We visited Yunnan in April 2001 as part of a longer trip connecting Bangkok with Hong Kong via Sumatra and Cambodia. At the time there wasn’t much information available about China so we weren’t sure what to expect. We obtained visa’s in Manchester before leaving the UK (if you won’t be entering China for a long time - 10 weeks in our case - make sure that you tell the officials to post date the visa or you may find that it has expired before you arrive) which were good for one months travel on the mainland - note that Hong Kong does not count as China - UK nationals get a 6 month stay at the border. No-one could tell us if ATMs had arrived in China (they were just beginning to appear) so we took travellers cheques as our main source of money - backed up with ATM and credit cards and a small amount of US$ - which we didn’t need.
We spoke no Mandarin, and although we made reasonable attempts to learn a few words of the local languages in the previous countries we had visited, we limited our Chinese to please, thank-you and two beers please. People were not used to seeing foreigners and a mispronunciation in Mandarin can be very embarrassing! We did however have a good phrase book (including written characters) and most importantly a reliable map (Nelles Southern China).
The border with Laos presents no problems assuming that all your papers are in order. We expected to be met with bureaucracy and red tape but all the officials were very pleasant. We always find that we enjoy visiting a country much more when we are welcomed by the immigration officials and China was no exception. I particularly liked the section on the entry card for ‘Reason for visit’ - one of the options was ‘Settling Down' - maybe next time!
Once through the border formalities we were just let loose on China. There was no-one to tell us where we could go and where we couldn’t go - the whole of Yunnan (and most of China beyond) was ours to explore - warts and all! The first job was to change money - plenty of people around to do this at the border. If you have any Lao Kip left you can get rid of them here as long as the notes are in good condition. You don’t get the bank rate - but it’s not too bad. As per our usual policy we changed enough to get us to the first town, Mengla, and to pay for a room for the night. All the public transport leaves from the far end of the border post - about a ten minute walk.
We were dropped off at the spot that our guide book said was the centre of Mengla, close to the Bank of China, and few of the cheaper hotels. Mengla had, however, in the intervening year between our guide book being written and us arriving, moved about a mile up the road! This became a recurring theme as we travelled through the country and we soon realised that guide books were only of limited use. We were besieged by rickshaw drivers curious to know why we had not gone straight to Kunming like all the other tourists. We were a little apprehensive at first - new country, no idea about prices, no language, etc. but there was a genuine desire to help visitors which took us aback at first. Our rickshaw man not only took us to the hotel (Zheng Fu) we asked to be taken to, but made sure that after we had settled in that we would never be stuck for transport during our stay in Mengla. Many hotels in this area are slightly different from those found elsewhere. They tend to resemble small council estates with a series of buildings of varying styles and with wildly differing facilities. Fortunately this means that there is a wide price range - there should be something to suit all tastes and budgets even in upmarket hotels. For Y120 (just under £10.00) we got a room with AC, bath, toilet (western), TV, three beds and plenty of service. We found that this was actually a little on the high side - often getting equivalent facilities for around Y80. You will have to pay a returnable deposit, and you will always have unlimited flasks of boiling water to make your tea. The other advantage to this style of hotel is that there are often spacious gardens, which sometimes have bars and restaurants. This particular hotel also contained our first Chinese public lavatory. We thought that after India we couldn’t be shocked by toilet facilities - but we were proved very wrong. The ‘CPL’ consists of a trough running from one end of the building to the other which you straddle and crouch down over. There is no running water so things do tend to get a bit messy towards the end of the day. For privacy there are often, but not always, low stable doors to separate customers. These don’t provide any privacy at all, and with the Chinese sense of personal space (they don’t have one!), you will find yourself with an audience to see if the strange alien people do it the same way as the locals. There is a move to replace these toilets with more western style facilities - you should get there before it’s too late!
The most pressing need was to get to a bank and change some of our travellers cheques. The Bank of China was no longer where it used to be so we were biked up to the new town where we spent the next three hours trying to find a bank that not only understood what a travellers cheque was, but one that was prepared to cash one! We were met by much interest, and our cheques were often passed around the entire staff attracting plenty of blank stares and wonderment about the strange foreign characters, but little in the way of ability to exchange them for Yuan. Fortunately our friendly rickshaw driver had grasped what we trying to do and had taken it upon himself to conduct some research of his own. The only foreign exchange counter in Mengla was actually situated in a sub-branch of the Bank of China hidden away above a shop. We thought that if it was going to be this difficult to find money exchange we had better change a lot - so we changed $200 and became (briefly) the richest people in Melgla! Oddly after this we had no problems - although we did wait until we reached large towns, and changed enough to get us to the next large town.
