Yunnan, China

Kunming:

Hi all. Dave here. We’re on a bus from Kunming to Dali (4-5 hrs) but we’re not sitting together because we got the last two seats so I thought I’d take the laboring oar of writing this post since I’m better situated than Stef. As Stef indicated in her last post, we’re now in Yunnan, in SW China, which our guide book describes as the best overall province in China. We spent our 1st two days in Kunming, the provincial capital, which has approx. 1 million ppl.

After taking a 20 hr overnight train from Guilin, which turned out to be much better than expected, we arrived in Kunming around 10am. Regarding our train ride, because by the time we booked our tickets all of the sleeper seats were already sold out, we started our journey by sitting in a row of three with another row of three directly across from us (with a table in btwn). Fortunately, the other four people in our “group” were probably the best possible group of trainmates we could have asked for (a group of recent college grads who all spoke relatively good English). Nevertheless, we still wanted to upgrade to a sleeper cabin if possible. And low and behold, at around 11pm, just as we were wondering how in the world we would have be able to sleep on this train (the seats didn’t even recline), the conductor (whom I requested an upgrade from 7 hours earlier as soon as we got on the train, using a handwritten note in Chinese which our excellent hostel in Guilin wrote for us), granted our wish. So we said goodbye (and good luck) to our trainmates and hunkered down for a great night’s sleep in our new sleeper cabin.

We arrived at hour hostel in Kunming, which was rated the 3rd best hostel in the city (out of about 70 on TripAdvisor) around 11am, and before we could even check in, we were approached by a seemingly harmless Aussie who asked us if we wanted to join him for a juice on the very nice rooftop balcony. After politely explaining that we just arrived from a 20 hour overnight train and really all we wanted to do was shower, check email, and relax, we eventually shooed him away after further insistence on his part. This strange, abrasive man would continue to bother us for the remainder of our 2 days in Kunming, and was also a foreshadow of things to come at our very overrated hostel.

After checking in and helping us book another overnight train from Chengdu to Xian for a couple weeks’ time (the only good thing our hostel did for us during our entire stay, though for a small commission of course), we proceeded to our room only to discover that a) it had no air-con, b) the window was wide open which meant mosquitoes were flying around; and c) there was no hot water in the shower. For $30 a night (which may sound like nothing but is actually much more than we were paying in many other, and better, places in China), we expected more. When Stef complained about the shower (after checking our reservation we realized that we didn’t book an air-con room, but our hotel said they only had 1 air-con room in the entire hotel and that the fan they provided would be more than sufficient–needless to say, it wasn’t), which she did in a towel and with shampoo in her hair, after the shower completely shut off while she was in there, they offered us a free coffee and told us they would take 15Y (a mere $2.50) off our bill (the hot water issue was actually resolved quickly though).

Though I couldn’t care less about $2.50, since they offered, I asked them if they could just give it to us now. They said they’ll add it to the 100Y key deposit I already paid and return it to me upon checkout (ie, 115Y). We then asked them to write that on our deposit receipt which they previously gave us (which said we paid 100Y), and they said don’t worry, it’s in their computer. To make a long story short (or longer I suppose), upon checking out 2 days later from this awful hotel (in addition to the aforementioned deficiencies and the continued pestering from the Aussie, their wifi was terrible the entire time we were there and we were barely able to check email or surf the web), big shock, but the local man at the checkout counter who didn’t speak English said there was no record of our extra 15Y in their computer and he refused to give it to us (which prompted Stef to cry after the culmination of all these deficiencies).

In any event, despite our awful hotel and pestering neighbor, our time in Kunming (away from our hotel) was actually very nice. On our 1st day, after the aforementioned check-in difficulties, we spent about 5 hours doing almost a complete walk/circuit of the major sites in the city. Despite its many flaws, our hotel had hands down the best location in the city, smack in the middle of everything (which is typically our #1 priority for a hotel). The area we were staying, called Jinmabiji Square, was filled with super cute Chinese shops and restaurants. A block away was the main pedestrian street filled with fancy stores (Nike, etc) chain restaurants (KFC, McDonalds), and a Muslim mosque which was more impressive from far away than up close. A block off the pedestrian street was the Flower and Bird Market, which was filled with much more than just flowers and birds. It had all sorts of local and even import products (we bought a big package of Vietnamese instant coffee, our favorite coffee in the world other than maybe Dunkin), and every conceivable small pet you could imagine (rabbits, turtles, dogs, fish, snakes, spiders, squirrels, hedgehogs and even pigs). Oddly, there were tons of police walking through the market and searching various stalls. Not sure what they were looking for but something illegal presumably (or just for a typical Asian bribe).

