41. Closer to the Heaven. Kunming-Lijiang-Shangri-La

I don’t really know when my fascination with China started… Maybe it’s about its long turbulent history that was stuck in my head after hours of history classes or maybe it’s about its odd, distant culture? Well, I think the reason of coming here was mainly to see one of the oldest civilisations and probably the biggest commercial hub on Earth. While crossing the Lao-China border I felt exactly the same way like I felt when I entered India. I couldn’t believe. “Am I really here?”. Oblique eyes of local people and clean, communist streets reassured me that yes, I was in China.

That border wasn’t the most popular so two foreigners looking for exchange was a real treat. And that’s how we, experienced travellers, got ripped off on the street by a bunch of guys because of our unability to distinguish yuans from Wu yuans. We tried to find them but the smart asses were long gone. The day turned out well, though, as hitchhiking to Kunming was incredibly easy. That day we did almost 700 km and although we didn’t reach the city our lovely truck driver brought us to Yuxi where his younger friend took us for our first, Chinese dinner. He clearly didn’t get we were poor backpackers, though, as after we suggested paying half-half he totally lost interest in us and left to another hotel. I guess he imagined the Westerners a little differently… The next day we finally met our host after almost 3 months of a couchsurfing break. After about 3 minutes I knew it wasn’t the best idea. He was great, don’t get me wrong. Well, maybe great is too strong word. He was all right. It was a Serbian guy teaching English in one of the schools, very knowledgeable and very… lonely. Cuz how else can you call a person who right after opening his eyes takes a comfortable sitting position in front of you and talk. For hours. It was interesting stuff (most of the time…) but after 3 hours of someone constantly staring at you, you need a bit of privacy. Few times we managed to escape and that’s when we could take time to plan our journey, get a Chinese number and buy a train ticket to Lijiang which was our next destination.

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People’s Park performers

The city looked completely different than the Asian ones I’ve seen before. It was like a Chinese version of US: vast roads, concrete jungle, clean alleys and parks full of jogging people. In Green Lake park we stumbled upon The Labour Day celebration that gathered many musicians, local performers and crowds of locals, dancing on every square of the park. Kunming is not the most touristy place in the world so we were constantly in the centre of attention, however neither us (poor Chinese), neither the locals (poor English) could initiate any kind of conversation. Although I was pretty scared of Chinese food before our arrival, I can say the food wasn’t actually too bad. We tried some delicious local dishes with Vasilije and we would end our stay in Kunming nicely if not my scatterbrained that made me loose my ATM card. Getting a new one was a way too much hassle so I just blocked it and decided to get a new one in September. Until then I’m gonna exploit Callum.

Initially we planned to go directly to Chengdu until one of the couchsurfers told us about Lijiang. Hmm… Himalayas again? Why not. There was no way we could get to Tibet without a tour so that was the only place where we could see a bit of Tibetan culture. After 8 hours of being canned in a train cell we got to Lijang and found a hotel in the old town. The room looked like a palace so we decided to go crazy and stay there for 2 days. The city was beautiful. The traditional architecture of the old town was filling the air with pure history but the hords of tourists occupying every square made this place a one big souvenir shop. From that day I started to hate China for it. For the commerce. For hundreds of shops, restaurants selling overpriced food and the tourists- sheep following their guide, without even thinking of breaking any rule or the beaten track.

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Old town of Lijiang
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A bit of luxury 😀

We heard about the famous Chinese entrance fees and it wasn’t a joke. China charges you for everything, a temple, a square or a city park. And it’s not a reasonable price. Fortunately Chinese are not the most creative nation so finding an alternative entrance is not that difficult and that became our main strategy. We started from Dragon Pool park, which was basically a city park with a lake, occasionally overlooking Snow Mountain. Nothing special but the tribute must be paid. We found a path from the other side of the lake and no one even noticed. We totally forgot our hotel was in the old town that we also had to pay for. After 2 hours of checking every street and each time finding a guard, we gave up and just walked past one of them. No one said a word. We had to be very lucky or look very confident.

