Ni Hao our faithful readers,
Well we complained about being on the travellers route, but we have broken free of those shackles with a vengeance. Yes we have made it to China and as this blog entry proves are still thirsty for adventure. This is without doubt the toughest travelling so far bar none. The lack of spoken or even written English anywhere and with our Mandarin being a little rusty save a few pleasantries sees to that. So we have taken to doing the one thing your mother always tells you is rude; pointing and our finest 'Lionel Blair - Give Us A Clue' impersonations in an entertaining form of street charades. It is with this sophisticated duo of techniques that we are doing everything from ordering food to booking accommodation...well that and educating the Chinese population on the number of syllables in Western films, books, theatre shows and songs.
Getting over the border always had the potential for calamity and the whole experience flirted salaciously with disaster on several occasions. Leaving Sapa to get to the border town of Lao Cai seemed to be going swimmingly when we were picked up by a bus not 10 metres down the road from our hotel, but our initial optimism turned to despair as the driver proceeded to circle Sapa town ten times looking for passengers to add to his booty. So 45 minutes delayed we were eventually coughed out at the border to complete exit formalities on the Vietnamese side. An overly long passport confiscation later and they were handed back to us with a new stamp. First part complete and we even manged to change our Vietnamese currency to Yuan on the way at a reasonable rate. After walking over the bridge that separates the two nations under the baking sun we arrived slightly tentatively at the Chinese post. A friendly English speaking guard helped us out with the form filling before zapping us with a laser to check our temperatures...err over the acceptable temp! Isn't it always just so when you try to keep cool you only succeed in achieving the opposite and perspiring even more. Can I just point out for reference that neither of us have Swine Flu but were just just a little burnt up from the walk over from Vietnam. Much standing next to the giant air conditioner later and were back down to normality.
And so we approached customs. Now it is necessary to tell you that we had been advised to cover our Lonely Planet China to make it less conspicuous to the border guards. This apparently has something to do with Chinese sensitivity to Taiwan being labelled a separate country on the map. So Kirsty had painstakingly stitched a paper cover for our Holy Bible of China and I had hidden the offending article in my dirty laundry bag. Well, to use the old Chinese saying, we encountered our first 'monkey in a tall hat' or petty official, who like a blood hound managed to sniff out the well concealed book in and amongst my dirty draws (without using gloves I might add). So this looks bad; not only is it covered, it's hidden and the map ain't China friendly. So we are about to enter a country in which we can't communicate with the locals with no way of telling anyone what we want or where we want to go. Words failed me at this point, but I quickly formulated a plan in which I would I offer a plea bargain that would hand the wife over to the authorities in exchange for the book and safe passage to the other side. Well many anxious glances between us and one agonisingly long and officious phone call later, where the only discernible word was 'Taiwan' , and the pompous guard returned our book to us having shed its impromptu cover. Phew! So with that bullet fortuitously dodged we moved on to solving our next conundrum....getting the hell out of there. This was a problem not destined to be overcome as the bus for our next destination had already departed and hence we were forced to spend a night in Hekou.
Now the well rehearsed mantra of entering any hostel room this year as been 'It's not that bad'. Well this room really was that bad on reflection...incredibly after we both had stood in the room and handed over the money for it. It was the kind of place that gives bedsits a bad name as the two used cotton buds on the floor, the spongy wall and the two pairs of unidentified underpants in the bathroom testified to.
Incidentally, if by any chance we go missing in China, I'm sure you will be able to follow our trail with a picture of us. So fond are the Chinese of gawping at 'Blondie and Brownie' that I'm fairly certain they will remember seeing us on questioning. It's not annoying and we don't really find it rude, but it does take some getting used to. I suppose we are a bit of are a bit of an odd sight bearing in mind there are next to no foreigners here bar Frederique the slightly loopy French guy from Thailand who was the only person we could speak English to. Yes this is what travel is all about. You can't complain about this stuff.
One quick observation about Hekou; it contains the first market stall I have ever seen that sells both flip flops and vibrators - better not get those two mixed up...it could be embarrassing.
