The (not too) Fast and the Furious

Our last stop in the China leg of our trip was Xishuangbanna (西双版纳).

Xishuangbanna (hur hur) is in the south of China. It neighbours Laos, and is as tropical as it gets in China in winter. In fact, it was so warm that Jo and I were able to walk around wearing ONLY a T shirt and long pants.

Since it was the last stop, we wanted to do something we’ve never done before. We decided to rent a motorbike to explore the outskirts of the city. No, we were not suicidally sad because we had to leave China, we were just badly traumatised by our bus ride from Yuanyang to Xishuangbanna.

We thought the traffic in Xishuangbanna was fairly benign compared to the rest of China (only nine vehicles would try to occupy a three lane carriage way), and since most of the attractions are outside of the city, we thought we could have an adventure getting there as well.

Any hopes I had of being a Hell’s Angel for a day was quickly dashed when we were handed our motor bike – a mechanical wonder that looked like the bastard child of Transformers’ Bumblebee and (I’m being very kind here) Dora the Explorer’s magical rainbow tricycle.

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Hell's Angel v 0.01

I was understandably finicky just before taking to the roads. You see, I am not classically trained in the handling of a motorcycle per se, in the sense that I do not personally own a motorcycle license. The only training I had was six years ago. I spent a grand total of ten minutes with a fifteen year old Cambodian boy. THAT particular road trip ended with me and my passenger in a Cambodian ditch with our bike on top of us.

Jo, understanding how nervous I was, tried to calm me down by constantly whispering to me words of encouragement.

“LOOK OUT FOR THAT CAR!!”

“YOU JUST RAN PAST THAT RED LIGHT!”

“WE ARE GOING TO DIE!!”

By “whispering”, of course I meant “screaming at the top of her lungs”.

Eventually, WE settled down and managed to spend a rather enjoyable morning tracing the Mekong River.

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Fun fact: We didn't know the Mekong runs through China before this

That should have been the end of our adventures for the day, but we couldn’t leave well enough as it is.We thought we could stretch our luck just a little bit by visiting an elephant sanctuary that was supposedly easily accessible via the national highway.

We got on the highway. At this point, I was comfortable enough to go a little faster.

I went full throttle.

The engine roared alive.

I hit a top speed of 50km/h (approximately 693 gallons).

Regardless, we felt alive and free. It didn’t matter that numerous tour coaches overtook us on the roads. We even waved hello back at some of the friendly cars that honked as they passed us (Ok… Jo waved back. I was too busy gripping on to my handle bar for dear life).

Then we hit a toll booth…

A toll booth manned by badass-looking police officers.

Badass-looking police officers who told us in no uncertain terms that SCOOTERS (NOT motorbikes) like ours are not allowed on the highway. Especially SCOOTERS with riders that do not have any helmets on…

We were just thankful they did not ask to look at our licenses.(I was already wondering if $5 would be too much to buy our way outta trouble)

Since we didn’t want to get thrown in a Chinese lockup, we high tailed it back down the highway.

At this point in time, I actually felt kinda badass myself.

We were rebels!

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Jo thinks the best way to mitigate the illegal-ness of our actions was to take a self portrait while riding

We were speeding (sortof) illegally down a highway with the wind in our hair.

You know the awfully cliched term that “fact is sometimes more hilarious than fiction”? This was NOT one of those times.

Just as we were riding the fastest we could away from a night’s stay in a dingy Chinese prison… our front tyre punctured.

Yup… We were stuck in the middle of the highway, trying to look inconspicuous with our bright yellow motorbike scooter.

At that point, we decided that letting the rental company/police know that we were illegally on the highway without a license might not be the best of ideas. So the best solution we could come up with was to Push the Bloody Bike home, and avert our gazes when the traffic police drove by.

Again, situation not helped by bright yellow bike scooter.

Somehow, we managed to get the scooter to a service stop after only one hour of pushing.

At that point I was willing to say “Xishuangbanna this!” and curl up in a little ball back at the hostel.

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End to End control

I’m a little late to the party but I’ve just finished reading Steve Jobs’ autobiography by Walter Isaacson.

It’s a fascinating read.

