The most beautiful place in China
09.11.2011 - 13.11.2011
A little background on Yunnan. It is a province in southern China that borders the countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar to the South, the province of Guanxi to the east, and Tibet to the west. It is known for its diversity and is home to a variety of the ethnic minorities in China. It is filled with natural beauty and we were also told would be very nice weather compared to BeiBei. Every year our study abroad program takes a class trip towards the end of the semester to Yunnan. It’s kind of like our present after all the stress of midterms. This year our trip would be five days, from Wednesday (Nov. 9) thru Sunday (Nov. 13). Usually the trip is just four days long, but this year Sam had been able to budget an extra day for us. Way to go Sam. As we were packing up and leaving most of the group had reached the point where they were tired of living out of suitcases, but we had been looking forward to Yunnan for months and were excited to see what it would be like.
Wednesday morning (Nov.90) was a rough start. We had to assemble in the lobby of Wisteria Garden by 4:30 am. The ridiculously early start to the trip was the brainchild of our Waiban coordinator and trip chaperone Chuck Lee. Our flight left at 7:30ish and we wanted to make sure we weren’t late. Note on Chuck (usually referred to as Chuckles by the group). He was kind of an idiot. He was in charge of any issues that arose for our group during our time in China and also had the pleasure of monitoring our activities. In the beginning none of us minded Chuckles. We just thought he was kind of dumb. We began to have issues with him early on when he censored our One Question Projects. As the semester progressed we liked him less and less. He was inept at helping up with our Halloween party, he whined nonstop whenever we were around him, and failed to answer our simplest of questions. By the end of Yunnan our whole group had developed a firm hatred of him. We all boarded the bus looking liking zombies and fell asleep for the 40 minute drive to the airport. When we got to the airport our travel agency was supposed to meet us there to check in our luggage and give us our tickets. (In China it is typical to do everything through an agency. They them become in charge of everything from buying plane tickets, to hiring to guides, and even deciding what restaurants the group eats at.) The travel agency rep wasn’t there so we spent close to an hour just chilling in the airport insanely early by ourselves. The grumblings about Chuck began. While some of the group went to get food, Guy, Kia, Cindy, Luke, Sarita and I all hung out in the front lobby. Eventually the agency rep arrived and we were able to get our tickets and go to our gate. The flight to Yunnan was uneventful and by noon we had arrived in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. From the airport we headed to the Stone Forest, the main attraction of Kunming. After a subpar lunch (subpar food became the norm with this travel agency) that our guide arranged, we arrived at the forest. It was pretty impressive. What it is a few square miles of towering rocks that a millennium ago when it was all underwater were shaped into intricate patterns and shapes by the ocean. Today all the water is long gone, but the stones remain. At the stone forest a number of the local minorities offer the chance to dress up in their native costumes and pose for pictures for a small fee (10 yuan for the costume, another 10 if you have them take your picture and print it). Kia, Luke, Cindy, Bert, and I all decided that it would be kind of fun. So we dressed up in the local Naxi (I believe that was the group) garb. It was good for a few laughs and some cute pictures. After that we explored the Stone Forest. Originally we were all supposed to stay with our tour guide, but our group throughout our time in China had been a tour guide’s worst nightmare. We liked to wander on our own, look at what we found interesting, and hated doing the Chinese tourist thing of spending just enough time at a location to take a picture to prove you were there and then moving to the next site. We liked to go at our own pace. Some guides (such as Andy in Beijing) had adjusted to this, the majority though did not. Sam realized this and had begun just to tell guides to give us a time to meet back up and let all of us do our own thing. We took that approach to the Stone Forest. Bert, Luke Sarita, Cindy, and I went exploring on our own. The Stone Forest was packed with tourists so we made it our goal to simply get to somewhere remote where we could actually enjoy the beauty. We first found a sweet cave and thought we were being all BA by breaking from trail, doing a little bit of rock climbing and then dropping down into the cave. We realized