On the road with MRP in the mountains of Yunnan as the rest of the planet wallows in quarantine.
We drive a mountain road that neither Baidu or Google can place.
I don’t know why.
Is it the barely-navigable road, eaten by the river far below?
Soon, at 3,360 meters high, we stop to see where the fuck we are.
White peaks. Mountainsides carpeted by green pine, other trees fashioned with pink flowers.
Surreal. But overwhelming everything blasts an icy gale of light, swirling snow.
Yet 2 hours ago, I was ready to ditch my t-shirt to escape the heat.
Traveling in southwest China, every mountain and canyon seems to usher in a new strange land, like a journey across hidden kingdoms.
Yesterday, 15km from a remote Tibetan village on a high plateau, after crawling torturous mountain twists all day, a barrier blocked our van.
We stopped. Wound down the window, ready for questions.
I reached for my passport and quarantine papers, again.
Yeah, just another day on the road across Coronavirus China.
Our effort to reach Nehru Village is thwarted. But not by randomly-enacted Covid-19 restrictions.
Rather, it was a provincial decree banning outsiders because of forest fires (across Yunnan caused by farmers burning fields). Bummer.
So while America, Europe and most of the world stays locked down, at least we’re able to travel in China, relatively free. (Here, if you like, you can read my earlier account of being quarantine for a month while van camping in coronavirus China.)
Now maybe you’re wondering – after reading alarmingly-xenophobic headlines recently: “What’s it like for foreigners in China, now?
In my experience, still fine.
My time here is not typical of most foreigners.
You see, my Chinese wife and I have been living a van-life this past year. Traveling 20,000 km across China in a tiny delivery van – living mostly in isolation we stay near rivers and lakes or amid grasslands and forests. Living off-grid and away from the rules is our lifestyle.
So much so that even the PSB – Public Security Bureau often has no idea where I am (as we found out the other day).
Hiking to Yubeng Tibetan Village.
Yet, occasionally, we take a break from our tiny, mobile home and check into a guesthouse. And this is where hassles can start for a foreigner.
Firstly, there’s a government policy that many hotels – particularly cheap places – cannot take foreigners without a license. So once my wife has phoned in and asked ‘Can you take foreigners?’ and eliminated those options, it’s onto the corona-paranoid hoteliers.
Some just say no. Others cite a new regulation about foreigners and that they can’t be arsed with the extra paperwork. Fair enough. (Postscript: Today my wife rang the local government in Dali and this rule, apparently, doesn’t apply to foreigners who have been in quarantine and been in China before the outbreak).
In Shangri-La, no guesthouse wanted to know about me without getting government approval.
On the other hand, applying to stay in a remote Yubeng village, a guesthouse owner was good enough to facilitate our stay. The paperwork for officials was done via Wechat, including photos of my documents.
In Lijiang, we got lucky after only 4 attempts.
However, with all the hotel BS and uncertainty of rules, life for us is much easier on the road, just living in our van.
Is China normalizing now with Covid-19 under control?
Well, kind of. Shops are open. Roads are busy but not the usual city chaos. Schools and universities remain closed. As do borders to foreigners. Ubiquitous temperature checks and mobile scan-ins are everywhere. And, of course, most people still wear masks.
Xenophobia is not the new normal in China.
Yes, there’s the panic of a middle-aged woman to fasten her mask at my approach. Or told that we can’t park our van in public parking. These are isolated incidents.
… We sit with street musicians, at night, drinking beer amid the orange-lit old town, cheering with their singing and whooping; everyone ecstatic by the manic riffs of rebellion. This evening, China embraces the foreigner – and I’m fuckin’ elated to be here.