China's Yunnan Province

Trip Start Jul 16, 2004
Trip End Jun 16, 2005

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Where I stayed
Sean's Guesthouse
The Highlander

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Thursday, April 21, 2005

Kunming, China
Apr 21, 2005

I'm dazed and confused but I'm safely in China. Kunming, China to be exact.

It all started with a rather funny site at the Kunming airport. After filling out my immigration card and swearing that I didn't have any symptoms of SARS or Bird Flu, I went to wait for my backpack to come around the conveyor belt. There, among the suitcases and backacks, coming around the luggage carousel, was a bright purple cage about 3 feet by 3 feet. Inside the cage was a gorgeous and very curious golden retriever. His owner, a four foot tall Chinese woman quickly moved the cage to a trolley and off they went. As did I.

I learned quickly that most Chinese do not speak english as a second language. In fact, they don't speak english at all! My first clue was when the Tourist Information desk at the airport couldn't understand the word "ATM" but eventually managed to point me to the bank across the highway.

Here in Kunming, the tourists are spread throughout the city so sometimes I feel like I'm the only westerner for miles. It's a far cry from Bangkok's Koh San Road where it's a travellers (supposed) paradise. Bars, restaurants, clubs, shops selling CDs, t-shirt vendors, 7-11s, vans serving as bars (complete with bar stools and thumping music), and tattoo parlors on every corner. But that's Bangkok.

Here it's "real" China. Even the tourists are mostly Chinese. There is no tourist ghetto like most other cities - but it's a nice change.

Unless I want to eat a McDonalds I would imagine that all of my meals here will be a bit of a challenge. Dinner tonight was funny. I found an all-chinese place (aren't they all?) and a young boy helped me maneuver the logistics of ordering the famous "across-the-bridge" noodles. A chinese delicacy which involves combining soup ingredients into a boiling bowl of broth and then downing the monstrosity with chopsticks. I had more fun watching the chinese couple across from me marvel at how awkward I looked eating soup with chopsticks!

I'm staying in a very clean dorm room with 8 other travellers. Yes. I said "dorm". It reminds me of my days Youth Hosteling through Europe. It's a good place to use as I acclimitize to the hydroglyphics of the Chinese language, and try to learn a few common words like "thank you" and "hello". Then I'm moving up into the country-side of the Yunnan province. Not sure if there is e-mail up there but I'd imagine I'll be doing weekly updates at the very least.

Dali., China
Apr 23, 2005

There is nothing worse than a sticky keyboard with a tempermental "Caps Lock" key. OK, there is one thing worse...a computer screen where all the text is in Chinese. Luckily i know MSN well enough to maneuver around quite a bit regardless of the written language barrier.

Anyway, Kunming, China, was fine and I even managed to make quite a little contingent of international friends including a gal from New Zealand, a beautiful Laotian katoy (lady from Laos who most probably was a guy at one time) and two american blokes who talked about career, salary, and money issues as if anyone cared! But we all had fun dancing, drinking and game playing (bluffer's dice) at a Kunming bar's grand opening party.

But, Kunming was 'city' so I quickly did my business there (booked an onward ticket to myanmar for may 8th) and was on my way. Next up was Dali. Dali is a charming little town at the foot of some gorgeous mountains reminiscent of the hills of nepal - snow caps and all. I had heard from fellow travellers that there was a festival going on here but i didn't imagine the swell of people that came from all over china to partake. Thousands and thousands of chinese milling about, buying things, watching traditional shows, eating street food. Walking the narrow pathways and sidewalks of Dali. Amy (my new Kiwi friend) and i even went into one of the many side-shows and saw a spectacle under the big top. Six motorcycles driving at high speed inside a ballshaped cage. It was hilarious and a little bit scary. I took video of it on my new camera but realized right afterwards that I'm already having problems with my new Canon. "Memory Card Error" is NOT what I wanted to see when i went to replay the video for Amy. Damn. I'm hoping a new memory card will do the trick. We shall see when i return to the colorful festival tomorrow. Perhaps I'll pay another visit to the side-show spectacle of the festival - those promising 10 foot supersize snakes and a two headed woman. Just like the county fair at home - except that the setting is rural china within the walls of a fortress.