about two minutes later when little Jessie wandered in that there were stairs at the back of the cave that lead straight in. Oops. So we kept looking. We eventually found a set of rocks that were off the beaten path, were easy to climb, and from the top offered a great place to lounge and take in the scenery. We spent about an hour just hanging out there and then went back to meet up with the group. After the Stone Forest we traveled to downtown Kunming. Along the way everyone fell asleep except for Harriet. She had a blast taking videos and pictures on Annie’s phone of all of us sleeping. Poor Annie, when she went to use the camera she found that it was full with over 500 pictures of all of us asleep. We had the famous Kunming rice noodles for dinner at a downtown restaurant (they were okay, not the best thing ever but definitely not bad) and then walked around downtown for a bit. A group of us (Deanna, Kia, Nolan, Cindy, Sarita, Axel, Chris, Luke and I) had decided to go to Dynamic Yunnan per last year’s class suggestion with the Johnson family and the others (Guy, Dan, Bert, and Zach) had a few hours to themselves to do whatever. Dynamic Yunnan was really interesting. It was a dance and song performance that showcased many of the different minority groups and their customs. After the performance (around 10) the whole group met back up and headed to the train station. We were not spending the night in Kunming; instead we were taking an overnight train to the city of Dali. To say we were less than excited is putting it kindly. We were taking hard sleepers to Dali which meant that it would be six to us in each open cabin with less than clean conditions. With apprehension we boarded the train and bunked down for the night. In my cabin was Cindy, Kia, Nolan, Deanna, and Chris. It was freezing on the train. We had all been told to bring just one warm out outfit for when we climbed Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the rest of the time it would be warm. Hence we had all packed one pair of pants, one sweatshirt, and the rest were warm weather clothes like shorts and t shirts. This turned out to be a major issue on the trip. The entire time we were in Yunnan it was cold (think low 40’s to approaching mid 50’s). Due to the lack of warm clothes and our refusal to use the dirt encrusted, smelly blankets that came with our bunks we all just curled up into the fetal position and tried to sleep for the 10 hour ride. It was a long night.
Thursday (Nov. 10) morning dawned colder than ever. The train pulled into the station around 8:30 and we happily disembarked. We were now in the town of Dali. The whole group was pretty crabby at this point. We were cold, no one had slept well, and it had been two days since any of us had been able to shower. Unfortunately, we were just about to get even crabbier. We met our new guide at the train station and he took us to one of the big hotels in town that all of the travel agencies have contracts with for meals. When we got to the hotel before we even wanted to think about food we all wanted to find a bathroom and wash up. The girls’ bathroom was gross but it was not the worst we had experienced. The same could not be said for the poor boys. Upon walking into the bathroom Chris vomited, Dan almost did, Luke and Guy simply walked out. After the bathroom incident we didn’t think things could get worse. We were wrong. We went into the dining room for breakfast. And it was the worst breakfast any of us had ever had in China. The food was either cold or burned. The rice was mush and simply none of us could stomach it. Dan, Luke, Sarita, and I took one bite and walked out. We decided to fend for ourselves and see what we could find in the surrounding neighborhood. We quickly found Chris at a noodle place across the street from the hotel and joined him. The noodles were excellent and helped warm us all up. We reboarded the bus in much better moods. From breakfast we drove to the ancient section of Dali. Much of the old buildings have been remodeled into an old style shopping district. The group had fun shopping around for about an hour and then we headed to our next stop. Next on the agenda was the Three Pagodas. The area was gorgeous. As Kia proclaimed, “Someone please propose to me. It’s so pretty in this place there’s no way I would say no.” The pathway approaching the pagodas is lined with beautiful gardens and ponds. The pagodas themselves are breathtaking and standing at their base it is impossible not to be struck by their size. Once again we ignored our guide’s wishes and simply ignored him and took in the beauty on our own. After too short of a time we again had to board the bus. Next our guide took us to a marble showroom. Wtf, why in the world do a bunch of college students want to wander around a marble showroom? We would have much preferred