Off the airport shuttle bus in Kunming, I asked a girl at the bus stop if this was the correct bus to get to my stop. She said it was, and then proceeded to pay my bus far as we got on. That it was only 10p didn’t matter. I fell in love with the city. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, in the south west of China. It’s home to 25 of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups, and is nicknamed The City of Eternal Spring, for its year-round pleasant climate. It felt like a British summertime but without the rain. I was staying in Kunming for just two nights, with a vague plan to head northwest and eventually to walk the Tiger Leaping Gorge outside Lijiang, before coming back to the city to catch my flight 2 weeks later.
I was torn between spending my one day visiting the Yunnan Minorities Museum, to set myself up and get some background information on some of the different cultures I’d be experiencing, or to go to the zoo. I wasn’t feeling like another museum, and anyway I’d set myself a little mission to find some endangered Yunnan Snub Nosed Monkeys whilst I was here, Yunnan presumably being a good place to find them. There are two zoos in Kunming; one, according to online reviews, is a series of dank dirty cages in the middle of the city, with sad animals chained up inside. The other was a safari park. I took the subway to the end of the line and then walked 30 minutes in what was becoming baking heat, and by the time I reached the safari park, half way up a mountain, I was feeling quite toasty. I had mis-read ‘eternal spring’ as ‘eternal British spring’ and worn waterproof boots, a coat and tights under my jeans. Soon I was shedding layers and my first stop was to the little shop to find a hat – at a high altitude, the sun was much stronger up here than in the city. The best of the bunch was a straw hat with a canvas UV protecting rim. I was a bit unsure at first, but with a little rearranging on my head I was able to convince myself I was working a sort of Meryl Streep Out of Africa look. I spent the day wandering around, encountering all sorts of animals wandering freely, including a gangly, sharp eyed ostrich that was definitely following me. The look in its eyes told me that we weren’t to be friends, and I backed away, not wanting to turn my back and give it opportunity to attack. A little further down the road I was feeding some deer and I looked up to find it’s face right next to me.
You had the option to pay 40¥ to take a golf buggy all the way round, which I chose not to do, preferring to enjoy the walk around the green mountaintop, the fresh air and the beautiful views. This does mean, though, that I was passed by buggies flying past me every few minutes. In a jovial, touristy mood, it wasn’t rare for zoo-goers to notice me, point me out to their friends, shout “HELLOOO!!”, and get their camera out for a quick snap. I could imagine the Chinese tour guide over the tannoy, “…and to your left we have the female caucasian, rarely seen in these parts. You can see she’s eating a tangerine!” It’s interesting how when you visit tourist sights, the tourists are in tourist mode, taking pictures indiscriminately at anything that looks slightly novelty. I automatically become a part of that. At a visit to the Nationalities Village later in my trip, a random man would ask my friend if he could have a picture with me, as though I were an exhibit. Seeing people get excited over a foreigner is quite amusing really, and much easier to handle when you’re a tourist yourself. When I’m at home in Harbin though, going about my daily business feeling like a local, being treated as an object of fascination quickly becomes irritating.
I spent hours in the park, saw the panda which looked like a bloke in a panda suit, sitting on some decking half way up a tree in the sun wondering how it all came to this. Camels, peacocks, deer, tigers, lions, reptiles, primates, elephants, the usual suspects, but sadly no Snub Nosed Monkeys. Finally at closing time it was time make my way back to the hostel and nurse the little blister on my baby toe, which was to become my constant companion on the rest of my trip.
The next day, I got on an 8hr bus up to Lijiang, north-west of Kunming. Long-distance bus is by far the most reliable method of transportation within Yunnan, and in such a beautiful province it’s not a great hardship. I took my place at the front of the luxury double decker, getting comfy and marvelling at whatever divine providence had led me to be sitting with a 270 degree view through the wide windows. Then, in true China style, about 30 seconds before we departed, on piled the rest of the passengers. Plane, train or automobile, no-one takes their seat a second before they have to, and seeing passengers casually walking through the terminal browsing at Harbin Sausage 10 minutes before their flight is scheduled to take off would not be a rare thing. In the seat next to me wedged a woman and, on her lap, her 3 year old toddler, squeezing me up into the window. I was having second thoughts. Thankfully my entertainment system didn’t work, which gave me an excuse to move to a vacant seat further back.
