Places Visited: Three cities in the Honghe Prefecture, Yunnan Province China: Yuanyang (元 阳), though I stayed in Xinjie (新 界), Gejiu (个 旧), and Jianshui (建 水).
This Exploration started with me and my three companions (Erin, Cara, and Alexa) taking a overnight sleeper bus from the West Kunming Bus Station to Yuanyang, specifically a town called Xinjie. We started out on a funny note: We bought tickets for 7:30 PM and asked the bus driver if this was the correct bus. 7:30 came and went. We find out that we had actually boarded the 8:00 PM bus to Yuanyang, and the bus driver didn’t tell us we were on the wrong bus. Well, when the bus started moving, we were all glad that we weren’t kicked off. When traveling by sleeper bus with unassigned seating, plan on getting on the bus about two hours before it leaves if you want good seats and places to store your belongings. We got on the bus an hour or so before the bus was scheduled to leave and we got the last four beds. I was forced to take the top bunk, which is very small, and I felt like I could roll off at any time. Another thing about sleeper buses or trains is that they reek of feet. So if you want fresh air, look for a window bed.
When we arrived at the Xinjie bus station at 4:30 AM I was fast asleep. Since the buses don’t leave again anytime soon, passengers are allowed to continue sleeping on them until about dawn (6:30 AM), but even before 6:00 AM we wake up to flashlights going around and in the bus looking for foreigners and tourists. A few people approach us about hiring them to take us to all of the viewing areas in Yuanyang in one day for about 500 kuai. We turn all of them down until a particular pregnant lady named Belinda gets on the bus and speaks to us in English. She convinces us to hire her friend Bai Xiansheng (Mr. Bai) for 250 kuai for the entire day. Dividing that among four people is not a bad deal. We couldn’t decide if this was going to be sketchy or an amazing experience – it was definitely the latter. We leave the bus station before dawn, and, after buying the entrance fee to the terraces for 30 kuai, we arrive at the farthest possible viewing area just after the sky started getting brighter.
One major obstacle for taking pictures of the sunrise is that it is very foggy in the mountains. The terraces range from 140 meters to almost 3,000 meters above sea level at its highest. At the first viewing area, I saw the mist blow in from the peak of the mountain and from the low valley. It was breathtaking. The two different directions met in the middle over the rice terraces. Most of the viewing spots Bai Xiansheng took us to were at the top of the mountains. As the wind rushed by my ears, it sounded more like waves crashing along a shore than wind.
http://mappery.com/maps/Yuanyang-Rice-Terraces-Map.thumb.jpg This map shows the one or two main roads that go through these mountains. This is a large mountain range with tiny towns spotted all over the place. In one glance from any area, you could probably see two to three small villages that were off of the main road. In the Yuanyang area, there are 928 villages with the majority of them inhabited by only one ethnic group. On top of the villages, you can also see tiny huts and houses alone in the middle of the terraces. Throughout the day, I saw about 50-60 people working in the fields, but I’m sure there were more out there.
The terraced rice paddies were created at least 1,300 years ago by the Hani ethnic minority. The Hani and the Yi are the original inhabitants and builders of Yuanyang. Over time five other ethnic groups joined the area, including the Miao, Yao, Dai, and Zhuang, and Han Ethnic Groups, though only four of those are ethnic minorities. The women of these minority groups still wear traditional ethnic costumes. On the side of the road I could see many Hani people hand-making their very colorful ethnic dress. They would then sell these items to tourists (I bought some beautiful handmade Hani items).
Our driver for the day, Bai Xiansheng, is a member of the Yi Ethnic Minority. If my group had chosen any other driver, I don’t think our day would have been as enjoyable. Bai Xiansheng knew this area like the back of his hand. He stopped at places just at the side of the road when he saw that the sun had hit the water perfectly so that it glowed orange. Although he spoke no English, between the limited Chinese of all of us, we could easily communicate. He spent about eight hours that Friday driving us around to different locations.
We could see the measures that the Xinjie and the surrounding areas were taking to conserve water. Water to the restrooms was turned off over the entire area at 2:00 PM. This is an understandable measure to take when the drought threatens the crops all over Yunnan, especially when terraces full of water are required to grow rice. At a glance, I would say that about 15-20% of the terraces were completely dry from the drought. There has been no rain in about six months, and this drought is called the worst drought in 60 years. Bai Xiansheng kept saying gan, gan, gan (dry 干). All over Southern China, the drought has left millions of people without adequate drinking water, and in some areas, the soil is too dry to start spring planting.
After two nights in Xinjie, we took a 25 kuai bus to the nearby city of Gejiu. It is actually a very mountainous and scary two-and-a-half-hour bus ride. The driver got so close to the edge of the road that I found myself actually praying that I would please make it to Gejiu without first rolling into a ditch. The bus ride had some spectacular views of the mountains. As soon as I stopped seeing rice terraces, I saw whole mountainsides full of the famous Yunnan banana trees. As we looked up the mountainsides, we could see the lines where the banana trees stopped and pine trees and a wide variety of deciduous trees began. All I kept thinking about during this ride was how beautiful China is, and I’M IN CHINA!!! WHEEE!!!
Gejiu, the fifth largest city in Yunnan Province, was an easy one-day stop. Gejiu holds China’s largest tin deposits and about 90% of the city’s industry is mining. There is only one way into the city through a narrow mountain pass. Gejiu is an extremely modern town with a beautiful lake in the center of the town. The lake was actually created by a mining accident, and after a huge flood they decided to make it a park. On Sunday afternoon, there were hundreds of people walking around the lake flying kites or playing Chinese checkers and majiang. Because Gejiu is located in a crater-like valley with steep valley walls, the city has built up with densely-packed modern high rises. Lonely Planet says that Gejiu has a definite European feel to it. I could see that Gejiu did not look like most other Chinese cities, and there was some strange European-looking arches and buildings randomly scattered throughout the city.
