Days surrounding Chunjie (Chinese New Year) are known to be a hectic time to travel inside China, so we thought. In fact, says leading up to it is in fact prime time to explore the country! Motorways become free of charge, hotel prices become negotiable and tourist-sights are scarce with people. An almost unbelievable scenario when we know it will all be flooded by an ocean of people during Chunjie. We took advantage of this delicate window of freedom and headed to explore the less populated parts of China, namely Yunnan and Qinghai.
Yunnan Shangri-La (Xianggelila)
The provinces situated in the south of China, bordering other countries, are mysterious regions to me. Yunnan for example, is the most ethnically diverse province in China, that includes Yi, Bai, Dai, Miao and other ethnic groups of people with whom I could barely communicate with, and like a bloody foreigner, have to ask if they could speak Putonghua (mandarin). Yunnan is also China’s gateway to South East Asian countries bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, making it an exciting hub for some interesting cultural mingling.
Geographically, Yunnan is also diverse with beautiful mountains to the west, bordering Tibet, and at its northern tip we found a much-deserted Shangri-La. Not quite the secluded city above clouds shrouded with secrecy and magic as I had naively imagined. The glitter of my fantasy started to sparkle less when I learnt that it was called Zhongdian up until 2001, when it got renamed to James Hilton’s fictional land of Shangri-La from his book Lost Horizon, in a massive marketing campaign to boost tourism. The glitter pretty much completely falls off once we stepped onto the ‘old town’ and started seeing familiar tourist souvenirs and felt a general sense of being in a theme park. By now I pretty much got the picture that you don’t come to China to see the old and its past glories, you should come to experience the new, the modernity and how they remarkably remake the old.
The Tibetan Buddhist Songzanlin monastery outside Shangri-La is a prime example of such a remake. It was originally built in 1679 and became the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in southwest China. However, during the Cultural Revolution it was heavily damaged and after it was rebuilt in 1983 the architecture took on a fusion of Tibetan and Han Chinese style. Now, although it is very touristy, it is still rather impressive site to behold, and the monks living there seem to be having a good time there.
Oh! I almost forgot to mention the giant 21 metres high gilt-bronze prayer wheel erected in the town centre. It is the world’s largest and weighing a whopping 60 tonnes, which means you need a team of local and foreign tourists to work together to spin the mammoth thing.
Yuanyang Rice Paddies, Yunnan
Aside from the man-made wonders in Yunnan, the natural wonder is perhaps somewhat more awe-inspiring. As a UNESCO world heritage site, the terraced rice paddies in Yuanyang County are hard to miss. Alright, you got me. Although this is a man-made phenomenon, cultivated by the Hani people for agriculture, it is nevertheless jaw-dropping because of the sheer scale of the whole place, particularly when the sunrays hit the water-filled rice paddies. Set against the towering Ailao Mountains, it makes for a magical picture.
Another beautiful natural site with a nice hike in Yunnan is the Tiger Leaping Gorge. As of February 2019, most of the hike is unpaved, unlike all of the other ‘hikes’ in China. This makes it one of the very few long treks where I felt most at one with nature. The gorge itself is spectacular, most favourably highlighted by a beautiful sunny day, and next to no one due to the near-holiday period.
Xiaqiong Si, Qinghai
One of the most stunning and jaw-dropping moments of our journey in China for me has to be Xiaqiong Monastery in Hualong County in Qinghai. Built in 1394, this is one of the oldest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Qinghai. Apparently the first batch of masters served at teachers to the seventh and eighth Dalai Lama. Xiaqiong monastery sits on a 2800m high sandstone cliff overlooking the Yellow River snaking through the vast plains, needless to say it commands an outstanding view. The strongest breeze you will ever experience, with the exception of Mongolia, during your private moment in la toilette.
Going to Tibet is always an expensive and restricted venture for foreigners. Qinghai on the other hand lets you maintain your freedom of movement and save all that money while experiencing Tibetan culture. It is a no brainer.
Frozen Qinghai Lake
While in Qinghai one cannot leave without paying a visit to China’s largest lake – Qinghai Lake. More accurately speaking we parked on top of it and then took a stroll across it. Since it was early January when we visited, the lake was frozen over. We slid across the ice and jumped over piles of ice that accumulated there from the water colliding together from beneath. It is 4,317 km2 vast and very very cold! Despite such harsh climate we saw a handful of people perform Kora, which literally means ‘circumambulation’ and it is a way of pilgrimage by Tibetan Buddhists who makes a circumambulation around a sacred site or object. In this case it’s the entire circumference of the lake. As we drove past them in the comfort of our heated Toyotoro we cannot help but admire their resilience for their beliefs.
The various clusters of circular and rectangular earth buildings in the southeast of China’s Fujian province is another testimony to the country’s rich culture. As a UNESCO Heritage site, local and foreign tourists are drawn to this area like bees to honey, making a crowd unavoidable. Many tulou had a revamp and the main ones charge a fee to enter. For us, exploring the more derelict but still inhabited tulou just outside of the commercialised area is far more interesting. However, communication proved difficult to say the least and comical at best, as people especially the older generation only speak mingnanhua, which is totally unintelligible to a putonghua or chongqinghua speaker. A few minutes of excruciatingly painful conversation commenced between a sweet kejia (or Hakka) elderly lady and myself, that involved me throwing every language I know at her. Despite all the syllables that past between us, it ended with neither of us understanding a single thing that came out of the other person’s mouth.
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