Since the recent PechaKucha Night Dali II – Architecture with Intention I have been enjoying some downtime. Mostly spent hiking and time alone at the courtyard or with friends. Some friends from Kunming come to visit me. I’m resting up and getting ready for the big move back to Europe – ready to hit the road. The last week before I fly I spend in Kunming, wrangling last-minute red tape and seeing friends.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
The Monday after PechaKucha I take the train to Lijiang. After a short bus ride on Tuesday morning and a short hike through a dusty road building site I am surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. I hike for two half days, enjoying gong fu cha on the trail. The weather was partly cloudy – excellent compared to the cold and dreary days before and after the hike. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is possibly China’s most famous hike. Luckily I have the trail – and the guesthouses – mostly to myself. On the first day I meet three hikers. We have tea together but then I quickly leave them behind.
The first day I do the ’28 bends’, a steep rocky climb to about 2600m. The rest of the trail is fairly easy. Views of the peaks across the gorge leave me awestruck every step of the way. The trail itself is fairly varied. Sometimes through lush forest, hugging a steep rock face, meandering through small villages and along grassy slopes with some goats. I have to ford one big waterfall which is a bit scary as the stones are slippery and the falling water leaves me dizzy. Dropping into the ravine below doesn’t look pleasant. After one day of happy solitary hiking I find the Tea Horse Guesthouse. Here, I am the only guest for the night. A huge meal, a warm-ish shower, a comfy electrical blanket and I am out like all the lights in the village by 9pm.
The next morning I set off around 8am. I stop soon, to do my daily gong fu cha – with a view. The second day is easy and I arrive just after lunch at Tina’s Guesthouse. Here I get a room with a stupendous view of the mountains across. I sleep with the curtains open so I can see the mountains slowly light up in the morning. Back to tourist circus Lijiang – a heavily gated tourist-pen with facial recognition, guards freaking out at a foreigner. Yet, the Old Town is mostly shuttered and devoid of crowds. Tourism has taken a big hit in Yunnan because of Covid.
I wanted to go to Xishuangbanna, to visit the tea plantations one last time and stay at a small tropical paradise guesthouse that is owned by a friend of Eastern Leaves. Since there are new Covid outbreaks I decide to stay put – I can’t risk getting quarantined just before my flight out of China.
I’m deep into my tea studies by now – catching up fast with the xiao ye 小叶 (Small Leaf) course lessons I have missed until now. Eastern Leaves delivered tea to me so we can all brew and taste the teas while we are in the Zoom class together on Saturday afternoons. It’s excellent tea and I drink myself chazui 茶醉 (tea drunk) on a good few occasions. This course is really good – I learn a lot even if most of the content I studied before with Mabol. The Eastern Leaves course is well structured and I enjoy brewing and drinking tea during the class with my fellow tea nerd students. I’m already looking forward to doing the da ye 大叶 (Big Leaf) course next year.
I managed to build up a stash of about 14 kilos of tea and one of the things I have to organize in Kunming is getting that Europe. It can only be shipped by certified tea traders but luckily I have guanxi (connections).
Bye bye beautiful Dali
Apart from hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge I play tourist in my own town. I do the shortest hike ever with my fabulous flatmate Ule. One morning I spend with my neighbour Xiao Zhu, enjoying one last gong fu cha together. Finally I visit the three pagodas. I go for a long walk by Erhai Lake. On the morning of my departure I wake up at 5am and get treated to the most amazing sunrise ever. Beautiful beautiful Dali
A week ago I closed the door of the courtyard for the last time. I got on a train and Ding Ding was transported separately to Kunming – you can’t take pets on the high speed train. On the train I was asked to show my passport. I asked my usual questions: is this because I’m a foreigner? Are you asking everyone in the carriage to show their passport？The official wasn’t very nice and barked ‘THIS IS CHINA’ at me. I started crying – all the emotions of leaving Dali behind came out. He backed off. Face loss all around but I didn’t care, I needed that cry.
Now I’m a less than 12 hours away from getting on a plane to Beijing, then a ten hour flight to Frankfurt, a 15 hour layover, another two hour flight to Sofia, a night in a hotel and a two hour taxi ride and I’ll arrive in Plovdiv. My new home!
