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The Magical China Trip 2012

Kunming, Dali, Lijiang – October 27-30, 2012

CHINA | Saturday, 24 November 2012 | Views [3885]

Stone Forest

Stone Forest


Around 1940, Kunming was the Chinese end of what would become the Burma Road, an old road that led from India through Myanmar to China.  It was also sometimes known as the “Road to Mandalay.”  During WWII, it became a critical route for getting supplies into southwest China to support the war against the Japanese.  During this time, my father was working for the China Defense Supplies Corporation, a Chinese company based in America.  It was his job to find ways and to make recommendations for making the Burma Road passable for the trucks carrying supplies to the Chinese in Yunnan province.


Daen and I took the overnight train from Chongqing to Kunming, our second time in a “soft” sleeper car.  This kind of ticket gave us a bunk in a compartment containing four bunks.  Daen and I had taken the soft sleeper compartment from Xi’an to Chongqing as well.  Because there were only two of us, we shared the compartment with two other people.  On the train from Xi’an to Chongqing, we shared with a man and a woman (no relation to each other).  On the train from Chongqing to Kunming, there were two men, one of whom got off the train around 11:30 p.m. and the bunk was taken by another man getting on.  When Daen woke up the next morning, he took a close look at the man, wondering, but not sure, whether it was the man from the evening before.  It was not.


I like traveling on trains.  Daen took a series of shots from the window tracking the dawn.  Now that I can get to YouTube, I’ll put the slide show somewhere on the blog as soon as I figure out how.  Sleeping in the soft sleeper is not so bad; the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks can be a comforting feeling.  However, the compartment we were in on the first train squeaked and bumped, so it was not the best situation.  On the second trip, our compartment was closer to the center of the car and sleeping was much easier.


On the train, you can either bring your own food or buy snacks and meals from a cart.  The first time we brought snacks; the second time, we brought noodles (the kind you add hot water to) and then discovered we had forgotten chopsticks; so, we bought a meal from the cart.  It was actually pretty good and not too expensive since one meal had enough food for the two us.  Later, we discovered that the noodle soup came with a fold-up fork.  We ate it the first evening in Kunming because we were too tired from sightseeing to go out.


We really only had one day in Kunming to visit several places.  Originally, we were scheduled to fly to Dali at 7:30 a.m., but our guide double-checked and the flight had been changed to a noon flight.  Whew!


The first place we went was the Stone Forest, an amazing geological site with stone formations that dazzle the eye and trigger the imagination in the same way the clouds do.  It was a beautiful day and we wandered through passages, around outcroppings, into nooks, and up to breezy pavilions.  It was great to be outside and among such striking shoka.


By the time we went to the Western Hills, a favorite resort area in Yunnan, we were already tired.  Several books I’ve read talked about their beauty and peacefulness and this is the reality, too.  From the Dragon Gate, one can look out over Erhai Lake and see just how big not only the lake is, but also how big Kunming (3 million people) now is.  Erhai Lake ( 洱海, pronounced er high) means “Ear Sea” because it is shaped somewhat like an ear.  It is huge, about 25 miles long and 5 miles wide.  It was an impressive sight.


That night we stayed in our hotel room, ate the snacks and noodles we hadn’t consumed on the train, and rested.  We did not discover the room had internet access until it was time to leave the next morning, but that was probably a good thing because we had no distractions from sleeping.  The hotel at one time was a showcase of modern accommodations.  I’m not sure when it was built – 40s, 50s, or 60s – but it had not been updated since its heyday, so it was rather rundown.  We were on the 23rd floor overlooking an older part of the city, having a clear view because no buildings nearby were as tall.  Floors 2-4 comprised a supermarket, but we never figured out how to go there; the elevator buttons for those floors were disabled.  Other floors were for meetings and entertainment.  The top floors, beginning with ours, were the guest rooms.



From Kunming we flew a short hop (half an hour or so) to Dali.  In this part of Yunnan, two cultures come together – Han and Bai peoples.  China actually has 56 officially recognized minority peoples.  The Han are who the average person thinks of as a Chinese person.  The Bai people are native to the Dali area.  Bai (白族, pronounced buy ju)means “white” and they are so named because their houses are whitewashed with religious designs and symbols painted in black on the gables.  It is a lovely area, also on the shores of Erhai Lake.


