Wednesday, December 17th, 2003 – Day 302

Wednesday, December 17th, 2003 – Day 302

I meant to do a few things today but they did not come through. I was up at 9.00am and headed down to the Public Security Bureau for a Visa Extension. This can take a week in Beijing as they question why you need one, but here I had an additional 30 days for 160 Yuan. I only need about 10 of those but I found 30 days was too tight so I needed 60.

I had planned to take a Public bus to Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) today but SO much hassles with Public Transport (if there any). This is because the Number Six bus (mentioned in the Lonely Planet) doesn’t exist and The number Seven wants 150 Yuan. (I later found out that the bus goes from the small bus station opposite the Mao statue station for 8 Yuan.

This magnificent 35km (21-mile) long mountain range framing Lijiang is a must-visit. The tallest of the mountain’s 13 peaks is the daunting Fan Peak; elev. 5,596m/18,355 ft.), perennially snowcapped and climbed for the first time only in 1963 by a research team from Beijing. Today’s visitors have a number of options for exploring the mountain. All require you to pay a 60 Yuan ($7.50) entrance fee to the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Scenic Area, about 30km (20 miles) north of town. Many tourists visit as part of an organized tour.

Anyway as I plan to start the tiger Leaping Gorge Trek tomorrow, I had to buy a cheap Chinese Army Coat. Its new, she wanted 140 Yan, but I got her town to 50 Yuan. Its OK. I headed down to the market with my Magnum Walking Boots. The Sole had some loose on both boots. I have noticed this for months. There were about 6 people mending shoes at the market. Its cool. The lady wanted 5 Yuan per boot to re stitch them by hand. She was over charging but I respected the job she was about to do. She did not know what tick the leather comes in with these boots. It was very hard work and it took her nearly 45 minutes to stitch them by hand with tough thread back together. She did a great job and I gave her 14 Yuan. She was delighted but it was I who got a bargain and I was ashamed.

I then walked to Heilng Tn Gongyun (Black Dragon Pool Park) and paid the 20 Yuan entrance.

About 1.5km (1 mile) north of the old town, this park, which contains the source of much of the old town’s water, also offers Ljiang’s most famous photo op: the distant snowcapped Jade Dragon Snow Mountain fronted by the park’s Moon Embracing Pavilion, and Wukong Qio (Five Arch Bridge). In the eastern section is the three-story Ming dynasty Wufng Lu (Five Phoenix Hall), with soaring eaves meant to resemble flying phoenixes. Also here is the Dongba Cultural Research Institute, where you can see experts translating Dongba pictographs.

It was pretty and a nice walk around the lake which was full of fish.

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Lijiang – Heilng Tn Gongyun (Black Dragon Pool Park) (17-12-2003)

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Lijiang – Heilng Tn Gongyun (Black Dragon Pool Park) (17-12-2003)

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Lijiang – Heilng Tn Gongyun (Black Dragon Pool Park) (17-12-2003)

Later, I purchased some supplies for my trek over the next three days. I also had a nice Naxi meal in a restaurant for 12 Yuan (1.20 euro).

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Lijiang (17-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Lijiang (17-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Lijiang – Mao statue (17-12-2003)

Tuesday, December 16th, 2003 – Day 301

Tuesday, December 16th, 2003 – Day 301

I was up at 8.30am and stuffed myself in the all you can eat breakfast buffet (although not as much as others). One guy must have had about 5 full breakfasts. I paid 30 Yuan per day in Old Dali Inn (Number Five Guest house). I thought I would be smart and take the 1 Yuan bus back to Xiaguan and get a bus from there. When I arrived at the bus station there, they said they had no buses to Lijiang. A few frustrating moments until an employee put me into a taxi (I hate taxis) and send off. I arrived at the right bus station (there are 4 in town) and paid the taxi 5 Yuan (.50 cent). I purchased a ticket to Lijiang. It cost 35.50 Yuan.

I was the only person on the mini bus and it took about 3.5 hours. We collected more people on the way. There are so many markets in this area. There are markets for everyday of the week. We passed about three on the way.

I arrived in Lijiang about 1.00pm. I walked to the old town. I did what you should not do. I booked into the first hotel I found. I went a bit upmarket for a room with shower. She wanted 80 Yuan but as soon as I mentioned 50, she said Yes. I should have said 40 Yuan, Ah well. The room has great views over the old town.

Lijiang is as lovely as it gets in China. Located in the northwest part of Yunnan Province, this capital of the Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County (pop. 302,000) is home to the Naxi people (who constitute almost 60% of its population) and to a smaller number of Bai, Tibetan, Mosu, and Han peoples. Though its history dates to the Warring States (475-221 B.C.), its most influential period was when it was governed by Nxi chieftains during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

In February 1996, an earthquake hit Lijiang, killing over 300 people and destroying much of the city. Amazingly, many of the traditional Naxi houses held up quite well, leading the government in its reconstruction process to pour millions of yuan into replacing concrete buildings with traditional wooden Naxi architecture. The World Bank came up with rebuilding funds, and Lijiang was conferred with the ultimate imprimatur (some would say the kiss of death) as a UNESCO World Heritage town in 1999. All this attention plus the construction of a new airport and hotels has turned it into a major tourist destination. Lijiang’s old town, with its cobblestone streets, gurgling streams, and Naxi architecture, thankfully preserves a modicum of traditional ways, but as Han merchants move in to cater to hordes of stampeding tourists, many of the Naxi who still live there (about 6,000 households) are finding their old way of life being challenged.

Located on the road to Tibet in a region widely regarded as being one of the most beautiful in the world, Lijiang also offers a plethora of fascinating side trips that can easily take up to a week or more of your time. Lijiang (elev. 2,340m/7,800 ft.) has a pleasant climate year-round with average temperatures in the spring, summer, and fall ranging between 60F and 80F (16C and 27C). Spring and summer are the best times to visit, as the summer months are often crowded with Chinese tourists.

The Naxi–The majority of China’s Naxi population, numbering just under 290,000, lives in Yunnan, and of this group, more than half reside in the Ljiang Naxi Autonomous County; the rest reside in Zhongdin, Nnglng, Yongshng, and Dqn counties to the northwest. Though the Naxi’s exact origins are not known, they are thought to be descendants of the ancient nomadic Tibetan Qiang tribes of Qinghai. Driven south by northern invaders, the Naxi have been resident in the Lijiang area for around 1,400 years.

