Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The final stop on our tour was Dali, the small backpacker-friendly city on the road from Lijiang to Kunming. Let us recap the journey with a few maps to put it all in perspective. As always, click on them for a larger version.

For the 6 hour journey to Dali, we took an ordinary bus for about $10 each. It was packed full with un-assigned seats, chain smoking passengers, and boasted no A/C. And apparently, there aren't any other options. You flag down a bus heading to your destination, hope there are seats available, and pay the driver. Luckily, there were exactly four people getting off when we got on. Here's our van taking a break, with mom reading in the back seat.

Dali is flanked by mountains on all sides and shares the valley with an ear-shaped lake. It is called Ear Lake. Activities in the area include hiking, boating, biking, strolling the old town, and visiting the small villages along the lake, home to the Bai minority.

Dali's old town itself, while not so striking, was really pleasant to walk around in. It's loaded with cafes restaurants, shops, and friendly people. We passed the time enjoying the weather and playing games. My parents had their first positive experience with Indian food (you're welcome Mike and Joan!).

Lijiang and Dali both have an unusual fascination with hand drums, djembes, in particular. I've been playing them for years and even had a band in college, KJ and the Pit Mac Attack, with my friend Will Norris. We played at Starbucks sometimes. We were pretty great.

Anyway! The drummers in these towns were surprisingly amateur. I made a game out of walking into the shop where five people were pounding out non-beats together. I'd pick up a drum, stare at it quizzically for a moment, then start playing awkwardly for about ten seconds. Then, i'd slowly build it into a crushing wall of awesome sound, ripping through grooves and solos at breakneck speed, bending the drum to my will. Dozens of people would gather to watch my 60 second jam, and i could sense video cameras pointed at me and the flashes of photography. Then, as humbly as possible, i would place the drum down, stand up, and walk out. A few times i received applause.

One time i was goaded by esther and the rents into joining a guitarist on the street who was trying to earn money for Tibet. I sat in on maybe five songs, and again, gathered a huge crowd. I wasn't sure if it was because i was a foreigner, or because i was apparently one of the few competent hand percussionists around, but i always seemed to get a crowd.

With our one full day there, we decided on a morning boat tour of the lake. It was pretty touristy and underwhelming, but nice enough. Most notable was a stop at a market loaded with local Bai people hawking goods. They basically just followed us around and tried to sell us stuff. I used the opportunity to take photos of them.

I also had a fun discussion with a friendly old guy. We talked about politics. He said USA loves war, and that is bad. I replied, our government loves war, but i think the majority of United Statesians do not. I agree war is bad. I glanced at esther, who was amused by the conversation, to see if my point made sense. She nodded in approval. Then the old man took my sunglasses and studied them intently. Later, he gave them back.

On our last night, esther and i went to an Open Mic at Bad Monkey Bar. I played about five songs on drum kit with many different musicians, and was generally impressed by the talent there. Esther took a few videos, here's the best one.

Esther, as always, looking wonderful.

And lastly, by popular demand, let us check in with beardapalooza, day 16:

It's fuzzy! (...the photo and the faces.)


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Our next stop on our Yunnanese tour was Tiger Leaping Gorge. We hired a private car to drive us 60 km and three hours north from Lijiang. There's no real town here, but there are a dozen or so guesthouses along the road. The real attraction is nature. You are halfway up a valley with steep, gnarly mountains on each side. At the bottom is a raging river, the Yangtze, which at this point is called the Golden Sands River. Legend says that, while fleeing from a hunter, the tiger jumped across the river three times at it's narrowest points (still 25m wide), which also happen to be where the rapids are most powerful.

We stayed at Sean's Guesthouse, which boasted a stunning location, clean rooms and excellent food. Esther liked the noodles.

The typical route for backpackers is to hike 22km from one end of the gorge to the other, stopping at various guesthouses along the way. The rents would not be able to hike this area, but we were able to go early morning horseback (and muleback) riding for a 3 hour trek up the mountain.

Our guides walked our horses the whole way, except for esther's guide, who frequently left her all alone. This was brought to our attention when we heard esther, often the last in the pack, shouting, "Hello? I'm all alone back here!".

My horse.

Three random horses grazing on the trail.

We really only had one full day and were determined to make the most of it. We learned the best hike 3 hours down to Middle Tiger Leaping Rapids, the most powerful rapids in the area and also the least developed. Esther and i hired a guide and we set off after lunch. The hike down was easy and beautiful, though in some places, you can't help but wonder how many people slipped and fell to the roaring rapids 150 feet below. Probably none, what with the twig-fences and rickety little bridges and all.

Sometimes the journey is more exciting than the destination. Other times, the destination is a rock jutting out into intense Class 5 rapids, with a huge wall of water dropping 10 feet from you, deafening deep percussion, and, like 4 other tourists.

Best. Scenic. Vista. EVER!


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lijiang Part 2

If we rewind the story briefly and revisit Thursday, we'll find a bit i left out from part 1. The bit in question is a rather quick exchange of text messages between esther and i, discussing how awesome Lijiang was, and how she should just ask her boss for the next 7 days off work to join us. She replied with something like, "I have a meeting with my boss this afternoon, I'll ask him."

Esther, i learned from our thunderstorm experience in Hangzhou, is someone to be taken seriously.

Later that day, she bought a plane ticket. She flew 3 hours to Kunming on Friday, took the 10 hour sleeper bus to Lijiang, and caught up to us about 40 hours after making the decision... and 15 of those hours were spent traveling by one medium or another. Esther wins the award for Most Spontaneous.

While sleeping late was not one of them, meeting esther at the gate to Lijiang's old city at 6am had its benefits, most notably, another chance to tour the city before the tourists arrive. Esther and i made a lap of the whole city in about 2 hours, snapping hundreds of pictures in the process.

For the first two nights in Lijiang, i had been sleeping on the couch in my parents room at the Lijiang International Youth Hostel. It was a nice room, private terrace, western bathroom, second floor with a decent view. It was one of the nicer rooms they had, and it suited three people fine, as long as one of them didn't mind the couch. But the whole time, i longed to check out their "Mountain View" suite, on the third floor. In our minds, it loomed above our terrace like a mansion eclipsing the villa next door.

It was only about $10 more, but it was also booked every night. When i learned esther was definitely coming, i inquired again about the room. While it was still occupied at the time, i learned the tenants had shortened their stay and were leaving Saturday, and therefore available for one night... the only night i would need it.

The stars aligned and with luck on my side, esther and i moved into the penthouse suite for her one night in Lijiang. It was beautiful, with an outdoor patio, a tea room, one of those futuristic shower capsules, and an amazing bed. First picture below is the view down to the rents' place, whose terrace doubled as a drying rack for the hostel.

Lijiang by day is a wonder, but it turns into a fairyland at night. Lanterns fill the alley's, gates and towers are illuminated, the city is afire with life. And tourists, of course.

We enjoyed a relaxing dinner next to a river, and tried to stealthily observe the passing mob. However, being the gloriously attractive and interesting foreigners that we are, we inevitably became the focus of tourist cameras. Also: i made a cat friend, fed him chicken, and named him Little Yellow Tiger.

One tradition in Lijiang is to float these flower-shaped candle rafts down the river along with your wish. I bought a pair for esther and mom, so they could wish for each other's wishes to come true. Both wishes came true infinite times.

Another tradition is to sit in your amazing penthouse suite and gaze upon the city below.