First Days in China: Jinghong to Dali

 

Dali, Yunnan, China. 

Disappointed by the Disney-fied Dali, I resolve to head west, towards the unknown. 

 Tourists on one of Mt Cangshan's most popular walking trails. 

Tourists on one of Mt Cangshan's most popular walking trails. 

 
 

Sticking Out

I woke that first day in Jinghong and decided to walk around the city and try and figure out how on earth to keep moving north.

As I set foot outside and inched my way towards the centre of town, for the first time, it really felt like I was away. 

Exploring China basically alone, heavily bearded, clad in shabby traveller’s clothes and hiking boots with bright yellow laces, without any language skills whatsoever is a sure-way to feel like your anonymity has been thrown out the window. 

The stares are remarkable and entirely without reservation.  Though Jinghong isn't entirely off the beaten path (it's basically the first town most travellers coming from Laos are forced to experience), it isn’t a tourist destination, either. In a staunchly monocultural city, my extraordinarily foreign appearance - in complexion, bristiliness, and dress - did not go unnoticed. As I walked the streets, I felt like a quasi-celebrity.

Young kids would elbow their parents or friends who hadn’t quite noticed me, whisper into their ears, and then the whole group would turn around. They first stare at my hirsute chin, then dart their eyes directly to my yellow shoelaces and heavy, brown-leather Timbalands. One a few occasions, a stray ‘hello’ is thrown my way. More often, the stares are met with silence, or outright laughter. There is no malice, just curiosity. But it’s inescapable and, after a while, so probing as to be onerous and invasive. 

 

Learning to Talk Again

My only mission in Jinghong was to buy a bus ticket that would allow me to leave it. The complexity of doing so was apparent as soon as I found the bus terminal. In much of China, cities seem to have multiple names. I assumed my next destination - Dali - was so frequented that it would be a straightforward task lobbing the word ‘Dali’ into my conversation with the ticket attendant, she’d understand me, I’d have my ticket and be on my way. 

But I soon realised my utter inadequacy at the Chinese language would relegate the level of my understanding during conversations - even those that are often formulaic, like buying a bus ticket - to that of an infant. I’d lost my capacity to communicate in any meaningful way. My voice was rendered useless, as even my most practiced Chinese words that I’d searched online were so incomprehensible to locals that they had no way of understanding me. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m stubbornly monolingual. But I’ve always managed fine abroad. Communication forms a natural cadence that, in my past experience, felt universal.

But the Chinese language - its structure, timbre, and melody - utterly threw me, prohibiting me from being able to even nod affirmations at the appropriate time. I can’t hear question marks, full stops, or even the difference in emotion. It is utterly otherwordly. Entirely and overwhelmingly indecipherable. 

Eventually, I secured a ticket of some description for early the next morning. I had no idea how I’d find the bus within the terminal, and had little certainty it was going to where I needed it to do. But so exhausting was the process that I made do. After an afternoon finding restaurants with pictures to enable me to order food, I retired to the hostel, for a quiet night, in a quiet city. 

 

A Late Night in Dali

It was 6am and still dark when I walked the back streets of Jinghong to the terminal. I like China in its early morning hours: neon lights flicker, market stalls are waking up, the traffic hasn't begun, and its cool. When you first travel abroad, there’s a giddiness that is hard to ever feel again. It’s an indescribable atmosphere that accompanies distance and change; a feeling of excitement, nervousness, fear, love, both emotionally charged but physically realised through butterflies in your stomach and electricity through your vains. On the early morning walk, alone in a sleeping city, that wild sensation truly returned, perhaps for the first time on this entire trip. 

Then I stepped on the bus. It would be my first sleeper bus of the trip. Somehow, it manages to fit about 18 bunk beds in the small confines of a coach. I strapped in, squished up my legs, and closed my eyes. 

