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Highway to Heaven: Qinghai’s Route S101

The Road Trip. You’d think by now I might have worked road trips out of my system, after covering most of China last year on 30,000km of its good and not-so-good roads.
But I’ve always loved road trips – three months in 1982 when I was twelve, driving through Europe in a broken down Volvo station wagon with my parents and two sisters, playing Donkey Kong as we drove through the Swiss Alps; six months driving from Scotland to Turkey and back in a Scottish Mountain Rescue Ambulance in 1991 with my boyfriend (now husband), surviving on potatoes and tea; many shorter trips just days or weeks long exploring parts of the magnificent Australian countryside.
The road is full of promise, uncertainty and sometimes, serendipity. Go as slowly as you want, stop at anything that piques your interest, change direction, change plans, change destinations at whim. My favourite way of travelling.
We were back in China again last week, the whole family this time, and had nine days to fill – but which road in which part of this vast country should we choose? 
We decided on Qinghai province’s south-east corner, bordering the Tibetan Plateau. This part of the world is remote and sparsely populated, full of nomadic Tibetan yak and goat herders, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and wild natural scenery – high hills, grasslands, sparkling rivers and mountains. We had experienced just a taste of it last year (and I wrote almost nothing about it, to my shame) and were dying to see more.
Our friend Jonas, who has lived in the area for several years and explored all of it (Jonas blogs about living and trekking in Qinghai at Adventures of Jonas), met us in Xining, the capital of Qinghai, and helped us map a route taking us south on the S101, a good provincial road, passing by several lovely monasteries and beautiful scenery. 
We changed tack from our original plans of visiting Yushu, in the far south, because of uncertainties about the roads and conditions we would find there – it was all but levelled in an earthquake three years ago. Instead, Jonas inspired us to see the beautiful countryside northeast of Yushu.
Just to get your bearings, here’s a map of the area:
Our route started from Xining and headed south on the S101 to Golog, a distance of 500km or according to Googlemaps about 12 hours’ driving. We’re pretty well acquainted with Mr Google’s driving estimates in China, and in a perfect world he would be exactly correct. 
This isn’t a perfect world though – this is China – so if you add a further 50% to the estimated time – increasing 12 hours to 18 hours – it will be about right, taking into account the many variables Mr Google can’t see – yaks blocking the road, roadworks, queues at toll stations, detours, diversions and accidents.
We had heard that the area south of Golog may be restricted for foreigners, so depending on the situation and the road we intended to continue further south or make our way westwards to the famous Langmusi Monastery in neighbouring Sichuan.
A. Start Point: Xining 西宁
The road trip began in Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, right near the Qilian wholesale butter shop on the street that divides the Tibetan Market from the Muslim Quarter. It was an auspicious place to start, near those fat golden rounds of yak butter, where the Tibetan traders pass by in one direction to do business in tents, felts, furs, turquoise and coral, and the Muslims walk in the opposite direction to buy tea, mutton, apricots, peaches and rounds of thick white bread in the street markets behind the mosque.
Xining is a fascinating small city, ethnically diverse, and filled with temples, mosques and monasteries. Sitting at 2300m altitude it’s a great place to spend a couple of days acclimatizing before heading into the high country further south.
B. Guide 贵德
Guide (pronounced Gway-duh) is the first stop on the S101 as you pass from green pastures into more arid countryside with deep red canyons and spectacular eroded land forms. There are beautiful little garden restaurants lining both sides of the highway with fruit trees, butterflies and flowers enclosed in walled gardens where you can eat simple country food.
Just south of Guide township and directly off the highway is the Guide Zhakanbula Geological Park
C. Ningxiu village 宁秀
Our first stop for the night was in Ningxiu village, a predominantly Tibetan village where one long, wide road bisected the low buildings. There were a couple of small grocery stores selling dried goods and tin pots, and two dumpling restaurants, one Tibetan, the other Hui Muslim.

Walking along the main street we met, quite possibly, all the inhabitants of the village who came outdoors to meet us and take photographs. I found it extraordinary that they, handsome and black-haired, some in traditional dress of heavy wool coats lined with coloured silk, would find us interesting and exotic. Us in our rough traveling clothes and comfortable shoes.
We spent the night in a tiny five-roomed guest house with an outhouse and a coal-fired stove in each room to guard against the cold mid-summer night air. Our fellow guests, Tibetan families on their way to or from somewhere else, spent much of the evening sitting on our beds and watching us, smiling.
Smoking ‘baccy and sniffing snuff. With prayer beads.
Just outside the village is a beautiful set of prayer flags on a small hill. The prayer flags are printed all over with Buddhist prayers and powerful Buddhist symbols, and when blown in the wind they spread good will and compassion to all.
D. Shizang Monastery 石藏寺

Our next day’s drive took us to Shizang Monastery, a small Tibetan Buddhist Monastery we found on one of our Qinghai maps. It doesn’t seem to exist in any guide books but like most monasteries you can visit freely. It lies down a spectacular winding green valley about ten kilometres east of the S101 (there is a small sign on the road in Chinese).

Shizang means ‘hidden by stone’ but is also a homonym for the Buddhist Canon. It didn’t really have any significant meaning until we reached the end of the valley where an imposing red rock cliff rises up from a riverbed, revealing the monastery hiding behind it. A twenty metre Guanyin is carved and painted into the cliff face as you approach.

The monastery itself is rather plain from the outside, as Tibetan monasteries go, but inside is an unexpected riot of colour and pattern. We were shown around by a very kind monk who spoke a little Chinese. He told us all the other monks were away on vacation visiting their families – I hadn’t known monks had vacations but they are, many of them, students, and it is end of school year vacation in China. Even monks need a break sometimes.

I was entranced by the monastery shop – not a souvenir shop, but a grocery store where monks and those who worked at the monastery could buy goods – pot noodles, mosquito repellant, washing detergent, incense, prayer flags, yak fur boots. All your regular monkly goods.

E. Lajia Monastery 拉加寺
The mighty Yellow River is still very young and not so wide as it passes through the town of Lajia (Rogya in Tibetan). The town sits astride the river at the foot of immense red-purple sandstone mountains, and clinging to the mountain’s foot is a small and lovely monastery,  Lajia Monastery. It’s buildings line up in a row from river’s edge to mountain’s foot, each one higher than the last so the overall effect is of golden-roofed steps leading up the mountainside.
Lajia has several small hotels and guesthouses where you can spend the night, and plenty of Chinese, Hui Muslim and Tibetan restaurants.

F. Maqin 玛沁 (also known as Dawu 大武)

Maqin sits at a high altitude – 3300m – where the air is cool, clean and dry. It’s a fascinating place, stretched along a valley between rows of velvety green hills and far-off mountains. 

As the capital of the Guoluo (Golog) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture the town’s population is more than ninety per cent Tibetan, all of them wonderfully friendly and very curious.

The town’s main attraction is the Maqin Monastery, currently being expanded, and its incredible network of prayer flags covering the hillsides above the monastery like a phantasmagoric spider’s web, spreading as much good will and compassion as humanly possible.

For us though, Maqin was full of serendipity. Unable to get a bed in any of the town’s three main hotels (‘full’, ‘full’ and ‘full’ despite acres of empty rooms) we found a cosy guesthouse for next to nothing, and spent the day wandering the twisting streets leading up to the monastery – watching monks take on the local teens in a basketball game, and being invited inside many homes for bracing cups of yak butter tea, an acquired taste.

The high air brings everything into sharp intensity, including your heartbeat and your breath, making you slow down, right down, and just take it all slowly in.

Footnote: From Maqin we planned to continue south further along the S101, but we had the distinct feeling that this would get us into strife and so we headed east towards Tibetan Gansu Province instead. More on that story in an upcoming post on Langmusi Monastery.

Tips for Driving the S101
There are daily direct flights to Xining from Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and many other Chinese cities. (see Ctrip for details)
Shanghai-Xining 3.5 hours, from 1500rmb direct
Beijing-Xining 2.5 hours, from 1450rmb direct
Xian-Xining 1.5 hours, from 620rmb direct
Chengdu-Xining 1.5 hours, from 950rmb direct
Car Hire
We used a local Xining car rental company – email me at for details. They can drop the car at your hotel and pick it up afterwards. One way rental is also possible (eg Xining to Chengdu) for an extra fee.
A Chinese Driver’s License is required, and a cash deposit of 6,000rmb. The car company needs a rough itinerary in advance.
Daily rental varies – we paid 380rmb ($US65) per day including insurance for a VW Passat.
The ideal vehicle (and what we will hire next time) is a 4WD. Many roads and parts of the highway are very rugged and a 4WD would have been much more comfortable and given us more flexibility.
Good detailed maps of Qinghai Province are available from the Xinhua Bookstore in Xining, on the ground floor.
In the areas we travelled through Tibetan was the primary language spoken. We were always able to find someone who spoke a little Chinese. English was rarely spoken.
In Xining Chinese is the primary language and most large hotels have some English speaking staff.
Parts of Qinghai Province are restricted to foreigners. Check with Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum before you go, and get local information in Xining at one of the hostels or from local police. The area south of Golog is currently restricted.

