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Journey to the Source of the Mekong

Chapter 8 - Northern Yunnan

Kunming is known as the ‘Eternal Spring City’. Yet it once was a city of industry, dominated by grime, soot and factories. Its centre had little to offer, its outskirts were definitely to be avoided. But for the benefit of the 1999 Horticultural Exposition it has undergone a massive face-lift and been transformed from beast to beauty. The scale of the change and the amount of construction that has taken place are impressive. Smart glittering high-rise buildings that exude wealth and prosperity stand where grey dull sixties buildings of a communist sameness once loitered, unwanted. It is difficult to believe that this is the same city, everything new and shiny, its streets are wide and clean, flowerbeds manicured and immaculate.

The changing face of Kunming has left few stones untouched, and the make-over has rendered the city almost unrecognisable, but not all change has been for the better. The Muslim Quarter, the enclave of the Hui, one of China’s fifty-six minority peoples, used to be a joy to stroll along. Steaming trays of noodles were piled high on top of each other, noodles were slapped and slung into shape by cheery chefs, cuts of beef were hung out to dry. There were a whole variety of foodstuffs on display, from dough-sticks to sizzling meats, to tempt the passer-by. But it has had to smarten up its act, many of the Hui being forcibly removed from their premises. Their charismatic wooden houses, cluttered and individual, replaced by shuttered shop-fronts of a sterile similarity.

Yet if the Muslim Quarter has been transformed and the ‘Bird and Flower Market’ lacks the rawness of yesteryear, there are some streets that have not been tamed. East of the ‘Bird and Flower Market’ the streets are still crowded and stationary with the humdrum of milling crowds. The wafting smells of sizzling eats tantalise taste buds and the exotic array of chillies excite the eye. Dofu wobbles, fermented dofu looks decidedly unpleasant to our bland western palate. Song hua dan, duck eggs that have been buried in lime for sixty days look to the uninitiated as unappealing as they taste. Sinewy chicken feet, beef kebabs, chicken heads, pigs feet and pigs neck are all on display for the hungry.

In and amongst this diverse range of food, snacks on the move, are women selling coat-hangers, pools of fish for the aquarium of the rich, beeping electronic games to amuse lonely children, the distressing remains of endangered species to relieve the aches and pains of the ailing. Here the life of the street market is wonderfully cluttered and alive, retaining character. It is a world very different from the modern buildings that surround. It is a sensory assault, and our heads are continually turning, intrigued by the bizarre strangeness of it all.

It is difficult to describe this transformation from dour to dandy, grime to glitter, but perhaps a good medium through which to do so was our experience of clubbing in the ‘Top One’ night-club. This was a venue for the young, the trendy, the fashionable and the well to do. A youth distanced from their elders by more than a generation. Fashion and trend rioted against the conformity of the Mao suit. Glasses were hung on T-shirt pockets, shades pushed jauntily to the back of the head, sunglasses worn under the chin, anything goes. There were thin sixties glasses, purple shades, reflective glasses, heavy ‘Audrey Hepburn’ style glasses. A wealth of hair-styles defied the uniformity of hair under Mao - bald heads, both male and female, peroxide hair, Tina Turner look-alike hair, short, long and slicked back hair all bounced up and down to the music.

In spite of this emancipation of style many could not bring themselves to let go or be individual in their gyration, much of the dancing being done in unison. Unused to such freedom of movement, there was still a tendency to seek direction, to mimic, copy and conform. The liberated female disc jockey would try to encourage those on the dance floor with the prompting of “Come on” and the reassurance of “OK” in English. If there were a pause in the music the crowd would be told to “Deng Xiao”, wait a moment, which they would patiently do without complaint. Where else in the world would a gyrating mass have such patience. But then where else in the world would my dancing be watched with such interest, as though I was a great dancer and then imitated. I apologise to any future visitors to China who experience dreadful dancing, I might be, in some part, to blame.

The next morning, whilst last night’s revellers were sleeping their excess off, I rose early to see the sights of Kunming and to go and watch taiqi. Every morning in every city in China, from Shanghai to Shenzhen, from Xian to Xining, groups gather to learn and practise this ancient art. They do not practise it in the privacy of a classroom or hall but the openness of the city’s main square.

Taiqi appears pointless and meaningless to the uneducated eyes of the west, and even to the unknowing youth of China. It is mainly practised by the old and middle-aged, no offence meant to any younger practitioners of this ancient art, and is all to do with the ‘qi’ or breath. It is much more complex than at first meets the eye, requiring much more concentration than I had initially suspected, as I was to find out. Trying to be as inconspicuous and unobtrusive as possible, I hid myself at the back of a class and pathetically tried to copy the actions of those in front. I had dispensed with breathing control, knowing that to do two things at once was asking too much. I was doing all right or at least I thought I was until the class swivelled and en masse turned to the right. I was now limited to following the person to my left. I was just about coping with this when they again turned ninety degrees to the right. The class was now all behind me, my hesitancy exposed for all to see. Muttering that I was an inept laowei, I made my excuses and tried to exit gracefully, if that was at all possible having made such a fool of myself.

There was not just taiqi on display: there were a variety of activities from aerobics to badminton to dancing. Those doing aerobics prance on tiptoes, waving pink and red fans, or kick foam balls attached to a string, as if practising for the next World Cup. Their movements are short and sharp, roughly in unison. The dancing class were concentrating on the Waltz for the day, their teacher a real ‘madam’ in white high-heeled shoes, white silk skirt and blouse to match, topped by her peroxide orange hair, fiery eyes and heavy lipstick. She does not like to be questioned or to be answered back. Formidable in her instruction she drills her proteges with martial severity. For the old, despite the barked commands of ‘madam’, there is a lovely social aspect to the dancing, a chance to get out and see friends. A chance to indulge a passion, even to use it as a dating agency in this bizarre combination of Bingo meets Seroq.

