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Finding Yunnan

With its untamed beauty and spectacular heritage sites, Yunnan is a photographer’s dream destination. 

Words & Photography: Adam Lee

The Mu Family Mansion, nestled in the ancient town of Lijiang, is the former home of the Naxi tribe chieftain, whose family governed the Lijiang region for over 500 years. Rebuilt after an earthquake in 1996, the mansion is often referred to as ‘The Forbidden City of the Naxi People’.

The Mu Family Mansion, nestled in the ancient town of Lijiang, is the former home of the Naxi tribe chieftain, whose family governed the Lijiang region for over 500 years. Rebuilt after an earthquake in 1996, the mansion is often referred to as ‘The Forbidden City of the Naxi People’.

THE NIGHT TRAIN TO LIJIANG

Because it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a noisy and continuous horde of tourists can be seen wandering the cobbled streets of Lijiang’s old town daily. Gushing canals run along the streets here with busy traffic that includes furry dogs, horses, electric scooters, rickshaws, hand-pulled carts and camera-toting pedestrians whose umbrellas brush against each other mid-air on a rainy day.

Decorative lanterns in Lijiang

Decorative lanterns line the pavilions and walkways of the Mu Family Mansion in Lijiang

     I arrived in Lijiang from Kunming in the morning after an eight-hour journey by train. The night before, my train pulled away shortly after nine, and I sat in my four-berth compartment, watching the rain pelt the windowsill and hoping that it would not rain when I reached my destination, camera at the ready.

     The old town was a maze; accept the fact that you will probably get lost wandering around the district. A direct route from the main gate to the other end took me almost 40 minutes to navigate, but Lijiang wasn’t difficult to love at all. Modernisation has turned the ancient town into a highly-coveted commercial space, and tourists and travellers fill up every precious square metre. Traditional inns have been restored and equipped with well- appointed amenities, luxurious even. From Oriental tea houses and diners, the fragrance of local puer tea and Illy coffee perfumed the air, while soothing live music lulled world-weary travellers as they immersed themselves in the ancient city.

Hsuhe’s ancient town is a maze of cobbled streets and traditional buildings converted into modern inns, cafés and shops. A step into the ancient town is a walk down memory lane

Hsuhe’s ancient town is a maze of cobbled streets and traditional buildings converted into modern inns, cafés and shops. A step into the ancient town is a walk down memory lane

     For me, it was just what I needed: To see the way the world was (ancient and Chinese) without having to deal with dirty lavatories, unhygienic food and smelly surroundings that I had experienced in other parts of China. I enjoyed looking at how rickety wooden buildings were revived and given a facelift. The red of the lanterns, green of the willow trees and yellow of the flowers stood out against the grey of the walls and brown of the wood.

Naxi or Nakhi tribe in Lijiang

     The canals that make up the city’s water-supply system still work today. With an extensive network of canals built all over the city, bridges were erected to complement the system and to ease access. UNESCO reported that the city itself has 354 bridges of varying sizes.

     Once a rendezvous point for tea traders, Lijiang was also the traditional home of the Naxi (or Nakhi) tribe. The Mu Family ruled for over 500 years during the Ming and Qing dynasties and moved their centre from Baisha (also under the protection of UNESCO) to Lijiang during that period. 

“ The red of the lanterns, green of the willow trees and yellow of the flowers stood out against the grey of the walls and brown of the wood.”

OLD WORLD CHARM

When the crowd in Lijiang got too much to handle, I escaped to Baisha. Its rural charm delighted me. The old town remains untouched and offers a quiet respite.

     If there were any obtrusions in Baisha, it would have been me interrupting the daily routine of the people here. I took photographs of some elderly Naxi women at the town square. An elderly man in beret walked passed, glanced at my camera and smiled. Click. A couple of children giggled and rode past on rusty bicycles. Click. I spotted some unmanned stalls selling trinkets and curios along a canal. Click. Click. Click.

Naxi women at the old market square of Baisha’s ancient town.

Naxi women at the old market square of Baisha’s ancient town.


Traditional music of the Naxi minority.

