Southwest China Trip Report

Amcan Travel leads a U.S. group on an adventure through Southwest China, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet, March 2007.

Barbara worked hard with her China hosts to design a unique China trip itinerary in Southwest China with multiple minority regions. It provides diversified rich culture and amazing natural scenery, bustling shops and gourmet food of Sichuan. Now we take you with us on our exciting journey.

Day 1 (Mon) - Kunming, Yunnan

Eight of our group arrived in Kunming in the afternoon, and we met up the three more for dinner at the hotel restaurant. We occupied a big round table and enjoyed some typical Yunnan cuisine of fresh mushrooms, vegetables and pork, chicken. After dinner, Richard and Barbara took in the optional performance, "Dynamic Yunnan" led by Ms. Liping Yang, a world renowned dancer and choreographer. The program is a beautifully designed and well-produced song and dance presentation in southwestern ethnic styles. Over three quarters of the performers are local peasant farmers who Yang discovered in outlying villages of Yunnan. Most of them are from ethnic groups including Yi, Miao, Tibetan, Dai, Bai, Va and Hani. The final dance illustrating devotion and longing to god was particularly moving.

Day 2 (Tue) - Kunming, Yunnan

By Tuesday morning, all fifteen members of our group had arrived, and we enjoyed a breakfast together at the hotel before being introduced to Cindy, our local guide. We boarded our tour bus and rode out to visit the Golden Temple, in a large garden setting atop a hill southeast of the city. The walk uphill was a great morning exercise. Breathing the fresh air and enjoying a blue sky is something of a rarity in the big cities of China. Kunming is well-known for year-round mild weather, earning it the nickname, "Spring City." The Golden Temple is a Taoist place of worship made from one solid piece of brass. We found the grounds and the many shrines peaceful and lovely. We saw worshippers burning incense and paper houses, paper cars and spirit money so their loved ones in the other world will be provided for.

Before lunch, we looked around at the Bird and Flower Market, where animals, birds and plants, along with souvenirs of all kinds are on sale. Lunch was in a local restaurant, the food simple, fresh and tasty. In the afternoon, we visited Dianchi Lake (photo, stone boat on Dianchi Lake), the sixth largest fresh water lake in China. With picturesque scenery and its location on the Yungui Plateau, the lake has a reputation as 'A Pearl on the Plateau'. Unfortunately, the lake has been badly polluted. Although efforts have been made to save the lake, it is not yet safe enough for people to swim in, which Cindy said she used to do as a kid. The group stopped by the Tea Institute to watch a Pu Er Tea ceremony. According to the demonstrator, Pu Er tea can help make you either lose or gain weight depending on when you drink it. It is the only tea that ages like wine, the longer it's stored, the better the quality, and the Dai minority sales girl was formidable at her trade (photo, tea demonstration). For dinner, we enjoyed a meal that centered on a special rice noodle dish, accompanied by characteristic minority region entertainment, singing and dancing by different minorities with their typical costumes. Some of the group joined in to participate in the fun.

Day 3 (Wed) - Kunming, Stone Forest, Yunnan

We were blessed with a second day of gorgeous weather. We checked out of our hotel in the morning to drive to the Stone Forest, a vast maze of grey limestone towers reaching 100 feet high in many spots. We found the place very crowded with tourists, even though we are still in the end of the "low" tourist season. (photo, Stone Forest trailhead). We entered the park and right away posed a group photo (photo, Amcan group portrait), then spent the morning hiking the trail among the sights. It was quite a challenge to get through all major spots, most with descriptive names like the Elephant and Girl With Basket.

On our way passing back through Kunming, before heading into the northwest, we stopped at the offices of Threads of Yunnan to learn about their effort in the earthquake damaged area north of Kunming and how their organization is helping women in the villages to sell their handmade embroideries. With the serious delay from the original schedule, we ended up having dinner in Kunming and then driving to Chuxiong and arriving late just to spend the night.