Right now it's 7:30pm here in Dali. I'm so much happier here than Kunming. It's absolutely gorgeous. The Old City is in a valley surrounded by a lake on one side and huge snow-capped mountains on the other. The weather is spring-like - cool at night and very warm during the day. It's wonderful. And all around there are Chinese - locals and tourists alike. Many in traditional garb. Walking shoulder to shoulder amidst the many festival stalls and entertainment. The narrow, cobble-stone, streets have old traditional buildings on either side and then running down the middle are the 'festival tables' selling everything from CD's to Tibetan jewelry to snake's bile to herbal medicine to street food. It's quite a crowd but the mood is festive and fun.

Amy and I are a sideshow onto ourselves. There are so few tourists here that the Chinese can't help but stare. But, it's different here than in Cambodia and many SE Asian countries because here in China they can't even begin to speak to us. Not even a "hello" is possible. It's just too far a reach from Cantonese to English for most. So, I'm doing my best at learning a few key words and it's helping to (at the very least) make them smile.

====Day 2 in Dali===

I was pleasantly surprised to have a "wow" day today. Amy and I rented bikes and got away from the endless "Third Moon Fair" and went through local narrow paths to the San Ta Si (Three Pagodas) and Erhai Hu (Ear Shaped Lake). It was like biking through the narrow lanes of the tiny villages along the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. And I loved it. As I coasted down the hill, I couldn't help but try to take it all in - the sites, the smells, the quiet, the beauty. Sheer magic. I must've said "wow" ten times and made Amy stop along the path so I could take photos a dozen times.

Yunnan Trek - Tiger Leaping Gorge
Apr 28, 2005

A little change of plans. I'm already at the base of the trek and will be hitting the trail tomorrow. No access to email until the weekend. But, don't worry...I'm with a small group of travellers from all over the globe. Should be fun.

Have a great week.

4/26 - 4/28
I was a little concerned when the bus dropped Amy and I off in the tiny, dusty, city of Qiaotou for the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. The town itself was unwelcoming and everything was a shade of grey, including the buildings, the river, the streets, and even the people. But we quickly got acclimated, checked into a horrible little hotel, and searched out a welcoming Tibetan-style guest house for dinner called "Jane's". It seemed that there were a grand total of six westerners in all of Qiaotou and we all ended up at Jane's for dinner. This group of six, as random as it seemed to be, turned out to be the best trekking crew anyone could ask for. No smokers, no one scared of heights, and everyone willing to walk nine grueling hours while enjoying the scenery of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

First there was Nicho. A french guy who is studying in China. He quickly became our interpreter with his passable mandarin. Then there was the Wilkinson sisters - Alex and Vicky. Delightful and funny sisters from London. Alex is working in Hong Kong and Vicky is between jobs. Then there was Sophie. A lovely French Canadian in the process of moving back to Canada from France since the French Govt won't renew her worknig papers. She is hoping to get accepted to a french college in Montreal. And, finally, Amy. The gal I've been travelling with since Kunming.

Our little group of six set off early the next morning with only our small daybags stocked the necessities we would need for a two day journey - and off we went. We followed a trail up into the mountain side and quickly left the dusty town of Quioto behind us. Yiiipppeee. Within 30 minutes we were high inside a huge gorge. I would never have believed it was there if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes! It was GLORIOUS!

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the world with the snow peaks along the gorge reaching up to 3,900 meters. Down below you can hear the deafening noise of the raging river. The hike itself is about mid-way between both.

It was the best of everything I experienced in the Nepal trek, all wrapped into one day! We had the stunning landscapes, the snow-capped mountains, the sunny 80 degreet weather, the cool 60 degree rain, and even the cold 40 degree nights. We had the horses and goats sharing the narrow trail with us, and for 360 degrees we had views that would literally take your breath away! Down to the raging river...up to the snow cap mountains...across the gorge to the green mountains, and stone cliffs. And dotted along the path, just like Nepal, were the small tea houses and guest houses to rest your feet and warm your spirits.

