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  • Writer's pictureTim Morch

Discovering Yunnan Province - China

Discovering Yunnan

If you Google “Yunnan Province, China” there are over 138,000 hits in less than .15 seconds on hi-speed internet. Yunnan is everything you learn from the first 5 hits yet so much more. The independent traveler can rediscover the old ways, living in the modern world. Few sites fail to note that Kunming is known as the “City of Eternal Spring” or mention the renaming of Zhongdian to “Shangri-la” in reference to the Hilton novel. The biodiversity underscored by several sites is within reach and the diverse topography spectacular. The ethnic diversity of Yunnan Province is, without doubt, a highlight. However, beyond those first hits lies the real Yunnan. In the off and shoulder seasons Yunnan is surprisingly relaxed. During the summer months and holidays, it has become the hotspot for an exploding domestic tourism market. On National Day Holiday, October 2, throngs of Chinese tourists swarm the province. National Day is actually one week long and vacancy rates decline while prices skyrocket. The remainder of October, when the fields are alive with the harvest, is a particularly delightful time to visit. Kunming is the capital of Yunnan, at an elevation of 2000m, and is renowned for its temperate climate. It is also the gateway to the fabled Silk Road and the end of the Burma Road from India to China in the Second War. The first impression is that of a surprisingly clean and new city. Walking is pleasant at any time of day, but mornings meandering amidst the sidewalk badminton games are especially entertaining. A line of bicycles represent the net and dozens of games can be observed simultaneously. It is surprising the vengeance with which some of the grandparents bash the bird! There are plenty of easy walks, including Green Lake, the Zoo and Naning Jie pedestrian street. Kunming also has all the designer shops and chain restaurants found globally, including some US box stores that surprised me. Beyond the city, Dianchi Lake, the Stone Forest and the Golden Temple are among the several straightforward and affordable day-trip destinations. Kunming, nonetheless, is a city and cities are not my forte. As with all places, the countryside is what sparks my imagination. The Ancient Walled City of Dali, on the shores of Erhai Lake, is 380km west. Dali has been the seat of two kingdoms, one rebellion and one razing by Kublai Khan’s henchmen. It was virtually unknown until Marco Polo witnessed the traditional customs of this region. Since that time, Dali has become famous for its cultural fusion. To the east of the city, rice fields slope to the shores of Erhai Lake, beyond which another mountain range frames the horizon. Rising almost immediately from the west wall of the city to over 4000m, the rugged Cang Shan Mountains dominate the western landscape. Modern Dali has been well restored with its famed marble stone and is worth a few days to explore. The ancient method of channeling a mountain stream through the city is both practical and aesthetically pleasing. After sunset, the creative lighting of the central pagodas, surrounded by reflective pools is captivating. From the 10th century Tang Dynasty “Three Pagodas”, to a few hours on the lake observing the traditional art of cormorant fishing, Dali offers plenty of diversions. In town, the modern art of shopping is interrupted only by cafes catering to a variety of musical tastes and restaurants serving diverse local and international foods. Artists are everywhere, displaying their talents and often working on site. The range of accommodation will satisfy every budget, from inexpensive guest houses to upscale hotels. After sampling the shopping, wandering the walls and gazing at the gates of the city, it is time for refreshments and food. The options are endless, pick a musical style or food genre to start and work from there. Nightlife is abundant and animated. Clear your head the following morning and rent a bicycle. Ride out of town and through the rice fields to the town of Xizhou for fresh-off-the-field vegetable dishes. Every field can be connected to the next cluster of centuries old house groupings. With a greeting of “ni hao” and a smile the local Bai people cheerfully point to the next intersection. Personally, I found the people of Yunnan extremely welcoming, gentle and generous. The clusters of homes offer a glimpse into generations of farming families and tradition. Each plot is square in layout with a rock wall perimeter. Inside the gate is a courtyard where rice dries, vegetables await the trip to market and the animals sleep at night. Utility buildings house farm equipment and tools above, pigs and chickens below. The home lies opposite the entrance. Riding the chairlift to the Cloudy Forest Trail is a good adventure. Make it a day and simply walk out of town and follow the horse dung uphill. It will take a gentle 45 minutes to the base. Be sure to check the current ticket deals; there is always a cheaper price than the base station. In fact, when I visited, the base would not sell tickets to foreigners, but the moto-taxi drivers sold them for 10 yuan less right there in the parking lot. Logic? Who can say? Local bureaucratic logic? Definitely. The walk along the cobblestone path is pleasant and a good warm-up for the higher elevations that come further north. It bears its name for a reason though, and mist often shrouds the mountains, obscuring the views of Dali below and Erhai Lake beyond. If a sporadic clear moment reveals the complete panorama, it is remarkable. There is a guesthouse above the chairlift where the reward of the steep climb is a good view beside the woodstove and cold beer. There are plenty of tour companies in Dali offering every kind of package imaginable. Dali has definitely been hit by tourism and often overflows with domestic tourism. Somehow, it manages to retain a small town essence when the streets are not so cluttered. Even so, prices seem to be climbing at a fast pace due to package domestic tourism. To escape this, continue north for more great adventures.

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