Shangrila

A 1933 novel , Lost Horizon, by James Hilton described a fantastic hidden village somewhere in the Himalayan mountain ranges. All the inhabitants are happy and dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Something mystical is going on there and the story makes use of the exoticism of the Orient and plays on the differences of that far-off place.

The term Shangrila is sometimes used in a similar fashion to the Garden of Eden. It’s a mystical place that is nearly impossible to find. It remains unspoiled from modern man and sin. Or maybe it is a place that many have searched for and few have ever found ,or the culmination of life’s work.

Flash forward to the year 2000 and now we have several different cities throughout different countries vying for the title of Shangrila to attract tourists. Now my idea of a happy place is one with tourists kept to a minimum but forget that. The city of Zhongdian in China managed to rename itself to Shangrila (Name of Hilton’s book and the village he was describing). This is where we were headed. A quick 3 or 4 hour bus trip higher and ever higher into the mountains from Tiger Leaping Gorge took us there. On the way we passed through many police checkpoints. This was due to the close proximity of Tibet. Tibet has been a rather touchy subject along with the other forbidden Ts , Tiananmen and Taiwan. Tibet requires a special permit (cough up the cash) and a travel plan to visit but this July Tibet was closed off entirely to foreign tourists. It had something to do with an important anniversary and authorities were afraid of some unrest happening. At one of the checkpoints the cops tried to shake us down for some cash. They claimed that bus drivers operating tour buses had to pay a special fee to go through the area but we weren’t a tour group. Just a bus of people who had arranged from various guesthouses in Tiger Leaping Gorge to go to Shangrila. The cops wanted something like 5 yuan from everybody. The bus driver called some local friends and through his Guanxi , system of connections, we managed to escape without anyone paying. Take that coppers!

Zhongdian itself is a mess of old gray concrete buildings. Not exactly what I would call a paradise but the old town is cool. Old town is a little mini Tibetan cultural settlement. Cobblestone streets , Tibetans in costume, store after store of trinkets , Tibetan food , and various restaurants and coffee shops. I can see this place being called a mini Lijiang , but its much smaller and less touristy.

The climate is a bit of a shock. The town is situated at 3200 meters above sea-level which led me to being a bit short of breath and rocking a little headache at times. I saw many Chinese tourists clutching little bottles of oxygen and gulping it out through a tube connected to the bottle. At first I wondered what the hell those odd sounds were but then realized it was compressed oxygen. Also being this high in the mountains means Shangrila is cold! Average daily highs in July are 19C (65F) but when we were there in July it was more like 12C (54F) and rainy. This presented a bit of a problem since I only had one pair of pants , one hoodie , no socks, and no shoes. I loved Shangrila but my feet were happy to leave! We ended up staying at an awesome hostel called Blue Field. Look for it!

Things to do in Shangrila include seeing the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet and taking in the nature of the highland plateaus. One can rent a bicycle and ride through the grasslands to Napa lake , take a cable car up Shika Mountain , go skiing at Shika mountain (if the season is right) , and ride horses. The rain, cold weather, and a little bit of laziness  kinda kept us from doing those things. We used the time to huddle up in blankets , read books , and warm ourselves with Tibetan hot pot (delicious). The locals also drink Yak Butter Tea to keep warm but I’m not the biggest fan of butter so I stayed away, however Olivia loved it but said it was too rich to finish a whole cup. If rich fatty things are your cup of tea (haha) go for it.

I love to burn incense. For some reason at home it’s like I must always have one going. Chain-burning those sweet sticks one after another , lighting a new one from the smoldering ends of the last. I didn’t take any other souvenirs home with me but I loaded up on around 25 packs of Indian and Tibetan incense. A huge range of scents is offered and many from my favorite company (Darshan). These packs go for 15 RMB in Shanghai but here are a mere 6 RMB. 2.5 for the price of one!

I spent most of the rest of my time sitting up on the third floor clothes drying area of our hostel. The area has a roof overhead that is held up by wooden supports but no solid walls so it’s a great place to sit and look out over old town. It was really peaceful up there and I just watched people clutching umbrellas go down the alleyways, saw the smoke curl up from chimneys carrying enticing odors of grilled food, and watched the giant golden prayer meal from a monastery circle endlessly around. Maybe I found my own little piece of the real Shangrila there after all.

