Friday, April 3, 2009

A short bus ride brings me to Caicun, a village at the large Erhai Lake close to Dali. From the bus stop, I join a trek of over a hundred old women with large straw hats, wicker baskets, and the occasional plastic bowl with fish, through the narrow streets of Caicun, along the lake, to a market square at a pier on the lakeshore. It's packed with vendors with carts, tables, or just bowls on the ground, selling vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish. Chickens are slaughtered, plucked, and sold on the spot.
There is a small temple where people bring bowls of offerings, like fruit and fish, and return with incense that is burned on a pyre in the middle of the square. It's quite crowded everywhere. Even Chinese tourists are aliens here; I saw only two.

They have tour boats on the lake, but they take all day, so I went back to Dali and rented a bicycle to visit several other nearby villages, and to keep kirikou happy. Some of those villages, and the paths through the fields, don't seem to get any tourists so children stare and smile at me and call out "hello" all the time.

Also took a chairlift up the mountains behind Dali. It takes 20 minutes to gain some 600 meters, gliding between and above the treetops. People call out to me and take pictures, I guess they don't see many Europeans here... Loudspeakers mounted on the chairlift towers play official-sounding Chinese announcements.

There is a temple complex at the top, and many hiking paths. The views are great, but some clouds have come in and the valley and the lake are a patchwork of sunlight and shadow. When I return to the chairlift station at 18:05, they had just shut it down. Walking is impossible, there is only a very steep dirt path and it's only an hour till sundown. So the officials confer and restart the chairlift just for me!

I am having a hard time selecting a picture of the day, so I'll pick one that captures the mood of Dali, rather than something more exciting.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The bunk beds in "hard sleeper" are comfortable and - surprise - long enough for me. The train arrives in Kunming at 7:00. It's another boring modern city, although fresher than Huaihua; I take one look at it and decide to move on. Twenty minutes later I am in an express bus to Dali. As apparently happens frequently, the bus doesn't follow the schedule and terminates in Xiaguan, where hordes of drivers want to drag us into their cabs and tuk-tuks for the remaining distance. I opt for a local bus, together with a British/Australian couple I met on the way. In Dali, we checked into the Tibetan Lodge, which has cute but tiny single rooms.
And it's sunny with a deep blue sky! Goodbye hazy Hunan, welcome to Yunnan!

Dali is a walled square of mostly pedestrianized streets lined with old wooden houses, against a backdrop of a mountain range that is so high that there is still a little snow on top. Quite beautiful. Lots of shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, clothes, and tours; also lots of restaurants and a few pagodas and guard towers along the city wall (the picture shows one) sprinkled in. Like in Fenghuang, there are no American chains like KFC, McD, or 7Eleven. English is understood here, a little. It's very pleasant to stroll about town. It's still off-season so there are few tourists here, this time including a few Westeners.

Hat dinner at the Tibetan Cafe. They have hors d'heaves, fried glory with garlic, and gees (eggs). Not bad but a little uninspired apart from the diction. I like this town and will stay another day before taking off for its more famous cousin, Lijiang.
The day starts with a cold drizzle. Took the bus to Huaihua and walked about town for two hours. It's typically Chinese, both modern and run down, with heavy traffic and no soul. They had cleared a huge area south of the train station for new construction.

I got on the train to Kunming 30 minutes late. I had a bottom berth (the best one, I can look out the window and stow my bag). Some guy wanted to trade but I pretended not to understand - the language barrier works both ways... Later he starts smoking, spits on the floor, and drops sunflower seeds on the grubby carpet. Then he gives me an orange and some seeds and a minty-tasting dried fruit to chew, and he is my friend. I am easily bribed.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I was planning a day excursion to Denang, a small peaceful village two hours north. But I was the only passenger at the bus stop, and they kept cancelling buses. The weather had always been overcast in the morning with a hazy sun in the afternoons, but today it was cold and miserable.

Further away from Fenghuang's old downtown, the enthusiasm for the old building style evaporates, and Fenghuang becomes one more of these drab Chinese cities that have successfully obliterated their history and culture.

So I went back downtown. Mothers here have tall baskets slung around their backs in which they carry a baby, stuffed with pillows so that only a happy face sticks out like a cherry on a cake. Minority women with tall turbans (some three times the size of the one in the picture) sell souvenirs; it seems that the designation "minority" is more a profession than a heritage. In the evening, they sell paper flowers with a candle in the middle that people float down the river.