Snow and a Sea of Clouds: Huangshan

The clouds moved slowly away to reveal a massive monolith, craggy and rutted, dusted with snow and studded with pine trees growing straight from the rock, ruggedly resisting the altitude, cold and wind. For a second I couldn’t breathe, it was so utterly and completely beautiful.

In one single moment every one of the 28,000 kilometres we had driven around China to get to this point on the map, on this particular day at this hour was worth it. Every one. 
Huangshan, China’s legendarily beautiful Yellow Mountain in Anhui Province, is named for the Yellow Emperor who attained immortality here and ascended to heaven amongst the seventy stunning peaks and granite crags.
We had been to Huangshan once before in the early spring of 2010 and weren’t planning to visit again until good friends announced their intention to fly from Australia and join us on the road to experience a little of the last days of our China Roadtrip. Huangshan seemed the perfect place to meet, a spectacular piece of China only six hours southwest of Shanghai and perhaps, if we were very lucky, touched by snow.
The weather on Huangshan can be variable to say the least, and on many days of the year the entire mountain is enveloped in impenetrable fog and cloud, obscuring all views. If fortune is smiling on you though, you might witness yunhai 云海, a soft and lustrous sea of clouds from which the craggy peaks rise like islands. This phenomenon is best appreciated in the colder months, September to May, on a clear day after rain or snow, and occurs only rarely in summer. 

We arrived late in the afternoon from our last ever campsite and spent the first night at the base of the mountain in – joy of joys – an actual hotel with human-sized beds and real showers you could actually stand upright in. The campervan, as brilliant as it had been and as much as we had loved our little house on wheels, was happily abandoned in a carpark in favour of more spacious digs.

The hotel’s main attraction was a free ticket for each of us to visit the adjacent Huangshan Hot Springs Resort, where natural spring water comes out of the mountain at a restorative 42 degrees all year round.

So after dinner, and in temperatures of minus one, we donned swimming costumes and headed outside. It was a painfully freezing walk from the change rooms to the first pool, steam rising all around us as we strode into the warm water. The outdoor springs were a fairyland of lights and pavilions set amongst trees and flowers, and the dozens of small pools gradually warmed us from the outside in, until we could eventually stride between them in bare feet and without using the heavy robes provided.

Staff in thick down coats walked the narrow paths between each pool with trays of hot, sweet ginger tea which we drank while plunged up to our necks in hot water, looking up at the stars. It was an unforgettable experience and would have been even more appreciated two days later after coming down the mountain, but as usual we were doing things in reverse order.

We woke the next morning to the most exciting sight of all – fresh snow.

At the mountain’s base it had dusted all the firs, and lay in a fine white carpet on the ground. It was an auspicious start to our ascent of the mountain and we held high hopes for more snow and a sea of clouds. Originally the plan had been to walk all 6,500 steps up the mountain, but when faced with the reality of slippery ice and four children it suddenly seemed like a very poor idea, compared with travelling by cable car.

We took ourselves, all eight of us, uphill along a mountain stream from the hot springs to the base of the Jade Screen Cableway, and within an hour we were standing on the mountain top.

We stood transfixed as the sun came out and the clouds dispersed, revealing a world of crystal ice and snow, the tree branches and pine needles outlined in a rime of white ice sparkling and shining in the soft winter light.

Huangshan’s famous peaks revealed themselves one by one amongst the pine trees along our four hour mountain top walk to beihai, the North Sea of clouds. The mountain was covered in a network of stone paths and steps, icy and dangerous in the shade, and after several falls we bought and installed on our feet the most ingenious invention ever for ice-walking – small steel plates with sharp teeth, attached to the bottom of your shoes by rubber straps, one size fits all. 
We passed the meteorological observatory near Bright Peak, and then suddenly there it was. A sea of clouds all the way to the horizon, with the peaks rising above. It was nothing short of magical.
We stopped to make snowmen and eat chocolate bars and peanuts before continuing several more hours of gruelling stair climbs up and down the icy paths to the Fish Eating Three Snails Peak and finally, leg-achingly, to the North Sea. 

Late in the afternoon, having warmed up a little in our hotel (lobby temperature minus five) I braved the sub-zero chill to see the last of the setting sun leave the mountain. As I looked out over the North Sea the last rosy gold light touched the very tip of Beginning To Believe Peak and I was suddenly filled with emotion. I thought of our immense journey and its immense distances, and the enormous will it took all of us to arrive at this point after so long, so much planning, so much moving, so much change.
The name, from another one of Huangshan’s many legends about a non-believer in the mountain’s natural beauty, seemed so significant, and to speak directly and forcefully to me. 
This whole journey to China, begun some three and a half years before, of learning the language, of trying to understand the culture and people, of traversing the country north to south and west to east, was it to arrive at this point of beginning to believe?
And what exactly was I beginning to believe? In myself? Perhaps, just perhaps it was, and certainly these travels had given me a courage and confidence I never knew I possessed. Or was it beginning to believe in China? Can you believe in a country, in its sometimes glorious and often troubled past and uncertain but momentous future the way I believed in China? I knew the China I believed in was very different to the China most people believe in, the people who have never seen its mountains and skies and its complicated, rich, wonderful human landscape. 
Yet it wasn’t exactly either of these things.
It came to me suddenly, unbidden. It was a belief in possibility. Believing in the possibility of anything occurring, no matter how improbable or how difficult, no matter how strong the oposing forces. In the evolution of an idea from conception to completion. In change. In achievement. 
As I stood there and watched the last light die from Beginning to Believe Peak I understood, finally, that this was what China had given me. 
The beginning of a belief that anything is possible.

Huangshan Nature Reserve
Admission Prices:
Low Season (Dec 1 – Feb 29) adults 150rmb, children 75rmb
High Season (Mar 1 – Nov 30) adults 230rmb, children 115rmb

Cable Car
There are three cable cars ascending and descending Huangshan.

South: Jade Screen Cableway
Closest to the Huangshan Scenic Area South Entrance and the townships of Tangkou and Tunxi
Leaves from Mercy Light Temple and arrives at the Jade Screen Station

South-east: Cloud Valley Cableway
Departs from Cloud Valley Temple and arrives at White Goose Ridge Station (from here the walk to the small cluster of hotels at Beihai is the shortest)

North: Taiping Cableway
Closest to the Huangshan Scenic Area North Entrance
Departs from Pine Valley Nunnery and arrives at Rosy Cloud Station

Low Season: Dec 1 – Feb 28 65rmb one-way (adults) 35rmb one-way (children)
High Season: March 1 – Nov 30 80rmb one-way (adults) 40rmb one-way (children)
Children under 1.2m free
Operating hours vary by season: winter 6.30am-4.30pm

Staying on the Mountain
There is no road access on the mountain top so all hotels are walk-in, walk-out. Some are close to cablecar stations, some are several hours’ walk. For a place where every single piece of building material and every bedsheet has been brought from the mountain’s base by porters (no, they don’t use the cable car) there is a surprising choice of mountain top accommodation.

There are two hotel clusters: one at Beihai (Shilin Hotel, Beihai Hotel) and one near Rosy Cloud Station (Dispelling Cloud Hotel, West Sea Hotel). In addition there is the Jade Screen Hotel at the top of Jade Screen cableway, and the White Cloud (Baiyun) Hotel near Bright Peak.

Food choices on the mountain top are limited. There are frequent snack stalls along the stone walking paths selling bottled water and other cold drinks, chocolate bars, instant noodles, steamed corn on the cob and tea eggs. Expect to pay mountain prices for everything – at least double what you would normally pay (and when you see those porters carrying two twenty kilo boxes of bottled water by bamboo pole you’ll wonder why it isn’t eight times more expensive).

There are restaurants at all the hotels where good hot food can be had, again at mountain prices.

Shilin Hotel

Located on the mountain top at Beihai. Well-heated with wall heaters and silk quilts, with down jackets available to borrow. A surprisingly high level of comfort and cleanliness with an in-house restaurant.
Expect to pay about 450rmb/double in low season, higher in summer.
Huangshan Resort and Spa Hotel
Located at the mountain base (south side) about 1.5km from the Jade Screen Cableway.
Well-heated but a little faded, the main attraction is its location adjacent to Huangshan’s Hot Springs Resort, which is not actually part of the hotel.
Doubles from 400rmb, basic price, or 560rmb including two entry tickets to the hot springs (normal hot springs and spa entry price 238 rmb pp).

