To Lijiang

Strange things I saw on the way from Dali to Lijiang: snow capped mountains, tanks on exercise, a film crew, harvested wheat gathered into stooks in the field, Cezanne style haystacks, roadworks separated from the highway with cones and bunting, a town called Xiyi (West One) with very little in common with the Harley St area of London. Road construction is advancing at such a pace that you must need an update for your satnav every week – we came along part new dual carriageway, part widened A road, part old mountain road. My favourite local vehicle I call the bike-truck, a motorbike front with a small flatbed truck in rear (3 wheels in all). There are handlebars, a faring, rear mirrors like a bike, but with a bench seat. You can have a driver and a couple of relatives up front, plus a little one on the driver’s lap, and then in the truck you can either have the rest of the family or a load of wood, stones or vegetables with just a couple of family members on top. No helmets or seat belts or protection against the elements.


Bike-truck (2nd Class - no faring. 3rd class has a bicycle instead of motorbike)

Bike-truck (2nd Class – no faring. 3rd class has a bicycle instead of motorbike)

Lijiang surprised me by being extremely pretty – it lies at 2400m on a plateau with mountains on all sides, including 6000m peaks visible in the far north.The whole city has maintained the traditional tree lined streets and pleasant architecture that is so often absent with modern expansion in China. The old city is a maze of alleys and canals, all lined with willows, cherry trees and climbing roses. Almost all of the buildings in the old city, sadly, are devoted to the sale of tat and (God help us) there is a McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza hut. We wandered about and called in at a teahouse. A tea master made me Pu’er tea, green tea and 200 year old black tea. All delicious and fascinating to watch the care with which they make tea here.


My bed at the Zen Garden Hotel, Lijiang

My bed at the Zen Garden Hotel, Lijiang

The locals are mostly from the Naxi minority. They have an animist religion presided over by shamans. Today happens to be ‘sweeping the ancestors tombs’ day (this seems to apply to all the major religions here) so the shamans were not around town – too busy doing ceremonies at tombs in the mountains.The Naxi prize fat, dark women, on the grounds that those characteristics mean they are strong and hard workers! I could be in luck. My guide is half Naxi – when she was a child the government weren’t interested in minorities and she only learned Mandarin. Now, the government wants to preserve minorities and so the dialect is taught in school. She told me about the ‘one child’ policy. Essentially you can have a second child but you have to pay, the amount depending on your salary and the area where you live. For a tour guide in Lijiang the cost is about £18,000 – prohibitive for most.


When Dad visited, Dali consisted of a walled city about 1km square. This is still present but now forms a very small part of a larger city of about 3 million people. The city lies between Erhai Lake (ear shaped lake) and the Cangshan mountain range which has several 4000m peaks. Most of the locals are Bai people, including my guide. First up we visited a Bai village and had a wander around, admiring the market, the electrics and old architecture.

Baby carrier with Chinese Characteristics

Baby carrier with Chinese Characteristics

Electrics with Chinese Characteristics

Electrics with Chinese Characteristics


Horse with Chinese Characteristics

Next we had a “cruise” on the lake. The cruise ship was actually a rowing boat holding about a dozen passengers and rowed by one person. We were taken out to see a cormorant fisherman and then landed on an island where they were barbecuing lake fish. All very touristy but pleasant enough.

cormorant fisherman on Erhai Lake

cormorant fisherman on Erhai Lake

The 3 Pagodas at Dali (copy - original destroyed by earthquake)

The 3 Pagodas at Dali (copy – original destroyed by earthquake)

We then took the cable car up the mountain – I was a bit concerned about the electrics for this, given what I had just seen, but apparently the cable car was installed by the Austrian manufacturer. The rules state that drunken, hypertensive and insane persons may not use the cable car. Luckily no-one actually checked. We were taken up to about 3500m and had a stroll around. As usual, the Chinese state has funded stone walkways, bins, toilets, restaurants, viewing platforms and so on. Part of me wished I had more time for hiking in these lovely mountains and part of me was glad not to – I prefer wilder places. It was great to go up though – the weather was lovely and the views magnificent. My guide was very worried about the weather getting windy and the cable car being closed as a result. Having been on a few of these things skiing, in whiteouts, blizzards and assorted unpleasant weather, I thought this was a bit far-fetched. Apparently a common concern though – I was at a viewpoint when there was a little gust and two girls next to me gasped “feng lai le!” (it’s getting windy).

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We then dived into Dali old town, which has long been a destination for tourists. This means that you can get pizza, coffee, chocolate cake, wine, beer, etc etc. as well as local manufactures such as jade, silk, and endless tat. One of the tourist attractions there was me! A group of Chinese girls came and asked if they could have their photo taken with me. Selfies were duly snapped on their phones, but they didn’t need to know anything about me – where I was from, name, nothing. I was just a strange object in their path.


Southgate - with Chinese Characteristics

Southgate – with Chinese Characteristics


On the way here we were stopped at a police checkpoint and I was asked for my passport. Apparently there has been some muslim extremist activity in Yunnan recently and they are monitoring foreigners movements. No problem, but I did think I was out of harm’s way as far as terrorism went!

The area around Yuanyang rises to 3000m and lies just 50km north of the Vietnam border. The steep sided mountains have been cultivated for hundreds of years by the Hani people, growing rice that is regarded as among the best in the world. Having had some for dinner I’d say it has a delicious nutty flavour, much more interesting than basmati, say. I also had a delicious dish with meat, garlic, scallions, ginger and chilli. Outrageously expensive meal at £2.50, but then it is a 4 star hotel. The other local minority are the Yi people, who wear gloriously colourful costumes. The rice terraces, now a world heritage site, look stunning at sunset and sunrise. I didn’t use filters or photoshop – these show exactly how it looked.


