Saturday, October 16, 2010

Yunnan Trip

I thought about starting small, maybe warming up with a post about our new apartment or something. Just to get the writing juices flowing before I tackled our full-blown, 9 day trip to rural china. Then I decided that such an entry deserved all the pure focus of my first writing experience in a while. I've written bits and pieces in my head...both as they were happening and in the week since returning. Now if i could just remember them....

The week of October 1st through the 10th included one of the major Chinese holidays: my 27th birthday. i.e. Chinese National Day.

Which, after working random weekend days prior to the time off, afforded us a week of unfettered time in which to wander throughout the country. Our friend Greg has been salivating over this trip since he arrived in China over a year ago, so Brian and I joined him and his friend Gordon for what I can only say was incredible.

The Yunnan Province is located in southern china, on the west side, right next to Myanmar and the province of Tibet. This region is known for its myriad of ethnic minorities, Tibetan villages, and unique culinary style. We flew into Kunming, the capital of the province, and took a night bus to Dali, one of the famous chinese 'old cities.' The night bus reminded me very much of the night bus from Harry Potter...very narrow bunks with people perched on beds and swaying back and forth as the bus wound its way through the mountains. Honestly, it was a pretty good ride. Until we arrived in Dali at 5:30 in the morning and realized that we had been robbed. Greg lost a mega Nikon camera, a point-and-shoot digital camera, and some cash, while i lost my iphone. Our stuff was right next to our bunks, but these guys were good....and we still don't know how they did it.

Now, while it was an absolutely horrible thing, Greg made the wise comment (this is why i love greg!), "you know, it's just a thing. plus, it would have been so much worse if i had spent a week capturing things i will probably never see again in my lifetime...only to lose it at the end." So, with many of Brian's "Leah, why don't you take a picture with your iphone?.....Sorry, too soon" jokes and our adventurous side taking over, we moved on. And i'm so glad we did. We walked around the dark, silent, and human-scale town of Dali, before anyone was awake. That feeling, of the pre-dawn hush, as we strolled streets that would later be full of noisy people and cars, was one of such anticipation and contentment.

We checked into Sam's Hotel (which was awesome), enjoyed a nap, and instead of paying the 121 kuai fee to see the famous dali pagodas, we rented bikes for 10 kuai and biked the back alleyways up the hill NEXT to the pagodas. Even better. As Greg said, "any time I've ever rented bikes on a trip it's been a success." Check!

Our plan was to leave Dali the next morning, head to Lijiang (another famous old town) and then up to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge. That gorge is one of the deepest in the world and is supposed to be incredible. However, it was also supposed to be touristy. Which is why, 5 minutes before we were supposed to catch a bus to Lijiang, we found ourselves talking with Sam, our hotel owner, and changing our plans. Completely. He suggested that instead we travel to the west, to the Nu Jiang River. Also in a valley, the river is much less visited and could truly offer us a vision of rural china that we wanted. So, with much laughter at the irony, we jumped on a bus heading west, into the unknown. Now, this is the point where I must give a big shout out to Gordon. Greg has learned some awesome Mandarin. But....when it came to negotiating a private driver, figuring out where in the world we were, and ordering food when there weren't menus, much less english....Gordon was indispensable. He took Chinese in school, moved to China, and now conducts all his business in mandarin. Quite impressive.

This post could be forever. So, I'm going to give the highlights. After Dali, the trip changed to: hire a private driver who will drive us up the Nu Jiang river, while we get out to hike, eat, and stay at small towns along the way. Which is what we did.

We zip-lined across the Nu Jiang River.

We hiked up a small village that we had spotted from the road. After arriving at the first home, we offered candy that we had brought, and discovered that we were the first white people they had ever seen in their village! They then invited us in for tea....and while i have never seen so many flies in one location, ever, it was one of many moments during this week where I thought, "I cannot believe I'm doing this."

We had several other hikes and adventures during the trip, including outdoor markets with rounds of steaming tofu and mountains of veggies, villagers going about their daily life, Tibetan monks, local school kids, and some mom-gets-the-eebie-jeebies moments.

