China

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.

The Three Pagodas, Two Nuns and a chant - in Dali, China.

I decide to do my morning run to The Three Pagodas and Temple which is apparently about half and hours walk away. I take just enough money to go in incase I want to enter when I arrive. Its a hot and dusty day and after about 20 mins I get there and decide I may as well. The briliant Jade Roo and Jade Emu Hostel where I am staying (and cannot recommend enough) do excursions – and I discover are quite possibly the only hostel that don't try and rip off their guests by charging a premium for the privelege. When I get to The Three Pagodas I realise that a taxi and entrance fee would have been cheaper booked and done from the hostel than by running there and just entering myself. Extraordinary – but i'm here now so I go in. The three sand coloured pagodas are set against the hill side. There is a peaceful lake and paths leading up to them. I storm ahead of the tour groups and Chinese so that can get some photos without hundreds of people in. Luckily its still quite early and the Chinese don't seem to like being up at the crack of dawn – even the bakery was still making its cakes at about 9.30am in the morning!
 


Although its around 12 pounds to enter its worth it as I spend about 3 to 4 hours in the grounds. After the Pagodas which you can't enter – there are a series of Buddhist temples stacked all the way up the hillside. There are various incarnations of Buddha and the Bhodivistas along the way including a rather beautiful Buddha whose trim little waist i'm admiring when I realise this is named “The Yunnan Star” and is a hermaphrodite – half man and half woman – that explains it then. I'm again taken aback by all the gold and the menacing anger on the faces of some of the statues. One of the Buddhas stands towerng above me with one arm flung up in the air swirling a whip with the other pressing its palm down as if to smite the person below – his lips curled, his eyebrows locked and the whites of his eyes bright with menacing anger. He is a spiritual warrior but this intimidating and aggressive posture is not what I associate with Buddism at all. 

 



I get to almost the very top temple – called The Lake Viewing Temple - set far up into the mountain side . The Virgin Cedars that flank the hillside are thicker here and the hot morning sunshine has given way to fresh and misty mountain air. I think – can I be bothered to go to the top – then I think “its the last temple – and er.... what else are you doing with your life right now???” 

So I carry on up the steps and get to the top of the final temple and am rewarded with a view that looks down over all the other temples and to Er Hai (ear shaped) Lake itself. There are only a couple of Chinese men at this temple – and they start chatting to me straight away: 

“You are the only one whose made it up this far apart from us!” they say. 

Then gesture at the crowds below who turn back in their tour groups way before this temple.



Some Chinese Buddhist nuns in long grey robes and shaved heads are walking up through the trees to this temple wth a novice or visitor. There is a training academy here. One of them stops and greets me: 

“Ami tuo Fo” she says. 

I gesture that I don't understand but she keeps repeating it until I realise she is giving me a Buddhist chant – so I say it and as the others come to join her I say it again which they are delighted by. 

I look it up when I get back to the hostel. It's a Buddhist chant that Chinese buddhists also use to greet each other. 

Amituofo is the name of the Amitabha Buddha - Buddha of infinite light and infinite life. 

I make a mental note to try it the next time I meditate. Her little brown face was so happy and alive and warm. They lean over the balcony and take deep lungfuls of the clean mountain air and gasp appreciatively. I love nuns... 



I feel bad when I return because i've missed saying goodbye to Nick and Hannah. I walk into town and visit a little restaurant called Mama's Place where i've seen someone I presume to be Papa making Jiao – Dzur – fresh dumplings in the window. I could live off dumplinsgs. I order pork and leek dumplings and a chinese beer – Tsing Tao (pronounced Ching Dao) for a couple of pounds. Tsing Tao is at 4% probably the best of a bad bunch. It seems to be all or nothing with the Chinese and alochol– either fortified plum or pine nut or rice wine liquor for a terrifying 45 – 50% proof or pisswater beer like the local attempt – Dali beer at 3.3%!

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.


The Week from Hell - Kung Fu Fighting - Part Six

I am just beginning to think I can survive the school – even feeling a little wistful that I can't extend my little sojourn here to two months when Wong decides to end the week with the regime from hell. 

It all begins on Thursday afternoon session. Most of the boys have gone into town with Wong for lunch . Somehow for the three remaining (including me) we get to go for a run even though the others come back late. We all run to the bridge and back – as I pass Felix – he gestures 3 to me. I assume he means do the bridge three times so diligently do it wondering where he and Sergei have got to only to get back ad realise he meant the class won't start till 3pm. Oh well I think – no matter - i've just run 2.5k its goo to push myself. Just when I think the afternoon session is about to end – Wong decides to spring the dreaded Stairs on us. We have to bear crawl down the stairs and then do a punching circuit with a parter holding pads then run up the stairs and do it all again three times. By the third time I still don't have the techinque right – i've completley given up on tryig to do a press up and am just trying to haul my body down without scraping all the skin off my legs. 

