A Travellerspoint blog


Dilly-dallying in Dali

sunny 15 °C

I could have lounged languidly in Lijiang or even shilly-shallied in Shangri La but, well, they are even further away from Kunming, and the 8 hours each way to Dali was enough, given I could only stay a night. As it happens, Dali proved to be a fantastic way to end my time in China. Of course, Kunming had to do one last thing to me - I was on a day train, so wanted a soft seat: the train clerk misunderstod this and sold me a much more expensive soft sleeper. But then the tentacles of the Dali magic took over: I had the compartment all to myself the whole way. Being an older, single track line it was a slow journey but through pictaresque country so I was happy.

Dali was the capital city for the ancient kingdom of the Bai people (more than a thousand years ago) - the old walled city is still there (albeit rebuilt in 1400), about 10 km north of the mdern city (in which I spent no time, except to catch a bus), east of a line of mountains which still had quite a covering of snow and west of Lake Erhai (which is apparently quite special but I never saw it). It is close to the so-called Tea Horse Road, a hugely important trade route for the distribution of tea into both India and Eastern China - Pu'er is an important source of tea in the Yunnan mountains. I would have loved to have spent some time exploring that aspect of Dali and its environs, but just looking at the city itself took all my time. It currently has around 40,000 residents, so is tiny compared with anywhere else I have been, but has maintained its traditional importance as a travellers town, so that there are many bars, restaurants, hostels - making this a very cool place to hang out even if the cooler crowd has moved on.

As I got off the bus in the Old Town, it was about the first time since I arrived in China that I was conscious of blue sky and actual, discrete clouds. It took me a little while to find it, but once I did, the Yinfeng Hotel proved to be a great find: huge wooden floored rooms, balconies on the upper floors (it only has three) and very close to the centre of town - I reckon I could live here.


Walking around in the evening, I could immediately see why it is so popular among travellers - a bit like Kathmandu, but without the chaos and dirt and beggars and just the two scammers (both wanting to shine my shoes, but I sensed there was something dodgy about them, and it is reported that they actually hold your shoes to ransom, demanding about 200 yuan before you get to see them again). One of the core streets is Foreigner Street, so called because about a hundred years ago, it housed the only hotel permitted to lodge foreigners, and so a bunch of related businesess sprung up around it - the restaurants with their English menus and western food are still there


but it is by no means the only place to eat - every street in Dali seems to have its share, including restaurants where you just pick what you want them to cook (I nearly tried one in Kunming, but the chicken I picked was still frozen, which did not augur well).


I ended up in a rather odd place, which didn't know if it was a Japanese restaurant or aritisinal art place: the only other occupants were a group of Chinese businessmen who seemed to be in the process of getting seriously drunk. Unfortunately, I could not eat my meal - the chicken was still rather raw on the inside. I did better for my other meals - a rather delicious pork and pepper concoction


and for my final meal in China, I did what is compulsory in Dali and ate yak steak (I have a photo, but for some reason the chips have become very prominent and then there is a nondescript piece of meat). This was pretty good - the chips were fresh to the point I had seen the cook peel the spuds, and the steak had had to be given a stern lesson with a hammer in order to be edible.

I basically spent the evening and the whole of the next day (except for an hour or so where I sat in a cafe with a pot of the local coffee, some chocolate cake and my book) just wandering the streets of old Dali, from North Gate to South, amused by the various actors - not exactly sure which period in history they are representing.









There is a museum which I investigated, but didn't find very interesting - unlike the Dali Rural Film History Museum, in a recreation of the former Dali Cinema, which was first established 110 years ago and was rather rudimentary: the second photo says it all. Basically, the screen was set up, and people would just gather round. The intent behind the museum is to show off Dali's connection with film (several have been made here) and the more general social connections between people and movies (which it did by having a room devoted to film posters, presumably of films which have a local importance.






Dali is very much on the circuit of places visited by Chinese bus tour groups - they basically get dropped off at one gate, walked through the main street and collected from the other gate, or they ride around on 12 seater golf carts. At one point I was just sitting idly, watching the world go by, noticed one fellow go behind me while another took a cheeky photo of me (and I guess his mate behind me). This seemed to give an entire group of these Chinese tourists the same idea: they abandoned thier guide and took it in turn to have their photo taken with me - slightly insane but curiously gratifying.

