Tag Archives: China

Road Trippin’ Through Northern Yunnan

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.

Fast Facts:

Name: Stops included the town of Yibin (宜宾), the Western Grand Canyon Hot Springs (西部大峡谷温泉)and the Da Shan Bao Reserve in Zhaotong (大山包,昭通)

What to Do: See beautiful terraced farmland, soak in a hot spring, enjoy scenic mountain landscapes, and catch the elusive black neck cranes.

Getting There: We drove from Chongqing, which takes ~8 hours. You could also access the area from Kunming via train / buses. Zhaotong also has an airport.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Since there wasn’t much to look at, I continued to play with my sepia sunglasses.

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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.

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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:

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Chongqing’s Wansheng Stone Forest

China’s most famous stone forest (石林)is located in Yunnan Province about 3 hours outside of Kunming. It’s massive and from what I hear well worth a visit. Chongqing’s stone forest, on the other hand, is virtually unknown. And some locals might tell you it’s not really worth the 3.5 hour drive from the city (没什么好玩儿 is not an uncommon response). However, we were pleasantly surprised.

Dating back to 600 million years ago (claimed by the park; hyperbole, perhaps, though perhaps not), Chongqing’s Wansheng Stone Forest (万盛石林)is a whopping 200 million years older than Yunnan’s Lunan Stone Forest (路南石林). So take that Yunnan!

Fast Facts:

Name: 万盛石林  |  Wansheng Stone Forest

Where: 重庆  |  Chongqing

What to Do: Walk around an ancient stone forest, duh! You can also sip tea and ski down a grass slope (sadly, the course was closed when we were there, but it should be open in the summer).

Getting There: Allegedly you can take a bus, but it’s not easy because you’ve got to take another bus (a mini-private bus, … so a bit 麻烦) from where you get dropped off in Wansheng. So the easiest thing to do is rent/hire a car. It should take about 3.5 hours one-way.

You can easily spend about 3-4 hours walking around the maze of stone pillars. Heading in with little to no expectations, the Wansheng stone forest really was quite inspiring in terms of scale and coolness factor of the rock formations. Moreover, the park was basically empty on a Sunday afternoon (bear in mind we went in the winter), which made for a truly peaceful wandering experience.

We went on a typical smoggy/foggy Chongqing day, and it still felt good to be outside. 3.5 hours outside of the city you won’t find sunshine necessarily, but the air will smell/taste a little less sour.

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Walking through the rocks, you can see the layers of age etched into the stone like the rings of a tree trunk. When you look around the surrounding area, it really is quite amazing because this stone forest seemingly just appears out of nowhere amidst an otherwise normal Sichuan countryside.

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Around lunch time we stopped at one of the many benches lining the pathways. A very affectionate and chill dog joined us. There really isn’t much in the way of eateries in the stone forest (aside from your standard assorted meat hot dog and 快速面), so it’s a good idea to pack a lunch.

The textures on the rocks are quite exquisite. A lot of the rocks look like dinosaurs or some other scale encased creature.

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重庆 Chongqing

In the middle of the park is a lake, which has stepping stones that you can hop along to walk over the lake. Leaping from stone to stone is shockingly entertaining, especially if you’re a child at heart (we also had a middle-schooler with us who loved it).

The tea house by the lake is also a nice spot to relax and enjoy the geological wonderland you’re in. It was closed for the winter while we were there, but looked pretty nice nonetheless.

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重庆 Chongqing

Below is the grass ski course. We really wanted to try it out, but again this was closed for the winter. Apparently you ski down on what are basically giant rollerblades. The grass was surprisingly slippery and soft, as you could somewhat coast down even on flat shoes. I can only imagine how fun it would be when filled with kids (and adults) falling on their faces.

If grass skiing isn’t your thing, then definitely take the slide down the hill back to the parking lot. It’s one of those where you sit on a blanket going down a plastic slide. The course is short, but absolutely fun and beats walking down for sure.

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If you happen to have an open weekend in Chongqing, I’d definitely put this on a potential to-do list. The stone forest, Wulong’s karst bridges, and Jindao gorge would make a pretty awesome 3-day Chongqing itinerary.

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It’s always a bit surreal doing day trips out of Chongqing. When you’re out in the countryside you easily forget about the concrete and steel mega-tropolis that’s waiting for you in the evening. Driving back home, as one 40-story building after another appears, you get that combined feeling of dread and wonder. And when coming back during sunset, the smoggy/foggy city has a sort of haunting beauty to it.

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Finding Wansheng Stone Forest on a Map

Xiamen, the City by the Sea

Not all of China’s cities are crowded, dirty, and polluted concreted jungles. Like Kunming in Yunnan and Xining in Qinghai, Xiamen in Fujian Province is a smaller (on China’s scale), quieter, chiller, cleaner, and generally more relaxed city than the more well known mega-cities.

Xiamen is home to 2 million coast-loving people. Today, the city is a mix of Hokkien, Taiwanese, Han, and western culture. To non-locals, Xiamen is as a getaway destination featuring Gulangyu Island.

For anyone trapped in one of China’s smoggy cities, Xiamen is indeed a perfect weekend escape. For any China travelers, Xiamen is a great launching point for heading out into the Fujian countryside.

