Nothing like a nine hour train ride to really get you in the travelin spirit. This journey begins with a 22 year old Italian girl and a slow speed train traveling from Kunming to Lijiang. Francesca, our Italian that I met at the hostel, asked me two questions and then immediately asked if I would like to go to Lijiang with her the next morning at 9am. I had just arrived in Kunming three hours earlier, but what the hell, am I traveling or am I relaxing? So I stayed up a little too late talking to an Australian and then woke up bright and early to catch the 9am train. Eventually anything less than ten hours won’t seem like a long ride but for now it was slightly daunting, especially because we bought “Hard Seats” and that just sounds uncomfortable.
I don’t know what I was like at 22, I had just gotten back from Chile and living at my mom’s house at the time, but I think Francesca represents what a 60 year old wanna-be screenwriter imagines a 22 year old Italian girl would be. She talks, and talks, and talks, and has quite flamboyant hand gestures when she really gets going. She cried a few times and talked about love and relationships and pizza. I don’t think she was crying during the pizza conversation but all nine hours are blended together in my head now. At one point we got to talking about South America and she said she wanted to show me pictures of her time in Brazil. “Sure”, I said excited about making the time pass quicker. Well, she had 2,325 pictures and we looked at every single one. But it all wasn’t tough, and it really felt great to be moving again. There was one moment where Fran was smoking a cigarette in between train cars next to the bathroom (let me assure you that going into a Chinese public restroom on a train can be a life altering experience and you’ll never look at humanity the same way) and I stood next to her to get some air. We came out of the tunnel for a second and saw mountains in front of blue skies with a small village in front, Fran breathed in her cigarette and said, “I love smoking”, I leaned my head back on the wall let out a deep sigh and replied, “I love traveling”. It was a good moment and I forced my eyes to suck in all my surroundings from the grey wall in front of me to the roach crawling out of the bathroom door, “To Ramona” on repeat in my head, trying my best to remember the moment.
We arrived and found a taxi to the center of town, Fran letting out a few tears and claiming that she has never been anywhere so beautiful in her life. I have to admit, it was beautiful; it’s a special feeling when you see clear blue skies after a month of smog. I think she studied one of the ethnic minorities living in Lijiang during school. There is one called Mosuo, and people refer to them as “The Kingdom of Women.” Basically, it’s a society where all sexual activity happens with mutual consent and it’s usually initiated by a women going into a man’s apartment and waiting for him to have sex. There are no commitments, multiple partners is accepted, and either party is free to break off the arrangement at any time. The women live in their parent’s house and don’t resemble a housewife at all. I don’t know if it’s because the women freely choose their sexual partners, but I hear all the people are beautiful. I encourage all my feminist friend’s to click on the link below. I’m looking at you Sammi Cains!
Tiger Leaping Gorge
After the second day there it was time for me to split off on my own. I decided to take the bus up to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Fran went back to Kunming and then to Hong Kong. I had briefly heard about Tiger Leaping Gorge, just that it was a tough hike and they shot some of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon there. The bus was more like a mini-van and three of the other ten people there were foreigners. The hike seemed difficult and dangerous enough that I didn’t want to do it alone, but how to meet these other foreigners, clearly already with their own group, without seeming over eager or weird. Hmmmm. Aha! It’s so simple! I tapped the shoulder of the Chinese man in front of me, “Xian Sheng, duo jiu hu tiao xia?” I did my best to have perfect pronunciation and it had the desired affect. Tim, Eugene, and Michael are all living in London and traveling around the world for a few months. Our mini-van took us further than the start of the trail, so I was able to use my Chinese to negotiate with another bus driver to get us back on track and at that point it seemed like I could hike with them for the entire trek. I have to say, it feels nice to be a high valued commodity after a month of sounding like a 5 year old to every Chinese person. The hike? Wonderful. I haven’t done an intense hike since Patagonia in 2008 so it was tough but do-able.
We hiked for six hours, at an altitude of 2,500 meters, only stopping once or twice to sit down. Eugene and Michael are Irish, so it was great to chat about my trip there in March, and Tim is French but they’ve all been living in London for ten years. We made it to the halfway house hostel and cracked open a few beers to watch the sun go down over the mountains. It was really – I’m sorry, I have to interrupt this to say that I zoned out deep for a minute and then realized there is melted chocolate right below the keyboard on my laptop. How did it get there? I’m not eating anything chocolate, and neither is anyone around me. It hasn’t been there a while because it’s recently melted. It’s not like hot chocolate-chocolate, this is actually melted chocolate that’s cooled considerably but still melted. I don’t understand. How could I miss that? Was I drugged and had a body part removed and then put in the exact same spot with the same people around and one of the henchman was searching through my computer to find weird sex pictures and when he heard everyone coming back he freaked out and dropped Nutella on my laptop but was too embarrassed to tell his boss? Interesting. Anyway, it was a beautiful sunset and those Irishmen bought me another three big boy beers even though I could have easily passed out with one after that hike.
The next day we woke up early and had some delicious banana pancakes – HOW DID THAT CHOCOLATE GET THERE?! – and then set off for another two hour hike to get to Tina’s guesthouse, where we could then start the descent to the bottom of the gorge.
We made it there and back in three hours and headed back to Lijiang for the night. The only hiccup was when we came across what was clearly an avalanche (is that just for snow or can I use that for rocks too?) in the middle of the road. It was intense. I said goodbye to my new friends and went solo back to Lijiang while they headed for the airport. I wandered around until I found a bar with live music. Some Chinese came up to me and struck up a conversation and then an hour later I somehow found myself playing guitar and singing “Lightning Crashes” (what else would I play?) on acoustic guitar for the whole bar. I got some nice applause.
This morning I woke up and got on a train to Dali, another town to the west of Kunming, known for it’s beautiful old towns. It was another hard seat train but this time I just had to sit for two hours. Two Chinese girls came in, looked at me and just started practicing their English. They’re sisters and they like Shakespeare and foreign languages.
So when I got off the train they made me put my bags in their hotel room so they could take me out for a nice hotpot meal. The meal was incredible, and really long. We got to talking about movies and they asked me my favorite. I explained all about The Motorcycle Diaries and how it was a true story and a great travel movie. Then they asked whatever happened to this “Che” person after his motorcycle journey. What happened indeed. I started to explain the trip to Mexico and Fidel and dropped the “C” word (it rhymes with blomunism) and then I saw both their heads drop down. Right, no politics, ok.
“Well he went to Bolivia and the CIA shot him.”
“Ohhhhh! America always tries to be hero” Um, I thought we weren’t talking politics. But then they even let me take a shower in their epic hotel room (best shower pressure of the trip so far) and sent me on my way.
Dali. You’re great so far.