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We met a few Canadians in Luang Namtha who recommended we head to a small village called Vieng Phou Kha for some trekking instead of staying in Luang Namtha which is fairly pricey and full of tourists. We signed up for a trek in Luang Namtha anyways but the next morning when we showed up, it had been cancelled. So we ran to the hotel, picked up our bags and got to the bus station right on time to catch the bus to Vieng Phou Ka. Buses to less visited towns, are actually pick-up trucks with benches installed in the back and a small wire roof covering passengers. All the baggage is tied to the roof of the truck, and then 13 people are crammed into the back, 5 on each bench and 2 sitting on the floor, and one standing on the bumper holding on to the wire roof (designed for this). The first problem is that its really really cold, so you are definetely happy to be crunched between people on all sides, the second problem is that the road is bumpy and curvy, so people start puking, and did I mention we are all really really close to each other? The last problem is that its the dry season, so the roads are incredibly dusty, our clothes, faces, noses, eyes, ears were completely covered in dust when we finally arrived in Vieng Phou Kha 3 hours later, the Laos black hair was now a lovely shade of beige.
Vieng Phou Kha is a poor, tiny Kamu village in North West Laos. The bus station is a small shack with seemingly no attendant (until we find him sleeping on a bench later on) and it takes us a while to find the eco-tourism office. The office was set up in 2003 by the EU and the Lao government in a bid to boost the local economy. We each pay 800,000K for a three day all inclusive trek around the area. This is a huge amount of money (relatively) but we are given a breakdown of the distrubution of our money and we feel more comfortable signing on.
Our guide is a local 40 year old Kamu man, called Somhak, he shows up for the trek wearing flip flops and over-sized track pants, I think he must have weighed no more than 100 pds. He is a good English-speaker, explaining to us that all the guides were given intensive English courses, as well as courses on the local environment and customs of the various ethnic groups whose villages we would visit. He is extremely knowledgeable and stops along the trek to show us various medicinal plants and other stuff (he always managed to find "interesting" reasons to stop when he was getting out of breath on tough climbs). Every time we enter a village we hire a guide who brings us through the village and on part of the trek (each family in the village is on a rotating schedule for this job). Both nights we slept at Akha villages, an ethnic group in Laos whose villages are traditionally places at the very tops of mountains facing west. The first village is only accessible by jungle trail (about 6 hours), has no electricity or running water. In fact it doesn't even have a water source nearby and must hike over two hours for water every morning (another job traditionally done by the women). There is a small lodge built for the trekkers where we sleep and eat. Locals are hired to cook us dinner, we feast on a chicken killed right in front of us (men are the cooks in the Akha villages). The guides are taught that Westerners feel that things like washing your hands before you eat are important. Somhak brought a bar of soap along and insisted that we wash our hands before meals. This didn't seem unreasonable as we eat with our hands, communally. Of course the whole purpose of washing hands was defeated when we rinsed our hands, once in the bucket where the chicken had been skinned (blood and chicken parts still clinging to it) and once in a bucket with a dead rat floating in it. Oh well, we tried.
Children come running up to us all night but are too scared to come too close. They usually yell out "Sabadee, okay" the only Lao word they know(hello) and the only English word they know. The women keep their hair short, wear traditional clothing, the signature item a black cap on which the hang anything silver. Nowadays this includes many different silver coins (we even spotted some American ones), nail clippers and keys. Most men no longer wear traditional clothing, they are mostly in baseball caps, t-shirts and jeans. During the day, anyone of working age is in the field, this means children take care of their grandparents and baby siblings. A common sight is a small child (maybe 7 or 8 years old) carrying their sibling on their back, which they do from morning to night. It's no surprise that they become mothers as young as 13.Despite constant pressure from the government to move their villages closer to a road (and to stop the growing of opium), the villages remain completely self sufficient. They grow their own cotton and make their own clothing, they grow all their food, they even make their own guns and bullets (incredible! the bullets are made in part with bat droppings) for hunting. Apparently in the past few years, villages have been forcibly moved using police, as part of the governments plan to be off the list of least developped countries in the world. From the way our guide spoke (having come from a village that was forcibly moved), we could tell this was not a very popular decision. However, none of the children are educated and the villages are extremely poor. The village chief explained to us (over a few shots of home made rice whisky at 7:30 a.m.) that elders are reluctant to change and the younger children are desperate for some modern comforts.
After three days of trekking, including one night where we were kept up by "rats, ugggh I mean cats" as Somhak explained, we were eager to move on to a bigger town to spend Christmas Eve there. We waited on the side of the highway for a passing bus for three hours, until we were finally told it was probably too late to catch anything (it was about 5 p.m. at this point). Sunburned and dejected we spent Christmas Eve in Vieng Phou Kha its even difficult to get someone to cook you something for dinner. We had a feast of boiled greens, sticky rice and fried eggs. I washed my hair in ice ice cold water, giving me a terrible headache. At least Santa Claus filled our stockings with a can of pop each, a real luxury.For Christmas we ended up in the Chinese-Lao trade hub Oudom Xai, where we got a cheap hotel room with a much needed hot shower and a great Christmas gift: HBO movie channel and BBC News.
After some debate as to whether we wanted to continue in uncharted territory, we bought a direct ticket to Yuanyang, a town reputed to be surrounded by spectacular rice terraces. We ended up about an hour away from Yuanyang. As you might know, the Chinese are pretty lax when it comes to copyright laws, and this also seems to apply to town names. If a local town is popular, the next town over will take its name. This causes foreign tourists a little bit of difficulty. We managed to get on a rickety local bus and get to the real Yuanyang. When we arrived, the town was bustling with people, the roads were completely blocked with buses, trucks, taxis and motorcycle taxis. We all got off the bus on the side of the highway and walked into town. Yuanyang county is populated mostly with non-Han Chinese, and with years of relative isolation their culture seems to thrive here. Most people on the streets of Yuanyang are in traditional dress, even children, and Mandarin doesn't seem to figure in the list of languages spoken here. The fog in the city creates a strange gloomy atmosphere, as you can't really see any further than a few feet ahead of you, but no one there seems to mind.
