Category: Yunnan

In Yunnan, chill in Shaxi; dodge Old Dali

MAY 22, 2018 — Over Spring Break with my family to Yunnan (China), I experienced the yin and yang of travel when, in the space of a few days, we relaxed in the serenity of authentic Shaxi (pronounced Sha-shee) and then endured the jarring fakery of Old Dali. It was an ugly transition from chilling out in easygoing Shaxi, a village that doesn’t try hard to be what it is—an ancient and beautiful hamlet steeped in history—to the hectic, least common denominator tourist ethos of Old Dali, a place determined that you will take it seriously and by-God be impressed.

Here are my real-time notes, which chronicle the sheer delights of Shaxi and then the crushing bore that is Old Dali:

CHARMING SHAXI

We are in old Shaxi, an long-time oasis on the Tea Horse Trail that for millennia saw caravans of tea from southern Yunnan being transported by yak, oxen, and horse to Tibet and India. I can’t imagine the drama and adventures Shaxi has seen. It’s thrilling to contemplate.

The Old Town here yet has but the slightest whiff of tourism; unlike Lijiang Old Town, Shaxi has more than a patina of authenticity about it. That’s due, no doubt, to the thousands of years of travelers who passed through on the old trade route, stopping here for rest, sustenance, and resupply. You can almost feel the ghosts of traders from the distant past.

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Above pic is of our hostel, Horsepen46, which is itself old and converted from a livery. It sits immediately adjacent to the relatively new (a mere 600 years old) theater (below picture) and is utterly charming. The handsome dog is the resident Tibetan Mastiff, as lazy a mutt as I’ve ever seen. Can’t pronounce his Chinese name, so I just call him “Hey, dog!” He responds with a wagging tail every time, so I assume he’s learned some English.

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600 year old theater in the Shaxi town square.

And Horsepen46 is quiet, too. We slept soundly with no noise! The cool weather (45° F.) and heavy blankets helped.

Last night we enjoyed an all-veggie communal meal with the two Chinese women who run the place, plus a young Chinese couple from Xi’an and Hong Kong, and an American man teaching English near Chiang Mai, Thailand. All washed down with strong Shangri-La beer and Loation lager. We laughed until late (everybody spoke English).

 

Our room (above) sleeps 3 and has a private toilet, shower, and wash basin. Free use of the electric washing machine and ample room to air-dry clothes from the rafters. And did I mention, quiet? All for $20.50 per night. I could hang here for a week just relaxing, exploring, and sampling the wonderful cuisine.

Breakfast this morning on the street at another nondescript place was a huge bowl of steaming hot noodles with pork and all kinds of spices and vegetables. Every meal is a great treat, each unlike the last one, an adventure for the palate. Three big bowls of noodles cost $3. Hard to beat a buck for a hearty breakfast.

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Above is the ancient bridge over which all those tea caravans once passed.

Below is of the Old Town main street leading to the old square where the theater and a much older Buddhist Temple are located.

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Street life in China always fascinates me. In the next photo, note the men enjoying each other’s company over green tea and with their caged birds singing gloriously above them.

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Appeals to me!  Wish I could meet friends in such a morning setting instead of in Raleigh’s Cameron Village Shopping Center.

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Above baby on the back is pure China.

And below, two Shaxi women enjoy breakfast together in the frosty morning air.

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Water channels engineered eons ago through streets in many small Chinese towns still flow through Shaxi. The rushing water, diverted from streams and rivers, is a constant source for cleaning pots and pans, for washing clothes, and to boil for noodles and tea. Everyone has buckets and are constantly dipping water from the open channels.

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There are endless opportunities for bikers and hikers around Shaxi in the countryside.  Below pix is of rice fields being prepped for planting later in the season. Note the steep drop-off and lack of guardrails. Care is taken by all driving past.

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No OSHA to worry about in China: It’s a steep drop with no guardrails into the rice field.

Mustard grows in profusion in the Shaxi countryside.

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Mustard fields and mountains make for a beautiful tableau.

The below picture demonstrates the growing affluence here (The Benz) juxtaposed with the elderly Chinese fellow walking by. That’s a school behind the wall where the M-B is parked. Perhaps the Mercedes belongs to the headmaster.

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Yunnan (here just south of Shaxi) contrasts the old and the new and showcases growing prosperity: That ML is said to top a hundred grand in US dollars in China.