The Last Chinese Campsite

Happy New Year one and all! Almost exactly a year ago today, I nervously went public with my plans to get hold of a campervan and drive around China before the end of 2012. I figured by telling you of my intentions I would be embarrassed – in moments of weakness – into following through. Thank goodness I did, because those moments of weakness were many and my willpower and tenacity were sorely tested by trying firstly to find a campervan, then by the nightmare of getting a Chinese driving licence, followed by a weekend test drive that showed us just what we were in for, before finally setting out on July 1st for the Great China Roadtrip. 
It was an epic year and an epic adventure, and today’s post and the next few will continue to chronicle the last few weeks of our trip through some of the most spectacular scenery in China as we headed home to Shanghai. 
But before I tell you about our last Chinese campsite, I also remembered in that same post I made a bunch of predictions. So let’s see just how many I managed to get right:
Fiona’s 2012 Predictions
1. I will pass my Chinese exams next week, motivated by the desire to avoid being the first student over forty to fail and the need to speak enough Chinese to cover vehicle breakdowns and other minor emergencies.
I passed! My 6 months of university Chinese ended well after getting off to a hilariously bad start, thanks to my three brilliant teachers and a lifelong habit of extreme cramming. I did wish the textbook had a chapter on ‘Replacing a Campervan Battery’ rather then ‘Applying for a Credit Card’ because it would have been way more useful, but perhaps not for the rest of the class.
2. The ratio of Chinese:Western meals my family is willing to eat will decrease from 1:3 to 1:10 by year’s end, decreasing exponentially with time spent on the road away from supermarkets full of Western food in Shanghai. I will be forced to resort to making congee for breakfast when we run out of cereal. They will hate this.

Bravo my family! After an initial unhappy month in which my two children complained non-stop about the amount of Chinese food they were having to eat, and I complained non-stop beside them about the opportunities to eat interesting new Chinese foods I was missing out on thanks to them, my very clever husband came up with a solution that suited everyone:
Lunchtime every day would be an exploration of local Chinese food. 
Dinner in the campervan would be western food, cooked by me (I got very resourceful at making western meals from Chinese village market ingredients) 
Breakfast was free choice, and would be cooked by him. Pancakes would be offered most days and occasionally french toast, pending bread availability. Congee would not be offered at any time or under any circumstances.
3. I will pass my Chinese driver’s license test without having to bribe any officials, or have a Chinese stand-in named ‘Fay-ah-na’ sit the test on my behalf, for a pre-arranged fee.
In my greatest examination triumph to date (even greater than passing my neuro-anatomy exam in 1989, a minor miracle of mnemonic memorization), I passed my Chinese Driving Test with an unbelievable 96%. I promise that no money changed hands. And I still got the first aid question wrong.
4. We will finaly get to visit Tibet, provided there are no more monk self-immolations in 2012.
My heart sinks as I re-read this. A year ago I honestly thought the worst was over on this front. Not so – since January dozens of individuals have set themselves alight in Tibetan regions of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan in protest against the Chinese government’s rule. These grim and violent deaths by apparently devout Buddhists including monks and nuns continue to occur. The Chinese government response has been at times laughable – installing fire fighting units inside monasteries, and tightly controlling sales of inflammables. Recently it was announced that those found to support or incite self-immolation faced prosecution.
Tibetan areas we visited in these provinces are now off-limits to foreign travellers for the time being.
5. My iphone app, the Shanghai Xiaolongbao Tour for Crimson Bamboo, despite being extremely niche, will go totally viral on release causing the entire Chinese internet to collapse and making me an overnight app millionaire.
Still not a millionaire. But wait…the Chinese internet did kind of collapse in November…..was that me?
6. The hare-brained travelling campervan scheme will take more money, wits, patience and cunning than I currently possess, but because I’m not a quitter I will make everyone’s life hell as I try to source solar-powered portable water heating and a compostible travelling toilet in a country that hasn’t yet heard of camping.

100% true prediction. By the time we left Shanghai on the afternoon of July 1, having taken delivery of the campervan literally an hour before, I was plain out of money, wits, patience and cunning, luckily replaced by caffeine and bravado.
The solar-powered idea? It came and went, unfulfilled. And the compostible travelling toilet idea showed me just how out of step I was with the rest of the country. Why would I waste our waste by composting it into a bacteria-free product? Farms need fertilizer! And we certainly fertilized a lot of corners of China. A lot.
7. Eighteen will be the number of times my husband will tell me we can just hire a car and sleep in hotels with actual beds instead of campervanning our way around the country.
Eighteen? Eighteen?? More like two hundred and fifty eight times. Two inches too long for the bed in the campervan, my very-tall husband endured night after night of sleeping with his head jammed into a corner, and day after day of showering in a cubicle meant for a hobbit. 
8. Eighteen will be the number of times I reply something along the lines of ‘bugger off’ to his very sensible suggestion. Although sometimes I will really, really want to give in.
Actually, I gave in a lot. Turns out camping seven days a week is fine for some families, but ours needed a place with bigger beds and more space, constant electricity and hot water about once a week for reasons of family harmony. Usually all four of us crammed into a twin single room and felt like kings – the single beds were way bigger than what we were sleeping in and you could stand up in the shower!
9. China will finally get high-speed internet just as I leave the country, and I’ll be really pissed off because I never got to experience the thrill of uploading a photo in under ten minutes.
Ha! If only….in actual fact, the internet turned badder than bad at the time of the 18th Communist Party Congress in October, leaving everyone pulling their hair out and forcing our VPN provider to come up with extremely creative software solutions to get over, under and around the increasingly impenetrable Great Firewall. The situation is expected to worsen in 2013 with the commencement of new internet laws in China.
10. After six months of travelling rough crammed into a home-made campervan my children will probably hate me, but when they’re forty-five they’ll tell their kids it was the best holiday they ever had. I hope. 

My children amazed me with their resilience, patience and resourcefulness over six long months of things very frequently not going to plan. And they say they don’t hate me for putting through it. I never imagined they were so capable and so flexible, but they were. It was one of the best things to come out of our whole trip.
But as to whether it was the best holiday they ever had? I think it will take them a couple more decades to get to that point. As the youngest said: “Mum, a holiday is where you lie on the beach and totally relax. This isn’t a holiday. It’s travelling, and that’s not the same thing”.
SCORE CARD: 5/10 (no better than chance, really)
The Last Chinese Campsite
In the end, actually, all the girls really wanted from our trip was not to see one more temple or climb one more mountain or visit one more village market. It was simply to be able to camp in one place for two whole days, so they could explore and play. Not much to ask, and surprisingly difficult to deliver.
Which is how we ended up in a secluded dead end road in Fujian Province the week before Christmas, overlooking a bamboo forest and a small stream, with a promise to stay for two whole days, despite our driving schedule being well behind. It was our very last chance to camp because we wouldn’t be permitted to road camp at our final two stops – Wuyi Shan and Huang Shan.  
This, finally, was how I imagined our whole trip, many many months ago. Long lazy days spent reading, writing and cooking in quiet places full of natural beauty. Beside streams, in the shadow of mountains, near bamboo forests.

Those were the camping sites of my imagination, in a time before the less lovely reality of camping in China kicked in. Of stopping beside highways, in rubbish dumps, near towns, and occasionally in carparks. Of crowds of visitors. 

Our campsites sometimes came close, but always lacked one of the magic ingredients on the tick box checklist of perfect campsite attributes – solitude, quietness, natural beauty, trees for hammocks. Or had other ingredients cruelly added – unusual bad smells, livestock passing through, biting insects that descended in swarms at dusk, tourists that descended from nearby tour bus rest stops.

Camping nirvana had only happened twice in our recollection – early on, in Inner Mongolia (foolishly we had only stayed a single night – if only we knew that would be the bar by which all other campsites were measured!) and again outside Beijing. Not often for a country the size of China.

But here we were, tucked away off the road in a place that was quiet, was unseen from the road, and looked out over a rushing rocky stream. The late autumn sunshine shone warm through the tops of the bamboo and maple trees. We were staying put for two whole days and nights.

They were wonderful slow, sunny, lazy days. I sat still for long enough to notice the feathered trail in the sky left by an unseen aircraft. We threw rocks in the stream with the girls. And I wrote, undistracted for several hours, a rare gift in our six months of non-stop movement and frequent exhaustion.

