Answers on a Postcard

by Ant Stone on September 14, 2007

in China

The red-faced King of the South paced nervously around his ageing palace, closely followed by a fidgeting guard. If either dared peer out through the ornate wooden shutters and across the blood-tainted river, they would of been overcome with terror. Advancing towards them at a frightful pace were a pair of canons in search of a mount, two intense looking horsemen, a shuffling pair of holy men and a pentad of pesky pawns. Just visible on the misty horizon, stood the palace of his ageing adversary. Within the stone sanctum paced his royal rival, robed immaculately in hereditary velvets of black. I took a gulp of Tsingtao, ‘your move, loser‘. The ‘Concubine of Chess’ and my current archenemy, ignored my tactical taunts and swiftly took aim with her Chinese Chess piece. She followed with a fearless sequence of freshman moves, intent on seducing my King into an knee-trembling demise. Concubines throughout history would have been outrageously envious of Reb’s panache as a short time later an eerie silence descended, and it was over. I gulped the last of the Tsingtao and shot a blurry gaze towards the two dispirited Kings, stubbornly perched upon my fantasy’s thrones in a now barren, death-swept kingdom. ‘Draw?’, I proposed. We agreed, but next time I won’t let her off so easy.

If it wasn’t Chinese Chess keeping us occupied on the drizzly nights in Dali, it was a favorite drinking game of Reb’s friend, Mark called 3man. Played out with a pair of dice, and led by the ever-present Tsingtao beer it soon led me to believe I was rolling thirteen’s which in turn led me to vomiting regretfully into the porcelain squat toilet, before spinning into a slumber on the sofa with the pub dog. Or perhaps on the pub dog with the sofa – my memory fails me. Dali was actually the original destination upon meeting ‘The Concubine’ in Kunming three weeks previous. It was only an illness that afforded me too much time with the guidebook and forged us a memorable, ever-evolving path southward through the rice terraces and tropical forests of China’s Yunnan province. Though we soon discovered that a visit to any bus station within a million miles of Dali or it’s big brother, Lijiang (4 hours away) would trigger the chorus of ‘Lijiang, Lijiang? Dali, Dali? Lijiang? Dali?’ from a choir of taxi drivers at the entrance. Hoping the futile response of, ‘no mate, I want to go to Skegness’ – an infamous British seaside resort – would baffle them long enough to aid an escape, was batted back with a witting smile, ‘no problem, lets go!’. Thankfully I was spared Skeggy, but to some extent this pair of tour group magnets still takes on the traditional holiday-camp ethos.

Their pristine, to-good-to-be-true 5-granite walkways are lined with familiar strips of tacky, and repetitive souvenir shops. The redcoats are replaced with replica Bai and Naxi minority women while prices are hiked up, ensuring even the most clueless of entrepreneurs can make a quick yuan from the murmuring streams of flag-followers. If you squint your eyes, this pair of picture postcards evokes an atmosphere relative to a thriving film set. The cry of ‘lights, cameras… action!’ sparks angelic shop keepers into pirouettes with ribbons of Chinese silk, jewelers clink hammers and clank anvils, while an elderly lady shuffles by, her shoulders laden with a dumbell of baskets. Rain falls consistently with a plop! over the entwining streams, giving signal for a hundred multi-coloured umbrellas to blossom simultaneously. As the director gives instruction to dim the lights, red lanterns brush glorious reflections upon the glistening streets. For a fleeting moment, the whole production halts, as the cast pauses to admire their creation while poking clumsily at pink pomegranates.

This isn’t a negative view, in fact it’s a welcome break to be understood from time to time. If I need to take a breath I ‘simply’ battle my way through the swarm, slide my inappropriate flip-flops off the slick granites into a side street, or outlying village. There, I marvel once again at the fresh air of the real world. It’s ironic that Dali and Lijiang model themselves on time-gone-by, they are furthest away from any of the mystical China I have seen in the past two months. The modern, neon cities. The crumbling, unruly towns. The withdrawn, hard-wearing villages. The twain are purely a coach-park, but with blinding views. The only apparent difference in culture, is Dali’s amusingly persistent theme tune; ‘you smoker the ganja?’ from unsuspecting Bai ladies. As for Lijiang, 11 years ago it was floored by an earthquake. It’s been largely rebuilt since – in traditional ‘build it, and they will come’ style. And boy, have they. Though not to be labeled a hypocrite, so have I. It’s all about location location location for these slightly up market, slightly arrogant, slightly loveable siblings.

Dali; sandwiched between Erhai Hu (a massive 250sq/km lake) and Cangshan (19 peaks spanning 30 miles in length and 12 miles in width) is a living, breathing kodak-moment. It nestles into an amazing setting, and one we explored with unfaltering excitement. Our jaunt to Erhai quickly found us aboard a horse and carriage – I hasten to add, I detest this mode of transport – galloping at pace through the narrow lanes of a local village before finally alighting at the shore. We tentatively boarded a boat and from here we spent a couple of hours floating around in awe of our surroundings (with a load of birds, wearing little more than a piece of string). We were fishing, Chinese style. A flock of cormorants – whose necks had been obstructed with 10 inches of dry grass – lined the edges of the boat. At the captain’s command, they dived. At the captain’s command, they choked up a silver fish. At the captain’s command, they dived again. At one point I found my arms outstretched while a pair of batwing feet tried to balance black-feathered slaves on my forearm. I still bear the scars.

