Day 23 - 24th April - Gauling to Jinsha

It was to be a 380K drive from Gaunling to Jinsha via Zhijin caves.

The day dawned grey, cool and drizzling. The signs to ski resorts on our exit from Gaunling gave it some perspective. Although the map does not show their existence, the vast majority of the day was to be on toll roads.

I think I commented yesterday that Guizhou province is poor. This was amplified in our drive during the day. The area is not nearly as intensively cultivated as the previous countryside we had crossed. There were hillsides that looked to contain little more than scrub with a few terraces of crops. Plenty of old and what looked to be abandoned terraces.

It was the first day that we have driven where it rained continuously. Not heavy, but constant drizzle.

When we turned off the tollway to Zhijin, the roads ran out. The last 7k of road was a construction site. Mud and slush, gravel, rocks and potholes.   Our guide told us that she visited the caves last year and that it had taken them 3 times as long to get there as the tollway we had been on was incomplete and that much of the road was like our last 7k.

Zhijin cave is described as the largest in China. After our previous days let down I was a bit concerned about what we were in for. But the place did not disappoint. You walk from the entrance up, down and around for around 6k in huge caverns filled with formations. At the end a bus is waiting to take you back to the entrance. May be because it was Monday, there were few others there. Our guide said that they were mainly from the local area. Because of the inaccessibility, people from further afield in China did not visit, even though the National Parks had rated it AAAAA.

We had lunch in a street side restaurant. It was little more than a stall and clearly by the reaction of the proprietors they had not had many Europeans frequent their establishment previously. Ordering was simple. The Navigator went to the next table and pointed to what they had that we wanted. When the food came, out came the cameras and they started taking photos of us. Not sure whether they had not seen Europeans eat previously (or Europeans for that matter) or they need some new material for their Facebook page.

The line between rural China and industrial China is very slim and this journey is taking us to places well outside the normal tourist areas. Our first exposure to Jinsha our destination for the day, was when Vulcan had to pull over as we entered town, with a flat tyre. I thought the road was covered with oil mixed with all the rain, but soon realised that the road and everything else around was covered in coal dust. The huge power station across the vegetable field should have been a giveaway, but I missed the head frames and conveyors coming out of 2 underground coal mines next to it and the queue of soot covered trucks trundling around town.

Despite the fact that we had travelled past what seemed to be so many abandoned fields, the vegetables and rice paddies abutted the power station and coal mines. And any spare space between was also cultivated.

Luckily our hotel is at the top end of town, about 2k from the power station. There the main road between is lined with prosperous and brightly lit shops, with tower after tower of new apartments behind. There is obviously money in this town along with the pollution.

Dinner was a more intense repeat of lunch. There are no menus in English and unlike much of Asia no picture book menus. And no one we met speaks any English. But with a combination of many attempts with Google Translate, mimes and charades we were served broadly what we expected and enough warm beer to keep us happy. But during the meal we had to entertain all of the staff in the restaurant who all appeared in groups of 2 or 3 with their phones to take photos of themselves with us.

Everywhere we turn, whether driving down the freeway, walking the street, or eating in a restaurant people stop, look and engage as best they can, even if its just to take a photo with us. There is no shyness or reticence, the people we cross are not lacking any self confidence.

When exiting a toll gate on the expressway our cars pull over to one side until all the group are through. Often other cars will pull up and take photos of the group, some times the passengers jump out and walk around (this is all on the edge of the toll plaza). Today a bus stopped and let everyone off to come across and have a look.  

Clearly Jinsha and this region is currently not on the normal tourist itinerary. This is our 6th day in China and we are yet to see another European.

Over the past couple of days the Nurse from Hell forbade me from eating. I am not sure whether the strategy was to starve me or the gastro bug to death. It was a close call, but I think I won. I was allowed to take on limited rations this morning and even consume lunch and dinner (no alcohol) and the bug seems to have realised that it has met its match.

Its funny how the complexion of a town changes after dark. The grey, coal dust covered facades are replaced by a myriad of LED lights. Up and down the main street, around buildings and wrapping the light poles. From the hotel window, it looks like the town is ready to celebrate Christmas. It must be that while the coal mines and power station distribute their pollution over town, they compensate with cheap power.

Tomorrow we are off to Chongqing. A town variously described as having a population of between 11 and 30 million. I am leading for the day and on the map, the freeway system looks like a bowl of spaghetti.