Going to the Snow Mountain was out of question, ticket and the cable car cost a fortune and the weather wasn’t good either. We chose the Blue Moon Valley where we got by bus and, that time, there was no way of avoiding the fee. Blue Moon valley was truly blue with a nice tone of red jackets donated to Chinese tourists by tour operators. We were the only backpackers there. We met one international couple- a Chinese girl and her boyfriend from Netherlands who was probably even bigger workoholic than her. We would talk to them longer but they had a “schedule”. With our lifestyle I almost forgot what it means… As I said Chinese people are always in groups so it’s actually pretty easy to find a sweet spot if you only make 10 steps off the tour map. We walked up a dry river where we could cherish a bit of privacy without selfies and a sound of unknown language. Mountains, pure nature… until I climbed up one of the rocks dividing the pools and found a strange construction in it. After noticing I was sitting on a concrete rocks I realised that the terraces were artificial as well. Where the hell was I?! I was in China… The Blue moon valley besides having fake stones was also a place for “just married” having romantic wedding sessions by the waterfalls . Trying to escape this madness we spent most of the afternoon chilling by the lake and enjoying a piece of our “artificial heaven”.

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Blue Moon Valley
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Wedding sessions

I heard some stories about daredevils who snuck into Tibet but considering the possibility of jail or deportation we decided to discontinue at Shangrila, the place called a “Himalayan utopia”. Hitching from Lijiang to Quiatou was literally a piece of cake. Chinese maybe don’t speak English but they are incredibly generous. As you can imagine, we couldn’t properly explain that we got a ride for fun so the only way was to show the empty wallet. That worked well, sometimes too well. The drivers often stuffed us with food, litres of water or even money. Well, we couldn’t complain. In Quiatou we were about to start our 2 days trek, called Tiger Leaping Gorge. After buying all the necessary edibles and watching a ridiculous Japanese film in a local family restaurant we waited until dawn ready to sneak in. Callum found a parallel path so before we knew we reached the trail, showing a middle finger to the night guard. That night we finally camped in our coffin looking tent and it was one of the most comfortable nights I’ve ever had. The trek wasn’t easy but the views from the top of the gorge were absolutely rewarding. Climbing up led us through the pine forest and famous 28 bends where we found company of a Chinese sportsman who would happily talk to us in Chinese for the rest of the day if we didn’t pretend we were tired. Warned about “additional charges” on the trail we weren’t surprised when a cute little grandma asked us for money for taking a picture on the viewpoint. She wasn’t the happiest when we found another spot and started to imitate her with other hikers. Nothing for free in China.

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I missed sleeping in the tent…
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Tiger Leaping Gorge
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It’s good to have company!

Since the day I found out my grandma’s cancer everything changed for me. China, one of my biggest dreams, stopped being so exciting and nothing really made sense to me. Why am I doing this? Shouldn’t I be at home with the people I love instead? I couldn’t forgive myself I wasn’t with her. But on the other hand I was coming to Poland in September and wouldn’t be able to help much if I was there anyway. So we had to wait for the operation of removing her stomach and hope for the best. When you travel and meet the people who come and go you really start appreciating the ones you know for years, your family, friends etc. I started to realise how much I miss my life. “What is life?”, you’d ask. “ Life’s now.”, I’d normally say. Because that’s the point, enjoying every moment, yes? Well, I think at some point I stopped enjoying travelling. I started to miss stability, going to work, going out with my friends, all these trivial things that I wanted to escape from. Or maybe I just lost the purpose? For 8 months in England I had only one goal- travel. And now it’s actually happening. And what? Does it lead anywhere? Does it make any sense? I learnt so much during this journey: about myself, the world, the people. I wouldn’t replace it for anything else. And I’m still trying to learn from this experience, at least until I get to Australia. Cuz I don’t see myself coming back to Poland anyway. What for? Working for years in order to save nothing? I’m homeless. And maybe that’s what’s bothering me the most. I don’t know if I can call it depression or temporary being lost in the track but I’m doing my best for it to pass, looking for something to do, looking for the purpose. And I hope I will get it back soon.

