If Hong Kong is China + England then Macau is China + Portugal. Sandwiched between casinos and endless grey tower blocks there is a historic heart in Macau full of orange buildings, churches and winding narrow streets that betray its heritage. I spent a day there, exploring the fuzzy lines between old and new.

I left the bus from the ferry terminal at the wrong stop so my introduction to Macau began north of the centre in a neighbourhood full of sad grey tower blocks. There weren’t any signposted sights in this part of the city but it was interesting to wander around and see how people live away from the glitzy water front and the tourist stops of the old town. Tiring and keen to move on I asked a cheerful lady in a shop where we were. I tried and failed to hide my surprise when she pointed us out on my map: miles from where I thought and on the opposite side to where I’d been looking.

Only the façade of the cathedral is left standing at the Ruínas de São Paulo, making it seem a lot like a film prop. Looming above it from the ridge-line nearby is a fortress built by the Dutch. Stood on the ramparts the advance of the modern into the old was the clearest of anywhere else in the city: no longer could the cannon I leant against keep watch of the sea below, the view now blocked by ostentatious casinos and shopping centres.

When the Portuguese first settled in Macau they used the natural ridge line that runs roughly south west as a breaker for the weather blowing off the sea. This is where the old town sits, now not only in the shadow of the ridge but the casinos too. From the cathedral and fort I walked through its winding narrow streets to St. Augustine’s Square and the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, where I sat under trees in the courtyard and wrote in my journal that Macau doesn’t hold anywhere near the same draw as Hong Kong.

On the crossing back the islands rose in the gloaming like great gently breaching whales. The wind had picked up and the irregular crashing of the boat as it crested a wave was sometimes enough to lift your stomach. A lady in front of me borrowed my paper bag as a precaution. Rocking beacons and buoys passed by, alone in the dark. The complete darkness outside the windows was a comforting change from the sleeplessness of the city; I look forward to being back in the countryside. When I next looked up from reading the pinpricks of orange light in the distance traced the outline of a join-the-dots city.

On my final day in the city I walked from Central out to the University’s Museum and Art Gallery to see Botticelli’s Venus. The sum of experiences in Hong Kong and Macau is starting to feel like a reintroduction to the western culture I’ll be returning to soon. It’s a welcome break from all the Chinese culture I’ve seen but I’d rather the change was to more that was alien to me. Near the exhibition I wandered through the arty quarter of Hong Kong, retracing my steps from earlier in the week. I’ll be sad to leave this city.

A slow ferry carried me out to Lantau Island the next day, where I met Dicky for an afternoon of kayaking and swimming. We borrowed a pair of uncapsizeable beginner ones from his old work and set out to the middle of the bay. As we sat gently rolling over the waves he recounted a tale of dodging ferries while trying to reach another island. Further on, at a beach on the opposite side of the bay, we swam around in waters he casually mentioned were home to sharks.

The next day, the third after arriving in Hong Kong, I made my first foray into Kowloon. I spent the early afternoon there wandering through expensive shopping areas and getting lost in the walled city park. Later, I explored the Museum of History and learnt facts I probably should have already known. We (the British) were unimpressed with the trade imbalance in the late 19th century. Other than silver, China, typically, was uninterested in anything we had to offer. Then we played our opium scented trump card. It was a horrible and devious move and it made perfect sense. We shipped massive amounts of the drug from nearby India, reversing the trade imbalance and creating a life destroying dependency in countless Chinese that ensured it would remain.

That evening I got chatting to Adam, an English journalist on a visa run from Shanghai, and, later, his Scottish expat friend Will. The second has lived here for ten years or so and works in whisky education (“as a whisky teacher” didn’t sound right but “whisky education” is just as daft). We sat and drank a bottle between us while Will, a card carrying anorak, educated us.

It seems that most landscape features in China have been attributed to the anatomy or actions of mythical beasts. The Dragon’s Back ridge line I walked the next day is the first I’ve visited that really does resemble it’s namesake. Skipping ahead from the early sections of The Hong Kong Trail I had walked with Zac earlier in the week, The Dragon’s Back marked the end of it.

From the road the path climbs onto the ridge, the bleached, chalky path resembling the spine of a long dead creature. The undulating trail is flanked by deep green shrubbery, opening and closing a view down to the sea as you bob up and down.

Halfway into my walk I was stopped abruptly by the unmistakable sound of a snake slithering through leaf litter. I forget Will’s advice that snakes can lunge much further than their size gives them credit for and lean in for a photo.

After an hour of tracking a contour line around the side of a hill the path equalises the climb made at the start, falling for the last mile of the trail to Big Wave Beach. There I sat and snacked while admiring the persistence of the practising surfers. The ease with which you can reach nature from the heart of Hong Kong continues to delight me.

