03.09.2009 - 12.09.2009 18 °C
I crossed from northern Laos into Southern Yunnan in China. More exactly I arrived in the Xishuangbanna region, which seems to see very few tourists (at least in early September). It is a very beautiful area, kind of subtropical with many different minorities living around. The arrival in China was quite impressive, even though the border crossing with Laos cannot be that important, they built an imposing structure as a border post.
You immediately feel you arrive in a country very different from South-East Asia. Since I had caught a cold and the Chinese were paranoid about the H1N1 virus, I had to lie a lot on the entry sheets to get in without trouble, all the time refraining from sneezing or blowing my nose. But I got in all right. The first city I arrived in was Mengla. I was the only foreigner in the bus (and as far as I know the only tourist in the city), and there was a lone tout waiting at the bus station. Since we were both the only one of our kind there, we had a friendly chat and I accepted to be led to a hotel where he got me a surprisingly good deal for a room. The first thing he offered me after showing me the room were girls. I was quite surprised about this, since we were in China and I had some preconceived ideas about the morality of the place. I was even more surprised when I found out the street was teeming with prostitutes who were all eager to invite me to their place. That was quite a funny experience, because none of them speaks English and I didn't know any Chinese, so they were proposing sex with signs and I did my best to respectfully decline using my hands and feet. I had another interesting experience when I was in my room and someone knocked at my door. There was a Chinese man there who spoke to me in Chinese and motioned to my room. I had no idea what he meant, but suspected he was part of the staff and invited him inside. The guy went straight to my bathroom and had a pee there. He talked to me some more afterwards and then went out. Ok, that kind of place. I stayed only one night there (and would not have opened up my door again) and then went on to Jing Hong, the next bigger city. Upon arrival I walked around for 3-4 hours with my full backpack on until I found a cheap Guest House. That was a pretty weird place. In the middle of the city in a courtyard at the end of a back alley they had built some bamboo houses on stilts that served as dormitories. Since I was the only guest I had all the facilities for myself. I really liked Jing Hong, it is a very relaxed city with lots of people from the local minorities, which makes a nice mix along with all the Hans. I stayed there for five days. I also met Gregoir, a French Chef and the owner of the Mekong café, who helped me with local advice. He also provides free wifi in his café and I spent a whole day figuring out a way to bypass the Chinese government censorship of pages like facebook and youtube by connecting to a proxy server outside of China. I finally succeeded using jondo, a German anonymity program, and spread the word about it in the local expat community. They are thrilled to have access to facebook and youtube again.
Here are some pictures of Jing Hong:
The main streets are usually quite broad with a lot of trees and lanes for bycicles and scooters. At least half the scooters I have seen in China so far are electric.
There's some kinf of small lake in the city center. Quite relaxing.
I love these trucks I don't know what kind of engine they attached to the truck, but it looks very home-made.
I found this guy in front of my door one morning. He slep well into the afternoon. I didn't have the heart to wake him up. In the evening he was gone.
China is one of the very few countries I have visited where I feel like a foreigner, and not like a tourist. People stare at you, but they don't see you as a walking ATM, which is so refreshing after South-East Asia. My original plan was to go fron Yunnan to Sichuan, then Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei, and Beijing in one month. I had to end in Beijing to get a visa for South Korea. Fortunately, one of the expats in Jing Hong pointed out the fact that I had received a 90 days visa. That was a great realization, because I had more time on my hands to get to Beijing. I was also advised to go to Dali, Lijiang, and Litang, and to take the plane instead of the bus since this is cheaper. So I ended up taking the plane fron Jing Hong to Lijiang, which was the cheapest option.
Lijiang is a very special city. At 2400 m a.s.l. the old town consists exclusively of wooden houses, mostly inhabited my the local Naxi minority. If I ever marry, it will certainly be one of the top candidates for the honeymoon. This is one of the most romantic cities I have ever seen (the Chinese call it the city of love). I tried to capture the atmosphere as best as I could with my modest camera, just imagine what you see in much much better.
One of the streets in the old town.
The central plaza.
The old town is criss-crossed by small canals. And look at the water! It's clear and there are fishes swimming inside! In any other country in Asia this would be a radioactive sewage full of chemical waste. There weren't even plastic bottles in there, I'm starting to love this region (no doubt the water quality degrades further downstream, unfortunately).
This is one of the trash baskets in the new city. Isn't it cute?
The same view from my Guest House in the night and during the day.
A view of the old town and from the new city from the hill separating the two.
This is a good example of the English signs you come across in China. It's usually anybody's guess what is meant, but it's definitely funny. My guess is that they used google-translate ;-D
I stayed two nights in Lijiang. the downside of this city is that all the Chinese agree with me about it's beauty and it's full of Chinese tourists. But since they're Chinese it's not very disturbing. On the last day I met Anthony, a Swiss guy from Geneva who's been traveling for a while as well. He pointed out for me that Swiss citizen don't need a visa for South Korea. Thus I don't absolutely need to get all the way to Beijing, which gives me much more freedom of movement during my stay in China. It's funny how big a role luck plays when you travel.
From Lijang I went to Zhongdian (3400 m a.s.l.), a town at the western tip of Yunan, that has been renamed Shangri-La by the Chinese to boost tourism. And it seems to have worked, while Lijiang is aimed at Chinese tourists, Zhongdian attracts lots of foreigners. Another reason for the amount of western tourists is also that this is one of the entry points for Tibet. The old town is full of Tibetans and features fantastic wooden houses. It's just sad to see them all converted to Guest Houses, restaurants and souvenir shops. Here are some views:
This is a bulding in the new (Han) city. I have no idea what it is, but it seemed important.
Some pictures of the old town.
This monastery is next to the old town. It has a fantastic Buddha and wonderful mandalas. Unfortunately photos were not allowed inside. The monastery also has the biggers prayer wheel I have ever seen. It's a real pain to turn this thing around.
This is a views taken from the prayer walk around the monastery.
For a while I played with the idea of going to Tibet, since I'm so close. But the only legal tourist tours are expensive and boring and there's not much point anymore in entering illegally. So I decided to go north along the Tibetan border in Western Sichuan. Those are Tibetan towns as well, and I'm pretty sure there's much less tourism there (and consequently less police). So tomorrow I'll take the bus to Xiancheng, and from there I intend to reach Litang, a small Tibetan outpost with a monastery at something over 4000 m a.s.l. I'll stay there for a couple days (or weeks if I like it) and then move down to Chengdu (where I'll update the blog again).
I had hoped to meet again with Bomi here in China. Unfortunately she wrote me that she wants to spend some time in Auroville, a big Ashram in Southern India. I'd really like to go and join her there, but I finally decided to listen to my wallet and the first priority is to get to South Korea to earn some money.
I spend hours in the Chinese supermarkets. I'm having so much fun choosing some food at random. There are aisles upon aisles of unknown (cheap) food, I love it.
Chinese women are seriously beautiful. And they wear miniskirts!