After so long in the high altitude plains of Tibet, where eagles soared and the smell of yak butter wafted in the air, arriving at the bus station in the city of Chengdu and being immediately assailed by taxi drivers was a bit of a shock. We had to fight our way through a group of men trying to get us to their taxis, some of whom actually grabbed our arms, but eventually we made it to the main road and hailed the first non-harrassing taxi we could find.
Since Jay’s birthday landed in the middle of our trip to Chengdu we decided to splash out on a nice double room in the best rated hostel in the city. This turned out to be an excellent decision as we were given one of the largest rooms in the hostel so we immediately extended our booking by another two days.
Overall we didn’t do that much while we were in Chengdu, we spent most of it relaxing and eating. After several weeks on the Tibetan Plateau, where our requests for vegetarian food were often met with a blank look, and anything that didn’t have meat in had yak butter, we were desperate for some varied vegan food.
Chengdu has several monasteries and nunneries with restaurants attached offering vegetarian buffets for reasonable prices. Our favourite was the nunnery which offered a daily vegetarian lunch ritual: starting at a rather early 11:45am, you collect two bowls from a side room and sit on a bench in the dining hall. The nuns then take turns bringing huge pans of various dishes from the kitchen and working their way up and down the rows dishing out to everyone. It was a lovely, communal atmosphere, with many people obviously popping in for lunch during their work day. The food was varied and flavoursome and endless. All this for about 60p each!
Wenshu monastery is one of the main tourist attractions in Chengdu so naturally we gave them a visit. It was interesting seeing the differences in architectural and decorative style of Chinese Buddhism compared with the Tibetan Buddhism that we had become accustomed to over the previous weeks.
Once we’d had several lazy days in Chengdu, relaxing and taking advantage of having lots of vegan food available, we decided we wanted to do something active. We opted for trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge: one of the most famous hikes in the world, not too challenging or long, but certainly known for being beautiful. To start, we had to get to Lijiang in Yunnan province.
We asked for some help with planning the journey from an enthusiastic young woman working at our hostel, who suggested that the cheapest and quickest way to travel the 600km was to fly. We explained that we try to avoid flying (especially on top of the inter-continental flights we’ve already committed to), and she asked why with genuine confusion. There followed a discussion about climate change and carbon emissions: she had literally never heard of either. She ended the conversation by arguing that in China “there are so many people and everyone else is flying, so it doesn’t make any sense for me to avoid it”. Pretty depressing conversation!
We opted to take the bus. We were able to check the times and availability on an English app, but enlisted the help of our carbon-unaware friend to actually book the tickets. The app stated the departure time of the overnight bus, and a duration of 14 hours, but didn’t specify an arrival time for the following day. We figured with a few comfort stops we’d be arriving around 5am, and were prepared to kill a few hours in the bus station while the sun rose. The woman from the hostel booked the tickets for us, and then casually mentioned that we might need to stay in a hotel along the way. We’d chosen an overnight bus partly to substitute for a night of accommodation, so this was quite surprising! Apparently the buses sometimes stop at motorway hotels overnight, sometimes they just pull up somewhere and everyone sleeps on the bus, and sometimes they alternate drivers to keep going through the night. At our request, she phoned the bus company for us and had a detailed conversation, at the end of which she said that they didn’t know either! So we set off to catch the bus, not knowing where (or whether!) we would be sleeping that night.
The bus left around lunchtime – we’d had our preferred travel-day meal of instant noodles and bread – with just four other passengers in addition to us. We quickly reassigned ourselves to the seats with the most legroom and made ourselves as comfortable as we could, given the filthy state of the bus. It was a German coach, with features like USB ports (not working) that suggested it wasn’t that old, but it had clearly never been cleaned. Every surface was grimy, all the seats were stained, food crumbs were visible in all the cracks and crevices, it was really gross! After dark, whenever we leaned forward to get something from a bag, we could hear the skittering of insects.
The bus stopped every couple of hours for a comfort break (and for the drivers to chain-smoke a few cigarettes). Around 9:30pm, it stopped at a service station with a grim, seedy-looking hotel above. Our hearts sank as we anticipated having to spend some of our precious budget on a smoke-filled, dirty motel room (although it couldn’t possibly be dirtier than the bus). We slowly packed our bags, and one of the other passengers came back on to the bus and said “dinner” to us whilst miming eating. We were understandably relieved that we wouldn’t be spending the night there! We followed him in to a really grim, strip-lit canteen, and once again our hearts sank as we saw that the food was a buffet, with the usual Chinese options of 17 types of meat. Begrudgingly we paid the same price as everyone else, anticipating a meal of plain rice and possibly some oily fried Chinese lettuce. Once again the vegan translation cards came in handy, as Jay showed it to the woman behind the counter and pointed towards the buffet, implicitly asking for guidance on what we could eat. She enlisted the help of another woman from the kitchen, and they patiently took us along the whole row of food, pointing out what we could have, which turned out to be about half a dozen dishes!
