The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Joining the stampede of footprints - Sapa

I read the slogan across the top of our mini van and shake my head. 'Come to Sapa and leave more than footprints' it reads. What bright spark of a marketing guru thought up that catchphrase!  It's in  stark contradiction to the motto 'take only memories, leave only footprints' and, as I look around I can see that the leaving more than footprints suggestion is well and truly being followed in the picturesque sounds of Sapa. 

We arrived by night train which was surprisingly comfortable (despite the horror stories I'd heard and later I will find myself adding to) to the border town of  Lao Cai and then quickly bundled into a mini-van-cum-moving cave (we could barely see a thing through the almost black-tinted caked with dust windows) to be driven for another hour to Sapa, a former French hill-station famous for its rice terraces and minority groups.

"A Shangri-la where tradition and prosperity walk hand in hand", I'd been told. Another contradictory slogan which is being put to the test in Sapa.   Upon arrival we tumble out of the mini bus into the welcoming arms and cries of women in beautiful tribal clothing of indigo blue with bright pink and green checked head scarfs. They want to know everything about us immediately from who are we, where we're from and how many children we have as we try to collect our bags and work out which way to our guest house.   The bus has dropped everyone off at the bottom of the hill in Sapa.  It's obvious that for our 'bargain ride' does not include to-the-door delivery and so we strap on the backpacks and make our way up the narrow street which is teaming with tourists, bikes, trucks and more and more minority-tribe women, some now in gorgeous bright red head-wear with beading and pom-poms, all of whom follow us in a collective tidal wave. 
Most of the women carry baskets on their backs filled with items they want to sell us, whilst others have tiny babies tightly bound to their backs. Wrapped in a multitude of blankets and wearing the most adorable bell tingling hats the babies are quiet, their big brown eyes looking wide at us,  occasionally a beautiful smile beams forth.    This is a scene that will be repeated over and over each time we step into the street - a greeting from these women, who seem to work from sun-up and beyond moon rise.  We see them early in the morning as we try to sneak down the street for a quiet morning stroll before the village awakes and they are still there late into the evening, sitting next on the sidewalk, their wares spread out beside them, as they embroider intricate pieces by torch-lights strapped on their heads and call out to us 'Hello, come buy from me'.    I can barely see the tradition and definitely not the prosperity when I watch these women and see their children, some, mere toddlers, peddling their wares. 
We finally find our guesthouse, and are delighted to discover it's located in a pedestrian only street. - a very busy pedestrian street, as it turns out to be the entry for Ham Rong Mountain Park, which is extremely popular with the day-tripping bus tours - they come in their hundreds, every day. 
After settling in and meeting our hosts and cooing over their gorgeous little toddling son,  M and I also make way for this mountain park.  We're told it has great views over the township and valleys.  It also turns out to be another contradiction to the natural beauty of Sapa.  It's more like Disney meets religion and part way up we stumble upon enormous concrete statues of Mickey Mouse, Scooby Doo and various pop-culture icons, including one we dub "Sensational Squirrel" which have strategically placed  small offering sites next to them.  They look totally out of place with the surrounding beauty of the area whether it be the gorgeous orchid gardens of Ham Rong or the stunning backdrop of rice terraces cascading down mountains and plunging into deep lush valleys.  

We wander around the mountain top, searching for the Love Cave which is nothing more than a small hollow in a rock with an entrance of branches tied into a love-heart next to the 'Microwave' tower, then we head for the rock forest which turns out to be quite stunning with large rock formations jutting out of the mountain and a steep narrow path winding between them - at times it felt like we were canyoning (without the water!)  When we arrive at the lookout tower, we get a true glimpse of Sapa township,  Rows of condos  and a plethora of construction can be seen spreading across the town.  It looks like it is growing at a rapid rate.
Waking up the next morning I find I'm covered in enormous red welts that are excruciatingly itchy.  The first red spot had appeared the afternoon before and I surmised I'd been bitten by something on the mountain.  The next  morning however I was covered, head to toe, my legs and knuckles the worst.  My knuckles? for goodness sake, what had bitten me so badly that I had boulder size knuckles?  I couldn't stop scratching.  We made headway for the medical clinic - rudimentary as it was, it had a lovely doctor who was extremely caring but spoke little English and with a pantomime of charades and buzzing noises, told me she thought I might have been bitten by midges (sandflies), which didn't quite fit with having bites also on the soles of my feet - I'd worn shoes and socks the previous day (and half the night).
We left the clinic armed with cream for the bites and the suggestion of antihistamines (which I had the foresight to bring with me) and I scratched my way to the village of Cat Cat which was only 3kms down the mountain from Sapa. The thought of climbing back up fills me with dread, but I soon forget about it when we enter this lovely, albeit very touristy, little village with trinket stalls every two metres and continuous calls from women to buy. But there was still the rustic charm of seeing water-buffalo herds being driven by a young lad up the path (and the concrete steps!), children playing hide and seek in the corn fields next to their home and pigs snuffling around the small timber huts the local families lived in. The sun beat down and the heat level rose, pushing my itching threshold to an almost pass-out level.

