Tag Archives: Yunnan

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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In the Fields of Dali

Dali is one of those special places in China that everyone seems to love, westerners and locals alike. To those that have been there, Dali is synonymous with tranquility, nature, yummy food, and of course, beauty. And unlike its somewhat chaotic neighbor, Lijiang, Dali has a chillness about it. Yes, there are a fair share of tourist shops in the Old City (大理古城), but the surrounding area feels authentic and connected to the stunning landscape.

For us, Dali was a two night visit, but one could easily spend a week. For many, Dali is one of those places that makes you wish you could just quit everything and go live there permanently.

Fast Facts:

Name: Dali | 大理

Where: Yunnan Province | 云南

What to Do: Enjoy views of Erhai lake (洱海湖)and its surrounding villages, visit a local market, ride your bike through the farms, perambulate the old city, and do some hiking in the nearby Cangshan mountains(苍山).

Getting There: From Kunming: fly  (<1 hour) or take a bus (<5 hours) or a train (around 7 hours).

The nice part about taking a bus from Kunming is you get to see the countryside, which is picturesque to say the least – one farm after another and a red flag here and there zooming by through the window. We left Kunming in the late afternoon, so by the time we approached Dali we were treated to an orange baked sky.

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The common thing to do in Dali is to take a walk on the wonderful Jade Cloud Path. Starting at Zhonghe temple, you head south and follow an impeccably maintained stone path for about 11 kilometers to the end. If you’re feeling particularly energetic you can hike up and down to the path, though there is a cable-car as well. The path itself sits about 2,500 meters up, and provides great panoramic views of Dali and Erhai lake.

The path should only take about 4 hours to walk at a slow pace, so this is a perfect excursion if you’re getting a late start after a healthy brunch at The Bakery No. 88.

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Our favorite part of Dali was riding bikes through the farms. Much like in Yangshuo, this area has infinite paths to ride along. You can ride around the entire lake if you’re up for a more involved trip (planning a route ahead of time is highly advised), or like us, you can just go get lost in the farms for a while.

Dali is quite small and flat, so there’s no easy way to really get lost as you can almost always see a major landmark. Riding through the farms is great because you get amazing views of both Cangshan and Erhai. You also get to pass lots of locals who are very friendly and super used to tourists rumbling by on bikes. And definitely get a mountain bike if you plan on riding through the fields.

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After eating about a billion little bugs because we’d been riding around all day through farmlands with stupid grins on our faces, the sun began to set. This is really the best time to be out in the fields, especially on a day with white puffy clouds. The sun sets behind Cangshan and litters the fields with beams of light piercing through the clouds.

Eventually we circled around to the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple (崇圣寺三塔). The tallest and oldest of the three pagodas dates back to around 820 A.D. (though it looks totally new now). We didn’t actually go inside, as it was the end of the day and the 121 RMB per person ticket price seemed a little steep. People will give you conflicting reviews of the pagodas and exhibits inside the compound. If you like looking at artifacts and relaxing in a park, then it might be worth it. If you’re looking for something to blow you away, then you won’t really find it and you can probably do with just enjoying a view of the pagodas from the outside. That said, we didn’t go in, so it’s difficult for us to judge.

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On our last day before taking the bus back to Kunming, we decided to go visit some local villages and markets. There are over a dozen villages around Dali and they offer a great way to experience rural living at its best. Biking to and through the villages is probably the best way to do it, starting by heading to Caicun (才村) village and then continuing on from there.

We also visited a weekly market called Shaping (沙坪)market. Double-check with your hotel/hostel to make sure it’s open on the day you want to go (you’ll probably also want to get a driver, as it’s 30km north of Dali). This is a real local’s market, so you won’t find tourist trinkets. Instead, you’ll get a flavor for the produce and livestock that people in Dali sell. You’ll also get to see all the colorful baskets and clothing that the locals (especially the older generation) still wear today. The colors in the attire come from the Bai tradition, though there are certainly other minorities in the area as well. If you’re not already in the habit of visiting local markets, you definitely should start. As markets across China are a great way to pickup the sounds, smells, and color of a place, especially if time is tight.

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There’s no shortage of online information out there on Dali, so definitely do some comparison shopping when choosing restaurants, hostels, and excursion companies. We stayed at the Laughing Lotus Inn, which was terrific. The owners are super nice and helpful and the place is really cute. They even offered us their kayaks to take out on Erhai lake (we didn’t do it, but if you have time that might be really fun). Just know that the rooms are small and don’t have much in the way of amenities. But if you’re in a backpacker mode you’ll be quite pleased. As for Dali, like so many places in China, it will only get more and more developed, so go as soon as you can!

Finding Dali on a Map