I did take a wee walk outside the walls, along from the south gate - the next couple of blocks was given over to woodworkers at their trade - making a mixture of modern furniture and various building fixtures in traditional style






Back in the old town proper, I basically took lots of pictures of what I saw - including a machine for making walnut cakes, some schoolkids in the local uniform, a brush seller




and a whole bunch of random shots. I really liked Dali and would not be surprised if I am back here (I see Tiger flies direct from Singapore to Lijiang, which is just two hours north). The last photo is of some people playing a game a bit like tennis, in that they hit a ball backwards and forwards, but they do not use a racquet. Instead, they have to catch the ball in the paddle thingey, and it propels the ball back


















My departure from Dali was yet another occasion for the locals to demonstrate their kindness. I was waiting for the bus back to the railway station, at the stop my hotel had told me was correct. This was not only wrong but the only bus this stop did serve had stopped for the night. Waiting with me were a bloke about my age and two young women: the bloke got a bit agitated about the lack of a bus (even I could work this out) and started talking to the young women. They were evidently agreeing to take a taxi. Eventually, I worked out that the bloke was talking to me as well, although in Chinese only - he was able to create three ideas: this stop was for local buses only, they were finished and "follow me" They took me in their taxi and dropped me at the right place for my bus (I could show him my train ticket, so he knew what I wanted) before carrying on to where they were going.

Posted by NZBarry 19:26 Archived in China Comments (0)

Kunming: The Good Stuff

snow -2 °C

Like I said, Kunming was not all bad. After I was settled into the hostel, I went for a walk into the downtown area, because (a) I needed a shop for a passport photo and (b) I was hungry. I found several wedding and fashion photographers, but don't think they were quite right for the job (later on, with some help from the hostel, I found a bloke on a back street who was very punctilious and charged $4). As for the food, I was spoilt for choice - in common with every major Chinese city I've been in, the centre was dominated by malls, but they tend to have lines of proper restaurants on their rooftops - I found a Japanese teppanyaki place and pigged out on lamb, fish and chili green beans (called cowpeas on the menu). On my second day, I ended with another enjoyable food experience, although of a rather different character. Not far from my hostel, there is a food street - for a couple of blocks, most of the shops sell food (although there were quite a few clothing places) and the footpath turned into a bit of a night market. The most highly rated place on tripadvisor to eat in Kunming was here - oddly enough, it sold no Chinese food at all, but it was a very relaxed bar cafe, the sort of thing that would not have been out of place on the hippie trail. So, I went with the flow and had whiskey and a burger.

On the Monday, I had successfully found the Vietnamese Consulate (rather difficult according to everything I saw on the internet, but I had no trouble, so have now corrected the internet): their instructions were very specific - pick up the passport between 5:00 and 5:30 on Wednesday. I ended up having quite a marvellous Wednesday in Kunming, taking the day to walk to the Consulate. First, I went north, to the North Railway Station and Yunnan Railway Museum, only to find both closed in 2011 because of the impending metro (which does look imminent, as they were doing street refurbishment when I was there)



A sign pointed to a locomotive shed I could inspect, but it looked like the site of that shed has had a big now building erected on it - when I tried to go further, I encountered a rather concerned security guard who could neither tell me where the locomotive shed was nor let me proceed any further. So, a bit of a backtrack, almost to where I had started, to visit the Yunnan University, which doesn't look like much from the outside


but opens up to reveal a campus which is absolutely smothered with trees (spring must be fantastic here)






The buiding in the last picture is the library: I wanted to go in but it is card access only. So I did the next best thing, went to the Sunrise Cafe under the library and had a beer and some lunch. The University fronts on to the Green Lake



- I took a very slow meander down its East side, enjoying the musicians at work and watching all the seagulls congregated on the lake. I actually walked around this lake a couple of times as it was very close to the hostel - I am not sure why, but every so often all of the birds would take flight all at once: an awesome but slightly scary sight.