Bicycles rent for $3/day. All are sturdy 6-speed bikes which pedaled, shifted, and braked well, but featured truly murderous seats. Electric motorcycles were also for rent, but we didn’t check the price for those.

The below photo is another perspective of the old Tea Horse Trail bridge into Shaxi. Lucked out with the light for a postcard-worthy shot.

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The ancient Tea Horse Trail bridge just south of ancient Shaxi.

In the square opposite the old theater sits a centuries-old Buddhist temple with carvings of fierce Bai gods (the Bai are the predominant Jianshuan regional ethnic group; Yunnan has a myriad of ethnic groups, more than any other Chinese province). The temple and the 1415 theater both sit on the ancient square here in Shaxi. Horsepen46 hostel, our residence, is also directly on the square, its entrance just to the right of the theater.

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The Horsepen46 hostel entrance can be seen immediately behind the man standing.

We spotted a drone hovering directly over the square early this morning. Someone is always watching in China, I thought.

The old square’s careful restoration is detailed in this great New York Times piece from 2016 called “An Ancient Caravan Town in China Is Reborn.”

Today was gorgeous, with sun and temps in the mid-70s. Tonight it’s cooling off fast. Tomorrow we brave another bus ride, this one Shaxi to Old Dali, said to be another beautiful and very old Chinese town.

Here below is another look at the 600 year old theater in the Shaxi town square as lit at night. The New York Times article I referenced above mentions that this square is the most beautiful ancient town square in all China.

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Also a nighttime shot of the Buddhist temple, highlighting the angry Bai gods guarding the entrance. The NYT article described the temple as an example of “esoteric Buddhism” worshipped by the Bai people.

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Can’t go a day without bragging on the food! Below is of our scrumptious light meal tonight at the tiny Bai restaurant preferred by the staff of Horsepen46 hostel as most authentic Bai cuisine in Shaxi. The greens were reportedly peony stems stir-fried with mushrooms and possibly other ingredients. The flavors were unique and delicious.

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Our mouth-watering meal sits on a traditional Bai batik blue tablecloth.

The other dish above was described as “heart of potatoes.” Thin potato slices stir-fried in oil with spring onions and hot red peppers and salt. Spuds are almost always good, but these babies were outstanding. I’m going to try to replicate them at home.

Note the plates rest upon one of the distinctive Indigo batik tablecloths famously made in this region of Yunnan by the Bai people.

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The ubiquitous 3-wheel Chinese motorbike.  Who knew wisteria grew in Yunnan?

The red three-wheel motorcycle pictured beneath the wisteria is typical of the most utilitarian vehicle in China. They are common everywhere and take hundreds of adaptive forms, from garbage scow to taxi. They are the pickup trucks of China. So far we haven’t seen any electric versions.

ON THE ELECTRIC MINIBUS SHAXI TO OLD DALI

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East your heart out, McDonalds! A healthy bowl of hot noodles with all the fixings for $1.

It was 38° F. on this, our last morning in Shaxi, but so dry that it didn’t feel cold. Before going to the bus, we sat outside like all good Chinese to have breakfast noodles. Each big bowl of noodles was one dollar. Not even McDonald’s can beat that price.

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Traditional Chinese funeral procession in Shaxi featured white hats and fireworks.

As we ate, a funeral procession filed past, with fireworks in the Chinese tradition. Many mourners wore white caps, as white represents death in China.  They moved fast, too, unlike the slow funeral marches to a graveyard typical in America.

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Recharging the all-electric minibus.

At the moment we are en route by all-electric minibus that carries 16 plus the driver. Increasingly, the Chinese are ahead of us in EVs. 99.99% of the motorbikes in China are now electric, so quiet that drivers have to beep at you to avoid pedestrian collisions.

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Electric connection to recharge the minibus resembles a gas pump.

This electric minibus is dead quiet except for wind noise. I could clearly overhear a young French traveler behind me on his phone trying to make a hotel or hostel reservation for tonight in Dali, where we are all headed. He was speaking in heavily-accented English, not his native language, and struggling to make himself understood to the Chinese person on the other end of the line, also not a native English speaker, of course.

The tortured conversation between two people speaking in a language not their own was comedic. The man repeated each letter of his name many times trying to make himself understood, and then had to say again and again that he needed a room. It sounded like a Bob Newhart telephone sketch. Finally he hung up, mumbling, “Merde, merde, merde!”

