The Friendship Bridge from Vietnam looking across at China

Yunnan Overland: Yuanyang and Jianshui

At the border we came to the notorious Friendship bringe crossing between Lao Cai and Hekou. At first the Vietnamese were going to seize us because they thought I didn't have a visa (they didn't look carefully enough) then the Chinese were perplexed and intrigued by our new passports which didn't agree with their outdated web images that they spent ages staring at and through the pages and looked like they might think Christine's was from Mars, but eventually let us in. There was only a trickle of foot traffic and no tourists.


Hekou and the markets

We stayed the night in Hekou the border town at the Min Mao Hotel for 60 yuan. No wi fi but a USB cable that could get some sites (no https) and air con. It's one block to the right after you walk down the block from the border terminal. There were no tourists in Hekou and no one speaks English. We had a good meal of eggs and tomatoes and lightly fried potatoes at a streetside restaurant on the main street by the market running out to the bus station one block to the left of the terminal. You can also get fruit and other foods in the market. We then took a small green bus out to the bus station and managed to get tickets for Xinjie just as the bus station closed but then couldn't get a bus running back because they had stopped, so had to take a taxi for 10 yuan. Next morning we had to take a taxi again with a bunch of others after the green bus for the bus station again failed to arrive, although we could see others moving around the city centre in the distance.


The road to Nansha followed the river valley

Next morning we caught a bus full of locals with big sacks on a grueling 7 hour drive in extreme heat along the red river, finally at Nansha winding up, up and up a precipitous mountain road into the clouds to Xinjie a slightly seedy Chinese town overlooking the Yuanyang rice terraces. Before we could get out of the bus, a young woman Belinda (caihuimei2006@163.com) climbed into the bus and persuaded us to go to her funky little hotel, Ying Youlian Guesthouse, for 60 yuan a night, after the driver offered to drive us up there for her. This was very fortunate because (a) she is the only person we have met who can speak English, (b) because she then persuaded us to go on a viewing tour within an hour flat with an Italian couple which was good luck because the weather was clear and the next two days it was wet and misty and (c) because she has a lovely new little Belinda Backpackers Guesthouse at Duoyishi.


The view from our hotel window in Xinjie the main town center.

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The view off the railing in the Xinjie town square towards the other towns far below.

Having nearly fainted from lack of food, we stuffed ourselves with eggs, rice and tomatoes and set off in the sunshine for a $15 tour of the rice terraces. The views were scrumptious, although the rice had grown to high to get reflections and Christine had become nauseous from overeating slightly suspect food. This morning it was raining and foggy so we got our best chance of a good view by running shotgun yesterday.


The fabled rice terraces in early growth from the viewing point.

Yuanyang is famed for its ethnic markets which take place at staggered regular days in different places. Belinda told me there was one the next day, so today she arranged for a minibus to stop by on the way out to Huang Mia Ling down the south side of the mountain, and I set off with an very vivacious Han woman driver, a Hani woman in blue costume and a Yi woman in her national dress. The road went up out of town and then over the summit and down, down and down a tortuous twisting road very similar to the dangerous Yungas road in the Andes.


Small towns on the precipitous road down from Xinjie to Huang Mia Ling

Occasionally you could see towns far below and winding hairpins amid the clouds. Several of the passengers began to spew into red plastic bags, which were strung on a dispenser behind the driver's seat. Eventually we reached Huang Mia Ling the market town in the lowlands where there was a market day It was puring with rain and rather bedraggled, but there was a fairly rich assortment of people in Hani, Yii and Yao costume.. We have seen only two other Europeans in Xinjie. From the expressions on people's faces in the market town they had rarely seen a European at all. The return journey was equally stunning. I stopped off half way in a little town to catch the view and missed the minibus on, but managed to hail another.


A Yao group, a Yii woman at the Meat Market and a Hani woman in Huang Mia Ling

Then we went for a delicious lunch in the main square at Xiao Cheng Restaurant. There is a standard Chinese restaurant scenario where they have a cooler display with all kinds of vegies meat and stuff and you point to what you want cooked and they bring it to you in a set of dishes. This was excellent food, although Christine is feeling crampy and squitty over last nights fare. We'll stay in Yuanyang another couple of days as it is cool and riveting with heaps of different minorities all wearing their traditional dress to declare their ethnic identities and the terrain is simply stunning.


Duoyishu Plaza. Each of the Hani villages are being renovated by the Chinese into adobe tourist villages.

We are now in Duoyishu, a Hani village east of Xinjie overlooking a swathe of rice terraces facing the rising sun. We are still recovering from being sick. Last night, we worried that Christine might have appendicitis and might have to be taken out of this extremely remote location on a 10 hour bus trip to hospital, so she took a stiff does of antibiotic (ciprofloxacin renowned for hitting gut infections hard). Then we found we could get to Wikipedia and realized that gut infections don't cause appendicitis but intestinal blockages at the entrance to the appendix do. Now I have the runs and Christine is improving. We will stay another day and recuperate in a stunning setting.

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A panorama of Douyishu and the valley below.

You can see the village on the right overlooking some of the vast collection of rice terraces right below the col separating north and south faces. It is clear but you can see just above the village the clouds rolling over from the south face of the ridge. To get here, we took a local minibus arranged by Belinda the hour long ride along a rough cobbled road to Duoyishu where she has her spanking clean brand new Belinda's Backpacker Guesthouse. Her brother looks after the place. He speaks no English but has a cellphone translator so we can communicate about food and other things.

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The view down the valley from the roof of our little guest house in Douyishu overlooking the cloud-covered lower lands.

I made a trip up over the col this morning in a hideous motor tricycle after visiting a local market in a minibus to take photos and get some food. The south side is precipitous but pretty clouded in mist.


The view from Puduo over the col down the misty valley towards Mengpin. Note the village below is not adobe.

I had also made a short trip to the local market day in Shencun a Chinese town one stop back towards Xinjie.


Yii women at the market day in Shencun

We will try to make a transition to the old traditional Han town of Jianshui tomorrow. This means taking a minibus along the mountains to Xinjie. Then another unscheduled connection down and down to a town we have never heard of called Geiju, where there is a new fast road to Jianshui.

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Some of the dress styles left to right Yao, 2 Yii styes, 3 Hani styles. These are not hand embroided but are made in Chinese factories and purchased in Xinjie in niche clothing stores for the minorities.

Each people dresses in their own style with endless variations, all Chinese manufactured and sold in little clothing outlets in town. There is no textile embroidery or weaving, as in the Hmong and Dao of Sapa, so nothing to buy and no one trying to sell. All the villages we have visited are Hani, the dominant makers of the rice terraces over 1300 years. The Yii are everywhere, but to find the Yao I had to drive way down the south face on a precipitous road to a little market in the pouring rain with several of the passengers piteously spweing onto plastic bags provided by the driver. The people there looked like they had never seen a white man. In the whole time in this area we have seen only two other Western couples.

The bus ride from Duoyishi was a strange affair. A minibus to Xinjie where we were immediately accosted to take a bus to Jianshui. The driver hurtled down the mountain to Nansha (I took a few good dangerous road clips on the way). There he told us to switch to another bus to Jianshui. Then when it had climbed half way up the pass on the other side of the river the driver stopped, got out and began chatting on the cellphone in the end to about twenty people and kept looking down the road for about an hour,as if the bus had broken down and was waiting for a replacement. No one spoke any English. Finally when I started shouting at him thinking he was just making us wait forever, he jumped in again and took off again at a much faster pace and drove all the way here.


The road from Xinjie back down to Nansha has precipitous drops and hairpins.

Jianshui

We're in a charming but slightly expensive 188Y = $38 NZ a night hotel Lin'an Inn in Jianshui (pic attached). There is a slightly cheaper Guilin Inn around the corner for 160 Y. Jianshui has an old town with lots of Chinese tourists. Currently we are feeling okay and planning to try to take two train steps to Kunming today and on overnight to Kaili and Xijiang where the Miao live in a striking hill town of wooden houses.

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We have managed to make a clean transition that should carry us all the way through to the China coast. We arrived in Jianshui disheveled after a hot bus ride broken by the driver stopping for an hour and chatting on his cellphone by the road - transported in a bumpy tricycle tuk-tuk from the bus station into the old town to the Lin'an Inn, which proved to be a delightful traditional Chinese hotel in a very decorative traditional old building in the main chic shopping street in the old city quarter enclosed by ornamented gateways - if a little expensive for us.


The popular restaurant where we had good food.

In Jianshui you have to watch out for the restaurants, which try to charge extra for everything from the green tea to clean wrapped bowls and the paper tissues, as well as adding a surchege they didn't declare. We had one very unsatisfactory meal consisting of near raw potatoes and horrible bitter gourds which we couldn't eat. Eventually we settled on a very popular place further north up the road from the Lin'an.

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During check in, to our surprise we discovered Jianshui has trains going to Kunming, although neither the Lonely Planet nor the Rough Guide say anything is possible other than buses. This was a blessing for two reasons. Firstly Kunming is rather hideous to get through, with four peripheral bus stations, all a very long taxi ride from the train station, requiring a costly cross town connection. The second is that we urgently needed to make reservations on critical train sections which could strand us half way across China if they proved to be booked up.


A traditional house in one of the alleys around the old town.

You can book trains on the internet with a couple of agencies but these inflate the ticket prices, then add a US $10-$15 surcharge per ticket and use a lousy exchange rate 10% below actual rates, so a ticket for say 150 yuan will be declared at 200, an additional fee of $15 = 90 is added making 290 but it converts to say 10% more, or 319 in actual dollar terms, more than doubling the price! The combined effect unless you are taking one big ride with very few stops is to make them as expensive as flying. So it's vastly cheaper to book your tickets at any train station in China, which can book from anywhere to anywhere on their computer system, but some sections can be booked out almost as soon as they open 18 days ahead of departure, so it's Russian roulette to wait until the day of departure as we were.

So we decided to see of we could book our hard sleeper from Kunming to Kaili in Jianshui and walked to the train station listed on all the maps and found it deserted and derelict. Back at the Lin'an they said it was now right off the map out of town and we could catch a bus there for 4 yuan each or a taxi for 40 yuan. In the evening I checked on China Highlights which has a live booking schedule of all chinese trains listing how may seats and berths were left and found the trains out of Kunming were only lightly booked and we could get booking through the critical bottlenecks although some were down to a few hard sleeper berths left.

Next morning we found by a godsend that check out time at the Lin'an In was 1 pm, with a train to Kunming leaving shortly after, so we went for a walk around the old quarter and then dragged our luggage on our trolleys to the north gate of the old city and hailed a taxi for the station hopefully in time to catch the 1.17 train for Kunming but too late for the bus. This proved to be somewhat unnerving because the taxi driver, after weaving through back alleys, took off under the railroad tracks and drove miles clear out of town on a freeway, insisting everything was okay.

And it was. Far out on the other side of the valley, nowhere near Jianshui, was a gleaming new railway station and lo and behold there was a little ticket office with a girl who could speak a little English and promptly issued our tickets both to Kunming and on in the evening hard sleepers to Kaili so we didn't need to do anything in Kunming, except wait three hours for the ongoing connection.

Kunming

We duly arrived in Kunming station, which in March had a terrorist stabbing attack which killed 27 people and injured many more, and found it milling with people, as some Chinese stations often are. We had a junk food chicken and chips at a Chinese KFC lookalike, which was heaven after days of rice and bokchoi, interspersed with nauseating vegetable omelets and occasional chickens chopped up bones and all.

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Then we tried to book our other critical night sleepers across China at one of the the thirty or so Kunming booking counters at which no one spoke English, which were horrendously crowded with long queues. Because we already had our booking to Kaili in Jianshui, we were safe for the next leg, but we really needed to get the other bookings that could become road blocks half way across China while we were there and we had just half an hour left to do it. We were directed to counter 1 but had to wait ages with odd Chinese guys trying to push in front because a Pakistani guy who spoke both English and Chinese was trying to book tickets all the way across China for a group of 18 people, forking out fistfuls of yuan and trading tall stacks of passports in and out the ticket window for every purchase. Finally, after a few friendly exchanges between us, when he had finished he helped the ticket girl correctly issue the tickets we needed for the legs through central China, which I had typed out in Chinese before I left, but subsequently changed enough to make communication extremely difficult.

By this time, time had run out and we desperately ran from one end of the station to the other trying to find the security x-ray point for our ongoing train. There are two sections to the station, so the one to Kaili was through a different security entrance to the one from Jianshui. Despite the terrorist attack security seemed no more intense than anywhere else we have been. I guess lightning never strikes the same place twice!

The night sleeper, as usual was a dream. Chinese trains are superb. The hard sleepers have the softest mattresses of all our hotels in China, which always have atrociously hard beds. Tonight's for example has a flat wooden base with a thin piece of polypropylrne as a mattress! The high-class Lin'an was nearly as hard. The berths are alway super clean, everyone is friendly and there is boiling water in every carriage, so you can make yourself f a cup of tea or packet soup or make buckets of spicy noodles, which are sold for supermarket prices on the train.

The ride started insanely jerky, but by midnight had become soporific and we both slept well enough to feel alert and alive today despite having to be woken by the guard at 5:15 so they could make sure to get us off at Kaili. Chinese trains have an irritating habit of unlocking only one of the doors to let you out and you can never tell which end they are going to choose. We had to shout at the woman guard to unlock the doors at the front end to let us off after we had dragged our luggage there and she refused to let us out and tried to make us drag our luggage all the way to the back end of the carriage in the dark, and took of into an early morning Kaili already very active at 5.45 am.