The girls waded up the creek in the warm sun. It was hard to believe snow was falling in other parts of China when here the days were still warm and pleasant. My older daughter soaked two pairs of trousers after twice falling in the creek, but they loved rock-hopping up and down the stream and were having a ball doing what kids do best – playing. 

We ate a a picnic lunch sitting on the rocks with the last of our precious supplies of cheese (from Bakery 88 in Dali) and Scottish oatcakes (tucked away in a box until now) with dried fruit from Kashgar.  

Matt and the girls walked to a nearby village after lunch to buy drinking water, and I stayed behind to make yogurt and explore. There had been a flood through here at some point in the near past – shreds of cloth hung high in the bushes, and an old zipper curled around a branch like a black snake. I found a cache of old liquor bottles buried under dirt and moss, and an old umbrella.

But mostly I enjoyed the quietness, so hard to come by in such a populous place. I soaked the quietness in and fixed it in my memory.
When the rest of the family returned we cooked dinner together, laughing, our spirits buoyed by a whole day of rest and by the feeling we would soon be home. Home. Six months is a long time to be away from your home and we missed it enormously. 
The girls decorated the van with tinsel we had bought in Yongding, near the tulou, and a tiny tree frosted with white polystyrene beads that shed white bits that stuck to our hair and our clothes and eventually had to be put outside. We pooled the last of our sweets and chocolates into a dish and declared we were having a Movie Night complete with cinema snacks, and watched a movie together sitting huddled up, all four of us, on our tiny cramped bed in the back of the van. 

It was the perfect memory for our very last day of camping in China. 

The Tulou of Fujian Province: Life in the Round

Sitting incongruously amongst nearby apartment blocks in Yongding County, Fujian Province, these ancient houses sit squatly on the landscape like a cluster of recently landed earthen UFOs. There are more than 30,000 tulou土楼 or rammed earth houses in Fujian and neighbouring southern Jiangxi Province, completely unique to this corner of China, and to the Hakka and Minnan people who built them hundreds of years ago when they settled in the region.
It’s an extraordinary feat that so many still survive (the oldest dates to 1371), thanks in no small part to recent UNESCO World Heritage status and the tulou‘s increasing popularity as an architectural tourist destination.
Tulou are extraordinarily impressive inside and out, designed for communal living for up to 400 families at a time, and for defence against armed bandits who were rife in the area for several hundred years.
From the outside tulou have all the features of a fortress – walls thick enough to withstand attack from guns and even cannons, sloped slightly inwards to protect against earthquakes, the only exterior windows too high to climb and too small to enter but perfect for lookouts and for gun stockades. An imposing gateway cut from a single block of granite marks each entrance, sealed by two massive wooden doors plated with iron and barricaded from within by horizontal crossbeams once closed.
But enter the tulou and you step into the heart of an entirely different world – a busy community of several hundred people, living in circular rows of individual apartments over four or five floors facing inwards onto a central courtyard with a small shrine. Each individual family owns a column of rooms, from the ground floor storage and cooking area to the sleeping apartments above, one on top of the other, like a slice of cake. Wealthy families might own several ‘slices’ side by side.
Nowadays the tulou have far fewer residents as young people leave to seek work in bigger cities. But one old resident told me the tulou come alive for the many festivals of the year when extended families return home to celebrate together in the communal way.
Built in 1912 by the family of a wealthy tobacco merchant, Zhencheng Lou in Hongkeng village is one of the most recently constructed tulou wth two concentric rings around a central shrine for ceremonies.
One of the smallest tulou in Fujian is Rusheng Lou with only 16 rooms, still inhabited by several families.

Communal well inside one tulou
“Tourists come in to the tulou, they look up and say ‘Wow it’s big, wow it looks great’ but they don’t understand the depth of tulou culture and history” said one elderly resident who has lived in the tulou all of his 72 years. He looks forward to Chinese New Year when all of his family return to the tulou to celebrate together.
Individual kitchens side by side on the ground floor

Family shrine
Square tulou and round tulou side by side. The Dragon waits for New Year celebrations.
Fujian Tulou 福建土楼
Yongding township, the largest town in Yongding County, makes a great base for visiting the nearby tulou, and has several hotels.
From Yongding you will need to hire a driver or join a tulou tour as the  tulou clustered in multiple small groups spread over a broad area.   We visited Chenqi Lou (in the village of Gaobei 高北) and Zhencheng Lou。  There are other clusters of tulou nearby at Hekeng, Tianluokeng and many more. The tourist trails are well signed but in Chinese only – look for the brown signs.    In addition to the tourist sites it is also possible to stop and visit any tulou you see along the way. Check with the local residents first before entering and always ask before going upstairs.

The Miao Guzang Festival – A Marathon of Feasting, Firecrackers and Pigs 苗寨鼓藏节:一场八个阶段的马拉松

Our visit to Guizhou Province, an extraordinarily beautiful part of China with steep green hills, silvery mists and winding rivers, just so happened to coincide with a really big deal –  the Guzang Festival, an ancestor commemoration that occurs once every thirteen years for the local Miao people.

Not that we knew it was a big deal at first. We had good information from the always-helpful Billy Zhang at Gateway to Guizhou that there was a Miao New Year Festival taking place in Leishan over several days, or a week (these things always being rather fluid and flexible), but we figured if we arrived in the middle of those dates we were bound to see something good.

Trying to pin down just when and where the festival began, and in which of Leishan’s surrounding villages events would be taking place, and what the nature of those events might be was much more difficult. Even the official Chinese programme Billy emailed me was too obscure to be helpful.


The bullfight, fighting birds, bucket pig race held on November 26 to 29 at the Dan Town, West Town, Grande town, large Tangxiang, and Wang Feng, townships Miao Village folk folk activities.

But it did sound intriguing – a bucket pig race! Whatever could that be? 

Our plan was to just turn up and see what was happening. Well, not so much a plan as a loitering presence.

But then one of those lucky travelling things happened. On the way to Leishan we detoured to the pristine wilderness around Libo in southern Guizhou on the invitation of a young American blogger (Kaci and the World) living there, and spent our first night in Libo as guests of the generous hospitality and outstanding home cooking of her good friend and Chinese National Geographic photographer, Big Mountain. His real name.

Big Mountain is passionate about the many ethnic minorities in Guizhou, of which he is one, and has photographed all of them over many years. When we told him of our plans to visit the upcoming Miao New Year Festival he made enquiries and discovered it was, in fact, the very infrequent and incredibly important once-every-THIRTEEN-years Guzang Festival. Before we knew it our party of four without much idea of where we should go and what we should see had become a party of six with contacts and a plan

Big Mountain set about explaining the intricacies of the festival to us. Preparations begin three years ahead of time, involving a drum (gu) which needs to be buried (zang) and another drum needing to be woken up, the selection of an ox for sacrifice, and the use of ducks as vehicles to swim across the heavenly sea, returning with the woken spirits of the ancestors. 

It sounded terribly complicated and very, very interesting, but in the end came down to the essence of every good festival – a gathering of people, drinking, feasting, music and dancing, with a few uniquely Miao components thrown in, like the celestial ducks, some bullfighting, firecrackers and pig slaughter. It was going to be one hell of a party.

Here’s how the festival unfolded, from our perspective.

我们一开始并不知道这是一个大型活动,我们从乐于助人的比利张在Gateway to Guizhou所发文章中得知好消息,在近几天或者一周(这些事情总是不固定,比较灵活)在乐山将会有一个苗族新年节日举行,但我们要计算出是否我们可以在这些日子期间到达,我们必须看看这些有意思的事情。试着确定节日在什么时候、在哪里开始,在乐山周围的哪些村落举行,获得这些信息本身就可能更加困难。甚至是比利发给我们的正式中文节目单也太模糊以至于没帮上什么忙。


1. Pre-Festival Preparation: Ducks and Firecrackers 节日前的准备:鸭子和爆竹

One thing is certain when we arrive in Leishan – this Guzang celebration definitely involves ducks, lots of them, and unbelievable quantities of booze and firecrackers. This might be a potentially lethal combination, and doubtless will be, particularly for the ducks. 
Every single shop in Leishan has abandoned their usual wares in favour of floor-to-ceiling displays of firecrackers, ten-metre long dragons rolled into neat coils, or huge luridly coloured boxes – the kind where you light the taper at one corner and run away for ten minutes of full-throttle bedazzling. 
The liquor, mijiu or rice wine, is being sold on the footpath in plastic jerrycans, with the smallest size ten litres, and the average purchase twenty-five. At around 40% alcohol it’s clear, deadly stuff and is about as tasty as lighter fluid and just as flammable. 
Every motorbike coming out of town has two boxes of firecrackers on the back, counterbalanced with two jerry cans of strong liquor on either side, and a brace of ducks nestled at the driver’s feet. 


