Tour Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan
Villages are surrounded by Nomad tents and yaks
Travelling at 2000-3800 meter (6000-11,400 feet) in the mountains of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan it is striking how Tibetan this part of China still is. Also other minorities live there, Naxi and Bai. And everywhere are tents of Nomands who wander the highlands with their herds of yaks. Besides Buddhist temples, convents and pagodes there are also mosques, which look very Chinese.
Travelogue & photos: Simone Haller
Before we fly to the Chinese high mountains, we stay in Beijing for a few days and visit the major sights. Our hotel is in a hutong, an old neighborhood with alleys, courtyards and little shops.
We walk around and enter a tea store. Before we know what's happening, we join a tea ceremony and drink jasmin tea with a Chinese girl.
We rise early to visit the Forbidden City. At 8:30 AM we enter without a problem. It's crowded. It's hot. My goodness, I can't believe how many Chinese there are.
Next day we wander through the Summer Palace. It is pretty, but crowded like Times Square, New York on New Year's Eve.
Today we finally visit the Wall. It is exhausting. We climb for an hour before we reach the top of the wall and that is just the beginning. I carry a parasol against the sun and that helps a little.
We hate Beijing and just want to leave the heat and the crowds behind us. Tomorrow we fly to Lanzhou, in the mountains.
Lanzhou at 2000 meter
The mosques look very Chinese
On the flight to Lanzhou we are the only Westerners. Real backpackers of course travel by train of bus.
Lanzhou is situated at a height of 2000 meter. This capital of the Gansu province has a large Muslim population and we see mosques everywhere. They look very Chinese.
In the afternoon we wander around in the city. We both feel much better now that we've left Beijing. But we have to use Chinese for everything. That means that we point at words in our phrase book and try to learn words. People are very helpful.
Xiahe at 3000 meter
It's quite a walk around the Labrang monastery
Next day we get on an overcrowded mini van for a six hour drive to Xiahe. It is a beautiful trip and we don't get tired of looking at the landscape. The first three hours we drive throug a fertile valley with villages, markets and mosques. This is part of the old Silk Route.
Apparently it's harvest time and people lay the wheat stalks on the road for the cars to drive over them. This is an unorthodox way of threshing: the grains are seperated from the chaf. After that, they put them in large baskets and throw them in the air, until all the dirt is blown away and only grains remain.
After tree hours the landscape gets wilder and the road much worse. Every now and then we see herds of yaks and Tibetan Nomad tents. Eventually we arrive in Xiahe. It is at an altitude of 3000 meter and has the largest Tibetan community and the main Tibetan monastery outside Tibet.
The air is clean and fresh. The weather is beautiful. We take a tjuk tjuk to our hotel. The ceiling and furniture in our room are painted. Outside we hear Tibetan songs and monks in red habits are everywhere.
Today we visit the Labrang monastery and we walk the same route as the Tibetan pilgrims. On the way you have to keep the thousands of prayer wheels spinning. Pilgrims and monks meanwhile mumble their mantras.
After a while it makes you dizzy, but it also is an extraordinary experience. The route around the monastery takes three hours, so it's quite a walk.
We are in a completely different world. Many people want to feel the hair on Yaron's arms. It is something they have never seen before. People are extremely dirty. They defacate wherever it suits them, albeit that they use the gutters. Apparently they don't wear underwear beneath their long robes.
And when we, because we can't avoid it, walk by, discretely looking the other way, they enthousiastically say "hello." Never before have I greeted defacating people.
Next afternoon we go hiking in the mountains. All of a sudden we see a group of people, seated on the grass, beneath a tree. There are thirty of them, their ages between 10 and 40 years. A few are monks, the others Tibetan village people. They wave at us and call us, so we walk toward them.
It turns out that they have an English class, outdoors in the countryside. The teacher doesn't speak a lot of English and we understand that they want to talk to us to practice their English. So I join their circle and ask them questions. It is very hard for them, but they enjoy it.
Then the teacher asks me to take over his class. The students have a textbook and they are studying chapter 5, about family. Sure, I want to do it. I immediately go into teacher mode. I read out loud sentences which they repeat (as loud as possible). After that, I quizz them to check if they understood everything. They work very hard.
