Entering Yunnan

Entering Yunnan

The weather finally cleared and we are flying again. From Beijing to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, from Kunming to Dali, the twelve hundred year old capital of the Bai kingdom, we fly over one row of mountains after another. The mountains are old, smooth and rounded, like women’s breasts. No sharp jagged peaks, no steep rock walls, no glaciers. The gentle forested hills rise up to ten thousand feet from a six thousand feet plateau. Even in winter, Yunnan is still warm. There is barely a hint of white at the highest points of mountain ranges, hiding among endless green trees and brown grassy meadows. Thin gray lines of rivers and roads and occasional little towns pass under the airplane. Mountain valleys are covered with a patchwork of tiny fields and their oscillating bright green and dull yellow colors present a perfect bucolic landscape. I pull my phone out of the pocket to take a picture or two and see a sign in Mandarin dubbed in English “No photograph!” with a camera powerfully crossed out by a red line.

Every few minutes, I am reminded that China is aggressively modernizing. Ugly wounds of yellowish white quarries stare at us from below. They cut into mountain slopes by hundreds and thousands of meters; roads and cars next to them provide me with a scale. It looks like a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal swooped down and tore a few million cubic feet of rock and earth with his mighty talons.

Yvonne reads this passage and rolls her shining eyes inside the most beautiful eye-sockets the world.

“You are such a dork!” She pets my head.

Well, yeah, I am a dork. And, like every other dork in the world, I mourned on May 11, 2001 when Douglas Adams died.

A particularly ugly quarry is gaping next to a highway that cuts through the mountains and spans over the valleys and rivers. Even from a few kilometers above, I see concrete pylons supporting the four lane road. The pylons taper upwards like Greek columns and they are they are just as graceful; the only difference is that they are ten or twenty times higher. They dwarf the trees and compete with the mountains. The elevated sections span several kilometers each till they run into the mountains and disappear for another few kilometers to become tunnels. It is possibly the prettiest and the most impressive highway I’ve ever seen. Chinese landscaping and engineering skills combined to seamlessly blend an urban creation into a mountain setting. Too bad, they left dozens of disgusting looking quarries all along the way.

The plane finally lands in new Dali, a dirty featureless modern city of ten story bland concrete buildings and endless construction. Our Dali, Bai ancient capital, a designated UNESCO heritage site, and, supposedly one of the most historically interesting towns in Yunnan, is still twenty kilometers away. Somewhere along the way, we united with four more people. Yvonne’s parents decided to join us for a couple weeks. They are excited about traveling with their daughter and Embryona; we are excited about traveling with people who can read and write Mandarin and have traveled in rural China extensively. Also, Yvonne’s closest friend Gen joins us with her boyfriend. Like me, Gen aggressively and successfully pushed her employers around to get a month or two of an unpaid leave. Then she grabbed Jordan and started dragging him around Southeast Asia.

Following backpackinginchina.com advice, we stay at Sleepy Fish, an English-speaking miracle of rural China. It is run by a short muscular expat woman named Max. With an authoritative manner and cropped gray hair, she could be a butch lesbian, a retired Army sergeant or both. Either way, she runs her hotel with an iron hand and even her Chinese employees speak passable English.

Here we first learn how Southern Chinese deal with winter. They do have a mild winter, but still temperature often drops below freezing at night. During the day, sun slowly warms the world below it to mid fifties, but as the sun rolls down in the evening, so does the temperature. On a cloudy day, things just never warm up. So, life here can be a bit on the cold side. The Chinese are even worse than the English. They don’t bother with heating at all as they pretend that winter doesn’t exist. With sunrise, doors to every building, residential and business alike go wide open. In fact, a lot of establishments just take their wooden doors out and stack them next to a wall every morning. People live in their down jackets, woolen hats and, possibly, thermal underwear.

Our hotel is no exception. Instead of heating, we get electric blankets, or more precisely, thin wired sheets hiding under linen. I sleep in my ski balaclava. Heat lamps warm bathrooms by a few degrees, just enough to take a shower and not die of exposure while rigorously drying yourself. On the positive side, my morning exercise routine becomes a natural thing to do – it helps to warm me up. Surprisingly, Yvonne is tolerant to this setup. I expected way more complaints but they never come. She likes the hotel, the owner, the sparkling clean rooms and all ten pounds of our blanket.

For a day, we leisurely wonder around Dali. Yvonne still has to walk at a pace of a dying snail.  If she accelerates to anything resembling a normal walking speed, she immediately bends over trying to cough her lungs out. She is also a bit pukey – welcome to being pregnant. Cough and puking go great together – like lovers holding hands. On a positive side, moving slowly does have some advantages – I definitely notice lots of interesting little things that I would otherwise just rush by

There are a lot of little things to notice. Dali is a well preserved and reconstructed town with more than twelve hundred years of history. It’s also the first old Chinese town I’ve been to. The town has a strong tourist feel to it but it is also a lived-in place. There are all too many identical shops for my taste. Still, the town has the depth and variety. Some buildings look very old and they are in various stages of disrepair; the others seem to be historic but well preserved. Every few blocks, there is some construction or repairs going on. There are patently new buildings but they are all constructed in the same ancient style; whatever authority controls the town development, it does an excellent job (unlike the overwhelming majority of modern Chinese construction).

We walk by an authentic and ancient painting probably drawn a year or two ago.


Multi-tiered layers of wooden joints support gray and brown tiled roofs. The joinery is painted in the vibrant green and blue. Dragon roofs lift up on the sides of the buildings, towards the sky. Many doors and windows are made out of carved wooden screens. Paved streets are narrow and the cars can barely squeeze through, honking warningly at pedestrians, like yapping dogs. Stone gutters carry water from the mountain down the streets. The gutters are surprisingly deep and wide – I am sure they work as a good natural selection mechanism for drunkards or just poorly coordinated people. Two-foot-wide concrete bridges cross the gutters every dozen meters or so. Stores and restaurants offer the typical Chinese fare of excellent food, ill-fitting clothing and plastic touristy souvenirs. My nose brings me to a bookstore. I am lucky – out of the very few English books, the store carries three seemingly good texts on Chinese architecture and Dali history. I happily buy all of them.

At night, I entertain myself and Yvonne by reading certain passages from the Dali history book out loud. The translator is a head of Dali University English Department. Apparently he held a few visiting positions at various universities in the English speaking world and his most notable achievement is translating Robert Frost into Mandarin. Unfortunately, albeit entertainingly, he gets carried away when translating a dry historical text into English. The result is striking.

“He does sound like Robert Frost,” Yvonne drily comments on the history treatise style. Still we learn a lot.

Apparently, a just and righteous dynasty ruled Dali with a mandate of Heaven through the eighth and ninth centuries. Then, an evil supplicant overthrew the dynasty, had all the royal relatives gathered at the main square in front of the palace and single-handedly beheaded eight hundred people. Another couple hundred years later Mongols dropped by and behaved shocking civilized, at least by Mongol standards. By the time Mongols finally reached Southern China, they did soften up a bit. Or maybe it was just too few of them to indulge in their favorite game of kill-them-all. So, they were forced to rule with a lighter hand.

By the fifteenth century Mongols became soft and decadent and Ming dynasty took care of them. Supposedly, the current town architecture dates mostly to sixteenth century Ming. However, over twentieth century, like many other historic places in China, the town went into poverty, disrepair and neglect. Only around 2000, money and expertise flowed in to save the places from its pathetic state and to restore it in its authentic glory.

Overwhelmed by lofty subjects such as history and architecture, I am neglecting the more mundane topic of food. I have to admit, though, that our taste buds have been enjoying the trip as much as our eyes. Yvonne’s parents have been unerringly finding the most impressive fare in the dingy looking hole-in-the-wall places. Thanks to them, we have the double pleasure of eating excellent food and paying between one and a half (breakfast) and five (dinner) dollars per person per meal.

I am not ready to get into a full-power discussion of Yunnan food here, it’s just too much.  Hopefully, I’ll end up writing a separate essay on Southern Chinese food (with Yvonne’s help, of course). Here I’ll just sing to the glory of Chinese fish.

The most important thing about Chinese fish is that it is at first alive and then cooked. Chinese don’t seem to grasp a concept of storing dead frozen fish. A cook picks a fish from a tank, basin, pot, pool or river, sticks a knife through the struggling fish’s head, cleans it, guts it and steams the whole fish in ten minutes. Then, he pores sizzling oil over the fish and the crusty skin covers the most soft and delicious flesh. Then, he puts a mix of chilies, Szechuan peppers, roasted garlic, ginger and onions and almost raw scallions on top. That’s it; the fish is ready.

Chopsticks separate yielding white flesh from thin bones and deliver it into my wide open mouth. The fish is spicy enough to bring tears to my eyes but, miraculously, I can still feel how fresh and light it is. Oh, and there are green beans grilled over the charcoal; they taste like crunchy wood smoke.

