Trip Report: Yunnan Province, China

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Our suitcases are barely unpacked, but I fear if I don’t write this update immediately I might forget a detail from our eye-opening trip to Yunnan Province in Southwestern China with the Shetty family this week.  Yunnan is home to half of China’s ethnic minorities and hosts the most diverse terrain imaginable, from green, fertile rice terraces in the south on the Myanmar and Laotian border to soaring peaks of the snow capped mountains bordering Tibet in the North.  Our trip traced the southern trade route where tea from the Kunming area was picked, taken to Dali to be made into cakes and then transported up to the higher elevations where Tibetans exchanged meat and jewels for the desired tea that they couldn’t grow at elevation.

I did my research before we left, but it did not prepare me for the stunning beauty of the region.  Bright blue skies, crisp autumn air, wide vistas and sparkly blue lakes, as well as a window into China’s rapid transformation has finally ignited an honest interest in China for me.

 

We began our trip in Kunming, the capital of the province, home of the Yi people, and the endpoint of the infamous Burma Road.  Larger than I anticipated (as all Chinese cities inevitably are), Kunming is a city of 7.2 million that is vying for “spring city” green capital status.  Last year alone the government planted 5 million trees and continues to plant more even as construction moves at an equally rapid pace. We arrived in Kunming late in the evening and immediately encountered two other HKIS families in the lobby of our hotel.  We headed out to find some dinner and ended up at a bar with some lame Halloween decorations on Green Lake where we wolfed down some surprisingly tasty “across the bridge noodles” while a Chinese man sang Mandarin pop in a smoky room.  Tobacco is a hugely profitable crop in Yunnan, and smoking is still epidemic in the area.  The kids were beat, so we headed quickly back to our Green Lake Hotel down the street.

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We were up early the next morning to meet our tour guide Mike and head to the Bamboo Temple about an hour’s drive from downtown.  This Tang Dynasty Buddhist temple perched on the side of a hill overlooking the city is peaceful and green.  It is known for the 500 arhats (statues) that were made of clay by famous sculptor Li who renovated the temple in the 19th C.  He went into the town and captured the expressions of local people, creating the life-sized statues that seem to stare as you walk by.    A bit eerie, but cool and the setting of the temple is great.

Back in the van we drove two hours to the Stone Forrest in Shilin.  We had a passable lunch at a tourist spot outside the park then went in on foot to explore this geological wonder.  Reminiscent of Stony Batter in New Zealand, huge rock outcroppings littered the horizon for as far as the eye could see.  These, however, used to be under the sea rather than volcanic as were those in NZ.  Our guide was skilled at leading us off the beaten path to explore the park without the throngs of Chinese tourists, but every once in awhile our paths met and we became the primary attraction.  Mr.E’s blond hair was like a magnet to the Chinese tourists and they aggressively sought photographs with him and the other children.  While the others were happy to oblige, Mr.E was not.  He thought they were laughing at him and would yell, “Tell them to shut up.”  He even rightly shoved one person who got too close in trying to cozy up to him for a shot.

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After the Stone Forest we headed back to town with a stop at a touristy shop where we were presented with demonstrations of both silk and tea.  Rod couldn’t resist the purported health benefits of a pillow made from the excrement of silkworms and bought one.  We also bought some pu’er tea that looks like a cow pie, and headed out as quickly as we could.  We found a great restaurant on Green Lake for dinner that night called 1923 and our guide and driver joined us for the meal, helping with the ordering.   Kunming is known for its delicious produce and specifically its mushrooms, so I feel a special affinity for the region being from the mushroom capital of the world.  We ate some truly exceptional mushrooms on this trip!

Our final event of the evening was a show called Dynamic Yunnan at a theatre in town.  Like most Chinese mega performances, it is perfectly choreographed and this one is particularly innovative.  It’s a fusion of traditional ethnic folk music and modern dance created by world famous performance artist Yang Liping.  It was a little long. Sidewalk, in particular, loved it.

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The next morning we were up early for our flight to Dali.  Our guide, Elena, met us at the airport and from that moment on we were in great hands.  We would be treated to Mandarin lessons, the best food in the most unlikely locations and an earnest and thoughtful tour of some of the world’s most beautiful territory, all while driven around in a comfortable Toyota van for our two families with a skilled driver whose family had been wealthy home owners in Lijiang, then lost everything in the Cultural Revolution.

We started our adventure in Dali at a really tasty restaurant (Shui Shang Ren Jia) near the Dali Prefecture Museum on the edge of Erhai Lake.  All the kids upped their vegetable consumption quotient on this trip in spades.  Next we went to Erhai Park.  We climbed 287 steps (how do you think we got the kids to the top?) to a beautifully manicured scenic park perched above the lake and surrounded by mountains.  From that vantage point, Dali New Town looked just like Queenstown.  The kids got their first Mandarin test as we looked at the gate and they had to name the animals and colors.  Elena had trained as a teacher before she changed professions to tour guide, so we hit the jackpot in finding her.