I remember that I have pictures with me which are perfect for this lesson: photos of our daughters and their boyfriends, our "foster daughter" Selamawit, our house, Yaron and I in the garden and I in the Swiss snow. It's a big hit. All thirty of them get as close as they can, leaning over me and each other.
Before we leave, I give the teacher a stack of picture postcards and stickers for his students; the chief monk gets a luxury two-color pen.
Next day we bicycle along the Daxia river. The road inclines gradually, so it's easy. Even with these rickety bicycles which are too small for us. Our destination is a Nomad village in the grasslands, 14 km from where we are.
It is a beautiful route. We see many bee-keepers and every now and then we ride our bicycles through clouds of bees, which fortunately do not sting us. The grasslands are blossoming. Our destination is a disappointment. The village turns out to be a kind of tourist trap for Chinese. On the way there we had more fun.
The way back is almost all the time downhill, so we enjoy the ride very much.
Langmusi at 3800 meter
The buses get smaller, the landscape wilder
From Xiahe we use public transportation to get to Langmusi. We need three buses. Our first change of buses takes place in a village that is not on my map (and that is something I as a cartographer don't like)and whose name we can't remember.
The second time we change buses on an intersection. The buses get smaller and the landscape wilder.
Langmusi is a small Tibetan village at an altitude of 3800 meter in the North of the province of Sichuan. Nomads arrive here by horse or motorcycle to get provisions.
Their coats are lined with hides and have sleeves that reach the ground. They wear these sleeves in different ways.
Also all of them have big daggers attached to their belts and they wear home-made boots. The look in their eyes is fierce, but they are not unfriendly.
The women carry big stones around their necks or on their heads and look pretty, even as tough girls on horseback. Langmusi has two monasteries, but the surroundings are the best part.
We take a wonderful hiking trip. In planning it, we take care that we don't pass by their "cemetary." They chop up the corpses of the deceased in order for birds to take the remains with them "to heaven."
The cemetary is a field with bones. We don't need to see that. All in all, we are confronted with a culture which is completely alien to us and that is difficult sometimes.
Sometimes it seems hostile. During one of our walks a man on a motor cycle stops. He gets very close to us and points at our walking stick. I think he wants it and experience him as threatening. Yaron walks up to him and points at the man's belongings. Eventually the man shrugs and leaves. What makes everything so hard, is that we can't always interpret facial expressions correctly.
In Langmusi lives a nice Tibetan family who own a restaurant. In the middle of the room, which is blackened by soot, sits an oven on which they cook meals all day long for everyone, tourists as well as locals. It's warm and cozy there.
Yaron polishes off large amounts of yak meat. Sometimes with vegetables, sometimes in the shape of yakburgers (like Fred Flintstone). It is very tasty. A few times I have yakyoghurt with honey. It is like regular yoghurt, only lumpier.
Songpan at 2850 meter
The city gates face exactly the four directions of the wind
From Langmusi we travel to Songpan. Because it would take two days by bus, we take a kind of taxi. The drive takes nine hours and wherever the road is bad (or completely lacking), the man starts praying (or saying mantras). That doesn't increase our confidence in the car, but it still has a calming effect.
But when the driver sticks his head out of the window to stay awake, I start worrying again. Luckily there is no other traffic. We drive through endless grasslands. Only during the last part of the trip the landscape changes and there are trees and shrubs.
We arrive more dead than alive in Songpan, completely shaken up. So we get a Chinese massage. Yaron has a neck and shoulder massage (which leaves him coughing all night long) and I have a foot massage. She works on all pressure points and every now and then I have to clench my teeth in order not to scream.
Next day we go somewhere else, for a Tibetan massage. It is very different, but definitely not less painful. I am left with a few bruises.
Songpan is small town, constructed like a mahjong game, with four walls and four gates, exactly in the four wind directions. It is relatively clean and everywhere hang red lanterns. It looks like you would expect a Chinese town to look. But the population in partly Tibetan.
At night Shaolin monks give a demonstration of their skills in a kind of circus tent: acrobatics, sometimes with sharp swords or spears which they bend while the point rests on their Adam's apples. Or they break stones with their hands or heads.