The next morning, Yvonne is still coughing like a champ and she opts to stay in the village to paint. Gen, Jordan and I rent surprisingly decent mountain bikes from Max and prepare to explore tripadvisor.com attraction #1 – a route around Erhat lake. Well, to be honest, we are not planning to bike one hundred twenty kilometer run around the whole lake. We are planning to wait till it warms up a bit and bike for a few hours till we get bored.

Erhat lake stretches in the center of the valley; in fact, the lake has always been the heart and the source of human habitation for the valley. It is also famous for its serene beauty and the pretty villages spread all around it. Frankly, I don’t get the Chinese obsession with lakes. A lake is a lake, big deal. Of course, a clean lake surrounded by meadows and trees surely beats a stinky swamp downriver from a PVC plant, but that’s about it. Still, I like biking; the sun warmed up the air to the point that I can take my down jacket and gloves off; it’s time to roll.

A winding paved road takes us along the lake. The water is serene and quiet; the afternoon wind has not arrived yet. Bright green fields and paddies follow the road on both sides. Colorfully dressed peasant women weed, pick, hoe and plant. Trees grow along the road and, mysteriously, right in the lake, sometimes as far as a few dozen meters away from the shore.


The whole scene is picturesque to the point of failure. I can see an urban tourist gasping in utter delight and exclaiming something along the lines,

“Oh, my God, it’s a true paradise on Earth!”

I would love to see this urban tourist bending over next to that skinny five foot tall peasant woman with a wrinkled face of unidentifiable age and weeding the rice paddy for fourteen hours straight with her.

The bucolic heaven is also a place of frenetic, frenzied construction. For miles and miles along the lake, the waterfront is covered with buildings in different stages of completion.


There are genuinely old houses with walls built out of rocks, mud bricks and mud. But hundreds of houses have just been built or are hurriedly constructed right in front of us. Prefabricated brick and cement construction blocks are put together and covered with white washed plaster walls. A lot of ink paintings adorn the walls, some conventional, some unexpectedly humorous.


Luxurious multi-level tiered Chinese portico-towers guard house entrances and randomly attach themselves to windows and balconies. In a strange twist of traditional Chinese landscaping, piles of hundreds and thousands old tires grow next to the some houses.


In spite of all the construction and random traffic, the road and the grass next to it are almost pristine clean. As we pass construction sites, I see workers cleaning the road with brooms. Most of them are women. In fact, most workers I see in the fields and at the construction sites are women. Where are the men, drinking and whoring?

We pass a jail-like building of a local school with communist style murals of happy productive children. We do hear happy children screaming as we go by, so maybe the school is not as horrible as it looks. We stop at a native bird fishing village. More than thousand years ago, some smart and lazy dudes figured out how to train cormorant birds to catch and bring them fish. They tie loose nooses around the birds’ throats and the poor birds can’t swallow larger size fish, so they fly back to the boat and spit it out to the fisherman. It’s such an evil trick, isn’t it? Apparently it’s a dying art, now used mostly to entertain tourists. Apparently, the tourists are very happy to be entertained, and the fishermen look quite well off.

A dozen green slightly rusty boats are docked at the waterfront. A dozen fat black birds, each the size of a small turkey are sitting on a boat. One bird is hanging out on a branch next to the road. As we take pictures, the bird starts showing off; he is preening, spreading its wings and coquettishly turning his head.


A few enterprising natives are hanging out next to the boats. They all wear white dresses with blue and red stripes; clearly these outfits are made to impress the tourists, not to fish. An old guy with a straight posture and a face that looks like a baked apple starts talking to us in Mandarin. Having correctly interpreted our blank expressions, he reaches into a pocket, pulls out a tablet size smart phone and types “100” while pointing at the boat with the birds. Apparently he wants us to take a fifteen dollar per person bird fishing tour. We politely decline; the guy politely insists and points to a big featureless building nearby with a sign Restaurant on it. Apparently, they will cook the fish for us once we come back from the lake. Now, it’s really tempting but we still say no and keep biking.

In two and a half hours we get to the end of the road. A house with a food stand is strategically located there. We stop and I walk inside. A fat short and happy Bai woman smiles at me and asks something in Mandarin. I smile back, point my hand at prepped veggies, meat and pasta and show three fingers. The woman smiles again and nods. Three minutes later we get a bowl of soup each. The soup glows red with fat and chili. The noodles taste like fresh dough – they were just hand pulled. The veggies are crisp and the pork is abundant. We leisurely slurp and suck on the food while watching the lake. A two year old fat baby waddles towards us and requests attention politely but purposefully. Sorry, kid, we are not into children.

