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Not quite Shangri-La

17 Jul

Yunnan + Instagram = holiday snaps to die for

Shangri-La is a dream… every man must find his own Shangri-La…

This is what everyone from hotel manager to tour guide to the Lonely Planet itself tells you from the moment you arrive in Xianggelila airport, aka Zhongdian, Yunnan province, aka – since it was renamed in 2001 to attract tourists – Shangri-La.

Chicken Feet’s King certainly had a dream of Shangri-La. Indeed, it was such a convincing dream that a large portion of the family flock agreed to tag along. Despite surviving the ravages of Beijing winter and poor-quality Shanghaiese food, The Mother sportingly sacrificed her sanity a second time round, bringing with her The Bro in all his public-school, hair-flicking glory.

It should be said that the egg of the Chicken Feet’s King-style Dream-Of-S-L had not been laid in anyone’s mind by James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, which describes Hugh Conway’s mythical earthly paradise. Rather it was Dan Frost, London’s finest fringe theatre critic and a China veteran to boot (read his blog here if you don’t believe me), and his wistful reminiscences of his trip to Zhongdian that ended with three words: Yak Steak Burger.

And yet, when those guides, hoteliers, et al speak of The Dream, there is no hint of “wist” in their words. They use it as a bit of a get-out clause. They know that, while Shangri-La is nice, it isn’t quite everyone’s paradise.

Naturally, the Curse of the Dragon yet again plagued Chicken Feet’s King’s progress from Beijing to Yunnan. Our transfer flight from Chongqing to Xiangelila was delayed by two hours, then the pilot decided to ground us in Kunming airport while a thunderstorm raged.

Better four hours late than never, we arrived in Shangri-La, only to be told by Shirley the Guide that the government had requisitioned all the rooms in our hotel and we had been shuffled elsewhere for the night

But as always with the Curse of the Dragon, everything turned out fine.  The Songtsam Retreat turned out to be a swanky posho place. What with the squishy king-size beds and eggs-your-style brekkers in the morning, it would have taken more than governmental requisition to mar my first night’s sleep in Shangri-La.

Unfortunately, due to the Lonely Planet’s “WARNING” about the dangers of altitude sickness at 3,300, I managed to mar it myself. My hypochondriac imagination concocted loss of breath, feverish sweating, extreme panic that hadn’t thought to bring air tanks and a gas mask, and the general idea that I was definitely dying from lack oxygen.

Amazingly, I survived. I awoke to weather cool enough that you wanted to wear jeans but warm enough for a cardi, and flickering between beautiful sunshine and the odd refreshing trickle of rain. The Guide, The Mother, The Bro and I drifted slowly and gently round the sites of Zhongdian and its environs. It was relaxing, utterly unpressurised… and still missed the head of the Utopia nail by a good few centimetres.

Close to Paradise… just not quite (Lamuyuan lake)

The Songzanlin Monastery was beautiful outside and in, but felt just too touristy to live up to its sobriquet of “little Potala Palace”.

The Old Town of Shangri-La itself (which we were taken too after an uninteresting, greasy lunch in a deserted, musty restaurant called ‘Guizhou Flavor’ chosen by The Guide) was certainly not as Disneyfied as Pingyao. Often it was very charming, proof that foreigner-tailored doesn’t always have to entirely spell swindle.

When The Guide insisted on a visit to the Shangri-La Association of Cultural Preservation, I reacted with “Urgh, God, one of those places where they make you watch a crone weave three inches of cloth then try to force you to buy a carpet”. But it turned out to be a really impressive NGO, a school and an unpretentious little shop. I quickly recanted my callous cynicism.

For the most part, however, the Old Town was little more than a fairly quiet, fairly unexciting backpacker post, replete with those quirky wooden signposts promising “Free Wi-fi”, “Coffee” and “Western Food” in various garish shades of Comic Sans MS.

There was the usual town square with its obligatory kebab- and earing-sellers.

There was a fairly interesting Buddhist temple atop a hill in the centre.

Yaktually, it’s pretty tasty

There were an awful lot of shops selling the same Tibetan knives, scarves, bowls and yak-based goods.

Our slow “introductory walk” around the town with The Guide on the first day would have been time enough to spend in the Old Town, but we ended up with an entire afternoon on day two to spend there by ourselves.