When we arrived in Lijiang, it turned out the address for my hostel wasn’t understood by any of the taxi drivers waiting outside the bus station. This was a bit problematic because I had no telephone number for them, and no plan B. There were several nice bus-users outside who tried to help me, and eventually the man I had been sitting next to got his English speaking friend on the phone. She told me to get in a car with the man and meet her, and they’d help me to figure it out. As reluctant as I was to get into a car with a complete stranger in a town where apparently no-one knew where anything was, my options were looking limited. Eventually my little cherub of a sister came to the rescue; she’d been keeping an eye on my emails because Gmail is now blocked in China so I couldn’t access it on my phone. She was awake, and she found the reservation email and phone number. I called them and problem solved.
It turned out that the hostel was in a place called Shuhe Old Town, outside the main Lijiang town. Way back when, it was a small village, but now it’s been rebuilt to sell Old World China to tourists. Despite getting lost several times during my stay, and having to be returned to my hostel in a golf buggy by a man from a rival hostel, it was a relaxing place, full of quirky coffee shops, restaurants, souvenir shops selling locally produced textiles and yummy rose cakes. Streams ran alongside the pathways, so clear that, in the outskirts of the village, you could see locals crouching over the water and washing their smalls. The hostel had the comfiest mattresses I’ve ever experienced in China (with the exception of the ones in IKEA, where one can happily while away half a day staring at the ceiling), and was filled with Chinese youngsters – very different to most Chinese hostels, which seemed to contain a mix of foreign tourists, business people and single students. I was the only foreigner throughout my stay here. The layout of the hostel was in a courtyard, with two floors of wooden huts around the outside, with the toilets and showers across the courtyard. The first night I got there, the hostel was hosting a 60¥ per head BBQ in the courtyard. I was torn between not wanting to be a social recluse, and not wanting to stand eating meat on sticks and nuzzling in with groups of people pretending to understand their conversation. I decided to wander around the village and find my own dinner, thinking I’d just make friends tomorrow under less contrived circumstances. I darted between diners as I made my way through the courtyard and wandered around, finding some delicious noodles. That’s when the sun dropped and I got lost and had to be ferried home.
The spent the next day doing nothing but wandering around the village, feeling a bit guilty for idling away an entire day but also justifying the benefits of acquainting myself with my surroundings so as to avoid getting lost again. I used such girlguide methods as checking the position of the mountains that surrounded the village, thinking I could just keep walking until the mountains looked the same as when I’d left. There was plenty to see and do in the village so I had a nice day.
The next day I went to a beautiful area called Heilongtan (Black dragon pool), a little lake at the foot of a big hill, and a Naxi museum. Most of China’s Naxi minorities live in Yunnan, and largely concentrated around the Lijiang area. I knew more about this minority group than others because I have a friend who is Naxi, so I was interested to learn more about the rituals, customs and language of this ancient ethnicity. They follow a sort of Dongba spiritual religion, placing heavy emphasis on the lives of animals, and also ceremonies to connect with spirits in the afterlife. My friend’s grandfather was actually a Donga priest, one of very few men in this small group who would perform ceremonies and be sought out to offer counsel. The museum had his picture on the wall, which is cool. I also learned more about the pictographic language, the last in use in the world. Sadly, during the Cultural Revolution, the use of this was stamped out, and so most Naxi people can’t read or write it. But there have been great efforts in recent years to breathe life into this ancient script, and scholars are working furiously to preserve, translate and teach this language to others.
