ON THE ROAD TO SHANGRI-LA
MYSTICAL YUNNAN PROVINCE
Article and photos by Pam Euston
Wherever you go, go with all your heart Confucius
Saturday, July 28
My husband Don and I departed for our trip to China’s most southwestern province, Yunnan. Flying on three airlines from Miami to Los Angeles to Beijing for 36 hours, we finally arrived in Kunming, the capital and largest city of the province. Our last visit to China was in 1999 and we were surprised to see more cars than bicycles. Beijing is just as polluted as it was back then, so we were glad we flew on to Yunnan no sign of pollution.
Yunnan Province is a land of rain forests, snow-capped Himalayan peaks, rushing mountain rivers and some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, and unusual cultures. Twenty-six of China’s 55 ethnic minorities make their home here. Yunnan contains half of China’s plant and animal species, including 7,000 endemic plant species and 30 endangered animal species, such as snow leopards, clouded leopards, Yunnan golden monkeys, red pandas, a handful of tigers and about 200 wild elephants.
Yunnan means “south of the clouds” and is bordered by Tibet, Sichuan Province to the north, Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Vietnam. The southern part of the province is covered with green mountains, remote cultivated valleys, and forested ridges. It is here that the elephants, tigers, leopards and golden haired monkeys make their home. Many of the people who reside here are extremely poor and over the last decade it has become a heroin and smuggling region. Northern Yunnan lies at the threshold of the Himalayas where China bumps into Tibet. The mountains are bigger here, the landscape is drier and more rugged, and many of the ethnic minorities here are related to Tibetans.
Yunnan is one of China’s poorest provinces. The main industry and crop is tobacco, much of which is grown in the Kunming area. Other important enterprises include pharmaceuticals and phosphorus chemicals. Tourism is becoming more and more important but Yunnan is still a province that few Americans have discovered and that’s unfortunate because it is beautiful and truly off the beaten track.
Kunming is known as “China’s City of Eternal Spring,” and is home to seven million people. A city of less than two million is called village in China. It is a lovely city, featuring streets lined with graceful willow trees, camellias, azaleas and magnolias. The cool temperatures and year-long spring weather make it an ideal location to grow flowers which is also a major industry. During World War II, it was the base of the Flying Tigers and the northern terminus of the Burma Road which was the major overland supply route in China after the Japanese took over much of the country’s coast in 1937 and 1938 and blockaded its seaports.
The The Flying Tigers Museum in Yunnanyi was Claire Chennault’s home in the village during World War II. Over the years, many of the pilots returned here and wrote notes and messages on the display. Last year, the last Flying Tiger passed away, ending a remarkable era in China and U.S. history.
Tuesday, July 30
Our group had found each other in the Beijing Airport yesterday, met our guide Michelle at the Kunming Airport, had lunch, got checked into the hotel, took a much-needed nap, and then took a short walk and had dinner. We had no trouble sleeping since we were exhausted from our long trek half way around the world.
Today will be our first day of discovery. Kunming’s history stretches back some 2,400 years, when it was the gateway to the celebrated Silk Road. After breakfast, we boarded our van, driven by Mr. Shu, and set off for the Stone Forest, 78 miles southeast of Kunming. Known since the Ming Dynasty as the “First Wonder of the World,” the limestone karsts here have been sculpted by nature over the course of 270 million years to form great pillars resembling a forest made of stone. The sky was overcast and it looked like we were going to get wet very soon. No sooner had we started our exploration of the Stone Forest, than it started to pour. It didn’t matter because these towering rock formations were still a sight to behold. The tall rocks seem to emanate from the ground in the manner of stalagmites with many looking like petrified trees, thereby creating the illusion of a forest made of stone. According to legend, the forest is the birthplace of Ashima, a beautiful girl of the Yi people. After falling in love she was forbidden to marry her chosen suitor and instead turned into a stone in the forest that still bears her name. Michelle, a member of the Yi, said that each year on the 24th day of the sixth lunar month, many Yi people celebrate the Torch Festival, which features folk dances and wrestling competitions. We will be able to enjoy this festival in a few days.
