My friend and former colleague, John Couper, has been at it again. His travels to Yunnan Province in China are no less exceptional than his travels to other parts of the world. Guest blogger John and his Kazakh wife, Naila, wanted to head to warmer temperatures during their winter break in Kazakhstan where John was teaching at the time. This post is the first of three describing their unique style of travel through this little-known province of China.
I was fortunate enough to travel to Yunnan Province in 2010 when I lived in China. The places John writes about bring back so many memories of my time in Kunming, Xishuangbanna, and Jinhong. Maybe one day I will write about my adventures there, but they differ greatly from John’s much more authentic experience. I hope you enjoy this first post in John’s series of three about his adventures in southern China.
Sensoria in Yunnan
The tropical south of China.
We strolled down a dirt road, lined with grass and soon reached a large wooden home on stilts beyond a very heavy stone wall. Through a gate and into a courtyard then to a space under the house with stairs that took us up to the main floor living floor. This would be home for two days.
This Dai house is traditional in a group of tribes at the extreme south of China. Xishuangbanna means “12 rice-paddy areas”, the unit of ancient government in this region. We had arranged to stay with a local family, whose patriarch welcomed us into a huge living room that served as the main room for the family. Dai society is communal, with homes are very “open-plan”, although the mother and father have a small bedroom at one corner.
In the middle of this room was a wood-stove kitchen area, a section with handmade bamboo sofas facing a television, a dining table, and a workspace just outside for laundry and other work.
I believe that most people approach travel in exactly the wrong way. Surely the purpose of travel is to satisfy, please and enrich the travelers. But no travel agent would suggest Xishuangbanna. So it makes little sense to base our travel on what agencies find easy and profitable.
Instead of such “tourism travel,” I prefer “experience travel,” basing my plans on a list of what we want to do, wherever that is and however famous it might be. We start by listing our priorities then searching online, often without including the country. This has always led us to remarkable places.
Since we were traveling during the Christmas holiday from our home in Kazakhstan, it had to be in Asia. To be comfortable, it should be far to the south.
Our search what came up was an area in the far south of the huge Yunnan province. There is little tourist information about this, although tours there are well-developed for the Chinese, but it seemed so perfect that we decided to go.
Bureaucracy and Roads
Our first adventure was a visa. The Chinese government refuses requests for visas to anyone living in a third country, but luckily one of my students took us to the Chinese embassy in Almaty and called from the street. The street was filled with Kazakh workers who wanted to get visas, mostly very frustrated, so I was worried myself. Soon a well-fed man in uniform came out, we talked a little and exchanged a handful of cash. He said to come back in a few days, but I was doubtful.
At the appointed time, give or take an hour and a half, he came out and presented our passports and visas allowing us to travel to China in six weeks.
Because flights were expensive, we took a shared taxi across dry grassland from Almaty to Urumqi, in the far northwest of China. This tumultuous area, filled with independence – minded Chinese Muslims, was gripped by winter, so the nine-hour trip was no fun. At least we easily crossed the border because bitter weather was cutting down on the number of travelers. We had to make two crossings about a kilometer apart – one to leave Kazakhstan, the other to enter China.
An hour into the mountains took us into Urumqi, China’s huge frontier city. The next morning, we flew to Kunming, the main city of Yunnan province.
In Kunming we stayed at a handsome new lakeside hotel at the city’s edge. Its design and construction looked ancient and Imperial, but we got a cheap rate because it was almost empty.
Enjoying Kunming’s temperate climate, we visited an impressive, brand-new “village” the government created to reproduce and protect traditions. The city was beautifully produced and presented, brimming with craftsmanship and design. Its houses looked centuries old, but their varnish was still drying as its first tourists visited.
Couchsurfing let us contact a professor in Kunming who very kindly showed us around, including a historical museum, the city center, and one genuinely ancient house of a very famous Chinese poet, preserved for visitors.
He also took us to the spectacular, ancient Jin Dian Temple complex– at the edge of the city, beneath scrubby mountains, and enclosing a lake of contemplation. Also known as Golden temple because it is the largest historic copper-clad building in China. Uniquely, it merged Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. We joined a line of devotees, mostly older women, for a free vegetarian lunch.
Naila and I don’t eat meat, so our ever – thoughtful host took us to a famous restaurant whose chefs reproduce the full menu of the local Chinese food Palace, but only out of textured vegetable protein. Soy pork, soy shrimp, soy beef, etc., were sculpted to look, taste and feel like the original. As almost the only customers there, they took very good care of us. We stuffed ourselves with food that, for me, was more interesting since I last ate meat more than 50 years ago, so this was my first taste of “beef and pork” since the 1960s.
Our travels took us around Kunming. No one from any other country can imagine the scale of Chinese cities. Kunming is not well-known in China—just another small provincial city in a relatively low-population region. Yet, to visit friends halfway across the city, we spent almost 2 hours by bus, constantly passing new buildings and throngs of people. It felt larger than New York or London.
Kunming is undergoing enormous urban development. Its Metro system was under construction when we were there, scrambling traffic patterns that, at the best of times, were horrific enough to justify construction of an enormous underground Metro. Even though the government reduced traffic by decreeing that only people with certain license plates could drive on certain days, it was a madhouse.
Kunming was both impressive and depressing. We also stayed there at a hostel, filled mostly by backpacking foreigners on their way west to the ancient city of Dali. Not far from Tibet, its spectacular scenery and Old Town makes it a magnet for backpackers and hippies. If we had another week I would’ve gone there, but with so much to see in the south, we skipped unforgettable Dali.
We started south, taking a taxi to Kunming’s main bus station. We could have flown, but most flights were canceled in the winter. However, special overnight busses were regular. The seats are designed to fold back almost flat so everyone can sleep comfortably.
After this 10-hour trip from Kunming we arrived at Jinghong, the main town of isolated Xishuangbanna. Like other places at a road’s end, Xishuangbanna is tucked in a rural corner bordering Myanmar and Laos. No visitor is on a road to anywhere else.
Arriving at the small bus station in early morning, we took a taxi to a youth hostel not far from the center of the city. Their very plain but clean hotel-style room cost only about $1.50 per day, with access to its Internet café, laundry room, and an outdoor area for eating and meeting people.
Tea and Consequences in Xishuangbanna
Jinghong’s Ganlanba market has areas selling traditional fabrics, fruit and vegetable, standard commercial items, but specializes in every kind and quality of tea.
Subtropical Xishuangbanna was probably home to the world’s first tea plants. One of the most prestigious teas today, Pu’er, is native to its north. Some trees are thousands of years old. Instead of the familiar bushes that have been developed for cropping convenience, these are full-size trees of two types: large leaf and small leaf. Though collecting leaves demands a climb up into the tree, high prices for this tea means that, every year, more monumental trees are destroyed or plucked almost out of existence.
Chinese tea has a unique meaning. A visit to a local tea house is as much education as refreshment, limited only by time (allow plenty) and language. The drinkable ballet begins with tossing away the first brew. A tea master takes you through elaborate, ceremonial steps and explains what he can, in exchange for buying overpriced but still reasonable packets of tea.
Beyond every day and elite teas for brewing, cheap tea leaves are pressed into medallions of every size, embossed with Chinese designs and sayings and designed to be hung around the home.