"Put your bum in the air – like downward dog in yoga” says Eleanor – which actually really helps. I do it and it pushes my weight onto my hands – the feeling of lurching forward face first towards descending concrete is terrifying but easier than doing it in press up position. It's the first time i've done them since ruining my legs – after my initiation – and I think maybe now I have some of the technique the fear has subsided a little. We all think that is it for the day...but no... 

Wong has decided that we need a further legs circuit and so we then have to sprint up and down the legnth of a basketball court, do frog leaps and bunny hops(just try it I dare you) it feels like your quads and calves have been injected with molten lead and when that hell finishes and we think surely the class is over now -Wong makes us race to the bridge - 800m in under 4 minutes. I am absolutely shattered and can hardly move my leg muscles – however at dinner I discover that the 5.30am morning circuit is likely to be...that's right ...legs again. It is the very worst morning circuit I do there. 



We have to do laps of the school and let me remind you the school is set on a hill with 120 high flights of stone staircases around it. SO we start by sprinting the length of the basket ball court running up three flights of stairs along the top through the tai chi area and then down another flight of stairs. We have to do this ten times, the next tme instead of sprinting we have to do bunny hops along the court, then frog leaps, duck walks, milk shakes, side jumps, hops etc. After lap 1 Audrey and Alice – who have made a token appearance for their last morning session – somehow disappear with a gallic shrug. 

"Oh I can't do this"...says Alice – 

Well I can't either but i'm givin it a go . After lap 5 I notice Jasmin has disappeared as well so i'm the only girl to complete it entirely! Its horrendous. 

However if my poor legs thought that was it they were wrong – because straight after breakfast Wong has decied we can all do a nice 10k run up a mountain and then over to a local reservoir. 



I haven't even done “the mountain run” a 45 minute run up a steep hill well mountain - let alone think its possible for me to just tag on another 6 – 7k through and out the other side of Xin Qiao the nearest village and then past the temple and up another mountain. 

I get directions from different people – because I don't want to get lost ( a speciality of mine) and I know I won't be keeping up with them. 

Its already about 30 degrees outside. My aim is just not to stop and start walking. I manage the mountain run – which is across the bridge and up the mountain. My first experienceof running up hill – horrible!!! Wong passes me on his motorbike and offers to carry my water for me. Great -a lift would have more appreciated thanks! 

I know its just going to be mental effort that gets me through, I cheer myself after reaching the entrance to the village – then run past the villages and out the other side of town. The locals have been going through a bamboo phase – they have made little wicker drying racks out of twigs and have stripped and steamed various sections of bamboo that they are drying and smoking in great fires. They sit by the roadside amongst the sweet smoky scent of the drying bamboo and have a good old laugh at the us as we go running past – all red, hot and sweaty. I wonder what they think of us. the Chinese don't seem to be big on exercise. Little children run out of shop doorways to shout – HELLO aggressively at me – at which I muster a wheezy hello back. 

The village goes uphill towards the end - I note with displeasure but I manage it and keep going past the Buddhist temple which is another landark Wong likes to get us to run to. Then I keep going until the path starts going up hill again up another mountain. Oh goody. About halfway up and there is a little smoking factory which seems to be drying and burning some kind of fuel. Its possibly the worst thing you could ask for – having run almost 8k up two mountains in 30 degree heat – and now for some smoke to asphxiate you when you have no air in your lungs left already. Well – no excuses but as an asthmatic as well it does for me and shortly after my legs refuse to do any more running up hill and I have to walk the remainer of the way up the mountain. I'm disappointed because I think running is really pshychological and I think if I knew the route and how much farther I had to go I might have made myself push on but just not knowing made it more difficult somehow. I get to what I think is the reservoir – there is a dog barking outside (which James has told me about) and a big wrought iron gate that you need to climb through. I do this and am faced with an enormous gorgeous lake surrounded by trees and a stone damn with steps down it. I look down and think there is aboslutely no way i'm going all the way down there if they are not down there so I just stand around at the top for about 10 mins to take in the view until Alison passes me on her way out. 

"Hey – they are all down there- if you want a swim" 

"Er yes I really do I say!" 

"Sure i don't blame you" she says and then adds quietly

"Good job" 


She is an enigma. I was aboslutely terrified of her at first – i'd already been told about the men she'd slept with then the first thing she said to me directly when i'd complain I couldn't straighten my leg out in an exercise because of pulling my hamstring was: 

"If it aint broken you can use it..." 

Splendid. But she's very different – mildly unassuming and bookish and very gently supportive and caring. 