Another day in Dali found me reliving my teens aboard an electric moped, tearing up the smooth, dual-purpose concrete lanes (they’re used to dry out the village crops of rice, corn, hay etc) at an eye-watering 50km/h. Cries of ‘ni hao’ (hello) were the reward from stunned locals. Seeing ‘foreign devils’ on foot was rare enough, but seeing them whiz by on two-wheels was stunning, they loved it. We kissed the shores of Erhai for mind-blowing panorama, then a sudden moment found us pulled over to observe a funeral parade pass us by on a remote, pothole-speckled country lane. Smiles. Fire crackers. Confetti. Flag waving. ‘Ni hao’. A far cry from the somber, black clad events I’ve attended with regret at home. Another striking difference was the adoption of white, as their colour to mourn. We whizzed around some more until my steed drained itself of power, and bunny-jumped me up a hill. My easy rider ways were born again, set to ride another day.

We capped our time in Dali off with a chairlift ride up Cangshan, so high I claimed ‘altitude sickness!’ was setting (though the increased nicotine intake, more likely a culprit). In a temple stuck to the side I suggested a monk ‘do one’ when he insisted, and insisted, and insisted I pay 100 yuan for a rubber ink stamp in his book. If I were to give 100 yuan to anyone in China it wouldn’t be to this affluent monastery, nor any insistant religious icon. I escaped his money-grabbing clutches and followed Reb 11km along a breathtaking ‘cloud pass’ taking in steep valleys splattered with immense, gravity-defying boulders. It’s sides were drenched in deep shades of green, as though a thick woolen jumper had been cast aside in the humidity, while waterfalls cried with admiration into the streams and rivers snaking below. At no point along this walk did I tire of the vista, if there was one reason to enter Dali World, this was it. We left the next day, for Lijiang where I write from now.

Lijiang takes charm to a whole new level. It makes your heart beat faster at every turn, though that could also be attributed to it’s altitude of 3km. It’s at night time that Lijiang comes alive, in much the same way as Dali did. It glows. The difference between the blueprints; Dali’s streets are mostly straight, making navigation a simple affair whereas Lijiang’s pathways curve, dip and dive around waterwheels, wishing wells and streams. The wanderer is consistently denied their way. Combining the map with Chinese opera flowing out of identical outlets hawking cloth bags, bracelets, leather wallets and art creates a labyrinth so tight that even the most able of compasses would struggle to navigate. We made a beeline for Black Dragon Pool for it’s stunning views, though beneath our umbrellas we were denied this promise. We trekked up Elephant Hill to view a lightning storm, but the view offered little more than an eyeful of the new town. Grey concrete cubes lined by stripes of grey tarmac beneath plumes of dripping grey clouds. It struck me that future visitors to Lijiang should stick to the streets and cafes of the old town, while those to Dali should head away from the theme, to the hills. Lijiang’s cafes have that home-from-home attitude, offering refuge from the rain and cold. In Petit Lijiang Bookcafe we devoured spring rolls, in Lamu’s House of Tibet we sinned on homemade apple pie and hot chocolate, in a nameless lounge bar we mastered Chinese Chess while in Cherry Lane cafe we warmed ourselves with soup while watching Amelie upon thrones of oversized pillows.

It’s fair to say, Yunnan has me in check and the only way out is to gather up all my pieces and leave before it’s too late. But I’m not leaving China just yet. Tomorrow, I head for a panda-ridden Sichuan province, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be purely black and white.


Site News: I still can’t update photos due to China’s annoying policy to block the website I use to do so (Flickr). Hopefully when I get to Nepal I’ll flood you with images that will paint a thousand words, instead of me actually writing a thousand words! Also if you’re interested in my route thus far, check out my updated map.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Reb September 14, 2007 at 4:46 pm

Fantastically written, might have to steal some of it for my blogs..he he he! I just hope if this ever gets turned into a book i get a dedication!

One last thing before i rabbit on…..dont get grumpy when i thrash you at chess!


Steph September 17, 2007 at 12:42 pm

Hi Ant,

Yippee you’re still alive, great writing (not quite as good as some of your ebay stories though!)and website. George is really missing you (can he come and accompany you in China – or do they eat dogs?)


Ant September 18, 2007 at 5:58 am

For the record, Reb did win that game of chess… as she claims I “commited suicide” by accidently moving my King into check. We’re now not talking!

Hi Steph! I miss George too, but you’re right, they eat a LOT of dog out here, and chicken feet, cows intestine and stomach etc. It’s still better than ‘twitch’ serevs up in that canteen of yours though, and a damn sited cheaper! x x

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