I love having a ten-year multi-entry visa for China. I just get the ticket, jump on the plane, and can go for up to sixty days at a pop! My first real trip there several years ago was fantastic, and I knew right away that this is a new world for me to explore as I spend more and more time each year in my base in South-east Asia. I spent several weeks traveling with Chinese friends and on my own to Beijing, Luoyang, Xi’an and Shanghai. All incredible places steeped in history, culture and architectural splendor—not to mention fabulous food! (See past blogs.) Now, it was time to visit the south and see an area of this vast country that drew me to it long before I arrived.
About ten years ago, I traveled to Hanoi and made a side trip to Sapa, a mountain top town that seemed to float on the clouds, especially in the morning. We journeyed over-night from Hanoi on the old railway that the French built linking Kunming to Hanoi. In the late nineteenth century, it was easier and safer to travel by train to Hanoi from south China and then take a boat rather than traveling across China to destinations such as Shanghai. The Chinese section is in disuse these days, and a faster train line is now being built. Many Chinese laborers died building the old railway and the treacherous terrain tells you why. Conditions were so bad, that the laborers revolted against the French builders, only to be brutally suppressed by the Yunnanese army. Now that I was finally here on the Chinese side of the border, I was excited thinking about going down the Red River to Lao Chai next year and revisiting Sapa before going on to Hanoi. It has taken hold of me as a sort of completion of a journey—closing the loop!
I recalled many years ago reading about the heroism of the Flying Tigers and the Burma Hump to supply the desperate Chinese forces hold up in eastern Yunnan province around Kunming during the World War II struggle against the Japanese Empire. It always presented a romantic overlay to this province that really does not have to rely on that historic period to claim interest and adventure, even today. Western Yunnan butts up against Tibet and Myanmar in the west, and Laos and Vietnam to the south. The more I discovered about this province, the more I knew I must return someday. I am determined to follow the trail west to Dali, the Great Gorge and, yes, a place the Chinese call “Shangri-La.” Although it is not the mythical city of “Lost Horizon” fame, it might just as well be from all I’ve heard. The area itself inspired Hilton as a backdrop to the story. There is much offered here in this wonderful province. In a modern, cynical world where the mystical has been in slow retreat since King Arthur’s time, I have to embrace the “animist” spirit in me to wander the natural and man-made beauty of this fascinating province!
Yunnan is a province largely made up of mountains and valleys. I can’t understand sometimes why I am particularly drawn to this topography. Climbing, and you do a lot of that in eastern Asia, has never been “my thing,” but the rewards are worth the effort. Once out of Kunming that day, I really began to notice the temperature difference from Thailand! I wore my light sweater and packable jacket most of the time. It’s not easy going from average temperatures of 80-95 degrees to those of 40-45 in one day!
The flight from Bangkok took about three hours with a stop in Chieng Mai. When I arrived at Kunming Airport, I opted to take a taxi to the hotel. There is a train/subway that goes to the city, but I had no real idea where I should get off for the hotel, and it was already late afternoon! I stayed at the Kunming Hotel, located in the center of the city, but had little time to explore as it was near night, and I was leaving for the south early the next day. I had dinner in a small, local, family-run restaurant. They were very helpful ordering—stir fried vegetables with pork and rice skillfully produced in a flash!
As I planned my trip several months before, I had to make a decision on whether to do the more remote areas by private tour (car, driver and tour guide for five days, and not that expensive) or rough it by taking public transport. But this trip, time was a factor as well, so I chose the tour.
I woke up early and had a good breakfast at the hotel. As I went down to the lobby, I was greeted by the friendly face of “Cherry,” my guide and the driver, Haan. It wasn’t long before we were on our way toward our first destination, Shinlin, about two hours east of Kunming.
Shilin, a World Heritage Site, is a fascinating location. The area is really a large park filled with tall pillars of limestone called “karsts,” which give this region its fame. Only a small part of it is opened to the public. Although these great limestone structures would pale in comparison to the karsts near Guilin, it is a good place to get used to climbing and getting a taste of the wonders yet to come. I did enjoy the sculpted pools and the Yi people (indigenous to the area), and the interplay of the sunlight on the multi-toned limestone. I really enjoyed watching this older Yi woman taking lessons on an instrument resembling a mandolin. She tried to follow her patient instructor’s lead, but wasn’t able to duplicate the sound! One time the sound produced was so weird, I thought she had broken a string! With each error (and their were many), she would laugh and laugh in an infectious high pitch! We stayed overnight in Shilin near the park. At night there was a demonstration of Yi dancing and music in a small theatre in town. The dancing is acrobatic and fast-paced to keep up with the music as the dancers twirled and gyrated through the steps.
The next day, we headed to Yuanyang, which was our base for the next few days. On the way we visited a Zhuang community and a Dtai village. The Zhuang village was interesting in that it is a farming community and the people are in the process of rebuilding and “modernizing” their buildings and houses. I liked walking the narrow lanes and seeing the incorporation of the old wooden doors and jambs into the more modern houses. Most of the villagers involved in farming were out working, and we could see them laboring at their tasks in the terraced fields that surround the village. I loved it when a two-year-old boy ran up to me with outstretched arms calling me “Ya-ya,” a term for “grandfather,” that a child uses to address all elderly men of the village. He was so enthusiastic and we all had a great laugh. Love those unexpected little moments of travel!
I took particular interest in our next stop, the Dtai village, as they are loosely related to the Thai. I couldn’t understand when I heard the language, but the architecture was very familiar— the red, sloped, peak-roofed, elevated two-story houses like you see all over Thailand and Laos. The villagers make money from selling the fish they catch in the Red River that flows by and various fruit that are locally grown. Cherry told me that the Dtai are closely related to the northern Thais of Chieng Mai (Lanna culture). The languages of both areas are similar as well. I don’t speak any of the Lanna language of northern Thailand, but if I were a linguist I’d be all over that! The local market in the neighboring town was loaded with all kinds of fruit and vegetables as well as a number of ethnic minorities in an array of colorful dress.
Cherry and Haan were great companions and helped explain a lot of what I was seeing. I also love photography, so they were on the look-out for good scenic locales! They also knew when I just needed time to experience and drift on my own.
We stopped about mid-day to enjoy a great lunch of egg drop soup with tomatoes and a dish made from green bell peppers with the tastiest bacon I have ever eaten, and rice.
At this juncture in the route, the day began to fade and we began our climb into the mountains over narrow two-lane roads toward the town of old Yuanyang and the terraced rice fields that were one of the main reasons for visiting Yunnan!