Further down from the village we came across a beautiful waterfall which seem to soothe my inner screams., but only for a short while for as we turned the corner, we encountered what seem like endless steps heading straight up, all around us the most sculptured rice terraces curved around the mountain sides and baby goats danced at each other on the terrace edges.  Flattening out we soon passed over a swing bridge and our walk through Cat Cat was over, but we still had to get back up the mountain to Sapa. I couldn't go any further, my legs were on fire, not just from the stairs but also the bites.  Sitting not too far from the bridge were a couple of small motorbikes and two chaps beckoning us over.  I hate motorbikes - they terrify me. But I couldn't bear the thought of walking and scratching my way up the mountain.  Even if I didn't have the bites, I don't think I could have made the climb back up in the intense heat that was  turning us a nice shade of electric crimson. I climbed aboard, threw all sense and sensibility over the edge of the rice terrace and whizzed up the mountain with my hair flying freely.  Back at the guesthouse and out of my jeans it was obvious the bites were more than migies and further investigate (with the help of Tripadvisor and Dr. Google ) revealed it was most probably an attack of bedbugs, and very likely to have come from the sleeping bunk of our night train
The following day we embarked on a one-day twelve kilometre, three village trek, joining a small tour with three others and led by a young local Hmong woman called Dwab. 

We began with a short drive from Sapa to where we are to start our actual trek. As we alight from the bus we're all surrounded by Hmong and Dao women and each of our group is adopted by four friends.  I have 5 - a tiny 10month old bub attached to his very young 15year old mother.  Down the hill we go, a merry band of chatterers as we are peppered with questions from our age, how many children we had to what our jobs are.  The women all speak very good English and they are delightfully engaging and I enjoy the inter-culture connection. 
Just as we reach the village they stop and tell us they can go no further, that it is now time for us to buy from them.  They don't just ask. They demand.  And I feel the pressure.  They have been lovely, so friendly, making me feel incredibly welcomed in their village and country, but as I look at their wares, I see nothing I'd like to buy. I choose one scarf, thinking that would be enough to please them, but they demand I buy an item from each.  I tell them I don't want (or need) any of the items, but they push and push.  I look across at M.  He's also getting the same pressure.  So are the other tour-groupers.  Dwab comes over and suggests I buy one from each.  "To be fair" she says. I'm far from impressed but I choose 3 scarfs and a bag, and  although I haggle, I'm reluctant to go far from what they originally ask, thinking about their economic circumstances and wondering how much of the tourist Sapa dollar filters down to the minority groups, who are a large part of the reason 'we' come to Sapa. Still there's no joy in the purchase - I just don't need nor want these items, plus I feel like a walking wallet.  M comes over with four coin purses.   Chances are, I'll never use them.  Sales done the women leave, but we are soon joined by another group, who follow and chatter all the way to the next village, telling us that they are our 'friends' and will help us, but I've no joy in chatting with them, knowing what is about to happen when we reach the next village. We traverse through rice fields that are at the moment bare, but will be sown in the next month, 
The scenery is incredible and despite the haze in the distance, the mountains soar majestically towards the sky, yet they seem to tumble down in ripples.  We stop for lunch at a homestay and the women wait for us on the path outside.  I decide to buy an item from a woman who has followed me the longest so that she will leave me alone,  I feel bad that she has followed me so far. She had been tagging along behind the first group of friends and although she too had tried to get in on sales pitch at the time, the other four women had told her (and me) that she couldn't sell to me.  I buy a tradition headdress to go with my hat collection.  She delighted and I have to say, so am I as this is an item I'd actually intended to buy when I came to Sapa.  
After lunch we hike upwards again climbing clay soil paths through bamboo forests, so cool and silent.  The woman I buy the head-dress from continues to follow me, chattering away and constantly 'helping' me over the path, even though I don't need it. I keep telling her I'm ok, but she insists.  I take it that she is being observant of my welfare, make sure I don't fall off her mountain.  We reach the final village  and the woman who has followed me touches my arm and demands I pay her for being my guide, for her help.    I laugh and gently remind her that I brought an item from her, but she tells me I brought it from someone else.  I'm stunned.  I know I can be forgetful of names and sometimes with faces, but definitely not of someone who has been my shadow for the past five hours. 

It's Easter time when we visit Sapa and although there's not a chocolate egg in sight (thank goodness!), there is a celebration of the holiday with an evening mass at the church and a concert happening in the main square.  A joyous vibe emanates throughout Sapa. Twinkling lights and upbeat music bounce out of the restaurants,  traffic is banned from the main street making it a pleasure to wander from side to side and at the square children run and play gleefully under the coloured lights. Surrounding the square the minority groups have  gathered in their hundreds, and a night market has sprung up on the sidewalk. They laugh and converse with  light-heartedness, their smiles and  clothing sending a flash of vibrancy under the street lamps.     Good Friday mass finishes and outside the church a group of men strike up a thunderous drumming on kettle drums.  It ripples throughout the village and I feel as if I'm peering into the window of a special, sacred world. It's late in the night but we decide to head back down the main street to have a nightcap and as we near the bottom area, I spy a little tyke of a boy and judge him to be maybe six years of age sitting up against the wall of a shop, a mat spread out in front of him, filled with trinkets like friendship bands and hanging felt animals,  his little eyes closed.  His heads droops to the side, he jerks it up, then he droops again, barely able to stay awake. 

Yes, there is definitely more than footprints being left in Sapa.


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