In the evening we ended up at a small local restaurant and as we were leaving a Chinese man carrying an extra large camera bag and a tripod. We left the restaurant, but then Yann made me go back to ask him what he was doing the next day. As we had no idea what to see, where the rice terraces were etc etc... After a few seconds of conversation we realised no English would be exchanged, but we understood to meet him the next morning at 6 a.m. in front of the hotel next door (which happened to be our hotel). The next morning he was there waiting at 6 a.m sharp with a local driver and a little three wheel van.
We drove in the most unbelievably thick fog for over an hour, until we reached a lookout spot, near the village of Duoyishu (we didn't know where we were at the time, this was clarified later). We couldn't see anything, we were completely engulfed in fog, but the local boiled eggs salespeople were there waiting for us. Within about ten minutes the clouds and fog started to shift to reveal the rice terraces. We watched the photographer wait for the perfect shot (film camera) and copied his moves, although we could shoot a little more freely. We waited patiently there for over three hours, watching the fog drift in and out of the valley and eating lots of boiled eggs. At some point another tourist arrived, an English speaking tourist from Shanghai. He was able to translate for us, and he tagged along with us the whole day, making communication much simpler. He explained to the photographer whose name we now knew to be Mr. Yang, that we would follow him wherever he wanted to go.
We spend the afternoon trekking through rice terraces in a different village called Mengping where we were greeted by many local farmers happy to pose for a photo or two. One local grandmother working barefoot in the fields asked our guide if we had any candy for her. I was happy to whip out my Confucious temple candies for her.
In the late afternoon we headed to an area of Mengping village overlooking the spectacular Tiger's Mouth rice terraces. We spent about 3 or 4 hours there, with 3 other professional photographers (other than Mr. Han) shooting away at the sunset over the terraces. We were slightly outclassed, but it was fun to watch them work. After over 14 hours visiting terraces, shooting photos and driving between villages, we were dropped off at the hotel where we subsequently pigged out and fell asleep.
We then had a full two days of backroad bus travel to get to Jinghong (where we are now). Our worst ride was a 10 hour one, mostly on dirt roads, where our bus broke down half way, the villagers smoked their bamboo bong right behind us the entire way, and the small children did their business on the floor. The constant gurggling of the bong and the follow-up hork is especially irritating. Thankfully the bus didn't have a dvd player blasting Chinese pop music, the bamboo bong, and possibly a small child might have been thrown out the window.
Since Christmas is fast approaching we are asking our loyal readers to send us their favorite Christmas food item. After many long bus riding hours Yann and I have come up with our top five lists:
1 Mom's turkey stuffing
2 Matante Charlotte's sucre a la creme
3 Dad's left over turkey curry
4 Nicole's seafood fondue with garlic dipping sauce
5 Tree cakes from Stubbe's chocolate shop
1 Fondue chinoise avec sauce a l'ail
2 Farce a Grandmaman
3 Brie fondue au four
4 Carres aux dates
5 Susan's turkey stuffing
Tiramisu a Matante Chantal, fudge a Matante Denise, Grandma's oatmeal cookies, Aunt Jean and Marg's shortbreads, Gateau avec glacage a l'erable de Grandmaman, Laura Secord mint chocolates, mandarin oranges
I woke up at 6 a.m. so that we could catch and early bus, Yann got up about an hour later, after a little bit of whining. We took a public bus to the bus station, determined to follow our guidebook's advice : Do not get on a tourist bus, make sure you get a direct bus to Shilin. We walked up to the ticket booth, where we were pointed outside to the parking lot, where the ticketsellers were waiting for us. There was a small mini-bus, already half full with some old villagers and some businessmen. We spoke to the salesperson asking repeatedly if there were stops between Kunming and Shilin. No no, Kunming - Shilin, Kunming - Shilin we were told. We had found the direct bus, hooray! We waited half an hour for the bus to fill up, then we took off, we reached the next stop 30 seconds later, a parking lot, where we were shuffled into a new bus, with seats half the size of the first one. A feeling of impending doom came over us.
With only 40km left to Shilin, I was now feeling pretty confident about our bus choice, but then, we saw it in the distance: dozens and dozens of tour buses surrounding the mega jewelry "factory outlet" along what was an otherwise desolate highway. Our bus joined right in (how could we miss such a great opportunity)! We weren't the only ones in the bus to look mighty pissed. Of course this stupid scheme wouldn't work if people didn't then get off the bus and proceed to shop at the jewelry store! (To the credit of my fellow bus-mates, only one couple actually shopped, I gave them the evilest glances I could, but I think they might have been the only people who signed on to the tour bus knowing it was a tour bus) The salesperson who had earlier told us there would be no stops, now told us there would be only two short stops, 25 minutes each.
On our second stop, Yann and I refused to leave the bus, as did another Chinese woman. We were now at a temple, obviously newly constructed and surrounded by hundreds of vendors. The 25 minute stop turned into 1 hour and 25 minutes, mainly because the jewelry buying couple from hell thought it was a great site and the whole bus waited for them. Of course it would have been too easy to set a departure time, no, no actually the "come back to the bus when you are done visiting" policy proved highly effective.
By the time we arrived to Shilin almost 5 hours later, Yann had begun to feel ill. Being the nice guy that he is, Yann saved his vomit for the parking lot, I thought the bus floor was highly deservant. We sat in the parking lot for about an hour until we decided there was no way in hell Yann would be hiking through the park for the rest of the afternoon. We got on (a different) bus, that took less than 2 hours to get us to Kunming. Yann proceeded to lie in bed with the flu for the next 4 days, I joined in two days later. I blame the tour bus...
