Cheap china travel in Yunnan
China is a beautiful, huge, varied country that ranges from chill mountains to humid swamps and jungle, with giant prayer wheels, shiny 4x4s and lost forests of enigmatic stone in between. Danni visits the southern province of Yunnan to explore the real world hiding behind the firewall.
Saturday 5th July: Today we woke up and set out for China.
Our plan was to arrive in Beijing the next morning and take a train down to Yunnan province in the south of China, bordering Burma, Laos and Vietnam. We had two and half weeks to travel the province, making our way from Kunming, to Dali, through Lijiang and Tiger leaping gorge up to Zhongdian (Shangri la) on the Tibetan plateau before heading down to Jinghong to explore Xishuanbanna, then back to Kunming and the stone forest at shilin before taking the train back to Beijing.
This was the most exciting and impulsive thing we had ever done; we’d decided to go only four weeks previously. About halfway through the ten hour flight I stupidly decided we were nearly there and spent the next 5 hours drinking black coffee: Arrival saw us jetlagged into zombiedom.
A brush with TV fame in Beijing
Within hours of entering the city we fulfilled our ambition of appearing on Chinese television, when a group of people in Jingshan park invited us to sing Chinese folk songs with them whilst being filmed for a programme. The people we met in China were all friendlier than you can imagine, and during the two day on the train to Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan, we also quickly made friends.
Kunming, and the plot thickens
Once we reached Kunming, fortified by our brush with Chinese television, we headed out to the old quarter of the city (sadly being demolished to make way for a shopping mall).
These roads, lined with traditional decaying buildings, were exactly what I had hoped to see. One of the things we immediately noticed was how clean and tidy the city was – we found this to be the case everywhere, with the exception of Xishuangbanna.
That night we accidently got drunk with an American guy and his Chinese girlfriend. Let us draw a veil over that encounter…
On the way to the bus station, ready for the next leg of the journey, we walked through a scarily real, dusty part of Kunming. It was good see at first-hand the contrast of how Kunming citizens live. In preparation for the 5 hour bus journey ahead I went to the toilet to discover that there were no doors! I decided to wait.
Dali: The surreal beauty of the cloud forests of Cangshan
It was only when we reached our destination – in the middle of the night – that we realised the bus had taken us to Xia Guan (Dali city), not the old town of Dali 20 miles north. Fortunately we found a taxi – though when the driver turned off the huge main road up a small dark bumpy lane we thought we were being kidnapped. It turned out that we were only avoiding a toll road!
Old Dali is a lovely little town, only a square mile, and a strange and particularly pleasing mix of modern and traditional. Bai (The local minority) women wear traditional clothes as a matter of routine while old men pull dusty carts alongside shiny 4x4s.
During our stay in Dali we saw sweet corn and pea flavoured ice lollies, and first tried yak meat (yummy!). We also bumped into the American and his girlfriend we’d accidentally got drunk with in Kunming, and decided to climb Cangshan together – Cangshan being a local mountain covered in ‘cloud forest’.
Being the kind of person who gets tired if they climb the stairs too much, this was a real challenge – especially as it was raining and the ‘path’ was a deadly, muddy, twisty slope. To make things worse I slipped over and gouged a chunk out of my shin, but somehow I found the energy to keep going until we found ourselves up in the clouds at the Zhonghe temple. The guide books made this climb sound easy. In reality I’m amazed I made it – and feel a real sense of achievement.
Lijiang – where everybody knows your name
From the cloud temples of Dali we took a very scary 3 hour bus ride (everyone drives in the middle of the road and swerves at the last minute) to Lijiang, world heritage site since 1997 after a large earthquake hit the area – although the majority of the traditional buildings survived.
The town is such a beautiful place, but seems to exist only for the sake of tourism. We stayed in an incredibly friendly guesthouse run by a Naxi family. The ‘boss’ very enthusiastically went around booming his only English words, ‘HELLO! English no!’ He took a shine to us, and we were immediately invited to join the other guests for tea.
In Lijiang it seemed that we were even bigger celebrities. Everyone said ‘hello’ and wanted photos with us. Being treated like this felt a truly strange experience. It was rather saddening to re-discover on our return to the UK that everyone ignores each other and avoids eye contact in the street.
However, although it wouldn’t necessarily happen to you if you went there, our time in Lijiang was tainted by money confusion. We thought we had half our expected funds left – and bought some dried yak meat to celebrate the discovery of the forgotten other half in my bag!