25 litres of liquor…check, smallish box of fireworks…check. Now to load the basket of ducks……..

2. Feast Number One 一号盛宴

We arrive in the tiny village of Paiweng on foot, leaving the van parked at a point where it can’t drive any further on the narrow dirt track. The first sign of something afoot is the distant echoing crack of firecrackers, and a cloud of smoke above the next valley. 
As we round the last corner we see the village sitting in the folds of steep hills, with rows of dark wooden houses on stilts staggered up the hillside. A barrage of fireworks goes off in front of the house immediately to our left, deafening us and lighting the narrow zigzagging pathway we’re taking to the family home of a friend of Big Mountain, high on the hillside. The paths are busy with guests arriving – Miao women in their traditional dress of a black velvet tunic embroidered with pink roses, hair in a high bun decorated with a single pink rose.
Arriving at the house, the start of the festivities is marked by the lighting of a long red snake of firecrackers right next to the woodpile outside the kitchen door. It seems unnecessarily risky but clearly it’s been safely done thirteen years before. Or…not. I guess thirteen years is long enough to rebuild a whole village razed to the ground by fire, and forgive whoever lit the firecracker that did it.
Inside the kitchen, the grandmother of the house greets us as she guts fish for the feast. She motions for us to move into the big open room at the centre of the house, a high-ceilinged space with stairs at one end leading to the upper floor for sleeping, and an open verandah at the other, pefect for watching the neighbour’s fireworks display as cinders rain down on the roof.
We’re warmly welcomed by the rest of the family as they prepare for the feast. The oldest daughter’s husband carries in precariously leaning stacks of porcelain rice bowls, painted with small blue and pink flowers, and lays them out on the floor in long rows. 
He reappears with twenty five litres of mijiu, and taking a tin teapot, decants from the drum and begins to pour a bowl of mijiu for each person, full to the brim. Out of politeness he includes both of our children, who, out of politeness and strong looks from us, decline.
The women and men come in from outside and take their seats as the food begins to arrive. The whole extended family is here – the grandmother, all of her daughters and their husbands and children, aunts and uncles, lined up on narrow wooden settles around the room’s perimeter. 
We eat – first, a steaming wok full of blood congee, a type of rice soup, rich and tasty. It seems impolite, as guests, to ask where the blood has come from. Balanced across the rim of the steaming wok a narrow wooden plank is laid, and on this rest three dishes, keeping warm – spicy duck, chopped into small pieces with a sharp cleaver, fried fish, and pickled sour bamboo shoots. 
The fish has grown in the nearby rice terraces through the summer along with the rice. Come harvest the water is drained out of the terraces and the fish can be easily caught. 
Another bowl of braised duck arrives, and suddenly the symbolic duck swimming across the celestial lake and bringing back the spirits of the ancestors is sitting in a bowl in front of me. I guess their role was not purely metaphorical after all.
No sooner have we started eating than the husband of the oldest daughter lifts his bowl of mijiu in a toast. We follow suit. 
‘He jiu!’ he commands, literally ‘Drink alcohol!’ It rhymes with Sergio when he says it.
We all take a sip of the burning liquor and resume eating.
A few minutes later one of the other daughter’s husbands raises his rice wine in a toast. ‘He jiu!’ he says. ‘He jiu!’ we all reply, and take another, bigger sip.
I reach for a piece of the sweet rice terrace fish, and just as I’m about to wrestle it free with my chopsticks I see another toast about to take place. 
‘He jiu!’ comes the call. 
‘He jiu!’ we all respond. 
This time though, the command is followed by ‘He gan!’ ‘Drink dry!’ and around me old men and young women alike down their rice wine, followed by that puckered face caused by skulling hard liquor. They tip their bowls sideways to prove they’re empty.
Everyone is rosy cheeked and happy. The teapot comes back out and refills our bowls, and another round of firecrackers go off. 
‘He jiu!’

3. Feast Number Two 二号盛宴

At some point the ‘He jiu!!’ begins to reach a crescendo, with shorter and shorter intervals between toasts. Then just as everyone’s warming up the whole room stands and moves towards the door. We’re full to bursting with food and a little drunk.

‘What’s happening now?’ I ask Big Mountain. ‘Is dinner over?’
‘That was just the first dinner!’ Big Mountain tells us. ‘Now we go to her sister’s house up the hill for the next dinner!’
The what??
We arrive to find another long wooden house, its big central room filled with people lined up on each side and braziers warming more dishes of food in the centre.
Out come the towers of rice bowls, and out comes the tin teapot, this time poured by the daughter of the house. 
We greet the new family we haven’t yet met with a toast.
‘He jiu!’
And reacquaint ourselves with the family members from the first feast.
‘He jiu!’
And then everyone toasts us, as guests.
‘He jiu!’
The food is similar, a warming soup (this time bloodless), crispy-skinned duck, and shredded fish with a sour sauce.

The toasts continue for several rounds. Everyone makes the same puckered face when they have to ‘He gan!’ and drink the bowl dry.
Funny stories are told. 

‘He jiu!’

Serious stories are told.

‘He jiu!’

And then someone spots my bowl is empty, a sure sign I need to be shown true Miao hospitality by having a daughter of the house clamp a bowl of rice wine to my lips and hold it there until I drink all of it.
After that, details get a little hazy. I take a series of really, really dreadful fireworks shots while next to me Big Mountain takes National Geographic quality images despite being just as intoxicated. The mark of a true professional.

Fireworks, possibly shot from a ‘lying in the grass’ position. Not going in Nat Geo anytime soon.

Before midnight we take our leave, our hosts pressing upon us that we absolutely must be back at 4am for the most important part of the celebrations – the sacrifice of a pig.
Looking around me at the ongoing toasts being made for our departure I can see there is unlikely to be anything but snoring happening at 4am. I ask the grandmother of the house what time we should really return. ‘Eight at the earliest. More like nine or ten’ she says, with a wink.


4. The Sacrifice 献祭
We return at eleven, fortified by a good nights’ sleep and strong coffee. Still, the ongoing firecrackers are a bit upsetting to the delicate equilibrium, as are the squeals of pigs meeting their end in every corner of the village. For some reason I had thought the village en masse might sacrifice a single pig, but apparently there is to be one pig for every family. Or in some cases, two.

While the butchering is happening, each one marked by fresh rounds of fireworks, I take the opportunity to wander around the village in daylight. It’s a beautiful place, full of life and colour.

But it’s hard to walk very far without coming across another pig. The task of killing, cleaning and butchering the pig falls to the men in the family, carried out on the path outside each home. 
I’m very proud of my two girls who take it all in their stride, proclaiming that ‘if you’re going to eat it, you have to be able to deal with it being killed’. How different from their squeamish attitudes before we came China, I think to myself.


5. Feast Number Three 三号盛宴

At midday we return to the house for what turns out to be the main feast, a meat and offal celebration of every part of the pig. Behind us haunches of meat hang from the wall, dripping small puddles of blood. 
The first course is laid out for everyone to taste – cold slices of cooked liver and marble-white pork fat with partially fermented sticky rice, sweet like apple cider. The pork fat has a clean sweet taste, and soft luscious texture I don’t expect to like as much as I do.
The room fills again with people, faces from the night before and an occasional new face. Out come the bowls and the tin teapot. I admire the fortitude of the Miao as they fill their bowls yet again with mijiu and the cry goes up once more to ‘He jiu!’, although with just a little less conviction today and noticeably smaller sips.
We huddle around the hot dishes as they arrive – a bowl of soup, flavoured with thick slices of pork and pieces of cooked blood, sliced fried intestines cooked in a rich and savoury sauce, chewy and incredibly tasty. My children eat them. And ask for more.
The room fills with steam, and more toasts, and some faces begin to sweat and look unwell with the onslaught of more rice liquor. But they soldier on, and at the appointed time we all rise and move on to….


6. Feast Number Four 四号盛宴

Unable to believe we were all going to tuck into our fourth feast in less than twenty four hours we head back up the hill to the sister’s house. The atmosphere this time is a little more subdued, with all the family elders sitting together at one end of the room.
I am asked to take their portrait, a succession of four polaroids, one for each of them. The look on their faces is delightful as they see the pictures develop and colour.

Before long though, everyone has rosy faces and and has fortified themselves for the important and health-giving feature of this final feast – fresh pig’s blood, uncooked and congealed like jelly. No matter how well prepared or how adventurous, fresh blood is one thing I cannot bring myself to try, but everyone else takes a small bowl.
This seems to signal the end of the feast, although in fact, the guests are simply leaving to start another round of visiting and feasting in the neighbouring villages. As a parting gift, each family is given a whole pig’s leg or two to take home, carried over the shoulder hanging from a pole.


