Yunnan Province (pop 46 million)
Yunnan is in the far SW of China bordering on Myanmar, Thailand. Laos (at the Golden Triangle) and NW Vietnam.
With the highest diversity of any province in China, both in people and landscapes, it has become a destination for foreigners and the domestic tourist industry. More than half of the country’s ethnic minority groups reside here. The land varies from dense jungle sliced by the Mekong River in the south, rice terraces in the southeast and snow-capped mountains as you edge towards Tibet.
The main attractions are Tiger Leaping Gorge in the far west near Lijiang and Dali, a backpacker haven.
Transportation links are good so getting around is a breeze. To escape China’s winter chill, head to Kunming, the city of eternal spring.
History. Because of its remote location, harsh terrain and diverse ethnic makeup, Yunnan was once considered a backward place.
The early Han had tentative power forging southern Silk Road trade routes to Burma. From the 7th to the mid-13th centuries, two independent kingdoms, the Nanzhao and Dali, ruled and dominated the trade routes from China to India and Burma. It wasn’t until the Mongols swept through the southwest that Yunnan was finally integrated into the Chinese empire. Still isolated, it remained an isolated frontier region, more closely aligned with Southeast Asia than China.
Today, Yunnan is a strategic jumping point to China’s neighbors and has modernized.
Climate. With its enormous range – 76.4m above sea level near Vietnam to 6740m in the Tibetan plateau (average 2000m), Yunnan has a diverse climate. In the northwest around Shangri-la, winters reach -12°C, but in Xishsuangbanna, you can wear short sleeves in January. Dali has an ideal year-around climate with temperatures never dipping below 4°C in winter or above 25°C in summer. Kunming likewise is pleasant year around.
Language. In addition to Mandarin, languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman family or the Sino-Tibetan family.
More observations on China.
I never get tired of trying to figure out how and why people behave and think the way they do. This all stems from the five times I worked in the Canadian Arctic – the Inuit’s behavior (over almost everything) baffled me and it took a long time to unravel some of the puzzles. It was amazing. Traveling in India sparked the same interest. It makes travel so much more interesting.
Read the post I did on spitting behavior. After minimal research, I think I have a pretty good idea what is going on. To paraphrase: they think swallowing spit is gross and view spitting as an involuntary, necessary behavior (akin to vomiting) and that is reflected in the language which differentiates spitting and vomiting (the same word) from spitting at someone to insult them, a voluntary action (and a different word). It is thus ingrained in their culture and accepted as normal, ordinary behavior. Go figure! It may have something to do with all the pollution and a means to clear their lungs, but I don’t think so.
Their disrespect of other’s personal space is also interesting. Chinese don’t walk in exactly straight lines and instead meander slightly. They walk in pairs, threesomes, foursomes abreast on sidewalks. They often walk slowly as if in no hurry. They walk in front of you cutting you off. They don’t wait until the people exiting the subway or bus are all off before trying to get on. They stand anywhere, not off to the side. They never line up on one side of an escalator allowing the climbers to move beside them. They don’t walk on the right side on a sidewalk so that everybody can move more easily. They never hold the door open for others. Some will give up seats to old people, women with babies, or pregnant women, but it is by no means common. Then the recipient rarely acknowledge your graces. No please and thank-you here. They constantly step on the back of your shoes. I didn’t think flip-flops put my feet in danger until China. Toes are stepped on regularly. Maybe it is because there are so many people, one becomes immune to others, but I don’t think so. It must be some cultural thing that I am unable to explain.
In that vein of respecting other’s space, something that I find more irritating than anything is that Chinese don’t close their mouth when chewing and make as much noise as possible. Sitting next to me in this MacDonalds having a coffee in Kunming airport are a 20-something attractive woman, a mid-60s year old businessman in a suit and 15 feet away another young woman. I can hear them all eat easily. Men in general are much louder. This behavior is not isolated to China and seems universal throughout SE Asia. I talk to the businessman – and he is from Thailand and when I ask him his age, he is 54, a French teacher at the University of Chang Mai!
I don’t understand how Chinese can tolerate the perpetually oppressive, grey skies. These are not clouds – you never see those either. I can only remember seeing blue sky three times in a month – one day in Beijing, on the way to Datong and one day on the Yangzi. Even the west coast of British Columbia in its rainy winter has days like this when it is raining heavily. Otherwise we see clouds and/or blue sky. I wonder what the incidence of SAD – seasonal affective disorder – is in China? The only reasonable explanation is smog and pollution. They naively call is fog. It can’t be good for health – I wonder what the incidence of respiratory disorders are in China.
