I’ve decided to send regular and short e-mails rather than a weekly long one, so here’s the second instalment of freedom of the road.
After sending my last e-mail I decided to draw my experiment on how long you can survive on a single packet of Oreos to a close after feeling like I was going to pass out (the answer is about 7hours in case you were wondering). I headed to a restaurant and proceeded to order about 5 times as much food as a required after some communication difficulties. I thought the prices in the menu were per dumpling, but they turned out to be per plate of dumplings. Fortunately the staff in the restaurant realised my error, and only delivered a sensible amount.
An early start the next morning saw us heading off to Lijiang. Passing through an ever-changing countryside, starting with steel producing towns before heading into the most rural mountain areas, the journey never became boring, although it did rapidly become uncomfortable as they are definitely local buses for the local people, rather than lanky westerners. It was fascinating seeing the change in the people, with markets later in the journey crowded with people in Ethnic costumes, their skin turned deep brown by the harsh mountain sun.
Our driver employed the traditional ‘coasting downhill in neutral saves petrol’ style of driving, although he would happily overtake round blind corners with a precipice on one side of the bus. This technique was fine until we came to a straightish section of downhill, where he used the alternative ‘keep your foot to the floor to build up speed for the next uphill’ approach. The end result of this was the near death of several road workers and a bus load of passengers, as we came round a corner with road works on and a big truck coming the other way. Skidding to a halt, the experience was a little thrilling.
However, it was not a patch on the toilets we got to use. The first one consisted of wooden slats across a pit, the aim being to crap between the slats. Unfortunately most people’s aim is not good enough to allow them to dump through an inch wide crack. When the locals walk out of a toilet looking disgusted and pee round the back of the building, you know it’s bad. The next toilet was a little better, although while using it I realised that I was actually feeding a trough full of maggots. I would not like to go in there when things warm up.
An encounter with some westerners at the cafe where the bus stopped for lunch provided a welcome chance to get some western conversation. In nearly 72 hours I had seen only two westerners, and spoken to none. Quite a weird feeling.
Arrival in Lijiang wasn’t quite as relaxing as expected, leaving me wandering the alleys wondering what all the fuss was about. No matter which direction I left the market square in, I always ended up back in the same place. Seeing some dogs which had been cooked whole added a little interest to events, although can’t compare with the chickens being put in the plucking machine this morning. There was a certain cartoon like quality to the chickens being put in with all their feathers on, bits flying into the air and then two naked birds being produced.
Lijiang itself is beautiful, albeit in a touristy way. I had dinner with a Chinese architect last night, and he said that all the buildings are original, but the ‘Genuine Naxi People’ dancing in the square at 8:00 every night leave me feeling that some of the spontaneity has left the place.
It’s been really hard to meet people here, as while it’s crowded with Westerners they have all split into their groups, so you don’t tend to walk into a bar and find someone to chat to. Fortunately after a night of wandering in which I got progressively more miserable, as I really wanted to have a proper chat with someone, I met a French guy who is really cool. He’s just returned from Laos , where he and a friend bought a boat and paddled down the Mekong for 2 days. It sounds amazing fun, and really easy to organise. Something for the future? Flying back from Laos with Laos Air, something that already sounds unpleasant, he was a little disturbed to see that the propellers were no longer turning. Asking the attendant if this was normal, he received the cheery reply ‘Yes, it saves petrol’. After heading this I felt a little happier about the bus driver’s use of neutral.
All is going well at the moment although the next part of the trip is proving a little difficult to organise. Having heard stories ranging from it’s too dangerous to it’s impossible for legal reasons, it should be exciting if nothing else.