Torn Between Tradition and Modernity in China, Yunnan Province

About a month ago, after introducing cycling to my friend, Rini, we were interested in putting our navigation skills to a test. We decided to visit China's Southwestern side, Yunnan province to explore the back-country roads, understand the underrepresented ethnic minorities that lie on the fringes of China.

Most people know that China is the world's most populous country with 1.3 billion people, almost a continent on its own. But many of us, including myself, are unaware that China composes of 56 ethnic groups and out of which, 26 belong to Yunnan province.

Some people that I met despised the weather in Beijing, and found themselves loving this side of China where it is famously known as the "The Land South of The Clouds." Yunnan is largely untouched by the pull of China’s rampant modernization and the other side's haze of pollution.

But somewhere in between, we found ourselves struggling to see the beauty of places like Dali, the once untouched paradise fighting a tide of tourism and on the other hand of the spectrum, you have places like Shangri-La, an ancient Tibetan Village and the Tiger Leaping Gorge, that are trying to get back on their feet after the town was destroyed by a massive fire in 2016. 

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Arriving in Kunming, China's Most Liveable City

We arrived in Kunming at 1.30am and knew that it would be a waiting game at the airport since the earliest bus was scheduled to leave Dali at 7.00am. In between, we decided to speak to some Black Cab drivers to gauge the prices. Out came our translation apps, screenshots of our directions in Chinese and a friendly university student who was in constant bewilderment as to why would a foreigner visit Kunming. 

A mob started to form around us as we struggled and got followed, hissed and questioned by these drivers. Still they couldn't really understand where we wanted to go. Our destination looked puzzlingly strange on their translation app. An off-duty robot at the information counter couldn't help us as well. When it was time to leave, we finally resorted to pick a decent cab because there was simply no way to get to the Western Bus Terminal at these odd hours. 

 The robot can dance, sing along and help you find yourself in the airport only at normal hours, not past midnight.

The robot can dance, sing along and help you find yourself in the airport only at normal hours, not past midnight.

My traveller's instinct told me all will be okay, despite our driver saying sweet nothings countless times and driving through a construction site. My friend's nerves were on the edge though, she kept asking "Urrrm, where is he taking us?" I have this long-held belief that this ‘instinct’ can sometimes be attributed to confirmation bias, where we have our pre-conceived notions about a particular destination and the people who live there, and as a result, we interpret all that we observe in a way that fits those already-formed ideas.

I chose to ignore and focus on the journey where we safely arrived and prepared ourselves for another waiting game - 2 hours before the bus leaves and another 6 hours on the bus with all of this happening on Labour Day. 

The sun started to rise on the horizon and it got me thinking, we won't get to see much of Kunming. I was told that this place was called the "Land of The Spring" or "Spring City" because of its pleasant climate. I also wondered why do these towns in China have tons of nicknames. All in a money-making move by China's tourism board to lure travellers to visit these places.

Dali: Crowds, Food and The Bais

The history of this place is interesting that I wanted to like so much, but found it hard to truly enjoy with thousands of Chinese tourists. Dali refers to itself as an ancient capital situated along the “southwestern branch of the Silk Road” and at the “crossroads of Asian culture.” In the early 1400s, the old Dali City was rebuilt by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and it still stands in a similar layout today.

A similar trend we see in every shop: the Yunnan flower cake, guest houses, traditional clothes, stylized restaurants operated by the Han-Chinese and snazzy hair braiding services passed off as traditional activities. What was really interesting to our senses was the frenzy that took place on that day: it was a Carnival of Bai people in Dali. Their headwear and costume reflect the Bai symbols: the snow, the moon, the flower and the wind.

It was the last day of the lunar Calendar and they were here decked in white which represents purity, dignity and social status. Women were fancily dressed with jackets of red, blue and black but oh my goodness, the hats were mesmerising to look at.

The town was teeming with people that it made our hunt to locate good quality bikes an insurmountable task. We asked around and found some shops but the quality was poor, no pannier bags or simply unheard of and no helmets as well. You can tell that nobody rents bikes from this town. Maybe to meander around Erhai Lake, sure but hardly anything serious built for the highways.

