THE Wall

Like Beijing and the Forbidden City, Paris and the Eiffel Tower, Egypt and the Pyramids, one can NOT go to China without visiting the Great Wall. It would simply be touristically, possibly even morally, wrong.

We waited patiently in Beijing for the weather and my cold to improve so that we could go to the Wall. In the end, neither the fog nor my congestion lifted, and we just had to go anyway. Happily, unlike the city, our experience of the Great Wall was only enhanced by the murky autumn weather.

Knowing just how famous the Wall is, how essential a tick it is on the China-tourist to-do-list, I had braced myself for pushy vendors, obnoxious crowds, and tour group leaders waving flags or umbrellas in the air. We did take the precaution of going to the Mutianyu section of the wall, rather than Badaling, which is THE most visited spot on the entire wall.

Mutianyu is still relatively close to Beijing and also relatively easy to get to. (We took a bus from Beijing, about an hour’s drive, and then hired a lovely female cab driver to take us to the wall and back from the bus terminal) It’s definitely set up to receive tourists; I understand that some sections of the Wall further out from Beijing are less restored and can actually get pretty desolate. I’m sure it must be beautiful but I was definitely not up for a whole day of vigorous hiking at that point. We’ll simply have to go back. 😉

As it was with me still being sick, we only did a half day visit. It was better than nothing and I’m so glad we did even that, because I absolutely loved the wall. The bad weather worked in our favor; although the entrance leading up to the wall sure felt touristy, with tons of souvenir stands selling all sorts of useless junk, all of this faded away quickly enough and the up on the Wall itself there were hardly any people.

On the way up to the wall – fog, fog and more fog

The fog that had felt so oppressive in the city only shrouded the Wall and surrounding hills in an atmosphere that was both peaceful and evocative. It was so quiet, and any scenery beyond nearby wooded hills was obscured by the mist. An occasional magpie would glide from tree to tree across the valley, but aside from that, all was still, and it was easy to forget time completely and imagine that we’d been transported back across the centuries to the time when the Wall was young and an active part of the areas defenses against Mongol armies. It’s easy to think a wall is a wall is a wall, but I was just blown away by the sheer size and history of the thing, and by all that it implied – the ingenuity and sacrifices required to create it, the realities of the world into which it was built, the number of centuries it has silently witnessed. It was – it is – simply incredible.

Our first glimpse of the Wall

There’s plenty of info out there about the Wall, but here are some fun facts you may not know about that I’ve purloined from the interwebs (source):

  • That the Great Wall is a single, continuous wall built all at once is a myth. In reality, the wall is a discontinuous network of wall segments built by various dynasties to protect China’s northern boundary.

 

  • During its construction, the Great Wall was called “the longest cemetery on earth” because so many people died building it. Reportedly, it cost the lives of more than one million people.
  • The Great Wall of China is also known as the wanli changcheng or Long Wall of 10,000 Li (a li is a measure of distance, approximately 1/3 of a mile). The main wall is around 2,145 miles (3,460 km) long with an extra 1,770 miles (2,860 km) of branches and spurs.

Inside one of the watch towers

 

  • The Great Wall of China is the longest man-made structure in the world.
  • The length of all Chinese defense walls built over the last 2,000 years is approximately 31,070 miles (50,000 km). Earth’s circumference is 24,854 miles (40,000 km).

 

  • Because the Great Wall was discontinuous, Mongol invaders led by Genghis Khan (“universal ruler”) had no problem going around the wall and they subsequently conquered most of northern China between A.D. 1211 and 1223. They ruled all of China until 1368 when the Ming defeated the Mongols.