After the market, we continued north to the biggest Buddhist temple in Kunming, but unfortunately arrived about 10 minutes after it closed (fortunately we live in Thailand where there are tons of Buddhist temples so we weren’t too remiss). From the temple, we headed to Green Lake Park, the biggest park in the city, filled with lillypad ponds, locals hanging out and practicing taichi, and a lot of green space. After the park, we walked to Wenhua Xiang, which our book describes as being a trendy restaurant/bar street where lots of expats and well-off locals hang-out. While we didn’t see any bars, we did see a couple of good-looking Western restaurants (including a very good-looking and relatively cheap Mexican restaurant) and also a handful of street food vendors serving, among other things, fried potatoes and also a Chinese version of som tam (our favorite Thai salad), with chicken feet. Though we were very tempted, it was a little too early for us to eat so we opted to move on but said we would probably return the following night for dinner.

From there, we walked to the Kunda Night Market, which was supposed to be the biggest bar/club scene in Kunming. Of course, at 7pm on a Tuesday, there wasn’t much going on, but the area was filled with a dozen or so clubs that we could tell would be very fun on a Friday or Sat night. As for the “night market” part, it was more of a handful of small restaurants which appeared to be precursors (or perhaps postcursors) to the club scene. Finally, after about 5 hours of walking, we returned to our area and had a very nice local meal at a very local restaurant a block from our hotel. There was no English on the menu nor any pictures (this was the first time we’d eaten someone without at least one or the other), so we just pointed at what others were eating and said we wanted that. After seeing what we were doing, the locals joined in and tried to help us by pointing at their favorite dishes they were eating. We ordered an unbelievable crispy boned meat dish (not sure what meat but possibly pork, beef or even deer), a spicy minced meat (likey beef) dish, a chicken stir-fry dish and a morning glory (Chinese cabbage), the latter our 1st in China (though we get it very often in Thailand). It was way too much food, but we were able to take the leftovers for lunch the next day. After a great meal, we headed back to our hotel for some more pestering by our Aussie neighbor (because there was no wifi or air-con in our room, and only very little of the former in the admittedly very nice common lobby area, any free time we had at our hotel we spent in the lobby, where the Aussie seemed to always be), and a very hot/uncomfortable night’s sleep.

The next day, our only full day in Kunming, we headed to Xi Shan, about an hour west of the city by bus. Xi Shan is a mountain on the outskirts of the city that overlooks a very large lake (the 6th largest in China) and the city of Kunming. Our book describes it by saying “If you haven’t been to Xi Shan, then you haven’t been to Kunming. And if you haven’t been to the Dragon Gate [the highlight of Xi Shan] then you haven’t been to Xi Shan.” After a couple of local bus mishaps, we eventually arrived at the mountain about an hour or two later than we had hoped. From the base of the mountain, you can either hike to the main gate (where you pay a 40Y entry fee to continue further on to the Dragon Gate), or you can take a minibus for 12Y. We were originally planning to hike but because of our delayed arrival, we opted to take the minibus, which ended up being a great decision because the hike would have been all uphill and generally pretty boring.

From the main entry gate, we walked another kilometer or so to the highlight of the mountain, a series of very steep, stone steps leading in various directions, one of which led to the Dragon Gate. After checking out several other attractions along the way (various temples, pavillions and viewpoints), we finally got to the Dragon Gate (a cave cut directly into the side of the mountain that overlooks the entire lake and city of Kunming). It was pretty cool and a little similar to the Old Zhuilu Trail (the vertigo trail) we did in the Taroko Gorge in Taiwan a month or so ago, but not nearly as long, scary or impressive. After the Dragon Gate, we continued on to the small Stone Forest, a series of stones in the middle of the forest at the top of the mountain. We were originally planning to visit Shilin, about 2 hours from Kunming, which is where the “real” Stone Forest is, but after discovering their entry fee was about $30 pp (plus another $20 pp to get to/from), we opted to skip it, despite it being the # 1 tourist site around Kunming. After the Stone Forest, we took the mini bus back down the mountain (again, we were planning to walk but were surprisingly tired and still running late), and returned to Kunming. Overall, it was a nice day trip but in hindsight, we probably should have gotten an earlier start (we left the city around 9am which is very late for us).

