Alright readers, this one might take a while so you better take an extra week's Summer Holiday. Part diary and part stream of consciousness...stick with...you might learn something.
A matter of days away from my 30th Birthday (Aug 10 for all of you preparing cakes, parties, firework displays and general offerings) I felt now was the time to lay my cards on the table with my beloved: I want a baby and my induction into fatherhood should be imminent. Now being a religious man (well we were married in a Church), I felt that it was only right that we allowed the Almighty to guide us and state his opinion on baby Kothakota. "I'll give him thirty minutes" I said on the morning of Wednesday 22nd July at 9 am. Well, what were the chances of a total solar eclipse taking place across China at 9:15am. Who would have thought it? The sky darkened, men repented, women wailed, babies screamed and cats chased dogs. "I think we'd better give it another year" I said.
So we spent 2 nights in beautiful old Dali, home to the Bai people. A town surrounded by high city wall and furnished with pagodas that light up the sky spectacularly come nightfall and full of women offering me 'ganga' every 50m - seriously, do I look like a pot-head? Don't answer that. It's a wonderful place to mooch around and for 'Blondie and Brownie' it has seen them rise from mere mortals to super stars. The staring was one thing but now we can't walk down the road without being stopped for photos with giggly tourists, their parents, children and grandparents. If we ever wanted a snapshot of what it's like to be a celeb then this is it. We have even taken to wearing our finest when heading out and about because we know the Chinese paparazzi are lurking. I am actually considering hiring security and possibly a black guy and a ginger girl so we can complete the set for our Chinese fans. 5 Yuan a photo, please.
In preparation for our anticipated hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge it was necessary to get a few kilometres in. Dali is at 1900m altitude so the going has the potential to get arduous, which is exactly what it did heading up the nearby Cangshan Mountains to the Zhonge Temple at 2,500m. This is our first bit of exercise in a while and several minutes in we were cursing forsaking both the rickety looking chair lift and the locals offering horse rides. Still it was worth it once we got to the top and were able to amble along a path, albeit slightly nauseously, staring down at Old Dali and the misty lake Erhai from a great height. I say misty but this is China and the reality is that it is probably smog. We missed a trick by not booking the accommodation up here as it provides a lovely retreat from the hordes in Dali: particularly for international celebs like us who need to escape the spotlight once in a while. We are getting a little adventurous with all this walking business, even heading off up a slippery path deep into the mountains to find a hidden and isolated mountain pool - now I am fairly sure we would have skipped that 11 months ago.
An observation about the Chinese teenager: they are remarkably immature. Their entire existence is essentially spent in school from 6:30am to 10pm, so there is time for little else but study. They aren't allowed girlfriends/boyfriends (certainly not with public displays of affection frowned upon) and the vast majority of 18-23 year olds still seem to dress like they are about 14. It's actually quite sweet in a way, particularly when you compare it to the loss of childish innocence and naivety that occurs so early in Western children these days (yes I am an old man now), but at the same time you do question the method that has resulted in any country producing such youngsters. It's all high pressure stuff for Chinese kids and there is no room for failure for fear of bringing shame onto the family and not being in a position to support your parents and grandparents.
Observation number 2: it surprises me that in a place of such State nanny-ing that smoking, an act of self gratification, is permitted in all public spaces including on the bus. In fact, pretty much anything goes on public transport from ridiculously over exaggerated and noisy chewing and spitting to carrying fresh cuts of smelly meat and fish in plastic bags. The rude boys on the R70 to Hampton ain't got nothing on this lot. And as all this takes place the young children just sit staring out the windows for hours on end neither crying nor whining without a games console or iPod for company. Imagine a Western kid doing that on a long trip, although I am not sure that it's that normal for a child to be so sedate.
Our three bus journeys on leaving Dali landed us in the sleepy town of Shaxi. They say there are no short cuts to any place worth going to and the detour to get there supports that, but my word is it worth it. An old town on the tea horse trade route that stretched down to Burma, the place is like a time warp. If life were any slower here it would be going in reverse. You can feel the stress and strain of a taxing day's travel literally melt away in the peacefulness. The shops, well the 3 places that were open, all have wooden frontages that feel so homely and welcoming. Once again we were back to being the only foreigners around - it's great. The cult of Blondie and Brownie is alive here but not quite as vociferously as in Dali as, to be honest, there is nobody around. In fact, the only way that we made it here was by a friendly local in Dali writing down in Mandarin a sheet of sentences we could show to drivers and locals so they could point us in the right direction.
