Snow capped mountains, stepped rice terraces carved into mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes, and ancient villages dotting the country side complete the picture of a China that I thought had long ago ceased to exist. Alongside the scenery, Yunnan is also home to charming, helpful, and ethnically diverse people with fascinating clothes, food and cultures. It simply is a must – visit destination in any itinerary of China.
Tour Groups Galore – Dali
Dali was once backpacker central: it’s the original home of the banana pancake culture in China, and was once the place to visit for backpackers looking to gorge on ancient Chinese architecture, delicious foods, and, for some, easy to buy marijuana. To the lament of many travellers, it has in recent years become a popular tourist destination for domestic tour groups, and that has brought a lot of development. The ancient cobbled streets are neon lit at night, and the old buildings have almost all been converted into restaurants or shops selling tourist tat. Day and night the central streets are jammed full of DSLR carrying groups of wealthy Chinese tourists, as intent on taking photos of westerners eating noodles as they are the sights in the town itself.
Yet this has not wholly eradicated Dali’s inherent charm, and with a little bit of effort it is still possibly to break free of the masses and find an unspoilt side of the town.
Dali lies on the western shore of the enormous Erhai Hu lake, some 1900m above sea level and surrounded on all sides by mountains, most notably the imposing 4000m Cang Shan. It is home of the Bai people, an ethnic group that have lived in the Yunnan province for over 1000 years, and whose kingdom flourished in the 8th -9th centuries. The Old Town was once the administrative capital of Yunnan for almost 500 years, and it retains an ancient atmosphere, with a mostly intact city wall, traditional stone architecture and intricate pagodas and gates.
The highlight of any trip to Dali is escaping the tourist touts and exploring the nearby villages and scenery. It’s easy to rent bicycles or hop on local buses to travel along the edge of the Erhai Hu, where you can find many unspoilt villages, fascinating markets, and experience Yunnan’s famous hospitality without the glare of tourist cameras.
Stepping back in time in Shaxi
Shaxi is everything Dali is not: it’s an unspoiled, (almost) tourist free, undeveloped dream. There are no garish neon lights, no touts trying to sell you tours, no one trying to rip you off, and there is not a banana pancake in sight. What you will find are cobbled streets, slightly crumbling architecture, a bustling market, and family courtyards where little old women invite you in for tea.
Stepping into Shaxi is like stepping back in time. These same streets have been walked for over 1000 years, back when Shaxi was a stop of the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail, travelling from India through to South East Asia. It remains the only market town on the former trail, and China is just waking up to its importance as a historical site. With that comes the danger inherent in making any living village a tourist attraction and I recommend visiting now: in a few years time Shaxi might become Dali’s clone.
Shaxi is tiny, and the accommodation choices remain limited. Luckily the hostels that are on offer provide an extraordinary glimpse into ancient Bai architecture and lifestyle: they are mostly inns built into old family courtyards, or conversions of the inns that would have been used on the caravan trail. Ou Yang Inn is perhaps the finest example of the architectural style of the region, and has lovely (and inexpensive rooms). It is the perfect spot to sit and soak in the atmosphere, while enjoying countless cups of tea.
Other attractions in the village include a restored Buddhist temple, a theatre lining the market square, and the nearby Buddhist rock carvings in the Shibao mountain. But the main attraction is just being in the village itself, wandering the old streets, enjoying the views of the mountains and country side, and enjoying as locals laugh at your attempts at speaking Mandarin.
The waterways of Lijiang
Lijiang is the next big stop on the tourist trail through Yunnan, and like Dali, it is immensely popular with domestic tour groups. It also suffers the blight of over development, and UNESCO has put the site in its ‘endangered’ list, due to the over enthusiastic neon lighting, restaurants, bars and the encroaching new town. That said, it remains remarkably beautiful, with the stunning Jade Dragon Snow Mountain rising in the background, and a confusing maze of alleys, canals and cafes along cobbled streets.
The Old Town is over 800 years old, and is unique in China for its Naxi architecture, culture and traditions. Built around a series of canals and bridges, the old world architecture is a sight to behold, especially in the daytime before the garish lights get switched on. The Naxi people have a fascinating history and society: descended from the ethnically Tibetan Qiang tribes, they have lived in North West China for over 1,400 years, and have a matrilineal system that sees women ruling families. You can still see small elderly Chinese women wandering the streets in traditional clothes, while old men sit in the street drinking tea and playing cards. The Naxi style of wood and cobblestone buildings are gaining in popularity, especially since a big earthquake in 1996 demonstrated how resilient they are to the forces of nature.
Nearby are three other villages covered by the UNESCO status, Baisha, Shuhe, and Dayan. Heading out to any of these, either by local bus or by bicycle, is a rewarding trip: you will escape the tourist crowds and find a much less touristy, and more authentic slice of rural Naxi life.
The tip of the iceberg
Dali, Shaxi and Lijiang are three of the best places to visit in Yunnan, but they are by no means the only places to see. Yunnan has a cornucopia of attractions worth visiting, from the icy mountains and monasteries bordering Tibet, to the rice terraces of Yuangyuan. With over half of China’s ethnic minorities living there, a history that dates back more than 15 centuries, and a climate that ranges from sub-tropical in the south to below freezing in the north, there is literally something for every traveller. No matter how much time you dedicate to your travels there, Yunnan just leaves you wanting more.