China is surprising easy to travel in. C-trip makes booking flights, trains and hotels easy. Hostel world and C-trip work great for hostels and hotels respectly. But often there is no need to book in this the off-season. My Lonely Planet is my constant companion. Place names have mandarin translations. Announcements and signs in airports and trains are usually in English. When you look lost, somebody comes to help. My small English/Mandarin phrase book is handy – all you really need is ‘take the bus/taxi’, ‘train station, bus station, airport’, and some foods so that you can order in a restaurant. Xie Xie helps. A smile goes a long ways – and usually gets one back. Transportation, accommodation and food is all cheap.
Getting wi-fi without a mobile phone is impossible in airports and Starbucks as the password is sent over the phone.
The taxi to Sanxia Airport in Yichang takes over an hour and cost 100¥. I wanted to take a taxi to a bus for the airport but some things become too complex to save 60¥. I have 3 flights from Yichang. There was a 20-minute stop in Chongqing (oddly had to deplane and board again). In the airport, a small espresso coffee was over $9, a juice over $6. Around the corner I bought a large Pepsi for 60¢, less than half the cost back home. When I transferred in Guanzou, China on my way to Bangkok last year, a milkshake, only milk with some chocolate, cost $11. The message is watch prices in Chinese airports. I got my luggage in Kunming, went 50m and checked my pack to Lijiang in 1 minute. They really have things figured out. After an airport shuttle to Lijiang, I arrived in Lijiang in the evening and caught a taxi to my hostel.
Lijiang (pop old town 40,000) is a maze of cobble streets, rickety looking wooden buildings and canals, and attracts 5 million tourists a year. Get up early to avoid the crowds or cycle to nearby villages. The city got Unesco World Heritage status in 1997 but that applies to the old town, a jumble of twisting lanes. When you get lost, head upstream to make your way back to the main square.
On the flight, there were clouds above the smog and eventually they cleared for dramatic views of the mountains and a river before reaching Lijiang. I caught the airport bus (20¥) and then a taxi to my hostel – October Inn. Waiting there was my debit card that had been forwarded from my hostel in Beijing. I love the security of having 2 of each.
In the hostel were 3 Australian girls excited about the Trans-Siberian Railway and seeing Mongolia and Russia in the winter. They have no idea what -35 is. Because she had endured +45 in Australia, she thought this would be no problem. They don’t realize that you don’t go outside in temperatures like that even if you have the proper clothes. And I doubt they have clothes that will deal with -10. There is very little romantic about the whole idea. It is called the Vodka Tour for a reason.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
I caught the 07:45 bus from below my hostel. It was 2½ hrs to Qiaotou, I bought the trail pass (65¥) and the bus dropped me off at the bottom of the road where we started hiking. I will give detailed instructions for the trail: Head up the dirt road and after 5 minutes, angle left up the narrow paved road (unsigned) which soon rejoins the gravel road. After about 2.5kms, just past a lone guesthouse, the trail (unsigned again) starts up to the left. It climbs steeply up to a small overlook, and goes down to the main trail protected by a big fence. The trail then contours around the mountain with the main river below you. After 1¾ hrs, I reached a small village and Naxi’s GH. Continue, crossing two small roads, and start the climb that eventually gets to the bottom of Naxi’s 28 switchbacks. I was 3 hours, not counting breaks, to the top of the switchbacks. The drop is precipitous and the river can’t be seen from here.
The special thing about Tiger Leaping Gorge is not the trail or the Jinsha River, but the stupendous Haba Shan mountains across the valley. Jagged limestone cliffs, a few small glaciers and incised by water courses producing sharp ridges, they are stunning, especially later in the day when side-lit. This is claimed to be one of the deepest canyons in the world measuring 3900m from the top of the mountains to the river. I have been to many other canyons making this claim: Copper Canyon in Northern Mexico, Colca Canyon in Peru, and the canyon on the east side of the Annapurnas in the Himalaya of Nepal – they all make the same claim but are all measured from the top of the surrounding mountains. None though compares with the Grand Canyon, a full mile down from the rim. That is what makes it so special – the distance straight down from the rim.
From the high point, descend and then contour to reach a ‘guest house village’ after 1 hour. Then walk on a road to again access the trail passing farmhouses (they grow corn here), a forest of ponderosa pine, rhododendron and cactus and great views down to the river. It is another hour to another ‘guesthouse village’ and Halfway Hostel. I was a little over 6 hours with breaks to here and was pretty knackered. The hostel is in a spectacular setting with views across to the best of the mountains. I got a dorm room for 40¥. They also have great food. I would strongly recommend staying a night here rather than continuing down the 1½ hrs to Tina’s Guest House near the river. Unless you are a fast walker and take few breaks, it would almost be dark by the time you reach Tina’s. Save that last bit for the next morning. I brought a day pack with some warm clothes and a tooth-brush, so had little to carry.
