The final step to the happiness of the mankind is getting rid
of the evil power of money.
Karl Marx, Frederick Engels. Manifesto of The Communist Party
August 22. 24$+195Y left. The road to Southern Yunnan was closed because of floods, so I took the Old Burma Road to Wanding in the Southwest. The ethnic diversity here is even higher than in Sichuan: almost every village has a different language. Most local tribes speak Burmese languages, dress like Tibetans, and build houses Chinese style. I got off the bus at a 1,900 m-high pass before Luxi village, because the driver told me it was the only place before the border with Myanmar with some forest left. The forest was mostly of long-needle pines and blooming magnolias. The pine cones were just opening, and the pine nuts attracted lots of wildlife: all kinds of monkeys, squirrels, woodpeckers, jays, and parakeets. The forest floor was teeming with rodents and mongooses. At night I could see an owl or a civet every few minutes. It was still raining. I caught some sleep in a roadside shack, trying to touch only dry parts of my sleeping bag.
August 23. 24$+180Y. I expected to find some tropical rainforest below the pass, but there were only fields of corn, tobacco, and rice. Fields were separated by rows of tangerine bushes, so I stopped there for half an hour. Further downhill there were small plantations of mountain bananas, tiny but sweet. I filled my backpack and myself to the limit, and then found a field of pineapples. Until that day I'd had only three chances to taste pineapples (slices in canned juice excluded): one when I was a small kid, another one in Hague when I found that local vending machines accepted some Soviet coins, and then at Lijang market just two days earlier.
I hitchhiked to Wanding, the last village before Myanmar, and saw that all remaining rainforest was on the other side of the border. There were too many people around to try crossing it. After two hours of waiting in the rain I got a ride to Shishwanbanna ("Ten opium-growing districts"), the southernmost part of Yunnan. At a pass called Ulanshan (2,000 m) we suddenly saw a clouded leopard in front of the truck. The driver hit the accelerator, trying to get the expensive pelt, but I quietly shifted the gears to neutral, and the cat escaped.
August 24-26. 24$+170Y. Shishwanbanna is strikingly different from other parts of the country. Everything resembles Burma or Indochina: gilded stupas and pagodas, beautiful slender girls, bright clothes, tropical agriculture. I got to Menghan, the southernmost village in all of China, gathered some papayas for breakfast, and finally found some rainforest on a low ridge, officially a tiger preserve.
The rain suddenly stopped, and the sun showed up, instantly healing me from cold. Even my hand didn't hurt any more. Getting to the tropical rainforest had been the dream of my life; I was so happy that I crossed the border into Laos without realizing it. I spent three days in the forest: hiked all the way to the other side and back, and even got a glimpse of the first Lao village. Sometimes I used small trails with footprints of tigers, deer, sun bears, skunk badgers and civets. Sometimes I waded along tiny rivers, watching "aquarium" fishes, kingfishers, and huge monitor lizards, apparently very smart (unlike the deer, they noticed me even if I was perched motionless in a tree high above the river). But most of time it was possible to walk right through the forest.
A few miles into Laos I found a tiger trap on a trail. A thread was tied to a small crossbow, armed with a short heavy bolt, covered with something slimy. There were prints of heavy boots on the trail: the trap had been most likely set by border guards. I took certain measures to neutralize the trap, and to punish the poachers.
It would take pages to list all the wonderful animals I saw in the forest, but the only large mammals were various deer, one dhole, and a family of leopards: a black female with two spotted half-grown cubs. I would probably see more, but my shoes were filled with blood from leech bites, so walking quietly was difficult. The part of the forest ajacent to the village was mostly bamboo thicket with small clearings planted with poppy.
August 27. 24$+170Y. Most of Shishwanbanna looked very green, but almost all forests had been replaced with rubber plantations. The only animals I found there were painted tree frogs and huge green grasshoppers. Local villages were worth exploring: each one was inhabited by a different tribe, and some had beautiful monasteries, temples and stupas.
Jinghong, the capital of the region, was a large city, populated by more than ten ethnic groups, but mostly by Dai, the close relatives of the Thai of Siam. One of its suburbs, with a nice wooden pagoda, had been mentioned in Lonely Planet's China, and in less than eight years turned into a cluster of brick hotels a la Dai. Other suburbs still looked traditional. The city was partially flooded by Mekong River, and all kinds of things, from dead rats to giant centipedes, were floating along the streets.