We descended the stairs and got back in the van to head to Dali Old Town for a walk about.  Dali Old Town is authentic and low key.  It feels “real” despite some tourist shops and, to me, has a Berkeley vibe.  Dali is predominantly home to the hard-working and sensible Bai people.  Elena referred to them as the “Jews of China.” Hmm?  I had forgotten my coat on the trip, so I picked one up there and the kids had fun running around the car-less cobblestone paths, crisscrossing the stone bridges over the many streams that ran through the center of town and trying fried yak cheese (not so good!).

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On our way from Dali to Xizhou where we would spend the night, we made a stop at the lake where we did our most touristy thing of the whole trip.  We didn’t really realize what we had signed up for and I think I would skip this if I go back, but it was beautiful to be out on the lake and certainly a memorable experience.  We were suited up with bright orange life jackets and sent out on a long skinny boat rowed by a graceful old man in a cone shaped hat.

The sun was just beginning to set and, while it was chilly, it was a gorgeous time of night to be out on the water.  As we rode along we looked back and behind us saw a boat with a woman rowing and a man standing up.  On the rails of the boat perched about a dozen huge black birds.  When we got out a bit further the man began to hit the side of the boat with a long bamboo stick and the birds jumped in the water.  Then he started to yell and a bird surfaced with an enormous fish in its mouth, which he scooped up in a net and held high in the air.  Another boat of Chinese tourists joined us and we all took photos as the man manhandled these birds quite aggressively.

The evening got weirder when the man came on our boat with the birds and proceeded to perch them on the head and arms of our children.  All we could think was how we would answer those questions about being in contact with birds and livestock when we got back to Hong Kong?!

Elena had promised us a wonderful meal in downtown Xizhou at a local place, but when we walked up my heart sank.  The restaurant was dark, dank and by western standards, grubby.  It didn’t have a restroom, so we ventured down the street to the public toilets.  This was the most disgusting bathroom experience I’ve had post-Africa.  Having lived in China for a few years I am adept at the ‘squatty potty’ and have taught my kids to use them too, but this one hit a new low.  I won’t bother to describe, but…wow.

Back in the restaurant (a lot of hand sanitizer later), I sat skeptically by as we all consulted the cabinet of fresh ingredients that would be prepared for us on the spot.  A few minutes later the dishes began to arrive and we were all blown away.  The food was so incredibly delicious.  The kids actually said it was the best meal of their lives and the adults agreed!  Perfectly spiced, fresh ingredients prepared simply but with great skill, we could not stop eating.  When the owner pulled out his guest book and we read comments from travelers around the world who had had the same experience, we were convinced that we had discovered a treasure.  The Golden Flower (Jin Hua) in Xizhou is a must do experience for those whojudge a book by its cover. And at about 250 yuan ($36) to feed nine of us and keep the parents in free flowing beer, it was the beginning evidence for us that price and food quality may be negatively correlated in China.

The only disappointing thing about eating dinner out that night was that we arrived at our hotel late that evening and realized that we had found another treasure that we were not going to be able to enjoy long enough.  Remember earlier I referenced that David Brooks article in the NY Times about the Hamish Line?  Well, this place was all Hamish.  The moment we arrived the owner of the hotel, Brian Linden, approached the kids and announced that we were just in time for his son’s 16th birthday party and did they want to see the cake?  He took them into the kitchen as we began to take in the exquisitely restored traditional Bai courtyard home, refurbished to be both a comfortable retreat center for guests from around the world and their home.

An American couple that spent a lot of their lives traveling in China, Brian and Jeanee Linden opted a few years ago to leave the US and to home school their two boys while operating a visionary place where visitors can experience authentic China.  I loved everything about it from the twenty- something ivy-league guys who made their ways there to work with the Lindens (providing inspiration to Dudah who now wants to apprentice there as soon as he’s old enough) to the place itself and to Brian and Jeanee, whose passion for China and people is infectious. Within ten minutes of our arrival we were singing happy birthday to Shane, eating cake and signing camp and Beatles songs as Vinny, their VP of Business Development and a Dartmouth grad, played guitar.  Our family will return to this place again, I am quite sure.

Reluctantly we left the Linden Centre the next morning to tour the Xizhou morning market (another thing on Sidewalk’s ongoing list of animal-related discomforts in China).  Dudah’s untied shoelaces dragged through animal blood and other muck, and my husband tried to prevent the start of a new global contagion by wiping them down later with hand sanitizer.

