a red lantern decorating a house in Heshun

Of the various tourist spots we visited around Tengchong, like Heshun, most were underwhelming; the war cemetery was impressive, though, for a variety of reasons.

Heshun is a ‘beautiful old village’, ‘very quiet and slow-paced’, and ‘rustic’ (this is from a recent website entry, not my 20 year old travel guide), 5 km outside town. Apparently, half of the houses are owned by Overseas Chinese, who are planning to return here to retire. Good luck to them! They probably don’t have to pay an entry fee, like we had, but will still need to wrangle their way through the thousands of tourists that visit this place, who stay in one of the many fancy boutique guest houses, and shop ‘till they drop in the hundreds of tourist shops that line the streets. And we weren’t even in season.

one of the older, and bigger, houses, now a hotel – impressive, though

one of the many arched alleys in Heshun – that don’t seem to lead anywhere

door decoration

whether these are being used or not, I don’t know

The notion of old village needs some adjustment, too. There are indeed several old houses, nicely patched up, with shiny wooden courtyards – almost all of those have been turned into the fancy guest houses. And there are the new, old-look, houses, concrete but with tiled roofs, made to blend in. More or less blend in, I would say, some are heeding to the needs of modern design requirements, large windows for instance, to enhance the view over the roofs for the tourist. Or perhaps for the retiring Overseas Chinese, who also wants his comfort. So here, too, authenticity is not what it used to be. Which doesn’t prevent me from taking some nice photographs, anyhow, including of those who already seem to have retired here.

laundry of one of the guest houses

the roofs of Heshun

some of the retirees, perhaps?

contemplating the developments in Heshun

another Heshun house, and the flowers

the walk way to the volcano, and the balloon station

the balloon itself, ready for take off

Then the Volcano National Geological Park, the next tourist attraction. There are – depending on which source you believe – between 70 and 90 volcanoes in the Tengchong area, mostly small, all dormant. The two volcanoes in the Park can be climbed, along steps made of volcanic rock, to the crater rim, for a look inside; inside a dormant volcano, which isn’t very spectacular, overgrown with bushes. Apparently, there are more volcanoes around, in the area outside the park, and there are even outcropping basalts, but you need a car, and more importantly, a guide or some other form of information, to find them. And once again, the tourist service industry failed us here, no guides, no maps. No English spoken. The small museum did have English-language explanation, but provides mostly general information on volcanoes, not much new (not to me, at least).

the tallest volcano in the park (the one in the back doesn’t count, is outside)

the underwhelming crater

The fun thing to do in the park, however, was a flight in the hot air balloon. Well, in fact the balloon goes up and down, and is at all times tied to the ground with a long rope; the 10 minute ride does rise above the nearest volcano, so we could have seen already how underwhelming the crater was, but never mind. The views of the landscape are nice, indeed; the views of the construction projects below, in the park, less so – you don’t seem to be able to get away from construction, in China! Also funny: despite the technological advances in China the balloon is literally roped in, by sheer manpower. A winch, perhaps, in the future?

just a colourful picture

On account of our Volcano Park experience, we decided to skip the Rehai tourist site, which translates into Hot Sea, and refers to a location with several hot springs and geysers. According to reports of earlier visitors, the springs have been reinforced by concrete rims, and the geysers are artificially induced. There is a limit to our enthusiasm for Tourism with Chinese Characteristics.

the entrance of the anti-Japanese war cemetery

A more impressive site was the Anti-Japanese War Cemetery, where several thousand Kuomintang soldiers that died in the 1944 battle for Tengchong, are buried. The Baoshan area, and Tengchong, were an important supply line for Chinese troops, with all the sea ports in Japanese hands, and the retake of the city is seen by some as one of the tipping points in the war. But what is more remarkable, as far as I am concerned, is that the KMT (who subsequently lost the internal battle for power in China from the Communist Party, and are now famously holding on to Taiwan only) is openly honoured here, and that so many Chinese people come to pay their respect. Including laying white flowers, and three bows for the hill with all the graves. As I said, impressive.

a hill full of graves

and the individual stones, all with the same characters (unknown soldiers, perhaps?)

some have fresh flowers

collective bowing, out of respect for the martyrs

oh, and that is us, in Heshun

red lantern in a window in Tengchong

Tengchong’s centre is completely being rebuilt; yet, there is are still a few traces of old China around.