We briefly toured the ancient city of Dali and then went to the Three Pagodas, which are considered the landmarks of Dali.  The main pagoda was begun in 9th century A.D. and the other two completed about 100 years later.  They are arranged on the corners of an equilateral triangle.  The Three Pagodas are well known for their resilience; they have endured several man-made and natural catastrophes over more than one thousand years.  It was recorded that main pagoda had been split in an earthquake on May 6, 1515 AD (Ming Dynasty).  However, it miraculously recovered ten days later in an aftershock.  The most recent record of severe earthquake in the Dali area occurred in 1925.  Only one in one hundred buildings in Dali survived, but the Three Pagodas were undamaged.  During repairs on the main pagoda in 1979, three copper plates were found at the bottom of the steeple which recorded the exact years of previous repairs:  1000, 1142, and 1145.


Behind the pagodas is a Buddhist temple known as Chongsheng Monastery.  It was once the royal temple of the Kingdom of Dali.  Originally built at the same time as the first pagoda, it was destroyed in a fire during the Qing Dynasty.  The temple was rebuilt in 2005.  We climbed to the top of the levels of the temple and were treated to a magnificent view of the lakeshore.


The next morning we drove to Xizhou (喜洲, pronounced she joe) where there was a traditional market.  I really enjoyed wandering through looking at the various foods for sale.  Normally a family goes to the market once or twice a day to get the food they need for that day.  There are meats of many kinds – pork, beef, yak, chicken (usually live) – plus an amazing array of tofu made from different beans (soy, chickpea, etc.).  The meat is displayed on tables and cut to the buyer’s specifications.  All parts of the animal are available to use.  There are vast amounts of vegetables – long narrow eggplants, bright orange or white carrots, greens that defy naming, Chinese potatoes, white, yellow and orange sweet potatoes, plus fruit, rice, beans, and noodles, each of which have a number of varieties from which to select.  A part of me would like the kind of life that allowed me the time to go to market each day and select fresh items for my meals.  There were other kinds of things for sale, such as clothing, household goods, baskets, and shoes, but it was the food that got my attention.


We also visited an embroidery school in Xizhou.  Young women from the village come there to learn the art of embroidery with silk.  Their designs are traditional and all work is done by hand.  It was a wonder to see.  Having the school helps keep some of the young people employed; otherwise, they need to go to the city (Dali) to find work in order to make a living, a trend that is growing among the Bai people.  I talked with the teacher at the school.  I mentioned that this kind of embroidery was something I would like to learn.  She replied that if I had a month to spend at the school, she could teach me.  I’m tempted – so I took her card.  Who knows … ?


Included in the tour was a boat ride on Erhai Lake during which we got to see cormorants in operation.  These birds are big, black, and beautiful.  The fishermen tie string around the bird’s long neck so that it cannot swallow the fish it catches, and then send it out to fish in the lake.  What it catches it brings back to the owner and he gives it a reward of smaller bites of fish.  The birds are trained from shortly after hatching, so they are very tame.  Daen and I each got to hold a couple of them on our arms.  I’m not big on birds, but these seemed to have intelligence and I really liked them.  Each owner seemed to have 10-15 on the fishing boat.  It was a fun experience.  There were several other boatloads of tourists from China or Taiwan who seemed to find Daen and me almost as entertaining as the birds since we were the only wai guo ren (foreigners) on the lake.



It is a long drive from Dali to Lijiang – over 3 hours up and over the mountains on a very nice, but winding road.  The traffic was bad because so many trucks lumbered their way slowly up the mountain.  While the scenery was lovely, we were happy to reach Lijiang.  Our driver was not used to these roads so she drove slowly and was hesitant to pass the trucks.  (She also failed to downshift, so the engine was working overtime to keep us moving.)  I think she was happier to reach our destination than we were.  The guide planned to do the driving on the way back so the driver could unwind from the ordeal.