I'd walked past a building across the road from the lake a couple of times, even walked in and had a look, without having much of an idea of what it was. The layout should have given me a clue - it is the 100 year old military barracks. There is actually an art gallery/photography exhibition but I didn't find it all that interesting plus there seemed to be huge tour groups of locals being shown through continuously, so I gave that a miss.







Next in my walk was the Provincial Library - only about the bottom six floors are used for public access library space but still, it is an impressive facility with many spaces set aside for study or quiet reading - completely unlike my local library, which has given up on those aspects of a library in favour of "the more people in the door the better".




Finally, the Yunnan Museum, which had made a huge exhibition for calligraphy - one-take aphorisms by a particular master of the art. Again, there were lots of locals enjoying this but I don't have the background to appreciate it. I was more taken by the cute structures used to house up to about four policemen and women




As I walked, I found a very small space occupied by old Kunming - wooden buildings with one or two floors, maybe a dozen in all. The rest of Kunming is very modern and lacking distinctive character, although there is a section where they are establishing a new ancient city (which made me think for some strange reason of starting a business "antique furniture - made to order"). I suppose with the massive shift in population (the Chinese Government is deliberately growing the population in these western cities) this sort of progress is inevitable but, still, it would have been nice to see some old China.

I was struck by the slow pace of life outside the CBD - every street corner had its collection of (mainly) blokes lounging on their scooters, doing what seemed to be nothing, not even waiting, just hanging. People dawdled up the streets - one woman was knitting as she dawdled, but the dawdling became so slow she ended up just stood there, in the middle of the footpath, knitting contentedly.

BTW - I accomplished my mission, arriving at the Vietnamese Consulate at 5:10. As soon as I had retreived my passport, I took full advantage of it my buying train tickets out of there and booking myself into a warm hotel for the night.

Posted by NZBarry 07:25 Archived in China Comments (0)

Kunming: The Not So Good

snow -2 °C

It had to happen, I suppose: have one place on my journey where there was such a concatenation of things go wrong that it marred the whole experience of being there. All in all, it would have been better not to have had the four nights in Kunming (I was compelled to stay that long because I needed a visa). Not that it was all bad, but it was bad enough to split my account into two posts – the bad and the good.

First, however, there is the long train trip down from Zigong. I had an hour or so to wait in the station, and was most entertained by the Passenger Transport Officer. I don’t know how senior that made him in the structure of the Zigong Railway Station, but his was the only office on the ground floor. But this was dinner time, so his office turned into a pop-up restaurant for his people: about six uniformed staff clustered around his desk, all sharing their food from communal pots. They ate quickly – after about 20 minutes, everyone took their plates etc away, washed up, he had a quiet smoke with one other officer, his desk was cleared of all dining paraphernalia and we have the model railway official’s office back. I was interrupted in my scrutiny by a girl, I thought at first she was a school student but it turned out that she was a level three university student, who made a beeline for the seat beside mine. I was very conscious of her sitting there, looking at me, sort of anxious about something: eventually, after a couple of false starts from her and smiles from me, she talked and we chatted through until it was time to go – she was off to visit her mother in Kunming.

I had decided to go for soft sleeper, since it didn’t cost very much and it was going to be something like 16 hours on the train. Funnily enough, a soft sleeper is no softer than a hard one. For the first part, I had the four berth compartment to myself: then I was joined by a bloke who snored through the night. I enjoyed the sensation of this long slow journey through the night, with its twists, its climbs, its stops for the up train or to collect passengers. At one point I was astonished to find snow on the hills beside the tracks – I had not seen any to the north, so had thought I would see none at all. I read later that snow in this area is so unexpected that it caused problems in north Vietnam, where people were stopping on its roads (difficult to negotiate at the best of times) to gawp at this strangeness.

In Kunming, I had paid for the premium garden view room in the hostel (not actually my first choice of place to stay (it was closed for renovation) or second (it was full for two nights): the room was nice alright and showed me the garden, so there was nothing misleading about its description. But there was NO HEATING! I mentioned the snow: it was still snowing when I hit Kunming, and overnight temperatures were always below zero while I was there. The bar was the one place to be warm and get some internet: it was normally crowded and closed at midnight.

