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There are no rail lines extending south of Kunming towards Jinghong in lower Yunnan province. So we make for the southern Bus terminal located on the outskirts of the city. Out Hotel receptionist has recommended we allow two hours to get there which seems almost impossible to believe; is it located in another city? I reluctantly agree and we are picked up at 7am.

Despite ample time our taxi driver is rushing through traffic at a terrifying speed. He changes lanes abruptly as we approach a traffic island but has not seen there is a truck approaching from behind. The two vehicles nearly collide and I rate the experience as frightening as any we have encountered so far on our travels. I turn to him with my hand out and wave downwards. I think he apologises in Mandarin but I can’t be sure as there is no adjustment to his driving. As such we arrive at the south bus terminal about forty minutes after leaving central Kunming, but I think allowing an hour for more normal speeds would be prudent.

Chinese Bus stations are as well organised as the trains but the busses do come and go quickly and obviously there are no announcements made in English nor signage for that matter. Fortunately it’s very quiet this morning and the staff are able to put us on an earlier bus departing at 8.30am. I would say from our experience that advance reservations would not be required here as there are busses leaving every thirty minutes. The tickets are relatively expensive though 225 Yuan each which I double check with another bus company.

Kunming South bus station

The journey down to Jinghong is supposed to take 10 hours. Judging by the distance (around 500km) this seems a very long time but I can only assume this is due to winding roads and small mountain passes. By the time we stop for lunch the roads have dried and the heat and humidity is back. We have come down over a thousand meters in elevation and passed through the tropic of cancer for the final time in our travels. The vegetation has changed and I see for the first time since leaving India palm trees. By the time we reach Jinghong signs of South East Asia are evident everywhere. Mostly due to the temples that dot the land. They are distinctly Thai in their style although I am sure the Laos’s and Yunnanese would not appreciate my crude comparison.

Mekong River

The Mekong River in Jinghong China

We cross a bridge and I get my first sighting of one of Asia’s great rivers the Mekong. Our progress south has been good, three days ago we were looking at the Yangtze. It just gone after 5pm when we set down at what I assume to be the central bus depot, and for once we seem to be truly in the centre of town. It also happens to be where tomorrow’s bus to Laung Namtha in Laos departs. I purchase two tickets for only 60 Yuan each which seems very little considering it’s a six to seven hour journey.

Although a struggle I do enjoy that feeling of being lost and without a clue. The streets of Jinghong are filled with Palm trees and devoid of taxis. I sense an overpriced fare if we eventually ever find one. I think one finds us as a foreign tourist on the street is a temping morsel for a circling shark. Normally we pick a hotel that is at least close to some others so we can inspect a few before making a decision. We agree to pay 30 Yuan which is at least double the correct price but heavy bags and tiredness after a long bus ride weaken our resolve. It only takes a couple of minutes to get to the Many Trees hostel, I feel thoroughly ripped off but that’s capitalism for you. Survival of the fiscal fittest.

Jinghong China

Jinghong

The next morning and we set off from the hotel at 10.00am. Determined not to be done in again we end up walking to the bus station which only takes 15 sweaty minutes. It’s our last day in China but it feels as though we have already left. The streets are crowded with stalls selling bizarre tropical fruits and vendors barbequing Chicken wings and sausages. Mangy dogs have returned. A lady at the bus terminal checks our ticket and walks us to an old bus at the end of the station. It looks like an ugly duckling among the more modern and larger Chinese swans. But despite its appearance it is at least punctual and departs at 10.40am.

Bus to Laos

Bus to Laos

Two hours later we stop in Mengla for lunch. The driver holds up two fingers which I take to mean 20 minutes. After returning from the bathroom I am a little concerned to see our bus is no longer where it parked. I go in search of it among the other buses but it’s nowhere to be found. Surely he did not mean two minutes and even if he did would they really leave. I think about Matt in India who had been left behind in Tamil Nadu under such circumstances. Panic has not set in yet but there is an uncomfortable feeling growing in the pit of my stomach. I start looking for some of the other passengers that were on the bus, the only other westerner is missing but then I see a Japanese lady and man who was sitting in front of us. I think they sense our concern and motion for us to sit and wait. I can only assume that they have left the compound for either mechanical repairs or to pick up some cargo. I certainly don’t like the idea of our bags being unattended for so long especially when we are about to cross a border. I know it’s being a bit paranoid but you can’t be too careful in these situations. It’s well over an hour now since we were dropped off and I am beginning to hope the two fingers did not mean hours. Thirty minutes later and I am beginning to believe they did.

Heading south to Laos

Heading south to Laos

Finally our bus arrives back in the compound and oddly the missing western passenger is on it. I find this very strange as our bags have also been removed from underneath the bus and are now sitting on the back seats. Innocent restacking or foul play the mind boggles so I soothe it by unpacking them and checking nothing is missing or more importantly nothing has been added. It’s difficult to search on a bus that is negotiating bends especially when the conductor is telling you to sit down… or is it that he is worried what my search might find. Intrigue and mystery, now I am being paranoid as I find nothing but at least I feel relieved. I don’t fancy ending up on the news and spending time in a Chinese prison.

We arrive at the Laos border just after three. We take our bags off confidant they are not filled with drugs but inside customs the signs seem more concerned about the trafficking of baby formula. It is the most relaxed immigration I have ever encountered at a Chinese border. Our bags are not searched and we are stamped out within five minutes and allowed to reboard the bus. We drive two hundred meters before crossing a small stream which I take to be the geographical border. Ahead is a large golden stupa gleaming in the afternoon sun. I don’t think I have ever encountered such an opulent and ornate immigration building before. I wonder if it doubles as a temple.

The Laos China border

The Laos China border

Australians are entitled to a visa on arrival which costs us $32.00 USD each. For those who can’t get a visa on arrival there is a Laos embassy in Jinghong. The bus waits with our bags on board. Apparently Laos’s immigration is not concerned with the smuggling of baby formula. The officer sticks a rather colourful and attractive visa into our passports and stamps them. The whole process has taken around ten minutes. I note when we get back on the bus that the westerner has disappeared and we proceed without him, very odd again.

I can’t see any significant differences around me as we depart the border. The villages and vegetation mostly changed yesterday but I do notice that the road becomes smaller. Its surface less smooth and rather than going through mountains and across rivers, it bends and follows the contours of the land. I don’t think the Laos government has quite the same budget allocated for public works as their northern neighbour.

Luang Namtha

Just before we arrived into Luang Namtha

Around an hour and half later we set down on a very quiet street in Luang Namtha. It is dramatically empty and calm compared to China. The clocks have gone back an hour and I try to recall if we ever did this on our trip which has had us moving north and east for most of the time. I think maybe when we crossed from Ethiopia to Sudan but then again we also changed month and year so I am not sure that counts. The entire trip has taken around 7 hours. Another country now behind us and a new one ahead…

 

Luang Namtha in Laos

Luang Namtha in Laos

 

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We depart Guilin under dark and threatening skies. Our journey will take us westward to Kunming the capital of Yunnan province and onto the historic city of Lijiang. As is usual in China the boarding of the train is well organised and punctual and the same must be said of scheduled departures and our fellow passengers. At precisely 3.18pm the train jolts gently and we pull away from the station. The trip to Kunming will take 20 hours with a further 10 hours up to Lijiang. The carriages are a little old but the 4 berth compartments are very comfortable and make even the longest of journeys manageable.