After returning to the city, we stopped by 1 more local tourist site (the East and West pagodas), which were a few blocks from our hotel. After a quick shower/poor internet checking (and a surprising reprieve from our pesky neighbor), we headed back out for the night to Wenhua XIang, where we had been the night before but had been to early for dinner. This time, we arrived just in time for dinner, and were very torn between Mexican or a local Chinese meal. But amazingly, even after 3 weeks in China (and only 1 Western dinner; slices of pizza after a night of drinking in Hong Kong), we weren’t craving Western food like we typically do after a couple of weeks of traveling. So we opted for the local meal, getting the Chinese som tom from a local street vendor (which was good but not as good as the Thai version, mainly because the chicken feet are bony and a little hard to eat), and stopping in a local restaurant to try some of Yunnan’s (and Kunming’s in particular) local specialties, namely fried goat cheese, potatoes (this time mashed instead of roasted), and one traditional Chinese dish (at least by American standards), kung pao, which was only our 2nd kung pao of the trip so far (one of the reasons we haven’t gotten tired of Chinese food is because of the sheer variety, particularly as you travel from one province to another, not surprising I guess given its size; similar to traveling from one state or even region to another in the US).

After another great meal, we retreated back to our hostel for another not so great night’s sleep and a final bothering from our Aussie neighbor in the morning (even at 6am) before heading to the bus station to catch a bus to Dali, which our book describes as the “original funky banana pancake backpacker hangout in Yunnan which has since become, you guessed it, too touristy.” Considering we typically love touristy places (because, among other things, they have great local and Western food, great accommodation, great transportation, and presumably great tourist sites), we suspect we’ll love it. Here’s to hoping at least.

Dali:

This is a difficult post to write. Dali is a very unique city. The Dali that most people think of (and visit) is an ancient city filled with cute antique/craft shops, numerous Chinese and also Western restaurants, cafes and lots and lots of tourists. The whole city is enclosed by a huge wall with four large gates (north, south, east and west) being the only entry/exit points. The whole city is only a square mile or two. It sort of feels like that movie “The Village” with Joaquin Phoenix for those that have seen it (ie, an ancient, enclosed city that feels like you’ve stepped back in time hundreds of years, but with a huge modern city right outside). It’s surrounded by mountains to the west and a huge lake to the east. The latter is the 7th largest lake in China (approx. 250 sq km, or 120 km around; though it seemed much larger as you’ll see shortly..).

Beyond the walled city of Dali, approx. 30 min away by car and also on the lake, is Xiaguan, a much larger, more modern city. It’s the transport hub for the ancient city of Dali and also confusingly referred to as “Dali” on many maps, bus/train tickets, etc. The rest of the lake is dotted with small towns, some of which as we’d soon find out, were either charming or blah. Surprisingly, there’s no way to cross the huge lake (ie, neither a bridge nor ferry) other than taking a tourist boat trip around the lake for 3 hours and $30 (and even then, I’m not sure if you can get off the boat in towns other than ancient Dali).

We arrived into Xiaguan around 2pm and shared a taxi to the Old City with 2 Australian girls who were the only other white people on our 5 hour bus from Kunming to Dali. They were in China for 2 weeks and only visiting Yunnan, taking a very similar path to ours (Kunming to Dali to Lijiang to the Tiger Leaping Gorge to Shangrila). One of them was a lawyer and was very impressed with my sabbatical/change of career path (and seemingly jealous). After checking into our hotel (which was very cute and world’s apart from our last miserable hotel experience in Kunming; and although the owner spoke no English, she had a Chinese intern who spoke English very well which would be hugely beneficial to us later on..) and catching up on email for a little bit, we walked around the Old City and got our bearings. It was raining slightly so we bought some booties (plastic covers for our shoes) for $2 which I suspect will be the best $2 we spend all summer. After walking through about half of the Old City (and seeing two of the four main gates), we ate dinner in the center of the city in a food court type place (lots of different vendors selling various unique dishes). We had a noodle dish, a fried rice and a tofu dish (which we mistakenly thought was the famous Dali cheese). It was okay but not one of our better meals in China.

The next day we were planning to rent a motorbike and drive around the whole lake. Our book says that most people rent bicycles and cover about half of the lake in a day, and some even make it all the way around, so we figured it would be a piece of cake to cover it on a motorbike in a day. Unfortunately, when we woke up, as had been the case since we arrived the afternoon before, it was raining. So instead, we decided to take a local bus to one of the small towns directly north of Dali which our book described as being cute and very representative of Bai/local culture. After exiting the wrong gate based on our book’s faulty directions, we eventually found the bus and made it to Xizhou. As soon as we got to the city center, we discovered there was a $10 fee to enter the city (and another $5 fee for a different part of the city). Our book said nothing of these fees, so I suspect like many tourist attractions in China, they’re fairly new and also much higher than they used to be. Had we known about the fees, we likely wouldn’t have visited this forgettable town. After walking around the outskirts of the town for a bit (only the center part had fees), the rain finally let up.

