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

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Chapter 23: NORTH TO DALI: Back On The Buses.

I was wise not to try cycling from Xisuanbanna to Dali. I would never have made it. Once on the bus, I discovered the main mad was nothing hut a dirt track cut into hundreds of miles of hills, towering up to 9,000 feet high. The landscape was dusty and barren, except for dried-out rice terraces extending up and down the valleys as far as the eye could see. Villages were few and far between, just a few peasant shacks, and the inhabitants looked drab and poor. The bus journey took three days. On the first day the road followed a polluted tributary of the Mekong, north from the wooden Dai villages, up into the interior of Yunnan where the mud brick dwellings gradually assumed the classical Chinese upturned eaves.

After two days, I changed buses at a nowhere town called Lincang. I knew I was back in Han Chinese territory because of the chorus of 'allos' and 'laowais' that greeted me when I stepped off the bus. No more delicate Dai girls in colourful sarongs: here the young Chinese women waddled round in plain white shirts and black .stretch jodhpurs, carrying their bowl and chopsticks, and spitting unselfconsciously. The breeze-block shells of Lincang market were dominated by Indian-looking Burmese. The older ones spoke 'jolly good' English, the younger men spoke only Mandarin. They were selling rubbishy plastic trinkets that the Chinese didn't want.

'Ha! The Burmese are so poor,' sneered a restaurant owner later that night. "Their money is worth only a tenth of ours: ten kyats for one renminbi.' This was how many Chinese judged a nation's wealth: by its exchange rate. Britain was wealthier than China because there were ten rmb to the pound, I wondered how they figured out the numerous Japanese yen or the Indonesian rupiyah.

By the third day I was getting sick of Chinese buses. Our progress was tortuous, ascending to tremendous heights, only to fall back into yet another barren valley. The narrow mountain road was littered with the scrunched-up remnants of head-on collisions, and we kept stopping to refill the water tank on the roof.

My boredom was lifted temporarily by a fight that broke out between a middle-aged couple sat in front of me. The wife was teasing her husband with a packet of biscuits that she didn't want him to eat. When he grabbed for them, she suddenly threw them out of the window. There was a confused pause and then he slapped and thumped her round the face, after which the wife quickly retaliated, giving as good as she got. I sat, taken aback by this sudden fracas, until it was broken up by their son-in-law. The couple reverted to inscrutable silence, as if nothing had happened. No-one else on the bus had batted an eyelid. The peasant sat beside me dozed off as we jolted up and down the hills. His head gradually lolled over, onto my shoulder and sometimes into my lap. At this point he would usually wake up, sit up straight and start the whole nodding off process all over again. I was g]ad when we reached Dali.

Dali was cool. Sandwiched between the Cangshan mountain range and Lake Erhai, it had a briskness that forced me to wear long trousers and a jersey for the first time since Kunming. The old stone streets were full of westerners dawdling round the cafes and batik shops, planning tours to Shapin minorities market and buying sleeper bus tickets to Kunming. The local Bai people were inured to the novelties of foreigners, and there was a cynical, tired atmosphere to the place.

There were the same western faces I had seen in Jinghong, all going the same way after Dali: up to Lijiang. I hung around for a day, scoffing Dali pizza, drinking Yunnan coffee and listening to the rumours: The Chinese were building a cable car up the mountain behind Dali: the Thais were going to develop Lijiang's Jade Dragon Snow Mountain into a ski resort, complete with an ski lift; there had been huge riots in Tibet, hundreds killed; Deng Xiaoping was dead but the Chinese authorities were keeping it hushed up. There was no real news at all.

At the Dali Guesthouse the next morning, I woke up to the sound of erhu music and hoiking: the great Chinese combination of traditional and disgusting. At 6.30am the Chinese guests were already up and about, slamming doors, clanking their washbowls and shouting to each other. I wanted to go out and say 'Shh!', but that was the noise Chinese parents made to their infants when they wanted them to pee. As I ate banana and yoghurt muesli for breakfast at Marlee's Cafe. I mulled over some of the looming questions about my proposed walk from Lijiang to Muli: How much food .should I take? Where would I stay each night? Should I take a sleeping bag? The nearer I got. the more difficult things looked. And less romantic.

Pinned to the wall of the nearby Yunnan Cafe was an old map of the region, showing a road to Konkaling (Gongling). It had taken Joseph Rock three weeks by mule train to get to Konkaling from Lijiang. Now I could probably take a bus and be there in three days: not quite the same challenge. The bus to Lijiang was overloaded with westerners and their bulky backpacks. A group of Swedes tried to tug some reluctant locals out of the allocated seats, while a German directed the stacking of all the backpacks in a wobbly pyramid behind the driver. 'Are you staying at the Number One or Number Three Guesthouse in Lijiang?' an Israeli asked me, as he thumbed through his guidebook. I didn't know. The scenery en route reminded me of New Zealand: moorland hills, grazing sheep and clear streams. We zig-zagged up on to the Lijiang plateau to see the dominating Jade Dragon mountain come into view. Now we were in the land of the Nakhi.

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