One of the many things I couldn't stand about Dubai was The Conversation, the why you here-what you doing-how long you staying blah blah. Unfortunate, then, that travelling is a distilled version of this faux interest in the lives of others – at least in Dubai, the next time you saw that person you could move past the introduction. Worse, for all the temples, natural wonders, weird food, architecture, currencies, and climate, it's hard to get away from a misanthropic feeling that it can all be buggered up by the presence of other people.
A tragicomic nerd from Wisconsin; an archaeologist from Toronto; a film buff from Copenhagen; an intellectual polyglot from Iceland; a demented, brilliant couple of property developers from New Zealand... We spend time with them all and some of the time, we feel boring by comparison. The majority, though – office workers mostly – are escaping the crushing humdrum of their normal lives. Others are travelling for work, some for an all-too-short holiday and some are very obviously fleeing from whatever demons are chasing them, Tam O'Shanter style.
In all cases, though, it's necessary to get past The Conversation – where you been-where you from-where you going – which is why it's great when you stumble across locals. At best they might have a fleeting interest in where you're from. For the most part, though, they just don't care.
Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule. Like Mama Naxi, the terrifying matriarch of a hostel in Lijiang. She speaks just enough English to run her business, but has the kind of shit-kicking attitude that leaves the guests slightly fearful of her wrath during their stay. As if to reassure us that there was never anything to worry about – there was, trust me – on checking out she gives us a little handmade trinket, a banana and a cuddle before sending us back out into the world.
Not far from her place, we stumble across another of Yunnan's great characters as we amble along the cobbled streets of Baisha. It's not the dozens of newspaper articles littering the outside of Dr Ho's practise that we notice first, it's his beard: classic, wispy Chinese face fuzz that's perfect for stroking theatrically.
The doctor isn't shy about his fame – in fact he won't really start talking to us until we've sifted through a small selection from the weighty pile of international clippings that clutter his office. These days, his life is defined by telling the people he meets about those he's met in the past. His list, though, includes the likes of Michael Palin, Bruce Chatwin, and other journalists from the likes of the New York Times. Naturally, he doesn't complain about his meetings. Neither do I – he may have had 300+ pieces written about him over the years, but I fully intend to add my name to his list of interviewers.
Ho claims to have first learned English from the charismatic Austrian adventure botanist Joseph Rock, who was good friends with his father. Later, American airmen based nearby, along with Western missionaries helped to greatly improve his English. “But then Communist [shit storm] came and I didn't use it for 30 years,” he says solemnly. “Also, I don't have so many teeth now. I used to be better, I'm sorry.” While it's true that his English may not be quite perfect, the 87-year-old can also speak German and Japanese, which is pretty decent for someone who's only ever learned from the people he's met.
The octogenarian is famous for his expertise in herbalism and Chinese traditional medicine. Having nearly died of an unnamed illness, and subsequently healing himself using the plants from the foothills near where he was born, he provides a pretty convincing testimony. Ho's stories are colourful and occasionally unbelievable (he claims to have cured a leukaemia patient using only his herbal remedies) but he's been telling them for so long, it's become second nature. Unlike me, he relishes the repetition. Having been told I'm British, he stops me as I leave. “If, when you got back to the UK, you meet anyone who knows me,” he says, “tell them Dr Ho is still alive. And I'm very strong!”