Back to China: Yunnan Part One

[ptcPhoto filename=”YunnanProvinceMap.png” title=”Yunnan Province, China” caption=”Yunnan Province, China” position=”right”]

After spending a couple months in Japan and Taiwan, it was with some trepidation that we returned to the Middle Kingdom. So far China hadn’t been our favorite country but we hoped that visiting the Yunnan Province would change our minds. This two-part post will take you on our overland journey from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, up though the Chinese tourist towns of Dali and Lijiang, on a two day hike through one of the largest gorges in the world, and on to the famous town of Shangri-La.

We touched down in Kunming without high expectations since it’s another large Chinese city. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Kunming is a relatively clean city to walk around with nice parks and friendly people.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KunmingGo.jpg” title=”Playing Go in the park” caption=”Playing a game of ‘Go’ in the park” position=”center”]

There aren’t any major tourist attractions there, but Kunming has some great temples if that’s your thing.

[ptcPhoto filename=”YuantongTemple.jpg” title=”Yuantong Temple” caption=”The Buddhist Yuantong Temple does not disappoint.” position=”center”]

Our favorite part was just walking around watching people go about their daily activities.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FacesOfKunming.jpg” title=”Playing music” caption=”A street performer in Kunming.” position=”center”]

You’ll see interesting characters everywhere you look. This man caught our eye as we left the temple.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KunmingMan.jpg” title=”Bearded man in Kunming” caption=”He nodded when we asked permission for a photo, but said nothing more.” position=”center”]

Huge groups of Chinese women dance in public parks for exercise and social time. Some of the choreography is quite good.

From Kunming we headed out to Dali on what would be the first of a great number of Chinese buses we’d be taking. There’s not a lot to say about Dali, nor the nearby town of Lijiang. Both are Chinese tourist ghettos and rather contrived. Every square foot is filled with tourist shops selling virtually the same products catering to the thousands of Chinese tourists filling their streets.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Lijiang1.jpg” title=”Lijiang” caption=”A busy shopping street in Lijiang.” position=”center”]

While pleasant, Dali and Lijiang lacked the authenticity we were looking for so we moved on after a few days. The trek up north was worth it when we arrived to Tiger Leaping Gorge, though. The Yangtze River (Asia’s longest) flows through it, and it’s up there with the largest gorges in the world. Climbing through the gorge takes two days and there are spectacular vistas around every turn. Best of all, the TLG is almost completely untouched by domestic tourism so it’s almost free of crowds and litter.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGView.jpg” title=”TLG” caption=”View of the Tiger Leaping Gorge.” position=”center”]

The trek is relatively easy with exception of the “28 Bends” near the start of the trail. Horses are available for hire if you’d like to relax on the way up.

Keep a keen eye and nose, and you’ll find some alternative options for relaxation.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGPot.jpg” title=”Lijiang” caption=”You can smell it as you approach.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGSam.jpg” title=”Lijiang” caption=”Sam enjoying the view after the toughest part of the hike.” position=”center”]

If you’re making the trek, we highly recommend stopping at the Tea Horse Guesthouse after the Bends. They have decent rooms (with heated blankets!) for about $20 a night.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGLaundry.jpg” title=”Tea Horse Guest House” caption=”Not a bad view from our room.” position=”center”]

At the end of the trek we stopped at Tina’s to heat up some Japanese ramen we had stashed for a special occasion.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGWindows.jpg” title=”Tina’s guesthouse” caption=”Out the windows of Tina’s Guesthouse.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGCat.jpg” title=”Cat” caption=”Annoying, filthy, but adorable kitten at the Tibet Guesthouse (much better than Tina’s).” position=”center”]

Read on next time as we finish our trip through Yunnan and start gaining elevation in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau!

Xiao Long Bao: Get in My Belly

Interactive and appetizing, xiao long bao might be the best invention ever to take the form of a dumpling. They also happen to be some of the best comfort food we found in Asia. Homesick? XLB. Sick day? XLB. Tuesday? …you get the idea.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB3.jpg” title=”Peeking in” caption=”A scrumptious little pod.” position=”center”]

As one of our most prized food discoveries, we ate a lot of xiao long bao in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It’s a pretty straightforward dish: Little pouches of dough filled with meat and broth, neatly pinched together at the top, and steamed in wooden baskets.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB8.jpg” title=”Swirls of yum” caption=”Pinched to perfection – consistent and delicate.” position=”center”]

The dumplings are filled with aromatic meat mixed with gelatinized pork stock that liquifies on cooking, transforming into a delicious savory broth. Aside from the pork-filled XLB, other popular types include crab meat, crab roe (or a mix of crab and pork), and varieties that include salted duck egg yolk.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB1.jpg” title=”A skill we need to master” caption=”XLB being made at Lin Long Fang, Shanghai.” position=”center”]

