The morning I left Kunming, I was waiting for a city bus when of group of people dressed in traditional ethnic clothes passed by on their way to the park, looking like they were ready to dance, and all I could think about was how I need to be living in this city. Next time, Kunming. Next time.
The journey to Dali took a lot longer than I had expected. I waited over an hour for a city bus and stared dumbly down the street hoping to see the 95 round the corner. At one point a minivan rolled up, doors swung open, and about ten people, all wearing zebra-print hats, crawled out of the van. Two of them had monkeys on a leash, and one young man was carrying a rather large python in a plastic bin. They walked in the opposite direction, the van drove away, and I continued waiting.
I ended up getting a taxi to the next stop, and just as soon as I was telling the driver where to go, I saw 95 pull up down the street. Figures. Got off at the wrong stop because I mixed up my directions, walked a ways, waited more, finally got a bus to the station, and then waded through crowds of people until I made my way to the front of the ticket counter. “Dali. 12:15. One ticket.” I got on the bus and spent the 5-hour ride listening to music and watching the countryside from my window, going to Dali.
When I say Dali, I’m talking about Dali Old Town, or 大理古城. Dali is the center of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan province and is where many people of the Bai minority live. Of the many tourists in Dali, Chinese far outnumbered foreign backpackers; I had heard that Dali was a backpacker haven but I did not get that vibe at all and was pleasantly surprised.
I happened to be in Dali during the most important festival for the Bai people. The Third Month Festival (third month of the lunar year) was being held at the foot of the mountain and the street was full of merchants selling everything from food to toys to electronics to tablecloths to dried alligators. There were musical and dance performances, balloons, a carnival-like atmosphere- although the festival has undoubtedly changed over time and has become more commercialized, many people were dressed in their traditional clothing and there was quite a bit of activity on the crowded street.
Dali a strange place and I can’t quite put my finger on how to describe it. It’s part traditional old town, part circus. You can get tattooed on the street, you can eat traditional Bai food, and you can take photos with taxidermied animals that look like they only exist in a bad version of The Chronicles of Narnia. People are everywhere, in every corner, and some of them are Bai and wearing beautiful Bai dress, a small percentage is wearing clothes for climbing, and some aren’t wearing shirts at all and are busy cooking your food on a stick. Apart from Bai, other minorities were represented and I noticed that there was much greater diversity in Dali Old Town than in, say, Nanjing. I liked it, though- it was quirky and different.
The evening I arrived in Dali Old Town, the clouds around Cangshan looked ominous and the wind was blowing like a big storm was about to roll through. Fortunately, it passed during the night and I woke up early on Tuesday morning to climb the mountain. After eating noodles for breakfast, I heard Justin Beiber blaring from a speaker as I made my way down the main street, and I regret that the entire day I had Baby stuck in my head while climbing. Tragic. I thought I could escape it, being in China and all.
I planned this trip by myself and I carried around a 9 page itinerary with me with all of my sites and hostels and transportation details, and the hiking part of Cangshan was included in that itinerary. I had found several different routes on the internet and had chosen one. But what really happened was that I couldn’t find the actual entrance to the mountain- or, at least I thought I was heading toward it, and I never found it. Instead I walked through part of a village, periodically asked locals for directions to the front gate, and kept being pointed in the same direction. I got closer to the mountain and… well, it was a mountain, and there was a dirt road or two, but no gate and no entrance. To my left, there was a barbed wire fence and a sign that said “Danger” in Chinese. Two older men wearing military clothes happened to be passing by and I asked them how to get to the gate to buy a ticket. They pointed me in the direction, continuing along the dirt road, and they were going that way themselves. I hesitated but they insisted I follow them and I asked if they were locals and if they had climbed the mountain many times before. Yes, and yes. So I followed them.
We did eventually arrive at something like an entrance with a table and a sign, but this was clearly not the entrance I had read about online. It seemed more like the entrance to a side road that locals take up the mountain, not for tourists who come to climb. To my surprise one of the men sat down at the table, and I realized he must be an official. I asked how much the ticket was. He said I didn’t have to buy one and let me go on after us going back and forth. I was happy to save money but knew that if anybody asked me for a ticket, I’d have to figure out what to do. I decided to just go with it, and the other man started walking up the mountain. The dirt path was pretty difficult to hike up- not like steps that are on most of the mountains I’ve climbed here. We passed through a graveyard and after about twenty minutes the man sat down to smoke and that is where we parted. I kept hiking, alone. I hiked for about two hours, only seeing several people in one of the graveyards, and they told me which way to keep going. Apart from that, I would occasionally hear music somewhere in the background, and I was burning up and had to make blind judgments on which way to turn when there was a fork in the road. Not what I’d expected or planned.
I realized that, like a giant allegory for my life, I had a useless itinerary in my backpack and I was blindly climbing this mountain and nobody else was around. I’m such a planner, a Type A, the person who wants to have it all in writing- and though I always get where I need to go in the end, most of the time my plans take on a shape of their own. Most of the time I’m making it up as I go along. Don’t we all? Does anybody really know what they’re doing?
But I had fun climbing and I finally reached Zhonghe Temple, which is an actual part of the mountain that people are supposed to climb to. Several official-looking men were sitting at a table and I heard one of them exclaim to his buddy, “Look! A little foreigner is coming!” and the other guys made a few comments and shuffled around. I approached them and asked which path was best for hiking from the temple, the right or the left, and they sheepishly gave me their suggestion after realizing that I had understood what they’d said just then, and asked me a lot of questions. They were friendly and were too preoccupied with my speaking Chinese with them that they didn’t ask to check the ticket that didn’t exist in my pocket. Score.