The Naxi believe in a polytheistic religion called dongba (meaning “wise man” or “scripture reader”), which is a blend of Tibetan lamaism, Daoism, and shamanistic beliefs in various gods and spirits in nature. Dongba are also Naxi shamans, the most revered figures because they not only act as mediators between the present and the spirit world but are the only ones who can read, write, and interpret the approximately 1,400 pictographic characters that comprise the Naxi script created over a thousand years ago.

The importance of the shaman notwithstanding, women play a dominant role in Naxi society, which is matrilineal in nature. Inheritance passes from the mother through the youngest daughter, and women control the purse strings, work the fields, and trade at markets. It is the men who traditionally function as child-raisers, gardeners, and musicians. The revival in recent years of traditional Naxi music has helped keep alive an ancient art form that the Naxi have been practicing since before the days of Kublai Khan’s invasion of Lijiang in the 13th century. Many of the songs, rarely heard anywhere else and some dating as far back as the Sing and Ting dynasties, are played on rare and unusual musical instruments several hundred years old. Dongba music and dance performances are held every evening in the old town, and feature prominently as well in Naxi festivals, including the traditional Sanduo Festival held on the eighth day of the second lunar month to honor the god Sanduo, believed to be the great protector of the Naxi against a whole horde of pestilence and disasters.

Its really nice town to walk around. The streets are closed to traffic (they are too small anyway). They Naxi shops, cobbled stones paths. Yopu get lost straight away. Lots of Chinese tourists but very few Westerners. I headed down to the Market where many Naxi were selling. Including Dog, Rabbit, Pigeon meat. There were two cages with 9 dogs next to the slaughter house. Ah well.

I spent the full day walking around. The weather is excellent during the day. You are likely to get sunburn but it gets very cold at night. All hostel beds and hotel beds come with an electric blanket and I used mine. I watched a terrible film with Chinese subtitles called Beyond the Peak.

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Lijiang – Naxi Woman (16-12-2003)

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Lijiang – Poor digs at the slaughter house (16-12-2003)

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Lijiang – Naxi Women at Market (16-12-2003)

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Lijiang (16-12-2003)

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Lijiang – Amateur Dancing at the MArket Place (16-12-2003)

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Lijiang (16-12-2003)

Monday, December 15th, 2003 – Day 300

Monday, December 15th, 2003 – Day 300

Three Hundred days away from Home. How time has flew. It was cold again last night bus I slept well. I was up at 8.00am and decided to buy a ticket for the hostel buffet. It was 10 Yuan (10 cent) all you can eat. It was excellent and had everything from rice, bacon, eggs, toast, fruit, yogurt etc. Well worth it. Fit for a king. It was Monday and the Shaping Market takes place. You can go via a travel agent for between 15-20 Yuan. I walked 10 minutes to the road for that town. There was a bus ready to go. It was 4 Yuan each way. It was full my the time we got to Shaping. I left at 9.00am and it took 45 minutes. Forty cent for 28km. Dublin Bus should take note.

Shaping Market is one of a weekly series of rotating farmer’s markets in the vicinity of Dali, Yunnan Province. It takes about one hour from old Dali to Shaping by minibus. The walled city of old Dali is the historic center of the Bai Minority Group who ruled the area from the 7th to the 13th century. The market is sandwiched between the river that drains into Erhai Lake and the marble quarries. The quarries produce a famous marble which is cut by multi-bladed saws into thin slabs to revel the “landscape” inside. People arrived from the high-walled, mud-brick village compounds that cluster in the terraced green fields between the mountains and the lake. Whole families trek across the bridge balancing baskets of produce including tiny lavender eggplants, emerald green bok choy, solid kohlrabies and clusters of green onions.

Small trucks with their exposed diesel engines unloaded people and livestock. A pink scrubbed pig and five piglets arrived in a wheelbarrow. Chickens come poised precariously in wide covered baskets on the backs of bicycles. Every type of merchandise has its own section sprawled out over the barren rocky hillside. There was a young man selling locally forged scissors and knives. The shoe repair woman skillfully peddled her treadle sewing machine.

In addition to produce, the Bai women sell many other things such as long hanks of handmade string in different thicknesses, big gunny sacks of a dried, mossy looking stuff that turned out to be chicken feed, and large, but graceful utilitarian baskets. Some of the baskets for thrashing rice are more than six feet (2 meters) across. They also run the hot food stalls, the artifact, batik and “silver” trinket stalls, candy stalls where plastic bags are blown up with a puff of breath like balloons and filled with multi-colored sweets from a hand-held balance scale. Bai women, even the younger ones, still wear much of their customary, heavily embroidered clothing, although they like dark stretch pants. They are traditionally matriarchal and it shows. At Shaping Market, they control the prices in the umbrella shaded booths, even if a man initially appears to be in charge. When Ron started to bargain seriously over embroidered hats, the women took over. They will do anything to make an advantageous sale: laugh, joke, sulk, let you walk away, and finally, if nothing else works, lower the price. Taken from here.

I was there for about two hours. I purchased a wooly hat cum balavlava and some insoles for my trainers. I was looking to purchase a Chinese Army Great Green Coat for the colder and snow I am expecting the more west I go. I was bargaining with a guy for a second hand one when I felt my wallet in my right pocket for my pants move. I looked down and I saw to long stiff thin wires like a tong in my pocket. My wallet was half way out when he saw my hand move towards my wallet. We withdrew one foot. Cool as a cumcumber without looking at me, she took a cigarette out and lit in. I could not believe it. I knew two kids saw what happened and were looking at me in expectation. The guy with the coat also went quiet. I had no hand on my wallet and one hand clutching my day bag, but I wanted to smack the smug bastard. I stood there for 40-60 seconds staring at me, but he did not flinch. I walked away from the situation.

I was shaking for a few minutes as I regained my composure. I had my wallet stolen in Peru 4/5 months ago and vowed I would not let it happen again. At this was a busy market- and still I should have taken more precautions. It was like attempted GBH. Nothing happened but because the attempt was made, it was as bad. I id not enjoy the market as much after, as I kept seeing the fecker. I sat down near a wall and watched him pass me and then stand about 5 feet behind me. I clocked him and started staring at him and he was staring at me. It was a evil looking fecker all dressed in black, mid 30’s, wiry. Bastard.

The market itself was excellent as the report above shows. I enjoyed it. There was a traveling showman in one area who put a knife through his wrist. I am not sure how he did it. He ad the audience enthralled. There was lots of blood (fake). He then withdrew the knife and sprinkled powder (which he was selling) on to it. He was healed. He was good and made a few jokes to the audience at my expense. He used to day things (the audience looked at me) and all laughed. I didn’t mind.

