Heshun, a village about 5 miles away which is described as the "home of overseas Chinese." Heshun was an important town on the old southern Silk Road and later many of its residents left China to make their fortunes around the world, before returning to Heshun to retire. Supposedly it has a large population of these former immigrant retirees and is considered quite prosperous by Yunnan standards. The local tourist authorities are trying to turn it into a tourist destination and there is now a Han Chinese restaurant outside the city walls, souvenir stalls, and an overstaffed information desk. Unless you're a local, it costs $3 to enter the town, which still has its original walls and gates. It was an interesting place to wander around for an afternoon, though I couldn't see any obvious evidence of economic prosperity. Many of the old courtyard houses are still being used as barns, and chickens and pigs roam the streets freely. The locals, however, were friendly, and I had more people trying out their English with me.
The main attractions are the Heshun Library, a couple of courtyard houses, and the Burma-Yunnan Anti-Japanese War Museum, which might as well be called the "Anti Japanese" musuem. Its exhibits deal with Yunnan's struggles before and during WWII and the building of the Burma Road. Strangely, America's involvement in Yunnan during the war is hardly mentioned. The caption for one photo of Chinese, Americans and British gathering to celebrate the arrival of the first supply convoys in Kunming, after traveling the Burma Road, only mentions the Chinese, neglecting General Joe Stillwell who was instrumental in getting American aid and supplies in to the Chinese in Yunnan while the rest of the country was completely controlled by the Japanese. The museum (no photos allowed!) is full of helmets with bullet holes in them, old uniforms, and leftover military bric-a-brac such as old Underwood typewriters and Brownie cameras. Most of the photo captions and wall text dwells on Japanese atrocities in Yunnan, with graphic prose about Japanese soldiers eating the livers and hearts of Yunnanese children.
As the sun started to set, I decided to head back to Tengchong and get ready for the next day and another early morning departure for Ruili, the border crossing between Yunnan and Burma. Wai Lin, the receptionist, insisted on taking me to a noodle shop and buying me dinner. Through more gestures and drawings, she indicated that she would accompany me to the Tengchong bus station the next morning. Later that evening, I went to check email, surrounded by teenagers playing computer games, where the girl sitting next to me kept pointing her webcam at me so that she could show the exotic foreigner to her friend she was chatting to online. It was the first time in southeast Asia that I was in a place where just by being a westerner, I was interesting to the locals, and there was absolutely no ulterior motive (you want taxi?! you want boat ride, horse cart?!). Although Tengchong was certainly not the most beautiful or interesting place on my trip, it was definitely the least touristed place I've been to and I really felt that I was seeing the "real" China and it would have been great to have had more time to explore the surrounding countryside and villages. But it was time to press on again to another border crossing.
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