En then, just when it stops being fun - I don't like these sensational things - it becomes very poetic. It is very skillful and not as glib as in Beijing. But there is chaos and noise and everyone is smoking, spitting and shouting. We sit on tree trunks and planks.
Chengdu at 500 meter
Even the duck's wings have been reproduced in tofu
After a breathtaking trip of nine hours we arrive in Chengdu, a big city of 4 million inhabitants in the province of Sichuan. Breathtaking not only because of the beautiful landscape, but mainly because of the way the Chinese drive.
They are idiots. And our driver is the worst of them all. I'm grateful that I still can write this down.
Conversations with English speaking Tibetans teach us that the political situation is not good. Tibetans don't have many rights: for example, they don't get passports, so they can't visit India to see the Dalai Lama.
In the formerly Tibetan provinces where we travel, they are relatively left alone, but in the autonomous province Tibet children are often taken away to attend schools in South China and when they return after a couple of years, they have all but forgotten their own language.
This morning we get up early and visit the Panda Breeding Center in Chengdu. It is a beautifully landscaped park with lots of bamboo. We look for a long time at the giant pandas while they're eating. It is fun to watch them use their paws like hands.
When we get back, we go to the temple near our hotel to have dinner in its vegetarian restaurant. The menu has the weirdest items on it, like Monkey's Head, only everything is made of tofu. This way the monks don't have to miss their favorite dishes because they are not allowed to eat meat. We order duck; even the wings have been reproduced in tofu. It's very tasty and the surroundings are beautiful.
We take a long walk in the city. Especially the modern bookstores are very interesting. In some departments it's almost impossible to walk, because people sit on the floor reading. Sometimes for hours and when they have finished their books, they put them back on the shelves.
Tonight we attend a performance of the Sichuan Opera. It is much more than opera: firespitting, a puppet show, a shadow theater (someone who uses just his hands and a lamp to make beautiful shapes) and an act with constantly changing masks. It is wonderful. Also in the audience there is much to see.
Between the audience people are walking around whom you can call to have them clean your ears with q-tips (which they throw on the floor afterwards, yuck) by the light of a flashlight. They serve us peanuts and tea.
Lijang at 2600 meter
Gramps can't stop laughing, she thinks we're ridiculously tall
We fly to Lijang in Yunnan province. On arrival we get on a bus, but it turns out not to be leaving. It takes a while before we find out. So we get a taxi and tell the driver to which hotel we want to go. It is in the town center, which is a pedestrian zone.
It's raining cats and dogs and the cabbie lets us out on the edge of the town center, but on the wrong side. We walk to a different, nice-looking hotel, where the receptionist speaks English, to our pleasant surprise. We ask if we can see a room and we can, we just have to wait a minute.
The room looks good, so we tell him that we want to stay a few nights. Only then he tells us that the hotel is booked up all week long. Yaron has had it with the Chinese and I've had enough as well. Communication is difficult and it is not just the language.
Outside it is still raining, but we keep walking. We find a small privately owned Bed and Breakfast, which is actually much more fun. It is a family house built around a courtyard. Grandfather is sitting in a corner, writing in calligraphy.
Gramps can't stop laughing every time we pass by, because she thinks we're ridiculously tall. She is playing mahjong and clearly is the mistress of the house.
The town itself is like a fairy tale. Narrow, winding streets, canals with bridges and everywhere red lanterns. Beautiful in the dark. It is like Venice and equally touristy. Thousands and thousands of Chinese tourists visit here by bus. But the upside is that there are many nice stores and terraces. In the evening we attend a Naxi concert with traditional musical instruments.
The snacks we brought with us are gone, so for bus and bike trips we have to buy stuff in supermarkets. It is an experience that makes you feel what it is like to be illiterate. When you think you are buying peanuts, they turn out to be roasted beans; when you think something is salty, it turns out to be sweet.
When we buy candy, it makes me think of Harry Potter candy. One time it turns out to be honey candy, another time a stock cube. Very exciting.
I buy a bag with 16 little boxes with nice pictures. On the bag it reads: "16 strange flavors." We carefully open four boxes and taste the contents, which makes us have doubts about the expiration date.
