Monday 30 November 3.55pm, Kunming Airport

It is with a sense of huge relief that I am finally about to board a flight out of Kunming, down to Jinghong in Xishuangbanna – the tropical south, bordering Laos and Vietnam.

The nights at Cloudland Hostel have been very cold, and I am not equipped for temperatures below around 10oC. I had relented to the cold in Zhongdian, and bought a set of men’s long underwear (preferring the subdued slate grey to a rather violent cerise on offer in the female section); I left the long johns in Dali, assuming that The City of Eternal Spring would be warmer. I could not have been more wrong, and was extremely grateful when a travelling American offered me her thermal underwear before heading across to Yangshuo and Vietnam.

It came in really handy when we stayed in the Hobbit Hole.

Having been incarcerated in Cloudland Hostel for the duration of my stay in Kunming – no passport, no travel – my ears pricked up when I heard talk of visiting an organic farm about an hour’s drive away. It was being arranged through Go Kunming, an ex-pat website for all things useful in Yunnan. From what I can gather the organic enterprise, Green Kunming, operates along the lines of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) where people belong to a vegetable box-scheme, but can also go to the farm and pick their own produce.

The farm is high up in the mountains to the north west of Kunming, where the air is cooler, and a whole lot cleaner. There is a large reception area with displays of the organic produce, a large concrete hotel, and an extraordinary greenhouse structure, rising up about 40’, housing a café and some of the more vulnerable produce – tomatoes, peas, aubergine and fig; others took advantage of the warmth to extend the growing season. Alongside are some rather sad cages with guinea fowl, pheasants, rabbits and guinea pigs. I don’t ask if all the animals were part of the organic meat production…

Walking down a dusty track we see neatly terraced and laid out fields growing the huge white radish and many different kinds of lettuce and brassica. There are cherry trees, prunus and malus; purple potatoes and a delicious, tuber which is crunchy and sweet – apparently from South America. Two farm workers were packing these in individual nets of polystyrene and gladly peeled them for our inquisitive taste.

Out front there is a concrete lined pond which is thick green with stagnation, where some of the dads from the bus-loads of tourists take the opportunity to demonstrate their fishing skills to their sons.

And out beyond the pond lie the Hobbit Holes: half a dozen twin-bedded rooms dug into the hillside looking very much indeed, as if Hobbits might have lived there – except of course for the TV.

They are a charming idea, which doesn’t quite come off – they’re bitterly cold, there’s no water pressure in the basin, and even after 20 minutes the shower tap doesn’t produce anything other than a slow stream of tepid water; the crisp white towels remained unused and we sleep in our clothes – by the time we’ve had dinner and requested a fire, the farm workers have all gone to bed. But it’s a novel experience and I feel rather smug about having escaped the keen eyes of the Manager for a night “out of town”.

The flight into Jinghong is brief, but covers some spectacularly forested mountains, which turn slightly surreal as the pattern of tress forms precise curves around the contours – from this height, a dense complex of Victorian box hedges or the short neat knotted hairstyle of African women. The trees I surmise to be rubber plantations – miles upon miles of coiffured terrain. The flat plain is given over to banana production.

I step off the plane into a hazy, balmy air, looking forward to a quiet night’s sleep in a light, airy hostel. Not many come recommended in the various guide books I’ve consulted, but Lonely Planet’s description of the Banna College Hotel sounds good: “most travellers are winding up here now, for good reason; clean rooms, efficient service…” Well, I’m not sure if I could possibly have checked into the same place: the dorm room is dirty, dark, with worn bedding. There’s no hot water and the sink empties out onto the bathroom floor. The noise is astounding! The windows back onto a high wall, so every sound from an adjoining office – they start work at 7.30am – bounces directly off the wall and into the room. This feature also amplifies the busy street noise, and in the middle of the night a very lively discussion takes place between a group of loud young students.

I have dinner with a Dutch couple who have also just arrived in the ex-pat street, Manting Lu, where they are investigating local treks, and we all decide to leave the hostel first thing, and check into a new International Youth Hostel some blocks away.  And what a relief! I’m on the 4th floor in a light, airy 3-bed dorm all to myself, with a clean, en suite bathroom with hot water. And all for the same price. I’ll see if it’s quiet, later. (Later: it is.)

I’d love to be a doing a trek with the couple, but I’ve developed a bad cough which needs to get sorted before I head off into the jungle for over-night stays in local villages.

Wednesday 2 December

I drag myself downstairs at noon to book a couple more nights to recover from this horrendous cold – which I guess could be flu but for the lack of a temperature. The walk around the “Flower Gardens” yesterday afternoon exhausted me so much I lost interest in examining the extraordinary, ancient bonsai’d bougainvilleas, the tropical fruit plantation – mango, papaya, coconut, star fruit (quaintly labelled Country Gooseberry), jack fruit and fig – and the great stands of fading Frangipani with their exquisite burst of cream coloured, highly fragrant flowers.

And now I’m wondering what it is I’m meant to be doing here, resting up, after such a long time stuck in Kunming. The room is lovely and light, and although it’s a 3-bed dorm, there are very few tourists and I have it to myself. Time perhaps to read? It’s beautifully warm and I’m propped up in bed – tissues to hand – sunlight streaming in, with no sense of urgency or time.

Someone gave me a copy of Oracle Bones, a work of non-fiction by the writer Peter Hessler – A Journey Between China’s Past and Present. It’s a heavy hardback, and I don’t want to carry it around, so am intent on getting through as much as I can while I’m here.

Between the chapters, he has written passages he calls Artifacts (sic) – and this is where I’m finding illuminating insights.

“In order to write a story, and create meaning out of events, you deny other possible interpretations. The history of China, like the history of any great culture, was written at the expense of other stories that have remained silent.”

