Conical hats and stampeding motorbikes.

After a week or so in the quiet and more tranquil northern part of Vietnam, we found ourselves suddenly being thrust into the buzzing and very loud capital of Hanoi. What a contrast! We arrived at the train station rather early, 5.30am to be exact. We hung around the station for a while trying to get our bearings, as well as deciding what to do. We knew that looking for a place to stay this early would be a waste of time, so we decided to get ourselves to the Old Quarter, and hang around in a cafe over a slow breakfast. At least that way, by the time we started looking for a place to stay, some others might be checking out, thus giving us the opportunity to check in.

It’s in your face and it’s very full on! This is how I would describe Hanoi! It’s loud, it’s buzzing, there are motorbikes and bicycles everywhere, and to a lesser degree cars, and the incessant honking (emanating from anything that moves) is simply part of the backdrop. Get used to it or get out! No sooner had we stepped out of the train station than we were being asked “Where you from? Where you go”, by a multitude of xe om and cyclo drivers; the former is a motorbike that carries one passenger (xe means motorbike, and om means hug) and the latter a bicycle and carriage type number. We hurled a few “no thanks”, and tried to scuttle away, but it was obviously falling on deaf ears as they were sticking around like the proverbial flies on faeces! Glare at them? Smile? Run? At this point, we had not quite mastered what we believed to be the best option, but “no” (said firmly, and said about five times seemed to help loosen their grip).
We tried to navigate our the Hanoi map in our Lonely Planet guide (sorry guys, I don’t know what your cartographers are on sometimes!), which in combination with asking questions that we didn’t understand the answers to, made it a rather difficult task to get into the centre of town. Having heard that Hanoi was Vietnam’s “scam capital” however, ripped-off Rita was not about to become my middle name! A few eyeball rolls, a few more sighs, and we were off! What an experience! Yes, there were more motorbikes and cycles than cars, and they were everywhere! Crossing the road! Ah yes – don’t look doubtful…just walk across. Believe me, somehow they get around you without creaming you! I was a bit skeptical of this at first, but we put it to the test, and it actually worked. Traffic lights. What are they? Oh, they are those three toned things that give the streets a bit of colour, right?

We actually ended up staying in Hanoi for almost two weeks. There were a few reasons. Primarily we had to organise an extension for our visa (which would expire on the 16th of October), secondly we also wanted to visit Halong Bay (a Vietnamese must-do), and finally and most importantly because we ended up at a brilliant hostel, which was run by some of the most delightful people we have met on our entire journey, where we also met some fantastic new friends. We did make it into the centre on the morning we arrived without being scammed, but we realised some after having breakfast in some random cafe (which proved to be excellent!), that the hunt for a place to sleep was not going to come easy!

Lots of people were offering rooms and prices, which didn’t match; ie. that $6.00 room you were told about suddenly became $12.00 when you were shown. I was tired (literally) and my tongue definitely got the better of me as I gave a few people a verbal serve! When I went back to one of the places and told the woman that she needed to be honest with people, she told me that I was crazy! Geez, sticks and stones may break my bones! My humble reply was that I would rather be nuts than a liar! She wanted me out, but to be honest, I was quite happy with my captive audience of several tourists! My point had been made, and so yes, I was ready to exit! I can see that confrontation isn’t their strong point here!

We ended up at Thu Giang Guesthouse, which was an absolute breath of fresh air. Very simple, very basic and very clean it was equipped with the most formidable hosts and workers we had come across in our entire trip, categorically! I must have been walking past, fuming, when the gorgeous Ly, asked us to step inside and gave us a cup of tea, on the house, and no strings attached. She told us that there were no rooms ready at that minute (it was now around 10.30am), and that we could either hang around and wait and take a look, or we could go and look at some other places she could recommend. As we wished, she politely said. What, no push or hard sell? In a nutshell, we ended up sitting down, and chatting to Hien and Ly for hours….and yes, we did stay in the hostel for our entire duration in Hanoi!
Thu Giang Guesthouse is owned by the affable Co (mum), Tao (dad), and their daughter Giang (after which the guesthouse is named). Ly and Hien work there, but they are so much more than workers. These people work as a family! These people care! These people look after you! These people are sincere, and above all these people are honest! Ca would even go and do our shopping for us as she could get cheaper prices, and sometimes she would not even accept payment! It is no secret that Vietnam’s “tourist” prices are decidedly higher than the Vietnamese ones, and that you must bargain for absolutely everything. In no time at all, I was hugging and kissing these people like they were my own! Nothing was too big, too small or too difficult, and Alex and I will remember their love and sincerity for as long as we live. Oh, and they even organised a new visa for us. What more can one ask for?

The visa was obviously the first thing we had to organise, as we needed that in order to do the boat trip to Halong Bay. So our first few days in Hanoi were spent just taking it easy, catching up on e-mails, sleeping in, eating, walking around the famous old quarter (where we were also staying), and doing some touristy things too. Welcome to the place where the exotic chic of old Asia shakes hands with the modern and dynamic new one! A pumping place that is constantly swarming with motorbikes; in big streets, tiny streets, there is no escaping them! A cauldron of commerce that has your eyes gaping at every turn! Like it or lump it? This is Hanoi!

The old quarter is Hanoi’s historic heart, and where much of the action takes place. It’s the central nervous system of this pulsating city! You can get yourself some fine coffee, “bia hoi” (fresh beer, which at 2000 Dong a glass, or approximately 15 cents Australian, would leave a large chunk of men in “beer utopia” or “piss pots paradise”) and walk around the various markets whilst people watching, which is in this area is amazing. Lots of conical hats (for which the Vietnamese are famous), people squatting and smells that form part of the “TMI” (too much information) category. Lots of shops selling everything from the lacquered plates and bowls for which the country is famous for, chopsticks and silk! Yes, it is information and product overload. Again, I say, welcome to Hanoi! For a bit of inner-city respite, there’s the graceful Hoan Kiem Lake, which is only a stone throws away from the madness. A place to sit, relax, walk around or watch the locals doing a bit of exercise or tai chi around its shores. Also a great place to go running, which I did on a few occasions.

Hanoi has several museums and temples, and whilst we saw many of these temples, we picked only one museum, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which gave a fascinating insight into the lives of the Vietnamese and its diverse tribal people. There are 54 officially recognised ethnic groups in Vietnam. It included an out door museum with some hill tribe houses constructed to scale. Another day was spent wandering around, but not going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Views on this man vary greatly, but this place is the holiest of holies for many Vietnamese, and also an important place of pilgrimage, combining the secular and the spiritual. It’s a huge area of greenery, containing parks, pagodas memorials and monuments. Unfortunately, we were unable to see His Highness, as he was in Russia having a face lift! On a serious note, the mausoleum is closed for about three months of every year, as Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse goes to Russia for maintenance!