We arrived at around 2pm. The whole town had suffered a power-cut, apparently a common problem in this area.

By 4 we were trying to decide between a cold beer accompanied by the deafening grind of an electricity generator, or a warm beer in a generator-less cafe but where it was at least quieter.

By 6pm (two warm beers later), we were ordering food out of boredom in a youth-hostel-cum-caff, surrounded by Scouse gap yearers comparing their blisters in loud voices.

Shangri-La wasn’t bad by any means. One or two moments did cause my heart to catch in my throat at something close to bliss.

Walking around the Lamuyuan lake just beneath the monastery, especially early in the morning with geese calling, the smell of wood and incense burning, and a not unpleasant tune plinking out from some electronic music box that almost sounded like a flute, was terribly uplifting. So too were the two novice monks comparing iPhones inside the Monastery itself.

Ambrosia of the Gods with a side of chips and ketchup

And Dan Frost’s fabled Yak Steak Burger was very nearly heaven between two slices of sesame bap. Just not quite.

After two days in Shangri-La, I felt refreshed, but cleansed only in the sense that the Beijing smog in my lungs had been replaced with fresh (though thin) air.

As our gloriously named driver “Mr Big Fish” set a course on the potholed road to Benzilan, I held on to the Dream.

My Shangri-La is still be to found somewhere in this famously spiritual province of Yunnan.

Next stop: Benzilan.


Popping down to Pingyao: Day one – train pain again

2 Jul

A stretch of the city walls – and yes, the sky really was that blue

The open road, the dusty highway, travel, adventure, poop poop…

All it took was a magical weekend in Hong Kong for the Chicken’s Feet to realise just how itchy they were for travel.

Specifically, this means travel toute seule. No waiting for other people to get out of bed (or feeling guilty because you sleep in); no hanging around as the group’s collective bladder refuses to synchronise; no having to negotiate over what to eat for dinner with the person who doesn’t like mushrooms or the lone vegetarian. Travelling on your own saves time, if possibly not always money – all those local delicacies to taste and no one to share them with can hurt the ol’ purse strings.

I chose Pingyao, an ancient walled town guaranteed by the Great Authority (aka the Lonely Planet) to stun even the most hardened China-ite with its ancient walled town charm.

The trouble was, it wasn’t just my Hong Kong travel bug that had refused to go away. The Delay Dragon that had been circling overhead to royally screw up my journey there and back came back for a victory lap on the way to Pingyao.

I booked train tickets on Tuesday morning at 8am, having returned from Hong Kong about 4 hours earlier. Unfortunately, Pingyao tickets sell like hot cakes. I grabbed the hard sleeper back, but only “hard seats” were left to Pingyao. My heart set on this promised Shangri-La, however, and reasoning that it was very cheap at just 80-odd kuai, I thought “what the hell”, and booked the hard seat.

The reactions from others to this news were mixed but expressed the same sentiment. The great Albert, my amazing font-of-China-knowledge colleague,  let off a vast “LMAO” over MSN (as I have mentioned before, every conversation in my work happens via MSN). Others looked horrified and said “Oh my God”.

Tentatively, I Googled “hard seat China” (then’ed it when Google was blocked yet again). Every site described hard seats as – and I quote – “awful”. Hazards included people lying in the aisles, 110 seats per carriage, smoking all hours, and essentially subway-style seats… for 11 hours solid.

I panicked. I ran back and booked a train at 8am on the Saturday to Taiyuan and another shorter train from their to Pingyao.

But of course, the Taiyuan to Pingyao train was delayed – by an hour. Not only that, but it was the most cattle-wagon-like train I have ever been on – and I once rode for several hours in a luggage car through the Austrian Alps. You couldn’t move for people, in seats, in the aisles, practically in the luggage racks. Flies and midges buzzed.

A migrant worker plonked himself down next to me and proceeded to extricate a feast of biscuits from his rice sack (migrant workers can always be identified by the fact that they carry everything in empty rice sacks), most of the crumbs of which he spat over my Kindle. Revolted I turned away from reading and stared out of the window as best I could, what with the thick dirt caking the outside and inside of it, the brown sealant crumbling down in chunks along the sides, and the immovable “lace” curtains that looked as if they were made of the mouldiest of paper doilies. Innumerable shanty towns rushed by.