 Dali old-town, the city attempts to dig deeper into its cultural roots 

Dali old-town, the city attempts to dig deeper into its cultural roots 

 the main ingredient for the flower cakes are roses. very perfume-like and strangely delicious

the main ingredient for the flower cakes are roses. very perfume-like and strangely delicious

 fancy an oriental mc muffin? looks pretty goodlooking

fancy an oriental mc muffin? looks pretty goodlooking

 i wanted to give dali's street food a try but that oil simmering in the far right looked dangerously unhealthy

i wanted to give dali's street food a try but that oil simmering in the far right looked dangerously unhealthy

 some crazy feats to get candy the size of a 10 cent coin

some crazy feats to get candy the size of a 10 cent coin

I found it amusing that Chinese tourists had escaped their crowded cities to break away and visit another crowded place. A tourist could spend endless hours here, strolling and walking about but not learning anything about the Bais' and what Dali has to offer. Spending time at the Erhai lake, only made way for photo opportunities but not much can be spoken about the settlements nor were there any tourism initiatives to promote the minorities in China. 

And before I could ask what has Dali got to offer, I was interrupted with "Have I visited Lijiang?" The next rival after Dali where tourism has widened in numbers. "Nope, I haven't and I plan to visit Shaxi, first!"

To our respite, we found meaningful conversations and a heartwarming gesture from the hosts at the Lao Shay Youth Hostel. Reluctant to go out after a tiring day on the road, our hosts invited us for home-cooked meals back at the hostel. The most lovely part of the home-cooked Tibetan-Chinese inspired dishes were the light rice swirly and fluffy bun dipped in potatoes and porky bits, fish vegetables and a comforting bowl of pumpkin soup. Famished and just so grateful for a touch of home-cooked goodness that I forgot to snap a picture. 

Shaxi (Sha-Shi), Along The Tea Horse Trade Route

The peaceful pedestrian streets and earthy undertones in a sleepy Shaxi town was the perfect kind of balance we were seeking for. Unhurried life in a steady pace so we can take in the surroundings and have enough footpath to walk on. On our third day we used the Didi booking app, China's Uber version for a shared cab to Shaxi and it turned out way cheaper than other transport options.

I have always found my way to appear at the crossroads of the Silk Route. Little did I know that the “Tea and Horse Caravan Road” of Southwest China is less well known than the famous Silk Road. It begins from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in Southwest China, runs along the eastern foothills of the Hengduan Mountains.

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A sacred road where the road continues as a pilgrimage for the many ethnic minorities who made a living and pay respect to the mountain gods.

We found ourselves in a surprising situation. The Old Theatre Inn overlooking corn fields, tucked 40 minutes away from the main town framed by cherry blossom trees was our stay for the night, but at RM37 (10USD) we hardly could believe the price. A booking.com glitch and an unfair situation for the owner scored us this deal. To be fair with the owner, we decided to stay for only one night. 

 Dreamy cherry blossoms and a long stunning road away from the main shaxi town made the views unbelievably beautiful

Dreamy cherry blossoms and a long stunning road away from the main shaxi town made the views unbelievably beautiful

 A 90-year old grandmother works hard at her mini mart and tea shop. 

A 90-year old grandmother works hard at her mini mart and tea shop. 

 with china's food safety scandals, many families opt to grow their own food

with china's food safety scandals, many families opt to grow their own food

 Riding to Shaxi town while taking in the green landscapes

Riding to Shaxi town while taking in the green landscapes

We rented bicycles from the Old Theatre Inn and made our way to the main town to explore further on foot. When we visited Shaxi, we came across a charming cafe called Corvus Corax manned by a couple Marvis and Zhang. Marvis has travelled to many places but she wanted to open her own little cafe and her boyfriend has a long-time love for bicycle touring and adventure trips. Pictures of him cycling across China's tough terrain were plastered across their walls. Their love for good company, books, coffee and adventure were evident in this tiny quaint cafe.

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Few people have realised how vast and unprecedented the changes that China has gone through but this change is often seen in big cities. Not many venture into the caravan towns and old squares of China where true gems and stories are to be found.  With language as a barrier, I am not truly able to extract people's stories and learn from them in an authentic manner but the little observations I share may hopefully inspire other people to visit these places.

In my next post, I'll write more about Shangri-La and the once popular Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.