The original thinking way back in Kunming at the beginning of the Yunnan trip was after Shangrila make our way back to the unspoiled (by tourists) old town of Shaxi and then head down south into the tropical Xishuangbanna area of Yunnan. Someday I hope to make it back to Yunnan and see these other places but after drinking Beer Lao in Kunming and learning of the 28 hour sleeper bus from Kunming to Laos the idea of getting out of China and seeing a new country got cemented into my brain.

We hopped a 12 hour sleeper bus back to Kunming from Shangrila and then spent 2 days in Kunming getting me a ticket for Laos and attempting to get a visa. I went all the way to the Laos consulate to try to get a visa and then was informed only Chinese could get the visa here and that I could just go to the border and get one on arrival. Arghh!

The bus ticket to Laos costs 400RMB and is a heck of a 28 hour bus ride. The southern bus station is located far outside the city center and took me over two hours to get there by bus. The traffic was absolutely horrendous and at times we were stuck in the middle of an intersection for three consecutive red green cycles before our bus managed to squeeze through. I was getting nervous about making it on time after about 1 hour and worried as hell at an hour and half. Oh crap I’m gonna miss my bus!!! When we did finally pull up to the bus station I grabbed all my things and took off at full sprint looking for the Laos bus. It was pretty easy to spot standing out with bright tropical colors and Laos script on the side. I made it with about 2 minutes to spare. Wooo hoooo I always get excited before a new country. With that the Yunnan phase of my trip is over and the Laotian one begins!

 

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the world’s deepest gorges. So named because due to legend a tiger leaped across the gorge to flee a pursuing hunter. The Yangzte River (or Jinsha river as it is known locally) flows–and in some places rushes down rapids– in between the two towering mountain ranges of 5,596 meter Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and 5,396 meter Haba Snow Mountain. Both sets of mountains are aptly named with majestic snow capped peaks. I didn’t see any Jade Dragons but hey it’s China they gotta be lurking somewhere in those vast ranges. There are two paths you can choose to take through the gorge. The first is the trekking high path ,23 km long, which winds through the diverse terrain. The trail snakes through verdant forests , goes along precipes–which loom thousands of meters above the ground–, climbs steep hills,passes by guesthouses, meanders through calm farmland , and at one point runs underneath a thundering waterfall. In short this is one of the best hikes through some of the most diverse terrain that China has to offer. The low path is just a road alongside the river. True it does offer many great views of the river , gives more of a sense of being in a gorge, and is a bit less strenuous (but the high path isn’t kick your ass then kick you while you’re down tough) but really c’mon people just climb the high path! At one point the high and low paths converge near a guesthouse and then you can take a short path down to the riverside.

The area is populated by the Naxi minority group. They make their living off of grain , tourism , and selling ganja to foreign hikers. The gorge is a very famous spot and an absolute must do in Yunnan province. It came very close to being lost forever as the government was pushing to dam it up and irreversibly damage the gorge but thankfully wiser heads prevailed and it’s safe.

The first stop in Tiger Leaping Gorge is a disembarkment from the bus to purchase tickets and then we were off to a guesthouse to deposit our bags. Something like 5 or 10 rmb to store our bags (no way were we hiking with all that stuff) grab a bite to eat, and play with the little newborn puppies. The next goal was to find the start of the high trail. I love the directions on the internet , ” From the ticket office, walk along the road till you reach the school gate. Stay on the road, following the schools grey-white wall till its end where painted arrows point up an embankment at the beginning of the trek.” Don’t worry it’s pretty easy to find and once actually on the path there are constant blue and yellow arrow signs pointing out which direction to go. Along the path there are occasionally entrenprenuers who have set up shop catering to hiker’s needs. Cries of Apple!, Water!, ring out through the day. And if that fails to elicit any response the next cry is “Ganja!” to try and attract the hiker’s interest. At around two hours into the hike we found the Naxi family guesthouse. We stopped for some incredible mint tea and said farewell to our Canadian hiking buddies we had met with earlier that day. The next stop was at a Jia you zhen (literally Add Oil Station) to buy some peaches. Looking at the table laid out with goods I noticed bags of herb on the table , haha right out in the open like that, with a hilarious English advertisement. Try the best Naxi smoke , it was give you an exhilirating and uplifting feeling that will leave you feeling floaty alll day. Some elaborate description seemingly best fit to be in California and Amsterdam , not on this dark green seedy little bag. Some hiker was obviously asked to provide an English advertisement. I tried to snap a photo but the lady wouldn’t let me. So I settled for a picture of the robot made from Red Bull cans instead haha.

