Tag Archives: Yangtze

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.





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:



Chongqing Xpress: Part 1

It’s sometimes difficult to document and reflect upon the city you live in. Because everything is so close to you and simply part of your daily routine, it’s hard to step back and take things in as an objective observer. In an effort to take a more deliberate look at Chongqing, with this post we’ll start to document the oft referred to mega city that is, upon an only slightly deeper inspection, more of a provincial place (though not in any pejorative sense), despite its concrete and steel skeleton.

Chongqing is too vast and multidimensional to encapsulate in a couple lines of prose. And as residents of only a year, we’re not yet qualified to make anything more than hypotheses and mildly penetrating observations. However, with the help of images we can at least begin to shed some light on an incredibly dynamic place that most foreigners don’t have the time or opportunity to experience firsthand.

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Most chroniclers of Chongqing can’t help but reference the classic scenes from yesteryear when sinewy men hauled ships by hand through the Yangtze. Those same scenes are often paired with captions recounting how Chongqing used to be a truly beautiful city, where the river’s water crashed high along river banks that were covered in green. Today, the beauty along Chongqing’s two converging rivers, the Jialing Jiang (嘉陵江) and Chang Jiang (长江, aka Yangtze), has changed. The river is extremely shallow for most of the year, exposing the sand, earth, and garbage that lies at its floor. The walls of the river are a mix of concrete and stone docks. Ramps feed out of the rivers like veins, providing easy access for smaller boats.

The water varies in color from brown, to green, to red, depending on what sediment and runoff wastes are particularly strong at any given time. Despite these facts, many older residents of Chongqing still use the rivers as recreational areas. The banks of both the Jialing Jiang and Chang Jiang are alive during the day with swimmers, fishermen, and people washing all manner of things.

The pollution in the rivers is no secret to locals and they too are shocked to see their elder compatriots swimming in the murky water. In the areas where the light-rail hugs the edge of the river, you’ll see young people in disbelief snapping pictures of swimmers on their cell phones.

Despite the pollution, Chongqing’s rivers are still a massive part of the city’s identity and livelihood, as they visually dissect the city much like Paris and London are bifurcated by the the Seine and the Thames, respectively.

Chongqing 重庆 Chongqing 重庆Chongqing 重庆 Despite being an inland city, Chongqing’s relationship to its rivers yields many scenes akin to those found in a traditional port city. Rusted barges, anchors, cut up tires, and old ropes clutter the shores of its rivers.

Look down long enough from any bridge and you’re bound to see tug boats and barges hauling gravel, sand, coal, and other building block materials up and down the rivers. Look closer and you might even catch a sweaty fisherman taking a shower. Look longer still and you’ll probably come across a tired cruise boat filled with tourists, peering out at the city in the haze.

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Calling Chongqing’s haze beautiful or somehow aesthetically enticing feels like a stretch. Can a skyline obscured by a combination of fog and smog honestly be called dreamy? That all depends on what your dream is about. If you’re dreaming about an enchanted forrest blanketed in the morning mist, then no, Chongqing is not dreamy. But if you’re dreaming of the struggle to define an ever evolving concept of success in a land of uncertain and yet undeniable opportunity, then yes, the fog-smog of Chongqing is entirely dreamy and in many ways is a candidly literal metaphor for the present state of affairs.

A new bridge connecting the north eastern side tip of the Jiefangbei District(解放碑)to Jiangbei(江北)is to many another sign of development. The bridge will alleviate traffic and make access to Chongqing’s central business district a little easier. To me, the bridge’s tension lines, although markedly different, nonetheless remind me of the Zakim bridge in Boston, which then leads me to ponder if Boston’s big dig project somehow stands as a connection between these two seemingly disparate cities.    Chongqing 重庆Chongqing 重庆

The tops of Chongqing’s highest skyscrapers often disappear into the fog-smog. The partially complete giants then leave you wondering how high they go. Is the sky clear on its top floor? For much of China’s middle-class, it really doesn’t matter. These towers represent, on so many levels – literally and figuratively – the chance for a better future.

And while that notion of better will change as people become more wealthy (indeed one day in the all too near future middle class Chinese will be doing pilates and taking wheat grass shots), for now better means owning an apartment in one of those towers that disappears into the byproduct of what built it.

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I love the idea of finding beauty in Chongqing’s haze. But so far, the idea hasn’t become a reality. Maybe I haven’t found the right angle or the right light.

So I’ll keep looking.