The variation in response from restaurant staff when we’ve asked for vegan food has been remarkable: most often they scrutinise the card with utter confusion and then just hand it back to us and shake their heads, as though what we are asking for is completely impossible. But sometimes we find individuals who respond with enthusiasm, either in offering to create something off-menu for us specially, or in the case of a buffet by carefully considering and indicating what we can have. In the seedy environment of a creepy twilight service station, we definitely didn’t expect to find the latter! But they were exceptionally helpful, and one waitress even came running across the room when she saw Jay about to accidentally take a spoonful of a dish with chicken in it. The quality of the food was as you would expect from a motorway service station – oily and overcooked – but given that we weren’t expecting a hot meal that night, we were exceptionally grateful for it.
Back on the bus and we still didn’t know where we would be sleeping, but figured we should try to get some sleep now while we could, so climbed into our sleeping bag liners and reclined our seats all the way to flat. Around half past midnight the bus stopped in the driving rain at a service station. We all got out to use the toilet, a friendly passenger (the same who’d notified us about dinner) shepherding us from the bus to the building with his umbrella. Back on the bus the usual time for a couple of cigarettes passed, and we still weren’t going anywhere. After half an hour we assumed that this was where we would be staying overnight. Although the seats went all the way back, it wasn’t comfy. Not only that, but in the dark tiny cockroaches scuttled everywhere; up the window panes, over the floors, and all across the seats we were trying to sleep on. We tied our food in a bag to a metal railing, making it as hard as we could for the insects to get to it. We lay in the bus listening to the rain, watching the lightning, and lamenting that our 14 hour bus did not mean we would arrive 14 hours after we left. We dozed lightly, fitfully, any dreams we had being entirely preoccupied with being stuck on filthy buses. At around 5:30 we set off again, still in darkness, trying to sleep on the rickety seats as the bus hurtled round hairpin bends. Even with the aircon, it was uncomfortably humid, and we were hot and sweaty in our sleeping bag liners (but entirely unwilling to lie on the seats without them).
At around 6:30 we stopped for breakfast, the driver and our friendly co-passenger trying to coax us to join them in a roadside cafe. Given the veggie option of glutinous rice soup, and the various meats on offer that filled the room with pungent smells, we declined and found a corner shop to buy some fruit juice (no actual fruit being available, unfortunately. And probably none in the juice either). The journey continued shortly after until about 10:15 when the coach ground to a halt behind a huge line of traffic, on a perilous mountain road. The road was full of people milling around and making use of alfresco toilets; clearly they had all been here a while. The driver told us (through the power of mime) that there had been a landslide due to the heavy rains, and the road was blocked. Our hearts sank at the prospect of yet more hours on this bus, and we joined the throng hanging around outside. Remarkably, after only half an hour the traffic started moving, and we joined the single lane of vehicles which carefully squeezed past the workers clearing the debris by hand (and shovel).
The road climbed in terrifying switchbacks. The day before we’d driven through a cloud forest at 1600m, moisture clinging to every surface, clouds snared to treetops like wraiths. Today we hit 2700m and it was sunny for most of the mid-morning. This was unfortunate as it meant we could see vertically down from the narrow edge of the road well over a kilometre to tiny matchbox houses below. At about 12:30, after just over 24 hours on the bus, we finally arrived at Lijiang, said farewell to our strangely familiar travelling companions, hoisted our backpacks, and set off for our hostel.
We arrived to a sparse room that was in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint, but was mercifully clean, and collapsed into bed. Although our room was very basic, the hostel was lovely. It was run by a family, which is pretty common for hostels in China (including YHAs like this one), and they cared for the common areas as part of their home. There was a well-tended garden and pond, and a courtyard filled with plants that all the rooms opened onto. The whole place was very quiet and peaceful, in the middle of a large city.
Once we’d rested and recovered from the trauma of our epic bus journey, we went to get some advice from the young guy at the hostel desk about how to get to the start of the walk the next morning. We despaired to learn that Tiger Leaping Gorge, which we’d spent £80 and 24 hours on a bus to get to, was closed due to landslides because of all the recent heavy rain. He speculated that with the day’s pleasant weather, it may open again the day after next, but there was no way to know until tomorrow. Disheartened, we focused instead on what Lijiang had to offer, which started with a vegetarian buffet at a local monastery-run restaurant.