The limestone karts that have dominated the landscape for the last few days draw further away until they are just a distant line of teeth on the horizon. Further to the west they blend into a range of moderate sized mountains that are blanketed in storm clouds. I stare down at two parallel lines of steel as our train rushes towards the storm. They are perfectly straight never deviating in course. The sleepers upon which they lie are a swift blur. Uncountable, I wonder how many we have passed over so far in getting here. My digression from the landscape is broken by long streaks of water hitting the window. They cling to the glass for a fraction of a second before being blown away. The fields below are saturated and the roads are struggling with the deluge. Despite the conditions our train shows no sign of hesitation and crosses a bridge at full speed. The river below is swollen and churning with brown mud. A few buffalo stand near the bank too frightened to enter.

 

Summer Storms

Summer Storms

I take from my bag a KFC dragon twister which I procured with great difficulty before boarding the train. Almost everything in China is difficult while travelling independently. The language barrier turns even the most simplest of tasks into a complex treasure hunt. To have found and purchased fast food is a feat worthy of celebrations.

The storm eases and we eventually break into sunshine but the land is still showing symptoms of the heavy rains that have been recently lashing southern China. We managed to miss the end of last year’s monsoon by staying high in the mountains of Pakistan but now we have little choice. We must push through the worst of this year’s rainy season as we enter South East Asia.

Yunnan Province

Speeding west through southern China

Recent news stories have been concerning with flooding and road closures reported in Yunnan province and northern Laos. But for now the sun is shining and the scenery outside is stunning. Certainly the best we have seen so far on any of our train trips through China. The land is so entertaining that I find it hard to concentrate on anything else. We speed westward into a magnificent Chinese sunset. Our train is moving fast, as if almost trying to catch the sun and prevent it from setting, which eventually it does with splendour. I feel buoyed and lifted by the experience and eager to see more tomorrow.

During the night I am woken in a sweat. It would seem the air-conditioning has failed. I open the door to discover people sitting in the passage way. The conductor has opened the doors to allow some fresh air into the carriage. Outside we are passing beneath small mountains bathed in moonlight. It looks beautiful and a little unworldly. I go back to bed and throw the blanket to one side.

Our train still heading west is ultimately caught by a rising sun in the east. Sunlight is flashing through the window. The curtains are just a few inches too short and do a terrible job of shielding my face. The hills are a brilliant bright green in the daybreak. They are speckled with colourful rocks and far atop a ridge a collection of graceful wind turbines turn gently in the morning breeze. There are rows of cabbages planted in twisting lines and fields of what appears to be lavender, certainly the colour matches. We pass by men working the land wearing traditional pointed straw hats and water buffalo pulling carts, it’s a scene straight out of a storybook. The north might have been drab and disappointing but southern China is certainly making up for that.

Seated opposite us and in stark contrast to the scenery outside is a couple whose sour faces can only be matched by their personal habits. The man is wearing a thin and rather revealing pair of sweat pants. He spreads his legs wide open without the slightest care or concern. He spits out bits of food on the floor despite there being a small bin provided. The only time his wife stops speaking is to clear her throat. She sucks up phlegm with great force and heaving motions. Then she coughs all over the compartment. Her hand reaches to her face only to support her jaw. Her gaping mouth remains open as wide as her husband’s legs. I don’t think it’s possible to offend the Chinese with personal habits but I would at this moment love to know how. Outside in the corridor the hawking noises resinate through the carriage. The husband consumes his breakfast. I can see the food spinning in his mouth like a tumble drier. The wife finishes another sentence with a massive hawk. It almost becomes part of the language.

Kunming

Kunming

By the time we reach Kunming it’s clouded over and my love affair with the landscape has temporarily ended. Kunming at an altitude of 1800m above sea level brings a welcome relief to the heat of the lowlands. We only have 12 hours before our next train to Lijiang departs. I would like to say we make good use of the time but aside from sleeping we spend the rest of our time walking in a non-descript park and searching for a Burger King we spotted on the way to the Hotel. It would seem not many people have heard of Burger King in Kunming, including the staff at Pizza Hut and KFC. Perhaps they just don’t want to help out the competition. Eventually we close in on our prey. A process of persistence brings us to our culinary goal. It’s been well over a year since I have tasted a flame grilled Whopper. Sad I know but it’s a very exciting moment.

Not exactly cultured

Not exactly cultured

We arrive in Lijiang the next day to a cool morning. Having risen another 500m in altitude the heat and sweat of Guilin almost seems forgotten but a trace of humidity still lingers. Emma’s rash is now vastly improved owing to the cooler climate. The taxi cartels in China are well disciplined compared to their Indian neighbours. I suppose that might be a product of living in a communist country but the Chinese are also great entrepreneurs… except when it comes to driving taxis and Tuk-Tuks. But I am feeling well rested and comfortable so we wait a while to see if someone will break ranks. Eventually they all agree to a more reasonable price. I know it probably seems insane but even a reduction of $2.00 USD is worth just a small investment in patience. Aside from saving money it just makes you feel like you are not completely being taken advantage of, which is important when you’re travelling. You want positive experiences… even if you have to fight for them.

Mu Residence Lijiang

Mu Residence Lijiang

Lijiang old town is now a UNESCO world heritage site. I’m not sure what’s required in order to become listed. I imagine it’s a site deemed beautiful and worthy of protection, though Lijiang seems to be a confused city. The narrow lanes, water ways and beautiful buildings are indeed visually pleasing but the entire town now seems to be dedicated to the sale of Bongo Drums. The lower floors of Ming Dynasty houses now resinate with the amateur beats of Bongo sales staff. To make matters worse they all play the same song on a CD and try their best to play over the top with varying degrees of proficiency. I’m not sure how this came about but we do our best to investigate why.

Lijiang China

Old city of Lijiang

It would seem that some years ago a local Naxi artist recorded the song which became a hit around China. Once a hit the people of Lijiang seemed reluctant to let its success fade and devised a cunning plan to play it relentlessly in the hope that repetition would prevent it slipping off the charts. I have no idea of wether this worked but certainly in Lijiang it’s considered still a hit and I suspect will remain so for many years to come. One shop next door (while taking lunch) replayed it 7 times, which is just long enough to order a very tasty Pizza in N’s café and devour it. The local Chinese tourists of which there are millions each year are completely captivated and many leave town with an extra piece of musical luggage.

Lijiang

Lijiang

Later in the evening we attend a musical performance of a very different nature. An Orchestral recital of traditional Han Chinese music. Only a thin crowd has turned out this evening and we are the only two westerners in the audience. A young graceful woman with long black hair introduces the Orchestra first in Mandarin and then in English. She glances over to us almost a little nervous slightly struggling with the words but always holding our gaze. I feel really touched that she is clearly making an effort on our behalf. I nod and smile almost wanting to coach her through the sentences. What is immediately apparent is the age of the musicians. Most of them look to be over 65 and a few clearly older members are asked to stand. Out hostess informs us they are 85 years of age. Their moustaches and beards droop long and thin. She then tells us that the music we are about to hear is over a thousand years old and unaltered from its original composition.

Black Dragon Pool

Black Dragon Pool

They pickup instruments that were once hidden from the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. Such music at the time was deemed irrelevant and frivolous, and had no place in contemporary communist China. Now the music of long ago is kept alive by just a few aging men while the beats of pop music resonate in next doors nightclubs. I feel a little sad that they are now playing to such a small audience while just outside thousands of people are mingling in a modern world. The music is wonderful and transports you to another time. It is without doubt one of the highlights in our visit to China. The young lady with the long hair thanks us for coming.