Continuing on at about the 5 hour mark we passed the Tea House Guesthouse and at 6:30 we finally made it to the Halfway House Guesthouse. We were running out of daylight and getting very tired of walking and made it just in time! I recommend staying at one of these guesthouses if you don’t have enough time to make it to the next guesthouse about 2.5 hours away. The path after this goes underneath a waterfall and then descends down a rocky and rough path. It can be quite dangerous to undertake this in the dark so carefull!

The Halfway house is huge and can be noisy at times but it’s a good place. Extremely cheap food and beer did well to recharge us. This guesthouse also has an awesome toilet! The sign (in Chinese) proudly proclaims “The Best Toilet Under the Sky!” This may not be true as it’s a not too clean (but not too dirty) squatter trough but the view from the toilet is perhaps the best view from a toilet ever. As you do your business you can peer out at the clouds swirling over the majestic snow capped mountain peaks while the river thunders along beneath. Pretty incredible. Later at night on the balcony overlooking the gorge (underlooking the mountain haha)I was chatting with some American hikers we had met earlier in the day. One my newfound friends said that he had one perfect word to describe the scene. It was “Mordor” Thinking of Mt.Doom and looking at the scene I couldn’t help but wish I had a sword , some magic potions, and was brutally slaying orcs while trying to save Middle Earth. The grandeur of the view, the exhiliration of the climb, and maybe a little bit of Gandalf’s special mix all swirled together and had me thinking maybe I really was in Lord of The Rings. Nothing this cool could possibly be on Earth , right? Oh , wait a second, LOTR took place in New Zealand that’s right haha.

The next day we set out and eventually came to an amazing waterfall. The waterfall roars down from the mountains above and rushes right across the path. You must pick your way through the ice cold mountain water to get to other dry path again. This made for some great pictures and a nice spot to cool off and relax for a while. After about 2.5 hours total the high path descended down and met the low path. A guesthouse is located here as well as a path to reach the river. You can go further on through the Gorge to eventually reach the end village of Daju but our hike ended here. There are plenty of maps with the trails leading onwards and I’m sure it would be cool to go the rest of the way but the part we just did was the most recommended part. We were pretty tired , my leg was aching, and our stomachs were still a bit off from the explosive good times of three nights ago. So we called it quits and organized a trip back to the starting point in Qiaotou to grab our bags and hopped the evening bus to Shangrila!

Lugu Lake

After a bit in Lijiang I was all ready to move onto to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Ever since reading about the gorge 4 or so years ago I have been waiting to go. But Olivia had other plans. She informed me that Lugu Lake was a must visit in Yunnan and if you leave Yunnan without going here you are missing out.

“Hmmf but I’ve never heard of this , aren’t you ready to go to Tiger Leaping Gorge yet??”

“No we are going to Lugu Lake and by the way, it’s about a 7 or 8 hour bus ride via unpaved bumpy mountain roads”

“行” (or OK , was pretty much all I could muster)

And with that we were purchasing our tickets and getting ready to go. Lugu lake is only 200km (120mi) from Lijiang giving the hint that the roads indeed are foul.

Lugu Lake is a gorgeous alpine freshwater lake located snug in between mountains. It is situated at around 2600m (8900ft) above sea-level. The lake is surrounded by pine forests and is one of the deepest freshwater lakes in China (#2 actually). This lake is uncontaminated and retains all of its natural splendor. Small villages dot the shore along with beaches , coves, a marshland, along with several islands inhabiting the interior. Half of the lake lies in Yunnan province and the other is in Sichuan. Geologists say the lake was created from a fault way back in history and water was trapped therefor forming the lake . Legend says that the lake was created from the tears of a rather promiscuous goddess who accidentally caused one of her many male god suitors to stay through the night hence losing his immortality. Pearls were thrown into the water which today are the water azaleas which bloom in the lake. You can believe whichever one you want. The lake is primarily inhabitied by minority groups , the main one being the Mosuo people.

The Musuo people are an interesting study as they remain one of the few matriarchal societies in the world. They are sometimes known as the Amazons of the Orient.

From Wikipedia

“Azu marriage is the way of living of the Mosuo people, and Azu in the local Mosuo language means “intimate sweet heart”. It is a convenient arrangement in which the partners come and go as they like. Three types of Azu marriages have been mentioned namely, the “travelling marriage,” which is marriage without cohabitation; and the second type is the marriage with cohabitation that have developed into deep feelings after living under “travelling marriage” practice; they then live together and raise children as a family. The third type of marriage, which is linked to the history of Mongolian people occupying Lugu Lake who inculcated the practice of monogamous marriage among the Mosuo people, is called as “One on one marriage.” However, in all the three types of marriages, women have the rightful ownership of land, houses and full rights to the children born to them. The children carry their mother’s family name and pay greatest respect to their mothers who in turn enjoy high social status.”

To actually make it to Lugu Lake first one must take a 3-4 hour bus ride to Ninglang county and then switch over to shuttle van/cars run by enterprising locals. Apparently a new road was constructed saving a ton of time but was contracted out to bad companies using crappy materials and after a year or two of use has been pretty severely weathered and has huge cracks and potholes(craters) so now the bus drivers still use the unpaved dirt road. This made trying to read the book “Shangrila” quite difficult.

Upon arrival at the bus station we found a shuttle van which held 9 passengers and the driver. Great not only do we have  another 4 hour bumpy ride ahead of us but now we are super cramped in a dingy van too. Oh yea and one more thing , for a small part of the ride I have to lay in the far back trunk space and hide underneath clothes and various assorted packages. Wait , what?? That’s right! Admission into the pack area costs 80rmb for non-locals and while Olivia looks local with her suntan and brightly colored clothes I will never be able to pass myself of as a local. The blond hair , green-blue eyes, big nose , and white skin make sure of that.

Three bumpy hours later we stopped in the middle of the (road?) and it was time for me to hide in back. We rode for about 20 minutes and then a stop again. Mission accomplished! This little game of human smuggling brought much amusement to all the other passengers in the van and once we were through the ticket gate/checkpoint I thought it was kinda funny also. Never participated in human smuggling before , cool.

Now that I could see again I gazed out upon the pine forests and mountains , after a bit more driving we caught our first glimpse of the lake. Beautiful , absolutely beautiful. At some points along the “road” we could also see rustic log cabins set amongst crop fields. My first sighting of log cabins in China! Looked just like a picture of the classic log cabins the settlers and frontiersmen built-in the U.S.  As we got closer and started to descend towards the lake we drove on some very treacherous slopes. Mud mud mud, steep slopes, and no railings make for a scared me. There were some construction projects, some bridges were being built to eliminate some of the crazy sloping turns and farther on the road was being paved. At long last we hopped out of our shuttle van and walked down the down to the village of Lige where we would be staying at and the shuttle van continued on its journey on a different junction towards the other lakeside villages. This village was the largest and most developed for tourism but there weren’t that many people during this time. Most of the buildings (but not that many buildings in total) here were geared towards the tourist industry , all were inns , hostels, restaurants , or bars. We checked into the hostel and then took a night stroll. The lights from the restaurants and lights on the path played on the surface of the water as went around. The rustic setting , fresh clean mountain air , lack of crowds such as in Dali and Lijiang, all combined to leave me content (even after that bus ride!) As we wandered around we also noticed an abundance of outdoor grills where you order food and then cook it yourself on a grill laid above burning wood. Wow this is gonna be awesome! Also there are very few foreign visitors( I was one of two) , at least when we were there. I ,myself, was somewhat of a tourist attration.

The next day we decided to rent bicycles and go for a ride by the lake. This ended up turning into a day long 56km (36mi) loop around the lake. The arduous trip around Erhai lake hadn’t beaten us down enough , bring it on lakes! It was a pleasant ride on open road (a few other bicylists) that wound along the shore and passed through small villages , a slightly bigger town ( you can tell by the cobblestone road) and alongside “The Walking Marriage Bridge”. After passing the bridge we made a stop for some street food. Grilled duck eggs , fried praying mantises, and some amazing clams or oysters grilled in their own shells with spices and cilantro. One of the most amazing street food meals I have ever eaten. We were surrounded by the village children while eating this meal and they were so cute running around being all shy when I would look at them or try to snap a photo. It took around 5 hours total to ride around the lake and we returned pleasantly tired and in need of a huge meal. We went to a really cool place called Zhaxi house or something like that. The Zhaxi house is a restaurant (self grill) and inn that also serve a pretty decent homebrew called Musuo beer , a strong alcohol made from corn, and we ended up moving from the hostel to this place. Cooler environment and more amenities than the local hostel. So I recommend the Zhaxi house , if it’s not called that just look for an older guy and his handsome son in a cowboy hat and people outside self-grilling.

After a relaxing day we talked to the owner about making it back to Lijiang. He made a call and we were booked on one of the buses headed back to Lijiang the next morning. It was a pretty uneventful bus ride back to Lijiang but Olivs started to feel a little sick. Upon making it back to Lijiang she informed me a next day bus ride to Tiger Leaping Gorge was not possible. I set out to find myself some food and returned to Panba hostel to watch some DVD’s. I started watching Dexter with an older American guy and immediately fell in love (with the DVD not the guy!!!!). But then not too long afterwards I got a rumbling in my tummy that slowly built as the night went on. I set out to the bathroom later and immediately unleashed my entire stomach contents into the toilet. It was seriously bad , like the Niagara falls but then as soon as that part was taken care of , I felt a rumbling of another kind. Immediately following I had liquid gold out the other end. As soon as I felt that was over I stood up and immediately had to throw up again and then more liquid gold. This repeated in a hellish nightmare cycle for pretty the whole night and the hostel bathroom become my new 12 hour home. Hmm let’s think back to the culprit, oh yes those wonderfully delicious clams (or oysters) from the day before. Wow that was first time I’d gotten food poisoning from street food in my 1.5 year stay here. Ouch! The next day was spent resting (watching more Dexter) and then finally the day after it was time to set out for Qiaotou and Tiger Leaping Gorge!

Lijiang

After a short couple of hours on the train we arrived at the Lijiang train station. Again just like Dali, what you are searching for is the Old Town. We didn’t come all this way for the outside town and once again it’s a mad fight for the bus heading from the rail station to Old Town. We arrived in the evening and spent a little bit of time scrambling around for a room. Many place were fully booked already but Lijiang also has a dearth of accommodations. Be a smart shopper here and look around a lot , some places are nice but also very expensive. We couldn’t stay at our first choice , The Panba Hostel , this time because it was already fully booked. So we walked around until we found a place called Mama Naxi’s. Mama is a very nice old lady who goes out of her way to help the backpackers. The place isn’t all that nice but what the rooms lack Mama makes up for , the price also helps too!

Once we had settled in we set out to cruise the streets of the Old Town. It’s an amazing place with cobblestone streets , red lanterns hanging throughout the town , streams running alongside the cobblestones, and hordes of (mainly) domestic tourists. On our quick walk through the town that night we discovered tons of good street food , I tried my first yak meat ( delicious!) , and we realized how easy it is to get lost in the all too similar looking cobblestone streets. Also an awesome point is that no cars are allowed in Old Town! Strictly pedestrians which can be a relief from the typical maelstrom of activity in Asia. Walking around we discovered a few wild herb plants growing in some backyards , funny how in some places that will get you arrested and locked up in a heartbeat. We also discovered the main bar strip which feels so weird in this setting. You walk up and see some more of the typical old style asian architecture , which is beautiful , and hear pulsating bass emanating from neon lit up old buildings. I guess late at night people try to out sing each other across the canals on the main bar strip. Touts also wait outside the bars for drunken tourists to emerge so they can pay a little bit of cash to make a wish and light a candle on a styrofoam boat and sit it adrift down one of the main canals. Down the river a net lies across the canal so the styrofoam doesn’t go pollute the environment and the boats are reused. Not a bad way to make some cash. Its only 15 yuan or so , a bit less than 2.5USD so yea its okay make a wish if you want , I didn’t haha. This main bar strip is mainly aimed at the domestic tourists which means they have very little dancing and very annoying techno pop music. I wouldn’t visit these bars at all ,however Lijiang does have an assortment of cool bars , jazz bars , book bars , and others which can feature live music and shows. Worthwhile to look for these different spots. The next day we walked around and visited the town market. The market is cool but one notable thing it that I saw my first straight-up in your face dog meat for sale. I hate when I talk to people from North America or Europe and one of the (only) things they seem to know is that you can eat dog in China. The dog you can eat here isn’t your pet fluffy dog. Non-domesticated dogs are what’s being served. I find it super hypocritical when people express extreme disgust at eating dog but then procede to eat pig , cow , duck , chicken , fish , shrimp , etc. If you eat meat it’s just another meat. We don’t go around abducting people’s pets are serving them up in China. Note , at this time I hadn’t eaten dog myself but that will come later on in the trip.

Lijiang has a few tourist spots outside of the city such as : cable car to some pristine alpine fields , a trip to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a hike to see some Yaks , a trip to a small lake , etc. Another very cool thing I noticed was the usage of minority Dongba script. Almost all signs in Lijaing have Dongba hieroglyphic script in addition to the Chinese. Before I came to China I didn’t realize the amounts of minorities and hence minority languages in use in China. You can find anything from Arabic , Tibetan and Mongolian , to hieroglyphical languages. I really appreciated reading the Chinese characters and then seeing the hieroglyphics underneath. As much as an accomplishment as being able to read Chinese is , I still want to be able to understand the other scripts that I see. This happens everywhere I go. I just can’t help it!