The buffet offered the usual pre-cooked and cold dishes, along with the option of a hotpot. Not really knowing what we were doing, but confident that the stock was not from beef this time, we ordered two hot pot bases. These are brought to the table and kept hot, in this case on terrifying liquid fuel table-top stoves. We added veg and tofu picked from the fridge, and finally had a successful Chinese hot pot experience! Although with the scorching weather, neither of us was particularly fussed about having roasting hot stew, so on subsequent days (we went there three days in a row) we just opted for their excellent extensive buffet.
Lijiang is an ancient market town, which has been heavily invested in to bring in tourists. The old town has charming meandering cobbled streets and lovely wooden buildings (both restored and imitation). Some narrow walkways were adorned with paper parasols or flags. A canal system runs through the town, which was traditionally used for all of the residents’ cleaning and cooking needs, and was still being used as we walked through by some shop owners to clean clothes and even vegetables.
The whole market town was heaving with tourists, who sheltered from the rain in the various shops. It was all very much geared towards shopping and spending money. Amongst the ancient (and ancient-style) market stalls, we found the most modern toilet display ever: a flatscreen TV with information about the occupancy of every toilet stall, along with weather info and other stuff that we couldn’t decipher.
At the end of the day we returned to the hostel to find out that the gorge would still not be open the following day. We waited one further day, noting the steady stream of western tourists arriving at the hostel to ask about the gorge, but decided to cut our losses and head for our next major tourist attraction in Kunming: the Stone Forest.
We filled up one last time on the vegan buffet, took a taxi to the enormous train station and went through the usual ridiculous security process to get to the waiting room. Our sleeper train passed by an enormous black lake lit up around its perimeter by Las Vegas-style hotels. Other than that the view was just of the silhouettes of trees lit by a bright moon.
We arrived at Kunming at 5am and went to catch a local train out of the city, but unfortunately we didn’t notice that there is a separate exit for “transfers” (China once again making train travel feel more like flying). As we didn’t go that way, we got caught up in the steady stream of people leaving and ended up outside the train station, where we then had to walk around the entire building, present our tickets and passports and put our luggage through security checks once again!
Eventually arriving at the small town of Shilin, we took a taxi to our hostel, which was in a “Minority ethnic village” for the local Yi people. The numbering system for houses was truly bizarre, and even our taxi driver didn’t really know where to go, but eventually he found the right place to drop us off. The hostel was awful, even just entering the lobby it was clear the whole place was filthy. We consoled ourselves as we waited for the guy to “clean” our room, that we’d survived the terrible bus journey so we could handle it. When he showed us to the dorm room it stank of cigarettes, there was even a butt on the floor just beneath the “no smoking” sign. There was no bedding on the beds, he pointed us to some crusty lockers with supposedly clean sheets inside. The floor looked like it had never been cleaned, with a permanent layer of grime all around. And we could smell urine everywhere (presumably coming from the equally gross bathroom down the hall, but who knows). We sat down glumly on the beds and then decided that life is too short and immediately booked the next cheapest place which was in the same village. It was twice the price of the hostel (including a breakfast that we assumed we wouldn’t be able to eat) so we had discounted it, but we’re so glad we eventually made that choice. The woman who owned it was so helpful and friendly. When we showed her the vegan card she listed off various things they could make for breakfast, all of which we enthusiastically agreed to, and we were not disappointed. She also did two loads of laundry for us and refused any payment for that, so we definitely got our money’s worth in the end!
For dinner we went to a “Music Restaurant” in the village, not really knowing what that meant but happy to submit ourselves to a live band or karaoke! Once again we had a positive – if baffled – response to our request for vegan food. The owner had us pick some of our preferred veg from a fridge which was fried, along with a tofu dish and some soup. It wasn’t the most exciting meal but there was plenty of it. We also had a 1L can of Chinese beer. As we were finishing our meal we became aware of some slightly rowdy singing coming from the next room, where a large group of men were drinking shots with their meal. After a few rounds of them singing drunkenly, a beautiful lone voice started up as the one woman at their table started a new song. Soon some of the more sober men joined in with her and we stood in the doorway with other diners to listen to the wonderful harmonies and soaring ululations.
The next morning we were treated to the best breakfast – by far – we’ve had in the whole time we’ve been in China. The first thing to arrive was porridge: thinner than we’re used too, very gloopy, made from both oats and rice, but still very tasty. Next was mushroom dumplings and purple sweet potato dumplings, made with a kind of pastry that reminded us of Keralan paratha. There were bread rolls that we couldn’t manage to eat but took with us for lunch. Finally a bowl of chopped banana and Autumn moon cake: a treat cooked on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese year. It was incredible and we were stuffed.
