China is the most populous country on the planet, has the longest continuous land border (22722km long, sharing it with 14 other countries), is the biggest country in Eastern Asia and one of the biggest in the world, it is the 1st economic power in terms of spending power, the world’s first exporter, has the biggest army, etc. In short, China attracted and fascinated us, but also frightened us a bit. We had heard so many stories from other travellers recounting travelling in China as an adventure in itself, where nobody speaks English and where everything is extremely complicated.
Thus, contrary to the countries we visited before, we took some time to plan our stay carefully : we decided beforehand what we wanted to see, where we would sleep, looked up which buses and trains were available (we can’t thank Google Translate enough!). Some people find that this spoils the charm of travelling but in retrospect, it allowed us to see much more and removed a lot of stress.
After 4 months in Southeast Asia, we were eager to discover the middle kingdom.
We left Luang Namtha in the morning of the 2nd of May. That day almost went terribly wrong: when we stepped off the tuk-tuk, one of the bus drivers looked at our tickets and put our backpacks in the trunk of his bus while repeating “Meng-La, Ok !”. As Vietnam was written in big letters on the side of the bus, we started to have doubts so we insisted, repeating over and over that we are going to China. He kept saying “yes, ok!”, until one of the nearby locals joined the conversation and explained in Lao to the bus driver where we wanted to go. The driver’s expression changed suddenly and he said “no no no no” while promptly getting our bags off the bus… We won’t go to Vietnam this time !
Once we reached the border (we were the only westerners in the tiny bus), we were asked to remain on the side. The immigration officials took our passports and kept them for a very long time before asking us what each stamp was: “This one, which country ? And this one ?” etc. We then had the usual questions, is this our first time in China, how long do we want to stay, where do we want to go, what do we want to visit, how are we going to exit the country,… Meanwhile, their colleagues were intensely looking at every page in our passports. Something seemed to bother them, but they wouldn’t tell us anything. After about 45 minutes, and probably also thanks to the very loud honking noises coming from our bus, we were told everything was ok.
One of the guards escorted to us to one of the counters to be processed by his colleague, but once again we got the same questions all over again, and something still seemed to bother them with our passports. The guy ended up asking us our ID cards, which we obviously did not have with us. Tracy then offered to show our french driving licenses, and oddly enough this seemed to satisfy them as we were finally authorised through. We really didn’t get what happened. Welcome to China !
From Meng-La, a city close to the border, we took a night bus to Kunming. During the night, we got woken up twice by police officers in full combat armour. Each night foreigners spend in China is supposed to be registered (usually the hotels/guesthouses take care of that), this time the policemen registered us directly in the system.
As soon as we arrived in Kunming, we were struck by one thing: the city is really big, really clean, and almost every sign is written in both Chinese and English, contrary to what we had read beforehand. We therefore very confidently go towards the train station to book our tickets for the month. There, it was complete chaos: people everywhere, 15 counters with about 50 people queuing in front of each, and absolutely nothing written in English. While queuing, we were busy writing our little forms in Chinese so that we could just give them to the person at the counter and avoid miscommunication issues (we found these very helpful forms on the website maninseat61, an information gold mine when it comes to travelling by train anywhere in the world). A few people tried to skip the queue and squeeze just in front of us, but the locals immediately behind us vehemently sent them back every time. It appears that contrary to the common belief, Chinese people do queue and consider it very rude to try to skip it, it’s just that there are way more people trying to cheat 🙂 Our little forms worked like a charm but it still took quite a bit of time as the ticket salesperson needed to input our full names and passport info for each ticket and had trouble reading our passports. We finally got our tickets and left while the queue behind us booed.
Second task of the day: to buy a local sim card, which turned out to be very complicated. We were sent to fifteen or so different shops by people who were trying really hard to help us, but every time we faced the same puzzling question : “Do you have your Chinese ID card ?” Umm, well… I… No, I don’t have one. After 2 hours running everywhere, we finally found the one and only China Mobile shop in Kunming that allows foreigners to buy a sim card using a passport. Hurray ! Damn it, everything is written in Chinese and nobody speaks a word of English… Ok, nevermind, the little bit of Chinese we know is clearly not enough here, so let’s get the smartphone out and use Google translate (thank god for offline mode). This didn’t really make things better, so we were going through some steps without being really sure of what we were signing up for, when out of nowhere, like a godsend, an American woman who was originally from China offered to act as translator ! Thanks to her, everything went much faster and much smoother, and we are now the proud owners of a sim card with a very slow and restricted internet reminding us of the good old times of the year 2000… They do have 4G, but not for us ! 😀
Kunming is a very rich and modern city, with many skyscrapers and lots of expensive luxury cars (we never thought we would see so many maserattis and porsches) but it does seem very liveable, partly thanks to the many parks and green spaces. In green lake park, we were fascinated by the open-air Tai Chi classes and the many people gathering in small groups to play cards.
We visited Yuangtong’s Buddhist temple, which does not resemble any temple you can see in Southeast Asia. Not only is the architecture different, but the atmosphere also: it felt more like a relaxing park than a temple, walking from little pavilion to little pavilion.
There is not much of an old town left in Kunming. The few remaining old houses still standing are currently being renovated and will soon accommodate brand new tourist shops. Likewise, the bird and flower market is only the shadow of its former glory. Apart from a few vendors on the sidewalk showing cages full of puppies and kittens with barely enough space to move, small aquariums filled with all sorts of fish and tiny bird cages, there isn’t much left. It’s more heartbreaking than anything else, to be honest. Around this old centre of town, you can now find many big shopping malls like Carrefour and Walmart.
We went to see the dance and percussions show “Dynamic Yunnan” created by Ms. Yang Liping. Mixing traditional dances and songs from 26 minorities inhabiting the Yunnan province with a modern twist, this show has been playing every night at the Kunming arts theatre for many years. We found it mind blowing. The dancers really do an excellent job, and the choreography/directing is exceptional. We particularly liked “Moonlight” and can only advise anybody staying in Kunming to see this show.
At first, we weren’t really sure whether we wanted to visit it or not as we had read it was always very busy, and at 30 euros /person one day in the natural park, we wanted to be sure we could enjoy it. In the end, we spent a full day there, and we don’t regret it at all. The touristy zones are indeed very crowded, but it is very easy to get out of these and as soon as you do so, you are practically alone with the impressive and original rock formations.
The park is heavily developed: all the trails have been paved, you can see freshly cut lawn and artifical ponds everywhere, making it look artificial. Unfortunately, it seems that this is what Chinese officials think is good when managing a tourist site, we don’t have the same tastes ! It doesn’t spoil the beauty of the park though, and it is a really nice place to visit.
Lijiang and Baisha
We took the night train to reach Lijiang. We had heard a lot of good things about the railway system in China, and we were not disappointed. Our “hard sleeper” berths were actually pretty comfortable and although we didn’t have that much space, we still slept pretty well. In Lijiang, we had a hard time finding our hotel but fortunately, as has been the case in China every time we looked a bit lost, a local came to our rescue. Although she didn’t speak much English and we don’t speak much Chinese, we still managed to understand each other and she generously called the manager of our hotel and brought us there herself. In the end, we’re not sure where we ended up, because the people there said they were going to bring us to the other part of their hotel, much better. They kept saying that yes, it was the correct hotel, but it didn’t look like the pictures at all and they kept asking us how much we had booked for online (they apparently couldn’t find the booking). We’re not sure what happened but we ended up in a super luxurious room for a ridiculously low price, so we were happy !
Following its admission to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites at the beginning of the 90s, the town has seen a huge tourist boom. The resulting increase in housing prices has pushed all the Naxis (the native minority) out of the city as they can not afford anymore to live in the old town. The old houses are still there, but they have all been restored to accommodate for either hotels, restaurants or souvenir shops. We felt like we were in a Disneyland attraction with the theme “Ancient Chinese city”.
