4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Yunnan”

George Washington Immortalized in China (by Nathan)

George Washington keeping an eye on China

George Washington keeping an eye on China

We sat in the stone forest admiring the towering rock pillars. Then our Irish friend pointed out George Washington staring down at us from above. I never expected to see this familiar face in China, but somehow I was not surprised that this curly wig and angular face found its natural way here. The strangest and most drastic natural rock formations have found there way to twist and grow out of China.  I was surprised that we did not have to pay extra to take this photo ;)

Overlooking the stone forest

Overlooking the stone forest

Nathan, Michael and Albert climbing to the top

Nathan, Michael and Albert climbing to the top

We had buffered a layover day in Kunming before traveling farther east in China. We had been enjoying hanging out with our new friends Albert and Michael so the four of us decided to travel to the Stone Forest. We found a unique landscape crowded with interesting rocks and hoards of Chinese tourists. To our benefit 95% of the people remained in 5% of the park, so it was easy to find paths for us to explore on our own.

Carmen and I in the forest

Carmen and I in the forest

Small pond

Small pond

The site of our beer break

The site of our beer break

We meandered around the park for several hours.  We roamed through miniature cantons and through passageways. The Chinese had actually spent a good effort paving and maintaining paths throughout the park. We found a nice perch to enjoy the scenery with a few beers.

Pig faces at the market

Pig faces at the market

Black footed chicken is popular

Black footed chicken is popular

During our layover in Kunming there was an essential visit for Carmen and me. We had to return Zhuanxin market for tofu noodles and mushroom buns. We roamed the market enjoying all the variety and freshness that only a Chinese market could offer. There were pig faces smoked and ready to take home as well as black footed chickens.

Kunming is a great city, at the heart of Yunnan.  We were well connected to some beautiful natural and historic sights. But after over three weeks of traveling solely in the Yunnan we packed our bags to explore the karst topography of Xingping in Guanxi province.

Spicy rice noodle tofu

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Does Yuanyang Actually Exist? (By Nathan)

Rice terrace reflections

Rice terrace reflections

The first time I saw photos like this, I was convinced they were fake. No way could an entire mountain be transformed into stepped platforms and then subsequently flooded. It did not physically seem possible, in no way was it real. Well, having been to the Yanyang rice terraces I can say that they are real and more magnificent than any photo can justify. The magic of the terraces is that their shapes are very organic matching the flow and contours of the mountains, but the squareness of the stepped walls and the immense retention of water is a reminder that humans are actively contributing to this landscape.

Woman farmer walking the terrace edge

Woman farmer walking the terrace edge

Cascading topography of Duoyishu

Cascading topography of Duoyishu

The vividness of the terraces was obscured by the fact that we arrived at night. For some frustrating reason the busses from Kunming are sleeper busses that travel during the day and arrive late at night. We loaded into a tiny minivan and bounced along the road for over forty-five minutes to arrive at the little town of Guanyinshan in the heart of the Duoyishu terraces. After pounding on the door for a few minutes, we finally got the hostel to open up and let us in. We woke to a cloud-filled valley that provided further mystique to the land formations. As the sun rose higher into the sky the mist dissipated revealing the splendor of Yuanyang rice terraces.

Duoyishu rice terraces

Duoyishu rice terraces

Close-up of Duoyishu rice terraces

Close-up of Duoyishu rice terraces

I am still grasping it, but the entire mountain has been excavated into millions of tiny rice fields. The steepness of the hillsides has been transformed into topographic layers. Each step of 4-6 feet curves and flows with what was the original natural mountain. The uniqueness of Yuanyang, compared with other terraces, is that the terraces are constantly filled with water. The people have engineered thousands of canals to flow in and around all of the terraces to create these beautiful reflection pools. Every piece of land has been manipulated and optimized to produce rice.

Hiking with new friends through Duoyishu terraces

Hiking with new friends through Duoyishu terraces

Colorful terraces

Colorful terraces

We went over to Jacky’s Guesthouse for breakfast and a view from their rooftop. This is one of the best views in Duoyishu and Jacky is an imperative resource for visiting the terraces. Most of the tourists have to pay a fee to visit these platforms throughout the region. We felt that this was overpriced and the money did not get to the locals. Jacky helped us determine some hiking routes around terraces and rustic villages to explore. We also had the good fortune of meeting some like-minded friends who were eager to roam around the mountainside.

Hani women building a new home

Hani women building a new home

Men smoking a tobacco water pipe in Shang Village.

Men smoking a tobacco water pipe in Shang Village.

The women in these areas work extremely hard. We saw them carrying bundles of harvested vegetables, wood, rocks, and wet concrete everywhere we went. The women were constantly working these manual labor jobs. During our walk through one village the women were working together to pour a concrete floor on a new home. We saw few men working these jobs, maybe they were out earning money somewhere else. The men we did find were thoroughly enjoying some tobacco from a water pipe.

Traditional Chinese mountain village

Traditional Chinese mountain village

We traversed down rocky paths into roadless villages. The water-filled terraces wrapped all around us and we continued our walk on whatever trail we could find. We scrambled up jungle cliffs, trudged in muddy creeks and balanced on the clay retaining walls. Our exploration gave little feeling of actually conquering or completing anything, but constantly reminded us how small we were in this enormous farmed mountain. Everything was terraces, and every terrace was irrigated with water. Tiny untouched villages scattered the hillsides, but everywhere was a terrace indistinguishable from one another.

Admiring the view of the Lao Huzui terraces

Admiring the view of the Lao Huzui terraces

Water-filled dreamscape

Water-filled dreamscape

Walking in the depths of the terraces is a humbling activity. It is also an easy way to get lost. We found ourselves two towns over and down the valley. We arrived back at Jacky’s, but the sun was quickly going down and sunset was fast approaching. We hired a minivan for the group of us to go and see another famous set of terraces- Lao Huzui

Sunset on the rice terraces Lao Huzui

Sunset on the rice terraces Lao Huzui

Sunset reflection pools

Sunset reflection pools

Another forty-five minutes away on another valley are the Lao Huzui terraces. The viewing spots are high on the cliff 500m above the rice fields. The valley faces the west making it perfect to watch the sun disappear on the horizon. The pools reflect the orange and pink light forming what appears to be an enormous lake that is like a fabric wraps around the mountains. The six of us had a good time sharing experiences of travel and China but most of all we sat awestruck with the beautiful view.

Terrace hopping in the dawn light

Terrace hopping in the dawn light

Sunrise Duoyishu

Sunrise Duoyishu

The next morning we were able to get a nice sunrise at Duoyishu. I hopped around from terrace to terrace. I balanced on the clay walls and traversed the steep hillside. The sun slowly peeked over the mountains and the terrace pools reflected the blue sky.

Trash-filled creek

Trash-filled creek

Despite the magnificent beauty of this landscape it was difficult to not be frustrated with how the environment is treated. I still do not understand how trash and crap can be thrown into the same water source that feeds the people of this area. The Chinese can build some of the grandest most beautiful things, but forget to recognize the public health flaws right in front of them.

Reflection pools and tree

Reflection pools and tree

I really liked this one tree that appeared to have survived all the human alterations to the land and found a way to cling onto the hillside.

Bada rice terraces

Bada rice terraces

I wanted to do some more hiking, Carmen had some computer work to do. I joined in with our new friends Michael and Albert for a walk to explore more terraces. We came across the Bada scenic viewing area. It was part of the tourist ticket that neither of us had. After being turned down by the women at the entrance we continued our walk down the road. It was amusing to us to find a dirt trail that wrapped around the ticket booth, we crouched down and creeped in…woo hoo free entry.

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

The presence of these friends was immensely useful when looking for food. They both have been studying mandarin abroad and we asked a local man where we could eat something. In a matter of seconds this random man escorted us into his living room and sat us down at a miniature table while he got to work in the kitchen. He cooked us roasted duck, stewed fish, pork and rice cake then joined us at the table with a jug of moonshine rice liquor. We feasted, they had a small conversation and I drank when i was told to. It was a wonderful meal and our sincere host made us feel very welcome. It was difficult to leave, but we grabbed a quick photo when we said goodbye.

Whispy blue sky

Whispy blue sky

Then we had to say goodbye to Yuanyang. We bought another bus ticket tried to find comfort on the cramped bed. The gorgeous beauty of the mountain terraces became another memory, another fantastic experience of our travels and one of those unbelievable photos that I can say “that is real, I was there.”

Finding Peace and Cold in Zhongdian (by Carmen)

Monastery through the prayer flags

Monastery through the prayer flags

“Brrr, it’s cold up there.” This was everyone’s reaction when we mentioned we were going to Zhongdian. The town, in the northern reaches of Yunnan, is pretty much as close to Tibet as it gets without going there. It was just so tantalizingly close to Tiger Leaping Gorge that we couldn’t resist. So we hopped on a minibus headed north.

Street in "old town"

Street in “old town”

Roof tops of "old town"

Roof tops of “old town”

We got dropped off in “old town”, which I have to use quotes for. The old town is actually completely new, built by the government to attract some of the tourists away from old town in Lijiang. It is cute and old feeling for the most part, with crooked streets and wooden Tibetan style buildings. It was rather dead in the winter but I could imagine a lively place in the summer.

However, the government didn’t stop there. The tourism agency has gone on to say that Zhongdian is the legendary site of Shangrila, the magical utopia of James Hilton’s novels. Hilton used pictures of southwest China for inspiration of his work but really, it was a metaphorical place. The government officially changed the name to Shangrila anyway. I don’t know, I just like Zhongdian better.

Amazing dumpling meal

Amazing dumpling meal

Market vendors with cheese and prayer flags

Market vendors with cheese and prayer flags

We ventured out of old town for lunch the next day, determined to find something a bit more local. When I saw the sign for the dumpling restaurant I became excited and we entered through the steamy door.  I thought, “We are in southwest china, why are we eating northwestern cuisine?” But it turned out to be the best choice ever. We got a plate of fried dumplings and a plate of boiled ones. A side dish of slivered pig ears and some spicy cucumber chunks and we were set. Oh was it good. Perfect pork filling, wonderful sour, salty, spicy dipping sauce. Yum. We had stumbled on a treasure that the whole town seemed to know about. As the lunch hour progressed, customers from all walks of life streamed in. Even people in traditional outfits. The desire for good food was our common bond.

After our lunch we walked along the main boulevard of town which was lined with vendors. Two popular items were prayer flags and yak’s milk cheese, both at a fraction of the prices they charge in “old town.”

Monastery from afar

Monastery from afar

Stupa with prayer flags

Stupa with prayer flags

The main attraction of Zhongdian is a few kilometers north of the center. The Ganden Sumtseling Gompa is a 300 year old Tibetan Buddhist monastery set in a beautiful windswept valley. We almost didn’t go. The ticket price was almost double what we expected and after all the high price tickets in the other towns we had visited we had had enough. It is hard to see where the money for these tickets is going. But we paid up and our first views of the monastery instantly made us feel better. We approached by walking clockwise around a lake, past a stupa with many prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Moving clockwise was an important requirement for the monastery, within the compound as well as in individual rooms, as this is the direction one would spin a prayer wheel.

Ceiling painting on the main gate

Ceiling painting on the main gate

Front of one of the temples

Front of one of the temples

The entrance gate gave us a taste of what we would find inside. The layers of color and patterns was so intricate yet harmonious. Each of the various buildings we visited was painted in a similar fashion which contrasted with the rather stark mud colored exteriors.

Wonderfully painted interior

Wonderfully painted interior

Examples of the paintings of morals and religious stories

Examples of the paintings of morals and religious stories

Inside the paintings would pop with vibrancy. Many of the temples depicted the same themes. For example the stages of enlightenment metaphorically represented by a black elephant becoming white. Or the bird on top of the rabbit on top of the monkey on top of the elephant. All these have background stories I’m sure but they seemed mysterious to me. While many themes were repeated there was one shrine in particular that was unique from the others. The walls were black with neon sketches of skeletons and animals. Sadly no pictures allowed.

View from the roof

View from the roof

Gilded roof

Gilded roof

In our temple to temple meanderings we eventually found a little spot to get out onto the roof from where we could look out past the gilding and onto the city and the lake.

One more of the monastery

One more of the monastery

We did see a few monks in the temples arranging offerings, meditating or greeting people. They looked a little cold in their simple robes. Overall the cold winter weather (highs were in the low forties and of course nowhere, not even our hotel room, had true heaters) gave the monastery a feeling of austerity.

Local villager women

Local villager women

A yak!

A yak!

Tibetan style construction

Tibetan style construction

Outside the monastery walls a village had formed. We walked around, admired the heavy Tibetan style architecture, pet the yaks. It did feel a bit strange though, like I was intruding. I wonder how much money the villagers get from the high priced ticket.

Nathan with 20 layers of clothing

Nathan with 20 layers of clothing

Sleeper bus

Sleeper bus

We could only handle so much cold. Nathan was wearing almost everything he had! Zhongdian was a brief but worthy interlude on our Yunnan tour. We made our way south on a long journey to warmer weather and magical rice terraces.

Trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge (by Nathan)

Mother nature's craftsmanship: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Mother nature’s craftsmanship: Tiger Leaping Gorge

What is it about canyons that can so intimately engage human kind? Observing the intricacies of the water-weathered terrain is like reviewing the life’s work of a master craftsmen. Each fluctuation in the landscape is a hard-earned blow of hammer and chisel, each contour sanded smooth and the landscape fiddled with over millions of years of geologic time. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the inspiring and beautiful masterpieces in this world. Enormous mountains jut vertically into the sky and the rather calm Yangtze River is transformed into a violent earth-carving tool. There is no better way to observe this type of landscape than walking; hiking the cliff’s edge is the best way to experience earth’s craftsmanship.

Cliff edge of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Cliff edge of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Finally we hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge! I have wanted to hike this stretch of canyon for four years now. We originally learned about it in a favorite travel book of ours called Lost On Planet China by J. Maarten Troost. After our first trip to China, we knew that we needed to spend some more time exploring this country. We needed more time to eat its delicious food and see the depths of natural and historic sights that there were on offer. Yunnan and Tiger Leaping Gorge remained a central element of our travel planning for this entire year abroad.

Hiking trail signage at beginning of trail

Hiking trail signage at beginning of trail

Turn right at " This Small House"

Turn right at ” This Small House”

We started the hike in Qiaotou after taking a early morning bus from Lijiang. We stopped at the one guesthouse in town, Jane’s, to drop off our excess luggage and we began the hike up the hillside. I had expected few or no signage, so it was nice to see the frequent yellow and blue arrows leading us from Jane’s to the trail. The one tricky spot came at about 2-3 km into the walk-at “this small house.”‘ Turn off the paved road and walk through the courtyard onto the marked dirt path.

The enormous entrance into Tiger Leaping Gorge

The enormous entrance into Tiger Leaping Gorge

The rocky foot trail

The rocky foot trail

We were immediately struck with an enormous depth and magnificence of the canyon. The steepness of the cliffs appeared near vertical and the sparsely snowcapped mountains were so high, but so close. The footpath was well worn, a couple feet wide, but very rocky and unmaintained.

Wall of corn

Wall of corn

The tiny village with Naxi Guesthouse

The tiny village with Naxi Guesthouse

We walked for another twenty minutes to Naxi Guesthouse for some lunch. The women were very nice and fixed us some simple and slightly bland Chinese food. We admired the wall of corn that dried in the sun and then we began our steep ascent up the mountainside. Late January has to be the perfect time to hike this trek. We had sunny weather around 15-20C (60-70F) and we saw almost no tourists. Off-season tourism in China is proving to be the way to travel.

Tree clinging onto the cliff

Tree clinging onto the cliff

We reached the bottom of the infamous “28 bends” after already counting to ten. We had been climbing for seven kilometers but we determined that the real climb starts at a small building that sells drinks during high season. Carmen and I pushed on up through the switchbacks and we slowly but steadily climbed up the cliffside. For anyone who decides to count the bends, I recommend only counting full switchbacks that take at least five to ten minutes to cross. I was pleasantly surprised to reach the top with only counting 25. Both of us had actually expected a much more difficult and challenging ascent.

Self-portrait at top of 28 bends

Self-portrait at top of 28 bends

Steep vertical cliffs carved by the Yangtze River

Steep vertical cliffs carved by the Yangtze River

In total from Qiaotou the climb to this point was maybe 800m. The lookout point at top only met the elevation of slightly below the middle of the mountain across the canyon. We could not help but compare the climb and canyon with some of treks earlier this year. Colca Canyon in Peru is the worlds deepest canyon, but the mountains are very rounded so although the hiking was much more challenging, the landscape was not as drastic as the Chinese gorge in front of us. The Grand Canyon is unmatched for its beauty and hiking, in my opinion.  Tiger Leaping Gorge has steep vertical mountains but the red Navajo sandstone and ease of do-it-yourself hiking in America is very rewarding.

Carmen hugging the pine needle mound

Carmen hugging the pine needle mound

Every couple hours we would encounter a tiny village or a series of small plots of farmland. Carmen in particular enjoyed this tower of pine needles that looked so soft that she could hug it. Of course this type of thing always turns out more prickly than she could have expected.