Hundreds thus crowd the square, grouped according to their activity and standard. In the background shuttlecocks fly in the air, bicycles used as makeshift nets by the majority, a few keeping up appearances with not only a proper net but also a court marked out on the pavement. Meanwhile the young stream to work amidst the hustle and bustle of tooting horns and the shrill blasts of the traffic policeman’s whistle. All is hurry. Such stress and obsession with work belongs to the younger generation who do not have time for early morning exercise, whilst it is the old who indulge in this time of calm.

Having embarrassed myself so publicly doing taiqi, I sought the more sedate and secluded atmosphere of a Buddhist temple, the Yuantong Temple. Yet the Yuantong Temple is no different from any other temple in China for its lack of piety. A profusion of stalls sell touristy gimmicks, an assortment of games and gadgets, to amuse the heathen tourist groups, whose only obsession, sense of religious fervour, is for the camera and being photographed. Heads bob up and down in prayer, smoking joss sticks are waved furiously. Litter, packets and wrapping pollute the area surrounding large bronze urns shrouded and engulfed by the fumes, the offering and burning of ‘hell money’ to appease ancestors. I feel certain that those in the temple are visitors, not worshippers, simply going through the motions, there being no sense of spirituality or devoutness to their actions. I feel that their presence in the temple is only due to the fact that today is QingMing, the Spring festival, when one is supposed, duty-bound, to come to the temple and remember and pray for one’s ancestors.

Perhaps my belief in their lack of belief is more a reflection upon me than upon their religion, a suggestion that I view by stereotypes and anything that does not conform or live up to my expected image lacks substance and validity. But there is something unsettling about the business-like way that they speed around the temple, a trail of smoke trying to keep up with their staccato movements and hectic pace. There is an absence of calm, of reflective tranquillity that I associate with Buddhism and would expect to see.

Little is left untouched in China, few stones unturned. In spite of a classical love of nature inspired by Taoism, the modern day Chinese seek to transform a scenic spot, to dress it up and ruin any semblance of the natural, rob it of any charm. Xi Shan, or the western Hills of Kunming, which we visited later that afternoon, are no different. The hills dominate the impressive Lake Dian below. Sheer vertical cliffs are dramatic, grottoes imbue the hillside with a sense of mystery and intrigue, tales of jilted lovers jumping to their death enshroud the hills in legend and pathos. These were the hills of yesteryear. Today, a chair lift takes tourists clad in their Sunday best, women awkward in their high heels, to the top where they proudly pose for a photograph. They then clump down narrow stairs, squeezing through tunnels and stopping for another photograph in front of Long Men, the gaudily coloured Dragon’s Gate. An artist’s shop provides a chance to catch one’s breath, to purchase an unwanted painting, a pause to rub the eye above one grotto for good luck. The opportunists throw coins into a pond trying to land them in the open mouth of a stone fish for further luck. A niche high above provides yet another chance to satisfy the Chinese obsession with good fortune, as the hopeful toss coins with gay abandon.

For all my cynical criticism of Xi Shan it does provide the local populace with a scenic spot where they can enjoy the weekend and break loose from the time-obsessed constraints of the city below. Despite the ludicrous toy train ferrying idle tourists around, and the trying pleas of women desperate for you to “Just looky” at their stall, Xi Shan does have a certain appeal, not least to see the Chinese themselves at play. Away from the tortuous tunnels and stairs of Dragon’s Gate, the chair lift does allow me to relax in peace and savour the soughing of the wind through the firtrees and the stunning vista below.

Today our eyes and focus were back on the Mekong, to complete what had been started. It was a day of planning and sorting, packing and re-packing, disposing with what was deemed an unnecessary, a luxury. It was not an easy task, having little knowledge of either travel or terrain in Tibet it was hard to know what we could do without. There is a tendency, an inclination to take as much as possible, but this leads to greater weight, something that we could well do without in the harsh wilds of the Tibetan plateau. Despite my best efforts to be stringent and travel lightly, I fear that my legs are going to have to bear more than they should.

We took our bikes down to Mr Xiao, Kunming's Mr Bicycle Maintenance Man. In two hours he overhauled our bikes, checked brakes and smoothed grating gears. He also managed to attach Ian’s new front rack, a task that had defeated several bicycle shops back in London. His work and time cost us only ten yuan, an unreasonably reasonable price that one would be charged just for entering a bike shop back home.

We spent the rest of the day catching up in correspondence, checking e-mails and sending postcards. In the Post Office my wish to conserve space on the postcard must have seemed extravagantly odd to the Chinese woman behind the counter. A postcard to England costs 4.5 yuan and thus the woman would have given me four one yuan stamps and one half-yuan stamp. I asked if she had any five-yuan stamps, to which she replied yes. So much to her amusement I bought ten five-yuan stamps, overpaying but having space for my message.

That evening, to fortify ourselves for the return journey to Lincang, we went to what remains of the Muslim Quarter to feast on noodles. Here in one of the small street-side restaurants we saw our noodles being made, being spun, whirled and beaten into familiar shape. It was fascinating to watch the skill of the man at work, the speed of his movements not easy to keep up with. The end result was a massive plate of delicious fried noodles that only cost three yuan. Surely at three yuan a plate the noodle-maker is grossly underpaid - he would make a fortune creating his noodles in a trendy London restaurant or by appearing on the ‘Generation Game’.

