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Reflecting the Heavens: The Rice Terraces of Yuanyang 映射天堂:元阳水稻梯田

This is a big call, but I’m going to say it – if you only see one other place in China besides the Great Wall, it should be here, the Yuanyang region of Yunnan. (My husband, reading over my shoulder as I type this, is harrumphing and disagreeing – “What about the Terracotta Warriors? The Lost Library of Dunhuang? All of Shanghai??)
He has a point – for a place that is five hours out of your way from either Kunming or the Xishuangbanna region, you need a solid commitment to go. But we wandered into the area with absolutely no plans to do more than a day trip and left five days later. It hooks you like that. 
I’m going to give you five good reasons you should consider going to all that bother.


1. The Rice Terraces 梯田
An incredible feat of agricultural engineering over 1300 years old, Yuanyang’s rice terraces are just simply spectacular. If you thought the Great Wall was an impressive man-made structure imagine these terraces, folded in and out of deep mountain valleys, in some places more than three thousand layered terraces extend upwards from the valley floor like mirrored steps leading to the sky.
In winter and early spring before the rice sprouts and turns the terraces a vivid green, the water reflects the sky, clouds and stars in an ever-changing array of pale colours.
The terraces are reached via the small town of Xinjie, from which they can be viewed at various sites along a loop road. The viewing platforms afford great views without disrupting the terraces themselves or the work of the farmers.

2. Rice 米
Not just an attraction for tourists, Yuanyang is one giant living, breathing rice farm, worked by the thousands of local villagers for whom rice is their livelihood. Rice gets planted, tended, watered, the seedlings transplanted, watered more, and finally harvested in a long cycle from early spring through to late autumn.
Given that rice has been a staple food in China for several thousand years, and China is the world’s greatest producer and greatest consumer of rice it’s fascinating to see first hand just how it’s grown, using the same centuries-old methods. 
The rice terraces will appear quite different depending on the time of year you visit – busy with farmers planting seedlings in spring, green and lush in summer, golden brown in autumn and busy again with autumn harvesting, in late autumn through winter and early spring the terraces are still ponds of reflected water.

3. The Hani People 哈尼族
One of China’s many ethnic minorities, in Yuanyang the Hani constitute just over 50% of the population and are originally of Tibetan origin. 
Smiling, open, friendly and relaxed, the Hani (and local Yi people, who constitute the second largest ethnic group in the area) are one of the best reasons to visit Yuanyang, seeing life is it is for these traditional farmers. Tourism is gradually increasing but still plays a distant second fiddle to the area’s main business – rice cultivation.
The men have mostly taken to wearing western-style clothing outside of festival occasions, but the Hani women and children of both sexes still wear traditional clothing – a heavily embroidered tunic fastened with large silver buttons made from old coins, and trousers with bands of embroidery below the knee. The women wear head dresses of various kinds depending on their area of origin (see below). 

4. A Hani Long Table Feast 哈尼长街宴
Now I don’t want to get your hopes up but if you happen to be visiting Yuanyang in October, November or December you may be lucky enough to ctach one of the dozens of Long Table Feasts during those months. Each village holds their own at different times.
On our way to the area we stopped in Honghe, where every local we met invited us to attend the nearby annual Long Table Feast in the village of Jiayinxiang, an hour away – awfully kind of them seeing as it wasn’t actually their feast they were celebrating, a little like inviting complete strangers to your next door neighbour’s wedding without asking them first. 
We went anyway, because it sounded like the sort of wedding party you could, as complete strangers, crash without offending anyone, and we were right. 

The entrance to the village was decked with bunting and the pathways laid with fir branches, so your feet stirred up a lovely pine scent as you walked. Later in the evening it would become clear what a very good idea this was.
While we were still trying to work out exactly where the feast was taking place a procession began – locals dressed in festival best, dancing, tapping sticks, banging drums, waving branches of ripened rice, and singing. We were caught up in the procession of hundreds of revellers that followed them and were carried off down the street.

