Nǐhǎo from China, Jinghong to Kunming overland

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We left Luang Nam Tha on route to the Chinese border. The scenery between Laos and China is pretty cool and beautiful. The border of China serves not only as a point of entry and visa control but also as a portal between worlds. The contrast is incredible, we leave dirt roads and  beautiful, peaceful tribal villages and travel through time from the old way of living into modern China with its constellations of neon lights, vast sprawling cities overpopulated with skyscrapers and gigantic hotels, and endless highways of shopping malls. China appears to be the arrogant, ignorant bigger brother of South East Asia, evident in their ‘bigger is better’ approach to everything and their general attitude. It is in a sense, the New America. Capitalism thrives here despite claiming to be socialist, everything dripping with money.

In general the people are their usual glum looking selves. It’s not that they are miserable, although you could easily perceive them as so, it’s just their general appearance. Most are quite pleasant and return a smile if you deliver. One thing we remember from our previous China trip was the amount they smoke and how much they ‘hoooooccckckscscskcsskk!!!’and spit constantly. Completely normal for them, completely gross for us as we avoid the splats of saliva deposits up and down the street. Smoking is insane here. EVERYONE smokes it seems. It’s similar to the west 20 years ago. They are allowed smoke everywhere; restaurants, hotels, hospitals, elevators, buses etc… It’s relentless! Hence why they all spit all of the time. It’s bad enough having to endure smoke in restaurants but when your just about to insert a nice slither of chicken in a glutinous savoury sauce into your gob that you spent ages chasing around the plate with fiddly chopsticks, and then you hear someone hokking a similar glutinous chewy phelm into their mouths followed by splat sound, it’s enough to make you reconsider your appetite. But again, it’s their way and if it’s the social norm then technically it’s not rude and maybe our disgusted looks are.

There is so much to write about in terms of how China and its people are so different but I’d rather spread it out as we go, plus it would be unfair to lambaste an entire nation within the first few paragraphs of this post. Contrary to what I may be insinuating, China and its people are uniquely awesome, who challenge western convention and do things their way. Yes it’s a bizarre part of the world but we have grown to love their quirkiness despite the few noticeable social differences in etiquette that are often viewed as rude or obscene.

So yeah, the Chinese border. As soon as we made it through the visa control and the truck got its necessary inspection we walked out and were greeted by money exchange touts. Initially we brushed them off ignoring their advances. We had some Laotian money and about 15 dollars to exchange but couldn’t be bothered haggling and thought we may as well get scammed by an exchange bank with fixed prices. Turns out most of our group exchanged money with them, and they all got a fair deal, so we decided to exchange the little we had into Chinese Yuan (also know as Ren Min Bee (RMB)).  They immediately hounded us, shouting and bargaining, flashing notes and figures, making it very difficult for us to work out the correct exchange to the point I had to tell them to shut up and back off. Eventually we worked out the correct exchange rate and asked for 168 Yuan. They pulled out their calculator and typed 90 Yuan. Yeah right. So I just laughed at them and repeated 168, eventually walking away. They ran after us and conceded and typed 160 Yuan, so we agreed and they began counting out the money out in a few 10s, one 20, and the rest in 5 Yuan notes, all the way up to 160 Yuan, grabbed our money and cleared off. We just laughed at the madness and were happy with our bargaining. Or so we thought.

All foreign vehicles are required for an M.O.T inspection in after entering China so we parked at the M.O.T centre in Jinghong and went for lunch with the group. Awesome first feed in China, a mix of all sorts all pretty damn tasty and so different to S.E.A. When it came to paying we all owed 20 yuan each so we counted out 40 yuan from the dozens of 5 Yuan notes in an attempt to get rid. Our Chinese guide gave us a funny look and she said ‘Not enough…these 5s are HALF YUANS, not 5 Yuan notes’….

THOSE MOTHERFU…!

The money exchange snakes gave us all worthless half Yuan notes. We compared them to actual 5 Yuan notes and yes they are different but how the hell are two strangers to their money meant to tell the difference when both notes have a big ’5′ explicitly printed on them with Chinese writing underneath? (…Despite the fact we have visited China before, so yeah we dumb, but I honestly can’t remember seeing these notes before.) Honestly none of us in our group bar our guide knew the difference. So literally 1 minute on Chinese soil and we’ve been ripped off. To be fair, while they counted out a huge money stack of 5s into our palms it should have rang a few alarm bells, but as our group all got fair deals we thought nothing of it. Turns out they robbed us of around $14 (around £8-9). We were happy it was so little but the image of them all laughing between themselves at the dopey ‘wide eyes’ grated me. We couldn’t help but laugh at the annoyance while inside I felt like driving back and stuff the wad of notes down their throats. Ah well, it was an effective scam and luckily one of the cheaper lessons we’ve learnt I suppose.