Pipeline eyesore

Pipeline eyesore

They are building like crazy in China…everywhere. As we walked through each town we started noticing that every building had a brand new solar water heater on the roof, then we realized that some towns had ten to twenty buildings that were less than a year old. Even here on the steep cliffs of the Yangtze River, the Chinese are flocking to inhabit and make a living for themselves. Unfortunately this development does not care about the aesthetics of the landscape. This water pipeline was just one of many that snaked through the landscape. The placement of electric lines on the trail is also very discouraging as some awesome photo spots are plagued with droopy wires and decrepit leaning and fallen electric poles. Nevertheless, the scenery is beautiful and we just walked passed it in search of another awesome lookout and there were many places to enjoy the view.

View from the toilet

View from the toilet

Our serene mountain getaway- Half Way Guesthouse

Our serene mountain getaway- Half Way Guesthouse

Stark peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at 5600m high

Stark peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at 5600m high

Most specifically, the bathroom at our Half Way Guesthouse had one of the best views. Turning our heads just slightly mid-squat and we were faced with 4000m of glorious mountain across the river. Unfortunately we did not want to get too distracted and become unbalanced. Losing aim has bad consequences when hovering over a trough. There was an even better view from the dining hall and roof that looked unobstructed into the gorgeous gorge.

Carmen hiking at sunrise

Carmen hiking at sunrise

Waterfall crossing along trail

Waterfall crossing along trail

We were comfortable exhausted after over 16km (10mi) of hiking. We grabbed an early dinner and drifted into deep rejuvenating sleep. We woke before sunrise to get a jump on the hike ahead of us. As the dawn light broke through the canyon we traversed the rocky path. There were a few waterfalls but they were not too challenging or wet for us to cross. After about 8km (5mi) we found ourselves in the tiny tourist town of Walnut Garden.

The gorge from sunshine trail

The gorge from sunshine trail

We passed the cool hours of the morning with some breakfast and tea. The sun was slowly finding its way into the canyon and it was not until about 10:30am that we felt there was enough sun to not freeze our butts off walking down into the depths of the gorge. We started from Sean’s Guesthouse and followed the “sunshine trail” deep into the canyon. After about forty-five minutes of walking a young girl offers to sell us some drinks and candy. We politely turned her down, then she insists on us paying a fee to use e trail that we just walked. We had expected this but it is still frustrating to pay a park entrance fee then again pay some tart that stands in middle of the trail. We haggle a bit and settle on 10¥ for Carmen and I to use the trail in only one-direction.

Be careful not to cross this

Be careful not to cross this

We walk around the corner and were stopped abruptly by a mean-looking bulldog-faced girl. Now, she has the same sign as the other girl, but she is charging for the “ladder trail photo spot.” We were planning on using this trail, but charging to take a photo is ridiculous. We knew that there was a toll booth at the top of the ladder trail that we suspected would also try to charge us. So I decided to step passed her. She jumps in front and growls and screams and starts pumping her tiny balled fist into her pudgy left hand. I found this display of violence comical and disgraceful. I paid a hefty tourist ticket to get in the park but it is not acceptable to bully tourists for more cash.

Then I noticed a brief moment when she was distracted, the wind fluttered, her phone beeped and in three steps I was passed her. I unleashed the dragon from the cage. She screamed, squealed and barked everything she could at me. The intensity of her anger sprayed heavily on my face with thick insults. Standing on her tippy toes she gripped my jacket as if she planned on throwing me to the other side of the mountain. I stayed calm, happy that I maintained composure in China. I look at Carmen and I see one of those faces that immediately humbles me and sets me on track. I see a face that says, “What are you doing? Now I am fucking trapped over here while you and that crazy bitch are arguing over $3.25!” I convince Broozie Lee to stop pumping her fists and we pay the full toll (or maybe I got across from free and Carmen paid double). Looking back at it, this incident reflects the challenges of a miscommunication. If I knew I would not get charged at the top for the same trail, or if I knew that they actually maintained the trail (which turned out to be clean, safe and well-maintained) then maybe this would have been smoother.

Tourist rock on the Yangtze River near Tiger Leaping Rock

Tourist rock on the Yangtze River near Tiger Leaping Rock

Another five minutes and we were on the main tourist viewing spot, Tiger Leaping Rock. The legend has it that a magnificent tiger fled human hunters by traversing the steep mountains. The hunters encroached on the tiger and cornered up him against the Yangtze River. The tight canyon confined the river into a raging pulsing body of rapids and waterfalls. The panic-stricken tiger paced on the last remaining landform expecting his inevitable death. As the hunters encroached down the hillside the tiger leapt in desperation. The river raged below, but gloriously, the tiger flew over the tumultuous water and landed gracefully on the river bank. The distance was too great for the hunters. The tiger swiftly climbed and disappeared into the mountains. The people and the place were forever changed with the memory of the tiger and the remaining Tiger Leaping Rock.

Yangtze Rapids

Yangtze Rapids

We sat on one of the rocks and admired the river as the water violently slammed against the rocks causing one of the most abusive rapids I could ever imagine. We were forced to yell across the thundering sound. There are a handful of places to visit at the water, but many of them require bribing this one family for each photo. I think the best spot is the free on e at the end of the trail. The mountains ascend almost vertically from the water’s edge and the Yangtze snakes in the the distance.

