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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

Leaping Tigers but No Hidden Trouser Snakes

Written by Martin Pitwood. Uploaded 3 May 2006.

China, Country 17, Diary entry 13th-27th March 2006, Total distance in China: 7610km

Questions that have been bothering us this week: Why are watermelons stripy? If anyone knows please leave a comment below, thanks.

The mysterious bronze heads at SanxingduiWe were keen to see the archaeological site at Sanxingdui, about an hour's drive northeast of Chengdu, so we took a detour out that way before heading south.

Sanxingdui is a recently discovered archaeological site, in fact only excavated in the early 1990s so very little is known about it. The mysterious bronze heads at SanxingduiBasically, some farmer discovered remains from an ancient civilisation in a field near here and in the course of the excavation, a couple of pits were discovered, each only about the size of a small room, but each containing hundreds and hundreds of artefacts: jars and eating utensils, weapons etc. but most bizarrely, a collection of cast bronze heads. The heads came in all shapes and sizes and many have a distinctly Aztec look to them, but these artefacts have been dated at around 1200 B.C. meaning they predate the Aztecs by well over 2000 years, and are totally unlike any other Chinese art of the time. It was very strange to visit such a well planned and executed museum which was unable to tell us anything much about the artefacts or the civilisation responsible for them. This added greatly to the appeal of the place and we enjoyed it very much.

The Giant Buddha of LeshanAs always we had somewhere else to be hurrying off to, namely Leshan, a couple of hours south of Chengdu. We arrived just as it was getting dark and checked out the best guesthouse the Lonely Planet had to suggest, but rejected it when the local kids took a little too much of a liking to our Land Cruisers as we parked up and ended up leaving it to Mark to find us a more suitable place to stay.

Yunnan sceneryWith a lot of kilometres to be covered that day, we woke up early to visit the finest attraction that Leshan has to offer before setting off on the long drive. That attraction is imaginatively called "The Grand Buddha", because it is a grand Buddha. Actually it is the grandest Buddha in the world and we wanted to be able to turn our noses up at all the other big Buddhas we'd be seeing in Southeast Asia and say, with a Crocodile Dundee accent, "Call that a Buddha?" Unmissable stuff.

This Buddha is carved out of the cliff overlooking the confluence of two rivers and stands an amazing 71m high, which is difficult to imagine, so if I were to tell you that a family could comfortably have a picnic on his big toenail, that might give a better idea of how really amazingly big this sculpture is. The first view you get is from head height and then you can climb down to river level for a view from his feet where it is particularly staggering to look at, along with signs saying you're not allowed to climb on his feet or have picnics or anything fun like that.

The Old City of LijiangThe thing is very impressive simply because of its scale, but one thing that Max and I found rather underwhelming about the whole thing was that although its construction was in the 8th century AD, it has been "restored" over the years with various modern materials making it look like it was a giant Lego man built out of plaster and painted in the 1970's with nice afro hair and lipstick. Where the body had not been restored, it was much more impressive than the head because it actually looked old. The Old City of LijiangThe rest of the area was nice enough to walk through and we found some nice wooden pagodas - or so we thought, for they turned out to all be made of concrete and painted to look like varnished wood. Very cleverly done actually but it wasn't quite so convincing where the paint had chipped away to leave the bare concrete underneath. It was a shame and we left feeling a little disappointed overall, but we can say we've seen a really big Buddha now.

The Old City of LijiangThe rest of the day and the whole of the next were spent driving. We had a mammoth drive of just over 1000km to do, for the most part on twisty mountain roads along valleys and including a few high passes before we finally arrived in Lijiang well after dark on the second day. It had taken us 21 hours behind the wheel (not including any breaks) to cover the distance. We were exhausted, and though I normally don't like to be a passenger, I was particularly glad that Max was there to share the load.

Mark quickly managed to find us a good priced hotel again (he's done very well at this) and we made our way to the edge of the old town to find some food, followed by a well-earned beer.

The next day, after a late start and a disappointing KFC brunch (Max may joke about my McRadar but he took full advantage every time it pinged!), we headed into the old town of Lijiang to see what the fuss is about and why it deserves UNESCO listing to protect it. To be honest we're still none the wiser as we split up for the day and each walked around the souvenir shops and through the crowds of Chinese tourists looking for the sights. With the perfect Chinese-style roofs with their turned-up corners, the perfect streets with perfect streams running along them and with quaint waterwheels at the city's entrance. Dancing for and with the tourists at the Old City of LijiangImagine walking along Main Street China in a Chinese version of Disneyland but failing to find any rollercoasters - that is what Lijiang is like. In the main square the local women were dancing in their traditional Naxi outfits to music coming from a ghetto blaster that one of the women was tasked with holding. Once they started trying to get the tourists dancing it was my cue to leave.

That evening at least we had a successful meal and this time without Mark's assistance. We decided we wanted to eat barbecue food from the market, despite his advice that the cleanliness couldn't be guaranteed. We decided we'd had worse and we've had vaccinations for most things so we'd give it a go. Picking only the kebabs that looked edible and working around the skewers with chicken's feet, or even parson's noses, we had a feast.

Naxi Family Guesthouse, Tiger Leaping GorgeStill fresh (!) from our masterful trekking experience around the Annapurna region of Nepal, we were keen to prove to ourselves that it wasn't a one off and that another few days of trekking were not going to kill us. Actually the main reason we wanted to trek again was the scenery, and particularly in the region known as Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping GorgeThe gorge is 16km long and one of the deepest in the world, being nearly 4000m difference from the river to the top of the highest peak, and along the southern side the mountains form an enormous sheer cliff. The trekking path goes along the northern side and involves a big climb at the start before descending back down to river level halfway along the gorge and follows the river from there on. It makes the trek a hard two-day trek or a moderate three-day one. This was peanuts compared to the trek we did in Nepal but we decided, since we were a little ahead of schedule, that we would convert it into a previously untested "leisurely four-day" permutation.

Tiger Leaping GorgeActually it wasn't a full four days as we missed the morning buses and left Lijiang at about 1:30pm meaning we arrived at the start of the trek at about 4:30pm and leaving us with only a couple of hours' daylight left, but that was plenty to see us to the first of the many guesthouses along the route - the Naxi Family Guesthouse. The rooms were basic but clean, but more importantly the food was excellent, casting aside all remaining bad memories of the steamed pizza in Nepal!

Tiger Leaping GorgeThe following day started with the aforementioned big climb though the section known as 24 Bends - so called because there are 24 hairpin bends. Between the bends is not much straight path so it's pretty hard going, but we were strong and cheered along by Max's catchphrases of "Pain is temporary, glory lasts forever" and other such stirring stuff, we made it to the highest point of the path, from where we could look down to the first of several "tiger leaping stones" - apparently the leaping tigers after which the gorge is named were not able to actually leap across the whole river but needed to use big rocks as stepping stones. Not as impressive in my mind, but still the question remained of why it should want to leap across the river so the mystique was not totally ruined.

Tiger Leaping GorgeThe next day was around 4 hours hiking and took us to the Halfway House where we were lucky to arrive early because the place filled up later. The view from here was majestic and Max and Mark and I enjoyed a lunch with a view, while Alex and Maz took more stops along the path and caught up with us later. In the evening whilst engaged in a battle of Carcassonne we were joined by a group of travellers from assorted locations such as Denmark, the USA and New Zealand, and between us we managed to run out the guesthouse's stock of beer - oops. The bar closed when we weren't looking and we were in bed by about midnight. This is my kind of trekking!

The third day was supposed to be only a two hour trek as far as the Walnut Garden so we got up REALLY slowly and after another quick game of Carcassonne we finally left at the obscenely late trekking time of 11:30am. The trail led back downhill and joined a newly tarmacked road, which continued for the rest of the length of the gorge. Although there was no traffic, walking along a road is just not the same as a track so when Max and I crossed a bridge over a very deep ravine we decided we'd see if we could climb down it to the river level which we could see waaay down below us. I'll cut a long story short, but after spending about an hour clambering over some pretty large rocks and avoiding some waterfalls, we finally found a point which we just couldn't get down. On the one side it was too sheer, the other side of the stream looked possible but to get there meant crossing the stream and the rocks were treacherously slippery. Tiger Leaping GorgeWith nobody else within yelling distance and nobody knowing where we were, even Max had to agree that we had no choice but to climb back up and follow the road again. It seemed easier to climb up than down but took equally long, but eventually we rejoined the road to resume our trek to the next guesthouse. Nearly there, we met Alex and Maz who had already been there and were coming back to the "official" paths down to river level. We'd already walked past thinking how close we'd come and that we didn't have the energy any more, but somehow we decided we'd join them - and I'm glad we did because at the bottom there were more huge tiger leaping rocks with the water rushing past them. The force of the rapids seemed quite incredible and transfixing as I lay back on one of the rocks and lost myself in the view and in the noise. Eventually with light starting to fade we started the ascent back up to the road level where our guesthouse was to be found, but even though we were on the proper path it is a hard one hour ascent from the river level and Max and I were totally exhausted. Maz said she was watching us trudge up the steps and through the terraced fields towards the end of the climb and was wondering if we'd make it. It was certainly the hardest "two hour" trek I've ever done!