Naxi Orchestra Lijiang

Naxi Orchestra Lijiang

Two hours north of Lijiang towards the border with Tibet is The Tiger Leaping Gorge. Here a young Yangtze River just starting its journey is squeezed between one of the world’s deepest valleys. It’s a final chance to glimpse the high snow-capped mountains before we turn south and head to Laos. It’s an amazing formation but our days here are made more interesting by two young Canadians. Matt is travelling with his friend John who is here in China to compete in a Mandarin speaking talent quest. Through John and his fluent Mandarin, I get to see a very different side of Chinese people. He is able to laugh with them and they are genuinely delighted he can speak their language so well. We pass a few local tourists who beckon us over and give us a chocolate biscuit each. They all watch with amazement as though John were some sort of performing freak such is their disbelief. He has them in stitches and I feel certain based on today’s efforts he will prevail in a few weeks’ time in Beijing.

John and Matt from Canada

John and Matt from Canada

I can’t be certain where we will be in a few weeks but I know it’s time to leave China. We take a bus south to the city of Jinghong from where we plan to cross the China Laos border…

 

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I stand in line waiting to be allowed back into China. It is the third and final time on our journey I shall do so. For some unknown reason I always get a little nervous in immigration. What if they don’t let us in, what happens if we are delayed and miss our onward connections? Such are the misgivings of the Trans-Global traveller. I needn’t have worried as our entry back into the mainland is swift and without concern. As I walk further into China I can feel the convenience of Starbucks and 7-Ellevens ebbing away.

Hard Sleeper carriages in China

Hard Sleeper carriages in China

We pass through a friendly barrage of touts offering bus tickets to Guilin. This is a rarity in China and a welcome relief in many aspects. But we have already purchased train tickets travelling overnight in hard sleeper class. The name does nothing to inspire a good night’s rest. The beds are open plan stacked three high and at least have ample luggage racks to stow our bags. We leave Shenzhen with a mostly empty carriage which is a blessing but our personal space is short lived when two hours later we stop at Guangzhou; a city once known throughout the world as Canton. Guangzhou is a giant in China which makes it one of the world’s most populated cities. This is certainly in keeping with the army of passengers that board the train. And when I say army I do mean army. Dozens of young soldiers fill up the empty berths with excitement and vigour. They note our presence and take turns saying hello. One chap who can speak a few more words of English is encouraged to communicate on behalf of the platoon. I sit up and we both do our best to converse for a while.

Hard Sleeper China

Catching up on some reading

We plough through the night heading west to Guilin. The soldiers are noisy but it’s entertaining to hear them laugh. I’m not used to seeing the Chinese have so much fun, maybe I just haven’t been looking hard enough. Then all of a sudden the laughing stops and the men with military precision retire and switch off the lights. An officer walks through the carriage and gives me a small nod as if to reassure the Chinese army won’t be of any trouble to us civilians.

Heading west to Guilin

Heading west to Guilin

We arrive into Guilin station shortly after 7am. I check the sheets and the blankets thoroughly to make sure nothing has been left behind. I think I shall find it a hard habit to break when I eventually return home. The soldiers form into immaculate lines on the platform while we walk without bearing into another city. But the bigger the tourist destination the easier finding transport and this is certainly the case in Guilin. We emerge into a hot and humid square and are immediately beckoned to a bus headed to Yangshuo about 60km south of bustling Guilin. This is almost too easy but I never take such opportunities in China for granted and gladly pay 20 Yuan each which seems a bargain. Yangshuo is smaller than Guilin and where most of the large cruise boats finish their trip down the spectacular Li River. But it is by no means a secluded piece of paradise. So with this in mind we take a private taxi a further 6km out of town along the Yulong River to the Yangshuo Mountain retreat for 40 Yuan. The bus was good value after all.

The Hotel is small and sits sympathetically in the sublime landscapes. We have now entered a realm of giant limestone karsts, a feature found throughout South-East Asia and not to the best of my knowledge anywhere else in the world. But here in southern China they are very tall and thin and bloom is vast numbers. No wonder then that these lands are found on the back of the Ten Yuan banknote. Along with the Yellow Mountains and the Potala Palace this is now the third such place of currency we have visited.

Bus ride to Yangshuo

Bus ride to Yangshuo

It’s still early in the day when we arrive but already the temperature is rising steeply. The air is thick with water and the insects in the surrounding jungle sound like they are being tortured on a rack. We are in the tropics now and from here down to Singapore it’s only going to get worse or better depending on your love for such conditions. There can be no doubt that balmy tropical nights are the stuff of dreams but during the middle of the day it can be a nightmare. It’s difficult to see into the distance the air above us is completely saturated and bursts with a heavy down pour while we take a late breakfast. Given the heat it’s a soothing sound and the drops fall warm and heavy to the ground.

The middle of the day is reserved for only the foolish or hard at work, we are definitely not the latter so spend most of the hot hours inside watching condensation and rain run down our windows. Going from an air-conditioned room back outside is shocking and confronting. If not for being in an exotic and foreign location I should put my shoulder to the door and force it shut. Even my camera is having trouble adjusting and fogs up inside the lens. I remedy the problem by leaving it in the bathroom which is acclimated to something like the conditions outside.

Cycling in Yangshuo

Cycling in Yangshuo

The heavy rains have cleared the air a little and we cycle north through farm fields and old Chinese villages. I think when travelling I look so often for clichés. They are after all the stuff of travel dreams and here in Yangshuo those dreams come true. We stop for a drink in Jiuxian at the aptly named Secret Garden guesthouse. The village is adorned with red lanterns and sloped Ming dynasty roofs. The surrounding karsts are now shrouded in the humid air while a group of Chinese runner ducks waddle by in formation. We continue after a life preserving drink onto the Yulong Bridge which takes considerable more patience and navigation to find. A short detour onto the main road and many questions and map pointing gets us to our destination.

Yangshuo

Yangshuo

The Yulong or Dragon Bridge may be old and could be an attractive scene if it were not for the small amusement park that has been set up around it. The crowds seem un-proportioned to the structure. The old bridge looks almost embarrassed by all the fuss. At first I am disappointed by the calamity but then I remind myself that this is China and this is how they like to do things. I become more fascinated by the local tourists and how such mayhem seems completely oblivious to them. I sip on a rather good pineapple juice and survey the scene.

Jiuxian village

Jiuxian village

A man who guided us along the last section is now wanting to take us on a river cruise back down stream. We politely decline but the thought of a long ride back in adverse heat is not appealing. He recruits a young Chinese girl to speak with us but she turns out to be an American working in China. The man is clearly a nice chap and instantly likable and he jokingly lectures us as to why we should take a ride on his raft. He points up to the sun and back down river making soothing noises, then points to the road and waves his hand. Fern our translator can speak half decent Mandarin and begins to negotiate on the 200 Yuan asking price about $30.00 USD. He then begins to lecture her and directs a doubtful tone and wagging finger in her direction.

He relents a little on the price and drops it down to 180 Yuan and somehow as part of the deal we are each given a cold bottle of beer. I can’t help to feel the price is still a little steep but who can turn down a complementary bottle of beer while cruising down a river on raft.

With Fern about to start our raft cruise

With Fern about to start our raft cruise

You don’t imagine you might be in peril when setting off on a river cruise but dangerous animals lurk everywhere in the tropics. You might consider crocodiles, tigers or even angry buffalo but how many of you have ever given thought to…Caterpillars.

As we drift down the serene river Emma complains of a biting sensation on her neck. I take a look but find nothing then she lets out a sharp cry. Still we can find nothing but notice a small innocent hairy caterpillar drop to the ground and think no more. By the time we get to our landing a large red rash has risen on the back of her neck and across the shoulders. It looks suspiciously like the heat rash that plagued her back in Zanzibar, but Emma is convinced it’s a result of the caterpillar and won’t be deterred. It looks very red and painful and the sweat is not helping. Our boatman walks to a shop and procures a small bottle of local medicine which he applies to the rash. It would seem that along with beer, medicine is also complimentary. Emma spends the rest of the afternoon researching deadly caterpillars on google and over the coming days becomes quite an expert on the subject. She develops a complex theory on how it became scared during my feeble search and injected fine hairs into her skin. I have to admit my search was somewhat lame and the photos of the rash do look similar.