A group of us also had a fun night out watching a water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. As the name suggests, it’s a puppet show in a pool. The origins of the ancient art of water puppetry (roi nuoc) have been widely debated, but it is thought to have originated in the Red River Delta, and when the rice paddies would flood, the villagers would entertain themselves with puppets. Our entertainment consisted of brightly painted wooden puppets gliding along the water (the puppeteers are hidden behind a screen and murky water). Some of the puppets are quite large and heavy, so there is considerable skill involved. The music and singing is provided by an on site band and singers, using traditional Vietnamese instruments. The snippets presented include pastoral scenes and Vietnamese legends. We met some people who were a little ho-hum about it, but hey, it’s not meant to be a master performance of Aida! It’s a cultural window into Vietnam’s past! Taken from that angle, it could be one of the most fun “asides” you do in Vietnam.

We did a lot of hanging out with Andres from Spain, and Rama and Joyjoy from the USA. Fun and easy-going people they too were staying at Thu Giang Guesthouse. We also met, Corey from Australia here, as well as Wally from Ireland, David from the USA, Thierry from France and Celeste from Brazil! Truly an international contingent! Many a morning was spent lazing about, having one of Thu Giang’s famous coffees, whilst munching on fresh bread rolls and cheese. That got us to at least midday! Then at nighttime, there were our trips off to the beer shacks, serving beer hoi , literally on plastic chairs (that by Aussie standards wouldn’t seat anyone much older than a two year old!) on the curb outside, that would spill out onto the road. This is where Andres and I celebrated our “7oth” birthday! Sharing the same birthday, October 14th, I turned 3o and Andres 40. Oops, sorry, the other way around! Although not a beer drinker, these places are fun to hang out at and people watch. Amongst others we met in Hanoi, I also want to mention Jordan from Canada. Jordan, what a breath of fresh air to hear you voicing your sentiments with such voracity! Keep up that pace and don’t let people cut you down! The world needs people with an opinion, because it’s the voices that are heard that help shape the new world order!

No trip to Hanoi would be complete, without a trip to Halong Bay, a few hours north of Hanoi. The natural wonder that is Halong Bay is actually a bay of some 3000 or more islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. With karst and limestone peaks jutting out from every which angle, it looks like the unfinished sculpture of some mythical giant. We had been told that although extremely touristy, it was well worth doing, and furthermore trying to organise a private trip would cost much more than the hundreds that were already on offer. We indeed found this to be the case. There were cheap tours, middle of the range tours, and expensive tours; the options were limitless. The competition is quite fierce actually, and sometimes unscrupulous. You need to look around, read the fine print and make sure you are going to get what they say you are going to get! We decided to go with a middle of the range tour through our guesthouse. They say that you get what you pay for, and I would have to agree. We had a lovely two night three day trip, although the food on the boat was sometimes on the “not enough” side.

It would be an early-ish start. We would be picked up from the guesthouse at 8.00am. The idea was to leave the big backpack in the guesthouse, and bring only a smaller one with us with the essentials. It’s a good three hours or so to Halong City on the coast and north of Hanoi, which is where you actually pick up the tour from. When I saw the port, I almost passed out! It was full of boats of all different colours, styles and sizes and an international army of people. I wondered where we were all going to go? In no time at all, however, our group had made it onto a boat, and we were sailing out between the rock formations. There were a lot of boats out there, and we were so not alone! What can I say, the boat crew lacked personality and our tour guide was less than engaging, but it would take a lot to distract from the visual spectacular we were feasting our eyes on. Sitting on the top of the deck, I watched the formations roll by, and again, I felt so thankful to be alive and to be able to experience this. If “too many boats” was my biggest problem, what was actually my problem?

That afternoon we stopped to have a look inside a cave called Sung Sot Cave. It was also known as The Amazing Cave, our guide kept telling us repeatedly. Why was it called amazing? We would soon find out! It was quite a “domesticated” cave (as Andres described it) , with walkways and all, and both the stalactites as well as stalagmites were impressive. It was a huge cave actually, and quite well illuminated, although we could possibly have done without the Las Vegas style lighting, in hues of greens, reds and pinks. As we walked around and admired, we were finally steered towards the “amazing” part of the cave, a phalic looking rock lit up in shades of red and pink. Now, THAT is amazing!

We continued to enjoy the scenery as the boat made its way through all of the spectacular formations, and that night a calm spread over us as we slept on the boat. There is something about being out on the open water that is so beautiful. The second day of our three day trip was our favourite, as we had the opportunity to go kayaking amongst the rock formations. It was eerie, but in an astonishing kind of way. You have to love the fact that nobody had life jackets (nor were they offered) and that our guide could not swim. Seriously! They do not seem to have a problem with occupational health and safety here….it’s simply non-existent! They have not made it a priority at all! Although I am a strong swimmer and a life guard, I just hoped that I would not have to use my skills.

Later that afternoon, we went to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay, where we would be spending the night in a hotel. Once we had left our stuff at the appropriate hotel, and had some lunch, those of us who wanted to were taken on a two hour trek with a local guide. Although not a long walk, the incline was rather steep and the views of the island and the surrounding sea were spectacular. The views, including the craggy and asperous peaks jutting out from the jungle-clad island were intoxicating! The next day mainly constituted getting back to Hanoi. I know that we had been part of it, but I could not help but be flabbergasted by the constant stream of people waiting to get onto their boat, and thus their tour.

The idea was to leave Hanoi the day after we arrived back from Halong Bay, but needless to say, that didn’t happen. Andres was staying “another” night and Joyjoy and Rama were going to hang around. So, we took it easy, ate some more good food (thanks to Ly we found a place that made great “com chay”, or vegetarian food), and psyched ourselves up to leave. Surely, we could not spend our entire time in Hanoi, although it was starting to look like we would. Finally, after almost two weeks (including Halong Bay) we decided to move on. Our last night was spent with the Thu Giang gang, including those who worked there, as well as those who were staying there. And could there possibly be a better finale than a night of karaoke? We all had a blast, and most of us had a go in both or either language. My Vietnamese, needless to say, leaves a lot to be desired! At one point Ly, Mai (another Thu Giang worker) and myself put on a bit of a floor show, moving and gyrating to some seriously corny songs. But that’s half the fun! Always the show pony, I am ! Cannot help myself! Life is for living!

It was eventually time to move on, and I truly felt sad. These people had become my family, and this guesthouse my home. I had tears in my eyes as I hugged Tao and Ca, who even kissed me goodbye. Again tears welled up in my eyes as well as Giang’s when we hugged goodbye. And finally it was time to hug Ly goodbye; Ly my Vietnamese little sister. We hugged tightly as we said goodbye, and by this point we both had tears rolling down our cheeks. I promised her that we would meet again! This is real travel! Not temples, not ruins, not mountains, but people! When I close my eyes and think about all the brilliant places I have visited in my life, it is invariably not a temple that I recall, but a person like Ly!

