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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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