After a wander around the lake, I walked along a stream until it came to Lijiang Old Town. Like Shuhe, it has largely been refurbished to accommodate tourists. But this town was much bigger, and if you walk away from the main square and up some alleys, you can see the thousands of sloping roofs across the town, nestled below the mountains. The sun was beaming down, the steady sound of drums coming from ethnic music shops that dotted the streets was beating through the air, and it was a perfect day. I even bought a book, breaking my rule about not buying books when travelling. Called Forgotten Kingdom, it’s the travelogue of Peter Goullard, a Russian diplomat and linguist who lived in Lijiang during the 1940’s and and 50’s, at a time when it was untouched by the outside world. Fascinating read for anyone interested in traditional Naxi culture, and life before the revolution in this part of the world.
Soon it was time to leave Lijiang. My dorm-mate had entertained me with beautiful pictures and wild stories of the places she’d been to in Yunnan, and I was eager to get going and discover them for myself. Early the next morning, I packed my bag and walked down to the taxi rank in the village. It was less organised than the label ‘taxi rank’ might suggest; three men huddled around a fire, their mianbaochi vans parked up on the side of the dirt track since the night before. If I felt guilty for tearing one of them away from the warmth and companionship of the fire, this was lessened by the fact that he wouldn’t shave even 10Y off his price to the bus station in the other town, even though I was sure I was being ripped off.
The further north you get, the smaller and more rickety the buses become. My next destination was Qiaotou, the small village at one end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This bus was an 18 seater, and I piled in and got comfy for the 3 hour journey. The mountains that rose from behind every bend were breathtaking, and I was becoming more and more excited about the prospect of my climb. It would take about 8 hours in total, and as I wouldn’t be starting until after lunch, I planned to stop at one of the sparse hamlets halfway along the route for the night. I filled my smaller rucksac with the essentials I’d need – water, fruit, layers, make-up for the next day. First mistake. I left my big rucksac at a hostel at the beginning of the trek, and ate a lunch of fried rice. Second mistake.
I set off after lunch, walking along the road at the opening of the deep gorge, water rushing below me and mountains rising up above me, a little daunted at the height of the mountain I was about to scale, but feeling optimistic none the less. I followed the little red and blue bunting that had been tied to rocks many moons ago to direct walkers, as the path cut off the road and up a track. A local caught up with me, asking if I was alone and did I want a horse. No, I’m not alone, I have two friends waiting for me further up. I didn’t want him to know I was wandering about a mountain on my own, and I wasn’t totally lying as I’d exchanged numbers with a Danish pair on the bus just in case I got kidnapped or trapped under falling rock or something. He disappeared, and onwards and upwards I hiked. Suddenly, he reappeared leading a packhorse. I insisted I didn’t want the horse, but he wouldn’t leave. After a short while of being followed, I came across a French couple stopping for water. I asked if I could join them and pretend they were my friends, hoping the horse man would leave us alone. They welcomed me along, but it didn’t work; he decided to follow us for over an hour. After a while the boy was grumbling that he’d been charged to come up the mountain, and the girl was grumbing about the horse man. We paused several times up the first climb, which was a steep ascent. My lunch was sitting heavy on my stomach, and I was cursing myself for being such an idiot, weighing my bag down with foundation and mascara. The horse man kept up behind us, cruelly imitating us being breathless and insisting we take the horse, making us feel inadequate and as though he could see we were destined to fail. He was going to a hostel further up on the trail, and we insisted that he go ahead of us; he refused, and continued to walk within 2m of us the whole ascent, making us feel stressed and racing up faster than we would have liked.
After over an hour of climbing we came to a flat walk, so I kept going as the couple stopped for lunch. The flat walk lasted about an hour, and finally I’d shaken off the horse man. I walked past a group of young Chinese walkers, and a few of the girls were struggling in floppy hats and trainer-heels (but not as much as their boyfriends, who were carrying their own and their girlfriends’ bags). Feeling exhilarated, I wandered on through the serene mountain woodlands, catching a peek of the Jade Dragon Mountain through the pine trees as it came closer and closer. The Jade Dragon Mountain has an alluring history, and is the place where many Lijiang lovers used to go to commit suicide. The Naxi culture was a fun, carefree and liberal society, but their marriage traditions were steadfast – unions were arranged at birth, and there was no escaping them. With such a strong connection to spirits and the afterlife, dying wasn’t seen as the end, but as a way for forbidden lovers to escape the cruelty of this world and to be together eternally.
Under the baking sun, with my Meryl Streep hat on my head, I found myself singing Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem out loud. When I realised, I would start singing something else, but that tune was stuck in my head kept coming out of my mouth. It became my kind of anthem. Around another bend, and a little hut selling refreshments had plastered on the side in red paint, “Gain energy for the 28 bends!”. I’d come across the fabled 28 bends in my research into the gorge, and I was pretty sure the horrific first hour winding up the face of the mountain had been the said bends. I was wondering whether someone had daubed this taunting message on the wrong side of the hut, but didn’t stop to ask. One look upwards told me that 28 hairpin bends were indeed waiting for me. No time like the present. Refuelled from the flat walk, I had a sip of water, adjusted my bonnet and made a start. The terrain had morphed from dry mountainside to spongy forest floor, and now the path was made of footholes and steps arranged from boulders and cut into the side of rock faces. Again, I had attracted a passing horseman, but this one was much nicer. He must have been over 60, his skin so dark from the endless days climbing the mountain. He led two horses, and one was already saddled up with rucksacs from two Chinese women ahead of me. He didn’t need to bully me into giving him business, so he amiably plodded along the path below me. My bag was really weighing me down and soon the horse didn’t seem like such a bad idea. For a generous fee he took my bag and tied it to the horses back, and suddenly I was flying up the hillside.
I can confidently say that I couldn’t have made it up those bends without that horse carrying my ridiculously overpacked bag. It was still tough, but I was free to go at my own pace and to actually enjoy it. By the time I made it to the top, I’d passed a few people who had succumbed to the temptation and were on horseback, so I felt proud to have made it up by myself. The horseman untied my bag and gave me a big thumbs up, which restored the faith in myself that the first guy had shaken. I took my sunglasses off to wipe my face, and he was amazed to see I was a foreigner. I told him I was British and he gave me another two thumbs up and a big toothless grin as I went on my way. I was happy. At this point I was pretty high up, and I followed the path along the side of the mountain, walking towards the sharp grey peaks of the Jade Dragon Mountain on the other side of the gorge. You couldn’t ask for a grander point of reference. I was getting closer and closer to it, and could see in detail the swirls of cloud that seemed to always shroud the top. Below, every now and then I could see glimpses of the the green river racing along the foot of the gorge. Even from high up I could feel the power of it coursing through the creek, crashing against the rocks. Behind me, the path bent and disappeared around the mountain, showing all I’d achieved. In front, the long mountainside was waiting.
After 5 hours, I made it to a small Naxi hamlet, where a hostel was waiting to give walkers respite. I was ravenous, and ordered a delicious Naxi sandwich, like a round flatbread, with yak’s cheese, tomato and onion, and potato and pumpkin soup (potato and pumpkin floating in water). It was nourishing and filled me up. I sat on the terrace deck to watch the sun set between the mountains, and saw the stars begin to fill the sky. Exhausted but utterly content, I eventually prised myself out of my chair and went to bed.
The next day was much more relaxing. I had breakfast and set off down the path, only to realise 10 minutes later that I hadn’t paid for my breakfast. Back up the path to pay, and I was off again. There were no annoying horse men this time, in fact no other walkers at all. Much of the path was flat, following a narrow ledge that travelled around the side of the mountain. Soon, Jade Dragon Mountain was well and truly behind me, and I came across a goat herder wandering about, and then a beautiful waterfall cascading down the side of the cliff. Negotiating the moss-covered stones through the water without falling to my death was fun, and as I looked back, impressed with my agility, a beautiful rainbow floated over the rocks, flickering in the sun.
