28th February – 7th March
Crossing the border
On a crisp, bright, morning we arrive at a gleaming Chinese border post – an oasis of concrete and glass tucked away deep in the rainforest.
Our sense of relief is palpable; we’ve finally left Laos and we’re only two days behind schedule entering this most inflexible of countries. There’s still some work to be done to our poor dishevelled car – thanks to the Lao mechanics putting it back together ‘with a few bolts left over’… But we’ve made it.
At the border we meet Queenie, our guide for the next five weeks (it’s compulsory to have a licensed Chinese guide in your car at all times whilst driving a foreign car through China). She’s a diminutive creature, 27 years old but looks much younger, with long dark hair and placid, innocent features. She’s a bit flustered because she’s an hour an a half late meeting us, but then, we’re two days late so we can hardly complain.
We’re both relieved when we meet her. Having someone else in the car for five weeks always has the potential to be disastrous, especially when they hark from such a different culture. But we think we’ll be OK with Queenie.
It takes six hours, all up, to complete the border formalities and the necessary car safety tests – three hours of which are frustratingly consumed by the official’s mandatory lunch break. We’re finally on our way at 3.30pm, driving on a pristine dual carriageway that scythes effortlessly through the same mountains that the Lao roads toil endlessly and bumpily around.
It’s wonderful - a very novel and welcome experience. A series of viaducts and tunnels whisk us 130km to our first destination, a local minority village, in little over an hour.
Actually the ‘minority’ (or hill-tribe) village resembles a theme park, complete with hectares of concrete car parks, entrance gates (admission £10 each!) and battalions of souvenir stalls. It’s extraordinarily contrived, but this is China and we must learn to take it as it is, quickly.
We ask Queenie if the villagers here enjoy living in a museum. “Actually, they are lucky. They are getting money” she replies. We soon learn that despite her best individual intentions, occasionally she struggles to shake off the dogmatic government tuition that’s been drummed into her from an early age.
Our first night is in the large, smog-ridden city of Jinghong, straddling our old friend the Mekong (called the Lancang in China). It’s the largest city we’ve seen since Bangkok, yet in Chinese terms it ranks as a small prefectural capital (population 400,000).
The long drive north
We spend days two and three driving north on mostly excellent Chinese expressways, heading for Dali and Lijiang in the north of Yunnan province. Ironically, given all the terrible roads we’ve driven on elsewhere, we suffer our first puncture on seemingly perfect tarmac, driving at 110km/h. Given our recent car dramas, we’re relieved its nothing worse and are back on the road within half an hour. Queenie’s relieved that we’re at least vaguely practical in such situations…
We spend the night en-route in a hideous ‘new city’, Nanjing, a hurriedly constructed, high-rise and white tiled ghetto in the middle of nowhere, built (along with thousands of others) within the past 30 years to accommodate China’s rapidly growing population.
Size here doesn’t equate to amenity value or architectural flair. Borne from the utilitarian concepts of the Cultural Revolution and poorly constructed, these new cities’ only function is to house people. They’re all pretty grim. We find a solitary restaurant on the brightly lit yet depressingly drab main street, and choose between one of two equally grubby and unwelcoming hotels.
Unsurprisingly we can’t wait to leave in the morning, and arrive in Dali’s quaint but touristy old town in time for lunch. Swarming with Chinese tourists (three million of them a year visit Yunnan province), we don’t linger much beyond the obligatory sights.
We reach Lijiang, a chilly 2,500 metres above sea level, in the early afternoon. This is where our proper sightseeing starts. Dayan, Lijiang’s old city, is the capital of the Naxi autonomous (ish) region – the Naxi being one of China’s 55 or so indigenous minorities. Its tight, cobbled streets are lined with orderly, crystal clear canals and traditional limewashed houses, roofed with traditional grey corrugated tiles.
Despite the plague-like swarms of Chinese tourists, and the fact that nearly every house is now either a restaurant, bar or tacky souvenir shop (the Chinese are hopelessly addicted to plastic ephemera), it’s still an enchanting town to wander through. If only someone had thought of introducing central heating. It’s chuffing freezing!
The following morning, we make an early start from Lijiang, anticipating a day trip to the eagerly awaited Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Queenie may be sweet (a Cockney would have named her ‘Princess’) and good company but she’s a truly hopeless navigator. We weren’t expecting much, given the feasibility of any guide mastering the geography of the world’s 3rd largest country – but Lijiang is apparently one of her favourite and most visited places.
She hesitantly directs us out of town and subsequently for 30km in the wrong direction. By the time we realise we’ve got to backtrack, it’s 9.30am and the road to Tiger Leaping Gorge is clogged by the daily retinue of tour buses. Our itinerary allows us a rest day here tomorrow; wisely we decide to abandon today’s exertions and go back to bed for the rest of the morning.
The following morning is more successful. We reach the famous gorge by 10am, before the daily onslaught, and enjoy the place to ourselves for a few hours. Like all attractions in China, it’s burdened by enormous car parks, exorbitant entry fees and endless health and safety notices, all competing to tarnish our enjoyment.