My Monday started well, but then went downhill: I had a plan of things I was going to see, but had not worked out that Mondays are the one day that most tourist sites (museums, art galleries, even the Provincial library) close. It was Tuesday, however, that things really got bad. One of the major things influencing my choice to come to Kunming, indeed to this part of China, is the Stone Forest – a five hundred square kilometre park of intricate karst outcrops. I have seen many photos and videos of these and they look magical, but you need about five hours in park to get to the good stuff.


The park is a mere 73 km from Kunming. I knew exactly how to get there: I couldn’t take the train, because you need your passport for that and mine was in the Vietnamese Consulate, but there are buses. The #22 will take you to the East bus station, and from there a bus will take you directly to the park. It is worth repeating this: the directions were clear and the distance is 73 km. I left the hostel at around 9:30 and found the #22 bus stop. I waited. I waited some more. I grew moss I was there so long but eventually a #22 bus did arrive. It is about the oldest bus I have seen in China. It turned out that the East bus station is way out in the country, up in the hills above Kunming. The impotent #22 could barely make it up the hills – having so many people on board would not have helped (I longed for the wonderful new buses they use in Yichang which seemed to fly up the gorge hills).

But, finally, we made it to the East Bus Station, a brand new and fairly grand looking building with, I noticed, an even newer metro station. But then I am completely flummoxed: there are a large number of ticket windows, and I thought the writing over each represented a different destination. By now, it is a bit before noon, and I am wondering if there is any point continuing. But, yes, I will and I found out that simply saying “stone forest” produced a ticket. Finding the right gate for the Stone Forest was easy, but no bus actually left until 1:00. I still thought I would get to see something, particularly as the bus goes there directly by expressway. Hah! The expressway is funded by tolls: to collect tolls, you need tollgates. There were two between the East Bus Station and the Stone Forest (one was a mere 500 metres before the forest): each had the traffic backed up for 3 – 4 km. My estimation of when we would arrived kept being put back, but it was nearly 4:00 before I was off the bus.

Luckily I was able to work out that there were two more buses back to Kunming – at 5:00 and at 6:00. Unluckily, I found out that it is about a 4 km walk from where I was into where the karst formations began to cluster. So, after a wander around and a rather nice bacon fried rice I gulped down, I caught the 5:00 bus back to town.

Of course, going back, I couldn’t help but notice that the traffic was flowing easily both ways, with no hold ups at the tollgates. But my day was not quite done yet: I still had to contend with the #22 bus (I did try the metro, but it is not yet complete, and only runs further East, to the airport, at this stage). To be honest, I am no longer sure the #22 bus back exists. I found the right stop. I’d say that at one point, up to a hundred people were waiting for the #22 – some could obviously go by a different bus, but when a bus with the magic numbers finally turned up, thlere were a good 50 people waiting, and they’d been waiting for a long time. So, there was an altercation – the driver got extremely rude and shouty, and stopped a lot of people getting on the bus: I thought it was because they had shouted at him. It turns out that what he was shouting (I deduce this from later events, not a miraculous uptake of Chinese language skills) was “This bus says it is a #22 but it is not: I am going somewhere different”. I got on with about 6 others: at least the bus did go into Kunming, and thanks to my fruitless walk around, I knew where I was. Only then did it dawn on me that he was not actually letting people off – I stood up near a bus stop, but was ignored.

So, it was about 9:30 I finally made it back to the hostel, dinner plans ruined (but that’s OK because I had discovered that to stay warm in my frozen room, pot noodles helped).

I have nothing bad to say about the rest of my time in Kunming or a subsequent fleeing visit to change trains, save to say that Kunming had one final sting to administer: I took some money out during that fleeting visit and have now found out that this transaction has been duplicated: apparently I took precisely the same amount out several hours after I left.

Next post = nice Kunming

Posted by NZBarry 22:09 Archived in China Comments (0)

Zigong: Salt and Dinosaurs

sunny 16 °C

It is a bit over 1100 km between Chengdu and Kunming: China is presently building a superfast rail track which will see you there in 4-5 hours but at the moment, it can take anywhere between 14 and 23 hours, depending which train you take. I can certainly see the gains in efficiency from the faster train, but there is quite a cost - these fast tracks involve lots of tunnels and viaducts so that it runs pretty flat and the bends are turned into very gentle curves. The older tracks are often only a single track, so you have to wait for the up train, and they run with the environment, so there will be the occasional hill or a sequence of twists to get round one, with tunnels and aqueducts being used when there really is no alternative. I have to say I prefer this sort of train - the fast ones seem to be more about transport than travel.

