This post was originally written in pencil, scribbled on some scrap paper. I decided to type it up and share it with you here in its same haphazard state.
Rushed to catch my train, taxi driver warned me to “be fast” when I got to the station. Two minutes after settling into my hard sleeper bunk, we started to roll out of the station. Phew. Texted a few friends that I was leaving for the weekend. Felt like I was secretly escaping. I’d made my getaway. Felt relieved and excited.
Train was blasting hot air (why??), but I snuggled under my covers and slept restlessly until the train attendant woke us up 45 minutes before our stop- Dali. China pet peeve: after overnight transportation, you always manage to arrive in a strange city before 6 am, no public transport running, its dark, tons of guys taunting “Hallo!” “Dali Old Town??” or anything else that they know how to say in English. They usually rip you off, and I try to avoid talking to them. I try to use the 3G on my phone to find the bus station nearby where I need to buy my next ticket. A guy points to to the right. I start walking just to get away from the train station chaos. (Tour groups are following a guide dressed in traditional clothing. She’s shouting into her head mic–already– encouraging people to cross the street safely. Ugh.) I double check the location of the bus station with a couple making baozi for the breakfast rush. Yup, bus station is only a few hundred meters down the road. Helpful woman at the bus station tells me that I have to buy my ticket at another station. As I repeat the name to myself three times, she offers to write it down so that I won’t forget it. Very nice. I manage to find a city bus to take me there, avoiding having to deal with sleazy taxi drivers that refuse to use the meter. I’m SO happy that I can speak Chinese! The bus costs 1.5 yuan and the driver instructs me which stop I should get off. How do people travel in China without speaking Chinese? I’ve already had to confirm directions and location names at least three times, and the sun isn’t even up yet. Ordering my new bus ticket goes without a hitch. I think the attendant is impressed. Usually they see a foreign face and assume that it will take three times as long and involve lots of gesturing. When I first came to China I was definitely intimated by the ticket sellers, as well as the long line of impatient people behind me. Now, I know the drill.
I get some breakfast (烧饵块 roasted rice cake) and sit down for a rest in the station until its time for my bus to load. Find my seat on the minibus and switch so that a young lovey dovey couple can sit together. The bus has seat belts that we are asked to buckle. The driver seems happy and easygoing. This seat belt thing must be a new law. I’m re-reminded by the ticket collector on board to buckle my seatbelt. Don’t want any accidents involving a foreigner, I guess. It’s going to take three and a half hours from Dali to YunLong (云龙), where I’ll make my way to the final destination- Nuodeng (诺邓). Neck pillow, neck comfy, plenty of leg room, no smoking. I fall asleep and doze as we drive through the rain. When researching this trip, I found a blog from three years ago talking about this road being blocked by mudslides/rockslides. We’re driving on a perfectly paved road! Three years in China means lots of changes. (Read that blog, and some more history about Nuodeng here.) Until… construction roadblock. They’re repaving the road and have both lanes blocked by workers in straw hats and heavy machinery. We’re told to wait. Men get antsy and start clipping their fingernails (no joke), another gets out his electric razor for a quick shave. The driver munches on spicy chicken skewers (preserved in air tight packaging for your enjoyment- anytime, anywhere!) He turns on a CD which must be required travel listening- Chinese pop ballads about heartache and some Michael Jackson for good measure. I’ve heard most of them before. More than a few people sing along out loud to their favorite song. Nobody seems shy about their singing voice. I get out a book to read and watch the people around me.
We arrive in Yunlong at lunch time– I wander to try and find food. I make it a point not to eat at any establishment that snickers at me as I go by, “Oh! Laowai! It’s a foreigner, look, look.” Ugh. I know they’re just curious, but sometimes it really gets to me. There are lots of places selling rice noodles, which usually taste like spicy strings of nothing and leave me hungry in an hour. I find a nice place with a woman working who advertises fried rice. Done. Her three year old daughter is terrified of me and runs to her grandma for safety. They speak to each other in some unintelligible language. Must be Bai (one of the local ethnic minorities), because it sounds nothing like Mandarin. I ask how much it’ll be to go to Nuodeng , only four kilometers away. She doesn’t know (despite its proximity, she’s never been!) but asks two high school girls also eating at her shop. They say its 10 kuai in a little three wheeled vehicle (三轮车)- part bike, part motorized rickshaw. I go out to the road, flag down three different vehicles and they all want 20-30 kuai. Foreigner price. Fine, the last woman is really friendly, so I agree to 20 kuai and we set out up the hill. We’re bumping around like crazy, and my boobs, which usually feel pretty small, start to feel like watermelons bouncing uncontrollably. I’m excited to get to the top. The adventure keeps getting better and adrenaline is pumping through my veins. She stops at a parking lot with tourist signs and two Chinese tourists taking pictures with their huge digital SLR cameras. Disappointment sets in. I guess this wasn’t as “off the beaten track” as I had imagined.