Ladder trail up from Tiger Leaping Rock

Ladder trail up from Tiger Leaping Rock

We climbed out of the canyon to discover that the ladder trail had significantly more elevation gain and was more challenging (exposed in the sun) than the 28 bends. There actually is a sixty foot ladder (optional for those that trust Chinese safety standards). We huffed and puffed our way to the top excited to have completed a wonderful Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. The scenery throughout our two days was magical.  It is impressive how  for just a short distance these mountains confine the river to create a drastic and impressive landscape. It is possible to look in both directions to see the mountains and canyon disappear, the Yangtze flattens and resumes a gentle flow across the landscape. Back at the cliff’s edge, the river no longer takes on the characteristics of thrashing through the canyon. The whitewater softly meanders through Tiger Leaping Gorge slowly carving and chiseling it more elegantly than ever before.

Getting Lost in Lijiang (by Carmen)

Jade Dragon Mountain viewed from the new public square

Jade Dragon Mountain viewed from the new public square

Lijiang is located in a very picturesque setting, which is part of the problem. Chinese tourists love picturesque so the tourism agency has been doing its best to make the town as cute and profitable as possible. This includes building up the old town, charging a high ticket price for the sites and creating non-stop souvenir shops. The commerciality and new structures made to look old reminded us of Disneyland hence Nathan determined we were in Chisneyland.

"Old" water wheels in the new public square

“Old” water wheels in the new public square

Baked egg custard tarts and strawberry shortcake

Baked egg custard tarts and strawberry shortcake

We started our explorations in the new public square just north of the old town. We picked up a few baked goods and sat down to people watch. It wasn’t long before people wanted to take our picture though. The people watchers became the watched.

Naxi women and man performing traditional dances

Naxi women and man performing traditional dances

Naxi writing

Naxi writing

In the square they have elderly Naxi perform traditional dances. The Naxi are the local tribe and have interesting cultural legacies. Especially it’s pictographic writing, which could be compared to Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Dongba Culture Museum compares to two scripts in an interesting exhibit. As for the dancing, I hope they get paid for their work. We saw them dancing in the mornings, afternoons and evenings!

An uncrowded shopping street in old town

An uncrowded shopping street in old town

But most people aren’t here to dance. It seems they are here to shop. There are stores selling clothing, paper goods, jewelry, wind chimes, combs made of horns, yak meat, and musical drums. Repeat this 100 times.

Pretty canal lined with hotels

Pretty canal lined with hotels

Mu Family Mansion

Mu Family Mansion

For me, the real beauty was in the side streets off the shopping lanes. Here we found mostly hotels, tiny cafes and a pretty temple. The meandering paths reminded me of Venice in the utter inability to keep ones orientation. It’s impossible not to get lost. One of our landmarks we walked past multiple times was the Mu Mansion, a historic building to the south where hawk handlers gather for photo ops.

Rooftop view of the old town

Rooftop view of the old town

During sunset we climbed a hill to get a view of old town from above. We found a clearing by a temple and watched the sun cast golden light on the roofs. Since we had a birds eye view we tried to get our bearings within the old town. It was impossible.

Lijiang by night

Lijiang by night

Tibetan veggie curried momos

Tibetan veggie curried momos

At night we just wanted something light, so we sampled the dumplings at a local Tibetan restaurant. The curried veggie momos (dumplings) were simple and good, showing the influence of Tibet’s proximity to India. I also loved the atmosphere at the peaceful, upstairs cafe.

Metal goods at the market

Metal goods at the market

Our favorite place for breakfast is always the market and in the southwest corner of old town we found it. We walked past stalls of pretty copperware before finding the food court. Spicy fried potatoes and beef noodle soup filled us up. When we went to try the local fried bread, called a baba, the vendor had sold out. Sadness.

Jade Dragon Mountain viewed from Black Dragon Pool Park

Jade Dragon Mountain viewed from Black Dragon Pool Park

Cherry blossoms in a courtyard

Cherry blossoms in a courtyard

Small bridge at the park

Small bridge at the park

Exiting the market we reentered Chisneyland and made our way through the maze. We wanted to catch a glimpse of the Jade Dragon Mountain, a set of beautiful craggy mountains north of the city. The Black Dragon Pool Park has a good vista but we didn’t care for the $13 per person entrance fee. As we passed the park looking for a good alternative view two local women told us they’d sneak us in for a fraction of the price. Now, this isn’t something we normally do but I think just for the fun of getting away with something we said yes.  And it was indeed a pretty park with good vistas, but I think I would have been disappointed if I had paid full price.

Clay pot rice with fermented veggies and celery soup

Clay pot rice with fermented veggies and celery soup

As we walked back towards the old town we passed a couple eating clay pot rice and had to have some. It was accompanied with some spicy, fermented zucchini and cabbage as well as a very light celery soup.

Boiled Dumpling Aunty!

Boiled Dumpling Aunty!

For our final meal in Lijiang we really wanted some home style cooking. Miraculously, we were able to locate a dumpling restaurant we had passed on one of our lost walk abouts. I think it was the name the got me – Boiled Dumpling Aunty. Indeed, when we walked in, it was just two ladies, two tables, a blaring TV and a whole lot of dumplings. We ordered a variety of pork and beef fillings and waited with anticipation. They were amazing! Especially when dipped in our sauce that we customized with black vinegar, soy sauce, chopped garlic, chili powder and cilantro. It was a delicious meal that helped redeem a town that tries to hard to impress the tourist masses.

A elder checking out the touring masses in the main square

A elder checking out the touring masses in the main square

Shaking Off The Beaten Track in Shaxi (by Nathan)

Shaxi historic theater

Shaxi historic theater

The idea of finding a place that is beautiful, historic and free of crowds in China sounds like a myth. Few places have been untouched by tourism in China.  If a town has the slightest bit of charm then the Chinese have already torn down most of it and added a few hundred shops with an entrance ticket to visit the town. I am afraid that my writing this post may influence and change a truly wonderful town forever. A special thanks to our friends Adam and Yun for recommending this place. We loved the tiny town of Shaxi; there was charm, and a rustic simplicity to it that made it easy to explore, relax and enjoy being in China.