We didn’t go off and visit the spots outside of Lijiang , we just kind of walked around Old Town and relaxed. Sometimes after a long time of whirlwind traveling you don’t really want to go see all the sights anymore. You just want to get a feel for everyday life in the various places you visit. I’m not saying don’t visit the tourist spots but sometimes it’s nice just to kick back and take it all in. Especially seeing as how everyday in Yunnan it seems like I’m visiting some mountain , a field , or seeing some exotic. After a while you start to wonder ” Just how many mountains do I need to take in during this month?” , you start to want something a little bit different.

Sorry nothing too exciting here but we just needed a bit of R&R. Our next stop was Lugu lake resting right on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. See?!?! More lakes and more mountains woooo!

 

Cycling Around Erhai Lake

Ah glorious Erhai Lake! The lake is a clear deep shade of blue , the sun shines down warming me and glistens on the surface of the slow-moving lake. The skies are blue with huge puffy cumulus clouds hovering in the air unlike the typical blue to gray gradient so commonly found in Shanghai’s skies. I am utterly content and without the stresses of work and city life. This is why I’m alive , to enjoy moments such as this!

Erhai Lake is the 7th largest freshwater lake in China and the second largest highland lake besides the previously mentioned Dian Lake in Kunming. It’s definitely a very large lake stretching about 42 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide making a large oval shape. Can’t quite match up to what I’m used too living by the Great Lakes in Ohio but hey it’s big enough. It was any bigger I’m not sure I’d be down for the challenge of riding around the lake in 2 days (or even attempting the challenge).

I highly recommend biking by the lake , you don’t have to be as extreme as us but just hop on a bike and make a short journey to one of the adjourning villages along the lakeside. Xizhou and Zhoucheng villages are both not too far away from Old Town and can easily be managed (there and back) in a leisurely day trip.

On the western side of the lake one can ride on the paved road that runs along the lake. This side is easy to ride upon and is also pretty flat, traffic isn’t too heavy either. Up near the northernmost point of the lake the route turns to bumpy harsh dirt roads. Get a bike with a good seat because this can inflict some damage on the butt. The eastern side of the path as well as being bumpy dirt also has some hill climbing (up and down) to do. There seems to be a lot of construction and preparation to pave the road though so perhaps it will be a little more easy-going my next time around.

There are supposed to be 17 different villages scattered around the lake , a few temples, and some small islands to visit. Some of the villages were just mere outposts with nothing more than a few buildings and a store but others were worth stopping by for a little visit. Some villages of note we encountered were Xizhou , Zhoucheng, Wase. The islands looked pretty cool and would probably be worth visiting but we were a little occupied with the whole bike riding thing.

Starting out felt so good just riding the bicycles and cruising along the highway but after about an hour and a half or so I noticed a warm feeling spreading over my body. Uh-oh the temperature may not be all that hot but the sun is still blazing down. Remember to pack some sunblock because many of the little villages don’t sell any. It took a long time and checking at many stores along the way to find some and by that time the damage had been done. I was absolutely roasted. Ouch!

The first stop at a village was at Xizhou. Xizhou is a pleasant little town that reminded me of an old Western town with dirt streets and a little bit of tumbleweed tossed in for good measure. We also found our first hemp plant growing in the wilds , the wilds being alongside the only busy road into town. This village sold many of the tie dye tapestries to be found in Old Town but at cheaper prices. The village fruit, vegetable , and household goods market was nice to check out as well. Olivia bargained for one of the traditional cone-shaped farmers hats. We also stopped in for a fried bread with meat concoction that was amazing.

Pulling out onto the road our next stop was in Zhoucheng. Zhoucheng is especially known as the region’s main tie-dye producing town. We followed old ladies in traditional red Bai clothes to their warehouse like store with tons of clothes. I never go clothes shopping but I ended up picking up 3 very cool shirts. Be warned though bargain very very hard. At first the shirt and vest I liked were 260rmb total but we (read Olivia) managed to barter it down to 160RMB including a dress and a scarf. I hate bargaining and traveling with her made me extremely happy haha. When Chinese bargain together it may seem like each party gets extremely angry and that they are fighting but fear not it’s all business. The boss goes away happily making some money and the buyer goes away thinking they got a good deal (if your bargaining skills are good or just have no idea of how much things are actually worth).