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Dali – Shaping Market (15-12-2003)

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Dali – Shaping Market (15-12-2003)

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Dali – Shaping Market (15-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Dali – Shaping Market (15-12-2003)

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Dali – Shaping Market (15-12-2003)

The bus journeys can be scary as they are always braking unexpectedly. Happened as I took the bus back to town and also yesterday. People standing in the aisle were thrown to the ground. Many drivers are inexperienced and the surface is very bumpy.

I got back at 1.30pm. I called into the Dali town market for a while. Its mainly vegetables and meat (pig mostly).

I went back to the hostel and decided to have a shower. Its too damn cold in the morning and in the evening. I cut my hair, had a shave, cut nails and washed. Washed that Wiry thievin bastard right out. At 4.00pm I decided to walk to the lake to watch sunset. It is a 50 minute walk. I decided not to take the high way or main roads but walk on small paths through the Paddy fields. The fields here are always full of people. Farmers don’t own the land. Usually villages control and farm the land but the state owns it. When I pass fields, there might be 30 people working in it. They work hard. They bring water to the plants from the village which could be miles away. Most villages may not be able to afford a tractor to truck to move the produce. Its tough.

Many economists argue China’s current rural land-contract system – farmers have the right to use, but do not own, their land – should be improved.

In China, farmers do not own the property rights to their rural land. All rural land, though legally belonging to farmers’ collective organizations such as villages, is in fact controlled by the State. Economists also contend farmers should be granted ownership of the plots of land they use, and that Chinese authorities should establish a free-market style land-transaction system.

Most farmers are part of theses collectives so to combine land, but they must get permission from the commune leaders to get married, have kids etc. The problem is discussed here and here.

Anyway it was nice walking amongst the fields watch the farmers. Most of the work was been done my women. They were sowing seeds, cultivating land by land, washing produce in ponds of water. It was an excellent walk, although I had to take small paths, go through small alleys and back yards to houses. People were friendly. I one alley a guy had a computer running with the aid of a generator. He was taking digital photos and printing them out for people and framing them (all for a fee). There must have been 40 people crowded around him. I should have taken that attempted bastard thieves picture this morning and posted it on the web.

Anyway I got to the lake. There hundreds of paths leading to the lake and you will never see a tourist as no buses can reach there. I reached a small inlet with three small boats. I must have spent 40 minutes there watching the changing colors as the sun went down. The blue lake and the golden mountains behind it.

Erhai Lake

Erhai (literally, Ear Lake), just as its name implies, is similar in form to that of an ear. It is a fresh water lake two kilometers east of Dali and, in the middle of it, there are islets and sandbars. Covering 250 square kilometers, the blue, rippling lake and the snow-covered Mt. Cangshan add radiance and beauty to each other. The scene is, therefore, described as “Silver Cangshan and Jade Erhai”.

Three main islands and several temples and villages along the lake’s dry eastern shore are worth visiting. About an hour by boat from Xianguan is Golden Shuttle Island (Jinsuo Dao), with a small fishing community on the east side and a cave for exploring. On the shore, directly north of the island, is a rocky peninsula crowned by a pavilion and temple. Sacred Buddhist buildings, destroyed and rebuilt many times, have stood on this spot for nearly 1,500 years. Luoyuan Temple was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution but has been put back together and has a great charm.

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Dali – Lake (15-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Dali – Lake (15-12-2003)

I started walking back. It got dark real quick and was pitch dark when I reached half way point. I went back a different way from which I came but joined the original path again. It took me 50 minutes again. I was back my 7.15am.

I see in Ireland, CHINESE takeaway staff are to be given special training in food safety because particular hygiene problems have been identified in the sector, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has revealed.

Sunday, December 14th, 2003 – Day 299

Sunday, December 14th, 2003 – Day 299

It was a cold night and my fabricated room was no match. The beds and blankets are smaller here. I had a poor nights sleep. At least I have a talking Spanish watch to tell me the time. I will know the Spanish numbers for a long time. I was up at 8.30am and had a wash. I was walking to Zhonghe Si temple this morning.

You can take a cable car for 35 Yan up and 15 Yuan down. I decided to walk. The Lonely Planet says an hour but it took me 25 minutes to get to the base of the mountain. It took me some time to find a path. I was worried that no other tourists were about. I was a little apprehensive about this hike since a German tourist had been robbed and murdered on this path in 1997. I started walking up a steep path and hell it was steep. About 1/2 the way up, the ground was hard and frost covered. It was not a pretty walk as the forest closed around me most of the way.

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Dali – Trip up the Mountain (14-12-2003)

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Dali – Trip up the Mountain (14-12-2003)

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Dali – Trip up the Mountain (14-12-2003)

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Dali – Trip up the Mountain (14-12-2003)

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Dali – Trip up the Mountain (14-12-2003)

I hiked up through some farmers’ fields, up a hill covered with family tombs, and up to the temple of Zhonghe Si high above Dali. The views over the Dali valley and the Er Lake were fantastic. The temple was empthy and I enjoyed it. it took me 50 minutes to climb there. I saw no other people. When i was a bout to leave back down a TV crew arrrived with about 20 girls dressed in ethnic clothing and a 4 man band. They were filming a tourism poromotional video. I watch as the music played (it was excellent) and the girls danced. I was there for an hour.

There was a dodby guy waiting on the downward tril. Every time I started the trail down he started. i went back to the temple and he followed. Panic. Then he started walking down. I followed carefully five minutes later. No sign but with tick forest, wwho knows where he was. I jogged and jumped my way down the mountain using a different path taht went past few lovely farm fields. It only took me 25 minutes. I ran ahlf the way. There was no sign of the guy.

I next walked to the Three Pagodas

The three elegant pagodas arise on the Mt. Cangshan slope overlooking the Erhai Lake, known as Chong sheng San ta, the Three Pagodas of Saintly Worship. These outstanding landmarks of the region were once part of the greatest temple complex on the Dali plain. In recent times the Three Pagodas site has become extremely popular with tourists, and inevitably is becoming overrun with stalls selling marble wares. The tallest of the three, Qianxun Pagoda, has 16 tiers that reach a height of 69.13 meters (230 feet). Its structure is similar to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi province. It is built in an architectural style typical of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The two smaller pagodas to its west and north, each 42 meters (135 feet) high with ten tiers, have a luxurious appearance with their exquisite carvings. They were built in the Five Dynasties (907-960). More than 600 rare relics of the states of Nanzhao and Dali were discovered in the three pagodas during the 1978 reconstruction, making them even more famous.