After stashing the cash we had a walk around some of the older parts of town, and contemplated our first meal. As vegetarians Asia is by far the most food friendly continent, but having said that, finding a meal without meat is always something of a challenge. Street food is usually a good bet as you can just point at what you want, and you can often see it being cooked. The spicy potatoes down by the river were wonderful. Later we adopted the ‘walk into the kitchen and point at anything that wasn’t an animal’ approach, which generally worked well - although we did end up with a plate full of aromatic twigs one night further into the trip! In the evening we had a stroll around the town - admiring the hospitals lit up with fairy lights (why are Asians so much better at fairy lights than we are ?) and the famous Chinese public physical exercise.
We stopped here to have a look around the Botanical Gardens - very interesting with many rare and endangered species laid out in a pleasant grounds by the river. Whether this is worth a stop depends on how interested you are in plants. We stayed at the San Yang Hotel, which was more of a western style hotel than that of the previous night. It was brand new, very luxurious and at Y100 a night, a bargain.
In the evening we met Luke, a tour guide who also ran a cafe in Jinghong called the Lemon Grass Cafe ( we think this has now closed - or at least is under new management). Luke spoke excellent English ( better than ours actually - he would often ask us questions about grammar that we didn’t know the answers to) and told us about the forthcoming new year celebrations in Jinghong - the capital of Xishuangbanna and our next destination. We resolved to stay there a few days, both to take in the water splashing and to take advantage of our English speaking host. It was Luke who taught us how to correctly pronounce the few words that we were using, and also gave us plenty of tips on what to see and where to go.
The big thing about the Dai New Year, as in all South East Asian cultures, is the Water Splashing Festival. However, in most of South East Asia this takes place over a period of a few weeks, whereas the Chinese authorities have decided that in Jinghong it will all be condensed into one day - 15 April. If you can be in Jinghong on this day you are in for a serious water fight. No-one is spared (except the elderly), and foreign tourists are especially picked on. In 2001 there were maybe 10 foreigners in town, and we were all ‘encouraged’ to join in.. Being tall I was in particular demand as I could replenish supplies from the rooftop hoses much easier than my smaller team members. If you can’t make it for the festival itself, there is a smaller re-enactment every day in Manting Park.
There’s much more to the New Year celebrations than the water splashing. There’s dragon boat racing on the Lancang (Mekong) River, concerts, sand castle building, cock fighting, fairground rides and the most spectacular fireworks displays we’ve ever come across.
We were regular visitors at the Lemon Grass cafe where Luke and his wife Lucy, showed us some local vegetarian dishes - smelly vegetable, fried fern and fried banana flower - all of which were actually very tasty. Luke of course was having none of this vegetarian rubbish, tucking in to noodles with congealed blood!!
There are lots of other things to see and do in Jinghong. The Chinese way of addressing the local minority tribes may seem strange to our eyes - sort of Disney crossed with Miss World - but is seen as a shining example of diversity by the locals. There is also a thriving emerald market run mostly by Burmese.
We spent nearly a week in Jinghong until the celebrations were over. We were heading into the North of the province to have a look around Dali, and rather than go through Kunming we decided to head across country following the Lancang river. Our first stop was Simao about 4 hours north of Jinghong. There was one military checkpoint on the border of Xishuangbanna were we aroused much interest, but no-one was sure which book to write our details in. As soon as they saw that our visas were issued in Manchester we were ushered back onto the bus and sent on our way - and we’re not even Manchester United fans!
Simao was a largely rural town, around the same size as Jinghong but without any tourist infrastructure. We were only planning on an overnight stay and found a slightly grubby, but very cheap hotel just up the road from the bus station. The hotel may have been called Huanying Guanglin, but didn’t have an English sign and we got that name off the courtesy dental kit which is a feature of most Chinese hotels.
We then attempted to buy a bus ticket to Lincang for the next day. In order to successfully purchase bus tickets most bus stations helpfully have a regional map painted on the wall with the towns and villages marked in Chinese characters. This is where the map is necessary as you can cross reference where you want to go with your map and write down the correct characters to pass to the ticket clerk. The drawback to this approach is of course that if there’s a problem, the clerk will write you a reply in Chinese and pass it back. In areas that see few foreigners this isn’t as stupid as it sounds as the many dialects spoken in China may be mutually incomprehensible, but all of them use the same script and have the same words. After much pointing at our phrase book I managed to work out that there wasn’t a bus to Lincang for another three days, and so we settled on Plan B, which was to go as far as we could and the next day and work it out from there. We bought tickets to Weiyuan leaving early the following morning and set off in search of food and drink. We ate in a small fast food place - good food and easy to point at!! It really brought it home to us how far away we were from the tourist trail when we went for a drink in a reasonably western looking bar and saw the look on the barmaid’s face as we walked in - you'd have thought that the Clingons had just landed!
