After the smokey haze of the lowlands we were glad to be climbing into the mountains. These were the eastern reaches of the Himalayas, and we were headed to Juigaihou (or as we called it, GI Joe). A world heritage park, this national park was a series of waterfalls and beautiful azure blue pools cascading down from the mountains. But it was also an introduction to how a park like this has to be managed to protect it against the hordes. Buses shuttled visitors around the various areas of the park, and all walks were on carefully constructed walkways. Brides posed furiously in front of photographers, and in ‘traditional’ villages hawkers sold the usual collection of Pandas, Buddhas and other paraphernalia. Malinda had warned us carefully about this so we were prepared. But it still left you feeling like you hadn’t quite connected with the park.
A bit more about Malinda. China is the hardest country to drive your vehicle across. You need a Chinese drivers license, your car requires Chinese registration, you need a pre-defined route approved by the government, and the killer, you need a government approved guide in the car to ensure that you are adhering to the approved route. We used a company called Navo, and Malinda was our guide.
Having a guide has positives and negatives. The expense, having a stranger in your vehicle, and the constraints of the route after the freedom of driving where we liked can be a drag. But the advantages are huge. Chinese does not to English. At all. From understanding the hotels, the roads, the tolls, the sites, even dealing with Police and border officials, without a guide it would not have been a fun happy travel experience.
But Malinda became part of the trip for us. 5 foot nothing, armed with food and Panda key rings as gifts, Malinda was constantly cheerful, positive and patient.
Her English kept us entertained: “And this court is where the Emperor selected his cucumber”. Confused pause. Me: “Concubine?” Malinda: “Oh, yes, concubine”.
Her presentation of Chinese history was optimistic: Malinda: “This temple ten thousand year old!” Benn: “Rebuilt in 1995 after the Cultural Revolution?” Malinda: “Er, yes rebuilt in 1995 after Cultural Revolution”.
Her navigation instructions frustratingly confusing: Benn: “Ok, should I turn left or right at this intersection?” Malinda: “Yes, turn to Jing Tong”. Benn: “Ok, so is Jing Tong left or right?” Malinda: “Yes, take turn to Jing Tong”
And her translations suspiciously brief: Andres: “How much is it?” Malinda to shopkeeper: “Ma numa numa numa naa, numa numa numa numa numa numa naa, numa numa numa numa numa numa numa numa numa naa, numa naa” Shopkeeper: “Numa na, numa numa numa naa, numa naa” Malinda: “numa numa numa naa, numa na, numa numa numa naa” Shopkeeper: numa numa numa numa numa numa numa numa numa, numa numa numa naa.
Malinda: “20 yuan”.
We were now around 4000m above sea level, and for the next two weeks we would stay high, constantly descending into valleys and climbing the next mountain range as we travelled west towards Tibet. The hunt for the “highest point of the trip” began as we crossed each ridge. “wow 4,300m, take photos, this is the highest point!”. And then a day later: “oh, 4,500m, better take some more pictures.” Then 4,650. And finally 4,700m – us looking some what bored by this point.
However the scenery was spectacular – around us the mountains continued to climb past 6,000 metres, covered in snow, and we felt like we were cruising across the roof-top of the world. Once again, the pictures tell the story best. Shangri-La was amazing, and confusing, because as far as we can tell there are about three Shangri-Las in China, all claiming to be the “real” Shangri-La. If they were all as amazing as the Shangri-La we went to then it probably doesn’t matter. Some of the hiking we were doing was exhausting, the combination of 4 months of travelling by car and altitude taking its toll.
Magda too started to feel the strain, and for the first time since leaving London she faltered. Over a week of high altitude climbing, slow roads, mud tracks came to a head when engine faults lit up the dashboard, with a steady warning chime: “Engine Fault: Workshop!”. Beautiful timing too, around 500km of mountainous roads separated us and the nearest VW mechanic. Making things more complicated was the fact that with the warning the car had dropped about 50% in power.
