Chinese tourists, leaping tiger gorge and pandas
15.09.2013 - 29.09.2013
It's time for another update. Lachlan and I are in the south-west of China, in Yunnan province, which is south of Tibet. The country of Myanmar (Burma) is directly to the west from here and Laos and Vietnam are not far to the south. Today we are in Yunnan's capital city of Kunming (a city of around 4 million, so not all that big ) and tomorrow we will visit the nearby Stone Forest of Shilin. We have just a few days left until we reach the 30 day limit of our Chinese visas, so we will be heading south to Laos on Tueday.
Here in Yunnan we are back in the lands of Chinese minority ethnic groups, which translates to a wider variety of food on the street and more wrinkled faced people wearing colourful clothing and hats. Traditional dwellings are of rendered mudbrick, painted white, with roofs of small grey halfpipe ceramic tiles laid in overlapping rows down the pitch (every second row is curved down in a gutter and every other row sits like a cap over the edges of two gutter rows) and with a roof top ridgeline that is slightly upturned at the ends, making the roof look somehow similar to the prow of a viking boat. Tops of walls, driveway entrances, porches and roof ridgelines and eaves are all tiled with the same grey ceramic tiles with decorative upturned protrusions at their prows.
We spent nearly a week in the north-west of Yunnan province, visiting the towns of Dali (a peaceful 'Bai' town with a lovely relaxed vibe, sandwiched between mountains and an ear-shaped lake where you can see cormorant fishing) and Lijiang, a town where the 'Naxi' people lived, and where the old town is a Unesco World Heritage site because of its stream system of stone channels, which were built in order to supply the town's intricate alley network of dwellings with fresh running water.
Receiving around five million visitors annually, Lijiang must be one of the most popular tourist attractions in China. To us, it seemed rather like one giant Hahndorf (a 'historical' tourist town with German heritage in the Adelaide hills), pretty enough and tidy but not exactly authentic. The old town streets were decorated with pots of flowering chrysanthemums and packed with shops and stalls selling trinkets, silver, cashmere scarves, art work and leather crafts, and dotted with guest houses, inns, restaurants and music 'bars', in which the same mellow tunes (with thin and wavery female vocals) were playing incessantly, often accompanied by live rythmic drum beats provided by the stall attendant. There were well-dressed Chinese tourists crowding the winding streets in droves but it was a bit confusing for us to pick what the actual attraction is - there was little information offered about the Naxi people. Perhaps the attraction is simply the lack of litter and the fact that the old town is closed to cars so you can wander the alleys freely with your bulging bags of souveniers without being honked at every few seconds.
Nearby to Lijiang is 'Tiger Leaping Gorge', which is a deep and narrow valley that the Yangtze River squeezes through as it flows east (heading out to sea at Shanghai) from its headwaters in Tibet. We took the bus to the top end of the gorge and did the compulsary two day hike (maximum alitude 2680m, from starting at river level at around 1600 m) across the mountain side on the north side of the valley, spending the night in the Tea Horse guesthouse partway along the route. The hike is particularly known for providing spectacular views of the deep gorge and breath-taking climbs up slope-hugging sections of the trail, and it did not disappoint.
However, for us the real highlight was finding ourselves amongst a bunch of other western travellers with whom we were able to swap travel stories and exchange information about the different places we had been. By evening time at the 'Tea Horse', we had chatted with a dozen or more hikers, including a widely travelled and very fit retired Canadian couple from Vancouver, two Canadian students who had just begun a semester of study in Hong Kong, having loaded all their subjects onto Wednesdays so that they could spend the other six days of the week travelling, two girls from Australia working for a year at a school campus in Nanjing which has an exchange program with Caulfield College in Melbourne, and a Jehovas witness couple from Belgium who work for just four hours a day in a call centre in order to have time each day to spend on other aspects of life. It was refreshing to meet so many friendly people and we revelled in being part of a like-minded group of travellers. It was very relaxing walking along in good company, admiring the mountains with blue sky above (not polluted and hazy for a change - there were even stars at night) and the rushing river (muddy and brown) up to 1000 metres below. The conversation topics were diverse, entertaining and thought provoking, ranging in content from the benefits of various training techniques to discussions about families, jobs, lifestyles, baffling aspects of Chinese culture, and experiences of travel in other countries.
That about covers our last week's activities in Yunnan province. Other places that we have visited since I last wrote (when we were in central China, in the city of Tianshui, where we visited the haystack mountain) include Nanjing, where we visited the sobering Nanjing Massacre Museum (Japan vs China in 1937 - how on earth did the surviving Chinese pick up their lives afterwards without becoming bitter people?) and Ming's tomb up in the park on the hill, where the 'Spirit Walk' is lined with pairs of stone animals, including some imaginary ones. After Nanjing we had a quick overnight stop in Chengdu, where we wandered the Peoples Park and watched the locals boating, dancing, advertising their sons as prospective husbands (height, age, accomplishments and the like are listed on an A4 page, sometimes with photo included, and posted on a display along one of the park's paths) and feeding the enormous goldfish in the goldfish pond with milk bottles of liquid fish food (complete with a teat for the fish to suck on).
All this was interesting but for me the best thing of all was that we visited the panda research institute. The research institute is home to about 50 of the globe's 333 pandas that live in captivity (we saw 33 of them, including a dozen new borns of 1-2 months old) and the success of its panda breeding program has largely contributed to the doubling of the number of pandas living in captivity globally (an increase from 168 in 2004 to 333 at present).
I enjoyed the pandas hugely. Their enclosures were large and leafy and it was great fun watching the animals feeding, shovelling bamboo shoots one after the other non-stop into the mouth, with the panda reaching for the next piece with one paw while still chewing on the last piece held in the other paw. Tree climbing behaviour was also entertaining. A given enclosure seemed to have a favourite tree, which all the pandas liked best. It probably had the most comfortable fork. Anyway, all the pandas (which were about the size of St Bernard dogs) would try to get into the same fork of the tree. Needless to say, they wouldn't fit, and the panda in prime position was never keen to relinquish its seat. Disputes on the seating arrangements were resolved by shoving, grabbing of other pandas' feet with paws and trying to bite them, pulling of other pandas' body parts and contortion of one's own body in order to try to obtain a position that granted better advantages in the struggle. I didn't know it before, but the panda is actually a megafauna from the Pleistocene, with a carnivorous evolutionary background and hence a digestive tract that is poorly suited to a vegetarian diet such as bamboo. The panda therefore needs to eat bamboo virtually non-stop in order to get the energy it needs.
Now we are down to our last couple of days in China. From here in Kunming we will take a bus to Jinghong, and then another bus to Luang Prabang in Laos. Then we have about three weeks to get to Singapore, where we will get on our boat to Australia. We are both excited about seeing Australia again! Several times during our recent hike I just had to pick some gum tree leaves (yes, there are gum trees growing everywhere in this part of China - maybe for soil stabilization?) and crush them in my hands, to get that awesome Eucalyptus smell...ahhhh.
Big hugs to everyone and good luck to everyone going to the orienteering Nationals.To see photos from our last three weeks of travel, visit our blog: