Saturday, February 9, 2013

18 Reasons to Travel to Yunnan in China (Part 2)

So it was that I found myself traveling through Yunnan province in Southwest China to see for myself why Lonely Planet declares it the only province you should see in China if you only have one province to see in China. In the tradition of the 18 Oddities of Yunnan province, a tourism campaign promoting travel to Yunnan, I listed my own 18 reasons for traveling to Yunnan. I have written down the first nine reasons in Part One. Below is Part Two. Here we go.

10. The History of Kunming

Green Lake Park, Kunming, Yunnan, China
Colorful history, colorful flowers. That’s Kunming alright.

I think I have established by now the amount of both necessary and unnecessary historical information I tend to consume when I travel. I like history. And a city does not get more historic than the capital of Yunnan province: Kunming. It was once terminus of the Ancient Tea Horse Road which stretched all the way to Central Asia and the Middle East, a tea trading route carried on the backs of men and mules.

Fast forward many years later, Kunming once again became the important terminus of the Burma Road which carried supplies to support China's war effort against the Japs. When the Burma Road was taken by the Japs, an air bridge was created by Allied planes from Burma to Kunming crossing the treacherous Himalayan foothills, a section of the mountain range now historically known as The Hump. Kunming, your colorful history is only matched by your perpetually colorful flowers.

11. The Laidbackness of Dali

Dali Old Town, Yunnan, China
One of the quieter moments in the former hippie enclave
but still quite the laidback old town that is Dali

Back when the Banana Pancake Trail of Southeast Asia used to be just a hippie trail (as all backpacker trails in the world began), Dali in Central Yunnan was actually a part of it. And the hippies, they tend to go for laidback little towns. Dali has grown a lot since then but in Dali Old Town, you can still glean on what the hippies found here. Foreigner Street, the hippie enclave in Dali, still exists, only more gentrified these days with bars, shops, and restaurants. Combine that with a serene landscape of mountains, hills, and a highland lake and you have yourself a definite winner—the laidback destination the hippies in us yearn for.

12. The Little Old Towns

Naxi Women, Lijiang, Yunnan, China
Naxi women strolling about one afternoon in Lijiang Old Town

What is it about little old towns that we like so much? Maybe they hark back to a time when a family's goal was not to have the largest and most ostentatious house but to live by modest means (roof over our heads, we are happy). Maybe they just inspire the romance poets in us. Whatever it is, Yunnan province has plenty of them. Most have gone touristy. But walk further along or head to off-the-bean path towns and you'll still find isolated corners where old Naxi ladies gather around and hear the latest gossip. One fine example of Yunnan's old towns is Lijiang Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

13. The Treks

Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China
Views from the upper slopes of Cang Shan in Dali

Curses were what I threw into the air when I first attempted to climb to the Philippines' second highest peak, Mount Pulag, in my first ever trekking experience. I vowed never to go trekking again. Exactly nine months after, I found myself preparing for a 10-day trek into the heart of the Central Nepal Himalaya, a walk more popularly known as the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek. It changed my view completely. There is just something so simple, primordial even, about having to live only on your most basic necessities and having to not think of anything else, nothing at all, but to figure out a way to lift one foot in front of the other and move forward. Yunnan province offers a lot of treks. Good ones, too. We trekked the Jade-Cloud Road of Cang Shan as well as through the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Highlights of my travels thus far.

14. Tiger F*cking Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan, China
Tiger Leaping Gorge, a gorge so narrow legend has it a tiger leapt from one side to another

Tiger F*cking Leaping Gorge. I have said enough already.

15. The Dongba Hieroglyphs

Dongba Mural, Lijiang, Yunnan, China
The Dongba script, the hieroglyphic written language of the Naxi people

Roving into Lijiang inside a bus, I looked out the window and saw highway signs written not just in two ways, Chinese and English, as in most parts in China. There was a more distinct, and more elaborate, script accompanying the standard. This is the Dongba script of the Naxi people of Yunnan, a script I had only read about before but had already fascinated me since. Banned from use during Mao's Cultural Revolution, the Dongba script is trying its hand at a comeback, even if it might be too late now. You can imagine them to be the Naxi's answer to the Ancient Egyptians' hieroglyphs, only with the Naxi, the Dongba script was strictly for ceremonial, religious, and nowadays touristic use.

16. Black Dragon Pool Park

Black Dragon Pool Park, Lijiang, China
One of the most iconic images, if not the most iconic image, of Yunnan province:
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain viewed from Black Dragon Pool Park in Lijiang

One of the classic images people take away from travel to Yunnan province, certainly one of the images which grace the covers of China travel books, can be had if you walk north from Lijiang Old Town into a quiet area known as the Black Dragon Pool Park. Looking out onto the pool, significant in itself being the source of the water of the brooks and streams of Lijiang Old Town, you get the most spectacular view of Lijiang's mountain guardian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The pavilion, the temple, and the white marble bridge all frame the mountain perfectly.

17. The Tibetan Culture

Ganden Sumtselling Monastery, Zhongdian, Yunnan, China
The most important Tibetan Buddhist Lamasery in Yunnan province,
Ganden Sumtselling Monastery in Zhongdian (Shangri-la)

Further up the highway from Lijiang, higher and deeper into the Himalayan foothills of Yunnan province, the narrow valleys carved by the Yangtze River dotted with small Naxi villages give way to wide open grasslands dominated by the tall, white chorten (stupas) and houses of the Tibetans. I made it as far north as Zhongdian on the southeastern corner of the Tibetan plateau, administratively Yunnan but traditionally Tibetan. To the native Tibetans, in fact, this place is called Gyalthang. Of course, the tourist brochures would have us believe this is James Hilton's mythical Shangri-la. Whether you buy into that or not, I found Zhongdian one of the most authentic places you can experience Tibet outside of Tibet.

18. It's China. The Challenge, the Language Barrier, the Unfamiliarity.

Saying goodbye to a month of traveling through China, Chengdu, China
Final moments after a month of traveling through Southwest China,
hopefully richer in experience and bolder in sensibilities

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to travel to Yunnan province because not only is this China, a nation so guarded and so closed off to the rest world for such a long time they have developed their own sense of what is normal, Yunnan province is Far Southwest China. I kept thinking all the complexities and challenges every traveler faces when in China are amplified here. And to a certain extent, they are. The conveniences and modernity of Shanghai or the somewhat familiar Han traditions of Beijing seem so far away from here. In Yunnan, the unfamiliar is more unfamiliar. English is not a language spoken by anyone. Truth be told, I liked it that way. The challenges of the unknown and getting out of my comfort zone are what keeps me going and what fuels my travels. It's certainly the case here in China. Shouldn't they be those of other travelers, too?

This is Part Two of my 18 reasons to travel to Yunnan, China. The first part of the list can be found here: Part One.

What do you think? Have I convinced you enough to travel to Yunnan province in China? How so?

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