China isn't the cheapest place to travel around; transport, accommodation and entrance fees to everything worth doing can seriously put a dent in your budget. The entrance fee phenomenon is so absurd the person behind the counter collecting the money should wear a mask, a stripy jumper and hold a large bag labelled 'SWAG'. Fortunately, you can balance the whole thing out by eating dirt cheaply. The wife and I indulged in a veritable banquet for the Princely sum of 50p the other day. Generally speaking the fare is pretty good, although it varies drastically from region to region. Thai food is probably still leading the way with its freshness of flavour but you can feast well over here. Oh, and the greatest bonus, China is home to stonkingly good and exceptionally cheap mangoes, 15p for 4 of the sweetest and juiciest mangoes you will ever taste in your life - take that India.
In a nod to Naxi matriarchal society, I allowed Kirsty to choose our accommodation while in Shaxi and hence we ended up in an outhouse with outdoor squat toilets and a shower which was now home to an ever increasing number of spiders. Once a country bumpkin.... Go girl power! The whole Naxi hierarchy is rather interesting to observe, the women are in charge and the men seem to run around in aprons always awaiting instructions. That's just how it was at our Guesthouse in Lijiang, Mama Naxi's. Mama rules the roost with her sheer vibrancy and volume, while Baba cowers in the corner. Despite a dodgy command of English, you wouldn't want to get into a flight with this woman.
Lijiang is to Chinese towns is what Michael Jackson was to pop music: it's best years are behind it, but it can still draw an impressive crowd despite its latter years being dogged by an over reliance on plastic surgery. You are at a loss to find anything that is actually old in the Old town. The whole place is like Disney Land without the rides. It's so well polished it lacks any soul and character whatsoever. That said, people still allow their kids to piss in the street and adults still gob anywhere but as the signs say 'to be a civilised citizen don't litter'. To be fair though, cool little dens where Chinese EMO kids strum on acoustic guitars do spring up in the twilight and make the place marginally appealing.
Mama Naxi bade us farewell with a kiss, a banana and a strangely padded necklace, the latter which we believe to be filled with Class A narcotics as part of her extensive drug running, as we set off for Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Gorge is the mac daddy of all walks in China and allegedly one of the finest in the world. It is 16km long and climbs 3,900m from the chocolate coloured Jinsha River (the Chinese use the euphemism red but to be honest it's a muddy brown at best) up to the snow capped mountains of Haba Shan and Yulong Xueshan. The trek is a challenge mainly because of the hazardous landslides that can destroy the path. Rain during July and August also makes it immensely slippery. Fortunately, we avoided the worst the Gorge could offer and, despite a late start, Blondie and Brownie finished the first 26km in under 7 hours blowing the projected timings out of the water. Yeah...'when the going gets tough, the tough gets Kothakota'. I have run out of adjectives and superlatives over the course of this year, but this hike is simply 'awesome'. The path is pretty basic, you follow painted red arrows on rocks and all the while have a sheer drop down to the river of 2,000m or so a few feet to one side. The potential for accident is pretty huge, but almost immediately you forget all your concerns and just take in the majesty of the two mountain ranges you are walking between. The best thing for us, moving at a fair pace as we did, was that for 95% of the hike we had the path all to ourselves and were free to enjoy the breathtaking views all alone. Standing there in and amongst these green mountains that look like they have been carved from a painting taken from the wall of any Chinese restaurant, you half expect a fire breathing dragon to swoop down to complete the picture. It's one of those places where the feeling of your insignificance compared to the beauty and magnitude of the world is completely palpable.
There are rustic wooden guesthouses dotted along the way, so many turn this hike into a 2 or 3 day affair but pushing through to our guesthouse at the end of the trail meant that bright and early the next day us and some newly made friends could hike the 40 minutes down to the middle rapids. This is where the chocolate river turns into a frothy milkshake and the famed tiger leaping stone is found where a tiger is said to have leaped across the river, hence the name. Once again,save our new friends, we had the trail to ourselves. The only problem with decending to the river is the inevitable hike back up to civilisation and 26km the day before really began to kick in now. We decided to take an alternative route back up to mix things up a bit. Now I have had some low sporting moments in my life; getting beaten by Henry King in the first round of the Newland House tennis aged 11 springs to mind, but being passed by a 60 year old Chinese women carrying a basket of beer and barely breaking a sweat is right up there in my pantheon of ignominy. This particular trail also includes some rather dubiously constructed ladders on the rock face, effectively held in place by pieces of wood jammed into the stone and then attached by thin wire to the ladder. At times like this it's important to always remember 2 things: always send your wife first to test said ladder's strength on the pretence of getting some photos of her climbing and move bloody quickly when it's your turn.