The best part of going to places like this is getting away from the more tourist-orientated areas and losing oneself in the roads where people live. The quaint twisty streamlined roads turned the town into a maze, which caused us frustratingly to always end up back where we started.
Zhongdian: mobile monks, prayer wheels and yak butter tea
On the 15th July we were due to set out for Tiger leaping gorge on the way to Zhongdian. Unfortunately Chris turned off our alarm in his sleep, so we woke up late and decided to head to Zhongdian and see the gorge on the way back.
After spending hours walking in a spiral around the bus station we started the 4 hour ride to the town (re-named Shangri la).
We were greeted by a large pig in the middle of the road. As we walked towards the old town, the road was lined with boxes of yak bones.
Zhongdian – or Shangri la – is like a pleasant small Tibetan version of Lijiang. After a delicious family evening meal with the couple who owned the guesthouse, we spent the following day struggling up the hill to China’s largest Prayer wheel. Though not very high up, the altitude of 3300 metres made it very difficult.
We managed to get up the Buddhist Bai ji monastery where we got a fantastic view over the whole town and into the next valley. The area was covered in brightly coloured prayer flags and the air was thick with incense. The insides of both the temple and the monastery were full of bright colours, murals and decorated statues. We were greeted by a monk who gave us a couple of peaches then proceeded to make a call on his mobile phone!
Whilst staying in Zhongdian we decided to try Tibetan yak butter tea, which is tea boiled up with yak butter and lots of salt. Needless to say it was not the tastiest drink ever – but we were nevertheless brought a huge pot of it.
After an incredibly relaxing last night in Zhongdian we set of to Tiger leaping gorge – one of the deepest gorges in the world. We were lucky to have good weather. People die in the gorge if it’s wet – landsides are a very real danger during the rainy season of July. The bus driver chucked us off in a small town and we wondered where we were meant to go. We had planned to go to a cafe listed in our guide book for information, but it was closed down.
We found a ticket office (in China almost all nature and parks have an admission fee). We were lucky to have our student cards as the discount is about half price at most places.
Unfortunately we only had 4 hours at the gorge, instead of the two days needed to do the full trek. Even so, the walk along the narrow path was enjoyable and I can’t explain how spectacular the view was. The sheer scale of the mountains made me feel dizzy and so small. I wish so much that we had had more time here. We will one day to return and do the full trek!
A minor downside: At one point we were very nearly hit by a large rock hurtling down the side of the mountain; this prompted us to keep moving! Along the way we also had to scramble out the way of horses and an escaped bull…
Stop press! No deodorant in the jungles of Jinghong!
A local guesthouse organised a mini bus back to Lijiang, where we were to catch our flight to Jinghong the next day. Once again, in Lijiang we weren’t lonely for second. On deciding to have a quiet night we were joined by a man from Sichuan and his friends, and we had great fun trying to communicate amusing differences between China and the UK. The explanation of ‘fish and chips’ eaten out of an old newspaper on the beach proved to be too much, so we moved to teaching each other songs.
The flight to Jinghong took about an hour, though we were not allowed to take our deodorant even in our checked-in bags. The thought of arriving in the jungle without it was not pleasant; it’s worth bearing in mind that deodorant cannot easily be found in China.
We chose to stay in Dai-style bamboo huts which turned out to be full of bats. Coming from the north of Yunnan to the jungley south really was a contrast. It was like being in Tibet one day and Thailand the next. China’s a big place! Feeling rather disorientated we found a nice cafe on one of the palm-lined roads and had a cheeseburger and beer whilst witnessing our first monsoon.
We had done rather well weather-wise so far, considering it was the rainy season in Yunnan – later we found out it was because of a drought that had caused it to be almost a month late.
We hired a lady to guide us around for a day in Xishuangbanna – luckily we chose a Sunday which coincided with the colourful and famous Sunday market at Menghun. The market attracts minority peoples from all over the area. There are officially 24 recognised ethnic minorities in Yunnan, though there are many more off the record.
Xishuangbanna is much poorer than Jinghong but that doesn’t stop women getting all dressed up for the market. It was indeed a pleasure to wander around among the different peoples. We innocently tried some strange Jelly stuff and some yummy fried breads… we certainly were a novelty for the ladies at the market.
