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Report from trip in Yunnan

    I'd never been this high before, at least not from a bedroom window. To think the shrieking summits in the glacial Canadian Rockies were the same altitude as this Tibetan-style hotel. The fresh urban sprawl animated by the sharp light of winter siting at 3200m was a good meal for the old grey matter.

    The remote town of Zhongdian relaxes in the flat-based valley of China's official Shangri La region. I say "official" as the Chinese Authorities have pronounced that this area is the Shangri La immortalised by James Hrriot's novel (titled, cunningly, Shangri La). Herriot tells of an idyllic landscape, an Eden of milk and honey, a Paradise Lost ... and it's all absolute fiction. However, there are some striking similarities between his writing and the Chinese foothills of the Himalayas; hence the huge effigy at Zhongdian airport which reads WELCOME TO SHANGRI LA.

    It is an undeniably gorgeous area. The fifth Dalai Lama himself chose the soft, lumpy hills 4kms north of town as the site for the Sumtseling Monastery, built in 1681. An inspiring feat of architecture, Sumtseling is home to hundreds of cloaked monks and worthy of a visit this far north in itself; the grand position, amazingly decorative temples, golden statures, prayer wheels and unending staircases are a sight to behold. Serenity abounds and upon leaving even a sceptic like myself couldn't help but feel just a little enlightened - which is a paddy field's length from how we felt after the epic 1200-mile journey to get here from Hongkong.

    The practicalities of travelling in China is where the adventure, fun and frustration lies. We'd come to this newly opened area to check out some unclimbed 5000m peaks and inspect the potential for rock climbing. Nothing, however, proved to be that simple; be ready for the bus not to run, the taxi driver to get lost, air stewards to smoke, the driver of your jeep to have no mechanical knowledge of his vehicle and, finally, be aware that the trains depart absolutely on the minute, without fail. The best plan is to change your plan - I can't imagine anything more confusing than trying to buy a bus ticket in China.

    Two days on a rattling bus south from Zhongdian is the central business district of the Yunnan; Kunming. Being a country bumpkin and hardened city-phobe, I was surprised to find I loved the cities in China, especially Kunming; I could sit and watch a busy crossroads in Kunming for hours (and often did). It was like a well-rehearsed ballet, eastside Story: a car lane going straight, a lane turning left and a lane just as big with 30 or so cyclists waiting, as if at the start of a time trail - all choreographed across the stage by the whistle-stop ringmaster on his pedestal of authority. Superb.

    We'd flwn here from Hongkong and as it was the Chinese New Year, all one-hour flights north to Zhongdian were booked; it would have to be the two-day journey on the dreaded sleeper! The West Station was the place to get a bus ticket according to Jah. En route to the South Station - as recommended by the nice man at the visa office - we nipped into a travel shop just to double check flights were definitely out. This guy at the counter seemed to enjoy practising his broken English (actually it was more "fractured in four places and needing steel pins to hold it together" English); he put us right by pointing in the other direction - turned out we were heading to the North Station (damned Lonely Planet maps!). Our fractured communicator gave us the word that the ticket office across from the Camilla Hotel was the best place to find a ticket to Zhongdian.
The disjointed directions were good; bad, however, was the reliability of the girl at the ticket desk. Thinking we'd booked the elusive flights, we handed over the money to a face of confusion. She made another quick call and hung up; "No flight," said the giggly smirk followed by a shy and embarrassed drop of the head. The bus tickets she offered were twice the going rate, so we opted to try the West Station. The routine display of hand signals and pointing at Chinese characters in the guidebook to the one-gloved taxi driver took us cross-town Kunming. Leaving the perpetually tidy and litter-free streets, we entered the suburban rality of market stalls spewing onto the road; weeks of trash mounting in the gutter, accompanied by honking, shouting and plenty of near misses. Welcome to the neighbourhood of the West Station.

    The ticket office porthole was surrounded by numbers and Chinese chareacters, not a spot of English in sight. "Zhongdian, Zhongdian," I announced to the man behind the bars. The Western dialect imediately attracted the attention of half a dozen ticket attendants, none of whom could quite work out what we wanted. Somebody who spoke English was called for. "Zhongdian, Zhongdian,"
we explained again; "No Zhongdian, Lijiang then Zhongdian," was the reply. This totally threw us - which admittedly doesn't take much when you've just landed in China - and all the attendants conferred in a corner as we spun in Asian bus-ticket-bewilderment. "Lijiang, Lijiang," came the chant again, like some uncompromishing back-benchers in a Commons debate. Then they disappeared out the back door like a wave shucking back to sea at low tide. A new attendant appeared and we explained to him that Lijiang would be fine, He gave us a blank stare, like we were speaking a foreign language, and we opted to try the South Station...

    It took all day to organise our ticket north, which was very tiresome, but taught us two grat lessons about travelling in China. Firstly, and rather unsurprisingly, it's full of Chinses people, and their distinctive culture and language is very confusing for the uninitiated westerner. Secondly, you have little to fear in China as the people are refreshingly modest, friendly and, if they can be, helpful.