Now we had a difficult choice to make. We could either walk back to Dali along the lake (about 20 kilometers), take a bus back and visit another small town/village a mile away from Dali but directly on the lake (the Old City is about a mile off the lake), or head back to Dali and try to rent a motorbike for the afternoon. We opted for the latter, with a pitstop at the Three Pagodas, which our book describes as being the “absolute symbol of the town/region.” Not surprisingly (and this time as we already knew), the fee for visiting the pagodas was comical ($20 pp). And you couldn’t even go in the pagodas (fyi, if you don’t know, a pagoda is a large religious tower that looks sort of like the Leaning Tower of Pisa). These pagodas were set against the mountains in the background with the lake not far away. A beautiful setting indeed but certainly not worth $40, especially since you could get a pretty good view of them from outside the entrance gate.

A brief aside here. We read that the fees for certain tourist sites in Yunnan were insanely overpriced, and sometimes even laughable. But I couldn’t believe it until I saw it firsthand. Recall how in Guilin (which isn’t Yunnan but still SW China), they were charging $20 pp to enter what should be a public park. Now, in Dali, they’re charging the same to visit a pagoda which you can’t even enter (many pagodas, like the free one we visited at the Lotus Pond in Kaohschuing, Taiwan, allow you to enter and climb to the top for great views of the surrounding area). Not only do they make traveling to these places prohibitively expensive (for a family of four to visit a park or pagoda, the latter of which you would likely only spend 30 minutes at most in, it would cost $80), but the prices they’re charging simply don’t match up to the experience you’d be getting. For example, even the most impressive sights in the world typically only charge $20 to enter (eg, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, Eiffel Tower, the Louve, Great Wall of China, etc.). And those experiences typically last all or at least most of the day (and often leave you with a lifetime of memories). While we didn’t visit the parks in Guilin or pagodas in Dali, I think I can safely say they don’t offer the same wow factor as the aforementioned places, just the same bite in your wallet.

Just as we were about to leave the pagodas we heard our names being called. It was our 6 friends from our overnight train ride from Guilin to Kunming. It was fun (and surprising!) to run into them. After taking some photos and catching up for a few, we walked a kilometer or so back to our hotel in the Old City (where we knew there was a motorbike shop nearby), around 1pm. The day before, the motorbike place said they charge 150Y (about $25) to rent a motorbike for the day. Now, at 1pm, they said they would rent it to me for 60Y ($10) until 8pm. With the rain now stopped, this seemed like a no brainer. Instead of leaving my passport as collateral, I was able to leave my IL driver’s license (which I just renewed over the holidays when back in Chicago) and 140 additional yuan. To my surprise, when we left the motorbike shop, I realized there was no real ignition to the bike. Rather, you just turned it on and it was good to go. Also, strangely, there was a large battery in the car seat which we tried to return but were told to keep in there. Finally, before departing, the rental guy (who didn’t speak any English) wrote something about 50km, to which I said okay and headed off.

Our 1st stop was the small town, Caicun, on the lake one kilometer away from the Old City. Although only a kilometer away, we got a little lost on the way. When we got there, we had to pay 5Y to park near the water. Immediately after paying, we realized that the only way to view the lake was to pay an additional 180Y for the three hour boat cruise. Despite being only a few meters from the lake, we literally couldn’t even get a view (nor picture) of it. We left disgusted, though did have a couple of nice snacks for lunch (an egg and sausage wrap sort of thing and french fries with spicy seasoning, both Yunnan specialties).

For the next hour or so, we weaved our way in and out of alleyways and down small (often dirt) roads right along the lake, but remarkably, only got a few glimpses of this mammoth lake, none of which were photoworthy. Finally, around 3pm, we arrived (inadvertently) back in Xiaguan, which seemed like a metropolis (tall buildings, tons of traffic) compared to the Old City and the surrounding towns/villages. From Xiaguan, we decided to head east and continue our circle around the lake (note-despite inadvertently ending back up in Xiaguan, we purposely decided to go south around the lake because we had already been 20 km north earlier in the day when we visited the overrated Xizhou). From Xiaguan, FINALLY, the road traveled directly along the lake and provided uninhibited, breathtaking views of the lake and surrounding mountains and towns below. Now on the east side of the lake (for frame of reference, imagine the lake is a huge rectangle with the shorter sides on the top and bottom; Xiaguan is at the bottom and the Old City is a little below the middle on the west side, with Xizhou a little further up but still nowhere near the top). When we got to the next town (Haidong), on the east side almost directly across from the Old City, a little below the center of the lake), we had another difficult choice to make. We could either head back south the way we came, or we could continue further north on the east side of the lake, circle around the top, and then head back south along the west side of the lake. The former would have been the safer but more boring choice as we’d already covered that route, the latter being the riskier but newer so potentially more rewarding path. We chose the latter of course.

About 15 minutes later, our motorbike stopped working. By this point, we realized that the reason there was no ignition and the reason we were given a battery was because our motorbike was really an electric scooter, which we had never ridden before. Further, we also suspected the “50km” reference that our motorbike rental guy made before we took off meant that the bike can only go 50km before it needs to be recharged. Not surprisingly, a little less than halfway around this 120km lake, our bike died. Fortunately, we immediately found a recharging station (a local convenience store with a machine that looked like it was made to recharge electric scooters). We waited about 30 minutes (and paid 10Y) while our motorbike recharged, and when the convenience store guy gave us the thumbs up, we assumed we were good to go. Thirty minutes later, our motorbike broke down again, this time in the super cute ancient town of Shangiang, much smaller but arguably even cuter than the Old City of Dali across the lake. Whereas before we used the convenience store machine to recharge our scooter, this time we used the battery that came in the scooter seat (paying another 10Y for the mere right to use someone’s outlet). This time, however, we had to wait an hour to recharge.

By now, it was getting late (about 6pm) and we were starting to worry that we might not make it back to Dali by 8pm, when our motorbike guy told us his store would close. If we had no more problems, I predicted we would still make it back by 7:30ish. But when our motorbike broke down a third time less than 30 minutes later, my prediction proved wrong. This time, we were literally in the middle of nowhere with only a very local convenience store (with another battery charging machine and 10Y fee) in sight. We weighed our options. One, we could leave our motorbike at this convenience store and try to hitch a ride back to Dali (or at least to the west side of the lake where we could likely catch a local bus; we were now at the top of the lake), or two, we could recharge a 3rd time and hope our bike would at least make it to the next big town where our prospects for leaving it somewhere safe/recognizable and also for getting back to Dali were much better (by this point, we had given up all hope that our bike would make it back to Dali, which was still another 50 km or so away). We opted for the latter, which although scary for a few minutes, ultimately ended up being the better choice.

So after waiting another hour to recharge, off we went again around 8pm, just as the sun was beginning to completely set. Even worse, we had to drive without headlights so as to preserve whatever little battery power we had left. We drove for about another 30 minutes or so before our bike broke down for a 4th time. Fortunately, just as it was dying, we made it to the NW corner of the lake where there was a major intersection, a decent amount of traffic, and some recognizable highway signs where we could leave the bike in hopes that our motorbike shop could pick it up the next day. After ditching the bike, we were able to hitch a ride back to Xizhou (20 km north of Dali, where we visited earlier that day), and then hitch another ride back to Dali. By this point, it was close to midnight and there were no public buses nor taxis in sight. Both rides cost us about 50Y each.

Finally back in Dali, we decided to celebrate our bare escape with some Western food (a burger and fish and chips) and sheesha at the most popular bar in town. The next morning, we enlisted the help of our English speaking intern to explain what happened to our motorbike place. Needless to say, he was shocked we took the bike that far and told us that after 50 km, the bike needs to be charged for EIGHT hours, not the mere one that we kept charging it (this seemed strange considering all three times we recharged we were told we were good to go). Fortunately, his motorbike was installed with a GPS so he confirmed the location where we left it (we had numerous pictures to show him as well). However, he refused to give me back my driver’s license until the motorbike was returned. Moreover, he refused to go pick it up himself. Instead, he seemed to suggest that we go pick it up, wait the 8 hours to recharge it, and then return it to him (for which of course he’d charge us an additional day’s rent).

Suffice to say, I said no thanks and told him he can keep my license as Stef and I were planning to leave town in a few hours. In the end, he actually gave me back all of my money (200Y) and said if/when he retrieves the bike, he’ll give my license to our hotel and they can mail it to me…in Thailand. I suspect I’ll never see that license again, but THANK GOD I didn’t give him my passport. [Stef has a fear that if the bike gets stolen or he isn’t able to retrieve it for some reason, he may report my license info to the police which could prevent me from leaving China, but in my view, that likelihood is very small and moreover, I’m confident we did everything we possibly could to return/protect his bike; he actually suggested we should have stayed with the bike when we ditched it at 10pm and recharged it for 8 hours, notwithstanding the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere and there were no hotels or places to sleep anywhere nearby; moreover, he wouldn’t even retrieve it himself because he said he was too lazy).

So all in all, we leave Dali with very mixed feelings. The Old City is wonderful and had we simply stayed within its walls for our entire time, we surely would have loved it (though we also would have gotten extremely bored). But the sights surrounding Dali (like Xizhou , Caicun and the 3 Pagodas) leave a lot to be desired and are extremely overpriced. Additionally, the road on the west side of the lake is very boring and generally unattractive. The east side of the lake, on the other hand, is beautiful and filled with lots of cute towns, guesthouses, restaurants, cafes and bars, many of which directly overlook the lake. But they’re a slog to get to from Dali unless you have a motorbike, and NOT an electric one! If we could do it again, we probably would have either stayed within the Old City walls or maybe taken a bus to east side and then rented a bicycle or motorbike around there. Or if we could have found a real motorbike (not an electric one, though we weren’t even aware we were renting one nor am I sure there were any “real” motorbikes to even rent in the Old City), we’d do it again but start much earlier in the day (though recall it was raining when the day began).