Dali at 1980 meter
High in the mountains shrouds of mist float between the rocks
From Lijang we travel by bus to Dali - also in Yunnan province - , situated on Lake Erhai. The road is better this time, just like the driver.
Dali is a nice town with gorgeous surroundings. The population belongs to the Bai minority.
We take a long walk in the clouds. We are high in the mountains and the landscape is beautiful, with rocks surrounded by shrouds of mist. There are waterfalls and mysteriously waving ferns and dripping moss.
Early this morning we take a local bus to a village which has a week market today.
The bus is full of women in traditional clothes with large baskets on their backs. The market is absolutely wonderful. Not a tourist in sight.
In the week market all kinds of produce of the land is sold, as well as home-made products like artfully woven baskets and shoes made of reeds.
When we're back in Lijang, we take a tjuk-tjuk to a cable-lift which takes us to 600 meters up the mountain. It is a beautiful and peaceful trip which takes 20 minutes. We take a long hike and have to climb often. We are at an altitude of 3000 meters.
We rent bicycles and ride over country roads along villages. It is a trip back in time. We arrive at a little port on Lake Erhai. There are ferries to the other side. That seems interesting, so we park our bicycles and get on the boat.
The lake is gigantic - more like an inland sea - and it takes half an hour to arrive at the other side. They leave us near a large temple compound with a big pagoda all the way at the top.
When we finally reach the pagoda, the sky behind the mountains turns black and we hear distant thunder. We want to get back quickly, because we wouldn't want to be trapped in a thunderstorm in the middle of the lake on a metal ferry boat.
It looks as if there are at least twice as many passengers on the boat as allowed. And it takes a long time for the boat to leave. When we finally leave - it has started to rain already - it turns out that the boat is going in the wrong direction. The ferry first stops at an island.
It stays there for 30 minutes. Meanwhile we take a look at the fish market and then get back on the boat.
We're not the only ones. There are at least two hundred people on the boat and I don't like it.
Approximately half-way the ferry all of a sudden sits dead in the water under an ink-black sky. I start to pray. Yaron starts a conversation with a Chinese student who explains that the boat has engine trouble...
After a while the engine starts working again, but dies almost instantly, starts working, dies for the third time. The Chinese on board laugh at the captain and make fun of him. Yaron discusses the trade relations between Holland and China with the student and I give up praying.
After five of these interruptions we reach the other side safely. And then the sun is back, so we bicycle back to Dali.
In Dali are several places where you can get a good massage and we feel we have earned one. Masseurs in this city are deaf people. The great advantage of this is that they can't talk to you to practice their English while they're giving a massage. I have a foot massage and Yaron has a full body massage. He's in a separate room.
All of a sudden I hear a loud noise from the room, so I get out of my foot bath and take a look. Three boys are fighting about who gets to massage Yaron's back. Deaf people make a lot of noise when they're angry, they can't hear themselves. Yaron is lying imperturbably under his towel, so I return to my foot bath.
Eventually a girl gives him his massage. They massage the pressure points (acupressure) and it is painful, but afterwards you feel reborn.
Somebody tells me that Dali is much like Amsterdam, The Netherlands, so we must feel at home. But Dali is not even remotely like Amsterdam, not even with a lot of imagination. It turns out that people here smoke hashish. We haven't noticed and we're not interested either. Too scary in a country that has capital punishment.
Kunming at 1900 meter
In the Stone Forest we squeeze ourselves between rocks
After a long but comfortable bus trip we have arrived in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Again a big city, but not unpleasant. We (finally) are staying in a nice hotel.
We visit the Stone Forest, a large area with gorgeous rock formations. We walk leisurely along narrow pathways. Sometimes we have to take off our backpacks to be able squeeze ourselves through the space betweeen two rocks.
Near the entrance the park is crowded with bus loads of Chinese tourists. But after 5 minutes walking, we have the whole area to ourselves. We're having a great time.
Tomorrow afternoon we fly to Hong Kong and from there we have to try to catch a flight to Amsterdam. We already found out that all flights are full, so we'll have to see when we can get home.