Tengchong is two hour’s away from Baoshan, along a spectacular new motorway through the mountains. Another one of those one-in-a-hundred Chinese cities, perhaps? Maybe, but Tengchong looks to be developed even more aggressively than your average Chinese city, maybe on account of its tourist potential– more about that later. The entire centre of town is in ruins, everything older than, say, 20 years is being pulled down to make place for a giant development, with apartments, malls, fancy shopping areas and a park. Or at least, that is what the ‘artist impressions’, that have been posted on the fences that surround the building site, seem to promise. No lack of ambition here! And no lack of dust, no lack of construction-related noise! And hardly any trace left of those original wooden houses that were promised by that 20 year old guidebook.

destruction of the centre in full swing

reconstruction of the centre, too

a rare wooden house left, but not for long

this, too, will soon disappear

minority lady running a hole-in-the-wall restaurant

and an older man, contemplating progress, no doubt

a newly constructed complex, from our hotel window

Yet, Tengchong is less upmarket than Baoshan. There is a pedestrian area with designer shops and a cool, young crowd that marches up and down, continuously talking into their smartphones. But in the streets behind the avenues is plenty of room for small hole-in-the-wall restaurants, serving noodles and other simple meals. This is where older people play cards, or majong, in the street – quite like it used to be 20 years ago, actually. Which leads to another observation: the young have quickly evolved in China, adopted technology, fashion, the scooter. The older people have stayed behind, still dress as we saw them so long ago, still hold on to what they know. Wrinkled, weathered faces, a Mao cap on their head. The contrast between the generations as you see them in the street couldn’t be bigger, much bigger than I have seen anywhere else.

the fancy pedestrian street

and the fancy motorbikes; note the coats, against the cold

an older couple, on a sofa put on the pavement

the men playing cards

a lady in the market

a lady cleaner on the street

these they may not need anymore, with all the wooden houses soon gone

Old wooden houses can be pulled down fast to force progress. But it will still take a few years before old people will have disappeared from view, even the Chinese Communist Party cannot accelerate that. But inevitably, even that element of authenticity will eventually go. And then China will be just like any other developed country: good for them, of course. But some things will be lost forever.

Anyhow, enough murmurings, back to the order of the day, and the tourist spots of Tengchong. We sampled two of them, the nearby ‘authentic’ village of Heshun and the Volcano Park, a little further out of town.

red lantern shop

cabbages drying on a motorbike

and some sort of bell tower I came across, wandering the city

one of the modern office buildings in Baoshan

Modern, developed Baoshan still has its charms, hidden behind the avenues and in fringe neighbourhoods.

Baoshan is one of those Chinese cities that, well, is just like so many other Chinese cities, uniform, featureless, efficient. We had initially included it in our itinerary because apparently the centre still has many original wooden houses, but then dropped it for something else, only to reinstate it again to have a day’s rest between bus rides. And to treat ourselves to a nice and comfortable hotel.

view from our hotel, roofs and water heaters lit by early morning sun

Our guidebook is 20 years old. Original wooden houses? There are no original wooden houses anymore in Baoshan. Instead, we are looking at a modern, developed city, wide avenues with expensive shops, a few malls, and a whole range of trendy coffee bars and fast food restaurants. And pharmacies, every few hundred meters, often from the same chain; these people seem to be obsessed with health, here. (There are also dentists and small health posts along the roads, where people are being treated, or laying in hospital beds, or sit waiting with a drip inserted, all in plain view, from the pavement – I decided against photos, if you don’t mind).

tiled apartment buildings

some with open, others with closed balconies

tree-lined street, with modern cars

Yet, behind the broad avenues, and in between, along fairly attractive, tree-lined streets, we do find back the typical Chinese residential areas, the 4-5 story fantasy-less, and lift-less, apartment blocks (those who have followed some of my earlier travelogues know my fascination with these ‘palatis’ – the Albanian terminology). Tiled outside walls, balconies that have more often than not been enclosed to provide an extra room, and otherwise are being used for laundry drying, or just storage of less urgent household items. But, as we saw on our arrival a week ago, these, too, are disappearing, in favour of high rise modern apartments in the outskirts of town, still fantasy-less, but with a lift this time.

excited children leaving school for traffic lessons on a nearby basketball court

the lessons are not entirely accident-free (NB lack of access to youtube means I cannot post the video, will come later)

and look, there is one part-wooden house left!

cooks preparing the neighbourhood lunch

one woman painstakingly takes the hairs of a pig leg

North of the centre, at the edge of the Taibao Park, we do end up in a more authentic neighbourhood, with low white houses, grey roofs, narrow alleys in between. Several men and women are cooking a huge meal, and tables are being set up to provide for the whole neighbourhood:  it is the celebration of the third day after the birth of a baby – or perhaps the third month, that we didn’t manage to find out. About forty people enjoy the lunch; we kindly decline the offer of a plate of rice, not really knowing whether the offer is a genuine one or obligatory. The Chinese society has never struck me one easily sharing with outsiders.

part of the neighbourhood enjoying the lunch

pagoda mirroring in the lake next to the park

a man playing his Chinese cello, adding to the peaceful atmosphere

and the pagoda, in its full glory

Instead, we walk around the pond next to the park, then up to the pagoda that towers above everything. It is only here that we realize that we have been moving surrounded by noise since we left the hotel: traffic, construction work, and Jingle Bell’s in Chinese (here, too, Christmas is firmly established on the commercial agenda). At the base of the pagoda it is finally quiet; the man who starts playing his Chinese cello actually adds to the atmosphere.

The pagoda is closed, we cannot go up. Walking on through the park, past several other monuments and temples – all closed, too, many in scaffolding, work and noise in progress -, past brightly coloured exercise machines, we reflect a little on the new China, something we will no doubt do many more times in the coming days. A striking difference with the past: there are no bicycles in town, I mean, not a single bicycle, except perhaps a fancy youth on a mountain bike. Cars, yes, and for the rest everybody rides a scooter-like motorcycle. Many are electric, you don’t hear them coming, and you don’t smell them either. Another difference, subtler: cars actually slow down at pedestrian crossings, and allow relatively risk-free crossing of the street (I say ‘relatively’, because I don’t yet trust this blindly!). And one of those things that will never change: drivers, of cars and motorbikes alike, will still go for themselves, without any regard for efficient road use: me first, whatever happens.

If Baoshan is a representative city, that is. But it would surprise me if that is not the case.

another thing that hasn’t changed: group dancing as excercise

whilst two other women are just looking on

a ceaning lady choosing between buckets

outside one of the many restaurants in Bingzhongluo

Touristic Bingzhongluo lacks a bit of services, especially for non-Mandarin speakers, but does offer beautiful surroundings.

More than any other place we have been so far on this trip, one-street Bingzhongluo lives from tourism. Or so it seems, because the only one street is lined with hotels and youth hostels, as well as an inordinate number of restaurants for such a small village.

road signs are also not detailed enough for walkers

And yet, for non-, or at least for limited-Mandarin speakers, it was difficult to gain any relevant information. We planned to stay a couple of days here, to do some mild trekking further along the river, and perhaps to a few ‘ethnic’ villages, but we could not get hold of any for us intelligible maps. The best we managed was a photo from a map on the wall in a guest house, entirely in Chinese. Our hotel staff, but also the staff of the various youth hostels that claimed to be ‘international’, and had plenty stickers on the windows to prove it, none of them spoke any English at all. None of them made a great effort to try to understand us, either, except for a chap who had a translation app on his phone (something we sorely lacked ourselves: poorly prepared!). Neither did we encounter any tourist touts, that irritating, persisting type of people offering excursions or trips or other packages, that invariably populate any tourist site: you hate them when you don’t need them, but when you do they are not there. Perhaps we were just out of season. It was, after all, bitterly cold at night, freezing, and during the day it didn’t get much better, unless you were in the sun, which thanks to the steep mountain sides was not everywhere that easy.

and a map on the wall of one of the ‘international’ guest houses

one of the wall maps, in another restaurant

the mountains above Bingzhongluo

there is quite a bit of Tibetan influence here

modern development with a twist: concrete houses painted in wood colour, to replace thosse picturesque villages

with stupas and prayer flags in several place

In the end we managed to walk, first through several hamlets and then by the side of the main road, to a further gorge of the Nujiang, where we spotted the once famous Tea Horse Caravan Route on the other side of the river, a track partly hewn out of the rocks along which the caravans from Yunnan to Tibet travelled their merchandise. The influence of Tibetans in this area is clear from the plenty prayer flags that have been strung in trees along the road, and from the presence of small stupas. The houses in the hamlets are part authentically wooden houses, part new developments, which are concrete, but have been painted with wood colour, including wood nerve, to blend in, so to speak. See for yourself.

