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
Drugs, horses and tea in Donglianhua
Dali and Cangshan
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
Faded glories of Tuanshan and Jianshui
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
Yuanyang rice terraces, Yunnan
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.
Hiring a driver and car in Yunnan
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.
China travel: a checklist of essentials
Travel in China is always a learning journey. Despite several trips to China, there’s still always something new to learn. This time, it’s learning how we can go cashless like the Chinese. Everytime I see them whipping out their phones and transacting I marvel – they make it look so fast and easy. And it is – that is, unless you’re a foreigner like me. This trip we experimented with Alipay’s newly minted cash-free option for foreign travelers – Tour Pass. Communication-wise, we also bought SIM cards from vendors in Singapore to use in China to see how and if it would work to get us connected to the world beyond China. We also tried buying a VPN subscription to see if that could get us past the firewalls. To get from point to point, we traveled by a combination of train and car. Train travel in China has also evolved quite quickly in the direction of paper-less travel, making connections seamless even for foreigners.
13 days in Yunnan, China
Stunning natural landscapes, 1000-year-old towns, and more than half of China’s tribal minorities make Yunnan one of China’s most beautiful and culturally diverse provinces. Its varied geography meant that travelers could go from the tropical south of Xishuangbanna close to the Vietnamese/Myanmar borders all the way to the soaring snow-capped mountains way in the north, closer to Tibet. Being in the south of China, Yunnan is known for its mild winters, which we thought could offer a nice cool December getaway. Yunnan was always on my bucket list but we just never got down to it. And so when Thai Airways came up with a great offer of SGD360 for an air ticket, that pretty much sealed the deal. Continue reading
The Sanriku Coast
The weather report said rain. And boy did it pour. But that did not put a damper on our plans to explore one of Japan’s most beautiful coastlines – the Sanriku Coast. No doubt, when you google pictures of the Sanriku coast, you would see many pictures of the strikingly dramatic sea cliffs or the pretty Jodogahama Beach in gorgeous weather with the blue Pacific ranging from a dark deep blue to a turquoise clarity under sunny skies. But seeing the Sanriku Coast in all its rainy, windswept broodiness, brings forth drama and a tinge of sadness – especially when you know how the coast, and many of its townships and villages were hit by the tsunami. So no, we were privileged to see the Sanriku Coast quite differently – with all its angry frothy waves, its cliffs obscured by mist and rain. And we loved it.
Entsuin: awash in beauty
Fat plops, silver needles, fine mist, heaven’s super soakers on full blast, we braved all forms of Japan’s rainy season in early summer. Tsuyu, that transition between the coolness of spring and the oven heat of summer, is often said to be a bad time to visit Japan. Because who wants soggy shoes when traveling right? But Japan is one of those places where the rainy season creates a certain beauty of its own. The screen of misty drizzle brings out the best in the classical Japanese garden. In Matsushima, in the rain, I found one of the best I’ve seen in Japan – an under-rated gem of a Japanese temple garden: Entsuin. Continue reading
Journey north: Tohoku & South Hokkaido
On March 11, 2011 the world watched in horror as wave after wave from the Pacific swept inexorably over the north-eastern coast of Japan’s Honshu island. Those videos and images of devastation gripped the world. A scant month or so after the 3/11 tsunami, I visited Japan and found a country bereft – the swarms of tourists had abandoned it with yet another tsunami of cancellations. Japan was grieving and still coming to terms with their losses. In July 2011, I visited the epicentre – Tohoku – and amidst the colour of the Tanabata festival, found a people rebuilding, stoic and resilient and hopeful. This time, in middle of the early summer rains, I went to Tohoku again.