After venting and letting off a little steam enough to bring the pressure gauge to a more stable reading we set off to wander around the streets while the slow M.O.T centre processed the queue of vehicles. The annoyance of the scam subsided pretty quickly as we were swamped by dozens and dozens of children who were leaving school. This part of the world is generally untravelled by ‘big noses’ (what Chinese call white folk) so our presence was pretty bizarre to the locals. The kids were so much fun, all taking photos on their phones and laughing when we pulled faces our caught them snapping away. It was a crazy little moment of fame being treated as celebrities. Maybe it was the effect of a crowd creating an excitable air that perpetuated the whole reaction but still, it was great fun high fiving and having a laugh with the kids. Individually they didn’t seem to care but as a group they were ecstatic, with more and more joining to see what the fuss was all about. Eventually we escaped and waved goodbye and wandered on. A bizarre but cool wee moment.

We waited at the M.O.T centre and watched local Chinese manoeuvre mopeds around flag poles as part of as driving test, hilarious watching them wobble and fall off while trying to avoid each other. Chinese people must never have seen a truck like this before, and when we arrived anywhere they would stand and wander around the truck staring at it like a UFO had just landed and we were the weird aliens aboard. Eventually our truck returns and off we drive to our hotel in Jinghong, a massive behemoth tacky skyscraper. Grabbed another awesome dinner, a mix of all sorts, had a few drinks at a local bar with 2 others from the group, headed home and slept for the night. This process was to repeat itself for the most part of the trip unfortunately. Drive, eat, drive, eat, sleep. Mind you the countryside connecting each huge populace was incredible along the way. Stunning layered tea fields, mountains and valleys, followed by overpopulated concrete jungles. Eating is the most exciting part of each day as we sample local foods from the south western regions and they are always gorgeous. Surprisingly Chinese mash potato is THE BOMB! (That or we are subconsciously missing spuds from home, either way it definitely satisfies.) Other notable favourites are ‘Twice cooked pork’ (pork belly slices twice fried and served with spring onions and chilli in a black bean sauce), Asian sausage (crispy sausage meat in a savoury sauce), velvety soft aubergine with sweet spicy sauce, chicken stir fried with peanuts, raw beef served with a hotpot to cook it in (similar to a fondue almost) and last but not least, bees, crispy deep fried bees and their larvae. We randomly ordered this as we asked for a vegetable dish and the waitress recommended bees nest. We thought it was going to be the actual nest, not its contents. So insects count as vegetables to this person. Regardless they were surprisingly addictive. Thousands of crispy bees and larvae with a slight starchy flavour, lightly seasoned with salt. Couldn’t get enough of them. Wiped out a good few hundred bees and their future generations in one sitting.

Drinking on the otherhand is a mission. My ability to get drunk has been lessened by the fact most beers here are on average 2.5%. They taste relatively nice, a little light but refreshing. I did buy a bottle of wine that was translated to me as red wine for around £4.50. I thought bargain. It was a chinese rosé, tasted of melted strawberry ice lollies and was 5% alcoholic volume. In other words it may have been a children’s cocktail. I suppose after S.E.A, a few weeks off the drink is in order to be fair.

A couple of the cities we stopped in along the way were ultimately forgettable purely because they were resting spots between drives. As we headed further north towards Kunming and the Shilin Stone Forest, we had planned to stop off and camp for the night, which was a welcome change from the all the hotels. On the way, through small rural villages we opened the roof top seats allowing us to sit alfresco and watch the beautiful scenery roll past as we ducked and dodged low hanging branches. Before arriving at the campsite we went food shopping that morning through a great market, and bought supplies for the truck. Myself, veronica, and 2 others including our Chinese guide were on dinner patrol that night. The market was pretty sweet, again a hectic maze of vegetables and death. Half deer carcasses (heads intact) lying across butcher tables, piles of pork bellies, sausages, beef bones, chickens, barrels of live fish and ducks, frogs, toads and other random array of edible victims decorated the meat zone. The vegetable sections were just as impressive with mounds of produce half of which was as alien as some of the meats. The human traffic jams mixed with the actual traffic jams inside the market were crazy, as shouting voices competed with motorbike horns. Woks were flaming and tossing, steam erupting from dumpling baskets, and boiling fat deep frying all the weird and tasty foods being plunged into them, as people haggle and yell orders over the tops of heads and shoulders. The place was an industrial ecosystem and a definite highlight of our overland trip. You’d think that market after market we would be used to them but each one is just as fun and exciting as the last. We bought our supplies and hit the road to our camp site that afternoon.(It’s a bit of a pity I didn’t have my camera deep inside the market because the sights were amazing. I ran back quickly for a few shots on the outskirts but nothing too impressive.)

We found a small dirt field bear the Shilin stone forest to set up camp in. After tenting up we set about preparing dinner for the group. Stir fried sausage with green pepper, stir fried pork, a vegetable soup, a cucumber pickle, and steamed noodles, washed down with a few 3% beers. Felt great to be back cooking again. We sat around the fire stargazing and chatting and headed to bed soon after for the early start the next day.

