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Chengdu and then the Blip

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment

We arrived in Chengdu, hopping into a taxi and showing the young man behind the wheel the address in Chinese characters I’d slaved over at one of the Shangri-La hostels (I’d kicked a Scottish guy off the computer in order to do this…he’d just arrived from an exorbitant amount of time in Tibet).  He called the number at the bottom of my wrong-handed 6-year-old attempt in my notebook because one of said characters was slightly corrupted.  Nobody answered, but we took off anyway, heading into the city in sweeping loops of highway reminiscent of Paris or Brussels.  No one did end up answering the phone, but we made it down the alley to the Chengdu Mix Hostel without too much to-do.

And we promptly fell asleep.  After slamming loudly into a some of the metal lockers beside the door of our rooms to ensure that everyone was awake at 1:30am.

That day in Chengdu was all we were going to have before continuing South for more hiking, which had become the twist-tie theme of our trip.  We identified ourselves as trekkers after our experience in Tiger Leaping Gorge, hopefully climbing-off a year of cell-mutating milk teas and Uighyr noodles to make ourselves svelte and tan for the walk through Customs in the USA.  We spent the day philosophizing and reflecting on our year working in Zhuhai whilst drinking tea in the mosquito-ridden People’s park, pouring the steaming water into our palm-sized cups from a knee high thermos.

The next day we left the comfort and helpfulness of the mix hostel for the bus station, and sat upright in the back of the bus reading.  A Chinese tour guide described the scenery and a poorly-made copy of “Face-Off” starring Nicholas Cage and John Travolta crackled on a screen at the front of the bus.

We de-bussed in Le Shan, which boasts the hulkiest Buddha in the world.  Hulky may be the wrong word.  We approached it through a surprisingly small crowd, and the sight actually demonstrated it to be a lithe and angular Buddha of South-east Asia rather than the chubby, prosperity implying Buddha of other parts of China.  It was built as a tribute, prayers offered to it so it would calm the three rivers that converge in that area to protect ships, much like the Temple of Isis built on the banks of the Nile.  The time passed slowly.  Once we’d seen the red cliffs, ventured into a few dark holes in the wall of shrines, picked our way down the uneven steps carved into the side of the cliff, we moved on to lunch.  It was much hotter here than it had been in Lijiang and Shangri La, and we were starting to feel harried, stared at, and uncomfortable.  We got our own version of Chinese comfort food: cheap beer and a dish of scrambled eggs with sliced tomatoes.

The Teddy-Bear hostel in E Mei was our next stop.  It presented itself as a comfortable place, built by a self-made Chinese small-businessman with excellent Western food.  Our bus had been tiny, rattling, full of crop sacks.  The proprietor’s advertisement that he would “pick us up” when we called actually meant he would ride his moped to meet us, then slowly roll along beside us as we heaved our bags down the half-constructed street.  When we arrived in our room, giant spiders on the walls, hard beds and grime kissing every surface, we wondered aloud how we were still duped after living in China so long.  We threw our stuff down, and spent the evening trying to dub a dating show that depicted a young woman trying to choose a date with random men in the audience, some overdressed in business suits, some affecting movie stars, some quite obviously in the closet.  The best episode was the girl who simply shook her head and left the show, rejecting every single one of them.

Our plan was to climb E Mei Shan, a three day hike up and down the mountain.  We would stay in Buddhist monasteries with nothing but what we could bring in our daypacks.  Our brochures advertised the fact that we could see Macaque monkeys along the trail, and urged us not to make them angry (because they were liable to attack).  This sounded like a riot, frankly, and Yunnan had so whet our appetite for treks and “roughing it” that we were too arrogant to really be dubious.

At midnight the computer lab was clear and I checked my e-mail.  As I did there was a rattling at the chain that held the front door closed.  A skinny figure pushed the door open, squeezing his lanky body beneath the chain and through the tiny slit between glass doors.  “Don’t worry!  I’m not a criminal!” A British accent slurred in my direction.

“So,” he said, sitting beside me at another computer, “what’re you doin…”

“Talking to my boyfriend,” I said quickly.

“Oooooh ok,” he waved his fingers in the air.  “I was just actually at this bar…” he said “…I’m a little drunk.”

