I came to Yunnan province because everyone–travelers, Chinese, the guidebooks–told me it was the most beautiful province of China. The guidebook said that however long I’d budgeted for this province, I should immediately double it. Yunnan sits about 200 miles from the Burmese, Thai, Lao and Vietnamese borders, straddling the mighty Himalayas and descending into lush jungle. It sounded fabulous. I gave myself 3.5 days and doubled it, leaving a week here–not much, but I’m on a schedule to meet people in Chengdu on the 13th.
I spent the past two days in Kunming and chose Dali as my next destination. I read about it in the guidebook–“Dali, the original funky banana-pancake backpacker hangout in Yunnan, was once the place to chill, with its stunning location sandwiched between mountains and Erhai Lake.” And it goes on to say that Dali now gets bashed for being too touristy, so the crowds have moved elsewhere. Perfect, I thought. Dali it is.
I got on a bus this afternoon from Kunming–a reasonable affair, and I had no major moronic moments in the bus station or the bus. I’ve been feeling pretty solitary the past few days and didn’t bother making friends at the hostel in Kunming. So when I settled into my window seat and the young Chinese woman next to me offered me a piece of gum, I accepted, gave a friendly “xie xie” and put my headphones in to signal that I wasn’t interested in being too chummy. (Note: I never do this.)
We spent 4.5 hours driving through absolutely the most stunning scenery I’ve seen in a long time–the Himalayas rising up in the background, rice paddies tumbling down off the foothills nearby, women and men working in fields with those conical hats on, the smell of eucalyptus permeating the bus and twists and turns just severe enough to inspire a thrill but not quite fear. I was loving in. Original funky banana pancake hangout, here I come! I kept repeating the phrase to myself, chuckling at the other funky banana pancake hangouts I’ve known in my travels.
You know the places–could be a beach town (Vieques), or a mountain town (Ollanta) or a desert town (San Pedro de Atacama), but where there’s stunning scenery, low-key vibes and friendly locals, the hippie travelers will show up eventually. The banana-pancakes follow as tastes become more Western and less local. Cobblestone streets and water channels don’t hurt, either. And I was ready for it in Dali: some good coffee and signs in English didn’t sound like a bad way to spend a few days. Original funky banana pancake, I thought with excitement. I don’t even like pancakes, but I might have to have one just to take advantage and fully embrace the tourist experience.
The bus stopped in what appeared to be a garbage dump. I looked around. Last stop, everyone out. Well, shit, I thought. I don’t see any funky banana pancakes here–just mountains of rusted cars and leering men smoking cigarettes. I reluctantly got off the bus and the rest of my fellow passengers had already dispersed, knowing where they were going. Its moments like these that I absolutely hate being alone in a place I don’t speak the language. My seat mate, the gum-offerer, was getting her bag out of the bottom of the bus.
“You’re going to the old city?” she asked in English. Great, I thought. She speaks English and I snubbed her, and now she’s totally going to save my ass. I affirmed that I was indeed looking for the old town.
“Follow me,” she said and I did. She led me to a bus stop about half a mile away and we climbed on board, where she paid my fare because I was too incompetent to get to my wallet in time. The bus was crowded in a way that you can’t understand if you’ve never been to China (or probably India) and we had to stand. The ride took almost an hour, through the crappy garbagey city and on highways, turns left and right, through high-rise developments and all the while I was thinking–I don’t know what I would have done without her. I’d clearly never have found the bus, I was freaked out by my surroundings, people seemed somewhat sketchy for the first time in China. I owed this woman my life.
I was glad to be rescued, of course, but the ride was hell. My pack was very heavy and I was being pushed around the crowded bus with it strapped on to me. My spine was screaming for mercy. Finally the scenery changed a bit and I could tell that maybe, just maybe, there were funky banana pancakes somewhere nearby. We got off the bus and commenced a lengthy walk. She stopped abruptly, asked me where I was headed, and I sheepishly handed her the scribbled name and address of the hostel. Luckily, though I don’t have a cell phone, I’d written the phone number too. She called it, got directions for me, and sent me on my way.
Yeah! I thought. Soon enough and I can have all the banana pancakes I want. I set off in the direction of the hostel. And walked. And walked. And couldn’t find it. And crossed highways, and recrossed them, and asked for directions, and attempted to decipher Chinese characters, and once, when trying very hard to be understood by an old Bai woman, I said plaintively, “original funky banana pancake?” to absolutely no response.
SCREW this. I’m over this. I’m done. It had been hours since I got off the bus, my back was aching, it was getting dark and I was very lost. And very alone. And didn’t feel totally secure in where I was walking, the only map I had didn’t have any of the streets I’d passed and even banana pancakes sounded like a pile of shit to me. This trip SUCKS, I thought. I’m stupid. Why am I alone for this? That’s it–the rest of this damned trip, I’m never doing anything alone. I’m always buddying up, never going anywhere that isn’t very easy to understand, and I sure as hell won’t ever come back to China. As soon as I meet these Dutch people in Chengdu, I am never in my life traveling alone again. I’m through. And Chinese characters are stupid, I thought for added grumpiness. Learn the Roman alphabet already.
But then I saw pasty gentleman–one of my own! Definitely here for the pancakes. I asked him. He pointed me in the right direction. 15 minutes later, I was wandering through old town Dali, for sure home to some funky pancakes. Bars, restaurants, massages, bakeries, tour information–I had arrived in this particular enclave of hippie backpacker utopia, right here in central Yunnan province. I looked up–it was about 6:30 and the sun was setting majestically over the Himalayas that dominate the horizon. Indigenous Naxi and Bai people hurried through the streets, chatting and laughing. Smells of unfamiliar foods and gusts of steam coming off of street-made dumplings aroused my appetite and I got the traveler’s rush–I LIVE for this feeling. It’s all okay. In no time, my mood lifted from foul and defeated to ebullient and adrenaline-heavy. I arrived at the Jade Emu International Hostel, an absolutely lovely place run by a gay Australian/Chinese couple. I threw my bag down (my room, though a dorm, has no bunk beds, linens are crisp and white and so far I am alone there tonight), went to the bar, socialized with my fellow travelers and got the scoop on the town and the various day trips to be had. If I were a smoker, a cigarette never would have tasted so good. As it is, I’m a drinker, and so I indulgently ordered myself a drink.
As I sat and unwound in the near-darkness, I could hear the sound of crickets in the nearby hills. I took a deep breath and soaked in the peace all around me. My fellow travelers were relaxing, too.
“Hungry?” one asked, and I was, so I sat down with this Canadian gentleman and opened the menu. Breakfast was on the first page. Bacon, eggs, my eyes scanned the page and finally landed: “Pancakes. Plain or with bananas.”