The path took a steep incline as I headed down towards the road, and the end of the hike. I was feeling so full of energy and enthusiasm that, 3 hours in, when I reached the road, and Tina’s Hostel where most people wait for a bus, I wasn’t ready for it to be over. Instead, I decided to walk over the bridge and head down to the river – the road is still set high above. You can walk down the side of the cliff to reach the Tiger Leaping Stone in the middle of the river, where a tiger used to leap onto when crossing between Jade Dragon Mountain and the Haba Mountains which I’d walked (according to myth; I have my doubts). Down I went, further and further down at such a steep incline my legs started to feel like jelly. Over the rocks and between the trees I could see the river getting closer and closer, and eventually I could hear it too. Then came the ladders. The first set, although spindly and a little rusty, weren’t too big. The next set, though, must have been at least 3 storeys long, and they creaked and groaned. I sat at the top for a while, wondering if I really needed to go down them, if it was really that beautiful at the bottom. There was no-one about to ask, and I saw no alternative route. After a few minutes taking in the scene I went for it, cocooned in that familiar feeling of ‘if I die then I die’ which hadn’t done me wrong thus far. I didn’t die, and finally, after 40 minutes climbing down the face of the cliff, I’d reached the river. The scale was enormous; the river so wide and so green, the rocks so vast, the roaring water echoing into every inch of space. The scene was filled with energy and still so tranquil.
I sat for a while, before thinking that I should start the climb back up, and wondering if there wasn’t a quick lift I could take. Ninety minutes saw me climb back to the top. Never in my 5 years of no-chocolate have I been so close to giving in, but the sight of those cold Snickers bars sitting in the shade under the hut lady’s umbrella tested me. I resisted, and instead bought an orange, putting it in my bag for later. The route had been been dotted with local people in these small huts, selling water and Snickers and stones. Not youngsters either, but grannies and toothless men who, in another world, would be spending their days making retirement plans. Their agility is beyond me.
I stopped at a roadside cafe at the top, finally time for some lunch at 3pm before heading back. Having been focussing on my footing for most of the hike, I wanted to experience the Gorge from the ground, so I decided to walk along the road back to the hostel at the start. The man in the cafe said it was 2 hours of flat-ish road back to the village. Feeling refreshed, I set off, singing out loud and drinking water and taking in the mountains. After a while, I heard an alarming crashing noise behind me. I spun around to see rocks falling from above, down onto the road. I hadn’t thought about the fallen rocks that lay in piles all along the roads, or the cracked tarmac that opened up to a sheer drop below. Soon after, I came to a sign that advised me of falling rocks. If one landed on my head, I would 100% be dead. This took the shine off my pleasant stroll, and I picked up pace a little. Two hours came and went. So did three, and on the road went, winding round and around the crevices of the mountain. The sun was starting to set, which meant that I’d probably be run over by one of the few passing cars that came past, and I was thinking about flagging one down when, as if by magic, a young couple in a van pulled over and told me to get in. I was so thankful that I didn’t even mind if they planned to kidnap me, as long as I could sit down first. The wife took selfies of us, me on the seats behind. I looked a mess but happily obliged, and gave them my orange as a token of thanks when I got out at Jane’s Hostel 10 minutes later.
I ate some pasta and had a glass of well-earned Yunnan red wine and slept at Jane’s that night. At some point, a group of Brits came into the dorm, getting ready to walk the next day. I was awoken early by their excited packing. I shared my wisdom, advising them to pack light, and wished them well. Later that morning, I told Jane’s husband that I wanted to head south-west, to Dali, and he called the bus driver coming from Shangri La in the north, and asked him to stop and pick me up on his way to Dali So simple; no bus station, no endless queues, no tickets. I walked to the crossroads in the village and waited for a bus to come and pick me up. I watched scooters, bicycles, cars and luxury buses sail past on the dusty road, and I made eye contact with the drivers of the buses hoping one of them was on the lookout for a white girl with a rucksac. Eventually, a loud grey 18 seater rocked up and the driver helped me to wedge my bag between the gearstick and the passengers beside him. I checked he was going to Dali, and climbed in. I sat at the front next to a quiet lady in a head dress, and settled down for the 4 hour journey. Behind me, the seats were mostly filled with men, smoking and coughing and chatting away in dialects I’d never heard before.