We took a few excursions outside Dali, including a morning at the Friday Yousuo Market, a colourful extravaganza of vegetables, animals, spices and anything else the nearby villagers might need until they return the next Friday. It was fun to see the thousands of people arriving with their big empty baskets, on foot, by bike, by scooter or crammed into the back of trucks. We didn't buy much but we had fun haggling for some shoes and dried fruits, tasting all the fresh snacks and meeting the always smiling villagers. The next day, the young driver we had hired to drive us to the market, picked us up early in the morning to go fishing with his father, Mr. Yang. His father is a cormorant fisherman, an old fishing practise now almost extinct in the world. Cormorants (big water birds) are trained to fish for their masters. A small blade of grass is tied around their neck to prevent them from swallowing large fish and these large fish are then degorged onto their master's boat. According to Mr. Yang, there are only 7 families left on Erhai Lake who cormorant fish (Erhai Lake, near Dali, is the 6th largest Lake in China). He explained he would have long been out of business (no more fish left in the lake) if it weren't for the tourists. We eached paid 30Y to go out fishing with him, in comparaison to the 5Y per kg he would make selling his fish at the market. He was friendly, weathered from years of fishing, didn't speak a word of English but gave us a good show.
We ate dinner and lunch at the same dumpling stand for three days in a row, and would have continued had we been staying any longer. After waiting patiently for our order the first time there, we became regulars and were promptly served before anyone else the next times we showed up. Unforunately I developped a condition that required the use of our trusty Ex-Lax chocolate bar which I must say worked very well (maybe a little too well).
Having now been on the tourist circuit for over 2 weeks, we opted to head south west to a town called Tengchong, a volcanic area with lots of geysers and hotsprings. You would think it would be quite touristy, but its quite out of the way 8 hours on the bus in the complete opposite direction of any major city in the province. We arrived there only to find that every single hotel in the Lonely Planet no longer existed, luckily our kind taxi driver drove us around (on the flat fee we had agreed upon leaving the bus station) until we found a hotel that would accept us and that was in our price range. The young hotel attendant was incredibly sweet, speaking not a word of English, and yet insisting on talking to us extremely quickly and extremly Chinese. The first night she walked us to a restaurant for dinner and helped us pick dishes, then headed back the hotel with a "I don't know if they're going to make it" look on her face.
The next morning, we were primed to go see the volcanoes, that were about 30km outside Tengchong. We followed the Lonely Planet instructions to head to Huguo street where "frequent mini-buses head to the volcanoes". We walked down the street for over an hour (Tengchong is not a large place) with no luck, but locals encouragingly pointing us onward. As frustration was setting in, two young girls (maybe 11 or 12 years old) on their bicycles started following us, and practising the few English phrases that they knew. We explained to them our wish to see the volcanoes. They didn't know how to get there, but they were determined to help us, they asked people, they led us in a hundred different directions around town, then they used their own money to call their English teacher at the school. After a brief discussion with us, she explained to them where to catch a bus and what the price should be. We headed to the two local bus stations where these two tiny girls haggled with dozens of large Chinese men to try to get us a cheap ride. After at least half an hour and older woman came running down the street, (everyone around was now trying to get us a ride to the volcanoes) she had found someone willing to take us to the volcanoes for 8Y each (the original quote had been 150Y), we rushed off with the two girls waving goodbye, jumping up and down and celebrating their conquest. We handed them a giant (revolting, unfortunately) Chinese "Euro-style" chocolate bar from outside the mini-bus window (hopefully they'll enjoy it more than we did). The mini-bus driver dropped us off right at the ticket window to the volcanoes.
We were two among about 5 tourists at the volcanic site (a very large site). We climbed up to the largest of the volcanoes, aptly known as the Big Empty Hill. Sad-looking locals tried to sell us their lava rock sculptures in the blazing sun. Black Empty Hill and Small Vocano looked about the same as Big Empty Hill so we headed back to the entrance where we caught a minibus back to Tengchong with little difficulty.
Our next destination was the border town of Ruili, sitting only a few km from Myanmar. We were interested in visiting a town whose population was purportedly only 50% Han Chinese. The town is the entry point for the highly in demand Burmese jade, and is also the heart of the opium and arms trade. You don't see any evidence of this, except for maybe the rich looking people driving around in Audi's or Hummers. For us, the town didn't really live up to our expectations, although it was nice to meet some Burmese people and admire their beautiful dark skin covered in gold paint or tattoes. We also drank lots of freshly squeezed lime juice and mango juice and enjoyed the hot weather. We were however, eager to leave our crazily crusty hotel.
We took a 15 hour sleeper bus to Kunming where we were squeezed like sardines into absolutely miniscule beds enduring all-night smoking in the non-smoking, air-conditioned bus. We stopped at various military checkpoints, one where we were all escorted off the bus so that soldiers could search mattresses, take apart bunk beds and tiles and search through the cargo compartments to check for drugs. A process which they repeat for every single bus coming out of Ruili and lasts almost an hour. Oh, and a note, you stop for bathroom breaks if the bus driver feels like it, kind of like long distance car rides with Dad!
We decided boldly to leave the "Lonely Planet route" and choose a destination that was not mentioned there. We picked a small city called Daocheng. The empty, dirty streets and the freezing weather made us realise quickly why it wasn't mentioned in the guide. We stayed two nights to take advantage of our private bathroom with hot shower. The town was completely empty, because tourist season is really over due to the cold weather. We roamed the empty streets and spent the day with a local boy in an internet cafe. Oh yeah, the power frequently went off.