After lunch, we enjoyed a beautiful, sunny day. We drove back to Kunming and visited beautiful Green Lake, or Cui Hu Park. It was established in the 17th century on the west side of Wuhua Mountain and is sometimes described as a “Jade in Kunming.” The park consists of a group of four small sub-lakes linked by bridges in the traditional style. What a wonderful afternoon we spent here, following the willow tree-lined walkways, enjoying the brightly painted pavilions on the islands inside the park, photographing lots of beautiful flowers and getting to meet some of the locals up close and personal.
The park is very popular with the residents of Kunming and we watched people exercising and dancing. In fact, we joined in several dances and were warmly received by the group who seemed delighted that Americans would want to join them. Talk about a target-rich environment; the park is a photographer’s dream with no end to the subject matter.
That evening we went to a nearby restaurant for the specialty of the house: Crossing the bridge noodle soup. This is the “national” dish of Yunnan Province and there are several stories regarding just how this delicious soup came about. One story says that a scholar sent his wife to buy noodles from the other side of a bridge. Another version says that when the wife crossed the bridge carrying the meal in a basket, she tripped and accidentally poured hot broth into a bowl of raw meat. When she opened the basket to have a look, the meat had been boiled and tasted delicious. The main ingredient is rice vermicelli noodles, but the soup also includes raw quail eggs, ham and chicken slices along with vegetables and served very hot. The attendant will start out with a very large bowl of boiling hot noodle soup, and will then put the ingredients into the bowl, generally in the order from raw to cooked: meat first, then quail eggs, and then vegetables. Finally, it is ready to eat after adding oil, chilies and vinegar, according to each diner’s personal taste.
That evening we went to “Dynamic Yunnan,” a song and dance ensemble that was a wonderful and unique fusion of traditional ethnic folk dance and music and modern choreography. Though there is no single storyline, the performers draw from Yunnan’s rich legends and cultural traditions to express the struggles and aspirations of the human condition. They should be playing Las Vegas!
Wednesday, July 31
We were up early and boarded the van to begin our 4-1/2 hour journey to the ancient walled city of Dali. We stopped at a bus stop in the town of Lufeng which advertises itself as “The Dinosaur’s Home Town,” due to the many fossils that have been excavated in this part of China. Almost every house has a dinosaur painted on it. During our stop, some teenagers approached Don and I and asked to take our picture. Apparently, blue-eyed blonds and blue-eyed silver-haired men are a rare sight here and this was the beginning of many such picture-taking requests.
We stopped for lunch in the tiny village of Yunnanyi, surrounded by fields of tobacco, and then walked a short distance to where the Flying Tigers had an airfield and hangars. There is nothing here today, only fields of tobacco. We visited Flying Tigers Commander Claire Chennault’s home in Yunnanyi — now a museum filled with items and pictures of the Flying Tigers. The town is also home to the Horse Caravan Museum. The “yi” suffix attached to Yunnan refers to courier stations that were set up for the supply of relay horses, or for couriers to have a rest on their way to deliver documents in the old days.
Visiting this town is like walking thousands of years back into history. You can see a slate-paved path stretching to the crop fields. The path is pitted with numerous potholes left by horses in ancient times. We visited an 84-year old man, the last villager to work on the Flying Tigers Air Base. He was just a boy of fourteen when the Flying Tigers and Americans, who came to China to fly against the Japanese during World War II, established an air field here. We departed Kunming at 8:00 am and finally reached Dali at 4:30 pm. Where we met our local guide, Daisy, who is a member of the Bai minority and speaks a different dialect than Michelle.
Dali is an ancient walled town 250 miles west of Kunming and is truly charming. It is one of the most picturesque destinations in all of China. Flanked on one side by the 13,000 foot Cangshan Mountains and on the other by Er Hai, Yunnan’s second-largest lake, Dali has a location that is rivaled by few other historical sites in the region. And, at an altitude of 6,200 feet, it has a year-round temperate climate. We stayed in the old walled city which is known as Dali Gucheng or Dali Old Town, at the Landscape Hotel which was a lovely little gem. Dali reminded me of Hoi An in Vietnam. That evening we had dinner at a local restaurant and then explored the shops, especially focusing on “Foreigners’ Street”, so named for the throngs of tourists that roam through all the interesting shops here. We found an ice cream store and had to have dessert. We asked Michelle if they had chocolate to which she replied that they had strawberry and normal which turned out to be vanilla.