Through mountains and hills and past villages and lakes, I felt like I was passing through a book. Every now and then, mopeds paused on the side of the road, figures working in the flat fields, wide brimmed hats tied by scarves to protect from the sun. Bus drivers will drop you off anywhere you like, and after showing him the address of my next hostel, the driver dropped me off right outside the gates of the village. This was another ‘old town’, full of shops, cafes and bars, and a mecca for the foreign backpacker. More established than the other places I’d been to, Dali had a relaxed, warm and eclectic vibe, attracting the type of people who find their haven in this type of place. I’d never seen so many Chinese men with long hair, or wearing floaty bohemian garbs. On the first night, I went with a couple of the Chinese people in my dorm to a bar close by. Bad Monkey was set up by a couple of British men, and felt like anything you could find at home. It was packed; a band were playing on one side, and we sat on the other playing a Chinese drinking game I didn’t fully understand involving dice and pure luck. Here I met a few Bai locals, who vehemently rejected capitalism and told me that they hated all the tourists here who just want to take photographs and not understand the ancient cultures that were slowly being turfed over. This was my window. I told them I was genuinely interested in minority cultures; that’s why I was here. It was settled; we were to hire mopeds and go down to the lake the next day, passing through some traditional Bai minority villages. Since my dorm-mates were exactly the type of culture-tramplers they had been raging against, the invite didn’t extend to them.
The next day, we met bright and early. I pretended I had experience riding mopeds, recalling fondly the time my brother let me ride his scooter on the path up the street and back 10 years ago. The traffic on Chinese roads is a bit menacing, but I took a helmet and we cut through to some back roads, and soon we were riding alongside the lake. Erhai lake is huge and stunning. People come to Dali just to visit the lake. Dali is nestled between the lake and (surprise surprise) a row of mountains, and scooting along this winding road was perfection. We passed through a series of villages, dusty but clean, with white walls that join to the narrow road. Children played on the street, locals milled about and got on with their daily business, and we passed scooters, farm wagons and bikes along the roads, but no cars. We stopped for lunch in one of the villages, and I was shown the local delicacy – cold rice noodles. Of course, it was delicious. Next we had Suzhou cakes (Suzhou is the name of the village), which were like dense flatbreads, one filled with meat and the other with melted brown sugar tea.
Some of the houses of historically noteworthy people are, by government order, open to the public, and their living relatives inside have to let visitors look round if they ask. We found an open house and poked our heads round, asking if we could come in. This place was now home to several really old Chinese folks, related somehow in the complex maze of Chinese families. One sat in a chair tapping his walking stick in time to some distant music. Another felt his way around the side of the walls to reach a doorway, his eyesight long gone. A younger woman, maybe in her 60’s, welcomed us in and left us to wander. We couldn’t go inside their private rooms of course, so we were left to looking around the courtyard,ducking under their washing line, and peeking through windows of the rooms adjacent. Bai houses feature similar architecture; a large reflecting wall on one side of the courtyard to reflect the sunlight, and two-storey building structures on the other three sides, with decking-style seating area in the shade. Later, we popped to the locally renowned Linden Centre, famed for its preservation of an ancient Bai house as well as actively promoting Bai culture. The house was bought by two Americans, who preserved it and turned it into a hotel, as well as a sort of visitor centre for tourists. All of the interesting parts were reserved for hotel guests though, so it was just a less interesting version of the older, still functioning house we’d already been to.
Back on our bikes, and we headed for a part called the ‘tongue of the lake’; a narrow strip of land that protrudes into the middle of the lake. We parked up the mopeds and walked along the tongue for the most serene sights I had encountered throughout my whole trip. The Chinese say that men are like mountains and women are like the water. As awe-inspiring as the majestic mountains had been, as imposing and intimidating and amazing as they were, it’s the water that soothes me, and that day I felt like, with a few tweaks on the company, I could happily set up camp and live the rest of my life by Erhai.
Another few days in Dali were spent on a rowing boat looking at ospreys, which then lead to us pulling up beside a bigger boat to watch a show of some locals in traditional Bai dress, singing a song and plodding around in a circle clapping and dancing in a half-arsed way that was awkward for everyone involved. I also spent some time wandering around the town and drinking tea, trying to at least read a bit of Shakespeare and Marlowe in preparation for my courses this semester. Still, there are worse places to be doing work than a cafe next to a stream in Dali.