Not that I did the whole trip in one hit: I had a very important date with a salt mine and some dinosaurs, in a sweet city called Zigong, a mere 258 km down the line on the Fuxi River (yet another Yangtze tributary). I opted for the 10:00 a.m start as I didn't want to get up too early and was in Zigong mid afternoon. The train followed the river very closely, just a few metres above it. The area seemed to involve a lot more of the old-style intensive farming that has gone on for centuries than other areas I have seen - terraces not much bigger than a croissant cascading down to a rice paddy, with each terrace having several different postage stamp sized crops. Dirt footpaths provided access to all areas, and I saw a number of farmers out their with their hoes - a hard slog, but it seemed to be paying off in that the houses tended towards being quite modern brick places, often with a couple of storeys.

In Zigong, I had rather a nice hotel so I decided for once to dine in: they fed me leather for dinner. Not meat as tough as leather, but actual leather. They had a nice Western style restaurant with English menu but I thought that since I was in China, I would eat in their Chinese banquet hall: they evidently didn't quite expect that, and put me in an antechamber off to the front, and brought me pictures of the food on an IPAD. One dish looked good - strips of meat surrounded by a ring of broccoli: the waitress could tell me it was beef and spicey, and that was about it. The only feature the dish that turned up shared with the photo was the ring of broccoli; there was then a moat of chili sauce and a pile of minced up stuff (I detected garlic, but that was the only taste I could identify) in which there were grey strips of something - eating revealed them to be very tender (so obviously marinated for some time) strips of cow skin (or, as we call it, leather).

On the whole, I liked Zigong - on my side of the river, there was quite a strip of flat land on which they had built a new area of the town - an odd combination of home improvement stores, kareoke bars, the local government office and the Zigong library. Across the rver was the city proper, just a few streets of high density retail running along the spine of the hill, with lots of housing and eating places on the hillside facing the river and tunnels to get through the hill. Along bits of the river, there are said to be lots of historical tea shops - I don't know if the one I saw was historical or not


Something like two hundred million years ago, this area was the roaming ground of dinosaurs, yet somehow no-one seemed to notice until the 1980's (I find this particularly odd given that the other reason this area is important is for its mining) - since then, they have excavated the remains of something like 200 dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes over a 50 square kilometre area. In the late 1980's, the Zigong Dinosaur Museum



was established, which has a few exhibits devoted to explaining the life style of the dinosaur and some replicas wandering around outside



but the main feature is the collection of actual dinosaurs. There is one local fellow, Szechuanosaurus Zigongensis


but the rest are presumably not just found in this area (I didn't keep a record of their names, sorry) but was impressed with just how mighty some of these fellows were.




Then, at the other end of the scale, you have this




The thing that impressed me about this excavation site (the museum is built right over it) is how densely packed the remains must have been - there's a lot of stuff in this one little area


Now, Zigong's other claim to fame is for its salt (there was something about a particular tree but I paid no attention). According to Chinese tradition, salt is incredibly important for one's health (including mental and spiritual) and for a balanced life: they have been sourcing salt for around 8,000 years - initially by evaporating lakes, then the ocean but then they found underground salt. The first technique was a bit clumsy, just your normal well and a bucket, but then they developed something called percussion drilling. None of my explorations in Zigong left me with a clear idea of what that is, but the internet has come to the rescue - essentially the twisting of the drill bit is aided by having the dril bit pound the rock or earth in order to assist its progress.

It is said that the best salt comes from Sichuan and the best in Sichuan comes from Zigong (I actually tried to buy some, but could only find bath salts (but maybe that was its traditional use)). There is still a functioning well, the Sanghai well, in Zigong - when it was first dug, at about 1,000 metres, it was the deepest well in the world. I was hoping to find it but came across it accidentally - the bus from the dinosaur museum stopped outside. Unfortunately, it was actually closed for renovation while I was there, so I never got to see it in action. There are four main components to the saltwell - the derrick which houses the drill bit, the buffalo drive unit, the well from which the salt brine is extracted and then the area where the brine is boiled in order to extract the salt. In a nice piece of luck, they also discovered natural gas while looking for salt: that is used to burn off the brine. The equipment at Sanghai all looks as it is: something developed hundreds of years ago.





