Roughing it a little in Yunnan

MAY 10, 2018 — Over the recent Spring Break, my wife, daughter, and I traveled to Yunnan Province in China.  We’ve visited China several times, but we’d never been to Yunnan and knew only what we had read in books and online.

We don’t speak Mandarin, either, and we didn’t want to overnight insulated in Western-style hotels, which for all their luxury and comfort can feel like fur-lined prisons. Nor did we yearn for bus or private car tours. No, we wanted to be with everyday Chinese and the hostel-oriented international tourists who eschew the lush life in favor of real life in China.

We got the experience that we planned: one of the most enjoyable trips anywhere we’ve ever taken. While there I posted on going with the flow  and on everyday life in Yunnan. This post is a continuation of that diary style taken verbatim from my notes in real time:

“I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”

[Written my second morning in Yunnan] It occurred to me that Tennessee Williams’ famous climax line written for character Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” applies to travel in foreign lands. Especially true in countries like China where we cannot read, speak, or comprehend the language.

In Italy, everybody knows Firenze, and in Germany we all know what München means. But what city is this:  丽江市 (it means Lijiang Prefecture). Google Translate, which I am using here, works well, but goes just so far.

No matter how well-prepared we are in advance for trips like this one to Yunnan, there are blind bridges to cross as we go which depend upon the kindness of strangers. We put together all our documents for this adventure in a 3-ring binder, with tabs for each day: airline itineraries and receipts, train tickets, hotel reservations with comprehensive details about how to get to each accommodation, etc. But, inevitably, gaps appear.

Arriving Kunming Airport at 10:20 PM after 27 hours of travel

For instance, arriving Kunming airport at 10:20 PM after 27 hours of travel night before last, we had to find our way to the modest Kunming July Hotel. Booked through Travelocity, the hotel had not provided an address, only a phone number.

Kunming airport thoughtfully staffed an information counter late at night, and they phoned the hotel for us, which then kindly sent a shuttle bus, even though its shuttle service had shut down for the night. Good thing, because the property proved to be a good 15-minute, complicated drive from the airport, this despite being advertised as an airport hotel. We would never have found it without aid.

Another example of depending on kindness yesterday, we arrived by bus to Lijiang after a 45-minute ride from the airport, and we weren’t sure how to get to the hostel in Old Town. I had a cell number for the manager and sent him a text when we left the Lijiang airport. He responded at once and first gave us instructions on how to get to his place, but then offered to pick us up at the bus station. We accepted. When we arrived Lijiang Old Town with him and walked to the hostel, we realized that we’d never have found the place without his help.

Trust in my fellow man, who is always a stranger, to give travel advice and assistance is necessary on every trip.

Notes written at the humble Kunming July Hotel near the Kunming Airport:

Early this morning, we watched a three-wheel “food truck” selling breakfast below our window to passersby. Love street food in China!


But not this morning, because our hotel rate ($35 for a triple room) includes breakfast. Offerings were many and varied: cold seaweed strips, cold tofu strips, cooked bean sprouts, two kinds of seasoned cabbage, some unidentifiable things, several types of buns and rolls, boiled eggs, and a very filling rice porridge, into which I broke up the hardboiled egg and some of the noodle things, whatever they were. Then added a dash of salt. Delicious and wholesome!


On to Lijiang in northwest of Yunnan last today. We come back to Kunming for our last night before flying home next Saturday. Hope to get to the Flying Tigers museum honoring Chennault and his band of pre-WWII, US-supported mercenaries who fought with Chiang Kai-Chek’s Chinese army against the Japanese. Kunming was also the end of the famous Burma Road supply line during WWII.

Before heading back to the airport for our flight to Lijiang, we strolled for an hour in this bustling suburb of Kunming taking in the morning rush of street life which we enjoy so much in Asia.


Note the delicious steaming bowls of noodles, all fresh made at a hundred places like this one. Another vendor was frying long loaves of sweet bread and rolls. Not shown are the many purveyors of meat-filled steamed dim sum. The pork buns are to die for!

Also squint to see the old man carrying buckets down the railroad tracks, a timeless picture of life in China.


Bicycle garbage “truck” shown is common everywhere and very efficient. People sweep the streets of refuse and leaves all day.


Homemade brooms are also common and very useful. We have two at home.


Duck restaurant looked enticing but wasn’t open for breakfast.


My wife noted that no signs or documents in our hotel room or anywhere was in English, a good sign that we are in a local accommodation not frequented by overseas tourists, which is the way we like it.