That evening, one of the guys from my hostel had met a group of hippies whilst he was singing on the street, and he invited me to join them for hotpot. Hotpot is one of my favourite types of Chinese food, but it’s always so spicy and the room so humid that your blood thins considerably, and none of us were much of a match for the home-made plum wine that the laoban passed round to us. Two of said hippies owned a hostel around the corner, and we headed there, where more plum wine and a packet of sparklers appeared. We crammed into a little attic space, where their tiny puppy had been waiting. He sat on my lap for a while, and when he shuffled off it emerged that he’d left me a little doggy souvenir to mark our time together. It was a teeny tiny little poop, which would have been cute if it wasn’t poop. I was told in earnest by everyone present that it was good luck, but I decided I was lucky enough and went for a tissue.
The next day I took another bus back to Kunming. I still had a few days until my flight back to Harbin, but with Chinese New Year around the corner, things were starting to close down and buses were getting busier. I took a bus back to Kunming and chatted to a French woman, who talked for 4 hours about the corrupt system, the corrupt state of government and the corrupt media in Europe, and how China was much more straight forward. We had an interesting conversation at first but eventually I put one earphone in and let her carry on. I made it back to Kunming and, feeling like a local, planned to get a public bus straight to my hostel. However, I couldn’t find the bus I needed, and so a taxi was the next option.
Getting a taxi outside a bus station is always a mission; there are no shortages of taxis, they’re just unlicensed. Men gather around you as you come out of the station, asking where you’re going and shouting prices at you. Eventually I bartered one guy down a little and he led me to his car. He looked like a respectable young chap in glasses and a shiny silver suit. He put my bag in the boot, then asked me if I was hungry. I said I wasn’t; I wanted to get to my hostel. He then told me he was just going to get some dinner and then he’d take me back. I looked at him blankly, told him I wanted to go now. He was harmless, but it’s important to remember that getting in between a man and his stomach, you’re never going to be the victor. He couldn’t quite understand what my problem was, and eventually he opened the boot and gave me my back back. A metered taxi pulled up and he flagged it down, put my bag inside and held the door open for me. A true gent, just a hungry one. I got back to the hostel I’d originally stayed at, and by weird coincidence ended up in the same bed. I saw from the airing smalls hanging on the bed opposite that Raqaz, one of Indian salesmen who I’d met when I first arrived, was still in residence. I chatted to him on the terrace and started making my plans.
About 2 hours outside of Kunming is a huge, natural phenomenon called Shi Lin (Stone forest). A UNESCO heritage site, it literally looks like a forest made of stone. The next day, I hopped on a moped, with breaks that squealed like a little girl’s bike and which, embarrassingly for the driver and me, failed at the top of the hill just before the bus station. I walked the last 20m, queued for my ticket and took the bus, wedged for two hours next to a man with a massive cuddly teddy sat on his lap, presumably a New Year’s gift for his lucky beau. It took a while to build up my excitement; as soon as I arrived, the heavens opened and for as far as the eye could see, rain poured. Lightning tore through the sky and thunder clapped in our ears. My brolly was lying untouched in the bottom of my rucksac, blissfully unaware of what was kicking off down in Shi Lin, and I was quickly getting a little damp. I could see tour groups waddling along like ducks in big waterproof overcoats, so I ran to the nearest refreshment stall and found one. At 25¥ I was being absolutely fleeced but at least I got to choose a fetching candyfloss pink colour. I sloshed around and was thinking about heading back to the buses when the clouds parted and out came the sun. The transformation was instant. The air was filled with that special birdsong that you only notice just after a rainfall, and the smell of trees and vegetation rose from the ground. Alone, I wandered between the huge rocks, up to the highest point of the park, where I could see a full panoramic view. It was so much bigger than I thought, and that’s when I realised how mad it was, thousands of limestone rocks emerging from the ground from no-where. I took in the view and breathed in the air, which felt must have been the freshest air in all China.