there are still some real wooden houses around

with the usual garden produce drying outside

as well as the laudry (equally drying)

and it is corn cob season

rock in the Nujiang

Wengli, the real picturesque village north of Bingzhongluo

for the time being, with genuinel wooden houses

A little further upstream we reached Wengli, finally a picturesque wooden village set in Alpine-type meadows. We never made it to any of the other villages around, not trusting the vague arm-waving as any form of accurate directional information, and not finding anybody willing to guide, or to drive us there. At least the market in town, despite being a rather humble affair, provided a little compensation: a very small part of the ethnic village had actually come to us. Once again, mostly traditional headscarves, whilst the old Mao cap also proved popular.

and this is the famous Tea Horse Caravan Route, here hewn out of the rock at the other side of the river

the new version of the route is carefully being maintained by one sweeper

ethnic minority women at the market

but the old Mao cap is more popular

or in combination with minority dress

in any colour, and in isolation

tofu in the market

and mini clemintines are in season

I suspect the future of Bingzhongluo, nevertheless, will be a bright one. As it turns out, all the frantic road works on the way to here don’t stop, but continue past the village, as part of grand efforts to revive that Tea Horse Caravan Route, in the form of what is called the Yunnan-Tibet New Road. The Chinese are not just improving the road along the river, they are building a full-fledged connection from here to Llasa. If they were just to add a little tourist infrastructure, too. Until then, you just have to come much better prepared than we were.

another view of the Nu River

traffic on te Yunnan Tibet New Road

one-street it is, but nicely decorated, in the early morning sun

one of the many hanging bridges across the Nu River

A journey up the Nujiang Valley is a mixed experience, natural beauty in the shadow of a traffic chaos.

We move in stages. The two towns identified as potential stop-overs, ‘two-street’ Fugong and ‘one-street’ Gongshan, as the 2017 version of a reputable travel guide calls them, are, according to our various sources, including local bus drivers, no more than 3-4 hours drive apart, and from Liuku to Fugong is a similar distance. Overseeable.

another view of the Nujiang, the Nu River

Yet, a small problem arises in Liuku’s bus station, where, despite having been told the opposite by the receptionist of our hotel, there are no busses anymore to Fugong. Neither to Gongshan, and no, not tomorrow, either. Weird. All tickets sold already? Or because it is Sunday, today? Not wishing to hang around in Liuku any longer than necessary, we find a chap with a shared taxi, who is prepared to drive us to Fugong. Only later I wonder whether this guy, who we already met on the way to the bus station, is in fact the cousin of the lady not wanting to sell us any tickets. Anyhow, we left by car instead of by bus, and paid about ten times as much, which in any case was still not very expensive. For what turned out a 5.5 hours’ drive.

walking bridge

being used

road obstruction: haphazardly parked tuktuk

Almost the entire road, 125 km of it, is in fact a building site. Roadworks equipment is everywhere, to work on the widening of the road, by drilling into the rockface. Which leaves large piles of rock on one half of a road, which is in any case in most places barely wide enough to have two lorries pass each other. And lorries there are, not only those involved in the road works, but also many others, some of which are so big you wonder how they have ever made it here. Where there are no piles of rocks from road works, there are piles of rocks from landslides, creating the same type of obstacle. As do those places where the road has partly disappeared into the river. As if this isn’t enough to frequently block the traffic, in the small towns we pass people have parked their cars, and their tuktuks, haphazardly along the road. Nobody seems to be bothered: isn’t that what you used to do with your bicycle, too? Except that now in each of those towns the traffic comes almost to a complete stand-still, with trucks carefully inching past each other, wherever there is a little room. Creating space by reversing a little, for an oncoming truck, is out of the question, that would be losing face, and besides, so many other vehicles have already piled up behind, that reversing isn’t an option anyhow. And the occasional truckdriver who holds back allowing an oncoming one to pass a narrow stretch gets punished by the drivers of smart sedans and SUVs, who immediately see an opportunity to overtake. So everybody pushes relentlessly forward.

wooden frames occur all along the river, don’t know what for (anybody?)

To keep the dust under control, a tanker slowly ploughs the road spraying water, which turns the dust into mud. The tanker slows down the traffic further, and the mud sprays the windows of our car. As does the mud that splashes out of the many potholes, and from the unsurfaced stretches of road currently under repair.