"Did you get lost??" asks Sergei

"Well yes kind of and obviously I was also just SLOW!" 

Sergei is 19 and about 6 ft 4" and built like a daddy long legs – he often starts running well after me and then I get to watch him bound past like Tigger. 




I keep my shorts on and strip off to my sports bra and go for a swim. Its gorgeous. 

"Where are the others?" I enquire innocently. 

"Oh they have swam to the other side."

Final Day at Rising Dragon School

 

When i get back from Xiamen Jasmine fills me in on the gossip that i've missed and the best news of all - Chef has finally walked out! Yes! 

He has been replaced bya grim faced Chinese woman who stands and stares with her mouth in a line – then starts shouting at me incomprehensively. There is nothing as scary or indeed as loud as the sound of a Chinese woman shouting at you. Old timers know the drill already – they are seated before the gong has gone to get their share of rice and meat/veg that is put on sharing platters in the middle of the table. By the time I get there there is nothing left. Alison gives me some of her rice and I find some meat and veg eventually but nothing lasts very long around 30 or so hungry teenage boys. 



And in other news the local villagers have moved from drying bamboo to drying toadstools and mushrooms on their wicker racks. 

As much as i've loved (in a really perverse way) Shaolin – I know that i'm not going to get miraculously better and be able to do the acrobatics or the sparring this week and its not enough time to learn any more of the beautiful dance like forms that i've been taught as well. That being the case I think it would it be a cop out to do Tai Chi for my final three days. I chat to Nico about it and he says “I think you've already demonstrated quite a lot of discipline with what you've one so far at the school -and when are you going to get the chance to learn Tai Chi from a Chinese Master in China again any time soon...?" He's got a point so for my final few days Tai Chi it is. 


Emily, Luke and Dana a jovial Native American with a soft accent and larger than life body and personality all do Tai Chi. 

Tai Chi lessons are completley different. The teacher is a 4 fit nothing 60 something tanned little warrior with blackened teeth called Mao. - pronounced Miaow. 

"He's like a cat as well" says Emily. 

"Sometimes he just stares out the window and then suddenly gets up and starts tapping the dead leaves off the tree with his stick the way a cat might be staring into space then suddenly turn around and paw at an invisible insect." 

A van arrives with vegetables for lunch. We look out the doorway and sure enough inquisitve little Miaow has gone to inspect it. He is standing in front of the van with both his arms on the bonnet interrogating them. We laugh and watch him for a while – his inspections satisfactorily complete he takes a huge gob and spits at the side of the road. 

"The moment's gone” says Emily. 

He only has four fingers on one hand – apparently he lost one in a factory accident which is a rather mundane truth as he is a Master in so many different martial arts skills I imagined it was some lethal butterfly knife fight – but no. 

Mao does't speak any English but he shows well enough what do in his voice – which also sounds a bit like a siamese cat growling. 

Once i've learnt 24 form which is incredibly gentle and relaxing – and the complete opposite to Shaolin -he starts growling at me. 

“He wants you to relax more...sometimes he makes you smoke a cigaretteto relax if he thinks you are too tense” Emily informs me...

Ha i'd like to see him try. After the tobacco, carbs and booze binge fest of B.A I have not had a cigarette and am not about to start now. 

We end every session with doing the 24 form to Chinese music. If I get any more relaxed I may fall asleep. Its absolutely beautiful. Because I feel so lazy I make myself run to the bridge and back twice and on wednesday I make myself do the mountain run... 



My final two morning circuits. I'm so exhausted. Jasmine is in the habit of setting her alarm for 4.15am which wakes me up but not her – and then she doesn't get up until 5. But I make myself get out of bed and do the circuits telling myself that after this thursday it will be the last time I have to get up at 5am to do some rigorous exercise for a long time. Wednesday's circuit is holding plank positions, then press ups, hindus ( a kind of wiggly press up) , wheel barrows, handstand commandoes (basically you go into a handstand and a partner holdsyour legs up then you have to do a press up downwards – bending your arms – evil in other words.) Then handstands against the wall – if we can't hold it for 30 seconds we have to do bunny hops across the basket ball court if we can't hold it for a minute we have to do a lap of the school. Quite a few of us do the lap around the school but everyone including me manages to hold it for 30 seconds! 



My final circuit on Thursday morning – and what a treat it is! We run up the mountain and then do bunny hops, frog leaps and duck crawls down it interspersed with sprinting. It's agonising – even Big Steve who runs the circuit -says “why did I say duck crawls back!” But as it's my last one I make myself do every last second of it. Feel the burn – yeah! 