The mountains surrounding us in this northwest quadrant of Yunnan from Lijiang to Shaxi to Dali are Himalayan foothills. Many of the tall hills are dotted with electric windmills. We are told that China is moving fast to lessen its reliance on hydrocarbon energy.

Conversations in the quiet electric minibus are easily understood even from the back seat to the front. It’s a joy not to endure normal internal combustion engine noise.

PHONY OLD DALI

Earlier this trip I disparaged Old Town in Lijiang as Disney-fakery of the first order. Expertly antiquified, I grudgingly admitted, but inauthentic as hell. It gave me heartburn to learn that eight million tourists visit Lijiang Old Town annually, most of them the rising affluent Chinese middle class. How could the brilliant Chinese fall for something so obviously unreal? Surely, I thought, no place in China could be more a memorial to the genius of P. T. Barnum than Lijiang Old Town. I was disgusted by its obvious deceptions.

Today, however, in Dali Old Town I discovered a place in China more foul and disturbing in dissimulation and appealing to a lower order of humanity in the bargain. If Lijiang Old Town’s unabashedly manufactured charm calls to China’s ever-growing white collar middle class, then Dali Old Town’s target market must be the blue collar workers of China grasping for the bottom rung of the middle class ladder.  This place is the Myrtle Beach of China, its redneck, state fair vibe so vile that I literally ran from it this afternoon.

I will give it this, though: Dali Old Town makes no pretenses that it’s all about kitsch and a lowbrow experience for the masses. Walking through its endless streets, all manner of junk is on offer to take home or to consume on the spot. McDonald’s is there, which should tell you everything you need to know, and every snake charmer, bottle throw hawker, and cotton candy purveyor you’ve ever seen at a carnival.

If you’re still not convinced, below is depicted an Old Dali food stand from among the hundreds of such vendors, this one proudly selling “Sizzling Duck Intestines.” Note the varieties of sizzling duck intestines on offer.

Hmmm, hmmm, decisions, decisions! Thinking back to Lijiang Old Town, I cannot recall an analog food seller quite as unappealing.  Yet I saw a number of folks gobbling these morsels from a stick. Yum!

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To each his own: sizzling duck intestines, served on sticks.

Accentuating the horror of Old Dali is its prime location sandwiched between the stunning and notable 50 km long Cangshan Mountain and the beautiful Erhai Lake, the seventh largest in China. Suckers flock to this place because they’ve heard of its extraordinary natural environmental wonders, and what they get is a jumble of very ugly buildings, congested streets, and fraud. Yet it is enough of a draw for millions in a land of billions, proving once again that Barnum was right.

It’s tough to stomach Old Dali’s cheap shills after experiencing modest and genuine Shaxi, where the annual per capita income is reportedly $120.

Despite my disgust, I did find in Old Dali a fine example of tasteless junk not available for sale in Shaxi: a solar-powered Tibetan prayer wheel designed to be dashboard-mounted. And then I shamelessly negotiated hard to buy three for twenty dollars.

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A solar-powered Tibetan prayer wheel doing its thing on my dash back in Raleigh.  Say what you want, but it makes my Toyota Sienna easy to find in a parking lot.

 

By Train to Kunming

 

MAY 17, 2018 — Over our daughter’s Spring Break, my family spent a memorable week in Yunnan Province, China, about which I have already posted several stories, including going with the flow, everyday provincial life, and roughing it in Yunnan.  After flying into Kunming using Delta’s new premium economy service as far as Beijing, we booked Chinese internal flights, first China Eastern Beijing to Kunming and then Shenzhen Air from Kunming to reach Lijiang in northwest Yunnan.

Aiming to see Yunnan up close thereafter, we eschewed airlines and made our way by bus from Lijiang to fabulous Shaxi, and, a few days later, by an all-electric bus from Shaxi to Dali.  We budgeted our time mainly to see those parts of Yunnan, but had to return to Kunming for our flights home on China Eastern to Beijing and Delta again back to the States. To make the trip more interesting, we booked a train from New Dali to Kunming, and then overnighted prior to our early morning flight KMG/PEK.

Here I pick up my real-time notes which begin at the wonderful Jim’s Tibetan Hotel in Old Dali, which I bragged about, along with Jim himself, in my earlier everyday life post:

LEAVING DALI

Before leaving for the train station for our journey by train to Kunming, we enjoyed the Jim’s Tibetan Hotel version of a Western breakfast identical to yesterday, which was green tea, a delicious banana crepe that Jim called a pancake, and a bowl of muesli, sliced apples and pears, yogurt, raisins, and cinnamon. It was all good, but especially the fruit and yogurt, which I will be duplicating at home. I had paid Jim in cash last night, so we departed quickly right after eating.

