Not 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
Weishan 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
Nestled 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
In 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
Yunnan 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
Stunning. Jaw-dropping. Magnificent. Just throw any superlative in there and it would not be wrong in describing the beauty of the rice terraces at Yuanyang Yunnan. Yuanyang seen in a misty dawn in a sea of thick clouds, Yuanyang at dusk with its water-logged terraces dressed in mauves and pinks or Yuanyang with its tribal residents and their many dogs, chickens, water buffalo and geese. You’re in the midst of a landscape that is constantly changing with the clouds and the wind; and yet nothing has actually changed much in a millenia. Leave the tourist overlooks, ignore the kid dressed in tribal clothes, her palm outstretched for a ‘photo fee’ and walk deep into the rice terraces, sit on a bank of earth, and have your own personal communion with the magnificence that rises all around you.
Yunnan is huge and distances between points of interest can be large. Having a car and driver means freedom from an itinerary pegged to public transport schedules. If you intend to cover a lot of ground or if you have an itinerary that includes going off the beaten track, are short on time and don’t want to be tied down to public transport, getting a car and driver is a good idea. This makes even more sense if you have a relatively large group of family or friends, as we did. When shared among a group, car and driver can prove to be a surprisingly economical option. Here’s how we found our car and driver in Yunnan and some tips and advice from the lessons we learned on hindsight.