KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
What incredible luck! After enduring a full day of rain in Dali, the sun was bright and the sky blue as we set out for our long drive through the back roads of southern Yunnan province. We followed a small provincial highway that led through mountainous terrain, climbing and descending into valleys to work our way south. There are scattered villages everywhere and fields planted with vegetables and soybeans wherever possible. Whenever we looked ahead, we could see layers and layers of mountains off in the distance. I often wondered how the people managed to grow crops in this region as there was little water flowing so they would have to rely on rainfall. This makes sense during the wet summer months, but during the fall there isn't a lot of rain and yet their fields looked lush.
We stopped for our first night in a small provincial town. Once again, the streets were wide, the sidewalks spacious and there were trees, flowers and sculptures designed to beautify the public places. It appeared to be a Han Chinese town; very little evidence of any buildings typical of the ethnic minorities indigenous to the region. We spotted a relatively new hotel and found the rates so reasonable that once again, we took three rooms, one for Anil and me, one for David and a third for our Naxi family. After freshening up, the three of us headed down the street to look for a place to eat. The only place that looked promising was a hot-pot restaurant, so we selected a table in the crowded room and chose some meat and vegetables to cook in the broth. Instead of cooking the food in a metal bowl on a gas flame, the tables here had a large stone bowl set in them with a steam jet protruding up from the bottom. When the broth was added, the steam was turned on and within moments, the broth was bubbling profusely. We added the potatoes and meat first and then when they were almost done, we dumped in the more delicate green leafy vegetables. Before we knew it, our hot pot was ready to eat and we ladled the soup into our bowls.
We looked around when we heard a group of men near us drinking shots of local zhi, a clear, potent drink not unlike gin. They were very serious about their drinking and their cards and didn't eat their meal until their individual bottles were empty (and probably their wallets too!). I snapped a picture of the debris around their table once they left. I thought they were messy because of their drinking but then I realized that everyone eating there was throwing all the bones, napkins and paper wrappings from their chopsticks on the floor. I also noticed the look of dismay as the waitress came to clean up after the diners left.
After dinner we walked a little further to see if we could find an internet café and were delighted to see one nearby with up-to-date equipment and a large Dell sign over the door. I asked the attendant what he charged per hour, but he just waived his hand and offered me a chair. As I was checking email, he came around and brought us both hot green tea. Nice touch! When we left after an hour, he refused payment - perhaps the service is complementary in order to get the local people to purchase Dell computers. Who knows?
Off to bed as we had another long day of driving ahead of us if we were to reach our destination, Jinghong, by evening. After a breakfast of noodles cooked on the back verandah of the hotel, we headed out into the countryside with yet another sunny day awaiting us. The scenery was pretty much the same and it would be many, many miles before we entered the southern region of Yunnan where palm trees and rice paddies flourished. The road was narrow, but paved and in relatively decent shape. We stopped in the market of a small town not long after we noticed that the crops had changed from vegetables to tea. The Naxi crew was excited to buy tea from this area, as it is legendary and inexpensive at its source. The three of us wandered through the vegetable market and I took some photographs of mushrooms, taro root and tasted some small fruit (perhaps a crabapple) that was pickled with chili spices. Not bad really.
Shortly after leaving the market town, the pavement ended abruptly and we found that the road was being widened and there was mile after mile of terrible rocky, muddy and generally terrible driving conditions. As we headed south, the mountains became steeper and there was evidence of dozens of landslides that had occurred during the previous rainy season. It was obvious that the heavy truck traffic was taking its toll on the roads and that it was necessary for major work to be done to modernize the road to prevent more landslides and allow ever more heavy traffic on this artery through the region.
There had been no indication anywhere along our route that we were going to face this mess and it was daunting. We pressed on, as there was really no alternate way through this mountainous terrain. Shortly after lunch in another town, we headed out again on the unpaved road but within a half hour we came around a bend and found a roadblock had been set up. The young man sitting next to the pole across the road said that the road ahead was closed for heavy machinery to work until at least 7:00 pm. We weren't prepared to wait for six hours and knew that there was a good chance that the road wouldn't open at all. The only choice we had was to make a 130 km detour. If the road that was being widened was considered the main route through the region, the detour existed only to provide the farmers access to and from their smallholdings. With heavy hearts, we turned around and travelled back to the small town and had to ask several people for directions for the tiny road that was to be our only way south. At that point, giving up and travelling back north through hours of construction was not an option. We were determined to reach south Yunnan if at all possible.
Ever since we faced the construction zone, we were never able to average more than twenty kilometers per hour. This meant that the detour was going to slow us down considerably and we faced another night on the road with little prospect of finding a decent hotel in the tiny towns along the way. We had to keep moving and not worry about proper beds. Almost anything was better than six people trying to sleep in the tiny minivan, or worse. Our spirits plummeted shortly after starting on the detour when we came to a horribly muddy section of road that had been badly chewed up by the big trucks also taking the detour. Our driver must not have had any experience on this type of road because he aimed the wheels into the deep depressions left by the truck tires and we heard the scraping of rocks and mud under the belly of the minivan. The tires starting spinning and we were stuck.