 

  • Contrary to common belief, the Great Wall of China cannot be seen from the moon without aid. This pervasive myth seems to have started in 1893 in the American-published magazine The Century and then resurfaced in 1932 when Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe it Or Not claimed the Great Wall could be seen from the moon—even though space flight was decades away. It is questionable whether the Great Wall can be seen from a close orbit with the unaided eye.
  • It is common to hear that the mortar used to bind the stones was made from human bones or that men are buried within the Great Wall to make it stronger. However, the mortar was actually made from rice flour—and no bones, human or otherwise, have ever been found in any of the Great Wall’s walls.
  • During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-78), the Great Wall was seen as sign of despotism, and people were encouraged to take bricks from it to use in their farms or homes.

 

 

Beijing haze

That last post means that I’ve covered all of our stop in the amazing province of Yunnan. After we left Zhongdian (another spectacular bus ride with amazing mountain views!), we returned for a short stay at Bruce’s in Shuhe.

Before we knew it, it was time to head to the airport and catch our next flight, north and east to China’s capital city. As our plane ascended, we were able to look west and see the Himalayan mountains, snow-capped and brilliant in the afternoon sun. SUCH an amazing sight. And a quite a contrast to the place we’d be landing in later that night.

I need to be fair here. I think the odds may have been stacked against Beijing making the best impression on me. I know people who think it’s pretty darn cool and according to what I’ve read about it, there should be loads of interesting stuff to see and do. But it ended up being my least favorite part of our time in China.

So, like I said, to be fair, we didn’t see it at its – or my – best. We were there during some of the worst fog/smog the city that year. The first few days, we could hardly see across the street it was so thick. Our apartment felt like it was floating in a silent, surreal cloud. The weather was cold too, and that chill felt like it seeped into everything, while the fog leached color out of the world. It created an eerie effect for me; the city at times seemed too quiet, too subdued.

Also, I was miserable and sick with a really bad cold for a lot of the time. Even if the sights outside the apartment would have been more enticing, I don’t know how much energy I would have had for exploration.

Not that I didn’t get out. We rented a studio apartment via Airb’n’b in the city’s art district, and it wasn’t long before we had our regular spots in the neighborhood for groceries, coffee (yay, Costa!) and some reliable restaurants. It was a nice change to just live like a normal person instead of a tourist for a few days, to absorb every day happenings around the neighborhood.

Sick or no, there is no way you can go to Beijing and NOT visit the Forbidden City, so that was the one major tourist sight that I visited (Roman went to more while me and my cold flopped in the apartment). Of course we also visited The Great Wall, but I’ll save that for another post.

The Forbidden City

It’s impossible not to be impressed by the Forbidden City. Built in the 1400s, the compound served as the imperial palace to 24 different emperors. It is the largest “ancient palatial structure” in the world, composed of hundreds of buildings and courtyards covering over 170 acres. All of it is surrounded by two security measures – a broad moat and a thick, high wall that is over seven meters high. Every detail, from the placement of the buildings to the color of the roof tiles, was carefully planned and executed with both symbolic and practical consideration. Nearly all the roofs are yellow, the color of the emperor. Massive copper and iron vats line courtyards and in ancient times were filled with water, providing both decoration and a means to put out fires. Lots more information on the symbolism of the architecture and design here if you are interested.

We spent half a day wandering around the complex, leaving as the sun began to set. If I’d been feeling better, I think we could have easily spent even longer – there was so much to see and take in! 🙂 Here are just some glimpses of the place.

Tourists checking out one of those big copper vats


The sun setting over the exterior moat (you may have to search the haze a bit to find it!)

Mountain state of mind

It’s Tuesday morning here in Buenos Aires (post written this morning; posted this afternoon due to slow internet), another wonderfully sunny day, but the temperatures are definitely starting to head south this week, and we are getting a real sense of late fall/early winter weather in JUNE. I know this is normal in the southern hemisphere, but it’s still quite the novelty for me! 🙂

We’re also getting organized for some travel in Argentina. We’re still waiting for confirmation to come through and to sort out some of the details, but chances are that we’ll be experiencing a good deal MORE cold before our time here is through. We’re also going to be catching our first look at the Andes, which I’m really excited for.