more time at the Pagodas. After the marble showroom we went to lunch. It was at another one of the big agency contract restaurants, but it was fine. After lunch we headed to the Butterfly Springs. At this point most of the group was feeling pretty tired. We had been on two whirlwind tours of Kunming and Dali in less than 36 hours and we still had a long day ahead of us. Due to the tiredness most of the group simply entered the butterfly spring park and made a beeline for the benches. Dan, Sarita, and I figured that as long as we were there we might as well have a look around. It turned out to be pretty cool. We walked around the park, which had a similar look to the panda reserve in Chengdu, for a while and eventually made it to one of the springs. It was really pretty; the water was an almost teal shade of blue due to the minerals in the rocks and was super clear. From the pond we hiked up an insane amount of stairs to an observation tower. It gave a breathtaking view of the whole of Dali. It was certainly worth the hike. Dan and I tried to keep climbing up the hill past where the tower was located but we unfortunately had to give up when the hill became overgrown with bushes. After the hill we strolled around the lake in the park. We only saw one butterfly the whole time we were in the park when it landed on Dan’s shoulder and then flickered to a nearby plant, but given the cold temperatures and the time of year we weren’t expecting too much, so we were okay with it. On the way out of the park we ran into Guy and Bert who had agree to babysit Harriet and Jesse while Sam and Annie walked around. Bert had given them each sticks and they were proceeding to beat Bert and Guy with them. They turned their attention on us for a while when we approached but we were quickly saved by Axel’s arrival. They then beat him with sticks until he collapsed. Overall, it was really cute. None of us got hurt in anyway and it allowed them to burn off some energy before the long bus ride. After the Butterfly Spring we got on the bus and were officially done with our tour of Dali. From there we had a four hour bus ride to the last stop of our Yunnan excursion, Li-Jiang. The bus ride was filled with gorgeous views of the countryside and village life. Our driver though was less than fabulous. He was extremely aggressive and on more than one occasion we feared for the safety of everyone else on the road. By the time we reached Li-Jiang we were more than ready to be off the bus. All any of us wanted was to be able to shower and put our suitcases somewhere so we could stop lugging them around with us. We met our guide, Paul a young guy from one of the local minorities that ended up being pretty cool. He led us through the ancient section of Li-Jiang to where we would be staying. Instead of staying in a hotel away from the old city section of Li-Jiang like previous groups had, Sam had taken their advice and set us up in lodgings in the old city itself. The only thing is there are no hotels in the old city. Instead we would be staying in a hostel. Since I had never stayed in a hostel and whenever I heard of them the movie hostel immediately came to mind I wasn’t sure what to expect. The hostel was located in the heart of the city. We were optimistic when we entered the hostel, it seemed like a pretty cool place and after seeing the rest of the group’s rooms it seemed like all would be good. That was until they led us to our room. Cindy, Sarita, and I just about cried. The room was freezing, there was no heater, the door knob had been broken off by previous guests so you couldn’t close the door and you also couldn’t lock the room, the windows along one wall no longer closed and the windows along another wall were broken. There was no way we were willing to stay there. We complained to Paul and after a while of “discussing” with the front desk was able to get us another room. Our second room was much better. It was still freezing and without heat, but at least all the windows closed and it had a door that we could actually close. It had a pretty cool set up. It was a four person room (although we luckily didn’t have to share it with anyone else) with a private bathroom. It had two beds on the same level as the bathroom and then a staircase that lead up to a loft area with two more beds. It was so nice to finally be able to set our suitcases somewhere and take hot showers. We went out to group dinner at part of the program and then went our separate ways. Dan, Luke, Bert, Guy, Nolan, and I went out to explore the area a bit. After a few hours, Bert and I headed back. When I got back to our room it was just as cold as before so Sarita, Cindy and I all decided to bunk together in the beds up in the loft. We pushed the two beds together and took all the blankets off of the other beds and stayed nice and cozy for the night.