Seeking more of the solitude I’d enjoyed on the walk I followed a stepped path up the bluff to the side of the beach. Halfway up I climbed over a fence and waded through gorse like bushes to a flat rock warmed by the sun. I read there until news of my arrival reached more ants than I thought sensible to entertain.

On the way back to the hostel I took pleasure in my locals’ knowledge of how to navigate the crowds at the tube station.

It was a much hotter day that saw Zac and I set off on our hike. We had discovered the hostel’s book of trails around the islands and spent some time thumbing through admiring the promise in the pictures. In the end we chose one that started just outside the western edge of the city, planning to test our theory that you could get to good hiking without travelling far.

We were right. From Central bus station it took fewer than ten minutes for the skyscrapers to begin exchanging places with trees, greys giving way to greens. The city remains evident but to one side nature rises up, tantalisingly close and beckoning.

Before we started the hike proper we made an unexpected discovery. Below the bus stop, down a steep bank to the side of the road and tightly packed in between a storm drain and a reservoir service track was a mass of rough, single storied housing. Threading our way between them we considered the comparative quality of life between here and the thirtieth floor of a tower block. Surrounding these shack like houses were vegetable patches – fiercely guarded by old teddy bears and discarded CDs – that you’d be hard pressed to cultivate in the centre.

Over the next six hours we made our way around the southern side of Victoria Peak along paths that alternated between overlooking deep blue reservoirs and sections of city. In an odd connection to where I grew up flocks of kites wheeled overhead for much of the walk.

For the most part we were alone on the trail and that feeling of ownership surfaced again. We paused to try foot massage tracks and exercise equipment, drank from pipes of fresh spring water and half wished we were there in the rainy season when the catch pools in the streams would be deep enough to swim in.

We ate a lunch of peanut butter and jam and honey sandwiches sat beside a small stream, shaded from the sun by a jungle like canopy.

At the head of the wildest and most enjoyable part of the trail we almost missed a machine gun shelter, half hidden in the undergrowth above the path. One of the window shutters was open and we peered in. I’d like to see a map of all the abandoned military emplacements on the islands.

Descending out of the cover of the trees we found ourselves in Black Links, an affluent area of gated communities with garages full of Bentleys and sports cars. Dropping further and swinging round the side of a small hill we emerged above the city. Seeing it laid out beneath us was fascinating and we stopped often to point out attractive roof gardens or swimming pools and tennis courts tucked away between tower blocks.

We met Sofie at the hostel and took the subway across to Kowloon for a dinner of incredible burgers in a crowded tiny restaurant. Then it was back under the bay to find bus 15 to take us up the winding, switchbacking road to the top of Victoria Peak. On the viewing platform we marvelled at the lights of the city at night and wondered what use the bulky binoculars had other than for peering into the facing apartments.

Giddy, in all of its varieties, describes best how I felt arriving in Hong Kong. The natural light was fading as I stepped out of the subway; gone were the karst peaks, swapped for bright advertisement screen and neon clad skyscrapers. Red taxis, similar to New York’s, cruised past, climbing a slip road onto a flyover that wound off through the mass of buildings. The road signs read Hennessy, Percival then Tang Lung and Yee Wo. A refreshingly multicultural soup flowed past me: western business types, elderly Chinese and trendy twenty-somethings chitchatting in a mixture of English and Cantonese.

Wandering around near the hostel on that first evening I realised that in boarding the train in Guilin I had left behind – perhaps for a while – a slower, relaxed pace of life. A block away from the hostel is a plush shopping district where Christmas decorations shocked me into remembering it’s December and restarted my internal festive calendar that had stalled in September.

The next morning I meandered my way west from the hostel, down to the waterfront and ferry piers first then inland through Hong Kong Park and the Zoological & Botanical Gardens. Their respective steamy conservatory and aviaries were a delight in the middle of such a densely packed city. Further west I paused to have lunch in a fancy sandwich shop, downhill after a right turn at a dog grooming parlour. Then it was on to a trendy district full of art galleries and delis. Near there I visited the 150 year old Taoist Man Mo temple, a stone’s throw from Possession Street where the British first planted their flag.

Staying in the same hostel as me are a couple from Denmark, Zac and Sofie. Travelling has a funny way of pushing people together: they were in Xingping and then Yangshuo too, although we didn’t talk there. On Wednesday nights it’s cheap entry at Happy Valley Racecourse so we made plans to go together.

Nothing illustrates the transformative amounts of money floating around Hong Kong better than a racecourse in the centre of the city. As we walked round the outside the stadium did its best to appear unassuming. Then we stepped through the gate. Immediately the space opened up, pushing back the surrounding skyscrapers (one emblazoned with a giant neon horse), which only served to emphasise their presence. There was an almost festival like atmosphere: throngs of people mingled mingled among beer and food stalls. Round the edge of the course above us were expensive private suites and restaurants.