The last week in Kunming before I hit the road has been a bit hectic. I spent 6 hours at the customs bureau in a far-flung suburb to get Ding’s exit papers. This included a two-hour lunchbreak where I was just waiting around for the customs officers to return to finish the painstakingly one-fingered typing up of the required forms.
I threw a leaving party and went for a walk with the Kunming International Situationist Society, the art collective that I founded together with my friends Sean and Luofei. I don’t feel sad (yet) at leaving behind my Kunming friends. Many of them I will see again in Europe, with the steady exodus of foreigners that is currently happening. Many Chinese friends won’t be able to travel since China is not issuing passports – so it’s not just foreigners who are stuck in the country.
My emotions are all over the place. One moment I’m revelling in the warm sunlight and just enjoying the moment. The next moment I’m overcome by the typical end-of-year smell of roasting chestnusts or the familiar sight of ayis dancing with fans in Green Lake park. I sharply realize I will not see this again for who knows how long. I will miss my steaming bowl of mixian (rice noodles) for breakfast. I walk around with my eyes wide open and I try to take in as many of these sweet small moments as I can.
Kunming Horticultural Expo park
Today I went to the Horticultural Expo park in the north of Kunming – the site of an expo in 1999 that brought a lot of attention to Kunming which was still a backwater at the time. Right now it looks quite ok overall, apart from some unloved an poorly maintained pavillions. There weren’t many people. The snub-nosed monkey mascot freaks me out a bit.
I went because Yang Xiong – one of the speakers at the most recent PechaKucha – designed a museum in one of the expo pavillions there. My friend Jeff Crosby of CGK gallery is also involved. I enjoyed wandering around and seeing the very dated national pavillions dotted around the park. The museum is an understated jewel – the Pakistani architectural elements have been preserved and go well with the fine botanical and bird drawings Zeng Xiaoliang – the artist that the museum is dedicated to.
Expo pavillions was the topic of my architectural history graduation thesis so that was another bonus point of joy. Since this was a horticultural expo and since Yunnan is an incredibly biodiverse province much is made of the relationship between man and nature.
Next – there’s always a next
I’ve handed in a proposal with the Dutch consulate in Chongqing. I hope to continue my cultural program in Yunnan – from a distance. A week ago I had dinner with Yang Xiong and Sophie, the founders of Elephant Bookstore and the Elephament cultural centre, who would love to host my events. I have great local partners and I have produced a series of events that I don’t want to end. With the hardening attitudes in west and east I would like to continue to build bridges based on mutual appreciation and understanding through arts and culture.
The sweetest thing
So here we are, my last day in China. Many foreigners who still live in China at this point are asking themselves, are we the frogs being boilt in the slowly heating water? How much do I want to be here? Do I want to be here when all my friends are leaving? When something really bad happens on a geopolitical or economic scale? To never be entirely sure whether the next work visa will come through? When I am often treated like an outsider? We are all having to continuously make up the balance of our assessment of national government policies and having close personal relationships with lovely people in a lovely and remote province of this vast empire – this does feel dysfunctional at times. I want to leave and I don’t want to leave.
I deeply, truly, loved my life here – much more than any other place I have lived. My friends, my beautiful house in Dali, my freelance freedom, everything I have accomplished here (apart from the language – yet!), the wonderful food, the nature and landscape, the lovely little encounters, the thousands of years of history and culture, the crazy fast pace of development, the joie de vivre and warmth of the Chinese people, the slightly surreal strangeness of it all, all of it that was so much my everyday experience, my home. Last night I was walking home and listening to a cheesy song by U2:
My love, she throws me like a rubber ball
But she won’t catch me or break my fall
Ours is a stormy kind of love
I have more mixed feelings about Yunnan and China than I can possibly express here. It does feel like the end of a relationship and I suspect it will only really hit me when I have boarded the plane. I’m leaving a part of my heart here and it will hurt. Yunnan will always be here and I will come back – like the migrating sea gulls who visit Kunming every winter – but this is a very definite end of an important chapter of my life. 再见，昆明. Time to hit the road.