I’ve wanted to go to Yunnan Province since I was in college after a botched attempt to join a wildlands studies program focused on the relationship between the minority peoples and the environment in the region. Images of remote ancient villages, vast mountain ranges, and the indigenous cultures of Yunnan imprinted themselves in my mind and have kept my interest after all these years. Needless to say, I had high expectations for this area of China.
Located in Southwestern China, just north of Myanmar, Yunnan lived up to my expectations one hundred percent. With less than a week to explore, we surely weren’t able to canvas the entire province, so I can really only speak to the northern part. You’d need at least two weeks to explore both north and south of the capital, Kunming.
Our journey began in Lijiang, which as it turns out, is extremely popular with domestic tourists. Lijiang is split up into three parts – Lijiang City, Old Town, and Ancient Town. Just like much of Chinese antiquity, both Old Town and Ancient Town’s have been entirely reconstructed partially due to the destruction of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, where most of China’s historical relics and cultural and religious sites were destroyed. Though they’re tasteful in that the ancient style is maintained throughout, it’s no doubt a glorified, glamorized version of its former self. Because of this, we realized prior to arrival that Old Town could be left off the itinerary completely and that while in Lijiang, we’d focus our sights on Lijiang Ancient Town. Despite its commercial appeal and club-hopping nightlife, our experience of Lijiang [Shuhe] Ancient Town was a net positive. Yes, the eateries are far too expensive and yes, the shops are full of commercially produced goods with non-negotiable pricetags, but there is still much charm to be found and cheap, delicious grilled tofu to be devoured.
Our first night in town was spent at The Bruce Chalet, outside of Shuhe proper and adjacent to the surrounding farmland. I don’t have glowing reviews about the room we stayed in, other than the fact that they upgraded us to a larger room for free, but the courtyard within the guest house grounds was beautiful, serene, and just lovely, and the all-you-could-eat freshly prepared breakfast was delightful. Bruce is from Hong Kong and speaks impeccable English, which is always nice when you’re in a new area and need the skinny on the lay of the land. Also nice when you show up in town, driven by a female taxi driver who refuses to take your coin money upon exit, holding your bags captive in her trunk while you try and figure out why she’s so bent out of shape and need someone to translate the altercation for you. A word of caution with Lijiang taxis: don’t use them if you don’t absolutely have to. They remain largely unregulated and totally unmetered because of local laws and as such, have pretty much all of the power. A better alternative are blue vans that you can pick up just as you can taxis and can also be arranged through your guest house.
After meandering through Shuhe for the afternoon, with both a cultural performance and horse ride under our belts, we happened upon our best Lijiang discovery: the creek that runs through the west side of the village. Though we later found out that upstream, in Baisha, the waterways are largely used as garbage dumps, our first glimpse of the creek running through Shuhe was clean and pristine – so clearly, we let our kids waste the evening away frolicking amongst its seemingly clean waters, racing leaves and throwing rocks.
It doesn’t take more than five minutes of their pure joy being in nature to reaffirm for me that this is where children belong – in streams and near trees – not on pavement and plastic playgrounds. Both of our Little Explorers could happily entertain themselves outside, playing in dirt and sand, for hours. HOURS. I’m sure this isn’t true of every child, nor would I ever claim that a city-kid is any less well-balanced because of reduced exposure to nature, I purely speak from personal opinion regarding my own children.
The creek is lined on one side with eateries, where a bottled local beer will put you back almost $10, but that are filled with couch like seating where you can melt the day away lounging creekside in the trees. We justified our $9 side of french fries on the location/comfort and felt it was well spent.
Mid-way through the village, there is a street lined with restaurants and full of fruit vendors. Most of the restaurants appeared to turn into clubs by night and were also quite pricey, so we opted for a smaller restaurant a bit off the main drag and a bag of delicious locally grown fruit.
The next morning we arranged a blue van from The Bruce Chalet to drive us to Shaxi – an intact ancient village about halfway between Lijiang and Dali. In my search for more authentic ancient architecture/culture, Shaxi was one the few accessible villages and well worth the detour south. And it also happened to be very near a national park preserve that in my opinion, is a must for any traveler headed to northern Yunnan, Shibaoshan. Dali is up there with Lijiang on the tourist trail and crossed off our list because we were less interested in commercially reconstructed culture and wanted as much as possible, with limited time and two kids in tow, as much access to ancient China as we could get our feet on. Just like the taxi’s in Lijiang, the blue vans are unreasonably expensive – we paid moret to be driven the two hours from Lijiang to Shaxi as we paid the following day for a driver to tour us around for nearly 8 hours, covering far more distance. And for this reason, staying off the tourist track generally leads to a more authentic, albeit more economical journey.
As we rounded corners on back country roads, with trees giving way to magical little villages nestled in the hillside, we knew Shaxi was a good choice. Our night spent in Shaxi was at Dali Shaxi Cato’s Inn, presumably including Dali because Shaxi has for the most part been off the tourists beaten path until quite recently. A major highway was completed last year that has made villages in between Lijiang and Dali much more accessible. Cato himself met us at the bus terminus in town and transported our bags via his rigged up bike trailer through Shaxi new town and into the cobblestone streets of Shaxi ancient town, where his inn was located. Sure enough, upon our first glimpse, we were happy with our decision to visit Shaxi. It was sleepy, it felt authentic, the people were friendly, and the surrounding landscape was just what we imagine Yunnan to be – green, mountainous, and fertile.
