Yunnan

Shangri La - Shangri L'aint.

The next morning I am enjoying breakfast and online when Jane (or her replacement) asks if i'm going to Shangri La – beause they are organising a mini bus – swweeeett. 

So with minimal effort on my part I hurriedly shut down the computer and get on board. It takes around another 2 hours to get to Shangri la – formerly Zhongdian district on the border of Yunnan province and Tibet. You can only get into Tibet as part of a tour group as a Westerner – but my tour into Tibet was cancelled by the Chinese authorities – official reason – change in requirements means they need 5 of each nationality in a tour group for it to be viable. Unofficial reason – I suspect - is because of the recent immolations (setting fire to oneself) from Tibetan monks in protest at the Chinese handling of Tibet and fear of the Western media. 



Although the bus is one of the better i've been on in China the journey up North is truly terrifying – as we ascend the mountains on a perilously windy mountain path – the hill side becomes shrouded in mist. On my right there is a sharp drop with only an occasional calf height barrier that breaks away every now and again -the driver can't see two foot in front of him and in the other lane is oncoming traffic. If I was a Christian I would start crossing myself about now – I can't bear to look so I keep my eyes tight shut and just hope its over soon. Gradually we start to descend a lttle bit towards town and the mists begin to clear. 



Shangri La was renamed in a marketing ploy to attract more tourists to the area and references the James Hilton book -The Lost paradise which is where the name first appeared. Shangri la – a fictional place, a paradise. You can see the landscape alter as we move towards Tibet – the dark wooded mountains of the gorge rise and fall and rise again into the vast snowy peaks heralding Tibet. 

The bright lime green of the paddy fields blur into into the dark green cabbagy patches of leaf vegetables and fields starbursted with bright scarlet shrubs. The The locals are all tanned a deep nut brown because of the intense mountain heat and have bright pink candy apple cheeks. Their clothes are brightly multi coloured woolen scarves wrapped around heads and little fat cheeked babies papoosed to their back. 



The bus deposits us somewhere and I get an ungracious female cab driver to drop me near the old town. Zhondian or Shangri La is huge – I was expecting a couple of windy roads, the odd hairy yak wandering down the street, bright glistening mountains against a china blue sky and yocals laughingly welcoming me into their home. No not quite – its pouring with rain, the new town is large and neon and the first thing I see is a Nike. I get deposited outside the old town which is a few criss crossing streets of tourist tat- and think Shangril La? - Shangril'aint'. 

N' kitchen is the hostel i've booked. I go in and am ignored for a good 10 minutes. I finally make my way to a crammed dormitory with a cleaner singing tunelessley. I put my back pack down and start to take my shoes off, when I pick it up again its covered in a white powder. I don't know why -but I know STRAIGHT away what it  is. I look at the wall where it was lying and I can't see anything. I cover my hand with my jumper and wipe it off. I look again more closely – there are holes in the wall with little innocent white crystals poking out. Its asbestos. I know this because I was FORCED to attend a presentation on the subject at work. Out of the entire 30,000 strong company I was one of the last to go. Although i've worked in the property industry for years I really didn't see the relevance for a marketer. To give credit where its due – the man who insisted on making the presentation mandatory for all employees had lost his father to asbestos poisoning and gave as passioned and interesting a presentation as could be given on the subject .It was also terrifying – how evil, corrosive and noxious the substance is – and how you just shouldn't ever EVER come into contact with it. Unfortunatley since then – and maybe because of that presentation and my penchant for travelling in third world countries where asbestos regulataions don't apply i seem to have done nothing but come into contact with it. In

 

South America two years ago I went down a silver mine in Bolivia where the guide cheefully told us we were leaning on raw asbestos and now this. 

Bet you are glad you are reading my blog now aren't you?? – sod Fifty Shades of Grey i'm referencing the Asbestos Regulations of the 1970s. Rock and Roll people. 