All together this doesn’t contribute to the experience of driving a scenic route.

We reached Fugong, considerably bigger than ‘two streets’, where we found a hotel near the bus station, for an early departure the next day. Where once more we were told that there are no busses. Come on! But now it transpired that the Chinese are very particular about the type of bus you ask for. My Mandarin-speaking travel companion had asked for a long-distance bus, which translates into a slightly more luxurious version of bus, and no, these don’t exist on this route – for obvious reasons. When we insisted, one of the staff finally remembered that there was, indeed, another bus, but smaller. Which was in fact equally comfortable. And which would leave in half an hour. And took, instead of the promised 2.5 hours, almost 5 hours. Same story as above.

market stall in Fugong

and the fish monger, also Fugong

fresh vegetables in the market

and more vegies

finally, some wooden vilages appear

The scenery did improve, though, and gradually the road became quieter, and the developments less conspicuous. Locally, we spotted even some wooden villages, or at least villages with some wooden houses left. The driver was kind enough to stop at the tourist highlight of the route, the Stone Moon, and let me off the bus to take pictures. First I thought the Stone Moon was the bend in the river, which indeed had somewhat the shape of a new moon. But after more pointing and shouting, I discovered, high up the mountain, a round hole: a much more likely candidate for the Stone Moon.

does this look like a new moon to you?

but this is the real Stone Moon, a huge hole in the mountain

I was not the only one who needed to be pointed out where to look

‘one street’ Gongshan, just to give you an idea

Gongshan may be mostly ‘one-street’, but it is a very long one, flanked by plenty high buildings. The bus driver parked the bus at the entrance of town, vaguely pointing along the road to where the connecting transport to Bingzhongluo was supposed to depart. As Gongshan wasn’t particularly attractive, we had decided to push on. After all, Bingzhongluo was only another 1.5 hours drive. We started walking – what else can you do? Until somebody suggested we take a shared taxi, a great idea, as the departure point was indeed at the other end of that very long ‘one street’.

the village of Dimaluo, just before Bingzhongluo, note the white church

We picked up the next bus, a little smaller, and a little tighter, than the previous one, and took off. Of course, the 1.5 hours became 2.5, but finally we arrived at Bingzhongluo. Which is, indeed, a one-street village.

and morning mist over the river

the Nu River with early morning mist

The Nujiang Valley, the valley of the Nu River, proves that remote does not necessarily means undeveloped.

In every reference, guide book or internet site, the Nujiang Valley is described as one of the remotest parts of Yunnan. Significantly, in none of our 20-year old tourist guides the place was even mentioned (perhaps it was in any case off-limits for tourists at the time). Spectacular scenery is provided by the steep mountain slopes that encroach on the fast-flowing river. All along, minority villages are clinging to the valley wall, often impossibly high up the slopes. All this creates, at least for me, expectations of an authentic, back-to-the-last-century experience, little wooden houses, colourfully dressed people. Picturesque. So we were going to travel all the way to Bingzhongluo, at the very end of the valley – or the beginning, whichever way you look at it, in any case the furthest access point by road -, not to miss any of this.

another view of the Nu River

sometimes cutting through narrow canyons

Hmmm. The reality was a little different, and a little disappointing perhaps. The Nujiang Valley may be remote, on account of the effort it takes to get there, but as in so many other places in China, it is pretty densely populated for what arable land there is. And arable land is a very broad concept here, the slopes of the mountains are, where possible, terraced, to quite high up. The Chinese version of glass-houses, plastic-covered metal frames, are many, and otherwise vegetable plots are protected with large black sheets. The development I have been talking about has also penetrated into the valley. Everywhere are modern houses, the square two- or three storey concrete constructions, on flat land along the river, but also up the slopes, where they are supported by concrete pillars. Entire complexes with hundreds of new houses, once again many unfished, dominate the lower ranges of the scenery. Nothing like picturesque villages, here.

basic concrete houses in between the steep terraces

much of the terraces is protected, from cold, by large black tarpaulins

another concrete village, far from picturesque

or take this one, brand new and often unfinished housing complexes

the plastic version of glass houses

along the road, the result of all this agricultture

some women do wear their traditional dress

And those colourful minorities, they occur mostly on murals, or as happily dancing troupes in promotional videos of the tourist board. Occasionally some of the women in the villages we pass wear their traditional head scarf; very rarely they go around in traditional dresses. They do exist, those dresses, as a market reveals, where several stalls are dedicated to minority clothing – the romantic concept I held that these are patiently handmade during long nights by the minority women themselves has been well and truly shattered, these are all machine-made.

