War may only be a shot away, but everything else is a long bus ride or two…368 days in.
You certainly get the feeling that you’re under close supervision in China. To catch the bus to the Stone Forest we first had to buy our ticket from the counter, passports handed over to customise the receipt. We then walk to the start of the barrier to have our tickets validated. Proceeded down the line to the X-ray scanner and pat down. Three guards then aided our way up the escalator before another ticket check, two metres before our final ticket check, and we were on the bus. A bus, not an aeroplane. And there’s hundreds of buses with thousands of passengers being held in queues whilst all this checking goes on, no wonder they indulge in a bit of argie bargie! The stone forest itself was a attraction of two parts. An unusual name until you arrive and see it, it is indeed like a forest of rocks; Karst ones of course! Twenty metre pillars of limestone rising above the tree line and casting shadows for over a kilometre in every direction. But in China, such a view comes at a cost, £20 per person. Now there ain’t many stones that I’d pay to see, and just like the originals, these ones draw a big noisy crowd paying over the odds for the privilege. Walking through the theme park style entrance gates and the immaculately manicured lawns with baby Karst pillars we arrived at the marvels, along with every other day tripper and a hoard of ladies cloaking anyone unwitting enough to refuse their offer of a traditional outfit to make the perfect photo. It was a commotion of selfie sticks and it was an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. I was a muddled bag of emotions. How could they take such a unique natural phenomenon and tame it with paths and gardens lifted from the likes of Capability Brown? And therein was my first feeling of a contradiction, was not England once an untamed land? And how else can they manage the desire of two million visitors a year without building toilets and view points. We had to escape, and amazingly within less than a few hundred metres we found ourselves in the company of monoliths and birds alone, the change was as dramatic as the scenery.Three hours of peaceful meanderings and we were ready to head back, and waiting at stop 4 for the shuttle bus (that we had paid an additional £2.50 for), we sat down by some local tourists. Twenty minutes passed when the Chinese couple spoke with the four park police who had been sat smoking on the opposite side of the road to us all the time. After the brief discussion the pair walked off, suspicious as Helen’s former boss would say. Yet by now we had the company of two Europeans and so chatted for a further ten minutes, when a second group spoke with the guards and moved off on foot. That was enough and so we engaged the guards and got the notion that the bus is not coming, despite there being a few hundred in the compound at the entrance. I was full of rage, what on earth did the stone police think we were doing sat at a bus stop? Why did the Chinese couple not think to usher us on! And this came just after one of the Europeans was saying how helpful the Chinese are. We had been told just the same earlier in Kunming by another traveller when telling us about the cities free bikes, ‘just stop a local and they will use the app to unlock them for you’. I did, five different times, and they didn’t, even one who worked for the free bike company (though quite why free bikes need locks makes me think big brother wants to know something that’s worth more than a bike). It’s not that I find the Chinese unfriendly, but helpful when they are not engaged in providing a service for which you are paying for (the restaurant owner or hotel receptionist) then that’s different; perhaps it says more about the lives of the Russian and the German that dispensed the sentiment. Kunming, the city of eternal spring, was a pleasant province capital. The population of 3.6 million enjoy a clean modern lifestyle full of New Balance franchises and pet grooming shops for myriad poodles being tugged around on diamanté leads. It would be a thoroughly nice place to live. But as a tourist, especially ones on a budget, it’s a bit bland. The museums have moved a long way out of town, the parks are rather small and it could be any city anywhere. Add to that our smoke fragranced room and squat toilet immediately below the shower head and our three days there was plenty. Our check in experience once more highlighted the bizarre treatment you get as a foreigner. We had a booking, and I presented the receptionist with my mobile, but rather than punch in our passport details, the next twenty minutes were spent with her typing into her awful translation app (to be fair, they are all pretty poor) repeating the details of my booking in as many combinations as possible. I even understood that we had to pay a room key deposit the first time she said (well, Helen did), hence I handed over 200 RMB more straight away. We’ve stayed at plenty of places in Southeast Asia where English is little spoken, but nowhere has made such a meal of communication than China. For such a rapidly developing country to not furnish your citizens with a few fundamentals of the main spoken language of international business is almost like you don’t want them to independently flourish in the world.