From Daocheng we caught a 12 hour bus to Shangri-La, we left early in the morning with no trace of sunlight, after, of course, the bus had been jacked with all the passengers aboard so that the brakes could be inspected 3 minutes before departure. The road to Shangri-La was terrible and we narrowly missed speeding oncoming trucks on a few occasions. Our bus driver was the quiet type and didn't honk his horn at a single blind corner, and there were many many blind corners. We arrived safely, and vowed never to take a bus through the mountains again. (Note: The mandatory insurance on this busride was about 10 times more expensive than other ones we'd taken, hahaha, didn't notice that until after arrival)
Shangri-La was not quite as ugly as Daocheng, but a close runner-up. Around a small Tibetan old town, has sprung a neon-lighted, kareoke singing, tacky souvenir selling paradise. The old town still had some life to it, and we saw the most tourists we had seen in weeks. The surrounding scenery definetely didn't live up to our expectations and the town is clearly a marketing ploy that has succeeded surprisingly well.
Tiger Leaping Gorge:
Another trek? Yann convinced me that we had to stop, since it was rated as a top site in Yunnan province. We arrived in the late afternoon and stayed at a guest house at the beginning of the trail through the gorge. The guesthouse came highly recommended, but we recieved a less than warm reception from the owner. When we left the next morning, she wouldn't tell us what time the bus left on our return, so that we would have to stay another night at her guesthouse. The trek was no harder than Emei Shan, our longest day was only 6 hours of hiking. We ate and slept in villages along the way, the food was nice and the beds were cheap. On the second day of trekking Yann started to experience some vertigo and kept calling me crazy if I approached the edge of the path within about 4 feet. He mainly clung to the side of the rocks and told me to "keep my eyes on the path".
On the last night in the gorge, I told Yann I was determined to make it back to the start to catch our bus, so that we didn't have to stay another night at the first guest house. We found out that the last bus left at 11:30 and we had a 25km hike along the highway through the gorge. We got up at 5:00 a.m. and walked the highway in the dark for over 2 hours (it took a long time for the sun to peak over the gorge). We crossed 3 trucks in 3 hours and we still had about 9km of walking left according to our map. We hailed a truck heading towards town and he brought us the rest of the way for 10Y. We made it to the guest house before 9 a.m. hahahahahaha!
Getting to Lijiang:
There is no bus station at Tiger Leaping Gorge, so you have to either wave down a bus that is going through to Lijiang or negotiate with a private mini-van driver. We opted to negotiate for a cheap price with a mini-van and were happy to find someone who would drive us the 3 hours to Lijiang for only 15Y each. We started with 5 people in the 8 person van, people waved us down from the side of the road until there were 9 people in the 8 person van, including one girl sitting on another girl's lap in the passenger's seat. Yann and I also had our back packs piled on top of us. When we finally got to Lijiang, Yann handed the driver's assistant 50Y which she promptly pocketed without giving us any change. Yann held his hand out and she grumbled giving him 10Y back. Of course, we were still missing 10Y from our negotiated price. What ensued was about a 15 minute show-down between me and the driver's assistant (possibly driver's wife) with Yann and the driver looking on. The driver didn't join the melee because he himself had repeated the 30Y price to us and new that we we're being ripped off. I stood with my food in the car using as much Chinese as I could, as well as some English and many hand signals. We ended up taking their license plate down and telling them we would call the police (which of course we wouldn't). If they had originally quoted us 40Y we would have paid, its difficult to accept it after you've negotiated a price and had them repeat it to you multiple times before departure. Next time we will have them write down the price and we will have the correct change, the balance of power lies with the person holding the cash...
Lijiang has a beautiful old town, that is (was) inhabited by the Naxis, another minority group in China. The town has narrow streets, crisscrossed with canals and bridges. Unfortunately it is absolutely overrun with tourists! Only 3 years ago (when our Lonely Planet was written), it was still described as a quiet refuge with a few Chinese souvenir stalls opening up but mostly Naxi shops lining the streets. The only Naxi salespeople we saw were walking around selling their products from baskets. Every single store front has been bought up and sells everything from Russian dolls to Yak horns.
On the first afternoon we wandered up to an old temple, with a great view of the old town. We were greeted by two friendly Taoist monks who led us into the temple and handed us incense to burn. We turned it down a few times, knowing that we would be charged for it, but they repeated eagerly, "free, free, this temple knows no money!" What a nice change! After our prayer with the incense, the English speaking monk sat us down, asked us our birth years and told me I was a teacher or a doctor, and told Yann he worked with computers. We played along and he continued "oh yes, Master knows, he can see it in your face, yes, yes Master sees". Master gave Yann a yellow prayer cloth and gave me the "hands of God" which "I must never never give to anyone" (a small jade pendant in the shape of hands) repeating; "this temples knows no money, oh yes, no money". He chanted for us a bit, and our families then we got up to leave, so he had us sign the guest book. We wrote our names, our home country and the things we would like him to pray for. The last column was the "donation" column, which curiously had very large sums of money written in. He told us it was "customary" to give 100Y so that our prayers would be answered, but 200Y was better. We told him our donation was between us and God. But he insisted "you must write in book, you must write in book!" By the way, the whole time this argument was going on, Yann, in protest, was adding more and more things to be prayed for. Eventually I took the pen and listed a donation of 5Y each. The priest went on with this act "Oh no no no no , nobody ever gives so little!". So we scratched out the 5Y, I handed him my hands of God, Yann handed him his cloth and we walked away perfectly content to not have spent 10Y.
It was impossible to find a cheap meal within the old city and Yann and I ended up wandering around for hours trying to find a market where we could buy food to make our own sandwiches at the hostel. We bought ourselves a 9Y bottle of wine at the supermarket to go with our sandwiches. The sandwiches were a grand success, the wine.... not so much. Yann is convinced that it was no alcohol in it, and judging by the speed at which we drunk it, I would tend to agree.
We eagerly boarded a bus to the very relaxed Dali, where we are now, along with all the drug-pushing old ladies; "hallo, hallo, you want to smoka the ganga?".