There was almost no corn left in the fields, so I had to develop a new method of obtaining food. The idea is to find a small restaurant full of people, and to order a cup of plain rice, explaining that you only have 1Y. Immediately you get invited to one of the tables, and offered food in exchange for telling your life story. In Jinghong it worked just great: I was fed to capacity, and invited for free to a small hotel, built of bamboo in the middle of a lake in the local botanical garden.
The room had a fan - my first chance in weeks to dry all my clothes. I unrolled my sleeping bag and saw that it was covered with bright-colored fungus, probably Aspergillum versicolor, the most beautiful tropical mold. Even my sewing needle got rusty and broke.
The hotel owner invited me to stay as long as I wanted, and suggested that I spend nights with either one of his five daughters (small ethnic minorities were not subject to governmental birth control laws). All five were beautiful; I chose the eldest sister; her father was apparently shocked by my choice (she was already 15).
August 28. 24$+165Y. A Taiwanese tourist next door explained to me what was going on. According to him, a girl who managed to give birth to a half-Caucasian child was highly revered by the tribe the hotel owner belonged to. The child had certain advantages in getting a better job, and even in joining the Communist Party. I didn't believe him at first. But later the hotel owner confirmed this information by asking me not to use condoms - he said it was a violation of some local tradition. After thinking about it all day I decided that, as a veteran dissident, I shouldn't help breed Chinese communists. Besides, having unsafe sex in that situation would probably be too risky. I knew he was going to ask me to leave next morning, but I had one more night, anyway.
I made a trip to a small Nature reserve at Mengsha to see lowland rainforests. The reserve was mostly flooded, but I saw some interesting birds and gibbons, and caught a baby king cobra, less than half a meter long. On the way back to Jinghong I found a nice coat on the road - just what I needed.
August 29. 24$+150Y. I said goodbye to my short-term girlfriend, took a bus ticket to the first village to the North, but didn't get off the bus until it got to a large Nature reserve in Northern Shishwanbanna. This forest was inhabited by wild elephants, so hiking was easy. Their footprints formed nice steps on the slopes, and trails were wide and easy to follow. I spent the night in a tree above a small river, and saw two elephants, and many other animals.
August 30. 24$+140Y. As much as I'd love to spend more time in the tropics, I had to get to some large city to send a telegram to my family. I tried to send one every two weeks. (When I returned home, my mother told me that only one telegram, sent from Lhasa, had made it to Moscow, so my family was sure I was dead - V.D.) There were nine mountain passes between Shishwanbanna and Kunmin, and after each one there were more people and less vegetation around. Soon, there was nothing but rice, eucalyptus trees, and water hyacinths in village ponds.
August 31. 24$+135Y. We arrived to Kunmin at dawn; huge Hypposideros bats were still circling the sky above the city center. I was back in the mountains, and it was still raining there. I visited some interesting monasteries around the city, and its most famous attraction called Stone Forest. It's a large area of vertical karst rocks up to 50 meters tall, with narrow paths and tiny lakes between them. At the entrance, local Sani people were selling souvenirs. They wore traditional costumes decorated with large plumes of tail feathers of endangered pheasants. Despite obvious poaching, pheasants could still be found deep inside the "forest".
If you travel by train, you have to show you ticket three times: entering the station, entering the train itself, and leaving the station you arrived at. It's easy to walk to the train along the railway tracks from outside the station, and to get in through the window on the other side of a car. Other passengers always got excited when they saw me doing it..
September 1. 24$+105Y. Guizhou province has some interesting forests, but they are all very remote. I made only one stop at Huangguoshu Waterfalls. The train to Nannin was so crowded that people had to sleep in toilets and on luggage shelves. At midnight I was dragged from a shelve by a ticket-checking team (the "train director" and five policemen). But showing my Datzybao was enough to get rid of them.
September 2. 24$+80Y. Nannin is a large city with many modern buildings, but it still serves the same purpose as the Medieval cities of Europe: it is a settlement of craftsmen, where peasants come to exchange food for tools and other goods. The streets are lined with shops and small markets. Among other things, the markets offer a wide range of medical items: boiled scaly anteaters, "tiger" skins made of pariah dogs and painted, chiru horns sold as saiga horns, bear skeletons, cockroach wings, and dried bats.
