Asian Avian Bird Flu SARS Swine Fever Report

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Monday, July 25, 2005

July 25th, 2005
Dali Yunnan, China

Well it's been almost a month since my last entry (I had a feeling this would happen), but I have an excuse. Up until a few days ago I was REALLY SICK for 3 weeks straight, having every kind of illness a person can get. So I was basically bedridden and did nothing worth writing about.

I'm tellin' ya, you really haven't been sick until you've been sick in Asia. I think that the strains of Flu/Cold etc. are just different and harder for westerners to handle over here. I won't go into details but there was some pretty gross stuff going on. At one point I had to clean off my bathroom WALL, nuff said. Anyway, I'm glad to get all the sickness out of the way and I'm hoping I can stay relatively SARS free from now on, and update this thing more frequently.

I arrived in Kunming, China (pop.2,000,000), the capital of Yunnan Province in the Southwest of China (bordering Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Tibet) on June, 29th and immediately became ill. I think that maybe the water in the west of China has different (and more dastardly) bacteria than the East. I've met a lot of travelers that were forced to hole up in their rooms for the first few days/weeks after arriving in the western part of China.

Luckily, as soon as I got to Kunming I got a cheap room at the old, quaint and lovely "Camilia Hotel" (even the name sounds peacefully elegant.) The Camilia had a nice quiet garden courtyard and after I became sick, more importantly, 2 English TV channels! The Voice Of America TV and the BBC World quickly became my bedside companions and only contact with the outside world, other than mad dashes for orange juice and instant noodles. Unfortunately the BBC runs a news update every half hour and soon after arriving in Kunming the the whole London bombing nonsense happened, so I had images of death and violence every half hour on the half hour.

The city of Kunming itself however is really nice. After spending more than a year in the crowded, polluted, craziness that is Guangzhou (and all cities in eastern China), Kunming was a HUGE change. The streets are wide, open, clean AND quiet (by Chinese standards anyway, everything is relative over here), and people actually follow the traffic rules and don't use their horn as some kind of echo location device. There seemed to finally be some kind of method to the madness, it almost didn't feel like China.

Kunming is about 2000 meters above sea level so the weather in summer is perfect, 65-75F with beautiful blue skies and just the right amount of big, white, fluffy clouds. Even though it doesn't really have mountainous scenery, you just feel like you're higher. It really reminded me of the "Big Sky Country" of Montana ,like the sky is closer, which I guess it is actually. Makes sense.

So the couple of days that I wasn't violently ill while in Kunming I ventured out on bicycle and saw the local sites. Kunming is one of the few cities in China that I actually felt safe riding a bike in, they even have nice wide bike lanes. I toured the local pagodas and a beautiful Buddhist Temple and even saw a few ethnic minorities walking the streets in traditional dress, which I didn't expect in the big city.

I arrived in Dali, Yunnan on July 21st after a 5 hour bus ride with a front seat view of what could have been a very pleasant bus ride. The scenery was gorgeous and they even played "Shanghai Knights" on VCD in English! (with Chinese subtitles.) Unfortunately I was in the hands of yet another Chinese bus driver who naturally has all of the tendencies of someone who is on crack. The road was actually a new 3 lane highway with very little traffic and beautiful green views of terraced mountain rice paddies and corn fields. This didn't stop Ol' Cracky from doing his best to make it a hell ride though. From the way he drove it seems that he is paid using some sort of weird equation involving the percentage of time the horn is blaring and how much of the tire tread he can successfully leave embedded in the asphalt on the mountainous turns. Even when we were in the far left passing lane and there was a truck, or a car, or a motorcycle, or a chicken in the far right lane a half mile ahead of us, he would lay on the horn and flash his lights until we passed them. So it was basically 20-30 seconds of Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson's lighthearted comedy and then 2-3 minutes of mind rattling bus horn, repeat ad nauseam. Also, even though this was a "luxury coach with air conditioning", Cracky chain smoked the whole way.

Once I safely arrived in Dali things became much more mellow. Dali is a city/town of about 500,000 (a little country village by Chinese standards) with about 65% of the population belonging to the Bai minority. China has 55 different ethnic minorities other than the majority Han Chinese which make up about 92% of the total population. Most of the minorities live in the West of the country with Yunnan province having the most diverse mix.

After arriving in Dali I was surprised to find that most of the local Bai women still dress in their beautifully colored traditional clothing (see pics.) I kind of figured that they would have been totally engulfed and assimilated by the Han Juggernaut by now and that they would only be dressed in traditional garb at admission fee required, touristy "Minority Villages."

Overall I really like Dali, it reminds me a lot of Yangshuo, the town I lived in when I first arrived in China. It has a real small town feel to it with narrow cobblestone streets, colorful horse drawn carriages, and lots of street vendors and food stalls. It's the kind of place you could easily get stuck in for much longer than you had planned, hypnotic and relaxing. The other cool thing about Dali is that it still has the original walls and gates surrounding the city from back when everyone was invading each other all the time. Gives it a kind of Medieval charm, Chinese style.

