Weeks 5-7: South of the Clouds in Yun Nan

When I was young I had this perception of China as an arid flat farmland with congested cities and a pretty homogenous culture.  Maybe this was because I am from a not-so-picturesque town and only have memories of the summers, when the region gets hot and humid.  But just a look further reveals a completely different China.  Welcome to Yun Nan province, where the landscape is as diverse as the people, the air is crisp, and the food is some of the best I've had. Yun Nan (云南)literally means south of the clouds, although at times we were standing in the clouds.  In the interest of time, this will be one big blog post, although every place could deserve its own write-up.  Our journey through the province took us through Jing Hong, Yuan Yang, Kun Ming, Da Li, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri-la and Li Jiang.

(English Name - Chinese Name - Majority Ethnic Group)

Jinghong - 景哄 - capital of the Xi Shuang Ban Na Dai Autonomous Prefecture
First stop was Jing Hong.  The is kind of a nondescript city but we enjoyed the size of it and it was the perfect place to segue into China from rural Laos.   It has just enough commerce so that we could stock up on needed things like winter clothes and SIM cards, but not enough that it becomes overwhelming and overpriced.  We immediately found a great breakfast place with delicious noodles made by a very cheerful owner.  She gets different noodles every morning of either rice or wheat, to which she adds spicy meat sauce. The best is the topping station where we customized our own bowls with condiments: herbs, onions, chilies, peppercorns, fried garlic, fried ginger, sesame seeds, vinegar, soy sauce, pickles, and more.  It's like a Roy Rogers for noodle soup.

One night we stopped at a casual restaurant that had no menus, just a fridge full of things to be cooked.   I thought it would be a pretty average meal but was delighted when this amazing eggplant arrived.   Now I am not an expert on eggplant, but I am an expert at eating it.  It is my favorite food, I would eat it as my last meal and die happy.  Given my extensive experience in eating eggplant, it means a lot when I declare that this is one of the best eggplant dishes I have ever had! Ah, I miss it so much.

A common street snack around the city is simply called liang ban, which literally means cold mixed. Different kinds of starch (wheat and rice noodles) are mixed with proteins (tofu) and vegetables (seaweed, woodear, spring onions).  It's all tossed together with vinegar, garlic, chilies, peppercorns and eaten like a salad.   It's a wonderful combination of textures and flavors, and really hits the spot on a warm day.

In terms of things to do, the most memorable was a grueling bike ride to Man Dian waterfall, though technically we did not even find the waterfall.   We were told the bike ride would be 2.5 hours there and 1.5 hours back.  Instead the journey took the entire day as we cycled and pushed our bikes up and down nearly 60km of some not so smooth terrain.  Although I cursed myself while going through it, in retrospect it really was an awesome picturesque bike route, perfect for a well trained cyclist or mountain biker.

Yuan Yang - 元阳 - Majority Ha Ni
The Yuan Yang rice terraces, especially in the winter, are one of the most heavily photographed sites in China.  The terraces flood with water and look like layers upon layers of mirrors reflecting the sky.  It's no wonder why sunrise and sunset are the most magical times to view the terraces.  Buuuuuut of course during the 3 days we were there, it was raining, we had about 30 mins of views during the day before the clouds rolled in.  The region is dominated by the Ha Ni ethnic group who live in the villages and cultivate the rice terraces.

Due to the weather and low season, we weren't able venture far to find food, but I was pretty happy with some of the meals we had even in our hostel.  For example, this simple tofu skin stir-fry was silky soft and fresh.  It was during this cold stay when I was reunited with a favorite childhood dish, tomato and egg noodle soup.

Kun Ming -  昆明 - capital of Yun Nan and the City of Eternal Spring, or so they claim...
We stopped by the large capital city of Kun Ming for 2 nights to stock up on more winter clothes, after freezing in Yuan Yang.  Knowing that it's very touristy and expensive, we decided to skip the stone forest and some of the other main sites, and instead wandered around for a day visiting local parks.  I love breakfasts in China and this fresh soy milk and steamed bun is a perfect (and cheap) way to start to the day.

Da Li - 大理 - Majority Bai
Da Li is like a little backpackers dream.  Immediately upon entering old town I felt I could stay for a while.  Old town is about a 20 min bus ride from the main city called Xia Guan.  The town is sandwiched between the snow-capped Cang mountains and the clear Er Hai lake.  It is possible to climb the Cang mountains for a day, but we couldn't manage to find the elusive cable car, despite asking several locals for directions.  Instead we hired a bike and rode against Er Hai lake to visit some of the Bai villages. The bike ride follows an easy flat path and the scenery is stunning....mountains on one side and calm blue lake on the other.

I also really loved visiting the three pagodas, which is actually much more than just three pagodas.  Surprise! There is an entire complex of temples behind it that winds up a hill, giving way to a beautiful view of the mountains and the city.  I'm pretty picky about where I spend my entry fees and this is one place I don't regret.

An interesting dish in Da Li is this jelly made with a type of bean starch, which I, of course, can't remember the name of.  We initially tried it deep-fried served with dried chili flakes.  You can also get it cold, cut up and served with spicy vinegar.  I didn't enjoy the cold version as much because I didn't like the actual taste of the jelly, but the deep fried version was pretty damn tasty.