Yi girl, age 3

Sunset at Yaohuzui (the tiger’s mouth)P1040309 P1040313 P1040320 P1040322

Sunrise at Daoyishu (a type of fruit tree)

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Commuting, Yunnan styleP1040364

We came back via a farmers market, where the locals can buy and sell vegetables, meat (on the hoof), herbs, household goods, fabric and agricultural equipment.

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Well, Well..

My guide, Lucy, has taken to mothering me (necessary, I have to admit) including taking me out in the evening to search for dinner. In theory I have enough Mandarin to cope with menus, ordering, paying etc, but in practice finding the right restaurant is the biggest difficulty. Plus, no-one, my guide included, seems to understand a word I say in mandarin – the subtleties of correct tonal pronunciation elude me. So – forgive me Laoshi T for being pathetic – Lucy took me to her favourite restaurants where she ordered local specialties. Last night we were in a charming restaurant, popular with locals, and had peanut soup with wild mountain vegetables, along with fried rice. Absolutely delicious and a bargain at £1.50 for the whole meal including tea. The locals’ table manners were interesting to observe. A family at the table opposite left behind a lot of detritus on the floor – packaging from the chopsticks, used tissues and the like – which the staff dutifully swept up before the table was reoccupied. Then a woman at a table in the corner started spitting food onto the floor. Lucy told me she was spitting out the bones from her meal. I explained that we would use a plate for that and this too is usual in China, but not for everyone, apparently. Before we left Jianshui we visited a couple of ancient wells, still very much in use. The quality of the water is regarded as a key ingredient in the making of the local tofu, but people also use it for watering their vegetables, washing clothes and so on. Clothes washing is done by foot as well as hand. P1040278 P1040282 P1040283 Just out of town we visited Twin Dragon bridge, which looked impressive in the morning sun. P1040288 We continued to Tuanshan village, one of only a few traditional walled villages left in Yunnan and now being hastily conserved for tourist consumption. It’s moment in history was at the turn of the 19/20th century the Zhang family made a fortune from mining and had the Yunnan-Vietnam railway built to allow for export. The family were communist sympathisers and so the village and its Buddhist shrine were not torn down in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s. P1040295 P1040296 Now we’re heading up to the mountains to see the rice terraces at Yuanyang. Can’t wait!


Although I am in a small hotel in a traditional style building, I had coffee and brioche for breakfast! Things are looking up. We went for a stroll to the Chaoyang gate – one of the old entrances to the ancient walled city. Men bring their caged songbirds to the gate for an outing and to chat to the other birds. The men just stand and watch the birds, as a sort of hobby.

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Next we went to the Zhu family garden – the Zhus made their fortune from lead and zinc mining at the turn of the 19/20th century. The complex is a maze of rooms and courtyards built in the traditional Qing dynasty style, with ornate doorways, carvings and bonsai trees.

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Next up was a wander round a food market – gorgeous fresh fruit and veg, herbs, spices, live fish in tanks, and somewhat less gorgeous pig intestines and dead dogs. Apparently they don’t eat much dog these days – it is only served in specialty restaurants.

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Dried pig intestine

Dried pig intestine

After a nap break we went to the Confucian temple – the second largest one in China. My favourite part was a huge lake covered in lotus plants (see pic). When they are all in flower in June it must be quite a sight. Around the temple groups of old men sat in the shade playing cards or dominoes. Apparently they gamble to make them take the game more seriously and to make them try their best to win. It’s not about the money, in other words.

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We continued our wander around the old town, popping in to a Buddhist temple and a Daoist temple on the way back to the hotel. Jianshui really typifies the Western mental image of a Chinese town – tree lined stone streets, traditional architecture, decorative archways and red lanterns everywhere.

Buddhist temple

Buddhist temple

Daoist temple - the red ribbons in the tree are wishes

Daoist temple – the red ribbons in the tree are wishes

Apparently Kunming was like this until 30 years ago, when it was all ripped up and started again from scratch. I realize that the modern industrial cities are just as much “real China” as this quaint old town, but I definitely prefer the charm of Jianshui to the traffic choked, smoggy, high-rise, high-speed, high-tech likes of Shanghai or Chongqing.


Qing dynasty bins

Qing dynasty bins


I leave for Yunnan province in South West China next week. This will be another journey connected to my Dad’s time in China. At the end of his posting to Chongqing, in January 1944, he and a friend flew to Kunming and then drove up the Burma Road to Dali (see Kunming page). He tried to climb a mountain (Cangshan, over 4000m) near Dali but was unable to summit due to deep snow. Obviously, there’s a cable car now so I will be able to go up whatever the weather.

Yunnan lies at the eastern end of the Himalayan uplift and has borders with Vietnam and Laos to the South, Burma to the West and Tibet and Sichuan to the North. The tropic of Cancer crosses the middle of the province. Yunnan has the highest biodiversity in China and about a third of the population comprises ethnic minorities.

I am flying to Kunming, then heading south to see the tropical rice terraces and to meet some of the minority peoples. I return to Kunming and then take the train to Dali, following the path of the Burma Road. From Dali I continue northwards, visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge and the first bend of the Yangtse river, before reaching Shangri-La near the Tibetan border. It should be a really beautiful journey!

I have prepared all my gadgets and I hope I will be able to post lots of photos and words as I go along. Packing is going to be a challenge – tropical to arctic gear needed – but I feel much better prepared this time. My dear friends at My Odyssey Tours are once again providing guides. I have continued to study Mandarin and I hope to have slightly more interesting conversations this time. Six hours on a train should provide some opportunities for practise!