New Friends in Yunnan

Trip Start Jan 14, 2009
Trip End May 2010

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Monday, October 5, 2009

After a spectacular visit to Yangshuo, we flew to Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan Province. Yunnan in a superbly diverse province with tropical rainforests in the South and rugged, snow-capped peaks in the North. The Yanzi's wilder waters also run their course through the world famous Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Wild cloud formations near Yulong Xueshan (Jade Snow Mountain)

The active and wild geography of the Tiger Leaping Gorge (the white rocks in the background are from a huge rockfall that I failed to capture)
Though Kunming is known as the Seattle of China (according to the China Rough Guide), we didn't dally and after a quick and lovely stay in the Cloudland Hostel, we were off to the ancient city of Dali.

Prayer flags and classic architecture in Dali

To be completely honest, Dali was a letdown for us... but first, here is a little about Dali before we go on our rant.  Dali is at the southern end of the Erhai Hu (Ear-Shaped Lake) next to the Jade Green Mountains and its most famous site is the Three Pagodas, built in the 9th century, which are apparently some of the tallest structures in southwest China.  From a distance, they sort of look like radio towers and are now surrounded by a tacky parking lot with souvenir shops. Dali is also home to the Bai ethnic group; it feels a lot more SE Asian here. The Bai at one time controlled all of upper Burma and parts of Thailand and Vietnam through their Nanzhao kingdom, but were eventually defeated by the Mongols and absorbed into the Chinese empire. The area is famous for blue and white batik, Bai embroidery, marble, and fishing with cormorants (though this is dying due to the government outlawing it). 

Agriculture near Erhai Lake (that's rice drying on the concrete)

Lindsey making new friends in a local Dali restaurant

Lindsey testing the Dali fried goat cheese (it's overrated, and a bit weird being that it's covered in sugar--not what we were expecting)

We don't know when and how Dali got on the backpacker route, but it certainly did. There's also a stretch of hotels, shops and restaurants catering to westerners that you would expect in Thailand. The more recent arrival of Chinese tourists has contributed to the frenzy but the focus still seems to be Westerner. But the people are friendly enough and laid back, and the hassling to buy stuff is not too aggressive. It seems that Dali became one of those secret must-see places maybe 10 to 15 years ago, and then once it was discovered and the tourists really started to arrive, the locals realized they could make some decent money and thus began catering to Westerners, irrevocably altering the town. As the Chinese middle class started to grow, there has been a new crop of services and hotels catering to them. So the very things that made Dali attractive in the first place have contributed to tarnishing its charm. Not to mention the newfound capitalistic nature now shys some tourists from its unique attractions due to overpriced entrance fees.

Dancing and festivities in Dali Old Town

Despite its popularity with tourists, there are still more people in Dali trying to earn some money than enough tourists to go around to give everyone a comfortable living. The most disturbing, if somewhat amusing, example of this are the sweet elderly Bai women who try to sell you their embroidery and when that doesn't work, then instead try to get you to buy the local variety of marijuana. "You want see my embroidery?" No, thank you. "You smoka the ganja?!" whispered sinisterly. They were the most aggressive of anyone! Again, another case of Dali catering to westerners. ;) Does Ben really look that much like he's from B.C.?

From Dali, we traveled North to the even more famous and better preserved ancient city of Lijiang. Lijiang sits in an amazing position at a flat, broad valley, perfectly suited to agriculture, sitting in the "U" of of the Yanzi River (this section of the river is known as the Jinsha Jiang). To the West, the Yanzi makes its first bend, a bend that is so critically important to China. If it weren't for this bend, the mighty Yanzi would travel South into SE Asia, like its mighty neighbors, the Salveen and Meking rivers. If it wasn't for this bend which drastically alters the river's southerly flow to an easterly flow, China would altogether be an extraordinarily different place. If the Yanzi interests you, I cannot recommend enough Simon Winchester's The River at the Center of the World.

Learning from our experience in Dali, we opted to stay outside of Lijiang in the still touristy, but much quieter village of Shuhe. The Lijiang area actually has three villages that are fully preserved and Shuhe is one of them.  We stayed at the Nomad Guesthouse, run by Peter, a Dutchman, and his girlfriend, who was off visiting her family in Taiwan.  The Nomad is a wonderful break from the usual hostel scene and we would have stayed longer if we didn't already have a flight book to Chengdu.

We met these two photographers from Kunming while hiking behind the village of Shuhe.  Ben was stoked to share a stunted 3-minute conversation in Chinese with them!

Something about the nature of backpacking can bring about the most spontaneous and wonderful friendships.  By spending day and night in close quarters with others who are going through similar experiences, it seems that bonds form fast and mutual understanding is rather immediate.  In the Nomad Guesthouse, we were lucky to experience this.  Peter and his good friend Niels' excellent hospitality, the timing of the Mid Autumn Festival, and the openness of the Chinese families and friends who were staying at the Nomad all combined to make our time in Shuhe/Lijiang truly a magical experience. 

The wonderful dinner we joined for the Mid Autumn Festival. By the way, Peter invites his guests to join every night for dinner with him. The food is probably the best we've had yet in China and the variety of unique vegetarian dishes is inspiring. It's well worth the mere 15 yuan ($2.25USD) to join in and make some friends!

Drying corn on rooftops is a common sight

In Shuhe, Ben spent a day biking to nearby villages, monestaries and hiking to try to get views of the famed Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), a 5500m peak that borders the Tiger Leaping Gorge to the South while Lindsey recovered from a slight bug.  The next day, we, along with a family of Australians, visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge.  The Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the world.  If measured from the tops of its bordering mountains (the Haba Mt and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), the gorge depth is a staggering 3900m.  Of course, the natural relief of the peaks to the bottom of the river isn't possible to see in its entirety, but nonetheless, the steep cliffs faces drop almost vertically to the seething turbulence of the Yanzi.

Ben taking on the locals at a Buddhist monestary near Baishi

Ben making friends with other ladies, I mean tourists

Mr. Wang says Ben's chinese is alright!

The Tiger Leaping Gorge


As staggering as the geography might sound, when you are continuously spoiled by the natural and wild beauty of British Columbia, the Rockies, the Southwestern US, and the Pacific Northwest, the Tiger Leaping Gorge and northwest Yunnan may not impress as one may expect.  However, learning a little history of Kunming and Yunnan as a whole, coupled with an understanding of the great history and importance of the Yanzi to China will make the trip truly satisfying.

For more photos of the Yunnan Province, please go to our Flickr site:
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Where I stayed
Nomad Tibetan Guesthouse
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