“Yeah, you are,” I said, laughing.  I went on to ask him what he’d been up to in E Mei Shan.  He’d apparently hiked to the top of the mountain in two days and took a bus down to the bottom the next day rather than walking back.  Lonely Planet, it seems, had overshot.  Not surprising, as they had suggested that Tiger Leaping Gorge may take five days when in reality it took two, and could’ve taken one if we’d left when the sun had just peeked over the mountains rather than at noon.

We left our big packs at the hostel and brought our day packs along, crossing streets and parking lots, grumbling at the extra five or six RMB we’d had to pay for water and the Snickers bars we’d become addicted to.  It was like the water bottles inside of an airport (that is, except for the Lijiang airport which only had water coolers with no available cups).  When we finally found the entrance to the trail we’d already been walking around on the slick ground for about an hour.

The walk began with serenity, thick, lush trees and shrubs overshadowed us and there were an abundant number of places to stop and get snacks, though we abstained.  The trail was mostly paved, often a series of staircases leading up the slopes of rolling foothills covered in long stocks of bamboo.  The few people we saw smiled or waved at us.  Children said hello to us then ran away.  After about two hours of hiking, we stopped to rest on a rock and munch our apples.  An older woman in a long skirt and sweater approached us, hunched over, a haphazardly toothed grin taking up what seemed like a quarter of her body mass.  She came up to us, asking us questions, the ubiquitous where are you from, then suddenly began speaking to us in a dialect we could barely make out.  We told her we didn’t understand her.  She laughed and continued to talk and gesture.  We did the same for awhile until she finally walked away.  We left the stones, feeling warmer and more connected to humanity than we had from behind the TV set or computer screen the night before, our conversation deepening.

The stairs became grueling soon afterward, and as we descended into the area that was advertised as having the legendary monkeys, the density of people increased exponentially.  As did the tables of trinkets.  As did the grills full of searing chicken feet.  As did porters charging people to be carried, sitting on poles, up and down the stairs.  As did older women baring their teeth and waving sticks at us that we could buy to fight off the monkeys.  As did the middle aged men shouting HELLO with rubber grins.  As I pushed my way up the narrow staircase, trying not to look into the  jeering faces, I could here Megan’s shouts of frustration behind me, “BU YAO BU YAO!!!”

When we reached a plateau we realized we had to, had to get out of here.  We briefly argued the relative merit of finishing the hike to say we’d done it vs. preserving our sanity by ditching.  “You know what?”  I finally said, “We’re on vacation and nobody is having fun.  Let’s get the hell out of here.”

We took the cable car back to the bottom and took a winding bus through the hills back to the town.  And there we waited for another full day, hot, smelly, and with a couple of pollution-induced colds hiding in our room between getting ripped off by shop-owners and the hotel owners.  Sometimes, it just gets to be too much…

Categories: Uncategorized

A temple less traveled, Part one

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

When I went to Italy several years ago I was determined to see EVERYTHING that Florence and Rome had to offer.  That was until I got museum feet.  And by the time I’d walked into the fifth cathedral, I wanted to screech, rip a censer away from one of the nuns and begin to swing the thing madly over my head.  The same feeling took hold of Brian and I our second day in Bangkok, traveling with two Thai-Buddhist friends of friends.  We had first experienced temple fatigue the day before, after being rushed through three separate temple grounds and ending in a Gem-scam trap.  We’d thought we were going through a cruise on the Chao Praya river, but first we went to a temple.  Then, when we actually went on the gondola-like boat ride (except for the single engine rudder and the water snakes) we ended up at another temple.

“I don’t even know what that is,” Brian was saying, crouched in a parking lot next to a golden statue of an elephant at which we’d been instructed to throw some sort of oil.  “What is that elephant thing?  That’s not even Buddha, why are we giving it money??”

How closed-minded, you may say.  The problem is, an answer to a question like, “What is that?” is often something like, “[Unintelligible god-name] Very important god.  Very big god.”

And to “what does [feeble attempt at reproducing sounds making up god-name] do?”

“Bring you good luck.  Bring you money.”  People all over the world have this desire in common, I suppose.  To clarify, I am VERY interested in world religion.  I love asking questions about religion and letting people go on and on about it to me.  I love studying religion and looking at religious art in small doses.  Something about temples, however, brings out the devil in me.