Ombi

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this to everyone at Thu Giang Guesthouse. To Ha for being a brilliant “mum”. Thanks for your hugs, for being sincere and honest, for being so helpful, and for buying me tofu! To Tao (dad), for your smiles, friendliness and help. You showed us Tao that communication goes far beyond the spoken word. To Giang, for our wonderful, open conversations and of course your help. To Hien – you crazy, funny girl! Thanks for making me laugh and for always helping out. To Ly, my little Vietnamese sister. No task was too hard! You were patient and kind, and respectful, and for that you will always occupy a special place in my heart. And finally to one of the “unsung heroes”, Lien. Lien, you spoke little English, but you always had a warm smile and touch. I know that we could not converse much, but I am sure that our hearts communicated. I want you to know how much I appreciated everything you did, from the coffees you made to cleaning our room. Thank you again to each and every on of you for showing us a magical part of Vietnam and its people! You are the jewels in Vietnam’s crown!

“The guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed.” – Gordon Parks.

(Photos: 1.- The stampeding motorbikes of Hanoi. 2.- The conical hats which are a Vietnamese institution. 3.- Hanoi’s old quarter. 4.- The….umm, Vietnamese flag! 5.- Incense and dragons, inside one of Hanoi’s many temples. 6.- Ombi & (Co) Ha. 7.- Hoan Kiem Lake by night. 8.- Vietnamese dong, the country’s currency. 9.- Water Puppet Show, Hanoi. 10.- Munching on some local food in one of Hanoi’s many, tiny alley ways. L to R: Celeste, Andres, Joyjoy, Rama, Thierry and moi! 11.- Halong Bay. 12.- Halong Bay and its many visitors. 13.- Kayaking in Halong Bay. 14.- View of Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island. 15.- Sisters are doing it for themselves! L to R: Mai, Ombi & Ly. 16.- Saying goodbye to my little sister, Ly. 17.- The gang at Thu Giang, with (Co) Ha and (Thu) Tao in the centre.)

Bac Ha or by bus…..doing it Vietnamese style!

As I mentioned, walking to the border and crossing on the Chinese side was easy, and it looked like the Vietnamese side was going to be too! Wrong! Armed with our passport and Vietnamese visa, which we had obtained in Hong Kong, it was supposed to be a “stamp and walk through”. In theory! In practice, the visa had been issued for a month from the 16th September to the 16th October. We had been told that we would be granted a month from the date of entry. Wrong again! We would only be granted the days that were left from the date stamped on it. Now, I am no genius at maths, but we arrived on the 8th of October, which meant that we would have to leave Vietnam by the 16th of October. That was so not going to happen! Alex was the one to pick up this “discrepancy”, once the visa on our passport had been stamped. We could not believe it! We tried to negotiate, and tell them that there had been a mistake. Several minutes later we were discussing our plight with several others, some of whom spoke English. The bottom line is that they stuffed up in Hong Kong, and that you do not get a month from the date of entry, but rather, a month from the date that is placed on your visa. No use arguing! An error had been made, and we had to rectify it! Despite their friendliness, we were being told that they could organise an “overnight” visa for us for USD$50.00, which we knew was exorbitant. The solution? Make our way down to Hanoi and organise it ourselves!

We both took several deep, deep breaths of air, and reminded ourselves that worse things in life could happen. All we needed was a piece of paper and a bit more money to organise it! We were healthy, well and unharmed, a luxury which is not afforded to so many other citizens of the world!

We had decided on our first stop being Bac Ha, only a couple of hours away from Lao Cai, which is the first town on the Vietnamese side of the border. It’s quite amazing how a border crossing really can make so much of a difference. Within minutes, Alex and I were on the back of two motorbikes, backpacks and all, being zipped off to the local bus station. Indeed, motorbikes were zipping around everywhere. It looked and felt so very Vietnam!

The bus station looked deserted. Lunch break perhaps? We tried to “ask”, via sign language, when the next bus to Bac Ha would be, and from what we could understand, it would be in approximately an hour. After all the time we’d wasted at the border, it really did not seem to matter. The few people that were around seemed fascinated by these two foreigners, with big smiles and no Vietnamese! We managed to “chat” to a few fruit and food vendors, whilst various onlookers leered at us like we were circus acts! Having said that, now that I think of it, with our facial expressions and miming in bid to be understood, they probably weren’t too far off the mark! We felt happy, and were getting the impression that the Vietnamese are a fairly happy lot.

I am not sure where they all appeared from, but come time for the bus to leave, people started appearing from everywhere and packing on! What did I miss? It was just after 1.00pm and we were off! Not very far north east of Lao Cai, the winding roads presented some spectacular scenery. When we had done our research, it grabbed our attention, as it did not seem to be as touristy as like what most of the rest of Vietnam has (and continues to) become. We were the only foreigners on the bus, and both Alex and I saw that as a good sign. In a little under three hours we were in the centre of the very small township of Bac Ha. From the point of view of its being small, it was not long before we found ourselves a place to stay. Bac Ha is famous for its Sunday market, but being a Monday, I couldn’t see us hanging around for a week to see it. It’s also famous for a Tuesday market, which is held at a place some 35 kilometres away called Coc Ly. That sounded more doable!

Our first afternoon was spent wandering around, and doing things such as munching on potatoes and corn cooked on tiny little outdoor grills, whilst chatting to the locals. We learnt very early on, that in Vietnam you have to bargain for absolutely everything, as tourists nearly always get inflated prices. If done in a jovial manner, however, you can usually reduce the cost (almost never to the Vietnamese price), and everyone remains happy, and no-one offended! This area also has a large concentration of hill tribe people, and it was lovely to watch them come and go, in traditional dress. I much prefer this to doing what I call a “hill tribe freak show”. We found an excellent restaurant called Mimosa, run by a young Vietnamese couple, where the food was fantastic. After a month of the culinary equivalent of “Nightmare on Elm St”, Alex and I were both of the opinion that if you’re onto a good thing, stick to it! Mimosa became our faithful friend and companion for our few days in Bac Ha!

