Little did I know that one of the derogatory playground terms of my youth was actually a province in China. Yunnan, 360 days in…
Full to bursting with our last bowl of phó we crossed the Red River and made our way from Lao Chi, Vietnam and into Hekou: China! Any worries we had of a full body search from the border forces were put at ease as a guard made small talk to us in the immigration queue; or was this just a case of playing the good cop role? Not at all, and within ten minutes we were through, only having to retrieve the washing powder from my bag to demonstrate I was not a drugs mule. The difference was striking as we stepped onto even Chinese pavements, unobstructed with motorbikes and with waste bins placed at regular intervals.
Our first and rather mundane task was to walk to a guesthouse, typically a simple case of following Google maps. However, we were now inside the Great Firewall of China, where Google products cannot cross. So instead we followed our noses, tested the water and our Mandarin in a few hotels before stumbling across the 1982 hostel, far more modern than it’s name would suggest! By this time, with China an hour ahead it was lunch, we found a place with pictures on the walls and were eating delicious steamed dumplings in no time and under the constant watch of two small children (communist party members in the making!). A few bananas caught our eye as we passed a fruit stall, we signalled for four (which is much more different than you may think), and for whatever reason, these bananas were free! China was growing on me quickly!We passed the rest of the day in Hekou watching commodities being loaded onto rickshaws and walked to Vietnam, practicing our Chinese with a bunch of schoolgirls, walking along the banks of the red river listening to street side karaoke (we had no option on that one) and posing as property investors at a luxury tower block sales room. We struck out early the next day making for the bus station where we were sure to find food stalls and a nine am bus; no on both counts. But after red bean soup out of a can we were rounded up by our bus driver and just before ten were on our way to Yuanyang, rice terrace country!
The only trouble with getting a bus to Yuanyang is that it’s like asking for a bus to the Lake District. Chances are, you’ll get dropped off at Kendal, which although nice enough is nowhere near any of the good stuff; so an extra hour on a bus uphill then a twenty minute taxi ride and we were in the heart of it, and it was spectacular! We have witnessed many good rice terraces: the amphitheatre of Batad, the spidersweb of Cancar and the misty views across Sapa, but they are all dwarfed in comparison.
Yuanyang is almost certainly the best example of a UNESCO world heritage site that we have been to on our travels. The none too cheap fee of 100 RMB (which our taxi driver offered us the chance to avoid if we paid him double the fare!) has been put to good use around the villages, connecting them all with 120 kilometres of cobbled brick roads, ensuring that all buildings conform to the same colour scheme and authentic stone materials, and laying down trails to help tourists make their way through the terraces; it all seemed well thought through. As for the terraces themselves, they are dated to the Ming dynasty and have been cultivated over a few thousand years. For those of you, like me, that wonder why the paddies are full of water, our guesthouse owner, Richard can explain; the soil is heavy clay, if left to dry out, it hardens (making it hard to plough) and cracks (making them leak), so they are kept full of water all year round!
The multi-vehicled descent from the highland terraces to the hot plains during which we encountered our first internal rear view mirror with live video feed of the road ahead, music player and email stream – but no ‘rear view’ brought us to a bus ride away from our next destination and we duly took our seats on the back row. I had been looking forward to such a commanding position as it gave me range over eight seats from which to request the occupants follow the no smoking sign. Within ten minutes my opportunity arose front left, I lean in and placed me hand on the man’s right shoulder. He turned, I smiled, pointed at the sign, his fag and determinedly said bu yao. The next few moments he expressed surprise, I expressed my thoughts, and the man next to me said, “it’s ok to smoke in China”, and we left it at that, he continued smoking as I knew he would (though possibly not as often as he may have done on our four hour ride) and I was happy that I’d made a stand. In fact, the smoking issue (well, it’s an issue to me if not the Chinese populous) is not as bad as I feared it would be. We are currently three hours into a train ride and although many of the men smoke, they do so out of the carridge area where there is reasonable ventilation and the smell is only faint and we have only once had a room that smelt of cigarettes, though that was still unpleasant each time we returned to it.
And so our bus arrived in Jianshui, a small town but with a big history as the centre of Confusionism, though the main temple was both overpriced and underwhelming. Far more attractive was the 17 arch bridge, the city gates and the well healed streets through town, all of which were free to admire. This was also the scene of our first completely non English speaking hotel, which was an overcomplicated affair. After pointing at the room rate that was acceptable to us, having been shown the room and presented the lady with our passports and money, we were unable somehow to check in. After a few attempts at repeating the same sentence to us, she dashed off next door and brought back the receptionist of another hotel (in fact, the hostel we had been looking for). It turned out the lady was most probably a cleaner and didn’t know how to check us in, somethings you just can’t reckon on! This was our first go at using the much hailed maps.me as a Google replacement having been told by many a traveller how smitten they were with it. As you can probably guess by the way I have brought up the subject, I am less than convinced! There are no user reviews of the hotels or attractions that it marks (like on Google maps), the road our hotel was on was simply missing and on the day we left Jianshui it took us to a train station that was non existent (it claims to use Google maps, and without being able to compare them directly, I can’t say that Google would not have shown the derelict station, but a user review would probably have prevented us from going there). Anyway, we’re now four hours into that train ride and the slow accumulation of smoke is starting to irritate my eyes. China, it’s been a decent start!