    Preconceptions of the last giant bastion of cmmunism are of strict, xenophobic militatry checkpoints at every country border and supermarket checkout, searching your bags for national secrets and analysing your papers like the Gestapo hunting for members of the Resistance. In reality, it jsut does not happen; yes, if you put "photographer" on your visa application instead of "actor" you will only get a 15 rather than 30-day visa - but an extension is easily obtained. Yes, there is a military presence in every town but no, they're not heavily armed and intimidating. In fact, they are surprisingly chilled out, show little interest in tourists, and when not smoking a cigarette, can be found playing cards with the locals.

    Exculding European countries, China is my ninth foreign destination and the first where I've been stopped i the street by a complete stranger and told "Welcome to China!" Granted, that would sound a bit odd i Alice Speings, but you catch my drift...

    Before I tell you more about the Shangri La region I've just got to let you know about the aforementioned, but as yet unexplained, "sleepers". Take a standard coach/bus and strip all the seats out, replace with bunk beds and elongate the windows. Add a few Chinses families, a couple o soldiers, an eclectic mix of backpackers from Oz, Israel, the US, France, Italy and the UK, et voila, one sleeper. Once over the initial, "but I'm in a bed on a bus," panic, I thought they were great - travelling in a sleeper at some point during your Chinses voyage is an absolute must. The journey will, by default of being on a sleeper, be long and at times bouncy. However, we found the absurdity of the situation to be quite hysterical and the beauty of arriving in the middle of the night at your given destination, and then being left to wake up in your own time, has to be experienced to be believed. Tell that one to National Express!

    First impressions of Lijiang were a bit grim as we woke in the grotty back street bus station, having sudden second thoughts about the sleeper. We made headway to the "Old Town" which specialises in cheap, western-style hostels. Despite the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5600m) back-dropping the town, the scenic parks and the ancient buildings, I found the whole Lijiang experience disappointing. It's very commercial and as it was Chinese New Year the twon was packed with tourists from east and west. Much more authentic was the day trip we took to one of the local villages- although the buildings weren't as polished, the place had charm and was more like the real China than how the tourist board thought tourists would like to see China. Visits to the local temples and monasteries all come with my humble blessing. If you really want to get away fom it all and do a spot of high altitude trekking, then head north and check out the splendour of Zhongdian.

    If you're after some guidance then there's a company in Kunming (Yunnan Exploration Travel Service, 177 Renmin Xilu Kunming, Yunnan China, Tel: 0086-871-5312283, Fax: 0086-871-5312324, URL: http://www.toptrip.cc, E-Mail: sales@toptrip.cc) that'll gladly arrange guided treks around Lijiang or Zhongdian via their Zhongdian contacts. Or you can get yourself to Zhongdian and take it from there. In Zhongdian, whilst many marvels of the region lay frustratingly close, reaching them can be tricky. The fabulous monastrery, temples, unbelievable gorges and the spectacular 6740m peak of the sacared Meili Mountain are all within reach - at least in theory anyway. If it's mid - winter, the temperature plummets to -10 to -15 each night and when it snows, there's no fleet of tax-paid gritters and slush ploughs to keep things moving; you are quite simply trapped until it thaw.

    If you're going to ty trekking in this area on your own (i.e. without a guide) you'll have to be the adventurous type. There are many day-trip delihts in the immediate area to choose from. And hour in a taxi will get you to the base of a fabulous 4200m peak that's only seen a handful of ascents, or explore the shepherd paths near the limestone arch village and enjoy the company of the Tibetan-influenced Naxi people. Dazzling mirror lakes, rare black-necked cranes and breathtaking scenery; you'll soon find out why this area is compared to Shangri La.

    We did have a couple of adventures beyong the travel basics to uncharted areas via jeep hire with dreiver. One of them, the Baimong range, was on route to the Meili Mountai, which sits on the boarder with Tibet...

    It started with six heart-stopping hours of driving on a crumbled mountain pass, through inconceivably steep terraced slopes where life clings and flourishes in unimagiable positions. Our drop-off point was at 4100m, where a deserted stone shack became our base camp. We camped at this remote outpost for four days, cooking by the fire in -20 temperatures by night in a landscape which deies grography. On one side of the valley an arctic scene of deep snow and primal scrub leads to jagged, icecla alpine peaks in the wild and cold fringes of the soaring Himalayas. Just six miles across the rickety dust and stone road the rocks are still jagged - although this time cracked and shattered by the direct rays of the sun; brown and rust scree slopes leadin to the razor-sharp-but-decaying Baimong teeth. Pink, red, brown an green desert paints the mountains on this side. Lands of contrasts are much publicised and I'd say I've seen a few, but this plac is like some incubated virtual preserve - an equatorial Namibian rockfest alongside the starkness of the South Pole.

    We'd barely walked four kilometers yet I was exhausted and had the uncontrollable desire to sleep; altitude sickness was kicking in. If I've got any advice about trekking at altitude, it's to make sure you're fit and take it steady; acclimatise properly. But, like I told you in the beginning. I've never been this high before...

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