A very long farewell as we head from Qiaotou to Hekou
21.11.2009 - 26.11.2009 19 °C
I write this after a week of intensive travelling, retracing our steps from north to south to arrive at our eventual destination, Vietnam. From Qiaotou on the Yangtze River by rural minibus back to a very cold Lijiang - which I felt particularly, still being feverish - after collecting our backpacks we overnighted at Fu Xiang, our hotel in Lijiang. A quick breakfast the next morning and then on the number 11 bus to the long-distance bus station, to take the Lijiang to Xiaguan (Dali City) bus. It was suggested to us by some locals from Lijiang that we should try bus travel as it was more regular than the train and thus more convenient. Although they called it Express and though it was more expensive than the train, it turned out a dirty, cramped bus with four or five buckets used as rubbish bins/spittoons lined down the aisle and our fellow travellers eating corn from a roadside stall, chicken feet (vacuum-packed), and groundnuts, it seemed the whole journey.
On arrival at Xiaguan we purchased our tickets for the overnight sleeper train from Xiaguan to Kunming, then, hungry and tired, weighed down by our backpacks, we searched the dusty streets around the train station for a decent loo and for somewhere to eat. The first we did not find but we did espy a young man running a small front shop, making fresh noodles, rolling them up, stretching and throwing them in the air like some kind of acrobatic contortionist, and then, slicing them into fine noodles to be quickly cooked in boiling water which he served with chopped spring onion, chilli, garlic, soy sauce, a chopped meat condiment and ginger. A regular clientele wandered in and out of this small establishment and we decided to follow the crowds. We perched on tiny plastic stools, not even 7 inches off the ground, and were served this little feast.
Back at the station we boarded the train and waited to meet the other 4 people who were to share our compartment with us. We were pleasantly surprised to find that no one arrived at all and then the train started moving off - we had the compartment to ourselves, heaven, even though it was still open-doored! This was quite unexpected as we had literally arrived at the train station 2 hours before and took a chance on getting our usual lower bed hard sleepers. We now wonder if it wasn't perhaps better to arrive later and get the emptier compartments - a theory we did not get to test again.
The Camellia hotel in Kunming was a welcome sight at 5am the next morning. It really is a lovely, well-run established hotel; centrally-located; welcoming, professional reception staff; bellboys; an elevator swiftly taking us to our well-lit spacious room with a full bath ensuite. At 200 yuan double per night this hotel comes well recommended.
We rested up here, bought another bus ticket, this time for a 7-hour journey to Yuanyang rice terraces way in the south of Yunnan Province, well on the way to the remote China-Vietnam border town of Hekou on the Red River, where we intended to cross into Vietnam (there used to be a train line running from Kunming to Hekou and Vietnam, but it has been discontinued due to landslides).
We set off in the bus at 10am the following morning. It was a bit smarter than any bus that we'd previously caught, with clean carpets under foot and slightly more seat space. Initially the road south from Kunming was a dual carriageway. The journey was uneventful although we did pass through a city where the air was almost opaque with what appeared to be industrial pollution, as there were a lot of factories nearby. It was like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie.
Needless to say, by the end of the 7-hour journey, the condition of the bus had somewhat deteriorated and I personally heard and saw women vomiting and spitting copiously into the bins on many occasions - it was a bit of a bumpy ride! Before we reached our final destination of Xinjie, the bus rumbled through a large built-up town, we later discovered its name to be Nansha, on a broad empty river bed in a deep valley surrounded by a high range of rounded mountains which struck one with their enormity. We discovered later that this is the new town of Yuanyang, 28 very long kilometres away from Xinjie, the old town of Yuanyang!
We continued now on to the final leg of our journey, up winding steep mountains our bus bumped and jutted, on a road which ascended from 240m to 1600m in just over 20kms, an incline all the way. The road narrowed, bumpy and uneven, no barrier on the side. Ever higher and higher we climbed, round and round the mountains, passing dishevelled roadside dwellings surrounded by untidy banana plantations, the mountain below carved out into rice terraces, some waterlogged. Fascinating when taking into account the remoteness and inaccessibility of the terrain. I was overwhelmed with a sense of history and respect for these minority peoples: these rice terraces here have been referred to in Tang Dynasty records: 1300 years ago, the Hani tribe carved them out of the rocks and earth.
Eventually, now after 5pm, we arrived in Xinjie, the old Yuanyang county seat, high and cold, a grubby town. There was only one possibility for accommodation that night for us: the Yun Ti Hotel, a 3-star that stands overlooking the old town at the highest point. There are other guesthouses to stay at, but after all our travelling we felt like a decent night's sleep in a comfortable hotel and it turned out to be very good value at 200 Yuan for a double per night. It was icy cold and the heating in the room was warmly welcomed by us.
Later we headed out to the town square, which seemed like a balcony overlooking the mountains below. It had a choice of a few very local, very basic restaurants. Like one fellow blogger said, she had trouble keeping her food down eating while an employee of the restaurant cleaned a dead bird next to her. Anyway, the food was tasty.
Before we went for dinner, we popped in at Window of Yuanyang, a World Vision sustainable tourism project, aiming to help get local minorities involved and directly benefiting from tourism in the area. We were disappointed to find, however, that no English was spoken and although we hope the project succeeds, it will only be some time in the future. One thing I did notice on reading a visitor's "comments book", was that a German visitor who had written a little comment the previous day, said that the rice terraces did not lend themselves to being photographed now because of the mist and that one should rather spend one's time appreciating the minority peoples, taking in markets etc! We were very disappointed, especially as I personally only have a basic digital camera and so any photographs I have of the Yuanyang rice terraces would need some assistance from good lighting.