We spent our afternoon perusing the local Friday market in the new-ish area of town – which was actually the reason we traveled to Shaxi when we did. The Friday market finds local villagers (Yi and Bai ethnic minorities) from all over the valley bartering and buying their weekly goods. We even scored a few cheap Chinese DVD cartoons for the kids – something I’ve been looking for for quite some time. As we sat eating lunch that afternoon, it was so fun to watch the procession of Bai women carrying their acquisitions in traditional woven baskets on their backs, back across the river to their villages.
Shaxi’s southeastern border (don’t quote me on that) is a meandering river that I’m sure in the rainy season is much more picturesque than the dry version we witnessed. Nonetheless, it makes for a scenic evening stroll down its bank, with the sun gleaming out from behind the clouds floating above the lush mountains in the distance. Even at the end of the dry season, this valley still feels lush and vibrant.
For dinner that evening, we quite randomly decided to walk into a fairly indescript restaurant in the alleyway headed towards the west gate in ancient town, called Hungry Buddha. As it turned out, we stepped off an ancient Chinese street and straight into Italy. The Italian owner, Mauro, has lived in Shaxi for a number of years – transplanted via Shanghai, where he worked as an Italian chef. With a simple menu, he has created a boutique restaurant that lives up to every adage of Italian cooking, in precisely the location you’d least expect to find it – making it all the more charming. As well crafted as the food, was the design of the not much more than 300 square foot restaurant. I could have stepped back out onto the streets of Florence and assumed I was just dreaming it all into being. And the best part? He sources most of his ingredients locally, makes everything from scratch (cheese and all) AND only cooks vegetarian fare. All of which are hard to find, from my experience, in China. Often, international restaurants boast their “imported” products because it gives them some aire of prestige. But here it was, the most authentic international cuisine we’ve come across, made out of ingredients sourced within the immediate area. Without a doubt, the pizza we ate there will hold up as the best pizza we’ll ever have in China (and in a long list of other countries as well).
Cato and his wife, Helen, both speak very good English and turned out to have some of the best customer service we’ve experienced in this vast country. Though their inn is probably two to three times more expensive than a standard budget guest house in the area, both the location and the quality make it worth the price. Because it’s the end of their dry season, many of the guest houses in the ancient village don’t get water during the day because the pumping systems aren’t powerful enough to get the limited (but seemingly abundant – based on the constant stream of water flowing through town) supply to where it needs to go. As such, we didn’t end up having water for our entire stay (though Cato did fetch us a water basin so we could at least flush our toilet). Instead of making us bear the brunt of that burden, they comped our breakfast the next morning – which is served out of their restaurant, Fusion Kitchen, and complete with freshly made yoghurt and homemade bread – and also comped our room upgrade. So what we left dusty and grimy – we saved $50.
After arranging a car and helping us cart our luggage to the main road, Cato sent us off to explore Shibaoshan and then onward to Hutiaoxia, Tiger Leaping Gorge. Shibaoshan was just icing on the cake during our visit to Shaxi, as our detour south had already proven totally worthwhile. We were prepared for green, alpine mountains and a spattering of temples, but were utterly caught off guard by their majesty. Shibaoshan, Stone Treasure Mountain, was one of the first nature reserves to be protected in China 31 years ago and has remained largely untouched and unspoiled for this reason. Because of inaccessible roads and its remote location, Shibaoshan survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and has also remained off the tourist circuit until just last year when the Dali-Lijiang interstate was completed – even so, we didn’t witness one large coach carting matching tourists or anything that resembled mass tourism for that matter.
Our first stop was Baoxiang Temple (pictured above) and having no expectations, we set off into the forest and up the couple-hundred-or-so steps to reach it. Might I add that both of the Little Explorers made it 95% of the way without needing to be carried – this kind of endurance is totally appreciated and completely novel to us still. And then we discovered Atlantis. Set into the face of the mountain, Baoxiang Temple was constructed during the Yuan Dynasty around 1291 A.D. and is stunning. As you cross through the first part of the temple, you enter into a courtyard where you get the first glimpse of the the portion built into the cliffside, complete with a waterfall cascading down its periphery. All of it entirely unexpected. More charming still were the sacred monkeys that roamed its interiors, acting as its protectors (and protect they did, on more than one occasion, a Little Explorer felt threatened by an aggressive simian). And to top it off, and this probably contributed greatly to our experience, was the fact that other than the monkeys and a few male caretakers, we had it all to ourselves. To speak of the caretakers, we found it interesting that they seemed more like security guards/cultural protectors than Buddhist monks.
The next and final stop was Shizhong Temple and its surrounding grottoes. After our stair climb, the Little Explorers had it in them to trek the mile or so through the forest out to the temple but required a fair amount of coaxing/carrying on the ascent back out. Shizhong Temple is best known for its ancient rock carvings, which are some of the oldest in China and also some of the most intricate. Dating back to _____, these rock carvings speak to the spread of Buddhism from Tibet and also reflect the matriarchal traditions of the Bai people. Photography is strictly forbidden for fear of compromising the carvings, and being the respectful tourist that I am, I have no proof of these ancient carvings unfortunately – but I do have evidence of the alpine forest we hiked through below – which almost made me feel like I was hiking through the Sierra Nevadas in California. Again, we were some of the only tourists adventuring through the area which created another fanciful, magical journey into ancient China.
And then it was naptime. So we took to the road and let the Little Explorers dream about other adventures as we made our way into the mighty Himalayas.