Hakodate

20190618_181710Walking in Hakodate is like exploring the musty living room of a favourite eccentric aunt stuck in a time warp – stuffed with quirky old curios, sometimes kitschy, occasionally mysterious but always charming with lots of stories. Hakodate is not unknown. In fact, many would not visit Hokkaido without stopping by Hakodate. After all, it has its share of fans who flock to its fish market for fresh and delicious sea food and  its famous night view from Mount Hakodate, said to be among the top three night views in Japan. To be honest, I did not have high expectations of Hakodate. I was just there for the food – specifically a breakfast buffet ranked among the top five in all of Japan – and simply because I wanted to max out the super convenient JR East Tohoku South Hokkaido rail pass. But Hakodate turned on its quiet laidback charm and I found myself unexpectedly a newfound fan. Continue reading

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Aomori – Nokkedon, Nebuta and apples!

P1090327Tucked away at the northern-most tip of Japan’s Honshu island, Aomori prefecture and Aomori city are quiet and under-rated gems usually skipped by travelers in favour of the more happening southern metropolises of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. But actually, there are so many reasons why one should head for Aomori. Like for example, you can’t head for Hokkaido on the shinkansen without stopping at Aomori – well, okay technically you could but then you would be missing out on some of the yummiest freshest seafood, a fun DIY donburi, the chance to see up close the gigantic lantern floats of the Nebuta festival and yes, some of the best apple products this side of Japan. Continue reading

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Shuhe and The Bivou

P1110722I’ve saved the best, or at least my favorite, for last. This final post of my Yunnan trip revolves around the small town of Shuhe. Although barely 6km away from Lijiang, sometimes seen as Lijiang’s suburbs, Shuhe does not play second fiddle. A historic village in itself, one that has been around for more than a thousand years, Shuhe is a quieter, more authentic version of Lijiang. We loved staying in Shuhe. We loved its clear running waterways filled with long frills of algae, its many chill-out spots (many so prettily dressed), its numerous friendly four-legged inhabitants. Coming back after a long day out was something we looked forward to every night. It felt comfortable and familiar. This in no small part, must be credited to the wonderful team at the Singaporean-run inn The Bivou. Continue reading

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Around Lijiang

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One reason why Lijiang is such a magnet for travelers is not just its status as a World Heritage Site but also its proximity to some of China’s most stunning natural landscapes. Snow-capped mountain ranges, turquoise lakes, fierce rivers and deep gorges are all within an easy drive of Lijiang. Serious travelers hoping to get off the tourist route will find endless opportunities for hiking into big country. But most tourists would be happy just to take the easy Instagrammable routes of Tiger Leaping Gorge and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Go in with your eyes wide open because not only do these sites have jaw-dropping scenery, they can also be a bit of a tourist gouge.

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Lijiang

P1110633About 16 years ago, I was browsing in a bookshop checking out some books about to be remaindered. One of them was a travelogue on Lijiang. The pictures – of glowing red lanterns  reflected in flowing streams of clear water, lanes of old stones that glistened blue and dark grey in a misty rain – those romantic images of Lijiang struck a chord and for the longest time, this was on the list of places I wanted to see. Those who have seen it have returned extolling lots of praise but over time, I was no longer sure if this dreamy vision still existed or if it was smothered under huge piles of the tourist dollar. Now, in 2019, I was about to find out. Continue reading

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Living in Xizhou

P1110233Not far from Dali, by the shores of the Erhai lake sits little Xizhou. Everything that Dali has lost, Xizhou still has. A thriving community of residents who live and work in the village, stunning well-preserved architecture with beautiful details, interesting street food and a chill vibe. Unlike Dali, Xizhou remains accessible, preserving its human scale. No big hotels, no neon – for now. The tour groups have discovered Xizhou but thankfully only as a day trip destination. That may not last because Xizhou’s charm is an open secret now; and when the electric golf carts with guides and wireless mics have started zooming around its cobblestoned lanes, you know it won’t be long before it goes the way of Dali. But hopefully that will take a while so go while you can still wander its alleys and lanes with some space to yourself. Continue reading

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At home in Weishan

P1110099Weishan is unexpected. I thought it was going to be another old town preserved for history and culture, kept ‘authentically’ crumbling for visitors to see what an ancient space is like, or worse, disneyfied for tourists. But Weishan is nothing like any of that. It is truly authentic – one of those rare places where life is still very much the same as it has always been for centuries. In the main thoroughfare of the old town, residents go about their day to day – getting a haircut, chatting with old friends, buying hand-made noodles. When people talk about authentic spaces, it could mean authenticity in architectural terms or that a space is well-preserved in keeping with or as close to history as possible. In Weishan, authentic means it is still in use, very much lived in, well kept not because someone decided to preserve a town. It is well kept because it is in use. Continue reading

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Drugs, horses and tea in Donglianhua

P1110020Nestled among the patchwork plains of Weishan county, over the Cangshan mountains an hour from Dali is a little-known gem off the main tourist trails in Yunnan – the small working village of Donglianhua. By now you know I have a thing for authentic small villages in China. Donglianhua is certainly that. But what makes this place a bit more special are its stories of wartime derring-do, a checkered past, a Mongolian lineage and its place as one of China’s Muslim villages. Continue reading

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Dali and Cangshan

20191227_110354In the shadow of the Cangshan mountain range, by the placid shores of Erhai lake, Dali has long attracted travelers. For some time, its reputation for being a laidback backpacker magnet drew crowds who liked its chill, foreigner-friendly vibes. Certainly today, it is still a draw – if you like crowds and retail therapy in what is now a pristinely renovated core that is more mall than village. Dali has lost its old town feel. Chock a block with bars, shops, restaurants and hotels, Dali is for me a cautionary tale in the commercialisation of China’s old villages. Contrary as this may sound, Dali is still worth a stay – not extended – but enough to cover the gems dotted around the countryside nearby. Continue reading

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Faded glories of Tuanshan and Jianshui

P1100895Yunnan is known for its tribal diversity but this far south, you can still find some Ming and Qing dynasty gems tucked away in the countryside. The tiny village of Tuanshan in particular, is a place where time has stayed still. People, largely the elderly, still live in the majestic houses off its tranquil cobblestoned lanes. I’ve been to some of  China’s most picturesque old villages in Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu. But little Tuanshan can certainly hold its own. Unlike some villages where the tourism machine has completely taken over, Tuanshan remains unassuming, its beauty lying in the fact that it is still, at its core, a lived in space, occupied by a real community. And here, life quietly goes on, pretty much as it has for hundreds of years.  Continue reading

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