If old town Da Li is too overwhelming, the village of Cai Cun is a great alternative.  There is only one small street with a few shops. One restaurant with a red sign at the end of a small alley near the bus stop (descriptive enough?) is really good and cooks up a kick ass steamed fish for only 70rmb, about $11.

Tiger Leaping Gorge - 虎跳峡 - Majority Na Xi 
At last, we arrived at the much anticipated Tiger Leaping Gorge.   Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge was a great way to mark entering the second half of the trip.   It also brings me full circle to 2009, when I first heard about this trek, and also when Matt and I met.  We did the hike in 2 days 1 night starting in Qiao Tou.   From Da Li, we took a bus to Qiao Tou (which is on the same bus going to Shangrila and should cost no more than 60 rmb on a local bus) and stayed one night at the guesthouse at the start.  Next morning, we left most of our luggage there and started off around 9am.  The first day was entirely uphill, the trail bends and twists itself upwards from the beginning.  The route from Qiao Tou to Na Xi Guesthouse was under construction at the time of going, so it should have taken an extra 2 hours, but we thankfully managed to shortcut and still do the original trail, it just took a bit more off the road climbing.  After Na Xi Guesthouse, there are more bends, followed by THE 28 bends, before I crawled my way to the top.  Honestly, the entire first half should be called the 100 bends.  We reached our chosen overnight guesthouse, The Tea Horse, around 3pm.
almost to the top of the bends!
View from the Tea Horse Guesthouse
The next day was a little easier, the path is still high and winds through the mountains for the first 2 hours.  Then the final 1 hour was mostly downhill that seriously ached my knees and feet.  The entire region is home to the Na Xi ethnic group and their signature bread, called baba, kept us going the whole time.  I didn't love this bread, it was pretty plain, but I have to give it credit for keeping us full the entire day.

Shangrila - 香格里拉 Xiang Ge Li La / 中甸 Zhong Dian - Majority Tibetan 
Leading up to Shangri-La, I was mostly scared for the weather.   I am a complete wimp when it comes to extreme cold (or hot) temperatures and I knew that Shangri-La would be the coldest of the trip.  The town gets pretty cold in the winter and sits 3,200 meters above sea level.  Surprisingly, it wasn't so bad because the sky was super clear, giving way to the most impressive views.

When in a border-Tibetan town, one must eat Tibetan hot pot, and so we did.  Contrary to most Chinese hot pots, this dish is made with everything already in it, vegetables on the bottom and meat on the top. Yum yum!

The thick homemade yak yogurt was my favorite food in Shangri-La, sometimes served plain, sometimes with red beans and preserves for an afternoon dessert :)

A great way to stay warm is to try (for free) local liquor! The best was the dark-colored grape jug second from the left.  The red jug was also ok.  The other two (mushroom and something rooty) made me want to vomit.

Li Jiang - 丽江 - Majority Na Xi
The last stop in Yun Nan was the highly popular old town of Li Jiang.  I get why Li Jiang is so popular, it is a beautiful and adorable old town that has been commercialized in a way that it feels hippy and romantic.  Many of the store signs even contain the Na Xi symbols that are called dong ba.  It's easy to spend a few hours getting lost among the small alleyways.  Unfortunately, it's also easy to get irritated from the same song blasting from the fake drum stores. We spent one day cycling to the nearby villages of Shu He and Bai Sha, and also visited the ancient Bai Sha murals from the Ming dynasty.

The best meal in Li Jiang was at No. 88 Snack restaurant in old town.  It's a pretty busy restaurant, we even had to wait for a table, but the food was well worth it and very reasonably priced.  We ordered the deep fried fish, the rice/blood sausage, and a vegetable dish called ban lan gen, which according to the powers of Google, is isatis.  I don't know.

A very common snack everywhere is ji dou liang fen.  This is a firm jelly made from local soy beans, it's sliced like noodles and served cold with chili sauce.  Many restaurants also serve this hot and stir-fried or deep-fried, which I imagine is pretty amazing.

To end our stay in Li Jiang and Yun Nan, we had to get the famous dish called Crossing the Bridge Noodles, or guo qiao mi xian.  Piping hot broth is served in a large bowl and everything else is added to it at the table.  It's a pretty fun way to eat your noodles, as long as you put everything in the broth quickly as it will cool down and have trouble cooking.  I'm glad to have tried this classic Yun Nan dish, though am not sure if I will be craving this a lot in the future.

It was an amazing three weeks in Yun Nan, and to end, I dedicate this post to Qiao Qiao and Jaguar.  Qiao Qiao was the happy dog in our Da Li guesthouse who passed away one night right in front of us.  Qiao Qiao was a playful pup who loved bathing in the sun by the door and following us around the guesthouse.  Although I only knew him for 2 days, I'm sure he lived a wonderful life, which unfortunately ended in eating a poisonous rat (at least that was the prognosis).  Jaguar was our lovable dog in our Li Jiang guesthouse who always welcomed us home, sun bathed outside our door and gave Matt big sloppy hugs.  I will miss Jaguar a lot, and I hope he does not eat any poisonous rats soon.


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