The Hui are not just famed for their noodles, having once been renowned for their seamanship, the most famous Hui being the Ming dynasty admiral, Zhong He. Zhong He commanded a series of armadas at the beginning of the fifteenth century to help re-establish diplomatic links and reassert the authority of the Emperor throughout the Indian Ocean and South East Asia. Whereas Columbus ninety years later travelled in a handful of ships, Zhong He sailed with hundreds. The ship Zhong He sailed in displaced 1,600 tons of water; the English navy first managed to build a ship that displaced 1,000 tons two hundred years later in 1600. Columbus’s Santa Maria was eighty-five feet long and yet nearly a century earlier Zhong He had sailed in a ship that was four hundred and fifty feet in length, four times the size of Columbus's ship. Zhong He reached the coast of East Africa where the Sultan of Malindi gave the Emperor a giraffe as a present - Zhong He managed to transport the giraffe back to China alive. Despite such incredible achievement our Eurocentric viewpoint of the world recognises not Zhong He but Columbus.


The return journey to Lincang was no more appealing, no easier to sleep through than our previous experience of the sleeper bus. There was, however, one moment of light relief at a food stop when the passengers of the bus had all disembarked and were all sitting on their haunches, waiting. I could not help smiling to myself and thinking that crouched as they were they looked like a group of fogs, and to continue the analogy, their hoicking was akin to the croaking ribbit of frogs. Maybe on paper it is not that amusing and is more a reflection on my deranged state on the bus.

Back in Lincang we were in no mood to linger, grabbed some food and set off just before midday, our sights set on Yunsheng some eighty-six kilometres away. It was good to be back on the road, to renew our sense of purpose and feel that we were drawing inexorably closer to our goal. However this positive frame of mind did not last long as the lack of sleep and the heat soon began to take their toll. The sun was merciless and so hot that the road had become soft and sticky, squelching under tyre, which made things not only physically but also psychologically more difficult.

We both arrived in Yunsheng tired and exhausted, but by the next morning we felt much better, due to a good night's sleep and the news that Manchester United had come from behind to beat Juventus 3-2 in the European Cup. One of the benefits of Ian’s short-wave radio and the BBC World Service.


The morning’s cycle was easy until we took a wrong turn and then things took a turn for the worse. In our defence, the wrong turn was not due to our inability to read a map, but due to the building of a dam, the first on the Mekong. The dam had led to the road being re-routed, a change too recent to be reflected in any map. The wrong turn only took us several kilometres out of our way before we were corrected and told to turn back by a nervy young official. But it at least gave us a look at the impressive face of the dam.

The dam was imposing and spoke of change. Its vast mass of concrete looked out of place in this otherwise quiet valley and cast a shadow of the valley’s ancient way of life. It was a way of life that had survived for hundreds of years in harmony with the environment, as witnessed by the ancient water-wheels that we had seen further downstream. The dam and other feats of engineering in the Mekong region herald the winds of change that will transform much of the region. I only hope that it is the local poples that benefit from such change and not city financiers and local aprty bosses.

What the wrong turn did lead to was a new route and a steady, slow climb that was to last thirty-three kilometres and a painful four hours that defeated both of us. As the road twisted and turned, each bend was a cruel twist of yet another false horizon, around each corner there was always more. To compound matters the sun was again unrelenting in its intensity and with sweat pouring off us it was imperative to keep drinking, to re-hydrate. That evening I wrote in my diary, “I think from morning until we stopped at seven o’clock that night I drank six glasses of tea, four cans of Jianlibao (the Chinese equivalent of Fanta), one Coke, one Red Bull, and eight bottles of water each of 600 ml, and only peed once. Not that I was watching closely, but I do not think that Ian peed once, and hence is a little dehydrated and not feeling too good tonight.” When we stopped for the night I had a further two Jianlibao, two more bottles of water and numerous glasses of tea - it was a hard day.

We stopped for the night just short of the summit at a large wooden building. With its balcony and style of architecture, it looked very much like an alpine chalet. Unfortunately the reality was much more urbane, it being a truck driver’s overnight stop. It was run by three women who reminded me of the Witches of Eastwick, there being more to them than met the eye. There was certainly a lot that went on behind the scenes, preferred truck drivers able to enjoy some after dinner entertainment. Perhaps that was why they were so amused by my light-hearted request for a massage that caused them to giggle hysterically.

Trucks came and went throughout the night like passing ships. Some stopping for food, others for rest, a few for beers. Some stopped for repairs, conscientious and serious-minded, they were determined to sort out that irksome rattle in their truck’s engine. They would take various parts of the engine apart and only with great difficulty and many attempts later did they mange to put it all back together. All, without fail, would arrive and exit noisily, revving their engines as if on the starting grid of a formula one race. Most would also test their horns, a fail-safe measure to ensure that two weary cyclists were cruelly denied any sleep.


Stiff and aching from the previous day, to get back on a bike and cycle was the last thing that our bodies wanted to do. Thankfully it was only another three kilometres to the summit and thereafter it was downhill for twenty kilometres. All in all it was a good day’s cycling, not least because of the reaction of passing vehicles. It must have been national ‘Be nice to foreign cyclists’ day, as truckers gave us the thumbs up, bus passengers beamed smiles of approval and shouted their encouragement, probably in appreciation of yesterday’s climb.