Litang was a very interesting town, to give more insight in why it was so interesting, we will give a few observations that we made about Litang and its people. The first, when we talked to a few locals in the conversation seemed to turn to what nations was friendly to them. As opposed to the rest of China (where when they talk about Americans, they hit their fists together), in Litang they say that they are friends with Americans, Nepalis and Indian (noting that about 100 000 tibetans fled to India when China 'liberated' Tibet from feudalism, indeed many locals seem to have been born in India and came back to China). The friendship with the Americans we guess comes from the fact that the CIA supported the Khampa rebellion against the Chinese (for two years). The Khampa rebellion came to an end when the Chinese shelled Litang and killed 200 monks. This might explain why the town seems rebellious against China. We hope this information is accurate since it is difficult to have information about the subject in China on the internet. Therefore if you are interested you can cut and paste information in the comment section of this entry. Also, check out tibet.org, we couldn't access it from here but it
seems to have some insight into Kham province.
And now your questions and our answers (our guesses, not facts) :
How do these people make a living? Nomads and monks?
Nomads heard yaks and probably sell excess furs and meat in local town markets. We definetely saw what we thought were nomads roaming around town, they are definetely distinct from the townies. Monks are not state funded (they are in Thailand), they get money mainly from donations as far as we can tell.
They seem to have no facial hair. What do they think of Yann's beard? The children especially?
Hair = manliness
Is there TV in the tents? What's on? reruns of Baywatch and Dallas?
No TV but one lightbulb and radio powered by small solar panels.
What do the monks think of Baywatch?
No TV for nomads, but TV for monks. We've never seen an American TV show here, I wonder what 400 teenage boys would think about Baywatch? Hmmmmm .....
Or George W. Bush? Do they know he exists?
Haven't heard him mentioned, doubt the nomads know about him, probably don't care either.
We are now four days away from Litang, a town that sits at 4100m seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The minute the bus pulls in to town you can tell that you are not really in China anymore. We arrived exhausted and were blown away by the yak skin jackets, silver and
turquoise earrings, cowboy hats, sun-tanned skin and the "nihao" replaced by "tashi delek". Khampa Tibetans roam the town, they were a red scarf in their hair with yak bones decorating the scarf. They are known as Tibetan cowboys, and they staged a rebellion in 1959 andconsequently Litang was heavily bombed by the Chinese. Photos of the Dalai Lama are proudly displayed in many homes and buildings, including our hotel.
After having dinner, Yann and I noticed we had an admirer as we walked along the main street. After a few minutes the sixteen year old boy introduced himself as Bryeena (found out later it was Bruno) and told us he would show us to the internet bar. But first, did we want to go visit his school and meet "Teacher" his English teacher? Not having the heart to say no, we walked with him to the edge of town to his school where we were greeted by lots of excited kids, but we couldn't find "teacher". After helping Bruno set up an internet account at the cafe we were invited back to his place where we were greeted warmly by his mother, grandmother and greatgrandmother in their one-room home. We were fed boiled potatoes which we dipped in a bowl of salt, Tibetan flat bread and of course lots of butter tea. We happily excepted the
generous gifts and before we left we parted with our Mandarin-English phrasebook which we left for Bruno to help with his English. We also promised to meet him again at his school the next day to attend his English class. Heading back to the hotel we ran into a local guide and a tourist who told us about a nomad festival that we could visit, we agreed to meet the guide the next morning.
Bright and early the next day, 11 people crammed into a 7-person van and headed to what we were told was a nomad festival. We drove for about an hour down a deserted highway and then appeared hundred of tents camped along the highway. We parked the van and our guide
brought us first to visit the lama so that we could "ask him questions". We all entered the colourful tent and were greeted by a fairly young, fairly fat, monk wearing big sunglasses and a huge smile. We could ask him question through our guide, who didn't speak much English. The lama is the head monk of the Litang Monastery and had moved for 2 weeks, along with his 800 monks to the campsite along the highway, so that nomads can come once a year to pray with them. He asked us where we were from and was particularly interested in a German girl's cold sore. After a few minutes of awkward conversation, including me telling him that I liked beer, it was time for us to leave. The guide had the German girl kneel on the ground and the lama
proceeded to breathe on her face. We all thought he was curing her cold sore, but it turns out we would all recieve he same blessing before leaving the tent and visiting the camp.
The next few hours were a fury of photo taking, with monks and nomads following us everywhere, holding our hands and running away with our cameras to take photos of their friends. Every once in a while the monks would be called to prayer and 800 boys in crimson robes would bolt from every direction to the monastery tent and chant. In the early afternoon, we headed to a big black tent to find crowds of nomads throwing wood frantically onto a huge fire on which sats dozens of pots of melting yak butter. We all smiled eagerly and snapped away
at the men blowing on the fire and chanting, until all of a sudden they came running towards us with the pots of scalding butter in hand. As the crowd shouted for me to get out of the way, I just stood there, until someone from the crowd pulled me out of the line of butter. It turns out, this is a daily butter melting ceremony where they prepare over 1000kg of melted butter which is then drunk by the monks and nomads. As the butter is carried out of the tent, another set of young monks come running and carry smaller containers back to the prayer tent for the elder monks to drink. The back and forth running went on for most of the time we were there.
Yann and I ended the visit at the lama's tent where we offered a donation to the monastery (we had been told to do so), and in exchange were offered hunks of yak butter to eat, or even better a bowl of melted yak butter to drink. We left the campsite in awe of what we had just been through.