Fortunately though, this didn’t happen in Shangri-La.  Shangri-La has

the biggest prayer-wheel in Asia, towering at 24 meters that spins on the hilltop over the old-town area.  It stands slightly down the hill from a small, but “kinda gaudy” temple in which I spent all of two minutes.  In the temple grounds, however there is a lot more to see, plus the prayer wheel is of course why people come.  Megan and I took

our turn spinning the wheel, taking our place alongside a gaggle of Chinese tourists.  Not twenty seconds afterward, two monks in rich yellow and magenta robes took their places immediately behind Megan and I.  They don’t leisurely stroll around the prayer wheel–to these guys, prayer matters.  They put their heads down, bent their backs and HUSTLED.  Megan and I ran along with them, solemnly, even as the other tourists dropped off in alarm.

At the bottom of the hill was another one of the pleasures of Shangri-La: a huge circle of Tibetans dancing in a circle, with people all around, taking pictures, visiting with friends, eating or playing games.  We watched an old man wearing a tailored suit and fedora skipping rope by himself.  He then invited a skinny child with a bowl cut to jump along with him, and as he did, knocked the fedora over the end of his nose.

Patrick and I couldn’t help but join in the dance.  Everyone smiled and made room, shouting directions at Patrick in Chinese.  We only made one round–the dances were surprisingly difficult to pick up, usually restarting their cycles on something other than the downbeat, taking backwards and circular steps, kicking and bending, hurling arms up in the air.  We left laughing though, and happy we’d taken the often sketchy journey all the way out to this place.

Categories: Uncategorized

The first mountain town of many (part 1)

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment

Since my travel style is usually more meandering, I was worried about letting my inertia get the best of me (or us, rather) during our time in Shangri La.  Patrick and Kay were the best people possible to hook up with, in that case!  I don’t know how we would’ve found our way out to the Pudacuo National Park without them or to the other adventures that were to be had in the attic crawlspace of the world.  Patrick and Kay had plans and were kind enough to include us in them, to help us by going through some of the more intense negotiations, building a relationship with a 23 mian-bao-che driver and former soldier who gave us great deals on rides out to the mountains.

The first day in the mountain paradise, we went to a national park full of mountain lakes, meadows and hilarious Chinglish signs exhorting us to be mindful of the environment and the possible dangers it presented.

After Tiger Leaping Gorge, we felt invincible in our hiking abilities.  The national park had a hop-on hop-off shuttle that took us along with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and even a few  American tourists from one lake to another.  We walked down boardwalks suspended beside the lakes, waving off mosquitos and talking about our favorite childrens’ books and previous adventures in other parts of the world.  We also discussed the Shanghai expo, which they had previously visited.  Patrick alerted me to the fact that Denmark had shipped the actual Little Mermaid statue to the expo and had it under 24 hour surveillance.  Based on how frequently the cultural relic is vandalized in its own home, I remarked that it might experience fewer dangers during its stay in China (ironically enough).

Because of the flatness as well as the enhanced environment the walk felt like nothing, but the distance that day probably amounted to at least five or six miles.

The next day was a lot more impressive as well as an unexpected delight.  Our plucky Mian bao Che driver drove us out of the city about an hour and down a bumpy dirt road.  I was curled up in the backseat when a toothless woman in traditional Tibetan clothes ran out to our car and negotiated a price for our guide to take us on a hike up the mountain, withdrawing a cell phone from her clothing and shouting into it (like ya do in China).

Out of the field beside the road rose a woman who looked older than I’m sure she was, but with a completely placid expression.  She wordlessly turned from us and started down the path.  The trail was less a trail than a river bed, complete with embedded stones and gravel that was hell to walk on when a misty highland rain began to fall.  Every tourist we saw descending was Chinese, and was seated on a horse.  The horses had particular problems with polanks that had been laid out along the meadow at the top of the mountain to keep us from sinking into the mud.

Both Megan and I slipped in yak excrement.  When we got to the lake that was our destination, Patrick’s attempt to walk across a log out to a boulder ended with him falling into the water.