Worse still, the next day we found that the two ATMs in the town did not work and with no way of communicating at all with the lady at the Window of Yuanyang, on her instigation we were whisked into a taxi and driven frantically all the way back to Nansha, before we realised where we were being taken, to try the one ATM there, which also did not work anyway (I believe they are not compatible with the Cirrus system). It's a pity that we were given the impression that we could withdraw money here in Xinjie and this is something that should be corrected by the guidebooks and Window of Yuanyang. In the end, after this turning into a half day mission, we arrived back at our hotel, where they referred us across to the lady at the coffee and tea "shop" over the road from the hotel who "changes money". What a waste of a day, we were so fed up! I do realise we should have taken more money with us particularly with it being so remote but we didn`t want to end up having too many yuan and having to change them at a loss for dong at the border town Hekou.
We did, however, enjoy going down to the market and loved how pretty the women looked in their traditional clothes which they wore as everyday clothes, and how natural and totally uncontrived they appeared..
Sadly it was icy cold with an unseasonal cold snap heading south and seeming to follow us and with there being no opportunity to take any photos of the rice terraces and also with our visas about to expire, we decided it was time to head to the border at Hekou.
The guide book had specifically mentioned that the English bus timetable in the foyer of our hotel was a great source of information so we checked it and put full faith in the schedule listed there: that there were 4 buses a day to Hekou (we checked with our reception and through hand signals and despite mispronouncing place names, they told us the buses departed from Nansha as per the schedule). We decided to aim at catching the 10.10 the next day and if we missed that, we could still catch the 11.00 or 11.30am buses.
When we arrived at the bus station the following day, with the help of our taxi driver, we ascertained that there was absolutely NO bus leaving for Hekou that day! Nightmare! The taxi driver pointed at the minibuses crowded together on the road outside the bus station indicating our only option. We were not happy because we felt we could trust the long-distance bus drivers far more than these minibus drivers. We knew that the road ahead was going to be pretty bad and we felt we needed someone responsible to negotiate it. Anyway, it turned out there was only one minibus going to Hekou so we had no alternative but to take it: it was we two, the young driver and four other young men. We drove out of Nansha, along the Hong He Valley, beside the dry river bed. Our driver sped along the corrugated road and we hung tightly onto our seats, our knuckles white, anxious. After just over an hour, we reached a market town where all our fellow travellers disembarked, it seemed this was their destination. Even though the driver gesticulated at us and even though we gesticulated in a questioning manner back, we did not understand a word: we did not know whether he was looking for other passengers and would carry on taking us; whether he was trying to persuade us to get out of his vehicle; whether he was trying to find another like vehicle to take us a bit further towards our destination. What a fix we were in! We did not know where we were, no one could speak a word of English around us and there was not even a smattering of understanding. I breathed deeply, I realised that I would just have to be patient, that this would be sorted out...
Eventually I looked in the phrasebook section at the back of my guidebook and found the words "what time does...leave/arrive?" as the most appropriate and closest to our needs so walking over to our driver, surrounded by villagers all wondering what to do about our dilemma, I pointed at the phrase, which was also printed out in Chinese script and the men all indicated 12 with their fingers: at last an understanding dawned on me. They were looking out for a bus that was due in the village at 12, which we could board for Hekou. This was good news! I returned to my mate and apprised her of the situation. I then wandered off and bought some clementines in the market and was looking for something more substantial to take with to eat when our driver came running towards me, hectically waving his hands and pointing at a bus - this must be the bus to Hekou! Grabbing my belongings, I ran after him. We climbed onto the bus, I looked at the bus driver and said "Hekou?" questioningly and he nodded.
There were two empty seats at the back of the bus. We had to clamber over sacks of fertilizer and seed, a birdcage, boxes, suitcases, a fan. We piled our backpacks on top of all this baggage in the aisle, sat down and off the old bus jerked and rumbled. I had never seen anything like it.
We continued on our way, always with the dry river bed at our side, the terrain much the same as since we left Xinjie, only wilder, less populated, the bus sometimes barely proceeding at 10kms an hour as it negotiated a very rutted, narrow road, its sump hollowly hitting against the bumps in the road, the bus driver repeatedly blowing his horn. At one stage the road became a large open cast mine, windswept and grey, and I held my breath as we drove alongside a steep bank of loose sand and rock, looking very much like it could be set off by the most minimal of movements, creating a landslide. The thought of being buried under this terrified me.
The men on the bus smoked, they joked among themselves, they spat out the window. Every now and then, the bus stopped for some person, waiting, standing at the side of the road. Sometimes they only got on for a couple of kms, sometimes more. Besides the clementines, not a drop of water, not a morsel of food, had passed our lips. We knew we could not ask for a toilet stop.
We had noticed our fellow travellers regularly looking up into the sky over the dry river bed and our eyes were led there and we saw that a makeshift cable system was regularly erected to be used across the river on which goods could be transported, in a sort of cage, by means of a pulley system.
Although the journey seemed interminable, at last we arrived in Hekou five hours later, just in time before the closing time for the border. We thanked the bus driver heartily, loaded up our backpacks, and headed for Vietnam.