July 30th, 2010
Dali, Yunnan Province, China

We’re in the charming little mountain town of Dali, at the foot of the Cang Shan Mountains in western Yunnan. Dali is far and away the most pleasant place we’ve been on this trip. It’s an old Ming Dynasty town of traditional architecture, with creeks running through it that have been funnelled through canals lined with weeping willows. Much of the town is surrounded by a citadel wall, with our hostel being just inside the imposing West Gate. This is set against a backdrop of enormous mist-shrouded mountains to the west, and a huge lake to the east.

 

The temperature hovers pleasantly in the twenties at all times, there’s something nice to see nearly everywhere you look, and the mountain air smells clean and fresh. After the horrors of South-East Asia, this is just what we needed.

 
 
 
 

We’re also in one of the nicest rooms we’ve yet stayed in, brand new and spotlessly clean, with a balcony that looks over the moss-covered trees and gardens just inside the city walls.

 

Granted, we’re still in China, which means parents think absolutely nothing of pulling their child’s pants down and letting them shit right there on the footpath in a busy, crowded street. If you let your dog do that back home you’d be facing a hefty fine. It also has a greater population of hippies than anywhere I ever went in South-East Asia; must be the proximity to Tibet. Come on, people. Get some real clothes and wash your hair. It’s 2010.

We went for a walk into the mountain foothills on our first day here, and randomly came across a woman leading some horses down towards the town. She pointed at them and offered to take us up the mountain for about 20 yuan each, which we happily agreed to.

We’re planning to buy horses in Mongolia and ride around the steppe on our own for a few weeks in September, despite the fact that neither of us had ever so much as sat on a horse before. This was about as tame an experience as we could possibly have had to introduce us to horse riding. They responded to no commands: they were tourist horses, following a well-worn trail up and down the mountain every day, with the Chinese woman following close behind saying “Choo! Choo!”

 

It was still great. It sure beat walking up, and it made both of us even more excited for Mongolia. The only thing I disliked about it was having my feet in the stirrups; it made me feel trapped, meant I was buckled to the horse and that our fates were entwined. I prefer to be able to jump clear of things that are even remotely dangerous.

Apparently it’s possible to do horse trekking all over Yunnan and Sichuan; one place in particular stands out, a town called Songpan, altough that’s fairly out of the way in northern Sichuan. It would probably be a good idea for us to do a multi-day trek as a sort of bridging gap between the tourist pony ride in Dali and the remote wilderness hardships of Mongolia. (Just for the record, we’re also planning to do a few days of professional training outside Ulaan Baator with the people from http://www.stepperiders.com. We’re not idiots.)

We had a weird encounter after having dinner with a nice Dutch couple we met on the bus into town. We were on our way back to the hostel when a Chinese girl accosted us, said she’d been watching us and invited us to go drinking with her. Now, in South-East Asia that’s an instant red flag. She’s either working for the bar or planning to drug you and steal your kidneys. Or both. But in China, I have no idea.

We ended up going for a few drinks with her and she was actually on the level, although somewhat weird. I got fairly drunk and went home around midnight, abandoning Chris to his fate. Presumably enough, she tried to seduce him, and he didn’t manage to fight her off and return home until about 4.30 in the morning. She’s still emailing Chris, and it took him quite some time to get rid of her after we randomly bumped into her a few days later. Clingier than an octopus covered in glad-wrap.

We ate up another day by venturing into the mountains. We were aiming for the base of one of the chairlifts, but the nature of the winding little farm paths and various locked gates and walls with Chinese signs eventually spat us out at the entrance to a hiking trail, which we paid 30 yuan to access. It was actually a set of stairs, which led up some alpine meadows and into a pine forest.

 

I’ve never hiked. I was out of breath quite frequently and hadn’t brought nearly enough water. Once we reached the top it wasn’t so bad, but getting up there was a struggle. Jeans were probably a bad choice.

