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How not to go backpacking (a cautionary tale from China)

December 1, 2011

This was my entry to the 2011 Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition. It didn’t win, but I recently discovered that it was longlisted! (And published here!) Such a morale boost – especially as, looking at it now, I can see it definitely ain’t perfect – take the lack of dialogue,  or the trying to fit waaay too much into 800 words… But still, I’m pretty pleased with it. Any constructive feedback gladly appreciated…

soaking wet, cangshan mountains, dali, southwest china

weirdly enough, i have never been to perth

This is a story of stupidity and luck, youthful foolishness and old-age kindness. I hope you like it but I really really hope that you learn something! Namely, kids: don’t forget your umbrella. It’s all that stands between you and a cheery scene like this: 

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Dicing with danger in Dali

Some people risk their lives scaling snowy mountains or rafting down rapids. To them I say, anyone can do that. To dice with danger in a laid-back, lakeside tourist trap? That takes a special kind of talent.

Though maybe talent’s not the word.

The day starts so promisingly. I traipse the hectic market of Dali, southwest China, haggling for jade jewellery and watches from Switz Erland in a Mandarin whose only words are numbers. Cobbled streets wind down to a lake that glitters in the baking noon sun – but my friends and I set our sights higher. We head up, up towards the fringe of town where the land shoots into the cloud-capped Cangshan mountains.

dali, yunnan, southwest china

the charming town of Dali

At the chairlift, the ticket-seller proffers an umbrella. We look at the sky, and decline.

Our chair sidles up the mountainside, away from the grey stubble of the receding town and over thick, dark forest dotted with graves. We barely register the bruising sky and spiking wind before the rain starts – and then starts to hurt. The tourists that pass us, descending, don’t even try to hide their hilarity: four guys and a girl in shorts and t-shirts, no sweater, mac, or umbrella between them, inching up a mountain in a hailstorm.

We reach the top just as the rain stops, soaked to the bone and a minor spectacle. Those not looking at us peer over the rail of a terracotta-red gazebo at the town far below, spread like crumbs on a corner of the lake’s vast mouth. A tiled roof curves over their silhouettes, its spine spiked with coloured bulbs and its rafters painted with bright, intricate patterns. But at the far end we spot something even brighter – a bonfire.

We fork out for translucent macs in bubblegum colours, hoping they’re somehow cold-proof too, and make for the flames, where we sit devouring noodles in slowly steaming plastic robes. The man opposite me folds his girlfriend a heart from yuan as we shiver and sweat and peel clammy plastic from our saturated skin, hot in patches but mainly very, very cold.

couple with yuan heart, dali, yunnan, china

couple with yuan heart. awww

Two hours later and we’re no further from pneumonia, or the chairlift. We decide to walk ourselves warm along the tourist trail, a wide paved path that winds for hours between rock-face and thin air to a chairlift and guesthouse on the other side. (We remember it from the guidebook).

Walking works! Soon our only focus is the breath-snatching scenery of our route: rocks bulging out of the cliff just overhead, mists drifting peak-wards like the spray of broken waves, thin silver ribbons of water dropping off cliffs and down through endless forest, their tumbling amplified by metres – miles, maybe – of rock. There’s man-made marvels too – the duo that speed round border-less corners on a dull metal bike, the lookout-points with their curling-leaf roofs and blue-and-white scenes. ‘Caution, drop down!’ read stone slabs shaped like parking meters near the sheerest sections, the ones where the roots of trees can’t even cling.

cyclist, walking trail, cangshan mountains, dali, yunnan, china

rather him than me

We arrive with just enough light to discover the motionless skeleton of the chairlift, and, bizarrely, a giant droughts board splayed with counters, the final moves of a game the giants have abandoned halfway through. What we don’t find are buildings, or people, or signs of life. If the guesthouse exists in our guidebook, it definitely doesn’t here.

To make matters worse, when the sun sets – as it promptly does – the rain arrives, once again. We didn’t bring waterproofs, we didn’t bring guidebooks and we definitely didn’t bring torches – but we did, thank the lord, bring mobiles, and between us have signal and an LED light. Our hostel’s manager recommends retracing our steps to an inn near the other chairlift – so off we set, one phone to guide our way along the smooth, increasingly slippery path.

giant chessboard, cangshan mountains, dali, yunnan, china

giant chessboard. no, really

My friends all think the situation’s hilarious, and for a while their singing mixes with the pelting of the rain. (I’m practically hugging the wall). But it gets louder, and the phone flashes with two stomach-turning words: ‘battery low’. Without light, we’re just sliding along a cliff in the dark.

Then, just as it dies, another flickers distantly. Nearing, we make out a hut, and when we knock, two old women greet us and heap noodles onto plates and blankets onto tables. We sleep in the barn, huddled head-to-toe under a sky of striped tarpaulin, dusty brown bottles and framed calligraphy faintly visible in the dim glow of a bare white bulb. It’s the best sleep ever.

In the next weeks we cross semi-collapsed mountain passes in blind mist and trek along the world’s deepest gorge – which is definitely not paved – but neither scares me like Dali. Some people risk their lives scaling snowy mountains or rafting down rapids – I only wish it were that hard.

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