Okay, many folks like hotels in the Western standard with good bed and strong showers. Joe Brancatelli argues that no hotel is really “local” because it’s an artificial environment to start with. Joe says that if we’re going have an artificial environment, let’s have the good western artificial environment.  My wife and I love cushy hotels, but this little place feels exotic inside and out, and we are glad to be here rather than at a Hilton.

Later that day, in Lijiang:

The Old Town of Lijiang is said to be 1400 years old. It’s a rabbit warren of crazy cobblestone streets that is so famous in China that 8 million visitors annually swarm to this modern, prosperous city of 40,000 to experience the maze. Think cheek-by-jowl humanity like Bourbon Street in New Orleans on Mardi Gras. Except with large uneven granite pavers apparently set in the street by blind men, which makes walking tedious and uncomfortable. And obvious Disneyfied fakery.


But we really like the energy and modernity of the rest of the city!


The biggest crowds descend in June and July, thank God not now, but even in this off-season (Easter is not a Chinese holiday tradition), the numbers are overwhelming.

And the fake “quaint” shops did nothing to improve the experience. All that cuteness smacked too much of Disney. The morning’s walk through the rough and ready reality of the Kunming suburb, utterly devoid of tourists, was authentic. I really don’t like Lijiang Old Town’s manufactured antiquity.


This is the well-stocked little store nearest our hostel. Such family-run places are found throughout China. Except for the Chinese characters, the store could be anywhere.

The rest of the city—that is, the real modern Lijiang (above photo)—was appealing in its bustle and sense of embracing the future. Lots of electric motorbikes (nearly 100%) and solar panels everywhere spoke of a city serious about moving ahead.

Our “hostel” in the Old Town of Lijiang is comfortable and beautiful. At 120 years old, it’s new by Old Town standards. We have a room with a double and single bed, perfect for the three of us. Private shower and toilet. Quite small room, but adequate to our needs. At a little over $30 per night, it’s a bargain. Breakfast not included, but we want to explore local breakfast options anyway.

Only trouble overnight was several young Chinese enjoying their vacation in the common room near our room, laughing and yelling with a zeal I admit that I envied. How dare they so relish their youth and future prospects! This went on until midnight when I asked them to tone it down.

Another eruption of loud voices and laughter occurred at 2:00 AM. Ah, China, celebrating its rising and the immense prosperity that’s buoying up the masses. No wonder Xi was able to gain lifetime tenure as Party Chairman and Big Boss. General happiness and well-being seems to be the mood. What Chinese in this economic climate would not want to reward him for their ascending wealth?

But eruption of laughter in the middle of the night was too much.  I had to play daddy again to the noisy Chinese youth by telling them to shut the f*%# up and go to bed. They are oblivious to their surroundings.  When I threatened to go to the police, things got quiet.

Next morning we walked through Lijiang market:

Our 14-year old daughter sighed after 20 minutes in the endless and fabulous local market and said, “The United States is such a big letdown when it comes to vegetables and other fresh food.”

She is right, and I hope and pray that as China modernizes further, it doesn’t lose these places. I took a series of photos this morning at the market.


In the first photo, that’s various kinds of uncut tofu.


Some of the many varieties of red peppers. It’s pepper heaven here for folks like me who crave capsicum!

We noted satellite dishes everywhere, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. Northwest Yunnan is the gateway to Tibet, and that mountain is just a foothill of the Himalayas.

We also saw turtles (looked to me like soft-shell turtles based on their snouts) and large frogs for sale by an old woman.

We inspected a side of pork in the gigantic meat hall which rings with the chop! chop! chop! of hundreds of heavy cleavers reducing hog and other carcasses to edible cuts.

The raw energy and the rich odors of every foodstuff imaginable make being there exciting. It makes one feel, well, human, and a part of the whole. Much more a community spirit than going to a neighborhood meeting in Raleigh.


Plenty of fish sellers in the market. Couldn’t resist getting the woman selling live crayfish. Lots of crawdads for sale in the market!


Another Lijiang market photo focusing on the astonishing varieties of mushrooms! So many that it would take a lifetime of learning to understand them all and how and in what dishes to prepare them. Dazzling! Hundred or more types. Ordering a mushroom pizza here would require specialized knowledge of fungi!


And also a dizzying array of fresh and cooked eggs everywhere.

A chief highlight of foreign travel is trying local cuisine, and China never disappoints. Here in the northwest of Yunnan live the Naxi ethnic Chinese, well-known for their distinctive dishes.