Day 4 (Thu) - Dali, Yunnan

We started out early in the morning to drive to Dali, waiving goodbye to Cindy. On the way, we experienced our first roadside bus stop bathroom, squat-down style. Barbara got some tangerines from the fruit stand for the group and they were quite tasty. The scenery along the well-maintained highway was spectacular with large patches of blooming yellow mustard flowers. The area is the richest in Yunnan since it is relatively flat, rare in this hilly province, and they are able to harvest crops three or four times a year. Upon arriving in Dali in mid-morning, we visited The Triple Pagodas (photo, Three Pagodas), emblems of the city's long and celebrated history since 9th Century. After a quick lunch, we board a cruise on Erhai Lake - known as "the sea shaped like an ear" though it is a large fresh water lake. There are few islands dotted around the lake, and one of them has a fancy resort with a Guanyin Statue (photo, Guanyin). The weather was gorgeous, though it got a bit windy at the end of our cruise. On-board, we enjoyed a Bai minority dance and tea ceremony. Half of the group went for much needed foot or back massage, offered on the ship. It was a treat after trooping around the Stone Forest the previous day.

We ended our day up in a very nice Bai Minority style garden hotel with picturesque courtyards and elaborate decor (photo, Bai architecture). We strolled around the cobblestone street of the Dali Old Town in the evening (photo, Old Dali). The Kingdom of Dali was established and controlled by the Duan clan from the ninth century, and survived until they were conquered by Mongols in the twelfth century. The Kingdom retained a close alliance with the Tang dynasty, and was one of the major transit points for the introduction of Buddhism throughout the rest of China.

Day 5 (Fri) - Lijiang, Yunnan

In the morning, we stopped on our way out of Dali at a family-run Batik shop. The Duan family has been doing their trade here for six generations and we saw the entire procedure done before our eyes. We were also supposed to visit the largest silver museum in China on the way, but the museum was closed for renovation and the compound crowded with a few dozen giant buses full of tourists buying souvenirs. We made just a restroom stop and pressed on to reach our hotel in Lijiang for lunch.

Our afternoon tour of Lijiang Ancient city was loose, and since the old city it is a few minutes walk from our hotel, everyone started to pursue their own interests in this lovely old town (photo, old Lijiang). It is a UNESCO site, with Lijiang's Naxi (pronounced nah shee) people preserving much of their ancient traditional Dongba culture and honoring a deep linkage to nature (photo, view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain). Lijiang has an ingenious network of waterways, supplied by mountain springs. Houses in the town are connected via canals. The cobbled streets, bridges and houses add to the picturesque ambience. After dinner in the old town, the whole group went out to enjoy a performance by the Naxi-orchestra: old men playing traditional Chinese music on antique instruments, unique for China (photo, Xuan Ke Ensemble). Many of the instrumentalists are aged 80 and above which makes a great contrast to the young and beautiful minority singers. Some of the senior folks appeared to fall asleep on stage when it was not their turn, then somehow woke up when their part came and picked up their instruments and played. It is a very memorable experience.

Day 6 (Sat) - Lijiang, Yunnan

We went out to the foothills of Yulong (Jade Dragon) Mountain at 10,000 feet elevation, and climbed into cable cars which took us up to 13,500 feet. The glacier was next to us and temperature well below freezing. Everyone bundled up and got use of their wool underpants and thick socks which had not yet seen much daylight this trip. The air was thin and a few of us bought oxygen in containers that look like air freshener. At the elevation of 13,500 feet, Barbara felt a bit of dizziness as if she had too much alcohol to drink. Some of the highland folks in our group stayed longer and climbed higher up, the rest started going down after posing for a the group photo (photo, at altitude 4506 meters). After spending as much time as we cared to up on the mountain, we rode the chair lift back down and rode the park bus to White Water river (photo, travertines with yak). Some of us mounted yaks to ride a bit, some dressed up in the local costume for pictures.

We returned to town in the early afternoon and had another free afternoon at the old town, which we all fell in love with. Richard bargained for a nice bawu (a minority musical instrument), and we went to a family teahouse/photo spot at the top of the hill to enjoy the last bits of Lijiang daylight. The teahouse has a nice piece with Naxi script, the only hieroglyphic language still in use, hanging on a wall in the courtyard. We had dinner in a restaurant near Black Dragon Park, where we were entertained by some local village woman dancing in the courtyard (photo, line dancing with Naxi women). Then, off to the airport and the late evening flight to Chendu.

