China – April 21 2012 – May 6 2012

Our first stop was Kunming.

This was the base of the “Flying Tigers” 1st American Volunteer Group during World War 2 and is the capital of Yunnan province. We arrived near the hostel in the early afternoon, but it took us some time to find on a back street.  We wandered with intention back and forth across several roads and around a park that formed part of a canal system that paralleled one of the main boulevards.  We were only there for a night so we went to see an “Old” town area that had definitely  become more of a tourist trap. However, they had an active Shaolin Monastery and there was also a substantial crowd singing traditional Chinese folk songs near the main plaza.  From the translation Yinan gave me, the songs were pretty dirty and everybody was laughing at what was being sung.  That night we went to a really exceptional restaurant that had some of the most excessively spicy food I’ve yet encountered.  It was tiny and packed and the ceiling was 5 feet from the floor and crowded with ventilation and utility conduits.  The next morning we went to the morning market and wandered for a few hours. They had animals of every variety (including what appeared to be poisonous snakes and spiders) as well as oddles of cheap jewelry, shoes, clothing and knick-knacks as you’d expect. Finally we went to the Yunnan Provincial Museum and viewed an exhibit about the Bronze-age cultures in Yunnan before going to the bus station.

We took the bus to Dali City.

Here we went around the Old Town (this will be a theme) which had a series of large watch towers and was the first place we went that had mountain stream-fed gutters. In point of fact they did wonders for the atmosphere of the town.  We went straight to the hjotel as the sun set and, after setting out things in the room, asked about dinner.  The girl at the hotel guided us to a restaurant owned by the man who ran the hotel.  This was our first time eating at a style of restaurant that is apparently quite prevalent in Yunnan (and possibly elsewhere in China). They had all of the available ingredients on display and you could pick which you wanted in each dish and then they would cook whatever for you out of the things you choose. The next day we went to the morning market.  It was much more food-focused and a sensory overload.  Everybody in town seemed to be there to do their shopping.

Then we went to butterfly springs.

To get there we had to take a bus.  It is a bus ride that will haunt me forever.

The bus picked us up en route to Lijiang.  It had come from the main bus terminal in Kunming but we were at Butterfly Springs.  We grabbed lunch and took a tak-tak to a street corner where we waited for the bus.  It came after a 15-minute wait and, of course, the only seats were in the back.  Which would have been fine if I was 5’4″ or smaller.  Sadly I am not, and my femurs are about 6 inches too long to fit comfortably in the seat.  The bus set off on a road that would switch between dirt, gravel and crumbling pavement at random.  One man in the front insisted on chain smoking the entire 4-hour drive.  Yinan fell asleep several times on the drive but it was so bumpy she would slowly tip towards the window until the next big bump where she would hit the window with her head and wake up.  I tried to help but I was trying desperately to just stay in the seat.  I have only 1 blurry picture taken through the window of the bus from that trip;  all that remains of proof that it happened are that photo and my nightmares.

We finally arrived in Lijiang.

This is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is absolutely beautiful. Mountain springs feed several streams that lace the old town and run through canals and gutters throughout. The architecture is the apotheosis of “Chinese”. When we first arrived there was a small problem with the hotel… we had arrived a day earlier and our room wasn’t ready.  Luckily everyone knows someone in these places, and we got an amazing suite at another hotel.  We walked through the maze of the city until we found it nestled in the back of a plaza near the edge of town.  I opened the wooden gate and looked up into the eyes of an enormous beast that looked part Himalayan mastiff, part wolf and part bear.  We looked each other in the eyes for a moment, his paws on my shoulders, and then he licked my face.  His name is Xiu Shan.  ‘Shan’ means ‘mountain’ and he has earned the name.  He is the biggest dog I have ever seen and he demanded belly rubs.  So that was what I gave him.  We settled into the room we were given which was actually an amazing loft suite, and then went to the restaurant that was attached to the other side and had a meal that featured a host of local mushrooms, freshly picked that day.  That night we wandered the maze of the old town, where we found our way to the main plaza and saw some locals showing the tourists how to do a Naxi dance.  We tried to keep up (Yinan doing a far better job than I) but I excused myself after a few minutes.  Then 2 girls asked to take their picture with me (for what reason I know not.  Simply because I was foreign?).  We then found a small bar with a lone guitar player singing and had a couple of drinks before turning in for the night.  The next day we got breakfast where I had my first encounter with the tiny seats.  Crammed into a corner and eating dumplings I’m pretty sure everybody had a good laugh at my expense, but they were very polite not to be obvious about it.  We then got a car to take us to another old-town area up the road.  This is where things got fun.

On the way, nearly there, I noticed a mountain wreathed in mist and clouds and pointed it out.  The driver spoke to Yinan and she said it was snowing up there and that the mountain was Snow Mountain. The driver then asked if we wanted to see it.  He said he knew someone who would give us a deal on cold-weather gear and that it was well worth the trip.  we had to think about it for half a second.  Of course we would go.  So he turned around, we rented some gear and we were on our way to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

The drive to the mountain was beautiful in and of itself.  The road paralleled a gorge that wound back and forth across the valley.  The exposed faces had stark striations rippled over its surface in brilliant shades of brown and gray as though somebody had burned the stone.  We arrived at a welcome center and boarded a bus to the cable car station at the base of the mountain.  The trip up was not long, but it seemed that way to me as I am not a particular fan of heights.  It was a beautiful ride, and we would occasionally see bursts of bright pink on the ground below.  Apparently some species of flower lives on the mountain that blooms right up to the snow line.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves of the mountain.  After about a half hour the snow picked up dramatically to the point where it was nearly a white-out, and we had to go back down.  On the ground we caught the very last bus to the Blue Moon Valley where the pools were colored dramatically, probably by copper sulfate (but don’t quote me on that).  Seeing the sun just barely peeking through the clouds above vast swirls of snow driven on the winds around the base of the mountain over the blue pools is something I will never forget.

The next day we left Lijiang to go to Shaxi.

It was much smaller than the other towns and was very rural. The first day we arrived just in time to catch the Friday market, which is apparently one of the only days to get food each week.  We went to the hotel which had several dogs and a cat and Yinan started chatting with the manager while I sat down for a bit.  Finally we explored a little more of the town and then went out to the fields during sunset.  The humid air and the angle of the sun was captivating, leaving the hills wreathed in a halo of glowing mist.  The next day we got directions to several temples in the mountains.  The directions were drawn in crayon, which should have been a clue about their reliability. We climbed through the foothills and found a couple of small temples, got lost and tired and returned to town before sundown and called it a day.  That night we went out again to look at the stars, but I couldn’t get a good shot of them, sadly.

We took a bus back to Kunming, stayed for the night and finally went back to Beijing.

It was Labor Day when we arrived so it was very crowded when we went to see the Forbidden City. As you can see there was quite a bit of impressive stuff on display. I didn’t take as many pictures here as I was just having fun meandering around.

After a few days we went to The Great Wall.

It was pretty grand, obviously. It was also fairly terrifying because the steps are insanely steep in places and you’re basically just climbing the mountain it’s built on.