Well I did not actiually visit them. I went to the lake beside them so that I could see there reflection in that lake. It was cool. It was 4 Yuan in.

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Dali – Pagodas (14-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Dali (14-12-2003)

It was 1.45pm. I was back from the mountain at noon. I deecided to take a bus back to Xiaguan to see if I could get my camera pictures transferred to DDik. i had no luck in Dalia nd I needed space on my camera. I would not expect to see many more computers with CD-RW over the next 3 weeks.

It was half an hour there and I walked into the first palce I saw. The manger had no English and it seemed thaey hadnt done the service before. they did have a CD-RW. I did it myself but the manager helped as all the software and computer text was in Chinese. As I have donee it dozzens of times, I know what buttons to prress. It could be in any language.

After I copuied it to Disk, he already ahd a Chinese – English – Chinese translation piece of software on the computer open. He was adamant taht I type. For the next two hours, we typed backa nd forth. He had no Englisha nd I had no Chinese. He typed and asked questions. i responded. My text coming out as Chinese and vice versa. At the end It was invited to his wedding on the 7th of January. I was meant to go to Dinner that night with his bride. He had rung so make siure it wwas OK to invite me. Still, inviting a foreigner to your wedding after 20 minutes is strange.

He shhowed me all his wedding photos. Its comman practice here. They go to a professioanl studio nd dress up in 10-12 different suits, dresses and backgrounds. A few pictures in traditioanl Chinese Dress, a few outdoor shots. In all the towns here there are dozens of wedding photographers. Its big business and the pictures in the windows are years ahead of the West. They have Hong Kong Actionn Photos, birds been released int he background, wheat fields, the bride looking forlorn. Still, nice to look at. He had his photos on Disk so i looked at them.

After getting his email and phone number I headed off. i had a bite to eat in the town for 20,000 Dong. It was a big Dinner. She nearly forced on me. Two bowls of meat and rice. Then a massive hot bowl of vegetables. A hot bot of vegeatbles. I did not recognise half on them. Tasted like sea weed.

It was 6.30pm and I headed into a big supermarket for toothpaste and soap. There are attendant rvrtywhere for every product. In the soap shelfs, there were 3 girls trying to impress me with the qualities of there soap. It was all Chinese to me so i just nodded. Not many tourists come to town but you get alot of staresand giggles. Its a big town and its well worth visiting. Alot of them visit Old Dali during the weekend.

I got back and paid 30 yuan for tonights accommodation. i could not be bothered changing. The weather here is exceellent during the day. Bright Blue skies and a crisp warm sun. In the morning and the evening it gets cold.

Saturday, December 13th, 2003 – Day 298

Saturday, December 13th, 2003 – Day 298

I had a poor nights sleep. I always do when I have to get up early. I was up at 6.50am and out the dorr of the YUNAN FANDIAN by 7.15am. I walked 12 minutes to the station where I was surprised to find my bus was a mini bus. There are severe warnings in the LOnely Planet: China guide about bags been robbed, backpacks been razored here so I was extra careful. There were about five people directly me into the van. I put my abg in te booth. I neer had such an uncomfotable time beacuse of the warnings. I was sure my bag had been pinched because I could hear it been opened and closed. Thanks to the LOnely Planet, I was paranoid. I did not sleep during the seven hour journey. We stopped once for lunch which was nice. I arrived in what I thought was Dali at 3.30pm. It was not. I was actuallyi n old Dali or Dali for non-tourists, a place called Xiaguan. I was lucky that a passerby told me to catch the Number Four bus. I did for 1.20 Yuan. It took a full 35 minutes to get to OLd Dali. I walked around for 20 minutes beforI founs a cheap (too cheap) single room (prefabricted) for 30 Yuan (3 Euro) per night. I was told the letricity was down for the day. It wa 4.30pm and I walked around town. It was full to the brim with Chinese tourists.

Many shops had generators. I found a Net cafe with one. It seems power shortages happen evey few days. I found a recent news story on it: Power Shortages Darken Southern China . This week, factories in Shanghai were ordered to shut down one day a week because of power shortages. Planners say it could be years before supply catches up with demand. Until then, millions will be coping with life without lights, at least part of the time.

It was quite atmospheric even with the noisy and smelly generators. The stars were out and there was a feel good factor.

Dali City, situated in the west of Yunnan Province, has an area of 28,500 square kilometers with a population of 3 million. Dali City possesses one of the country’s seven freshwater lakes – Erhai Lake. Dali City is a famous historic cultural city of China, once the capital city of Nanzhao regime and Dali Regime in the ancient China, a city of picturesque scenery. With the verdant greenery Erhai Lake as its center, the scenic spot and place of historic site of Dali constitute one of the major places of historic interest and scenic beauty of China. Dali is located at the foot of the Cangshan Mountain by Erhai Lake, Yunnan Province. It is an ancient city of the Bai Autonomous Region, is widely acclaimed as the “Oriental Switzerland” and the “Chinese Geneva”. Situated at the foot of Cangshan Mountain and on the bank of the Erhai Lake, it covers an area of 1,800 square kilometres, and has a population of 432,000 million.

Its name is originated from that of a local regime in history called Kingdom Dali, meaning “a state of great order”. Many of the architectures of the city were built of marble from the ore nearby, and that is why it is also called a city of Dali stone (marble). (Both Chinese writing and pronunciation of “great order” and “marble” are the same.) Marble buildings, marble streets, marble wall foundations and marble wells make the city so bright and limpid as if it is a tranquil fairyland. Each family loves door carving and wall-decoration; every household has a flower garden. While it is freezing season in the north, hundreds of flowers are in blossom here. Among them, camellia, azaleas and orchids are the most fascinating and enchanting ones.

In spite of all, the summit of Cangshan Mountain, 4,000 metres high, perennially covered with snow offers a beautiful sight. Though it is in winter, you could feel the spring in the air, at the same time enjoy the translucent snowy summit, glittering under the moonlight!