I wipe the stuff off as best I can, put my jumper in the wash (which in hindsight probably just dispersed it amongst the rest of my clothes) and tell them i'm leaving again. 

I find a hostel down the road and move in there. There is no restaurant or cafe attached and the beds are all lind up in two vertical rows so that people sleep head to toe - but the walls and floor are wood lined so I take it. I go out in the pouring rain and am already out of sorts – I think "I shouldn't need good weather to like a place and have a good time..." but...ohhhhh i kind of do!!! 



The next morning a gentle Japanese student - 19 year old Dai – asks if I want to go for a walk. So we head out and have a little wander round. It is absolutely freezing. I suppose I should have known this – we are near the mountains – the little streets are lined with over priced mountain gear, woollen scarves and pashminas. Dai ends up buying a beautiful dark blue and violet scarf that he lends me in the dorm room. He then heads off to the monastery -which is the main – no only sight to do here... and I have a walk around town. At 115 Y to get in – i'm going to give it a miss – its only around twelve pounds but is also under rennovation at the moment and has apparently become very touristy with the monks trying to flog you their home made medicine. 




The sun comes out and when it does its very very strong and of course everything looks a little better. I have a little look around the back strets – the street food are pickled eggs, fried baba (the Tibetan unleavened bread) which Dai buys for breakfast and Bao dzur – steamed buns filled with meat. I buy some bracelets of silver shapes on red string and a turquoise pendant. The main square – has a free museum with propaganda written by the Chinese Government in worship of the Red Army. They have locals in traditional dress you can have your photo with and a man with a huge hairy tibetan dog in a scarf – that I reluctantly part with a quid to get snapped with. I do like big hairy dogs quite a lot though.

 



There is also a temple in the main square and the walk up has me wheezing and the lactic acid beginning to burn in my calves. At 3200m high Shangri La is one of the highest cities in the world (sometimes called The rooftop paradise) I'm lucky I don't get altitude sickness (some people vomit or feel nauseous from it) but I do feel a little lightheaded and the beer at lunch probably didn't help! The Traditional Tibetan temple is decorated with streams and streams of pastel coloured flags and at the top there is a huge bright gold Dharma wheel with ropes attached that you can grab hold off and help keep turning. At one point it stops and everyone makes a pitying whine - until some more people grab hold and join in. I make my way back to the hostel and en route find myself standing outside a cafe with the bloody Arsenal Crest on the front. Typical! i think. You come all the way to the border of Tibet up 3500 metres surrounded by nothing but mountains and toothless locals and yaks and what do you see - Bloody Arsenal...well they have just renamed it Shangri La! 



Our dorm is joined by a few more people – a bubbly little chap from Hong Kong called Marco, Mark – a short Southhamptonite with a strangely bristolian accent and Georgia - a Bristol university student with baby face who manages to last about 12 hours before deciding that Shangri la isn't her cup of Yak milk butter tea. 

Mark and I decide not to do the monastery but instead visit the Temple of 100 chickens. After what seems like a lifetime's walk we get to the top of a hill and am greeted with the brightly coloured bunting that is traditional here. Two monks in dark red robes greet us as we pay our respects inside and walk around the perimeter, a chicken obligingly stands in the doorway for a photo opportunity. The sun has come out again and on the way up the hill locals are sitting and chatting. You get a beautiful view over the whole of Shangri La from here with the mountains in the distant- and for free. Well worth a visit. 


That evening we are all planning on shipping out as soon as possible- its cold and there is really nothing to do. Marcus and Dai have been to the Napa national park which costs around 30 quid and worth it if you ca afford it. I would come back only with more money and time and a companion who could either drive a bike or a car into the surruonding countryside. Mark and I have had a yak cheeseburger for lunch – juicy and salty! 


At around 4pm I say..."right lets get pissed then shall we?" ... 