Our boatman come bartender and Doctor

Our boatman come bartender and Doctor

About 30km north of Yangshuo the Li River bends almost 360 degrees before straightening at the small settlement of Xingping. I have been doing my own research and worked out that the famous bend and the amazing views of the distant karsts can be best observed by climbing a small mountain called Loa Zhai Shan. I say small but in reality when we arrive it soars about 200 meters above us. The sign indicates a thousand steep stairs to the top. I think under normal circumstances it would register as a tough effort but these are not normal circumstances. The sweat pours from your skin and even your eye lids and ears. Every part of your body is conscripted into keeping you cool but it’s a losing battle. Emma is burdened by the extra task of… caterpillar surveillance.

Xingping

Xingping

Forty minutes of solid and somewhat clammy struggle brings us to the top and an outstanding view of the Li River and its surrounds. I don’t think it’s possible to be this wet even when taking a shower but the setting sun over the karsts is ample reward for such discomfort. It’s a difficult place to turn your back on but we descend and make preparations for the next leg in our journey…

 

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We arrive into Shenzhen station shortly after sunrise. It feels strange to have travelled down the east coast of China during a single night’s sleep. After spending so many months on dubious and slow moving transportation, the fast and efficient Chinese trains are a shock to the system. It almost feels like we are cheating a little.

A flood of people flow from the train and onto the platform. They move with precision and purpose down into tunnels designed for a prompt exit. We are the last to leave owing to our now enormous packs that can only be removed once the other passengers have departed. Fortunately Shenzhen is the final stop so there is no need to rush. I have no idea of how to reach Hong Kong so with less purpose and more faith we follow the others. It just feels natural to keep walking for now and see what happens. We exit into a main hall and much to our relief spot a sign for Hong Kong.

 

Arriving at Shenzhen station

Arriving at Shenzhen station

Even though the British returned Hong Kong to its rightful owners back in 1997, the Chinese have kept it detached from the mainland for now. To go into Hong Kong we must go through immigration. It also means that to get back into China we must get a new visa while staying in Hong Kong. I am not sure why an international border has been kept in place but I think money and commerce must have something to do with it.

It’s not often you walk through the bowels of an underground railway station following signs to another country…well almost another country. It does have its own currency after all. Yuan are exchanged for Dollars, passports stamped on both sides, but we are technically still in China. Every time I cross a border I can’t but help to look for signs of a new country. Some are dramatic while others are subtle. I notice the Chinese convenience stores stocking packets of Chickens feet are replaced by 7-Elleven’s selling Chicken crisps. They are only separated by a hundred meters or so…can peoples taste in snacks really change so suddenly after crossing an imaginary line?

We pass a counter selling “Octopus” cards. Apparently all modes of transport in Hong Kong can be paid for with a swipe of the card so it seems a convenience worth purchasing. At the top of the stairs is a metro train that takes about 40 minutes to reach Hong Kong. Felling a little bleary eyed I study a route map of coloured lines and names of stops that mean nothing to me. I decide that “Central” sounds promising. Our aim is to find our friends who live somewhere in the most densely packed city in the world. Just need to find a place with Wi-Fi so we can check our emails as our account has been blocked in mainland China.

MTR Hong Kong

Heading into Hong Kong on the MTR

Sometimes it can feel when you’re travelling that luck goes against you, but not this morning. As we crest a stair case and emerge into a strange new city we see in front of us a Starbucks. It looks like St Peters gates with a beam of light shining on the logo. Food, coffee and at last an unblocked email account. Thirty minutes later we arrive at Matt and Dorota’s apartment in some place called Wanchai. It’s nice to find ourselves in a home and not a hotel for once. To be greeted by old friends and not front desk reception. No need to show our passports here.

Hong Kong is sweating under a summer sun. Even the skyscrapers and apartment blocks look to be wilting in the heat. I am reminded that we are now back in the tropics and will be facing extreme temperatures and exhaustive humidity for the remainder of our journey. The charming double decker trams imported from cooler climates in Scotland long ago crawl along the streets looking like fatigued relics from the past. Hong Kong almost is a relic from the past. A time when colonies and empires stretched far and un-wanting into foreign lands. But the handover to China has not been met with joys of liberation and perhaps oddly most of the locals don’t want to be a part of mainland.

Glaswegian trams in Hong Kong

Glaswegian trams in Hong Kong

Compared with the new developments in Shanghai, Hong Kong looks a little tired and in need of a good wash. But hiding in every alley and lane is a vibrant city that is more mature, alive and independent. The restaurant and bar scene is extensive and well hidden. There are some obvious choices but most residents seem to spend a large portion of their time discovering subtle culinary gems and free flow bars in back streets. The choice of food is endless as is the pursuit for new places to visit, new friends to make, and new business deals to be struck. Among the expat scene the buzz word is networking and here in Hong Kong everyone is doing it.

StarFerry in Hong Kong

Star Ferry

We cross the harbour on a historical and much loved Star ferry. For $2.50 HK or around 30 cents it must be one of the cheapest cruises anywhere in the world. Across the harbour Kowloon feels more like China and less like a former colony. But among the Cantonese neon signs and touts selling tailored suits sits the Peninsula Hotel. Perhaps one of the most famous and historical hotels in the Orient. Inside the elaborate foyer a string quartet is playing while that most British of meals is served…High Tea. I can’t decide what is more traditional, tea and biscuits at the Peninsula or Yum Cha in a Kowloon tea house. I guess they both are and that is what Hong Kong appears to be. A fusion of Asia and Britain to some extent.

High Tea at Peninsula Hotel

High Tea at Peninsula Hotel

What is certainly not a fusion are the old ladies that can be found under a flyover on Hennessy Rd in Causeway Bay. There among the fruit sellers are a group of old women who for a small fee will put a curse on someone you don’t like. A mistress that your husband is seeing or perhaps a bullying boss. But a curse it appears can’t be finalised until an effigy of the offender is pounded into a pulp by a slamming shoe. It seems odd but comforting to know that in a city where billions of dollars are being traded in office blocks, little old ladies are selling curses for $6.00 USD on the street.

DSC01484

Before we leave Hong Kong we have lunch with Peter whom we met back in Kashgar almost 11 months ago while waiting for the bus to depart to Pakistan. Sadly most of the people we meet while travelling we shall never see again so it’s nice to see someone after so much time has passed. Kashgar feels so long ago now, so much has happened since.

Time to move on

Time to move on

It’s time to leave Matt and Dorota in Hong Kong and travel back into mainland China. We pick up our bags and say goodbye at the door and walk to a public bus stop. I stand watching the other passengers who are probably just going home. I guess we are going home too… it’s just taking us a little bit longer.

 

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It would seem our visit to Shanghai has been well timed as far as the weather is concerned at least. It’s a miserable morning of low cloud and drizzle. I can only hope our taxi driver is taking us to the south bus station as there is much conjecture and hesitation before setting off. It’s always difficult to know how much time to allow in getting to bus and train stations, especially in a foreign city the size of Shanghai. Guess work and a fair amount of contingency for unforeseen circumstances are required. The general formula is… the less time allowed equals heavier traffic. It always seems to be the way and this morning is no exception. We crawl along an elevated freeway for several miles anxious and cursing our optimism… or was it laziness.

The traffic eventually untangles and we arrive at the front of what I hope is the south bus terminal. The driver flicks of his meter before we have time to swipe our travel card. Small disaster and definitely not required when running uncomfortably late. The driver asks for cash but we are wanting to use the remaining credit on our travel card so it doesn’t go to waste. He resolves the issue by flag falling the meter three times and swiping the card, which I’m sure is more than the original fare but at least we have used up the remaining credit.