Once they’re assembled the soup dumplings are steamed in bamboo baskets. Often the baskets will come lined – if not, the dumplings might stick and rupture and you’ll miss out on the savory broth. Hell hath no white-hot fury like a XLB addict whose broth has been carelessly spilled in the basket.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB4.jpg” title=”Be verrry careful with these” caption=”Dumplings at Lin Long Fang – notice the lack of liner.” position=”center”]

The skin of the xiao long bao is really important. In the best examples the skin is pinched in such a way that the top isn’t too doughy, and the rest of it is tender, smooth, and translucent. Elasticity is also key – there should be a bit of “give”, but the skin should be strong enough to hold the broth and meat inside without breaking.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB10.jpg” title=”Sagging with soup” caption=”The skin is *just* strong enough to hold the broth in.” position=”center”]

If you’ve never tried xiao long bao before, the Taiwanese chain of Din Tai Fung restaurants is a good place to start. They have a Michelin star and locations in over ten countries, including the USA (LA and Seattle).

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB5.jpg” title=”This is how you know you’ve arrived” caption=”The Din Tai Fung mascot, whose head begs to be eaten.” position=”center”]

Their Michelin status does make their food a bit expensive (and you’ll probably have to wait in line), but boy do they know how to make a soup dumpling.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB6.jpg” title=”Small servings – DTF” caption=”Soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung.” position=”center”]

Upon trying xiao long bao for the first time you’ll notice that everyone eats them differently. If you pop the whole dumpling in your month willy-nilly you’ll likely be scalded by piping hot soup, and besides, these things should be savored if you’re to fully embrace the XLB experience.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB2.jpg” title=”Bright hot red” caption=”A side of chili sauce adds a spicy kick.” position=”center”]

Regardless of your consumption method, start by adding soy sauce and vinegar (3 parts vinegar, one part soy) to a small dish of finely shredded ginger. From there, anything goes.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB7.jpg” title=”User guide” caption=”Din Tai Fung’s recommended method of consumption.” position=”center”]

My approach is something like this:

  1. Start by putting scooping some of the vinegar/soy sauce into the spoon.
  2. Pick up a dumpling with chopsticks and place it in the spoon.
  3. Bite a small hole in the dumpling.
  4. Pick up the dumpling with chopsticks and pour the broth into the spoon with the vinegar and soy.
  5. Drink the broth.
  6. Dip the dumpling, hole-first, into the vinegar and soy mixture.
  7. Place it back in the spoon.
  8. Finally, eat the dumpling in one bite.

This method basically ignores the ginger and achieves a high sauce-to-dumpling ratio. Drinking the broth separately also reduces risk of bodily harm since it gives the dumpling some time to cool down.

Eric’s approach is closer to Din Tai Fung’s recommended method:

  1. Pick up dumpling with chopsticks, dunk in vinegar/soy mixture.
  2. Place in spoon.
  3. Bite (or poke hole with chopsticks) in dumpling.
  4. Allow broth to drain into spoon.
  5. Optional: Add a few slivers of ginger.
  6. Consume.

Eric views the sauce as a mere accompaniment to the dumpling, allowing more of the subtle flavors to shine through.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XLB9.jpg” title=”Cheaper than DTF” caption=”Ming Yue Tang Bao in Taipei is more affordable than Din Tai Fung – and just as good!” position=”center”]

However you decide to eat them, the important thing is that you eat them often and in great numbers. May the soup be with you.

Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors

Eager to get out of Beijing, we hopped a high-speed train over to Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province. The walled part of the old city has a nice little shopping district called the Muslim Quarter where you can sample all kinds of halal street food and shop for handicrafts.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianFans.jpg” title=”Fans” caption=”Chinese fans in the Muslim Quarter.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianFood.jpg” title=”Street Food” caption=”Street food in the making.” position=”center”]

But the real reason to visit Xi’an is the Terracotta Army. It’s located about an hour outside of town, making it an easy day trip. Upon arriving we headed to pit one straightaway. Of the four pits that you can enter, it is by far the most remarkable. We were taken aback by the sight of 6,000 Warriors all lined up in formation.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-4.jpg” title=”Pit One” caption=”After thousands of years in the dark, the Warriors now greet millions of visitors every year.” position=”center”]

The Terracotta Warriors were built in the third century BCE by laborers and craftsmen directed by China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The army was meant to protect Qin in his afterlife, so the soldiers were built with horses and sophisticated weapons.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianSam1.jpg” title=”Weapons” caption=”At one time they all would have had weapons in their hands.” position=”center”]

They were covered in sixteen feet of dirt until 1974 when they were rediscovered by farmers digging a well in rural Shaanxi. One of the farmers wrote a book about the experience and now hangs out in the gift shop as a local celebrity. You can meet him and take his photo if you make a purchase.