Kay was delayed not only by the fact that the altitude was making us all short of breath, and not only the fact that there were so many purple irises to photograph, but the fact that she made friends with every small child who tried to hustle us and every yak farmer we encountered.  “Yi ji zou!” She’s shout–let’s go together!  And would engage in heavily accent Chinese chat-time.  Our guide eventually warmed to us, though everything she said, including her name was quietly mumbled.  We finally got some laughs out of her when we all sang Bohemian Rhapsody a capella from beginning to end on our descent.  As we reached the car, our driver dozing softly in the back seat, we could see the full arc of a rainbow forming over the valley.

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Tiger Leaping Gorge, Part 1–The Trip Gets Awesome

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

We left Lijiang with the earliest possible shuttle, but later than one would usually desire when departing for a two day hike that first must be preceded by a two hour ride in a mian bao che (a small silver van in the shape of it’s nicknamed “bread loaf”).  We traveled through the mountains with three young Chinese students, one of whom was an English major in Beijing.  As we snaked out of the valley and toward the mountains surrounding the gorge, we passed a truck pulled over to the right shoulder (there was a right shoulder!) by two police cars.

“Someone’s in trouble with the po-po!” Megan said.

The English student turned around, his cheekbones riding high with a grin.  “What is po-po?” He asked.  We told him it was a kind of American slang for police and he burst out laughing, sputtering Chinese to his two friends until they were laughing too.

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri-La County, Yunnan

We stopped to look over the gorge at a vista point complete with Buddhist temple.  Tiger Leaping Gorge is supposedly the deepest river gorge on the planet, the Yangtze running it’s silty way between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Xueshan.  It was dizzying to look down, and baffling to see the ubiquitous high heeled women making their way down the steps to the vista point.  They looked sexier in their photos than we would after two days of trekking, that was inevitable.

We left our big backpacks in Qiaotou village at Jane’s Guest House.  The driver left us there at noon.  While we were there we saw a Chinese-featured but Western dressed couple, the woman speaking with a British accent, the man with an American one.  They paid their 5 yuan to the woman sitting next to a pile of menus and a disheveled kitten and walked out.  We bought a couple of snacks to give us trail-energy.  I got “toast and peanut butter” which consisted of a large slab of bread and a jar of Skippy with a knife stuck into it.  We soon began the hike, following the path of several green, spray-painted arrows on walls that said “Gao lu” or “high trail”.

We caught up to the couple in a big concrete yard outside of an elementary school.  They stood, debating their route in Western-accented Chinese with a confused looking man on a horse.  We stopped, asking them if he was telling them which way we should follow.  The four of us were soon walking up a paved road together, the man on the horse clopping slowly behind us.

“He’s trying to convince me that I’m going to need the horse,” said the British woman in clipped tones, “but at least I made him take of the damn bell!”

This woman, Kay, had spent the past five years living and working in Hong Kong and just moved to Qing Dao (home of the brewery…Tsing Tao is how you write it in old Pinyin) to learn Mandarin.  There, she’d met Patrick, an electrical engineer turned English teacher from Hawaii via the Bay area.  He was moving back there to get his Masters in Environmental Policy, and she was moving to Beijing to try her luck at job-getting.  We heard from her, the familiar ring of how easy it was to live in China, and how she didn’t want to leave.  We eventually figured out that they weren’t actually a couple at all.

Kay on the treacherous path!

Meanwhile, one horseman clopping behind us, listening to our introductions, to us discuss the world cup, turned into two and then three horseman.  One of them started making goat noises as we passed a flock of goats, mimicking the laugh I let out in surprised response.  The new horseman also had bells.  Patrick and Kay kept politely turning to ask them to leave but they only laughed and said, how ever would she finish the trail if they weren’t there to rescue her?

Finally we stopped at a shaded convenience store for water before the famous “24 bends”, a collection of tight and steep switchbacks that coil up the mountain.  The man working at the convenience store offered us marijuana.  Patrick and Kay looked at us in confusion, “People never offered us that before!”  Kay said.  We laughed at their indignant arms akimbo–apparently getting offered drugs was stuff only white foreigners liked.  We declined (again), preferring not to accidentally teeter to our deaths.  Instead we sat, sipping water, and looking at the horseman, who had let their horses loose to graze and were themselves squatting nearby, waiting for us to move.

