I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Saturday, June 11, 2011

We didn't really sleep too great on the night-train to Dali mostly because it was really hot and we couldn’t get used to the motion of the train moving. At about 5am people started to stir and by 6am the radio was on and everyone was chatting away as we pulled into Dali station. We had been so focused on finding the right carriage last night that we hadn’t even noticed how huge the train was, so when we got off it this morning we were surprised to see about 300 other people pouring onto the platform. The town of Dali is separated into two towns; the new town which is full of shopping centers and ugly concrete buildings and the old town which is surrounded by a huge wall and is protected due to its ancient buildings and waterways. The train station had dropped us off in the new town so we had to catch the number 8 bus to our hostel in the old town; now getting the bus from the train station to the hostel might not seem like a big deal but we had no idea where the bus stop was, when we were meant to get off and how we would know which bus to get. But luckily as we exited the train station there was a row of buses; all of them were labeled in Chinese characters but we managed to spy a tiny number 8 written on one of them so we took a chance and boarded it. We stayed on the bus until it got to (what we presumed was) the terminal in the old town and when we saw the driver get off and settle down with a bowl of noodles we figured we must be at the end of the line. Miraculously we had managed to get off at the right place and we were at our hostel within a few minutes; the weather in Dali is quite grey and drizzly, which made Tom very happy because he has missed the chilly British weather. The hostel was still closed up for the night when we arrived and we ended up dumping our bags at the reception and heading out for an early morning stroll around the village.

Dali is known for its beautiful architecture and mix of ethnic minorities, however it is also known for being very touristy and when we entered the town at about 7am there were already hordes of Chinese tour groups prowling around. Despite this Dali looked very pretty in the early morning light and the surrounding mountains were shrouded in a thick blanket of mist. Dali is a very strange combination of ancient Chinese buildings and scenery (it looks like the set for an old kungfu film) mixed with bars and shoe shops, along with cafes selling a everything from traditional yak-butter tea to pizzas and banana pancakes. To be honest, all Tom and I ever ask of a town is nice accommodation, somewhere cheap to eat and a place to escape from the crowds for a while; so we were very happy when we stumbled across a tiny street stall selling dumplings for breakfast. We were starting to feel quite chilly so we bought a tub of steaming veggie dumplings for breakfast and were very happy to find the girl behind the steamers could speak a little English and that the dumplings only cost 50p for ten! The longer we travel for the more we come to appreciate the simple things in life; cheap dumplings, a can of cola and a bench to sit on and enjoy our food is all we need to make us both very happy indeed.

 As the town got busier and busier we decided to head back to our hostel and get freshened up. However when we got there we found that they had given our dorm beds away to someone else and wanted to put us in a bigger dorm room with no ensuite bathroom. Now I know that this happens all the time in Asia but so far we have managed to avoid this happening to us, so I was thoroughly peeved when they told us our new dorm room wasn’t going to be as nice as the one we had originally booked. So, like the proper British people we are, we told the manager we weren’t happy and asked for some kind of discount. We must have looked extremely miffed because we ended up getting upgraded to a private double room with ensuite bathroom, tv and dvd player for the same price as a dorm room…so complaining does work after all!! After a much needed shower we settled down in the hostel courtyard and got chatting a lovely couple from St Albans called Tony and Jen. They are also coming to the end of a year long trip through Asia and Australasia so we had plenty in common and before we knew it most of the afternoon had slipped past us in a haze of tea, conversation, toast and laughter (as well as I few tears as we all reminisced about our experiences). By the time late afternoon came round we realized we needed to get a move on with our sight-seeing so we headed out to the main sight in Dali, the Three Pagodas. These pagodas are the symbol of the town/region (they are even on the beer bottles) and are some of the oldest standing structures in southwest China, dating back to the 9th century. The biggest of the pagodas is 16 tiers high and there are two other 10 tier pagodas on either side of it. As I said in the previous blog, China is significantly more expensive than the rest of southeast Asia, so we were prepared to pay an entrance charge to see them. However we weren’t prepared to pay the hefty charge of £13 each to get in! So, being the wonderful  cheap-skates we are, we figured out that if we walked through one of the surrounding villages we could actually see all three pagodas for free and also get a look at some of the old buildings in the town… it’s only by being so cheap and stingy that we have stayed in budget during this trip! We didn’t know if there were any rules about foreigners entering the residential village but we wandered in and were met with some amazing looks; people were looking at us as though a pair of aliens had just walked through the middle of the village. Ancient ladies and gentlemen sitting on benches playing chess stopped in their tracks and their false teeth nearly dropped out of their heads… foreigners obviously never come to this part of town and I don’t actually know if many of the elderly people here had seen many Westerns before. It was a very strange feeling to think that we might be one of the only white people these Chinese elders had ever seen, it made us feel a mixture between special and intrusive. Either way we managed to get a great view of the pagodas and felt very happy with ourselves that we had saved £26 in entrance fees, but we didn’t hang around too long as we didn’t want to be the cause of some shock-induced heart attacks in the village.