The water splashing festivities were still continuing among the children of Weiyuan - much to Anne’s annoyance. This was a very rural and quite poor community nestling in a broad river valley. We tried to get a bus straight out - but we told that there wasn’t another bus to Lincang until the morning. We certainly weren’t short of help when trying to buy the ticket - it felt like most of the town was in the ticket hall giving friendly advice and assistance. Word had not yet reached Weiyuan that restrictions had been lifted for foreign travellers and we had to walk a fair way to find a hotel willing to accept us.
We ate in a small restaurant on the edge of town - still arousing great curiosity wherever we went. The owner of the restaurant produced a small blow up globe which he gave to us and asked where we had come from. It amazed everyone (including us) to see just exactly how far we had come.
All of the bus rides throughout Yunnan were pretty spectacular. We were running parallel with the middle reaches of the Mekong river - occasionally crossing it’s steep valley on unlikely looking bridges. Our fellow passengers were usually surprised to see us, but curiosity soon overcame them and there was always someone wanting to have a look at our guide books with their strange foreign script or even more exciting would be Anne writing in her diary when they could have a look at the calligraphy. I would have to say that this stretch of our journey was probably the most exciting travelling we have ever done.
Lincang was another town that seemed to have recently moved from it’s original location - lots of new, half empty buildings decorated with the standard issue ‘bathroom tiles’. Although these buildings appear soulless after a while, they all look infinitely better than their drab grey predecessors. After finding another bargain priced hotel we spotted a dragon held up by nine or ten people walking casually along the street. We followed (as you do) and ended up at sort of regional trade fair. Here we were fêted as distinguished foreign guests - picking up bags full of free samples of local produce as well as appearing on local TV. We had to off load most of our goodies on the unsuspecting hotel staff - we had no use for cake mix and speciality batters, although the pressed walnut juice was delicious and the shoe made out of pressed tea leaves was quite unique.
We were becoming expert at buying bus tickets by now and the next day we were on our way to Dali, our most northerly destination. This was a long leg of around 12 hours through the most impressive scenery so far. We were entering a more indigenous area and saw many women working in the fields with their colourful costumes - a refreshing change from the ‘Disneyfication’ further south. We saw whole mountains carved into impressive rice terraces and temples carved into caves. Anne also spotted a horse and cart filling up at a petrol station - not the sort of thing you get to see everyday! As we got closer to Xiaguan, the contrasts in modern Chinese society became apparent - people working the fields by hand in the shadow of modern industrial buildings. After a brief and stressful hike around Xiaguan we eventually found a number 4 bus stop for the short 15 min ride out to Dali, well and truly back on the tourist trail.
We can’t say that we disliked Dali for all it’s pandering to foreign tourists. We were as much a tourist attraction for the local tourists as the town was for us. Sitting outside any of the cafes on ‘Foreigner Street’ resulted in a steady stream of parents pointing out the strange eating habits of the aliens to their children - with their knives and forks and peculiar food. That said, it was good to be able to read a menu again and pleasant not to have our private space invaded continuously. We spent a few days relaxing in Dali, there are plenty of things to do in the area, the town walls with their interesting gates, the chair lift up to Cangshan Temple and beautiful walks to either side, the three pagodas (don’t pay to get in - they are better viewed from a distance). There are plenty of good souvenirs to be had here as well as good local handicrafts. Dali is also, of course, the location of Peter Moore's famous ‘No Shitting in the Toilet’ sign - although after comparing notes there now seem to be a few of these!
We decided against heading north to Lijiang, choosing instead to explore some more back roads further east in Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. Therefore it was back to Xiaguan for an express bus to Kunming.
We really didn’t spend enough time in Kunming to do it justice. We had secured hard sleepers on the overnight train to Guiyang and therefore only stayed for just over 24 hours. In that time however we discovered a thriving modern city with some impressive modern architecture, but with plenty of older buildings still surviving in their shadows throwing up some interesting contrasts. Kite flying in one of the central squares was excellent and brought it home to us that no matter how much Kunming looked like a modern western city, we were in a very different culture.