Day 7 (Sun) - Wolong, Sichuan

April Fool's Day proved indeed a difficult day for all of us. Due to road construction, the tunnel on the way to Wolong Sanctuary was open outward in the morning til noon, then one way inward for three hours, then will be completely closed in the evening. This posed a big problem for the group, as we had to abandon our original plan of staying a leisure overnight in the Sanctuary. We were forced to make the whole trip Chengdu to Wolong and return in the single day. Our local guide Peter led us out in the morning. We found the road was quite a mess all the way, a constant big traffic jam slowing down our journey. After nearly five hours of grueling, slow, bumpy road, we made the sanctuary (photo, entry to Wolong) right around lunch time. However, due to the afternoon tunnel closure, we were only able to stay in the sanctuary for less than one hour. We made the best of the time we had, some of us purchased a picture opportunity with the pandas (photo, happy girl and panda).

On the ride back to Chengdu, Barbara and Peter were holding their breath. If we did not reach the tunnel before closing time, we had no alternative plan for reaching our flight to Huanglong next morning. In the event, we made through the tunnel by 2:20pm and everyone felt such a relief. That feeling was immediately replaced by tremendous hunger, since we did not get to lunch til after 3pm. A simple instant rice dish seemed to be a hit with everyone so hungry. We made an extra stop in Dujiangyan, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dujiangyan is the key site of a massive irrigation infrastructure designed and built in 256 BC, older than the Great Wall. The waterway is still in use today, irrigating over 5,300 square kilometers of land in the region. It's interesting to consider that this project is far more useful than its contemporary, the Great Wall, which never effectively stopped foreign invasions. The time spent inside the site was too short but very impressive. We got back to Chengdu and had a fantastic Sichuan dinner. Sichuan is one of the four major cuisines in China and eating is serious business here. Richard says it's the best meal we had in China.

Day 8 (Mon) - Huanglong, Sichuan

We were early to Chengdu Airport to fly to Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) in the morning. We were met by Joyce, also known as Tiantian, a local girl of half Han and half Qiang minority lineage. Huanglong airport is at about 12,000 feet elevation. We could certainly feel the height and the ground temperature was again below freezing, apparently unusual for the time of year in this area. After a quick lunch, we drove to the Huang Long national park via a zigzagging highland road, often driving totally inside the clouds, though it felt like fog to us. April is the beginning of the park's open season, so we found the place had only a few visitors. The boardwalk trail up the canyon was very nice and air fresh though cold. The only challenge was as we climbed higher the steps became slippery with ice. Some of the group climbed all the way to the top of the canyon walk, others of us took a more relaxed approach. We walked about two hours up the hill, and then turned back. The scenery and quietness was so intriguing that it is hard to believe we were in China, the land of over a billion people (photo, lonely travertine in Huang Long park). It was a long drive from Huanglong back down the mountains and up again to Jiuzhaigou. We checked into the hotel not far from the entrance of the park. After dinner, some members went for a show with Tibetan and Qiang minority themes.

Day 9 (Tue) - Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan

We rose early enough to reach the gate of the park right after the park opened. It is totally different from Huanglong Park since it is mobbed with tourists, mostly Chinese on holiday from eastern cities in big groups. The park is named after the nine Tibetan and Qiang villages that are scattered up through the canyon, among all the beautiful ponds (photo, Many Colors Lake), streams, lakes (photo, Five Flower Lake), shoals and waterfalls. Every one of them features a colorful or descriptive name, of course. There are no private vehicles allowed inside the park, much like Denali National Park in Alaska, where a park bus runs on the paved road with regular stops. The weather was gorgeous and quite warmer than Huanglong, with lower elevation. We spent the whole day in the park and visited some local Tibetans' houses (photo, house with prayer flags). The park residents were farmers in the region before it was named a national park, but they can no longer farm. Now they have jobs working in the park or run shops in the visitor center. Lunch was served in the only restaurant inside the park. There are constantly some 200 people around the buffet table. The food was surprisingly good, considering the volume they have to maintain and the number of people they have to serve. Our evening entertainment was an optional foot massage. Some of us felt they truly deserved it after a long day at the park.