Friday (Nov. 11) was our first full day in Li-Jiang. We were on our own for breakfast so Sarita, Cindy, Dan, and I found a local baozi place that was pretty good. Around 9 we all met up at the hostel to start the day’s activities. We had been warned to dress warm because we would be climbing a mountain. We had been dressing as warm as could given our limited wardrobes the whole trip thus far, but for today we were especially bundled up. I was wearing four layers beneath my sweatshirt and Cindy had done the same. We trekked back through the city and boarded our bus. The drive to the mountain was really pretty. I should mention at this point that all of Yunnan was pretty. I think we found it particularity beautiful because of the sky. The sky in Yunnan was a gorgeous blue and we could actually see the sun. This may not seem like a big deal, but in BeiBei we could count on our fingers the number of sunny days we had. It was nice there, just perpetually cloudy so the chance to enjoy the sunshine was much needed. The drive wound through mountain passes, farm fields, and pasture lands for horses. Upon reaching Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Paul gave us a brief history. In the local culture it was believed to be a god for centuries and is still revered. No one has ever successfully climbed the mountain to its peak; even climbers who have conquered Mt. Everest have tried, but failed. It is around 9,000 meters tall. After the history we headed out. For the first part of the trip we took a bus up. It drove us past stunning lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. After the bus, we took glass gondolas up the next few thousand feet. The views were breathtaking. In all directions all that could be seen were mountains, lakes, and forest. The gondola ride took us as high as we could go. Our trip up the mountain ended in a beautiful valley at about 3-4,000 meters of elevation. It was high enough that we could notice the lack of oxygen when we breathed and that there was snow on the ground, but it wasn’t too bad. The valley had been a sacred sight in the local minorities’ tradition. It was the location of self-sacrifice. Lovers who could not be with one another would come to the field and special priests would assist them with killing themselves. Kind of morbid, but also romantic I guess. Regardless of its bloody past, the valley is awe-inspiring. Easily one of the most beautiful places in China in the group’s opinion. We strolled around the valley, through snowballs at each other, tried to pet the semi-wild horses and yaks that inhabited the valley, and took a bunch of pictures. After a while we grew tired of staying on the assigned path (this was the general trend of the trip. Annie always said we reminded her of Jack Frost’s poem The Road Less Taken with our approach to tourism). So Guy, Bert, Dan, Zach and I decided to see what if we could get closer to the mountain itself. We wandered through the woods for about half an hour just exploring and enjoying the natural beauty. After a while we were forced to head back because of the time. After the valley we headed down on the gondolas again. We had lunch at the gondola station and then walked toward to lakes and waterfalls we had seen earlier. Like in Dali the lakes took on a teal shade from the minerals in the water that made them almost glow they were so blue. The group had a great time. On a whim Annie dared Cindy and I to jump in the water. She was 100% sure we wouldn’t go for it. The water was freezing and while we weren’t cold, we certainly weren’t hot enough to feel the need to cool down. We had refused to even put our heads in when all of the boys had. However, Cindy and I figured why not. When would we ever get this chance again? So without telling anyone aside from Annie, we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves, we stripped down to sports bras and underwear and jumped in. It was so cold!! In one of my brighter ideas I decided that instead of just wading in I might as well just completely dive in. The second the water hit my skin it was like needles. Cindy and I could not help but scream which of course attracted the attention of the rest of the group. After about 20 seconds, Cindy and I were more than over the cold and attempted to clamber out of the water, which turned out to be must harder than getting in had been. Despite the fact that it was super cold and that I lost a headband in the water, it was so much fun!! It was one of those moments that I look back upon and can’t help but to smile at. In exchange for jumping in I got a bowl of fruit loops (that’s a really big deal in China) and Cindy got two loaves of bread and a jar of peanut butter (also a big deal). After that we got dressed again and headed down the mountain with everyone. It had been a long day and we were ready to get back to the hostel. After showers and dinner, a group of us (Cindy, Sarita, Luke, Guy, Dan, and Bert) went out to spend some more time in the city. In the center of the old city were a big water wheel and an open square. When we got there, there was a mass of people dancing around in s circle to traditional music. It seemed like anyone was welcome to join, so Guy, Sarita, Cindy, and I jumped in. It was a blast and even though we didn’t know the steps everyone was really nice to us and helped us learn. After a while of dancing, we just wandered around people watching and talking. After a few hours we headed back to the hostel. While the weather during the day had been very nice and comfortable, night was again cold so the sleeping arrangement of the previous night held.
