Grace and I decided to go to Dali and Lijiang after leaving Kunming. Our options from Kunming were to head towards the Himalayas to the northeast or to the Southeast Asian minority villages in the Xishuangbanna Region on the Laos and Burmese borders. We chose the former. When it came time to leave, we couldn’t get beds or seats on a train for the overnight train ride. I persuaded Grace to buy standing tickets and try to get some of the beds released after the train departs. After sitting on our bags by the entrance to the car, we were able to get beds, and we arrived outside of Dali in a city call Xiaguan. It was too early for buses to run, and the cab fares to Dali were exorbitant, so we just ate breakfast at a cafeteria and waited for buses to start running.
Dali is a very attractive tourist city. The city is tucked between mountains and a lake. Everything in the town is built out of gray stone presumably cut from the mountains surrounding the city. Streams from the mountains pass through the city in paths cut from the sidewalks. The old city is contained by a huge wall; tourists stroll on top from guard post to guard post. There are pagodas at every major intersection in the city. Many of the buildings are newly refurbished with the exception of grass growing on top of old terra cotta roofs. Some modern glass buildings were being built away from the main tourist area, and they were impressively integrated with the traditional architecture in the rest of the city.
Consistent with our plan to take a slower pace, we spent an uneventful couple days in Dali. Most of our time was spent walking and eating. One day we negotiated with a local artist to use his supplies to paint for a couple hours. We sat out on the street corner painting pictures of the city. Both Chinese and foreign tourists were quite intrigued; they would stop and watch or chat. I let a little Australian kid “help” me with my painting for a while. It wasn’t a real sacrifice because I’m not much of an artist.
We went to hike up the mountains surrounding the city, but we arrived too late in the day to make the admission fee to the park worthwhile. We also tried to catch a ferry across the lake to some other villages in the area, but when we arrived to the docks, we determined that it wasn’t worth the time and expense. The main excursion of our time there was a bike trip to the village of Xizhou. The village itself wasn’t striking, but we came across a funeral procession. The procession was headed by a casket being carried overhead followed by weeping women. The men trailed, talking and laughing. Grace proposed that people were hired to mourn, and given the melodrama of the women and apathy of the men, her assessment was probably right. We saw another funeral procession a few days later in Dali, and observing the event again supported her hired mourners hypothesis.
A slow bus ride through mountain passes led us to Lijiang. Lijiang is another attractive tourist city. Traditional wooden buildings cover the hills of the old town. Many streams flow through the city, and these streams are too large to be accommodated within the sidewalks. Winding, narrow paths lead to bridges that cut back and forth across the streams. Like Dali, all the buildings were well preserved to please the tourists. Sitting in the background is a solitary snow-covered mountain that dwarfs the smaller mountains around it. The combination of perfectly maintained buildings and the same five types of tourist shops permeating the old town make it feel like Disney’s version of China. All Chinese tourist towns are different in form but the same in substance.
Per Marc’s recommendation, we stayed at a hostel called Mama Naxi’s. Mama ran the hostel and cooked large meals for all the guests every night. Mama referred to herself in broken Chinglish as Mama. At dinner each night, travelers would gather around tables of delicious food and tell each other the generic China backpacker stories about how they were in a minority village, and the villagers took them in and showed them amazing hospitality, and it was the most unforgettable experience. The exception to the rule was a group of MBA students from a school in Shanghai that spoke only in business clichés.
The main attraction in the Lijiang area is the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It is the third largest canyon in the world, and it is a two day hike through the gorge. The gorge is cut out of the far side of the snow-covered mountain by the Yangtze River. Because of the Three Gorges Dam project in Chongqing, it will be filled with water in a couple years. For the majority of the time when we were hiking, the peaks of the mountains were hidden behind the clouds, but for a few minutes at a time, the sky would clear, revealing spectacular views.
Mama provided the transportation to the gorge for all the guests leaving that day, but we had to find our own way back. At the end of the gorge, we could only find a ride back to the beginning of the gorge. From there, we combined forces with some pleasant Polish travelers and rode back to Mama’s. When we returned, one of the guests that left for the gorge a few days before had bandages on his head. He and his friends had hired mules to ride up to the peak. On the climb, his mule slipped. He and the mule fell of the side of the mountain. He fell twenty feet onto a rock flat on his back, and mule nearly landed on top of him. The local guides that were taking them up the mountain ran off as fast as they could. His friends carried him down the mountain to a hostel. They wrapped him in a blanket and found a cab to take him to a hospital. As the cab began to drive off, one of the workers at the hostel jumped in front of the van and demanded that the friends pay about four times the cost of a night at the hostel for the blanket. In no position to debate, they paid, and the driver took them to the medical facility in the town at the beginning of the gorge. It was a concrete block building with no amenities and bloody floors. He stayed there a day getting pain killers. The next day, he was well enough to return to Lijiang. He went to the hospital, and x-rays revealed no broken bones. He had escaped near death with only a concussion.
There is a color picture from Lijiang in the Lonely Planet. There are very few pictures in the Lonely Planet, so a color picture implies that the site is a highlight of the country. The picture from the Black Dragon Pool Park, and it has the pool, a pagoda, and the lone mountain in background. It is a beautiful picture. The park was very unimpressive. We went to the spot where the picture was taken and took the picture ourselves. However, on the day we took our picture, the peak was covered in clouds.
