china: where grey is the new black

You only have to be in China for a few minutes to know that it’s a country on the move. With massive (grey) construction and (grey) infrastructure projects going on everywhere, it’s no wonder they chew up Australian iron ore like Smarties.

Our arrival in the PRC received an unexpectedly warm welcome – the friendliest and most helpful immigration officers to date (save for the Malaysian guy who cracked about a million “Lindsay-is-a-woman’s-name” jokes), generous donations of pomegranates and a careful explanation of the bus passenger vote to pay an extra 20Y (AU$3) each and take the tollway, which ploughed through several mountains and shaved 4 hours off the journey to Kunming. At least democracy exists on the bus.

Yet as we were soon to discover, impressive infrastructure comes at a cost much higher than 20Y. The construction of said infrastructure breeds equally impressive traffic jams, which became a bit of a blight on our time in China, and despite the spaghetti mess of flyovers criss-crossing the city, it wasn’t long before we were the victims of a no-rules 4-way intersection with a taxi pigheadly wedged in the middle of two lanes of oncoming trucks.



Kunming: a comparably petite and wealthy Chinese city, unremarkable in its greyness and endless shopping malls. Yes, consumer culture is alive and well in People’s China, although the forces of supply and demand haven’t yet permeated the budget travel industry, which is still in its infancy. While competition in other Asian nations has driven accommodation standards up and prices down, digs in China are comparably quite expensive. So while the old skool hostel is now extinct in much of Asia, it lives on in China and in the interests of fiscal responsibility, we made the switch to dorm-and-shared-bathroom life. Ah, I love nothing more than being bombarded with hundreds of signs that precisely instruct me on how to do every little task, from getting the local bus to turning the tap on and disposing of toilet paper. At least we got to meet the lovely Liz (our first Chinese buddy!) who kindly guided us on several culinary adventures and who (I think) we impressed with our levels of chilli tolerance.

The old skool hostel is also home to a previously unencountered species of traveller: the domestic Chinese backpacker. Prolific in number, they’re quite useful to have around as bus station touts ignore us entirely in their squabble for the domestic backpacker dollar. Common characteristics include: head-to-toe Goretex kit; monstrous SLR slung around neck; constant sipping from BYO tea flask topped up with free hot water. Stalking them and observing their habits has become a sort of sick hobby.

A brief aside about Chinese toilets: shockers. They leave remote Turkish mosque toilets in their dust. The only positive we can derive from visiting them is that we are being forcibly prepared for India. No doors; just a line of waist-high cubicles set over a channel in the floor which may have water flushed through it occasionally, if you’re lucky. Often replete with pig-sty out the back, to add to the stench and grunting noises coming from within. If your squatting style is best kept private, then you’re in serious trouble.




Oddly enough, in Dali we were offered drugs more frequently than anywhere else we’ve been. Even more oddly, such offers invariably came from sweet-looking grannies in minority dress or ladies with cute babies strapped to their backs. Apart from more adventures, both culinary and vertical, with Liz, the defining feature of our stay in Dali was an ill-fated bike ride. We try not to consult Lonely Planet too religiously, but sometimes I really wonder what on earth they’re on about. Or in a country that is changing as fast as China is, I seriously question the usefulness of a guidebook that is bound to be obsolete by the time it is published. We embarked on “a great bike trip”, proceeding as advised on the less congested secondary road… which abruptly came to an end about 5kms north of town. A section of gravel road under construction lay ahead, which we optimistically rattled along for a while longer, dodging excavators and telling ourselves that the smooth asphalt would return any minute now. It didn’t. But no matter; a short passage through a cute village led us to the main highway which, although more densely trafficked, was paved with the elusive asphalt. Clouds looking a little ominous, we decided to abandon our planned visit to a farther-flung village and head for the shores of the reputedly beautiful Erhai Lake. But that was before we had several uncomfortably close encounters with maniacally-driven vegetable trucks. And before it started to piddle with rain. Are we having fun yet? Of course we can’t blame Lonely Planet for the rain, but we never got to the lake.




We were pretty excited to arrive in Lijiang, partly because of the less-crowded-than-expected old town, which is the stuff of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (albeit studded with souvenir shops selling cowboy hats and all things yak-related) but mostly because of our stay at the Zen Garden Hotel, generously funded by The Gang in honour of a certain birthday. Linds had displayed an extraordinary degree of foresight in booking us in for a longer than usual stay, so that we might take full advantage of the opportunity to lounge about in complimentary slippers and robes, sipping tea and enjoying the strains of a Chinese zither wafting up from the bonsai garden. Very Zen indeed.




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