The ride was uneventful, apart from the fact that it took twice its predicted length, and the fact that my initial sleep was broken by a Chinese soldier, draped in a well pressed uniform and with a machine gun over his shoulder, shaking me to attention. It wasn't anything sinister: just one of China’s endless ID checks, something I’d soon become used to. Across the country, every citizen’s (and tourist’s) movements are tracked. Locals carry an ID card that police scan, creating a digital record of their movement around the country. For a tourist like me, I always have to depart the bus, answer questions in Chinese (I can’t, I just say the Chinese word for ‘tourist’ {lǚ yóu}, and nonsensically list Chinese cities I might visit until they hand back my passport). There’s no malice on the individual soldier’s part - but it's a hassle, and a reminder of the relationship the Chinese state has with the very notion of ‘civil liberties’.

After 15 cramped hours, I arrived in Dali. It was 11pm. I'd always despised, and kind of feared, arriving late at night in an foreign city with no bookings or plans. I remember being spooked trawling the back streets of Brooklyn searching for a cheap hostel after my train terminated at Penn Station at 3 am a few years back. It was one of my most discomfiting moments in my past travels. 

 Farmers near Lake Erhai. 

Farmers near Lake Erhai. 

But like any skill, this improvised style of traveling grows sharper, more refined, more comfortable with practice.  

Though in southern China having no language skills nor knowledge of my pending location, I wasn't concerned and it was a nice feeling. It's because it almost always works out - only once I've been caught without any accommodation whatsoever - again, in the US. And even that was fine - a comfortable bench in Providence’s main bus station served me well for the 6 hours before my dawn Greyhound, my slumber only interrupted by a waking-prod from a smiling police officer on night shift. So arriving in Dali late at night, I calmly solicited the first cab I saw, pointed to my translation of ‘old town’, and was soon nestled in a $6 dorm bed in one of the endless number of hostels in town. 

Any concerns I had rapidly evaporated the next dawn: Dali is a placid playground, a home for expats and domestic tourists alike, based around a kitsch old town that is as contrived (in most parts) as it is over patronised. 

 A village lane near Lake Erhai, about 10 kilometers outside of Dali old town. 

A village lane near Lake Erhai, about 10 kilometers outside of Dali old town. 

It's expensive, too. $5 coffees are the norm. McDonald’s is conspicuously thrust into the middle of pseudo-ancient buildings. There are tourists everywhere. I mean, it's a challenge to walk around the throngs that pour through every nook of the city in a similar vein to Times Square or the Collosseum. 

My time in Dali was spent on foot, roaming the old town and walking down to the banks of Lake Erhai, the huge body of water near where Dali sits. Here, the villages retain some authentic charm. The weather was perfect and there was little to complain about. But that sense of excitement that I’d felt early the previous morning - alone and in the dark in a more distant part of China - had gone. It was too comfortable, too disheartening to make it worth really staying longer than necessary. 

 

A walk around Cangshan

Views of Canghshan: the snow has receded, but entrance to the summit paths was frustratingly prohibited. 

The next day, I walked to Cangshan, the mountain range that dominates the city. But it too disappointed. Most of the hiking paths were still closed for winter, despite the heat and the obviously melted snow that made the summits look so inviting. Though the concrete paths threw up some spectacular views, I had to compete with throngs as if I was at the Grand Canyon or Mt Rushmore.  It felt cluttered and busy. And the stares I was receiving in Jinghong were only amplified on those trails. It was becoming fatiguing. 

 Cangshan, Dali. 

Cangshan, Dali. 

 Cangshan, Dali. 

Cangshan, Dali. 

 A rock pool in Cangshan. 

A rock pool in Cangshan. 

Headed West to the Unknown

So my only real choice in Dali was to leave. I had to find somewhere exciting, truly challenging, truly different. So I reconciled, that comfortable final night in my Dali hostel, to head west, to the Nujiang Valley - one of China's furthest frontiers, renowned for its challenging access, lack of tourism, ethnic diversity and spectacular scenery - for what turned out to be 9 of the most remarkable days traveling I'd experienced. 

 
Edward Cavanoughchina