Everyday at 2pm, native Naxi people perform a traditional song and dance show on the main square of the old town, but all the artists looked like they weren’t enjoying it and did not seem to keen on this artificial staging to “share their culture”.
One thing we found really beautiful and worthwhile in Lijiang is the Black Dragon Pool. A tiny lake surrounded by many pavilions on which you can see the reflection of the nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (a mountain range whose highest peak rises at 5596m above sea level).
We took half a day to go to Baisha, a small village located just north of Lijiang old town. The atmosphere is way better over there as the town seems to manage to balance tourism and local life fairly well. We wouldn’t say it’s not a touristy place (there are many visitors and many hotels, cafés, restaurants, etc.), but there are still locals living in the city, walking down its streets, giving it a much nicer vibe.
You can find there an embroidery school which is really interesting to visit. We were greeted by a young woman with perfect English who was very keen on showing us the works of the teachers and masters of the school. All the embroidery art works she showed us were extraordinarily well made (impossible to take pictures of course, as they are all original and for sale). It took several years to complete some of them, and you can easily understand why when you see the level of craftsmanship involved.
Finally, we could not go to Baisha and not go see the famous Dr. Ho, known worldwide for his traditional herbal medicine. Many blogs and newspaper articles talk about the merits of his medicine. Once we passed the front door, he repeated many times that a lot of newspapers talked about him, that he was very famous and that his herbs would definitely cure us (from what, we don’t know). After having given us a piece of paper written in French indicating the dosage of his miraculous medicine (the proof of the quality of his herbs being the fact that they come from the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), he promptly asked us to pay him for a month of treatment (and the price was surprisingly high). We politely declined his offer but we still spent some time talking with this charming 95 years old man.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
This gorge gets its name from a legend which says a tiger once leaped across the torrential water from a rock deep inside the gorge. It is a very impressive natural formation, with the difference in height between the water and the top reaching 3790m at its maximum. Today, the tiger leaping gorge is a tourist spot that is very famous with Chinese tour groups, but you can still hike the “upper” trail (the lower trail being the main road that buses take). The hike is more than 25km long and is typically spread over 2 days.
In the bus going from Lijiang to Qiatou (the starting point of the hike), we met Solene and Edouard, with whom we had quite a few laughs, so we all decided to start the hike together. A few minivan drivers tried to convince us to go to the next village by car rather than walk, but we declined the offer and started the hike under the blazing sun. The first part is actually pretty hard and not very interesting in terms of landscapes (there are huge works on the other side of the gorge to build a new railway), but it had been a while since we had walked like this so we really enjoyed it! We stopped in the first village in order to start early the next day and enjoy some fresh air, while Solene and Edouard went on (they had to reach the end of the hike the next day to catch their bus).
The second day turned out to be much more interesting with some breathtaking views, a path on the side of the mountain that dropped steeply to the side, and the sound of the raging waters down below. In the evening we stopped at Tibet Guesthouse, a nice little guesthouse inside Walnut Grove village, owned by a friendly Tibetan family (and the food is pretty amazing there) !
On the third day, we tried to go down in the gorge, but we were unfortunately confronted with many attempts to help us get rid of our cash. After half an hour walking, we were asked to pay 15 Yuans per person with the explanation that this particular part of the gorge was not included in the ticket we bought at the beginning, as it was developed by the villagers and not the government. Fair enough, we payed the 30 Yuans and went on. 10 minutes later, another gate and this time a different sign explaining that the 15 Yuans we had paid were actually not to the villagers but to one family only. The rest of the way being developed by a different family, we had to pay an extra 15 Yuans each to get up the ladder. And if we didn’t want to use the ladder, and only wanted to get close to the water before turning back we still had to pay 5 Yuans. Oh and it’s also 10 Yuans for each bridge leading to a photo spot… Pissed off by the constant lying and the “yes, but…” we refused to pay more to go 50m further and hiked back the way we came.