Winter Travels I: Chengdu, Kunming, Dali: 14 January - 28 January 2006

I had about one month remaining on my visa after my teaching contract with IMMC ended in mid January and decided to use it to visit Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in the southwest of China. Since I had more luggage than I could reasonably carry along on my tour, I decided to leave the big bags in Chengdu and tour about from there.

Following weeks of goodbyes from fellow teachers, students, and other friends in Hohhot, I boarded a sleeper the afternoon of January 14 and spent some 40 hours on the train, arriving in Chengdu the morning of January 16. After some initial confusion I learned that I could not pick up the bags I had checked as cargo for several hours,so to limber up my legs after the long train ride I walked from the train station to the Mix Hostel, where I stayed in Chengdu. I found the hostel easily, checked into my room, enjoyed a hot breakfast, and checked my email. By then it was time to return to the train station to pick up my large bags, which I took by taxi back to the hostel and checked into their free baggage storage room. A fairly short walk from the hostel is the Wenshu monastery, a large complex with many buildings, gardens, and shrines. Particularly interesting to me was the Hall of 500 Arhats where upstairs was a large hall with the Arhats statues each in individual numbered cells and downstairs had a large, colorful prayer hall. Also inside the monastery is a highly-rated vegetarian restaurant where the monks prepare vegetarian dishes disguised as Sichuanese meat dishes. I decided to have a late lunch at the restaurant and enjoyed two excellent dishes.

The next morning I took a bus to the western part of Chengdu to visit Qingyang Temple or the "Green Ram Monastery", one of China's most famous Daoist temples. In the central courtyard of the complex lies the Eight Diagrams Pavilion, a wooden structure built entirely without nails and reflecting the eternal principle of the Bagua, or the eight trigrams of Daoist philosophy. Inside the main building, named the "Hall of Three Purities", were statues of the supreme Daoist deities and the 12 golden immortals. Like most of the temples I had visited in China, Qingyang included many interesting incense burners and much colorful woodwork. The temple also had some interesting stone tablets depicting the Yin/Yang symbol and Chinese zodiac.

From Qingyang Temple I walked a bit further west to Du Fu's Thatched Cottage, which one of my guidebooks describes as an "essential place of homage for Chinese". Du Fu was a Tang dynasty poet who is widely considered to be China's greatest. During the An Lushan Rebellion he escaped to Chengdu and wrote poems about his harsh life in exile, including a "verse for the destruction of my thatched-roof cabin by the autumn windstorm". Besides a replica of Du Fu's thatched cottage (an interior view), the large, park-like site also had many interesting gardens and exhibits and a pond through which a stone footpath led to a small museum surrounding an archaeological pit similar to those I had seen at the Terracotta Warriors near Xi'an. As you might expect for an "essential place of homage", many famous political figures have visited Du Fu's Thatched Cottage and near a small exhibit depicting such visits is a screen wall with the Chinese characters for "thatched cottage". The exhibit included photos of many of these famous visitors posing in front of this screen wall, including Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping. I decided to join in and asked a fellow tourist to snap a shot of me at the screen wall, though I doubt mine will be appearing in the exhibit anytime soon!

The next morning I took a tour van to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center outside the city. During my stay in Chengdu there was near always a heavy haze and/or smog and you may have already noticed its effect on my photos, but it was so heavy that morning at the Panda Research Center that there just wasn't enough light to get good photos of the pandas, but here's a panda in a tree and a pair of pandas eating that at least aren't too blurred. The Center also had a section with red pandas, which look more like raccoons than their cousins the giant pandas.

That evening I attended a Sichuan Opera, something more akin to a variety show than to a western opera. It included music, juggling/acrobatics, skits, puppets, shadow puppets, and a finale with fire breathing and face changing, an amazing spectacle where the actors' facial masks change instantly and seemingly magically in front of your eyes.