"It doesn't matter how old you are... (what's he trying to say) 

 



or where you are from in the UK" says Mark...."If you end up in a town with nothing to do for the day and the weather is crap there is only ever one solution - getting pissed." Its true! I'm more British than i thought... 

And decide to spend the money we've saved not going to the monstary on sharing a yak hot pot for dinner. It comes in a huge black earthen ware carved pot that has glowing embers at the bottom to keep the stew hot. The meat is on the bone and surrounded by root vegetbles and glass noodles in a soupy broth that gets topped up by a waitress from a tea pot. We order some barley bread to go with it and a long awaited beer and tuck in. It tastes great. time. 


The next day I say goodbyes to the boys who are heading back to Lijian and head back to Dali –one of my favourite places so far - where i'm hoping its warmer...

The Tiger Leaps! - Tiger Leaping Gorge - China

Its the morning of my Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek. 

I wake up and have my (now routine) banana and chocolate pancake and coffee pre- trek breakfast and say goodbye to the Poles. I'm worried about getting lost as i'm doing it by myself. 

"That's impossible" say the Poles – Pah they have no idea! 

After only two wrong turns, an aborted detour around a pumpkin patch and a farmer with a scythe actually shouting NO!!! at me and pointing in the opposite direction – I settle on the correct path for the trek. 

The beginning of the trek is the most strenuous as its about 2 hours of uphill climbing with something called the 28 bends that looks like a wriggling snake on the map and I anticipate will make the calve muscles burn like Hades.

 



I get going only pausing long enough to purchase my other trek essential – a snickers bar – half way up and although its tiring I soon make the uphill bit and the 28 bends in good time. Its only after when I' speaking to others that have done it and complained about how tiring it is that I realise I must be in pretty good shape after Nazi Ninja bootcamp. I guess training with 18 -21 year olds I was always going to be the slowest and the weakest but hey it turns out i'm pretty fit comparatively...hooray! 



And the scenery is beautiful – heart stoppingly so sometimes. I have no idea what the Poles are on about. The path is a little bit daunting – sometimes its only just bigger than hip width – and winds around the outside of the mountain at about 2000m high with a sheer drop on one side and no safety barriers - we are in China! The hills are flanked with swaying pines and the soft fronds of baby bamboos – ahead the looming peaks of the mountain overlap – sharp granite and snowy white at the descending into the dark green, scalloped edges of the paddy fields that flow down in undulating waves. At the bottom where the feet of the mountain meet flows the coffee coloured river lit up in the early morning sunshine. The fields are dotted with baby pink harebells, marigolds and occasionally a bright scarlet crysanthemum. I am the ony one on the path and the only sound is the soft rush from the water below, the gentle clanging of cowbells in the distance. Its absolutely gorgeous and i have no idea what the Poles have been on about. Honestly...boys...thank goodness i didn't take their advice and "save myself the trouble and get a cab!!!!" 

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"Yep that would be another terrible view!" I say as I curl around another corner of the mountainside and watch it fall away into the ravine - in homage to the Poles. 

Tiger Leaping Gorge is so called after a tiger that supposedly made a leap to a stone in the middle of the gorge to avoid a hunter. After my initial confusion the route is fairly easy to find as all of the guest houses along the way have painted different coloured arrows and their names to promote themselves. 

It takes around 8 hours to get to Tina's Guest House – which is where most people stop, and then another 2 to 3 hours to trek down into the gorge itself to see the stone. Its possibe to get to Tina's in a day (hell the Pole's did it in 5 hours) but I am not a boy !! - this isn't about how quickly I can do it – it's about enjoying the experience. So I stop after 2 hours for a green tea to take in the view at Tea Horse Guest House – then I stop again after another 2 hours and take an hour for lunch. I'm not going in peak season so there are not that many locals on the path, but I stop for a very sweet and toothless old crone that offers me some prickly cucumber for 1 yuan and then peels me some fresh walnuts with blackened hands. 