In the late afternoon, as we neared the town of MiDu, the countryside was bathed in sunshine. As the shadows were lengthening families still toiled in the fields, reaping and gathering the harvest. With the golden light filtering through the bamboo trees lining the road, we cycled over the wheat and barley that had been placed on the road so that passing vehicles would save the villagers the task of winnowing. These were idyllic scenes warmed and softened by the afternoon light that rounded off a good day’s cycling.

In MiDu we ate in yet another friendly small restaurant. Having eaten, we succumbed to the pleas of a group of young children to follow them. They led us to a small grassy area, where they had pineapple and watermelon, which they insisted that we eat. They then gave us a plastic bag full of origami figures and messages written in Chinese. All this they had been preparing whilst we were eating, the occasional head peeking around the corner in excited anticipation and eager for us to finish. Their friendliness was touching, their hospitality disarming, but above all I found it refreshing that we, total strangers, were trusted and allowed to play in harmless fun with these kids. Unfortunately, I cannot see such a scenario being reciprocated back home.

After our eats it was time for games. Hide and seek was their favourite, greeted with screams of enthusiastic delight, tag was not so popular because it was too tiring. Saying goodnight was difficult, they were eager to play more and did not want the fun to end, for us to go. They gave us their addresses in hopeful expectation. “In three months when we get back to England we will write and send photos,” I explained slowly in Chinese. They nodded their heads, as if to prove that they had understood. They might have understood my Chinese, but I do not think that they understood the concept of time and travel, that it would take us three months to get back home. Again I cursed the language barrier, my inability to communicate fluently, worried that their expectations were too high, not wishing to disappoint them.


Today was a seventy-five kilometre cycle to Dali that I would rather forget. Not because of the terrain or the elements, but because of the traffic. There was much more traffic than we had been used to, the most traffic that we had encountered on the roads, excepting the cities of Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh and Kunming. Driving perilously close all vehicles seemed to take great pleasure in blasting their horns at us. If yesterday was ‘Be friendly to foreign cyclists’ day, today was the opposite - I am sure that drivers took great pleasure in shattering our ear drums, seeing us shake our heads from side to side in dazed disorientation and wobble down the road. The incessant tooting was frustrating in the extreme, and I must admit did lead to the odd vehement oath shouted in retaliation.

Dali’s South Gate was welcome sanctuary from the onslaught of horns, but little else. Dali itself has all the Thai-dye trappings of tourism, a barrage of boutiques, a cluster of cafes and the now ubiquitous Internet terminals. It is a backpacker’s mecca that could be in Thailand, Khatmandu or whatever part of the world is hip at present. Backpackers have travelled or travel the world in order to expose themselves to cultures different from their own. To learn, appreciate and hopefully to understand. But they seem insensitive to cultural nuance, preferring to sit in a cafe and eat banana pancake with a knife and fork selected from a menu that is in English. Please tell me where is the experience in that?

Apart from its bevy of backpackers, Dali is famed for its Three Pagodas, and as with Cairo and the Pyramids, no visit to Dali is complete without a visit to the Three Pagodas. But as with Cairo and The Pyramids, the Three Pagodas do not live up to expectation. Originally built in the 9th century AD, little remains from that distant period, not least because of extensive renovations to the pagodas in 1978-80. In spite of the belief that the pagodas house religious relics, there is little respect or reverence shown. The only politeness being the patience of those waiting to have their photograph taken in front of the pagodas.

Equally on the Dali tourist trail is the nearby Monday market of Shaping. I hasten to add that the spelling of the market is correct and it is not a ‘Shopping Market’ as one over-eager American retail therapist was led to believe. The market is a blaze of colour with the Bai women in traditional dress, vivid head-dresses, shades of blues and reds. Carrying heavy cane baskets on their backs, the women know what they want as they touch and feel fruit and vegetables, exercising cautious scrutiny, asking prices, checking and comparing at the next stall down. There is a cacophony of noise, chickens squawk, pigs squeal, women haggle. Hustlers tempt naive country-folk to part with their money with sleight-of-hand tricks, whilst dentists and their antiquated foot-drills separate teeth from their owners without the aid of pain-killing injections. The market has a richness and variety that is perhaps akin in wildlife terms to the Masai Mara, but unfortunately, like the Mara tourists are omnipresent. The persistence of photographers to take that perfect photograph is galling and intrusive, demeaning to the locals, like vans surrounding a lion kill.

We were in Dali not for the above, but for a night’s rest and some information. That evening we met with Nerma, a Tibetan who was trying to help and advise us on getting into Tibet, but the news he gave us was inevitably not good.

“I cannot obtain an official pass for you.” Blank looks from Ian and I.

“But if you want to pay for a guide at $100 per day, I might be able to get you a pass.” Blank looks. $100 a day was simply not possible given our limited funds. What is more I did not believe that a Chinese guide would be prepared to cycle, which would mean further outlay for a vehicle.

“But I think that you can get into Tibet without permission.” Our faces brightened with interest. “There are only two of you and you are on bicycles. You can avoid the PSB (Public Security Bureau) by skirting around big towns.”

Nerma went on to give us further warnings, “The Tibetans will be in trouble if they help you and are caught. You must be careful. You must also have lots of water, there is little water in Tibet. Also small money, the Tibetans have no big notes. And, and, the weather bad, very bad in Tibet.”

It was not the most promising of meetings the emphasis being very much on the hardships and hassles that we would face, but at the same time it was not all doom and gloom. Nerma stated that it was possible, that he had heard of others who had travelled thus. If anything it strengthened our resolve and determination to get to Tibet and to reach the source. That schoolboy desire to reach the unattainable, to defy rules and breach what is out of bounds had been set alight.

A morning visit to the bank saw us withdraw enough money to last us until the end of the trip, at least we hoped so, or else we would go hungry in the wilds of Tibet. We had also taken Nerma at his word and stacked up on lose change, but as it turned out this was a slightly off the mark piece of advice. By the time we cycled out of Dali’s North Gate it was late, eleven o’clock, but we were unconcerned as looking at the maps today’s 110 kilometres to Jian Chuang would be relatively straightforward. We also intended to make use of the expressway, which had recently been completed and thus aid our time.

On the expressway our tyres purred and whined with joy as they lapped up the new smooth surface, eating up the distance in no time. Engrossed in the effortless ecstasy of the road, I did not fully appreciate that the expressway was deviating from our intended direction - the expressway being too recent to find its way onto our map and I had presumed that it ran parallel to the old road. Mistake realised and with our intended road to be seen several kilometres to the west, it was necessary for us to cut cross-country to get back on track. As we precariously negotiated narrow tracks that dissected paddy fields, we were hardly noticed by the villagers. They seemed unconcerned by our presence, a disinterested look and they were back to work. I cannot fathom why we are such a curiosity in a village, arousing much attention, but out in the fields we are of little interest. Justin Hill had a similar reaction in that in town the peasants stared at him but in the countryside they left him alone. “I think it was because in the city we were seen as part of the novelty of it all: high-rise buildings, shops full of electrical goods, and foreigners.”

Stopping for lunch we met with another Chinese peculiarity, namely that of language and making oneself understood. ‘Ce suo’ the Chinese word for toilet is a difficult word to say and make yourself understood, especially in rural China where there are a variety of accents and dialects. However if it is followed by the words ‘zai nar’, meaning where, the message normally gets across. But here “Ce suo zai nar?” was greeted without reaction.

“Ce suo zai nar?” I said again, but much more slowly. Why do we say things loudly and slowly to foreigners thinking that this will make all the difference? If they did not understand in the first place it is probably because I am using the wrong tone or placing incorrect emphasis on a syllable. By repeating it slowly I am probably only making this error worse.

“Ce suo zai nar?” And a cabbage was produced. Not as random as it sounds as I had just finished ordering some dishes for lunch and they probably thought that we wanted more.

“Ce suo zai nar?” I said again only to be shown a cauliflower. I then went into a long description of what happens when you drink too much and how you need to relieve yourself, but still uncertainty creased their brows.

Only with a graphic mime, the fail-safe method of communication, did they grasp my meaning, nod their heads in understanding and say “Ce suo” in exactly the same way that I had been. I felt like pulling out my hair and yelling, “That’s what I've been saying all along.” It was a farcical but by no means unique moment. Several times I have asked for something in a shop only to be met with unhelpful silence. I then ask if they understand Mandarin, to which they reply yes. I repeat my original question exactly as before, whereupon they go and fetch the item that I require. A frustrating idiosyncrasy of travel in China and the Chinese belief that foreigners cannot speak Chinese - the blank response to the initial question a refusal to believe that they will be able to understand this foreigner, hence a refusal to listen to what is actually said.

After lunch we were eventually reunited with the right road and with much time lost, there was now a greater sense of urgency in our cycling. The road snaking slowly uphill did not help our cause was and our target of Jian Chuang seemed ambitious. But at last after a few hours, the Chinese Road Authorities relented and the road swept downhill into the valley that housed Jian Chuang. The CRA, Chinese Road Authorities, is our personification of the terrain, an alleged leveller - i.e. if we have been going uphill for some time then we have stored up credits and some downhill is due to us, the sooner the better. However, our belief in the CRA must inevitably become more fragile in that the nearer we reach the source the more ascents we will be faced with, the source being on the Tibetan plateau at an altitude of over 4,000 metres. As we sped downhill we were cheered by the imminent prospect of a shower and bed in Jiang Chuang.


A tetchy start to the day. Ian, puffy-eyed with too much sleep, and me, bags under the eyes from too little sleep. It was perhaps provoked by me being unable to sleep after eight o’clock and having breakfast alone, leaving Ian to his dreams. Whatever the cause, there was a certain coolness that clouded most of the day, and that was not just due to the weather.

For lunch we stopped in a nondescript town and ate in an unremarkable roadside restaurant, low tables and stools, dirty white walls and concrete floor being the usual norm. That was until two other cyclists, a Frenchman and a French Canadian, also stopped for a bite to eat. You can imagine our surprise at coming across two fellow cyclists, but that must have been nothing in comparison to the dumbstruck awe of the locals in the restaurant. The odds of two foreign cyclists stopping at this cafe were remote at the best of times, the chances of two sets of foreign cyclists arriving at the same time enough to make a local take a huge sip of his ‘mijiu’, rice spirit wine, in disbelief. We swapped stories and news of our respective roads ahead, leaving the locals open-mouthed and still scratching their heads.

In sight of Yu Long Xue Shan, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, we came across a film crew that we had seen shooting various scenes in Dali. In Dali we had thought the male lead to be a stroppy star whom was full of himself, whereas in actual fact he was a very pleasant travel agent making a tourist film on Yunnan along with a female television presenter. For reasons that escaped us at the time, perhaps they were just amused by two crazy cyclists, they wanted to film us and even interview us as to what we thought of Yunnan. It was a bizarre experience, our answers in English not always in synch with their Chinese questions. Half the questions were asked as noisy trucks came careering around the corner, so much so that I think that the editor has his or her work cut out, excuse the pun. At the very least we got to star in a Yunnan Tourist Authority film, their equivalent of the ‘Holiday Programme’, getting some unusual exposure for Kona, the manufacturers of our bikes.

An easy eight-five kilometres brought us to Qiaotao, a point at which the Yangtze River is transformed. Prior to Qiaotao the Yangtze, although deceptively fast flowing, appears calm and steady in its progress. But after Qiaotao and for the next seventeen kilometres the river is a furious seething rage of rapids forcing its way through one of the deepest gorges in the world, Tiger Leaping Gorge. The gorge is so named because according to legend a tiger fleeing from some hunters was able to leap across the narrow gorge and thus to freedom.

Fanciful only in name, Tiger Leaping Gorge is the most impressive sight on the Yangtze River, much more so than the more famous Three Gorges that are soon to be immersed by the controversial dam of the same name. As Simon Winchester says in his book ‘The River at The Centre of The World’ “it far outranks the Three Gorges in depth and spectacle.” Despite it being the ‘wrong river’ Ian and I felt that it would be foolish to miss such an opportunity and abandoned our bikes in Qiaotao for a two-day trek through the gorge and then on to Lijiang before returning back to Qiaotao by bus.


In its seventeen kilometre passage through Tiger Leaping Gorge the Yangtze falls almost one thousand feet through a series of daunting rapids. These rapids are of such a size and intensity that various surveys have proclaimed that it is not possible to raft or kayak this stretch of the river. Some have tried, but none have proved these studies wrong. No less impressive are the vertical cliff faces that soared thousands of feet above the turbulent waters.

I had the good fortune to first visit Tiger Leaping Gorge in 1996 and at the time joked with friends that the Chinese would soon pave the rugged trail that clung tenuously to the steep hillside. They thought that I was being ridiculous, exaggerating the fact that Chinese shoes are of such poor quality and their lungs so weak that they would need to make the path easier before they could negotiate it. Unfortunately we were both wrong. I say unfortunately because the Chinese have gone one step worse and are in the process of building a road along the length of the gorge.

The ability of the Chinese to build such a road is impressive given how sheer and narrow the gorge is, but why they have to prove themselves here, in Tiger Leaping Gorge, is inexplicable. Blasting has ripped savage scars in the mountainside that are eyesores and desecrate the otherwise stunning beauty of the vista. Scree slopes and the amount of dust blown about are clear evidence of soil erosion caused by the blasting, and does not bode well for the future. Zhu Rong Ji, the Chinese Premier, has warned of the dangers of soil erosion and how it has caused severe flooding lower down the Yangtze, but here his words are ignored. The local authorities seem only concerned with any local profit to be made from the opening up of the gorge to the less adventurous Chinese tourists.

It is all very well to try to grant as many people as possible access to the area, but not when it so blatantly detracts from the natural splendour of the gorge. I am probably especially embittered because we saw the demolition in progress, heard the explosion of dynamite and saw the distant puffs of dust. We even had the grisly misfortune to see a man lying on the ground, his skull hollow and cracked like an eggshell, killed by falling rocks. In the US, Britain and elsewhere the damage has already been done, the wilderness and the unknown tamed by traffic and dissected by tarmac. But at least we have stopped such building realising that we cannot recapture such landscapes. Sadly, the Chinese seem to feel that their country has so much beauty that a little will not be missed. The building of a road through Tiger Leaping Gorge is scandalous.

Yet for the blight on the landscape that the road is, Tiger Leaping Gorge is still absorbing. Sheer slopes stretch up and up into the clouds. Vertiginous drops plummet into the boiling white water that surges below. On the far side of the river black dramatic faces of granite rise steeply, impressive in their height, and foreboding in their inhospitable nature and lack of vegetation. The foaming mass of water is daunting in its rawness, size and strength when we stood alongside its thunderous might. Yet from hundreds of feet above it looks almost diminutive, the sound of crashing water dulled by distance, taken by the wind, a background rush rather than a roar.

Our trekking was broken by the cluster of houses known as Walnut Grove, a name that would seem more at ease with Sunday morning television and the Waltons than a spectacular gorge in China. Walnut Grove itself is a sweeping series of terraces from high above the houses to the depths of the river below. The terraces look light and fluffy, green mossy steps that would allow me to bounce and float down the hillside. Such is their contrast to the severity of the sheerness to the south of the river. Here we paused for breath and food, enjoying the hospitality of ‘Chateau de Woody’. An abandoned, yet expensively made sign, which lay rusting in a corner, summed up the endearing appeal of the place. In proclaiming “Woody HG”, rather than GH for guesthouse, it was trying so hard but was not quite there.

Walking out of Walnut Grove, the precipitous heights are left behind, replaced by the openness and space of Daju. Although mountains surround Daju, they are distant and not as menacing. And yet I still feel overwhelmed by the landscape, but here it is not the mountains but rather the expanse of prairie-like space. Gone too are the harsh, unyielding colours of the mountains, their barren browns and dull greens, instead we came across the fertile productivity of neatly tended plots of land, the golden plenty of wheat that is about to be harvested.

From Daju we took a rickety old local bus that struggled with the never-ending succession of hairpin bends and the 4,500-foot climb out of the valley. As the road twisted at each turn it revealed yet an even better view of Daju nestling below, the mountains an impressive backdrop. Once over the pass we are faced with a different, but equally dramatic sight, that of Yu Long Xue Shan, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Craggy, brooding and black, like a series of witches’ hats, it looms large at 5,500 metres. It’s stark ferocity broken by a sprinkling of snow.


The impressive bulk of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain dominates the valley below and the picturesque town of Lijiang, a town that is famed for its charm. ‘The Forgotten Kingdom’ written by the White Russian Peter Goullart in 1940 best describes and captures the timeless charm of Lijiang. “In the beautiful valley of Lijiang, then still untouched by the complexities and hurry of modern life, time had a different value. It was a gentle friend and a trusted teacher, possessing, there, a magical property which not only I but others had noticed. Instead of being too long it was too short; the days passed like hours, and the weeks like days; a year was like a month.”

But the advent of aeroplanes (the airport opened in 1998) and affliction of earthquakes have wrought a sad change. The last major earthquake in 1996 did cause damage and the loss of sixty-three lives, but the construction that has gone on in recent years has done far more harm to the old town. The centre of the old town has been desecrated, the quaint charming buildings of old replaced by bright new replicas that have transformed the town into a tourist trap, a pathetic mixture of Carnaby Street and Chinatown. An explosion of boutiques, cafes pandering to western stomach and loud signs in Chinese, English and Japanese vie for space on the streets with the armada of artists, who are armed with easel and pallet, churning out pastel paintings to fill the shops with momentos of Lijiang.

Hidden away from the centre, the old town still manages to retain much of its enduring charm and character. Here there is a peaceful tranquillity as everything slows. There is no bustle, no traffic, only worn stone and cobbled streets that lazily wind their way between old, traditional houses. There is a lack of conformity and symmetry in the houses, each is individual and distinct, and in defiant contrast to the sameness and uniformity that characterises the new town. Walls slope, a riot of angles, leaning and wobbling, struggling for balance as if caught in freeze frame before being devoured by the earth. Upturned eaves, sloping roofs enchant the eye. Some roofs sag in the middle under the strain of time, others have rebellious weeds sprouting between the slates, which are black or grey, worn and faded with time. The wooden walls, which hide the life that goes on within the courtyard, are a dull ox-blood colour, their hues gentle and subtle, their dullness imbuing the houses with a sense of history. Occasionally a door left ajar allows a sneak look into the world inside, the agreeable courtyards, neat and clean, swept daily, with bicycles, orchids and a forest of potted plants.

Here amongst the old houses of wood and brick, wattle and daub, is a glimpse of the past little found elsewhere in China. The pace is easy-going, even sedate, lacking the pressure of time that is so much a part of everyday life in the rest of the country. Beneath the haphazard wiring strewn from house to house, an electrician’s nightmare, I sit and pass the time, content to watch the world go by. Half of the charm of the town is the burbling, gurgling chatter of the mountain water as it gushes through the town, directed in ancient channels in an excited frenzy. The water is crystal clear and the local Naxi draw their water from these streams and wash their clothes in them.

Naxi society is matriarchal, the women holding the reins of power and doing most of the work. Even the language of the Naxi is influenced by the matriarchy; the addition of woman or a female adjective to a noun infers greater size, whereas use of the male renders the noun smaller. Hence in basic terms a woman stone is a boulder whilst a man stone is a pebble. The women, dressed in blue aprons and blue caps, shuffle along the streets, stooped and bent from years of carrying heavy burdens, from years of bearing the responsibility of family, coping and dealing with everyday life.

The women, as Peter Goullart explains, indulge their men-folk giving them leisure time, time for thinking and meditation, “they had time to observe and drink deeply of their marvellous valley.” Goullart goes on to say, “Spoiled they were, these Naxi men, and many smoked opium to excess, but passing years mellowed them and turned their hearts to the attainment of culture and the understanding of beautiful things.” Not all this leisure time went to waste and the men turned to music “to express the exquisite joy of living and to enhance the serenity of their old age.” Thus these men, through their music, what is now called Naxi music, have retained a music that was played during the heyday of the glorious Han and Tang dynasties and probably during the time of Confucius himself.

Goullart goes on to describe the music, its performance, “Although I love music, I am not, alas a musician and cannot describe the music that followed in technical terms. It was mystic and inspiring, and proceeded in rising and falling cadences. Then as a climax the great gong was struck. The whole house seemed to vibrate with its velvety waves. Then, rising from their chairs, the elders sang a sacred ode in a natural voice and with great reverence and feeling. Then the symphony continued, with notes of sweetness, falling like a cascade from the jade lunettes, and giving way to a golden shower of sounds from the chromatic bells.”

I too was enchanted by the music when we went to a performance that evening, swept along by its exotic strangeness, consumed by its rhythm. But I am even less of a musician than Peter Goullart and, although taken by the sound, I was more struck by the spectacle, the sight of such brilliantly old faces, eyes closed in concentration, totally absorbed in their own performance. Yang Zenglie at fifty-nine the general secretary of the Naxi Music Association, who plays the pipe and cymbals, explains that, “When playing this sacred music, we must sit immobile like a Buddha, forget daily life and become totally immersed in the music.”

The ensemble is led by Xuan Ke, a retired music teacher of 69, who spent most of his formative years in a Chinese gulag as a result of humming a few bars of Schubert. Xuan Ke has an eleven year old daughter, denied the chance to marry and have children when younger, he stoically remarks, “Better late than never.” It is such history, such suffering and spirit that is etched into the furrows and wrinkles of every band member. Nearly ten of the musicians are over eighty years old, with Sun Ziming being the oldest at eighty-eight - what shared experiences, what they must have seen, witnessed and endured. It was not just the musicians who became immersed in their music, for I began to feel that it had an essence, a unique spirit, just like those who play it.