A musician performing the traditional music of the Naxi minority

     The sound of water flowing through the stream filled the clean-crisp air. It was serene here. Its simplicity calmed me, especially having come from busy Lijiang. Baisha, in short, was blissfully relaxing.

     Culturally, Baisha used to be one of the centres of silk embroidery in southwest China. Its existing Naxi Handmade Embroidery Institute was founded over 800 years ago and continues to train Naxi embroiderers in this fine craft that requires the most delicate of hands and utmost patience. Fine silk embroidery like the ones from Baisha require a significant amount of time to produce. The finer the work, the more valuable it becomes.

Formerly one of the centres of silk embroidery in southwest China, Baisha continues to produce fine embroidery works and highly skilled embroiderers through its Naxi Handmade Embroidery Institute, founded over 800 years ago.

Formerly one of the centres of silk embroidery in southwest China, Baisha continues to produce fine embroidery works and highly skilled embroiderers. through its Naxi Handmade Embroidery Institute, founded over 800 years ago.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

In Baisha, I viewed the majestic Yuelongxue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) from a local café. Throughout the year, the snow- capped mountain provides the backdrop for Impression Lijiang, a cultural performance staged 3,100 metres above sea level. The award-winning film director Zhang Yimou conceived the idea and handpicked more than 500 non-professional actors (mostly local farm hands) from 10 minority groups and 16 towns and villages as his performers.

     The show is set in an open-air amphitheatre in Ganhaizi (Dry Sea Meadow), a scenic area in the mountain. Red sand stones were used to build the massive stage that zigzags its way up to a towering height of 12 metres. Red represents the red soil of Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and the Z-shaped circuit represents the ancient tea road.

     Wrapped in winter clothing and a blue poncho, I watched the 9.00am show. It was raining cats and dogs but the arena was filled with local spectators wrapped in multi- coloured raincoats. 

Dedicated performers of Impression Lijiang entertain spectactors,clad in colourful raincoats, despite the rain. Impression Lijiang was conceived by famed filmmaker Zhang Yimou and staged with a mountain as a backdrop

Dedicated performers of Impression Lijiang entertain spectactors,clad in colourful raincoats, despite the rain. Impression Lijiang was conceived by famed filmmaker Zhang Yimou and staged with a mountain as a backdrop

     Despite the heavy downpour and slippery stage, the dedicated performers continued to mesmerise and enthrall the audience, singing native folks songs and dancing to the ancient rhythm of the Naxi and Bai people. “What determination it takes to catch a show on the mountain!” I told myself quietly, adjusting to the altitude change, taking in the cold air in my face and craving a hot drink.

The wooden water wheels at the main entrance of Lijiang’s ancient town.

The wooden water wheels at the main entrance of Lijiang’s ancient town is a grand testimonial of ancient architetural / infrastructural genius. The network of streams and canals within the ancient town once supplied the city’s drinking water and still functions until today.

LEAPING TIGER, STUNNING CANYON

From the mountain, I journeyed into the valley and travelled along a road replete with fume-belching tour buses to the Tiger Leaping Gorge.

     One of the deepest canyons in the world, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is arguably China’s most spectacular natural attraction. At about 16km long, the gorge is located along the Jinsha River, which passes between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Snow Mountain, and politically, forms the border between Lijiang (right bank) and Shangri-La (left bank). It is believed that a tiger escaped a hunter by leaping across the river at the narrowest point of the gorge (around 25 metres in width), hence the name.

     While a breathtaking trail runs high on the northern side of the gorge passing through quiet villages and verdant farmland, we took a pleasant 10km-paved trail along the cliffs by the river and cut through a couple of well-lit tunnels to the lookout point on the south side.

     Complete with stairs and platforms, it can accommodate thousands of visitors who throng the site armed with cameras.

     I found the sight of the torrent passing the gorge overwhelming. It roared along the ravine, fiercely pushing its way across the valley. It also begged the question, “With such a great width, how did the tiger actually leap across the gorge?”

Tiger Leaping Gorge in China

ENTER THE DRAGON

Back in Kunming, I took a trip to Xi Shan (Western Hills). Together with a group of tourists, I was shuttled to the top of the mountain in an air-conditioned tour bus organised to ferry devotees around the sacred site.