I stop again and pay a whopping 50p for a large chinese pear -but the woman peels it for me and then takes some photos of me on a rather dicey precipice. 

As nerve wracking as the narrow mountain path is – (there doesn't seem to be any such thing as health and safety in China therefore no barriers to stop one from stumbling and plummeting to a sticky end) it gets even more spine tingling when it momentarily crumbles away in a couple of places – leaving you to clamber over some broken rocks. I decide to crouch anduse my hand as well (although stupidly I still hold a water bottle with my other hand...) and think “hmmm not a big fan of this bit.” 

As I round the bend I see a Chinese girl in her early twenties and a Chinese man in full trekking gear and bright red walking stick in his forties. They wave and say hello – I think our paths have crossed earlier but I overtook them. 

“Aren't you frightened!!” says the Chinese girl Jean – gasping. The man - whom I only ever know as Mr Yang – laughs patiently. 

“Oh not really!" 
“Aiiieee this road is so terrible aren't you scared???" 

"I am just a poor girl - so very frightened." she says dramatically. I laugh. 

" I 'm glad you find pleasure with me" she whimpers..." You - you are a warrior!" 

We continue walking for a bit – there are a couple of waterfalls we have to cross. Again there are no barriers and a sheer drop the other side of the slippery stepping stones. Its a little daunting but not too terrible. Jean clings to my hand for dear life. 
 


"I feel better now I have you both with me" she announces. 

"Yes I say -we are like auntie and uncle." 



Mr Yang is the happiest Chinese man i've ever met – in fairness they are all fairly happy and easy going. He doesn't smile or speak any English but points and grins enthusiastically at things. We get towards the halfway point – at Halfway house and go up to the balcony (named Inspiraton point) to take photos against the amazing mountainous backdrop. Then head on again – through the little village – past locals with babies papoosed to their backs, smoking old men and rabid dogs. I've read about a guesthouse called Five Fingers- which is up a mountain slope – and is apparenty much nicer than Tina's which has become touristy and expensive. I say my goodbyes to Jean and Mr Yang and make my way towrards it – they want to continue their trek and get to Tinas before sun down. I could trek for another 2 hours – or I could sit and enjoy the view with a beer. Not suprisingly the latter is my preferred option. 

The gueshouse is run by a Tibetan husband and wife. They have beautiful views of the countryside, a courtyard lined with bright red gladioli, and two donkeys tethered in the middle of it. The room is small and basic but they are obviously going all out with the bathroom. There is a squatter toilet yes – but a great big shower that pumps out hot water. I take a much longed for properly hot shower and change and come downstairs – when who should I find but Jean and Mr Yang. Their friends are behind them and they want to wait for them and complete it tomorrow. I'm pleased I have company all alone in the mountain tops and Mr Yang seems delighted i'm ready to drink beer. We sit outside with a couple of bottles of Tsing Tao and enjoy some Tibetan home cooking – Kung Pao chicken with peanuts and red chilli, fried eggs and tomatoes, green beans grown in their backgarden and beef and potatoes. At some point I am pitied by Mr Yang and brought a spoon to eat with! My chopstick skills never really seem to improve! 



"You are both so lucky' - sighs Jean – who has a peculiarly old fashioned turn of phrase like she learned English at finishing school in the fifties... 

"Take this illustrious gentleman here ..."– she says indicating Mr Yang – 

"He is in his forties, unmarried and just travels." 

Well similar to me! 



I never want to get married she says – and then goes on to explain about Chinese culture – how once you marry you marry not just your fiance but his family as well and from that point on you are never alone. We take our individualism for granted in the West. You can see the benefits of the Chinese culture - the sociability, the support that families get that the elderly get -but I would also miss my freedom a great deal. She talks about the Chinese flowers and about the Tang Dynasty –it was one of her favourite periods in Chiense history – famous for having a woman ruler – Wu Xehitan – who had a successful career – and even invented words and letters to be named after her although like many a matriarchal leader she was terrifyingly ruthless in order to secure her position. 


