For centuries China stood as a leading civilization, outpacing the rest of the world in the arts and sciences, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the country was beset by civil unrest and major famines, military defeats and foreign occupation. After World War II, the communist regime under MAO Zedong established an autocratic socialist system that, while ensuring Chinas sovereignty, imposed strict controls over everyday life. After 1978, his successor DENG Xiaoping and other leaders focused on market-oriented economic development and by the year 2000, output had quadrupled. For much of the population, living standards have improved dramatically and the opportunity for personal choice has expanded, yet political controls remain tight. China`s population is around 1.4 billion. China is rich in coal, iron ore, petroleum, natural gas, mercury, tin, tungsten, antimony, manganese, molybdenum, vanadium, magnetite, aluminium, lead, zinc, uranium, hydropower potential (world`s largest). It has a lot of environmental issues to address; air pollution and greenhouse gasses; reliance on coal produces acid rain; water shortages, particularly in the north; water pollution from untreated wastes; deforestation; estimated loss of one-fifth of agricultural land since 1949 to soil erosion and economic development; desertification and trade in endangered species. They have a lot to contend with as they move forward. China also has a lot of natural hazards like frequent typhoons (about five per year along the Southern and Eastern Coast); it also has damaging floods, tsunamis, earthquakes and drought. During our visit we experienced floods and in another part of the country an earthquake.
MONGOLIA BORDER -NORTHERN CHINA
Well we thought we were on our way but our guide (minder) directed us to an old hotel owned by the Chinese Customs, that is Government. We had to wait here until all the paperwork that we received this morning was approved by the provincial authorities before we could drive into China.
This involved sending all paperwork away to the capital city of the province of inner Mongolia (Huhehot) to be approved by the authorities. This could be tonight or tomorrow. Our guide said this was the rule in China. Our truck was not to leave the compound. We decided to spend the time wisely and organized a Data card, phone card (This took 90 Minutes) went for Lunch (huge lunch with pork, chicken and beef dishes including fried rice and a litre of Coca Cola AUD8.80 or 6 Euro for 3 people).
Then back to the hotel where our truck was parked, and the waiting time started. At 6pm the phone call came – “not today” so we could stay and sleep in the car-park. But yes, we were in China! The next day nothing happened until 5pm when someone must have decided to place the all-important stamp. The town of Ehrenhot is located right on the border with Mongolia and a big rainbow arch marks the road border crossing entering or leaving China. With 17000 people, it is a very small village. After two days in Ehrenhot we left late Friday afternoon, filled up with fuel (1.00 a litre for diesel) and drove around 95km out of town.
When it started to get dark we pulled off the road and set up camp. Our China adventure had now begun! It was a still, starlit night, without any people around, but we were told this was going to change as we head south. We have just lost two days, so we had an early start. It would become a very long day. A day later, just before dark, we arrived at Heng Mountain. By this time the rain pelted down. We just started to cook dinner and the Dam Manager turned up and gave us five minutes to leave because he said the dam could start to overflow in the next 30 minutes! As we had had torrential rain and we have heard of major flooding only 100Km away; and added to this, earthquakes, landslides and a great of loss of life, we did not hesitate and moved on. I am sure we have never packed up so quickly. In the dark, we negotiated the mountain pass downhill and on very slippery red clay, competing with trucks that had no lights. We found a car park at the bus station and this was the stop for the night We weren`t going anywhere! The expected torrential rain stopped at around midnight. We were woken up the next morning at 6am by about 100 locals wanting to know “what this truck was all about?” Chinese are nosy, and I mean very nosy. Clary was at the toilet while they just marched in to the living quarters and had a good look! Opposite our truck, we were entertained by people doing Tai Chi. We drove back onto the mountain and walked up to the hanging temple, a masterpiece that was built over 1500 years ago, scary and high hanging off a cliff. We decided to climb up before all the crowds arrived. Next was a visit to a 1000-year wooden pagoda before heading to the ancient city of Pingyao. Pingyao is the most well preserved of the four ancient towns in China. Inside the intact Ming Dynasty City Wall is this traditional town, whose buildings date from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It is exceptionally well-preserved, and just as it was hundreds of years ago. The village is a hive of activity and many. Chinese guest houses and restaurants cater only for Chinese customers. The City Wall is about 12 meters high and 3 to 6 meters wide on top. The City Wall has a total length of 64 kilometres. The wall is made of compacted earth covered by bricks and stones. There are six city gates allowing the only entry. We camped at the City Wall, right at the entrance to the old ancient town so It was not the most secluded spot. It took around 60 minutes to get rid of the crowd of nosy Chinese. I am sure more photos were taken of our truck than of the city wall in that 60-minute timeframe. “House on Wheels?” “Electricity?” “Water?” “Shower?” “Toilet?” “Kitchen?” “Hot water?” And all this can move and drive around China! “Impossible!” And the questions kept on coming. After all this, it was time to visit the village and we finished up having dinner in an old authentic Chinese restaurant. Dinner for 3 including drinks (you could not eat it all) was 12 Euro or AUD 15 for the 3 of us. We got back to the truck at around eleven o` clock. Tired, we went to bed after a full day of excitement, perfect scenery and very nice people
Early start, again, for another long drive to Xian, home of the Terra Cotta Warriors. The distance was long, but driving the freeway made it easy and fast. We arrived at 3.30pm and the complex did not close until 7pm, so we had enough time to stretch our legs. It may be touristy but a must to visit. It was the first time we saw foreign tourists (mainly French) while in China.