The next morning I took a public bus about two hours to the Leshan Giant Buddha scenic area, site of the world's largest stone Buddha. The area is quite large and there are a number of ways to get to the Giant Buddha itself. I walked through the park past countless other Buddhas, eventually climbing a stairway with a handrail covered in padlocks (apparently people write wishes on the locks) to another Buddha, through a cave-like passageway past a many-armed Bodhisattva, and to a plateau on the edge of the cliff level with the head of the Giant Buddha. On the plateau was a small temple with interesting arhats, and from the plateau a set of narrow stairs wound down the cliff beside the Big Buddha. It apparently wasn't prime tourist season, as there was no waiting to enter the stairway and climb down to a small platform along the river at the feet of the Big Buddha. Since the Dadu and Min rivers, whose turbulent waters the Buddha was meant to calm, run right past the feet of the 233 foot (71 m) high Buddha, I couldn't get far enough away to fit the full sculpture in my frame, but here's a view looking up from his left toes to his head. The boat tour likely offered a fuller view, but I was running out of time to catch the bus back to Chengdu before I found the departure point for the boats. From the feet of the Big Buddha I followed a trail that gradually ascended the cliff on the other side of the Buddha from where the stairs had led down, passing this cliffside teahouse along the way and leading me back to the plateau at his head. I headed back down the mountain, passing these vaguely erotic sculptures and catching a quick glimpse through the haze of a large reclining Buddha carving on my way out of the park to catch a bus back to Chengdu. The bus back finished at a different station in the south of the city causing me a bit of confusion, but through sign language and rough translations I figured out which bus to take to a more familiar part of the city.

The next morning, January 20, I did some shopping then reorganized my baggage, taking what I wanted for my travels in Yunnan and leaving the rest in storage at the hostel. In the early afternoon I caught a sleeper train to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province and renowned as the "city of eternal spring". After the constant haze and smog that had characterized my stay in Chengdu, I was hoping for sunnier skies in Kunming.

I arrived in Kunming the morning of Saturday, January 21, and the overcast weather had apparently followed me from Chengdu. After getting settled into a hotel, I spent the remainder of the day walking around the city to stretch my legs and get my bearings. I spent quite a while strolling, relaxing, and people-watching in Cuihu or Green Lake park, actually an intersection of four small lakes with paths winding between them. Birds swirled around the lake and there was an interesting zig-zag bridge. The campus of Yunnan University was also impressive, with large trees and beautiful gardens.

The next morning I went by tour van to the Stone Forest, an outcrop of limestone karsts about 75 scenic miles (120 km) southeast of Kunming. Modern pathways and stairs ran through the "forest" and one could climb a pavilion for a view over the karsts, but you were also free to climb on and around the karsts themselves. I spent a long time wandering around the fascinating formations, squeezing through narrow crevasses and looking out from cave-like passages, often reached via steep, slippery stairs. Near the center of the karsts was a small pond called the Sword Pool that offered countless opportunities to experiment with photographing reflections (1 2 3 4). Scattered about the karsts were the ubiquitous souvenir stands. There was also a wall-like formation called the Stone Screen in front of which tourists could pose in colorful rented costumes. Near the entrance to the park was a small lake with karsts. Walking around this lake led to a small village where members of the local Yi minority appeared to live a more traditional life with drying corn hanging on many of the brick walls. As I worked my way back to the van, I came across a very crowded fish pond and a music and dance show.

The next day I toured some sites in Kunming city, beginning with Yuantong Temple, a large Buddhist complex in the north of the city. Like most temples I had visited, Yuantong had pleasant gardens, figures, and buildings with colorful architecture. Fairly distinctive was this octagonal temple to Guanyin which rose from the center of a square pool. From there I headed south to the West Pagoda, which was built between 824 and 859 during the Tang dynasty. From here I walked a short distance to the East Pagoda along a street with old red walls and interesting metal sculptures (1 2 3). The East Pagoda was rebuilt in 1882 after the original was destroyed by a strong earthquake in 1833. At the foot of the pagoda was a small park with a pleasant garden and several Mahjong players. For the first time since I'd left Hohhot the overcast had lifted so I sat in the garden awhile watching the people and enjoying the sun.

The next morning, January 24, I left Kunming by express bus headed to the town of Dali. The bus arrived at a station in Xiaguan, the newer and less interesting section of Dali, and as soon as I stepped out of the station I was quickly surrounded by a throng of taxi drivers wanting to take me to the old city of Dali. From my guidebook I knew that I could get there much more cheaply via a public bus, and I jumped on the first bus that came by just to escape the taxi drivers long enough to check which bus I needed. As it turned out, I was actually on the bus I wanted and upon arrival in Dali's old city I checked into a guesthouse and spent the rest of the day wandering around the interesting streets (1 2 3).