The Chinese put terrible pressure on the environment. Whatever can't be eaten is used as medicine or souvenirs. Leg traps, bait poison, and small rifles are sold on every corner. Fields are patrolled by armed farmers who shoot every bird or mammal in sight, and catch every snake or frog. Anglers can be seen around city ponds, where no fish is more than 20 mm long, and even on rice fields, where they fish for tiny hookworm-like eels.
I went further South and took a ferry to Hainan Island, once a tropical forest paradise, but now a country of military installations, coconut plantations, overpriced seaside resorts, factories, and mines.
September 3-4. 24$+52Y. There were some tiny forest reserves on the island, but there was a lot of illegal logging going on, so there were no large trees left, and little wildlife. In two days I saw only some birds, a moonrat, a few deer, and a young clouded leopard. There were also coral reefs nearby, but I couldn't get there because of stormy weather.
September 5. 24$+34Y. Early in the morning I got a ride from a truck driver who was going to take a ferry to Fancheng, the last Chinese port before the Vietnam border. He said it was OK to hide in the trunk, filled with coconuts and other fruit for a Navy base in Fancheng. But the ferry was closed because of the storm. I decided to try a larger ferry further North, but at that moment a black Soviet-made car showed up, carrying a local Party official. He demanded to be taken to the mainland immediately, because he had to get to an important meeting Up There. Actually, I had no idea what he said, but the ferry crew was very impressed. The car boarded the ferry, followed by our truck, and then by another truck, loaded with titanium ore. The ferry was so small that it couldn't take more cars.
As soon as we got out of the harbor, the ship almost stopped because of the wind and the waves. Normally it takes about ten hours to cross the Gulf of Tonkin, but by noon we were still less than halfway across. I saw beautiful St. Elmo's lights that evening, and some Buller's shearwaters in foam-covered sea. By that time I realized that we were in the middle of a midsize typhoon, and wasn't surprised when we suddenly got in its eye. The eye was not as well-defined as in some major hurricanes: the sky was still overcast, and it was very windy inside, but the waves became chaotic. The trucks started rolling in the hatch, hitting the cadre's car. He went hysterical at first, but became very quiet when we discovered a leak in the hatch gate (the wind was now from the south, and the waves were hitting the ferry from behind). At 4 pm, a crack opened in the hull, so the hatch and then one of the two passenger compartments started filling with water. Two hours later, we lost the engine, but we were still moving north with a frightening speed.
It was completely dark at that time. At 10:30, the ferry capsized, and the entire crew apparently drowned, as their tower was now underwater. We were stuck in the last unflooded compartment, but the crack was still growing, and soon the water started rising there, too. I realized that the ferry would either fall apart or sink within a few minutes, so I made sure everything in my backpack was packed in plastic bags, tied it to a lifebelt, and tried to persuade everybody to abandon the ship. But they were too scared. I opened a window, got out, and instantly found myself far from the ferry, holding to my air-filled backpack. It served as a sail, dragging me across the sea. I have no idea what happened to the ferry and the people (10 or so) after that. Outside it was not as bad as you might think, especially compared to what was going on inside the ferry. And the water was very warm.
September 6. 24$+34Y. After five or six hours of floating the water got inside the backpack and I lost the speed, but I was already close to the coast. It was still dark, so the landing was a bit painful, but at least it was on a beach, not some rocky shore or coral reef. I found an empty pillbox, collected some plastic on the beach, and made a fire. I had no idea what country I was in. If it was Vietnam, I'd be in trouble, because I had no visa to either it or China, and the border was heavily guarded after a recent war. At dawn, the wind became less ferocious, so I walked north along the beach. Soon I passed a tiny village, where all signs were in Vietnamese, and the only person I saw was wearing a limpet-shaped straw hat. Then I found a corpse of a drowned fisherman. In his pocket was a 10Y note, but no documents. Finally, I saw a road, and the first truck that showed up had Chinese license plates. Two hours later I was in Fancheng, drawing comics about our shipwreck at a local police station. The policemen took me to a restaurant, and ordered a plate of something red and "medical". As soon as I touched the meal with my chopsticks, it started crawling in all directions. It consisted of live Chironomidae gnat larvae, and was absolutely delicious.
September 7. 24$+10Y. Guilin is the most popular tourist attraction in Southern China, thanks to the stunningly beautiful landscape of tropical karst. In places like this you understand why the Chinese character for "mountain" looks the way it does. The city market is like a small zoo, with all kinds of native creatures for sale, from algae-covered turtles to weird-looking fish. Further north, there's a nice village called Longsheng with a forest reserve, where you can see pheasants, deer, sunbirds, even sun bears. I camped near a small, very clean river, full of colorful newts and fishes. Late at night I turned on my flashlight, and saw a huge flat head with tiny eyes, looking at me from the water surface. It was a giant salamander, the largest amphibian in the world. It reaches 2 m in length, and is almost impossible to catch because of thick slime cover. I watched it for a while, and went back to sleep. As Carol Chapek put it in his famous novel devoted to this creature, "Salamanders are still better than communists".
September 8. 24$+5Y. In the middle of the night the river started rising - it was raining again. I went back towards the village and saw white light ahead. It was a gas station surrounded by very bright floodlights. Its whitewashed walls were covered with a layer of insects, mostly huge Saturnidae moths and scary-looking dobsonflies, ancient creatures only found in parts of China, Southern USA and Mexico.
I hitchhiked back to Guilin and then to Inshuo, a village with the most beautiful karst landscape. Caves of this area contain some spectacular limestone formations, huge bat colonies, blind catfish, and the World's only species of cave snake. Hitchhiking in Eastern China is not difficult, but slow. Many drivers are willing to give you a ride, but few cars go far. In the Western provinces, it's just the opposite.
September 9-11. 20$+15Y. Three days of long boat rides in the lowlands of Yangtze Basin. It is a huge labyrinth of shallow lakes, channels, and flooded fields. The capital of this area is Wuhan, known for a Buddhist temple with obscene statues of Buddha's disciples, and for the World's largest bell orchestra, with magnificent sound. The great river itself is a city: hundreds of thousands of people live there in boats, traveling up and down. These murky waters are teeming with fish, but you need to find an oxbow lake with more transparent water to see it. There are more than 150 species of carp family in the Yangtze, and also numerous catfishes, eels, suckers, small sturgeons, and a giant carnivorous monster called psefur, relative to American paddlefish. There were some spectacular thunderstorms during these days, probably leftovers from the typhoon, but it was warm enough for snorkeling. Lake Duntin is the best place to see psefur and Chinese river dolphin, pale creature with tiny eyes and a nose that looks like chopsticks (I saw one in Lake Duntin, but now they are extinct in the lakes, and less than ten are left in the river itself - V.D.) The second large lake, Poyang, is the most important wintering area for cranes and geese of Siberia. I got there a bit early, so only a few of them were present.
September 12. 20$+2Y. I found a small island of remaining forest in Wuyi Shan Mountains, in Fujian province. It was a fenced Nature reserve, so it still had some large trees, and many species of pheasants and snakes. That area was officially closed for tourists because of high occurrence of leprosy. On a local bus station, there were lots of colorful posters with terrifying photos of the victims.
September 13-14. 20$. I developed a new method of getting food during long train rides. You find a group of people eating apples, and take a seat close by. Sooner or later they will offer you an apple, and all you have to do is eat it without peeling. Locals think that only a starving person would do such a thing, so within five minutes everybody in the car will be giving you food, from rice with lotus nuts to smoked quails.
Generally, the Chinese are very kind, friendly and smart people, but there are two important exceptions. The first one is the police. They are mean and stupid. As a foreigner I didn't suffer from their cruelty, but I couldn't avoid their stupidity. If you sleep at a railway station, they'd wake you up every twenty minutes to make sure no one steals your backpack, even if you are sleeping on it. The second abominable category is the bureaucrats, from Government officials to women in ticket offices. Whatever you ask them, the answer is meyo (no way). It can be translated as "no tickets", "the road is closed", "foreigners not allowed", "I'm resting", or "go to hell", depending on the situation. The best way to get through this meyo is to say aggressively yao! (it must be done), or, if they still resist, to show them the Datzybao. But the natives don't have Datzybaos, and suffer a lot from these two evil forces.
What is most stunning is that while most common people here have great sense of humor, all officials show pathological absence of it. Well, I guess it's an ancient Chinese tradition. In medieval time, when China yearly paid huge tribute to Mongols to avoid their raids, all visits by their tax collectors were officially registered as them paying tribute to the Emperor. Currently, Chinese maps show all islands in South China Sea as belonging to China, even the one with Manila Harbor lighthouse on it. And every little railroad clerk is ready to sacrifice her life, but not let you out of a station you arrived to without a ticket, although it is kind of obvious that you won't spend the rest of your life at that station, and you can easily walk out along the tracks.
The most beautiful of all sacred mountains in China is Huangshan (1,800 m) in Anhoi province. Its rocky peaks look like giant lotus buds. The peaks are covered with tall pines, and the slopes below are densely forested. Another nice mountain to explore is Hutyanshan in Zhejiang province. It is only 700 m high, but its forests are made up of some very rare and ancient trees: ginkgo, golden larch, whitebark pine, and Chinese cryptomeria.
I was about to enter the most urbanized part of the country, so I gave myself a haircut with my pocket scissors. The process took about an hour, and attracted a huge crowd (I was doing it in a nice old park in Hangzhou).
September 15. 14$+40Y. An hour's walk from the Old City of Hangzhou is a medium-size river called Fuchung Jiang. Twice a day a tidal wave runs up the river. Local people use the wave for a unique kind of surfing. This attraction is not mentioned in guidebooks, so you still can get a ride for free. That day the wave was expected at 5 am. We waited for it on the river, lit with hundreds of lights: each boat had a lamp attached to its mast. Finally, a white wall of water picked us up, and half an hour later we were nine kilometers upstream. Here most people landed near a railroad bridge, to get the best seats in a Shanghai train before it entered Hangzhou.
I didn't like Shanghai. It's huge, expensive, boring, and very European. I sneaked on a boat to Xuzhou. It went down to the sea, then up the Yangtze, and into the Grand Canal. In its delta, the great river is heavily polluted, and almost lifeless, except for an occasional porpoise. Xuzhou is another old city full of beautiful temples and gardens.
September 16. 14$+38Y. I liked Nanjing more than any other city in Eastern China. Countless ancient walls, towers and palaces are hidden in a sea of ugly modern architecture. It is three times cheaper than Shanghai. Its fish market has the best collection of rare fish, snakes and turtles in the country. Lots of young people there speak good English. Just outside the city is a large park with 300-m high Mount Linggushan in the center, the last remaining lowland forest in this part of the continent. It is known for having more species of trees than any other area of similar size outside the tropics. Here you can imagine how beautiful this land had been before people turned it into a large rice field 2,100 years ago. In addition to splendid flora and dozens of rare birds, the park has a collection of ancient temples, mausoleums (the oldest one dating back to AD 374), and statues.
September 17. 14$+36Y. Just as I was getting close to my ultimate goal - learning to travel around spending no money at all - a disaster happened. I was showing the Datzybao to the conductor at Nanjing-Wuhu boat, and suddenly the document fell apart and was carried away by the wind. As soon as I reached Wuhu, I found an English-speaking guy and asked him to write me another letter of recommendation, but it didn't look official, and practically didn't work.
I temporarily stole a small boat to explore a tiny Nature reserve on Yangtze, the last place to see Chinese alligators. They are very small and difficult to approach. There were also some water deer there. Later I got on a train to Luoyang on Hwang He River.
September 18. 14$+19Y. Hitchhiking down the river. Luoyang Caves (less interesting than those in Dunhuang), Zhengzhou, Shaolin Monastery (terribly overcrowded and surrounded by thousands of souvenir shops), Kaifeng. Henan province is mostly a large corn field, crisscrossed by low hills and loess cliffs.
September 19-20. 14$. Shandong province is also a corn field, but it is more flat. I was so tired of endless train and boat rides, that decided to take a day off. I knew that the most difficult part of my journey was about to begin. I was now in Northern China, and the nights were getting cold, but there wasn't much left of my sleeping bag. My shoes and clothes were falling apart from climbing over various fences and into train windows. I still was 10,000 kilometers from home with almost no money left. And it was getting increasingly difficult to get free train rides. Sometimes I was thrown out of trains two-three times a night by ticket checking crews, and had to wait for the next train every time, unless I was able to get into another car of the same train while it was still at the station.
I was planning to spend my day off in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius. But the temple complex and the park with his tomb were too overcrowded to spend more than a few hours there. Besides, my passport fell apart and the front page was lost, so I had no documents left, and it made me too nervous to relax. I visited a 4,000 year-old pyramid of emperor Shao Hao in Qufu, then took one more train ride, and climbed Mt. Tai Shan (1,500 m). It is the most sacred of all mountains in China, and also the less beautiful one. It has almost no forest left, but hundreds of temples, arches and pavilions from all dynasties. From there, I hitchhiked to Tianjin, and then to Beijing.
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