Our destination today is Tunxi a small Chinese city six hours south of Shanghai. Up until a week ago I had never heard of Tunxi. The reason for going here is that it serves as a gateway to Huangshan or the “Yellow Mountains” as they are translated in English. Most people outside of China have probably never heard of them either but they have been an inspiration for Chinese artists for centuries and as such present an iconic image of China.

Shanghai South bus terminal

Shanghai South bus terminal

Seated next to me in the bus is a friendly fellow who has immeasurable bad breath. He can’t speak a word of English but he doesn’t let this linguistic hurdle prevent socialisation. I think what I like about the Chinese is that they don’t give up. Some of them will persist in speaking Mandarin expecting that you must know some words, or perhaps if I say it louder you will understand me. My chap today ranks among the best of them. I begin to understand what is must be like for a non-English speaker as we are by far the worst offenders. In a country where communication is limited I treat such exchanges as precious but I wish he smoked less cigarettes. I take out my guide book and open the section on Mandarin pointing to a few phrases. He takes the book from me and starts thumbing through the pages occasionally pointing and naming certain cities. He must think me an idiot as I nod and grin each time. I feel awkward so return speech in English which seems to amuse him.

He points down to a bag between his legs and opens it. I peer inside and notice something moving in the dark. I open it a little further revealing five large brown toads. One of them is staring up at me and blinking. He laughs loudly pointing at me and then pointing to my stomach. Then starts patting and rubbing his own stomach and making sounds like a mother trying to convince a baby to eat. I think I may have identified the missing ingredient of his bad breath. I feel guilty about my thoughts of disgust as he is just a pleasant man being friendly to a foreign visitor. His ways here are correct. It would be like me inviting him back for a roast beef sandwich I suppose. I pat my own stomach gingerly with a pained face indicating illness and hope he understands. I’m just not ready for toad.

eating toads

Toads for dinner

By the time we have reached Tunxi a few hours later the rain has eased a little. My travelling companion picks up his bag of toads waves goodbye and disappears forever. Like so many others along our journey I shall never see him again. Such an inconsequential encounter but one I shall remember from time to time as an unrequired act of kindness on his behalf. The taxi drivers in Tunxi seem more willing to pick up foreign visitors than their counterparts in Shanghai which is a relief. The ride from the Bus Station to the old town costs 10 Yuan; a short distance of about 10 minutes. After surveying a couple of hotels we eventually get a room for 150 Yuan or $25.00 USD in the Old Street youth hostel. China is proving to be expensive when compared to her many neighbours. As implied the old town is where a collection of Ming and Qing dynasty houses remain. The street is lined with Chinese lanterns and makes for a picturesque scene.

Tunxi Old Street

Tunxi Old Street

Strolling along the many shops I notice one that catches my eye. A line of people sat on leather sofas with their feet resting in fish tanks. A stout loud lady outside catches my interest and starts talking in Mandarin beckoning us inside. We follow her in and peer into the small tanks. Each one contains around 50 fish who are eating the dead skin off people’s feet. Some tanks have small fish others have medium and large fish. We are motioned to two empty tanks both containing… large fish. As we look down into the water they swim to the surface mouths open in anticipation. On the other hand I am unsure what to anticipate. Well you know what they say…No pain no gain. With some trepidation I plunge my feet into the hungry waters. The famished fish don’t waste any time and starting biting immediately. It is at first a very strange sensation and I doubt I shall last more than a few minutes let alone thirty. One fish who should be in the extra-large category carefully takes his time but delivers near fatal bites to my big toe. I expect to see the waters turn red with blood any moment now.

fish eating skin off feet

Feet eating Fish in Honcun

Our presence in the shop has drawn attention from the many domestic tourists passing by, who much to my surprise seem equally squeamish. The owner seems to taunt them a little yelling and pointing to us. I imagine she is saying something along the lines of “even these foreigners are doing it, what is wrong with you”. The shop is soon filled with locals who are staring into our tanks and laughing. I contemplate what the word for commission is in Chinese. We leave the shop with clean feet and big toes intact and go looking for some dinner among the many restaurants. All this biting and nibbling has made me hungry.

In between the Tunxi and Huangshan (Yellow Mountains) is the small traditional village of Hongcun, pronounced (Hong Schwan) as I am later to learn. Contained on three sides by a small river and backing onto a hill covered in forest it is well over 800 years old with many original buildings and ancestral halls dating from that period. Unlike many other heritage areas in China this is a living community and not just a collection of tourist shops. The elegant stone bridge that spans the river to the entrance of the village was used in the opening scenes of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Walking the through the narrow streets is like stepping back in time.

The Bridge from crouching tiger hidden dragon

The Bridge from crouching tiger hidden dragon

The buildings are white washed plaster with dark and ancient Chinese tiled roofs, sloping and curved with upward pointed ends. This is fairy tale China… just how you imagined it should be. We find accommodation with some ease given the many houses that have been converted to small hotels and homestays. One lady shows us a wonderful room with a view of the bridge but 300 Yuan is more than we are hoping to pay so we take the downstairs room for 180 instead. That night she cooks us a simple but tasty meal of fried pork with tomatoes and peppers and some steamed rice with a little chili.

Hongcun

Hongcun

Hidden in the tight lanes we discover during a night-time stroll an old hall that has been tastefully converted into a coffee shop. The sign outside says “best coffee in town” and given its size this seems highly possible. Such a claim must be investigated. The owners are American Chinese who live in Seattle but spend almost half their time in tiny Hongcun, which is not difficult to understand. They also make delicious waffles with chocolate sauce and milkshakes. Feeling full from dinner we return the next morning for breakfast. I am embarrassed to say that after being introduced I forget to write down the owners name and now can’t remember it, which is unfortunate as he kindly offers to drive us one hour north to Tangkou at the base of the Yellow Mountains. We thank him at first and politely decline but after hearing we will have to wait over three hours before the bus goes we take up his offer. I wish I could remember his name but I can’t. All I can say is, if you are ever in Hongcun make sure you pay a visit to the Granary for without doubt the best coffee and waffles in all of ancient China.

Hongcun China

Beautiful old buildings in Hongcun

When we arrive at Tangkou there is no sign of the pine clad and misty peaks that feature so heavily in Chinese art, just a rather ordinary small city. The entrance to Huangshan Park is so far revealing little. Taxis and cars are not permitted in so we part farewell to our unnamed barista and take one of the blue park busses another 8km up to the start of the Eastern stairs. The entrance fee is as steep as the stairs to the top (of which there are many) 260 Yuan each nearly $45.00 USD. We begin the 7km ascent rising over a 1000m in elevation in warm cloud. An hour later and the temperature has noticeably dropped. The clouds and mist clear a little giving us a glimpse of the stunning cliffs and landscapes. There is no indication as to how far we have come but we continue up the unrelenting stairs feeling surprisingly good. I think Nepal and Tibet are still paying dividends as we pass many fatigued and worn out souls.

We reach the top of White Goose ridge in just under two hours, just in time to see dense grey cloud settle over the mountains blocking any views. Just as well that we have planned to stay two nights at the top which is highly advisable if you don’t want to be disappointed. There are several large hotels located on a few ridges on top of the mountains. All seem to have signs giving directions except for ours. Most of the signage is in Chinese as you would expect so I should be grateful for the odd hint of English even if it’s more confusing rather than confirming.

