11 – 18 November 2011
Have I ever mentioned that I like using the backdoor (can I really say this?) in China? I once tried to get into Tibet using the back route from Yunnan but was caught about six days in and ‘deported’ back to Chengdu in Sichuan province (which is still in China) (*). At the time it was really depressing as we had managed to get around many check points, hitch on trucks, hide at the back of buses and generally evade the authorities and were only two days away from Lhasa when we were caught by the dreaded PSB (Public Security Bureau). They fined us about $5 each and told us we must get on a bus to Chengdu which we estimated to be two days in the opposite direction to Lhasa. As it happened it took us five (very long) days by bus to get to Chengdu and turned out to be one of the best road trips I have done in China so when we worked out that we could get back down from Shangri La via the backdoor and not have to take the same bus that we took up but reverse we decided to give it a go.
So after our usual breakfast of dumplings and Chinese tea, we headed to a very cold bus station and caught the daily bus to a small village called Baishuthai, a picturesque place surrounded by mountains & rice terraces and inhabited by photogenic old biddies. It also has terraced limestone deposits that are similar to those in Pamakkule in Turkey. Although the latter are more impressive, the terraces combined with the mountains and wizened old biddies made for an enjoyable afternoon of exploration.
From Baishuthai it was a short (2-3 hours) but stunning bus ride into the equally stunning Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest in the world. As mentioned by Kirsty in her previous blog, I had visited Yunnan some 15 years back and enjoyed it very much but I also know that the Chinese have a habit of ‘Chineseifying’ many of their great attractions and so I was apprehensive about coming back. Over a decade ago Yunnan was a great place to see minority people, classic Chinese style towns and villages and for exploring the outdoors but for the best part my fears had been realised and many of the interesting towns and villages that I visited all those years ago have been turned into Disney-like attractions where the locals have sold out and all of the interesting buildings (back then lived in by local families) have been turned into restaurants or shops selling tat to the Chinese tourists. If there are two things the Chinese tourist loves, they are eating and buying souvenirs and in many of the historic towns in Yunnan they are in their element.
I was therefore pleased to discover that Tiger Leaping Gorge was pretty much the same as I remembered it. OK, so there is now a road running from one end to the other (in my day the only way to see the gorge was via a two-day trek) plus a massive viewing platform has been erected at the entrance to the Gorge in order to satisfy the Chinese tourists’ desire to see it with the minimum of effort involved but believe me, from a ‘Chineseified’ point of view this is nothing and we spent the afternoon hiking and taking in the grandeur of the surrounding area.
This was followed by a rarest of treats in China. A small and attractive village by the name of Shaxi that had not yet been ‘discovered’ by the Chinese tour groups and was therefore (yep, you guessed it) not ‘Chineseified’. It captured our interest because apparently it has been used as a filming location for classic Chinese movies (**) so we assumed it would look the part and thankfully it did. There wasn’t a huge amount to actually do there but it was a great place to hang out and our hostel was located in an old-style building with a central courtyard, a couple of lovely dogs, good company, plenty of cold beer, home-cooked meals and a curfew of 11pm that was strictly enforced which suited me just dandy! We stayed here for a few days and really enjoyed it and would both agree that it was our favourite place in Yunnan.
Our final stop before our epic ‘sleeper’ bus to the south of the province (see next blog) was Dali which used to be a hippy hangout back in the day but nowadays the bulk of the hippies have moved on (you can still smell a few mind you) and its more of a Chinese tour group kinda hangout and although it was pleasant enough for a few days (and warmer than the north) it was a bit of a let down after Shaxi and we were quite happy to move on and get back to lovely, lazy Laos where the beer actually tastes like beer (***), the food has some spice in it and the people smile and talk a bit of English.
(*) boring story for you. I once escorted a ‘Wish You Were Here…?’ film crew to China . For those of you not familiar with the show, it was (it has stopped now) an ITV Holiday programme that was very popular in the 80s and 90s and the main presenter was Judith Chalmers who came on this trip to China with me. So we get to the British Airways check-in desk and I managed to get Judith sat in First class and the film crew and myself in business class. So we take off and Judith and the crew are happy which means that I am happy but then I suddenly start thinking about this ‘deportation’ business and worrying that I will not be allowed to enter the country. It was my first time back to China since the ‘incident’ and when we were ‘caught’ the PSB took down all are particulars including passport details etc. So I had this vision of arriving at Beijing airport, being denied entry and having to explain to my company why I was back in the UK ten days early and not escorting Judith et crew down the Yangtze as per my remit. If I had been thinking straight then of course I would have worked out that I would have been denied a visa at the embassy in London if I was on any sort of blacklist but this didn’t occur to me at the time and I spent the whole of what should have been a very enjoyable flight to Beijing worrying rather than indulging in the pleasure that British Airways’ business class has to offer. Of course I wasn’t denied entry, the film shoot went well and I even ended up being on the telly, albeit only for about 5 seconds but hey, coverage is coverage right?
Boring story #2 for you. We were caught in a predominantly Tibetan town called Markham and when the PSB came and got us from our lodgings and marched us up the road to the police station all the Tibetans came out of their homes and shops and cheered us up the street much to the annoyance of the PSB.
(**) my dad can fill you in on these if you are interested, he watches loads of them!
(***) Chinese beer is the worst. At only 3% in volume it is hardly entitled to the use of the word ‘beer’ on its label and to boot it is normally kept on a shelf as opposed to a fridge and so often lukewarm. The only saving grace is that in a supermarket it will cost you 26 pence for a 600ml bottle!