An excrutiating hour and 15 minutes later we were back to the top. Back at the guesthouse we bunched together with a whole group of hikers to comandeer a mini-van onto our next destination; Shangri-la. Our party included cousins Eric and Mike, both of Chinese origin but brought up in the States. Two great guys who were handy to have around not only for their language skill but their tendancy to order too much food at every meal time and generously then share the wealth.
Shangri-la is the fabled location of the 1933 James Hilton novel, Lost Horizon. Well at least they think it is as there are a few other places that also claim this honour but have yet to change their names. It's a quiet mountain town (3,200m) that has suffered slightly from the same homogenous gentrifying that can make Lijiang and Dali look a little unreal. One thing that is genuine though is the ritual nightly dancing that takes place in the town square. Young, old, police and tourists combine to varying degrees of choreographed movement to music that magically fills the streets. It's quite a sight and done just for the locals i.e. it's not a cynical piece of marketing for the tourists' sake which you can't always claim in other Chinese towns.
This is Yak country and Yak yoghurt has been on the menu for us at breakfast time and the meat at lunch and dinner. We can highly recommend both but avoid the 'Yak butter tea' at all costs...or a rotten cheese drink as it should be labelled.
Having blitzed through the Gorge we actually arrived in Shangri-La a day early so in an attempt to cover all 5 of the Lonely Planet's Yunnan highlights we caught a 6 hour bus to Dequin, even further North into the mountains. It's only about 150km but the bus ride snakes its way through the moutains along some seriously precarious roads. You can only pray that your driver didn't have one too many the night before, that his mobile is on silent and that he doesn't have a death wish. If you are brave enough to open your eyes though, the journey ranks up there with some of the best we have taken. It now means that we have been at over 5,000m twice in the same journey and consequently can boast the red blood cell count of a doped up Tour de France cyclist.
Observation number 3: The Chinese genetics means they can't sing for love nor money. Their version of Pop Idol sees screaming banshee after banshee get up and strut their stuff to an appreciative audience who have obviously never encountered a musical note in tune. Our bus driver to Dequin was clearly a fan of the banshee and his playlist of wailing was beginning to bring on a migraine when a a moment of magic occured. The opening bars of 'Beat It' by MJ appeared out of nowhere. Credit where credit is due, has there ever been an artist who has crossed so many cultures, languages and nations with his appeal?
Dequin is so close to Tibet (80% of the population here are TIbetan) you could practically fall across the border but sadly we have neither the time, the permits, nor the dinero to make that trip a reality. Oh well, we can't have it all. You come to Dequin to see the snow capped mountains of Kawa Karpo and Miaciumu. Sadly, both were proving a little shy and hid behind a veil of thick cloud only occasionally peeking out to see who was looking on. It's hard to keep telling yourself to be thankful for just being here as without the view Dequin and its surrounding towns are possibly the closest you can come to living in squalor. The place is pretty filthy and our brief flirtation with the mountains was ended rather abruptly when we took the bus back to Shangri-La the next day asap!
Observation number 4: So blessed are the Chinese with man power that every supermarket employs more staff than shoppers in the store. This means that every time you arrive into a store one of these workers will tail you waiting to pounce on you and offer their help. So our new favourite game is to head into the store, pick up the slightly tubby worker in our wake and then proceed to move around the aisles as quickly as possible going down aisles for no particular reason but to give the poor girl a bit of exercise and watching her try to keep up. If we are in a particularly mischievous mood we get to the end of an aisle and sperate and watch the poor assistant ponder the difficult decision of whom to tail. Ah simple things for simple minds eh?
So here we are back in much more civilised Shangri-La awaiting our over night bus back to Kunming before flying on to our final new country, Laos, on Friday. It'll be goodbye China. The memories will last for a lifetime...as will the onset of asthma and lung cancer. China is not a good place for your health and the air is often thick with the fumes of a nearby power plant and it's rare to see a clear blue sky. I shall miss CCTV 9 and its highly partisan and edited news. Watching this channel is one of the most extraordinary experiences you can have over here coming from the West. I'll save you the journey... everything is good in China, there are no problems and all the highly censored criticism is good because it will help the State make China better for you! You have to see it to believe its audacity. It's a country of contrasts, vastly rural yet trying to become urban, for the people yet controlling of the people and, most markedly, exceptionally friendly (bearing in mind we don't speak the language) yet at the same time bordering on repulsive. We're so pleased we made the jump over the border and came here to see it for ourselves, who knows when we will be back? We'd love to see Beijing and much more of the place, but ultimately there are other countries higher on the wish list.
Incidentally, we are actively seeking a sponsor to continue this trip for another year. The platinum package includes your name mentioned in each blog and pictures of us wearing t-shirts with you or your company's name on it. Come on people dig deep and have heart...remember we're big in China!