On our way back we accidentally find an answer to a question that may have possibly started to form in the back of our heads over the last two days but it still hasn’t fully surfaced to the surface. Everywhere in the villages and on the roads, there are signs engraved on rocks. The rocks are usually flat and vary in size from one to five meters in height. The signs are all in Mandarin, of course, so we have no clue to what they are saying. Some rocks are made out of boring gray granite; some are quite colorful and masterfully polished. Where do they all come from, who makes them?

We pass a stone workshop on the side of the road and it has hundreds of stones in the different degrees of preparation. A few short skinny middle aged locals, men and women, probably a family are cutting and polishing them. The place looks like a cross between a cemetery and a rock nursery.


Gen climbs in a chair and poses as Qing Last Empress; it doesn’t look too convincing.

Polishing rocks may be boring as hell, but it sure brings impressive results.


We have another dinner of a spicy fish that was alive and kicking ten minutes ago and crawl under our ten pound blankets.

The next day, I persuade everybody to check out the local climbing scene. Gen likes to climb also, so she is easy to persuade. A day before, we rent climbing shoes for her from a local climbing guide Adam – an American expat from Philly. The guy took a couple years of Mandarin in college and then decided that he would rather be the only white guy in a provincial Chinese town. So, he moved to Dali, opened a little pizza/climbing shop and started bolting local cliffs. Needless to say, he looks, speaks and moves like a typical American climber. Five foot eleven, skinny, bearded, yeah dude, no problem, man, see ya tomorrow at the cliff, I’ll be with some clients of mine, nice folks.

We need to rent a taxi for the whole day, so we find a Tibetan driver who, in his leather cowboy hat looks like a darker, shorter and older version of Clint Eastwood from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Every time he talks in his unhurried Tibetan drawl, I keep looking at his waist half-expecting to see two gun holsters attached to it. We really like the dude, but unfortunately he has a problem. He grew up in Tibet and he never learned how to read and write Mandarin. Tibetan is actually a completely different language, with alphabet based on 9th century Indic script. So, our driver can’t read road signs and he doesn’t know the area all that well yet. Yvonne’s parents have to guide him around. They like the guy a lot, so they don’t mind. It takes us an extra half an hour to find the trail head for the climbing area and all of us start going to the cliff. I am a bit surprised – I hoped to ditch everybody and just climb for a few hours with Gen but apparently it’s not gonna happen.

We walk by a tiny Taoist temple, through several moped-wide unpaved crooked streets and half dilapidated houses and then, under the highway that I just described a few pages earlier. A local dude, while watching over a few scrawny cows, tells us they just opened the highway system, Kunming to Lijang, two days ago. What used to take an overnight travel on local roads, is now a four hour trip. Concrete pillars support four lanes of highway soaring half a pitch above us (a climbing pitch is our favorite height unit – anywhere between forty and sixty meters). The concrete looks fresh, pristine and still glistening with moisture. They are no graffiti yet, no cracks, chips or dirt.

The unpaved road steepens up zigzagging up a mountainside. While Christians like cemeteries, Chinese often bury their dead in the hills and mountains. We encounter a bunch of these mountainside graves. Four feet high tombstones with Mandarin characters ingrained on them look cute and friendly, like front doors to Chinese mountain hobbit houses.

A climbing trail splits off and, half an hour later, we finally arrive to our destination, Shuanglang Softcore cliff. Apparently, Shuanglang Hardcore cliff has considerably harder routes. Yvonne is finally starting to recover; huffing and puffing, but not coughing she slowly makes her way uphill. With her parents and Gen’s boyfriend also arriving, our little athletic diversion turns into a family activity. Such is life.

Unfortunately, we only have time for a few climbs, when Adam leaves. He has to take Gen’s rented climbing shoes with him and the girl is rendered shoe-less. Rock climbing does require specialized shoes and Gen’s regular sneakers are worse then useless on the rock. Yvonne suggests Gen to try her leather biker boots. Shockingly, it works; Yvonne’s feet are slightly smaller and her boots fit very tight on Gen. The stiff soles and rectangular cut of the front of the boots make them decent climbing shoes. We are all speechless.

The sun crosses Erhat lake, moving to the west; our time in Dali comes to an end. The ancient town of Shaxi is awaiting us.

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