My grandma’s operation was in few days time so I decided to cheer her up and let her know I thought of her. I found cardboards on the trail and took them to the very top where I wrote a funny rhyme for her. Our Chinese friend took a picture, I sent it. It worked, she didn’t give up. The rest of the trek we spent in a company of a Singaporian girl and her Irish boyfriend. A typical Asian style couple- an older man and his 26 years old beauty. They were lovely together, though. The trek took longer than we thought. We didn’t want to stay in the middle of nowhere so we kept going to Walnut Garden. We walked right on the edge of the gorge, about 1000 m above the river. Although it was surely one of the most beautiful treks I’ve even done, it totally killed me so soon after the dinner everyone went to sleep. The next day John and Jovita were on their way back home while we decided to keep going north. The road was empty and I don’t know how the hell we managed to find a transportation. It was a tour bus full of Chinese that didn’t mind additional passengers, I suppose it was fun for them anyway. They took us for free and fed us all the way to Baishutai where they stopped to see the waterfalls. No one picked us up that time so we kept going with them. Once we got to Shangri-la we felt the altitude. It was freezing cold and the town looked different as well. It was Tibet, although not in Tibet.

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Proper motivation!
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Happy bus 😀

But, unfortunately “Tibet” was bloody expensive. Our hotel room (Y60) was probably the cheapest we could find in the whole city. The old town, destroyed by the fire in 2014 surprisingly didn’t charge for the entrance but you had to repay in a different way. The  food was probably even more expensive than in EU, cuz I wouldn’t consider a soup for Y300 (£30), cheap. Tibetan this, Tibetan that, the shops full of souvenirs… China can make the cutest town a commercial crap. The Golden Temple with its mystical paintings had a nice, peaceful atmosphere which reminded me of Nepalese Himalayas again. There was even a yak, brought to the main square to be a lure for the tourists. Poor creature. Songzalin monastery supposed to be the most important after the one in Lhasa. The entry was overpriced like always so we had to use our sneaking skills once again. It wasn’t easy though. We had to climb few hills, pass the forest and the lake in order to enter the gate. No one asked for the ticket, the guy was busy checking his phone. The monastery was absolutely unique, I’ve never seen something like this before: huge complex with its small alleys and Tibetan houses looked like a peaceful village. It was already the evening and we were the only people in the monastery, including few monks living there. The views from the top were amazing and they were only for us. It was one of these moments when I felt completely free. And believe me, in China it’s quite difficult. A succesful day needed a glass of local wine. We only forgot that whatever’s cheap in China it’s not really worth buying. So was the wine and so was our dinner that contained more bones than the meat. Well, you can’t have everything.

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Beautiful Shangri-La
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Local Tibetan people
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Songzanlin monastery
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Traditional baby outfit

We spent one relaxing day in our comfy room so I could speak to my grandma before she was taken to the hospital. We planned to go to the famous Potatso National Park but there was a standard problem- the entrance. After climbing a bushy hill we chose the river as our strategic point. If we walked along it and cross under the bridge we would get to the main road and avoid the toll. We couldn’t avoid crossing the river, though. The water was freezing cold but that was the only way. Finally we reached the road dancing a wild dance of triumph. But someone saw us. We didn’t even walk 2 km before the guards spotted us and took us back with their car. We said we had no money, didn’t help. Well, not this time, dear.

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Masters of sneaking in

Karma always comes back. Right after we were ostentatiously kicked out from the national park, the first car stopped for us and took directly to Shangrila, where gifted with water and sweet buns we said goodbye to our lovely hotel boy (very excited about our presence) and left to Lijiang. From there the long hitchhiking through the mountains waited for us. Getting to the outskirts of the city was a pain in the ass- it took more than 2 hours, 4 buses and 3 km walk. Once we got to a small village on the edge of the city, we found a hotel and decided to start hitching the next day. It was a stressful day and I was quite said leaving the mountains again. That was probably the closest to Tibet we could get as I don’t think China will open the border soon. Too much risk. People could accidentally discover the truth or break some rules. Well, maybe one day. Concerning the recent change in 1 child policy in China (now 2 kids are allowed), there’s still hope.

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