Sometimes travelling can be a lazy, spoiled-baby kind of time. A beach trip in Goa, for example, feels great because you don’t have to do anything but eat and grow fatter.
Travel in China, on the other hand, feels like a yee-haw cowboy adventure. Especially out in Yunnan, in south-west China, right on the border of Myanmar and Laos:
What a province!
Rebecca and I decided to celebrate our anniversary in this mountainy chunk of China. We ate some fantastic food and we met some of China’s kindest people. We idled a couple days away in 800 year-old cities, and we stayed in a village walled-in by “headless mountains” – dormant volcanoes.
This post will tell you all about our time in Kunming, Dali,and Tengchong.
It started with a train ride on July 20th:
Without getting into why, I’ll just say that Reba and I were very ready to bolt out of Shenzhen, our home at the time.
We got on a late express train to Guangzhou, where we would spend the night, and then catch another train to Kunming.
The hostel in Guangzhou scored some serious points with us when they celebrated our anniversary the next morning. Just look at this calendar:
Well isn’t that special
That afternoon we got lunch at this quaint little restaurant. Very authentic Chinese pizza!
They have the best deep-dish shrimp-and-corn pizza, served with a nice cup of mango-mayonnaise (for dipping):
Huh. Everything’s gross.
Folks, I know what you’re thinking, and don’t worry: Rebecca eventually forgave me.
But the pies gave us both a bout of Chinarrhea, just as we were about to board our 27-hour train-ride.
Quick note. That’s a LONG train ride, but look at how insignificant it is when you compare it to all of China:
Too much country!
China is huge!
Anyway, so we prepared for this ride by stocking up on Gatorade (helps with re-hydration), and then we stepped into our “Soft Sleeper” train car.
Our habitat for the long haul
“Soft Sleeper” means we got our own small room, which we shared with a nice, quiet lady. It came with comfortable beds, A/C, and a little water-heater. There’s also “Hard Sleepers”, where you share with 4 other people.
I spent a lot of time in the nearby dining car:
Pictured here at its best
When folks ate their meals, they loved to smoke, and I couldn’t stand to hang around. But in between meal-times I sat for hours, reading and watching the scenery change.
And change it did!
We entered the train in sweaty Guangdong Province in the worst of July heat. We came out into Kunming, Yunnan’s “City of Eternal Spring”. It’s full of mountains and hippies and year-round mild temperatures.
Chinese Portland, basically.
Green Lake park
After coming from Shenzhen, the black heart of industrial China, Kunming’s fresh air and clean were stunning.
We stayed at the Kunming Upland International Youth Hostel, which was fantastic. Great location, pegged in the middle of some of the city’s best sights.
Green Lake park sits in the center of the city. It’s a nice place to spend the afternoon:
A bridge and shrine in Green Lake
On the outskirts of town, we saw Dian Lake, which is one of China’s largest – but 500x smaller than Lake Michigan.
Suck it, China!
Back in the town center, we saw some ancient Pagodas (this one built 1200 years ago!):
and some weird statues:
We took a day-trip out to see Jiuxiang, a cave-system. I enjoyed it, but the operators lit up the place with colorful lights.
A friend of mine says that they made the caves look like a Lazer-Tag arena.
All that was pretty neat, but for me, this pile of yellow stuff was Kunming’s true highlight:
Those are niuganjun (牛肝菌), some of Kunming’s tastiest wild mushrooms.
They’re a species of porcino, and Kunmingers forage for these out in the hills, then they fry em up with garlic or chillies. They have a rich, buttery flavor, but sometimes when people eat them they have violent hallucinations for 3 days. Not me, though!
We ate these at an Yi Minority People’s folk restaurant. Or rather, I did. Rebecca still hadn’t recovered her stomach. None too happy
Kunming had delicious Western food, too! Salvador’s, a coffee-house style eatery, had an enormous menu with hundreds of tasty things on it.
A few days in Kunming, then we set off to go deeper into Yunnan, to the old city of Dali.
This lonesome city in the mountains has become famous for its Old Town, built in the Ming Dynasty, around 1350 AD.
It was a major backpacking mecca back in the 70s. I hear that weed used to be pretty easy to come by.
Since then Old Dali has gotten slightly swept up in more mainstream tourism.
People’s Road, Dali Old Town.
The crowds didn’t ruin the Old Town’s charms, though. It still has lots of neat stuff:
Dali’s Catholic Church!
The Old Town is also right on the edge of a couple gorgeous hiking trails that show off how uncommonly beautiful the region can get:
After our hike, we got foot massages at a Deaf Massage parlor, where most of the employees can’t hear.
First they soak your feet in hot herby water, and that’s the last pleasant part of the experience.
The rest of the massage was horrifically painful. I had no idea I had knots in my feet! But my deaf masseuse sure did, and he punished me for it.
Still, though, my feet felt fresh afterward. So in the end, I recommend it.
I loved Dali, but we still had one more place to visit — Tengchong.
It’s an itty bitty little town, in the west of Yunnan. Locals say that in Tengchong, 9/10 mountains have no head. That’s because they used to be volcanoes, and they exploded. Like this:
The volcanoes don’t explode any more, but all the old volcanic activity left Tengchong full of natural hotsprings. That’s what Rebecca and I wanted: some relaxing soaks to finish out our trip
No such luck! Landslides closed down all the hotspring resorts! We still got to see some… Meh
…But it wasn’t quite the same. 🙁
I loved our lodging situation, though. We stayed in Heshun, a traditional ancient town in the center of Tengchong.
This place was the real deal. A stone courtyard walled in by the hotel rooms: Killer atmosphere
Tengchong was also pretty important in modern history. Back in World War II, the Allies considered Tengchong a critical defense point against the Japanese — if Tengchong fell, the Japanese would have a strong foothold in Western China.
American bombers played a pivotal role in the defense of the city during a Japanese assault. So now there’s a shrine:
Some graves to honor the American dead (where we saw a middle-aged Chinese man stoop to pray and offer flowers — very touching):
And a plaque from our old pal Dubya:
Did not expect to see his name here!
We spent a day cruising around some of Tengchong’s geological oddities with a professor from Beijing University and his wife. We saw a volcanic summit:
Pardon my sweat
And some strange hexagonal rock formations:
Believe it or not, 100% natural
Tengchong had some interesting food. We ate dajiujia (大救驾), fried-up slivers of rice-patties, and suantang (酸汤), a simple hot-sour soup, every day.
photo by Chris Horton @ gokunming.com
Maybe the strangest thing we tried was called xidoufen (希豆粉), this yellow snotty paste made from peas.
It looked gross, and the texture was off-putting, but I thought it was pretty tasty:
On our last day in town, we loafed around Tengchong’s Old City center, near some cool Taoist shrines.
We went in to one, and I almost immediately smacked my head on a low ceiling beam.
This compassionate monk saw it happen:
And he offered us some tea by way of apology. Adorable.
We chatted about his life for a bit, and he showed us some of the treasures that he keeps in his pocket.
One was an iPhone. One was a pocket-knife that an American bomber gave to his dad. And the last was this…
…a photo of the time Bill Gates came to Tengchong!!! Mind-blowing!
If it’s good enough for Microsoft, it’s good enough for me! That was our last memorable experience in Yunnan, and I still find myself wishing I could go back there.
Still a lot of things I missed out on – here’s hoping there’s a next time.