"Do you learn any Chinese historyin school?" 

She asks... 

"Oh no I say..." – thinking we barely learn the basics of our own Britihs history – there seems to be a huge gap in my knowledge between Elizabeth and James 1 and the start of the first world war- only a small yet crucial 300 years involving the building of governement and civil war! 

“Why not ?!" She exclaims "...we learn about Charlie!" 

In the morning Mr Yang and I eat fried baba (traditional Tibetan unleavened bread) pasted with honey and crumbled walnuts. Yum. Jean has eggs, tomatoes, noodles and ginger – and we are off. Today its no longer sunny – a misty rain has set in and Jean is whingeing –" This was a mistake we should have carried on yesterday. Why did you want to stay in the mountains?" 

I can't help feel she is blaming me – even though I set off to the guesthouse by myself and didn't ask them to come back and join me! 

I feel very lucky i've had a beautiful day of sunshine and don't regret taking my time and spending the evening in the mountains – the trek down into the gorge is fairly steep and strenuous in the rain – and takes around 1 hour – but it is also beautiful to see another side of the mountains. Shady, cool, misty and hung with shimmering rain they are just as beautiful – but i'm glad i don't have to do the whole 23k in the drizzle. 



A couple of the village homes down the path to the gorge have decided to set up an extra toll to extract money from tourists as well as the park entrance fee – so we are husteld for another 1 y down, some money to go out onto the bridge and stand on the Tiger's stone in the midst of the angry rushing water and 15 y to go back up again. Its resented by everyone I speak to but if I lived there i'd try the same thing – I can't blame them for their entrepreneurism! And it is endorsed with official signs. The villagers for the route up have created a better path -cutting stone steps into the mountain side and attaching at thin wire to use as a rail. Again if you don't have a head for heights this is not advisable! 

The way down is arduous and I think will be bad to go up the same route (if you do you don't have to pay) the stone steps path is more direct and the middle part of it also contains something called a Sky Ladder which sounds even more direct. Jean tries to tell me that there are too many tourists and it will take too long, and then that its shut – i'm not sure if she is telling the truth – something makes me persist – and it is open and available as a route. The sky ladder turns out to be a rusty metal ladder precariously attached almost vertically to the cliff. There is no safety cable or harness available here – no net if you fall. I take a few steps up it and come down – if you don't feel up to it there is the “safe path” which are more steep stone steps carved into the hillside with a wire for a rail (only safe if you are careful!) 

“Did you give up?” asks Jean. 

“No” I say trying to style it out  "I just don't think I can do it by myself..." 

Some more people gather at the platform – ever the gentleman - Mr Yang asks if they will accompany Jean up the safe path so that he can accompany me up the sky ladder. Oh great. 



I set going again and a few steps up think – this would NOT be allowed anywhere else in the world without a safety harness and a safety net. A few more steps up and I think – if I can't do this mentally and my hands start shaking or my legs give way – then that's it – either Mr Yang has to come to my rescue and help me come down one step at a time – or more likely i'll just fall backwards off the cliff top and die. I'm climbing a vertical ladder against a cliff face 2000 m in the air – in the rain!!! I look up and look down and feel sick. I vow never to take a chance like this again. 
 



“Come on..." I say – "you are mentally strong you can do this (and er you have to do this...)” 

I look straight ahead and just concentrate on putting one hand above the other and then one foot a step at a time. In some parts the rungs are uneven – behind the rusty metal version is an even more dodgy wood and metal version. Half way up some joker has carved into it – Come on you can do it! 

How did they manage that! 

Luckily the thing is very short – it takes around 10 minutes to get to the top. At the top all there is is the top of the ladder and a thin and slippery wire to hold onto. I manage to haul myself to safety and sit at the top on a rock my legs and hands are shaking. Mr Yang joins me smiling -and I get him to go back to the top and take a photo of it! 