We got a lift in the back of a ‘tractor’ (an engine attached to a wagon type thing) into the middle of nowhere, to begin our walk. The first village we came to was a very old-fashioned and traditional Hani village. We were invited to sit outside a family house for a while, where we saw a teenage girl dressed in modern clothes playing with her mobile phone. When I was a teenager I lived in a small village about an hour or so away from the nearest city and I hated it – I have no idea what it would be like to grow up here.
We set off through the jungle along an almost non-existent path for a few hours until we reached a Bulang village. It had been raining for two weeks and the roads had turned to thick mud, which was not helped by the roaming pigs.
We learnt that this village was still lucky enough to have a school – most of these villages were having their schools closed, which means the children have to travel for miles to schools in towns.
As the children get more used to the life in the town and move away, the small minority villages will shrink and be lost. It’s a sad thought. I guess we can’t expect people to live in the same way forever. In all this was an informative and eye-opening day, a real experience, seeing how people live in these rural areas. Highly recommended.
On leaving the Bulang village we were told the walk would become easier as we were taking the new road. The ‘road’ turned out to be the thickest, deepest, stickiest and most dangerous mud I have ever had the pleasure to walk through. If this were not enough, about half-way we had to walk though an actual river! This was not the kind of thing I’d been expecting; reluctantly I removed my shoes and socks in the mud and waded through the fast-flowing orange water (later we discovered flecks of mystery gold on our legs and feet).
After an easy and pleasant stroll through a tea plantation we hitched a lift, standing up in the back of pickup truck holding the top of the cab as it belted down the bumpy muddy roads towards town. Possibly the most fun I’d had in ages: I’d always wanted to do this!
Wild elephants and tree-houses at Sanhe, oh yes!
The next day we headed to Sanhe nature reserve to try to see the wild elephants. Somewhere along the line I had picked up a bit of a cold and was feeling rather run down – plus, as expected, we both had a bit of yucky tummy.
We’d planned to stay in a tree-house in the middle of the park. Due to miscommunication, less than bothered staff and no facilities we ended up trekking backward s and forwards across the park through the jungle in the boiling sun, without food or drink, just to sort out our room.
It was a bit better when we actually saw the wild elephants. Nine in total, they kept emerging from what we’d initially thought was a small group of four or so. We were so lucky as the 3 adults had 4 younger elephants and two tiny babies with them.
Home again, home again…
On our last day in Jinghong we explored a tropical plant research centre, where we poked some runny fresh rubber with a stick and ended up with the entire contents of an unripe lime in my eye.
A sleeper bus got us back to Kunming (a strange experience, especially as the bus was raided in the middle of the night by the Chinese army. Why? Because a couple of bombs had exploded very recently on Kunming buses).
Once in Kunming we headed to Shilin (The stone forest). Again, another expensive tourist trap, but the stones themselves were extraordinary. The limestone maze was created about 270 million years ago by water.
Typically we got lost, then it monsooned on us for over an hour. Due to the number of visitors over time the stone had became worn and slippery, so it was suddenly rather dangerous. All the other people had disappeared and we were lost in the middle of a giant stony maze and were forced to walk through ‘The deep and narrow valley’ in an attempt to get out.
We were glad to get back to Kunming (‘The city of eternal spring’), even though the hostels were full and one hostel ended up giving us somebody’s office to sleep in!
We decided to take it easy, go to a supermarket and get some wine and supplies for the two day train ride back to Beijing. At most chinese markets you can buy the fish and sea food at its freshest – alive. Nevertheless, we were surprised to see a bucket of giant toads. If you should visit China, I strongly recommend you spend a bit of time just wandering around its supermarkets. You never know what you might find at its wondrous deli counters.
We became quite a novelty on the train back to Beijing – soon our fame spread through the train to an English speaking member of staff, who spent all of his breaks coming to talk to us.
Overall Beijing is not a pleasant city to visit in the middle of summer. I’s about 40°C, the smog stings your eyes and it’s so vast you cannot leisurely wander around. We headed to the Forbidden City, a large amount of which is still forbidden. The next day we went to the Great Wall at Mutianyu; this was the hottest day yet and just walking along the wall proved something of a challenge.
We were very downcast about having to leave the next day; we really didn’t want to go home, even after a month away.
I filled 3 notebooks while travelling in Yunnan – what you’ve read here is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a place that will move and enthrall you. Even if you’ll feel sad and Yunnan-sick on your return, I would highly recommend Yunnan to everyone.