Rounding a corner we suddenly saw just exactly how long the Long Table Feast was. On either side of the crowd-filled street were long rows of low wicker tables, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty end on end, and every one groaning with Hani festive foods – small crisp-fried fish, poached chicken, roast duck, boiled peanuts, rounds of corn, and lichen salads in small bowls. 
Everyone – bar very small children – was drinking white bowls of rice wine. Lots of them. The toasts started with a shout at one end of the street and spread in a Mexican wave to the other end as each table stood in rapid succession to toast the table next to them. The food had barely been touched and almost everyone was already red-cheeked and rolling drunk, telling funny stories, singing songs and toasting again and again as Mexican waves rolled up and down the street. 
It looked like terrific fun but the only problem for us was that every single seat was taken and non-local Chinese visitors to the feast all seemed to possess a pre-purchased ticket. Dang. We knew there’d be a catch and someone would figure out we weren’t invited.
We stopped two young Hani women to ask if in fact there were any remaining tickets to be had, and they promptly, in typical hospitable Hani fashion, took us back to their house and fed us there. Imagine calling your mother to say you were bringing a family of four to Christmas dinner, and you’d be there in five minutes? Christmas fireworks indeed.
But not in Hani households, where low tables were set up in the open ground floor room of their house, clustered with bowls of roast pork, pickled greens, wild herbs, roasted walnuts, fried fish, spicy duck and a fiery, intense dipping suace of fermented tofu and pickled chilies.
The toasting continued unabated, we all had a rollicking good time and eventually over the course of the evening met all the relations and neighbours and friends of relations, whose job seemed to be to go from house to house, eating a little and drinking a lot. 
Needless to say we slept that night in the campervan, parked outside the village. 

5. Did I mention the rice terraces? 元阳梯田
There’s just no denying they are extraordinarily beautiful no matter what time of day. In the early morning clouds creep up from the valleys below and at night, the perfect stillness of the water reflects the silvery moon and the tiny diamonds of the stars, sprinkled across the sky and sprinkled again across the land in their reflections. It’s magical.

Yuanyang Hani Rice Terraces元阳梯田
Near Xinjie township, Yunnan Province
Open daily
Admission RMB 100 adults, children under 1.3m free of charge
Admission ticket covers all the rice terrace areas and is valid for the length of your stay
Accommodation is available in Xinjie (where you will need take a bus or hire a minivan from the main bus station to drive to, and then around the terraces) and also at small guesthouses in Shengcun and Pugaolao villages. In Pugaolao (see below), you are right at the top of the Duoyishu Terraces, one of the largest terraced areas, which means you can view subnrise and sunset from the comfort of your guesthouse balcony.


Yunnan, In Pictures

Yunnan has been one long jaw-dropping moment after another. So different from the barren landscape I wrongly anticipated, Yunnan proved itself full of flowers, fields, mountains, lush pastures and pine trees, peopled with friendly and welcoming people from the smallest village of five houses, to the largest city of millions. Temples. Richly patterned ethnic dress. Unusual and exotic foods. I could write about Yunnan for the rest of the year, quite happily, without running out of material – in fact I could stay in Yunnan for the rest of the year, quite happily, under its intense blue skies with bright colours that remind me of home in Australia –  but travel is all about moving on, so before I go on to neighbouring Guizhou Province, I wanted to leave you with a pictorial kaleidoscope of Yunnan, in all its vibrant colour. 
Sani women, Lunan 
Sani headpieces for sale

Chongsheng Temple, Dali
Wild saffron and mountain ginseng seller, Qiaotou
Rock sugar, Shaping

Yunnan potatoes

Bai woman selling plums, Bo Ai Lu market, Dali
Fern fronds, in preparation for pickling

Nakhi woman at the market, Dali

Fried and  milk skin – ru shan – Dali

Loquat seller, Shaping
Shaping market, below Cang Shan

Waiting for the market-bound bus,  Shaxi

Traditional musicians, Shilin

Handmade shoes, Dali and Wase
Coloured live chicks, Lunan
Balloon seller, Lunan

Enjoy? Read more Yunnan posts!