In short, it was a rough couple of days in Dali but we learned some valuable lessons (like don’t cut it so close when the risk is ending up in the middle of nowhere late at night, and also make sure you know exactly what you’re renting and how it works). Hopefully, Lijiang (where we’re headed to now, another small/ancient town supposedly similar to Dali) treats us better, but given the fact that a) it’s been raining here every single day (and almost all day long) since we arrived in Yunnan, b) the tourist sights we want to see will continue to be prohibitively/laughably expensive (with local vendors further trying to rip you off) and c) almost nobody speaks English, I suspect we may be in for another rough week or so until we get to Chengdu and Xi’an, our last two stops which should be much more similar to the earlier big cities we visited with my parents which we all enjoyed. Here’s hoping my suspicions are wrong.

Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge:
We arrived into Lijiang around 6pm and two local buses later, we were at our guesthouse, or so we thought. Upon entering our guesthouse (Peach Guesthouse), there were a bunch of people waiting in the reception area. The man in charge immediately looked at me and said “Are you David?” When I cheerfully responded yes, he said “I’m sorry but we have a problem.” Apparently, the guesthouse had overbooked and since we were the last to make a reservation, he said we needed to sleep at another guesthouse nearby. Alas, our troubles in Yunnan continued..

While we had admittedly only booked this guesthouse earlier in the day for that night, we had also booked it for the following night several weeks earlier. So when we were told that we had to sleep somewhere else that night, we said then we would likely not be returning the following night. After walking us about 5-10 minutes actually closer to Old Town (where all the action in Lijiang is), we stumbled upon another guesthouse called On the Road that looked like it accommodated English-speaking guests. Our guesthouse had originally wanted to put us up at another guesthouse where they said no one could speak English, but when we saw this other guesthouse, we immediately seized on it.

Fortunately, this new guesthouse was great and we would end up spending two nights there. We were actually supposed to stay at the Peach Guesthouse for a 3rd night upon returning from Shangri-la in a few days’ time, and the Peach Guesthouse owner felt so bad about what happened that he offered us a free night stay that night, which we’ll likely take him up on.

As for Lijiang itself, the city is very cute. Like Dali, it has an Old Town made of cobblestone streets and cute rivers/canals/bridges running through it. But whereas Dali is on a grid with four main entry/exit gates, Lijiang is more a maze of alleyways. Keeping your sense of direction can be very difficult. Our 1st night there we walked down our street/alley towards the main square (Old Market Square) and had a delicious local dinner (blood sausage, a flatbread/pita which Lijiang is known for, a couple of meat skewers and a sweet and sour pork).

The following day we woke up early and explored the whole Old City. We started by walking towards the main square again, stopping along the way for a very local breakfast (another flatbread but this time filled with egg and veggies). After checking out the square, we headed north to another large square and then up onto Lion Hill, an area filled with hotels, shops, cafes, restaurants, bars (like much of Lijiang) which overlooks the entire Old City. We thought about going to the pavillion on top of the hill, but surprise surprise, the entry fee has quadrupled in the past three years. Next, we walked walked through the rest of the Old Town, stopping along the way to see the local produce/meat market and also a couple of pools where the locals wash their clothes and vegetables. By then, it was time for lunch so we ducked into another hawker center type place (ie, dozens of different food stalls under one one roof; Old Town has at least four of them) for an assortment of local snacks (fried tofu, yak jerkey, a couple of more giant meat skewers and a giant pan-fried spring roll which is the closest thing we’ve had to an egg roll since arriving in China).

After lunch, we thought about visiting Black Dragon Pool Park (a popular park on the edge of town), but with our impending hike of the Tiger Leaping Gorge the following day and also their not surprisingly hefty entry fee (80Y), we decided it would be better to take it easy and relax. So we returned to our guesthouse to catch up on email, pack for the following day’s hike and also for Shangri-la (we’d be returning to Lijiang in four days so we were leaving our big bags at our guesthouse which would be a nice reprieve) and relax with a bottle of wine. That night, we returned to the main square area where we had another solid meal of roasted pork ribs, fried potatoes and over the bridge noodles, the latter a Yunnan specialty (basically noodle soup filled with whatever your heart desires–eg, veggies, meat, spices, etc.).

