Monthly Archives: November 2010

Phat Diem Cathedral

Phat Diem Cathedral

This is Phat Diem Cathedral. It was built in the 19th century and is still in use. I arrived not long after mass had ended.

Phat Diem Cathedral 2 

The cathedral is in the town of Kim Son, which runs alongside a canal.  I walked from one end of town to the other. It’s clearly very poor and very dirty, but the people were friendly – I’ve never had so many people (mostly children) shout ‘hello’ and wave at me before.

Kim Son Canal 

According to this bridge, Hoan really loves Dung.I saw several of his / her declarations of love throughout the town. The colourful stuff on the bridge is dyed straw used for weaving baskets.

Hoan Loves Dung Bridge

I think this is a school. I’ve seen quite a few art deco inspired buildings and gates – many, like this one, built long after the French were kicked out.

Kim Son Gate

Though it’s only small, there were many churches in town. Including the cathedral, I saw at least six.

Kim Son Church

Kim Son Church 2

Best Building in Hanoi

Hanoi Clinique

In Bed in Nanning

Leaders Billboard Nanning

As you may have noticed, I’ve been obnoxiously negative recently. My time in Yunnan was, with the exception of two days,  frustrating. I spent a lot of money and travelled long distances to see things that annoyed me. And my enthusiasm for travelling was all but gone.

A conversation with my family – who have turned their home into a hospice in which they glumly watch episodes of ‘The X Factor’ and wait to die – also affected my mood, as have the daily emails, texts, phone calls and MSN messages from H, telling me his life is terrible, he’s going to cut his wrists, asking for money or begging me to come to Korea. He doesn’t say these things in ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ kind of way – he wants to double the problem, to make me feel as unhappy as he does.  He often succeeds.

After a seven hour bus journey from Yuanyang to Kunming – surrounded on three sides by men who, when not shouting at each other or smoking,  hacked up and spat out litres of snot – and then a 14 hour train journey the same day to Nanning, I’d had enough. I’d already ditched my original plans of going to Guilin and Yangshuo in the north of Guangxi province after I realised that they would be as unbearably touristy as the Yunnan ‘attractions’, but upon arriving in Nanning, I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to carry out my alternate plan of travelling the south coast. After I started to come down with whatever plague had afflicted the snot-boxes on the bus, my fate was sealed and I spent more-or-less two days in bed sneezing and coughing.

I do, however, quite like Nanning. It’s not too big, it’s green and the traffic is not as bad as most other places. There is nothing to do here though. I can’t imagine there are many tourists who spend three days here as I have – it’s a city that you pass through, not stay in. There are an above-average number of beggars – lots of people with no legs – and I’ve seen quite a few middle-aged, fat, white men walking around with young Asian girlfriends – I’m close to Southeast Asia, where the perverts come to play, so I guess that’s not a surprise. I went to the museum and walked around a bit, but mostly I’ve just been to Walmart to buy tissues, cough sweets and snacks.

At the time of writing this, I have three days until I can cross over into Vietnam (my visa becomes active on the 24th) so I’m going to go to a vaguely interesting sounding place called Longzhou and try to rekindle some passion for what I’m doing and hopefully leave my negativity at the border.

Yuanyang Rice Terraces

Yuanyang Terraces 

Yuanyang is a poor town in the south of Yunnan. It’s on a hilltop and was, for the time I was there, permanently hidden in fog – sometimes visibility was down to about thirty or forty feet. After arriving after an eight hour bus journey from Kunming, I arranged a car to take me to the terraces the next morning.

I met the driver at 5:30am. The fog was so thick that she advised me not to go that day. But there’s not really anything to see in Yuanyang other than the terraces – and I didn’t want to have dragged myself out of bed for nothing – so I decided to risk it.

I’m glad I did. As the sun rose, the fog rolled in and out of the valley, providing brief windows of relatively clear views.