Day 10 (Wed) - Chengdu, Sichuan

We loaded up and boarded the bus early to go back to Huanglong Airport for our flight back to Chengdu. On the way, we stopped at a yak jerky shop, where everything can be tasted before you buy. This seem suited us well, no sales pitch or pressure. We said goodbye to our local guide and took the flight across amazing mountains. Back in Chengdu with Peter, we enjoyed a lunch of Sichuan "snacks," about a dozen different tasty dishes all piled up high. For the afternoon we toured through Wenshufang, an old city street lined up with red lanterns (photo, Chengdu). At the end of the street is Wenshu Yuan Temple complex, dating from 1691. There more than 100 bronze Buddhist figures in the temple, most of them cast during the Qing Dynasty. There are ten iron figures from the Song Dynasty, 800 year ago. There are always worshipers there burning insets and praying. We went for another good typical Sichuan dinner and took in a Sichuan Opera show in the evening. The front rows were all sold out so we had the first row of the balconies. The show offered great variety - a 12 piece orchestra, two girls juggling acrobatically, a little honeymooners light comedy with more acrobatics, a lovely Erhu solo number and a fantastic display of five actors and face changers, who changed their faces in fractions of seconds (photo, face changer).

Day 11 (Thu) - Chengdu, Sichuan

We had a lazy day in Chengdu, slept in and had a leisurely breakfast before going out to Wuhou Temple (photo, incense and candles). Wuhou Temple was built in the sixth century to commemorate Zhu ge Liang (Kongming), a general known for his great wisdom and strategic abilites. Inside the Zhuge Liang Palace, we saw statues of Zhu and his descendants. There are three drums in the room, called "Zhu Ge Drums". Allegedly Zhu made those drums during the war in the "Three Kingdoms" period of 221-263 A.D. Beside Zhu's tomb, Emperor Liu Bei's tomb is also in the temple. There are more than 40 statues of historical characters in a row of generals and administrators. There are bronze instruments such as bells, stoves, tripods and drums on display. Among the shops and tea houses, there is a small stage with a some girls putting on a mini-show of ancient music periodically. Richard's attempt to play their flutes was appreciated. Outside the temple is Jinli district. Dating back to the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 B.C.), Jinli Street was in ancient times one of the busiest of commercial boulevards of the Kingdom of Shu, during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 - 280 B.C.). It is thus known as the "First Street of the Shu Kingdom." There are a lot of small business around offering food, souvenirs, personal services, etc. Richard got his ears cleaned by a professional ear picker, equipped with unique tools including a big tuning fork. She used the fork to vibrate along the tiny slim spoon that goes into Richard's ear, for "massaging the nerves." Richard also received his personal spoon and a little swab as souvenirs when she completed her service. At the evening dinner we were joined by Eric Wolf, from the American Commerce consulate. He spoke in some depth about living and doing business in Chengdu, which has been newly designated as one of the ten most livable cities in China. That night we had goodbye hugs among all the tour members since we lose four people who are going back to the USA via Hongkong while the rest of us continue to Tibet.

Day 12 (Fri) - Lhasa, Tibet

The Tibetan-bound group got up super early to catch the morning flight to Lhasa. The airport there is almost 12,000 feet in elevation and the rule of the thumb for the first day in Tibet is to go very slow, according to our Tibetan guide Zhaxi. After an hour's drive into the city, pausing for a look at Niedang Buddha (photo, hillside Buddha), we checked into Tibet Mansion. The rooms were cold because the central heating had been stopped since April 1. Luckily everyone got a real thick fancy robe to wear. Some of us are more ambitious than others and decided to stroll along the Barkhor, the Pilgrim's Circuit and bazaar after lunch (photo, Barhkor square). Barkhor square surrounds the Jokhang Temple, not far from Potala Palace (photo, the Potala). We saw a lot of pilgrims walking clockwise around, with prayer wheels turning. Just outside Jokhang Temple is a prayer room with ever-burning yak butter lamps, a beautiful and moving scene (photo, yak butter and candles).

We wandered down through the Muslim quarter, and stopped by the local mosque (photo, Lhasa Mosque). Richard asked every shop keeper around where to find a traditional Tibetan flute or lingbu, but without luck. Back to the hotel, we all agreed to have a group picture taken wearing our fancy robes in the lobby of the hotel (photo, portrait in Tibetan robes).