Lijiang is an old city that once was a sleepy town unknown by the rest of China or the world.  The town has a history going back more than 800 years and was once a confluence for trade along the old tea horse road.  The Lijiang old town is famous for its orderly system of waterways and bridges.  The old town of Lijiang differs from other ancient Chinese cities in architecture, history, and the culture of its traditional residents, the Naxi (纳西, pronounced na she) people.  Then it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Today, as our guide said to me, it is dying:  Tourism is choking it to death.  The people who lived in the ancient city have had to move out in order to avoid the crowds and noise of the people who come for the show.  Most of the native population now lives in high-rise apartments, a far cry from their ancient residences.


The first night we were there, Daen became violently ill.  It certainly had the look of food poisoning, but I had literally eaten the same thing he had, bite for bite, and suffered no ill effects.  The only thing I can think that was different was the “meat on a stick.”  We each had our own stick, although they came out of the same cooking vat.  He spent the next day in bed.  Fortunately, the room could be made completely dark, so he was able to sleep.  There was no recurrence of the symptoms.


At Daen’s urging, I spent the day sightseeing with our guide, Eleanor.  Lijiang is practically in the shadow of a mountain called Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.  One can feel the energy of this scenic, snow-covered peak.  I was actually rather lucky to see it because quite often it is obscured by clouds, fog, or mist – which it was by the next day.


We first went to Black Dragon Pool, a park and museum surrounding a mountain-fed river.  The drought in this area has so far lasted three years, with little expectation of improvement for the time being.  We could see the empty channels of former water sources for the pool.  While perhaps picturesque, it spoke of serious problems for the future.


In the park, we came across some older Naxi women in local dress.  Eleanor explained the various aprons and colors and styles.  The Nakhi women wear wide-sleeved loose gowns accompanied by jackets and long trousers, tied with richly decorated belts at the waist.  Sheepskin is worn over the shoulder.  The younger women dress a little differently from the older women, only being allowed to wear a black shawl as a symbol maturity.  We also encountered a table of older women playing Mahjong.  I made the comment to Eleanor that someday I wanted to learn how to play.  She immediately mentioned it to the women and they very excitedly invited me to join them.  First, they demonstrated the plays to me, and then they invited me to play a round.  I didn’t win, but I certainly felt welcomed and had a lot of fun.  They asked my age, and then told me theirs – the younger ones were in their 70s, the oldest was about 84.


Later, we walked up to Lion Hill for a clear and breath-taking view of the mountain.  Eleanor was fun to be with.  Her English was excellent and we talked of many things.  The Naxi have many interesting customs, including a belief in the divinity of all things.  The way of the Tao, particularly fengshui(风水, pronounced fung shway), has been practiced there, among other religions, for many centuries.  My guide told me they claim the black dragon as their ancestor.  We chatted till late afternoon.  By the time I got back to our room, Daen was feeling some better but didn’t want to eat much.  I went to a bakery I had seen and bought some innocuous-looking bread (and other goodies) for us to eat in the room.


The last day in Lijiang Daen and I were on our own, so we explored.  I took him to the Black Dragon Pool and museum; we wandered around the town, but didn’t climb up Lion Hill again.  Although he was feeling better, we pretty much took it easy so as not to overdo.


The last night was Halloween and what a party was being made!  Daen and I found an out-of-the-way restaurant and had a delightful, vegetarian meal.  But in walking back to the hotel, we became embroiled in the large number of celebrants.  It was particularly challenging because of the narrow streets along the canals.  I think Daen would have enjoyed the celebrations, but it was not something I was up for.


Part of the tourism of the city was exhibitions of the old ways.  A few Nakhi men carry on the ancient Chinese tradition of hunting with falcons.  In our wanderings, we saw some of the falcons just sitting on their owner’s arms (no hood).  Also, in the evening, horsemen would ride the small horses through the crowd, carrying packs and reminding the visitors of the old trade route that brought Lijiang its livelihood.  A person could also pay for a ride on the ponies.


The next morning Eleanor escorted us to the airport.  I left Daen having lunch at the airport and boarded my flight for Taipei, Taiwan.  Later that afternoon, he got on a plane bound for Beijing, where he would spend the night and then fly home from there.

Tags: china, dali, kunming, lijiang


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