A Travellerspoint blog

Along the Tea Horse Road in Lijiang

sunny 14 °C

All tea originated in the mountains of China and was only grown in India and Ceylon in recent centuries. So we have now traced our favourite cuppa back to its roots in Yunnan Province in the far southwest of the country...
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Until about a hundred years ago these cobbled streets in the Naxi capital of Lijiang rang with the hooves of heavily laden pack animals carrying silk and tea across the mountains to Tibet. Lijiang was the major staging post for the caravans on the Silk Road and the Tea Horse Road for at least two thousand years. From here it took six months for the horses, mules, camels and men, to reach Lhasa in Tibet. Silk from Burma and tea from Pu'er in southern Yunnan passed through these narrow streets until the 20th. century on the first leg of its journey to Europe via Persia and the Middle East. Tea matures with age, like wine, so it didn't suffer during the lengthy journey that crossed numerous mountain ranges and hundreds of rivers during the 6 month trek.
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Lijiang's narrow twisting streets, winding streams, and masses of beautifully restored buildings with ornamental tiled roofs, make it one of the most picture perfect cities in the world...
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Unfortunately, like so many of the world's greatest treasures, Lijiang is a victim of its own success. Thousands of people cram the narrow lanes and are ripe pickings for the merchants and restaurateurs. Where else would a regular cup of local grown coffee cost $13 Cdn (8 quid)? Where else would you be charged $400 Cdn for one of these 200 gram discs of tea...
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Buying tea in China is as dicey as buying 'genuine' Louis Vuitton handbags. Similar looking tea discs can be picked up alongside touristy knick-knacks for as little as $10. and unless you can read the Chinese fine print you have no way of knowing which to buy. Some teas have sold to Chinese collectors for as much as $80,000 Cdn.
The ancient Silk and Tea roads have long gone, replaced today by excellent toll highways and a myriad of flights. And the trading route through Tibet and Kazakhstan to Europe is now a freight rail service linking the east coast of China to London and Madrid. Now the Chinese are building a super high speed rail line south from Yunnan to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. This once remote and mystical land on the very edge of Tibet is rapidly becoming a tourist mecca...
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While it may seem romantic to imagine the caravans laden with tea passing this way en route to Shangri-La and Lhasa, it must have been a dreadfully hard life for the animals and their drivers. But life is not easy for all of Lijiang's residents today...
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During the day Lijiang is a bustling, although somewhat Disneyfied, reminder of a China that has all but disappeared. But you have to look beyond the hundreds of trinket shops all selling exactly the same stuff and all pretending that it was handmade by some Naxi peasant living in a hovel. You have to see beyond the dozens of drum shops all selling exactly the same....OK. You get the picture. Ditto for jade shops, silversmiths and, especially, woven fabric stores where pretty girls barely pretend to weave and stop as soon as you lose interest. Once you see beyond the crass commercialism you find an exquisitely beautiful city. For instance, the authentically reconstructed Mu's Mansion, (circa 16th century) the onetime palatial home of the Naxi ruler, Tusi Mu Yamen, is a quiet oasis in the midst of a frenetic marketplace...
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Much of Lijiang was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1996 but most of the ancient city has been restored to its former state with, unfortunately perhaps, an over emphasis on commercialism – especially the numerous, and extremely loud, karaoke bars...
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It's been a long time since pack horses laden with tea trod these cobbled streets yet, in moments of stillness, we can picture them on their annual trek across the mountains and rivers to the foot of the Himalayas – and it's a very nice picture...
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To see more views of this beautiful city please go to our photo section.

Posted by Hawkson 00:20 Archived in China Comments (6)

Women's Day in Lijiang

sunny 18 °C

The thin pure mountain air gives us a clear window into a bright blue sky with a distant vista of snow covered peaks. We are on top of the world as we sit on the balcony of our exquisite boutique hotel and gaze in awe across the decoratively tiled rooftops of a thousand ancient houses in Lijiang.
The strains of a Chinese harp floats up from the maze of ancient streets that weave a labyrinth in the valley beneath us and we take tea with our host Yu Mei and her friends, He Tao and Ding Wen, in a room filled with precious antiques at the Zen Garden Hotel...
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Tomorrow we will take you on a tour of one of the most beautiful ancient cities in the world, but today is a very special day in China. It is International Women's Day, so we would like to share with you some images of the beautiful Naxi women who have spent the day singing and dancing in the streets...
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Lijiang is the ancestral home of the Naxi people, one of China's 55 ethnic minorities. Each has its own language, customs and costumes, and today we have been fortunate enough to witness the local women in their finery...
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Tomorrow many of these women will be back at work in the fields, but today they can let down their hair and join together in celebration...
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Not everyone gets the day off and these women were just taking a break in the sunshine and watching the festivities...
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There are many women visiting Lijiang from other parts of China, and together with the local Naxi women they made a most colourful show...
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We are now at the highpoint of our entire trip at 8,000 feet above sea level and we had been promised nothing but clouds and showers in the mountains. Obviously the Naxi gods were smiling on us.