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs

Crossing the Bridge Noodles

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been out-noodled. After nearly three weeks on the road with noodles for breakfast (standard Chinese hotel fare) noodles for lunch (favoured street food of Yunnan) and sometimes even noodles for dinner, I am kind of at my annual noodle limit, and it’s only April. Normally, I love noodles, but that’s when I’m eating them in addition to other foods. There’s one noodle dish though, that I had been dying to try ever since I arrived in Yunnan, probably Yunnan’s most famous dish. Once I ate Crossing the Bridge Noodles, I told my noodle-fatigued family, that will be it. Promise.
Crossing the Bridge Noodles, (Guò Qiáo Mĭxiàn  过桥米线), like so many famous Chinese dishes, has a story attached. Legend goes that an Imperial scholar, distracted while studying for an important exam, exiled himself to a pavilion on a small island. Every day, his wife would walk over the bridge to the island with his lunch, but it often got cold on the way. She discovered a simple solution to the problem – if she covered the broth with a layer of oil it retained the heat much better, and she could then add the noodles to the hot broth once she arrived. The dish is named in her honour.
Experiencing a meal of Crossing the Bridge noodles is as much theatre as it is sustenance. Having ordered and paid at the front door (13 yuan ($2) for noodles with the works), we take our seats in a giant and busy restaurant. The walls are lined with checkered pink and white tiles, and dozens of diners slurp noisily at every table. Around the outside of the dining room are assorted stations, where the white-coated waiters rush to and fro to bring the various components of the meal. There is the soup station, issuing forth bowl after bowl of hot soup through a hatch in the wall; the noodle station, where small bowls of rice noodles are stacked in precarious towers on a counter; and the meat and vegetable station, with piles of tiny platters of bok choy, shredded tofu, cooked chicken pieces, slices of pork, and scallions wait to be delivered.
The waiters, about twenty or so, rush back and forth with great speed, balancing huge trays and giant soup bowls as they weave between tables, yelling orders at one another all the while. Our waiter, a very young man in a very, very grubby white coat, brings a veritable tureen of boiling broth to begin with, one for each of us, made with chicken bones and pork and covered with a thin layer of oil. The soup is scalding hot, hot enough for the restaurant to have signs warning diners to ‘Mind The Soup’ on every wall, but no steam rises because the oil traps it within. 
Next comes an enormous tray with six separate small dishes and bowls. A tiny, freshly cracked raw quail’s egg. A platter of meats – slices of pork as thin as a petal, slivers of pink sausage, and chunks of cooked chicken. A saucer of scallions. A bowl of cold white rice noodles. A saucer of bok choy, 3 leaves. A dish of pickles. 
He theatrically demonstrates the technique needed for a perfect bowl. First, the quail egg goes in, mixed quickly. Next, the meats, to allow time for them to be properly cooked by the broth. Thirdly, the greens go in, and the finely shredded tofu, followed by the scallions. Last, very last, go the noodles, swirled around until the strands separate. The pickles stay separately, added as desired or eaten on their own. There is a dish of ground dried chili, and bottle of vinegar and one of soy on the table too, to be added to personal taste.
This giant bowl of noodles is a highly satisfying meal, hearty, tasty, and filling. I’m enjoying it as much as the little girl at the next table too, by all accounts. She can hardly see over the bowl, but deftly lifts the noodles with her chopsticks and slurps them into her mouth in one long, continuous schlluuuurrrp. Highly recommended, even if you think you couldn’t possibly enjoy one more noodle dish ever.
The Brothers Jiang 
Jiang Shi Xiong Di
Dongfeng Donglu, near Beijing Lu
Kunming, Yunnan
Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Dali: The Trouble With Being a Pig

It’s tough being a pig in China. You have very little chance of a long and happy life because, well, you’re just too edible, every last bit of you. It’s the sad truth. But for a western girl like myself, it’s all too easy to get sqeamish with the non…how to put it….non-pork chop aspects of eating a pig. We westerners get a pretty standard choice of say, pork chops, bacon, pork shoulder and ham, with a few odds and ends like ribs, and everything else thrown together to make sausages. I don’t recall ever going into my butcher back home and ordering up half a kilo of trotters (although they could be bought with difficulty if ordered a day ahead, in fact I often did because they were perfect for the medical students to practice suturing on. But we never, ever, actually ate them.). And I certainly never saw snouts or ears in their clean glass cabinet lined with the plastic grass.

Having travelled over a fair bit of China I can now say that pork chops are probably the least interesting edible parts of a pig. Having tried air-dried salted pig’s cheek in the villages near Huangshan, and seen preserved and deboned pigs’ heads in Shanghai, I was no longer surprised to walk into the open air market in Dali, about three hours south of Lijiang,  to find these scorched and blackened pigs’ heads for sale on a heavy trestle table.

Dali is an old walled city, sitting by the western shore of Lake Erhai below a row of sharply ridged mountains dusted with the last of the winter’s snow. It feels ancient, and cars seem out of place in the cobbled streets where near everyone walks with a wicker basket tied to their back instead of carrying groceries in plastic bags. The fresh food market runs every day, a maze of trestles and stalls set up in the alleys behind Bo’ai Lu, not far from the square turrets of the Eastern gate. You enter the market flanked by rows of berry sellers – mulberries, in season for only a week or two, strawberries, small chinese cherries, and orange loquats. Further in are the vegetables and the noodles, tofu and grain sellers, and further still the butchers.   

The pigs’ heads were being torched at very high heat, while the butcher rested his other hand nonchalantly on a snout. I’m unsure whether the scorching burnt off all the tough bristles, or served another purpose, but once the heads were thoroughly blackened they were passed across to the butcheress, to have their ears sliced off – the white fat underneath a stark contrast to the black skin. 

The ears were being sold by the piece, so all that was left were rows of earless, blackened pigs’ heads. And if you’re wondering, after the bugs and bark I’ve been eating lately, whether I tried the ears? No. I think they needed further preparation of some kind, and further cooking. But I wouldn’t be averse to trying them.