Winter park in Shaxi

Winter park in Shaxi

The town originated from one of the original tea and horse caravan villages of two thousand years ago. Horses were constantly being traded from Tibet to Southeast Asia for tea and the subtle valley surrounding Shaxi was the ideal place for a stopover. Fortunately it takes a little hoop jumping to get to Shaxi. We rode a regional bus to Jianchuan from Dali, then a tiny minivan to Shaxi, this two-step process is usually enough to shed off ninety-nine percent of the tourists. A highway is planned for completion near the town in the next year, so I imagine this little village in the Himilayan foothills will soon be changed and made into another Chinese shopping mall.

Rustic painted building

Rustic painted building

There is just one paved road with a handful of tiny restaurants, shops and craftspeople. A historic cobble-stoned path, Sideng Road, leads down to the historic center with an original theater from the Qing dynasty four hundred years ago. It is easy and fun to get lost in the winding rock pathways. The rustic wood-framed buildings with tile roofs appear unchanged for thousands of years.

Five hundred year old bridge over the Heihui river

Five hundred year old bridge over the Heihui river

Carmen and I immediately set out to exploring the town. It did not take long, because soon we had passed by everything there was to see a couple times. Down in the valley the Heihui River cuts through the terrain. There is a traditional Chinese bridge near the town and supposedly an even older one downstream connecting another village. We did not get that far as our bigger exploration of the area was spent hiking into the mountains.

Breakfast beef noodles

Breakfast beef noodles

Mountain tombstones

Mountain tombstones

We grabbed a hearty breakfast of beef noodles, we glanced at crude map and we set out to wonder through the mountains and villages of Shaxi. Our original destination was the “White Dragon Pool,” but after hiking for six hours on trails that we thought was the correct one I can say that we did not find the pool. We did find stunning views, several rock carvings and tombstones tucked into the mountainside.

Terraced farmland east of Shaxi

Terraced farmland east of Shaxi

Springtime cherry blossoms

Springtime cherry blossoms

We passed through delicately terraced farmland green with sprouting vegetables, corn, rice and even a few cherry trees with blossoms already encouraging spring. Our path varied from a groomed dirt road, to a passable foot trail to bush whacking up a few creeks. The temperatures were brisk, but warm and enjoyable for a winter day.

Friendly family of donkeys

Friendly family of donkeys

Farmland near Shaxi

Farmland near Shaxi

On our return hike we found a family of donkeys traversing the path in the opposite direction. We approached a little wearily being careful to see how they’d react to us. Then the foal stepped towards us and affectionately nudged its head against our outstretched hands. The adults did the same, leaning their bodies towards us, eager as dogs for a little petting. We said our goodbyes and continued down the mountainside. The farm huts and terraces enhanced the landscape all around us.

Our stop in Shaxi was peaceful; China without the negative aspects of Chinese tourism. The town and surrounds are very timeless.  The old and beautiful type of place travelers dream of. I am excited that we had the opportunity to explore and enjoy it while it still exists.

Drinking in the Views of Dali (by Carmen)

Dali old town

Dali old town

Dali is a town with Erhai Lake to its east and tall mountains towering over it to the west. It may be small in size but it has a long history. Centuries ago, it was the capital of the Yunnan region. Today, it retains a pretty, old town atmosphere as well as cultural ties to the Bai, a tribe that has lived in this valley for thousands of years.

Brooms at the Bai market

Brooms at the Bai market

Our introduction to Dali occurred with the great hostel search. Unfortunately we got lost on our way to the hostel but we did find a Bai market near the western city gate. I loved the mounds of natural brooms as well as the chili vendors that were grinding fresh chilies into powder right before your eyes.

Beautiful paintings found on our hostel

Beautiful paintings found on our hostel

Our hostel, the Jade Emu, at sunset with the Green Mountains behind it

Our hostel, the Jade Emu, at sunset with the Green Mountains behind it

We finally did make it to our hostel, the Jade Emu, right around sunset. It was a lovely place with special touches for the western traveler. For example, free access to an Internet portal that allows you to view sites typically banned in China! It was also decorated with splendid paintings that we saw on many of the homes in the area.

Tofu, mushrooms and cheese at Cang Er Chun

Tofu, mushrooms and cheese at Cang Er Chun

We quickly left for dinner and ended up at Cang Er Chun. We are trying to maximize consumption of the famous Yunnan mushrooms so we ordered a dish of them, some fried local goat cheese (oddly served with sugar) and ma po tofu. The latter is one of my favorite dishes and I welcomed the numbing spice of the Sichuan peppercorns. Afterwards, we walked around and found an expat bar with a Scottish band playing some songs. Dali definitely has a foreigner presence attracted to its cute surrounds. But this bar had a good mix of Chinese and westerners grooving to the tunes.

View along the south city wall

View along the south city wall

Holy napa cabbage idolization

Holy napa cabbage idolization

The next morning we were ready to explore the old town. Many of the Chinese tourists congregate on the tourist shopping streets, which aren’t very interesting. But it’s easy to get away from the crowds. It was pretty much just us as we walked along the south city wall. At the end was a small temple to overlook the town and lake. Inside the temple, there was a awesome carved napa cabbage at the center of an altar. Evidence of the importance of good food in China.

Buddhist meal at Yi Ran Tang

Buddhist meal at Yi Ran Tang

Near the city wall, a Buddhist restaurant called Yi Ran Tang serves a very inexpensive buffet. You can pile as much as you want on your plate for about $1 but the catch is that you have to eat everything you take. I’m talking every last grain of rice. Nathan and I practiced scooping rice grains with our chop sticks in their peaceful, newly built courtyard next to the buffet.

