This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Chapter 6: Dali - the conquest of the Cangshan

Undaunted by the failure of my first attempt to knock off the peaks of the Cangshan mountains, I succeeded by cheating. I got together with a group of other backpackers and hired a tractor to take us most of the way to the top.

I made sure I was prepared this time, by spending most of the intervening day lazing around outside Jim’s Peace Café, soaking up the sun and partaking of beer, chips and whatever other western indulgences I fancied. I met some Brits, a Jewish Mexican guy, a Swede and two Germans who also expressed interest in taking a trip up to the top of the mountains the next day.

Leaving Jim to make the arrangements, we hired bikes and freewheeled down the lanes out of Dali to see Erhai Lake.

It was a lovely cool and clear day. Away from the town, the scenery around the lake was almost biblical – a couple of traditional sailing boats drifting around on the mirror-like surface of the lake, with the mountain backdrop . In the surrounding fields the Bai peasants laboured away at ploughing and planting crops by hand, while we decadent westerners sat around drinking Coke. The houses were decrepit and the locals had spread rice and grain out on the road to dry it out.

Early the next morning we all assembled in the cold street outside Jim’s café and he marshalled us past a young PLA soldier stood as if guarding the city gate, gripping an AK47 like he meant business. The tractor-bus took us up an increasingly rough switchback dirt track, never out of second gear for the whole hour it took. I was terrified of the sheer drops and wild exposure on each of the hairpin bends, but managed to control my panic until we reached the end of the track, more than half way up the mountainside, and seemingly about the same level as I’d reached by the tough all day uphill slog two days previously.

We had nice clear weather to begin with, but some cloud soon built up around the peaks and threatened to envelope us. Soon we were climbing up through the swirling cold clouds, along a well cut track through the long brown grass, and before we knew it we were then above it all and actually looking down on a sea of cloud. The summit looked a long way off and the altitude started to kick in again, rendering me breathless after only a short period of exertion. My lungs felt they were fit to bust and I thought my heart would pop, and it took us more than two hours to get within striking distance of the summit, to a grassy plateau.

Here, where the birds sang and the sun shone it felt like I was ascending into heaven.
The last thousand feet of ascent was relatively easy and before we knew it we had reached the “TV station” – a concrete blockhouse festooned with aerials and TV satellite signal receivers.

Dali Yunnan, climbing the Cangshan peaks, 1991

We plonked ourselves down on the leeward, sheltered side of the building to have lunch and a drink. A Chinese workman dressed in the usual blue Mao suit came out of a door and glanced at us with a blank expression, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary for their remote perch to have visitors, let alone foreign ones. He emptied a bin of rubbish down the slope and went back inside without saying anything. Another worker later re-emerged bearing a thermos flask of hot water, from which we filled our mugs and bottles, and I was able to make a cup of Earl Grey from a few teabags that I had brought along.

The views were absolutely breathtaking on all sides, looking down on the pine forests as stretching down the ridgelines until they disappeared into the clouds. To the north and south, dark razorback ridges of rock snaked menacingly towards other peaks in the Cangshan range. And in the distance, the snow peaks of the Jade Dragon mountain range near Lijiang were visible. And yet immediately below us, Dali was obscured by cloud.
After posing for a few pictures, we split up.

The Germans headed back down to the track, while the rest of us decided to explore a little further along the ridge, to the south, where there appeared to be a slightly higher peak about half a mile away.

The path petered out and we soon found ourselves scrambling up a steep hillside covered in knee high scrub until we cam out on to a narrow platform of rock that formed the summit. We were rewarded by spellbinding views down into a series of sheer gullies and gorges that dropped off to the west. I felt giddy and lacked the courage to even stand up on such an exposed spot. Instead, I sat and rebuilt a small stone cairn that previous visitors had piled up.

Dali Yunnan, climbing the Cangshan peaks, 1990

We reluctantly left the summit and headed down towards a small tarn on a plateau, where we rejoined a well –formed track. From there it was another knee-jarring descent, back down into the clouds and towards the tree line, where we crossed paths with a party of local workmen who were busy hacking away to widen the overgrown track. No sigmnn of the missing two porters, they told us.

Cangshan peaks, 苍山, Dali, Yunnan, 1990

From there is was a long and leg torturing descent for more than an hour, over now familiar territory back down to the temple. We paused for a very refreshing cup of strong and bitter green tea before continuing, almost limping back down into Dali and a peak conquering victory drinking session at Jim’s Peace Café.
After the initial ‘mission accomplished’ euphoria, the rest of the evening was a dull anticlimax.

Climbing the Cangshan, Dali, Yunnan, China, 1990

The rest of my brief China trip was also something of an anticlimax. This was partly because I was now back-tracking through the same places: Kunming, Guilin and Wuzhou, back towards Hong Kong, with the consequent feeling that my trip had past its high tide mark and there were no more new places to see. On later trips I was to find this a common feeling – that once my goals had been achieved I soon lost interest and enthusiasm for China travel and just wanted to move on. Once I had mentally set my mind on being in the next place, my patience with the minor irritations of Chinese life quickly ran out.

The things that had seemed novel or funny in the first few days and weeks of travel were now often just a reminder of what an alien environment I was in. I soon got tired of the long list of annoying ‘S’s’ that marked China out as a world apart: the spitting and staring, the shoving and shouting, the slurping of tea and the incessant smoking.

When the bus stopped on some rural road for a toilet break the male Chinese male passengers would adopt a peasant squat by the roadside and eye me impassively as they puffed on their cigarettes. They dressed in cheap black and grey suits that still had a big label sewn onto the sleeve, as if fresh from a bespoke tailor. They would hoick up a throatful of phlegm and spit without taking their eyes off me – was this a calculated insult? I couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other as they stared and snickered at me, except for the constantly recurring word ‘laowai’ – foreigner.
Sometimes I felt like I was a character in Planet of the Apes - a weak human who had fallen into a new post-apocalyptic world populated by beings who were both smarter and yet more callous than myself.

And yet at other times the Chinese people I met were touchingly open and generous. Sat on the back of the bus wedged between a bunch of teenage kids who were already hardened manual workers judging by the dirt on their suits, I was prodded into sharing their snacks of monkey nuts and mandarin oranges. They spoke no English and I spoke no Chinese, but I understood their gestures when they flicked through my paperback book and gawped at the English words and gave me the thumbs up sign. “Zhen hao!” (‘Very good!’)

I left China via Hong Kong in November 1990. A sign of how cut off China was: it was only when I arrived at the Tsim Sha Tsui ferry terminal in Hong Kong and bought a newspapers that I learned that Margaret Thatcher was no longer the British Prime Minister. I had missed the whole changeover while I was in the China news blackout.

From Hong Kong I flew to Perth in Australia and did the whole backpacker tour of the big continent, up to Darwin and through the red centre to see Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. But even though I saw some amazing sights, I felt unsettled and unsatisfied with Australia. I didn't realise it then, but I had caught the 'China bug'. I wanted to see more of this amazingly different country and I missed the feeling of adventure that comes with being on the road in China. I was no longer the centre of atention, no longer the big tall guy in a crowd. In fact I was now the weedy pale European guy compared to the big bronzed Aussies.

I moved on to New Zealand, where I found a job as a journalist and settled down for a while, indulging my love of the outdoors with a lot of tramping and mountaineering.

I was to spend the next four years in New Zealand ... getting married to a girl from China (that's another story), teaching myself some Chinese and slowly building up a curiousity about Joseph Rock and the places he visited. It would be 1994 before I returned to China to see for myself ...


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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.