Our evening dinner and entertainment were conducted within the hotel compound. The Tibetan dinner was alright with barley beer and yak butter tea. We thought most of the performance was merely a bad copy of some second class Hong Kong entertainment show. One stunning exception was a presentation of an elderly local singer, holding forth without the support of any cheesy synthesizer accompaniment (photo, Tibetan folk song). He had an amazing powerful voice, perfect for the long-held notes of his traditional Tibetan folk song.

Day 13 (Sat) - Lhasa, Tibet

Big tour day in Lhasa, our schedule includes Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple. The climb up to the Potala is a challenge, while passing all the devotees along the way (photo, prayers and prostrations). At 11,000 feet elevation, walking is plenty of work, let alone climbing. Fortunately everyone in the group came well prepared.

The palace was built on the site of a sacred cave (legend has it), considered to be the dwelling place of the Bodhisattva Chenresi (Avilokiteshvara). It was used as a meditation retreat by Emperor Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century A.D. Unlike most other Tibetan religious structures, the Potala was not sacked by the Red Guards during the 1960s and 1970s. Most of the chapels and their artifacts are very well preserved. There was statue after statue of different Lamas, Buddha, and various deities and demigods. Barbara felt that she really needs to be a Buddhist scholar to be able to apprehend this full palace of treasure.

The front door of Jokhang Temple (photo, Jokhang Temple) is open for prayers in the morning with a minimal admission. For tourists they open a side door and a ticket booth in the afternoon, (photo, prayer wheels). It is a working temple with monks living and working around. Both Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple are made of wood from south Tibet. They have the yak butter prayer candles everywhere, which no doubt offers a terrible fire hazard. We figure each prayer candle pot is probably some monk's responsibility. We had an early dinner. Some of our troop went out to enjoy a much-deserved Tibetan foot massage including soaking in traditional Tibetan herb foot bath.

Day 14 (Sun) - Tibet

We drove out to Yangbajing - the northern grassland, stopping on the way to get a close up look at some yaks plowing the soil for barley planting. Barley is about the only grain that can accommodate the harsh weather in Tibet, with very short growing period and high tolerance for cold and lack of water. Tibetans eat barley three times a day with pots of yak butter tea. Their religion discourages killing animals, so they do not eat much meat. To our surprise, they don't drink much liquor except during the holiday celebration. It seems the local liquor is also made out of barley, so it's too precious to waste much on making alcohol.

The Yangbajing hot springs are at the elevation of 12,000 feet. We plunged ourselves into the hot water, right beneath the backdrop of the beautiful Tanggula Mountain Range. The hot springs soak was great, quite hot and invigorating. Yangbajing geothermal steam is used to generate electrical power for Lhasa. (photo, hot springs and power plant). On the way back to Lhasa, we stopped for lunch at our guide's parents' house. His parents, aunt, old brother, sister in law and nieces and nephews all got busy hosting us to a simple and delicious lunch topped with lots of yak butter tea and barley drink (photo, lunch in Hidden Dragon Valley). Barbara had not touched any alcohol during this trip, but to show her respect to her hosts according to the local customs, she finished 3 bowls of barley drink in one take, and had to sleep it off on the bus back to Lhasa. In the evening, we attended a dinner with Tibetan Floor Show, which seemed a little more homey and authentic than the big production we were at two days earlier. It was a great ending to our exciting and exhausting tour.

Day 15 (Mon) - Depart Lhasa

The official tour ended with seven of us boarding the legendary train from Lhasa to Beijing. The first 12 hours of the ride was always above 10,000 feet, including a couple of passes over 15,000 feet. The train is equipped with oxygen output and everyone was given a nose tube when boarding the train. The ground we passed was mostly permanent frost (photo, Tibetan plateau). The frozen land is so vast and quiet, completely opposite of the general assumption of China as crowded, noisy and chaotic. From Lhasa to Germu in the evening, the number of human beings we saw outside the train was less than the people in our car. There were far more sheep, yaks and wild animals than people.

P.S. Unlike the tourists in Amy Tan's "Saving fish from drowning," the entire group survived the trip and return home happy.