China is the 3rd largest country in the world, and has neighbors on all sides of its borders, thus bringing the country in contact with a variety of culture. In the south, particularly in the province of Yunan, China shares a border with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. Yunan is 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. It 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 Yang Shou 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 throughout, beatified by the newly bloomed spring blossom flowers. I only spent a night and day exploring the city, although I made full use of my time 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 strikingly beautiful with cobbled stones and tiny rivers flowing through. A tourist hot spot with endless restaurants and cafes lining its streets, Lijiang is the base to start the Tiger Gorge trek.
The walk through the gorge was 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 made themselves known, from grazing mountain goats fulfilling their raison d’être, horse traffic up and down the mountain, and locals easily making their way up with baskets of daily supplies strapped to their shoulders, putting us trekkers to shame. Along the way you will find the ‘mountain ladies’ as I called them, selling a variety of goodies and treats to us trekkers. The mountain is the home of the Naxi population and 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.
The next mo
rning I awoke and was awestruck by the staggering back drop of the rugged 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. Sitting cradled so close to them, I felt as though my entire life had led up to a moment like this. While watching National Geographic, I always knew I would take my life on the road and scale such mountains. Here I was. Yet, they were so large, they seemed unreal, as though NatGeo itself had dropped a giant billboard.
Apart from the location, the best part of staying in the Half Way house was having 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 experiences. 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 making merry against 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. In the gorge my Shenti(body-
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, 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. They were strangely enough bohemian: replete with 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. Along with them were a fairly large bunch 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.mind and soul) was at peace.
Thursday was a day of travel. In order to get to Yang Shou 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 Yang Shou. So far traveling in China has proved to be relatively efficient and available, but often I’ve found things to be surprisingly expensive, all the busses do add up to a sizable amount. We were up by 6am and out of the door soon after and managed get to the station in time to catch a 7:30am bus(140 kuay) to Kunming. 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 Yang Shou. It was only at around 8:30 at night that we finally got to our hostel in Yang Shou- 14 hours since leaving for Dali b
The 特色(tise; specialty )of Yang Shou and the area around Guillen is the breathtaking lime stone projections that are spread all over, resembling small hills. It was only until my first morning there when I walked up to the rooftop of my hostel to behold the beauty of Yang Shou, with the famed lime stone projections that were covered in thick green foliage and the river Li flowing past the town. It so happened that our hostel was on an incline, and with no man- made structure reaching higher than us, we had the best roof top view of Yang Shou. The town of Yang Shou is rather crowded and chaotic with tourists and people alike, and some parts of the town are rather dusty and far from spectacular. Thus, the best thing to do is to rent a bike for the day and bike out of the town on the mud trails that take you through rice paddy fiel
ds 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 metres from my plate. Needless to say, Yang Shou is a great place to hangout, and known as well 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- definitely a reason to come back and since Yang Shou 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. I’
m back in Shanghai for some time now. But it’s safe to say I will be back in Yunan, hopefully sooner than later. If you’re looking for travel destinations for this summer, Yunan has more than my stamp of approval- let me know, because I might just join you.