A traveller’s expectations of the mysterious East tend to be unceremoniously shattered upon arrival in Beijing or Shanghai. These crammed, modern cities, choked with traffic and neon, don’t quite live up to poetic imaginings of mist-shrouded pagodas and weeping-willow-lined lakes. But while there are pockets of classical China spread across this monster country’s 9,600,000sqkm, one province more than most provides an escape from the hallmarks of the People’s Republic’s booming, first-world economy.
Yunnan, in the south-west, is home to more than half of China’s ethnic minorities; the landscape itself seems to be a rebellion against uniformity. Bordering Tibet to its north-west and Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam to its south, Yunnan’s terrain veers erratically between thick jungle, rolling green mountains and snow-blanketed peaks. Here, you’ll meet tribes living their lives according to thousands-of-years-old tradition, and take on the land’s untamed natural environment for some thoroughly un-urban adventures. Make no mistake: this is China’s must-not-miss province. Here’s a guide to the best bits.
Lijiang Old Town
Bundled into the dawn darkness after an overnight bus from the provincial capital of Kunming, I find my way to Mama Naxi’s guesthouse by pure luck. Mama Naxi is a legend among backpackers – the Naxi, a tribe from Tibet that settled here, are a matriarchal society, and this ‘Mama’ is said to be the archetypal strong but nurturing head of the family, taking in weary travellers and feeding them up.
Lijiang’s old town is a labyrinth of twisting cobbled streets, a step back of centuries attended by trickling canals and the clawing aroma of deep-fried yak meat. It’s hard enough to navigate in daylight, so it really is chance that guides me to Mama Naxi, who I find gathering water from the canal. True to her renown, she recognises the sleepless night in my eyes, and puts me to bed without demanding I first register or so much as hand over a passport.
Because Lijiang is what every traveller covets – the chance to wander ancient China – it is absolutely rammed with tourists. The Old Market Square is permanently packed, and – heartbreakingly – turns into Tenerife come nightfall, with bangin’ beats and costly cocktails. But stick to the quieter backstreets and you won’t be struggling for charm. Naxi women in traditional dress – loose gowns of burgundies and blues – are everywhere, and local delicacies such as the local pancake (a thick, fried creation) and coffee with creamy yak milk don’t disappoint. Try to find Stone The Crows, a bohemian rooftop bar with killer views over the old town and some very special cookies.
How to do it: Catch a sleeper bus from Kunming’s west bus station to Lijiang. You’ll get dropped off in the new town, as cars aren’t permitted in the old town, but you can walk to it.
Find Mama Naxi at 70 Wangjia Zhuang Lane, Wuyi Jie (Tel. 510 7713). Be warned – she’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and can switch from motherly to belligerent in an instant. Either way, you’ll always leave with a banana.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
When the donkey headbutts me in the arse, I almost lose it. I thought I’d shaken off my pursuer at lunch, but he is relentless. I guess I can appreciate why the old guy with his decrepit beast keeps insisting I pay him for a ride; I’m just a few steps into the ‘28 bends’ – the toughest part of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek – and I’m not a pretty sight. The same can’t be said for the views, at least, which might be why I resist the urge to throw a rock at him and instead plough onwards and upwards. Immersing yourself in a setting of stunning 3900m-high green-mottled mountains is good for the soul, I conclude.
This two-day trek through one of the world’s deepest gorges is made all the more refreshing because you don’t need to take a guided tour. Arrows painted on rocks and fences help me find my way, and the various guesthouses along the route do a cheap and reliable line in food and shelter. Taking the trail at my own pace lets me fully absorb my surroundings – the Jinsha River roars between the Haba Shan mountains to the west and the Yulong Xueshan mountains to the east, and I have an uninterrupted view of it all from the high rocky path that traverses it.
The ‘28 bends’ arrive mid-way through day one, so I make sure to rest and refuel at lunch. Climbing a steep uphill path strewn with scree for 90 minutes is tough enough, but this part of the trail is so-called because it winds in a succession of tight bends that punish the knees even more. The jaw-to-the-floor panorama at the top – the highest point of the gorge – makes it all worthwhile, of course.
Day two is moderately gentler. The upwards slog is almost over and I merely have to concentrate on not plunging to an agonising death. The path is slight and tricky, with rocks jutting from all angles to trip me up, and a sheer drop into the gorge at my side. This is why you shouldn’t try the trek in July and August – rain could make this path lethal. Even in September, at one point I have to walk through a waterfall as it cascades over the path.
The trek ends at Tina’s Guesthouse, a dingy concrete block that marks where the high hikers’ trail meets the low road, the latter being a construction-congested highway littered with the remains of snakes left two-dimensional by trucks’ tyres. For the equivalent of £1, you can pay a friendly, toothless old woman to access a steep path down to Tiger Leaping Stone, from which the mythical tiger jumped over the river, giving the gorge its name. Just ask at Tina’s to be pointed in the right direction.
How to do it: Guesthouses in Lijiang will arrange a minibus to the village of Qiaotou, from where you join the trail. A minibus from Tina’s or any guesthouse on the low road will take you back to Qiaotou for about £3, and from here you can flag down a bus back to Lijiang or onwards to Shangri-La. There is technically a £5 admission fee for the trek, but I wasn’t asked to pay it.
Shilin Stone Forest
This might be a tourist trap of claustrophobia-inducing proportions, but like all heavily touristed spots, there is a reason. The ‘stone forest’ – a huge expanse of tightly packed grey karst pillars, battered into jagged shapes by thousands of years of wind and rain – is an unique sight, and one that injects precisely the magic that’s missing from China’s overly familiar urban locales.