7. Bullfighting 斗牛

Much of the visiting and feasting now over, the fourth day of the Guzang Festival  brings a bullfighting tournament in Leishan’s stadium, packed to capacity with spectators. 
I’m not sure what to expect. This is bull versus bull, with no human intervention unless a bull is fatally wounded. I’m expecting it to be bloody and confronting on many levels.
Intead, what we see is quite comical as two sedate and lazy water buffalo bulls are led into the arena through separate doors, ambling slowly. Suddenly they see one another and fly into an intense territorial rage, charging the other bull and locking horns. The first three battles end when the weaker of the two bulls unlocks horns and runs away, and the fourth after horns have been locked long enough to declare a draw. No blood is seen at any time. 

8. Recovery, with Singing, Dancing, and Possibly Pig Bucket Races 复活,唱歌,跳舞还有斗猪比赛

The last days of the festival are subdued by comparison. Firecrackers continue to go off sporadically and there are pigs’ legs aplenty being carted around over shouders or on the backs of motorbikes. 
The villagers of Paiweng try to entice us back on a promise of singing and dancing on the village basketball court – but we run out of time to return to see it.
It’s been an exhausting few days and I’m keen to eat nothing but vegetables for a while. 
So let’s see – I think I’ve covered everything – ducks, ancestors, firecrackers, rice liquor, bull fighting, pig sacrifices, feasting, and….oh wait! What about the pig bucket races? We never did get to see those.

Looking forward to seeing you all for Guzang 2025 then.

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.


All Smoke, No Lava: Tengchong Volcano Park 腾冲火山公园

Ever since the Brady Bunch went to Hawaii and saw volcanoes I’ve wanted to see a real volcano too, glowing with lava and occasionally letting off spurts of sulphurous steam. Like Indianna Jones faced with the Temple of Doom, the thought of a sacrificial pit filled with bubbling lava was very thrilling to my fourteen year-old self, although I wasn’t as keen on the human sacrifice component involved. 

Suffice to say I have a highly romantic and somewhat idealised mental vision of volcanoes, dented somewhat when Mount St Helens erupted, completely lava free, killing fifty seven, and rekindled after recently re-reading Mark Twain’s American travel odyssey Roughing It, with a description of a night-time walk across the three-mile wide crater of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii:
“Under us, and stretching away before us, was a heaving sea of molten fire of seemingly limitless extent. The glare from it was so blinding that it was some time before we could bear to look upon it steadily.
It was like gazing at the sun at noon-day, except that the glare was not quite so white. At unequal distances all around the shores of the lake were nearly white-hot chimneys or hollow drums of lava, four or five feet high, and up through them were bursting gorgeous sprays of lava-gouts and gem spangles, some white, some red and some golden—a ceaseless bombardment, and one that fascinated the eye with its unapproachable splendor.”
Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872
“在下面,我们面前是一条绵延至远方的道路,一片起伏的火海看起来没有尽头。耀眼的光芒使人目眩,带我们平稳的看清下面还需要一定的时间。就像是在正午时分直视着太阳一样,除了刺眼的光不是那么白以外。沿着湖岸边不规则的距离都是白热化的烟囱或是中空的鼓形熔岩,四五英尺高,在它们之上是一团团熔岩华丽爆炸的喷雾还有像闪烁发光的珠宝一般,一些是白的,一些是红的,还有一些是金色的一连串的爆炸,发出的无与伦比的光彩吸引着你的眼球。” 马克吐温艰难岁月1872

So after hearing that western Yunnan is home to China’s own volcano cluster, we took an almighty detour towards the Myanmar border to the centre of the action at the Tengchong Volcano Park, or more properly and Chinglish-ly named the National Geo Park Of Tengchong Volcanic And Geothermal. I guess that covers everything.
My expectations of volcanic satisfaction were high, given that in China everything is big. This was going to be major, and we could also say it was educational and therefore justify the four days’ round trip out of our way to see it.  
The whole Tengchong region is a hotbed of seismic activity with volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and reasonably frequent earthquakes. We thought it might be an exciting place to take the kids to maybe see some science in action, but just in case we saw a bit too much science in action we made a family pact not to tell anyone back home until after we were safely somewhere else. Which we now are.
I’d built up quite an exciting level of risk in my mind, imagining walking Twain-style across a just-cooled crater of lava, but my first niggling doubts that the experience might be just slightly underwhelming came when we arrived at the Volcano Park and purchased tickets.
“Would you like tickets to Big Empty Mountain, Small Empty Mountain, Black Empty Mountain or all three?” the ticket seller asked. 
Empty? I thought. Empty? Surely not. 
We opted for Big Empty Mountain, being the biggest, but first took a turn through the Volcano Museum where they displayed an out-of-work geiger counter and a battery-operated volcano replica at least as tall as a person, rivers of red cellophane lava flowing endlessly down its sides. This was going to be GOOD.
Outside beyond the impressive five flagpoles Big Empty Mountain looked decidedly small up close, so I checked the map just in case we had detoured to Small Empty Mountain by mistake. We hadn’t, because the flat tree-covered hillock off to our right was, in fact, Small Empty Mountain, and Big Empty Mountain was dead ahead.

“你想要去大空山小空山, 黑空山或者包含三种的门票吗?” 卖票人询问.
空的? 我想了一下. 空的? 当然不要了.
Big Empty Mountain. Be very afraid.

The climb up Big Empty Mountain’s 648 stairs was just the thing for building anticipation of what a real volcano crater would look like. Never mind that the volcano itself was small. The crater would be black. Crusted with ancient lava. Perhaps occasional little puffs of high-pressure steam. Maybe.

Huffing and puffing, we arrived at the top to find this:


Possibly the boring-est photo of a volcano ever taken. Ever.

At least the view from the top was lovely, and for a very brief minute we were able to convince the kids that the far off hill was smoking, until the cloud moved and destroyed that illusion.

I asked the girls how they thought it might have been better.

The older one favoured a scorched earth approach to volcano improvement:

“They should have taken away all the trees and grass so it looked more like a real volcano” (volcanoes in her mind being blackened cones of rock glowing red from within).

The younger one felt some lava inside the crater would have been better than “a bunch of trees” or failing that “at least a lake you could swim in”.

In summary, they named it a “spectacular disappointment” and didn’t even stop to look at the lava souvenirs carved into fish shapes, something they may one day regret.


The Sea of Heat 热海
Which is how we ended up later that day at the fabled Tengchong Sea of Heat, acres of boiling waters, geysers, bubbling mud and noxious gases. At least, that’s what we all thought it should have. We did know there was an outdoor swimming pool heated with therapeutic underground spring waters, and if there’s one thing that makes up for pretty much any disappointment when you’re a child, it’s the thought of splashing around in a swimming pool for a few hours.

We spent an hour searching through the campervan’s dozen or more cupboards for everyone’s swimming costumes, unworn since the beach on Lian Island, packed them into a bag along with changes of clothes and hairbrushes, and fought our way to the ticket office through a hundred tour buses and a hundred ladies selling eggs wrapped in raffia in the carpark. Why eggs? We had no idea.

The smiling ladies behind the vast ticket counter asked whether we wanted to see everything in the Sea of Heat, or just a select few things like the Boiling Cauldron and the Sea of Pearls.

“We just want to go swimming actually” we said.

“OK, so altogether that’s one thousand and seventy two yuan” she told me.

I handed her a one hundred yuan note, thinking she’d said seventy two yuan.

“No, no, a thousand and seventy two yuan. Two hundred and sixty eight yuan each person” she replied. That’s close to a hundred and eighty dollars. Two hundred and sixty eight yuan is the same price you would pay for dinner for ten in a local restaurant, or a room in a 4 star Chinese hotel.

At this point, expensive disappointing volcano behind us and promise of swimming rapidly evaporating before us, I became one of those tourists. The one who can’t believe how expensive everything is. The one who has to make her point known to the poor dummy manning the ticket desk, the same dummy with no say over the obscene prices charged by private enterprises who have bribed their way into running a business inside a national park.

“268 yuan? Why is it so expensive?”

“It’s very, very good.”

“Can you sleep there overnight?”


“Do you get breakfast, lunch and dinner for free?”

“No, of course..”

“So HOW can you justify charging 268 yuan to go swimming??”

“It’s very good. The waters are very steamy.”

My husband gently pulled my elbow. “Let’s just pay to see the hot springs, how about that?”

