Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The big cities of China offer a fascinating insight into the people and their culture; Hong Kong and Shanghai are two favourite destinations.  Nothing however can match the bubbling vivacity of smaller towns where life moves at its own pace, sometimes to the tune of the visitor, more often to the whim of the resident.

Kunming featured prominently in one trip.

Guilin was another destination I fell in love with.  When I delivered my multinational charges, the French Canadians and the Japanese couple, into the care of their tour guide at Guilin’s airport I thought that was my job done.  I had seen them through customs, organised their entry forms and bade them goodbye.

Then I took a taxi to the hotel for foreign visitors where for the first time ever I had been told that I must share a room with another visitor, a stranger.  Unless there was absolutely no room in the Inn, I told reception, I really wanted a room to myself.  They seemed surprised, one person one room, how strange; but they finally agreed and I checked in.

This was winter and Guilin was freezing.  The flight had arrived late in the afternoon and I took a brisk walk through surrounding streets, had a snack and decided on an early night.  The next day would be a busy one.

So I was extremely surprised next morning at breakfast to find myself sharing a table with the same two couples I had assumed responsibility for back in Hong Kong.  And the surprise didn’t end there.  The night before I had booked a boat trip on the Li Jiang River through reception and when it came time to board the bus there were the two couples, plus the rest of their tour group, a mixture of Americans and Germans, and their Chinese guide.

There was no escaping them, not any one of them.  As it turned out they were an interesting group, and their young, American educated Chinese guide, Percy, proved the most interesting of all.  He was a bridge fanatic and quickly sussed out the tour groups card playing aficionados. 

From that moment on the bridge players took every opportunity to huddle together, a card playing cartel.  Consequently the four people I had accompanied from Hong Kong sought me out first whenever they had a query or a complaint.  And there were a few of those.

Don’t get me wrong, they were very pleasant people, but I would have enjoyed their company more had they been able to speak even a bit of English. They just didn’t seem to understand that I wasn’t their official nursemaid.

Of course appreciation of the spectacular needs no interpretation at all, and the Li Jiang River winding through the incredibly beautiful limestone mountain peaks is a joy none of us could ever forget.

Our small boat meandered twisting mile upon mile between towering karst pinnacles interspersed here and there with small splashes of civilisation, a farmhouse or a tiny village.  Flat engineless barges poled by strong young men carrying supplies and passengers passed by, fishermen in small bamboo rafts with trained cormorants fished the shallow depths.

 The boat wended its way through sparsely populated country. We waved and helloed to farm workers on the riverbank.  And at lunch enjoyed a meal of chilli spiced meat prepared in a tiny kitchen in the depths of our boat.  The meal was fine but we couldn’t work out what the meat was.

One of the older Americans, a biologist suggested the animal was probably a type of large rat.  I thought it might have been a guinea pig; but the consensus was that the meal itself, no matter its origin was utterly delicious, and none of us had any after affects to suggest otherwise.

Back in Guilin at the tourist hotel following a night at Guilin’s version of a discotheque, I slept through a middle of the night fire alarm.  At breakfast next morning, served by waitresses shivering in thick winter coats, I heard the story of guests being herded down the stairs and into the courtyard huddled in an assortment of coats and pyjamas; receiving the final advice that it had indeed been a false alarm, and then their overall inability to get back to sleep.

Fully rested and smug to boot, I blamed my non-participation on some exceedingly strong local alcohol the night before.  I was a little worried though that obviously no head count of guests had been taken. The bliss of ignorance.

And I thought losing my car in a multi story car park was a nightmare.

Where you and I walk our dogs, these gentleman in China take their birds for a stroll.

And a Happy New Year to you too!

Dali, 400 kilometres west of Kunming, about an hour-long flight, was another small town that captured my heart.  Daughter Jenny had heard about its amazing beauty from a University friend and on a later trip to Hong Kong we took a long detour to Yunnan province in the north west. 

Dali's main thoroughfare.

Join me for breakfast?

 Dali proved to be a small market town clustered close to the foothills of the Himalayas.  Its streets were mainly cobblestone and many of the older homes appeared quite ancient.  The town itself was relatively small and a short walk in any direction soon brought us to rural countryside.

Bordered on one side by Lake Erhai and on the other by the snow splashed foot hills of the Cangshan Mountains a chair lift takes lazy visitors, us,  to the thousand year old Daoist Zhonghe temple with its wide panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.