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We took a private car to the train station in New Dali from Jim’s Tibetan Hotel, which is in Old Dali, a long distance. We splurged on that and paid 100 Yuan ($16), about twice the cost of a taxi. It was a 40 minute drive in light traffic.

The New Dali train station is an imposing edifice, like most in China. Bombastic, like the airports. Long and wide sets of imposing stairs lead up, up, up like one might expect entering an emperor’s palace rather than a mere railroad station.

It’s all hat, no cattle, however. Once inside, it looks like a big city Greyhound station: sterile concrete with some granite veneers and airport style seating. An institutional, dingy feel redolent of the old Mao era. It could easily be converted to an abattoir should the need arise, and none would think it odd.

Getting in was a two-step process. First, collect tickets from the bottom floor. We didn’t know to do that and traipsed up the Lincoln Memorial-like staircases with our heavy luggage, only to be directed back down below to the ticket office. Back down we went. I was already sweating, and it was only 10:15 AM.

We passed through a perfunctory security screen to enter the ticket office. Standing at the bottom floor ticket window, my wife noticed the Chenglish on the yellow line at our feet: “Please wait outside a noodle.”

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We obeyed, I guess, because the agent smiled and issued our ticket without delay after inspecting our passports carefully. Ruth had smartly found a “VIP” compartment on this ordinary train (no high speed trains yet running Dali-Kunming), so I guess we are all set.

Back up the damnably high and long staircase with the concrete blocks someone must have put in my bag, we presented our passports and ticket and were allowed to enter. Another light security screen staffed by 20-somethings in government uniforms, all smiles and waving us welcome.

The station floor was not especially clean, again reminding me of a bus station back home, but the place boasted a very well-stocked and modern convenience store with every product known to man.

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We stocked up for the trip, since the Chinese are notoriously stingy travelers when it comes to buying food. They always bring their own on buses and trains, and thus many Chinese ordinary trains have little or no dining car offerings. Two new-looking fast food establishments were also open and doing a good business in the station.

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We soon discovered that our train departed from yet a higher level waiting room, requiring another drag of bags up steep stairs.

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Steep stairs, but with a concrete ramp thoughtfully added in the center to accommodate roller bags and strollers.

Here we sit, finally, waiting for our 12:36 PM train, and surrounded by prosperous-looking Chinese travelers. Not another Westerner in sight.  More later en route.

BOARDING THE TRAIN

Our train arrived four minutes late, but why worry? Not us. All an adventure.

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With the upper waiting room packed, it was a mad rush when the station gate doors were opened, small children and elderly in danger of being trampled. The Chinese, like the Italians (and like me), abhor honoring queues and squack indignantly as they break the line as if you are the one in the wrong. It felt like the fevered crowds trying to be first into Best Buy on Black Friday morning at 5:00 AM.

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Boarding our train New Dali to Kunming. Note bilevel sleeper (our car) to the right of the stairwell, one of many in the train’s consist. New Dali in the distance.

Our VIP compartment is in the second level of the doubledecker car to the right in the above picture. The lower level compartments are all what the Chinese call “soft sleepers” which are similar to old Pullman compartments. Each “VIP” room is fitted with a single upper bed and a lower almost-double. Very large and comfortable. Also equipped with two tables, electric plug, table lamp, water pitcher for making hot tea, and fake plastic fresh cut flower in a vase. Classy. Puts Amtrak to shame.

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“VIP” compartment on the upper deck of the bilevel passenger car has a double and a single.

To my surprise this train carries a full-service diner (below photo).

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The Chinese Railway crew tend to be quite young. I am impressed with their good humor and sense of enjoying their jobs.

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As seen in the above photo, there is ugly marred paint on the diner ahead of our car, yet inside it is spotless and inviting. This section of the rail network is electrified.

In a tip of the hat to the world outside Asia, one of the two lavatories at the end of each bilevel car has a Western sit-down toilet. The other one has the usual squat toilet arrangement.

This train isn’t going to win any speed awards. I estimate around 100 KPH (about 60 MPH). But it’s great fun, and we are in no hurry.

Our bilevel car has what the Chinese call “soft sleeper” compartments on the lower level that sleep or sit four. The term differentiates that class of rail service from “hard sleepers” which have six berths per compartment.