But my favourite way to eat pork by far is in the form of Yunnan ham, and cheek by jowl, so to speak, with the pigs’ heads, was the lady selling Yunnan hams by the jin (500g) or by the leg. Yunnan ham, properly called Xuanwei ham (Xuanwei huo tui), named for the town in northern Yunnan where it is produced, has a delicacy as refined as the best prosciutto, and its flavour once eaten will render all other ham completely second rate.  It can be eaten raw, sliced as finely as jamon iberico, or cooked in stir fries (recipe here), soups, or braises.

Were I not going to be travelling for another week or two, I’d have bought a whole leg, and lugged it back to Shanghai. Where I can probably buy it at the local ham guy on Wulumuqi Lu. Come to think of it, when I get back I will buy a whole leg, and feast on Yunnan ham for the next six months. For now I’ll make do with a smallish travel-sized piece, which can be sliced finely and the unlucky pigs toasted with a glass of rough-as-guts Great Wall red.

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of The Cosmos And The Stars

Lijiang, high in the Himalayan foothills and in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is home to the Nakhi people, whose blue and white traditional dress can be glimpsed around the cobbled alleyways and canals of Lijiang’s old city, and in all its surrounding villages.

The Nakhi (Naxi in Chinese) are descended from Tibetan nomads, settling into the Lijiang valley to grow crops and trade tea with Tibet and beyond, and despite incursions from the Han Chinese they have managed to preserve their rich and vibrant customs, language (the only pictographic written language in current use in the world), religion, music and their matrilineal structure. 

Their ancient Dongba religion rests on the belief that Nature and Man are half-brothers from different mothers, closely related and intertwined, and that the land and the forest are sacred and must be protected for future generations. The Nakhi were the original conservationists, really, and accordingly their customs reflect this:

“One of the most widely practised Dongba rituals, Zzerq Ciul Zhuaq (literally, to repay the debts of a tree), is often seen in the village of Shuming. The ritual was conducted if somebody was stricken with illness or bad luck, when a Dongba priest would be consulted. On many occasions, the result would show that the person had carried out logging or washing of dirty things in the forest, and the family or person concerned would have to ask the Dongba priest to hold the ritual near where the activity had taken place, and apologise to the nature god Shu.” (wikipedia)

In keeping with the importance of women in Nakhi culture, the women continue to wear traditional dress, as seen here. Immediately recognisable by their cobalt blue caps, they wear a white shirt and blue or dark red sleeveless vest fastened with knotted ties at the shoulder. A skirt is worn over their dark blue or black trousers, tied at the waist with a long heavy cotton sash embroidered at both ends with an intricate black and white geometric design, with both ends hanging behind. The most eye-catching feature though, is their extraordinary cape, black above and white below, worn over the back with broad white straps crossing over the front of the body, and embroidered with seven coloured circles. 

These circles intrigued me, and I imagined they must have symbolic meaning, but it wasn’t until I read the account of Bruce Chatwin, the legendary travel writer who spent some time in Lijiang in the 1980s, that I understood their significance:

“Apart from the bonnet, the women’s costume consists of a blue bodice, a pleated white apron and a stiff, quilted cape secured with crossbands. Every Nakhi woman carries the cosmos on her back: the upper part of the cape is a band of indigo representing the night sky; the lower, a lobe of creamy silk or sheepskin that stands for the light of day. The two halves are separated by a row of seven disks that symbolize the stars – although the sun and moon, once worn on either shoulder, have now gone out of fashion.” 

(from ‘In China, Rock’s Kingdom‘ published in the New York Times, March 16, 1986). Quite poetic as a way of dressing, don’t you think?

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Street Food of Lijiang: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs

Dragonfly nymphs. Not your average snack food.

The street foods of Yunnan have certainly been a surprise. For a start, in Yunnan they eat a whole lot of things that less adventurous foodies would consider inedible – fern fronds, tree bark, various flowers, lichens and bugs. Yes, bugs.What I can’t figure out is why, in a place that seems so fertile and prosperous, with blossoming fruit trees and fields weighed down with wheat, barley, onions and broad beans in great abundance, you would need to resort to eating bugs. Perhaps they just like them for the taste? I’ve had a taste of Yunnanese fried bees myself back in Shanghai, and given that they were surprisingly delicious (creamy, crunchy), I thought I should extend my bug repertoire and try some local favourites.
Bamboo larvae. Not delicious.