We had obviously made a faux pas on the provisions we took with us for the six hour train ride to Dali. Everywhere you looked commuters young and old were tucking in to pot noodles, and massive sized ones to boot. Each carriage comes equipped with it’s own hot water dispenser for you to prepare your feast. But the thing that stood out for me was the mini fork that comes inside the packet. We’re in China. I have now eaten 30 meals here and not once have I been provided with a fork. The noodle packs are all made in China, so who decided that a fork was suitable to eat these noodles with? As children grow up eating packet noodles with a fork, twisting the noodles around the prongs, will they not think, this is easier than chopsticks? Is this to be the end of one of the most distinctive emblems of Asian culture, dispatched by the ready meal…?
Two thousand metres high and on the edge of China’s third largest lake, Dali is a popular destination for the Chinese. After our scrum for the bus and long trudge down town to find cheap accommodations to match our budget, we had time for a quick mozie and dinner. For the home grown tourist, it would appear that holidays are all about spending more money than you would normally on everyday items and I was appalled to be wafted away when told two bananas were going to set me back 58 pence; for that price I want them sliced, fried in batter and dripping with chocolate sauce! To evade the touts selling selfie sticks (how can there possibly be people in China still in need of a selfie stick?) we hired an e-bike and dynamoed out of town, but not just any e-bike, I went for the upgrade, for Queen and Country! Many detours, some self imposed, many roadwork enforced, later, we arrived at a Benzhu temple. It was nothing special, in fact, it was rather run down, but as we sat on it’s steps, exchanging waves with the ladies working the fields alongside us, we looked over a landscape of well constructed homes, agricultural land and power lines. The rural life looks hard, everything is done by hand, and the rewards presumably low in return, but there are no shacks, the homes are well built and the streets well maintained (though having used them, I can’t say the same for the public toilets), maybe state welfare for the rural community works here; close to the tourist centre? But why is everything still done by had? We are far from the rice terraces, here the land is flat for some 400 square kilometres. A few tractors and combined harvesters could free the enslaved lives of the old ladies, bent double. People are naturally lazy, or rather, they seek the simplest solution to labour, from the loom to the computer, so what prevents a few entrepreneurial farmers buying more land and reaping the cash?Our second day in Dali, and after a hill run 650 metres up the side of mount Malong that tops out at 4122 masl (it was a rather ambitious summit attempt) we decided to embrace the ancient city and it’s overpriced offerings. Fortunately, walking along the ramparts watching the engaged couples having their prenup photos directed by a team of photographers and roadies was free! If we thought Dali was touristy (and everyone does) then it was merely a prelude to what we would find in the next city, Lijiang. However, to wonder around this ancient city incurs a £9 fee, needless to say we went after the ticket booths closed, though not that we had much chance to get in during daylight as yet another hotel check in displayed ineptitude of significant effort. This time we had seen the room, agreed the price and been given the key. I had been sent across the road to another hotel who used their translator app and after five minutes of procrastination used it to ask if I liked the room; we were in it weren’t we! I went back to our room only to have a boy knock on the door with a translation on his phone that read “we can’t except your papers”. Could they not have decided that 45 minutes earlier? Lijiang is a maze of smooth stone pavements with yawning chasms of water courses beckoning the unobservant pedestrian or diligent amateur photographer as they try to arrange their muse. At night the labyrinth is a noisy hustle of vendors purveying silverware, leather goods and food, all looking spectacular and commanding a price tag to match. In the middle of this the scene changes to bars and clubs, each with a live performance belting out a tune, some rather somber, others with pulsating lights and dance routines; yet all still in ye olde worlde wood and stone buildings. It was York meets New York, Chinese style, and still there was room for quiet alleys and lanes where where the rapidly expanding ancient city outwardly sprawled exactly the same shops undisturbed from eager punters. Clearly the two ancient towns of Dali and Lijiang are little more than purpose restored shopping arcades with only a few walls being anything like genuine, but they certainly know what their customers want and have given it to them by the bamboo basket load.