The next morning we headed north out of Lijiang on our bikes to Yufeng Si, the Temple of the Thousand-Blossom Camellia Tree, that has sold out to the new influx of pilgrims. The tourists of today are more eager to see and photograph the tree than soak up the atmosphere and beauty of the surrounds. The pine forest is gently stirred by the wind, whispering soothing messages, instilling a feeling of serenity and peace. I begin to understand the Naxi and their love of time and the open. For as Peter Goullart says, “No Naxi ever wanted to leave the valley if he could help it...In Lijiang, where every man and woman was an individual and a person, the very idea of the shuffling, anonymous multitudes of China and India made these independent people shudder. The idea of free people being shut up to work in airless rooms for hours was abhorrent to the Naxi. Neither for love nor money, they declared, would they ever work in such factories as what they had seen in Kunming and Shanghai.”

Most visitors to Lijiang will make a short visit out to Baisha town, which means ‘white sands’. Unfortunately they go not to visit the wonderful, though partially destroyed and damaged murals, but rather the equally damaged Dr Ho. Dr Ho was catapulted to fame by Bruce Chatwin in his book ‘Songlines’ and has since received a mention in every guide book about the area. Chatwin romanticised Dr Ho describing him as the “Taoist physician in the Jade Dragon Mountains of Lijiang”. Not wanting to miss out we made the pilgrimage to Baisha, after all if John Cleese had been there it could not be all bad. The guidebooks quote John Cleese as writing in one of Dr Ho's many visitors books “Nice bloke - crap tea”. I am sure that many of the visitors to Baisha are John Cleese fans and merely want to see the quote for themselves, the cult of Cleese being greater than the cult of Ho.

“Aaah, welcome, welcome. I am the world famous Dr Ho,” was the greeting of this ultimate self-publicist, whose tea has done wonders for his own personality - so much so that at seventy-six he is still infatuated by himself. That is perhaps a little harsh for Dr Ho does have a likeable charm. He appears beaming “Here, here, another article. American magazine,” and then runs off again rummaging for further press cuttings and evidence of his international renowned. His blue woolly 'Benny' hat, his white coat that has seen better days and his wispy grey beard, or rather collection of hairs on his chin, are all amusing rather than aggravating. His sales-pitch of “How much for tea? You pay how much you think?” is both cheeky and hugely successful. He is certainly much more pleasant than his obsequious son who to all intents and purposes has jumped on the bandwagon and has no intention but to live off his father’s name.

“This my wife, she seventy-five,” says Dr Ho of a woman retiring into the shadows, who seems disinterested with his shameless sales-pitch, having been subjected to it day after day, for year after year. For all his tea's alleged curative powers it did little for me, but then as I far as I know I have no major ailment. I would go along with John Cleese, but would not try to be as succinct or witty as he, and say that although the tea was bland, the whole experience was entertaining, largely due to the effusive personality of Dr Ho himself.

Having been and done, and survived the Dr Ho experience, we headed south of Lijiang into the quiet, untouched peace of village life. Here despite the intrusion of tarmac, much of the valley’s old charm is retained, little has changed over the years. Houses are still constructed in the same age-old way, the craft and knowledge passed down from generation to generation, buffalo still plough the fields. Life is hard but sedate, old men sitting around and killing time. It was by one such group of men, their faces creased with character, hair greyed by time, still wearing their ancient Mao suits, that we stopped to join in their admirable Naxi practice of killing time. We sat together and shared the silence. Or at least that is what we would like to think, they were probably thinking to themselves, “What do they think that they are doing by coming over here, stopping and sitting down next to us, why don’t they bugger off.”

If our sitting close by surprised them, they must have been flabbergasted when I pulled out my Polaroid camera and with the permission of one man took a photo of him. They were non-plussed when I handed the undeveloped Polaroid to him. “Deng xiao, deng xiao,” I urged them to be patient. Slowly as the image began to form, their faces creased in smiles, eyes wide, the occasional amazed, yet delighted, throaty chuckle. By the time the picture had totally developed the old man was beaming, nodding his head rapidly in appreciation. Then he suddenly struggled to his feet, and with the aid of an old cane, shuffled off, beckoning for me to follow.

Around the corner were a group of elderly women, chatting and gossiping while they worked, the latter being the difference between the two groups. The old man proudly thrust the photo in front of one of the women, presumably his wife, or at least I hope it was, eagerly awaiting her reaction. Her amazement and then giggles of pleasure seemed to satisfy the elderly gent. He then motioned for me to take a photo of his wife. But his wife would have none of it, protesting in Naxi, totally unintelligible, but her actions were clear: her hair was greasy as well as being unclean, her clothes were dirty from working in the fields and her toothless grin the final straw. The old man was clearly disappointed in his wife’s vanity, and desperately tried to persuade her to change her mind. We realised that he was fighting a losing battle and believing that hell hath no fury like a woman photographed when she does not want to be, made a quiet exit.

From relaxation in Lijiang it was back to Qiaotao and the business at hand. Our maps ominously informed us that if Qiaotao was a defining point in the passage of the Yangtze, it was no less so for us. But unfortunately, if Qiaotao marked a sharp fall for the river, it was the beginning of a long and steep climb for us.



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