Fast Facts:

Name: 厦门  |  Xiàmén

Where: 福建  |  Fujian Province

What to Do: Ride a bike through Xiamen University and then along the coast; tour a tea field; eat some really fresh seafood; visit the famous circular tulou (土楼,tǔlóu) houses.

Featuring beaches along the highway, bikes paths hugging the coast, and winding boardwalks – Xiamen doesn’t feel like your average Chinese city. While Xiamen is a tourist destination, it doesn’t feel chaotic like the big spots in Beijing and Xi’an. Side streets are relatively quiet and you could drive through downtown without even really realizing it. While the city itself isn’t particularly beautiful, the ocean and coastline more than make up for the blasé architecture.

Perhaps one of our fondest memories of Xiamen is sitting on the wood planked boardwalk drinking a deliciously sweet and fresh coconut.

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Xiamen 厦门

Xiamen 厦门

Xiamen 厦门

Xiamen 厦门

If you ask a local cab driver what to do in Xiamen, you’ll probably get directed to Xiamen University. Oddly, the university is probably the biggest tourist attraction in the city. Just outside the university’s main gate you can rent bikes and start by exploring the campus. Now if you went to Stanford or one of the many gorgeous UC schools, you won’t be impressed by Xiamen University. But, if you’re coming from any big city school, Xiamen University really is beautiful. There’s nothing to see in particular on campus, but on a nice day riding through the grounds is a fun way to begin a one-day ride through Xiamen.

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From the university you can head east along the coast (as pictured in the first set of pics above). Just go as long as you can before heading back to beat the sunset. Along the coast you’ll find seafood restaurants, coconuts, beaches, relaxing sea breezes, and lots of happy people struggling up hills on tandem bikes.

At sunset, Xiamen’s cloud glittered blue skies provide many Instagram moments.

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To checkout the tea fields and the tulou houses, try and join a tour through your hotel. Or, if you have enough people in your group, hire a car for the day. Most of the tu lou houses are a couple hours away from the city, so plan on taking a full day to do the visit (you can also stay overnight in some of the houses, so we’ve heard).

The tu lou houses are the round iconic dwellings that are abundant in Fujian province. The houses are formed by circular rings, once inhabited by the local clans. The structure was a way for communal protection of livestock and interior living spaces. Today, the houses are totally tricked out tourist destinations – the interiors filled with shops selling all manner of junky stuff. However, some of the less visited tu lou can give one a more relaxed visiting experience. At the end of the day, these are just round houses, so your mind won’t be blown by any means. But, if you’re in the area, the tu lou houses really are the thing to see if you have some time.

Immediately below are memorials to locals in once village who have lived over 100 years.

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Nestled in between many of the tu lou houses are tea fields. Since you’re in Fujian, Oolong is going to be the main attraction. At basically any tea farm you can go in and look at the processing techniques, try some tea, and buy some reasonably priced bags.

Chilling with some Oolong tea as you gaze at a tu lou in the distance is perhaps the quintessential Xiamen / Fujian experience. Since there’s not really much to do in the tu lou homes when you’re up close, they are perhaps enjoyed best from afar anyway. Though do be sure to go inside at least one tu lou. It’s really cool seeing the way all the rooms circle around the structure. In some of the tu lou, there are buildings within buildings inside the outer circular structure.

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Xiamen 厦门

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Xiamen 厦门

This is the money shot that most everyone is looking for.

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Xiamen is by the sea. And therefore seafood is synonymous with the city. There is a snack street with a particularly colorful display of seafood (as shown below). Bear in mind that these things all look more interesting than they taste. For the best seafood, go to a local restaurant. The snack street is just for tourists and the seafood all tends to be over-cooked and over-seasoned. But, the street is worth a visit just for all the colorful dishes.

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Finding Xiamen on a Map

Chongqing Xpress: Part 4

Everyday for the past year a massive construction project has seized the plot of land where Chongqing’s Jiangbei district used to have a water park. For months it seemed like nothing was happening, as all we could see were holes slowly being dug in the ground by massive drills. However, once the arduous task of installing the foundation was done, the site quickly burst to life.

When the wood and steel arrived at the site it looked like someone had dumped an entire skyscraper’s worth of materials onto the ground. Then slowly but surely the pieces got sorted out and a structure began to take shape.

Now like little worker ants, anonymous yellow and red hats scurry around mud and concrete on a seemingly 24/7 schedule. While this isn’t one of those skyscraper-in-90-days stories, the building appears to be buzzing along with measured efficiency.

The people working on this site look like they’re anywhere from 20-50 years old. And while there are definitely more men than women, the women seem to do almost all the same tasks as the men. Actually, all the crane operators are women.

As one who doesn’t understand from a technical perspective much of what is going on at the site, it’s quite fascinating to watch the Erector Set-like structure gradually climb up and up. What’s more, it’s amazing to see such a large structure being built with basically just hammers, saws, welders, and a couple heavy lifting machines. So here’s a tribute to those hard working men and women that we hear every morning, night, and weekend. Thanks for unknowingly sharing your work with us.

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