One of the things that struck me the most was the big ideological battle between Steve Jobs’ idea for a close operating system with end to end control by the manufacturing company and Bill Gates’ preference for an open system that allows multiple end users to tinker with and make changes to the basic operating system provided by Microsoft.

I’ve never owned a single Apple product in my life (*GASP*) because even though the products look absolutely gorgeous, the tight control by the Company feels a tad too Big Brother-ly for my comfort.

While we were in Yuan Yang (元阳), we stayed in a place called Pu Gao Lao Village (普高老寨 )(yes… Pu Gao Lao) in the Duoyishu area (多依树)(yes… Duoyishu).

Beside sounding like a sailors’ favourite adjective, Pu Gao Lao is a place that people in Yuan Yang find “remote” and “difficult to get to”. To put things in perspective, Yuan Yang is four hours of bumpy/windy mountain road away from the next nearest township.

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Yup...STILL wearing THAT jacket

While we were in Pu Gao Lao, everything we ate/drank/shat/slept (吃喝拉睡) was pretty much controlled by the two Guesthouses in the village – Sunny Guest House and Jacky’s Guest House. (We eventually chose Sunny through a very deliberate and extensive research process of walking into the village and stumbling upon it first)

I know it’s a bit of a stretch to compare computer operating systems and the workings of a tourism spot, but I think that the two Guesthouses having a monopoly on the end-to-end experience of its tourists is comparable to the Apple philosophy. The user has no control and no alternative, so the service providers don’t need to give a flying sh*t what their customers think.

Luckily for us, they did.

Even though we asked for the cheapest private accommodation, we were given a room with a gorgeous view of the rice terraces…from the side. The owners were lovely and never behaved like they were the only ones that could provide us with a bed for the night. They could, but they didn’t.

One of the biggest (and most important) things the Guest Houses control was definitely the food.

We were told that the Guest House serves dinner, but it was not compulsory for us to eat there. Seeing that the alternative to that was to chew on raw (and unripe) rice stalks from the terraces, it wasn’t that much of a choice to us.

Dinner at Sunny’s was served at a communal dining room. Again, they could’ve charged us the moon and served us whatever food they wanted (including raw and unripe rice stalks). We’d have no choice but to eat it, but again, thank goodness they didn’t.

Instead, for a princely sum of 30Rmb, the owner took to the kitchen and churned out dish after dish after dish of wickedly tasty food using herbs and vegetables plucked from his own backyard. (Yes, the rice was from his own terrace too. Yes, they taste superb. No, there was no taste of feet from the thousands of tourists trampling over them)

He was still merrily preparing dessert when one of the guests shouted that his stomach was going to explode from all the food.

My key take away is that this demonstrates a closed system can only work if the owner of the system cares enough to give a flying sh*t about what his customers want instead of just obsessing about the bottom line.

Having said that, I still believe there’s a lot of room for abuse in a closed system.

Exhibit A: The only bus service that could bring us the full 13 hours to Xishuangbanna (yes..Xishuangbanna)

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Nope...that's not a smile on Jo's face

No, I am not using this post to make a commentary on the public transport system in Singapore.

Or am I?

Rice!

I know, I know, the last picture in the previous update looks like mere puddles of water. So, I guess you’ll just have to take my word that they are magnificent.

How magnificent?

Let’s just say that Jo woke up willingly at 5am to check out the sunrise over the terraces.

Nuff Said.

Yes… Jo is still wearing THAT jacket…

Anyway, this is gonna be one of those posts that will not have (too many) words. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

A sense of scale… see the puny human. Hulk Smash! (I HAD to do that!)

Spot the Lone Man again. It was starting to become one of our favorite activities

After seeing a few of the farmer dudes dancing along the terraces, I just had to try it out too. Surprise, surprise but it is… NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS!

A cherry blossom in the middle of the rice terrace was perfect for multiple shots with different filter

Yuan Yang at Sunrise

The clouds rolling in made the rice fields look more… magical

One More Time…

Yup, we have quite the crush on Yuan Yang.

Rejuvenation: +100 HP!

After three months in China, we were getting quite a nasty case of the travel fatigues.