We drank tea with more villagers and watched them shuck mountains of corn. Which we discovered was only for livestock and corn liquor!!

We walked into another small village and came across a woman weaving. After watching her for a few minutes, she told her daughter to bring me a stool...and so i sat there, watching her at the loom...simply mesmerized. After much coaxing, Gordon finally convinced her to allow us to purchase one of her creations.

That evening my wonderful husband broke out candles and a small cake from the bakery, and Alou, his daughter, Greg, Gordon, and Brian all sang me happy birthday while we sat in Alou's Tibetan Lodge playing euchre and drinking Alou's self-professed "not very good" homemade wine. (It was actually quite unique and I liked it) Alou's daughter gave me delicious chinese fruit roll-ups as a gift and we all shared cake in the dim light of the rural town. Pretty darn good.

To cap off the trip we decided to return to Lijiang, which we were told was too unique to miss. There we stayed at Mama's Naxi Guesthouse, which is THE place to stay. Perfect place to end the trip as it had a comfortable bed, western toilets, and even an electric blanket! Plus, meeting Mama alone is worth staying there! She is a strong, cheerful, fun lady who runs the place, running a 3 guesthouse operation and restaurant. Giving advice, jokes, and plenty of 'HELLo!'s, she also gave us a necklace gift and double cheek kisses when we left.

I can't even come close to describing everything. It was the trip I never thought I would take. I never thought I would be here. But you know, despite my slight breakdown when i discovered that I was going to have to use squat pots for week, I am incredibly grateful that I am here. These people are unexpectedly and unendingly generous. They are so cheerful, and want to help in any possible way that they can. I'm also getting used to the stares. I've started smiling back...and watching their faces light up into smiles of unfaked joy...sigh. It's beautiful.

Top 10 of Yunnan:

1. Interacting with the villagers: having tea, being offered homemade corn liquor, passing out hard candies like my mom used to do on family vacations, being offered biking advice, and watching them work: at weaving, picking corn, shooting pigs with small blunt darts....
2. Experiencing first-hand what a true paradox rural chinese life is. You stroll through these towns, and they don't have plumbing, but they are all talking on cell phones while watching their satellite televisions.
3. Biking through the mountains trying to find a set of terraces (these were planted with wheat)...see one, get off the bikes, hike a very narrow trail right next to a steep cliff, climb over a couple fences, and finally arrive at the terraces. Only to find that the original road that we were on led right to it.

4. Mastering the art of the squat pot.

5. NOT eating the soup that we had in a small village that was supposed to "be for women to eat." In contained some very questionable chicken parts...that i never knew existed in a chicken.
6. Playing tons of euchre

7. Actually feeling inspired and sketching again!

8. Eating at absolutely delicious hot pot restaurant in Dali. The dad managed the restaurant, his wife cooked, and his son served. They were so so excited to have westerners in their establishment that they just grinned the entire time, and offered us plenty of cigarettes as we left. Plus, 2 huge hot pots, and 5 large beers only cost us 68 kuai (which comes out to 10 dollars. for 4 people. ridiculous)

9. Stumbling upon some marble carvers in the mountains while we were biking. We stopped and took pictures, marveling at their skill and ability to capture the expressions.

10. Being able to have such an adventure. We are so blessed.


  1. so nice, so great, so detail!

  2. Wow, this was a long blog, but SO worth it to read. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Leah, this sounds AMAZING! I'm so glad you guys had such a great adventure! Makes me miss China!

  4. Brian, looks like you and your pretty bride are having the trip of a lifetime. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!!! Hope to see you two when you make it in for the holidays. My best to the both of you.
    Jim Bennett

  5. I am very excited to read about your trip. It is an amazing blog and I feel like I am right there with you, minus the flies. I have some of my own experiences with squat pots, although I never called it that. I will have to share sometime.


  6. Nice post Leah! Fun to look back on. g.

  7. Great blog entry ... well worth the long read!! Great pics too! Sounds like a true once in a lifetime adventure. Hope too see you both again soon.

    Terri & Jamie (& Jackson)

  8. Great post, Leah! We miss you, but wow, you're having such an adventure!