The town was gearing up for the Chinese New Year festivities, a festival I fervently hope I never have to live through again.  As with all such events in a small town the children were eager to get down to the business of noise and mayhem; thus began a good four lead up days of fireworks.  From late afternoon well into the evening there were the sounds of loud bangs and spiralling crackers.  Not only was the noise utterly deafening, but the smell of smoke and cordite hung over everything and everyone.
The idea was to rid houses and streets of evil spirits and sometimes I think the younger boys thought we gweilo’s were the devil incarnate; they targeted us enough times with exploding bungers and spiralling fizzers.  We took our life in our hands whenever we ventured out of doors.  
The New Year also signalled the dance of the dragon, and various groups sent their own particular dragon on practice runs through the centre of Dali accompanied by the intense beating of drums. 

On the day itself all the children appeared in their very best clothes, little girls with huge ribbons in their hair, the Bai tribal girls in ethnic costume in some cases combined with blue jeans, visitors from far afield, some even from nearby Bhutan.

Tribal treasures and blue jeans – the Bai girls of Yunnan Province.

A gentleman from Bhutan and his children.

Despite the noise and the smoke the celebrations were fun.  But it was only later after Jen and I got back to Hong Kong and processed our film that we noticed something very curious.

The streets of Dali are narrow and on any given day, festival or not there is always a huge crowd of young men and women milling about the shops and stalls, many of them from ethnic out of town groups in town to shop or study.  There is also a Chinese Army camp bivouacked right in the heart of the market area, and need I say there is little love lost between the two, ethnic locals and Chinese military.

On the day we took the photographs there had been at least two or three local dragons sponsored by sports groups, running through the streets gathering a great deal of comment and appreciation from onlookers.

Then late in the afternoon the Chinese Army fielded their dragon, a striking creation winding and twisting to the beat of drums as it writhed along the streets in an up and down flowing movement; it was a beastie of much beauty.  After that dragon passed by it was followed by a marching squad of Chinese soldiers in uniform. 
We snapped the dragon, the soldiers and the crowds lining the street.

And only later did we realise, as our photo clearly showed, while the militia strode down the narrow thoroughfare locals to the last man and woman all turned their backs to the street and to the marching men and stayed that way until the small army procession had passed.  A small demonstration of protest but an effective one.


On way to the Lake- it must be washday
  Together with locals and the few other Europeans in Dali at the time, we took the boat ride across to the huge Wase Markets on the opposite site of Lake Erhai. The boat itself was a rickety old craft with a diesel engine which the skipper continually drained and refuelled during the hour and half long journey.

Wase was very small, nothing more than a trading centre, a meeting place where the hill people came to sell and buy.  The market turned out to be a huge open air cacophony of mules and horses, pigs and poultry, geese and vegetables and suppliers of plastic goods and cooking pots.  There were peddlers and barbers, men repairing shoes, butchers slaughtering beasts and dentists extracting human teeth; all in the open alternately ignored or mobbed by the passing parade.  It was huge fun.

Tell me, which tooth hurts?

Short back and sides?

And through all this pandemonium sauntered one humongous sow, placid and oblivious to human presence as she made her way up and down the thorough-fares pushing in and between the milling throng with her huge black snout.  Searching for her master, or perhaps her mate who just may have turned up in some of the pork chops I later saw adorning a meat sellers blood splattered table.

She seeks her piglets there...

....and here....

As is inevitable I soon found it necessary to spend a penny.  This can often be a problem for westerners in China.  There are public amenities of the open drain one straddles across type but it takes a brave or desperate soul to enter such an establishment without succumbing to death by asphyxiation or worse.

I figured there had to be an Inn or some sort of accommodation house on the edge of the markets and set out to find one.  It was a case of every man for himself and I had no time to find daughter Jen.  A pity because I did find a small house of fairly modern appearance that I figured just had to have a toilet somewhere.

The problem then was explaining what I urgently needed and why.  The family group, young husband and wife with baby and an old grandmother looked on with polite patience as I tried to remember the word for loo.  I could see they were straining to understand, while understandably I was straining to hold back.   Finally I screwed up my face and half squatted, an Oscar performance, the young man jumped to my rescue and raced me across a courtyard to their thunder box.   Thankfully it only smelled half as bad as the public one.


Robyn Mortimer.