Monday, 25 August 2008

Kunming, Guiyang, Changsha, Hangzhou

Goodness, I've fallen way behind in keeping up the blog again. So just a quick wrap-up of the rest of the trip to get to more up-to-date things! From Dali I jumped to the train to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. There's a very nice vegetarian restaurant in Kunming, but unfortunately only one! So I ate there every day. There's a veggie shop next to it also, and there's no egg in foods, so save from anything that might contain dairy (can't remember if there was anything of that kind) it's probably vegan too.

The restaurant is next to a temple and close to a lake, and these two are pretty much the only sights I went to in my few days in Kunming, which were spent pretty much only working. I meant to go to the Stone Forest also but got too confused of the million bus stations to actually get anywhere, and then decided the sooner I return to Beijing the sooner I can leave China. (So I thought at the time, but more on that later.) Oh, I did also run into a blood donation bus and on a sudden decision tested if they're the same as in Beijing. They pretty much were, similar form of which they let my bypass all the health questions marking them "no" without even asking me about that, and they did use new needles and everything seemed fine. They even gave me a nice thermos cup, I was thinking of refusing any gifts but that cup is just too useful in Chinese trains etc.

Next up, Guiyang, in Guizhou province. I arrived in the morning, left my bag at the train station and jumped on the bus for the main sight of Guizhou province: the Huangguoshu waterfalls. One of the biggest in Asia, it is definitely well worth seeing. But be warned that if you take up and walk everywhere like I did, the taxi drivers can be really irritating claiming the 5km to the next place would be too far to walk and pestering you constantly. I have tons of pictures from this place, will upload them somewhere 'soon', whatever that means.

Then back to Guiyang and to search for a place to stay. Now here's the thing; apparently there are no reasonable hostels in Guiyang. And what's worse, a young Chinese guy travelling around on a very small budget with 2 friends happened to sit next to me in the bus, and stupidly I decided to join them in the search for accommodation as they were to embark on the same task. But their priority was to find the cheapest place possible, and so we eventually ended up in a dirty hotel full of cockroaches, and of course no internet, which would've been one of my priorities given that I was supposedly working. Anyway, just one night then, and I went out to look for food and that wasn't too easy either in the evening. After being pestered on the streets by some locals for a while and deciding that I hate Guiyang, I did find something to eat, even if it wasn't anything to write home about. The next day the only vegetarian restaurant in town was open but it isn't worth much either. Don't go to Guiyang unless you really have to.

The next day and on to Changsha, but in my hurry to leave town I accepted the hard seater on the train, figuring I'd arrive early in the morning. But at 11 pm the train stopped in the middle of nowhere and stood there until 4 am, with all lights on and of course there isn't anywhere to even lean on those trains so there's no hope of sleep. I didn't bring anything to eat either, and two cute kids decided I was the most fun person to play with throughout the day... I don't mind playing with kids at all, but given the tiredness it did get boring soon. We arrived at 7 pm the next day. Changsha isn't worth a mention really, what, a city of 6 million people without any vegetarian restaurants or even hostels! No real sights either, despite 3,000 years of history, at least no sights other than Maoist things, I guess anything old has been destroyed long ago. It did feel better than Guiyang but this is another city one should skip.

Finally then, Hangzhou. I wasn't meaning to go to Hangzhou actually but as the above mentioned two cities weren't worth stopping and I needed to stop somewhere to work a few days before getting back to Beijing, Hangzhou seemed perfect for the task. And it was quite a contrast to the previous two, it's green and luscious, has several nice veggie places and excellent value hostels right near the gorgeous and rightly famous West Lake. Even so, I had been to Hangzhou before so didn't do much sight-seeing, just ate and worked and met up with an old friend. It is one of the actually nice cities in China though, well worth a stop.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Dali and drugdealing housewifes

Dali lies 3 hours (by bus) south from Lijiang, and also has a relatively nice old town. Although not car free and less defined. The buses and trains usually go to Xiaguan, which is confusingly also known as Dali City, but the Dali old town (gucheng) is what tourists would look for. It's something of a backpacker central, which brings about some interesting phenomena. Like lots of signs in English, western food advertised all over, and middle-aged or older women selling drugs all over the streets. They really don't look like drug dealers and seem to only target foreigners. But if you're non-Asian and walk the streets of the old town for five minutes, several will probably have approached you already.

Lonely Planet (2005 edition) also talks of a restaurant claiming to be the first vegetarian restaurant in town, and another one nearby laying the same claim. Neither seems to exist nowadays. But there is a vegetarian café called Seeds, pretty close to where LP said the restaurant was, across the street from Bamboo Café. Their menus feature the Vegan Society logo, but don't be confused: dishes marked with the vegan logo aren't necessarily vegan, they only mean they will make it vegan by request! The menu isn't huge but some of the dishes are very nice, I'd recommend the potato curry at least if you don't mind some spices. The sandwiches are ok too, although they put a considerable amount of oil in my tofu sandwich that I had at the premises, those taken to go didn't seem to feature the oiliness. There's also a bunch of magazines and books (in English, French, and Chinese) to read and very friendly service. And when leaving, get some sandwiches to go.