[ptcPhoto filename=”XianFarmer.jpg” title=”Farmer” caption=”We didn’t, and had to settle for this photo of his photo.” position=”center”]

Around the back of the excavation site you can see Warriors in various stages of restoration. Archaeologists are still uncovering more and more remnants and piecing them together in what must be the world’s most complicated jigsaw puzzle.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-9.jpg” title=”Head” caption=”These guys need a lot of glue.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-7.jpg” title=”Headless” caption=”They used to be painted in bright pigments that made them look even more realistic.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-8.jpg” title=”Title” caption=”Their height signified rank – the tallest were generals.” position=”center”]

To learn more, check out the Shaanxi History Museum located inside the city. It’s a free museum but we ended up spending something like two hours standing outside in the heat waiting to get in. They only let two groups enter daily rather than cycling people through, making the whole experience rather painful. Once you’re inside, though, you can see the Kneeling Archer – the only Warrior that was found in one piece.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-1.jpg” title=”Archer” caption=”His short stature may have saved him from being crushed when the pit caved in.” position=”center”]

If you decide to brave the crowds I’d recommend going to the museum first. Once you’ve seen the pits you won’t be that impressed with what’s on display here. But you can definitely get much closer to the Warriors here than at the main excavation site and get a sense of how detailed they are.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-2.jpg” title=”Close up” caption=”Each soldier is different from the next.” position=”center”]

It should be noted that some conspiracy theorists believe the Warriors are an elaborate hoax set up by the Chinese government to lure in tourists. It is true that they were discovered right when China was first opening its doors to Western visitors.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-11.jpg” title=”Line” caption=”The Emperor’s tomb is nearby, but has yet to be opened.” position=”center”]

Skeptics are also quick to point out that no other terracotta works have survived in such good condition for two thousand years and that piecing them back together into what we see today would be an impossibility. Furthermore, legend has it that in order to keep the army a secret, Emperor Qin had all 700,000 builders put to death. But no mass grave sites have been found anywhere in the vicinity.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerracottaWarriors-3.jpg” title=”Hoax?” caption=”A massive schvindel?” position=”center”]

We like to believe they’re authentic, though. If so, they paint an extraordinary picture not only of an Emperor’s extreme sense of self-importance, but also of ancient arts, belief systems, and ingenuity.

Snapshot Sunday: Grazing in a Karst Landscape

[ptcPhoto filename=”Karst640.jpg” title=”Yangshuo” caption=”Grazing in a karst landscape – Yangshuo, Guangxi – China” position=”center”]

The countryside around the city of Yangshuo in China’s Guangxi Province is famous for its karst landscape of limestone hills. This cow took a moment to acknowledge us as we cycled through farmers’ fields along the Li River and took in the countless majestic peaks.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Photos from the Wall

We were on a bus seventy kilometers outside of Beijing when we caught our first glimpse of the Great Wall of China, firmly perched on a tall ridge in the distance. We were visiting the wall at Mutianyu, a bit more rugged and less popular than Badaling, where most tourists go. We hopped on the gondola at the base of the hill and were swept up to the top in no time.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GreatWall6.jpg” title=”Loong” caption=”It’s still the longest human-made structure on earth.” position=”center”]

The first thing that strikes you is how big the wall really is – it’s 25 feet tall and seems to go on forever. The section at Mutianyu stretches for 2.5 kilometers through dense forest. It doesn’t sound far, but with the steep hills and 22 watchtowers it takes three or four hours to see everything.

[ptcPhoto filename=”GreatWall7.jpg” title=”Hills” caption=”Stretching up through the hills.” position=”center”]

This portion of the wall was reconstructed over an earlier wall dating back to the sixth century. The solid granite fortifications that make up what you see today were added 300 years ago to keep out the nomadic tribes to the north. Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall wasn’t built all at once in a continuous line.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall1.jpg” title=”Mongols” caption=”In fact, Ghengis Khan just walked around it and conquered China.” position=”center”]

The section at Mutianyu remains largely intact, unlike some sections that were dismantled for use in other building projects. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, people were actually encouraged to take bricks from the wall for use in their farms and homes.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall4.jpg” title=”Dadonghai” caption=”So many lives were lost during construction that people called it the ‘longest cemetery on earth’.” position=”center”]

On the day we visited it was practically free of visitors. So we got to take a lot of silly photos like these.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall2.jpg” title=”Wall Jump” caption=”After a dozen tries, we finally got it!” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall3.jpg” title=”Wall Evil” caption=”Because why not.” position=”center”]

It was SO hot that day that we were really thankful for the little stands selling Tsingtao beer.

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall5.jpg” title=”Wall Beer” caption=”As an aside, we STILL can’t pronounce ‘Tsingtao’ properly.” position=”center”]

We also liked Mutianyu because in addition to the gondola ride up you can take a toboggan ride down. In this heat, the less effort the better!

[ptcPhoto filename=”SamWall6.jpg” title=”Toboggan” caption=”The toboggan ride back down.” position=”center”]

At the bottom there’s a string of stalls selling souvenirs, paintings, and “ObaMao” t-shirts.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ObamaWall.jpg” title=”Obama” caption=”Well this makes me uncomfortable.” position=”center”]

And after returning to Beijing we celebrated the Great Wall by finding Great beers.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BeijingBeer.jpg” title=”Cheers” caption=”The perfect ending to a very hot day.” position=”center”]

Gān bēi!