The greatest archaeological findings of the last century: the army of terra-cotta warriors and the bronze chariots entombed in vast underground vaults at emperor Qin’s tomb. We were told it was only discovered in 1974 by a local farmer who was digging a well while coming across the parts of what he thought was ancient pottery. He notified the local authorities and in fact it was the start of digging up more than 2000 terra cotta warriors, plus horses and weapons. However, the total could be up to 8000 when all the digging has finished. Tonight, it was BBQ night in the car park of Terra Cotta Warriors, once we got rid of the nosy locals. Our next destination was the controversial Three Gorges Dam. We crossed the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers today but despite the much better weather (hot and muggy) the pollution is a real problem in China and the views were minimal. During early stages of the day we passed some very pretty country but unfortunately the smog and pollution spoiled it all. Our plan was to camp on the Yangtze River, but this was not possible and at 7.30pm, as it started to get dark, we pulled up at a petrol station and called it a night. We continued to the Three Gorges Project, one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in the world, which has changed the face of the Yangtze River. By far, it is the largest hydro-electric project in the world. It does have utilization benefits mainly for flood control, power generation and navigation improvement. It will be a vital and important backbone project in harnessing and developing the Yangtze River and we understand measures have been taken to preserve and relocate the historical and cultural relics found along its banks. However, many scenic spots and farms have been adversely affected. The dam site is 27 miles upstream from Yichang City, at Sandouping Town. We were stopped by security and not allowed to travel any further despite having a permit for the area. The car had to be parked in the car park and we had to continue by organized transport. The tour was very disappointing and little, or no information was given except on signs placed along the walkways. The weather was lousy; hot, rainy with lots of pollution obscuring the views. We took the bus across the Three Gorges Bridge, which leads toward the top of the hill for a birds-eye view from the observation deck. We observed the five-step ship lock, the diversion canal, the dam in construction, and the power station. It is a controversial project, but we felt a little disappointed and felt it was not worth the visit. Next time, we would prefer to do a Yangtze River cruise, if the weather is nice. That night, we camped in a Chinese community, newly built for poor farmers. It included a medical centre, school and shop. It did not take long before we were the film stars again even while having dinner, people came up close to our plates. You would think they were going to join us. Clary had to close the security door to stop people wondering into the truck, while the BBQ also attracted a lot of attention.
By 9pm, we had a visit from the village elder who delivered us fresh grapes and water melon as a gift. We were the first foreign visitors to come into his community. We drove over poorly maintained roads to the town of Zhangjiajie. Unfortunately, our lovely guide Ying Chu had no idea how to get to this town, so we found ourselves lost and were three hours late arriving in Zhangjiajie. An absolute stunning area, however the Chinese government asked a huge USD 75 for 2 people to enter the park, plus USD30 to use a cable car to get to the top of the mountain! A bit expensive we thought.