We were told by other travelers earlier on that it would happen. We would be seeing new things and having new adventures every day, to a point where we would be numb to it all.

We just didn’t believe it would happen to us.

Initially, we thought it was just a case of “Not-Wanting-To-Get-On-That-Death-Trap-Of-A-Bus” to get us from place to place, but after a while, we realized we actively did not want to see another temple/monastery/museum/temple.

History be damned, but they were all starting to blend into each other and look the same to us. I know, I know – we have boogers for brains.

We tried to mitigate the jaded-ness with long(er) stays in Dali and Lijiang. It helped a bit that we were not just going from attraction to attraction and actually slowed down to live in a place for a while, but we were still finding it hard to be excited. We didn’t really want to go to a place just because it was “on the list” (yeah, we’re having a bit of the “We’re-Not-Like-Regular-Tourists” snobbery too).

Admittedly, some of us are a bit more jaded than the other(s)

It was with this attitude that we headed down to Yuan Yang (元阳), an eight-hour overnight bus ride from Kunming. To be honest, I almost called off the trip to Yuan Yang, because the only way to get from there to our next destination of XiShuangBana was another 17-hour feet-odor-infused bus ride.

And the whole reason for us to suffer this ordeal?

To look at rice.

I’m serious! Yuan Yang is famous for the terraces its villagers grow their rice on, and NOTHING ELSE.

But Jo decided we should push on anyway.

We arrived in fog-shrouded Yuan Yang at 5am in the morning. Understandably, I got a bit grumpy looking at the mist all around us. In my mind I was already listing out the number of ways I could tell Jo “I TOLD YOU SO!” for dragging us all the way down here.

I mean, how majestic can rice terraces be, right?

Let’s just say… I don’t know shit.

Like a balm for the weary explorer’s heart

That’s the thing about China – Just when we think we’ve seen everything it has to offer, it comes along and hits us in the guts with sights like this.

Long story short, our travel lethargy was soothed for a while, and for the first time in a week or so, we were actually excited about exploring again.

So… Great Success!

One For the Birds

Timing your travel dates is an essential skill for many experienced travelers.

So far, our track record includes us being in Munich for the Oktoberfest one week AFTER the festivities; leaving Berlin on the evening when the entire city of Berlin (and pretty much Germany) was in town celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and going to Vashist one week AFTER the Rohtang Pass was closed.

In other words, we are hardly the experts to go to when it comes to tips on timing your travel.

One thing we are apparently good at is blindly stumbling into flocks of migrating birds.

Kunming (昆明) is the capital and the transport hub for Yunnan, not just for humans but for Siberian seagulls (Kunming Red Beak Seagulls 昆明红嘴鸥) as well. The official story goes that the seagulls started appearing in Kunming in 1985. Wu Qingheng (吴庆恒), a local worker, would use a big portion of his meager salary to pay for food for these seagulls. The predatory leeches have been going back to Kunming every year since.

Every winter, the “City of Eternal Spring” would celebrate the return of the seagulls with festivities… it’s a good idea to let the birds know that the people of the city love them as much as the tonnes of tourists they bring along with them.

Wu eventually passed away in 1995, with (really!) six eggs to his name. The city honored his dedication (and his contributions to local tourism) with a bronze statue at Cui Hu Gardens (翠湖公园) for “Old Man Seagull” (海鸥老人) with the inscription “His spirit sets a model for man and nature living together in harmony”.

Enterprising locals honored his spirit by setting up stores selling overpriced bird feed.

At the fervent insistence of our hostel receptionist, we took a walk around Cui Hu to take a look at the birds. We are hardly bird lovers, so you can’t really blame our lack of enthusiasm. We just don’t understand the joy of looking at what is, essentially, a few rats with wings.

We saw the first of the birds as we were approaching the park, and they looked… nice…

A preview of things to come…

And more came…

And then it just got plain bat shit scary…

To be fair, it was a pretty spectacular sight watching them fly in formation, dipping down and swooping up as the numerous onlookers tossed pieces of bread in the air…

But I don’t think it speaks very much for my character, as I was humming this tune as we watched the birds fly by in front of us…