But as soon as I walk up the narrow path of stacked stones, I too, get my camera out to take pictures. It’s breathtaking, peaceful and very old. The cobblestone steps are steep and contrast with the burnt mud earthen walls of houses. Traditional roofs top each structure, and animal noises fill the air. I see pairs of tiny, weathered women sitting on stoops, looking at me curiously and then returning my smile. There are some signs pointing to different places in English and Chinese but I don’t see any other tourists.
I’m enjoying wandering around this new place, but not enjoying my back getting sweaty and tired from my pack. In the maze of vertical alleys I’m trying to find a play to stay. I find three places. One seems to have a lot of Chinese tourists (by a lot, I mean four!) and another is staffed by two 20-somethings who are more interested in their MP3 players and computer games than showing me a room, and the third is staffed by an old couple, is quiet and I get my own room and porch for 30 kuai a night. (That’s about US$5 folks!) The grandmother is missing teeth, but welcomes me and offers to make me an afternoon snack of noodles in a hearty pork broth. The grandfather is applying Chinese medicine to his swollen knee and seems more interested in his book than me.
After a nap, I feel refreshed and ready to explore so I walk around the village some more. It’s quiet and seems to have endless little nooks and crannies.
When I get back, my guesthouse owners and their son and daughter in law are getting ready for dinner. The grandmother is cooking food while the daughter in law makes a huge batch of fresh tofu that will sit out overnight to firm, and then be sold at the Friday morning market. (Another post on this is in the works– let’s just say that the fresh tofu was delicious!)
Several other men (the son’s friends?) join us for dinner as we indulge in a hearty yet simple meal. My favorite dish is the cured ham, a local specialty. Several of the dishes (pork and veggies) were raised by the family. The men offer me some of the local liquor, but I know that if you take one shot, you’ll be required to take 10. So I politely decline. I sit around the table as everyone speaks in the local dialect. The daughter in law asks me at one point if I can understand anything, and I say no, but I just enjoy listening and being around happy people.
The next day I sleep in and the grandmother makes me breakfast when I wake up. I sit in the kitchen and chow down on some leftovers from last night and fried rice. The day is overcast and rainy, so I sit on my porch and drink hot water while reading. It’s nice to be reading a real paperback after so many kindle books or books on my iPhone. The book, appropriately (or ironically?) is Fahrenheit 451 that I stole from Ben’s bookshelf last time I was in Bangkok.
In the afternoon, I wander around to the top of the village, past the local school, and into the old school building complex, as well as a new and old temple complex. I meet the temple caretaker who is friendly and happy to have a visitor. I ask a few questions and he shows me how to go to the (now unused) older temple. I find a nice place to sit in the sunshine and begin reading again, enjoying the peace and quiet that is so hard to find in Kunming.
The caretaker comes to find me, not once, but twice, and tells me that when I’m done reading, I should come back to his room so that he can show me some books. After the second time, I can tell that he’s really excited to talk to me and I should go with him.
He offers to make tea, and pulls out five or six tattered notebooks and flips through the pages, naming the nationalities of each person who has left him a message over the years. To my amazement, he is naming them all correctly! He can’t read what they say, but he remembers! I add a note to his book, and he writes some calligraphy for me on a small yellow paper. I excuse myself to eat lunch and he says to say hello to my guesthouse owners. It seems like they’ve known each other a long time.
The rest of my time in Nuodeng was spent reading, drinking hot water, and enjoying being alone. The next few days in Dali I was able to meet up with friends and buy some China souvenirs that I’ve put off buying for a while. (“This might be my last chance to buy….”) I came back to Kunming, happy to hear that I hadn’t really missed much. I felt recharged. I also had a new appreciation for the tiny little pockets of Yunnan that are so much fun to explore. Where can I go next?