Once I was on an actual path, the view on the mountain was gorgeous. In terms of hiking, it’s not very strenuous, but there are pretty valleys and flowers and birds. Hardly anyone was on the mountain and I would just see people every now and then, but I was, again, alone.
At the next checkpoint I also made it through without being asked for my ticket because two dogs were fighting and the ticket man was trying to break them apart. Score again. Unfortunately my luck ended there because in the afternoon a group of policeman asked me for my ticket, didn’t buy my story, and I had to pay 15 RMB (student discount) right there. You know you’ve been in China too long when it irks you that you have to pay the equivalent of $2.40 USD for a ticket to climb a mountain.
My favorite part was toward the end of the hike on the path, when a big, chilly wind came by and for about ten minutes I was holding onto my hat and pressing through the wind and listening to music on my ipod. Nobody else was around, I had nobody to share that moment with, it was all mine. The sky was blue, the air felt more like the stuff I used to breathe in America. I remember thinking about how, four years ago, I had pictured myself at that moment to be taking final exams and thinking about what I would look like walking across the stage in a robe in Columbia, SC. I’m about to graduate, but I’m here in China instead. Itineraries don’t always play out like you thought they would.
I paused for a bit and ate a stale peanut butter sandwich and almonds, went on for a few more hours, and then headed back. I do like more challenging hiking, though, and I ended up taking the strange backroad back down the mountain. It was harder going down and I made it off the mountain by about 3 pm with some bloody toes but overall feeling that good feeling one gets after a great workout. The two men were back at the bottom of the mountain when I passed through and I thanked them again. I passed back through the festival street, chugged bottles of water, and went back to my hostel to wash off my feet and sit down.
The rest of the evening I walked around the Old Town, ate an embarrassingly large dinner (Bai food), hung out around the festival, and finally came back and couldn’t really move my legs.
Another early morning wake up, another bus ride back to Kunming, many transfers later, and I was in the airport. While waiting for the bus to come, a young girl sitting next to me shyly asked me where I was from. She was very sweet and our tickets happened to be next to each other on the bus ride. She’s a sophomore whose hometown is Dali Old Town, who studies in Kunming- and when we got to the Kunming bus station she even made sure I got where I needed to go so as to get to the airport on time. She was just one of the many people I met on my trip who was very friendly and helpful and a reminder of how, even when you’re alone, you can always meet people. There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. I was never the latter.
On the way back, you asked me, “So, are you ready to be back in Nanjing?” And I said no- actually, no, I told you, and you were surprised. I want to stay in Yunnan and see everything and continue on- and that is a first. I am usually glad to go back and ready to go back to Nanjing after travel, but this time I wanted to hold on. I want to hold onto all of it- the whole thing, every bit, and not let go. But just as my trip to Yunnan came to an end, my time in China is inevitably coming to an end, as well, and so much is unfinished. I have five weeks to figure out how to get on that airplane with grace and remind myself that this is not the end. I will be back in China, and I will go back to Yunnan.
I was writing all of this down in my journal, sitting on the airplane, when the flight attendant looked down at the words on the pages and asked me to please take my backpack and things and come to the front of the plane. Confused, I followed him to the empty first class. He asked me if I spoke English, since he had seen me writing. He wanted to ask me questions about American culture and English, so I happily sat in that first class seat and enjoyed talking with him. He wanted to go to America to study to become a pilot, and he was a young man living in Kunming but had grown up in Inner Mongolia. He had only been studying English for four months but when he spoke slowly, I thought his level was certainly impressive for such a short time studying it. He even pulled out a heavy workbook to show me what he had been studying on his own. He tried to speak a few sentences in English and would use Chinese for words he did not know, and I filled in those words for him in English and wrote them down. How do you say this? What does this translate to? How can I prepare for America, and what are interviews in America like? I asked him questions, too, about his work and his family in Inner Mongolia, about his plans to become a pilot. As we were landing, I thought about how I remember the early days of being in China and asking so many questions about how to say things, and how nervous I was- and I would never have imagined that I’d be sitting in first class on my way back from a solo trip to Yunnan, talking to this young man, whom I would otherwise never have met but for the fact that I am white and like to write words, talking about my country and my native language. Language links people together. I want to do this for the rest of my life.
In retrospect, I really enjoyed traveling alone and would definitely do it again. Before, I’d had some worries about traveling alone that are natural- will I be lonely? Will I be able to get around on my own? Will it be safe? I actually found myself talking to more local people, and was approached by many people along the way. People are curious, and so am I. Though the planning for the trip and working out logistics took up a lot of time- in reality, I spent a considerable amount of time each day getting to and from places, negotiating prices, buying tickets, etc. and the time it takes to do that is not reflected in my blog- I enjoy the planning and I enjoy being able to make my own schedule and see whatever I want to see without relying on anyone else. I had no problems with language and felt quite comfortable with it. Mandarin is a discouraging language to study but if I can travel alone and have simple conversations with people, then I’m at least not failing at this. Of course now I’m back at my dorm typing this and wanting to kick myself because I wish I was better, but such is my life.
I had one rule for myself on this trip. This: Wherever you are, be all there. I did a pretty good job of it, and I enjoyed it all the more.
So, travel alone. Make plans and laugh about how you got where you should go but did it a little bit differently. Do it all in a country that you love.