On the Tuesday we hired a couple of guys and their motorbikes to take us the 35 kilometres out to the Coc Ly market. Although not far from Bac Ha, it took us over two hours to navigate the windy, mostly muddy tracks. The feeling was exhilarating! It was us, the bikes, the drivers and nature at large! With the wind blowing through our hair, and scenery which I can only describe as spectacular beyond belief, we watched the world fly by! This was the real deal! We saw traditional wooden houses, women washing in streams, men fishing and working the land, construction under way with implements that seemed to date back to the 50’s, and children watching in amazement as we flew by. I felt overwhelmed! Overwhelmed at being alive, and able to appreciate this show, which is called life! Tears welled in my eyes, and I shed silent tears, perhaps the product of a natural high. I never, ever lose sight of the fact that I am so very, very lucky to be able to see and appreciate this wonderful world we live in.

We arrived at the tail end of the market. It was already 12.30pm, and the market supposedly finished at 1.00pm. There were very few foreigners, and it was mostly the locals wheeling and dealing. The stunning scenery was a marvellous backdrop to the many vendors, dressed in resplendent traditional clothing. This area is home to a number of hill tribes, and the traditional dress varies from tribe to tribe. On market day, one can see them in all their glory, and if you look closely you can also see how their dress varies. There are sometimes obvious, but at other times only subtle nuances that differ one tribe’s dress from the next’s. What I loved most about this market was that it was small and it was mostly by and for the locals! Always ready to seize the day, or the opportunity least, many of the vendors have cottoned on to giving out inflated prices. On the other hand, many people pay! Their philosophy no doubt is that why go the lower price if you can go the higher! With my bargaining shoes laced up tightly, I got myself a couple of traditional style silver hill tribe earrings.

Walking through the market gave us a fascinating insight, but one which also provided a tad too much information! I just don’t do chunks of unrefrigerated meat on wooden slabs close to the floor! To be more specific, in this case, a very muddy floor! And people were buying it without qualms. Over the last few weeks, Alex has slowly been turning to the vegetable and fruit family, as the meat one just doesn’t seem to cut it for him either! I just love markets! They are the heart of a nation, and show and tell you a lot about its culture. Although the market was wrapping up, but still got a pretty decent feel for it.

It was 1.30pm, and we were off again. So many things were whirring in my head, and the time seemed to pass very quickly. Before we knew it, we were back “home”, in Bac Ha. Our drivers also took us to Ban Pho, only a few kilometres away from Bac Ha. It’s a terrific little place to see how the Montagnard (mountain people) live. This area is home to the hospitable Flower H’Mong people. We jumped off the bikes and took a stroll around the small village. Being the only foreigners, we were able to appreciate the locals simply living as they live. There were a lot of “sin jows” (hellos) on our behalf, to which many happily responded.

We decided that we would visit Sapa, south-west of Lao Cai, despite the fact that it was supposed to be ultra touristy. I have never been to Vietnam before but have been told that many places have indeed become super touristy of late. I suppose that’s what they call progress! We thought we’d give it a go anyway! The trip took several hours, as first we had to make our way back to Lao Cai, and then we had to get another bus onto Sapa. Whilst the trip between Lao Cai and Sapa was pleasant enough we could not really see much, due to the really thick mist and fog. Sapa is in the Vietnamese highlands, and is supposed to be the coldest place in the country. It has been said that it is fantastic…….if you can see it! As you will read on and find out….we saw it…..just!

At an altitude of about 1600 metres, overlooking a beautiful valley, and surrounded by lofty mountains towering on all sides, Sapa in theory offers views to die for. Unfortunately, we did not manage to see these awe inspiring views, as we caught Sapa in the mist! Having said that, it was still an interesting place to be in and observe. After our arrival, and finding a place to stay, we had a bit of a walk around. Lots and lots of hill tribe people, mainly from the Hmong and Dao tribes. As my friend from Canberra, Bec (Moorby), forewarned us: “The town itself has some hard core hassling minority people pushing handicrafts and drugs to tourists”. That, sadly, just about sums it up! Whilst it was intriguing seeing the various hill tribe people in traditional dress, I was blown away not only by their brilliant command of the English language, but also at how superb they were at hassling you to the point of wearing you down. Also very sadly, there seemed to be only one solution, to ignore them! I hate doing this and it goes against the very grain of my being, but we soon found out that even a friendly smile or hi, would ensure being harassed for at least 10 minutes. Ah yes, and then there’s the drug issue…. again! YES, I’m a foreigner and NO, I don’t do drugs! I cannot stress enough how debilitating buying drugs from these people is not only to the individual, but to the community! If you are a traveller, I urge you to be responsible and not to indulge! Your choice has a profound effect on those who you buy from! Think about your lifestyle, and then think about theirs.

Later that night we found some street vendors, chose one, and sat by the roadside, whilst munching on some goodies that were being cooked over an open fire: sticky rice cooked inside bamboo, corn and sweet potato. We stayed there chatting for several hours to the lady who was cooking and her family. There were a couple of guys next to us, who were also eating and drinking a pure alcohol concoction, which they kept offering to Alex. Although it came in small glasses, it smelt lethal, and they were not taking no for an answer! After about the fourth one, Alex insisted in a friendly manner that he just could not drink anymore. I am not sure if it was a “blokesy” thing, but I was not offered any, which I had absolutely no problem with! This is what Alex and I both love so much about travelling – mixing with the locals.

The next day was not nice at all, neither to walk nor cycle, and it drizzled all day. We still could not see the supposed spectacular scenery. So, we just chilled, caught up on the internet, and sat in a cafe, whilst pushing back a few coffees. We ended up at Western run establishment, which had expensive coffee and average food with tiny portions. To be honest, we were not at all surprised, as this is the usual outcome in such places! Besides, we usually like to support local places and people.

Finally, the next day provided us with weather that was a little better, but still not marvellous, so we booked a sleeper on the train from Lao Cai to Hanoi, which was leaving at 9.00pm that night. We walked around town, and visited both the fruit market downstairs, and the clothes market upstairs. I spotted a beautiful jacket that I wanted to buy, but the prices being quoted were ridiculous, and they were not coming down! Had it been a Monday, I may have had some luck, but being a Friday, and the day before the famous Saturday market, I was in “no way Jose land”! Why sell to me for USD$10.00 when the people in mass tour groups were going to pay several times that amount tomorrow? Cest la vie, hey!

Later that afternoon we visited Cat Cat, a village some three kilometres away. The hike down was steep but impressive. We saw waterfalls, rice fields, and lots of locals in minority dress. Whilst it was pretty, it seemed a little construed. Not quite Disneyland (yet!) but a little set up for the tourists. We drew the line at an entrance fee! Although small, we got around it, by entering a back way. Please do not get me wrong, but it seems ludicrous paying to walk into a village. Imagine paying to get into Melbourne’s China Town! This, I repeat, is not about “come visit the freaks”, it is about experiencing the culture! We can help give to their community in other ways, such as buying goods, food and drinks. What infuriates me is that the “entrance fee” does not go to the locals, but to the government, who sadly sees these people as a commodity and a way to make money. Whilst on this walk we met Mitta from Indonesia and her young son Kenzie. What an amazing woman! We chatted at large, and she expressed how important she felt it was for her son to have a cross-cultural education. I really admire people like this! Congratulations Mitta, and I promise that I will take you up on your offer, and come and visit you in Indonesia one day.

