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Kunming to Lijiang

Travelling is, to misquote Douglas Adams, unpleasantly like being drunk. What could possibly be so unpleasant about being drunk? Just ask a glass of water.

For the last two days I’ve been lying on my bunk in the hostel suffering from a mild bout of food poisoning – the prime suspect is thought to be a dodgy egg on an otherwise perfectly legitimate vegetable sandwich. Being sick in China is one of those things that every Chinese person you come across will have an opinion about, everyone will make a comment about, but no one will actually sympathize with your or offer any constructive advice about. Most of the home remedies revolve around imbibing large amounts of tea, staying away from goats on the Sabbath and, in extreme cases, for example, losing a limb, or being shot or being hit full in the face by a bus, smearing yourself with camel’s milk and diving into a holy lake. On no account should you ever see a doctor in a hospital.

Afflicted with what I could only describe as “epic” diarrhea – I was filled with dread at the thought of sneezing, or doing something even more fatal, like coughing or being surprised by something on the way to the chemist – I made my way to the nearest chemist to make what I thought would be an easy purchase – something that would stop the biological warfare in my lower gut, and give me enough time to drink a bottle of water without dashing to the nearest toilet screaming “fire in the hold!”.

The helpful chemist offered me several Traditional Chinese Medical remedies, almost all of them came with an attached caveat that they would start working in three or four days. Since I was fairly confident that in three or four days I would be lucky to have any teeth left, I forced myself to make a number of trips to and from the hostel in the hope that between the them, the so-called chemist and the receptionist would be able to figure out what the Chinese name for Loperamide (a chemical with which anyone living in China for any length of time should and will become intimately familiar with) was. A couple of hours, and several startled children later I was armed with a simple medication that almost cured me.

While the experience may be a minor tale of a couple of days of discomfort caused by nothing more than traveller’s stomach, it highlights the appalling state of public health. Despite being illegal, spitting (of the Premier League variety) borders on becoming a Chinese custom. Public toilets have little in the way of soap. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people who in restaurants and coffeeshops enter a cubicle in a public convenience, and exit a few minutes later without washing their hands. Grown men pick their noses, waitresses pick their feet in street restaurants and there is, what has been termed by the group of expats that I hang out with, a certain “brown smell” that lingers in the hutongs over the summer months.

Moving on to happier matters, I’m off to Lijiang at the weekend. Michael Palin visited Lijiang for his documentary travelogue “Himalaya”, and he had this to say about the place:

“Lijiang is a tale of two cities: one a modern concoction of business district office blocks and shopping malls, the other an immaculately kept old town, with clay-tiled roofs, cobbled streets and a canal system that evokes Venice, Amsterdam or Bruges. Lijiang became rich and famous because of its key position the Tea-Horse Route from Tibet into China, but its idyllic situation, set comfortably in a shallow bowl of hills, is deceptive. A fault line at the edge of the Tibetan plateau runs below and the ripple effect of the tectonic collision that created the Himalaya has been responsible for over 50 strong earthquakes here in the last 130 years. The most recent, which registered over seven on the Richter scale, hit Lijiang in 1996, killing 300 and injuring 16,000. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed. The majority of them were in the new city.

The wood and stone houses of old Lijiang were built by people who knew about earthquakes and how to withstand them. They remain, thanks to UNESCO money, as an example of how to create harmony, line and proportion on a human scale. The result is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and squares, car free, perfect for walking, but also a victim of their own success. Large-scale preservation of the past is so rare in China that Lijiang has become a big draw, pulling upwards of 3 million tourists a year into an old town of 25,000 people.”

Which is slightly better than the way that he described Wanxian on the Yangtze River:

“…a hellish looking place where countless smokestacks and factory chimneys feed every shade of smoke from deep black to rust brown into a sky already turgid with low, pus-yellow clouds…”

Either way, with the one hour flight touching a little over 30UKP, it’s a deal that’s not to be missed.

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