China is very different than all of the other countries we’ve visited. Crossing the border from Lao Cai to Hekou was easy and uneventful, but as soon as we reached the other side, we realized how challenging China is going to be. Nobody speaks English (at least around here, maybe on the east coast we’ll find more) and, of course, everything is written in Chinese characters. Everyday things like buying train tickets or ordering a meal have become exponentially harder. We have a translator app on our phone that has occasionally been useful. Besides that, we’ve gotten by using our guidebook and pictures. The hostels here are also very helpful and will write notes for us in Chinese and arrange onward transportation. So we’re doing okay, but it’s much more difficult than Southeast Asia.
There have been challenges besides the language barrier. I feel like there is no privacy in China, both in the physical and metaphorical sense. Bathroom stalls don’t always have doors. The first public restroom I used was just a room with a trough of water running through it, without any walls or dividers or anything. Apparently everyone here is just fine with going to the bathroom in front of each other. Besides that, there’s the creepy “Big Brother is watching you” feeling from the government. We experienced a little of that in Vietnam, but it’s much worse here. All hotels register your stay with the government. You need to show your passport to buy train tickets. Many of the roads have police checkpoints where they check and register your passport. Basically, the government always knows where you are.
With all these changes, we had an extremely frustrating first day here, but now we are loving it. Our first stop was Kunming. It’s a city of over five million people, but I couldn’t believe how relaxed and quiet it was. Between the motorbikes, car horns, and street hawkers, Asia is an extremely noisy place. In Kunming, the motorbikes are all electrical and silent. Nobody ever tried to sell us anything. The drivers do honk, but not constantly. It didn’t seem like anyone was in a hurry. This peaceful attitude is unique to Kunming, so it was a good place for us to get more used to life in China. I can’t imagine how overwhelmed we would have felt if we had gone to somewhere like Beijing first.
Then we went to Dali, which was a really fun city. The Old City of Dali has traditional architecture and is located near the Cangshan Mountains and Erhai Lake. The Three Pagodas are its famous landmark, but the entrance fee was so expensive, we just looked at them from a distance. Once a backpacker Mecca of sorts, now there are more Chinese tourists than foreigners in Dali. One afternoon Brad and I were having a drink on one of the main roads and all of the Chinese tour groups were stopping to take pictures of us. Too funny.
Our big adventure in Dali was renting bikes and riding to Erhai Lake. We went with Julie, a girl from Florida that we met in our hostel. She was fun to talk with and we found out that she was in the Florida State marching band. Anyway, we rode our bikes along the lake and through several small, clean, modern-looking villages. And then all of the sudden Julie’s bike tire popped and instantly went flat! We showed the tire to some old men in the village and they all pointed down the road. We kept walking down the road and showing people along the way, and they all kept pointing in the same direction, so we figured the tire repairman must live down there. Eventually we saw a shop that had some tires out front, so we went in. The lady there looked at the tire and then brought out a new tube. Brad changed a tube once, but it was a long time ago, so he wasn’t sure if he remembered exactly how to do it. The lady gave him a wrench and a screwdriver and he started to work on it. He did get the tire off, but we couldn’t figure out how to work the air pump the lady brought out. We asked her to help, but instead she just brought out three chairs and motioned for us to sit down. We thought maybe she called someone to help, so we all sat down in her shop and started eating our picnic lunches while the bike was just sitting there with the tire off. Luckily, another couple from our hostel rode by and stopped to help. The boys were working on it, but still struggling until a Chinese man turned up. Between the three of them they got it all figured out and fixed. The whole thing was pretty ridiculous.
I better stop here or I’ll be up writing all night. Brad has already taken some great pictures, go take a look at them!