Saturday (Nov. 12) was another busy day. We again were on our own for breakfast so Sarita, Cindy and I went to the same baozi place. The plan for the day was to go to Tiger Leaping Gorge in Shangri-La. The gorge was about a two hour bus ride away. We were pretty excited. It is considered one of the 50 places to see before you die and after our great experience at the Golden Knife Gorge was had high hopes. The gorge turned out to be just okay. It was nice and offered some gorgeous picture ops. But it didn’t compare to the Golden Knife Gorge. It was cool to see the Yangtze River rushing through it however. The power of the water was mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time. After lunch at the gorge we began the trip home. On the way home we stopped in a local village to see what village life was like for the people. We never figured out if we were really supposed to be there or not. Paul just told the bus driver to stop at a random location and we all piled off. While we were looking around, Dan wandered away from the group and about a minute later we see him come sprinting as fast as he could back towards us. There was a huge dog chasing him. As Dan came sprinting towards us, Paul went sprinting towards the dog yelling at it and was able to scare it off. Seriously sigh of relief for the group. After that scare we came across an adorable old lady in her garden. Out of the blue she invited is into her and her husband’s home. Their home was a traditional Chinese home with three buildings built around a common courtyard and surrounded by a wall and gate. She was so hospitable to us. She brought us out a big box of walnuts and an apple for each of us. We couldn’t converse with her but communicated our thanks with a lot of smiles and body language. It was just one of those moments where you see the goodness in people. After about half an hour we headed back to the bus where we met back up with Chuck. We asked him where he had been while we were in the village. He said that he had seen Dan getting chased by the dog and turned right around. Nice to know Chuck had our backs when we needed him. This was about strike 20 for Chuck by this point on the trip so after this we completely wrote him off. After the village we went the rest of the way back to Li-Jiang. That night we had our last big group dinner. It was a really good dinner and everyone had a lot of fun. We segregated the tables into guys and girls (this became our secret weapon whenever everyone was really hungry because we had learned that when we sit with the boys they eat all the food too quickly, but when just the girls sit together there is more than enough). Harriet was thrilled that she got to sit with the big girls. She was even in a mood to try some Chinese food and of all the options of things on the table the thing she told Annie she wanted was the fish eye. We plucked it out (btw, fish in China are served completely whole and you just pull the meat off of it with your chopsticks), and she tried it. She wasn’t a fan but we were impressed that she was even willing to try it. After dinner most of the group headed back but Annie wanted to stay out and enjoy some time without the kids for a while. So Luke, Axel, Dan, Guy, Bert, and I stayed with Annie at the restaurant. It was a good time just talking about how the trip had gone, about life, about Annie’s experiences, and life in general. After a while Cindy and Sarita joined to and the whole group walked through the city just chatting and enjoying our time together. Slowly people began to drop off from the group and after a bit Dan and I headed back too while Annie, Axel and Bert continued their discussion of Bert’s one question topic.
