As in most places we visit our story is not about not the sights we see, but about the people we meet. In China we were
overwhelmed by the friendliness and hospitality.
Because of the SARS scare we had postponed our visit to China and arrived there shortly after the situation was resolved.
Perhaps because of this, or of our propensity to travel to out of the way places, we saw very few tourists during our six week
After an overnight train ride from Hanoi, we arrived at to the Chinese Vietnam border at 6:30 in the morning. We then hiked
across the long bridge to the Chinese border town of Hekou. Once through customs, we found the local bus station – no
mean feat – and headed for the city of Gejiu.
Gejiu, a particularly beautiful city, encircles a lake formed in the 1950’s when a large sinkhole collapsed. At night the buildings
surrounding the lake glow, illuminated with beautiful pastel colors.
The long bus ride proved to be our introduction to the wonderful hospitality we met throughout our six week visit in China.
There was one person on the bus who spoke a bit of English. He was friendly, but especially so when the bus stopped at a
roadside inn for lunch. As he helped us choose our dishes, we assumed that we would probably end up paying for his lunch.
To our surprise he insisted on paying for our lunch. This became a pattern during our stay in China. We were not able to
pay for a single meal for our entire first week! People generously guided us around their towns, shared their homes, made
special delicacies for us, even took us on picnics, fishing and swimming.
From Gejiu, we traveled through the Southern, mostly rural parts of the province of Yunan, first heading toward the ancient
terraced area around Yuan Yang.
The rice terraces were overwhelming; thousands of feet up and down, but very frustrating to try and capture and present in
any space smaller than reality.
I had to be a bit surreptitious in photographing some of the local tribes’ people in their costumes*,
but not with this friendly man sharpening his scythe by the side of the road.
In Jianshi after much persuasion, we managed to be allowed to stay in this monastery.
There was music in the streets and many friendly people.
We were not able to find a famous old well we wished to see in the labyrinth of the center of town. This was a challenge as
we could find no one in Jianshi who spoke English. We went into a small bookstore, found a book on Jianshi and pointed to
a picture of the well. After much discussion, our point was made and this girl volunteered to guide us. It was about a twenty
minute walk through the maze of streets. She even fetched the bucket!
A rickshaw pedaled by a strong woman brought us to this beautiful classical bridge outside of Jianshi.
While touring a nobleman’s home and gardens, we sighted our first non-Chinese in eight days. It sort of broke our magic
spell of isolation.
We then took the bus to Western Yunan province where I was given a much needed haircut in the village of Xizhou
The most well known attractions in the area are the two towns of Dali and Li Jiang. Unfortunately both are overrun with
Chinese tourists from the populous coastal areas of Eastern China. Fortunately we met Ting Ting, an innkeeper in Dali. She
recommended a friend who was trying to establish a farm guesthouse in the isolated valley of Shaxi (in Chinese “x” is
pronounced “sh”, therefore “Shashi”).
Until fifty years ago, the only access to the valley was by horse over a narrow trail. Even now the sole twisty road into the
valley sees very little traffic. The only way we could find the small bus to Shaxi was by identifying the Chinese pictograph on
The small rural village was well worth the effort we had to make in order to find it.
Mr. Wu’s farm had been owned by his family for generations, including the three living there now.
Our toilet was across the lane in the barn with the rabbits, and the family pig. He was a very content pig.
Three tribal peoples populate the valley; one in the valley itself, one in the adjacent hills, and the other up in the mountains
near the borders of Tibet and Burma. The hill tribes are so isolated that the Chinese government does not even try to impose
the normally strictly enforced one child per family rule. During our visit to the valley we only saw one other tourist, and he
was from Beijing.
It takes many hours to bring firewood and produce down to the market in the central town. This day they were also bringing
down goatskins left over from the previous night’s feasts and celebrations.
In the market we saw a variety of activities, including this girl who was not getting her hair cut, but was actually selling it!
As always, Trish made many friends.
Some on the way back from the market.
Some when she joined with delight the women who danced at the village festival.
She made all sorts of friends.
After leaving Shaxi, we went up the hair-raising road to the boarder with Tibet where we took a boat to Szechwan Province.
We had a beautiful view from our room in the high mountains. Unfortunately we had eaten some bad fruit on the bus up,
and couldn’t really appreciate it.
We only explored the high country for a short while. As we just had a few weeks before returning to California, we felt we
ought to see the populous East of China where most of the 1.3 Billion people live. In hindsight we wish we had stayed in the
cool mountains, rather than travel in the summer in the very hot Eastern cities.
We flew to Shanghai, where we stayed for a few days, then took the overnight train to Beijing.
In Beijing, we made the obligatory visits to the sights.
Even in the tourist areas of Beijing the people continued to be friendly. Many asked if they could to take pictures of us with
Finally we had to say good bye to China. Hopefully we will return before it’s incredibly rapid westernization changes it
A personal observation: I must mention the incredible economic explosion we all hear about taking place in China.
Construction is going on everywhere – perhaps with the exception of Shaxi Valley. In our entire trip to China, whether
traveling on major or minor highways, we did not look out the window without seeing a new parallel road under construction.
If the communist government can adapt to this change and the ever increasing sophistication it brings, China and its people
will become an ever present force, and perhaps even dominate the twenty-first century.
*The soiled string on my wrist was given me by a monk in Laos with the strict directive not to take it off until it finally wore away and disintegrated.
Not wanting to tempt the Oriental gods, I obliged.
**There is also a special very ancient shrine in the valley of Shaxi dedicated to love. To reach it we had to climb the mountains on the other side of the
valley. I hope my photo illustrates the inscrutable oriental symbolism of this very special organ.