Afterwards we got in the van and settled in for a three-hour drive up into the mountains to the picturesque town of Lijiang.  The drive was bumpy, but by the time you go it will be smooth sailing.  Huge road construction projects are underway to have a state-of-the-art divided highway linking these cities in order to manage the throngs of Chinese tourists flocking to this paradise.  I fear, like Bali and other amazing spots that have been partially ruined by their beauty, Lijiang will suffer a similar fate, but for now it’s still lovely.

We arrived in Lijiang in time for a late lunch at yet another solid spot (Jin Sheng Li Shui), then out to tour the Old Town.  Lijiang, home to the Naxi people, is a backpacker paradise.  It’s a series of windy walkways along water streams filled with wifi cafes and strong coffee, bars and funky little restaurants, along with their fair share of tourist shops.  It teeters on the precipice of Disneyland, but isn’t quite there yet.  It’s stunning in the wood carved architecture and hillside construction.  We wandered and took it all in, but eventually began to feel the fatigue of nonstop touring and opted to head to the hotel for a quiet evening.

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We had decided to splurge a little bit and stay at the Banyan Tree on the outskirts of town.  I had not intended to splurge quite as much as we did, as traveling with 5 people often necessitates booking two rooms.  That I knew.   What I didn’t realize was that we had booked two “spa rooms” that created a ridiculously huge compound and had my kids in another building in an adjoining private courtyard with two Jacuzzis; disconcerting, but very nice.  They won’t forget that experience and all but Dudah may be ruined for the future backpacker youth hostel right of passage.

We all rested up and the next morning felt refreshed and ready to tour the Dongba Museum and Black Dragon Pool Park on the edge of town.  It was a perfect crisp clear morning with puffy clouds and turning leaves and we spent several hours circling the lake as Elena told us about the culture of her hometown of Lijiang.  We laughed at the English translation of the signs in the park like “Unrecycle” and “The Grass is Sleeping.  Please don’t disturb.”

We headed to Shuhe old town close to our hotel for lunch.  It’s a much smaller and quainter version of Lijiang, but still charming with waterways, cobblestones and bridges lined with shops and restaurants.  Elena knew of a dumpling place she recommended (Xi’an Xiao Chi) and we headed there to sit in the sunshine while a couple from Xi’an hand-made five plates of dumplings for our crew.  We devoured them along with a few beers and I must admit, they’re even better than Din Tai Fung’s!  Our entire bill came to 105 RMB, less than the cost of a scoop of ice cream at the fancy hotel where we stayed.

Next we headed further out of town to the banks of Lashi Lake where we mounted horses and were led up into the hills on a trail ride through spectacular countryside. None of the adults were keen to ride horses when we arrived, but by the end we were all pleased we had done so.  It was a highlight for the kids and riding to the shores of the lake was picturesque.  After the horses, we headed straight to dinner in Lijiang at a place that specialized in Across the Bridge Noodles (OK, but not my favorite meal).

The next morning we were on the road again, headed this time to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.  Heavily controlled by the “guns” as Elena called them, this area feels like Wyoming or Colorado.  Wide-open planes and soaring snow-capped mountains tower in the distance.  It’s spectacular and not what I expected.  We went to an extremely touristy show called Impression Lijiang that hubbie dubbed the “Propaganda Racial Harmony Show”, but was in fact visually stunning.  I think he was just cold because we had to sit outside!  It was OK, but not as good as the show we had seen in Kunming. Next we rode sanctioned buses through the Malibu Canyon-like terrain to the Blue Moon Valley where we spent the next few hours marveling at the turquoise waters of the pools.  Elena said the color came from the copper in the mountains.  It was picturesque and we had a picnic along the banks of the pools in a private little spot and enjoyed skipping stones and wandering around.

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On our way back to town we went to our first Lamasery, the Yufeng Temple, where Elena gave the kids a wonderful lesson in Buddhism.  I wish I had it video taped, as I think she wrapped a whole college course level into one lesson.  We explored the temple and the 600-year-old camillia tree that is a significant attraction there, but a kitten in the courtyard was the highlight here for Sidewalk and Mr.E.

Our final adventure for the day was apple picking.  Though intimidated by the very aggressive tied up dog on the property, we had a great time climbing into the trees and picking apples.  Lijiang has the tastiest apples I’ve ever had, so it really was fun to get them ourselves, and will be a family memory that our very first apple picking experience was in China.

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Dinner that night was our greatest challenge yet.  Elena had talked up a Muslim beef restaurant that sounded fantastic, but when we pulled up we were squeamish.  Hunks of meat hung from the ceiling and an entire wall was lined with drying cow intestines.  It was gross.  The place looked filthy, but we loved Elena so much we didn’t have the heart (or the guts) to decline, so we took a deep breath and sat down.  True to form, the dishes that appeared on the table minutes later were delicious and everyone but Sidewalk ate well.  You’d need Elena there to order for you and you have to be willing to suspend your idea of hygiene, but it’s worth it in the end.  The food is cheap and good, and I have to brag that no one on our trip got sick even once, while other HK families traveling in the same region but taken to more typical tourist restaurants all suffered intestinal blues.