We bet on three races, taking it in turns to chance $20 on making it big. By the time Sofie’s turn came it was clear that reading the descriptions in the free magazine wasn’t helping us. She picked Southern Springs whose jockey wore a jacket with a pink lightning bolt set against a black background. They came third, our best result. We used our meagre takings to buy beer and wine and celebrated on the hostel terrace.

The next morning Sea Sprint bore me out from Hong Kong harbour over large swells to the carless Lamma Island. From the pier at Sok Kwu Wan, mid-way up the eastern side of the island, I walked north along the coast past unused caves dug by Japanese soldiers to hide speed boats. Half an hour in the path swung left over the hills in the centre to reveal sea views beyond a thrice chimneyed power plant. Dropping down I continued north through Yung Shue Wan, electing not to take the ferry back here but from Pak Kok San on the northern tip of the island. On the way I paused to soothe and cool my feet in the waves of an empty beach and read in the sun.

Back in the city I played at being a bearded hipster by writing in a fantastically cool and expensive coffee shop. The food I ordered came in an unsurprising but depressingly small portion.

That evening I enjoyed the familiarity of wandering around a supermarket. Beyond being much cheaper, buying the ingredients for breakfast and lunch brings a calming sense of attachment to, and ownership of, the city, as if I live here.

I really like Hong Kong.

For the first time I shared the train carriage with other westerners: Emanuel and Isabella, an Austrian couple, are in the first few months of nearly a year touring this side of the world. It’s easy to make Isabella laugh and Emanuel, while often the more serious of the pair, regularly quips and has an endearing habit of “mmhm”-ing to himself when he thinks; they’re good company. We had similar plans so we joined up.

The three of us paused in Guilin long enough for lunch before catching a bus onwards to Yangshuo, a jumping off point kind of town for the surrounding scenery. This area is characterised by towering closely packed karst peaks that give it a distinctly South-East Asian feel; it’s like walking within a giant jungly pinscreen.

That evening Emmanuel and Isa’ had dinner in the hostel while I cycled into town with an English guy called Dicky. We met a group of his old workmates – some of them equally, wonderfully English – from an outward-bound centre in Hong Kong. They recommended outdoorsy activities on the island like climbing a mountain and sleeping on the summit in a hut with no door.

On our first day in Yangshuo we cycled out into the countryside on (finally) sensibly sized single-speeds. We pushed north first to Dragon Bridge, crossed the river there and meandered our way back down dirt tracks, following irrigation trenches through vegetable fields when we got lost. Close to where we turned north we recrossed the river and turned south towards Moon Hill, a karst peak with a semicircular hole near its top. At its base we abandoned the bikes and climbed up, ignoring the no entry sign under the dome and clambering onto summit. The expansive views across endless karst peaks threaded with rivers and roads were breathtaking.

The only drawback of this area is the constant pestering of touts and hawkers . Walking through town you’re bombarded with endless “bamboo? Bamboo Yangding! Bamboo Yangshuo!?”; “only one yuen!”; “you buy later!” I didn’t buy it later.

The following afternoon we took a local bus forty minutes north to the much quieter town of Xingping. The walk to our hostel took us through relaxed winding old streets, pleasingly devoid of the usual repetitive tourist shops. Backing onto the river to one side of the old town was a mishmash of vegetable gardens and small pomelo orchards. Down there I walked past a pair of old ladies nattering and sunning themselves, enjoying a break from tending their gardens.

The next day the three of us walked out of town along the river. At first busy with stalls of tourist tat (Emanuel bought a sling to keep the hawkers at bay) the road soon quietened and eased into working its way through well established orderly orchards and vegetable plots. After an hour or so of walking we reached an impasse: the river, previously happy to be on our left, swung right, cutting off the path. We crossed on a raft made from plastic bamboo, punted by a lady who laughed as we tried to avoid the encroaching water. On the opposite shore we lunched before setting off on quieter tracks into the hills. Early on we were passed by three seven or eight year old boys piled onto a motorbike. On the way back they passed us again, this time with a bicycle strapped to the back of their bike.

Two lazy days followed. We made our way back to Yangshuo on the afternoon of the first and after reading in the sun on the second headed back to Guilin for the night train to Shenzhen. The sun had just begun to set as we caught the bus, silhouetting the karsts against a fiery orange glow which faded to purple in the darkening sky.

I named the last entry after a bouncing (not quite leaping, but close) ebullient character in Winnie-the-Pooh. If only the same could be said of me during the hike.

The churning stomach I made acquaintance with three days before was still harassing me and I’d reached that unfortunate place where even the smell of food was unpleasant. Not eating much for a few days and regular stomach cramps made the hike, which should have been only slightly taxing, a bit of an ordeal.

Despite all that the gorge was incredible and memorable, not least because of the kindness of strangers. For most of the first day Anja stayed close to me, advising what to eat and encouraging me to keep drinking. Prior to the hike Simon relaxed his plans through Yunnan to wait for me to recover enough so we could go together. I’m indebted to both of them for keeping that week or so bearable and enjoyable.

From Tiger Leaping Gorge Simon and I took a bus north-north-west to Shangrila. The town is actually called Zhongdian but in an attempt to drive tourism the government dubbed it after Hilton’s fictional place in Lost Horizon. The scenery is indeed impressive, though no more so than parts of Sichuan, further north.

A street away from our hostel was the main square of the old town. Every morning an elderly lady sat at a corner cheerfully greeted me and offered warm yak milk. Every morning I politely declined. In the evenings at around seven a PA system fired up and blasted out what’s best described as thumping Tibetan techno. After an hour or so a large group of locals congregated to circle dance around the square. No one appeared to be the lead but they happily danced in rough coordination.

On the outskirts of the town is Songzanlin monastery. Having previously vowed not to visit another monastery I was wary of how much I’d enjoy this one. Surprisingly, I found that in the time since the vow my fervour had cooled; I found it relaxing and almost like a return home to stroll around the complex. The room wrapping murals of the temples were some of the most colourful and graphic I’d seem, depicting gods and demons vanquishing or copulating with (or both simultaneously) naked, distorted humans. While there we chatted with a monk visiting from India who was unimpressed with the dedication of monks in China. He claimed they were distracted and preoccupied with the immaterial.

The following day we took a 45 minute cable car journey up Shika mountain, west of the town. “Forty-five minutes” makes the climb seem further than it was. In reality it was simply drawn out by a change of cars halfway and the constant slowing of the mechanism. Rather than transitioning to a separate slower track at the terminals the bunched cars were forced to slow the entire length so their passengers could alight and embark. From the top the landscape unfolded around us, spreading to a distant jagged horizon of mountains. Beneath us, still high in the mountains, were small settlements. I tried to imagine what life must be like for their inhabitants.

The following day was spent reading and, for the first time in over two months, troubleshooting computer problems. It was interesting and entertaining to almost feel the treacle like flow of unused and unpractised knowledge return to mind.

Exploring the temple and giant golden prayer wheel that rise above the old town and cycling to a lake occupied the fourth day in Shangrila. Napa Lake lies seven kilometres north-west of the town, nestled against the mountain range which we ascended by cable car two days before. There is no gradual end to the mountains, just an abrupt change from steep landscape to flat grassland. The seasonal lake is briefly home to black-necked swans, though they look more like oversized black herons than the Queen’s birds. While we were stopped for lunch a dam and her two calfs passed close by, completely uninterested in us as they headed down to the shore for a drink.

That evening, Simon (whose blog you can find here, though it’s currently all in German) left to catch a flight to Nepal. Building friendships that go beyond simply travelling in the same direction has been a highlight of the trip.

To keep costs down I booked my flight out of Shangrila back to Kunming in central Yunnan a few weeks ago. Annoyingly that meant I had two floating days in Shangrila to fill: not long enough to do anything meaningful or cheap. I resigned to catching up on drinking endless cups of Masala Chai, reading and writing in the few cafes and restaurants with wood burning stoves: at night it drops below freezing and clothes left out to dry turn into cardboard cutouts of themselves.

The flight was almost over before it started. A short hour long hop south and I entered Kunming as I had three weeks before. This was the first time I’d revisited a place; a remarkably gratifying experience I took pleasure in wandering through streets that were both familiar and still alien. I explored the university park, set just beyond a dormant railway track people use as a shortcut though the city, while wondering if I could happily live here.

Later today I take an overnight train east to Guilin in Guangxi province. There I’ll have my last taste of China’s countryside: from then on it’s cities.

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Anja and Simon (far right in the photo of all of us) took some stunning photos on the hike.

Aside: apparently I can’t stand sensibly, or even normally, in any photo taken of me. I discarded at least three from this set that had other daft poses.

At just after ten the bus dropped us in Quiatou, hardly more than a few houses scattered around near the ticket office (like most scenic areas in China we were charged a fee to enter – ¥65 for I’m not sure what). Here, a winding single track road leading up into the mountains was our introduction to the gorge. For a popular trail the signs were surprisingly arcane. We muddled our way up between terraced fields of vegetables until we met a path that looked official and forged ahead.

The we I’m referring to here was a group of four: Simon and I were joined on the bus from Lijiang by Matt, a Canadian firefighter, and Anja, a Slovenian judo coach. Both were interesting and welcome company.

I imagine the gorge gets crowded earlier in the summer, the size of the guesthouse halfway along the trail, where I started to write this, is testament to that. Travelling in the low season has it’s benefits: save for the little old ladies selling water, snacks and weed and a few Chinese we had the trail to ourselves.