 The bamboo larvae, I don’t mind saying, were very forgettable, and bore way too close a resemblance to maggots for my liking – although to my great surprise my seven-year-old daughter found them terrifically tasty- but preferred to pull the heads off first, leaving them in a dainty pile on the edge of her plate. She won’t even eat gherkins because they ‘taste yucky’ but is quite happy to tuck into a plate of larvae, leaving me to wonder if she will be permanently scarred by living in China. The dragonfly nymphs, harvested from shallow lakes and ponds then air dried before deep-frying, were actually pretty good. The only catch, literally, was their sharp little mouthparts and tail parts which spiked the inside of your mouth as you ate, but they were not bad tasting.
Tree bark. With a bit of red pepper and spring onion for colour.

The tree bark was unusual in taste, and even more unusual in texture. It came out looking all crunchy and interesting, but that was an illusion because the texture was soft and leathery, with a roughness and chewiness that shouldn’t really have been any surprise at all. The taste was medicinal, somewhere between Friar’s Balsam and camphor. Not my favourite dish of the night, but at least I tried it.

Chicken Bean Flour Jelly
This is a Lijiang specialty, made from chicken stock and very, very gelatinous mung bean flour. The appetising grey colour comes from the mung bean flour, and is a little off-putting, but in the interests of you lovely readers and my own insatiable curiosity I ate some. Just like cold, sliced chicken stock jelly, if you’ve ever eaten a bowl of that for fun, redeemed by a whole stack of fiery chili and some peanuts. Actually, the peanuts were pretty good.
Upmarket bugs. A plate of mixed critters at a restaurant.
Lastly I introduce you to my hands-down favourite Lijiang street food. Crispy, salty, crunchy, with just a touch of spicy heat, they are exactly what they look like. Home-style potato chips, fried right there in a wok full of boiling bubbling oil in the street. These, at last, were delicious.
Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 3: My Life in the Hands of an Idiot in a Minivan

Day three. Tired and sore, and a long way above the river.

The series of wrong decisions begins immediately after breakfast, when I have to decide whether to hike another four to six hours along a newly asphalted road and through uninteresting terrain to reach our forward pick-up point, in Dazhu, or to take an easier option and hire a minibus going along the riverside road back to our starting point, Qiaotou. With tired legs, the river road was beckoning, and having walked for two days high above the river, with it constantly 1500m below my right hand, I’m really desperate to get down beside it and feel its power from up close. And you know, dip my hand in the waters. 
From the walking trail high above the road, it always appeared that the serpentine road, apparently recently completed, ran right beside the river just a whisker above the waterline. I could get the minibus driver to let me off somewhere, walk down to the water’s edge, and take a few photos. I asked the lovely Xiao Li at Sean’s Guest House whether she could help find a driver willing to take us. 
‘No problem, we have a guy we always call!’ she said. Great! So easy! I wouldn’t have to flag down a bus laden with chickens and goats after all.
‘How long will it take to get to Qiaotou?’ I asked
‘Fifty minutes’ she replied. ‘Five -Zero’, for emphasis. Plenty of time to stop for photos, and still make the rendezvous with our Lijiang-bound ride.
As we got into the minibus, I noted our wild looking driver, wearing the same sort of shapeless grey suit pretty much every man in China waers as a uniform, with a pair of pleather loafers and a partly untucked business shirt, no tie. He had a deep brown suntanned face and a wild hairstyle that stuck out every which way, which looked like he cut it himself. His silver minibus was really a small van with two seats in front, two behind, and a space for luggage behind the back seats. These silver Chinese minivans are ubiquitous everywhere you travel in China, and have a uniquely poor suitability for travelling in any other fashion except a straight line, at a speed of 40kmh or less. Their slightly-too-high centre of gravity means they are apt to tip over when going around bends, and I’ve seen valleys all over the country littered with the compressed carcass of a silver minivan or two. The van, combined with the slightly unhinged appearance of the driver gave me some misgivings, but I got in anyway. And then I saw the road.
Turns out the appearance of a road at water-level that was an optical illusion of depth perception, and the road is actually positioned a precarious 400-500 metres above the water. If you could actually call it a road. Carved from the steep rocky slope, it appears to have been built on a succession of small landslides with extremely limited stability. Have you ever built a sandcastle mountain and then used your finger to trace out a road along its side? That’s kind of what this road reminded me of, with the same degree of impermanence about it.
 Long stretches are still just gravel, other stretches are being asphalted right this second, leaving the narrowest of paths for vehicles to pass. The mountain side of the road is littered with giant slabs of smashed rock, fallen from the tectonically unstable mountain above, and the river side of the road plunges impressively off to the left. Fierce wind gusts volley up the river and buffet us at every bend. Occasionally there are small blocks of concrete, about the height of our minivan’s hubcaps, placed at intervals along the sheer drop. I suspect they would stop nothing but an unmanned skateboard from going over the edge, and only then if it managed to miss the two metre gap between blocks.
Reassuringly, there is a lucky charm hanging from the rear view mirror, which makes me feel so much better as we go around the first corner on two wheels at about eighty clicks. The driver cranes his head round to give me a manic smile, while I yell at him to ‘Slow down! Slow down!’ This seems to have no effect as we prepare to overtake a gravel truck on the wrong side of the road going around a blind corner. NOOoooo!
Fate smiles briefly though, as the truck grinds to a halt while a rockfall is cleared from the road. Saved. I breathe out. Then the driver begins to inch forward in an attempt to pass between the truck and the concrete blocks on the river side of the road. NoNo NONONONO! I yell, Chinese abandoning me in my hour of need. This guy is a complete lunatic and this is where my life will surely end, I think. The only way we can fit through is if we knock all the blocks down into the river on our way past. 
‘Ting Ting TING!!’ I yell as my father yells ‘Stop Stop STOP!’ in English. No effect. We’re metres from death at the hands of an idiot. Suddenly, like divine inspiration, a small tinny mechanical voice pops into my head and repeats itself over and over. It’s saying ‘ee loo ping ann, ee loo ping ann, ee loo ping ann’ on loop in a singsong voice. What does it mean? It must be an important message from my subconscious, I figure, in the scant few seconds before we hit the first concrete block.
Suddenly I have it – the meaning is clear and it might just save me. Sitting in thousands of Shanghai taxis, mind on autopilot, the taxi’s meter automatically plays a phrase whenever the driver gets above the speed limit, or it’s little electronic brain gets bored. It’s a recorded message played so often during any one trip that it becomes meaningless.’Yi lu ping an!’ it rattles – ‘All the way safely!’ 
I clamp my hand on the driver’s shoulder and yell ‘YI LU PING AN!!!’
He stops trying to inch ahead. It’s nothing short of a miracle.