Although the guesthouse (Sean's) had beautiful hot showers to help ease my aching bones, the food was probably the worst we'd had in all of China and we all went to bed disappointed. The final day was a long, roughly level hike along the rest of the road and eventually a final steep descent to the river, a ferry across and then a climb up the other side before arriving in the small town of Daju marking the official end of the trek. After a quick bowl of noodles we got a bus back to Lijiang where we found our faithful steeds waiting for us at the hotel where they'd kindly looked after them for us, and we spent one final night there before pushing on again to our next destination.

Another delightful tourist city, DaliOn arriving in Dali we parked up and Alex went to lock away his laptop only to discover that the laptop bag was missing! There was a brief discussion about who had left it behind (luckily it wasn't Maz's fault otherwise her life would not have been worth living) and, unable to reach the hotel by telephone, Alex decided he would have to return to Lijiang to look for it because it contained a load of important cables, a spare battery etc. Rather him than me as it meant another 4 hours each way. Since Mark's job is to escort us while we're driving, he went with Alex leaving Maz, Max and me to explore the "delightful" town of Dali. Guess what we found? That's right, it was another Chinese attempt at a tourist destination, and rather like Lijiang's old town, it was difficult to see what the attraction actually was because it was all hidden behind the souvenir shops. StrangeIt didn't take us long to find the street with the pubs and restaurants and faced with a boring afternoon ahead of us we decided to sample the local speciality - Dali beer. We weren't sure about it after the first one and tried another, and so on. Alex and Mark eventually arrived back about 7 hours later, thankfully with the laptop bag that it turned out the hotel staff had helpfully moved for him while he was busy packing that morning!

After camping for the night just off the side of the road (to Mark's continued discomfort) we continued our way, on a motorway blissfully, to the last big city in China - Kunming. Kunming has very little to distinguish itself from any other city in China but a necessary stop as it has a Laos consulate and we still weren't sure if we needed to get our visas here or whether we could buy them on arrival at the border (it turned out that they can not only be bought at the border but are actually cheaper there and buying them in Kunming takes three days!) That was as good an excuse as I needed to stop in another city and enjoy the modernity one more time - I had big shopping plans!

Anyone care to guess what country this is in?Our first stop in Kunming was the Toyota dealer again, this making Toyota dealer number 10 of the trip! Alex and Maz's car was quite easy this time - just replacing the rear brake pads and checking the alignment. My car was the more difficult one - I went in just to replace the rear brake pads, buy some more spare front pads to replace the ones I'd just changed myself and repair a puncture. Also I wanted my air conditioning looked at as it didn't seem to work properly any more, and heading into the more humid countries of southeast Asia I didn't want to do without! The brake parts and puncture were easily fixed though for some reason they had to cart my punctured wheel off on the back seat of someone's leather upholstered car for some reason! Of course any trip to Toyota would be incomplete without another bunch of problems they discover that need attention. This time it was the rear shock absorbers on my car which were leaking oil all over their clean floor. We are using Old Man Emu suspension parts so Toyota could not supply these, but thanks to good planning we had spares in my roof box so these were fitted but now we have the problem of replacing the spares ready for when they break on the other car, as is bound to happen. Car looking worse for wearAlso there is a new hole in my exhaust pipe right in a place where it can't be repaired, and Toyota could not source this part. I have to live with it until Thailand when I should be able to buy a replacement. Also there was a leak in the seal on the rear differential so oil was coming out, which involved leaving the poor car overnight while new parts were machined. On the plus side the air conditioning was an easy and relatively inexpensive fix which involved a small Chinese guy climbing into the engine bay of the car and removing large mechanical parts in a plastic carrier bag and bringing them back the following day along with a box of worn-out looking bits to show me. They could have been from a domestic fridge or even a clock for all I knew but once the car was reassembled and the a/c fluid was recharged it now works fine!

