Travelling in China can be very, very hard. But sometimes there is a magical parting of the waters and a combination of surprising encounters or events turns the process of travelling into a memorable adventure.

My visa expires once again, on 11 April, necessitating a return to Hong Kong – or simply out of China. Well, “simply” is a bit of a misnomer: getting out of China is no problem – finding somewhere to get a Visa of longer then 30 days is a trial. Both Hong Kong and Bangkok are restricted to this time-length, and Vietnam no longer issues visas for China. Chaing Mai was heard to be giving longer visas but things change quickly, with no notice, and it’s a long way to go… Plus, my original flight route took me Kunming – Hong Kong, HK – Heathrow, so it makes sense to use the first part of the ticket to exit the country.

However, my return flight to England isn’t until May. So what to do? That’ll be a new adventure, but first let me describe the turn of events that have brought me to the French Café in Kunming, where I’m having eggs, tomato and basil, coffee, and fresh, hot, home-made bread rolls.

I had decided to spend my final weeks back in wonderful, tranquil, Shaxi. The weather was superb, dawning crisp and cool with that exquisite shimmer that heralds a scorcher. The mountains across the valley were blue with morning haze and from the balcony of Horse Pen 46 guest house, the glimpse of river glittered between the fresh green leaves of the willows.

I walked into the dusty red hills in search of rhododendrons and completed two more paintings in the “new” style: the looser, more expressive one developed for the up-coming exhibition in Hong Kong.

As my final days approached, so did my birthday; and I was looking forward to spending it with my good friends in Shaxi: Matthias and Veve, and Lily the English writer. Then Bob from Baisha said he would join us, not having visited Shaxi before, and he made the trip directly from Kunming just for the day.

I have never seen such an extraordinary, beautiful cake! We had Thai soup with prawns, fresh salad with olives, and the yummiest pizza Allen has ever made. Then he cracked open a 21-year old bottle of Royal Salute…

Leaving the next day was hard, but Bob was also coming back to Lijiang, and although we had to wait two hours for a bus, the journey was uneventful – apart from the valley-filled haze as a large forest fire obscured the view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Apparently the single Lijiang helicopter had been hard at work since dawn pulling water out of Lasha lake to douse the flames.

Back in Garden Inn in Lijiang, I picked up my train ticket to Kunming and met a delightful Irish gal called Karen, who was also heading south. We shared a taxi and a hard-sleeper cabin, and then another taxi in the morning to Cloudland Hostel where she was staying for a few days before heading to Lao. She invited me to join her and oh! how I wish I could have done.

But with flights booked, accommodation with Helen sorted, and plans for further travel in the offing, I was rather more committed than I would have liked. Plus my visa expires TODAY, so no time to apply for a Lao visa which takes three days.

I left my bags in Cloudland and here I am at the French Café waiting for my flight to Hong Kong.

Local park in Kunming

The seasoned traveller might find nothing unusual about my final days in China and trip down to Kunming, but I know that I might have done all of this alone – and felt isolated and lonely, tearful even at the thought of leaving China after almost a year, and the good friends I have made here. Instead I had warmth and companionship. The process of travelling alone, or with others, is the same. It’s the experience that’s so different.

Later: just had an interesting experience. Apparently age must have caught up with me despite not feeling very much different. They couldn’t recognise me from my passport photo taken 10 years ago, and placed me in an Investigation room while they did some computer checks! Knew I should have been using those anti-ageing creams after all…