It’s been fairly lively since the last e-mail I sent round. A planned trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge fell through at the last minute after Thibauld (the French guy I mentioned in my last e-mail) got food poisoning. This led to a rather last minute plan to go and climb the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain , which lies near Lijiang.
Having ascertained that I needed to catch he number 7 bus I set off on a tour of Lijiang as various Chinese people pointed me in various directions. Having walked for an hour and a half I found out that the bus actually left from a sop 2 minutes walk from where I started. My current viewpoint is that the exercise was good for me, and I’m sure that people were trying to be helpful (there is a good chance that my Chinese requests for directions were not exactly clear).
Having finally reached the stop, I found out that the bus I had intended to catch had long since departed. Fortunately one of the little bread van buses was running the same route, and this was probably far more fun than the standard bus.
The general plan was to hike up underneath the cable car that shifts tour groups up the mountain. The complete impossibility of finding proper maps of China meant that this was the only halfway safe option for heading to the top. Unfortunately on arrival in the park I was told that I had missed all the transfer buses to the bottom of the cable car, and ought to return to Lijiang. Obviously this wasn’t very appealing, so I snuck round the side of the security station guarding the bottom of the road and set off on my merry way. The road was busy with tour buses returning at the end of the day, forcing me to dive into bushes and behind trees, either because of an approaching bus, or because one had been imagined. A ‘shortcut’ took me through some lovely woodland, and miles away from the road.
Anyway to cut a long story short as I approached the cable car station, my caution disappeared and I started wandering straight up the middle of the road. Unfortunately this was at almost exactly the same time as the park rangers and cable car attendants left work, leading to a meeting where they didn’t seem best pleased that I was about, and led to me being given no choice but to get on the bus and take about 10 minutes to go down what had just taken me an hour and a half to get up. At the bottom I was ordered back to Lijiang, but instead slept in the woods at the bottom of the mountain. Unfortunately as I was close to the station where all the people who had just caught me worked, I had to go all night without using a torch or making any noise, while every sound that came from outside turned into an approaching tribe of people ready to confiscate my lovely tent. Fortunately the morning light revealed the noises outside to have come from cows, and also allowed escape from my dreams of accidentally having set up camp in the middle of a large town. The camp was quite god fun, with a clear night and 3000m altitude revealing skies containing 10,000 stars. Beautiful.
Unfortunately having broken camp at 6:30 in the morning to avoid detection (I wish I hadn’t gone for a bright orange tent), the weather slowly deteriorated. By 9 o’clock heavy rain, combined with the setbacks of the night before put me off walking up the mountain, leaving me to use the cable car with all the other tourists.
It was actually a lot of fun, and really interesting to see the effects of altitude, although even more fun was watching the Chinese tourists. At 4700m the air at the top-viewing platform was hard to breath. Walking up steps felt like running, and recovery was slow coming. Most of the tourists overcame this by using bottled oxygen and cigarettes, although fortunately not at the same time. It’s really odd to see someone melodramatically climbing stairs as though everyone may be their last, wheezing from their oxygen masks every few seconds, only to have a celebratory fag at the summit, before posing for ridiculous photographs with their shirts off.
Fortunately the weather at the top station stayed reasonable, with only occasional hail. The cloud stayed thick for most of the day, leaving only the dirty visible, the summer weather having removed it’s cleansing coat of snow. Fortunately there were a few moments where the mist lifted for long enough to reveal the mountain stretched out above us, and o put me off my secondary plan of hiding at the top station and the pushing beyond the marked boundaries once everyone had left for home. This was probably the right decision as I found out 5 students from Beijing university were killed there last month by an avalanche.
On the way back down the mountain I met a Korean girl who had rather bravely tackled the climb in shorts. She also had the best job in the world, updating a Korean version of Lonely Planet, which basically meant an 8 month all expenses paid trip round China . She did say it could get a bit stressful when she had to visit every sight in a town over the course of 1 day, but I wasn’t convinced. Apparently that the other problem she has is that as the book she is updating is the most popular for Koreans travelling in China , pretty much everyone has a cop. Unfortunately as it had not been updated for six years she was getting an ear bashing every time she met her fellow countrymen. Still sounded like a good job though! Headed back to Lijiang, from where I started making plans for my move north across some of the most remote areas of China .
These plans saw me on the bus to Zhongdian, my current resting place, the very next day. The journey here was stunning, as the bus followed the upper reaches of the Yangtze, before breaking off into the hills towards the Tibetan plateau. The single-track road provided the normal will he/won’t he crash excitement, although having to stop while they dynamited the road ahead was an unexpected delight.
As the road climbed the sky became bluer and the water in the rivers below more violent. A pass marked with tattered prayer flags signified that while still in Yunnan Province , this was a place where Tibetan culture is dominant. The distinctive shape of Han Chinese buildings has given way to squat whitewashed houses, yaks roaming the fields and roads around them. The distinctive deep tan of life a high altitude contrasts sharply with the brightly coloured costumes of the local women as they carry freshly cut corn to the drying racks that dot the plain. These imposing structures that look like walls against a siege are surrounded by bright red heather and unnamed (at least by me) purple flowers. The contrast with the areas travelled through so far in the past week is fascinating, although the long knives carried by the local men remove some of the illusion of safety that I have had so far.
Zhongdian town itself is pretty in a run down way. Signs are written in Mandarin, English and Tibetan, while the shop fronts are painted in gaudy colours unseen before. A large monastery is the tons main sight, growing back to full strength after destruction in the Cultural Revolution, it currently houses 400 monks. A visit this morning was enlightening, although not perhaps in the way expected. Morning prayers were more like school assembly as the younger monks collapsed laughing when carefully aimed pieces of paper bounced off their friends shaved heads, while in a corridor two monks finished butchering a yak. It looks like quite a lot of fun being a monk, and they certainly seem cheerful enough as they chat on their mobile phones. An interesting experience, and it’s kind of cool sitting on the bus, next to a monk in his red robes.
Tomorrow I head off on the first stage of a three-day bus ride back into Sichuan province. It promises to be an exciting journey, with other travellers telling tales of pulling buses along by ropes when they get stuck in mud, and wild frontier towns. As ever I’ll keep you all updated, only two weeks until I fly home!