After what felt like hours (it was in fact an hour and a half), we arrived at Pingyao, and I fled amidst cries of joy from my fellow passengers who had suddenly realised I could in fact speak Chinese.

I was picked up from the station by a driver from the hostel, who insisted on making a pit stop to do some shopping while I waited for a quarter of an hour in the baking hot car. The hostel staff were equally helpful. When I suggested I might try and book a train on Monday instead and stay an extra day to make up for my late arrival, the receptionist swore blind that I would have to go to the train station to book tickets – until I pointed out the sign right above her head saying “We can help you with train ticket purchase!!!!!”.

As soon as I could, I was out the door and wandering around Pingyao.

Wantuozi lady

From then on, things started looking up. It was a beautifully hot day, and street sellers were out selling huge crispy Wantuozi (a bit like pappadoms) and various sorts of doughy cakes and bits of fried meat.

I wandered into the Confucius Temple and Dacheng Hall, with its fabulous statues of sinners being mutilated in damnation. I sighed at the lovely little Catholic Church, with Chinese people sitting inside and praying. I chuckled to myself at the Newspaper Museum, which was conspicuously lacking in any mention of China Daily.


A dash of damnation at the Shangdi Hall

OK, so it was pretty Disneyfied, what with the troops of street performers prancing about and every single hotel and restaurant proclaiming the same “108 local specialities!!!” with varying prices and colourful descriptions (“Clear cooks the bull’s penis” being my favourite).

But it was a Disney built on a genuine scaffolding, so you could still wander down side-streets and poke your nose into alleyways to see  crumbling ancient kilns, wooden doors, rows of coloured flags, multicoloured stone carvings, and bunches of dried corn hanging up to ward away evil.

Even the newspaper museum manager isn’t too impressed by the content of her newspapers

I chattered away to the resident policeman of one house, to two old cat women outside another (as I stroked their cat). I strolled into random museums, most of which came complete with more carved stone courtyards. I was particularly amused by the newspaper museum, which contained gems like the “Anti-Japanese Daily”, but not one single mention of China Daily.

However, endless purchases of street snacks, local sugary drinks and unnecessary souvenirs were eating through my supply of paper money. I needed an ATM – and fast.

Like every lost foreigner, I turned to the Lonely Planet again, which swore the only banks were outside the city walls. I traipsed around real Pingyao for about an hour until I found an ATM. It was a very different Pingyao – loud, hysterical, sweaty, a crowded Chinese city like any other, yet somehow frenetic enough to be not entirely unpleasant.

Pingyao has some real beauty just steps from the tourist path

In fact, the taste of reality meant that when I went back into tinsel-town, I found it far too touristy. What had been charming little boutiques suddenly seemed to shed their camouflage and show themselves as overpriced tat stores. The restaurants all seemed wildly expensive, too. And I found several ATMs. Thanks, LP.


But my vast dinner – I hadn’t eaten all day – and a couple of shots of local 40% alcohol were tasty and soporific enough to send me back to the hostel happy (even if the hostel itself was less than pleasant, what with hair clogging the shower and the continued snarls of the desk staff). I booked to go on a day tour the next day, thinking that, after all, a day and a half in Pingyao might just do me…

Tastes like tourism, sir… ordering everything “Pingyao” includes cold Pingyao beef, Pingyao cold noodles, PIngyao honey yam (delicious though not pictured), and some not-so-Pingyao cold veg and beer.

Don’t count your dragons before they hatch

28 Jun

The old sauce is needed for the curse of the dragon

The Dragon – the blazing red spirit of the skies, the luckiest animal on the Chinese zodiac. So surely, you would think, booking a plane for the weekend when the stars align for the Dragon Boat Festival in the Year of the Dragon is about as auspicious as you can get. Your airplane-based Yin and Yang will be balanced as if with a spirit level– especially if you are, as I am, a class-of-1988 Dragon Baby.

As I arrived at Beijing airport on the morning of June 22, and was handed a freebie Dragon Festival colored string bracelet by a smiling official, I couldn’t help feeling that my flight to Hong Kong was about as in tune with the heavenly spheres as possible.