Later that day we caught a bus back to Lao Cai, which left us very close to the train station. Before we knew it, we were on the train, and off to Hanoi. The cabin had six beds with three bunks on each side, and we were in the middle. I know that I promised that I wouldn’t act like a princess again, but I started to scowl, and turn up my nose when I saw that the sheet on the bed was not clean! I carry a pillow case cover with me, so that went onto the pillow in a flash. The blanket hadn’t exactly been washed yesterday either! I lay down, put my head on a “clean” pillow, covered myself with the blanket (but not too close to my face, yuk!), and went to sleep. On awakening, a new adventure would no doubt be awaiting us.

Ombi

The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves” – Oscar Arias Sanchez (1941 – ).

(Photos: 1.-Crossing the border into Vietnam. 2.- On the bus, on the way to Bac Ha. 3.- Locals on a water buffalo, near Bac Ha. 4.- Hill tribe girls, Coc Ly Market. 5.- On the motorbikes, Alex behind & Ombi infront. 6.- Hill tribe elder, Coc Ly market. 7.- Wheeling & dealing, Coc Ly market. 8.- Little boy & traditional clothes drying, Ban Pho, near Bac Ha. 9.- The misty hills around Sapa. 10.- Black Hmong elder, Sapa. 11.- The scantily clad locals, on the walk between Sapa & Cat Cat village. 12.- Man at work, Cat Cat village, near Sapa. 13.- Woman at work, ustairs clothes market, Sapa.)

Almost touching Tibet.

So close, yet so far! In Shangri-la (or Zhongdian, as it is more commonly known to the Chinese), I felt that I could smell, hear and almost touch Tibet! Another four hours north from Lijiang, Shangri-la had a totally different feel to it than the rest of China. The faces were different, the architecture different, and even the signs now included being written in Tibetan, as well as Chinese (in addition to the occasional English). I closed my eyes and conjured up every image of Tibet that I could. Coupled with what I was seeing, feeling and breathing, it really was the very closest I would get to the magical land, which now so very close, was yet so very far! Unfortunately, despite the fact that Tibet is a “part of China” one still needs to get a “special permit” to go there. Politics is a dirty word, and in respect to Tibet it has been unscrupulously filthy! It would be worth your while to do a little background reading here on Tibet.

Does the word Shangri-la sound familiar or ring a bell? It is the name of a fictional place described in the 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon”, by the British author, James Hilton. It was a place used to describe an earthly paradise, a Himalayan utopia. This may just be the place! The town is indeed both known and recognised by both names. It only takes a few days of lazing and walking about in this tranquil place in order for one to realise that there really is something very special and uplifting about it. It is a feeling, a vibe, an essence, and it is indescribably magical!

We were fortunate to end up in a cosy place called Harmony Guesthouse. The common area, which included a restaurant, came complete with an open fireplace (it really was quite cold at night in this neck of the woods), where we spent many a night indulging in a magnificent buffet dinner and copious cups of tea. The owner, Joey, did not speak much English, but he sure made up for it with his hospitality and warm personality. I must add that this place afforded us some of China’s best food, which I have already mentioned has generally totally failed to excite us! We met a great girl from Spain there, called Mariona, who often joined us for our nighttime extravaganzas.

Effectively, Shangri-la is a Tibetan town. Its Tibetan name is Gyeltang, or Gyalthang, and people mainly come here to visit its famous monastery, as well as to get a taste of Tibet if they cannot make it to the real thing. In this case, we were no exception! Ganden Sumtseling Gompa is a 300 year old Tibetan monastery complex with around 300 monks. It is huge and the area surrounding it physically spectacular. Perched up on a hill, several kilometres from the city centre, the view from the top is gorgeous. Add tinkling bells and fluttering prayer flags; it really felt like I would expect Tibet to feel like. Despite the busloads of tourists, there was something so very peaceful about this place. We took several hours, walking in, out and around the several temples and monks’ quarters. We later took a scenic route back to the centre, passing several open fields, people working, children playing, and animals in the fields.

Closer to town, we did several other walks, which took us through other monasteries and pagodas, again with advantageous viewpoints. We also walked around the countryside, and saw several people at work in the fields. As most tourists do not venture out of the immediate centre, we were quite a novelty amongst the workers. It’s always wonderful to see people as they really live their lives, outside of the tourist hustle and bustle.

We checked out the weather forecast, and as far as doing the trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge went , it was (finally!) looking good. Located roughly halfway between Lijiang and Shangri-la, it would be our next destination. We had not hiked in a while, so we were really looking forward to it. The starting point for the walk was from Qiaotou. Although only a couple of hours away, it was almost 2.00pm by the time we got ourselves organised, onto a bus, and there. It’s quite a small town, and its only claim to fame , really, is that it’s the place from where the hike starts.

For something like a little more than one Aussie dollar each, we left the bulk of our luggage at the Gorged Tiger Cafe, run by a super helpful and friendly Australian lass called Margo. Not only did she tell us how and when to do the walk, she even told us how we could “avoid the authorities” and slip away without paying the fairly high entrance fee…..which we did! I have already mentioned that the Chinese love charging high prices to “get into places”, which often includes roads that pass through or enter villages and natural places of beauty. Armed with our small backpacks, Alex and I were away in a flash, and needless to say we did “avoid the authorities”.

Tiger Leaping Gorge covers roughly 15 kilometres of terrain, and can be done from anywhere between 1 and 4 days. We opted for 2, and wanted to make it halfway by nightfall of day 1. We were told that we’d left it a little late, and that due to the heat of mid-afternoon, perhaps we should only go a quarter of the way, whereby we should reach a guesthouse called Naxi. Hmmmmm, let’s see! I was secretly determined to make it halfway, and without a doubt, Alex knew this! I am now totally able to admit that my partner knows me better than I know myself! One hour and 10 minutes later, we arrived at Naxi Guesthouse. There was not a sliver of doubt that we would continue on!

So, continue we did, meeting both locals and other travellers along the way. The first day was mostly uphill, and whilst you do not need to be an elite athlete, a certain degree of fitness is required. Whilst travelling, I certainly have not gone running as often as I did in Australia, but the walking we do on a daily basis, has kept us both very, very, fit. I am proud to say, that we both did it effortlessly…but I would be lying if I said that we did not stop a few times to regain our breath. The gorge, Hutiao Xia in Chinese, is one of the deepest in the world and measures between 15 and 16 kilometres long. It is a dizzying 3900 metres from the torrid waters of Jinsha River (Jinsha Jiang) to the snow-capped mountaintops of Haba Shan (Haba Mountain) to the west. Needless to say, we were provided with one breathtaking spot after another; a veritable photographer’s dream come true. Alex was in his element!