We limped into a fuel station and plugged the laptop into the car computer to see what was going on (VAG COM for the Touareg-heads out there ;). Magda’s Diesel Particulate Filter had blocked up, and the slow hard driving had meant it wasn’t cleaning itself as it should, and the computer had limited the engine to prevent damage. A call to friend Tony back in Australia, who checked in with VW Australia and we were told drive it hard, it should clean itself out.
For the next 2 hours we tried to keep speed on Magda through the mountains but it wasn’t working. I was worried, and we pulled into a hotel with Internet and I researched like crazy. The last chance was an “Emergency Filter Regeneration” process, that I was able to trigger the car to do with my laptop. The first one failed, the second one succeeded! Magda was cured, and I’d managed to demonstrate why computer geeks will rule the world 😉
However I digress, back to China. We were working our way through the mountains, along beautiful river valleys, and across temple covered passes. One particular day we were stopped in our tracks by a washout – a landslide had wiped part of the road away, and there was no way forward. A temporary looking road cut into the hillside but before we could try it a group of men came towards the car. They said they could show us the way by leading us through, for 50 yuan of course. Me being the naive Australian (as usual) laughed politely and told Malinda to tell them we would try it ourselves and if we got lost would come back.
More conversation… Malinda reported that they said they would do it for 40 yuan, and that they had built the road themselves so we should pay. Still the naive one, I though they were just opportunists, but Malinda and Andres had cottoned on to what was going on. As we headed towards the road, the guy jumped into his van and Andres told me to get onto the road before him, because he would block me, but I was too slow. We followed the van for a while, the road was very narrow, a concrete path into the jungle, and of course, on a steep section, the van in front stopped, blocking the way. Behind us were two more cars. The van driver sat in his van and didn’t move, and we sat in Magda. I still couldn’t believe that this was really happening. We discussed whether we should pay the 40 yuan, but Malinda, feeling hugely apologetic (on behalf of China) that this was happening, warned that we could pay the first fee, and then they would possibly stop further on and demand much more.
We decided that the best course was to remove ourselves from the whole situation altogether. I think they had been counting on us not being able to reverse along a winding path, but it wasn’t their day – and we escaped their plan. On the way out, we stopped at a police station less than 1km down the road, to ask the best alternative route. Malinda told them that we’d been asked for money to drive a road, but every time she did the policeman became very vague and pretended not to understand. No doubt where a percentage of the fee was going….
As we travelled through the mountains we got to experience the changing food of the regions. While it has to be said that breakfast isn’t China’s strong point – the rest of the meals are. Bubbling hotpots in the centre of the table, dishes that you can fill with ingredients picked from the glass fridges lining the back wall, noodles full of spice and flavour, we loved our meals and the variety of choice. Much of China’s culture is built around the food, and it’s a highly social pass-time, a central part of life.
Finally, after too many mountain ranges to count, we started to return to the tourist trail, arriving into Tiger Leaping Gorge. After weeks of being the only westerners it suddenly felt strange to see others. We were in the wind-down for China, heading towards the border with Laos. Lijang was the final highlight, a really beautiful ancient city (with possibly a little rebuilding in 1995? 😉 where we stayed in the old town, and got lost in the labyrinth of streets.
It was time for Andres to go home – always part of the plan, he was scheduled to fly out from Dali, two days short of the China Laos border. After nearly 4 months travelling together, 24 x 7, it was a very strange feeling to be saying goodbye. For anyone who has travelled for a long period of time with someone, you will know the ups and downs of the travelling relationship, it could fill an entire blog entry on its own. However without a doubt Andres had been my right hand man. Having someone to consult with, share the worry of a border or vehicle problem, laugh at an officious hurdle, marvel at the same amazing experience cannot be underestimated. I could not have gotten as far without him, and for that I will be forever grateful.
So of course I got all teary, and two days later, at the China Laos border, I got all teary again when, customs and immigration all cleared, I had to say goodbye to Malinda. The China experience has been full and rich and crazy, and was like an entire trip all on its own. From having a car full of people and gear, suddenly I was on my own. As I drove off into the jungle toward the Laos border post, I looked in the mirror, little Malinda in her floppy hat standing by the roadside watching as Magda rolled off around the corner. The final leg, Laos, Thailand, and then to Australia, had begun.