Pictured above is our lunch at a Naxi restaurant. The tiny shrimp were stir-fried with garlic, mushrooms (who knows which variety?), tiny snails, chopped seaweed, chopped red pepper. The resulting medley was spectacular on the palate! The crunchy shrimp and snails were eaten whole, heads and shells on. The garlic pieces were the perfect complement, as garlic often is.

The greens were…well, who knows what they were? Cooked in sesame oil, soy sauce, Chinese black beans, and ginger strips, they were out-of-this-world delicious!

We enjoyed Shandong breakfast pancake of vegetables early this morning. Scrumptious and filling. I think the pancake is colloquially called a “bing” and is a specialty of Beijing that has spread everywhere in China

All this market mania and good earing is making up for the Disneyfakery of Old Town.


Good view of the surrounding mountains, a bonus feature to life in Lijiang. These foothills lead eventually to Tibet.

Our daughter was still hungry after inhaling the greens and tiny shrimp, so she ordered another item from the Naxi menu, not really knowing what she’d get. Turned out to be another winner: tiny pieces of stir-fried pork, five varieties of hot red and green peppers, huge chunks of garlic, small pieces of bamboo, cooked ginger, scallions, and another mushroom variety, this one almost black and with a wild and earthy flavor unlike any I’ve ever eaten.


Naxi cuisine is really growing on us! Meanwhile, in the courtyard adjacent to our table, the chefs were prepping for dinner, weighing huge quantities of mushrooms and cutting up many types of veggies, some unidentifiable to us.


Best of all, in the two hours we were here for lunch, not another Westerner in the place.


Chinese culture and civilization traces its written history back to 1500 B.C., but was established for millennia before that.  Plenty of time to develop foods from every source of nutrition. Some were on display this afternoon at a food court here in Lijiang, the specacle of which that reminded Ruth and me of the famous Night Market in Beijing.

Plenty of fried insect larvae were for sale, an excellent source of protein. Fried scorpions were also on offer.

One sign said “The yak meat of Naxi girl” in English. Mistranslations from Chinese to English are called “Chenglish” and common. Another example we saw on a sign:  “It is forbidden to keep out.” My favorite Chenglish sign was one I saw in Nanning in 2004 which was advertising pickled duck bills for sale. It had them labeled: “Duck mouse.”

Why all the mis-translations?  Perhaps because China doesn’t really need us—just like we always thought (and still do) that we don’t need the world. So while most of the rest of the world rushes to be multi-lingual on their signs, China (like the US) is so overwhelmed with its own tourists that it doesn’t really have to worry about people who can’t read and comprehend.

Last 2 times we were here in 2004 and 2010 I couldn’t use Google or access apps like CNN, NYT, WaPo, and Politico. No problem this trip. I’m using Google to navigate, and I’m reading all the news apps. AT&T has an agreement with China Mobile, and there seem to be no restrictions.

The prosperity level of everyday Chinese appears to be soaring. The Chinese appear oblivious to the ever-present police and pervasive cameras.


Photo with mountain background at the Lijiang water wheel landmark, walking through part of Old Town, and from a bridge over the channelized waterway made to look old (fake!) for the tourists. Think: San Antonio Riverwalk.

But the snow-capped mountain is authentic.

It’s been an interesting Easter Sunday.

Next Morning:

Walked to the market again to find breakfast and were rewarded with pork-filled baozi (dim sum) and noodles with pork, spring onions, and several types of greens.


Also enjoyed seeing kids getting breakfast en route to school.


Departing our beautiful, modest, clean, friendly Lijiang Old Town hostel this morning to find the buses to Shaxi, about which I have written, made me a little sad.

Paying for the taxi as we left for the bus station, it dawned on me that the Chinese no longer use coins. One Yuan is worth about 16 U.S. cents. Prices are made to fit that increment. It’s very convenient to have moved away from coins.  We should at least abolish pennies in America.

Local accommodation in China is not for everyone, but it enriched our experience enormously.  Had this been a business trip, it would likely have been unrealistic.  I would have been housed in palaces like the Crowne Plaza in central Kunming, which was in fact our luxurious abode the last night (about which more later).  As it was, roughing it with the locals made for a lifetime memory.

One thought on “Roughing it a little in Yunnan

  1. Enjoyed reading your piece. I went with a tour group, so missed your type of experience. Not as brave or adventurous as you. Keep writing.

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