So, what exactly is the explanation behind the 100-metre-wide gorge’s name? The locals, would suggest something to the tune of, “A tiger was being chased, and it leaped across the river to escape”. An explanation totally befitting the name of Tiger Leaping Gorge……. don’t you think? We finally reached halfway at around 6.00pm, and stayed in a guest house called Tea Horse. It was chock-a-block full of fellow travellers, and we all had a great night eating, drinking and chatting. Supposedly, the best was yet to come and people generally rave about the views on Day 2. We were grateful for a comfortable bed, which we felt we had totally earned!

I’m not going to say that we were up at the crack of dawn, but we got up early enough to have breakfast and be off by around 9.00am. I would have to agree with all the hype, and say that the scenery on Day 2 was indeed spectacular. Sadly, a dam is currently in the process of being built, and it has been said that in the next few years the gorge will not even exist. Damn! How sad! I feel that we are slowly chipping away and destroying our world, and the focus seems to be on today and not tomorrow! Will our children’s children ever see places such as Tiger Leaping Gorge or the Amazon? Or will they have to rely on books and photos, putting them all in the “Dinosaur league”? Only time will tell, or perhaps I should say that time IS telling! There are also “softer” options of seeing the gorge, as the Chinese are not really into hiking. Sadly, many of them do not have a very romantic view of nature. Rather they see what we would call the Great Outdoors as being frighteningly empty, unless livened up by cable cars, stone staircases, strategically placed pavilions, souvenir hawkers and noodle stands! I’ll take the option that’s not soft, thanks!

It was a beautiful, refreshing and breathtaking walk, but we knew that we would have to move on, as the expiry date on our Chinese visa was coming to a close. We made it back to Margo at The Gorged Tiger in Qiaotou, via mini-bus, which took around 45 minutes on a narrow, mountain-hugging road that I imagine would be horrendous in rainy weather. A couple of showers later (that’s us, not the gorge!), and we were waving goodbye to and thanking Margo, as we hopped on to another mini-bus, this time back to Lijiang from where we would organise a bus to Kunming later that night, and then make our way towards the Vietnamese border.

A couple of hours later we were in Lijiang, where we decided on an overnight sleeper bus to Kunming. Overnight means arriving at a reasonable hour like 6.00am, right? Wrong! I had never been on a sleeper bus before, whereby you lie down in a totally horizontal position. I assumed (oh, woe to those of us who assume!) that it would be reasonably comfortable. Well, for a smaller Chinese person, or a waif-like foreigner, perhaps. But, for two normal size foreigners, it was about getting into the foetal position. I tried to hit memory recall……Geez, it was only almost 40 years ago that I’d done it for 9 months! Personal space? What is that? I tried to ignore all of the “smells”, and that was not an easy task. Then there was the guy playing games on his mobile phone at midnight….with the volume right up! Alex and I seemed to be the only two who, apart from being foreigners, were also pissed off! Coincidence? Let me remind you about personal space in China……there is none!

Back to rocking up to Kunming at a “reasonable” hour. The bus pulled up just before 4.30am, which it did outside the bus station, as it was still too early to actually be open! I was suddenly trying to shake myself out of my half-asleep stupor, whilst stumbling off the bus and into darkness. OK, so where to now? At first, we did not even know that we were in front of the bus station. With our lack of Chinese, and the Chinese’s non-existent English, it took us almost 15 minutes to work out that we were standing in front of it! We somehow managed to squeeze into a side door, and sit on a table outside. The station would not be opening until 6.00am.

Luckily, we had bought a couple of cans of coffee the night before, which we guzzled down, whilst leafing through our guide book as part of a “Where to next” quest. It is here that we met Wu, a guy in his early 40s from Taiwan, who was travelling around Asia for a few months. This is really uncommon for both the Chinese as well as the Taiwanese, but as neither of us spoke each other’s language, it was hard to get the full story. Having said that, it is equally as amazing as to how much you CAN find out, with a smile, hand and body gestures, pointing to things in your guide book and some determination. In no time at all we had forged a friendship with this man, called Wu, who helped us book tickets to Yuanyang, some 4 to 5 hours south of Kunming, famous for its rice paddies. As the bus was not leaving until 10.40am, we decided to go and get some breakfast. I was able to make Wu understand that I was vegetarian…..and the search begun! We found several places, all of which included food “with only a little bit of meat”. Although I inwardly sighed, after almost a month, I have become accustomed to this. Yet again, I settled for something bland and tasteless, whilst still trying to smile, as I knew what a huge effort Wu was making to help me. Sometimes, it is important to remain humble, and eat that pie which goes by the same name.

So, off to Yuanyang we went, arriving late afternoon. The bus was bearable, whilst the road was rather nasty, making the ride a tad uncomfortable. When we arrived, and saw a town which was quite dirty with litter and whose vegetables and fruit were sold from and on the floor on the main road running through the centre of town (read, straight from the dust and bitumen to you!), we felt disheartened and lacking the desire necessary to see the rice fields. Most of the budget options did not exactly hit China’s 100 most cleanest (are you kind of getting the idea as to what accommodation was like in this town?) either, so in this case we opted for a cleaner and more expensive hotel. The Hilton, we do not need, but if it isn’t clean, we simply will not stay in it. We may choose to cut corners in other areas, but never in cleanliness. We argued that we had already seen some spectacular rice terraces in China, and that we did not have to do it again (read…….cannot be bothered, time to move on!).

Next morning we were off again. Unfortunately, we had to travel some of the journey via the exact same road we were on the day before. By this point, we were both tired and over it. It took us another 5 or 6 hours to arrive at Hekou, the Chinese town on the border crossing with Vietnam. The border crossing closed at 5.00pm, and as the bus ride continued, it was becoming more than obvious that we would not be able to cross on time. Luckily, there was a lady on the bus that directed us to a great little hotel, which she happened to work in. It was cheap and clean, and so we decided that it is where we would rest our weary heads for the night. I was quite impressed with the town, I must say. It was rather clean and organised and had a bit of a commercial town vibe about it. And the border was only a walk away!

Our last night in China was spent eating some great food, which tasted more like Vietnamese than Chinese. I was finally being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel! Believe me, the tunnel had been long! The next morning, we got ourselves organised and walked to the border. The sounds and visuals of people hurtling spit continued to haunt me, and I prayed that this would change as soon as we crossed the border! Was I expecting too much?