Bai-style Catholic church

Bai-style Catholic church

Jesus in Dali

Jesus in Dali

We kept the religious theme going by visiting the town’s Catholic church. It was the most unique church I’ve ever been to since it was built in the Bai style of architecture. We marveled at the exterior paintings, which didn’t have much to do with Christianity, and took a peak the blue painted interior. They provided a flyer describing the church’s difficulties during the cultural revolution as well as explaining how “Jesus Christ started the Catholic Church before he died…”. Hmmm. I thought the building was a really cool cultural fusion and is definitely worth seeking out in Dali.

Nathan's drink

Nathan’s drink

As a refresher, Nathan couldn’t pass up a chance to try a sour tamarind drink from a popular street vendor. She spent time on each cup, sprinkling in a variety of a spices and juices, resulting in a nicely sour treat.

The Three Pagodas

The Three Pagodas

Inside one of the temples behind the pagodas

Inside one of the temples behind the pagodas

View from the hill

View from the hill

We saved the afternoon for Dali’s major historical attraction, the three pagodas. The tallest of these is 16 stories and built in the mid 800s! It is amazing it has lasted this long though I’m not sure how many restorations it has had. Behind the pagodas a series of temples stretches at least a kilometer uphill. Each temple ensconced beautiful statues of Buddha, Buddhist leaders or local gods. The ticket was expensive (most are in China) but well worth it.

Spicy chicken, veggies and fried rice

Spicy chicken, veggies and fried rice

We finished off the night by choosing the restaurant with the most diners in it.  Our pointing got us some greens, fried rice and a spicy, garlicy chicken dish.  I liked the chicken but there were so many bones it took forever to eat.  This is true of a lot of Chinese chicken and fish dishes.

Older Bai women on the tourist shopping street

Older Bai women on the tourist shopping street

Our last day in Dali we spent a bit more time in the old town. As we walked around we noticed a group of Bai women moving in a hurry. We followed them as they rushed their way through the main tourist drag, stopping to say hello to a few shop owners. I’m still not sure why they were rushing so, but what sticks out in my mind was a middle aged woman with a deformed foot. She was keeping up with the others by hopping along on her one good foot. I wonder if she didn’t have a crutch by choice or if it was the poor medical care. Probably the latter, which shows the dichotomy of rich Chinese tourists and poor locals. Reminders are everywhere!

Baiju shop

Baiju shop

We did do some shopping ourselves, at the local baiju (rice wine) shop. The owner had created a number of specialty flavors and we settled on a pineapple-rice liquor that had a sour, sweet and slightly fermented taste.

Awesome shao er quai

Awesome shao er quai

Nearby, a woman was selling some delicious shao er quai, a street snack Adam had recommended. It is rice pancake that is grilled and smeared with a variety of sweet, nutty and spicy sauces. This is wrapped around a Chinese doughnut and served warm. Good stuff. This lady was particularly good because she rolled out the rice pancake fresh, instead of having pre-made ones ready to heat up.

Scrumptious coffee and cookies at Sweet Tooth

Scrumptious coffee and cookies at Sweet Tooth

Our final stop was to satisfy our sweet cravings at a cafe appropriately named Sweet Tooth. Our French pressed coffee was great and the tiny cookies were spot on. Chocolate chip, white chocolate, oatmeal raisin…it’s been so long.

Small bus between Yunnan towns

Small bus between Yunnan towns

Before long it was time to board a bus to our next destination, Shaxi. We crowded on to the local bus, chatted with a friendly English speaking local and wound our way higher in the mountains (and deeper into the cold!).

Catching Up in Kunming (by Carmen)

Kunming airport

Kunming airport

Our welcome to China occurred at the Kunming International Airport, a brilliant new building held up by warm, sinuous supports. Nathan and I had been looking forward to returning to China ever since we first visited in 2009.  But, like India, we were also a little anxious. There are things we love about China. The incredible food, the vibrant street life, the beautiful historical architecture all enchanted us. But the intense traffic, incessant smoking and hacking, kids being allowed to piss and shit on the sidewalk, seriously unhygienic bathrooms, and the governments rapid destruction of the beautiful historic architecture were all turn offs. Trying to navigate everything with only a few key phrases of Chinese complicates everything as well.

China, put simply, is not for beginners. If you want to veer off the major shopping streets and get at the heart of the country and its people, it takes research, effort, patience and a whole lot of pointing. Nathan and I knew what we were getting into so we decided to take some time to warm up to China. We wanted to spend a few days in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province, to catch up on some things and better plan our trip through the rest of China. Unfortunately, our plan backfired a bit since the slow, censored Chinese internet did not take kindly to our research needs. But when the frustration got too much, walking the streets of laid back Kunming provided a welcome respite to breathe and regroup.

Tofu noodles

Tofu noodles

We were lucky. We got great recommendations from friends.  Our friend Adam had actually lived in Kunming a few years ago, he met his wife here, and has made numerous return visits. He was kind enough to give us a few recommendations on food and we excitedly worked our way down the list. The first item was dou hua mi xian jia mao (豆花米线加帽), a rice noodle dish that is topped with soft tofu, a savory red pork sauce, peanuts and chives. We found it at a little stall in the popular market near our hostel. The fresh tofu was so silky and you could taste the soy beans used to make it.

Mushroom steamed bun

Mushroom steamed bun

We had heard that mushrooms are the specialty of Yunnan and by luck we found a mushroom filled steamed bun while perusing the market after our noodles. Like the noodles, it was phenomenal with extremely rich, flavorful mushrooms mixed with minced onions. Oh yeah.

Grilled tofu

Grilled tofu

Main shopping square

Main shopping square

After doing a bit of work back at the hostel we ventured out again for some dinner. We ended at a grilled tofu stall that topped its tofu patties with a peanut sauce, chili sauce and some fried wonton bits. In a word, tasty. As we walked we also noticed a few Muslim Chinese restaurants. Yunnan hosts a large Muslim community with rocky historical relations with the Han Chinese. This may play a part in the current government’s redevelopment of the old Muslim quarter in Kunming, including the destruction of the 400 year old mosque. They did replace the mosque but I heard it was so garish that I didn’t bother to go see it. As Nathan and I walked on Kunming’s main shopping street we were close to the old Muslim neighborhood but traces were few and far between. Mostly, one is able to see a restaurant here and there. I hope that the community lives on somewhere and that I just can’t see the signs (literally, because they are written in mandarin).