We climbed for the first four hours of the walk. Road gave way to dusty track (constant footfall and no repair work has turned the mud to a fine powder which coated our shoes and legs) which got rockier as we climbed higher. At first the dirt was grey and featureless but later it turned to a rich red before turning brown in the areas close to mountain streams. Crickets – some as big as fully grown stag beetles – hopped around drukenly beneath our feet. At around twelve o’clock we tackled The 28 Bends: a steep ridge in the gorge wall requires the path to snake doggedly upwards for a kilometre or two. This was by far the toughest section; luckily every hairpin turn affords you with an expansive view back to where you began.

After the bends the path fell down the opposite side of the ridge, where mountain streams provided the water for a welcome covering of short trees. By this point the sun was high and doing its best to dry us out like it had the ground beneath us. An hour or so of this and then we rested on the terrace of The Tea Horse Guesthouse, enjoying the views and fending off a kitten who was determined to get at the toast in the front of my bag.

If the ascent was characterised by crickets the level path at the top that lead into the final village was by stick insects. Real, in the wild, stick insects! The path wound its way around smaller ridges in the gorge wall before descending slightly to the village where we stayed the night. The converted farmhouse blissfully had showers that were almost too hot and a terrace where we sat and watched the sun go down. From our perspective it disappeared to the right, towards one end of the gorge, illuminating the mountains opposite us first in yellow and later orange fire.

The cold night wheedled its way into our poorly insulated dorm; I wore thermals and a beanie. We timed visiting the gorge perfectly with the full moon though, so everything was lit with a pale glow.

The next morning we set off before the sun had cleared the mountains. For an hour and a half we made our way steadily downhill towards the guesthouse where the bulk of our baggage had been dropped by the bus. Just as the end of our hike came into view the sun cleared the gorge wall to our right and everything was reunited with its shadow. They started weak at first but as we watched they gained greater and greater definition. We shed our jackets and jumpers.

A few hours of relaxing at the guesthouse and then our impromptu group separated: Simon and I headed north to Shangri’La, Matt and Anja returned south to Lijiang. The transitory glue – the promise of a shared experience, perhaps – that holds individual travellers together is a lovely thing.

In the end I spent three days in Kunming, wandering around and relaxing in western cafes and restaurants. I visited an art gallery south of the centre; browsed through The Bird & Flower market, which was more like an unfortunate cross between a jewellery store and a garden centre and got lost and frustrated hunting for memory cards for my camera – it was like some sad parody of “water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”: I was surrounded by endless electronics shops but all they sold were phones and naff iPhone cases.

I took a train north from Kunming to Dali, a heavily westernised and trendy old town on the edge of the new Xiguan. On the train I was regaled with (I imagine) information and stories about the walking stick of the elderly gentleman sat opposite me. It really was lovely, despite the handle looking a bit like a trotter, but the specifics were lost since his enthusiasm was in Chinese.

Dali itself was a little lacklustre; thankfully the scenery around it was spectacular. To the west the Cangshan mountain range loomed above the town and to the east lay Erhai lake, a long swathe of perfect calm blue.

On the second day, having spent the first wandering around the town, I went to a cooking class and learnt how to prepare dry tofu salad, fish-tasting aubergine (which doesn’t taste anything like fish, people just used the same sauce for fish first) and gongpau chicken. It was interesting (a lot of care goes into creating a mix of sauces, salt and sugar before any cooking starts) and ace to have to concentrate on making something after nearly two months without doing so. I know it’s cheating since we had guidance but I’m happy to say that my fish-tasting aubergine was incredible.

The next day I hired a bike (which proudly proclaimed itself to be a “Super Bicycle MTB”) from the hostel and cycled north along the lake shore. Scattered along its length were villages all painted white, hemmed in by checkered fields of vegetables. Cormorant fishing, where they use the birds to catch fish (a ring around their necks prevents them from swallowing), isn’t as prevalent anymore but I saw plenty of fisherman in small boats and people trawling through nets for tiny pale fish.

On the fourth day* I took a cable car halfway up the mountains and spent the morning and early afternoon walking north along their length. It was easy going (the Chinese put steps and pavements along all the popular routes), the scenery was impressive and I had the genial company of Willing and his wife Jessica. He tried to teach me about the major dynasties that have shaped China.

A highlight, of sorts, was Dragon’s Eye Cave, a short detour up from the main trail. It wasn’t so much a cave as a temple or series of small dwellings cut into the rock of a cliff, high above the valley bottom. A small bridge led to a short set of narrow, irregular stairs which turned 90 degrees before getting even smaller and haphazard. I climbed the first set but the thought of the substantial drop a few inches to my left kept me from attempting the second. I’ve never suffered from vertigo before; it’s not fun.

On the afternoon of the walk Willing, Jessica and I caught a minivan north to Lijiang. Again, the town didn’t excite me much, being exceptionally busy with Chinese tourists, full of the same four souvenir shops, and looking a little too new for an “old” town. Still, when the sun is low it illuminates the myriad tops of the buildings and looks pleasantly classically Chinese.

