From Jianshui we were heading back to Kunming for our last night of the tour but on the way we'd be stopping at the Stone Forest of Shilin, a collection of volcanic rock formations that had been granted UNESCO World Heritage status and was heavily promoted in the brochure. As we approached the area we saw dark outcroppings of rock emerging from the rich red earth, building up the expectation.
Alas, the park was a bit of a disappointment. The rocks were certainly dramatic but there wasn't much variation and after a (short) while they did start to look mostly the same. The setting was very managed & regimented, well defined paths led through the rocks or areas of (keep off the) grass with no opportunity for finding your own way through the natural display. Once again the tourist groups were accompanied by amplified guides who's artificially loud voices clashed against each other and reflected back from the stone walls. In fact some of the sellers of tourist tat also had their own speakers and I found myself fleeing from the harsh cacophony. Even with a relatively small number of visitors (the park seemed equipped for ten times the number) it felt crowded as everyone was funnelled onto the same paths & routes. Not the celebration of natural wonder I was hoping for.
In a lot of ways China felt like a glimpse into the future (or at least a possible future) with the widespread use of mobile payments & technology, extensive renewable energy, and investment in infrastructure. Both Shilin and Yuanyang felt like another gathering trend, an increasingly urbanised population who want/need very regimented & controlled vacation environments - a set of 'Disney rides' where you go to designated spots, take the same selfies, and share exactly the same, predictable experiences as everybody else. Nobody is disappointed or misses out, a safely average adventure is had by all. A depressing prospect for me but with rising wealth in the world where will all the tourists go?
Leon had managed to organise a replacement hotel for the noisy one we'd stayed in earlier in the trip and the minibus wove through much smaller streets to find it. The rooms were more or less the same but the setting was immeasurably better, facing onto a river with several pedestrian bridges and a small park on the opposite bank. After a nice, long shower I had a pleasant time poking around the new neighbourhood before we assembled for our final group meal. Even the walk to the restaurant felt easier than during our previous visit, was it such a better area or had I found a more comfortable way to deal with the Chinese world? Who can say.
The meal was another splendid feast, made poignant by knowing we'd be off on our separate paths next morning. Leon presented us with beautifully written Chinese equivalents of our names, his calligraphy hobby revealing a high level of skill & artistry. I found myself nominated to thank him for being our guide and managed to pull off an impromptu speech pretty well, if I say so myself. Contact details were exchanged, thanks and appreciations were shared, and slowly we rose and meandered back to the hotel.
6am at Kunming airport
I had an early start the next day to catch my return flight but the sound of music drifting over from the park tempted me (and some of the others) over for one last taste of Chinese city life. Several dance groups were sharing a wide paved area, their music overlapping between them, but one in particular caught my attention - a tight circle of maybe forty people doing what looked to me like a dance from the Middle East. Moving behind them I picked up the steps but couldn't find a way to join the circle before the music stopped. Sigh! They looked like they'd be starting up again but a yawn reminded me that I needed to get a few hours sleep before my pre-dawn departure and so I reluctantly walked back to my room and crawled into bed.
A very early start found Leon, myself and two of the others driving out to the airport to catch our early flights. Despite arriving at around 5:30 in the morning the departure halls were filled with throngs of people but we slowly filtered through the check-in queues and security checks and even managed to grab some (Starbucks) coffee on our way to the gate. There were a few nervous moments when our flight was shown as seriously delayed but miraculously this resolved to just a few minutes late as we boarded. The Beijing transfer was (slightly) simpler going out of the country and although we were among the last onto our international flight we made it with (a little) time to spare. Once again the aircraft was quite full and I didn't get much sleep but knowing I was heading home kept my spirits up. On the approach to London over the Thames estuary I spotted a large offshore wind farm which felt in keeping with all the electric vehicles I'd seen in China, the future is happening all around us!
Coming through Heathrow was the easiest I'd ever known it - even the automatic immigration machines worked smoothly - and before I knew it I was waving goodbye to my fellow travellers and plodding to the train station. The rail system matched the airways for punctuality and just short of 24 hours after rising in Kunming I was sinking into my bed at home.
China had been much more of a challenge than my previous visits to SE Asia. Physically there had been more long (4+ hours) journeys in the minibus, more crowds, and fewer parks, temples or natural spots to relax & unwind in. On a personal level the problems in communicating felt very daunting, I managed some non-verbal exchanges but with so little common vocabulary I felt distinctly detached from the local people, far more than I had in neighbouring countries. Chinese speech and (especially) writing is so different when coming from an alphabetic system that it's hard to even make a vague guess, and trying to find a place name on a map felt like a hopeless task of trying to match strings of indecipherable characters. I'd expected more of a Buddhist atmosphere like I'd seen in Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia, not only was this barely present but where there was some spiritual tradition it was strongly Confucian, more concerned with one's relation to society than to god. Or so it seemed to me.
But the positives still outweighed these disappointments. The countryside was often gorgeously beautiful, the food was amazing, and even the cities had begun to grow on me. Despite the crowds there was a real sense of life in them, of active personal engagement everywhere rather than the Western divisions between commercial areas and suburbs. The options for eating out seemed to give a pertinent insight, there were restaurants on every corner that were nice without being overly posh (although I'm sure these existed) where people would engage in shared, social meals as a communal activity. Living with so many others around wasn't something I was used to (even during my days as a Londoner) and it was interesting to see how it might actually work out well.
An unexpected bonus came with the Great Firewall Of China and the severe restrictions on internet access from within the country. My email still worked but I was cut off from most news sources and virtually all social media for pretty much the entire trip. This was rather nice, I sent chatty email letters to friends (21st century postcards) and was blissfully unaware of the World Situation (although I'm sure we'd have heard if aliens had landed). On returning to the infosphere it confirmed that most 'news' is obsolete within a couple of weeks.
The most surprising thing about the trip was how much it felt like visiting a more advanced (or at least more futuristic) society. It wasn't necessarily better - the easily available technology, renewable energy and well-integrated systems butted up against a clearly more regimented and less conventionally democratic society - but it did show a different way of life that rising numbers & wealth may be pushing us all towards.