In order to celebrate or commiserate the Toyota experience once again we decided we'd go to a bar for a few beers. Once again Mark was an expert in choosing a good restaurant and we ate well again. Alex and Maz were feeling tired from all the driving and Toyota-supervising so they retired to the hotel leaving myself, Max and Mark to paint the town red! We went into a bar and bought a stack of Budweiser (well it was all they had) and were entertained for the next few hours by our delightful hostess whose job was to encourage us to drink more by initiating various drinking games with us. Unfortunately for her, neither Max nor I, nor Mark for that matter, is a total novice at the beer games so she ended up a lot more drunk than us at the end of the night! I suppose she did her job well because the bar did well out of us.

Delicious fare on sale at Carrefour, KunmingI spent most of the next day at Toyota again returning to the hotel at around 5pm so I was determined to get cracking on my shopping business, number one shop being the nearest McDonald's as I hadn't had any lunch and was craving something I could get my teeth into. Like in most of the countries on the trip so far, we have found the food to be excellent but after a couple of weeks of eating the same stuff every night the desire for something different gets strong and we take advantage of the western food outlets when we can. Not something to be proud of but I needed a juicy burger. After eating my juicy burger (and fries, McNuggets and sundae) I walked out of McDonald's by a different exit to find that I was actually in a Carrefour shopping complex and that there was a real genuine Carrefour supermarket on the floors above! What a luxury! I bought lots of goodies to take back to the troops including brie and cheddar cheeses (I couldn't buy cheddar in my local Carrefour in France even!), Ritz biscuits, a chorizo sausage and a few cans of Old Speckled Hen! They also had in bottles Abbot Ale and Adnams Broadside. What a surreal experience - to find a beer brewed in my grandmother's little village on the Suffolk coast on sale in China! Needless to say these are also not available in Chambéry, and to cater to the local population though there were many other things also not seen in my local Carrefour, such as pre-packed fish heads, live turtles and frogs and miscellaneous dried things that look like they might once have been sea creatures of some sort but now look like dog chews.

Not so delicious fare on sale at Carrefour, KunmingCatching up with the others over the lovely beer and cheese it transpired that they had found the digital market, the area of town with the computer and camera shops, which I'd hoped to have time for but not been able to make. Each had bought some nice computer goodies and the prices were very cheap, not surprising since most of the good gear on eBay in the UK comes shipped from China anyway these days. Max had also found "Dodgy DVD Street" and stocked up on about 50 films!!

Fortunately everyone was happy for a late start the following day so Max and I went back so I could buy a few things I "needed" and Max bought another big batch of films. I bought 20 or so films and a box set of the first 62 episodes of Seinfeld - should keep me going for a while! After meeting up and having a quick bite for lunch where the others forced me to eat another McDonalds, and then stocking up on supplies at Carrefour (minced beef! more cheese!), we headed out of Kunming towards the final sight of our China sightseeing - The Stone Forest. It didn't take long to get there and we camped next to a lake and cooked a spaghetti bolognese with some nice cheeses as a starter while it was cooking. Mark was suspicious because he'd been told as a child that cheese was the mould off something or other (thinking of a lovely stilton, I guess there wasn't too much lost in translation) but he managed to eat enough to see him through the night.

One thing that had puzzled us as we made our way through China was where all the people are. China is a big country but with huge areas very sparsely populated - like Tibet for example. So having passed through India, with its similar population and where there are people everywhere, we expected to see people everywhere in China too but we didn't. Where in India there would be people ambling along the side of every road and toiling in every field, in China the roads are pretty clear and the number of people working the fields is more like what you'd expect in a developed country rather than a third-world one. We wondered: where are all the people?

The Stone Forest, only one clown snuck into the pictureOur visit to The Stone Forest in Shilin answered the question. We estimated that about 1.2 billion of the 1.3 billion population chose the same day as us to go there. We were astounded at the number of people squeezed into the first areas of the park, with their baseball caps colour-coded to their tour parties, the tour guides waving pennant flags high above their heads (which means we kept nearly getting swatted in the face) and the unbelievable din that this concentration of excited tourists was creating, echoing around the rock formations.

The Stone Forest was created when the sea, which once lapped up against the Tibetan plateau, receded from the area to leave Southeast Asia .The structure of the rocks in this area eroded in such a way as to leave strange beautiful limestone pillars and pinnacles scattered over a large area. The Chinese have managed to turn much of this natural phenomenon into another artificial-looking attraction, rather like an oversized rockery with walkways and pagodas added at strategic locations.