I used the morning of the first full day in Lijiang to plan my remaining days in China. It’s odd to see everything laid out in cold detail, so far I’ve been making it up as I go. There’s enough wiggle room for changes of plans but I needed to book a flight and a train journey, which are the first fixed points I’ve had in two months.

In the afternoon, after getting lost in the town’s winding identical streets looking for a bank, I hired a bike and cycled around the countryside outside the town. I intended to find a village called Baisha, but got lost. Instead I just enjoyed the act of cycling in the sun, under the gaze of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Xue Shan) that watches over Lijiang (it’s handy for orientating yourself in the town: if it’s ahead you’re facing north).

That evening I met Simon, a German around my age who’s almost three months into his year and a half trip around this side of the world. He was keen to visit Lugu Hu, where I was headed for the next two nights, so we teamed up.

Lugu Hu is a lake north east of Lijiang which straddles the border between Yunnan and Sichuan. It’s roughly hourglass shaped, ringed by rolling verdant hills, Mediterranean blue, dotted with small forested islands, home to large congregations of ducks and surrounded by sleepy shoreside villages. In short, it’s idillic. The day and a half I spent there felt more like I was holiday than travelling. The hotel room looked over the lake; in the early morning you could see fishermen out in their dugout canoes. We stayed for two nights, spending the middle full day lazily circumnavigating the lake on electric scooters with Willing and Jessica, who came too.

The local people are the Musuo, a matriarchal society who look closer to Native Americans than the Han Chinese tourists desperate to have their photos taken with them. The woman don’t take husbands or live with their lovers, raising their children with the help of their brother. In general it seemed like the Musuo were more laid back and friendly than other Chinese.

I’m back in Lijiang now, relaxing for a couple of days while I wait for my washing machine stomach to settle down. With any luck on Sunday Simon and I will leave for two days of trekking along Tiger Leaping Gorge.

* altogether now…

The journey out of Kashgar would make a good Geography case study – the desert slowly gives way to mountains, starting barren until you gain altitude where they earn a thick covering of snow.

The bus stopped almost entirely in the middle of nowhere, discharging only a guy from Hong Kong and Ferdie and I. The lake was spread below us to the east, beyond it were glacier scarred mountains (actual, real life glaciers!), in front of us to the south a large mountain with one of those funky cloud hats rose from a grassland dotted with grazing cashmere sheep and yaks, textured with half frozen streams.

We were met off the bus by the owner of a yurt near the lake, which all three of us stayed in for the night. Yurts are a little like Tardises (Tardi?) – awesome and bigger on the inside than the outside. I could totally get on board with having a semipermanent yurt in my garden.

Once we’d checked in to the yurt and had some tea with stale bread (revived through liberal dipping in the tea) the three of us wandered around the lake for a few hours. On the way we met some very friendly shepherds, one of whom wrangled a yak for us so we could take some pictures. Back at the yurt we had polo for dinner – fried rice with peppers and lamb. After that things got far more interesting.

Half an hour after we’d finished our meal a group of around 15 arrived and we were ushered into joining them in sitting in a big circle. It turned out it was the evening before a wedding – the bride and groom were in attendance, he wore a hat not dissimilar to a mitre – and this was the celebratory meal, that’s what we could make out at least. A cloth was spread in the centre of the circle, with more plates of polo served (eaten with our hands) and nuts and sweets scattered among them. Some of the men sung solos. It was really cool (a terrifically lame word to use in the context, humbling was too strong and interesting was too clinical) to see and be a small part of, even more so to be gifted with a lace-edged piece of fabric along with everyone else as a memento of the occasion.

The next morning we left at around 1100, planning to walk along the road the way we’d come and catch the returning bus. No such luck – three buses passed us without stopping, even when I stood in the middle of the road and waved madly. Instead, we flagged down a passing jeep and hitched a lift back to Kashgar. Our benefactors were two Chinese Christians who played a CD of religious songs on repeat. I counted three times through the 19 dirges but I drifted off so it may have been more.

It was all go when we got back to Kashgar. The cheapest flight from Urumqi to Kunming was three days later, creating a mad rush to buy the tickets, get across town to the train station and get those tickets (when there are only a few tickets left you have to buy them in person – there were 47 tickets when we first looked, seven sold by the time we looked again five minutes later) and stock up on food for the journey. Thankfully, everything fell in to place and both tickets were cheaper than I’d budgeted for. I could have screamed at the guy a few people ahead in the queue at the train station who appeared to be buying endless tickets, but that’s another story.

Here Ferdie and I parted ways – he was keen to see Hotan, a small town south of Kashgar where there was supposedly a silk factory. I was less enamoured with the prospect of a long bus journey through the desert than him, and was anxious to be moving on towards Kunming.

The journey back to Urumqi was much less enjoyable than the outward one. The train was older, not a doubledecker, lacked air conditioning, was much fuller and travelled through all the best scenery during the night. I was given some tasty meat filled naan by a fellow traveller though, which went some way to redeeming the experience.

