Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Yuanyang, Yunnan

On Monday January 18th we finally got onto a bus for Yuanyang after an unexpectedly long stop in Kunming. It was a fancy deluxe sort of bus so we got our very own bucket! Initially we thought we could just sit down wherever, until the person who was assigned the seat we picked showed up. After several minutes of confusion we deduced where we were actually sitting and settled down.


We were quite early (worried about the long taxi ride from the previous attempt) so we sat around, tried to hydrate, and then found ourselves wondering about bathrooms. The bus ride was set to be seven hours, the bus had no washroom, and we weren't at all sure (or capable of asking) what the stop-to-pee policy was. We decided the best course of action would be to find a washroom. This took a fair bit of effort but eventually we figured out it was hidden down one side of the station back through "security". Rod went first, and on attempting to enter was held up by a gentlemen manning a small stall near the entrance. After Rod repeatedly professed lack of interest in the merchandise the merchant eventually sighed and waved him through.

The bathroom was charming. The smell hits one like a putrid wall as you pass into the darkened room. The room is long, narrow, and lit via sunlight, which pours in through no windows and no skylights (eg through the door only). Along one side of the room is a crude trough, on the other are low walls that split out individual squatter toilets without doors. These are thus open on one side. The locals have adapted well; one gentlemen was sitting at a squat with half his ass hanging out the side (you squat side-on to the door if you are willing to use these charming facilities) while he enjoyed a quick video game on his cellphone.

After Rod returned to the bus Pavan took a turn. Perhaps due to lack of being twice the size of the locals the merchant in front of the womans facilities grabbed her arm and hauled fairly hard when she went to enter. Pavan refrained (barely) from taking a swing in response, and eventually it was established that there was a ¥0.5 fee to use the bathroom. It is unclear what you are paying for; it certainly isn't for the brilliant cleaning as the womans is about on par with the mens.

Eventually the bus left. We drove for an hour or so, then stopped at 11:45am for food at a crappy little village. Luckily this also had a washroom. There was one other English-speaking couple on the bus so we asked if they had ridden buses in China before and if regular stops were the norm. They had only taken a few but we were at least able to establish that stopping regularly was quite normal. After this we felt we could safely drink on the bus without having to worry too much about what to do when we needed the bathroom a few hours later.

The bus resumed driving again until 12:36pm, when we stopped near a pump and may have gassed up. Passengers didn't get a chance to get out and wander this time.

The bus resumed driving through the countryside until 1:06pm then stopped and pulled onto a dusty, unpaved, street at some random village.

Nobody seemed quite sure why we were stopping, until the bus re-oriented itself into a repair shop.

The couple to Pavan's left are Wayne from the UK and Yvonne from Switzerland. We got to chatting with them at the bus pauses and wound up booking into the same hostel as them.

Unknown Town where the bus stopped had the typically marvelous menagerie of bizarre vehicles. We particularly liked the open-air engine block on small trucks.

After a short wait we got underway again at 1:36pm. The bus soon began heading higher and higher up narrow windy roads on the side of some decent sized hills. Along the side of the road were banana trees, orange trees, and some rather plain rice terraces. There were also (surprisingly as there wasn't overly much traffic) regular vendors, primarily selling fruit. Speaking of traffic, it was all buses and large trucks; there were hardly any "normal" civilian cars and trucks on the roads between towns.

At 2:38pm we stopped for a short drink break. At 3:33pm we paused to allow traffic to clear through a narrow spot in the road. At 3:38pm we paused to allow a few passengers off at an exceptionally crappy looking village. The cities of the mainland were a bit dirty by our standards. Some of the villages look ... unlivable essentially. Collections of ramshackle huts in the mud with a road running down the middle.

At 4:09pm we paused at the side of the road for the driver to smoke. Normally this is done while in the drivers seat but for some reason the 4:09pm cig was special.

Roughly eight hours after the journey began we hit the amazingly ghetto town of Xinjie and got off the bus. Wayne and Yvonne's hostel had sent a driver who was enthused about us staying there also. As the hostel advertised hot water, electricity, and English for ¥50/night it wasn't a hard sell.

On arrival at the hostel a few details proved to be less ideal than we had hoped. The room was equipped with a wooden bed with a paper thin matt over it and the power was out (but hoped to return at 11pm). We shrugged, dropped our bags, and headed out to get our first real glimpse of the rice terraces. The lighting was never quite ideal and the air was always a bit hazy but ... the damn things are AMAZING.

The terraces are assigned by the government, with each family getting a couple of terraces. The best time to come to visit is late/early in the year so the terraces are flooded but not yet full of rice. The government knows about this and we were told they have a scheme to put fish into the terraces instead of rice, thereby keeping the pools flooded and optimally tourist-friendly year-round. In our opinion this would be a shame as it would throw a VERY long tradition completely out the window. Ah well, it's quite literally the fault of people like us that they are considering such options.

We caught the sunset over the terraces. It is really amazing to look out and see the terraces stretching out across the landscape for kilometers in every direction. In the right light they look just like the wavy black line patterns common in Chinese paintings (no coincidence, the lines are in fact pictures of the terraces)

Our impromptu posse was us, Wayne and Yvonne, and a chap from Hong Kong whose name we seem to have neglected to write down. After the sunset we all piled into the car and headed back to the hostel. We had a basic dinner at the hostel and then went down to our rock-hard beads for the night. They were remarkably uncomfortable. Luckily we planned to catch the sunrise so we only had to stay in them until 5:45am.

At 5:45am the same posse headed off to see the sunrise.