All this has got me thinking back to the last place we traveled that had both cold weather and mountains. The coldest weather we’ve experienced so far during our trip has got to be during our road trip along the ah-maz-ing Karakorum Highway in Xinjiang, China.

Second coldest though would be in Zhongdian, the closest we got to Tibet, in the Yunnan province, and a place that was definitely worth braving the cold for. I’ve posted about Zhongdian already, but I haven’t shared photos from the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery or Baiji Si Temple yet.

Two Tibetan Buddhist sites, both totally awesome in two very different ways.

The Ganden Sumtseling Monastery is one of the major tourist draws for the area. Over three hundred years old, it’s the biggest monastery in Yunnan and is home to around 600 monks. It used to be able to accommodate well over double that number, but was badly damaged during the cultural revolution and a lot of what stands there currently has been rebuilt in the past decades.

It has the feel of a walled medieval city (if it was completely Tibetan that is). You pass through stolid walls to enter the residential part of the compound. Small but beautiful houses are interspersed with lesser temples, all of them moving up a hill to the culminating, massive main temples up the hill, which loom majestically overhead. It really feels like something out of a fairytale.

Not the best panorama photo, but click to see what I mean:

The place definitely has some touches of Chinese tourism, like a shop in the middle of the Monastery selling loads of prayer beads and tonkas, but also sun glasses, keychains and other pretty secular stuff, right next to the sausage stand…

A monk serves Chinese tourists in the shop

But we found it quite easy to avoid the most popular/touristy spots and were able to explore and enjoy the dimly lit, mysterious temples, crumbling alleyways, amazing architecture and beautiful views pretty much on our own.

Here are some photos from around the monastery. Photography was not allowed inside any of the temple, so that’s why there are no interior pictures.

Baiji Si Temple was a completely different experience. A small temple set on a hill within the city of Zhongdian (the Monastery is outside the city), we hiked up to it on our last morning in town.

A steep but short hike up to Baiji Si

It was a sunny autumn day. The hill and temple were completely deserted (not even a chicken in sight – Baiji, for the record, means 100 chickens :-)), but alive nonetheless with the flutter of brightly colored leaves and thousands upon thousands of Tibetan prayer flags that were strung on lines all over the place. The atmosphere was peaceful, the sun was warm on my face, the light and colors magical, the views over the city and landscape awesome.

I didn’t want to leave, but we had a bus to catch…

These amazing flowers really were this blue! I wish I knew what they’re called.

A taste of Tibet: Zhongdian

Transitioning toward Tibet

After completing the two-day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, I was looking forward to a few hours of travel under someone’s steam other than my own two legs. We said goodbye to our new friends Gerard and Kiki and boarded a tourist-filled van which ended up being perfect for sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the scenery rolling along outside the window.

Farmlands, woodlands punctuated by the occasional burst of yellow and orange hued trees elegantly displaying their autumnal finery, and rushing, jade-colored rivers, all under the cover of a sky heavy with clouds, filled my gaze.

The road made a slow but definitive ascent and without noticing exactly how, I suddenly realized we were in mountain country. The architecture began to change as we got closer to our destination.

A view of a Tibetan style house from the bus (actually on the way back to Shuhe; a sunnier day)

Chinese-style farm houses were replaced by buildings much larger, more solid, more whimsical. Massive beams of wood framed walls of solid, white-painted rock that were wider at the base than the roof, giving these Tibetan homes the look of something plopped down on the Earth from above by something or someone inhabiting the sky with a poor sense of the size of humans. Small windows peered out from these thick walls; Buddhist motives were painted along wall edges and onto doors in cheerful primary colors; the wooden tiles of the roofs were held down by sticks and rocks. The effect was of something both roughly hewn and yet entirely solid and comforting, something fanciful and wonderful and yet perfectly, practically mundane. They were the sort of homes that made me wonder about the feel, the smell, the arrangements inside; the sort of homes I would be intrigued and delighted to try living in for a while.