I normally say that I take calculated risks – but this was sheer stupidity – I don't recommend it to anyone!!! 

We get to the top – finally joined by Jean who drags behind - Jiao Jiao – (come on come on) Mr Yang and I shout - a phrase I learnt in Kung Fu. Then Jean decides to stay with her friends at Tina's for the night. She wants me to stay too so we an all head to Shangrila in the moring – but I don't like Tina's and do't have a change of clothes with me – and would rather head back to my stuff which has been eft at Jane's Guestouse. 

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Mr Yang and I share the same bus back – he is heading on to Lijiang and I am getting out at Qiatou – the start of the trek. But the adventure isn't over yet. As the rainy season comes to an end many of the newly built roads around the gorge have been disrupted by landslides from the mountains. Now the huge boulders from one have blocked our path. All of the bus have to get out and then first climb over the rocks and then climb aruond a scarily narrow grey and gravelly slippery path cut into the hillside with another sheer drop on one side. I'm one of the first to go onto it but towrds the end my nerve begins to go. Luckly Mr Yang has got to the other side and offers out his red walking stick for me to hang on to and he helps me to safety. Thank goodness for Mr Yang – apparently I later discover that the landslide has been like that for 2 weeks. On the other side there are other buses ready to take us onwards and I arrive back at Jane's guesthose and have some beef noodles before its time for bed.

Mountain views, markets and street dentistry in Dali, Yunnan Province, China.

I wake up and still full of the verve and vigour of a month's training with a bunch of 18 year old boys I decide to trek up the mountain Cangshan. I try and follow the incredibly simple map to the start of the route and luckily being me – get lost and end up taking a motorbike for a quid up to the hiking entrance. 



I've packed some bao dzur (steamed buns filled with pork purchased for 60p) and a snickers for lunch. I've started my day in preparation by having a banana and chocolate pancake and a coffee – yum. After the hiking entrance which costs 30RMB its a steep 45 mins – 1hour walk up stone steps until it levels out to flat path. The walk up isn't particulary inspiring as the mountain top is crowded with pine trees – its cool and green and peaceful but there are no views until you reach the main path after an hour. This is fine – but as with all walking/running its difficult when you don't know how much further you have to go (or if you are me - even if you are actually on the right track...!) But when I get to the main path it is all worthwhile. The views over the rolling mountain side and the lake are gorgeous. The mountain top is beautiful and so tranquil, sometimes jagged, sometimes falling away into nothing or split up with little waterfalls. I walk one way and come to the Zhongdian temple. I stop there and eat my steamed buns looking out over the hillside and the lake and feel very very content and lucky to be alive. I bump into an American in her sixties who has come up the path directed by the hostel – which is apparenty is just a mud track that takes about an hour and half – and feel very relieved I got the bike to the correct entrance! 

I walk the other way to see some of the other scenic spots on the Park's map – Seven Dragon's Pool which is supposed to be a series of little lagoons and waterfalls – and Dragon's Eye and Phoenix Cave – but disappointingly they are all shut. 

I make my way down again and find noodles for 6 yuan (60p) and then visit the local market. Dali has lots of street markets open on different days – one of the best is right down the road from the hostel. 



Its a colourful and lively affair. At the street entrance are traders selling spade heads and hoe parts for farmers, there are huge grinding machines churning up large wicker drying trays of chillis into bright scarlet powder and tea leaves a plenty. They sell everything here from modern necessities such as torches, knives and dvds to traditional medicine stores selling bits of skulls, snake skin and fungi. 

Perhaps the most alarming stalls are the Dentists who ply (no pun intended) their trade here. On their stall they have laid out ceramic tooths, moulds and er pliers... (GULP.) Many of them are at work staring down the open mouth of an almost toothless old farmer. Mental note – do NOT get a toothache in China... 