The next morning we took a bus at 8am to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is about halfway (2 hours) between Lijiang and Zhongdian (aka Shangrila). We left our big bags at our guesthouse in Lijiang since we’d be returning there in a few days to catch a flight to Chengdu. With our small bags in tow, we arrived at the Gorge around 10am and were surprisingly dropped off right at the trailhead about a kilometer past the small town of Qiaotou, where we paid our entrance fee of about $10 pp (a steal compared to the entrance fees for other attractions in Yunnan).

The Tiger Leaping Gorge has two trails, one that goes along the main road and another that goes high up into the mountains, passing local villages along the way. Of course, we opted for the higher route. The trek is supposed to take about 8 hours, so our plan was to get as far as we could on the 1st day and either stay in one of the local villages for the night, or stay on the main road either where the trail ends or begins. The first three hours of the trail were almost completely uphill. In the 1st 1.5 hrs, we were in the grasslands and passed dozens of mountain goats and their herders along the way. Also following us were a couple of men on horses, whom we heard were waiting for us to drop or ask them to carry our bags (presumably for a large fee), neither of which happened of course.

The 2nd 1.5 hrs (after passing through the small village of Nuoyu which sits in a valley) is supposedly the toughest section of the trek. It’s called the 28 bends (because it supposedly has 28 turns) and was mostly through the forest. We stopped along the way for a quick lunch and were joined partly by a Ukranian girl who was traveling by herself (we eventually had to drop her). Although we were told to bring enough water for the hike because there wouldn’t be any along the way, in fact, there were several or more stands set up by the locals selling various necessities like water, soda, snacks and even, to our surprise, weed (the latter of which was laid out across the table as though it were as innocuous as the other items).

After the 1st three hours, the path leveled out a bit as we were walking high up in the mountains with the gorge below us (similar to the trek we did in Taroko Gorge in Taiwan earlier in the summer). Around 4pm (6 hrs into the 8 hr trek), we arrived in Bendiwan, where most people who started the trek with us (the majority of which were an hour or so behind us) were planning to spend the night. We debated pressing on for the last 2 hrs to the end of the trail, but decided to stay in Bendiwan as well for various reason (eg, it was still raining which it had much of the afternoon, Bendiwan was a local village high in the mountains whereas the hostel at the end of the trail was less authentic and on the main road, and we heard the 1st bus to Shangrila didn’t leave until 9amish, so we weren’t in a rush, especially since we knew we’d be up by 6am).

So we paid $20 for a private room (most ppl on our trek opted for the large dorm), walked around the village and found the only convenience store where we picked up a bottle of local alcohol (100 proof). By the time we returned to our guesthouse (called the Halfway House), the rain had subsided and everyone was gathering on their rooftop deck for what had to have been one of the best mountain views we’ve ever seen (the guesthouse was directly across from the most beautiful and imposing mountain on the trek). We chatted with our new friends (including an American father from Boston who was traveling with his daughter who lived in China and her boyfriend) and had a nice local meal before calling it an early night.

The next morning, at 6am, we began the last two hours of the trek just as the sun was beginning to rise. The 1st hour was a little rough as we took a wrong turn when we left the village and thus had to backtrack a little bit, but ultimately we arrived at the main road (and thus the end of the trek) around 8:30am. From there, after several failed attempts, we hitchhiked along the main road back to the village of Qiaotou where we began the trek the day before (note–our book says hitchhiking along the main road back to the village is pretty much the only way to get back unless you want to press on 4-6 more hours to the next village, which few people do). Remarkably, as soon as we got back to the main village, a private minivan was departing for Shangrila for 40Y pp (we were planning to take the public bus which would have been a little less but a lot more time-consuming/hassling). All in all, it was a great trek and certainly one of the highlights of our RTW 3.0, despite the fact that, like most of our time in Yunnan, it rained on and off the whole time.

Shangrila:

Known locally as Zhongdian, Shangrila (the same name as the hotel chain) became famous when experts claimed it was the location of James Hilton’s 1933 bestseller Lost Horizon (later made into a Hollywood movie). It was the last stop on our Yunnan tour and one of the closest cities in China to Tibet. In fact, most of the restaurants in town serve Tibetan food and it was the closest we felt to the Himalayas since being in Nepal. We arrived in town in the early afternoon and after a quick Tibetan lunch (yak momos and yak chow men; yak, which is like a large Himalayan mountain goat or cow, is the local meat), we retreated back to our guesthouse for a much needed shower, catching up on email and drying our shoes and clothes with a hair dryer (we also watched a movie in our guesthouse’s lounge while the rain persisted). Later that night we walked around the Old Town (where we were staying) for a bit before another excellent local Chinese meal (many of the restaurants didn’t have English menus but had pictures of all their dishes, so we rolled the dice a little bit and ended up with a great meal but one too many dishes).