Oh, the tragic irony. I look back on my debonair self in the same way as one would look at Juliet prancing on stage in Act 1,  Scene III, with no inkling of what is to come. To whit: poor hapless sod.

The first hint that something was slightly out of joint came when I glanced at the departure time on my ticket. Instead of the expected 12.10, it read 14.00. I checked the departure boards and indeed, my midday flight had been bumped forward.

Ah well, I thought. I had a good few chapters of The Hunger Games to get through. I sniffed out a Starbucks and settled down to the gore of young adult dystopia.

An hour or so later, I checked the flight board again. My ETD now read 16.00. I procured a second Starbucks – frappe this time – and switched to a somewhat racier tome.

When the departure time moved to 17.00, people began to get cranky. A small throng gathered to cross-examine the airline staff in raised voices. The staff in turn tried to deflect their rage with free plastic boxes of sponge in oil masquerading as meat and rice. Bursts of staccato Chinese echoed round the departure lounge, undercut with threatening, passive-aggressive American – “well, I just hope we don’t miss our connection flight, that’s all I’m saying”.

I tried to lose myself in my smutty book again, but it was not good. My patience had worn as thin as the garments that Christian Grey purchases for his “submissive”. When 18.00 turned to 19.00, I snapped like her very knicker elastic. I stormed up to the desk, pushed away the cardboard sandwich the flight attendant was trying to bribe me with, and demanded an explanation.

It was then that I saw the plane. Our plane. It had landed and was waiting for us on the runway.

The trouble was, the passengers who had been sitting on it for the past seven hours of “technical failures” were now staging a lock-in, refusing to disembark until the airline compensated them in full.

Team Beijing-side was not best pleased. One flight attendant was forced to flee behind barricaded doors as at least 15 people attempted to storm the plane, wielding complimentary plastic water bottles and baying for the blood of those good-for-nothing mutineers on board. Other staff members desperately tried to placate them, swearing that they would pay for everything from hotels to taxis to missed onward flights to the cost of prostitutes, while handing out yet more fizzy drinks and processed food.

Finally, at 19.45, a deal was struck with the mutineers. Yet we waited another hour on board to be cleared for take-off. During this time, one passenger lost it completely and had to be restrained by the crew as he screamed, “Let me off this fucking plane!”

We arrived in Hong Kong around midnight, weary, pale, drained. We were grouped together, supposedly to be taxied to our hotels. Four of us who were bound for the Causeway Bay area were shown onto a huge, 30-seater coach, where we were joined by two others who were not staying in Causeway Bay, but had decided that getting as far away from the plane as possible was their best option. As we drove off, all six of us in this huge tour bus, we tried to communicate our different destinations to the driver, first in English, then in my broken Mandarin. He replied with a string of Cantonese syllables. Clearly it wasn’t over yet.

We made it as far as downtown Hong Kong, where the driver stopped at the side of the road by the Hotel Excelsior, opened the doors, and switched off the engine. None of us was staying here, of course, but as far as he was concerned, this was the terminus.

This would have been the moment for me to unleash my anger Chinese. Unfortunately, my lessons about Baolou and Zhimei planning to go on day trips to Datong have not yet covered expressions of abject rage and dissatisfaction, so my outburst was confined to, “I’m not happy. This is not good. A taxi is too expensive. This is not our hotel. Where are we? I’m not happy. This is very bad.”

We found a regular taxi and drove around the block to our requisite hotels – luckily it wasn’t actually far away.

At about 2am, via a 24-hour bakery where I procured three danishes and inhaled them in one gulp, I arrived at my youth hostel. The poor guy at the desk looked ready to die. “You are very lucky,” he said. “I stay up all night waiting for you because you phoned. Next time – no way.”

As I reached for my wallet to pay for my room, my eyes caught sight of the little bit of coloured string from the airport I had tied around my wrist 14 hours ago. Blessed by the dragon? I think not.

Then again, this was the Dragon Boat Festival. Perhaps the spirit of the waters was so miffed at my going for his flashy younger brother’s mode of transport that he decided to crash my karma like a ton of bricks. Interestingly, once I switched to ferries in Hong Kong, the skies brightened, the sun shone, and I had a wonderful weekend.

Dragons are fickle creatures, I suppose. I guess the message is, don’t count your dragons before they hatch.