From Tina’s, it is possible to walk 2 hours to the village of Daju, or take a bus 3 hours to Shangri-la. With a magical name, it isn’t that magical. At 3200m, this Tibetan city is a typically ugly, medium-sized place with an ‘old town’ that sounds better. T virtually shuts down after October. However it can be the start of the rough 5-6 day journey through the Tibetan towns of Western Sichuan to Chengdu.
From Tina’s, it is a 40 minute walk down to the middle rapids and Tiger Leaping Stone (where a tiger is once said to have leapt across the river). A trail from here goes one hour to Walnut Garden. I didn’t bother with either of these and instead caught a mini-van (the regular bus doesn’t leave till 15:30) back to Qiaotou and a bus back to Lijiang. After arriving in Lijiang, I didn’t have a clue where I was, but after working my way through Old Town to the north side, I was able to find the stairs leading up to October Inn.
In my last evening in Lijiang, I went to a concert of classical Chinese music. A 29 piece orchestra with classical instruments played ‘old music” most more than 600 years old. Many in the orchestra were equally ancient – seven were over 80 with white hair (unusual to not dye hair here) and beards. Old Town Lijiang has winding cobble streets, canals and mostly reconstructed buildings. Scads of tourists shop in scads of souvenir shops and eat in the many restaurants.
The next morning I caught the 08:30 luxury bus 7 1/2 hours to Kunming. I had decided to bypass Dali, only 2 hours from Lijiang. The original funky banana-pancake backpacker hangout in Yunnan, it was the place to chill, with its stunning location sandwiched between mountains and a big lake. Loafing here for a couple of weeks was an essential Yunnan experience in the past. Even though it has been discovered by the Chinese tourist masses, it remains a reasonable relaxed destination. I am not yet in need of a few days off so will overnight in Kunming before continuing on.
Kunming (pop 3 million), the capital of Yunnan, was the end point of the famous Burma Road that extended 1000kms to Lashio in Myanmar. It is known as the ‘Spring City” for its equable climate. Large numbers of young Westerners come here to study Chinese. There are few worthwhile sites and not much reason to stay, so I used it only as a transit hub.
It is so nice traveling independently when everything goes as planned – usually because of the help of Chinese. At the West Bus Station in Kunming, I refused the 50¥ taxi and took bus #80 (1¥) to the Railway Station. Many Chinese laugh at you when you struggle to get directions – go figure – but one nice young fellow with zero English reassured me I was on the right bus and he was going to the train station too. At the station, I went to the ticket counter (no lineups at #5 ticket wicket), the woman spoke perfect English and I had my hard sleeper, middle berth all the way to Guilin, a 24 hour ride via Nanning and virtually through the entire province of Guangxi (the most southerly province in China) for 270¥. It leaves at 16:00 giving most of the day to see Shilin. She told me where to find a hotel. The first place at 200¥ had no elevator, but the second had a room with an elevator but no bathroom for 129¥ ($21.50). The pleasant young woman at the desk used Bing translate and I found everything I needed to know. I had a nice supper on the street, found the bus stop to the East Bus Station for the morning, bought all the stuff for breakfast in my room and retired to my budget, but clean room. And by doing it on the cheap, I obtained a huge amount of satisfaction and saved 167¥ ($28) on the room and two avoided taxi rides. How good can it get?
Shilin and the Stone Forest. About 120km southeast of Kunming, this place is equal parts tourist trap and natural wonderland in a setting of stunning karst geology. A massive collection of grey limestone pillars are split and eroded by wind and rainwater (the tallest is 30m high). The sense of nature gets lost with not a piece of dirt anywhere – lush grass extends to the base of each pillar, stone walkways meander everywhere through the stunning pillars and there are millions of people. Walking on the paths can be impossible and the grass can be the only way to move (you don’t ever walk on grass in China). The parking lot was filled with hundreds of tour buses, how 99.99% of people arrive here. To escape the hordes of tourists, arrive early, avoid weekends and take the secluded walks outside the centre area of karst.
I was up at 5, at the bus stop at 6 to go to the Kunming East Bus Station on the far outskirts of town, and on the bus to Shilin at 7. It takes 2 hours from Kunming. The crowds beat me here.
I took the train 18 hours from Kunming to Guilin in the far NE of Guangxi Province.