Roof detail

The van pulled into Zhongdian just as dusk was arriving. The approaching night was already adding a chill to the air, and Roman and I walked briskly through the darkening streets to find a place to stay. We were lucky to get the last room available at N’s Kitchen after only a short search. The room felt like the inside of a fridge but the bed was set up with electric blankets – a welcome sight. We got ourselves settled in and headed out into the night to find food and get a first glimpse of this city that would be the closest we would physically and culturally get to Tibet during our big trip.

The touch of tourism in China

I don’t have the in depth knowledge or authority to write about China’s relationship with Tibet/Tibetans. I presume with my head that it is probably more complicated than I know and can comprehend without a whole lot of research. I know with my heart that there is a lot of tragedy and needless loss and that, like with the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the assumption of land and resources and degradation of culture and history are appalling. I wonder very much what it’s like in Tibet and I hope to see for myself some day.

In Zhongdian, the atmosphere was totally fine and relaxed to my perception; but while Tibetan culture and arts were on proud (and totally purchasable) display for all the tourists to see, there was not a single image or mention of the Dalai Lama ANYWHERE to be seen, unlike in Mcleod Ganj, the home of the Tibetan government in exile in India, which after having spent a couple of weeks there earlier in our trip, was a striking absence to my eyes.

Zhongdian’s old town definitely caters to tourists. From Lonely Planet:

A mere decade ago, Zhongdian was just a one-yak town. Pigs nibbled on garbage-strewn street corners; there was but one place to stay and pretty much nowhere to eat. Then, watching Lijiang and Dali zoom into the tourism stratosphere, local and provincial officials declared the town/county the location of British writer James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-la, described in his novel The Lost Horizon. The result was a big jump in visitors, and the numbers are increasing all the time, as well as a building boom that continues to this day.

Ready for an authentic tourist experience?

During our months in China, we did notice that the Chinese do have a knack for taking anything remotely cultural, interesting, historic or beautiful and turning it into a pre-packaged and terribly efficient tourist “experience” ready made for flag following, photo snapping, souvenir purchasing tour groups who want to pack in as many prescribed sights into their (presumably) short holidays as possible. After Lonely Planet’s description, we were wondering if we were heading to another Lijiang, but we ended up enjoying Zhongdian a great deal more.

Curious to know just what these guys have got to do with traditional Tibetan culture...

We visited in October, just before the big cold settles in for the winter and snow storms begin to disrupt transportation in the area. Perhaps this was a factor but we found the town refreshingly less crowded than Lijiang. The tourist center of the old town had plenty of sibling shops, selling many of the same useless trinkets as in Lijiang, but the profusion was less pervasive and less cloying. A few twists and turns away from the tourist center, and the Disney-land atmosphere already began to fade, giving way to the provincial beauty and flavor of the place.

Not the best shot but a nice moment with a woman emerging from a beautifully painted door

A grandmother in traditional dress playing ball with the kids

Not quite 48 hours in Zhongdian

Given that we had such a limited visit to the place, I’m so pleased that in my memory, our couple of days there stand out as a significant experience, feeling emotionally much more like a week’s worth of time.

A good portion of our hours there went to aimless pursuits such as warming up and relaxing in cozy restaurants, cafes and bars with delightfully good food, coffee and beer or wandering around the atmospheric alleyways. But we also made it to Ganden Sumtseling Gompa and Baiji Si (100 Chickens Temple) – I’ll do a separate post on those two magical places.

Food and drink highlights included indulging in some really good western fare at Compass, actually enjoying yak that had been well-marinated and garnished by a very liberal hand at Arro Khampa, discovering the most delicious, tender momos I’ve ever had at the Rebgong Tibetan Art Studio & Restaurant, and spending one delightfully cozy cold evening in the dimly lit, wonderfully toasty Heat Nest Bar where Roman had beer while I enjoyed hot ginger Coke (this is apparently a Yunnan specialty – they boil Coca Cola with fresh ginger and serve it hot as a tea. Incredibly warming and much tastier than you might imagine!) and we alternately watched some live football (soccer) or the family of super-cute huskies napping contentedly together on a couch in the corner.