 

The trail then led us north, running several times across hugely spectacular rivers cascading down from greater heights.

 

At one point we came to a steep valley with a glimpse of sheer rock faces and waterfalls far, far above our heads, all of it lit up with sunlight yet veiled in clouds. As you can see below, my camera completely failed to capture the moment, but it resembled what I imagine Yosemite or Yellowstone or the entire nation of Canada to look like.

 

Eventually we crosssed a bridge and found the path to be quite overgrown and somewhat flooded, with a few signs in Chinese. They were probably telling us to go back, but hey, we don’t speak Chinese.

 

We walked for a very, very long time, regretting the fact that we hadn’t bought any food with us, and wishing the path would finish already so we could go home and have dinner. Eventually we reached a barricade covered in barbed wire, which was clearly meant to discourage people from entering, rather than exiting. I wriggled through it, while Chris climbed over the top.

 

From there we had to descend down a very long switchback road which added a lot of kilometres to our overall tally. Every now and then I could catch a glimpse of the road further below, which was very disheartening, because there was no way of reaching it except by walking all the way to the curve and then back. Even more disheartening was catching glimpses of the town below us and realising just how high we still were. This was at about five or six o’clock, without lunch.

 

Fortunately, some of the switchbacks had tiny little rabbit trails or muddy water run-off paths that we could use as shortcuts. This resulted in a lot of slipping and sliding, but shaved precious hours off our descent time. Eventually we reached the bottom, followed a creek down a long artifical canal running alongside a golf course and a gated community of brand new identical houses, reached the road and took a tuk-tuk back to our hostel. Hunger and exhaustion aside, it was a productive and enoyable day.

I bought some jeans here, since my old pair just developed a rip in the knee (only a few days after I thought “Y’know, I’ve had these jeans for ages and the knees still haven’t given out.”) The strange thing was that all of the jeans in the store had their button holes sewn up. I tried a pair on anyway, figuring I could cut it out myself later, but the woman did it for me after I paid. Now, because I hadn’t been able to button the jeans up when trying them on, it turns out they’re actually a bit too small, so I took them back and tried to exchange them. Through lots of gesturing and pointing, the woman made it clear to me that she could not take them back, because the button hole had been opened. Apparently Chinese consumers demand that their jeans have closed button holes before they buy them, and once that hole is opened, no customer would ever go near them. The Orient is a strange and enigmatic place.

We rented bikes today and rode them downhill towards the lake. After crossing the highway we were riding down a cobblestone road, through cornfields and rice paddies. The air smelt absolutely beautiful: alpine freshness mixed with the leafy smells of the countryside, something I hadn’t experienced in months. The sun was shining, which was rare, since it’s usually overcast at this time of year. It was one of those days that makes you really glad to be alive.

 

Cobblestones are a pain in the ass to ride a bike on, mind you.

We rode all the way down to the edge of the lake, which is apparently the seventh-largest lake in China. (“That’s… almost impressive,” Chris said.) It was surprisingly windy. We sat around eating some apples and watching Chinese kids dive into the water, then rode back home.

 

We’re planning to spend a week total in Dali, partly because it’s such a nice place and partly because our awesome hostel gives you one night free after you stay six days. Then we’re heading up to Lijiang, then Tiger Leaping Gorge, then Shangri-La and then into Sichuan.

We’re actually worried about time and trying to plan our future route, for the first time since we’ve left. The problem is that we have to be in Mongolia by the first week of September if we want to get in a good month there before the first snowfall. That leaves us with roughly a month to do China. Now, we’re only planning to explore Yunnan and Sichuan province, but that’s still a lot of ground to cover – plus we have to budget time in Beijing to apply for a Mongolian visa.

I really, really wish we’d brought the girls here instead of sitting around in Vietnam for two weeks. Not only would that have been better for our own schedule, but this place is infinitely nicer than Hanoi. It even has an airport… they could have flown to Beijing and then to Dali. 20/20 hindsight, I guess.

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