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“Soft Sleeper” compartment sleeps four.

Our “VIP” compartment, like the rest on this car’s upper level, sleeps three, a double bed below and a single above.

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Looking out at the passing Yunnan landscape from the upper (single) bunk on the train.

Only trouble is, unlike the soft sleepers below us, the VIP berths don’t fold up, so there’s no way to sit comfortably. VIP passengers are forced to lie down or sit awkwardly on the bottom berth facing the compartment door.

It’s a weird arrangement, but we only paid $69 total for three fares, so we don’t much care. I’m propped up on several pillows in a prone position enjoying the view.

The engineering of this line is impressive. Nearly zero at-grade crossings and many long viaducts and bridges over towns and cities. Long viaducts, some several miles-long, are the rule, too, through the countryside so that farmers can work back and forth under the railroad without being cut off. Lots of long tunnel bores, too, some 10 minutes or longer to pass through. All this for a secondary rail line. It’s hard not to compare this to America’s lack of commitment to passenger rail.

On the train we noticed another Chenglish mystery sign, We could not decipher the context of “drinkingwatef roher room”.

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ARRIVING KUNMING

It’s ridiculous to be staying tonight at the luxurious Crowne Plaza in central Kunming after the modest and wonderful places where we’ve rested our heads the past week. My IHG status earned us a primo 16th floor room overlooking the heart of the city. I got a good rate through Travelocity months ago and grabbed it, so here we are.

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Kunming CBD at night from the Crowne Plaza

It was drizzling and 46° F. when we stepped off the train (25 minutes late). Inexplicably, no taxi would take us to the hotel, not far away (but too far to walk) from the central railway station. Getting soaked, I finally hired a tout for 40 Yuan ($6.35) to take us to the Crowne Plaza. Seemed outrageous at the moment, but of course was a bargain in the cold rain.

Kunming is located at an altitude of 1,900 metres (6,234 feet) above sea level and at a latitude just north of the Tropic of Cancer.  In 2014 Kunming had a population of 6,626,000. More about the city here. It has an interesting history. I wish that we had had time to explore it a bit.

As we prepare to leave Yunnan, a lasting impression is how nice and good-humored most Chinese continue to be to each other and to us, strangers in their land. And how prosperous and well-informed the average citizen appears to be. Cultural differences linger, but are shrinking rapidly.

In ignorance, I didn’t expect much from Yunnan. Now at the end, I can say it was a gratifying, even stunning, experience. It is humbling to reflect that we didn’t see much of Yunnan, and Yunnan is just one province in China. It would take a lifetime to know—to really know— just this one area.

Just when I think the world is getting smaller, I realize again how enormous and diverse it is. That’s part of the reward of travel and why I keep going places.

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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Also enjoyed seeing kids getting breakfast en route to school.

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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.

Everyday life in Yunnan

APRIL 10, 2018 — A recent trip with my wife and daughter to Yunnan Province, China, found us staying in Dali, a place that used to attract free spirit backpackers who liked to hang out in Old Dali between the beautiful Ehai Lake and the impressive 50 km. long Cangshan Mountain.  The bloom is off that rose now, with formerly laid-back Old Dali having become a detestable tourist trap, its fakery ripe for vilification in a future post.  That said, there’s nothing phony about the areas south of Dali over the mountains where thrive the hard-working, fascinating Yi, Hui, and Bai ethnic minorities of China.

Jim’s Tibetan Hotel was our unique and wonderful residence in Dali, Jim, the owner and a Tibetan himself, specializes in Chinese ethnic minority travel experiences. He took us one morning to a Yi village about 75 minutes south of Dali via the new road that the Chinese government has built to Laos. It’s now 18 hours by car or truck to Laos versus 7 days on the ancient road in use before for thousands of years. We also saw a new railway being constructed to Laos. The Chinese are smart to strengthen commercial ties with Southeast Asian neighbors, and this is reportedly part of their trillion dollar strategy to dominate world trade.

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Yi village south over the mountains from Dali showing terrace farming
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Same Yi village showing typical construction, not much different from the rest of China’s rural areas, regardless of ethnicity.

The Yi ethnic group maintain their rural agrarian lifestyle, but with modern accouterments, such as motor vehicles, electricity, mobile phones, and satellite TV. The old ladies dress in traditional Yi garb (see photo just below), whereas a 12 year old Yi girl and a 14 year old Yi girl we met were dressed like our fourteen year old daughter. Both Yi girls could have passed for Americans.

