In which I become a tourist attraction.
Starring a little old lady who hands out pears that taste like apples.
Just when I was beginning to feel like maybe I had spent far too long in China already, we got to the nice bits. I’m back in a tour group now which is extremely odd and dissatisfying but does make things much easier as we are travelling on local buses that have all the destinations in Chinese and the purchasing of tickets is a complete mystery.
The journeys are quite an experience with the buses packed to the hilt and much passing backwards and forward of little three legged stools that people sit on in the aisles. Road-markings are a complete waste of time as everyone just drives where ever the hell they want, roaring past one another on blind corners. Our driver had a beeper mounted on the dashboard that bleeped hysterically whenever we were approaching a speed camera at which point he slammed on brakes and crawled along for a kilometre or two. Plenty of amusing road signs to get you through a long journey including: “Do not drive Tiredly”.
At one point we passed some road works where the road had been narrowed by means of bunting and a couple of orange cones. Our driver who was in the midst of undertaking a lorry chose to simply ignore these designations and tore through the bunting, scattering traffic cones as the workers leapt to the relative safety of the embankment. Despite all of this we have thus far seen only seen on accident – a truck full of tobacco leaves tipped over on its side with everyone standing around looking rather bored by the mundanity of it all.
First stop was Dali which is a lovely little village on the banks of Erhai Lake and about as pollution and crowd free as China seems to offer. The old town is a total backpacker hangout but I was so desperate for a good coffee I couldn’t have cared less. The Chinese travel round in giant motorised golf carts with tour guides blaring out things to look at and everyone leaping out periodically to take pictures – mostly of the blonde western tourists. The old town has been restored and fully stocked with tack shops and foot massage parlours but between these you can still find great local restaurants where you point at what you want in a cabinet and it reappears in the form of an utterly delicious dish.
On the second day we hired taxis to explore some of the other local villages – had breakfast of bread baked in a fire oven sitting on stools in a village square. The architecture here is particularly beautiful with all the houses (even the new ones) painted with blue and grey patterns. Most of the women still wear traditional clothing which, when they whip out their mobile phones, makes for a bizarre contrast.
From there we got a few more buses to another tiny little town called Shaxi which has been restored rather than rebuilt . It’s an old trading post on the Tea-Horse Road (lesser known cousin to the Silk Road) – most of the buildings are wooden and have intricate carvings and plenty of photogenic red lanterns shivering in the breeze.
Walked out through the surrounding countryside to see a temple, shepherdesses cross stitching while their cows munched on corn and a ton of rather terrifying spiders that were dangling from pretty much every tree.
Our guesthouse was a traditional courtyard style house and they put on traditional banquet meals for us with all the bowls in the centre of the table and those who don’t get to eat frequently leaning over each other to grab ineptly at it with chopsticks. The fact that we were in a beautiful courtyard, beneath a pomegranate tree, sipping green tea, somewhat made up for fellow traveller’s dining habits.
Shangri-La was another entertaining 5 hour bus ride away. It’s actually called Zhondian and apparently it was a sleepy backwater until officials, sniffing tourist dollars, declared it location of James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-La. Any bubbling scepticism is quickly quashed with the additional plus that tourism has now replaced logging as the main income for the area. Despite the fact that the whole of the old wooden town consists almost exclusively of souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and guest houses, it’s still really lovely to wander around and there’s plenty of Tibetan aspects to it – the decorations on the buildings, the flat, grass covered walls and slate roofs and of course, plenty of yak skulls nailed to pillars.
In the evening the main squares are emptied of their food stalls and dolled up yaks (we saw one having a bath this morning!) and the locals come out to dance to music blasted from speakers. I landed up sitting next to a little old toothless Chinese lady (she sat down, grinned and gave me a fruit that looked like an apple but tasted like a pear) who sat patiently for photographs as one tourist after another came up to photograph one or other of us.
This morning we went out to an enormous monastery just outside the main city – Ganden Sumtseling Gompa – which is still being restored after being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but a wonderful place to spend the morning sniffing cedar wood, yak butter candles and incense and there’s a thriving community of monks living here – more than in the Potala Palace – which is vaguely heartening. Had lunch at our driver’s Tibetan farm. He’s built an enormous traditional two storey wooden house with stables downstairs and living area upstairs, pantry/cellar in the roof. The main room has a kitchen, a small altar and a huge stove in the center which we immediately set about photographing before realising his wife was preparing us lunch on the hob in the other corner of the room (food processor, rice cooker etc). Tried Tibetan tea (more like salty, rich soup than tea) and yak cheese fried in yak grease with barley bread and barley wine. An interesting culinary experience if nothing else.