The first day we ended up trekking almost the entire path. Nine hours of it! By the end we were absolutely exhausted but happy. We found some dorm beds at Sean's Guest House in Walnut Grove and kicked back to relax. The next day our little international contingent was going to scatter. Amy and Vicky continuing the trek via horse for two days into the remote(r) regions of China. Amy back to Liljang. And Nicho and Sophie to a northern town via 5 hour bus ride. But, when we woke up to the brilliance of Walnut Grove the next morning, Amy, Vicky and Alex decided to join me for a relaxing day in the valley.

So day two of trekking...
The four of us hired a local guide to lead us down to the raging river. It was a strenuous and, at times, cliff-like endeavor. Forty-five minutes later we were at the river. We could barely hear each other over it's roar. I guess they should rename it Lion Roaring Gorge! But the views were even more amazing then from the hillside. The crashing water, proving it's power by shaping the boulders and the rock walls in the river. You would almost have to look straight up to see the sky. We were that deep in the gorge. Then, we hiked for 3 hours along the river wall to reach our guest house. All along the way we would stop to say "ohmygod it's amazing"!

Day three of trekking was today.
Today we woke up early and set off for the "new winter ferry". We followed a path for one hour down a steep decline and finally worked our way to the riverside. We could see the boat/ferry on the other side of the gorge, less than 100 yards away, but there wasn't another person around for as far as the eye could see. So, we all took turns screaming and blowing whistles in the direction of the empty boat on the opposite side of the raging river. Our options were slim - it was too steep to retreat back to the guest house the way we came, so we sat and waited (and secretly prayed) for someone to show up. An eternity later (probably only 20 minutes) we could see the outline of a person coming down the mountain and we realized "we were saved"! Three cheers. It took almost an hour for the ferry-man to come all the way down the mountain and get to us, but it was well worth the wait!

Once we got to the other side of the gorge it was another 1+ hour hike uphill to the car park. Surprisingly, at the top, there was a van waiting to collect people for the ride to the nearest town - Daju. After a one hour wait to collect another passenger we were on our way. We got to Daju rather quickly and then switched to a private van that Alex and Vicky had hired. Once we finally got going the 5 hour drive back to Liljang was condensed to 2 hours by our maniac driver. But we made it back in one piece and even enjoyed the gorgeous scenery between Daju and Liljang. It was like driving at snow level in the mountains with clouds almost at eye level. WOW! We even passed a yak along the route.

Tonight we are meeting up for dinner at 7pm to reminisce and swap e-mail addresses. Even Nicho and Sophie are returning to meet us! Should be fun.
The other thing going on throughout this entire trek was the issue of my Burma visa. I guess I should have read my guidebook before filling out the visa application. The book plainly states: Tourist visas are readily available through Myanmar embassies but you will complicate matters by listing an occupation the government finds threatening, such as 'journalist' or 'photographer'. Oops. I guess I shouldn't have listed Time Warner as my former employer. To the embassy Time Warner must scream "reporter"!

Anyway, I found one working mobile phone in the middle of the gorge and called the embassy to find out if they would be open next week, during the week-long holiday. When I finally got through to the embassy the first thing they said was "are you Jennifer J"? Uh oh!!! The good news was that they were going to be open on May 5th and 6th so I could retrieve my passport. The bad news was that they wanted to decline my visa! They quizzed me about my occupation and affiliation with Time Warner, then asked me to call back later. Which I did. This time they put a man on the phone who grilled me even more about my occupation. At the end of the conversation I asked if my visa was going to be approved and he said he didn't know. Damn. The ironic thing was that in my 10 months of travelling I didn't need a phone once. Now, in the middle of a gorge, with NO reception, I was desperate for one.

Today, when I returned to the bustling town of Liljang, my first order of business was calling the embassy. This time I had a story ready. I was going to say that I was doing a career change and becoming a teacher. That way my connection to a media company wouldn't deter them from granting me a visa. But when I called they said I was approved! Yiiipppeee! If they only knew how much sleep I lost over that one.