The first tasty yak I've ever encountered

Divine veggie momos

At Heat Nest

Journey through the clouds: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Pressing on with my China catch up, I’ll return to where I left off in Yunnan. We’d just spent the day in Lijiang and were set for the early morning wake up in order to catch a van to the start of the hiking trail that would take us through mythical Tiger Leaping Gorge. A sleepy but bumpy ride through lovely rural countryside got us to our destination, where Roman and I grabbed a quick breakfast at Jane’s Guesthouse (not very tasty but the calories would come in handy).

The hike was well plugged in Lonely Planet and we found loads of enthusiasts on the internet as well. From Lonely Planet:

One of the deepest gorges in the world, it measures 16km long and is a giddy 3900m from the waters of the Jinsha River… to the snowcapped mountains of Haba Shan… and, despite the odd danger, it’s gorgeous almost every single step of the way.

What we also found were quite a lot of varying opinions as regarded the hike’s difficulty. We wanted to be sensible – LP warned that “The gorge trek is not to be taken lightly. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a workout. The path constricts and crumbles; it certainly can wreck the knees.”

Some bloggers described it as life changing and one of the toughest things they did; others described it as a breeze. It was hard to know who to believe, but in the end we decided not too worry to much and just go and see for ourselves. After completing the hike, I decided to add my own opinion to the online info out there, so if you’re considering doing it yourself, maybe this post will be helpful.

Just to recap though, at the end of the day, while it was pretty steep in places, and slippery since we had bad weather, it was not nearly as daunting as we had thought it might be based on what we read.

It probably would have been even easier if the weather had been better – although I am sure it would have been considerably hotter and sweatier then too. As it was, we had clouds, mist and intermittent rain going on for most of the hike. This made for a cooler (albeit wetter and muddier) journey and often times created a wonderfully mystical atmosphere as wisps of clouds curled around us – but we did miss out on a lot of views that I’m sure would have been spectacular.

The view from towards the start of our hike, with clouds moving in

Even without the views though, the hike was wonderful and I’d recommend it even in cloudy weather. The landscape was an interesting mix – craggy, rocky mountain peaks, lovely peaceful farmlands, quiet woods, bamboo groves. There were a few sections of the path where we were too busy dealing with going up (we are out of shape!) or avoiding the thousands of pellets of goat poop or horse droppings to really appreciate the scenery, but aside from that, pretty much every step offered us another beautiful view.

Cute poopers!

When the clouds cleared enough to let us see through to the bottom of the gorge, we were rewarded with glimpses of the river; mind-blowingly far below and even from our height, the power and force of the water were evident.

The river at the bottom of the gorge. Check out how small the cars and buses look!

I also loved all the mountain flora. I did a whole post on that a while back – you can find that here; please take a look if you’re any good with identifying flowers cause I’d love to know the names of some of the things we saw! 🙂

We enjoyed our overnight in the Tea Horse Guesthouse. We met a lovely French couple, Gerard and Kiki, who alternately passed us or were pass by us all along the trail. Our paths crossed once again at the Guesthouse and we had a lovely evening warming ourselves by the fire (it was a COLD night) in the outdoor dining area, sharing yummy food and conversation.

An early morning start on the second day rewarded me with a first glimpse of blue sky and snow-capped mountains. Both were soon obscured by clouds shortly after this picture. 🙂

Our second day on the trail was just as overcast, but happily less rainy, and we had an easy hike to the end of the trail. The sun finally began to peak through the clouds as we reached our destination, and we enjoyed the sunlit views as we had a bite to eat with Gerard and Kiki – who we found again at Tina’s Guesthouse, and wandered around a nearby waterfall, passing the time until we could catch the bus to Zhongdian.

To give you a sense of the scale of the mountains, there's a man walking along the path in the foreground. Can you spot him?

I loved the small mountain farming villages - so pretty!