Huangshan the yellow mountains

Huangshan the yellow mountains

We head towards to the West sea Canyon and come upon the Xihai hotel. Try pronouncing that to Chinese while searching… it goes something like (She High) which I later discover means West Sea. Anyway the rooms are very good but the food is terrible and overpriced. The coffee shop that looks so promising never opens during our entire three day stay but none of this really matters, it’s the views we have come to see. But I do wish I could get some of that fried pork and waffles from Hongcun again.

Huangshan China

Early morning mist

The next morning is greeted with dark cloud and disappointment but we head out early into the gloom regardless. Gathered at the edge of a vast void of grey is a small group of optimistic types hoping the cloud will lift. Huangshan it seems is a place of tolerance and patience so we wait anyway slightly disgruntled. One Chinese man says hello to us. His English is excellent, turns out he is from Ashfield in Sydney our home city. Our patience is rewarded the sun burns through the cloud to reveal wonderful views in the morning light. The valleys are filled with fog, the peaks are veiled in mist as far as you can see. No wonder this scene is depicted on the back of the 5 Yuan note.

West sea canyon

The west sea Canyon

Twisted and abnormal shaped pine trees cling to the steep peaks with such names as…Flower blooming on a brush tip, Beginning to believe, Purple cloud and the rather out of place and more recently named Mobile Phone peak. We descend lower into the west sea canyon on a stone staircase that clings to the cliffs; dropping ever deeper into a dense green almost prehistoric chasm. Towers of rock rise high above with huge boulders resting in precarious positions. One such structure is named the camel for obvious reasons.

Yellow Mountains China

View from beginning to believe peak

The western stairs are twice as long as the eastern version and although feeling fit and strong I am glad when we finally reach the bottom that we are not going up. We pass people who are either masochistic or completely ignorant as to what lies ahead. I genuinely feel sorry them as many look ill prepared and simply not capable of such a strenuous ascent.

What lies ahead for us is an overnight train to Hong Kong…

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The Shanghai Express departs Lhasa shortly before lunch on a Monday morning but despite the swift name implied we won’t see Shanghai till two days later on a Wednesday afternoon. I suppose to be fair we do have to traverse over 3600km and the world’s highest rail pass. I can only be grateful that such a journey is not being embarked upon in a bus. It will be to date the longest and most economical segment of our trip. To cover as much ground in any of the other countries we have travelled through would have taken a week and possibly longer.

Lhasa Train Station

Boarding the train at Lhasa

At the end of the carriage is an electronic board that shows our current speed and altitude. I can’t think of too many trains that display altitude but then again this is no ordinary train. The Tibet Qinghai railway is the highest train line in the world, rising to a height of over 5200m or around the same height as Everest base camp. The carriages are supplied with supplementary oxygen to aid the many passengers who suffer from the rapid climb into thin air.
The Tibetan plateau is bleak this afternoon. I think at first the dull ceiling of clouds above to be low in the sky but then I realise its more that we are high. The jagged mountains are gone now with only a few small hills making any impression on the surrounding plains. Having said that, these small unremarkable summits are higher than any peak in the Alps or Rockies. Grazing by the tracks is a vast army of yaks. They watch with little interest as we pass, chewing on sparse patches of grass.

Tibet Plateau

Heading North across the Tibet Plateau

Beside us I can see a marker on the road that reads 3391…3391km to Shanghai. It seems so far, can we really get there in two days. Our current speed suggests otherwise but we are after all going uphill. Eventually we climb so high that even the clouds must surrender to the land. Outside its dark and grey and it begins to snow. I would like to say it’s beautiful but there is little visibility. I can still make out the occasional yak and a few trucks crawling along the wet road that runs beside us.
I start to make more regular trips to the small video screen and note 5208m. I wait for some sort of official announcement that we are now cresting the highest section of track in the world… but none is given. Fifteen minutes later we are at 5150m so I guess the big moment has come and gone. I think the People’s Republic of China has missed an enormous opportunity for propaganda here and quite frankly I am a little surprised.
As the sun goes down we make our way to the dining car. It might all sound very civilised until you discover there is no one who can speak English and no menu to order from. We take a seat and survey the plates of food being consumed around us. One girl is sucking dimpled skin off a chicken’s foot and spitting the refuse into a tissue. Another man is slurping some type of soup with unknown floating objects. I can see another dish of something but am unsure of its origins. This is certainly not the Chinese food you come to expect at home. The hardboiled egg containing a chicken embryo is certainly out. Finally I spot a dish that looks familiar. It appears to be stir fried pork with red and green peppers.
We order two plates and some boiled white rice which we season with brown vinegar provided. When the pork arrives it has the added benefit of some cashew nuts added which is a pleasant surprise but also comes with something else that looks to be fried pig skin. Fortunately we are able to pick out the unwanted items with our chop sticks. The locals seem to find it surprising and amusing we can use them. One chap smiling picks up a serving spoon and starts showing us he is able to use our implements as well. I congratulate him with a smiling nod and continue to remove the pig skin from my dinner. Certainly there is no chance of getting fat on this trip.

Dinner Tibet Railway

Pork with pig skin

It’s been many months since we last slept on a train. I think the last time was on the way to Bodhgaya in northern India. While falling asleep I notice that the trains in China are much quieter than those in India. That familiar clicking and clacking of wheels is missing and the rails are so perfectly aligned that there is little movement in the carriages. Inside the passengers are much quieter as well and while this is a blessing I do miss the always affable but noisy Indians.
The next morning and I draw open the curtains to uninspiring landscapes. Semi Industrial scenes and eroded hills lacking any colour. To make matters worse we are now in a depressed channel with embankments on both sides affording occasional glimpses of the surrounding mediocrity. It persists for most of the day and by late afternoon I am convinced that this part of China at least has to be one of most disappointing regions in the world. I can only hope that Day 3 will provide better results. It doesn’t!
An hour before arriving into Shanghai we thankfully have some exciting moment in geography and cross the third longest river on earth. The Yangtze is only marginally shorter than the Nile but is much wider. It appears to be half a mile from one bank to the other. Like us it started its journey up in the Himalayas. It’s a significant moment to sight this huge river for the first time.
Shanghai is the eastern most point on our entire journey. The long path to the Pacific Ocean that started almost a year ago in Turkey is over. I can recall that afternoon so well when we left Adana on a bus, travelling east through fields of tulips. It all seemed so far away then with so much time left. Now I am reminded that our trip is getting closer to the finish. From now on we will be travelling in a southerly direction down through south East Asia to Singapore.
We disembark into a world completely different from the one we left 50 hours ago. The first thing that strikes us is the heat and especially the humidity. We exit the station amid towering apartment blocks and dense traffic. It is at first very disorientating and remains so for some time. It’s bizarre to arrive into a city this size as a complete stranger who can’t read signs nor speak the local language. More so is that unlike other countries, most people here can’t speak our language and are generally not interested in doing so. I think as an English speaker we are normally given the luxury of others speaking English for us… but here in China that does not happen so much.

Shanghai Train Station

Leaving Shanghai Train Station

We hail a taxi and say Nihao, which is Hello in Mandarin. I then ask Nanjing Rd, which is the central retail area in Shanghai and close to the hotel we have booked. It’s like saying Time square in New York but the taxi speeds off with no attempt at trying to understand. This happens another six times. What is going on? One driver waves his hand rudely and motions for us to move aside and let another man get in, which he does without hesitation or the slightest regard. This has me desperate and fuming. There is nothing else to do but go across the road to McDonalds and regroup.
After two days of eating white rice and picking out pig skin from our meals we are ready for a Big Mac. It will be in fact my first since leaving Egypt and a much awaited experience after the disappointments in India where only a poor poultry version was provided. It might seem odd but being here while lost in a foreign city consuming familiar food in air-conditioning is like a sanctuary. The culinary foreign embassy of the golden arches.
One of the girls serving is able to speak a little English, so we ask if she can write in Mandarin that we want to go to East Nanjing Rd. She writes down our request on the back of the sales docket. Having fed and rested we pick up our bags and enter the fray now armed with a desperate plea scribbled on a fast food receipt. A few taxis reject us before we have time to show them the message but the next driver is pleasant and patient enough to take the message and read it. He smiles and motions for us to get in. It’s a huge relief but it does leave me wondering about just how difficult travelling through the rest of China will be.