Saturday we had to be up before sunrise in order to get on the road to Zhongdian.  If you look it up on a map it will probably say “Shangri-la” as this is the moniker the town has adopted for tourism purposes. Zhongdian is thought to possibly be that place, inspired by Joseph Rock’s National Geographic articles and popularized by a 1933 novel called Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

On the way up to 11,000 feet we had our first glimpse of the Yangtze River and then saw it’s power in the Tiger Leaping Gorge.  We climbed the 500 steps down to the viewing platform above the deep gorge and then back up again while a few Chinese tourists opted to be carried in chairs by two men.

As we drove along the windy road to Shangri-La the terrain got fiercer, drier and the architecture changed.  We were entering Tibetan territory.  The houses are enormous, made of mud and straw pounded into two-foot thick-sloped walls.  Traditionally the livestock live on the bottom floor and the families live above, but the Tibetans are generally a well-funded nation and those traditional houses are now outfitted with sun porches, glass roofs and parking lots.  I think the livestock – yak, cows, buffalo, goats, more and more, are being relegated to their own separate living quarters.

Arriving in Zhongdian is like arriving in a Colorado frontier town; a little rough around the edges, but with an appealing little downtown area.  We were hungry, so Elena took us to Red Heart Snacks, another one of her gems that you would never choose on your own, but is completely worth it.  The food here was different.  The Tibetan influence has added Yak butter tea, pizza crust-like bread and meat-stuffed buns.  Still, there were delicious fresh sautéed greens and eggplants with tomatoes and perfect potatoes.  They even had fire-roasted chili peppers, which made our travel companions very happy.  We walked around old town and bought a few souvenirs, wandering the cobblestone walkways adorned with Tibetan prayer flags and Internet cafes.  It was less charming than we anticipated, but still interesting.  A good collector could score some wonderful things here, but I am a terrible shopper, so came away with photographs and memories, and a few trinkets for other people.

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Just outside of town, perched on a hill is the very impressive Songzanlin Monastery, built to house two thousand monks.  Undergoing renovations at the moment, it is still a dramatic site to behold, modeled almost exactly on the Buddhist temple of the same yellow branch in Lhasa.  We climbed the stairs and entered the main hall.  Elena again explained the pictography and customs inside.  I chuckled to see a monk, seated cross-legged on a pillow counting the pile of money to his right as he talked on a cell phone and absent mindedly blessed tourists and handed them a wood prayer bracelet.  Is nothing pure anymore or was it ever?

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Still, it’s a lovely visual to see monks in burgundy robes walking around the grounds with their prayer beads.  The monks build their own houses on the grounds of the temple, and villagers come to assist with honor.  Across the pond below was a hillside that was pointed out to us, as it is the site for sky burials.  Now this sounds innocuous enough by the name, but in fact, in Tibetan culture a common way to dispose of the human body after death is to chop it into 108 pieces and then place them on the hillside for the vultures to consume.  We were also told that the same could be done and then placed in the stream to return most quickly to nature.  I must admit I made a mental note not to eat fish that night.

Our final wow moment came when we drove around behind the Lamasery to a place called the Songstam Retreat, which would be our accommodations for the night.  Set over 21 acres of land looking out on the monastery, this collection of 24 structures built of hand-cut dry stones and wood is spectacular.  One building houses a Tibetan restaurant and a lounge that felt like a ski lodge out West in the US.  We went for our welcome drink and met another family of dear friends from HK who were also there that night.  For dinner, we set the eight kids from our three families up in one room for their first Western meal of the trip while the six adults had a Tibetan meal in the adjoining room.

We were up again before sunrise, had a quick breakfast then headed to the airport, but not before we experienced a few snow flurries.  We flew back through Kunming and, though we had to kill four hours in the airport and suffer KFC for lunch, we survived and arrived home by dinnertime. The kids are off to school this morning and I can’t believe the trip has now come and gone.  In every way the trip was a grand success and I can not recommend it highly enough, particularly as the region is developing at a breakneck pace and will soon replace rugged charm with bland efficiency and some of the beauty may be lost.  Go right now!

And one final word; traveling with another family was a complete delight and has transformed my approach to family vacations.  Though their kids are not the exact ages of ours and they didn’t know each other well before the trip, the got along famously and reduced the amount of sibling fighting that would have gone on considerably.  Kids are happy when they have friends around, and so traveling with another family, particularly one as nice as theirs, was a complete delight for all of us.   I took 500 photos on the trip and wish I could attach them all as each one tells a part of the story.

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