As if to make up for the disappointment of the train Urumqi was much better than I’d expected. I’d written it off as another gritty industrial place. Perhaps I was just lucky with the small part I saw in the 24 short hours I was there, but it was green, the air was fairly clear, the people were stylish and relaxed and it was gratifyingly easy to get around.

Soon after arriving I met a friendly Chinese guy called Willing, on leave from his job in the army. We wandered around a couple of parks full of burning trees now the autumn air has turned brisker, one which was busy with people dancing and exercising (it really seems like the older generation are much more active than the younger in China, but that might be a skewed observation given the times I’m wandering around parks). From the second park we caught a bus to a restaurant and from there wandered through a prosperous part of town to a square where we watched a guy write calligraphy with water onto the tiles. Chinese characters need only the faintest encouragement to become art.

The next morning Ferdie unexpectedly arrived from Hotan having left earlier than intended, full of the craziness of the area. It’s properly in the Uyghur heartland with people speaking absolutely no Chinese and holding some interesting views on their place in the country, if you catch my drift. We went for lunch with Willing before I had to dash off to the airport.

And now I’m in Kunming, sat in a French themed café drinking Earl Grey tea. I’ve only seen a small part of the city so far but it seems pretty cool. The weather is warmer (shorts!). For the past month or so it’s felt like I’ve almost had China to myself there’s been so few Westerners around. Here though there are lots of Western themed restaurants and bars and plenty of us wandering about. I’m not complaining, that would be rich coming from someone who just ordered a salad in China.

A few more days chilling out here and then it’ll be interesting to see what the rest of Yunnan is like.

I may as well be in another country. I keep saying things like “compared to China,” and “when we were in China.” I’m still in China! I’ll explain.

For a start, Kashgar is almost halfway back west to England from Shanghai (which is on the eastern seaboard of China), so I feel a long way from the rest of the country. I’m struggling to get my head around quite how staggeringly colossal China is. Incidentally, that fact highlights the necessity of the unofficial timezone this far west (two hours earlier). Officially, China has one timezone for its entirety, which is crazy when you remember you gain an hour just going from London to Paris.

I knew before coming here that China is populated by many types of people. The Han make up most of the Chinese in the east, here the Uyghur are the majority. Having seen the change from Chengdu to the more remote areas of Sichuan where there is a strong Tibetan contingent, I thought I would be prepared for the difference between Xinjiang (Kashgar’s province) and the east. Oh no no. Very few people here speak Chinese – the main language is a dialect of Arabic (it’s cool to see Arabic script everywhere). In Sichuan the vast majority of people spoke Mandarin even if their mother language was Tibetan. Here, they’re more likely to speak English to you than Mandarin.

The people look different. Not just in their facial structure, although that does have clear central Asian heritage. The men wear loose fitting usually suits made of thick cotton; they almost always wear either a patterned black and white hat, a smaller white one or a fur one. The women occasionally cover their whole face although this isn’t the norm, usually they just wear a head scarf. They wear more makeup than the Han Chinese women, which makes them look more western.

The food here is decidedly different. You can still get the ubiquitous Chinese staple bāozi (“bow-dzur” are dumplings) but more often you’ll see a bread based alternative similar in looks, if not quite taste, to a Cornish pasty. The bread is leagues better here, although it’s sadly all white still. There are bagel shaped breads which are ok, better though are the large circular ones covered in sesame seeds which are crispy in the middle (much like a biscuit when cold) and have a soft crust. If they sound a bit like pizza then you’re not far wrong in your imagining, the bakers press a swirly pattern into the centre which helps them look even closer to a pepperoni. Beyond bread: kebabs of all meats (liver!) are all over the place; I had a sugared pancake stuffed with meat as part of my dinner yesterday; there is some kind of tomatoey soup with sausage, rice sausage (for want of a better name) and a suety kind of thing; watermelons can be bought by the slice for ¥1 (~12p) and if you have a sweet tooth there are little blocks of nuts bound together with sugar for sale.

Even the layout of Kashgar looks and feels different to other Chinese cities. The mosques help with that, the call to prayer is a somehow comforting sound, one you don’t hear elsewhere in China.

I’d assumed the temperature would drop further as I moved north. I was wrong, forgetting that for the past three weeks I’ve been at well over 3000m, where winter’s fist comes down first. From Lanzhou onwards I’ve barely needed the down jacket that had become a firm friend. As late as four o’clock yesterday I was considering changing into shorts.

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I found another photo taken by the Chinese tourists I travelled with. This is Song Ge, the chap who took all the photos in the last set. We’re stood on the 5050m pass on the way back from Dege, a day earlier than the previous photos.

I’ve travelled a long way since I last wrote.