Peninsula Shanghai

Top of the Peninsula

Shanghai used to be described as the Pearl of the Orient and the Paris of the East. A bustling metropolis of bright lights, jazz bars, opium dens, and prostitutes. It was a magnet for those seeking opportunity and fortune. Modern Shanghai has replaced the opium dens with night clubs and removed the Union Jacks that once fluttered over banks along the Bund but the rest is the same. Shanghai is making a comeback and experiencing a renaissance. There can be no doubt this is an exciting city, a happening city. The Huangpu River is flanked by the elegant buildings of the past on one side and quite possibly one of the most beautiful and dramatic collection of Skyscrapers the world has ever seen on the other. It’s a striking opposition of past and present dressed in dazzling lights.

The Bund

The Bund in Shanghai

 

Grand Hyatt Shanghai

Hanging out at the Grand Hyatt

It’s difficult to conceive that we are still in a Communist country where the only reminder is the red flag of China flying over old colonial buildings. It looks very much out of place among all this decadence and commercial glamour. I wonder what Chairman Moa would think of his China now. Our thoughts are to celebrate in style and so the daily budget is slashed and abandoned which is just as well as drinking in Shanghai doesn’t come cheap. Almost every building on the Bund has a roof top bar affording superb views of the city. We start off at the Peninsula, then move across to the Ritz Carlton in Pudongbefore eventually finishing off at the Grand Hyatt. In one debauched evening we have spent over a week’s budget on cocktails and Martinis which is why we end the night for dinner at Subways.

Subway

Fast Food dinner better than pig skin

Any foreigner wanting to see Shanghai must leave their hotel armed with an essay of requests written in Chinese or you can master the metro which we undertake the next morning. The taxi situation is futile and annoying. Once it gets dark they refuse regular fares and insist on vastly inflated prices and that’s if you’re lucky. Our attempts at purchasing tickets are also futile as the screen is completely in Chinese.

Old Town Shanghai

Old Town in Shanghai

Then we notice hidden in small print at the top right hand corner English. We touch the screen and the metro map is converted to recognisable characters but it’s still puzzling and confusing. By now a long line or cranky Chinese is forming behind us. I can feel panic and terror setting in. It’s no use asking for help and we just stand aside feeling defeated. But there is one last chance. I remember reading about a travel card that can be used on busses, taxis and the metro. If we can purchase one of these we won’t need to buy a ticket each time we travel. I open our guide book to the section on travel card which conveniently is also written in Chinese. I point to the page and ask a few locals where I can get one. Ignored several times we persist until one lady point us around the corner and down a flight of stairs. I point to the picture of the travel card and request two by holding two fingers then take out a two 50 Yuan notes. She seems to understand and you might think me condescending for being surprised but I have come to find that the Chinese are rubbish at playing charades.

Pudong Shanghai

Pudong Skyscrapers

Life in Shanghai just got a whole lot easier. Now with just a single effortless swipe of a card we can go anywhere we please on the metro which I have to say is excellent and easy to navigate. Later that night we spend another week’s budget on drinking and nightclubbing before dinner at McDonalds. It’s a pattern we seem to follow for the next few days. Sightseeing during the day followed by drinks in lavish hotels and cheap fast food dinners… although the amounts spent are greatly reduced owing to fear of bankruptcy.

Ritz Carlton Shanghai

Top of The Ritz Carlton

Without doubt the most stylish and certainly historical residence for any guest is the Peace Hotel. It is to Shanghai what the Ritz is to London or the Waldorf Astoria is to New York. Recently restored and reopened in 2010 it’s a masterpiece of Art Deco. Once inside the foyer you step back into the heyday of 1930’s Shanghai. Jazz and swing music waft through the corridors like ghosts from the past. It’s easy to be transported back in time. I guess that’s what travel is all about. To find yourself in a different place and even in a different time. If time and especially money were of no concern I should want to stay longer in Shanghai, but we must as is so often the case leave a place we have become accustomed to. We leave Shanghai behind and head south towards the Yellow mountains and onto another great city of the world…Hong Kong.

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Once a day, a lonely blue bus leaves Kashgar in China and travels south over the Kunjerab Pass to Sost in Northern Pakistan, but for the last three days that bus has remained idle. By sheer co-incidence or perhaps just rotten bad luck, we have been waiting three days in Kashgar for its departure. Each morning a phone call to the international depot has yielded frustrating results. It’s reluctance to move is based on a shortage of passengers, but today that will change.

It’s been an anxious and uncertain delay as we only have a few days left to enter Pakistan and the journey south takes two. Anticipated feelings of apprehension are dissolved. Today I feel nothing but a sense of calm. Maybe it’s because Greg and I have deliberated for weeks over Pakistan since the distressing murder of the climbers near Nanga Parbit took place. Maybe it’s because we have pushed so hard to get here that we simply can’t turn back now; we can’t break the peel. Whatever it is, I feel committed to cross this border and continue our journey.

The bus is full of joyful Pakistani’s. A mixture of students who’ve been studying medicine and businessmen returning home after trading in Kashgar. As always they shower their foreign guests with a generous dose of kindness and friendly curiosity.

Our fellow passengers

Our fellow passengers

I watch Kashgar fade into open fields with confidant satisfaction. Our big push that started 10 weeks ago in Kenya is almost over. The phone calls, the emails, the disappointments, the visas and hold ups all seem so trivial. Like pain forgotten all that is left is victory, nothing can stop us now.

Within a few hours we are among giants. They gather close to the road. Their huge rocky shoulders locked together. Their heads white with snow, lean over and peer down at our little bus from impossible heights. We Pass through the first of the Chinese checkpoints at Ghez and continue south to Tashkurgan. The steep stone walls retreat after another hour to reveal open pastures and distant mountains. The plains are scattered with yurts, yaks and large Asian camels. Long sandy hair hangs from their neck and shoulders.

The Karakorum Highway

The Karakorum Highway

The scenery is stunning, but up ahead it’s about to get better. The massive form of Muztagh Ata appears large in our windscreen. As we rise over a crest, its sheer size and height above the plains is revealed. A thick blanket of shiny ice lies ruffled across its flanks. Shadows from clouds rise and fall over its contours. A large lake fed by melting snow lies curled up by its base. Having made this same trip four years ago, I am still taken by surprise as to just how magnificent this land is.

Muztagh Ata

Muztagh Ata

Five hours after leaving Kashgar we stop in Tashkurgan for the night. We are now just over 3400m above sea level. Our bus tired from the journey sighs, hisses and opens the front door outside the Traffic Hotel. I ask its driver what time it will leave tomorrow. He holds up 10 fingers which I take to mean 10am Beijing time.

Beijing time? Nods yes.

The Traffic hotel is experiencing a sudden influx of guests but the price and general disinterest of the manager has the Pakistani’s looking for other options. A handsome man in his mid-50’s wearing an unmistakable black wig leads them and Greg away down the road. Thirty minutes later Greg returns but is keen to at least have a look inside for comparative purposes. The disinterested manager seems more attentive and shows us a room for 150 RNB or around 25 USD which is only 5 USD more and much closer to our sleeping bus… so we take it.

