South China Adventures
Dev Lewis Shanghai,China
China is the 3rd largest country in the world, and has neighbors on all sides of its borders, therefore bringing the country in contact with a variety of culture. In the south of China, particularly the province of Yunan, China shares a border with Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar. Tibet is in very close proximity, along to the west, and the north-east of India and Nepal is not too far either. Therefore it is no surprise that Yunnan has the second highest ethnic minority province in China, with over 56 ethnic minorities spread across the province. The most prominent is the Naxi community spread along the western parts of Yunan, while the Dai and Bai culture is spread across the Laos and Vietnam borders in the south of Yunan. Although now no longer an economic hub, historically, trade flourished in the region. During World War 2 a so called “Hump route” was established beginning in India, through (formerly) Burma, the city of Dali(大理) and ending in the capital of Yunan, Kunming(昆明）. Located in the tropics, much of Yunan is mountainous and is home to the jagged Gaoligong mountain range, tremendous mountains that are distance cousins of the mighty Himalayas. Yunan is blessed with a beautiful landscape and is home to the most bio-diversity per square meter in the world. I began my journey with two friends of mine in Kunming, following which I would travel to Lijiang, Dali and then cross provincial lines and head to Yangshou in Guangxi province (see my plotted journey).
First stop was Kūnmìng the capital, fondly regarded as the eternal spring city, it is situated almost 2,000 meters above the sea level. Unlike most of the cities I have visited in China, there is an abundance of greenery through out. I made a friend, Laura Zhang she called herself, from Suzhou, on my way to there; and on my first night there we did some late night Kunming exploring, getting lost is a great way to see the city. I made full use of my time, making sure I checked out the bar scene, before taking an overnight train to the town of Lijiang. Stepping off the train in the wee hours of the morning, I couldn’t help feel awestruck by the valley the town of Lijiang was situated in, in particular the snow capped dragon mountains home to the Tiger Gorge where I would be trekking two days later. The ancient town of Lijiang is a strikingly beautiful with cobbled stones and tiny rivers flowing through. It is very much of a tourist hot spot, and along with endless restaurants and cafes, the streets were adorned with shops selling the local garments, accessories including a lot of leather products. Lijiang is the base to start the Tiger Gorge trek. Through the day I met a lot of people who had recently been there, and so it built a lot expectation in my mind. However, the next morning by the time I was on the bus drive to the base of the trek I already realized that despite all the anticipation, I was already blown away by the beauty.
The walk through the gorge is inspiring. I was surrounded by the sun basked valley to my west and the snow peaks high to the east on the mountain range opposite me, kept apart only by the gorge created by the river that that snaked its path in between. The path through the tiger gorge is more of a meander cutting across the edge of mountains, gradually ascending to get closer and closer until you find yourself parallel with the snow tips across the gorge. Along the trek the typical features of mountain life consistency made itself known, from grazing mountain goats fulfilling their raison d’être, horse traffic up and down the mountain, and locals bravely trekking up the mountain with baskets of daily supplies strapped to their shoulders, putting us trekkers to shame. Along the way you will find “mountain ladies” as I called them, selling a variety of goodies that made all of us very happy. The mountain is home the Naxi population and they the trek is best done over two days, with a night spent at the half way house hostel in one of the Naxi villages, about a 7-hour trek from the base. Let me tell you now, I am not a skilled enough writer to do justice explaining how beautiful and peaceful the Tiger Leaping Gorge is- but I am compelled to try. The next morning I woke up awe struck to the staggering back drop of the rugged hue coloured stone mountains whose snow covered peaks seemed permanently shrouded in the mystery of clouds. They appear to stretch into infinity, and as they travel east they eventually become one with their Himalayan cousins. To be sitting cradled so close to them it was surreal yet, here I was. They were so large, they seemed faked, as though NatGeo themselves had dropped a giant billboard. Perhaps my picture posted can help you visualize the beauty. Aside from the location, the best part of staying in the Half Way house was the chance to meet other travelers and backpackers. At the half way house I met some Australians, Swedes, Brazilians and of course Chinese. We were all from different parts of the world, yet here we were one as travelers and as the sun went down we shared our stories and inspired each other. I ended up befriending a motley crew of travelers- 3 Chinese girls, 2 Swedish guys, a Thai and an Australian and we had a great couple of nights at the gorge drinking Baijiu to the backdrop of the Tiger Gorge. Despite originally only planning on one night in the gorge, my two friends Macky and Nat were equally in love with the gorge and made the easy decision to spend the second night at another hostel at the end of the trail.
