I arrived in China last Friday and fell in love with the country immediately.
A row of taxi drivers greet me as I exit customs. ‘Taxi?’ one of them enquires half heartedly. I shake my head. ‘But,’ I say, ‘I’m looking for a bank.’ I’ve arrived in China without a single yuan, as the banks in Vietnam won’t sell foreign currency.
I show the drivers my bank card and mime taking money from an ATM. They look bemused, take the card and turn it this way and that then shrug, shake their heads and speak among themselves.
‘Money,’ I say hopefully .
‘Aaaah,’ understanding dawns. One of the drivers nods, takes out his wallet and hands me 20Yuan – about £2 but plenty for a meal and a bus ticket here in China.
‘No, no.’ I hand him back the money. ‘Thank you, thank you.’
He takes it back reluctantly. It’s the first time in my life a taxi driver has offered me cash rather than trying to strip me of all of mine and is an act that immediately instils fondness for China in my heart.
In the end I wander the streets asking random strangers and eventually find the ATM and the bus station. Then there’s an 8 hour drive through mountains and tiny villages, leaving behind the rice paddies and driving into countryside that feels more like Italy or Greece. We motor along avenues lined by tall cypress trees, grapes grow on dusty hillsides, villages of sand coloured stone dot the landscape. Only the traditional curved roofs, prow-like against the setting sun, hint at the country we’re driving through.
My first stop is Kunming, a city of around 1million. I only stay one day, just long enough to buy a train ticket north but find it a charming city. The temperature is a cool 25. There are canals and small rivers that wind around the streets with benches and table sitting alongside. People of all ages sun themselves, play chequers, cards and majong or are vocal spectators, offering advice and cheering or groaning at the result. Two young men play the flute and the music floats on the summer breeze.
Families sit around restaurant tables, chopsticks clattering into bowls of exotic vegetable and meat dishes. The food here is amazing: cheaper than you can believe – 50p for a dish of vegetables or a plate of dumplings – and really delicious. I eat Kungpo chicken (spicy with peanuts and peppers); steamed dumplings filled with pork; sautéed aubergines; spinach with garlic and drink light flavourful tea.
The next morning I catch a train, 9 hours to Dali. The hard seat is hard and the carriage is crowed. Eight of us squeeze into a space designed for six.
The train winds over mountains, through picturesque valleys and past ancient villages. The scenery looks like a film set from a Chinese epic; at any moment I expect horsemen to come charging over the hill firing arrows at us.
To pass the time I wander to the dining car. A chef cooks over a wok. The menu is in Mandarin so I point randomly. Out come shredded pork with carrots and chilli and a spicy noodle soup with spinach and mushrooms, a fried egg and more chilli. Sated I doze as best as I can. My bum goes numb and my legs hurt.
But then we arrive. The walled old town of Dali sits at the foot of the mountains and beside a long lake. The clouds hang low over the mountain peaks and I feel myself relax.
A two day stay turns into four, then five. I wake late, wander the streets of the town or hike up the mountain.
I slurp noodles in the market and eat dumplings for breakfast. I find a German bakery run by a woman from Munich where I eat cheesecake and drink coffee.
And along the way I rediscover my passion and enthusiasm for travel. China with its vastness, its exotic scents and tastes, its colourful people, reminds me of India. I wish I had more than the month I have to explore and enjoy it.