It’s obvious, of course, but how often do we consider how we “set” an event by our attempts to describe it? How often do we consider our responsibility to see it clearly, when doing so?

There are also possible insights to observations that have been bothering me: more about the practice of littering and total lack of care for the immediate environment – the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to recycling – but also an apparent dispassionate approach to other peoples’ situations, particularly poverty.

Hessler talks about the wider implications of top-down commands which manifest themselves in chaotic, irrational actions by local police, and references the suppression of Falun Gong’s silent protests in April 2000: “Without the sense of a rational system, people rarely felt connected to the troubles of others. The crackdown on Falun Gong should have been disturbing to most Chinese – the group had done nothing worse than make a series of minor political miscalculations that had added up. But few average people expressed sympathy for the believers, because they couldn’t imagine how that issue could be connected to their own relationship with the law. In part, this was cultural – the Chinese had never stressed strong community bonds; the family and other more immediate groups were the ones that mattered most. But the lack of a rational legal climate also encouraged people to focus strictly on their own problems.”

I am also reading Awakening The Buddha Within. In 1971 a young American, Jeffrey Miller, found himself travelling across Europe, heading further and further East, in search of a deeper sense of meaning. Deeply affected by the death of his best friend’s 19-year old girlfriend at Kent State in 1970, and disillusioned by his original life goal to become a lawyer – “I knew that I wanted to learn more, not earn more” – he finally reached a monastery on a hilltop in the Kathmandu valley where one of the lamas had learned a little English and was willing to teach Westerners.

Lama Surya Das is refreshingly pragmatic in talking about enlightenment: all we need to do is to free ourselves from our cravings and clinging to objects and obsessions – and through enlightenment we will gain a direct realization of the nature of reality – how things are and how things work. And that enlightenment will bring inner peace. He doesn’t pull any punches, though, about how long this can take. And the amount of self-discipline that’s required. But whatever length the journey, they all commence with that first, small, step. And just were we all are, right now, is the most perfect place to start.

Thursday 3 December

This afternoon I manage to get through to the Ward at the Royal United Hospital where my Mother is recovering from a couple of infections and a series of falls. Information about her condition came in bursts: technology doesn’t always work, but a combination of e-mails, Skype and texts sure supersedes Telegrams!

She’s a bit hazy as to whether she was at home in her sitting room, or somewhere else – the word Hospital eluded her – but adamant that she is being well looked after, very happy, is having many visitors and has plenty to read. Because of her very short-term memory, she often responds “in the now” with no sense of context – so it’s very difficult to assess how she really is – other people might catch her when she’s tired and confused and have a very different understanding of her state of mind. And she’ll make light of any difficulty to the extent of hoodwinking Doctors who should know better!

But she does have an extraordinary ability to accept life as it comes to her. To be pragmatic. She may not have been the perfect Mother for each or any of her children – but she was the Mother we got, and both she, and my Father, tried their best to make sense a world that was changing faster than they could keep up with comfortably. They were both born at the end of the Victorian era, and we were teenagers during the 1960s. How far apart in one generation can one get!

We were brought up to go to church, but there seemed scant faith in our upbringing. The routine of church services, Sunday School and Youth Club Bible Study were obligations that we eventually rebelled against. There was never any family discussion about what the Christian faith might actually mean; about alternative believe systems; about context; about the wide world.

I’m not sure my parents understood about The Wide Word. And when I was growing up, with all that change in the 60s and 70s, I really wanted some guidance – some handle on the world. Even an acknowledgement that they Didn’t understand it would have been something. But that’s what they weren’t really equipped to provide. Perspective. Context. A reason for being. But they always hung on to their Christian faith, even if they couldn’t convey their beliefs to me.

Listening to my Mother talk about her moment-to-moment contentment, while in Hospital and away from the independence of her own home which she loves, I wonder whether her Christian faith doesn’t take her to the same place as Buddha’s teachings.

There was cartoon I saw once about people trying to enter the Pearly Gates, the Kingdom of Heaven, Nirvana. There were a number of gates all around the base of the mountain, and above each gate was the name of a different religion. All paths lead to the top of the mountain. And at the top of the mountain was a rather bemused “god”.

Friday 4 December

The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Jinghong as “torpid”, and indeed there is a very laid-back, tropical feel. The weather is very pleasant at this time of year, encouraging a relaxed, outdoor lifestyle, but I find it more alive than perhaps the researchers did. Since I don’t like cities in general, this one is passably good.

The wide boulevards are lined with date and coconut palms, or bayans (Ficus bengalensis), with their twisted fused limbs and straggling, unkempt hair of aerial roots. And there is, like in so many cities, a great deal of development taking place. The popular, sprawling night market has been replaced by a riverside “beer and snack cultural promenade” which extends nearly 2k through various themed zones. Wide stone steps descend from street level at various points to a lower promenade, still under construction, but the light display – flashing illuminated umbrellas and tropical rainforest “drips” of coloured light already shows signs of premature aging.

The beer and snack huts are a pastiche, a Chinese self-parody – all made of ticky tacky; the bamboo walls are fake, a thin veneer of compressed wood fragments and light splinters through the roof tiles. Disappointing in daylight, but a Hollywood film set at magic hour against the illuminations of New Bridge, reflected in the Mekong.

Instant landscaping is something the Chinese excel at, and the enormous trees are, at least, real, securely tethered by cables until the roots establish themselves. There will be no dislodging these trees, which is more than can be said about the shacks. Just the mention of a tropical storm would cause them to shudder.

Across the river is a large, dark undeveloped expanse, punctuated by one enormous illuminated sign advertising a phone number and not much else, and an enormous illuminated hotel. The rest is spectacularly dark. The map shows that this is where you get the ferries for Thailand – presumably not after dark.

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