Yuanyang Terraces 2

The hour I spent watching the sun come up over the terraces was my highlight of Yunnan province. The driver took me to a few other places to view the terraces, and then I went back to the town. Yuanyang was a long way to go – a sixteen hour round-trip on the bus – but really worth it.

Yuanyang Terraces 3 

Yuanyang Terraces 4

Lijiang: I’ve Learnt my Lesson

Lijiang Pizza Hut

Along with Dali, Lijiang is one of the most highly recommended locations in Southwest China. ‘Lonely Planet’ lists it as one of the 14 ‘must-see’ places in the whole country. But I arrived in Lijiang with low expectations after my Dali experience.

Everything I disliked about Dali is magnified tenfold in Lijiang. This is a ‘historical’ town with the history ripped out and replaced my Pizza Hut and KFC (see above). There are glimpses of the past in Lijiang, but the majority of the town looks like it was just built yesterday. Part of this was unavoidable – the town suffered a lot of damage after an earthquake in 1996 – but most of the rebuilding is for purely cosmetic reasons. Yet, like a botched face-lift, it has massively detracted from the original.

In a couple of decades, when domestic tourism has matured, I think a lot of Chinese people will be angry at what has happened to their country’s heritage. Forget colonisers and the Cultural Revolution, the biggest destroyer of China’s ancient buildings is ‘renovation’. To the Chinese authorities, renovation too often means smashing down everything original, unique, ancient and beautiful and lazily rebuilding it as a souvenir shop or KFC in modern building materials. Of course, it’s not an exclusively Chinese problem – this kind of thing happens everywhere to varying extents.

I listened to the audiobook of Sam Harris’ ‘The Moral Landscape’ (I downloaded it illegally – I’m not that interested in morality) and walked down streets packed to bursting point with tour groups. On the second day, I hired a defective mountain bike and rode to a couple of villages – one of which was quite nice but full of trinket shops with salespeople shouting ‘Look, look’, and the other one even more rebuilt than Lijiang itself.

I learnt my lesson. Many people will love Lijiang, but its not for me. I’ve given up on the northern Yunnan tourist circuit – I’m not going to Shangri-La (a city re-named after the fictional city in ‘Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton). And when I go to Guangxi in the next couple of days, I will skip Guilin, Yangshuo and the other tourist ‘highlights’ in the north of the province, and try to pick my own way across the south, close to the Vietnam border.

To be honest, I’m struggling to enjoy myself or to see a reason for travelling to all these places. It’s better than working I guess, so I should just be grateful for the time off. I see the appeal of the arbitrary challenge – like those people who travel from Jakarta to Jerusalem on an ostrich and then write a novelty travelogue about it. The challenge becomes the macguffin that gets you through the plot. Actually, I have a kind of challenge in mind. I just have to see if I have the willpower and commitment to do it. But most importantly, if I’m going to get the most out of travelling, I need to work out what kind of experiences mean something to me, rather than just blindly following guidebooks and recommendations.

Dali is a bit Crap

Dali Mountains

I took the overnight train from Kunming to Dali. I’d enjoyed my visits to Chenggong and the robot, but Kunming itself is a dirty, dusty city and the traffic is brutal. Motorbikes are ridden on the pavements and cars and buses – few of which look roadworthy – belch out thick, black smoke. I heard a vehicle backfire with such ear-ringing ferocity that I thought a bomb had gone off.

Kunming men seem to have an above-average interest in the contents of their noses. I sat on a bus avoiding looking at a man who spent more than a quarter of an hour with a finger up his nostrils; a customer at the Carrefour deli counter rooted around in his nose and then pointed at the food he wanted, leaving a smear of snot on the sneeze-guard; I walked past a McDonalds and saw a man vigorously emptying his nose onto the restaurant floor.