In a boost to the 'men can multi-task movement' our Chinese bus driver was at the head of the revolution during our journey to Xinjie. Simultaneously he managed to chat on his mobile, lean on the horn, smoke a cigarette, draw up enough phlegm to project from his mouth for a small boy to swim in, scratch his belly and drive along a precarious path that boasted a sheer drop of 100m or so down to the Red River, with the dexterity of a multi limbed Hindu God. Getting off at the right stop proved tricky as there is no English spoken in these parts (well why would a local bus driver learn English in a country of 1.3 billion?) Steadfastly pointing to the name in the LP eventually seemed to get us there and the friendly locals who had tried to help us on the bus bade us farewell. We stepped off into what can best be described as a 'middle of no where town' up high in the hills. Seeking the one or two people who have any words of English procured us some decent accommodation before we could take stock of our surroundings.
If NZ is the 'Lord of the Rings' in literary terms - a 3 part epic, then China is like the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita and any other religious manuscript you care to name all rolled into one. The place is biblically gargantuan and on a scale that just keeps reminding you visually of how big this planet really is. As we stood perched on a grassy knoll, the sun setting, no one else around, looking down and around at the Yuanyang Rice Terraces that go on and on for as far as the eye can see it would have been the perfect moment to propose...had I not already beaten myself to it 2 years prior. The setting was magical with pink sky cast against the mountain line and a haze filling the valley that made the place look like a far off land that you hear of in fairy tales.
As we strolled back into town, we felt decidedly pleased with ourselves for braving the journey to get here and the fact that there we no other foreigners around here made it all the more special..and also meant that the locals couldn't get enough of us. The Chinese, by and large, really are a friendly bunch (well the minuscule amount of the population that we have met) and it really is a refreshing change after the trials of other Asian countries to be left in peace and not to be bombarded with scam after scam. The price is the price here in these not so well travelled parts and people are glad to help you on your way. They are yet to grasp that speaking slowly in Mandarin has no effect on our understanding, but what the hell, at least they make the effort
Warning - do not read the following section if you are of a weak constitution or about to settle down to eat.
What is difficult to deal with is the incessant spitting. This in itself would be alarming and enough to make you want to vomit, but the accompanying guttural wretch just takes it to a whole new level of nastiness. Indeed the Chinese obsession even extends to the bodily fluids of their children, encouraging them to run free in the streets without covering their private parts and allowing them to piss and crap anywhere. Even if they are wearing trousers a neat hole is cut in the crotch area so that the little Emperors can feel the breeze. Furthermore, a visit to a Chinese toilet is enough to scar your for life. Kirsty's experience in what was effectively a 'trough separated by low walls' means she now requires regular counselling to sleep at night. Still it's not all bad news; the mounds of crap accumulated in said trough is collected and used on the rice fields - now there's a thought for you as you tuck into that plate of special fried rice. You definitely have to put your western sensibilities on ice travelling through this place. It's easy to feel quite dirty and unclean. The Chinese are by far the people most removed from what we know. In terms of behaviour they do many things habitually that we would class as rude and uncouth, but it's their country so they can do what they want and we just have to get on with it....but you have been warned.
So the last few days we have made it through Kunming, a fairly large bustling city we can easily have lived withou seeing, and onto the far more intimate and quaint Old Town of Dali, a real back packers' hub...a few more Westerners but still mostly Chinese tourists. Both have been cursed with quite a bit of rain and we can but pray that this stops sometime soon as it may curtail our hiking up mountains and the like. Ooh another overnight sleeper train last night also...this time a 6 person carriage. Kirsty was so high up on the top bunk of 3 beds I needed binoculars and smoke signals to wish her goodnight.
Facebook and a few blog sites are blocked over here. I'll leave my thoughts on that and the extraordinary Chinese English language channel CCTV 9 (how apt is that name!) until we are about to leave in case I find myself carted away by the powers that be! Blame the wife I say.