As for most major attractions in China, it is only the rich who can enjoy this. Having driven all the way here we forked out the money, but it was not value for money; nothing to explain in English or any information available. However, Ying Chu explained that the pass was valid for 3 days. No good if you only planned one day and all other attractions cost additional! After a few days we were glad to get back on the regional roads, the “off the beaten track” type of roads in China. Fenghuang, an ancient town situated about 200km south of Zhangjiajie, was next on the agenda. We are told this town is known by the Chinese as one of the most beautiful towns in China, located on the Tuojiang River, with stone-made streets and old buildings. Unfortunately, the travel agents have no idea where to camp and you really must rely on word of mouth from other overlanders who have stayed there before. But very few visit China and the guides have no idea. We found the local bus station after we walked around town and parked for the night. Another morning in beautiful Fenghueng. In the afternoon we set off to China`s South Eastern region visiting many small and remote villages. This area has a lot of Miao buildings and most villages still have cobblestone roads, making driving difficult but very much worthwhile. We past Congjiang and we were surprised that there were no men anywhere. It was explained to us that they are out hunting during the day. Next and last stop in the valley was Xijiang, but before we arrived there we had enjoyed a perfect riverside bush camp. In Xijiang we noticed signs in English. Therefore, we assumed this was on the tourist trail, but we never saw any foreigners. Xijiang is the largest Miao village in China and now we are only 50km from Kaili and 10km from the freeway that would take us 1100km further to the west of China. Today turned into a long trip and reluctantly we left the country roads for the expressway.
Like always, even on a 10 year around the world trip, time is always an issue. To explore China properly, it would require more than twelve months. Tonight, we stayed near the Huang Guo Shu Waterfall, just south of the town of Guanling. Again, we became the star attraction and around 50 to 60 people from the local village came to say hello and brought us food. We could stay in the local car park and at 10pm we received a fireworks display. Fireworks in China are a daily event, celebrating birthdays, weddings, passing exams, but also during funerals, house warming and the start of the building of a new house. Next day we drove to Dali, another 700km ahead of us along the expressway. We never made it because after 250km of good progress, we came to a halt and it took four hours to travel just 20 km. We never found out what happened, except for the fact that there were two toll gates. As we were trying to get through the toll gates (complete mayhem as only 3 out of 15 worked) we had our first accident. The car in front of us tried to cut us off and we drove into the side of his car. Both his front passenger and rear passenger doors were dented. He looked… I looked… and off we went! No use arguing. This is China! As it got dark we pulled into a service station, had a well-earned beer, dinner and a good night`s sleep after 12 hours behind the steering wheel
SOUTH EAST CHINA
Next day Dali and this became our shopping, washing and internet day. Dali is a tourist town and we even found a hamburger joint with WIFI. Mid-afternoon, all the hard work was done so we decided to visit the old city. It was nice but very touristy after everything else we had seen in China. Our parking spot was a beauty, right in front of the three Pagoda`s just outside of the old town. The weather changed and the 4000 meters plus high mountains around Dali disappeared into the clouds. In this area, there are about 1.5 mil Bai people, mainly living around lake Erhai. We received more bad news. Tibet was closed for foreigners travelling overland with less than five people of the same nationality! We asked why. The answer was; “Tibet is a sensitive area!” Yes, fine, but you can travel with five people of the same nationality! The answer didn`t make sense to us and nor did anyone explain. We had a permit to visit the Yunnan province, but we were advised by our minder/guide that as of yesterday you could no longer drive your car north of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The far northern part of Yunnan borders on Tibet. The Chinese and Tibet border issue is very sensitive and there are many army check-points. So, we did see Tibet, but only from a distance. We are hoping the rules will have changed by next year as we are planning a 40-day Tibet trip ending up in Nepal. We heard horror stories from those over-landers currently stuck in Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Nepal. Also, those who had to completely rearrange their itinerary and now must travel via Mongolia. I suppose this is over-landing; it is not all smooth sailing. We continued north towards Lijiang.
The Old Town as it is known, was originally built in the latter period of the 13th Century. It has an elevation of 2400 meters. The population of the Old Town is over 25,000, most of whom are Naxi people. What is interesting is that Lijiang Old Town is the only Chinese historical and cultural town built without a city wall. That night we camped in the Old Town car park, which is just two minutes’ walk from the Old Town. It is very, very touristy and expensive, but not to be missed. Last stop for this week was Tiger Leaping Gorge. We were told it is a contender for the world’s deepest river canyon.