The Bai nationality having lived there for generations, is the chief inhabitant. Bright and cheerful in disposition, amiable and easy of approach, the Bai people are very hospitable and conversational. Their national costume looks neat and graceful. Both sexes have partiality for white color. A Bai man usually wears a short black gown over his white jacket with buttons down the front, whereas a woman, coiling up the hair over head, often wears a black or blue gown over her white jacket. The daily attire for a maiden is very attractive, i.e., a red close-fitting jacket without sleeves. The Bai girls like to wear one pigtail tied with red string with a colourful towel wrapped round and snowy teasels waving to and fro on the right.

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Dali (13-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Dali (13-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Dali (13-12-2003)

Wednesday, December 10th, 2003 – Day 295 to Friday, December 12th, 2003 – Day 297

Wednesday, December 10th, 2003 – Day 295

The station was only 5 minutes from the hotel. The bus to Kunming was at 8.45am. I had written the date and destination down so the ticket seller could understand. There were about a dozen people on the bus. It was a quite long 9 hour journey but the scenery made up for me. It was so vast and big from the resevoir lakes I saw 3 hours in to the mist covered mountains. I looked the mixture of green rice paddies and near red clay. It went on as far as the eye could see. I was glued to it. Indeed I finally understood the size of this Country. My 9 hour journey barely makes a dent and I know now I must spend my month in Yunnan Provence only.

We stopped once for lunch which was nice. The toilets in China are brutal. The piss and crap areas face each other. To go for a crap there are 4/5 holes in the ground with a knee high wall separating them. There is no water or toilet paper. As you go you look over to see 3 or 4 other people beside you squatting own and look head to see 3/4 other going for a piss 2 feet away. Its very public. I suppose if used in the west it would stamp out gay toilet sex.

We got to Kunming at 5.30pm. it was getting dark and I walked towards my chosen hotel. I passed it twice. The reception looked too posh. Anyway I booked in a single room with shared bath for 40 Yuan. I don’t get a key. Its a massive building with 8 floors. Its pretty Stanlist with floor attendant (cue: bulky woman in uniform) ion each floor. You need to ask them to open your door. If you go to the toilet (more public craping and uni-sex showers) you close the door and have to ask them to reopen it.

It a big city with a Urban Population of 1.69 million. There are some massive buildings here and its like Blade Runner with large flashing neon lights. Some Neon signs are as big as houses.

History: inhabited by Chinese for 2000 years; remaining a remote outpost until the 8th century, thereafter, becoming a secondary capital of the kingdom of Nanzhao which centered to the northwest of it at Dali, obtained wide fame in the Ming dyansty. It is one of the major cities that mainland Chinese go to as tourists, over 2,000,000 per year, with another 800,000 foreign tourists visiting annually. The city is nicknamed “City of Spring” due to the fact that it is covered all the year round with the rich verdure of trees and plants. Endowed with a pleasant climate, the city’s 15,000 square kilometres of land is adorned with more than 400 kinds of flowers.

I stayed in the local area buying fried potatoes for 1 Yuan and looking at the DVD shops and markets. DVDs are only 6 Yuan.

It was a very cold and wet night. Luckily the hotel provided 2 blankets as well as a duvet. I had a bad sore throat and a cough. The hotel is called the KunHu Fandian at Beijing Lu (Going North from the Train or Bus stations) and is a big red building plenty of dormitories for 25 Yuen Renminbi and 4 beds. (Shared bathroom)

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Kunming (10-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Kunming (10-12-2003)

Thursday, December 11th, 2003 – Day 296

I walked to the the Camelia Hotel (Chahua Binguan) where you can find also the Lao Embassy. I need a Laos Visa to get out of the country to make my way back to Bangkok for my flight to Hong Kong. It is 270 Yan for a 15 Days VISA which you get in 3 working says. As I want to leave Saturday I had to get an express visa (ready next day) for 400 Yuan. I still had a sore throat.

I spent the rest of the day walking round the city centre. I visited the Bank and different parks. It was quite nice. I found it hard to find a NET cafe. It took me a few hours. I finally found one near the park for 3 Yuan an hour. You can get access at the Camelia Hotel for 10 Yan an hour. If took me 1 hour to walk from the NET CAFE to my hotel.

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Kunming (11-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Kunming (11-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Kunming. They excercise at night and in the mornings. Will describe in greater dstail later on. (11-12-2003)

Friday, December 12th, 2003 – Day 297

I was up at 9.00am. It was cold but dry. I wanted to go to Qiongzhu Si ( Bamboo Temple ). There was a public bus stop for buses thee (12km) but when I got there there was none to find. A lady wanted to drive me for 20 Yuan (2 euro). Its normally round 8 Yuan but I was stuck and I still had a cold. It took about 25 minutes to get there.

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Kunming Bridge. Many birds as people fed them. Thousands of the feckers… (11-12-2003)

On the Yuan Hill and about 12 km northwest of Kunming is the bamboo Temple. It was the first temple built after Zen Buddhist was introduced to Yunnan early in 1279 when a Buddhist Master gave a Buddhist sutra to Hubelei Han (the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty).

The present Bamboo temple was rebuilt in the Guangxu Era (1833 to 1890).The group sculpture of five hundred arhats colored and molded by Li Guangxiu, a great sculptor from Sichuan and his disciples.

The entire architecture of the Bamboo Temple was built with the natural landscape of the hills. It consists of five ports, including Tianwang (Heaven King) Temple, Fanyin Pavilion (with 216 arhats images), Tiantailai Pavilion (with 216 arhats images), Daxiong Temple (with 68 arhats) and Huayan Pavilion (rebuilt in October, 1989).

In the temple, there are many historic relics, such as the ” Tower Stele in Memory of the Death of the Eloquent Buddhist Master ” , ” Imperial Edict Stele ” in Mongolian and Chinese languages as well as scenery spots, including peacock fir of Yuan Dynasty, Courtyard of Depository of Buddhist Texts and Cemetery of Monks.

From the Bamboo Temple, a one kilometer long winding path among mountains will lead you to the Country Park which was just built in 1990.

Entrance was 4 Yuan (.40 Cent). It was nice interesting. Many locals were burning incense sticks and praying. As mentioned above I had meant to get a bus at the Dianchi Cinema and the entrance of Yunnan Hotel. The public transport in Kunming is really good and you can use the bus to go everywhere except to the Bamboo temple where you must get the public bus and a private minivan where you can?t go further.

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Kunming (11-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Kunming (11-12-2003)

On the way back I waved down a passing min-van. He did not understand the Roman or Chinese characters in the he Lonely Planet but his gestures assured me he was OK and would get me into some part of the city. It was 5 Yan. He dropped me off at a bus station. I had seen the number 26 bus pass my hotel and chose that. You drop your money into a big bucket. I did not know hoe much to pay, so I dropped in 2 Yuan. It brought me to my hotel. I got back for 7 Yuan.