事实上我们只是 “来游泳的” 我们说.

我给了她一张一百的, 想她还会说还有七十二元




So we paid the relatively paltry sum of forty dollars to see the Boiling Cauldron, an impressively scalding pool of sulfur-bubbling water where suddenly eggs wrapped in raffia made perfect sense. Why just look at a pool of boiling volcanic water when you could cook stuff in it? Genius.

The cheapskates who had brought eggs in from the carpark were relegated to a simmering puddle in a far corner, away from those who could afford to pay the premium price charged by yet another private enterprise for the privilege of having their eggs (and peanuts and potatoes) cooked in the actual Boiling Cauldron.

At that point I could feel the familiar buzz of a bee in my bonnet but thankfully kept it to myself. We had all paid the same entry price, and yet we couldn’t all cook our eggs in the Boiling Cauldron, and we couldn’t all enjoy the view from the outdoor seats because those things were all extras run by private companies.

As we walked through the park VIP Beauty Spas and Very Expensive Tea Shops popped up at every turn. I don’t mind paying an entry ticket to see an attraction, far from it, but when most of my path is roped off to permit access only to people who’ve paid VIP prices? It’s just….just….JUST NOT VERY COMMUNIST now is it??


Unfortunately, the best view of this waterfall of boiling water and frog-mouthed geysers was roped off, obstructed by a large tent selling photos of tourists taken in a VIP position with the best view.


And the previously impressive boiling river had been diverted with a very attractive rock wall and pipe to feed the VIP Spa nearby.
之前印象深刻的沸腾河已经被改变了, 变成一个吸引众人的石墙和供养附近水疗的一个管道.
The pavilion and bridge were, unbelievably, Included in The Entry Price. I kept waiting for someone to spring out and charge me for walking on it.
We rounded a corner and there it was, the Unbelievably Expensive Swimming Pool in the midst of a Costly Private Resort, smack bang in the middle of a national park we had all paid to get into. The path through the valley was no longer passable because the resort had requisitioned all the land.
The girls made little conciliatory remarks to make us feel better, like “I bet they wouldn’t even let you play Marco Polo in there” and “people probably spit in the water”. 
We stood on one side of the fence and watched the only two occupants of the pool, men with white towels wrapped around their waists, walk past smoking. 
“You’ve been ripped off!” I wanted to yell at them, and at all the tourists around us. But they were too busy lining up to pay for a laminated copy of their geyser photos. Oh China.

Tengchong Volcano Park 腾冲火山地热国家地质公园
Approximately 25km north of Tengchong just outside Mazhanxiang village.
Admission 60 yuan per person

Sea of Heat 热海
Approximately 10km south of Tengchong
Admission 60 yuan per person for limited access to attractions

Yunnan’s Biggest Market: Yousuo Friday Market 云南最大的集市: 右所周五集市

Every Friday in Yousuo, north of Dali, Yunnan’s biggest, noisiest and liveliest market takes place, spilling across the main road through town and into side streets, lanes, and a vast open area at the foot of the mountains. The local Bai people arrive from nearby farms and villages, baskets on their backs and dressed in their finest to buy and sell goods – livestock, vegetables, embroideries, woven baskets, pots and pans, sweets and tea.

Markets are a peek through the keyhole into another culture and way of life – what people eat, how they do business, how they dress. And markets are full of what the Chinese call renao 热闹, translated literally as ‘heat and noise’ but meaning ‘noisy excitement’ or ‘hubbub’. 

Renao is one of my favourite Chinese words and describes that indefinable atmosphere of all-round enjoyment and festivity that makes a good restaurant great, or a party unmissable. Noise and heat. Bustle and excitement. Crowds and activity. 

I love renao, and would rather visit a local market than a hundred temples, if the truth be known. 

Impressivley well-travelled writer Thoedora Sutcliffe recently wrote about 100 Lessons Learned from 1000 Days of Travel around the world with her son. It’s a great read and a  great list, but Number 3 particularly caught my eye:

3. Big Ticket Sights Are Almost Always Worth It …..if you’re within 50 miles of one of the wonders of the world and don’t see it, you’ll be kicking yourself for decades.

I mostly agree with her, but if there’s a market within 50 miles of one of the wonders of the world and I miss it, then I really will kick myself.

So what will you find at Yunnan’s biggest, most renao-ish market? Have a look.




Piglets in baskets: one farmer tried to swap a piglet for our youngest daughter, but we resisted. Just.

Bai women shop with baskets on their backs, straps on their foreheads or over their shoulders. Cane baskets are still the most popular but coloured woven tape baskets are becoming a new trend.
The women favour a sleeveless cobalt blue or red tunic belted with a hand-embroidered sash, and a scarf or flower-embroidered head dress to cover their hair, often with a straw hat perched on top. Those who wear the flower-embroidered head-dresses often cover it with a net scarf to keep it clean in the dust of the marketplace.

Local sweets: peanut brittle, rock sugar, ground sticky rice flavoured with rose water, sesame toffee
本地甜点, 花生太妃糖, 冰糖, 玫瑰味的糯米糖, 还有芝麻太妃糖.

Tricycle truck – slightly larger than a motorbike, holds slightly more than a wheelbarrow. Maximum load seen carried: six people plus a pig and eight chickens.


If you don’t have a tricycle truck you can also carry your chicken purchases like this. Friends have suggested it would be a useful way for carrying unruly small children.

Not everyone wears traditional dress of course

Coolest dude in Yunnan, selling thermoses. Because everyone knows only cool people use thermoses.

云南最酷的人, 都卖热水壶. 因为人人都知道只有很酷的人才会用热水瓶.

Bai woman selling joss papers for burning at the temple.

Yunnan has a unique climate and topography, so you’ll find plenty of unusual foods not seen elsewhere in China
Left: mao doufu – mold fermented tofu  Right: hai cai hua 海菜花 (ottelia accuminata) – a water plant with delicate white flowers that float on the water surface of lakes, the stalks of which are used in cooking.
云南气候和地形都很独特, 所以你能发现很多中国其他地方不会生长的食物.
左: 毛豆腐发霉的一种豆腐
右: 海菜花 (海菜花属一种生长着精美白色小花的水生植物,漂浮在湖水表面,它的茎干可以用来烹饪)

The man who sells everything from his square-metre shop: kitchen scourers, rubber gloves, safety pins, sewing needles, packets of single-use shampoo, zippers, plugs, and a thousand other useful things.

And lastly the street dentist, who for 50 yuan (about $8) will fit you with a shining silver cap for one of your front teeth, on the spot. Without even taking off his sunglasses.

Yousuo Friday Market
Every Friday from early morning until mid-afternoon
Yousuo is on the  G214 about 40km north of Dali, Yunnan
GPS: Lat 26.018064  Long  100.063546 

Heavenly Lugu Lake 泸沽湖

We never intended to go to Lugu Lake, way off our path and straddling the border between Yunnan and Sichuan in China’s remote southwest, but as we travelled south through Sichuan to Leshan, and then Ebian, the smog and smoke that had clung to us since Chengdu cleared and we were suddenly in the midst of glorious autumn countryside, clear blue skies and pine forests, with whitewashed Yi village houses hung with garlands of bright yellow corncobs drying in the sun. It was rural China as I had always hoped it might be, without the belching factories and ugly billboards.

The air smelled of autumn leaves and fir trees and we felt uplifted and relaxed, although the roads under us were bad and getting worse – bitumen giving way to uneven concrete, then cobblestones, and finally dirt. Bits of the road had fallen into the river, and other bits were more holes than road. Driving was like a constant battling obstacle course.


Just 200km from Lijiang and the promise of a warm bed, the dirt gave way to mud as mountain springs washed across the road and left deep mud-filled furrows. There were black pigs and water buffalo wallowing in the road, the mud was so deep in places. We tried but couldn’t get through, and had to detour around Lugu Lake, which turned out to be our luckiest break in ages – climbing up to 2600m through a stunning river valley with cliffs and high waterfalls we arrived at a vast expanse of clear, deep blue water ringed by mountains. It was stunning.

Local legend says the lake was once small and shallow, and in its middle lived a huge fish with his head stuck out of the water. One day a greedy man pulled the fish out of the water to eat it, inadvertently unplugging a hole in the base of the lake from which rushed a flood of underground spring water, and the lake was made.

We stopped by the lake’s edge – the deep blue water was full of mysterious underwater forests we could see clearly below us, and blooms of white water hyacinths floated on top, moored by their long, trailing stems reaching down metres to the lake floor. Villages were clustered around the shore, populated by Yi, Naxi and Mosuo peoples living in log cabins and everywhere were flowers – marigolds, geraniums, azaleas, daisies and deep purple bougainvillea.  