Gejiu is not a cheap place to find accommodations and food for foreigners. There are guesthouses in this city, but they are reserved for Chinese tourists. We ended up paying 270 kuai for a four-bed suite for one night. The only criteria we had was that the room had a working toilet and shower (since we hadn’t showered in three days while in Yuanyang). The toilet worked, but it was ice cold water. We ate at a place called French Café (Lonely Planet recommended it). The funny thing is that you would think French Café serve French food – absolutely not. The restaurant served a mix of Chinese, Indian, and Italian Food.
One interesting find for our group was the discovery of a little kids’ fair on the lake. There was a pottery-painting place, and for 20 kuai, we painted a statue of two little pigs on a boat – we named it S.S. SIT (for our SIT study abroad program). We were planning on giving it to our Academic Director, Lu Yuan, but the pottery did not survive the bumpy bus ride from Gejiu to Jianshui. The brown pig has Cara’s eyes. She is half Irish and half Chinese. The pink pig has Erin’s Japanese eyes. We were going to say that this pottery represented the diversity of our SIT Study Abroad group, but I think we were just having fun painting with random colors!
In the morning we found Baohua Park. There is a chairlift in this park that takes you to a 600-700 year old Daoist Temple. I don’t think I would recommend that anyone would take this chairlift up or down the mountain. I would have walked up if I didn’t have my camping backpack with me. Towards the top of the mountain, the chairs we were sitting in started swaying and going in circles. It was very nerve-racking. Once at the top of the mountain, we found the pagoda and main temples all under renovation. New buildings were also being added to the temple complex.
Gejiu is not generally a foreign tourist attraction, so four American girls walking down the street got stared at a lot. This was not a problem though. The cutest thing was when the old men would just turn their heads, you would say ni hao, and they would give us the biggest smile, a thumbs up, and say hen hao. Every time one of us would say anything in Chinese to the people in Gejiu, they would react this way after the initial shock of seeing four foreigners walking randomly by.
By the lake, while we were sitting on a bench, a man with the cutest dog came up and told us, “My dog can do tricks, want to see?” So the dog proceeded to do the cutest tricks. It seemed like the man just wanted an audience to show off his dog. We ended up talking to him for a while about his dog and why we were in Gejiu.
We were told that Jianshui is something that could be seen in one day. So we decided to go there before heading back to Kunming. The bus ride from Gejiu to Jianshui was only an hour and a half long and cost 23 kuai. We choose our hotel from the reviews that Lonely Planet gave. (Side note: Lonely Planet is a very safe and solid starting place for travelers, but in the end, get out of the book and just walk around.) In the evening, that’s what we did. I thought we were completely lost, but apparently we were going in a circle the whole time. How did I not realize we were turning corners all night? We stumbled across old cobble stone streets that had traditional Chinese-style architecture.
Jianshui is known for its traditional architecture, and everything worth seeing within the city is within a fifteen minute walk from the city center. Marking the city center is the old city gate. This is not too spectacular, although it might be one of the highest points in Jianshui. To the west about fifteen minutes from the city gate lies the 1,200 year old Confucius Temple. This is one of the largest Confucian Temples in China and is well kept and breathtakingly beautiful. I spent about twenty minutes listening to a musician play his Erhu in the pavilion on the lake in front of the temple. The front area that is directly outside the part of the temple where a ticket is needed is used as a peaceful recreational area for members of the community. I saw a group of elderly citizens practicing some Beijing Opera, many tables of men playing games, and countless numbers of grandparents walking around with small children. Inside the walls of the temple, the music died away, and there were significantly less people. I think that the temple itself is purely a tourist attraction now. Even with student ID’s, it cost 30 kuai to get a ticket for this part of the temple. I saw only two tour guides with groups of Chinese tourists following closely behind. One man took out his camera and took a picture of me.
The other major in-city tourist attraction is the Qing Dynasty family home. This family spent 30 years building this beautiful home in the 1800’s, but after supporting the wrong causes and uprisings, they were executed in the early 1900’s. When the Communists took over in 1949, this 22,000 square meter house and garden was used as a dormitory for a school and government offices. Ten years ago, the government decided to restore it to its previous glory and open it to the public. The living quarters were turned into a hotel. I think this family home now holds upwards of 100 hotel rooms. These rooms remain in the Qing Dynasty fashion so that the guests can understand how people lived in the past.
Even when I’m in the process of seeing the tourist attractions in different cities, I often became the tourist attraction for Chinese tourists. It is something almost every westerner who looks different from Chinese people has to deal with when going to smaller and less popular tourist sites. This happened in all three places on this trip. In Yuanyang, Chinese tourists at the different viewing sites asked to take pictures with the entire group of American girls with the rice paddies in the background. In Gejiu, Alexa and I went into a store to buy a shirt we liked and the ladies helping us took turns taking pictures with each of us. And in Jianshui, the tourists at the Confucian temple took pictures of me a number of times. 99% of the time this is completely amusing and fine. Just give them a smile and move on. Chinese people also take more pictures of the stereotypical blonde hair blue eyed westerners. I’m not either of those, so I get less attention than some travelers.
This week taught me that even with limited Chinese language skills, I can get around China easily. It is very exciting for me to be able to do this! The next step is to get the courage to talk to more Chinese people I meet along the way so that I can practice the language skills I am learning. Another exciting thing when on the road is to realize that I can make sense some of these Chinese characters!!! With the combined effort of me and my three companions we could often read something and understand most of it.
This is exciting!