I then walked to the bus station where I purchased a ticket to Dali for 64 (6.40 Euro) Yuan. It leaves at 7.40am. I had lunch nearby. For 4 Yan, I got a bowl of rice and my choice of four meals or vegetables. I then walked to the Laos Embassy for my Visa. it was ready. Alot of walking done today.

After looking for hours for a NET cafe yesterday, I found three today within 100 metres f each other. Prices are 1.5 Yuan an hour. Puts the 10 Yuan an hour at the Cmaelia into perspective. You can buy all the Sopranos series, Ally McMeal, Buffy Angel here for nothing. Very bulky though and I doubt I would watch them later.

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Hekou (09-12-2003)

Monday, December 8th, 2003 – Day 293 to Tuesday, December 9th, 2003 – Day 294

Monday, December 8th, 2003 – Day 293

It was a cold night. There is no heat in the room and everything was damp and wet. Even the bath towels. Sapa is a nice town with great scenery. We passed some great rice terraces yesterday during the trip. I was up and about for 10 am. I checked out the market and it was busy. It was full of people from different tribes like the Zao and Dao. Everything was on sale here including some good food. It was a pity about the weather. Because of the fog it was dark all day and very cold and wet. I don’t like taking pictures of people without permission and everytime I took a picture the flash went off as it was so dark. I did little today and I was lazy. I enjoyed walking around the town. With the fog and lack of tourists it can be quite atmospheric. I paid 25,000 Dong to the tourist office to take me back to Lao Cai tomorrow at 7.30am. More information on Sapa can be found at the Sapa Tourism Website.

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Sapa (08-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Sapa (08-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Sapa (08-12-2003)

Tuesday, December 9th, 2003 – Day 294

I was at the tourist office at 7.30am but they simply paid a mini bus driver to take me. Whatever. It took only 45 minutes as its all down hill. I got dropped off at the train station and walked 20 minutes to the border. I am always afraid of border officials. Now I have to deal with both the Vietnamese and Chinese officials. There was lots of fruit been carried over to Vietnam from China.

I have heard that the border guards try to charge you 40000 dong to cross the bridge as a ‘fee’. They did not hassle me. I also heard they open all bags. They didn’t touch mine. The Vietnamese affair was a bit ramshaddle while the Chinese have a massive new emigration entry and exit building.

The Hekou bus station is 100 meters from the immigration exit on the left hand side of the road. There’s a bank of China about 1 km down the road & turn right. I decided to stay the night and get the 9 hour Kunming express bus tomorrow morning at 8.45am.

The trouble here is touts and language. Two touts approached me offering help and advice in exchange for an English lesson. Its and old trick and it took me some time to get rid of them. The trouble with hotels is that they font name them HOTEL. They are in Chinese text and so I may have passed a dozen but not known. After a while I walked into a building that looked like a hotel and paid 50 Yuan for a nice room.

Another problem is food. It looks great and what are they called. In all other counties, I could use Roman text to pronouce the words. Here with 6 tones and Chinese text its hard. I found a good buffet place with rice and vegetables for 5 Yuan.

Its very different here tan Vietnam. People were well dressed with wide clean streets and fine modern buildings. There was a nice market with swords that a Kilingon would be proud of. They were massive. I was showed all types of flick knives, pepper strays, bows and sabers. Scary but tourist stuff.

There is a Bank of China here so I was able to use my credit card. I met a London guy later on and we went for a few drinks. Well I did, as he was a born again Christian I was in a good mood so I gave him my Vietnam guide.

Bus to Boarder, Night in Hekou is your first taste of travel far from the beaten path. The Lonely Planet and other guide books contain no information on the area, which can be unsettling in a not-too-friendly border town like Hekou.

You stroll down “Vietnam Street,” a stone’s throw from the country itself. People along the street examine you without smiling. Many locals live in bamboo shanties, waiting for an economic opportunity. With luck, the completion of the Kunming-Haiphong railroad will fulfill their wish. The railroad line was started at the turn of the century by French colonialists. Only 2 km of track remain to complete the line and to link western China to Vietnamese ports.

China isn’t a country – it’s a different world. From shop-till-you-drop metropolises to the epic grasslands of Inner Mongolia – with deserts, sacred peaks, astounding caves, and imperial ruins – it’s a land of cultural and geographic schisms. It’s not that China has completely done away with its Maoist past – it’s more that the yin of revolutionary zeal is being balanced by the yang of economic pragmatism, and the oldguard communists are giving way to the new wave entrepreneurs.

It’s a land of towering mountains and epic landscapes – background scenery to the fall of dynasties, the rise of emperors and the turning of the revolutionary wheel. Unless you have a couple of years and unlimited patience, it’s best to follow a loose itinerary here, such as Beijing to Tibet via Xi’an’s terracotta warriors, following the Silk Road route, sailing down the Yangzi River, or exploring the Dr Seuss landscape of Guangxi Province.

Full country name: People’s Republic of China

Area: 9,596,960 sq km (mainland)

Population: 1.25 billion (mainland) Yikes!

Capital city: Beijing (pop 13.8 million)

People: Han Chinese (93%), plus 55 ethnic minorities

Languages: Putonghua (Beijing Mandarin dialect), Cantonese

Religion: Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism (no stats available); Muslim (14 million), Christian (7 million)

Government: Communist republic

Head of State: Hu Jintao

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Hekou (09-12-2003)

Sunday, December 7th, 2003 – Day 292

Sunday, December 7th, 2003 – Day 292

I was up at 7.00am to go to the market but it was just starting. Most of the participants have no transport and must walk several miles to be here. No cares, trucks, trailers etc. I saw many women bring in there produce in baskets on there backs and some horses and carts.