After leaving Zhoucheng, with bags considerably heavier than when we arrived, the next major stop was in Wase. We passed through a few other little villages but didn’t really stay , there wasn’t much to see or do. I’m sure there were some other attractions to check out along the way but by this point we had covered more than 40 km (25miles) and the road had petered out into dirt. We were starting to get sore , cranky , were severely burnt, and exhausted ( I believe Wase to be approaching 70km from Old Town). The “fun” bike ride was starting to turn into something a little more arduous. Wase in itself doesn’t have too much but we stopped because it was getting dark and our bodies could go no further. We found a hotel (I think it was THE hotel of Wase) and got a room with two beds for 40 rmb , nice! After ditching the bags we lugged our broken bodies over to the pier and hung with the local villagers as they swam in the water. We watched a surreal sunset over the lake and saw as the sun slowly disappeared behind the mountains leaving a purple hue to the sky. As the sun set the stars and moon emerged from their hiding places. Wow! I could finally see stars again, something that doesn’t happen too often in Shanghai. Pretty neon lights and skyscrapers are the replacement for the stars. After a bit we went back into town to grab some BBQ and retired to our rooms.

The next day just happened to be the local market day. On the weekends a big market assembles in the town square and people from the mountains come into town to sell their vegetables and fruits and pick up on provisions. The sleepy little town gets transformed a bit and the market is huge and bustling. Worth it to go check it out. Leaving the town we were a little bit less than overjoyed to think we still had about half the lake or so ahead of us. Looking back on it we may have had more than half the lake to go due to the winding path and the ins and outs of weaving around the various coves , bays , and rock outcropping that just back out . Many more turns compared to the straight western side.

Basically we just cruised and cruised and cruised and cruised ( you get the point) , taking pictures of some huge wild hemp plants ,sometimes thinking to ourselves “I will never ride a bike again as long as I live” this is definitely not true as I love biking but yea we were battered. Made a quick stop in XiaGuan (New Dali) for some of my favorite street food I’ve had in China. Due to the proximity of ErHai lake these vendors were set up with a smorgasboard of tasty fresh seafood treats. We watched fisherman come up to the vendors with nets full of squirmy sea critters. 3rmb (less than fifty US cents) for a stick of small crabs! In addition they also had full fish on sticks , an awesome grilled shrimp cake , tiny lobsters , shrimp, fried potatoes , and all of it washed down with a (or a few) tall Dali beers. Ah yes life was good again as the aches slowly receded into the background. One of the vendors mentioned that how tomorrow one of the county big wigs was rolling through so the police informed the vendors (unlicensed vendors) that tomorrow they shouldn’t be around. I like how that kind of thing works. The police are fine with the vendors , as was I on that day!, and just want the locals to make some money. I don’t care if the vendors have paid their dues , their tax, to the (rich) man in charge.

After XiaGuan we had one final small stretch on the highway to go and we would finally be back in Old Town. As the kilometers ticked away we got happier and happier. Back in town we didn’t do much of anything , ate some food and just relaxed. That was all I was hoping for! The next day we would be taking a train to Lijiang! More to come soon!

Kunming

Kunming is the provincial capital of Yunnan province and the region’s main transportation, education, and commercial hub. It is the main point of entry for travelers to Yunnan and it boasts bus, train , and airplane connections to all the Southeast Asian countries. It also served as a major hub in WWII and was the terminus of the infamous Burma Road. It’s also a big city with 6.9 million people or so and has some of the typical gray Chinese cityscape but it’s also surrounded by some fantastic nature. It’s been nicknamed the “Spring City” for its fantastic weather. The city is situated in a subtropical zone but is 1800 meters above sea level. This helps temperatures warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Average daily highs in December are around 60F 15C and high temperatures in the peak of summer are an excellent 75F 24C with little humidity. Stepping off the airplane into this weather was incredible after the muggy Beijing.

I got in pretty late at night (due to the cheaper flights leaving either late or way too early) and hopped in a 25 RMB taxi to the incredible Cloudland Hostel. I highly recommend this if you are heading to Kunming. Chill laid back groovy interior , nice muzak , a cool bar on the inside stocked with big bottles of Beer Lao , Dali beer and others (but those were the most important by far don’t worry about the rest). This hostel is also four stories with a nice sundeck on the roof! The other hostel in town , Hump Hostel, was pretty nice too but I really really liked Cloudland , go there!