The West Mountain area was pleasant enough though. I took the cable car up to the top, looked around temples and rock carvings alongside groups of South Korean and Japanese tourists and then walked down. They had a photo gallery of famous visitors – mostly Communist Party elders and local bureaucrats. I’m not a fan of the royal family, but the pictures of the Queen visiting in 1986 stuck with me. I kept wondering how she got there (cars can only go up so far). Did her majesty walk? It seems unbelievable.

When I arrived in Dali just before 7am the next day, the streets of the old town were empty apart from a few children going to school and local people eating breakfast. The only shops open were butchers, each of which had taken delivery of a whole cow that was being dissected. As the sun rose higher and the mist lifted, I saw the mountains to the west looming over the rooftops. For those few minutes, this town that had been recommended to me so many times over the past four years, lived up to its reputation.

Dali butcher

I checked into a cheap hotel, washed my tired feet and slept for an hour. Then I went back outside to look around properly. It was still early but already the atmosphere of the place had changed dramatically. The shutters had been raised on the heavily-restored shop fronts, revealing gaudy tourist tat, fake bags, reproduction Mao posters and factory produced ‘ethnic’ clothing. Middle-aged women tried to sell me bus tickets, boat rides and marijuana. Tour groups were starting to invade the town centre.

I know that I can’t be Marco Polo. That’s not how the world is anymore. And mostly that’s a good thing. I didn’t have to come here by mule along the Burma road, dodge bandits, shit in a hole. But is this the alternative? Hash browns, Nescafe, banana pancakes, coach tours, the sound of an ‘Atomic Kitten’ song rising through the floor of my hotel room from the bar below. Whatever magic the place once had has been well and truly stamped out by over-restoration, over-commercialisation and swarms of tourists. Travelling to a place like this doesn’t broaden the mind, it just empties the wallet.

Dali wasn’t all bad. I walked away from the town and saw the clouds parting like a ruptured suture, bleeding light onto the mountainside (see the picture at the top of this post). The lake was also quite beautiful.

Dali Lake

After walking to the lake, my feet hurt so much that I had to go back to the hotel. One sock was stained with blood, the other with pus. I’m still getting used to the new shoes I bought in Hong Kong.

I realise that to people who – due to work or family commitments – can’t imagine taking all this time off to travel, my complaining must sound intolerable – like a princess whining that her tiara isn’t on straight. Maybe I just have to lower my expectations. Next stop is Lijiang.

Kunming’s Robots

Kunming Optimus Prime Robot

After returning to Kunming from Chenggong, I had just enough time to see a huge robot I’d read about online and then go to a more traditional tourist attraction, the Bamboo Temple in the west of the city.

I amazed myself by finding the robot without too many problems. It’s around 6 storeys high and stands outside a car dealership in the north-west of the city.

Kunming Optimus Prime Robot 2

You might wonder why I spent my time in Kunming looking for a huge robot. There are two reasons: 1) I love robots. 2) I think I’m suffering from Chinese city fatigue. After visiting around 60 cities across the country, I don’t feel compelled to traipse around from overly-restored pagoda to overly-restored temple anymore.

That said, I had planned to see the Bamboo Temple. I had just enough time to get there before it closed, so I got a taxi after seeing the robot. About three kilometres from the temple, the taxi ground to a halt and the black-toothed driver started shouting at me. He wanted 100RMB to take me to the temple. Obviously I wasn’t going to pay that (the metre said 9RMB and we were almost there) but he was adamant that he needed 100RMB. I paid the 9RMB and got out.

By this time, I had less than half an hour before the temple closed and there were no other taxis around. I had to abandon my plan and head back to the hotel.

The robot above isn’t alone in Kunming. At several locations across the city, I’ve seen these Robocops quietly observing the traffic. This one is on Beijing Lu near the train station.

Kunming Robocop

To see the big robot, I took bus 58 from the main train station to the final stop, then walked north up Erhuan Xi Lu. Coming from this direction, the robot is on the right side of the road outside a car dealership just before Erhuan Bei Lu.