I had sort of forgotten that in some places flowers are grown just because they’re lovely, after living in a country where every last bit of land is dedicated to food production and even the pots on people’s inner city windowsills are used for growing vegetables.

In the far distance was a little temple on a hill, and below us a man rowed a dugout canoe across the lake, gathering wild plants from the water’s edge. 

Before we knew it we had cancelled our three day stay in Lijiang (beautiful, for sure, but we’d been there before) and booked ourselves into a guesthouse in sleepy Dazu village, with a sun-drenched balcony perfect for reading. It would have been even more perfect for drinking a glass of chilled wine, had we been able to get our hands on some.
There’s not really very much to do at Lugu Lake except look at the water, and the sky, and read a few more chapters of your book. If you have a surfeit of energy you can cycle around the lake shores to see other gorgeous villages, or take a dugout canoe trip to one of the small islands while the Mosuo women sing canoeing songs to you. I’ve heard the Mosuo women live in the world’s last fiunctioning matriarchal society, where children take their mother’s name.

We spent three long lazy days swimming, canoeing, cycling and eating, just enjoying the chance to do very little for once. Our guesthouse cooked us farmer food when we were hungry – a whole chicken braised with pickles and potatoes, fried slices of gourd, mountains of rice – or we walked to one of the little restaurants around the shore and ate char-grilled chicken cooked on a spit, or charcoal lake fish sprinkled with spice and salt. 
Sitting together in the sun, my daughter said to me ‘Travelling is great, but it’s not exactly a holiday, is it?’ a distinction I’d never made myself, but the more I thought about it the more I realized she was right. 
Travelling and holidaying are not the same thing. Travelling is often difficult, and tiring, and sometimes just wears you down. Holidaying implies a much more relaxed state of mind and much less attention needed to the issues of roads and maps and food supplies and drinkable water. 
I resolved there and then, when possible, to try and spend more of this last third of our long, long travels holidaying more. Roads and drinkable water permitting. 

Nature Inn, Dazu Village

Lugu Lake 泸沽湖
Entry 80 yuan per person from either Sichuan or Yunnan side, valid for whole lake

Nature Inn 本色客栈
Dazu Village, Lugu Lake, Sichuan
Doubles from 168 yuan/night
+86 18280617758
两人 168/

The trip so far….

Aliens in Ebian 峨边的外国人

‘Are you from Singapore?’ the man at the petrol station asked me.

‘Singapore?’ I said, wondering what part of my fair skin, freckles and light hair looked exactly Singaporean. ‘No, no, Australia. Ao-da-li-ya’
‘Australia!’ he repeated, but mixed up the syllables so that it came out sounding like Italy in Chinese.
‘No, not Italy: yi-da-li, Australia: ao-da-li-ya’ I clarified.

‘Yes! ao-lo-di-yi!’ I’m pretty sure that was an entirely made-up country just for my benefit. Australy. Itstralia.
‘Yes!’ I said, handing over the money. ‘Very big! Not many people!’
Meandering south from Leshan’s Giant Buddha, we entered the long river valley of the Dadu River in southern Sichuan, a place very similar to my standard description of Australia – very big, and not many people, even fewer of whom seemed to have heard of my home country. Perhaps it was my accent.

The area was remote and beautifully wild – tall craggy cliffs rising vertically from the river bed towards the sky, with plummeting narrow waterfalls rushing back down to the river at intervals. In such remote and mountainous country flat land for farming was scarce.


I thought, mistakenly as it turns out, that we had covered all of China’s worst roads in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Qinghai. But Sichuan had saved the worst of all for us – a 68km stretch of rocks and mud weaving in and out below the construction of a new riverside highway, alarmingly punctuated now and again by landslides.

The road, if I can truthfully call it that, was only one lane wide, so we drove in a caravan between trucks until there was a slight widening, then stopped so the caravan of trucks and cars travelling in the opposite direction could pass us. The going was painfully slow.

The road also welcomed us with a sign saying:


which we neglected to photograph on the grounds that it might later incriminate us.

‘Are you an alien?’ I asked my husband. 
‘Certainly not!’ he replied. ‘Are you?’
‘No!’ I said, as we both failed to make eye contact with the police patrol parked under the sign.
‘I’m sure they’ll let us know if we’re considered aliens’ we decided, knowing full well we might be turned around at any minute by the men in black. Except turning a campervan around on a single lane mud track when there are sixty impatient trucks banked up in both directions was always going to be tricky. At least, that’s what we were counting on.

That 68km section of road took eight long exhausting hours to traverse, and as you can well imagine there was nowhere to camp that wasn’t already occupied by a construction crew or a broken-down bus.

Amongst all of this, the town of Ebian rose up like an oasis. More accurately, Ebian peered through a dense fog of pollution from the nearby nickel smelters and factories, sitting at a sharp bend in the Dadu River and clinging to the steep slopes of the riverside hills. It twinkled at us in the growing dark, beckoning us to come and find a guest house or hotel, a more attractive option than camping at the petrol station amongst people who confused Italy and Australia.

乐山县:外国人不准进入。” 由于担心事后受到指控,我们没有在路上拍照。

We wound down the steep and twisting road into the centre of town, utterly chaotic with a mayhem of tricycle taxis, blaring music, horns, and bright flashing lights, a place that was rapidly outgrowing itself and hadn’t worked out yet what to do with all the surplus people. 

The surplus people, meanwhile, had suddenly spotted us.

Fifty incredulous faces watched us park, then watched me get out of the campervan to ask about rooms at the tiny hotel across the road.

In the lobby three young women wearing suits were playing on their mobile phones over a scale model of a new Ebian housing development. They looked up in unison and their jaws literally dropped. Perhaps I was an alien after all.

This made me feel a little uncomfortable, but not nearly as uncomfortable as the process of registration which involved twenty very interested locals crowding the hotel’s small counter and shooting me with a battery of questions:

‘Where are you from?’
‘What’s your job?’
‘How much do you earn each month?’
‘How come you can speak Chinese?’
‘Are those your children outisde?’
‘What did she say?’
‘She’s from Australia. Monthly income 10,000 renminbi. Two daughters.’

Our passports did the rounds of the crowd.

‘We don’t have any foreigners here!’ the teenage girl manning the desk told me. This reassured me not at all, but as yet the local police had shown no interest in us and we wanted to keep it that way.

For people unaccustomed to aliens, Ebian’s locals were mighty keen to get to know us. A tight crowd followed us around the small night market until we found a restaurant that looked clean and welcoming, but as we sat down the rosy-cheeked waitress took one panicked look at us and ran off, returning five baffling minutes later with the owner, an older man.

‘Hel-lo!’ he said, slow and loud. ‘Speak Chi-nese?’
‘Yes, we can’ I answered, in Chinese, at which the owner turned to the waitress and scolded her for pulling him away from his TV show to come and speak a language to these foreigners she could clearly already speak.
She blushed and giggled and then sat herself down at our table, and in the most incredibly rapid-fire Sichuan dialect said:
‘Ha! I’m-so-relieved-you-speak-Chinese-for-a-minute-there-I-thought-I-wouldn’t-be-able-to-communicate-with-you!! You-can-understand-everything-I’m-saying-right??’
‘So!’ she continued, with scant pause for breath, ‘Where-are-you-from-where-do-you-live-do-you-eat-spicy-food-how-much-do-you-earn?’
‘Can we order some dinner first?’ I asked.
By now, all the other kitchen staff and the owner were also seated at our table, along with their kids, waiting to hear the answer to her questions.
So we ate dinner, and in between bites tried to answer everything they wanted to know – how many square metres our house in Shanghai was, whether we thought Sichuan was better than any other province in China, and why we were able to eat spicy food, despite everything they’d heard to the contrary. 
The next morning, by now familiar with everyone in downtown Ebian, we went for a walk. What I hadn’t noticed in the dark the night before was now obvious. Ebian’s population is about half Yi people, the women wearing intricate beaded headresses and looped plaits. They thought we were incredibly exotic, touching our daughters’ hair and skin, but we felt like very shabbily-dressed…well…aliens. Strangers in a strange land.


For a touch of familiarity we ate breakfast at the same restaurant as the night before, where our rosy-cheeked waitress (above, left) whizzed between tables filling in the other customers on our particulars and answering questions on our behalf. I was ever so grateful.
I never did find out whether we were actually allowed to be in Ebian or not, or why that particular area might have been restricted to us. But should your craft ever land there, a friendly and curious welcome is guaranteed. 


Where is Ebian?
Leshan County
Sichuan Province, China
Practically in the middle really.