Bac Ha has one of the most interesting ethnic markets in Vietnam and possibly everywhere in South East Asia: ” Sunday is market day in Bac Ha, which is the occasion for the various local ethnies to gather in huge crowds to exchange the last news, gossip, shop, and eat a copious lunch. It was visibly a festive event. I was surrounded in a sea of color, and had the feeling to be on a movie set. Everyone seemed excited. A few men rode small horses. Those fortunate enough to be able to pay 10000 dongs (75 cents) arrived at the back of a motorcycle, sharing the ride with two other passengers. Most came on foot, from villages as far as 20 kilometers away. Even the old hunched lady was not going to miss the weekly party. Although there were several ethnies at the market, the Flower Hmong women stood apart with their vibrant dress. They wear a number of skirts and underskirts all made with very colorful fabric and some batiks. Their tops are embroided, often with flower motifs, and their heads are covered with elaborately shaped and balanced scarfs. In the rapid global uniformization of today’s world, it was refreshing to see this untouched beauty in humanity…”

There were many different tribes her here from Red Dao, Thai , Zao to Hmong. I wanted to go to Sapa today so I went to the bus station to wait for a tourist bus to arrive from Sapa (125km away)a and ask the driver to take me back to Sapa. Normal tourist return prices are 10 USD so I was going to offer 4 USD and I did not want a tour lunch or trek. The first bus that came in was a private family tour. A NGO boy/girl friend from Belgium and her parents. They offered to take me back in their mini can for free. They had come off the Lao Cai Train this morning. I agreed to meet them at 11.30am for the 3.5 hour journey back. Otherwise, to get to Sapa, I would have needed to transfer by bus for the 3 hour bus to Lao Cai and another 2-hour ride from Lao Cai station to Sapa. This can mean anything from a 80,000 VND fare in two rattle-trap Russian cast-off, or a price of US$40 for a ride in a Japanese Pajero Mini (SUV). The road is cut into the hillside and is bumpy and windy, but the views of the terraced rice farms of the valley are beautiful as you ascend.

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Hac Ba Market (07-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba Market (07-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba Market (07-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba Market (07-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba Market (07-12-2003)

I enjoyed the market and there were various tribes and various parts to the market. There were pig, dog and cattle sales and a meat market. Many people were again selling corn whiskey. I bought a litre bottle for 15,000 Dong.

I met the Belgiums at 11.30am and off we went. We stopped at Lao Cai for 15 minutes and I bought them coffee. As soon as we left there we started climbing hills. About 20 minutes in to the journey, the fog and mist had descended. It was a tick soup and we could see nothing in front t of us. Incoming vehicles would only appears seconds before we met them. It was pretty scary.

This small market town has been a gathering spot for many local hill tribes for nearly 200 years, and Hmong and Yao, among others, still come here to conduct trade, socialize, and attend an ephemeral “love market” where young men and women choose one another for marriage (it’s not likely you’ll see anything but a staged re-creation of it here). Seeing this, French missionaries as early as 1860 said “Mon Dieu!” and set up camp to save souls; their stone church still stands sentinel and is well attended at the center of town. With the mercifully cooler climate and colorful gatherings of hill-dwellers (not to mention the advantages gained by trade and control of this region), Sapa became an instant tourist site for French colonists, complete with rail connection, upscale hotels, and a tourist bureau as early as 1917. The French alternately deserted and rebuilt the town over the years, depending on the state of the colony, and the outpost was retaken by the Vietnamese in 1950 and attacked and destroyed later by the French. Chinese troops found billet here but aren’t responsible for any destruction. The town began rebuilding for tourism in the early 1990s. It’s a bit like an old trading post in the American West perhaps, and just as kitschy and picturesque.

You can trek out to nearby villages with or without a guide, or simply wait for members of the various hill tribes to come to sell their wares. Their costumes alone are an eyeful: colorful embroidered tunics embellished with heavy silver ornaments that, to those in the know, signify marital status or place in their group’s hierarchy.

And Sapa is a feast for the eyes; hills striated by terraced rice-farms in vast, green valleys are like a stairway up to Mt. Fansipan, Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain, which, at 3,143m (10,312 ft.), seems to be smiling down on all the proceedings. Note: Bring a few layers here because, especially in the winter months, it’s can get chilly.

Anyway it was very wet and misty. I never seen a palce so foggy. I booked into a local hotel called the MIMOSA for 5 USD per night. Its off season as prices can reach 20 USD in summer. There was only one hotel in Sapa in 1990. There are now 70. The main beneficiaries are Vietnamese Han people while the Black HMong don’t have any stockholder. They just sell their fine home produced clothes.

I had been drinking that damn corn whiskey on and off all day and I was pretty wrecked. I met a similarly wrecked Aussie and we decided to play football with three Black Hmong teenagers on the street. It was pretty surreal as two drunken tourists played ball with the Hmong with all their fine clothes. We played for about 40 minutes. I had a nice meal later. It was dark, wet and foggy.

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Sapa (07-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Sapa (07-12-2003)

Saturday, December 6th, 2003 – Day 291

Saturday, December 6th, 2003 – Day 291

We arrived in Lao Cai on time at 5.30am. I was groggy but Ok. I slept Ok. I could take a 25,000 Dong bus to Sapa, Stay in Lao Cai or take a bus to Bac Ha which is off the tourist trail. There are various ethnic minorities in this region including: H’Mong: 10,000 people, Dao: 56,254 people, Tay: 61,034 people and Thai: 37,703 people. More information here

I decided to walk to the bus station from the train station. It was a small 10 minutes walk in the dark. Lao cai is only a few minutes from the Chinese border and I would need to come back here in order to cross over. I was lucky as there was bus going at 5.30am and was just about to leave. The price should be 40,000 Dong for the 2.5 hour journey but the conductor wanted 5 Dollars (75,000 Dong). I bargained him down to 60,000 Dong. I was a bit tired and pissed off. I let it show. I was slow to pay him and did it in front of other passengers. I should have not have done so. I gave him a 10,,000 note. After 15 minutes on the road he had still not given me my change. I walked up to the seat beside him and offered the correct 60,000 in notes if he gave me back the 10,000 Dong. He refused and then started pointing at the 60,000 saying I had not paid him. He wanted another 60,000 Dong. I said NO in a loud voice and he went a bit crazy pointing to his nose and eyes for a minute and then screaming at the bus driver to stop the bus which he did. He wanted me off the bus. Again (twice now) I said no and retreated to my seat. Bugger it. I handled;led it all wrong. Twenty minutes later as we picked up more passengers, the bus driver came down with my 40,000 change. It was a long journey and the bus was packed when we arrived in bac Ha at 8.00am. it was full of minority people and it was very colorful.

It took me about 20 minutes to find a nice hotel for 5 USD per night. I t was a nice big room with hot water and shower. I then headed out and agreed with a moto driver to take me to Can Cau market 20km away, wait for 2 hours and take me back for 45,000 Dong. It is one of the most exotic tribal markets in Vietnam. It is 20 km north of Bac Ha, and just 9 km south of the Chinese border. The market only runs on Saturday. The scenery was fab as we climbed over mountain apses to get there. I should have hired a guy with a bigger bike. There were rice terraces all over the place and local people with farm animals ,like oxen pulling tree trunks.

