A few days ago I arrived in Duoyishu, Yuanyang, in the midst of the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in southern Yunnan. The Hani is a minority ethnic group in Yunnan who first settled in the area around 2500 years ago. Over time, in order to subsist on the rugged terrain they learned to work the mountains and hills into terraces on which they grew rice. They now have been farming rice in this way on this beautifully sculpted land for over 1200 years.
Thankfully the real-life visual images around me were not censored by the Chinese government.
On a lighter note, I was fascinated by the ornamental details of the traditional Chinese roofs. I liked looking at the different designs on the little disks at the ends of the eaves.
I found some interesting examples of these disks in Jianshui.
And, while wandering about the grounds of the Confucian Temple in Jianshui, I found a whole pile of these disks just hanging around in a courtyard, along with some other cool architectural pieces and parts.
I’ve read a lot about the terrible pollution in China. But one of the things I really appreciated throughout my travels in Yunnan was that the two-wheelers were almost all electric scooters of some sort. Because of this, in all the cities and towns I visited, there was much less traffic pollution compared to other places I had visited in Asia.
After arriving in China I gained internet access through both WiFi and a local SIM card. However, I soon realized that I did not have access to some important information and services. No Google services would work in China, and I was unable to access any social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and could not update this blog. Neither could I read the New York Times and other news from sources in the USA.
I was aware that China censored internet access but I expected this would be limited to certain sensitive issues such as news about Tibet, Taiwanese politics, the Chinese Army’s killing of nonviolent protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989, etc. However, I found that the censorship by the Chinese government was massive. Outside China, it is referred to as The Great Firewall of China.
Prior to entering China I was already using a VPN but it did not work in China. After some research I was able to find a VPN that worked in China and regain full access to Google, social media, and all news sources. (See this NY Times article).
In general it seemed that all of the young Chinese people I met who spoke English were aware that the government censored the internet and that they could get around this by using a VPN. However, most people did not use VPNs due to the relatively high cost. Also, since few had ever had access to the uncensored internet, they did not have an awareness of how much they were missing.
I did not initiate any political discussions with the Chinese citizens I met during my travels in China, but many of them voluntarily offered their opinions and ideas. A young man who went by the English name of Johnny said “I love my country but I hate my government” and he had a few colorful words to further describe his feelings. Like me he had studied social work but was not working as a social worker because, “the government only hires social workers to monitor and control people they think might cause problems, not to actually help them.” Interestingly, he said he was a member of the Communist Party.
One young woman named Jo An referred to the 1989 Tiananmen killings as an “accident,” in comparison to the western media’s description of it as a “massacre.” Sadly, Jo An said “I think we have had many accidents in the past,” but she said she did not really know for sure, due to the lack of a free press. She spoke about her admiration for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. She said, “I think he really loves his country.” Going through the VPN on my smartphone I found some news about Liu but we decided it would not be a good idea for me to send her the link or a copy of the article. However from our discussion it was obvious that she was really starving for more information about Liu and other Chinese dissidents.
En route from Xishuangbanna to the Yuangyang rice terraces, I stopped for a few days in Jianshui (建水), more out of logistical necessity rather than a strong desire to see the place.
Only a few hours from Kunming, Jianshui would probably be crowded on weekends with an influx of visitors from that city. However, I was there during the week and found relatively few tourists around, including only a handful of other foreigners. It was a pleasant enough place, with a tidy old town of cobbled streets flanked with interesting architecture and a few historical sights worth seeing.
I spent yesterday exploring the Zhu Family Garden (and home) built by that family in the 19th century during the latter part of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
Today I went to see Jianshui’s famous Confucian Temple, completed in 1285 and one of the largest Confucian temples in China.
Good vegetarian food was hard to find in Yunnan, but in Jianshui it was a bit easier since tofu seemed to be a local staple. I enjoyed trying a very spicy stewed hotpot tofu, as well as barbecued “stinky” tofu grilled up on outdoor braziers.
From Lijiang I decided to venture to the southern reaches of Yunnan near the Burmese border. I was interested in seeing an area of southern Yunnan called Xishuangbanna, the center of tea production in Yunnan and the origin of the unusual Pu’er tea. Also, according to historians, Xishuangbanna is probably the place where tea was first cultivated thousands of years ago.
To get to Xishuangbanna, I had to suffer though two miserably long bus rides, broken by an overnight stop in Kunming. About four days ago I finally arrived in Jinghong, the major city in Xishuangbanna.
After a bit of investigation I connected with Sara, owner of the Forest Cafe trekking outfit in Jinghong. I told Sara I had heard about some ancient tea trees in Xishuangbanna and that I wanted to see some of these trees. She arranged a two-day trek in which we walked through some ancient tea forests, stopped at a tea processing plant, and passed through some of the local villages.
Yesterday we set out in the morning and were joined by a Swedish woman, Lena, who was taking a break from her studies in Kunming. The mountain weather was very pleasant and as we walked along Sara made sure to point out some of the interesting flora and fauna in this area of tremendous biodiversity.
Yunnan also has an amazing amount of cultural diversity and is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities. Xishuangbanna in particular has populations of Dai, Hani (and the subgroup Aini), Lisu, Yao, Jinuo, Bulang, Lahu and Wa, among others. We stayed the night in a Bulang village, in the home of a local family. This morning we resumed our trek through fields and forests, and walked for about five hours prior to returning to Jinghong in the evening.
Further north of Shaxi, higher in altitude and closer to Tibet, the old town of Lijiang was the next stop on the Yunnan tourist trail. In ancient times Lijiang also happened to be the next stop on the historic Tea Horse road.
Like Dali, regrettably, Lijiang had also undergone a certain Disneyfication and was full of the same types of restaurants, street food stalls and souvenir shops. As I walked around the “old” town I passed by open air nightclubs with young women in pseudo-traditional dress performing to a sort of generic “traditional” music that blended a Chinese style with African drums. Watching for a few minutes from the sidelines, I found the shows were reminiscent of the same laissez-faire creative license as in a Bollywood production, and clearly had no authenticity in representing any of the minority ethnic groups present in Yunnan.
For me the only redeeming factors that Lijiang could boast over Dali were its location on a hillside that lent itself to more interesting photo opportunities; and its larger size which made it easier to get away from the hordes of Chinese holiday makers. In fact, one Chinese native told me Lijiang was so popular as a Chinese tourist destination that the city kept expanding and adding on new, but old-looking, sections of the “old” town, conjured right out of the thin mountain air.
After spending a few days exploring and taking photos, I confirmed my initial reaction to Lijiang, which was: get me outta here ASAP!