That evening we went wandering to try and find a cheap place to eat. Unfortunately cheap cafes are quite few and far between here in Dali and we were starting to get a bit fed up at looking at menus filled with £10 pizzas, £6 pasta and £2 coffees. The prices in China are a huge shock to our systems! But just as we were starting to lose the will to live we found a tiny café on the outskirts of the town which had an English menu and a great guy working there. He didn’t speak a word of English but we managed to point out what we wanted and were ecstatic when we settled down to a feast of fried rice, chili aubergine, stir-fried tofu and cheap beer. The food was brilliant and when we managed to say "The food was delicious" in Mandarin the guy’s eyes defiantly glazed over. It was a great night but we were both still feeling really run-down from our colds so we headed back to our room for an early night.

The following day we woke up and felt like death; Tom was extremely congested and sniffly, however my cold had gone down onto my chest and every time I coughed I could feel my chest rattling. I felt so ill and it took us quite a while to get moving that morning. We decided to head to the pharmacy to get something for my chest, but the closest thing we could get was some little illuminous yellow pills intended for sore throats… not quite what we wanted but the best we could do with our phrasebook. While we were down in town we headed back to our favourite dumpling lady and sat down for another round of steam dumplings and chili soya sauce (the chili did wonders for our sinuses). Afterwards we went back to the hostel for a nap and later went back out to finish our sight-seeing. The old town of Dali is surrounded by a huge wall which kind of reminded us of the wall at Conwy Castle. Most of the wall has been destroyed by wars and earthquakes but there is a small section you can walk along so we went for some photos and to take in the wonderful views of the Yunnanese mountains and lakes. The mountains to the west of Dali, on which our hostel sits at the bottom, are actually the natural border between China and Tibet and it was an extremely surreal feeling looking at the mountains and knowing that Tibet was just on the other side of them. During our two days in Dali the weather has been very drizzly but as we took in the views the heavens opened and we retreated to the hostel to get some more research and planning done for the rest of our time in China. Originally we planned to split our time in the south of China between three destinations, however curiosity has finally got the best of us and despite both feeling rubbish we have decided to squeeze in a fourth stop while we are here. I’ll explain the ins and outs of it in a later blog but in nutshell we have decided to visit the town of Zhongdian in the Tibetan mountains, otherwise known as Shangri-la! Now I know what you’re thinking… Shangri-la doesn’t exist! Well your kind of right; Zhongdian was re-named Shangri-la after it was agreed that it was the inspiration for James Hilton’s fictional town of Shangri-la in his novel 'Lost Horizon’. But no matter what you call it, we want to go because it is literally a stone’s throw away from Tibet and is the closest we are going to get to Tibet on this trip. So we had plenty of last minute planning to do to make this little deviation a reality and after another trip out to our lovely café we got our heads down for a good night’s sleep. On the way back to the hostel we stumbled across an old Chinese film being projected on to a huge screen in the middle of Dali Square; we were both so happy because the film was being shown on an old fashioned cinema projector and there were three men hand-winding the film cells on the reels. We took loads of photos because my Dad used to be a cinema projectionist before I was born; it was amazing to see the men working with the projector and imagining my Dad doing the same job all those years ago!
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