Otherwise in Dali it was just work and some hiking in the nearby mountains. And a look at the lake. But at the railway station I was quite surprised when the countdown for the Beijing Olympics came on TV and everyone at the station started counting down also. What's more, soon they played the national anthem and almost everyone (myself excluded of course) jumped up and sang along! Goodness, patriotism is weird. Afterwards about a dozen kids surrounded me and each of them wanted a picture with me. That doesn't tend to happen in northern China anymore so it was a little surprising also, even though it was a common occurrence when I came to this country. Speaking of photos, I'm just setting up a new photosharing thing and pictures will be there later, so very few of them here this time.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Lijiang and Leaping Tigers

Lijiang is a nice city in nort-western Yunnan. The place to be over there is the old town, it has several features to add to its charm: traditional style houses of Naxi people, nice cobble-stone alleys, no cars allowed, lots of little waterways, and the location in a valley with mountains surrounding. It's also a Unesco World Heritage site, and full of tourists and shops selling crap to the tourists. The shops seemed to just sell all sorts of tourist crap mixed in with local handicrafts. Also the car ban didn't seem to be as strict as on Gulang Yu island in Xiamen because there was a garbage truck driving through at least once a day and the police had electric cars there. Still, far better than nothing.

A rather interesting visit in Lijiang was the centre of the Nature Conservancy, a US based organization trying to, well, figure it out from the name. They had quite a display of stunning photographs from the area, with the most interesting being the comparison pictures. They were showing pictures taken in the 1910s and 1920s and next to them modern pictures of the same places. It was really easy to see the effects of global warming, the snowlines going higher up, as well as the treelines.

An actual sight in Lijiang is the Black Dragon Pool and the park around it, including Elephant Hill. The pond and the park are quite nice, and it wasn't a bad hike up the hill, but I really don't see how it would be worth the entrance ticket of a whopping 80 yuan. Well, have to spend the money on something, as accommodation in Lijiang was pretty cheap. I paid 50 yuan per night of a single room in a really nice and comfortable traditional style guest house, which had wireless net access that made working from there excellent in the quiet settings and a cute puppy interrupting occasionally.

Oh, there's also an interesting writing system of the Dongba in this area. A little museum-like thing is set up near the Black Dragon Pool where they present things and an old man there writes people short things in Dongba script by request. It's like Egyptian hieroglyphs meet Chinese characters. Here's a picture as a sample.

Not far from Lijiang is the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and of course I have to go anywhere that mentions tigers. Besides, it's supposedly the deepest gorge in the world, or at least among the three deepest gorges, there's always conflicting information running about. Closer to 4 km from the river surface to the mountain peaks. It's a good two-day hike through the gorge, but how to get there was a bit of a question. My outdated Lonely Planet guide from 2005 knows of three bus stations in Lijiang, and it seems none of them exist nowadays. There is a brand new bus station to which I arrived, but they have no buses to Daju where I wanted to start and only one per day to Qiaotou which is at the other end, and that one leaves at 2 pm which would be too late. Naturally I wasn't the only one looking for buses so I teamed up with some other travellers and together we hired a minivan to drive us to Qiaotou for 50 yuan each.

At Qiaotou I almost got a second job as a Chinese - English interpreter, but since I don't accept any jobs that don't let me travel around freely it didn't last long. So we headed to the mountains beside the gorge, me and Mr Fan, one of the people who shared the ride over. The early part of the hike is all uphill, so sweat poured despite the weather not being too hot. Actually the weather reports had said it should be raining constantly, but there was only the occasional drops of water and I even managed to get sunburnt during the hike. Well, rather than telling you how beautiful it was I'll just post some photos. They're all phone photos, so no optical zoom, unfortunately. Should suggest making phones with that functionality. I guess N93 has something of an optical zoom but anyway, I digress.

I stayed overnight at Tina's Guest House, Mr Fan stopped an hour and a half earlier. One of the nice things about such hikes in China is that there are these places where to stop for the night and you don't have to carry tents along. These guest houses come up every 2 hours or less during the hike and they do have decent restaurants as well. Tina's is a regular youth hostel, fine and cheap but nothing to write home about really, so I'll stop writing.

In the morning I went down to the river and climbed on the thing the gorge got its name after, the Tiger Leaping Stone. Legend has it that once upon a time a tiger leaped over the river from the stone. Either the river was smaller back then or then it was one heck of a leap!

There are two ways up from the rock, one is the little path they call the "safe" way which I came down on, and the other includes a long ladder and a very shaky bridge. So I took that option, never too concerned with safety.

The hike onwards was less interesting, mostly on a proper road, albeit with practically no traffic. There was a difficulty finding the way to Daju though, the maps and guidebooks speak of a new ferry rather close to Walnut Garden, but when I got there I saw a couple of French guys climbing up who said there was no ferry. Later I also caught up with a German guy who had gone up and down only to see that there is, in fact, no ferry, despite the signs. Later I've noticed Lonely Planet calls it winter ferry, so maybe it runs in the winter only. Then the walk onwards was a bit confusing, asking all the people I saw for the way and got just pointed onwards. I got a lift for a few hundred metres from the aforementioned French people who had hitchhiked with a local guy. He left all four of us to a post where a small road took off and a sign pointed to a ferry. A woman holding a shop around the corner told me it's about 6 km to go, and perhaps it indeed was, a fair bit to walk across the corn and sunflower fields, and a totally broken down path down to the river. There was also no pier at that side of the river, but on the other side there was and indeed there was an old ferry also! They took us across the river for 20 yuan each, and on the other side two minivans were waiting, one for Daju and the other for Lijiang. We all took the Lijiang one and got the price down to 50 yuan per head.

Here's also a video at the rock to get more of the atmosphere and an idea of how far the tiger supposedly leaped...