Don’t let various guide books’ whinging about the clamouring crowds put you off; the key is to arrive early. Admittedly, my first attempt to see Shilin goes awry. When I arrive at Kunming’s east bus station around 10am – a reasonable time, I had thought, but I realise my naivete when I see the swarms of people bulging out of the bus station’s entrance. No way in hell am I seeing the stone forest today.
The next morning, I’m at the station for 7.30am and on a bus by 7.40am. That’s the difference a couple of hours can make. Arriving at Shilin around 9am, I have the place pretty much to myself, and am free to explore every nook of this most bizarre of natural wonders however I wish. By the time I board the 1pm bus back to Kunming, the masses have begun to overrun it. I’m pretty damned pleased with myself, and my tourist-group-free photos.
Yuanyang Rice Terraces
It takes a good six hours by bus to get from Kunming to Xinjie, which is why I’m not hugely happy to find my seat number, but no seat. The broken remnants of what was number 19 are stuffed behind the back row; thankfully, the driver notices and pulls me towards a comfier arrangement up front.
Xinjie itself is pretty grim; dirty-looking high-rises surround the decaying bus station, where later my onwards ticket to Lao Cai in Vietnam is handwritten on a torn scrap of paper. Thankfully, this is just a jumping off point to taxi into the hills of the Hani people, a tribe that has cultivated the land over thousands of years into steep, neatly contoured rice terraces.
Hani villages are scattered throughout these hills, often set within the terraces, so that the people can work the land all day and don’t have far to lug their crop home. That’s not to say it’s a doddle – you’ll see folk with 100kg of rice strapped to their backs wearily winding their way up and down. There seem to be more women than men grafting, too: chopping, whacking, bundling and carrying rice from dawn until dusk. I choose to stay at a simple guesthouse in the village of Duoyishu, which overlooks one of the area’s most arresting views. Bright yellow rice crops swirl deep into the valley in ordered steps, an explosion of hyperreal colour made brighter against the vivid-blue sky. In the wet season, the drenched fields reflect sunrise and sunset, attracting frenzied packs of photographers.
You can trek throughout the region, but I prefer to relax on Sunny Guesthouse’s veranda and soak up the scene. Duoyishu is a small assembly of yellow, thatched ‘mushroom’ houses, where pigs and chickens roam the walkways, and criminally cute kids come out to play. The local women are all proudly adorned in the Hani traditional dress of beads and feathers.
A trip to neighbouring Bada is also a good idea. Stone paths let you explore the terraces without danger of falling, slapstick-style, into the paddies – which I’m ashamed to report I did in Duoyishu.
How to do it: Try and hook up with fellow backpackers to split the fare of a minibus from Xinjie into the hills. Some areas, such as Duoyishu, have an admission fee, but the local drivers will speed past the toll booths. A stay at Sunny Guesthouse in Duoyishu village can’t be recommended enough. (Tel. 159 8737 1311)
Fly from London Heathrow to Kunming, with a stop-off in Beijing, from £704 return with Air China. (airchina.com)
CHINA SURVIVAL GUIDE
China can be a challenging place to travel, given its sheer size, near-impenetrable tonal language, and love of spitting. Here are a few tips to survive:
The best you can hope for is to pick up ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’, because besides the difficulty of non-Roman characters, the meaning of Mandarin depends on tones. Always get the English-speaking staff at your hostel to write down where you’re headed in Mandarin before hopping in a taxi, and take a map of where your digs are,
or at the very least a phone number, whenever you head out.
This is no time to be squeamish. Of all the dire toilet experiences on the backpacker trail, China might well take the cake. Be prepared to walk into a bathroom and get greeted by a row of arses shitting into a trench: toilet stalls often don’t have doors, and even if they do, a lot of folk don’t use them.
Get over this quickly. Hocking up a generous glob of phlegm in the street is ubiquitous, and constant, in China, from the cities to the villages. Don’t get offended or expect it to ever stop; it is what it is.
Trains are great in China if you choose the right class. Soft sleeper is the most expensive, but well worth it; you share a cabin with just three other passengers, and prices don’t tend to push above £30. Hard sleeper is a bit less luxurious, as you’re in a cabin full of bunks. Don’t even think about hard seat; the horror stories keep us awake at night.
THE BEST OF THE REST: YUNNAN
KUNMING: The provincial capital has plenty to go against it: it’s big, dirty, smelly, and taxi drivers avoid white faces like the plague. Some, however, find pockets of likeability in it, especially the relatively peaceful Green Lake Park. Either way, you’ll have to pay a visit to Kunming, as it’s the jumping off point for the rest of the province. Stay at Cloudland Youth Hostel, where the staff can help plan your travels. (Tel. 410 3777)
DALI: Once the backpacker capital of Yunnan, Dali is now blasted for being too touristed. If you’ve no interest in hanging with beardy types for long periods of chilling, you’ll soon tire of it, but it’s position between bright-white mountains and a pagoda-spotted lake justifies a few days.
ZHONGDIAN/ SHANGRI-LA: Touted as the inspiration for Brit writer James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-La, Zhongdian is a meandering old town akin to Lijiang, only at a breathtaking elevation of 3200m, teetering on the edge of Tibet.
SHAXI: A step back in time without the tourist hordes to spoil it, Shaxi is a subdued collection of wooden houses and winding streets, so far unmolested by an infiltration of backpacker bars. It was once an important stop on the Tea-Horse Road, a collection of caravan routes that linked China with India through Tibet.