While most of our South East Asia trip was on the quintessential backpacker route, our next leg, through Yunnan, was decidedly not. In fact it was probably the first time on all my travels where we were the only western tourists for days on end, making us feel like intrepid explorers. Even in the most remote of my travels to date I had some basic foreign language skills to get by, or I’d find someone who knew a tiny amount of basic English. At the very least, the street signs and menus were in characters I could recognise. South-west China provided none of these options, and it was exciting.
We were determined to travel overland from Sapa into Yunnan on the train to see the beautiful mountain scenery and avoid flying (which I hate with a passion). More importantly, the more remote, undeveloped towns we wanted to see were on the train route and nowhere near a major airport hub. While we eventually managed to arrange a train from Sapa (Lao Cai) into China be warned that if you’re keen on doing the same, China DOES NOT make this easy. It’s much easier to travel into the country if you have dated entry and exit plane tickets. But I’m going to have to do a whole other blog post on how to get a Chinese visa as it’s a total ballache.
Our first stop in Yunnan was Jianshui. This was where we most clearly witnessed modern and ancient China side by side. Cobblestone streets and beautifully faded frescoes intermingled with shiny sportswear and gadget shops. I’ll never forget a crinkly old lady who looked like she was pushing a hundred sitting proudly in front of her sex toy shop.
It’s obvious when travelling through China that it’s a massively booming country. When the taxi from the train station to our hotel was taking forever and seemed to only be going past huge deserted fields, I remembered reading that it’s common practice in China to build train stations miles away from city centres, as planning authorities expect such a huge population boom across all cities.
The landmark of Jianshui is the first sight you see upon entering – the ancient city gate (Chaoyang tower). Built in 1380 during the Qing dynasty, it’s just older than Tiananmen in Beijing, and looks remarkably similar. The imposingly red three-story building is made up of tall wooden pillars and those quintessential hip roofs with gilded tiles. We went exploring in the evening when we heard music and saw dozens of elderly couples ballroom dancing underneath the lit-up gate 🙂
Another main attraction in Jianshui is Zhu’s family garden. This Qing-era private mansion is made up of 218 intricately decorated dark-wood pavilions separated by a maze of 42 pillared courtyards covered in blossom trees. The main courtyard features a beautiful, over-the water outdoor theatre. You can actually stay in one of the rooms in the extensive garden grounds.
Jianshui also boasts China’s third-largest Confucius temple. With it being relatively expensive and us becoming objectively poorer, we decided to skip it. However if you’re not on a backpacker budget it’s said to be well worth a visit, supposedly being the best preserved Confucius temple in China.
As it was with us, a trip to the Yunnan countryside is often seen by tourists as a chance to see China as it once was, and Shaxi was the one place we travelled to that’s remained relatively pristine. For this reason the town sees a lot of Chinese tourism, but while new guesthouses continue to mushroom in the outskirts, the centre remains pretty much untouched.
Shaxi is most well-known for being the most intact horse caravan town on the ancient tea route leading from Yunnan into Tibet. With its cobblestone streets and ancient, crumbling alleyways, walking around town felt like stepping back in time. Shaxi consists largely of four alleys and a central marketplace, both lined with little cafes with low roofs and charming courtyards. A crystal-clear stream runs down the length of the main street towards the Ming-era Sideng theatre, which was probably the most beautiful ancient building we saw throughout China. On our only evening there (the town is tiny) we listened to traditional Chinese music in one of the marketplace cafes. Walking back to our room in the rain under the light of the ubiquitous red lanterns hanging from the trees made us feel like we could have been back in the days of the tea trail.
In the shadow of the Cangshan mountain and on the shores of the Erhai Lake, Dali is a popular destination for Chinese city-dwellers desperate for some blue skies and fresh air. Even though there were plenty of people, knowing that we were at the very border of mainland China and the furthest extremities of the Himalayas made Dali feel mysteriously remote, like a pit stop en route to the mythical Shangri La.
Dali is beautifully uniform, with characteristic white buildings with slate grey rooftops that stretch for miles. One of my favourite memories is hanging our laundry on the rooftop of our lovely Dragonfly guesthouse, where we could see the looming Cangshan mountain on one side and the endless rooftops on the other. The ancient town is amazingly well-preserved, with a typical water-stream that tumbles peacefully down the treelined streets that lead into the old town, where the buildings are framed by the surrounding mountain range.