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Older Yi woman dressed in traditional garb tending her pigs

Below picture is of Jim standing in a Yi courtyard in the village. Jim looks like a fascinating character, and he was.  Jim’s guided ethnic experiences were expert, although he chain-smokes (but never in vehicles).

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Jim of the eponymous Jim’s Tibetan Hotel

On that day trip South over the mountains to several Yi, Dai, and Hui villages and towns, we passed through the center of New Dali, a city of 500,000, renamed because nobody in China had ever heard of its original name. But they all knew Old Dali, so the large city adopted the name.

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High-rises like these dot the landscape of New Dali

Passing an endless cityscape of buildings built along the road between Old and New Dali, Jim lamented how the rice paddies that had been there ten years ago have all been replaced by such construction.

The development continues still, but I couldn’t get a clear idea what is driving the growth other than tourism. Jim mentioned that 10,000 tourists per day trek to Old Dali, and that it is busiest in July and August. That’s nearly four million per year, less than half the number that seek out Lijiang Old Town (northwest of Dali), where we stayed 2 nights earlier that week. Still doesn’t account for the astonishing growth of New Dali.

The new road to Laos that we drove peaks at an impressive 2400 meters (7800 ft) before dropping again into the valley where we stopped in several small towns, including at Huimingcun to visit a 600 year old Buddhist temple (pictured below). The dramatic carvings of Buddhist and Indian gods inside look original, but are actually recreations made from photos in 1980. Like most religious antiquities, the temple’s original carvings were destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to assure the primacy of communism.

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600 year old Buddhist temple in Huimingcun

Few Chinese choose to stay at Jim’s Tibetan Hotel because that beautiful and quiet place “scares them,” so Jim related. Young people complain his hotel is “like a temple.” Jim said young Chinese tourists want flash, bright lights, blaring TVs, and lots of noise. Jim explained that his clientele is mostly European, with some Americans, who appreciate the serenity of his property.

That certainly jives with our experience in Lijiang Old Town a few nights before. There I had to ask the other guests, all young Chinese, to keep it down after midnight so that we could sleep.

Speaking of which, it is my observation after this recent trip that Chinese young people have two vocal volumes: far too loud and deafening.

Jim also told us that he’s had trouble keeping young Chinese employees at his hotel because “all they want to do is play on their phones, not work.”

Driving in New Dali I was reminded that city traffic in China moves through intersections via roundabouts, traffic lights (all with countdown timers), or catch-as-catch-can. In the latter case, which account for half or more of major intersections, cars move slowly left, right, or center to weave around other vehicles. Somehow it works without signals or traffic cops. I liked it!

On major Chinese streets and roads, lanes can be approximate. Vehicles somehow find their way around each other without too many collisions. Speed bumps are everywhere, which tend to keep down speeds, as intended.

Jim said China is moving so fast to electric vehicles that it is depressing the cost of internal combustion cars. We saw many three-wheel motorcycle utility vehicles (the pickup trucks of China) that were electric in Dali. In fact, the majority of cars, trucks, and buses on Old Dali streets were electric.

We lunched in a small town known for its Hui ethnic minority, who are all Muslim. The meal of two kinds of beef, rice, snowpeas, egg and greens, and “Old Lady Potatoes” (because they are cooked soft) was one of many memorable culinary experiences on this trip. See below photos.

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We also visited the town’s market, as rich in variety of everything imaginable (and some unidentifiable) as the one in Lijiang. Lots of marijuana seeds for sale. MJ grows wild here, and the Yi and Hui people eat the seeds and the leaves. Sounds like fun! But we didn’t try it. Also walked through the animal trading area (below photo) where cattle, water buffalo, donkeys (for eating), and white Brahma bulls from Burma and Laos are bought and sold. Frankly, it put the NC State Fair animal pavilions to shame.

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Here’s another shot of two Yi women buying greens at that market (below), dressed in traditional clothing.  They also make their own shoes in the same exquisite designs and colors.  Note the Hui woman standing with them reaching for her money.  As I said, Hui are Muslims, peacefully coexisting with the communist (atheist) Chinese government as well as with all the other ethnic groups living in the region.  All the ethnic groups get along with each other well.

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Though not depicted, the third major ethnic group in this region are the Bai people.  Because they are not Muslim and do not dress in distinctive clothing, they blend in to the eyes of Westerners.  However subtle the facial feature differences are to us, I am told the Bai are recognizable to other Chinese.