Tomorrow I get a 7 hour bus ride to Qiatou - the start of Tiger Leaping Gorge – my next (a mere 23k) trek. 

 

A fragrant Garden, an Ear Shaped Lake and an Avenue of Spiders, Dali, China

I arrive into Dali late at night and row with a cab driver but for once he's not ripping me off! Its quite a haul from Dali new town to Dali old town. I arrive at Jade Roo and its in darkness because of a power cut. There are travellers whingeing about it but half the town is in darkness so its not the hostels fault! Regardless of this as a sign of goodwill they are offering a 25% discount for the booking. My bed tonight will cost a grand total of 1 pound 80! So I make good use of it and decide to get a nice 12 hour sleep.

I'm trying to keep up my fitness regime of half an hour exercise first thing in the morning monday to friday so I decide to go for a run around the old town and its a lovely way to check out my new environment. Immediateley opposite the hostel there is a dark stone wall that runs around the old town with an archway entrance – the west gate. There follows a descending pathway split by a little waterfall and stream and flanked by weeping willows and tea houses. Intermittently Chinese signs say: beware -don't fall in the water (Chinese have a tendency to do their washing in public water features) and slightly more melo- dramatically – Beware Landslides! 



At the bottom a main street crosses into the heart of the old town. Although i'm the only westerner there are lots of Chinese tourists coming for a break from their cities. Dali is home to the Bai culture. I meet another English Couple - Hannah and Nick and we go for a breakfast at a very Western cafe that has somehow got access to brown bread – I have poached eggs, toast, ham, fresh orange juice and a decent cup of Yunnan coffee (the area produces a lot of home grown Arabica coffee beans) at almost four pounds its Western prices but after coffee in a can, sugary white bread and the Rising Dragon school camp chef's hard boiled eggs it's heaven! 



Dali old and new town has grown up around Er Hai Lake – literal translation – ear – shaped lake. We navigate our way down towards it via the local bus which costs a sum total of 10p and then go for a walk around. In hindsight the lake is probably best discovered by bike (although my cycling skills are are wobbly at best!) but we are on foot and its beautiful countryside to discover on foot too. 

The bus drops us at the main ferry port – you can get a tourist boat around the lake for 180 RMB about 18 pounds – but if you don't want to do that then you can walk along some of its perimeter through the litle villages at its banks for free. The land leading up to the lake is divided into little patchwork squares of bright yellow corn, rice and other leafy cabbagy looking vegetables. The fields are filled with brightly coloured scare crows and farmers hard at work. Most of them seem to be women – in traditonal dark overalls and pointy straw hats. They are hoeing and tilling and carrying heavy yokes across their shoulders. Sometimes they straighten up and smile at us. As we near the water's edge we see more farmers up to their thighs in the lake – they look to be weeding or harvesting its not clear which – the lotus or lilly roots found there. The weather is warm but the sky has that bright slightly overcast light that seems to work really well for photos. The lake is large and flat and silver – standing at the edge and looking back towards town you can see the traditional white houses of Dali with their ornate curly grey roofs of slate and wood – with water colours painted on them. Behind the town are a series of risig dark green mountains ther tops shrouded in mist, immediately in front of us lies the quilt of beautifully shaded greens of the vegetable fields sunk in water - shimmering in the half light. 


And then we see spiders. Lots of them. Hundreds of them! Its like something out of a hideous nightmare. Normally you only see one spider sitting at the centre of his web but the spiders of Dali appear to be sociable creatures and like to hang out together. The only saving grace is that they are obviously quite clever and build their webs high above head height. They have strewn their homes in between the branches of the willow trees that droop into the lake, between the trees and the telegraph poles and anywhere they can get a footing. They are mostly large and black with an ominous greeny yellow pattern on their back which I am assuming means they are poisonous.