Dali was also where I happened to get the worst food poisoning of the whole Asia trip. If that’s what it even was, as it was the strangest food poisoning I’ve ever had. The smell of anything that wasn’t artificial would make me unbearably nauseous, even boiled rice or fruit. Chinese food is my favourite in the world and I couldn’t eat a bite of it. This meant that when it came to our most looked-forward to activity in Dali – trekking the Cangshan mountain, there was no way I could humanly do it. We tried for the funicular that goes up to Zonghe temple, but it was closed for renovations. Disappointed, we attempted to start the trail, but about three steps in I was close to passing out. We aborted and decided to admire the mountains from our rooftop, J with a Dali beer, me with a green tea staring enviously at his beer.
Lijiang (UNESCO heritage site)
With it’s 12th century Cobblestone streets, canals, alleyways, and old Naxi houses, Lijiang is undoubtedly beautiful, but this beauty has also ensured that it’s incredibly crowded. I’d never come across it before in any of my travels, but in Lijiang there’s an entrance fee just to get into the old town, and it’s not cheap. The stores that line the beautiful old streets all sell the same stuff and blare out quite literally the same song, over and over. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. At specific times of the day the underwhelmed shopkeepers do a ‘traditional’ dance. I actually quite liked the surreal, theme-park edge that all this lended the place, but if you’re looking for authentic China, this is not it.
The most popular walking route in old Lijiang leads to the Black Dragon Pond Park, with its spectacular view of the region’s highest mountain, Jade Dragon Snow mountain. The backdrop of the mountain against the white marble bridge and Moon-Embracing pavilion is particularly stunning to see.
Seeing the Jade Mountain from Lijiang town was somewhat bittersweet, as we’d intended to take the cable car to the snowy peak at Glacier Park and the next day begin the 3 day-hike to Tiger-Leaping gorge. As it was, I was way too ill to do either. The air is so thin at Glacier Park that it’s recommended to take oxygen cans to the top, and I could barely climb a few steps without wheezing my lungs out. This meant that we spent most of our time in our traditional courtyard guesthouse, which fortunately had a terrace view of the beautiful Naxi rooftops against the snowy Yulong mountains.
Missing out on the gorge is one of the many reasons that I know I’ll be travelling back to China in the very near future. Carved out by the raging rapids of the Jinsha river, the Tiger Leaping gorge massifs peak at almost 4000m above the river, making it one of the steepest canyons in the world. If you intend on doing this incredible-sounding trek then Nomadasaurus have a great review of their trip here.
Chengdu is actually the capital of the Sichuan province, slightly outside Yunnan, and is one of China’s fastest growing mega-cities. Despite this, the city has a relaxed, laid-back vibe. One of the most traditional things to do here is to go to a teahouse, many of which are set in peaceful, lush courtyards. On our first day there it was typically grey and damp (there’s a saying that in Chengdu you’ll see more teahouses than sunny days), so we went to the Lao Dianying Tea Garden, where we drank Bamboo Green Tea and listened to the the steady beat of the rain on the teahouse rooftop. Locals chatted, read the paper and played cards.
On our second day and last day in Chengdu we went to the region’s most popular attraction – the stiltedly translated Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. It’s popular for a good reason – these animals are just as adorable and ridiculous as you expect them to be. It was explained to us that because Pandas are super fussy eaters that refuse to eat anything other than bamboo, they don’t get enough energy from their food, which explains why they eat lying down and quite literally roll their furry selves from place to place to avoid moving. They have high standards for their food too – not only does it have to be a specific species of bamboo, but it also has to be super-fresh. They’ll turn their noses up at wilted leaves or stalks that are the wrong kind of green. They are essentially ridiculously spoiled bundles of cuteness.
If you want to see the pandas when they’re not simply rolling from one snoozing spot to another (we saw one that was contentedly sleeping with half its body on a wooden slat and its lower half just dangling below), it’s a good idea to go in the morning when the handlers bring out the first meal of the day. You’ll see them happily munching their breakfast, playfully wrestling, climbing trees and especially falling off them. You’ll also have a head-start on the crowds.
Another major highlight of Chengdu is the food. The famously spicy, oily Szechuan food isn’t for everybody, but it has to be tried at least once. We went to Tian Tian restaurant in search of the most traditional fare. Already huge fans, we decided to go for the weirdest options possible, which is really not difficult when it comes to Szechuan cooking. Some of what we ate was a revelation, some was borderline stomach-churning (I’ve discovered I’m not a fan of food served in bowls of cold, previously cooked oil), but it was all definitely a unique experience.