Sunday (Nov. 13) was our last day in Yunnan and it was a completely free day. We could do whatever we wanted for the day, we just had to be back at the water wheel by 4:00 pm to make our plane home. Sarita and I had talked previously about going horseback riding but we weren’t sure if it would work out for us. Our only lead was from Annie who had talked to a woman outside our hostel on Friday who said she offered horseback riding tours in her local village every day. All we knew was that she said she was there every morning between 9:30 and 10:00. We had no idea what she looked like but decided to give it a try. Dan, Sarita, and I went to an early breakfast then helped him find a scarf for his mom for Christmas. On our walk back to the hostel we ran into Axel who actually had gotten the card for the lady from Annie. We told him we wanted to go horseback riding and he said he did too. We gave her a call and she agreed to meet us at the water wheel. Dan ran to grab Guy, Bert, and Luke and then the seven of us met up with the women. After bargaining for a whole day tour for 170 yuan (about $24) that included horseback riding through the mountains, a traditional lunch, a canoe ride through the nesting grounds of migratory cranes and transportation we headed out. We really had no idea what to expect but we were excited. When we got there we had lunch before setting out on the ride. The lunch was similar to Sichuan hotpot but instead of using boiling oil to cook the food, it used water and then you dipped your food (noodles, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, pork, onions, and tofu) into a dry spice. It was delicious. After that we started on the horseback ride. Luke and Axel had never ridden before and were a little nervous but they did really good. The rest of us had some experience and the horses were trained enough that we could just kind of sit there and enjoy the ride. My horse was a sweetie but super hard to steer, I just kept him right by his friends and he was fine. The ride started out from their village along the shores of Lake Laoshi then wound its way through the mountains. It meandered through old family burial shrines, farmland, and rugged mountain terrain. I have said this at least two times already when describing places in Yunnan but this really was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. My words can’t even remotely do it justice. When we looked out on one side we could see the lake and rising up behind it the beauty of Shangri-La. In the other direction you saw gorgeous tree covered mountains and towering about it all was Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It was about a two hour ride up the mountain. At the top we could see for miles upon miles. We chilled up on the mountain for a while with our guides and marveled at what we were experiencing. All of us agreed that when we had decided to come to China we had never expected the trip to be like anything like this. We had experienced so much and the trip had definitely left its mark on us. It was also the perfect group of people to share the moment with. Since National Holiday the six of us, Sarita, Luke, Dan, Bert, and Guy had been close to inseparable. We had become extremely close and it was a great moment to share together. After a while on top of the mountain we began the trek down. The journey down brought us through more farmland. Our guides were thrilled to show off their crops to us and offered us samples of many of it. After the horseback ride, which by the end of we were all quite sore (instead of what we would typically think of as saddles the saddles were four pieces of metal welded together with two bath towels woven through the bars to serve as padding), we were taken on a canoe ride on the lake. It took us through a nesting ground for cranes that migrated each year between China and Siberia. It was late in the migratory season but we were still able to see a number of birds. The view again was amazing. The mountains that we had just been in were perfectly mirrored in the water of the lake. It was straight out of a fairytale. And of course, none of us had camera that could capture its beauty. But maybe that is for the best. It was moment that put so much in perspective and a moment that cannot truly be shared with anyone who wasn’t there. After the canoe ride we returned our horses to the pasture and drove back to Li-Jiang. In a small world coincidence our guide had a son who was also attending SWU. She asked us if we would be willing to take a few things to him at school and Axel graciously agreed. We got back to the hostel with about an hour and half to spare. We went to dinner at N’s Kitchen which was a western restaurant. The food was great. Sarita and I split a pizza and a bowl of pasta, Cindy got a tuna sandwich, and the boys got basically everything on the menu. It was a good cure for our western food cravings. After a hectic time trying to get everyone together, we eventually were on our way to the airport. We had only one hitch at the airport and that concerned our bus driver. Sam had asked Chuck what protocol was on tipping the day before. Sam expressed that we were not happy with the service we had gotten (the driver’s driving was so dangerous that at one point his sudden stop had launched Harriet from her seat and she had flown two rows forward before colliding head on with an arm rail). Chuck had told Sam that tipping was not expected and not to worry about it. However when we got to the airport the driver demanded a 1,000 yuan tip, a ridiculous amount even for excellent service. Sam replied that he didn’t have any money for a tip. Chuck just kept whining that he was so embarrassed that we weren’t tipping the driver and how could we do such a thing. To say that that was yet another strike against Chuck is an understatement. After that debacle, everything else was smooth sailing. We got our tickets, got through security, boarded our flight and got home with no issues. We were all quite happy to return to our nicely heated room and soft beds.