Old Town, Lijiang View from the Half Way house at the Gorge
Trek up the Gorge
After two nights at the gorge, we made our way to Dali, taking a 3-hour bus first to Lijiang and then a 5-hour bus that would take us to Dali. Like Lijiang, Dali was situated at the bottom of the hills creating a very picturesque setting for the town, with a similar feel through the cobbled stone pathways and quaint cafés, bars and restaurants. However, after spending two days in the town, what set Dali apart from every place I had been to in China is the type of people I met and saw. In Dali I saw a type of Chinese I had never seen before- progressive, and creative. You could see this in the way they dressed and carried themselves. (It almost sounds silly to say, but) creative and different hairstyles: long hair, dreadlocks etc, they were musicians, artists or just travelers like myself. Nowhere in china, not even in Shanghai, had I seen Chinese like this. Proof to me that for the first time there are young Chinese who think and act different, very much not inline with the norms that most others follow in almost robot like fashion. Along with such Chinese were a fairly large about of foreigners of all ages, many journeying through China like myself, and many who came sometime ago, loved it, and decided to stay- opening up tiny bars or hostels and merely living. Dali had the best energy intellectually speaking, bringing a creative edge to the place that I really enjoyed. Besides the Gorge, which I liked for the natural beauty, I can see myself coming back to Dali and spend a significant amount of time here.
Thursday was a day of travel. In order to get to Yangshou we had to get From the Dali ancient town to the bus stop, and then take a 5-hour bus to Kunming for a 4pm flight to Guilin in Guangxi, from where we had to find our way to the town of Yangshou. Travelling the rural parts of China, you really cant plan too much. A lot of times getting to your destination involves asking around looking for a mysterious van that shows up offering you to go where you need to go. That’s how we found our way a lot of the way, and by this time I already had some confidence in the system. We were up by 6am and out of the door not to long after and managed get to the station in time to catch a 7:30am bus to Kunming. Exhausted from just 4 hours of sleep from the previous night I slept the entire 4-hour drive to Kunming. The ability to sleep anywhere and at anytime is an ideal travelers skill, one that I’m not shy to say I’m blessed with in abundance. Another side note, one strange thing about Chinese cities and towns is they all seem to have multitude of bus stations, which makes it rather confusing at times. I completely understand why a big city- like shanghai for example- would feel the need to. However, Lijiang had about 4, I was told Dali had a couple, and now in Kunming we landed at some random bus station. However you can always count on is having everybody within a 100 metres of the station offering to take you wherever you need to go. Anyway, we took off at around 4pm and landed in Guillen airport two hours later, from where we had to take an hour taxi to the city and then a 2 hour bus to Yangshou. It was only at around 8:30 at night that we finally got to our hostel in Yangshou- 14 hours since setting for Dali bus station.
The 特色(tise; specialty )of Yang Shou and the area around Guillen is the lime stone projections that are spread all over many as large as small hills, making the landscape very beautiful. Getting to Yangshou after dark, the place didn’t feel anything particularly special. It was only until my first morning when I walked up to the rooftop of my hostel to behold the beauty of Yangshou, with the famed lime stone projections that were covered in a thick green foliage and Li river flowing past the town, one of two rivers that flow in this area. It so happened that our hostel was on an incline, and with no man made structure reaching higher than us, we did infact have the best roof top view of Yang Shou. We made full use of this, drinking a lot of Tsingdaos on the rooftop on our last night.
The town of Yangshou is rather crowded and chaotic with tourists and people alike, and some parts of the town are rather dusty and far from spectacular. That’s why its best to rent a bike for the day and bike out of the town on the mud trails that take your through rice paddy fields and villages, and cross the river on bamboo rafts. I had an amazing, amazing meal at a tiny home run restaurant I found while biking- a spiced pork dish, a cooked egg dish with rice that grew just about 10 meters from my plate. While were on the subject of food, I should also say I found a great place to eat claypot( rice with a wide variety of meats and veggies of your choice cooked, ofcourse, in a claypot, delicious and under 15 kuay. Needless to say, Yangshou is a great place to hangout, and is known to have some of the best rock climbing in the world. My major regret was not getting a chance of trying my hand at some of the surfaces- I used to do a lot of rock climbing through school. Definitely a reason to come back- since Yangshou is also a hot spot for teaching English I might be back this summer.
So after 10 days of bag packing that saw me skirt the borders of Laos and Myanmar while seeing some of the most beautiful places in the world and China, I returned to Shanghai exhausted but refreshed. For me the Tiger Leaping Gorge was the highlight, for its stunning landscapes and my experiences there. Yunan is my favorite province in China- the fusion of cultures with the rest of South East Asia and the natural beauty sets it apart from all the other parts I’ve journeyed to in China. On a side note my phone was pick pocketed in Lijiang, so I lost some of the numbers of people that I met, so Laura Zhang on the off chance you’re reading this, that’s why I didn’t call you after Kunming- comment bellow or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m back in Shanghai for some time now, last few weeks of my semester at university and then work plans that should keep me in China until August, so its safe to say I will be back to Yunan, hopefully sooner rather than later. If you were looking for travel destinations for this summer, Yunan has more than my stamp of approval- let me know, because I might just join you.