The sun was tardy showing up. To keep us amused while we waited the locals wandered around offering Ji Dan (eggs) for ¥1 each. They were from the local minority and probably would have made much more money charging for photos.

Most of the woman brought children with them. They claimed this was due to the men being unavailable; we rather suspected it was to make the relatively visitors feel guilty about their plight and buy things we didn't really want. It worked ;)

After some time the sun came up enough we could admire the terraces a little more.

We also managed to get a photo of our whole posse. A helpful passer-by from Hong Kong agreed to snap a few shots of us all.

From left to right above, Rod, Pavan, Yvonne, Sorry-I-didn't-write-down-your-name, and Wayne.

As the sun climbed higher we got some neat color effects, though nothing compared to some of the other photos we saw where the water is all brilliant colors.

Amusingly we'd been standing admiring the paddies for several hours before we realized that there was a village just off to the right.

After a night of sleepless tossing and turning in on our rather hard plank-hard beds we were all rather tired and perhaps feeling a little rice terraced out. We still managed to muster the energy to stop and wander around a couple though.

The villages are all strewn throughout the terraces so even out the hostel window you've got terrace!

The primary beast of burden and the main plow-puller in the terraces is the water buffalo. On occasion a herd of these meanders down the street. We found this remarkable; the locals seemed to find our finding it remarkable a bit remarkable.

After the sunrise and water buffalo parade we grabbed a breakfast in the hostel and sleepily discussed our next step. We really didn't want to stay another night in Yuanyang so we asked our hostel owner to get us tickets for 4pm instead of 9:00am the next morning. Yvonne and Wayne hopped on a bus heading to a town Lonely Planet says not to stay at so as to get another bus heading for Laos.

The Hong Kong chap joined us for a few more sight-seeing stops, most significantly Laohuzui (tiger mouth). This is basically a couple of walkways high above a valley of terraces. Unfortunately it was a bit muddy looking during our visit, but spectacular none the less.

After Laohuzui we headed for the very limitedly charming Xinjie bus station. This featured the normal appalling bathroom that they want you to pay for. There was also a fellow with a sack of live chickens as his luggage.

Our first contact with our bus was charming. Lonely Planet describes the sleeper buses as "scruffy" and they are!

Our fellow sleeper bus travellers looked disreputable. Pavan described them as giving the impression of being a bunch of ex-cons and it was hard to argue. They also all chain smoked. Luckily our side-by-side mini-bunks had windows so when the bus was moving this really wasn't much of an issue. One positive of having fewer vehicles on the road is that when the bus is moving the air outside between cities is about the best you'll find in mainland China.

At 3:43pm we set off on what we assumed to be a reciprocal 7-or-so hour journey. At 5:32pm the bus stopped at some crappy little town and everyone got off. After a rather painful discussion with minimal English we learned the bus was not to resume until 7pm! WTF. Oh well. The local restaurants looked worse than our packed snacks so we watched a Star Trek while propped up in our mini-bunks and awaited departure. We were both pretty tired so we hoped to sleep on the bus a little once it resumed.

At 7:00pm we moved briefly and the stopped just outside the parking lot to take on customers. This evidently requires much discussion and people moving on/off the bus five or more times per party. At 7:30pm we were still on-loading, were starting to wonder how the heck all these people were fitting on the bus, and weren't moving. We were also getting a bit concerned about arriving in Kunmin at 2am and having to get a hotel for the night. Amusingly one of the chain smokers took up shaking his ashes over the side of his bunk directly into his own shoes.

At 8:00pm the engine turned on, a last few desperate travellers boarded, and we started moving. At this point the bus had about six passengers for whom there were no bunks so these lucky travellers got crude stools to sit in the aisle with. At 8:23pm we stopped on a dirt road because it was only wide enough for bus or truck traffic one way and a convoy of large trucks loaded with twigs had to go through in the other direction.

At 11:15pm we stopped briefly for no obvious reason at all.

At 1:09am January 20th we stopped for 20 or so minutes for no apparent reason.

At 4:00am we hit Kunming. By all appearances the majority of the passengers planned to spend the rest of the night sleeping in their luxury bus bunks. We didn't feel inclined to pursue this strategy.

On walking out of the bus we were propositioned by numerous taxi and van drivers. Naturally they wanted ¥70 or 80 for the ride, which is ¥35 during the day. After offering ¥50 and then heading off to try asking other drivers about ¥50 we finally found a van driver and headed for Kunming. By this time we were more than a little tired.

On arrival at the Jin Jiang hotel we found out that building B (the cheap building) was sold out so we had to get a room in building A. This was ¥580 instead of the usual ¥320. We debated with them a little and got them down to ¥460. On the plus side the room was much nicer in building A. At around 5:30am we showered, called down for late checkout, and crashed.

At about 11:00am we woke up again, somewhat rested and very happy we decided not to spend another night sleeping on the rock-hard Yuanyang hostel bed. Unfortunately Rod was experiencing significant stomach pain so Pavan had to solo the debate over the the room for the night. After a great deal of aggravation courtesy of a receptionist who kept repeating herself and not listening to what Pavan was saying she finally had to yell "listen to me" and then managed to get the same room at the same price for the night.

In hopes of settling the stomach with food and water we headed once again to Salvadores. The food was great but failed to help. Back at the hotel we managed to dig up some pepto-bismal, which fixed everything up (temporarily).

We lazed around Kunming for the day, got packed up, and generally tried to get rested and prepped for our flight to Hong Kong on January 21st at 9am. Despite the minor inconveniences we both agreed we were very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit Yuanyang. It wasn't so long ago we were gaping at it on BBC's Wild China (awesome on blu-ray!) and wondering if we'd ever get a chance to go to China at all!!

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