A few kilometers outside the north gate of old town Dali are the famous Three Pagodas, according to my guidebook the oldest standing structures in Yunnan province. After a leisurely breakfast I decided to walk to them, exploring along the way. Since both my guidebooks mentioned that the pagodas were not particularly interesting up close, once I arrived I decided not to pay the entrance fee but instead admired them from outside the wall. The neighborhood around the pagodas was also interesting, with quiet alleys and interesting doorways and courtyards. Some children, led by one rather assertive lad, saw my camera and insisted that I take their photo. Apparently the assertive lad is an aspiring Jackie Chan! Dali is famous for its marble (my guidebook notes that the Chinese word for "marble" literally means "stone of Dali") and on the way back from the pagodas I passed through one of several neighborhoods filled with shops selling all manner of items made from marble, ranging from small ashtrays and containers to marble "paintings" and marble furniture. Most appeared to be factory shops and some had workers carving or engraving the marble. I spent the remainder of the afternoon leisurely strolling and shopping for souvenirs. In the evening I had dinner at a sidewalk cafe on on Huguo Lu, also known as Jangren Jie or "Foreigner's Street" because of the many establishments catering to western visitors. Despite the rather tacky tourist orientation of the street, I quite enjoyed watching the numerous wide-eyed Chinese tourists stroll along the street gawking at the westerners and studying what we were eating and drinking. I am not sure who found foreigner's street more amusing: the foreigners or the Chinese.

The next morning I took a cable car up the Cangshan Mountains to Zhonghe Temple (1 2). Though it was rather hazy, the cable car ride and a platform in front of the temple offered a good view of the rectangular, walled Dali old city and Erhai Lake beyond. The temple itself had much colorful woodwork (1 2) and after watching me photograph it two women who were cleaning it insisted that I take their pictures as well (1 2).

Passing by Zhonghe Temple is a walking path called Cloudy Tourist Road. More of a sidewalk than a trail, Cloudy Tourist Road is cut into the side of the mountains and winds into and out of several valleys so that it remains nearly level for the entire 10+ kilometers (6+ miles) south from Zhonghe Temple to the road's rather abrupt ending. Along the way I paid a few RMB to follow a side path about 300 meters to some kind of old fort cut into the rocks that a sign called "Feng Yan Dong". I also followed another short side trail from the back of the last valley to some small pools and waterfalls that a sign called "Seven Dragon-daughter Pools". From near the end of the Cloudy Tourist Road a smaller trail led to the right though what a sign called the "Cangshan Grand Canyon" (1 2). I followed it awhile as it wound further up the valley into the mountains, then turned back to ensure that I could get down off the mountain before dark. Down the valley to the left of Cloudy Tourist road was a large Chinese chess board, and I followed a trail down to it where I saw that the locals seemed to prefer playing Chinese chess on a smaller board. Just below this was a small building where some monkeys and/or apes (1 2) were rather cruelly confined. As I was studying the animals, some local residents whom I had met at the Seven Dragon-daughter Pools arrived, which proved fortunate as they led me along the path down out of the mountains, which was at times unclear, and also guided me to the correct bus to go back to Dali.

The previous day I had met another foreign teacher and two of her students who were kind enough to translate for me at a travel agency and then invited me to chip in with them on a van they were renting to explore some sites north of Dali the next day, Thursday, January 20. That morning they found me at the computer in my guesthouse replying to an email I had just received from them specifying where and when to meet. Since I had had to wait on queue to use the guesthouse computer, by the time I saw the email it was already past the designated meeting time and I was writing to say I wouldn't be able to make it. As I was finishing the email, I felt a tap on my shoulder and there they were to pick me up! Our first stop was a small Bai village about 1/2 hour north of Dali. I believe the village was called Zhoucheng though I am not certain as my notes are not clear. The driver dropped us at a crowded street market, but since another stop on our itinerary was the largest market in Yunnan we just took a quick walk through this market then found the driver and asked to continue to the old part of town. Here we strolled among the many courtyards admiring the traditional Bai architecture (1 2 3 4). Also visible were some remnants of the Cultural Revolution, such as this scoreboard of communal production statistics. The resident of one house allowed us to visit his upstairs where he kept this award plaque that he had saved from destruction during the Cultural Revolution. From there we drove to the bustling Youshuo market, supposedly the largest market in Yunnan province. Here shoppers, many in colorful traditional garb, shopped for items ranging from yarn to fruits and sugar cane to some less appealing foods apparently used in traditional Chinese medicine. There were even dentists practicing on the street. Our final stop was at a traditional batik or tie-dye factory that had colorful racks of tie-dye clothing. In the factory shop I purchased one of the traditional batik tablecloths.

The next morning I did some more souvenir shopping and posted some souvenirs and gifts back to the U.S. In the afternoon I caught a bus to the town of Lijiang, the next stop in my winter travels.



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