Posted by Hawkson 04:05 Archived in China Comments (5)

A Chinese Buffet

sunny 15 °C

Although we are currently above 6,000 feet on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and it's early March, the garlic pickers are hard at work in the fields surrounding Lake Erhai...
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The next time you buy Chinese garlic think of these ethnic Bai women working in all weathers – but don't stop buying it. Agricultural workers are poorly paid everywhere but without them we would not be enjoying all the fabulous food here. This Bai lady was frying Chinese style fish and chips on the banks of the lake at Xizhou...
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Western food is available pretty much everywhere today. There is a KFC and a Starbucks even in the ancient city of Dali. In Kunming we stayed in a smart modern hotel which had a breakfast buffet that would put any North American or European hotel to shame. But in Dali we stayed in a very Chinese hotel unused to many western guests. The only concession to a western breakfast was the inclusion of a fried egg. Beware - eating a fried egg with chopsticks is not easy...
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We eat local food wherever we travel and don't always get what we want. For example: all the restaurants in Dali have fabulous displays of vegetables laid out on the pavement from which patrons can make their choice before entering...
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James was keen to try as many different things as possible for our first meal and enthusiastically pointed to a wide variety of vegetables assuming that they would be combined in some kind of stir-fry sufficient for the three of us. This was a huge mistake. We soon realised that things had gone awry when large platefuls of each individual vegetable began arriving. This was just the start.....
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We tried unsuccessfully to staunch the flow of vegetables from the kitchen but ended up with enough food for ten.. Live and learn.
So what do we eat? Chicken, pork and fish are common, but all contain lots of bones. The whole chicken, including neck, feet, intestines, gristle and bones, is chopped into small pieces and served in a spicy sauce. We eat it all except the bones.

Perhaps our biggest problem is that none of the menus have any English and the pictures can be very misleading. Many dishes in Yunnan are very spicy, but we've managed to eat most of what we ordered. Inexpensive food is sold on almost every street and in Dali the range and quality is impressive. This lady is making and baking fresh bread...
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Quails' eggs in mushroom caps are delicious and will no doubt be appearing on the menu at Bliss Café at some point...
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Some less appetizing items include snakes, live frogs and tiny day old quail chicks, (presumable eaten with the bones)...
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However, there is plenty of choice for us at this noodle stall where you simply choose your favourite noodles, meat and veg, and in no time at all it's freshly cooked for you.
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Judge for yourself, but we think the food in China is just fabulous.

Posted by Hawkson 04:29 Archived in China Comments (4)

Dali – Where Have All the Hippies Gone ?

semi-overcast 15 °C

Nestled at the foot of the mountains that rise to the Tibetan Plateau, and just a stone's throw from the historic Kingdom of Burma, (now Myanmar), lies the ancient Chinese city of Dali Gucheng – the ancestral home of the Bai ethnic people. While many of the world's cities have preserved and reconstructed their historic cores, few have been so revitalized as Dali. Every street, alley and doorway within the city walls appears as it might have done in the 18th century when it was a major trading post between Tibet and Thailand...
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The ancient city is just 16 kilometres from the modern city of Dali, Xiaguan, but they are world's apart. The new Dali is a bustling metropolis of highrises and lofty shopping malls, whereas nothing rises above the elaborate city gates in the old city....
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After the ancient city was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1925 it was decided that it should be rebuilt in its original style. So, although many of these buildings appear to be centuries old they may have been built less than 70 years ago...
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Millions of Chinese tourists flock to Dali throughout the year to see what their country looked like before wars, revolutions and the ravages of time took hold. Here are just a few of them we encountered on a sunny Sunday morning in spring...
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There are very many wealthy, fashion conscious Chinese today and they like nothing better than to dress up and take their photos in iconic locations...
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Dali was a major destination for western hippies in the 1970s and 1980s and, apparently, some of them have stuck around. However, we have only seen 5 westerners in two days. We are told that there is a Canadian bar in town but we have spent our time in search of the finest China tea – Pu'er. Despite its altitude and mountainous terrain, this part of China has a very moderate climate and on our 330 kilometres journey from Kunming we saw terraced valleys filled with flowering rapeseed and even bananas. The market in old Dali was bursting with the kind of local produce that we will only see in August at home...
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Next time on Blissful Adventures we will introduce you to some of the traditional Yunnan foods and the wonderfully friendly folk we've met here.

Posted by Hawkson 23:58 Archived in China Comments (5)

Kunming's Eternal Spring

sunny 18 °C

Kunming, a small city (in Chinese terms) in the mountains of Southwest China, is much like any modern city with skyscrapers, lofty hotels, wide roads and a ton of upscale shopping malls. There is nothing cheap about China these days even in this rural backwater and every other building seems to be a mall or a bank...
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Old Kunming, with its ancient tea shops and silk manufacturing, has virtually disappeared, but attempts are being made to preserve and revive some of the last remaining historic streets...
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The tea shops and noodle houses of old have been replaced by sushi bars, pizza joints and Thai restaurants, but it is the thought that counts.
Modernity has also taken over the streets where the iconic sit-up-and-beg bicycles have been replaced by hundreds of thousands of electric scooters which glide silently, (and cleanly), through the streets. Unfortunately, the riders ignore most traffic signals and treat pedestrians with contempt – especially when it comes to parking on the sidewalks...
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There are far fewer cyclists, but the government is promoting ride-sharing in a big way with bike rental schemes....
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Kunming's major claim to fame is its year round temperate climate and it is called 'The City of Eternal Spring' with good reason. But it's not a pretty city and its major tourist attraction lies about 75 kilometres away in Lunan Yi. These are some of the karst limestone formations in the Stone Forest - the Shilin - at Lunan Yi...
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We visited the Stone Forest on an ordinary Friday in February and expected it to be quiet. But it seems that thousands of Chinese tourists had the same idea and we enjoyed watching them dress in local ethnic costumes for a photo with an unusual backdrop...
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Fortunately, most of the Chinese were ushered around the vast site in tightly controlled groups so we were able to get some good clear shots of this pre-cambrian oddity by dodging around between them...
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The Stone Forest in Lunan Yi Autonomous County covers some 400 square kilometres and was described as The First Wonder of the World in the Ming Dynasty (1368 -1644 AD)...
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An old local saying says that 'If you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time.' We didn't waste our time and got many great pictures of the rocks and the spring flowers...
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Posted by Hawkson 04:17 Archived in China Comments (6)

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