The last week has been pretty busy for us, meaning that we've been getting up before the crack of ten o'clock in the morning to get stuff done. We just aren't morning people, I guess!
After we left Dali we arrived in the lovely city of Lijiang, a few hours north in Yunnan province. The old city of Lijiang is postcard-perfect, with a jumbled maze of cobblestone streets that wind their way around bridges and zigzag the river. Obviously, the Chinese think Lijiang is postcard-perfect too, because it's clearly a popular tourist destination, saturated with hotels, guest houses, restaurants, snack stalls, and souvenir shops selling candied yak meat and yak bone hair combs. This is the low season, so we could walk the streets in relative peace, but rumour has it that in the summer it's bodies upon bodies, all following tour operators with brightly coloured flags. This is where we spent New Year's Eve: we had a nice dinner and intended to ring in 2008 in style somewhere in the "entertainment district", but it got so cold that we were back in the guest house by 11:00 at night, watching a movie. It may not have been the most exciting New Year's Eve we've ever had, but it was certainly memorable!
The other reason people go to Lijiang is that it's the starting point for visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge. The gorge is named "Tiger Leaping" because of a legend that says a tiger escaped a hunter by leaping across the river at its narrowest point. Some tourists visit as a day trip from Lijiang, taking the bus into the gorge and admiring the scenery. Instead, like many others, we chose to hike it instead, climbing up from the river's side at 1800m to an elevation of 2800m (in one day!) to admire the view before coming back down again in Walnut Grove. On the first day, we left lovely Jane's Tibetan Guesthouse (with electric blankets and an adorable kitten) and climbed steadily upwards through the infamous "28 bends" to the peak. From here we admired the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, which we haven't seen since we left Nepal -- and they're just as breathtaking here as they were there. The Yangtze River gushed madly a kilometre below. That night we rested at the lovely Tea Horse Guesthouse with friends we made along the way, and admired the stars from our bedroom window as they sparkled above the mountain peaks.
The next morning we set off again in the sunshine, this time on a much easier path that was thankfully mostly level and still beautiful. Along the way we met two waterfalls, a herd of horses, and some wicked gusts of wind coming across the path as it wound its way along the mountainside. By midafternoon we were sadly past viewing the tallest peaks, but were still awestruck by all that surrounded us. We stayed for two nights at Chateau de Woody (it's really called that) in Walnut Grove; the second day was our designated rest day and we relaxed in the sun with a basket of fruit and nuts and a pot of green tea.
(I should mention here that along the way we met a Scottish couple that had taken three years to ride their bicycles across Europe and Asia from Scotland and had just arrived in Walnut Grove via TIBET -- and it's cold there right now. They camped along the way, cooking by stove fire and knocking ice off of their tent in the mornings. Most amazingly/alarmingly, they had spent a record 25 days in Tibet without any showering, bathing, or cleaning of any kind, as it was just too damn cold to get undressed or wet. Thankfully, by the time we'd met them they were well past this stretch and smelled fine. This feat of athleticism and stoicism made us feel like true champagne backpackers, and I won't even tell you how much food they ate except to say that it was an astounding quantity.)
We took a cushy eight-hour bus ride back to the city of Kunming, where it's warmed up considerably since last week. Today's big adventure was a search for dental floss that led us, of all places, to Wal-Mart. There are actually over 100 Wal-Marts in China, and it seems that Wal-Marts around the world are all the same in the sense that they have the same smiling faces and the same lowest-price policy. The merchandise is different, though. This Wal-Mart carried steamed dumplings, dried pigs' heads, and booze, along with the typical electronics, housewares, and groceries. There were even gherkins -- and I can't tell you how tempted I was by this overpriced jar of pickles. Still, walking around the buzzing store left me feeling sad for the infinite number of street stalls and corner stores that have been abandoned for the big blue box that Wal-Mart has created. It's bad enough we have to see it happen at home; now it happens in China? I won't even begin to get into all of the reasons that Wal-Mart is pure evil, but I have to admit with shame that we have only been able to find dental floss at Wal-Mart in China, so we had to buy it for the sake of our molars and canines. Our year away in the absence of professional dental care means that we can't afford to always be righteous.
Our plans have changed somewhat; we were going to move onto Nanning and then from there, to Vietnam. Instead, we're taking another marathon bus ride to Jinghong tomorrow, which will position us to go into Laos in the next few days. While this is exciting, it's also sad in a lot of ways. We've kind of gotten the hang of China, meaning we've managed to order food in non-English-speaking restaurants, and have shared more than a few laughs with local citizens -- even if they are usually laughing at us instead of with us.