Lóng Mén or Dragon Gate marks the entrance to a group of grottoes near Xi Shan .

Located near the top of Xi Shan (Western Hills), Lóng Mén (Dragon Gate) marks the entrance to a group of grottoes.

     Lóng Mén (Dragon Gate) marks the entrance to a group of grottoes and sculptures carved by a Taoist monk and his co-workers some time during the 1800s. No doubt this was a perilous feat performed out of devotion; locals believe that the monk and his men hung precariously from a cliff by their fingertips to carry out the job.

     “One man accidentally chipped off a small part of a statue, and out of guilt, he jumped off the cliff to atone for his sin,” my tour guide told us.

     I lit an incense stick and said a prayer. On my way down, I took a good look at Dian Chí (Lake Dian), a fresh water lake in Kunming. The panoramic view of the lake provides devotees and visitors who make the climb up the hills along the winding road on foot a scenic distraction.

French maple trees lined the boulevards in the city of Kunming, shielding pedestrians from the daytime heat.

French maple trees lined the boulevards in the city of Kunming, shielding pedestrians from the daytime heat.

NAVIGATING THE UNDERWORLD

At Jiuxiang Geopark, I descended into Yunnan’s biggest underground cave system. Home of the karst caves, the system is connected by a network of naturally-formed bridges, valleys, rivers and waterfalls – all shaped over a long period of time.

     The subterranean world of Jiuxiang was made famous by countless fi lms, most notably The Myth starring Jackie Chan and Mallika Sherawat. The Grand Lion Hall, an elliptical room (named after a stalactite that has a profile of a lion) was featured prominently in the film for its vast cosmic feel.

     I had to admit that I found the image of the geopark’s Devine Field (towards the end of the trail) most memorable. It reminded me of Yunnan’s sprawling rice terraces. Of course, the Devine Field was different. It looked rather out of this world under neon-coloured spotlights.

     I left Yunnan impressed by its rich heritage and breathtaking natural attractions. Its ancient towns, majestic mountains and deep valleys, and the warm faces of the Naxi people showed me that you don’t need to be lost to be found.

A network of underground caves, the Jiuxiang Geopark takes visitors into the subterranean world that took thousands of years to form

A network of underground caves, the Jiuxiang Geopark takes visitors into the subterranean world that took thousands of years to form


ACROSS-THE BRIDGE NOODLES

Guòqiáo Mixiàn also known as across-the-bridge noodles

No trip to Kunming is complete without a visit to Brothers Jiang, a famous chain restaurant that’s known for its steaming bowls of guòqiáo mixiàn (across-the-bridge noodles). Comfort food at its best, this is probably Yunnan’s best-known dish; it comprises a bowl of silky rice noodles, a hot and wholesome broth stewed with chicken, duck and spare ribs, and side dishes of raw vegetables and  fine slivers of chicken or  fish, which cook quickly in the steaming bowl. A thin layer of oil coats the broth, and this is an important component in the story of this noodle dish. Supposedly, a creative wife bringing noodles to her husband, who was studying for the imperial exams, discovered that by putting a thin layer of oil on top of the boiling broth, she could keep the noodles hot while delivering the meal across the bridge. For her clever discovery, the dish was named across-the-bridge noodles. www.brothers-jiang.com.cn

 

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  • Lee

    The most beautiful place in Yunnan, should be Lijiang.
    See, The following picture is Lijiang Old Town

  • Joe

    Great article. We recently flew with Air Asia from Bangkok to Kunming and traveled around Yunnan, finding it to be an amazing place not well known outside China.

    We went on to Dali, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangrila, enjoying the scenery and people. Would thoroughly recommend going with a guide, as language challenges if you don’t speak Chinese. We went with LIjiang Guides and found them to be smart, kind and fun.

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel3sixty Travel 3Sixty

      Sounds great, Joe! Those are fantastic places to visit in Yunnan. Having a guide also helps, especially if you’re interested in history and local culture. Hope you can share your photos for all to see at http://www.airasia.com/travel3sixty/photoblog :-)