For those of you looking for a little trekking vacation but don't have 3 weeks to hit the Nepal circuit - I would highly recommend the trek at Tiger Leaping Gorge. You can break it into several days and really have an enjoyable time. Or, do it in 9 hour days, and have a breathtaking journey! No pun intended! Time for me to go rest my weary bones. Sorry that I don't have any photos to share with you yet. I'm wrestling with my new camera and unfortunately "memory card error" is winning out.

Here are a few random websites with photos:

Postcard from Liljang, China
Apr 29, 2005

This day is glorious! I just finished trekking through Tiger Leaping Gorge and am now relaxing in Liljang, China. If ever I felt like I found Shangri-La - it is here. The weather is spring-like with beautiful blue skies dotted with perfect cotton-ball shaped clouds. And the scenery is stunning. The snow capped mountains can be seen in the distance and the village itself has maintained a very traditional look and feel (in spite of the onslaught of Chinese tourists). There are narrow cobble-stone alleys, tiny shops, and lots of chinese (locals and tourists) milling about. In the main square I just walked through a group of 50 naxi women in their traditional outfits, dancing in a large circle, hand-in-hand. It's wonderful! I think I'll sit in a sidewalk cafe and people-watch for the entire day! God knows I need the rest. Trekking the gorge was far from easy. Even the guidebook reads "only maniacs attempt the Quioto -> Walnut Creek part of the trek in one day". I guess we should have read that BEFORE we did it in 9 hours!

Lijiang - elephant hill
May 1, 2005

The last place anyone would want to be in the rain is "Elephant Hill".

This morning I met up with the Alex and Vicky (the Wilkinson sisters) for breakfast. They asked me why I hadn't written more on my web-site about our escapades out at Sean's Guest House in Tiger Leaping Gorge. My reply was that I didn't think that our evening of staring at the stars from the middle of the main road, in the pitch dark, would translate well. Five bodies all lieing flat on the road, staring into the night sky, and listening to the river and birds in the distance. The stars would sheepishly peer out from behind the cloudy night sky, but the moon wouldn't show it's face until 5:30 in the morning since the mountain peeks were so high. It was a magical night, with lots of laughs - and only some of them instigated by the "happy" chocolate crepe Amy and I attempted to eat after dinner. Unfortunately, the serenity and laughs ended when Arial (an isreali backpacker) thought that the flashlight coming down the road was a car. We quickly righted ourselves and walked down the dark, empty, street back to Sean's Guest House.

OK, back to Elephant Hill. After breakfast with the gals, and moving my stuff to a more affordable "youth hostel", I set out for Black Dragon Pool Park and the mountain behind it called Elephant Hill. The park was packed with Chinese tourists taking the the obligatory photos of the mand-made lakes, the pagodas, pavilions, gazebos, and ornate bridges. avoid the crowds, I walked to the back of the park and found a trail leading up up up UP to the top of Heilongtan Gongyuna (Elephant Hill). Twenty meters up the path the sign read: "For your security, please don't be less than four people and don't carry the kindling material while entering the forest zone." I looked around for any of the thousands of chinese tourists who might want to join me on the trek but not a single one was heading up the path. I waited 30 seconds, and then was on my way. After thirty minutes of uphill hiking I stopped for air. The views were stunning, overlookng the valley of Lijiang you could see the distinct split from old town, to new city. And in the distance, over the valley, you would see a whole line of mountains. One after the other.

At my little resting gazebo I met an old Chinese man. He motioned a "1" to me and I nodded "yes". That's all it took. Now I had a travelling companiong. I neverf did catch his name but I'll call him Mr. Chu for now.