The day was not over yet though, we still had a meeting with Bruno at his school. We arrived at the gate, and were greeted by "teacher", a 21 year-old Tibetan with long black hair and Western clothing. He brought us to the small rundown classroom where 20 eager students poured in. The class he teaches is actually an after school class, that he teaches to the poor kids from town, including some nomad children, those who can't afford to pay for an English teacher. The kids are absolutely wonderful, so dedicated, they come to this class at 4:30 after having been at school since 7 a.m. and furiously take notes and shout out English sentences. What we didn't know about our invitation to the class, is that we had actually been enrolled as guest teachers. We nervously gave a lesson, I tought them fruits and Yann taught them sports. Then we taught them the word 'favorite'. At the end of class "teacher" asked each student at a time, what their
favorite fruit, or sport was, Bruno (the oldest boy in the class) would shout out "my favorite sport is basketball", whether or not the question was about fruits or sports, and whether or not he had been addressed. After class, we treated "teacher" to dinner and heard about his dreams to become a movie star so that he could bring the money back to Litang to all the poor students. We promised to send him some English videos, so that his students could watch them. Bruno followed us back to our hotel room where we eventually had to kick him out so
that we could go to bed.
We left Litang reluctantly the next morning, to head south to Shangri-la, although I felt that we were already there.
We met another British couple on the way here and we are now together in a nice dorm room. Yann and I were keen to try our first cup of butter tea, which you saw me trying in the photo. It is somewhat awful, tastes like a cup of melted butter with about a pinch of tea and a spoonful of sour milk. We invited every foreigner in our hotel to come share our tea with us, but we still didn't manage to empty the pot.
The atmosphere in Kanding was very relaxed so we stayed a couple of days even though there weren't too many sites to visit. Seeing the young monks at the monastery was a nice experience, we saw that most of them are little kids or teenagers that just want to goof-off like the other kids. It seems like a difficult life and most of them are placed there by their parents when they are very young.
The next part of our journey brought us to Litang, an absolutely wonderful place, you will hear more about it once we get a chance to absorb everything that we have experienced in the past three days...
Today we celebrated our one month anniversary of being on the road. We had a pot of yak butter tea and "special Tibetan cheese".
Yann and Em's highlight of the month : Horse trekking
Thank you to everyone who has been reading and sending us encouragement. We can't respond to comments right now due to the Chinese firewalls but please keep sending them!
The horses were of course calm and followed each other in a line up the small trails, when they slowed down our guides would yell something out in Chinese and they would speed up a little bit. They were always well behaved except when one of them would try to pass another in line. This was a nasty affair that usually involved horses biting at each other. In my case, it involved me and my horse running high speed through a bunch of trees with branches flying at my face. This was great amusement for those not involved.
The first hour or so of our ride was giddy excitement with alot of laughter at the constant farting of our horses. My horse had an particular affinity to the backside of Yann's horse and I endured three days of farting in my direction (it made me laugh the whole time, although sometimes I had to keep the laughter inside to avoid embarassment, I was thinking about Yann's horses feelings). We climbed six hours the first day to 3400m where our fourth guide was waiting with our food cooking over the campfire. The ride to the campsite was through valleys and streams and over mountains on small trails. We passed countless yaks grazing on the mountains. I went a little yak happy with my camera and have spent the past day organizing my collection of 50 yak photos (don't worry you will see them all!).
We spent the evening at the campfire eating our vegetarian cuisine which was pretty decent and playing cards and laughing it up with Gary and Naomi, who are absolutely hilarious (I have this theory that everything is funnier with a British accent). The guides chain smoked by the fire and were excited to learn that someone had brought them some fire water. One guide seemed to like me alot and asked Yann if we were married. When Yann said no, he spent the rest of the night cuddled up beside me. My bike accident proved useful as my red cheek was a great hit. Tibetan women have big red cheeks and he pointed at my cheeks saying "good, like Tibetan".
Naomi, Gary, Yann and I shared a tent together. Each of us had a thin summer sleeping bag, two blankets and a yak's hair jacket. We went to bed wearing every single piece of clothing that we had brought (minus our boots), including toques, gloves, two pairs of socks etc... It was the coldest night I have ever attempted to sleep through. I thought our attempt at sleep was brave, but the guides were heroic. When I woke up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, they were all huddled together in their thin jackets with various horse saddles and a few rain coats strewn on top of them lying beside of the dying embers of the fire.
At the first sound of a morning fire (about 5 a.m.) we were out of the tent and thawing in front of the fire along with our guides who had visibly had a rougher night than we had. At 6 a.m. it was -10 C. We had a long breakfast with fresh fried bread made by the guides (they even made the dough fresh that morning). It was quite lovely. We then mounted back on our horses for the journey to "Ice Mountain".
The trip was amazing, mainly because we passed through very tiny traditional Tibetan villages and breathtaking scenery. We had snowy mountain peaks surrounding us and we passed to my great excitement lots more yaks. We had a few scary moments in the morning as the trails were narrow and icy and the horses fought for their position. But whenever we got on a straight flat road the horses would take off as fast as they could, which was a pretty crazy experience for new riders. The two Chinese people who were on the trek with us that day found it so exciting that they tried to get their horses to run for the next 12 hours of riding, including when we were on the sides of cliffs. This unfortunately caused me to swear quite a bit.
The arrival at Ice Mountain (for which we had paid a 10Y "admission fee") consisted of climbing up to the top of a peak and the guide pointing away at the distance and proclaiming "ice mountain, take picture now" before he turned around and headed back down the mountain. It didn't matter though, because everything was spectacular (and we had forgotten that we had paid an admission fee). At this point we were at 4500m and our poor horses seemed exhausted. We walked down the mountain to give the horses a rest and headed back to our campsite. The night was warmer, so we got a little bit more sleep, but we were still up early to warm up by the fire.
The ride back to Songpan on the third day was again peaceful and beautiful, although it was clear that our guides wanted to get home. We heard alot of "hallo hallo faster faster", especially when getting ready in the morning and when we wanted to stop for a bathroom break. We stopped at a Tibetan village for about an hour that day and explored the few pagodas and watched the elders spin the hundreds of prayer wheels and saw young boys training to be monks reciting their prayers. After the village we rode on quietly taking in the last of the quiet scenery and the stunning blue of the sky. The quiet was occasionally interrupted by me getting mad at the Chinese couple who were again trying to get their horses to race with mine.