Around 15km in length, the gorge is located where the river passes between 5,596m Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and 5,396m Haba Snow Mountain, in a series of rapids under steep 2000-meter cliffs. The weather has still been poor and this is now the sixth day we have been driving at altitudes between 2000 and 3800 meters, however we have still not seen the snow-covered mountain tops. The gorge is worth a visit and we decided to stay the night in the gorge at the newly built car park, over- looking the old bridge and the Gorge. Early this morning for the drive back to Lijiang and visited Baisha Village on the way. As we had still not seen Yunlong Snowy Mountain which towers 5600 meters, we decided to drive the extra 15km and camp at the foot of the mountain that night in the hope of a clear day next morning. Once we arrived torrential rain and thunderstorms made us change our mind and we decided to drive back and stay in the old town square of Baisha. Unfortunately, we never got to see the snow-covered mountain tops and as the weather didn`t improve, we reluctantly decided to travel south once we had checked our emails in Lijiang. Arriving back in Dali the weather was nice, and we decided to stay one night at Lake Erhai, the seventh largest fresh water lake in China.
Next day we left for the far south and the area just north of Myanmar (Burma) and the Laos border. The rain didn`t leave us alone and after shopping in Dali, we continued south and the weather began to clear and progressively started to get warmer. The scenery was nice and slowly we could see that we were getting closer to the tropics with the vegetation and the temperature changing. We found a very nice camp spot right between the rice-fields, mountains and a mural site. For the first time in seven days, this was our first camp below 2000 meters. More rain overnight. We drove further south and passed an area that was badly damaged by floods a week or so ago; 14 people died, and many are missing. Along the way we saw emergency tents for those who lost their houses and we were driving through deep mud where the road was washed away. Landslides were another problem with many detours. Looking at all the development we were not sure if much consideration is given to the environment or the people living on the hill sides or just below. We never reached our end destination due to the slow going and torrential rain. That night we pulled up in Simao and stayed next to the local sports stadium. The far south east of the Yunnan province is also called little Thailand.The area is still home to wild tigers, leopards, elephants and gold haired monkeys. Poaching is hard to control in this area, but the Chinese government has allowed compensation to those who have their crops destroyed by wild animals. Yunnan Province in South West China has become a tourist hotspot and places such as Lijiang and Dali are overrun by hordes of Chinese and more and more foreigners. However, the far southern part of China, south of the Yunnan Province, is only visited by Chinese tourists; Burmese and Lao people and merchants who cross the border to sell their goods. This area is where the pace slows down to the South-East Asia pace we know. Our area of interest was in the Xishuangbanna region and our first stop would be Sanchahe Nature Reserve and the Banna Wild Elephant Valley. Located in a beautiful rainforest, the park boasts approximately 70 wild Asian Elephants, although we didn`t see any. We did however see an elephant show which made us feel very sorry for the elephants. We also found a snake pit complete with two live chickens waiting to be eaten. Clary wanted to pay the warden to buy the chickens and let them go free. That night we were told to move by the rangers who said the elephants were too close for comfort. We moved to the car park of a nearby guest house, but we never saw a single elephant. Better to be safe than sorry as the elephants are known to damage cars when they feel they are in the way. Jinghong, for Chinese standards, a sleepy village on the Mekong river.
This is just north of the border with Myanmar and Laos. Jinghong is an area with around 800,000 people made up of approximately 300,000 Dai people and 500,000 Chinese, plus other minority groups. We took a round trip around Jinghong and drove to Damenglong. It is hard to believe that we are still in China! We drove along the three-country corner, China-Burma-Laos, and we were warned not to make any mistakes and inadvertently drive into either Myanmar (Burma) or Laos, (Myanmar in particular) without a visa.
Cars will be confiscated in Myanmar. The villages around here are nice and very peaceful, nothing like the hectic pace of the parts of China we have visited so far. We met Lahu women who shave their head. But they are very hard to photograph. They told us the young Lahu girls do not want to shave their heads and hide their hair behind caps.
The last stretch to the border was very pretty and the impression we got when we arrived in Mohan was that they were trying to make an impression for new arrivals. Modern, clean and lots of palm trees. Overnight we stayed at a not yet finished fuel station to enable us to be at the border before 9am when the Chinese side opens.
See below our China View
Our four weeks China has come to an end. What an amazing country, with amazing people, amazing rules and ideas. As a foreigner I would love to work and live in China for a few years. China requires 12 months of travel to see it all. We have only just scratched the surface in our four weeks there. This is our second trip to China after having done the East Coast 4 years ago. This time we did the North-Central and Southern Part of China and next year it will be 40 days Tibet. Can`t wait! But next time we will take a different approach. All we really need is an English-speaking translator and we can do the rest. Compulsory Tour guides are not very well trained and have little or no knowledge.