The next morning we headed to the Shilin Stone Forest. One thing I must note about the Chinese government. If there is an area of natural scenic beauty or anything natural that is remotely interesting to look at, the government feel the need to make a theme park out of it by building a wall around and a big gate with turn styles making everyone pay to see it. Okay I know it is also in the interest of conservation and protection but most of the sights in China have a real theme park feel to them. Perfect walkways, golf carts picking and dropping tourists, souvenir shops on every corner, time tabled singing and dancing performances, and tour guides leading their colourful sheep around. Why can’t nature be left as nature intended without always having to turn it into a profit spinner. It really kills the natural vibe of the place.

Regardless, it was still pretty cool to see. Huge karst stone columns with deep crevasses decked with said perfect walkways and viewing platforms. These formations evolved over thousands and thousands of years as rain and streams eroded the limestone to create the pillars. The gallery is 99% made up of these pictures and will eventually become boring no doubt. As we made our way towards the remaining few hotspots, and then to the exit, the place became swamped with thousands from the neon army. Of course. They arrived in their droves pouring into the park with their funny matching hats and wee wavey flags. I have to admit one thing about these people. Not one of them is out of fashion. This is because fashion doesn’t seem to exist in their neon world. Probably the most mismatched crazy combinations of clothing you can witness. They take the simple concept of matching colours with subtle layering and completely do the opposite, trying to make every aspect of their clothing stand out independently. Who knew white checkered leggings would be a perfect mismatch for red shoes and a gold coat with a lime green visor. It’s as if they wake up blindfolded and aimlessly grab at whatever they feel in their wardrobe, leaving the house looking like an Andy Warhol painting with limbs. They give knew meaning to the word gaudy. They are also as loud as their clothing, all shouting and talking over one another other, sometimes sounding like they are arguing but are simply conversing. It’s like they have never been let out before and the excitement is too much to handle. At the other end of the spectrum are the ‘desirables’, the women who dress to the nines as though the walkway through the stone forest is one long cat walk. Wearing high heels steeper than stilts, huge sun glasses, hair designed to perfection and loads of jewellery, they prowl into the park followed by the odd ankle wobble as their heels wedge between the paving stones. One thing these self proclaimed beauty pageant princesses have in common with the colour clowns is….selfies. Damn, China must have invented this form of vanity. Each and every one of them love to pose, be it the slender looking twist of the hips with the elevated chin and serious sex face of the princesses, or the clumsy ‘stand on one foot while making a heart shape with your arms’ approach that seems popular with the ‘unfashionistas’. It’s truly a spectacle to watch.

Despite of all this I love them. From a distance they are a photographer’s worst nightmare but in person the majority of them are really nice, friendly and excitable. We were swarmed by groups of over dressed, overly hyper groups of these colourful middle aged eccentrics, basically queuing one by one to have a photo with us, all shouting at each other with directions on how to pose and take photos with us. Linking arms or throwing my arm around their shoulders or waists seemed to make them fall into hysterics like I was some western toy boy. Every one of them were incredibly smiley and chuffed to have photos with us leaving with a polite bow and a ‘Sank you’. Unfortunately not all of them are like this, with a definite few completely rude assholes who shove through everyone like human kayaks using their elbows as oars to make it to the front of a crowd to get their dopey picture taken to add to the rest of their picture album of them standing in front of stuff. In general there seems to be no such thing as waiting as everyone selfishly jumps queues in order to sort themselves out before anyone else. They drive exactly the same, cutting each other up and bullying their way through each others lives. I suppose when you live in one of the most overpopulated countries in the world and have to deal with endless crowds of people on a daily basis it’s no doubt more efficient to be selfish and abrupt.

We eventually made it to the exit, boarded the truck and drove into Kunming, another huge city of blinding lights and skyscrapers. As it was Veronica’s birthday and our final night with the group we all headed out to the bar district which was pretty cool. we headed home around 1am to jump on Skype and catch up using the limited internet connection we had found. The next day we explored the local pagodas and ate weird food before heading to the airport for our flight to Chengdu. Back to independent travel again. Couldn’t wait.

3 Comments
  1. Deep fried bees????? You do realise bee populations are dying and you are now partly responsible?? I’m beginning to think that colony collapse disorder (when the bees just disappear from a hive) is not nature/pesticide related but a secret mission of Chinese people deep frying them all! It’s mad as there’s such a campaign here to save the bees, can you tell I’ve been on a bee health course! As I’ve dissected bees under the microscope don’t think I could eat one! Did Veronica eat them? Loving all your other good blogs though lol! X

  2. I had that twice cooked pork recently in London in a great restaurant, loved it too and now making it at home with leeks and red pepper. Lovely

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