Harvested corn and pumpkins in a farmhouse

Dried peppers hang in a guesthouse balcony

Photo impressions from Shuhe

I’m jumping around chronologically in this post. We didn’t explore Shuhe until after we’d returned from Zhongdian, but for geographical reasons – namely that it was right next door – I’m putting this post right after Lijiang.

As I mentioned, while Shuhe definitely pulls its share of tourists, it felt slightly less tarted up to me than Lijiang and I definitely preferred it of the two destinations. We didn’t have a ton of time there – just the afternoon and evening after we got back from Zhongdian, but the combination of the more rural feel, beautiful architecture, babbling waterways and narrow streets lit by red lanterns in the dusk ended up charming me.

Here’s a collection of visual impressions, starting during the walk from our hotel to Shuhe’s old town.

These cats are on many of the buildings in the area; apparently according to some info I read in town they are auspicious “tiger cat watts” and are traditional Naxi ornaments have something to do with “wealth, pray for the family business thriving” and are a “lucky mascot”. If that doesn’t make much sense then blame the translation, not me. 🙂

I wonder what game this is; it was on a table outside a simple shop outside of town.

Beautiful houses

Ah, to be a cat!

Flowers in light

An example of a traditional Naxi well, with another well-translated explanation: “Enjoy comfortably is convenient near the water live; To the cities time, has created “three wells” culture: Divides into three ponds well water a water seepage, first makes the tap water; The second does washes the vegetable water, And the third does washes the water, water three uses, did not struggle does not snatch, has manifested the Naxi nationality awe nature, treasured environment the fine tradition.” Or, as Lonely Planet puts it “Where there are three pools, these were designated into pools for drinking, washing clothes and washing vegetables.” Slightly more succinct.

Narrow lanes

Some of the streets had canals between the road and the building entrances. Here a dog contemplates whether to cross the bridge or not.

The lanterns started to light up as dusk approached.

Clearly Shuhe is not entirely a tourist town if they’re giving visitors this advice! 😉

Looks like a heavy load!

 

Yunnan tour: first stop, Lijiang

Ok, back to China! As I mentioned, our first stop in Yunnan province was Lijiang/Shuhe.

Accommodation notes

After swinging by the tourist office in Guilin to (thankfully!) pick up our passports with their extended visas, we flew in to Lijiang’s airport and arrived late at night in Shuhe.

We knew to expect a colder climate in northern Yunnan. We’d read in the guidebook how many hotels in that part of the province provide electric blankets since they typically don’t have heat. I was super excited to crank ours up and get cozy in bed shortly after we arrived at The Bruce Chalet in Shuhe – it was definitely a necessary luxury as far as I was concerned! 🙂

We’d read good reviews about Bruce’s online and we were happy with it. The rooms were small but cute and cozy, the bed was great – one of the nicest and most comfortable ones we found in China (land of notoriously hard beds) – and Bruce, the owner, was helpful in coordinating transport and providing information for our hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Lijiang’s old town: pretty plastic and glimpses of Naxi traditions

Because of our limited time, we spent our first full day checking out Lijiang, leaving exploration of Shuhe for when we returned from our little trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Zhongdian. Bruce arranged transport for us to get in to Lijiang – by taxi the ride wasn’t too long and was cheap enough.

Lijiang is a convenient gateway for mountains of Northwest Yunnan. The old town is meant to be very picturesque and I was imagining a gnarly, well-worn, overgrown mountain town – maybe like a Chinese version of a somewhat developed Mcleod Ganj or something.

The old section of town was awarded status as a UN World Heritage Site in 1999, and it seems like the locals, or some board of tourism somewhere in China anyhow, decided to capitalize on this fact.

While the buildings, canals and alleyways of the old town today ARE beautiful, there’s little real life happening outside of the tourist trade (of which there is PLENTY – literally every building is either a hotel, a restaurant catering for tourists or a shop targeting tourists with “local” mass produced goods and plenty of generic and often pointless China-themed souvenirs) and the whole scene feels pretty sterile and Disney-fied.