The next day we were planning to rent bicycles and ride to either the nearby monastery (the most famous attraction in town) or a hot springs ten km away, but surprise surprise, it was raining when we woke up. So instead we decided to rent a motorbike again (this time a real one, not an electric one), using Stef’s driver’s license (recall mine is still being held by a local shop in Dali), the impetus being that we’d rather get caught in the rain on a motorbike than bicycles.

The 1st stop on our tour was a grassland area a couple of miles north of the city. Both a guy we took our bus to the Gorge with and our motorbike shop suggested it. Though we were skeptical at first, and though it rained almost the entire time, it ended up being a great ride. This grassland area took about 1.5-2 hours to drive around and was filled with every type of farm animal you can possibly imagine. From horses to cows to goats to pigs to sheep to wild boars to chickens and roosters and more, the ride felt like the Tibetan version of an African safari. Most amazing to us was how all of these animals seemingly got along so well, and also the question of who owned all of these animals as there were no gates or fences dividing this massive grassland. Also along the way we saw several horse riding facilities, but since we already had our motorbike for the day, we passed on those.

After the grassland, we stopped by the monastery (Ganden Sumtseling), home to over 600 monks but when we saw the $20 entry fee (which like many Yunnan attractions, has quadrupled in the past few years), we passed. So instead, after a quick noodle soup lunch (again, no English menu and no pictures so instead we just saw what others were eating and said we wanted two of those), we headed 20 km south of town towards the hot springs and also the 2nd biggest attraction near Shangrila (after the monastery), Lake Pudacuo. Like the monastery, Lake Pudacuo had a ridiculous entry fee ($30 pp, for a lake which should be free), so while we knew we likely wouldn’t enter it, we had time to kill and heard it was a pretty drive to/from the lake.

Although the drive was indeed pretty, it was also very hilly (through the mountains), which is when we discovered our motorbike was shitty. After several breakdowns going up the winding, hilly roads, we eventually arrived at the lake and successfully made it back to town. After returning our motorbike, we walked back through Old Town, this time climbing to the temple on the top of the hill which overlooks the main town square. The view was very nice, but also very sad, as about 1/4 of the Old Town burned down last year due to a small hotel fire (we didn’t realize this until we arrived in town as our guidebook is more than a year old). Thus, huge parts of Old Town are now blocked off and almost all of it is under reconstruction. It’s all very sad but we were happy to be able to visit and to give back to the local economy in some small way. That night, we were debating between getting a yak hot pot which almost every restaurant in town seemed to be serving, or eating Western food. We opted for Western mainly because we heard Chengdu (our next destination in China) is famous for hot pots so we figure we’ll get one there. So we ended up getting a yak burger and pepperoni pizza, both of which were good but the former better.

The next morning, after going for a nice run on of course the 1st sunny day we’ve seen in all of Yunnan (unlike the few days before when we were trekking or motorbiking), we took a five hour bus (sunny the whole time) back to Lijiang where we’d spend our last night in Yunnan before catching our flight to Chengdu the following evening. After walking around the Old Town again and enjoying maybe the 1st sunshine we’d seen in all of Yunnan, we had another great meal right down our street (this time beef in spicy chili sauce, fried noodles and morning glory again), albeit after a failed attempt (due to language barriers) to partake in a happy hour which everyone seemed to be enjoying.

The following morning, our last day in Yunnan, we had planned to visit two more old towns about 3 and 10 km away from Lijiang. But not surprisingly, it was raining again when we woke up, so instead we enjoyed our free hotel room (recall how they overbooked us for our 1st night in Lijiang) and slowly made our way to the airport. We eventually ended up stopping by the closer of the two old towns (Shuhe) when the rain let up briefly. It was very similar to Lijiang (narrow/confusing alleys, cobblestone streets, river/canals running through it, all wooden houses, but a little smaller and less crowded), but of course it started raining again as soon as we arrived.

Now I’m sitting in the Lijiang airport awaiting our flight to Chengdu which was delayed. A fitting ending to our time in Yunnan. Stefanie will likely provide you with her additional/overall thoughts about Yunnan, but in short, it was a very frustrating, wet, sometimes cold two weeks. The scenery and small towns were very nice, but you certainly have to work for the enjoyment. I think if the weather had been better (it literally rained every day almost all day long) our experience would have been better. But the food, culture, people (most of them; Yunnan is very crowded, primarily with Chinese tourists who can sometimes be overwhelming in both number and behavior) and scenery always impressed us. Now onto Chengdu (in Sichuan) and Xi’an for our last two stops in China. Here’s hoping for better weather and smoother times ahead (as we await our delayed flight..)

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