We crossed into Vietnam on the 8th of October, the day our visa was due to “expire”. Great timing, or so we thought! We got through the Chinese side without a fuss, but, it was on the Vietnamese side that the fun and games commenced!

Ombi

NOTE 1: I know that people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones, but now that I am out of China, and can access most web sites, I would like you to take a look at China’s Human rights record. Not exactly a very rosy picture!

NOTE 2: I would like to mention Julia, a 7 year old Alex and I met whilst hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge. She is Polish, and her family is currently living in China. Not only was I stunned by her stamina, but by her personality and attitude. This little girl’s dream was to travel the world, and not to own an X-box or a Barbie doll. She was bright, intelligent and engaging, and attracted people like a magnet! What a breath of fresh air!

DEDICATION: Julia, this dedication is for you. I hope that your brother, Vitek, or Dad, Robert, shows you this. Alex and I just want to let you know that you were an inspiration to us both (this means that we thought that you were amazing), and we hope that many more children can learn from your determination and strong will. You will help change the world!
“There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures” – James Thurber (1894 – 1961).

(Photos: 1.- View of Shangri-la and surrounds, taken from Ganden Sumtseling Gompa Monastery. 2.- One of the temples in the centre of Shangri-la. 3.- Harmony Guesthouse, Shangri-la. L to R: Mariona, Alex, various guests and Joey. 4.- One of the temples, Ganden Sumtseling Gompa monastery. 5.- What’s your beef? (or a plethora of other animals), Shangri-la. 6.- Alex asking the locals the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge, at the beginning of the walk. 7.- Walkin’ the gorge! 8.- Spectacular flowers, impressive mountains, and a tiny butterfly, Tiger Leaping Gorge. 9.- Tibetan prayer flags in China – Shangri-la. One senses that the Chinese are very keen to “keep” any and all things Tibetan! 10.- Indigenous woman in Yuanyang. 11.- Indigenous child in Yuanyang. 12.- “Inside job”; catching a bus from Yuanyang to Hekou with the locals. 13.- One of the locals, in the bus from Yuanyang to Hekou. 14.- Show me where you’re from Julia, and I’ll show you where I’m from, Tiger leaping Gorge trail.)

Undulating rice terraces and heading out west.

Now, I hope you did your homework, and checked out a map of China. Although we “only” did the south-west section, we still saw quite a large portion. Read on!

Guilin is supposedly like Yangshuo, but it has a larger commercial centre, so we decided to skip it. Can’t do everything, says the woman who’s going to die trying! Only an hour away from Yangshuo, however, we had to pass through it to get to our final destination of PingAn, another couple of hours away. The road was windy, but spectacular, as we we made our way over and across breathtaking landscapes, rice paddies and minority groups, mainly women. In the area, is a small village, Zhonglu, notable for its long haired women from the Yao tribe, who supposedly hold the Guinness Book of World Records…..for the longest hair in the world. Whilst we passed this place on our way to the terraces, we had no desire to stop or do a tour here at a later point. These people are humans and not animals, and should be treated as such. I know this makes me sound “old” (which in light of the fact that I turn 40 on October 14th, may not be too far from the truth!), but “in the olden days”, when I first started travelling nearly 20 years ago, visiting hill tribes was much more of a cultural experience. Nowadays, it is more like an outing to visit “the freaks”, complete with the recipients having a digital camera thrust 2 millimetres from their faces (yes, 2 millimetres, not centimetres. This IS the era not only of digital cameras, but a macro zoom as well!). No thanks!

Some two hours after leaving Guilin, we arrived in the 600 year old Zhuang village of PingAn. But certainly not before someone jumped on the bus and sold us our tickets! As I mentioned before, everything costs in China, with nature being no exemption! Set perched up high above the rice terraces, there are no cars, narrow walkways, and the way to reach it is……foot power! The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces is an engineering spectacle, that reaches all the way up a string of 800 metre peaks. You can have one of the villagers carry your bags up, or alternatively, you too can physically be carried up in a type of rickshaw with no wheels. As you would expect, we walked it! Twenty minutes of constant uphill climbing, complete with backpacks had us both oohing and aahing over the views, whilst sweating like beasts. It REALLY is good to be alive! Our bodies are our temples, and I never underestimate how incredible it is to be and feel so fit and healthy, especially in times like this. The vista was truly amazing, bags and all!

We spent a beyond peaceful two days in PingAn, sleeping in, making new friends, exploring the countryside, marvelling at the rice terraces, and taking in the majesty and the beauty of our surrounds. All of the houses and hotels up here, are traditionally built from wood, and look as if they have been superimposed, precariously perched on the steep and rolling hills. The advantage of “steep” however, definitely includes less tourists. Definitely not a hike for the feeble or faint hearted. The two main terraces are “Seven Stars Accompanying Moon” and ” Nine Dragons and Five Tigers”. They look as spectacular and exotic as they sound. Sitting down at the top of these peaks and viewing these marvels simply left me speechless. Yes, these moments are rare!

Our next destination would be Dali, heading way out west. In order to get there, we had to take an overnight train ride to Kunming followed by another five hours or so up north by bus. Kunming was only a “drive through”, as we are both over the big city thing at the moment, but we were still stunned and overwhelmed by all the people at the Kunming train station. I have to keep reminding myself what a lot of people 1.3 million actually are! The overnight train was….bearable…..just! With six bunk beds to a cabin it was not too bad, and we were on the bottom, so nothing really to complain about, well….I have seen cleaner sheets in my life, and the cacophony and symphony of sounds were exasperating! Yeh, those guys and gals were hocking up those greenies like no tomorrow! I knew I had not brought my ear plugs with me in vain! Then, of course it was “no smoking” in the cabins! So, just take yourself one little guess where that smoke gets redistributed when people are chuffing at either end of the carriages? Nothing like recycled air via the air -conditioners! I am not going to hold back here. It’s a vile and repulsive habit, and I will ONLY tolerate if and when it does not effect and involve me!

Located about 120 kilometres southeast of Kunming, we passed through Shilin, which is home to a massive collection of limestone pillars. The area consists of rocks and boulders which have been created via the erosion of wind and rain, some reaching up to a height of 30 metres. In true Chinese style, they have levied a fee to enter, which of course is disproportionate and illogical. So, if you are a tourist or a wealthy Chinese person, please enter, if not, talk to the hand! Don’t you just love communism! Such a fair and just system! We got a fairly good, albeit brief, look from the train! Soon enough we were at the Kunming train station, where we met an Aussie called Katrina, and the three of us walked to the bus station where we negotiated a bus to Dali! China’s bus stations seem to vary a lot. In some the destinations have a set price and in others you need to bargain. Here it was all about bargaining, and bargain we did! If the air-con was our god in Japan, it is definitely the calculator in China! I no speaka the Chinese, you no speaka the English, but we both understanda the numbers. And on the 7th day, he (or she!) created the calculator!