“I can’t handle it if they come along,” Kay said.

“Me neither,” I said.  The goat-bleating man was starting to repeat everything I said.  I was starting to prickle.

“It’s just that we’ve asked them several times already to leave us alone and the don’t seem to want to…”

“Emily, you should go be mean to them,” Megan said.  “You know how to be mean!”

It was a theme of our trip how mean I could get.  I wasn’t mean this time, but I definitely broke the magic fourth wall of politeness by walking up to them and imploring them in bad Chinese not to come with us.  It would’ve translated to something along the lines of: “Please please please please don’t come.  Please.  Don’t.  Don’t come.  Don’t go up hill.  Please.”

They laughed a lot.  But they didn’t follow us.

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Central China–redux pt.1

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

So my promises of up-to-date travel adventures in the People’s Republic were, too be diplomatic (though who wants that?), misguided.  Dali was not exemplary of anything I would find during the rest of our journey other than a lot of rain and a slight chill that I hadn’t packed for.  It was nearly impossible to post, due to the fact that most computers involved lines, and internet cafe’s…oh I don’t even want to get started but…

First look at this:

So it isn’t that they think we’re going to corrupt the minds of Chinese internet users with our democratic tendencies.  It’s that they think every foreigner is now Bill Gates’s spy.  So the few times we did go into internet cafes, we were met with waving hands and screams of “No! No! No!”  A little disheartening.  Also makes it a little difficult to update.

So I’m going to do it now.

So we also encountered other things that were slightly like our experience in Dali, though not on such a professional level: we succumbed to the promise of a warm cup of Pu’er in the afternoon on something that had been labeled “Foreigner Street”.  I’d heard, accurately, that this was where the Chinese tourists with their counterfeit ethnic accessories and Nikons, would gape at foreigners who had come for a more unusual and hopefully heterogeneous experience of China.  The main difference between this, however, and the rest of the journey, is that the tourists here at least tried to sneak their pictures of us writing in our diaries.  Or trying to climb mountains.  Or eating lunch…

They wanted to see what she was writing about. When I caught her at it, she just said, "you're both just so beautiful!!!"

Our time in Dali finally ended, and we got on a minibus stuffed of locals, boxes and bags with homemade plastic handles, babies that alternately slept and wept, and whipped in and out of the oncoming lane higher and higher into the mountains that lead to the Chinese Solvang of Lijiang.  Lijiang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 because of its ancient inner-city architecture, and despite some whisperings to the contrary that I heard while I was there, it’s status has not been revoked because of the glut of Nikon-carriers.  It seemed difficult to photograph authenticity without having the frame filled with lines of identical bangle-shops and windows stuffed with dried yak meat.

Megan and I walked with our bags through the narrow streets–I almost a liability after foolishly deciding to brave the slick ancient stones in year-old cheapo flip flops (at least my outfit matched though!!!)–and found our Chinese-run hostel at the other end of the Old Town.  The neighborhood was quiet.  We needed hamburgers and then we needed quiet, so we sat in the hostel, I playing a tiny guitar with a missing string, and her reading the Lonely Planet in preparation for the following day’s trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

The trip gets awesome here.

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Dali, Yunnan 21:45

June 22, 2010 Leave a comment

We sat upstairs in a cafe after dropping our stuff at the Lily Pad Inn, run by Ben the gregarious Frenchman. The air did something to us as we looked up at the crags of the Cangshan mountains and as the rain broke out in front of our eyes. Dali is like Santa Barbara in that all of the rooftops are the same, sloping into more subtle points than the eagle talons of Thailand. These tiles are blue, and the linings of the houses are painted with the quintessential Chinese animal patterns–green and yellow birds (with the stray tiger or crab) and trees against white, white porcelein.

I’d found a book on the shelf of the bakery called “The Importance of Living” by Lin Yutang, a Chinese philosopher from the 1940s, from the beginning of some of the most tumultuous times here. He professed in the prologue to be making an offering, or a summary at least, of Chinese thoughts and attitudes toward life. If only, I thought, I’d found this before embarking on this crazy year.

There were passages relating to family loyalty, some interesting comments on how a wife is only a wife when she has children and only a mistress when she does not, but we all pick and choose from philosophy–the things we like and the things we ignore.