There were some engravings on the wall to illustrate saltmining here, which I did find a little helpful



In town, there is also the official Zigong Salt Industry History Museum, which told the story of salt and its various methods of extraction, noting that the 20th century had mechanised this process dramatically, so that places like Sanghai are now of historical interest only. The museum is in an old guildhouse




so I was glad to have the chance to properly nose about the building as much as the museum, which was essentially a bunch of artifacts and a couple of models - a salt well and a more modern salt factory.





I had an evening train to catch, so after wandering around the museum area and another look at Zigong town, I plonked myself down in one of the teahouses and read - for a mere 6 yuan, they brought me a thermos of hot water and tea leaves and left me to it (unlike what happened in a fancy tea place at the dinosaur museum - they brought me a list of teas (in Chinese) but I could not work out what to order so went away empty-handed).

Posted by NZBarry 20:26 Archived in China Comments (0)

Chongqing: A Taste of New Zealand(!)

rain 12 °C

This will be a fairly short post, to wrap up my last day in Chongqing. The plan was to go over to the People's Square and explore the Three Gorges Museum, which turned out to be a longish walk away, not helped by the fact that it was actually raining (the first I have seen). I had some sort of problem with buying an umbrella from a street vendor, their products seemed curiously flimsy and rather garish in colour, so I stubbornly insisted to myself that I'd get one from a proper shop or not at all and, besides, it couldn't rain for ever (luckily, it didn't). Nonetheless, when I found this shop cunningly concealed under a hill


I went in. I don't know whether to admire Walmart for doing its best to be hidden, or be annoyed with it for daring to locate itself beneath the People's Square. I have to say, they don't look much like a Walmart store inside, much more like a typical Chinese supermarket, which often have a range of other stuff (clothing, bags, electrical, umbrellas...) alongside their fresh food and grocery items. Before hitting the museum, I noticed a bakery - and I was in luck, it was one of the few that have this really dangerously bad for you to eat thing - it is sort of like a cro-nut, but is in the shape of a twist. Approaching the museum, I was quite impressed by this building, which was entirely lacking in identification


It is the Chongqing People's Government building, according to google, sitting alongside the People's Park - which has the "Great Hall" or "People's Auditorium" at one end


and the Three Gorges Museum at the other




I was more than a little surprised to see this as I entered (as few people who have spoken to me know where New Zealand is and I bet there are fewer back home who will have heard of Chongqing)


Sure enough, there was a big collection of tiki, mere and adzes along with descriptions and examples of NZ greenstone





The locals seemed genuinely interested in looking at these items - there were quite a few in this part of the museum, and they were taking their time. I, in turn, went and looked at their stuff. Being the Three Gorges Museum, there was a lot of information about the Gorges and the Dam, with exhibits being set out to show what life on the river






or the hills would be like









That bed looked very impressive, and I couldn't quite work it out, but it looked like those raised panels actually fold down, and close the bed off altogether.

In Sichuan and the neighbouring Yunnan, there is a hugely diverse range of tribes - a floor of the museum was devoted to identifying the arts and crafts of the various ethnic groups associated with the Three Gorges: I think just seeing the different clothes worn by these groups gives an idea of how many there are (or, more accurately I suspect, were)




Going back, I managed to get a bit lost: I could never get really lost, as I was walking along the river bank and had a metro line above me, but the plan was to go to the railway station to sort out my onward ticket, but I didn't know quite where it was. Eventually, I gave up walking and hopped on the metro. I'd been in last night to try to get tickets to my next destination but, apart from a train getting in at 1:14 a.m. could not find the trains the internet was telling me existed. My new helper could not either, so I gave up and got myself a ticket on the fast train to Chengdu, where I overnighted and then started my trip south.

Posted by NZBarry 09:55 Archived in China Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 16) Page [1] 2 3 4 » Next