The market was out of this world. I expected a normal market with animals and Vietnmaese and Chinese traders but in a small field there were about 800 Flower Hmong. These are the most colorfully dressed of that tribe. There are four other sub sects including the Black Hmong of Sapa. About 80% of the market were women buying clothes and jewelry. There was a small animal mart in the back. I saw only two other tourist here.

As the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands, the Montagnards are completely different in their culture and language from the mainstream Vietnamese. The Vietnamese arrived much later into what is now Vietnam and came primarily from China in different migratory waves. Primarily lowland rice farmers in the south, the Vietnamese have been much more influenced by outsiders, trade, the French colonization, and industrialization than have the Montagnards. Most Vietnamese are Buddhists, belonging to varying strains of Mahayana Buddhism, although Roman Catholicism and a native religion known as Cao Dai also have large followings. Part of the Vietnamese population, especially in larger towns and cities, maintain Chinese traditions and language. The ethnic Chinese constitute the largest minority in Vietnam. Physically, the Montagnards are darker skinned than the mainstream Vietnamese and do not have epicanthic folds around their eyes. In general, they are about the same size as the mainstream Vietnamese.

It was amazing. I was engrossed by the color. Many were selling and buying wheat whiskey. I had some and it was strong stuff. I stayed there for about two hours.

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Hac Ba – Can Cau (06-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba – Can Cau (06-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba – Can Cau (06-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba – Can Cau – Tobacco Water Pipe (06-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba – Can Cau (06-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba – Can Cau (06-12-2003)

Click on the picture to see it in its original size

Hac Ba – Can Cau (06-12-2003)



Note: I took over 200 photos at the Market. These are just a few….

I was back in Bac Ha by noon. Bac Ha is located to the north-east of Sa Pa. Its tourism industry lags behind that of Sa Pa but things are improving. The town’s main industry is the production of rice wine, cassava wine and a highly potent corn liquer. The lively Sunday market is a good place to pick up handy crafts, or you can just wander around and admire the colorful dresses worn by the H’mong women.

The town itself is VERY boring. I wandered to another village during the day and while it was scenic but there where no other tourists, no place to drink etc. I ate in a real nice restaurant thought. Fried rice with mushrooms and I had spring rolls and a pancake with honey and WITH a beer (litre) for 30,000 Dong.

Still, it was boring and I went to bed early.

Friday, December 5th, 2003 – Day 290

Friday, December 5th, 2003 – Day 290

My train is tonight at 9.30pm. I should have done a tour today as I was pretty bored. I was up at 9.00am and walked to the Chinese Embassy which is open until 11.00am, Monday to Friday. There was no hassle in collecting my Visa. I got a double entry Visa for 45 USD. I can stay 30 days after each entry but get a extension once I am there (if its needed). I hate standing in queues here as people jump ahead of you all the time. I normally stand a foot back from a counter as we do at home to give people space, but you cant here as people will jump ahead of you. You have to crowd into the counter and try to get the official to serve you next. Its like ordering a drink at home.

Lots of scary information about Falon Gong at the embassy. I took a booklet. It has three sections. They all included full page pictures. The first dealt with Falon Gong members who had killed members of their family. Cue, full page pictures of murdered children and parents. The second section was of those who committed harm to themselves. Cue, picture of people hanging on tress, those ho cut themselves open and burned themselves alive. The third section dealt with those who died because they refused to take medicine for small complaints. I have never seen anything so graphic. The pictures were full on. Indeed it was funny that the whole book was in English.

Train tonight. I had checked out this morning and paid 24 USD for 4 days. It was a nice place and there were some great food stalls beside it. I was the TAM THUONG GUEST HOUSE at 10A1 Yan Thai. For 5,000 Dong you could have a great rice, mince, vegtable meal.

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Hanoi – Blind leading the blind (05-12-2003)

At 8.30pm, I got a moto to the Ga B train Station. It was pretty full with people heading both north and south. I got my first glimpse of the Northern Minority People. They were heading north as well. They were very colorfully dressed. Seat prices for foreigners (it says foreigner on the ticket) are as follows. Its is 55,000 Dong for Hard Seat, 109,000 Dong for soft sleeper and 160,000 Dong for Soft Sleeper.

There are three train classes. The best is soft berth, an expensive option roughly the same price as flying, and generally patronized by foreigners, party officials, and successful entrepreneurs. Basically, if you’ve a long way to travel and can afford it, soft berth is well worth the money and you’ll arrive rested and ready to enjoy your destination.

Hard berth, is about half the price of soft sleeper. Carriages are divided into twenty sets of three-tiered bunks; if you ever have a choice in the matter, the topmost bunk is slightly cheaper (the Chinese regard it as the least comfortable option), and gives you somewhere to withdraw during the day ? though it’s closer to the lights and radio, and cigarette smoke tends to accumulate up here. Every carriage also has a toilet and washbasin, which can become unsavoury; do what the locals do and carry a face towel to keep clean on long journeys. It’s not a bad way to travel, though obligatory dawn-to-dusk music blaring out of the radio and a relentless investigation of yourself and possessions by fellow passengers can wear thin after a few hours. There are fairly spacious racks to stow hand luggage and backpacks ? as always, chain it securely while you sleep.

For the really impecunious there’s hard seat. In hard seat, you sit on a padded three-person bench with barely enough room to get comfortable, let alone sleep. But at around the same price as a bus fare, it’s very cheap and considerably faster, though on long journeys it can get unbearable, especially as the air is thick with cigarette smoke and every available inch of floorspace is crammed with travelers who were unable to book a seat ? bear in mind that should you board a train with an unreserved ticket, you’ll be standing with them. Again, you’ll be the subject of intense and unabashed speculation, this time from peasants and labourers who can’t afford to travel in better style.

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Hanoi – Train Station (05-12-2003)

It was a fine journey. I had a top bunk in the six bunk bed cabin. There was only one other person there and we agreed to turn off the lights at 10..00pm. There was a noisy bunch of students at the end of the carriage and by 2.00am, our cabin was full (of people who wanted some kipp). I slept Ok. Now and again I actually forgot I was on a train but every so often a nosy parker opened the door to see who was in there and what was happening. We receipted a free bottle of water.