China is an extremely easy place to travel. Between high speed trains and cheap flights, the entire country is conveniently accessible at relatively low cost. And while we’ve traveled thousands of miles on the road as well, most of that has come by bus and hired car. So when a local friend with a car offered to road trip with us from Chongqing into northern Yunnan, we were psyched. 6 years in China and it was our first real independent road trip.
We did the whole route in three days. That was too short. For our two friends who were driving, they spent way too much time behind the wheel and not enough time enjoying the scenery. While the highways made for pretty easy driving, the distances involved made the whole trip pretty 辛苦 on everyone. In retrospect, spreading things out over four days would probably have been a better idea.
We started in Chongqing and headed west and then south on the G85, which after about 4.5 hours placed us in Yibin, Sichuan. We stopped in Yibin to have lunch with another friend from Chongqing who grew up in Yibin. The city is primarily known for where the Minjiang River（岷江）runs into the mighty Yangtze River （长江）(in the picture below you can see the different colored rivers mixing together). At the intersection is a huge stone map of all the major cities along the Yangtze from Yibin to Shanghai. The city itself is pretty typical for a small, relaxed hub city, and is a good rest stop for noodles and a stroll along the river.
With our mouths on fire and our bellies full, we got into the car and kept heading south on the G85. Our next destination was a hot spring called the Western Grand Canyon hot spring （西部大峡谷温泉）. Only about an hour south of Yibin, this hot spring was actually quite nice. I say “actually”, because while driving up to the hot spring you go through an absolutely massive coal mine, which shouts pretty much the opposite of tranquil natural retreat. Distanced sufficiently from the mine and located next to a canyon (hence the name), the hot spring area has 30 pools many of which with unique flavoring (lemon, milk, ginseng, etc. …) Many of the pools are super hot, which should be welcome news to experienced hot springers (we couldn’t handle a lot of them). We spent the night at a local hotel near the hot spring (rooms are also available at the hot spring, but they aren’t cheap).
The next morning we geared up for Yunnan. Our first goal was to find some rice terraces, which at this time of year would be bright red. Before long, we were deep into rural China and all we could see were fields and fields of local agriculture. When people say, “Yunnan is really beautiful,” this is what they mean.
Eventually, after about another 4 hours, we arrived in Da Shan Bao （大山包）. This mountain area is primarily a domestic tourist spot. You’ll most likely see other road trippers from the surrounding Sichuan and Yunnan cities.
This area is not crowded. Local kids may come up to you to say hi or offer a horse ride, but this place definitely doesn’t feel like a tourist trap. It’s pretty much a lake, a nice path into the mountains, and wide open spaces and sky.
Along the path there are some local women who will offer you fruit, nuts, and other snacks. The women wear really thick and stiff coats made out of sheep wool. The coats are so dense and stiff that they are pretty much completely windproof. We really liked them and even considered buying one.
Try to time your ascent so that you’re on the top at sunset. Along the middle of the path there is a pretty cool road to nowhere, which ends up with the view pictured below. At this point I also realized that I could use my sunglasses in front of the camera lens for a pretty good sepia look.
Watching the sunset at the top is pretty spectacular, as the pictures below only futilely begin to express.
That night we found another local hotel back up the highway. The next next morning we got up early and visited a local reserve, the Da Hai Zi wetland reserve （大海子湿地）, famed for being the home to black neck cranes, which are an elusive and protected species.
There’s a large viewing deck, pictured below, where photographers come to capture the birds without disturbing them. Sadly, we came too late in the season and missed the majority of the birds (we did see a couple small flocks). During the migration season, hundreds of thousands of birds of dozens of species comes through the reserve.
Since there wasn’t much to look at, I continued to play with my sepia sunglasses.
By the early afternoon we decided to head back to Chongqing. The drive back to Chongqing would be a solid 7+ hours, so we wanted to get started early. Along the way we passed an interesting looking pagoda near a mountain-side. The sun was already going down, making for a spectacular view. Of course, this being China, when you go inside the seemingly pretty pagoda you are greeted by dozens of human cow paddies. It’s not so much a reflection on people, as people have to go when they have to go, but rather a result of the lack of rest stops along hundreds of miles of highway.
In all, this was a great road trip. Yunnan is such a beautiful province, one could spend months driving across it. We spent a short three days, which was too short indeed. One day it would be great to get an RV and head out into the remote western areas of Yunnan, an adventure for another day.
Here’s our complete route: