Wednesday, December 12, 2007
1 week in Yunnan
For those of you unfamiliar with Chinese geography, Yunnan is the province that sits right above Myanmar, Lao and Vietnam in the far southwest. To compare with the US, you could think of Shanghai as the equivalent of say, Washington DC (east coast, middle of the coast) and then Yunnan would be like Arizona. So it's quite a bit away from here.
So why Yunnan? Well, originally, I was planning to go to Thailand, but since my friend Abbie (hi Abbie!) um, flaked on me, I had a week off and decided to stay in China and go and hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, since supposedly China's inevitable march of progress will see the damming of the Yangtze further upstream, backing the water up and ruining one of China's most amazing natural wonders. So I wanted to at least see it before it might or might not happen. Yunnan also houses many of China's 56 minorities - and so it would be interesting to see some Naxi or Tibetian or Hui or other minority culture in Yunnan. I didn't really have a plan, just a flight into Kunming, a vague idea of what I wanted to see and do and a small backpack with clothes and two books.
Still battling two seperate illnesses, I spent my first day in Kunming (the Yunnan Provincial capital) lying in bed and reading (Michael Chabon's excellent Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, lent by Colin Pine). Despite dealing with a funny stomach AND one serious chest cold, I spent the next day on the bus from Kunming to Lijiang. 8 hours worth.
Lijiang was both at once charming. . . and annoying. A super well preserved ancient village, it has the air of Disneyland about it - yes, I love Disneyland, but only in Anaheim. It's clean, looks like it was built in the last 5 years and all the charming ancient Naxi homes have instead become souvenir shops peddling Naxi attire, Yak Yogurt (tasty!), dried Yak meat (not so much), t-shirts, tour packages, internet usage, etc. etc. Lijiang is also OVERRUN with Chinese tour groups. The whole thing - bad hats, flags, megaphone using tour leaders. So that's not so nice. On the other hand, it's one of the most photogenic places I've been, and there's a nightly Naxi dance in the main square - which ISN'T put on for tourists, just a bunch of Naxi out having a good time.
I spent the next day recovering from at least one of my illnesses, and let myself get talked into renting a taxi for an entire day - which actually ended up working out okay. First we went up the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain - where there was a glacier park at the top of a cable car. Despite being overrun by Chinese tour groups - it was great to get up into altitude and cold and snow and wind and ice. Very refreshing. In the afternoon, I again let myself get talked into a horse ride. While it was touristy, as an individual traveler, I got my own guide, my own horse and got to set my own pace. Unfortunately, while the scenery was spectacular, I must have gotten the worlds' most hateful horse. We ended up (unwisely) taking a metal boat out onto a lake . .. during a thunderstorm. I've made wiser decisions, so not wanting to end up on the news (American tourist evaporated by 1.21 gigawatts of electricity!), we turned back early.
I left Lijiang early the next morning, catching a local bus to Qiaotou where the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike starts out from. With the sun beating down on me (it got hot) I made my way up up up the upper path, past the 28 bends (switchbacks kill me) eventually making my way to what could possibly be my favorite place to stay anywhere, the Halfway House guesthouse, 6 hours down the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail.
With the most fun waitresses in China, and a gorgeous view of the mountains, we shared simple Chinese food with a table full of independent Chinese backpackers - who didn't really exist 10 years ago - but who are now roaming all over China. With a table full of Europeans and Australians and another table full of Chinese backpackers . . .all it took was for someone somewhat bi-lingual to close the gap and get everyone talking and. .. drinking beer together. Wait a sec, I'm somewhat tri-lingal. So after a bit of shyness was overcome, everyone got to talking and it was an enjoyable night.
Getting up in the morning to hit the second day of the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail, we motored through to Tina's Guesthouse, then took the trail down to the water to see the Gorges up close. And man, they were spectacular. Just a bunch of white water and lots and lots of power crashing into the rocks. I could have stayed there all day, but the day was getting along, so we powered along the newly opened lower path, until the end when we had to go straight up the side of the hill for one vertical kilometer.
We ended up at Sean's Guesthouse - which is the oldest and most well known guesthouse along the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail. I don't recommend staying there myself. It's shabby and run down and we suffered through some amazingly desultory service. From Sean's the next morning, we quickly undid the 24 km hike in a mini-van moving down a dirt road which took 40 minutes.
Getting back to Kunming the following day, there was one remaining thing for me left to do, and that was to try the famous "Across the Bridge Noodles" - there's a famous chain of restaurants in Kunming called "The Brothers Jiang" - and you can order about 5 different sizes, which come with different meats and stuff. The way it works is you walk up to the outside booth, order your noodles (6, 8, 10, 12, or 25 RMB per bowl - I chose 25 RMB) and go and sit down and a waiter will bring you your noodles. Actually if you order the cheap bowl, you have to go to the window yourself and push people around to get your noodles. Then they bring you this GIGANTIC bowl of soup and with the 25 RMB noodles, about 15 dishes with various things. You then dump the noodles, and all the meats and flavorings into the hot broth + oil, which cooks your raw meat. Stir it around, then enjoy.
Let me tell you, I came THIS close to staying forever at the Halfway House and not coming back to Shanghai. It was truly a magical place, and there's a lot more in the province to see . . . I'd like to head back soon