Sep/Oct 2004 - part 2

Happy Moon Festival

greetings from southwestern china!  it's harvest moon time here which is second only to new year's in china as far as holidays go.  it also means, of course, moon cakes for everyone!  (i have discovered that i am not a big fan of mooncakes - the filling to pastry ratio is really unbalanced to my western taste). 

i'm sitting upstairs in the only internet cafe i could find in dali (although calling it an internet cafe is being generous, considering there are all of two terminals here and the cooking fumres from the downstairs restaurant are kind of choking me.  every so often i'm going over to the window & poking my head out to breathe...).  happily, unlike on the yangtze river, which is completely smogged over by coal dust, the cooking fumes are the only reason i'm having trouble breathing now that i'm in the mountains. 

i've been in china about a week now and have already traveled from shanghai (very modern - reminded me of hong kong - loved watching people ballroom dance under a statue of mao at 7am) to a cruise through the three gorges on the yangtze river (gorgeous, despite the smog) and now i'm in dali, which is in the southwestern corner of china, in the mountains near burma. 

first, the yangtze cruise.  it was really very pretty - the gorges are lovely.  we started our trip at the three gorges damn which is still under construction but well on its way to being the largest damn in the world (apparently damn size is measured by electrical output - who knew).  it was both ugly and awesome.  the flooding from the damn is about 80% complete which means we used only 4 of the 5 locks (we merely cruised through 4 and 5 on the same level).  all along the river bank along the way there were giant signs which read "175M" in big red font, the ultimate level of the flooding.  it was really weird to know that everything below the signs would be under water in a few years. 

digression:  some motorized vehicle is slowly driving down the street playing "it's a small world".  this morning another vehicle was playing "happy birthday".  i'm wondering if it's a trash truck as we saw one driving down the street this afternoon playing a tune as it went - people hear it & come out to dump their garbage, kind of like the ice cream man, but in reverse.  it's a small world after all........... 

okay - back to the yangtze.  the gorges were truly beautiful but i was disappointed with the smog - of course, they never say smog here, it's always "it's cloudy today".  at one point we took a smaller boat down a stream to some sampans.  very touristy & china disneyesque (but fun :).  the sampans have been pulled up a creek by boatmen for 100's of years.  i felt like a total dork as our ship had required us to wear our bright orange life jackets for the excursion (i guess i should be thankful that a chinese cruise ship even had life jackets, although i did happen to notice that the evacuation map on the back of my cabin door was wrong...).  until we learned that the group before ours had had one sampan capsize!  fortunately we all remained dry. 

the cruise ended in chongking, the third most polluted city in the world (my trip sounds oh-so-glamourous so far, huh?!) - so i am of course wondering what the first two are (anyone?).  it was pretty impressively smoggy (apparently even in beijing they talk excitedly about "blue sky days".  word on the street is that for the 2008 olympics, china is going to shut down all of its factories (powered primarily by coal) for the two weeks prior as well as during in order to eradicate the pervasive smog).  i was wandering with two people from my cruise and we found a lovely little park where old men take their pet birds.  they use a long pole to hang the cages high in the trees and then sit and drink tea & chat.  it was very peaceful with lots of birdsong amidst the smog. 

i flew from chongking to kunming, capital of yunnan province on a twin engine plane.  although i was the only westerner (everyone seemed to be flying home for the moon festival, decorative bags of mooncakes in hand) there were, sadly, no live chickens so i still have yet to fly with one (everyone needs a goal, right?).  once in kunming, i hooked up with my friend mary for the tour that we're now on with an australian tour company (and 13 very friendly australians).  we learned that there was an itinerary change and as a result, we landed and then had to turn around almost immediately to take the overnight train here to dali.  on the 11:30 pm train.  ugh. 

train was great.  although, had it not been for ambien, i think that i still wouldn't really be able to say that i'd ever slept on a train, but after making a go of sleep without it (earplugs and eyeshade to no avail), i gave in.  did you know that even with earplugs in, going through a tunnel while on a chinese train is very very noisy?  especially if the window in your 4 bunk train compartment (mary and i snagged the lower bunks) is open to catch the breeze. 

dali is gorgeous - it's on the banks of a large lake, is surrounded by mountains and has a lovely, plentiful blue sky.  and the harvest moon is glorious and fat and bright.  it's also astoundingly pastoral here and it seems like the entire population is out in the fields harvesting rice (well, except for the ladies in colorful native garb who chase after you in the street & try to get you to come into their shops).  and yes, they really do wear the conical hats in the fields.   

yesterday our group rented bikes and rode 12 miles down to the lake (even better, the ride was mostly downhill and we got to leave the bikes at the bottom).  it was so picturesque that it took us over 2 hrs to cover the route - there were amazing photo ops everywhere we turned.  the lake, the mountains, the golden rice fields.  people threshing.  wow. 

as far as transportation goes, yesterday was about as varied as you can get. it began with the train ride, then bicycling. next a mini van rine to go to the special moon festival market (nirvana).  from there, the mini bus again for a ride partway around the lake past lots of beautiful, almost greece-like villages on the hills by the lake.  then, a boat ride (we got on after, i am not kidding, they got the donkey off...the gangplank was hard even for the humans so i'm not quite sure how he did it) and then, ridiculously, a horse-cart ride home.  kind of touristy but all really fun.   

well, except for when our local guide had the boat drop us of on this tiny spit of land that was covered (and i mean covered) in spiderwebs with these huge (long and skinny) yellow-striped spiders in them (don't they know that self-respecting spiders sleep during the day?).  we walked very gingerly down the little tiny path only to find that "someone had dug a big hole" in the middle of the path, making it impassible. so there we were standing amidst all of these spider webs trying so hard not-to-touch-anything.  UGH. 

fortunately the local guide was able to call the boat back after some trying and we all walked very gingerly back to the shore & jumped (literally) back on the boat.  i say again, UGH. 

today has been a lovely relaxing day -  mary and i have wandered around the city.  we bought some steamed buns for breakfast from a street vendor (and some bananas and tamarind, too), went to some pagodas & then sat in a tea shop sipping & watching the people walk by.  lovely.  next up, i'm hopeful for a foot massage.  40 yuan (that's $5 to you and me) for a one-hour massage.  nirvana yet again :) 

tomorrow we leave for lijiang, a town even farther into the hills and then the next day we begin our 2 1/2 day trek through tiger leaping gorge, the narrowest point on the yangtze. 

i hope you're well and happy moon festival to you! 


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