Nevertheless, the gorge manages to transcend its exploitation - although it has fallen victim to Chinese tourist propaganda. Much touted as the ‘world’s deepest gorge’ – a mighty 3,900 metres, it’s not really. Yes, there’s a technical drop of 3,900 metres from the snow clad Jade Dragon Mountain to the Yangtze River below, but the mountain is miles away.
It’s just a very pretty valley, carved out by the aquamarine, juvenile Yangtze thundering through a succession of violent rapids.
A stone statue marks the point at which a tiger is said to have once leapt the 30 metres across the narrowest section of the gorge (escaping a Chinese restaurateur after its penis, presumably). Helpful signs warn us of rock falls and forbid climbing or straying from the path, but they don’t really add to the aura of the place.
Peace and quiet
Back in Lijiang, we pay a visit to the Black Dragon Pool, home to one of China’s most famous and photogenic attractions, a marble bridge beside a colourful three-tiered pagoda, with the snowy Jade Dragon Mountain in the background. It’s getting late in the evening and the bitter cold has driven most of the sightseers away, so we enjoy the place to ourselves. It’s an evocative, typically traditional Chinese scene; unfortunately the peak is subsumed within thick cloud but we get the idea. It’s still very appealing.
We hurry back to our hotel for a hot shower and our last meal here before heading south to (hopefully) warmer climes. Thanks to Queenie, we’ve eaten amazingly well so far; Chinese bowtzen (steamed dumplings stuffed with pork) for breakfast and a huge variety of simple stir-fry dishes with rice for lunch and supper.
The food in the smaller, more nondescript towns seems (so far at least) to be tastier and better priced than in the tourist areas, but our fears borne of disgusting Chinese food in Kashgar are so far unfounded.
Another mammoth drive the next day: 400 miles to Shilin, home of the Stone Forest, via a Toyota garage in Kunming, Yunnan’s enormous capital. The garage doesn’t live up to our expectations, though.
We’re after a thermostat – the dopy berks in Phonsavanh forgot to put our old one back in once they’d finished playing Meccano with our engine. There are worse things to forget to refit, but it does mean our engine struggles to get warm, and consequently our heater isn’t doing much of a job keeping us cosy in these bitter, wintry conditions.
It transpires that Toyota in China doesn’t stock any parts for our car, at all. Perversely, all parts take a month to get shipped in from Japan, so anything we need will have to come from the UK instead. Wish we’d known that before we left Laos!
We don’t reach Shilin until 7pm and its getting dark. Despite it being a tourist hotspot we struggle to find accommodation – many hotels here still have ‘no foreigner’ policies, which is doubly frustrating when you’re exhausted and in need of a hot shower and a beer. Poor old Queenie finds it quite embarrassing too, but it’s not her fault.
Having finally found somewhere we head out for a delicious supper of smoked pork, fried wild mushrooms (of the stringy, toadstool variety you wouldn’t touch in the UK) and fresh steamed mange tout. Replete, we head home and collapse into bed, only to be kept awake for the next four hours by the enthusiastic yet utterly dismal efforts emanating from the karaoke bar upstairs.
The Stone Forest
We greet the Stone Forest the next morning, bleary eyed and grumpy. The (Chinese) football match crowds and £14 per person entry fee don’t help matters much, either. Nevertheless, like so many things in this country, it’s worth it. The Stone Forest comprises hundred of acres of vertical limestone monoliths, jutting out of the ground between two and 30 metres in height, giving the landscape a greying, spiky hairdo.
Created as the result of a huge inland lake drying up millions of years ago, it is utterly surreal. Part of the site has now been landscaped and is adorned with manicured lawns, bright bougainvilleas and pink and white blossoming trees, rather like a giant’s rockery.
In better spirits, we hit the road after lunch and head east towards Guizhou Province. It’s been a busy first week. Yunnan province is twice the size of the UK and we’ve averaged 200 miles a day for the past eight days. We’re looking forward to a brief let-up when we reach Hong Kong.
So far we’ve had to abandon some of the preconceptions we had about this country before we entered. The people are generally more accommodating, the food mostly tastier and the scenery more extraordinary than we expected. Additionally, we’ve endured little of the paranoia or security hassles that coloured our brief sojourn in Kashgar.
On the other hand, the petty bureaucracy and overt consumerism devouring the principal attractions is already getting tiresome. We’ve spent half our nights in enormous, dismal ‘nowhere’ cities so far – outside of the tourist hotspots it seems virtually impossible to stay anywhere with charm or character (and those in tourist areas are often contrived).
We’ve driven past endless cement plants feeding the mammoth Chinese infrastructure drive which has already dramatically altered the landscape, for better or worse. We’ve also yet to see a single river that hasn’t been dammed up.
And this is just within one of China’s most scenic provinces – it’ll be interesting to see how the rest holds up…