Plus, while you can maybe see the start of mountains from certain vantage points, the town itself is pretty flat. Mcleod Ganj it certainly is not!

Here’s a snapshot of one of the squares in the center of the old town. Yes it’s busy, but all those people are Chinese tourists, most of them parts of lumbering tour groups, rather than locals. Please note that this is MUCH less crowded than the main square, which seemed to be THE favorite congregation and coordination point for all those tour groups…

If you can handle the crowds, Lijiang does have certain charms, but I’m glad we erred on the side of caution and stayed outside of the city in a smaller, less developed town not too far away. Not that Shuhe hasn’t been affected by tourism too, but it didn’t feel quite so plastic as Lijiang’s old town.

Lijiang has traditionally been home to the ethnic group the Naxis, who were traditionally a matriarchal society and who developed a beautiful pictographic script which is apparently the only hieroglyphic language still being used today. For all my feminist linguists out there, according to Lonely Planet:

There are strong matriarchal influences in the Naxi language. Nouns enlarge their meaning when the word for ‘female’ is added; conversely, the addition of the word for ‘male’ will decrease the meaning. For example, ‘stone’ plus ‘female’ conveys the idea of a boulder; ‘stone’ plus ‘male’ conveys the idea of a pebble.

Which of course I think is awesome. 🙂

This writing was on a wall outside the more touristy section of the old town. The text on the left is Chinese, but the larger characters on the right are Naxi pictographs. No idea what it all says…

The Naxis, as many of the ethnic minorities in China, have a beautiful and distinctive traditional way of dressing. We saw some people wearing traditional outfits while we were in Yunnan; in Lijiang’s Old Town the women in traditional garb were inevitably in the tourist business but outside of the Old Town it was great seeing folks in this traditional clothing just doing normal, every-day stuff. (Some content and pictures about minority garb from my favorite Chinese fashion blog here, here and here)

Water is an important part of traditional life in and around Lijiang. The Old Town is laced with beautiful little canals that were – and sometimes, although less frequently, still are – used by locals in daily life for things like washing clothing.

Of course tourist towns do offer some advantages; we were happy to find the Well Bistro in the thick of the old town’s winding streets whose friendly staff served up Lavazza coffee – give me a decent latte and I am a happy girl! 😉

On the flip side, there were some other for-tourist-delicacies that I found somewhat less appealing. Apparently yak is a thing in Yunnan. There was loads of different kinds of yak meats for sale all over town. Here are some cured yak ribs:

And I’m not sure if I really want to know what part of a yak these things are:

On that appetizing note, I think I’ll finish up on Lijiang for the night. Back in the present/Australia, we had a beautiful day here on the Great Ocean Road but now night’s turned really cold and it’s time for me to try and warm up in our camper bed. 🙂 Goodnight folks!

Getting back to China: an intro to Yunnan

It’s our last night in Melbourne. Tomorrow we start a new chapter in Australia as we get away from city life and start exploring a bit of the great outdoors in a camper van! I’ve never traveled by RV before and I’m ridiculously excited about it. I have had romantic notions about gypsy life since I was a girl, and this is probably as close as I’ll ever come to living out of the brightly painted, horse-drawn caravan.

Before we switch travel gears though, I want to get back on track with this blog and pick up where I left off ages ago with China.

Last China post, we were experiencing golden fall afternoons in the mountain village of Dazhai. The fact that the weather here in Melbourne has turned down right cold the past couple of days is making the little bit of Spring we experienced in the States, not to mention those lovely Autumn days in China, feel even further away than normal.

Our next stop in China, after Dazhai, was the Yunnan Province. Wikitravel has a blurb that does an so-so job summarizing a province that is as multi-faceted as it is beautiful (in my humble opinion anyhow :-)):

Its name literally means south of the clouds. The province is one of the most diverse in China… The province is famed for its multitude of ethnic groups, whose diverse customs can still be seen today. Of China’s fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities, twenty-five can be found in Yunnan: about one-third of the population is not ethnic Han-Chinese.