Perhaps in the ‘ethnic villages’, of which several are signposted along the road, by the same tourist board, the traditional clothing is more frequently worn, but here, too, their authenticity may be compromised.

Anyhow, next more about the actual trip.

but most can be recognised as minority just by their head scarves

another traditionally dressed woman, in the market

and a representative of yet another ethnic group

but all these colourful dresses are simply for sale, at the same market

one more traditionally dressed woman, then, to finish off

one of the many hanging bridges across the Nujiang, the Nu River

The journey from Bangkok via Kunming to the start of our next travel target, the Nu River, was actually a very smooth one, but the reconnection with China after 20 years does trigger some observations.

The part I was most anxious about – the stretch of our journey where various pre-arranged things could go wrong – actually passed very smoothly. The plan, all booked ahead, was to fly to Kunming in Yunnan, overnight at a hotel near the airport, and continue the next morning by plane to Baoshan. Here we were to pick up a bus to Liuku, at the start of the Nujiang gorge, the river we were going to follow upstream for a few days.

We had booked our Kunming ticket on ominously-called Lucky Air, leaving in the evening and arriving around midnight. Lucky Air proved a sort of budget-airline, Chinese style, in fact very efficient. Most Chinese airlines keep the front two rows free, in case some important people turn up at the last minute; the check-in staff thought us important enough to give away two seats on row one (unfortunately, budget airlines don’t have business or first class, but never mind: comfortable enough). In Kunming we found an information desk with a very friendly, English-speaking man, who phoned our hotel to announce that we had arrived. Upon which the hotel sent the shuttle bus. “Near the airport” actually meant a good 15 minutes’ drive, further eroding our potential sleeping time, but by two in the morning, we switched off the light.

Which we switched on again five hours later, thanks to a wake-up call from the hotel – yes, there are places where they still do this! An hour later we were back on the shuttle, to the airport, into a plane and the air, and back on the ground in Baoshan by 11:30. From here no more bookings and reservations, but thanks to a travel companion who hasn’t forgotten all her Mandarin yet, we managed to grab a taxi to the long-distance bus station, managed to find out that the bus to Liuku was to depart 45 minutes later, managed to arrange some food in the form of instant noodles – that ever-present emergency option in China -, and then got on the bus. Could not have gone smoother, or better timed.

the mountains outside Baoshan, villages dotted around

Having last been to China some 20 years ago, we cannot escape some comparison, of course. Things have changed, as was to be expected. The outskirts of Baoshan, a small city (in Chinese speak, a small city has around 1 million inhabitants, a medium city 2.5 mln, and a big city over 5 mln. – is what I learned long time ago), the outskirts of Baoshan was one large concrete jungle under construction, high rise apartment buildings, fly-overs, motorways. 20 Years ago construction was a big thing, too, in Beijing, but now it has reached places like Baoshan (and even smaller towns, as we will see later). The motorway we were on was six lanes, but obviously this was not going to be enough for the future. Soon, however, we left the motorway, to turn onto a smaller road to Liuku. And do we leave all the construction behind, at least for a while, as the road meanders through half-high mountains, past smaller villages.

hamlet next to a stream

one of the few authentic buildings, outside Baoshan – they still exist!

What hasn’t changed, is the requirement that foreigners register. Our target was the Nujiang Valley – the Nujiang, the Nu River, further downstream becomes the Salween River, which runs through Myanmar and empties in the Indian Ocean. But the origin of the river is in Tibet, and the road upstream reaches there, ultimately, so perhaps this is a particularly sensitive point, Tibet being a no-go area for foreigners most of the time. As soon as we entered the valley we were stopped an army check point. Being the only foreigners on the bus, we were directed to a man with a computer, who took our details, like passport and visa numbers. This took him no less than 15 minutes – I hate to think what happens if a bus full of foreigners arrives here. But all very friendly, very relaxed. Perhaps that is one of the things that has changed, too: the Chinese, including the military, seem much less obsessed with foreigners than 20 years ago. We do get the occasional person trying to sneak a picture, or a video, of us with their mobile phone, but not like back then, when a foreigner was something special, to be stared at.