I chose the section on idleness, nearly out of necessity, but also because here–like many other places–no matter how many inordinate and confusing demands are made, there’s always time for a two hour nap after lunch. Mildly paraphrased, Lin said something along the lines of: a Westerner may have a strong work ethic, but isn’t it when he’s lying on his back in the middle of a grassy field on a spring day that he sighs, almost involuntarily, “life is beautiful”?

Megan and I have been having a hard time with this. We’ve gone on long walks during the few hours a day that the sun has been shining (warranting some really awkward necklace-sunburn-lines) out to Erhai Hu (a lake named for it’s shape like an ear). Then we’ve spent afternoons buzzing with the thin air of the altitude, drinking Pu’er green tea, and waving off the elderly women who repeat incessentally, “smoke-a the ganja?”

“This isn’t normally how I travel,” she said to me today. Apparently the norm is a nearly break-neck pace. She and her spring-festival travel buddy ripping through Cambodia, Laos, Vientnam and Thailand in a month. We are covering an immense amount of ground ourselves, but there is not a lot we can do in the rain–the cold rain. And as most of you already know, I am a lazy traveler. With the year we’ve had to process though, both in our respective social groups, watching ourselves change and coming to grips with some very grown up things, the idleness has been necessary. It hasn’t necessarily inspired “life is beautiful” sentiments–I hope those will come in time. It has, however, given us an opportunity for some entirely necessary reflection.

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Kunming, Yunnan 19:24

June 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Woke up yesterday with one of my girlfriends zonked out next to me and the mid-morning sun blaring through the dusty curtains. Walked into the living room to see my friends and roommate sprawled on the couches, a strange Italian man with tattoos all over his body sprawled on a mattress that had been dragged to the middle of the floor. I realized that along with the increasing amount of work stress, of packing, and of final exam activities, my life had fallen into that somewhat sordid short-timer condition. It was definitely time to leave Zhuhai.

But I’m not coming back just yet…not after the weeks at Town No. 1 with Wendy, with saving up all my extra yuan and taking on those extra classes. I didn’t spend my early mornings to my late nights at UIC, grading papers, running clubs, and planning lessons for nothing!

Megan (from SB) and I arrived in Kunming, Yunnan last night. There’s something that all of my students have said about Kunming, almost using the same cadence and the same phrases in that spooky way that many Chinese people echo one another, “Ah. Kunming is called the spring city. They say there that it is never hot in the summer and never cold in the winter.”

I don’t know anything about the winter, but I do know that unlike in Guangdong, we were able to walk outside for more than an hour without breaking a sweat. The streets were swept clean, and high mountains that dropped suddenly into cliffs formed a background for the city skyline.

Last night as we drifted into much needed, twitchy sleep, I asked Megan if we could pleeeease please please go to the “Ethnic Minority Village” at the edge of town. China has this exploitive propensity that can sometimes be kitschy to the point of being horrific. I expected this to be something like the new “little person park” that was written up in the New York Times, and that I would have to keep my hand over my mouth entirely.

By the time we’d left, I was quite relaxed and happy. I was happy to be breathing clean air and looking over clean water, even if from man made lakes. We watched a demonstration by a group of Miao people, dancing, singing hymns in a homemade church, a young Chinese man with a popped collar came up to offer a song (as is a hospitality tradition) and was then forced to attempt climbing a high wooden telephone pole whilst trying to preserve his designer pants. As we rounded the side of the church, Megan and I turned just in time to get our own photos taken by a Chinese tourist. I wasn’t horrified as I walked through the well kept park, looking at beautiful handicrafts such as embroidery, clothing made from tree bark, clay teapots shaped like chickens, and elaborately carved traditional instruments. People seemed happy, and even if it was touristy, to us it was still Chinese.

This will not be the same sort of trip as we took in Thailand and Malaysia. Megan and I have an elaborate, only halfway formed itinerary that leaves us only about two days in a given place. Tomorrow we’ll be taking a 9am bus to the old city of Dali, slightly further up into the mountains. In the meantime, however, we hope to get out into the city to try some “Across the Bridge” noodles, and maybe spend sometime in the bouganveillia lined courtyard of the Cloudcity hostel.