So, up, up, up I went with Mr. Chu. He must've been in his 70's but man that guy could hike. We hiked for another 30 minutes, with Mr. Chu sometimes trying to point something out to me like a cemetery or the new town, and i'd nod and say "shay shay" (thank you in mandarin). When we finally reached the top, the weather changed. We could see rain in the distance and the lovely blue sky quickly got devoured by grey. There was a chinese couple up there as well and the little gang got chatting in mandarin. I looked over Mr. Chu's shoulders and uh-oh, there goes a bolt of lightening. I tried to communicate "lightening" to them but they looked at me bewildered. Then, a few seconds later, the thunder followed. NOW they get it. LIGHTENING! Abruptly, we all headed back down the mountain. The LAST place any of us wanted to be during a thunder storm was at the highest point in the entire city. For 20 minutes of the 1 hour hike I could see the storm in the distance and hear the thunder. It's the 21st minute that got to me. The sky opened up. Mr. Chu decided to seek shelter in a gazebo but I kept on walking in case the storm never let up. By the bottom of the mountain I was drenched but happy. I don't mind getting wet, and even enjoyed splashing around a bit, much to the laughter of the Chinese tourists.

All in all a lovely day in Lijiang. And, now that I bought a nifty little umbrella, I feel better prepared for the next rainstorm.

Birthday in the mountains of China
May 4, 2005

On May 3rd, I took a 4 hour bus from the over-crowded town of Lijiang back to the bustling town of Dali. From there I took a horse-drawn carraige up to the base of a rickety chairlift for the 30 minute ride to a mountain-side temple. From the temple it was another 15 minute hike, uphill, to the seven room guest house called "The Highlander".

The Highlander isn't in any guidebooks, nor is it part of the traveller's circuit so it was truly a hidden treasure. The guest house has seven rooms, all with views of the valley below. You could, literally, see for miles and miles and miles. Lakes, mountains, villages...and clouds so close you could almost touch them.

I awoke on May 4th (my birthday) to a beautiful pink-laced sunrise at 6:20am. I didn't even need to get out of the warmth of my bed to enjoy the sun peeking out from behind the distant mountains. All I had to do was look out my doorway! It was breathtaking - pinks, yellows, and silver lined clouds, reflecting on the huge lake below. After enjoying the sunrise for a few minutes I went back to sleep until I heard a knock, knock, knock, giggle, giggle, giggle, at my door. It was Melanie, the young Chinese owner of the guest house, with a huge vase of wild flowers for me!

At 9:00am I reluctantly left the warmth of my bed to enjoy the crisp, clear, beautiful day! I got a huge cup of Yunnan coffee, wrapped myself in a blanket, and sat outside on a patio with gorgeous views of the valley and the mountains. I sat there the entire day reading*, writing and relaxing. There were only five other travellers hiding out at the guest house during my stay so it was like having my own little cottage high up in the hills!

When the sun finally set, around 7:00pm, we sat down to a family-style dinner of yummy chinese food. Dinner was by candlelight because the power was out - but that only added to the charm. After dinner, the six of us split a candy bar (instead of a birthday cake) and I made a wish upon a candle. Then, the singing began. I got to hear "Happy Birthday" in 5 different languages. Borass sang it in Swiss-German. Melanie in Chinese. Maron in Hebrey. Chris in English/Irish! And, Stephan in French! What a nice way to celebrate my birthday.

*The guesthouse had a tiny library of english books and I was lucky enough to find in it "The Alchemist" by Paul Coelho. It's the perfect book for birthday reflection. Thanks Menno. Wouldn't have thought of it if I hadn't remembered you reading it in India.

Leaving China
May 7, 2005

A little change of plans. After several attempts, I was finally issued a visa to Myanmar - but only after I changed my application to read "volunteer teacher". Now, visa in-hand, I've decided to postpone Myanmar until after a short visit to Thailand to reenergize. It's hard, after ten months on the road, to stay excited about travelling. Sometimes every little thing feels like a chore. Simple things like eating, or using and ATM become hour-long chores of multiple speed-bumps and diversions.

I'm hoping that a little time in Thailand - which is the most westernized of all the Asian countries - will recharge my batteries! Then, when I'm good and ready, I'll head to Myanmar for a few weeks before my flight home.
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