Having registered, and having promised to be back in 4 or 5 days, and not head on to Tibet, we got back on the bus and arrived a little later in Liuku.

the Bund of the Nu River, I am not joking!

Where we had expected a small town – a small town in our interpretation, not to the Chinese definition -, we actually found ourselves back in a sizeable city; certainly not walkable, to give you an idea. But a lot of this ‘sizeable’ was new, and as yet unfinished, construction. The bus station was at the end of a boulevard along the river, humbly called the Bund of the Nujiang, complete with Bund Hotel (to be sure, nothing compared to its famous namesake in Shanghai). Lots of other buildings seemed finished, but totally empty. The same for the wide streets and avenues, where, unlikely for a Chinese city, there was hardly any traffic. As it transpired, the older part of town was a little further upriver, but clearly Liuku has ambitions. For the time being, however, no reason to stay any longer than a night’s sleep, in a brand-new hotel.

our first views of the Nujiang, the Nu River

woman at the Bangkok flower market

A comfortable place to start our South East Asia journey, with as a bonus some river views and a Christmas atmosphere.

The contrast couldn’t be bigger. Back home it had been snowing, but the day we left the weather got better: it was pouring down with rain, still bitterly cold. When we landed in Bangkok, it was also a bit chilly, but that was from the air conditioner in the airport. Outside, it was a pleasant 30 oC, sunny and humid.

Bangkok is always a good start for a trip in South East Asia. Relatively cheap to get to, and with lots of onward connections, it is a great place to recuperate from the long-haul flight from Europe. Easy going, friendly people, well developed, everything works. We have been coming here on and off for the past 20 years, so our focus is no longer on the tourist sights. Instead, we enjoyed some of the street food markets, and – it being that time of the year – admired the impressive Christmas decorations around the various shopping malls. And suffered every possible Christmas song ever made, inside the malls. If anyone still needs confirmation that Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity anymore, and is merely a commercial concept, come to Bangkok!

food festival

with, for instance, huge prawns

one of the many Christmas trees

an open air stall, with Christmas balloons

lights creating the image of an ice cave

one of Bangkok’s shopping malls

With a day spare we jumped on the commuter ferry that ploughs the Saen Seab canal, or klong, in the local speak, and had us dropped at the end of the line, from which it is about half an hours’ walk to the Chau Praya River. Most of which we spent following one of the other klongs, through some of the older residential neighbourhoods of Bangkok. Somehow, it is incredible that this type of houses still survives in between the high-rise of this mega city, but it provides for an entertaining walk, full of character.

view of the klong, from the commuter ferry

houses along the canal

one of the alleys running away from the canal

a mobile food stall making its way through the canal neighbourhood

garlands decorating a longboat

The best way to move aimlessly from one side of Bangkok to another, is by river taxi, a fast and relatively comfortable transport form, that allows you to get on and off wherever you choose – as long as it is along the river, of course! Many of Bangkok’s temples and palaces are located at or near the riverside, and are visible from the boat. Having a penchant for markets, we hopped off at the flower market, a key supplier to the many Buddhist temples; lots of women preparing garlands, but also lots of colourful fake flowers and other temple decoration material. Great place to wander around. And casually walk to the next river taxi stop, in China town, and hop-on again!

one of the other river taxis

palace along the Chau Praya River

flowers in the flower market

this is the yellow flower stall…

and this is the bleu flower stall, aren’t they wonderful?

and some random pics: an open window, somewhere in Bangkok

and woman cooking street food

rose petals in the flower market

a big attraction of the journey will be the different ethnic minorities in Yunnan and North Vietnam

Never return to a place where you have travelled, or lived, before! It can only disappoint, because it won’t match your expectations based on the good experiences of the past (and if you have had bad experiences, you wouldn’t dream of going back anyhow).

And yet, this is exactly what we are going to do. Back to Yunnan in Southern China, back to Vietnam, back to Laos and back to Thailand. But rather than returning to where we have been before, we are mostly filling in the gaps left on previous trips. We went to Yunnan in 2000, just before leaving China, and we didn’t have enough time to thoroughly explore the province. We travelled through Indochina in 2011, but didn’t make it all the way to the north of Vietnam, because we got distracted on the way. That same trip brought us to Laos, but because of other commitments we missed out on the so-called Plain of Jars. And Thailand, well, we have been there several times, but always for a short while, a few days Bangkok or a few days on the beach. Now we go, well, to Bangkok, and perhaps a few days on a beach, at the end of our journey. Nothing wrong with that, especially because February will no doubt still be cold and miserable back in Europe.