The Stone Forest, away from the crowdsThe important thing though is that the Chinese, being in their tour groups, will not stray from their guide (as Mark kept saying, that wouldn't be disciplined behaviour) so it was easy to get away from the crowds simply by walking a few minutes away from the park entrance and the closest formations. As we wandered around the remoter parts of the park we saw nobody else at all! It was much more pleasant being able to breathe and we enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours walking around and admiring the views, which we could now see were pretty impressive.

The last attraction in China finished, all that remained for us was a two day drive through rural Yunnan to the border so we could cross into our 18th country, Laos. We realised that we didn't have quite enough fuel to get to the border so we stopped at one of the towns on the way, an uninspiring place called Si Mao where we managed to get some money from an ATM at the Bank of China (the only bank where our cards would reliably work, and even then not 100%) and we got some noodles in a restaurant where once again Mark's eagle eyes spotted the crescent symbols denoting a Muslim owned restaurant. The guy can't read a signpost until he's right next to it but he can spot a Muslim restaurant from 100m away! We had a standard beef noodles each, Mark had a bowl of assorted pipes and tubes from what part of what animal I don't know. We were all astonished at him tucking into this stuff when only the night before he'd been turning his nose up at our cheese!

Onwards towards the border and the road got very twisty indeed and with many sets of roadworks blocking the road for 20 minutes at a time, progress was very slow. Our patience was not helped by the existence of a brand new motorway darting straight through the countryside as we wiggled our way back and forth, crossing and crossing again over and under the new road. We could see no reason why it wasn't open yet, except that it was probably awaiting the right official from Beijing to come along with his mistress and cut the red tape, until very close to the city Jinghong where the road abruptly stopped waiting to be finished. No reason why they couldn't open it in stretches but no, they have to open the whole road at once.

The sun setting, we stopped for the night in a very cheap guesthouse in a small town called Manhaguo which seems to exist solely for the truckers driving to and from the border. I base this judgement on the fact that the town consisted of a few small noodle places, a few guest houses and three parlours illuminated in pink neon and staffed by young scantily-clad ladies. We decided we'd shelter in our rooms and watch a DVD on the laptop instead of going out painting the town red. The next day was still another few hours' drive on poor roads to the border town on Mohan - also a surprisingly big clean town considering it's a border town. Everyone knows border towns are supposed to be grotty places. We went first to customs to get our cars cleared to leave the country (we didn't use our Carnets de Passages for China, all was arranged by our agent) went to passport control and - guess what - there's a big problem with our visas and we can't leave!

Group photo as we say goodbye to Bruce LeeOur visas were issued in Kathmandu and are a special type that can only be issued there. The standard type of visa for China does not allow entry into Tibet. Most people visiting Tibet do so from within China where extra permits are issued, but for people travelling overland from Nepal, the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu (and only that one) can issue a Chinese visa with a special comment written saying in Chinese something like "entry or exit via Tibet". These are issued fairly regularly for people wanting to take tours from there overland into Tibet, and these people travel back into Nepal from Tibet without entering mainland China. People wanting to do what we were doing (entering Tibet then crossing to mainland China) are few and far between (can't imagine why!) and as such it is unusual for such special visas to be seen on the Laos border exit post, and despite Mark holding documents stamped by many official people in Beijing detailing our entire route from entry to exit at this particular border crossing point, none of the officers there was prepared to let us through, reading the comment as meaning that both entry AND exit should be via Tibet. We're veterans at border crossings now so we just sat down and waited while Mark paced up and down waiting for the problem to be escalated to someone capable of making a decision. One thing was clear - we were not going to drive back to Tibet! Fortunately it was only about an hour and a half before someone senior enough to make a decision said we were allowed to pass through. We bade our farewells to Mark who had been our faithful travelling companion for four weeks and patient with our constant searches for internet and Chinese currency and left China for country number 18 of the trip, and another big unknown for all of us - Laos.

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Comment from Shiv
Watermelons are stripy because they get sweaty when it's hot and the colour runs. Obviously.
03 May 2006 @ 16:40:42

Comment from The Mother
They are stretch marks, of course. Didn't you wonder why mothers never wear bikinis?

The Mother
03 May 2006 @ 19:52:46

Comment from Ant
LOL - someone made the connection from melons to bikinis and it wasn't me for a change!

Martin, I'm disappointed the car is looking a little dirty, I would have thought you would be keeping it gleaming as an international ambassador for your country.

And I don't want to know if you get turtles heads in any supermarket, thanks...

04 May 2006 @ 14:08:15

Comment from christophe

You didn't look at the right places : there is definitely cheddar in french carrefour's... :-)

08 May 2006 @ 17:30:37