On the Road in Yunnan
Dali, Yunnan Province, May 2008
Dali and Lijiang have two things in common. They are in a physically beautiful part of China and both were destroyed by earthquakes in 1996 and subsequently rebuilt. Resident foreigners are less frequent than in Southeast Asia. Foreign tourists are also something of rarity in this part of China. English is not widely spoken, and communication can be a challenge. In Thailand, language can be an issue for non-Thai speakers, especially outside of Bangkok. Kunming is about the same size and I found very few people at hotels, restaurants, tourists destinations that could speak any English.
Lijiang, Yunnan Province, May 2008
The expats I talked to were young Canadian, American, Irish and British, often with a Chinese girlfriend or wife. All of them were undergoing the anxiety over renewing their visas. The Chinese government cracked down on the issuance of visas. To renew a visa to China requires the foreigner to return to his or her own country and apply at the Chinese Embassy for a new visa. But the embassy will only grant a 30-day visa. For people living on a limited budget it isn’t practical to flight back to London, Vancouver, or New York to apply for a Chinese visa. Their alternative plan was to head for somewhere in Southeast Asia until after the Olympics. The feeling is the Chinese will resume liberal visa granting policy once the Olympics have ended.
Expats play an important role in the Calvino series. Going to China allow me to tap into a new generation of young men and women who have left their countries behind, either for a temporary period or permanently. And with each new generation comes variations of stories one has heard for many years. The isolation from friends and family, the uncertainty of status, the inability to get work permits, but at the same time they celebrate a kind of free spirit and idealism. While their contemporaries are in shopping malls and offices back home, they are finding a way to learn a new language, culture and gaining in experience about life that would otherwise be missed. Or finding the right combination of exercise and spirituality.
It was on the road to Yunnan that I found a back story that will go into the new Calvino novel, PAYING BACK JACK.
In Dali, it was the Bad Monkey where expats gathered. A Montreal guitar player was at the bar talking about an audition at another restaurant on Foreigner’s Street, a street which by the way has now been largely taken over by Chinese merchants. The foreigners are one street over, having followed the Bad Monkey crowd a few years ago. Restaurants on Dali streets offered a wide variety of local vegetables.
In Lijiang Mama Naxi’ Guesthouse was a gathering point for travelers. Mama provided an information hub, a place to check email, and have a huge communal meal with fellow travelers for an inexpensive price. If one could choose one person to govern the world, Mama Naxi would be on the short list.
It was the Naxi (an ethnic minority group number about 250,000) that welcomed Kubla Khan in the 13th century and provided his army with scouts for the attack on Dali. I spent time out in the villages talking basically to old people. An old woman who was 82 and had lost 4 out of 5 children and a retired village leader who had two wives and talked about upcountry people buying wives with horses in the 1930s.
It is difficult to find English language books in China. The bookstores are few and mostly sell Chinese books. It is rare to find English language novels. I did find what appeared to be a pirated copy of a Chinese edition of Jerry Hopkin’s No Way Out of here Alive, the Jim Morrison biography. An unhappy bookstore employee was upset that I tried to take a photo of Jerry’s book.