It was not such a long ride, well almost 6 hours, but after all night on a train, we were keen to get to our destination. We arrived in Dali at around 6.00pm, and although not entirely exhausted we were not up to hours of searching for a place to stay (which, incidentally, is wearing very thin after almost 14 months!). We managed to find a quiet and cheap place run by a Chinese family, The Bai Family Inn. Again, it was sign language and calculators, but our hosts went out of their way to make us feel welcome and at home. The hotel seemed to be set within the walls of an old temple, the rooms were spacious and the beds , rather comfortable. A word on Chinese beds; Whilst usually exceptionally clean, they are as hard as a rock! It’s the way they like them, I suppose. But usually this can be “fixed”, by placing any extra doonas, blankets or whatever you can find underneath! It’s called being resourceful!

We had a relaxing couple of days in Dali, and found a great place to eat at. A tiny hole in the wall, it offered 10 vegetarian wontons for about 50 cents AUD. Now if that was not cause for excitement, the sign that went along with it was, “No MSG“! What a bonus! The Chinese love their MSG (wei chin) and use it like the Italians use olive oil. The difference (and a big one at that!) is that the latter is good for you! We visited some surrounding temples, walked around the old city walls, and hung out at a few places drinking some fabulous Yunnan coffee (the state in which Dali lies). I want to make a special mention here. The “Lost Angel Cafe” is run by a young Beijing couple called Jessie and Dio. Helpful, friendly, and honest , they are wonderful people. If you go to Dali, be sure to drop by and say hello. The coffee is great coffee, and the internet is free.

Dali lies on the western edge of Lake Erhai, and at an altitude of 1900 metres. Its backdrop is the imposing 4000 metre high Jade Green Mountains. There are supposedly some great hikes around both the lake and the mountains, but we just took it easy, and the most strenuous thing we did in the area was a day trip to Xizhou which is renowned for its well-preserved Bai architecture (the Bai are one of 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by The People’s Republic of China), where we just strolled around, chatted to the locals and observed the architecture . We were the only tourists around, and so we got lots of stares, but it was fun. Throw in a few Chinese words, and the people love it. It’s always an ice-breaker and shows that you actually care and are interested in other people’s lives and cultures. I should mention that being so high up, the climate around here was by far cooler than what we had experienced thus far, and we found ourselves wearing long pants, polar fleeces and even rain jackets for the first time in ages.

Heading even further north, we also decided to visit Lijiang. We would be arriving just before the Chinese Golden Week (which is from the 1st to the 6th of October), and had been warned that not only do prices rise astronomically, but that the likes of Lijiang become a veritable Disneyland. Hard call! But, we decided to go, as it would be the closest that we would get to Tibet…on this trip, anyway! Or, so we thought! We ended up at a place called the Old Town Carnation Hotel, set in an old Naxi home, and run by a gorgeous Chinese lay called Li Shu Ju. She was so gentle and helpful, and nothing was too much or a bother. We have been so fortunate on this trip, predominantly finding terrific places to stay, with marvellous people who run them. It was quite cold here too, and it rained a lot. So much actually, that we wondered if we were going to be able to do one of China’s 10 “must do’s “, a trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. We would have to wait and see!

Lijiang is truly very picturesque. With its maze of cobble stoned streets, old wooden buildings and canals at every turn, it one of Yunnan province’s most visited sites. It has often been referred to as the “Venice of the east”! (Having said that, there are several other places on Earth that have made similar canals, oops, I meant claims!) Its popularity has grown and continues to rise, and I was blown away by the number of “flag brigades” overtaking even the smallest of cobblestoned streets! Not only do the Chinese LOVE to travel in groups, and big ones at that, their guides come complete with “traditional minority costumes”……give me a bucket! Like many other countries, the Chinese minority groups are shunned and down trodden, unless and until they can be used to make money! Not even going to go there! If you want to hear more about our experiences on this, it’ll be over a coffee or two back in Oz!

Having said all of this, venture out, in and around Lijiang, either very early or very late in the day, and you will be duly rewarded with some breathtaking sights. Without the masses and Disneyland style enterprises it’s a gem of a place! Sadly, some of the “natural” things to see around Lijiang are so expensive that I found it akin to extortion, and bluntly refused to either pay or visit. Again, I wondered how the poorer, local people do it. Quite bluntly, they do not! It has been rather interesting to watch China grapple with it’s identity. Communist? Socialist? Capitalist? I am not sure that they know really? And to be truthful, neither do I? China’s like a little kid who has its cake and wants to eat it too!

Unfortunately, it rained a little too much for our liking, and whilst we got out just before the real Golden Week mayhem was about to begin, we were not altogether convinced that the trek we wanted to do would be dry or safe enough. Would we have to miss out? We were running out of time as we had to leave China by the 9th October (or so we thought….. more on that later). What should we do? It seemed like such a pity to miss out on something which was meant to be so unique and spectacular. So, we decided to buy ourselves a little time, and head even further up north, to a place called Shangri-la (or Zhongdian). This town is home to remote temples, rugged mountain scenery and the start of the Tibetan world. So……. it appeared that we were going to get much closer to Tibet than we ever thought we would! The last frontier!

Ombi.

NOTE::”Ganja? Marijuana? Hash? Hashish?”. The question we heard so often was coming from the mouths of the locals, predominantly women from one of the several Chinese minority groups. Where did we hear this? Anywhere there were tourists really! How very, very, very sad! So, this is their impression of us…….that we are pot smoking, drug takers! By the amount of times we were asked, it was pretty obvious that both they were selling, and that tourists were buying! Whilst I am not about to pass any judgement on drug taking, I will say this: Be a responsible tourist! If you do drugs, then do them at home, and if you do it overseas BYO! Buying from locals goes far beyond giving us a bad reputation, it makes these people rely on making a living from trading illegally. Think about the impact that your “cheap drug fix” will have on all those involved in the transaction!

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in all the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.” – John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”.

(Photos: 1.-The long haired women of the Zhuang tribe, walking through the rice fields of Longsheng. 2.- The rice fields of Longsheng. 3.- Drying corn and chillies, PingAn. 4.- Locals going to work, Kunming train station. 5.- One of the many faces of the people of Dali. 6.- Pagoda and a typical street in the centre of Dali. 7.- Another one of the many faces of Dali. 8.- In the streets of Xizhou. 9.- A typical Lijiang house, with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background. 10.- Lijiang and one of its many canals. 11.- Tibetan prayer flags fluttering above the town of Shangri-la, taken on a short hike. 12.- That’s me signing off for this blog….until next time.)