Two rock formations, completely natural, take on astonishingly human forms when seen from the right angle. The first looks like a determined mother walking forwards, trailing her reluctant young child behind. The second is called Lonely Wanderer, and looks like a man walking away, shoulders hunched, hands behind his back. I also spotted a rock which looks like one of those optical illusions where you don’t know which side the face is on, but strangely this didn’t have a plaque.
That evening was Chinese New Year. I was exhausted because a group of backpackers had turned up at 3am, turning the lights on and making a nice little racket, and as they fell into their snoring slumber I hadn’t been able to get back to sleep. I fell asleep on the bus on the way back from Shi Lin, and was feeling refreshed by the time I got back to the hostel in the middle of the city. I was going to meet my friend for celebrations, but logistically after 7pm we wouldn’t be able to get taxis so we decided to meet the next day. I spent New Years eve on the terrace of my hostel, sipping plum wine with Raqaz and his colleagues, overlooking the city and the fireworks all around, before slipping off to my bed long before midnight.
I spent another day visiting the Yunnan Nationalities Village. This is an outdoor area showcasing the architecture, clothes and culture of each of Yunnan’s minority groups. It was very quiet because of the New Year, which was perfect for me. It was a large area with clusters of houses in the style of each group, with a few people employed to represent each group hanging around inside the houses. Sadly, they looked a bit like charicatures of their minorities, in made-in-china shiny costumes based on their traditional dress. Some would encourage you to buy from their shops, others were taking selfies on their phones with their colleagues, and some were just sitting in groups drinking beer in the shade (it was a slow day, and who’s to say that’s not showcasing their minority culture anyway, I don’t know any better). Some were doing woodcraft, which was more interesting, but still felt like I had paid to gawk at a human zoo.
At one point a loud drum sounded and a group of young people in various costumes came together. Over the microphone, one of them was describing the dances of the youths, which are an important part of social life in many minority groups. That was interesting to watch, especially the courting dances which involved a boy chasing a girl around trying to steal her headdress, whilst the others tried to trip them up with large bamboo sticks.
Another day involved a trip to the Nationalities Museum, which was a more educational version of the Nationalities Village. It was an interesting collection of clothes, artwork and script, starting with the oldest forms of communication where someone would leave an arrangement of leaves or twigs on a stone to pass a particular message on to the next village. The highlight of the museum though, as is often the case, was the gift shop. Instead of the rows and rows of cheapo ‘ethnic’ toys and bracelets and keyrings, this was more like an antique shop. A lady sat in the corner working on her loom, and we wandered around looking at dusty shelves of books and figurines, authentic bags and textiles and articles of clothing for sale. As it was all authentic it was a bit pricey so I didn’t buy anything, and with some strength managed to resist trying it all on.
The evening was spent exploring the local city, which had an interesting Bird and Flower market. In reality you could buy birds and flowers but also jewellery, jade stones, fossils, wooden beaded jewellery and large smoking pipes. More snacks. More souvenirs. Puppies and birds and lizards in cages. I stumbled across a man with a massive dog, beetles and boxes full of tortoises, ranging from 4-10¥ each, that I found it very hard to resist.
And then, all of a sudden, it was time to leave. At 7am the next day I left the hostel and went out into the dark Kunming morning. I stood in the middle of the usually busy road, waving helplessly at the occasional passing taxi, who shook their head at me. So close to New Year, still many taxis were on holiday hours. I was starting to worry that my flight would go without me, even here in China, when a man pulled up asking where I was going. We settled on a price quickly and I hopped in. My sense of risk when it comes to getting in/on vehicles with complete strangers seems to have been dulled slightly, but I arrived at the airport safe and sound and with time to spare. As the plane rose up into the air I was feeling sad about leaving it all behind. A few hours of staring out of the window, trying to trace the mountain peaks far below, a cute little boy ran down the aisle and mischievously started flicking the man next to me’s head. The man didn’t seem to mind. He seemed friendly but didn’t speak any English, but the boy, his nephew, spoke it well. He told me they were from Kunming and his family was visiting friends in Harbin for a week. His innocence and joy as he chatted away was a tonic, and as told him all about how wonderful Harbin was, I didn’t mind coming home as much.