The truck lurches forward, and so do we, at slightly less than eighty the rest of the way. The view from the front passenger seat shows just how cosy we are to the white line marking the road edge.

And even closer. I should mention here that all of the above road photos were taken by my much braver father, sitting beside the driver, while I was hanging on to the door handle with my eyes closed in the back. Every time he snapped a photo the driver swung round again with a grin and we swung towards the road’s edge. I may, or may not, have yelled at my father to ‘Stop distracting the bastard!’

Either way, the next thing I knew we had reached the safety of Qiaotou. The fifty minute, five-zero, trip had taken exactly twenty-three.

I recovered enough to ask the driver for his photo. He stepped out of his seat, smoothed his wild hair, retucked his shirt and applied a sober and serious look to his face. Very amusing. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a flat-bed truck coming around the corner, with a concertina-ed silver minivan on the back.

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 2: Exercising Caution While Maintaining Momentum

Naxi Family way down in the valley below
Dawn breaks quite late over the tiny valley where the Naxi Family Guest House lies, the sun climbing high in the sky to reach over the impossibly vertical ridges of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. my head has stopped pounding and my heart has stopped palpitating from the altitude, at least while sitting still, but today will be a major challenge. The path will rise to its highest point, 2600m, through a series of exhausting and formidable switchbacks known as the ’28 Bends’. If you survive that climb, it’s only another agonising 8 hours’ walk along narrow paths cut into cliffsides, a mere hairs’ breadth from a fatal plunge to the river below, to tonight’s guest house, beyond the lower rapids of the gorge.
After an hour of climbing up, up, up through a softly soughing pine forest, it becomes clear that I’m either extremely unfit, or extremely susceptible to altitude. I’m sweating, I can’t speak, and I feel like I’ve just swum fifty metres underwater on a single breath. Ahead I can see a stone Naxi dwelling, perched all alone.

The house is empty, with an abandoned feel to it, and I’m not quite sure how to ‘gain energy for the 28 Bends’ if it’s going to be even more difficult than what I’ve already climbed. I push on. In fact, the 28 Bends are probably no more difficult than the preceding climb, and some scallywag has painted a countdown on the rocks on the way up (Four down! Only twenty-four to go!). Still, it’s a relief to get to the top.

The top is a tiny rocky windswept outcrop jutting terrifyingly out over a sheer drop of 1500m down to the river’s swirling pale green waters. Without the protection of the pine forest the wind howls past with full force, and unexpected gusts menacingly threatens my balance as I edge out for a better view.The small red sign painted on the rock in the lower right corner says ‘Be Careful’. 

Photo courtesy of Dad
I plant all my weight on my right foot, and with my left, edge it gingerly close to the edge. This is about as wide as the path gets at this point. 
Below, the gorge’s Upper Rapids are just visible. It’s only after I look at the photo I’ve taken in more detail that I realise the tiny black dots on the bridge are people. The rock in the centre is the size of a five story apartment block, toppled on its side. Around it, the dangerous waters roar and boil with an incredible ferocity. I try and imagine whether, after accidentally falling over the edge from sheer carelessness, something I am all too prone to, it would be better to be dashed to daeth on the rocks on the way down, or drown with no hope in the raging water. Both seem very unpleasant. I vow to pay full attention and be very, very careful.

