Phase III: China
We entered China on May 1 after a bit of a misadventure coming down the mountain from Sapa: I realized about halfway down that I’d left my passport at the hotel :( We were in a full van of people which obviously couldn’t turn back just for me, so Robin and I continued to the Lao Cai train station where I luckily found a van leaving immediately for Sapa (these vans take individual passengers but leave when full, which means about 15 people crammed into seating designed for 12.) On the way up the mountain, we ran into a huge traffic jam so what should have been a 1 hour journey took almost 2½. I retrieved my passport uneventfully and then negociated a motorcycle ride down the mountain for about 3 times more than a van ride.. this was to avoid getting stuck again, since motos can maneuver around stopped 4 wheelers.
Of course, Murphy’s law held true for the trip down. Not only was the traffic jam gone, the moto also got a flat tire! But that was interesting in itself. We limped to a roadside repair stand where the driver woke up a woman sleeping in the back of the "garage", which was a bamboo shelter containing a few tools and parts. She disappeared on a motorcycle and about 10 minutes later, the mechanic showed up on the same motorcycle, alone! In the meantime, the driver attempted to use the air pump (which he couldn’t start) and helped himself to the mechanic’s tobacco pipe (incidentally, I now know that tobacco through a water pipe still tastes terrible.) Once he arrived, the mechanic quickly changed the tube, inflated the tire, and reattached the wheel. The rest of the drive to the train station was uneventful. Total cost for the repair was about $2.50, so the driver still made a profit on the trip (which cost me the equivalent of $7.50.)
With that out of the way, we ate lunch and crossed the border into Hekou. Our original plan was to see the rice terraces of Yuanyang, but we’d missed the last bus of the day so we booked a sleeper bus to Kunming, intending to transfer to a day train to Lijiang. The bus made for a very uncomfortable night. It had 3 narrow beds crammed across the width of the bus, and they were too short for me to stretch out fully. I also woke up every time the bus stopped, which was every hour or so. We arrived in Kunming a bit late at a bus station at the opposite end of town from the train station so we missed the one day train to Lijiang. Not to worry – there were lots of tickets on the night train and there was just enough to see in Kunming to make a pleasant day.
The night train was much more comfortable than the bus. The train was huge: 15 double deck cars with 4- and 6-bed compartments. We had a 4-bed compartment to ourselves. We got into Lijiang on time, fended off several minivan touts, and boarded a municipal bus for the old city.
What a place! Lijiang is awesome. The old city is a preserved heritage site with beautiful carved wooden buildings all over. There are stone walkways (motor vehicles are banned) with canals flowing alongside, which used to be the city’s drinking water system. If you’ve ever read Memoirs of a Geisha, this is what I imagine Gion looked like around the time of the book – moreso than anywhere in Kyoto itself even!
We stayed in a guesthouse called Mama Naxi‘s, housed in one of the wooden buildings. Mama was a character in herself, ordering people around and helping us out in a mixture of Naxi, Mandarin, and broken English. "You dinner? 15 quan." To some friends leaving town that night: "You dinner? 20 quan, you no stay Mama." The dinner was amazingly good!
Actually, the food so far has been great all around. We’ve had hot pot in Hekou, fake meat in Kunming (good fake meat, like at Chuchai in Montréal), and in Lijiang: jerked Yak (Tibetan), Naxi bread cooked in a clay oven, and Mama’s Naxi dinner.
We explored Lijiang the day we arrived. The next morning, Mama booked us a minivan to Tiger Leaping Gorge, on which more when I’ve deal with the photos, but let’s just say it was gorgeorific..
Now we’re on a short train to Dali, where we’ll spend the day before heading to Yangshuo for yet more climbing then onwards to the big cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing.