Lijiang and the surrounding mountainous region is home to Naxi people and is renowned for its beautiful towns, stunning landscape and laid back vibe. Towns like Dali had been back packer hangouts for years. Unfortunately, even at out leisurely pace, we couldn’t find time for all that was on offer so we chose to do the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.
The trek started in confusion as no one really knew where the start was. The construction of a massive new rail bridge over the gorge had turned the original start point into a construction site and the alternative start lacked any form of signage.
The original plan was to head north from tiger leaping gorge to Shangri-La before west into Tibet then further to Kashgar on Chinas far west border. Unfortunately travel restrictions and permit requirements made this idea less feasible and much less appealing. Tibet and Kashgar would have to wait, the new plan was to head south east to the Li River then turn north through Chengdu and Xi’an before finally west. Tibets loss is Xing Ping’s gain.
We wandered up the road in the direction the conductor had pointed. At first there were no real signs of a border but as we turned the corner the impressive border edifice came into view, its funny how countries try to impress their neighbors with the size of their borders, it must be a boy thing! We entered the Vietnamese building through the door marked ‘entrance’...only to be told you have to enter through the exit, this was a border crossing not just a building. We exited Vietnam onto no-mans bridge, which was bustling with modified push bikes trolleying goods back and forth.
Contrary to our concerns regarding immigration’s knowledge of APEC cards, we were escorted to the front of the queue and, apart from a brief question about why I went to Egypt, breezed into China, Hekou, Yunnan to be specific.
Unfortunately as it paned out immigration are the only people in China who have seen an APEC card, which is a pain as you have to present your passport and visa for almost everything except going to the loo!
Comfortable in our more ‘age appropriate’ accommodation, we headed to the train station to book a ticket toward civilisation. Unfortunately despite Hekou’s small size it appeared that rest of the population was also trying to get out, we couldn’t get seats for two days and those were ‘hard seats’, we booked them anyway.
Discovering we had an extra day in Hekou we bing’d ‘sites and attractions near by’ - fortunately there were many very close. Unfortunately they were all the other side of the border. Ok lets look at food options, fortunately there were many..... the other side of the border.
Not to be put off we went exploring, found a really nice local market and a dumpling shop where the portions were twice the size of the promotional photos.
After dinner we joined most of Hekou’s remaining population for a stroll along the riverside promenade, the rest were dancing in the town square. It was a beautiful evening and the promenade was alive with families and groups just enjoying the evening, it’s scenes like these, repeated on promenades around the world, that proves that our similarities far out way our differences. Hekou was growing on us...but
A day later we headed to the station and caught the train to Kunming.
We both took an instant liking to Kunming as we strolled into the old town the next morning. The air was clean, the skies were blue, and lack of humidity reminded us of Perth on a beautiful spring day.
Our first mission was to cash travellers cheques (yes, old school and left over from travels several years ago) yes no problem sir if you have something to put the money into....yes I have a wallet....no something electronic. (We soon found out everything in China is done electronically).??? But I don’t have a Chinese bank account, I’m only visiting,... no problem sir, would you like us to open one for you?... What the!..how!..Ok then.
30 mins later I had a Chinese bank account and a shinny new debit card that I could use for WeChat pay, awesome. Unfortunately they were not able to cash the cheques as they were in Euros not USD. Kunming, being a small provincial city (7million plus people), hadn’t seen Euros for many years and their systems had been cancelled!
Shilin or ‘the stone forest’ is one of the must see attractions in Kunming and one that I was keen to see since learning of it on Discovery Channel. The next morning headed out on a tour arranged through the hostel (not our usual method, but it seemed the best option in this case).
On our last day on Kunming we took ourselves (no flag wielding guide required) to Xi Shan Forest Park, a vast 40 km long, hilly, natural park that runs along the side of Dian Lake. The northern end overlooks the city and famous for its spring flowers and dragon gate. The walk down from the top ticket booth is quite beautiful, with very few people, we had the path to ourselves up to the Lingxu pavilion viewing point, from where you are treated to panoramic views of Kunming and the lake (300sqkm) both vastly larger than they feel at ground level.
The owner was so excited he comp’d us another dish so he could be photographed with us enjoying his food.
Next stop Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge.
We arrived in Sapa 2.5 hours later and boy what a contrast! We were bombarded with ladies trying to sell us their handicrafts or take us trekking. Men wanting us to take a taxi. It was full on! We walked towards our hotel gawking in horror at the massive new hotels (Pete almost vomited at the hideousness of the architecture) we were quite disappointed in the place. After a short walk headed down some stairs and came across a completely different area… grungy, dirtier, hip and cool at the same time. We were in “old Sapa” and thankfully that was where we were staying.
We were very keen on doing a 3 day trek and while we had read that it was easy to do yourself we had also heard of a company called Sapa Sisters that is owned and operated by the female Hmong guides themselves. The company was set up about 14 years ago by 2 sisters and the cousin with the help of a Swedish lady with the objective of cutting out middle men and privately owned operators to create better opportunities and empowering hill tribe women, it now has 27 guides plus employ extras during peak periods.
The plan was to trek down the valley staying the first night in the house of local family then trekking further down the valley to a home stay, day three would be a short walk before being bussed back up the hill to Sapa.
The night before the trek, there were massive thunderstorm and the rain continued the next day, a great way to start a 3 day trek in the mountains. Our guide, ‘Pen’, all of about 4 foot nothing, greeted us at the shop and after the obligatory paperwork we headed off. She offered us the opportunity to spend night one at her own home with her family and have dinner with them. She said it was just up the hill so we eagerly accepted.
I was sliding everywhere and as most of my friends know my wonderful sense of balance, I had a hard time keeping my feet!!! My butt was soon covered in as much mud as my boots! Our guide had to hold my hand on numerous occasions to help me down the steeper sections (after talking to others who we came across over the few days I was not alone!!). There was one point when pete was taking a photo, I had my arm extended in the air, holding up an umbrella to cover the camera, standing in this muddy rice paddy, and the thunder was sounding… I did have a brief moment questioning what the hell was I doing here.
After what seemed hours we eventually left the muddy fields and joined a pathway. It was quite a relief. We came across a few others with their guides, they were wet but clean!!! They opted for the ‘easy option’…. Boring farts!
The smooth concrete path finished at a rocky goat track cum water course, which we continued up. There were intermittent mud holes and water crossings amongst the rocks, and then it got seriously steep, with even bigger rocks. My muscles had taken a beating slipping and sliding about all day and now to be greeted by this, huge rocks I had to drag my self up and over, my body was soooo over it! I kept seeing these houses appear and wishfully thinking was this it? Are we there yet? Pen would say, shall we take 5 mins rest?...OK not even close, bugger.
(Note from Pete- As Bea dragged herself up this hell, up ahead Pen was walking up the path knitting and chatting on the phone!!!) Thankfully it had stopped raining that afternoon, so we could stop to admire the sensational views. Admittedly they got better as we were getting higher!
When we eventually arrived the buffalo was already in his house for the night, pigs were in their pen, the free range chickens & ducks had been fed, the obligatory dog and cats were chilling on the verandah and I needed a beer more than I ever needed one before!!!
Argh bollocks.. nearest shop was back down the hill where we had lunch, Pen suggested Pete could pop down and buy a couple, Pete suggested Pen could… well.. you can figure that out!
Note to self buy beer before climbing mountains!
Pen boiled the kettle on the open fire in their kitchen and poured a lovely bowl of warm water for us to wash our muddied face and legs, much better.
Pen and her husband lit the fire and started cooking dinner and while pete helped pen with preparing the herbs from the garden, I sat on a little stool enjoying the fire. We and the family sat down to dinner in room and what a feast was simple home cooking at its best, tofu with a tomato ragout, chicken stir fried with cabbage, morning glory, spring rolls along with the fresh herbs and salad leaves pete helped prepare earlier, and heaps of rice.
Our bed was in the same room as the rest of the family, a large room with several double beds separated with a light curtain. I'm sure the bed was a slab of wood with a yoga mat to sleep on!!! It was a tough sleep, didn't help that the roosters felt that 3am was sunrise!!! We heard the kids leave for their 1.5hr trek for school at 6:30am Before rising to another feast for breakfast. Steamed rice, omelette, cooked greens and fried preserved pork (fat)
A short walk the next morning, then a mini van back to Sapa ended our trek. I was grateful of a short day. We had a great trip, some great testing walks, incredible scenery but a hot shower and soft bed I was ready for!
Other than the descent from pens house, the level of difficulty of day to was pretty low, That was until Pete elected to take the short cut to he homestay, a short testing section at the end just to make you feel you had really trekked! While the homestay had hostel style dorm rooms it did have hot showers and BEER. There were a few groups staying the night here including a lovely group from Halifax, Nova Scotia . Hopefully one day we will get there to say hi again.
During the trek you meet other trekkers, walk and chat a little then go off in your own direction. On one occasion nice couple from Australia.. he was from from falls creek. We said “oh we know the CEO of falls creek!” The guy said “oh I'll tell Stuart you said hi!” …. Small world when you are travelling
After a month on the road, staying in cheap hotels or hostels and a 3 day muddy trek, we waved the “luxury” card for the second time and booked into a the Aira boutique hotel for the night.
The hot shower never felt so good! We went out and bought some gin, some tonics and some snacks and came back to sit on our balcony and look at the wonderful views of the white out where the majestic fansipan mountain should have been. Fortunately the internet was working, so we could watch the footy, unfortunately for the Demons there structures weren't and they went down to Essendon.
The restaurant hotel had been received several good reviews so we thought we might try another attempt at my ‘birthday dinner’ The reviews were right, what a lovely restaurant. Great food.
After a good night sleep in a soft bed, and finally in bright sunshine we walked up to the Catholic Church and caught the 9.00 am bus back to Lau Cai. As we crossed the bridge and turned into Lau Cai the bus stopped and the conductor pointed animatedly up the road behind us yelling China China…. So we hopped off grabbed our packs and headed in that direction.
After our Ninh Binh detour we were back on track, heading to the north Vietnam highlands by overnight train.
We arrived in Lao Cai, the boarder town with china, in the early hours of the 28th. Lao Cai is the stepping off point for Sapa and Bac Ha, both well known for their stunning terraced rice paddies and weekend markets where the diverse hill tribes, H’mong, Phu La, Black Dao, Tay and Nung dressed in elaborate ethnic costumes, meet, shop or sell wares. Most tourists head straight to Sapa and take a 2 hour bus trip to the weekend markets of Can Cau (Saturday) and/or Bac Ha (Sunday). We decided to head straight to Bac Ha itself and get the drop on the tourists. (Still can't understand why people do it from Sapa!!!)
We spent the rest of the day walking around and sussing out the town.
Bac Ha itself, is a quiet, sleepy town, small and little in the way of ‘attractions’. We did the few sites that were there and spent the rest of the day exploring the back streets enjoying watching daily life. It actually is a lovely place. We stopped for lunch at a little local shop house for a big bowl of pho (Vietnamese noodle soup with either beef, pork or chicken). Pho is ubiquitous with Vietnam with each region having their own take on it.
Although the home stay offered home cooked meals with the family, being my birthday, we opted to try our luck in town. Oh boy… this is where we found out how quiet it really is… and how touristy it isn’t. There was hardly a sole around. Not many places to eat and we didn’t want another bowl of pho, or fried rice. We found a place where the customers were jovial and calling us to come in. We could see pictures on the wall and we were confident we could communicate enough to order. There was always google translate or just point at what the other diners were eating. We sat and waited and waited until our patience was running low, we tried to get attention but everyone, accept the other customers, were ignoring us. I eventually cornered a lady and she waived me away. She didn't want to deal with us at all. We tried again but they weren't interested. Annoyed we just left. We walked around and everything was closed. One hotel tried to get us in but he was too pretentious and rude. We tried another place where the kitchen out the front was stir frying something that smelled delicious. Again we tried to get someone and they said “No! no cooking”. They just didn't want to deal with us. Patience had run out and hunger had set in and we were over it - some birthday!! ;-) Pete was so annoyed, so decided to go back to the first place and use Google translate to tell them they weren't being fair (he actually asked if they were racist). After a few more phone translations and the staff being scolded by the customers, they apologised and quickly and easily took our order!!! The food actually was quite good! The locals having dinner insisted we sit with them for a few “happy waters” (corn based moonshine!!!) to apologise for the staff behaviour, ended up being a pretty fun evening.
Another couple, with guides, had arrived during the afternoon and joined us at the family dinner table happily enjoying Mr Trungs cooking and drinking home brewed corn spirit that he infused with mushrooms and honey, very drinkable!!!
The taxi picked us up at 6:30am the next morning for the 30 minute drive to Can Cau and its market. Like most markets in Asia it's best to get there early but here it's even more important so you can avoid the tourists coming up from Sapa who arrive around 9am.
Needing breakfast we decided to sit down at a place where they were cooking curd and greens in an enormous wok over an open fire, we found out it was a local tofu and herbs. It was served with a very spicy dipping sauce, greens and rice and was delicious. The locals loved the fact we sat down to have some. Obviously most tourists just wander past looking at the food, taking photos…. But too scared to try!! That's not us! ;-)
By 9.30 the market felt flooded with tourists and cameras (yes… we are tourists.. and yes we have cameras… but we are different!, just ask us) so it was time to head back.
We casually checked out of Huy Trung Homestay over a lovely cup of Vietnamese coffee (Pete loves this stuff) then moved to the Congfu hotel in the town centre. Boy what a come down, and this we found out later was one of the better hotels of the town too!!!
We also discovered that the town was suddenly full of white people that weren't there before, they had arrived by the bus load and had filled the previously empty hotels and streets. By Sunday night they would be gone and the town would revert to its sleepy self
We were picked up by a local bus to Sapa, the next morning. The girl at our hotel organised for us to sit in the front seat, driver took a fancy to Pete and kept putting his hand on his knee. I thought it was funny, Peter thought about his sexuality....