We later pass a traditional Naxi house perched precariously in a small depression in an otherwise vertical landscape. The central south-facing courtyard, protected from the elements, is flanked by a house, a barn, and two storerooms. The farmer is tending to his herd of black goats on the nearby mountain, while a lost kid bleats sorrowfully for the rest of the herd.

As close as I dare bring my foot to the edge….

I round a corner in the trail to find a waterfall ahead, which I will have to traverse – there is no other way around it. The scale is difficult to imagine, but the path is running horizontally across the middle of the photo. It’s a pretty big waterfall, but thankfully there has been little rain, so it’s just a matter of hopping from rock to rock and trying not to look sideways beyond the edge of the path, rather than worrying about being washed off the mountain by the force of the water. That obstacle passed, the next corner reveals a very, very narrow path literally cut into an overhang. It looks menacing.
On closer inspection, it is menacing.

Nothing for it but to keep moving forward and try not to think about it too much. Hug the left side too close, and risk being obliterated by falling rock, like the piles of smashed rock lying to the side of the path, their white marble innards exposed. Hug the right side too much, and face anhilation by cliff fall. It keeps the senses terrifically sharp. This goes on for hour after hour, until gradually, certainly, I am heading downhill. The downhill path holds tiny unexpected treasures, like a rocky temple inhabited by goats, and a grove of wild pale pink azaleas.
Nine hours after setting off, the end is almost in sight – below me I can see the road, still some 500 metres above the river, but almost the end of today’s trek. I’m too exhuasted to speak and my knees have completely given up.

Looking downstream, I can see the Lower Rapids, as the green waters turn white over huge rocks of marble in mid stream. Ahead of me, the terraced lower slopes of Mount Haba are planted with wheat, corn, and walnut trees. – just revealing their first spring shoots. I am headed for Walnut Garden, the tiny settlement where I will spend the night before  the final day of the trek. 
The owner of the guest house, Sean, a Tibetan and lover of mountain country, has drawn and published the only decent map to be found of the gorge walk, so it seems only fair to return the favour and stay in his guest house, even though it’s a little further along the road than the competitively placed Tina’s, a three story concrete block sited right where the track finally, after some twenty-three kilometres, ends. As I walk on the flat for the first time since leaving Qiaotou, I drink in the wild and rugged mountains and the green, green water. God, I’m so looking forward to taking my shoes off, drinking an ice cold beer, then falling into a very heavy sleep.
Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude

The mighty Yangtze River, properly called Chang Jiang (the Long River) begins its life in the Tibetan plateau, fed by mountain springs and snowmelt, and gathers momentum and strength as it heads south, through one of three parallel river valleys in Yunnan, beside the Mekong and the Salween rivers. At one point, north of Lijiang, the Yangtze cuts a narrow gash between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a line of jagged snow-covered teeth, on one side; and Mount Haba on the other, carving a water-hewn channel with almost sheer cliffs rising on both sides to peaks of nearly five and a half kilometres above sea level.

At twenty-three kilometres long, Tiger Leaping Gorge is not to be taken lightly, so narrow in points that it is almost possible for a tiger to leap across, perhaps alighting briefly on a stone slab rising up from the churning waters of the rapids. Years before, miners had hewn a donkey track into the side of Mount Haba, which has now become a walking track, the entire length of which exhilarates at every step, either because of the impressive might of the Jade Dragon blocking the sky before you, or the pale jade-coloured river flowing swiftly and dangerously 1500m below you, just a step from the edge of the path.
And yet it begins so gently, in the sleepy town of Qiaotou, a stop-off on the trail of hundreds of Chinese tour buses northbound to Shangri-la, where the river runs wide and slow around a gentle curve. This gives me a false hope that, despite all I’ve read about Tiger Leaping Gorge, it’s not really something to be anxious about, even though the my instincts and sense tell me it’s not too late to turn around and head back to Lijiang. When we arrive in Qiaotou it’s market day, and all the local villagers have converged on the town to buy and sell – mandarins, vegetables, spices, roots, and strange medicinal leaves.
The women wear ethnic dress and carry baskets of fresh food on their backs, not for the sake of the tourists, but because this how they always dress for market day.
I expect the start of the trail itself to be more exciting, but as I follow the whitewashed village school wall to its end, as instructed, I come to a crudely painted sign. It turns out this will be the nature of the directions all the way along the trail, coloured arrows painted in haphazard fashion by the owners of the few guest houses along the path. Follow the red arrows for the Naxi Family Guest House, the yellow arrows for Sean’s Guest House, and the green ones for the Ancient Path Guest House.