Thursday, August 1
We were up early again and started our day by visiting a local market. These always fascinate me. They grow one crop of rice a year along with corn and tobacco. Winter crops that are grown around Dali are broad beans and wheat. Everyone was building torches for the aforementioned Torch Festival that will take place tonight. Our main destination today is to the village of Shacun on Er Hai, meaning “ear-shaped sea,” where we will observe cormorant fishing, followed by lunch with a local family. On our way to the lake, we visited a local embroidery school.
Cormorant fishing is a traditional fishing method in which fishermen use trained cormorants to fish in rivers and lakes. It has taken place in Japan and China since about 960 A.D. It has also been used in other countries but is currently under threat in China. To control the birds, the fishermen tie a snare near the base of the bird’s throat. This prevents the birds from swallowing larger fish, which are held in their throat, but the birds can swallow smaller fish. When a cormorant has caught a fish in its throat, the fisherman brings the bird back to the boat and has the bird spit the fish up.
There are some 97 families living on Er Hai Lake who have been fishing this way for generations. Personally, I think the wife has the most back-breaking job, as she has to row the boat. Each fisherman has 20-25 birds and is very proficient at fishing this way. The birds have names and are treated like pampered pets by the fisherman. Each one has his or her favorite perch on the sides of the boat. One fisherman and his birds came aboard our boat and we had our pictures taken festooned with them. One even left his or her calling card on my hat!
Next we visited the Yang family where we were treated to lunch. Four generations of one family live within their compound, a common living arrangement throughout all of Asia. Mr. Yang is a teacher and is married with one young daughter. His mother and grandmother also reside in this home that was very large and clean with a beautiful courtyard and modern bathroom, a rarity in our travels. For such an ancient culture that has given the world so many inventions and innovations, it has always amazed me that they have yet to come up with a better toilet! I guess old habits die hard.
The highlight of our visit was a three-course tea ceremony that is practiced by the Bai ethnic group on holidays, or when treating honored guests that they considered us to be. It gets its name because tea is offered three times. This ceremony was originally held by the senior members or the most reverent member of the family. Each course symbolizes a different stage of life:
First Course: Bitter Tea is offered and symbolizes that one will suffer a lot before he or she starts his or her career; Second Course: Sweet Tea is served symbolizing that there is “no sweet without sweat,” or as we like to say in the U.S., “no pain, no gain.”
Third Course: After Taste Tea implies that we need to remain in a placid frame of mind after having been through all tastes. These home-hosted lunches and dinners are a highlight of our Oversea Adventure Travel trips because they provide a unique opportunity to meet a local family and interact with them one on one. I always take postcards of South Florida beach scenes to leave with the family. Since Yunnan is a land-locked country, they were amazed at how beautiful our beaches are. It is a site that they do not know, and Mr. Yang’s grandmother was particularly taken by the postcard. She kept running her hand over it and told us through her grandson that she thought we lived in paradise. Only Mr. Yang spoke English; his daughter was learning our language.
We returned to the hotel and watched the final preparations for tonight’s Torch Ceremony, the most important festival of the Yi minority in Yunnan. They were constructing a huge torch in the parking lot and were surrounding it with hundreds of firecrackers. We decided to join the locals who were dancing around the torch. Suddenly, we were pushed back into a corner and the firecrackers were lit. It sounded like the end of the world and we were very glad when the explosions ended. Thankfully, no one was set on fire.
This was nothing compared to the lighting of the torch. Try getting this ceremony permitted in the U.S.! This is a pyromaniac’s dream come true. I was afraid they were going to catch a huge tree on fire that was right next to the hotel. Once the main torch was lit, people kept running up to it and pulling out streamers and other items that had been placed in it to keep as souvenirs. Others were lighting smaller torches and running off to light other torches out on the street. It started to rain about 9:30 pm and this put out the giant torch. This reminded me of what my parents always said to me, “The trouble with trouble is it starts out as fun.”