We all climbed out and considered taking out our considerable luggage, but luckily a man on a motorbike came from the opposite direction and with six of us pushing and our driver steering, we were able to free the van without getting too much mud splattered. I began to think that the chances of getting through were pretty grim and my mind began to wander as I thought about calling in a helicopter and leaving the Naxi to fend for themselves. What an ungracious thought for such warm and generous people! We carried on as best we could for as long as the light held and luckily, we arrived in a small, gritty town just at dusk. We didn't hold out much hope for an acceptable hotel, but after checking rooms in three grimy places, we lucked out and found a small, clean hotel with only three rooms remaining for the night. The only drawback was that the rooms had squat toilets and we had to stand over them to have a hot shower. Under the circumstances, beggars can't be choosers.
Till now, I haven't mentioned that David wasn't feeling very well and had been going downhill all day with a bad stomach and a splitting headache. We had made room for him to sit in the front and recline the seat as far back as possible so he could be comfortable but I was worried about him. He went straight to bed as soon as we reached the hotel, not interested at all in any supper. He hadn't eaten during the day and I became quite alarmed as he is diabetic and needs to eat regularly. We said we would bring him some fried rice when we returned from supper and then learned that he had managed to bring up the contents of his stomach - food that had sat there since we ate the hot pot the night before. He felt much better with the bad stuff out of his system, so he ate a little, took a Tylenol and settled in for the night.
I didn't sleep well worrying about him, but found he was remarkably better in the morning and as we bumped and rumbled over the county road, he began to look his old self again. The road wound up and down through small mountain valleys with the most incredible scenery along the way. We were treated to a glimpse of rural China that very few foreigners ever get to see. At times it seemed like the only modern thing to impact the area was electricity. These hardy people grow an incredible amount of food in this region, and are faced with the most basic of roads to get their produce to market. The soil is quite reddish in this region and must turn to pure mud during the rains. All along the entire detour we found that the road had been paved with small stones set into the soil. The stones had been hand cut so that the flat edge of the split stone formed the surface on which we travelled. As the hours passed slowly, all I could think about was all the work that had gone into making this remote road passable. It was a lifeline for all the farmers in the region, and today, it was a lifeline for us. Sadly, there was no way for us to show our appreciation.
As we bumped along, we passed through countless tiny hamlets and saw water buffalo, geese, rice paddy ducks, huge black and white pigs (southern pandas?), goats and people working in the fields using the most primitive farming methods. It looked idyllic in many ways, but I knew that these people worked long and hard and that life was in no way easy for them. These are the people that carry the burden for producing food for the 1.3 billion hungry mouths in China, and for the visitors like us. We turn up our noses at a lot of the food in China, but we have made the choice to visit here, for these people, life doesn't hold a lot of choices.
At last we approached the end of the detour and we cheered when our tires climbed onto smooth pavement once again. It felt like we were riding on a velvet ribbon instead of a narrow county road. Sometime later we reached the city of Simao and the beginning of the modern expressway that would take us on towards the Xishuangbana ('Banna') region's capital, Jinghong. We were never so happy in our lives to pay a toll on a super highway. It didn't occur to us that our driver had never been on a four-lane divided highway before until we noticed how hard he was clutching the steering wheel and concentrating on the road ahead. He had managed to get us through some of the toughest conditions we'd faced in SE Asia, and yet he was intimidated by the expressway and its 100 kph speed limit.
About fifty kilometers from our destination, we were passed by several police vehicles with lights flashing and then by a series of large deluxe buses with more police vehicles bringing up the rear. It was obvious some highly placed officials were travelling to Jinghong. At the next toll exit, all traffic was forced to leave the expressway and travel the last 48km on the smaller local roads. We were parallel to the expressway and could see that this section was not quite complete; only the southbound lanes had the lines painted on them. We decided that the officials were probably arriving for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the last leg of the expressway. Just our luck that it hadn't happened a few days earlier and we could have completed our journey in style. Instead, we found ourselves bumping along on roads torn up by heavy truck traffic and construction equipment.
At last we could see the huge suspension bridge that crosses the Mekong river. We pulled into buy gas at a station with a large roof over the pumps. Just as we climbed out of the minivan, the skies opened up and the rain pelted the city. We had arrived in Jinghong just in time. We crossed the huge bridge and admired the size of the mighty river, still so far from its mouth in southern Vietnam. As we drove up one of the main roads of the quiet city, a man on a motorcycle wearing a rain cape called to us several times. "Looking for a hotel?" We decided to try the one he was suggesting and found a wonderful, newly renovated inn with lovely rooms for our whole group at unbelievably low prices. It's hard to believe that we could stay in a modern hotel on a main street in a delightful regional capital for only $6.00 CDN per night. Maybe we'll stay forever!