It was absolutely pouring with rain, and if we didn’t have plans to head to Vietnam we would probably have waited another day before going to the stone forest, but we were leaving Kunming the next day so we sucked it up, put on our waterproofs and headed out. The entrance was full of tourists milling around in disposable plastic rainmacs and ridiculous shoe covers. When we bought our tickets, the price quoted was about £5 above what we expected, and it turned out they automatically added on the cost of taking the electric vehicles from the main entrance to the bit of the park that everyone walks around. When we said we were happy to walk there, the woman on the counter looked pointedly at the weather outside, then at us in our head-to-toe waterproofs, shrugged her shoulders and gave us our tickets. Needless to say we were the only people walking that route!
We were also the only ones who stopped at the museum on the way there, which started off fascinating and ended up utterly bizarre. The first couple of halls had loads of information about the geology of the Karst landscape: the various stages that started with calciferous organisms on the sea bed millions of years ago and ended with the shocking limestone pillars that are seen today around the south coast of China. Next we moved into what felt like a much more familiar natural history museum. Having been repeatedly disappointed with museums in India which always seemed like they were trying to emulate a European style but failing, we were really excited by this museum. We were both fascinated by the fossils on display in a way that we never have been in the museums at home, and we spent far too long wandering around gawping at minerals and petrified plants.
We were the only tourists there, massively outnumbered by staff, many of whom were practicing their tour guide lines, walking from one display to another whilst commentating in Chinese. We followed the route into several more buildings, noticing that the exhibits were thinning out, and there were more and more rooms like gift shops with carved gems and tea sets. Eventually we were just walking down empty corridors trying to find our way back to the entrance! All very strange. We came out into a steep garden with a red carpet over all the paths (actually very useful for grip in the pouring rain) and followed it back to the front of the museum.
Our initial feeling on reaching the actual park entrance was one of horror, as thousands of people milled around, waiting for the ubiquitous tour guides with megaphones and flagpoles to direct them where to go. For some reason, as we’ve discovered in many parks in China, the rocks that they use for paving seem to be made from some kind of Acme-style super-slippy-banana-skin coating, and despite both wearing non-slip hiking shoes, we struggled to stay on our feet. We gazed in confused envy at the hideous rubber shoe covers that other tourists were wearing, which could grip the rock but would be relegated to landfill a few hours later.
The scenery was spectacular however; towering looming peaks, narrow squeezes and rocky spurs. Eventually we managed to get away from the crowds, by utilising the tactic of finding the furthest point on the map from the drop-off point and heading for that. We even had a few moments where we were alone to explore paths and tunnels, lofty walkways and deep pools. Far away from the madding crowds, attempting to summit the highest point of the park on slippery rocks in pissing rain, a huge fat squirrel plopped onto the path ahead. Jay had only been lamenting the day before that he had not seen any squirrels in China, and here one was! We had a squirrel stand-off for a moment and then it scarpered. Shortly after, as we ate our lunch of steamed breakfast buns and packets of tofu, we heard a strange noise somewhere between a squeak and a beeping alarm clock, and discovered a very angry squirrel above us in a tree. It continued to chitter and flick its tail at us so we left it alone. It was big and shaped like an Indian Malabar squirrel, though not quite as large.
As we approached the “Eternal Mushroom” scenic area – the furthest point of the park we could get to – we were suddenly walking through cultivated fields of corn, grains and root vegetables. We have seen lots of small-scale farming in China in the most unusual places, including in every city we’ve been to, but this was the first time we saw it in a national park! They take food security seriously here.
On the way back we stopped to use the toilet. Bizarrely, in one cubicle the toilet was in the middle of the cubicle, freestanding away from the wall, and installed at a jaunty angle. It also had a flush button that was suspiciously similar to the Apple logo! We were both reduced to absolute hysterics by this, which was perhaps an indication that we were exhausted from walking 21 km in subtropical rain and not having enough calories. We made it back to the guesthouse, took off our various soggy layers and retreated to bed with pots of instant noodles and beer.
The next morning, after another epic breakfast, we took the train to Hekou on the Vietnam border. We stayed in a weird “hostel” that was just a small flat filled with dorm beds. The guy running it held up his phone with a translation app saying “I forgot to ask, are you a couple?” and when we replied in the affirmative he upgraded us to a private room (his room!). We actually think this was because all the dorms – including the one designated as women-only – were already full of men, but we’ll take a free upgrade any way we can get it! We grabbed some sleep and set our alarms to be at the border as soon as it opened the next day.