EMMA ROSA ROBB
It was late January when the plane’s wheels touched down in Lijiang, an ancient town of winding cobbled streets flanked by streams and houses built in the traditional style. The town’s many shops parade hilariously inaccurate names whilst the electricity pylons are disguised as pine trees and as you walk steadily up hill in stitches you’ll come across some truly unforgettable views. Without breaking a sweat we found the best one; following upstream we came out over a small lake and behind it the imposing Tiger Leaping Gorge, three times higher than Europe and resting on the skirt of the Himalayas, looking down at us, blue against the water and Chinese pagodas.
The main Tiger Leaping Gorge trek takes 5 hours according to the Chinese map…well, how about more like 2 days; don’t trust Chinese maps. At about 11 in the morning with backpacks for 2 months we were dropped off. The plan: drop stuff off somewhere, trek, pick stuff up on the way back. Well no, there is nowhere to leave your stuff so exchanging expressions of hopelessness with three French girls who’d made the same mistake as us, we trudgingly but in good humour began our ascent. The beginning, although hot, was fairly flat but then came the path, the path that just went straight up and up and up and disappeared out of sight and into the dust. We laughed, the French girls looked about to give up and we got into t-shirts and began. It was a challenge; with only half a bottle of water, no suncream, no food, and heavy backpacks you could say we were slightly underprepared.
That first day we reached the halfway point in 7 hours. Burnt but with factor 50 donated by some lovely Korean ladies, water we’d found in stalls and natural springs on the way and a Newcastle united t-shirt wrapped round my head as a turban to hide from the sun – I felt great. Staying the night in a hostel on the top of the gorge with our new friends we chilled out under a sky full of stars (a rarity in China) and in the morning watched the sun creep over the sharp-edged tips of the mountain on the opposite side of the gorge. The second day was easy walking and as we followed the morning sun’s rays the shadows of the mountain moved across the landscape revealing jagged cliffs, waterfalls, green fields and villages.
You’d think the way back would be a breeze but once at the top we’d missed the last bus back. Massive boulders above us – some of which had fallen down -, a cliff down to the river on our other side and no cars to be seen, we started walking the two-day trek back in the hope of catching a stray car. Eventually, at nightfall a truck rumbled down the road and picked us up. A testament to the kindness of the Chinese, he took us to the village, found us a place for a good dinner and didn’t even chuck us out when I mixed up my Chinese and asked him “How much for your children?”
After exploring other cities in Yunnan, like Dali and Xishuangbanna (where we met probably my favourite Chinese people ever and swam in a huge, huge cup of Pu’er tea) we jumped on another plane to Mandalay, Myanmar.
If you feel like your missing gold pagodas in your life or temples shimmering from all sides with diamonds of reflective glass, go to Mandalay. From the moment the plane descended all I could see were gold pointy roofs shining at me across an infinitely flat landscape.
We jumped in a van and headed toward the centre of the city – though you would never have known it was the centre; raw, it had no skyscrapers, no tall building whatsoever, any part of Mandalay could be the centre as could any be the outskirts.
After a few days visiting temples, the palace and watching sunsets and U-pain bridge with Myanmar beer and coconuts we headed to Bagan. Piled into the back of a local version of a horse and cart we caught a lift from the bus stop to our hostel and set out to find a spot for sunset. Shoes off we walked into the centre of one of the thousands of temples scattered across the orange dusty plain, up through a pitch black staircase and out onto the roof we popped, the sun glowing fuchsia above us and the plain in all its glory below us.
Heading back in the dark we hitched a ride with some friendly locals and stopped off at a restaurant for some ‘Myanmar alcohol’ – whisky. A bottle later and the owner and his wife had invited us to dinner with them and their family the next evening. The morning after we grabbed a couple of scooters and explored the area and it’s thousands of temples, got told off for playing some footie with the local boys outside a temple and stopped off for dinner with the family from the night before. Myanmar people have to be the kindest and most genuine I’ve met and after an incredible meal where it became quite apparent that the best food was only for us it was very sweet to see the children give me a bracelet, followed by the family realising that only one of us had a gift so wrapping up a lacquer pot that had belonged to the grandmother only to realise that my bracelet had now been outdone therefore finding another lacquer pot to wrap.
After Bagan we trekked from Kalaw to Inle Lake sleeping in rural villages and monasteries on the way. Playing football with the novice monks we found that even in the remotest parts they speak English better than the Chinese, the kids shouting ‘UNDER THE KNEE!’ every time we went for a goal – not that I managed any goals.
Two days later and we came out into Inle Lake where the gardens float, fishermen row with their feet and the houses are on stilts. A couple of days taking long boats down canal networks and ducking under the tarpooling of the local markets and that was it for us – Off to Thailand to spend the last couple of days riding motorcycles round the islands, partying on the beach and diving with turtles and rays. Never mind best memories of the trip, these were some of the most unforgettable times of my life.