We felt proud to have made it through the cold and to have seen such an isolated part of the country (and I personally felt proud not to have fallen off my horse). As we entered Songpan (which had once appeared so small) it now seemed overwhelming. It turns out, we are among the last people to do the trek this year. In the summer they have about 20-30 people depart every day. We were told that when we arrived there were only 5 foreigners in town (including the 4 of us). So we dealt with the cold and avoided the crowds, it worked well for us.
Before getting here we were in Chengdu, we stayed a little bit longer than we expected. The day we arrived, after conquering Emei Shan we "treated" ourselves to western food from the hotel restaurant. I had a pizza and Yann had a burger. The first week we arrived here Yann and I made a wager on who would be the first to poo their pants. Well the bet has been settled, and I had the luck of having a single piece of tissue paper left at the time. So we extended our stay a little bit to rest. Being the brilliant person that I am I had spicy BBQ the two nights right after the incident, it was only after three days of stomach cramps that I finally stuck to bread and water (with the insistance of Yann the dictator), it worked like a charm.
We visited the famous pandas in Chengdu and they were really amazing. We got there bright and early to see the feeding. Apparently this is the only time the pandas do anything. We waited as a keeper tried to wake up a big panda with an apple on a stick. He would wave it infront of the panda's nose and as the panda would open his eyes he would pull the stick away to try to get him to wake up. The panda couldn't really be bothered. This went on for about 10 minutes as we all watched on. Suddenly the panda had a burst of energy, got up, turned his back to us and proceeded to scratch his bum on a post for the next 10 minutes. Then he went back to bed. I love pandas!
We felt better the next morning so we continued with our plan to head to Leshan in Sichuan province by bus. The first 200 of 400km was smooth, new highways. I was saying to Yann, "wow the Lonely Planet is way off on this one, 8 hours? we're almost there!" We then entered the road from hell: wide enough for one car at most points (let alone a bus), yet covered by rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, animals, children and buses in both directions. It was dusty, and it was bumpy, very bumpy. The bus driver ordered us to keep our seats in the upright position, just when you hit turbulence on a plane. But luckily for me, the lock keeping the seat fixed was broken on mine, meaning that everytime we hit a bump (which was about every 1/2 second) my chair would shoot me into recline mode. Oh yes, and did I mention that our bus driver had a mad case of road rage. He pretty much yelled the entire busride and believe it or not, honked the horn every single time we passed anything on the road. Yann proclaimed that he was greatful for this because "it was safer", I myself wanted to jump off the bus and hitch a ride on a rickshaw.
Despite all this, we crossed into Sichuan province through some pretty awesome rural scenery, rice fields and bamboo forests and we arrived in Leshan where a rickshaw driver biked us 5 km, packs and all, to our hotel for 5 Y (about 80 cents) and the hotel attendant offered us a room for 40 Y less than the advertised price. Of course we took it, worrying the whole time about why we got the room for so cheap. Our good luck ran out though when we were overcharged for some fiery hotpot at a street stall. But at least we got a taste of it (although not in Chongqing).
It appears we have hit the low-season and it is pretty wonderful, the hotels are half-full and even better the tourist sites are half-full. We visited Leshan's one and only tourist site this morning, the Leshan Grand Buddha, the tallest sitting Buddha in the world (Note: we have also seen the largest reclining Buddha in the world and the largest Buddha north of the Yellow River on other excursions). He is mighty beautiful anyways, carved into reddish stone and covered in moss. We managed to disorient ourselves and climb up and down the mountain twice in order to see him. We finished this visit in the morning, had lunch and got on a bus for Emei Shan. We are here already at the base of the mountain, we will depart for a 3 day climb in a couple of days, once our colds are completely cleared. The mountain is covered with monkeys that have apparently become fairly demanding from years of being fed by tourists, we have been advised by many people to carry a stick in one hand and a stone in the other to ward them off. For a great laugh we have been told to follow closely one of many groups of Chinese tourists carrying bags of food, apparently madness ensues!
We headed to the ferry terminal for our afternoon depature, we bought some tickets from some shaddy counter and I had my doubts as to whether or not we would ever get on a ship. After a long bus ride to the ship we managed to board it a few hours later along with a few other foreigners including a French woman, Fabienne, that was very excited to have met someone who she could speak french to. We saw lots of her during our 3 days and she was a great source of information and extremely nice to talk to (she has been travelling for 2 years). She even gave me a pair of pants that she didn't need anymore.
Our four person cabin (we splurged for second class) was surprisingly nice and smelled great (until the bleach smell gave way to the standard sewage smell). We had a middle-aged Chinese couple with us Yao and Li. The husband Yao spoke English and was able to help us with all the Chinese instructions given to us by the boat staff. They asked us lots of questions about Canada and Li, who couldn't speak a word of English giggled as she squeezed the fat on my gut. (Yann thought this was hilarious!, me, not so much). They did look out for us, one night when we arrived at 10 p.m from the deck Li was waiting at the door of our cabin for us. She thought we were lost, or that we were stranded at the last stop.
Our first morning on the boat, we woke up to find that mice had gotten into our snacks, which made us sad. It didn't seem to shock Yao and Li too much, we just moved all our food to the upper cabinets. Then I got into a stand-off with the tour guide who wanted to charge us 50 Y more than Chinese guests for the day trip. We refused and went back to our rooms to spend the day there, she came to get us about 30 seconds before departure and told us we could come on condition we didn't tell the other foreigners what we had paid for our tickets.