And that’s it! Not much planned, this time: we have an idea about a Yunnan itinerary, time-limited by a rendezvous in Hanoi early January, with a friend who will join us for a few weeks. And we have a ticket back from Bangkok halfway February. No tight travel framework, this time – well, except that we have an idea about the route, see the maps. No major tourist highlights – except Halong Bay, in Vietnam. Just ten weeks in South East Asia, enjoying the climate, the landscape, the food, the people, and just the traveling. And writing about it, of course, illustrated with the usual bombardment of photos. Watch this space!

we fly from Bangkok to Kunming, in Yunnan Province of China, then north along the Salween River, back to the volcanos of Tengchong, further south to tropical Xishuangbanna, and then to Vietnam

our route through Vietnam, entering overland from China, looping through the northern mountains and then Halong Bay, and leaving to Laos

through Laos and into Thailand , through the Isaan area, perhaps in-and-out of Cambodia, then to Bangkok

This site is still very much work in progress. Here you’ll find what’s new on theonearmedcarb.com (and when I added it).

  • From the time we lived in China, from 1997 to early 2000, I added some Beijing Memories, as well as location sketches of some of the Beijing highlights, the Chinese Wall near Beijing, and of places like Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou, Datong and the ice-sculpture city of Harbin (August 2017). I also completed a four-chapter article on our trip to Yunnan in Feb. 2000 (October 2017)
  • Wrapping up the Iran blog, I added descriptions and photos of several exquisite buildings as sub entries under Isfahan, Shiraz and Kashan (June 2017).
  • Our Feb. 2017 trip also went to Oman, and our experiences and observations can be found on the newly created Oman page (Feb. 2017).
  • A brief visit to Qatar resulted in a Qatar page, and entries on Doha and Outside Doha (Nov. 2016). A return visit added an entry on the Khor Al Adaid inland sea (Feb. 2017), and the fabulous Museum of Islamic Art (May 2017)
  • After our two months trip to Iran, I created the Iran page, including a link to the travel blog of Iran, and the Iran reading list (Nov. 2016).
  • I now completed the Myanmar page, with photo-dominated entries on Yangon and Mandalay (July 2016).
  • A Dutch-language article about our first trip in China, to Sichuan and the Three Gorges, from Summer 1997. Accompanied by scanned slides, not of the best quality anymore (July 2016).
  • A travelogue of an old trip through Tibet, in Spring 1999, made it to the site, put together from old notes and scanned slides. As we ended up in Nepal, I also created a country page with, once again, scanned slides, not much text, of Kathmandu and Patan. Ever so slowly catching up with past travels… (July 2016).
  • I finally managed to spend some time on sorting out the photos (scanned slides) of our years in India, which has so far resulted in entries on the rock paintings of the Bhimbetka Caves and on the Sanchi temple complex near Bhopal, as well as a fairly extensive report from a trip to Ladakh, in 2005 (April 2016).
  • One our favourite museums, the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, had a retrospective of Dutch expressionist painter Karel Appel, which we went to see (March 2016)
  • In February 2016 we spent a couple of weeks in Argentina, where we went to Santa Fe, on the Parana River, to Tigre – the delta near Buenos Aires -, and to the Museo National de Bellas Artes, the fine arts museum in Buenos Aires, with its great Latin American modern art section (February 2016).
  • Another thing I hadn’t done yet was to include some works, mostly masks and other ethnic artefacts, from the collection of the National Museum in Jakarta, which we visited in December 2014 (February 2016).
  • Some photos of a pretty unique sculpture exhibition of Miro in the York Sculpture Park, where we were in 2012 (February 2016).
  • To complete the SE Europe section to date, I also posted some old pictures from a 3-day passing through Macedonia, in 1997. One of the humbler pages on the site, to be fair (January 2016).
  • I found a plugin that allows me to present a real world map on the home page of this site, The Map, including the possibility to link from this map to individual countries. Great plugin, except that it now becomes abundantly clear that there is still a lot of work to do on the site: many countries I have been to and have content for are not included yet! (January 2016).