When we first arrived in the ancient town of Dali, it was five o’clock in the morning. Exhausted and dazed from our overnight train from Kunming, we dragged our suitcases down the dark cobblestone streets by the light of our guide’s cellphone. But then someone looked up. “Stars!” she exclaimed in awe. The rest of us stopped to look. I could see the bright lights of Orion’s belt and other constellations speckling the clear, black sky.
This kind of awe-inspiring natural beauty was a theme of our visit to Yunnan. Outside of Kunming, we visited the unique Stone Forest (Shilin), home to towering limestone formations. On a warm, sunny day, we explored the park’s paths, snapped photos, and climbed the rocks.
From Kunming, we headed north into the mountains. Our next stop, the town of Dali, was attractively situated between mountains to the west and a large, ear-shaped lake to the east. On the day of our visit, sun shone on the town, while clouds wreathed the top of the mountains, until a strong wind blew the clouds over the town and treated us to a sun shower.
Further north, we visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest river canyons in the world. The Jinsha River (which becomes the famous Yangtze as it flows eastward) pounds through the gorge, while two snow-capped mountains, each over 5,000 meters high, tower above. Legs shaking, we climbed down steep stairs to a viewing platform to get a closer look at the whitewater, and then panted back up the steps.
From there, the drive north to Shangri-La was full of spectacular views of snowy mountains and green valleys. The next morning, we visited a Tibetan temple and village nestled into the side of a mountain. When we first drove into the village, it was shrouded in fog, but the sun gradually burned it off to reveal a marshy lake and mountains on all sides, with wisps of fog rising off of the earth.
In the city of Lijiang, we were also surrounded by mountains, dominated by the Yulong (Jade Dragon) Snow Mountain. We glimpsed a famous view of this mountain from the Black Dragon Lagoon in the city. We also rode horses up a mountain path, past waterfalls and a clear spring, the source of water to the village below. We kayaked in a lake, scaring feeding ducks out of our paths.
We also visited many cultural sites on our trip, including several Buddhist temples. We went to a peaceful temple in the center of Kunming, which boasted a large pool and a Thai-style temple in the back. It was unique because you walked down into the temple instead of up. After that, we did a lot of walking up. We climbed past the three towering pagodas of the temple in Dali, and together turned a gigantic golden bell at the top of temple in Shangri-la City. We climbed to a Lamasery in a Tibetan village and heard the monks chanting their prayers while ravens circled overhead. By the end, we had seen temples from three different Buddhist traditions and strengthened our legs, as well.
We also learned about the various ethnic groups that populate Yunnan, the most ethnically diverse province in China. In Dali, we saw (and bought) the beautiful tie-dyed fabrics of the Bai people and walked among their white buildings, painted with delicate blue designs under the eaves. At a cultural museum in Lijiang, we learned about the Naxi, renowned for their hieroglyphic writing and handmade paper. We visited a Tibetan house, where there was a Tibetan dog tied up outside, and feasted on delicacies such as yak’s milk tea and cheese, bread made from highland barley, and roasted chicken.
Another highlight from the food in Yunnan was a large pancake made from shredded potatoes that we started calling a Chinese latke. We also enjoyed quite a bit of roasted duck, and we became fond of a spicy pork and scallion dish we had in Kunming. Corn was another delicious staple, served off the cob, sautéed in oil.
Dali, Shangri-La, and Lijiang all had beautifully restored ancient towns, each with buildings in the style of its own ethnic minority. The ancient town in Lijiang was particularly impressive, with its vast maze of cobblestone streets, clear-flowing canals, and stone bridges. There, we wandered among tourist shops filled with pu’er tea, rose-petal pastries, cotton clothing, handmade paper, jade, and silver and were hypnotized by the lilting song that every drum shop seemed to play.
Yunnan, with its stunning mountains and rich cultural diversity, was entirely different from any of the other places we have visited in China so far. For many of us, it was a favorite. We are so grateful to Gaoxin High School for organizing this trip for us, and to “Mr. Hao” (as the students call him) for accompanying us.
Now we are back in Xi’an, where spring is in full swing. Yesterday, I arrived to find Gaoxin Er Road lined with lush, pink cherry blossoms. Even here in the big city, we have some natural beauty to enjoy.