Dali was outstanding because of this visit south over the mountains to the long valley where these small towns of Chinese ethnic minorities prosper.

Going with the flow on the bus in Yunnan

APRIL 3, 2018 — Twenty years ago B.C. (before children), on a trip to the Philippines with my wife Ruth, I described being in and getting around that nutty country as “like Dr. Seuss on acid.” Everything was topsy-turvy; nothing worked according to the logical rules one could expect when traveling elsewhere.

China still has the occasional echo of that unreality, as we experienced today taking buses about 100 kilometers from Lijiang to Shaxi (pronounced Sha-shee) in Yunnan Province.

All our guidebooks and Internet sources promised that we had to take one bus 90 minutes to the town of Jianshuan and then grab an on-demand “minibus” just outside the bus station for the 45-minute ride to Shaxi. We were further assured that we’d be deposited downtown, adjacent to the old town of Shaxi, a close walk to the well-known Horsepen46 hostel.

Just to be sure, we had our English-fluent hostel manager in Lijiang check the bus schedules. He showed us the official bus service website that listed departures for Jianshuan at 10:00am, 10:40am, and so on at 40-minute intervals.

Thus reassured, we set off early to the Lijiang bus station to buy tickets for the 10:00am bus. Once there, the ticket agent told us the bus left at 9:10am, not 10:00am, and said we had to hurry to get it. She pointed out that it was then 9:04am, so we had a mere six minutes.

Good thing we got there early, I thought. How come the online official bus schedule was wrong, as were our guidebooks and other references?

But not so fast! The agent needed our full passport details because we are foreigners. She typed in each passport data set of three as fast as she could. All this for crummy bus tickets, I thought.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. We had just three minutes by the time the tickets were printed.

We ran from the ticket office to the main waiting area entrance. It wasn’t well marked, but we found it. Not so fast! Armed security there made us go through a perfunctory body scan and luggage X-ray and hand scanner, delaying us further. In a bus station? Why?

No matter, let’s run to the platform and find our particular bus. Not so fast! At the door we ran into an airport-style gate where tickets were scanned. It was now 9:09am and counting. The “gate agent” was very nice, though, and ran us over to the correct bus, which was just buttoning up to leave.

The bus itself, however, was not as advertised. It was just a small bus, not a large intercity motorcoach, another anomaly that didn’t jive with anything we had been told or had read in our research.

We found it full and jammed with the usual bags and boxes that come with bus travel in China. We stumbled over stuff and managed to find seats, though separated, and the bus left immediately at 9:10am.

It was a rough and uncomfortable ride, but a fast one. Expecting a 90-minute trip, as all sources indicated, we were very surprised when the little bus arrived in Jianshuan Station (below) at 10:18am.20180401_221900_resizedFollowing our carefully researched instructions, we expected to walk out of the station and look around for a minibus to Shaxi. That didn’t happen. Instead, a woman met our incoming bus asking if we were going to Shaxi. When we affirmed, she showed us to a nearby bus nearly identical to the one on which we had arrived. It was already mostly full and it filled up completely en route.

The young man sitting next to me was wearing a face mask. Many Chinese wear them every day, presumably to guard against catching germs from others. But he was also smoking. The irony apparently escaped him.

The bus trip to Shaxi was long and as uncomfortable as the one to Jianshuan. Supposedly 45 minutes, the ride actually took more than an hour. Then we were dropped way out on the edge of the town, nowhere near downtown. That required us to walk a long distance with our luggage since Shaxi is too small to have taxis.

I was pitted out by the time we reached our hostel. Like Lijiang Old Town, the streets of old Shaxi are paved with cutesy, fake “cobblestones” that make it impossible to pull rolling bags without ruining the wheels. It was not fun carrying the heavy bags from outside town, but we finally made it to the charming Horsepen46.

Stray observation: Our passports were checked repeatedly at the Lijiang bus station. Once we bought tickets, both the security personnel and the bus “gate agent” had to check our passports carefully against our lousy bus tickets. When we got to Jianshuan, nobody operating the second bus cared about passports. In fact, I had to remind them to charge us for the ride to Shaxi.

Bottom line: Nothing went according to Hoyle–or the Chinese equivalent of Hoyle–though we got here fine. It’s an example of how sometimes in China you just have to go with whatever happens and not obsess when the experience doesn’t correlate to expectations.