All in all, a lazy day.

Monday, March 30, 2009

More wandering in Fenghuang. Down at the steps along the riverfront, women sit side by side, washing clothes and washing vegetables in the murky blue-green water. There are even fewer tourists here today, although I actually met two Germans today.

Restaurants have headless unplucked pheasants, and drying fish and flattened pig faces (really!) hanging out front, and countless little shops sell dried fruit, cigarettes, firecrackers, and lots of crossbows. I don't know what these people have about crossbows.

Also went to the new part of town. Less scenic, and there is car traffic that is almost absent in the old downtown, but they do make sure that the architecture doesn't descend into bland modernism like in other towns. They have a covered market too that is noticeably cleaner and less smelly than other such places elsewhere; people have lunch there on long tables. Bought excellent Dim Sum in a plastic bag from a street vendor. Outside there is a T-shirt shop where Osama Bin Laden and Harry Potter peacefully hang side by side.

Also did the museum circuit of Fenghuang. A number of pretty temples and homes of important people, and a collection of fossils, but no must-sees there.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Actually I wasn't interested in Huaihua, it was just too late to continue. My destination was Fenghuang, and today I took a bus there. It's only 40km as the crane flies, but takes two and a half hours because the road is almost never straight and goes through one gut-wrenching curve or switchback to the next.

I had been unable to reserve a hotel because the two numbers given by the Lonely Planet did not reach someone who speaks any English. So I just walked around in Fenghuang until I find a hotel I like, and check in. Of course, no English at the reception, but they have an Internet PC and we discuss the rooms using the Yahoo translator. Cool. They also have a talking calculator that chirped a cheery comment in Chinese on every key press. The Flowers Procumbens Hotel - who comes up with these names? - is modern, very uncharacteristically stylish for China, and generally pleasant.

Fenghuang is a beautiful old town on both sides of a river. The waterfront with its old but renovated wooden houses is exceedingly scenic in the evening sun. I really love the place and will stay here for a few days. There are tourists but not many, although I bet that it's completely packed during holiday seasons. They are all Chinese, again no Westeners in evidence today. I am standing out so much that Chinese tourists ask me if they can take pictures of me.

It took a while to find a restaurant because of the language barrier. In the first I asked for a chicken dish by pointing at a huge chicken in a coop outside, and all seemed fine, until the cook grabbed the chicken and carried it to the kitchen before I could stop the impending massacre... The strategy works at another place, and I get my chicken. Preparation is easy: they simply chop it into rectangular pieces, bones at all, and fry it in a wok; I wolf it down with chopsticks except the head and the feet, couldn't find any meat on those.

This Internet Cafe in Fenghuang has well-maintained Windows PCs that don't put a virus on my flash card, and I type this into and not into a Google search box before cut-and-pasting it into a mailer with a maximum lifetime of 30 seconds between crashes. Even picture uploads work without sending IE south, so I added a few to previous posts.
In the morning, the fog is so dense that I can't see more than 10 meters. I take the bus to Longshen, then another to Sanjiang. Both towns are modern and unremarkable. The road is scenic between along a river valley, but many of the occasional small rice terraces look neglected and overgrown, and the villages are dilapidated, with leaning wooden buildings and rusty satellite dishes.

The theory was that I'd find a bus north from Sanjiang, but no such luck. Nobody speaks any English except a machine that says that the bus to [unintelligible] is cancelled. The lady at the counter suggests a complicated route that *may* go where I want, but I can't read her instructions and don't risk it. When trying to pattern-match the names with the schedule, I am soon surrounded by friendly people trying to help, in Chinese of course. Finally they agree with my conclusion that I should take the train, give me a time I know is wrong, and send me off. Nice people, too bad we couldn't communicate...

Trouble is, the train leaves seven hours later and arrives in Huaihua (pronounced why-wah) at midnight. So I while away the time walking to two nearby villages, where people look at me with astonishment, watch people in the station, and with train-spotting. Relaxing, but it's cold. People in the waiting hall smoke, spit on the floor, and drop peanut shells and orange peels on the floor. They do this in buses too.

The Huaihua Great Hotel (that's its name) is modern and very comfortable. Of course, nobody speaks English. In the room, the minibar includes underwear, two kinds of condoms, lubricants, and aphrodisiacs. Figures, I was wondering about the tenacity of the hookers outside, although the hotel itself is a straight business hotel.

Didn't see a Westerner all day.