Nathan and the seagulls

Nathan and the seagulls

Another day in Kunming decided to take a break from catching up and be tourists again. First we walked over to Green Lake Park, a green space with a series of islands linked by small bridges. In the winter flocks of red beaked seagulls spend their days in the park getting fat off the bread the locals feed them. Nathan was even able to have them pluck the food from his hands. We walked along the park, soaking up the sun for warmth. Since leaving the oppressing heat of Bangkok, we were quickly plunged into a crisp winter cold of 30 to 40 degrees. And there was no escaping it as nowhere has heaters – not our hostel, restaurants or cafes. Brrr!

Heavenly Manna restaurant

Heavenly Manna restaurant

Us with Yun

Us with Yun

After the park we had lunch plans with a friend of Adam’s who is from Kunming. Yun asked us to meet her at Heavenly Manna Restaurant on Wenhua Xiang. She told us about life in Kunming and her job helping foreign exchange students adjust to life in China. Meanwhile we devoured some amazing dishes. My absolute favorite was a cumin beef dish served with crispy fried mint leaves. It was so mouthwatering I could not stop myself from scooping thirds and fourths on my plate! We also sampled some stir fried greens, yellow corn fried with rich egg yolks and a light soup. At the end of our lunch, we thanked Yun for her stories and advice. But Nathan and I weren’t quite ready to brave a walk in the cold. So we went next door to Salvador’s, an expat owned bar owned serving some familiar favorites. Nathan splurged on Rouge River Amber Ale from Oregon to take a break from all the light beers Asia has to offer. I opted for a hot rum apple cider to take the chill off.

Yuantong Temple entrance

Yuantong Temple entrance

Intricate Chinese decorative painting

Intricate Chinese decorative painting

Center of Yuantong Temple

Center of Yuantong Temple

When we did finally leave we made our way to Yuantong Temple. It is one of the oldest and biggest Buddhist temples in Kunming and it was a thoroughly pleasant place to be. We encountered a group of monks chanting as part of a ceremony that we did not understand. But it certainly added to the ambiance.

Rice noodles in rich spicy broth

Rice noodles in rich spicy broth

Stir fried rice noodles

Stir fried rice noodles

As we left the temple we already had a dinner place in mind – a crowded restaurant serving variations of rice noodles. This involved a lot of pointing and bringing the woman taking orders around the restaurant in order to show exactly what we wanted. It worked!

Chinese doughnut with savory pudding

Chinese doughnut with savory pudding

We found another cheap joint for breakfast the next morning just north of our hostel. The man out front was frying up mounds of Chinese doughnuts, which are long wands of dough and aren’t sweet. From his wife, Nathan and I ordered two dipping sauces for our doughnuts. One was a warm sweetened soy milk and the other a thick savory pudding. It was plenty filling and cost a whole $1.13 for the both of us.

Walmart Supercenter

Walmart Supercenter

For dinner we went in a different direction, literally and figuratively. We boarded a bus to the southeast of the city and encountered the evidence of China’s rapid urbanization. Freeway overpasses appeared and streets got wider. We got dropped off on the edge of a highway and had to walk with others along the edge of the road, no sidewalk, until we got to some smaller, more manageable streets. In the new China, they do pay attention to the public transit infrastructure but the pedestrian connections to transit are unfortunately ignored.

We eventually found ourselves in a strange area that was felt like a business park but was interspersed with a few corporate looking strip malls and gigantic apartment blocks. It seemed like a very boring place to live. And in the middle of it all was a super center Walmart surrounded by a large parking lot. Just like in the US, it had everything you could want and more. They certainly cater to their market here as this Walmart is filled with all the local foods – smoked pig faces, fermented tofu and black footed chickens. It seemed extremely popular and does not bode well for all the mom and pop shops in Kunming. Not that the urban planners left much room for these types of family owned stores in the new parts of town.

Mushroom hot pot and sides at Dian Jun Wang

Mushroom hot pot and sides at Dian Jun Wang

But back to the food. Yun praised Dian Jun Wang which seems to be a local, high end chain. It was a good thing we were hungry when we sat down because we were in for a feast. The specific reason for our visit was mushroom hot pot. Yunnan is known for its bounty of mushrooms and we were ready for them. With a combination of pictures, pointing and guessing we ended up with a nice rounded meal. As a starter we were delivered a vinegary vegetable dish that had the the texture of softened pine needles and may have actually been pine needles. That may not sound appealing but it was very good. Then came the broth that was kept on a burner on our table, to which a selection of mushrooms was added. Once cooked, the mushrooms were spooned into our bowls and we could dip then in a spicy dipping sauce. Next, we cooked and ate rice cakes and cabbage. And finally, thinly shaved beef. We drank a much of the broth as we could but we were getting dangerously full.

Dian Jun Wang was a wonderful meal and we were well taken care of by the numerous staff. With tea, the bill came to $54. I believe it to be well worth the money, but the price did point out the dichotomy of rich and poor in China. Especially compared to our incredibly cheap breakfast that same day. The husband and wife making Chinese doughnuts could not afford to eat at Dian Jun Wang nor are they given space to work in these newly planned communities. Which is too bad because they are part of what makes China great! My favorite food is always in the hole-in-the-wall eateries anyway.

It was a good thing we took things slow for our first few days in China. It can be equal parts charming and frustrating and from the start we experienced both emotions. Two months in China? Bring it on!

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