It’s all uphill for the first hour, through fields of rapeseed and wheat, and groves of blossoming fruit trees. Not so bad, I think, although the gentle inclines (as they later prove to be, although at the time I think them to be steep) are making my heart pound and my breath come in rasping gasps. The altitude is higher again than Lijiang, where I had problems yesterday with just a few stairs, and I wish I had more time to acclimatise. Instead, I stop to take photos and catch my breath every ten minutes, while a jack hammer bangs away at my temples and wish that I knew much less than I do about high altitude illness (it always seemed more interesting to study wilderness medicine than hypertension). Realistically I’m not in any danger at this altitude unless I try and climb too high, too quickly, and my progress is so excruciatingly slow that seems impossible. But the headache won’t budge and I feel very fuzzy.

Trying not to look like I’m struggling for breath, with Jade Dragon Snow Mounain rising behind me. 
After two hours of sweating and heaving, the path flattens out briefly into a lovely meadow, with a traditional Naxi stone house in the middle of it. This is the Small Guest House, whose folks aren’t shy of a lick of red paint or two advertising what they offer, they let us sit on their wisteria covered porch and bring us mint tea in a glass. It would be incredibly tempting to stop right here for the night, where the hospitality is so good, but I’m pushing on to the Naxi Family Guest House for the night, or there will be no hope of getting the walk done in three days. Having set off from Lijiang straight after breakfast, it’s now well past three in the afternoon, and the one thing in our favour is China’s single timezone, set to Beijing time, which means that here in Yunnan it doesn’t get dark until well after 8pm. I think briefly of the poor buggers in far western China who are drinking their mid-morning tea in the pre-dawn darkness and going to bed while the sun still blazes.

I set off again for another two hours of gasping, stopping, plodding ahead, and gasping again, and I finally see the sign I’ve been waiting for – the Naxi Family and their guest house are just around the corner, right before the dreaded start of the ’28 Bends’, a series of switchbacks leading to the highest point of the trail. Those can wait until tomorrow.
I’m curious to know what a guest house perched on the side of a mountain will be like, at least two hours walk from the nearest road. Will I be sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and eating whatever meagre leftovers are on offer? Will there be any hope of a shower? I’m completely prepared for roughing it, with a pack full of mandarins and nuts, and extra layers of clothes for the cold mountain night ahead, and I’m expecting to stink pretty badly by the end of the trek.
But of course, what awaits me when I walk through the decorated doorway of their courtyard home, hung with rows of drying corn, are soft beds with crisp white sheets, hot showers, cold beers, Yunnan coffee, and fabulous home-style Naxi food. There’s even, unbelievably, electric bankets and wireless internet, should I have lugged my laptop with me. China never ceases to astound me. If I could just get rid of this headache it would be perfect.

 I fall into the sleep of the dead at about seven o’clock, well fed, showered, and with an incredible view of the mountains from my window. I don’t know if I’ll be able to move tomorrow, every part of me aches and today I’ve covered only 5.6 km of the total 23km at a blistering pace of 1.4 km an hour. But I’m not going to think about that until tomorrow, when I will wake up clear-headed, strong legged and completely and totally acclimatised. Fingers crossed.

Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures

Land South of the Clouds: Yunnan

I left Shanghai in a bit of a rush a few days ago, without really saying where I was off to or where I have been for the last few days, thanks to a combination of disorganization and remoteness of my current location. I flew to Yunnan province, previously known to me as the only place in China where coffee is grown (my ears always prick up when I hear coffee mentioned), and also where they eat deep-fried honeybees, and little else. Yunnan is a mysterious place, nestled between Tibet and Burma, and peopled by those who do not consider themselves Chinese – the Bai, the Naxi, and others.
Yunnan is a place of unbelievable natural beauty and air so thin it makes my heart pound every time I stand up. Walking up stairs makes me almost pass out with breathlessness. Yunnan means ‘south of the clouds’ and from the photograph I took yesterday of the majestically named and supernaturally impressive Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yu Long Xue Shan) you can see why. For the last four days I have been so overawed with the non-stop magnificence of the landscape here it will take me a while to come back down to earth, literally.
The next three weeks will see me all over Yunnan, starting with a three day trek along Tiger Leaping Gorge (first post on that tomorrow), and then into neighbouring Guizhou province for the fabled Miao Sisters Festival, an annual courtship festival and display of fantastical ornamentation very few foreigners have ever had the chance to see. 
I’ll be visiting Lijiang, Dali, Shigu, and the weekly village market in Shaping over the first seven days, so if you want to see a different China, come along for the journey!