This first day trip was extremely random (and as it turned out, not really worth the money). We left our cruise ship onto a smaller boat and entered the Shennong river, the river has some beautiful gorges and is the home to a small minority group in China, but the big draw is the naked boat trackers. Young, muscular men who pull boats upstream naked (at least this is what we were led to believe). It turns out, no one really does this anymore, but they did transfer all two hundred of us into small traditional wooden boats and local men pulled us upstream in their underwear. This my friends, is Chinese tourism! I guess it was worth if for that alone. After this 6 hour excursion we opted to skip the other tours along the way and got off the boat and wandered the small towns on our own. This proved to be more interesting and more economical.
We sailed through the famous Three Gorges all afternoon and sat up on the upper deck in deck chairs watching them (this was very relaxing). For dinner we stopped at a small seaport called Fen jie and had dinner with our newfound friends, Fabienne and a couple from the Netherlands Willemijn and Arjen. (Arjen is a medical student and he gave me a consultation on my finger that got infected from peeling an orange).
We had a great time slowly moving down the river and we arrived bright and early (5 a.m.) in Chongqing this morning. Our roommates were definetely early birds and they had us ready by 6 a.m. for the tour of Chongqing that we had signed onto with them. It was a great ultra cheap tour that brought us to a couple sights out of town and then back downtown. Of course, it was only in Chinese, but we are willing to read the English signs. Mid-afternoon we were dropped off on some street corner in Chongqing (a city of 10 million inhabitants) with only a vague idea of the direction we had to walk in (Yann has a compass). Within thirty seconds of standing there with our Lonely Planet open an old man had us aboard a public bus with instructions to the bus driver to leave us downtown. We were there in 10 minutes and another group of people showed us to our hotel. We are being very well taken care of. Oh yeah, and a guy from Chicago living here walked us to this internet cafe, because he couldn't remember the name of the street.
We are only here one night as we are moving even further west, but tonight we will sample famous Chongqing hotpot, one of the spiciest dishes in China. (We have had it once with Janice and Dennis and I swear it made me feverish). We have to be at the long distance bus station tomorrow morning by 6:30 a.m. to catch a 7 a.m. bus to Leshan.
We are still debating whether to take the Yangtze River cruise, its a 3 day trip upriver. Yann's main concern is being on a dirty unsafe boat for 3 days, my main concern is the price. The trip will cost us about 200$ U.S and that doesn't include meals or admission to any of the stops along the way. However, many of the areas will disappear after the flooding of the Yangtze I think it just might be worth it.
Last night we sought out a famous noodle restaurant for dinner. The last time I encountered eel, I had actually bought it to make sushi, and then called out my parents and others when they didn't want to try it (but secretly I didn't eat any of it myself until Yann figured me out). We read that the specialty at this restaurant was the shrimp and fried eel noodles, so I promptly ordered them while Yann stuck to something more usual. Of course as soon as they arrived I realised I really really didn't want to eat the eel and I was stuck listening to Yann make fun of me (deservedly). Anyways the eel is pictured below (its the brown stuff) and its actually delicious and I ate the whole bowl, so good for me! Ha!
The temperatures here are hotter than we expected, around 30 C. Our hostel was very damp so we've felt pretty sticky. That, however, has not prevented Yann from not showering for the past few days. I made the bone-headed move of deciding to dry my wet clothes in our small bedroom, the humidity didn't go away for days.
Our highlights of Shanghai: Old town, The Bund, Street vendor breakfasts
Our lowlights of Shanghai: Our hostel roommate who woke us up everynight at 4 a.m. returning from the bars, the traffic (not as bad as Beijing), the shopping malls, the western food
So we got up early this morning to take a short train ride to Hangzhou, the home of the "very famous" West Lake. We will spend two days here for Yann to rest his back (hostel beds = not good) then we will take a 25 hour train to Yichang, the gateway to the Three Gorges Dam. We will then re-open the debate about boat travel, to see if I can convince Yann to take a "cruise" up the Yangze River!
We spent most of the morning wandering around "Old Town", kind of like the equivalent of Vieux Quebec. We waited in line for 1 hour to try some famous pork dumplings for lunch. We skipped out on the chick skewers, yes little baby chicken carcasses charred on a bbq. The thing that made me laugh the most about these is the posters of cute little chicks that they had up on the wall, as if that would inspire us to eat them.
We went to an antique market and a bird and insect market in the afternoon. The bird and insect market was crazy. We learned that people collect crickets as pets, and there were lots and lots of them, the whole market chirps, you can buy little decorative cages for them, and special brushes to poke them with.
We had dinner in a little street restaurant, fried eggplant, sizzling beef (beef served on a sizzling cast iron pan, kind of like fajitas at Mexicali Rosas) , fried rice, steamed rice and two pepsis for about 6$. It was great, but we had to overcome the absolutely disgusting settings of the restaurant (I do not use the word disgusting lightly). When we first sat down we were the only people there (which I believe makes us very brave), later on more people had entered. At one point, a little boy got up to ask for a washroom and the owner sent him outside to pee off the steps of the restaurant.
We were so tired at this point and we hit our bunk bed at about 7:30 and slept a full 12 hours.
Our 13 hour flight to Tokyo was pretty awesome cause I would say it was no more than 1/4 full. Each passenger had a row of seats to lay down on, it was a huge double decker 747 too. We arrived in Shanghai at about 9:30 p.m., by the time we arrived downtown it was about 11:15 and then we walked for an hour to our hostel, since we had just missed the last metro. The hostel is booming at all hours of the night, the beer is cheap and the internet is free.
More about our route can here.
Oh well, we have a few contingency plans in case they hold us up at one of the many airports. We fly Toronto - Chicago, Chicago - Tokyo, Tokyo - Shanghai. Our layover in Chicago is 4 hours and Tokyo is 1 hour. Thats fine with us, since we figure the U.S customs are going to be more of a pain in the arse.
Anyways, we have the tickets and it makes us just that much more ready to get out of here!