One thing that is kind of a shock, even though I had heard about it before arriving in Dali, is all of the women (and yes it's only women and a lot of them are older and very traditional Bai looking women) who come up to you on the street whispering "smoke, smoke, ganja, ganja." This happens constantly, and I haven't had dreadlocks in over 10 years. We are definitely living in a global village when little old minority ladies in remote Southwestern China are using the Jamaican Rastafarian term to try and sell marijuana to European and N. American backpackers! There are also quite a few men sitting around on the side of the street with 3 foot water bongs smoking something? (see pic)

So for some reason while I was in my deliriums in Kunming I decided it would be a good idea to give my Lonely Planet China guidebook to a cute French girl who had just arrived in China and would be traveling alone for awhile. I guess I figured that I would be leaving China soon and that she would need it more than me, and that she was a cute French girl. So I tore out the Tibet section and gave her my "Bible" for the last couple of years, sort of forgetting about the fact that I still had a few places in Yunnan Province that I wanted to visit before Tibet. Damn cute French Girls!

After the initial apprehension of arriving in a strange Chinese city sans my LP with no idea of where anything is I took a deep breath and hailed a cab. After having a much more in depth conversation in Chinese than I thought I was capable of with my new friend the cabbie, I relaxed . With the assistance of my extremely helpful and honest driver I was checked into a very cheap little hotel inside the old walled city within 20 minutes of arriving in Dali. My room's window even faced a bubbling little brook that worked as a great lullaby at night.

Actually, parting with my LP guidebook has turned out to be a good thing. The first day I got to Dali I rented a bike for 10 Yuan ($1.25) for the day and instinctively reached for my trusty guidebook to tell me where to go. Since it was gone and I had no idea what there was to see or do in this new town, I had to actually think for myself. Well, since I was on a bike and was still a little bus lagged, the plan I came up with was to go downhill. After a couple of hours of winding through little valleys and crossing ancient little stone bridges over refreshingly clean looking mountain streams I came to a little Bai village that was definitely not in the guide book and probably not even on any map.

It was market day in the village and strange foreigners stumbling into town were definitely a curiosity here. I got lots of giggles, hushed pointing and "Hello's!" from the little kids, guarded but not unfriendly stares from the men, and as anywhere else in the world, bravado from the packs of teenage boys. And the ancient looking little leather faced old ladies in their traditional blue and black apron/dresses were all toothless smiles and raspy laughter.

Earlier in the day my money belt had broken and I was looking for some super glue to fix it and immediately found some in the market at a little stall specializing in tools and repair stuff. Another sure sign that this was relatively tourist free territory was the fact that the locals hadn't instituted the policy of "Special Foreigner Price" yet. In most Chinese cities where the people are used to foreigners I would have gotten a 10-200% markup and had to haggle for my life to get anything near what the actual price should be. I would have been told the super glue costs 50 Yuan ($6) and then have to haggle for a half an hour until I got it for 5 Yuan $.60, still not knowing if it was a good deal or not. Instead, in this little Bai village I asked the boy, probably 12 years old, who manned the stand with his father "how much" and was immediately told 5 Jiao ($.06.!) Needless to say, I didn't feel the need to haggle on this price and gladly paid my 5 Jiao with an appreciative smile and thank you. For the first time in over a year I had bought something without having to go through the inane ritual of watching a merchant act all shocked and offended at every price I offered and than having to do the same back at every counter offer the merchant made. I felt suddenly very at ease and happy. The rest of the day I strolled through he village, ate some really great mystery meat street noodles (that still haven't made me sick!), and basically sat down (see quotes on sitting) and soaked up the atmosphere and friendliness of the nice Bai village that isn't on a map. Thank God for cute French girls!

P.S. I know haggling is all "part of the culture" and "part of the experience" and "a fascinating way to interact with the local people on their level", but after awhile it just gets old and you start to realize it's just an inefficient waste of time. That's why God invented price tags, so you can comparison shop without having to have a heated philosophical debate on the merits of each and every product you want to buy. Just ask Sam Walton which system works better! So, how's that for a close minded, take the fun out of everyday life, jaded, condescending American? I'm not that bad really. I just think that haggling is silly, unless of course I'm in the mood to haggle, then it's fun, and also a great way to interact with local people and experience a part of their culture! For more proof on why haggling is basically silly, see "Monty Python's The Life Of Brian."

P.S.S. Thanks to all of you have replied with feedback so far either to my E-mail address or in the "comments" and "guestbook" sections of this Travelogue. I'll try to get as many personal replies back to you as I can. Thanks again!

Quotes On Sitting:

"The true traveler is he who goes on foot, and even then, he sits down a lot of the time." Colette (1873 - 1954)

"I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man's being unable to sit still in a room."
Blaise Pascal
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