 

After walking for some time we decide to take a path back to the main road to get a lift back to town. We walk up a muddy path in the middle of a field flanked by trees on either side and in between all of the trees and amongst the hedgrerows are even more spiders. I am not frightened of spiders normally - there are insects I like a lot less – its the slimy wriggly ones that normally give me the heebie jeebies but the hairs on my arms and neck go up and I feel genuinely a bit ill by the time we've finished picking our way through the avenue of a thousand spiders. Its like some kind of horrible endurance test or something you 'd create in Room 101 for your enemy. 


We get a bus back to town and share some sizzling beef and noodles for lunch and discuss the Slovenian woman called Dao who has been living here for 3 months. Hannah has asked her what she does here and she has said: 

“dance...just dance – every night.” 

“I can't understand people like that!” says Hannah

“I think she's a bit crazy I mean wouldn't you get bored not doing anything but dancing, i'd go mad -i'd get so bored I feel like i'd have to work” 

Hannah is twenty – and still at University. 

“Oh well I say”..” “Give it ten years of working for a living and contributing to society” I say – "then you may feel more in the mood to opt out and dance for a few months!”

I hope I don't sound too bitter! 

We go for a little walk around town. Farmers line the streets with yokes carrying large baskets of fruit – pomegranates, peaches, lychees and bananas. Other street sellers hawk strips of fried pancakes on sticks, rice wrapped in pandan leaves and sticks of bbq ready to be fried in chili oil. The main streets are lined with touristy little shops that sell specialities of the region from jade jewellery, cashmere pashminas and silk scarves and crystalised sugar fruits. Shop assistants are sometimes dressed up in traditional Bai costume – large multi coloured round shaped hats lined with white fur and white trousers. Local restaurants display their fresh mountain vegetables -different strange curly shaped fungi and large purply roots as well as sea life from the lake outside their shopfronts in bowls. You can take your pick down to the last tomato for what goes in your dish - and choose from small lake snails, baby crabs, or wriggling eels. None of it looks particularly appetising alive ! and i've stayed clear of fish and shellfish my entire time in china – I don't really trust the cleanliness of the water they are sourced in shall we say. 



Dark green wooly mountains surround the town and you can get a view that looks out to them and over the hustle and bustle of the main streets from the Wuha building. You have to pay a surly looking shopkeeper 2 Yuan for the privelege but when you get to the top and look through the pastel coloured flags and hanging red lanterns they've decorated the buildings with to the misty mountains and down below its worth the 20p entry! 

We go down one of the main streets for dinner and end up away from the tourists at a place called The Fragrance Inn – packed with Chinese people and a Chinese only menu. It looks promising but we have no idea how to order – and just taking pot luck and pointing at random items on the menu is not something you want to chance in China. I think back to the deep fried Duck's heads and all the gizzards and dangly bits i've seen; the Beijing night market with its scorpions and centipedes on sticks... I know in some parts of the country they eat cockroaches – and to make their wines more potent they marinate rats' babies and snakes in them. Apparently the Chinese have a saying: “If its evolved to walk on all fours on the earth then it can be eaten...” 

Its also a self service restaurant so you are supposed to go and tell Chef yourself what you want then help yourself to beers from the fridge. 

Nope - we need a translator. To be honest at this point I would have just given up and walked out – but fair play to the young and enthusiastic – Hanna a jolly, toothy blonde and Nick -her cuddly, swarthy companion are miming frantically to some stunned diners. In the end a call goes round “does anyone speak English?” and a man comes forward and helps translate. They order the Chef's recommendations for us. We enjoy aubergine (or eggplant as they insist on translating it here) and pork in a sweet and spicy sauce...shredded beef and potato slices and the local mushroom deep fried in a salty spicy batter. 



“I've never had KFC but I imagine this is what it would be like” says Hannah holding up a curly fungi tendril in batter. 

Its delicious – at almost 6 pounds each for the meal and drinks its expensive by Chinese standards and I have a feeling we are being charged tourist rates. But hey - its worth it.