China to Pakistan incredible scenery

China to Pakistan incredible scenery

The next morning despite triple checking with its driver, our bus decides to leave 15 minutes early. Greg is paying the bill when I notice it driving out of the hotel compound. I run down the road yelling and waving my hands eventually bringing it to a stop. Four years ago the same thing happened and despite being forewarned it happens again. The driver and the hotel staff seem indifferent. The bus was on its way to Chinese immigration, 2km south of town where it will be stopped for at least an hour, while we all go through immigration. The Pakistani’s are waiting at the building when we arrive. This morning the number of passengers wanting to cross the pass has swollen. The total of which is too great to fit inside the bus. We are safe as we have confirmed tickets but a battle for the remaining seats is anticipated.

The giants at Ghez

The giants at Ghez

The processing through immigration is carried out with discipline and all the precision of an Olympic opening ceremony. The soldiers have us form 2 lines outside the bus and then enquire about WC. Volunteers are marched in a line. A low ranking solider ensures all our arms are swinging in unison, but I don’t complain as I recall the fiasco at the Uzbek border 2 weeks ago.

Asian Camels of the Silk Road

Asian Camels of the Silk Road

Two hours into the journey and my contemplative daydreaming is abruptly broken by the reluctance of our bus to move. We come to a grinding halt. It would seem that once again the travel gods have cursed us. I think back to Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Egypt and lose count. The art of patience is surely tested on such a journey. Greg sees this as an opportunity to take some photos and is almost the first one off the bus. He needn’t rush as he’s going to be taking more photos than he ever imagined.

It is almost certain that if a problem can’t be fixed in the first 30 minutes then it may never be fixed at all. Normally issues are resolved quickly, so after waiting for more than an hour, I begin to despair.

A few hours later and the sun is now starting to creep in through the right hand side of the bus. The flimsy curtains are no match for its fury. Our water supplies are dwindling and being stuck so high above sea level without acclimatisation has many suffering from fatigue and headache.

As always the local people are prepared for any eventuality and they start to cut open delicious water melon to share amongst the passengers. We sit on the ground devouring the juicy pieces whilst getting to know our new found friends better. I observe (as everyone sits and chats) what this picture might be like if I were at home. I certainly don’t think that people would be as well prepared and I doubt that they’d share what little they have in such a community spirited way.

The day alternates between lying in my seat and going outside for short walks. Sometimes I even peer under the bus in the hopes I will see productive activity. Despite the surrounding beauty I am getting bored. The driver has finally after many hours downed his tools and pronounced the bus dead. The sun is starting to get low and I put my fleece back on and go inside the bus. I manage an afternoon nap and resign myself to a very long wait.

Stuck for hours on the Kunjerab Pass

Stuck for hours on the Kunjerab Pass

I am surprised at just how relaxed I still am as the ninth hour approaches. But one of the group members crack. There is much shouting in Urdu. Greg and I exchange quizzical looks. It appears that one of the male passengers has had enough! He wants to know how much longer we’re expected to wait for a new bus. Based on the heated exchange and aggressive body language between himself and the Chinese solider it appears that the news is not what the gentleman wishes to hear.

He turns, snaps his heals, picks up his suitcase and begins to walk along the highway. Clearly he has decided that waiting nearly ten hours is more than enough time to resolve the issue and that at this rate he would be better off walking to Sost. I tend to agree! People of this region are very expressive. You don’t need to speak Urdu to know when there is a problem or indeed not.

Walking to Pakistan

Walking to Pakistan

The male passenger’s work together to persuade the man that maybe walking isn’t such a good idea. Back rubbing and soothing tones are administered bringing the man down from the metaphoric building that he’s about to jump from. The clenched teeth loosen and his responses become more cordial. He nods his head and flicks his wrist, which I take to mean he has been convinced for the moment to stay. No one seems to mind the dummy spit. Personally I have enjoyed the performance, it has certainly passed some time.

After over 12 hours of sitting, waiting and occasionally chewing on water melon, we are transferred to a new bus and once again on the move. A short while later we pass through the final Chinese checkpoint. A line of trucks is always a sign you are close to the border. The light is fading fast and the first stars are appearing. We pass under the Arch that separates China from Pakistan; the highest border crossing in the world at just under 5000m.

Day dreaming has been replaced with star gazing. I stare out the window marvelling at the majesty of the mountains that cradle the Karakorum Highway. I imagine what it must have been like when it was the old Silk Road; men of another time leading their camels, guided by the brilliant night sky. We descend quickly down a series of switch backs into warmer winds and large green trees. The sky is now a slither of stars squeezed between towering cliffs.

An hour after crossing the pass, we arrive at the dimly lit immigration post of Sost. Everyone scrambles of the bus to be first, it is nearly midnight. Luckily for me as a woman, I am allowed to go to the front of the queue, a convenient perk in this male dominated society. Even if there is a queue of men 100 deep, it doesn’t matter to the front you go. The man looks up at me and smiles “First Time in Pakistan?” “No, this is my second time. I love Pakistan” I respond “You are Welcome” he grins and my passport is stamped. If only all border crossings were such a pleasure. Even after a long day I feel a wave of exhilaration to be here……..

Sost has several hotels but locating them in complete darkness is not so easy. We follow close behind our fellow passengers and take a room for 400 PKR. Before retiring it is agreed that we will leave the next morning at 5am. The Hotel has basic rooms and a shower that is fed with glacial cold water. Despite fatigue I find it hard to sleep. I keep thinking that we’ll somehow sleep in and miss our onward connections. I decide to get up and have a cold shower to jump start me into action. I console myself with the promise of endless sleep when I get to Gilgit.

Towering Cliffs along the KKH

Towering Cliffs along the KKH

Getting to Gilgit will not be as easy as it once was. In 2010 a major landslide blocked the valley causing a huge lake to form and severing the Karakorum Highway. From Sost to the start of the lake is about 2 hours and we pay a fee of 200 PKR each for a seat in a shared minivan. Upon reaching the lake it’s an enjoyable hour long ride across the still turquoise waters. Two local ladies who are part of the bus group share apricots with me. The boat carries well over 50 passengers and 1 motorbike. The fee for crossing is 100 PKR each.

Attabad Lake cuts the KKH in two

Attabad Lake cuts the KKH in two

As we approach the head of the lake the full drama of the landslide is revealed. On the left hand side of the gorge high above the waters, Chinese and Pakistani crews are constructing a road and tunnel to eventually reconnect the KKH. Taking heavy bags off the boat is not easy but there are many willing men offering help. From the lake we trek up a small hill to a group of jeeps eagerly awaiting our arrival. We squeeze 6 people into each jeep and pay 125 PKR for the short hour long trip to Hunza. Signs of tectonic trauma are visible as far as the eye can see. Dramatic mud coloured cliffs and mountains protect peaks that still have snow atop. Lush green villages cling to the base showcasing the enormity of this natural phenomenon, it truly taxes the superlatives.

The landslide

The landslide

The road has been seriously upgraded since our last visit thanks to the partnership between China and Pakistan. It’s an engineering marvel how human labour has managed to make what was once a long and slow journey become smoother as well as shaving off a great deal of time. We make the final transfer from jeep to Minivan in Hunza and pay a further 225 PKR per seat. The journey from Hunza to Gilgit is covered in 2 short hours. In total the entire trip from Sost has cost 650 PKR or about $6.50 USD.

Welcome to Gilgit

Welcome to Gilgit

We pass under the “Welcome to Gilgit “sign in record time pulling into The Madina 2 hotel run by the perennial Mr Yacqoob. I feel instantly at home. It is reminiscent of an English country garden belonging in the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. The only thing that gives the gardens location away are the huge brown mountains surrounding us.

I sip my milky chai and breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve made it!

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