From Langmusi I took a bus to Xiahe, a town of two halves. On the eastern end large tower blocks and all the normal trappings of a Chinese town are present. As you make your way along the main (and almost only) road through a growing concentration of souvenir shops the town dissolves and merges with the Labrang monastery, a huge grid of monk’s houses and temples. It’s quite a sight to behold.

I arrived in Xiahe late one evening, wandered around and explored the temples the next morning – it takes around an hour to do a circuit of the complex, shoulder to shoulder with Buddhists spinning the endless prayer wheels surrounding it – and caught a bus in the afternoon to Lanzhou. I’d planned on spending a night there to give myself time to do some administrative bits and pieces but changed my mind on the bus after meeting a couple of super friendly Germans.

Alex and Ferdie (Ferdinand) are students in Wuhan at different stages of a masters degree in Renewable Energies. Rather than stay a night in Lanzhou they had booked overnight tickets onwards to Jiayuguan, where I was headed too. Since from there they planned to go to Dunhuang, another place on my list, I opted to join them and bought a ticket on a parallel overnight train, happy to be skipping the time in Lanzhou: the bus journey from bus- to train station was enough of that muggy uninspiring place.

Before leaving for China I earmarked a few places I really wanted to see, regardless of how my unplanned journey progressed. Jiayuguan, the last fort of the Great Wall, jutting out into inhospitable desert, was one of these. Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment. Covered in building works and surrounded by power stations it was only just possible to imagine what it would have been like to live at the end of the perceived civilised world.

We only stayed a night in Jiayuguan before catching a train to Dunhuang, a smaller city further west bordering massive sand dunes, near to which are the Mogao Caves, host to some of the oldest surviving Buddhist cave art. This stop, thankfully, wasn’t a disappointment.

We only ventured onto the foothills of the dunes (do dunes have foothills?) to avoid the cost of entry, but that was enough to enjoy the sunset over the oasis like outskirts of Dunhuang.

The caves were spectacular. So much of the ancient buildings and sights in China have been restored that I’d worried these would have been too. They haven’t (aside from some slight touching up of the statutes around 1900) and they’re so much more incredible for it. Our tour guide Cathleen’s favourite phrase seemed to be “amazing to have survived over thirteen hundred years”, and she was right. There are hundreds of caves cut into a flank of rock on the edge of the desert, containing impressively lifelike statues and intricate, beautiful paintings (with clear, fascinating influences from the west) that look almost new. In one of the larger caves is the worlds largest reclining Buddha. Although travelling isn’t about ticking things off, I’ve now seen that and the largest sitting Buddha, which is sort of satisfying.

In Dunhuang Ferdie and I left Alex, who needed to get back to Wuhan for lectures, to head further west to Kashgar. The journey here (I’m writing this overlooking the city from a roof terrace) was, simply put, epic. From Dunhuang we took a packed minibus to Liuyuan (I had fun guessing what the Chinese lady in front of me was saying – “move your big feet” and “stop jabbing me in the back with your knees” were my best, if only I could have done something about either of them), where we caught an 11 hour overnight train to Urumqi (surprisingly pronounced “wul-ur-um-chi”). We breakfasted there in the early hours of the morning before boarding a train to Kashgar (except it’s actually called Kashi).

While planning this trip I wrote off travelling to China by the Trans-Mongolian on account of the cost; the train journey from Urumqi to Kashgar made up for that. Twenty-five hours on the train might not sound appealing but believe me, for this route, it’s worth it. Our train was a long double-deckered beast, with a bright restaurant car in the middle separating the sleeping carriages from the seating ones. Early on we discovered only one of the seating carriages was full so we were able to get comfy in an almost empty top section of another. Here I watched the scenery change from desert to grassy hills and small mountains, accented by beautiful, crystal clear streams. I saw a wild camel. At one point the train had to climb out of a long, broad valley. To keep the gradient low it snaked its way up, which meant (you guessed it) I could see the train in front of me as it cornered. Magical is perhaps not the word you’d use. I would.

That catches you up to me here in Kashgar. Tomorrow Ferdie and I are catching a bus south to Lake Karakul near the town of Tashkorgan, the last stop before you cross the border into Pakistan.

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Song Ge, one of the generous four I travelled with from west to east Sichuan took some photos of me while we were in Seda. The two girls are Nancy and Eva; the ridiculous looking guy is just some ridiculous looking guy – he was strutting around the stupa looking ridiculously out of place among the monks.

My time spent with Fu, Eva, Nancy, Song Ge and Acar has helped expand my vocabulary beyond the normal traveller’s set of phrases.

If you see an attractive girl, for example, you only need say “mei nu” (“may noo”) which means “beautiful girl” and boom! you’re in. At least, that’s what Fu assures me. He seems like an upstanding kind of guy so I’ll take his word for it.

Song Ge, assisted by his friends, taught me the insult “hua bao gu” (“hwah bow [like the action, not the weapon] goo”). It literally translates as “colourful corn” and is the equivalent of son of a bitch or bastard. Good to know.