On Friday we all get a bus to Xiamen. I am flying out to Yunnan province the next day – i've decided the best way to make the most of my time in China is to just see one province well and Yunnan in the South West looks absolutely stunning. I'm acompanied by a group of the students who are joining Scott for a full moon beach party on the saturday in Xiamen. I think about going and then flying – but to be honest i'd rather just say my goodbyes and make the most of the time I have left with my onward journey. 

We get a sleeper bus – which is a little strange as its the middle of the day. There is no toilet on board so we all dehydrate ourselves not drinking any water. It has a little booth you slot yourself into complete with pillow and duvet which makes me feel very snug – but I have some sympathy for all the 6ft plus boys trying to shoe horn themselves into position. 

When we arrive I get ready to say my goodbyes and make my way to the hostel I stayed at before – but because i'm with YOUNG people who haven't booked accommodation they all just tag along with me. When we arrive I go into reception and say: 

"H i'm back and oh I brought a few friends." 

The girl looks through the door at the 10 people i have with me and whispers - “oh my god.” 

We go for dinner at pizza hut and never in the history of man have I ever seen so many hungry and grateful 18 year olds – you'd think they'd died and gone to heaven. Afterwards we become the horrible annoying people at the hostel who keep everyone else awake with drinking games. YAt some point they all start taking off their clothes...then they do kung fu...then I start taking photos and Jasmine moons for the camera...Young People...having fun. The next morning after a few hours sleep they are all awake and bright eyed and bushy tailed. I remember that I never used to get hangovers until I turned 30. Damn them. I say my goodbyes hugging them each in turn as they head off to prepare for their beach party and get ready for my flight. Next stop Kunming – the capital of Yunnan province.

Kung Fu Fighting Part 5

 

Monday comes bright and early and Chef's porridge is beginning to seem a bit like part of a Chinese torture endurance test. It's complemented by the fact I am finally reading 1984 for the first time. Somehow the prison - esque food, the boot camp regime, the hierarchy of the school along with the sheer fear and dread I greet each day with have all run into one and the book seeps into my daily concsiousness for life at the school. 

Feix and Camille have rejected the porridge since day 2 and come to breakfast with apples and chocolate bars: 

"Vive la resistance!" grins Felix. 

They have the right idea. This week Scott is taking the morning circuits (out of everyone he is the very worst.) This is because he is so super fit he has to make them challenging for himself. Great. 

It starts with 35 press ups on the gravel of the basket ballcourt. Followed by star jumps, spotted dogs, then laps of the school culminating in bear crawling down four flights of stone steps. Great. I manage three but my lungs are heaving in my chest and my arms are shaking. Scott says I don't have to do the fourt set. It seems being a woman, old and ony here for a month they can go a bit easy on you.

 

Lunch is truly grotesque out of all Chef's obnoxious concotions – this – jacket potato and coleslaw made with chopped lettuce, onion and salad cream is the very worst. It actually makes me feel physically sick. I just think – I am ill and still hungry when I finish this – and I'm a 37 year old woman – what about the 19 year old boys who are stuyding here for a year?


I 'm quite angry on their behalf. Its not often I feel maternal but they are still growing – I think the school (particularly a fitness school) has a moral duty ad responsibility to make sure they are getting all the nutrients they need from their meals, particularly when students have to exercise for 6 hours a day. 

Wong has got us to do the mountain run (3k - half of it up hill) three times in two days. My lower half of my body is beginning to rebel. But I cannot face another school dinner so I walk into town instead with Jasmine. 

I realise in order to talk to her I need to constantly have my head turned in her direction at 90 degrees so she can lip read. Its funny the things you take for granted. The Chinese are very heavy handed on the old horn. All vehicles love hooting a hundred times just to let you know they are there but sometimes she can't feel the vibration in the road of something coming so you have to pull her to one side. As twilight falls the fields on either side are wet and full with the sounds of frogs croaking. We sit down outside a shop and the owner comes out with some dinner she's about to eat with her husband. She offers it to me and after the potato debacle I take it gratefully – its sticky rice and chicken with peanutes wrapped in pandan leaves. Its perfect street food and its free! 

I then stock up on my alternative diet to chef's abominations – tropicana fruit drink, milk tea - a cold creamy honey flavoured drink – and some very insubstantial dry walnut biscuits. It's ridiculous but because we aren't getting any diary or any fruit served at the school – my evnening diet has become filled with sugary soft drinks, chocolate and ice cream. 

In the little square in town they've erected a big screen which shows Chinese women doing some kind of dance routine. The local ladies and children in the square follow the routine. Lots of the students - drunk or just happy on their way back to the school like to take part. 



As we walk back the sky darkens and it begins to thunder. When the lightning flashes in the sky Jasmine lets out a little scream – there is no rain and because she hasn't heard the thunder the lightning has scared her. Its dark and the sky is heavy with rain. She can't see my lips so I couldn't tell her a storm is coming.