While we were in Lijiang, we decided to leave China. Grace, being relatively uninvested in China, was willing to leave at any time, and I knew it. I had come to China with some subconscious goal of adventure, and China had disappointed. I had held my hopes of China so high that it couldn’t live up. Culturally, China had been remarkably similar. I had reached the conclusion that China wasn’t flawed; there were just things I disliked about living there. The cultural changes in China weren’t inauthentic; they are real and legitimate, but not what I desired. I had invested so much in expectation of getting out of Harbin and backpacking, and following the worn Lonely Planet route just wasn’t what was envisioned. Fellow travelers weren’t interesting and stimulating. Marc and Sven were moving to Kunming. Grace and I had started talking about what our life back in Atlanta would be like. I felt like there was no reason to go back to Harbin and no reason to stay on this trip.
Grace and I decided to leave on the night before Chinese New Year. Next morning, we looked for a way to get back to Kunming and begin our journey back to Harbin. There were no buses leaving that day. I walked from place to place in a near sprint. I was already out of the country. We found an internet café, and I gave Mr. Lu my two weeks notice. My contract had a clause stipulating the amount I had to pay for breach, and the amount was equal to my outstanding pay for one month. That night people were in the main square shooting off fireworks, but the streets were more deserted than usual with most people inside celebrating with their families.
Mama had offered to buy bus tickets to Kunming on our behalf, but from a miscommunication, they had to arrange our bus at the last minute. We got beds on a sleeper bus in the very back. There were two levels of five mats straight across right next to each other. My mat was next to the fat, snoring man. I slept sporadically throughout the night; I laid there thinking about how much I hated this man and how I couldn’t get off the bus. I couldn’t wait for the bus to stop. It felt like the ride took an eternity. I finally pulled my head out of the pillow and looked up. We had stopped. Grace, the snoring man, and I were the only people on the bus. Who knows how long we had been there. Our bags were sitting outside the bus, and we picked them up and moved on to the train station.
We were able to get sleeper tickets on a train to Beijing that night. In the meantime, I returned plane tickets that I had purchased for our return from Kunming to Harbin. Being close to the New Year, plane tickets within China were too expensive if we were going to be able to afford our tickets back to Atlanta. It took three days to get to Beijing. The scenery on the first day of the trip was wonderful. We passed through Guizhou, an area we had contemplated traveling through earlier. The entire province was covered in hills and yellow flowers. It was a great place to ride through, but I was glad we hadn’t traveled there. There was a mother and a child in the bunk next to us. The child was the worst behaved Chinese child I had ever seen. He was about seven years old and was yelling, climbing all over the bunks, and throwing toys. His dad must have been sitting in the hard seat section because he would come around occasionally, and the kid would straighten up. We didn’t have to spend the entire trip enjoying his antics; his family got off about a day and a half into the ride.
Once in Beijing, we immediately took another train to Harbin. From the Harbin train station, we took a cab back to my apartment. We packed everything and went back to the train station without our bags to get tickets back to Beijing. The train station was completely filled. Everyone was traveling from their families back to where they worked after the New Year. All of the twenty or so ticket lines extended out of the train station. Some people would walk past the lines straight to the front. I wasn’t pleased with the exceptions they were taking to the rules. I started grabbing people on the back of the collar and telling them to wait as they tried to walk to the front of my line. A soldier that was monitoring the lines came to investigate the commotion once. He supported me, but having a soldier involved at all made me nervous.
There were no trains back to Beijing for four days. I was in a rush to get out of the country, so this was unacceptable. There is no designated bus station in Harbin; buses just line the streets around the train station. A system of middlemen developed to get people to the buses for their destination for a commission. We tacitly employed one of these touts to find us a bus, and for about an hour, there appeared to be nothing for less than the price of a plane ticket. Finally, we found a bus going to Beijing and Tianjin for double the normal price, and this was a good deal in the circumstances. We went back home to grab our bags and get on the bus. When we came back, we tried to buy the tickets without the help of our middleman to avoid the commission, but we were spotted. That was another moment that I am not proud of looking back. Given the cost of our tickets (and our whiteness was probably a factor as well), we displaced two people from beds onto the floor.
The bus never actually entered Beijing. It approached the Beijing suburbs on the freeway to Tianjin. We were dropped off with one other person on an off ramp in the middle of nowhere before the sun was up. A cab passed by after a few minutes waiting on the side of the road with all our possessions. I asked if he would take us to the Beijing south train station. He laughed, told us no, and drove off. Luckily, the person we were with knew where we were and how to get to the train station. We followed him, dragging suitcases, to a bus stop. Grace was rightfully skeptical about following this guy; Chinese people never concede lack of knowledge when it comes to directions, and it wasn’t worth letting him lead us around aimlessly while lugging our bags. After a couple of bus transfers, we were at the train station an hour and half later. We went to an internet café, pulled out a credit card, and purchased plane tickets back to Atlanta that day. We took the bus from the train station to the airport and we arrived in Atlanta two days later.
It had taken us a week to get from Lijiang to Atlanta: a night from Lijiang to Kunming, three days from Kunming to Beijing, a day each way between Beijing and Harbin, and a day real time to fly to Atlanta.