Certainly one of my favorite aspects of all of China and definitely Yunnan IS the diversity of its people. Yunnan has that and more going for it. Its landscapes and climates are multifarious and gorgeous (pun intended…).

The dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lonely Planet give this overview:

Then there’s the hugely varied splendor of the land… In one week you can sweat in the tropics and freeze in the Himalayas, and in between check out ancient towns… However long you’ve given yourself in Yunnan, double it.

Unfortunately, due to our visa situation and how much we wanted to see, we really had to be thrifty with our days in China.

Lantern-lit village pathways at Shuhe

In the West and South, Yunnan is bordered by Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. It even is dissected by the Mekong River, which we got plenty familiar with in Laos. Since we’d spent loads of time in those three countries, we didn’t feel too bad skipping tropical Yunnan and heading instead into its mountains.

Tibetan prayer flags and a stupa lit up at night in Zhongdian

We only had one week in this amazing place, but we managed to pack in a lot. Here’s our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive late at night in Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 2: One full day in Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 3: Early morning van to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Day one of hiking and an overnight in the mountains
Day 4: Second half of the gorge hike and another van ride to Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-la
Day 5: One full day in Zhongdian
Day 6: A morning in Zhongdian, a long bus ride back to Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 7: A morning’s recovery and then an afternoon/evening checking out Shuhe
Day 8: One final breakfast in Shuhe and then it was already time to fly on to Beijing

Details of these days to come in future posts. Watch this space! 🙂

Dazhai & Dragon’s Backbone travel notes

We only spent three nights in the small corner of China that is Dazhai and I’ve already done more than that number of posts on the place. Clearly it’s got a special place in my heart – but it’s definitely time to move on!

Before we arrive at our next stop (a new province, no less!) here are just a couple of notes for anyone who might want to visit the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces.

Accommodation notes

Staying at the lovely Wisdom Inn was one of the factors that made Dazhai so magical for me and this hotel has joined the ranks of my short list of most-favorite-places we stayed during our entire trip so far.

The place is run by Sandy and her mother, both of whom are soft-spoken, gracious and welcoming. The inn is simple, with a big open room downstairs where you can eat a meal or have a cup of coffee or join Sandy’s mom playing video games. 🙂

Rustic charm

Upstairs are the bedrooms – simple and rustic but pristine and covering all the basics you could need. The beds with their fluffy duvets were the most comfortable I experienced in China (which is known for its rock-hard mattresses). The water in the newly-furnished bathroom was wonderfully piping hot – a very nice thing during those crisp autumn mornings and nights.

Simple but pristine bathrooms

 

 

I’ve shared a few more details about the place in an earlier post. Suffice to say, while it’s not the fanciest place we’ve stayed, there is something about it – some magic combination of the setting, the peace, the simplicity and the thoughtfulness of Sandy – that made me feel instantly and completely at home there.

One other plus – the Inn is just a short walk from the village gate, which is where all cars have to stop. So if you’re arriving with heavy bags, you won’t have to lug them all that far. 😉

Hiking in and around Dazhai

The hiking in this area is very accessible. For sure you need to have a bit of a sense of direction and at least a mild degree of fitness, but there are plenty of shorter trails that you can enjoy at a leisurely pace. An hour’s hike or a day’s are equally possible and enjoyable here.

The trails are quite well signposted, and some stops along the way even have handy maps and placards explaining local myths. I couldn’t find print versions of maps anywhere, but this photo is high resolution so you can click if you want to study the paths a bit more close-up. Don’t ask me what’s at the Mercedes symbol; we didn’t make it that far. 😉

We loved seeing the rice paddies in the fall, but there should be interesting and beautiful things to see no matter what time of the year it is. Although if you are planning to visit in the winter, do plan ahead a bit as that’s the low season and not all hotels will be open, etc.