The first full day in town was pretty relaxed. I rented a bicycle for 30 RMB for the day and just cruised around the streets of Kunming. I went up to the pretty nice CuiHu Park , which has a large lake , paddle boat rental , some restaurants , the town water pump museum , and is overall a nice relaxing area. Just north of the park is Yunnan University. I went to campus just to check things out and found a Chinese dreadhead! One day into Yunnan and already I’ve found one! After walking about on campus I rode my bike to the central plaza in Kunming , Jinbi Plaza , and walked around in the area looking at the vendors and restaurants. I stopped in at the Brothers Jiang restaurant to sample the local dish ,过桥米线 Guo Qiao Mi Xian (Over the bridge rice noodles). A pot of steaming chicken broth is brought out and then one proceeds to pour in their raw veggies , meat , egg , and noodles. Let it cook for a little bit and then enjoy! I got the seafood version and it was exquisite. After the meal I went back to the hostel to read a book and as so often happens in China was approached by some Chinese university students who wanted to hang out. We made plans to play some Badminton at their university the next day and then I was off to  drink some BeerLao! ( One of the finest macro-lagers in Asia I’d say) and hit the hay early.

The next day my friend Olivia was due in from Shanghai at 4pm so I just sunned on the rooftop with my book , Tai-Pan – James Clavell , you should definitely check out his Asian series. Great and very very long (mostly weighing in at over 1000 pages in paperback editions) which satisfies my book cravings. My friend Olivia arrived at the hostel and then it was immediately off to rent bicycles and cycle to Dianchi (Lake Dian) with our new found friends. Lake Dian lies at the feet of the Western Mountains and is a nice place to cruise on bikes and take in the scenery. After we went to a local restaurant and ordered a ridiculous amount of food. Olivia and myself are used to Shanghai prices so after seeing 6RMB per plate of veggie dishes we assumed they would be small and ordered a lot of them , much to our surprise each less than $1 USD dish was huge. We sat for a good part of two hours not wanting to waste any of the great food. After gorging and almost entering a food coma , it was back on the bicycles to cycle to Yunnan University Lake Campus to play some badminton. I haven’t played sports in forever and it was quite fun. I was reminded of University soo much , just riding around bicycles through campus , and hanging out at the sports complex , made me quite nostalgic for Kent State.

The next we rose early to take the long and convoluted journey out to the JiuXiang Karst caves. It involved taking city buses to the Eastern bus station , an intercity bus to YiLiang city and then finally one final bus to JiuXiang. The path was quite spectacular and wound through the mountains and we passed over a bridge near a dam and I swear this bridge was 200 meters tall. At point through we passed near a factory settlement that was belching noxious gases and the town was just dirty and smelled horrible , I felt terrible for the people I saw walking around without masks and the children playing outside , children who probably have never lived without that awful smell. I think after around 4 or 5 hours we arrived to the 20 square kilometer park area.

The first attraction after arrival was a quite journey in a small boat with rowers going down a river through a tight rift in the stone with towering rock walls on both sides. After this we descended down into the caves with the roaring river right beside. The caves themselves are lit up in Chinese fashion , think multi-colored lights everywhere. This effect in the cave was great and one of the best attractions was the area titled Fairy Goddess Palace. Once you arrive in the area you will see why it’s called that. Another great site was the naturally formed “Rice Paddy” stone formation. It really looks like a paddy with its series of pools that descend down the rock wall. After emerging from the caves you took a quick little cable car ride back to the main area. We had a bunch of spicy fried stinky tofu. This version of stinky tofu wasn’t bad but I do admit it takes some getting used too and I prefer the non-smelly version. After dinner it was time for the long and arduous bus rides back to Kunming.

Our last day in Kunming , July 2nd , we again headed for Lake Dian and from there took a city bus to the Western Mountains (XiShan 西山)。 This area has a walk through the forested sides of the mountain (although it’s just a road with beeping , smoke emitting cars for a while until you the ticket area). We choose to foot power our way through this. On the way up you can opt to check out a view temples that are probably worth visiting but after a year and a half in China I’ve felt I’ve seen enough temples,  after a while they all become the same. The hike up offers some gorgeous views of Lake Dian and the urban area sprawling out after that. These mountains aren’t too tall thankfully and we made it up and down successfully after a few hours. After hopping a bus back to town we grabbed our things and went out to the train station for our overnight sleeper train to Dali!!