Below are some photos we took of a Shanxi Opera performance in the city of Pingyao. Shanxi Opera is known as Jin Opera 晋剧 in China and it’s popularity has spread far further afield than just Shanxi Province.
It should be noted that most of the male roles are played by women
Three Days In Danba. From Kanding, Danba is approached through a deep valley where the road runs along- side a fast-flowing river. As you draw close to Danba, the first watch towers begin to appear on the hills on the other side of the river.
The towers look a bit like industrial chimneys, but they are rectangular rather than round, though some of them have 6, 8 or even 13 corners. Some stand alone, while others form clusters. Their height ranges from 30 to 60 metres, the former being the most common.
Not much is known about the origin and use of these mysterious structures, which apparently can only be found in very few Tibetan areas. They are estimated to be between 200 and a thousand years old, and were almost certainly used for military purposes and to provide shelter for the population in times of danger.
The Aba prefecture of Sichuan province
However, the fact that some of them are huddled together in groups seems to contradict any military utility as look-out posts. Another theory therefore suggests that they might have been some kind of status symbols; their construction possibly related to the birth of a son. The Aba prefecture of Sichuan province seems to have the most, in particular the area of Danba and nearby Badi, where some 300 to 400 specimen remain. Many are still in an excellent state of preservation and can be visited easily.
Danba landscape and first towers
Danba itself is a rather ordinary small town with a great setting at the confluence of two rivers and towered by walls of rock. The town boasts several hotels, a number of small eateries, lots of shops and even a supermarket, as well as friendly inhabitants. Moreover, the surrounding countryside has a wealth of architectural gems to offer.
not really having a clue about what to see or do in Danba
Armed only with a couple of brochures we had picked up at the Tourism Fair in Kanding, and not really having a clue about what to see or do in Danba, we approached a local taxi driver and hired him for 130 Yuan for the afternoon. He suggested that we should start our visit at a Tibetan village called Jiaju. The ride up there is beautiful: as you climb up the winding roads, the green hills surrounding you are dotted with small Tibetan settlements and punctuated by watch towers.
The architecture here is quite distinct, the farmhouses are sturdy square blocks, built in layers around an enclosed courtyard, and topped by towers and little turrets. The turrets and some of the layers are whitewashed, lending the buildings the wholesome appearance of cakes. In the available literature, this type of settlements is referred to as “stockaded” villages, though they are not surrounded by any actual fences. Perhaps “fortified” villages would be a more accurate description, given the high walls, narrow window slits and enclosed courtyards of the individual dwellings.
When we arrived at Jiaju, we were surprised to find that we had to buy a ticket to enter, and that the village had been listed as a potential Unesco Heritage Site. It is a stunningly beautiful place, though perhaps a little too perfect for our liking. The houses are clean, spacious and beautifully decorated: the frames of doors and windows are carved and painted in bright colours, flowers liven up the courtyards and small prayer-flags flutter between the turrets. Nowadays, many of these houses double up as guesthouses and offer meals.
However beautiful the village, the real highlight of our visit to Jaiju was when we stumbled by coincidence on the local residents, rehearsing their songs and dances for the Danba festival, which was going to be held a few days later. The performers were wearing their traditional costumes. In the case of the women this consisted of a long black skirt with embroidered borders and belt, plus a white blouse with oversized, trailing sleeves, used for enhancing movements when dancing.
Their heads were covered in black embroidered cloths too, and they wore lots of bulky jewellery in which amber, coral and turquoise stones predominated. Though they looked very pretty and authentic, we were amused to see blue jeans and t-shirts popping out from underneath most of the young girls outfits!
the men were swaggering about in Chinese tunics and baggy trousers
Meanwhile the men were swaggering about in Chinese tunics and baggy trousers, tucked into red and black hand-made leather boots with pointy, upturned toes. Oversized heavy Tibetan coats, with the characteristically long sleeves, were tied and draped around their waists or shoulders, while their heads were covered by curious, fur-lined pot-shaped hats with upturned flaps, or Mexican-style sombreros.
Rehearsals were being held on a small, stony platform, with the audience reclining on the grass of the surrounding hills. All performances, regardless of quality, were cheered and applauded: the young girls, twirling around gracefully, as well as the serious old men who pranced up and down the stage stiffly and gravely, thinking they were dancing. However, the show was definitely stolen by a group of squat little grannies who did a disco dance, albeit in slow motion, to American pop-music blaring from a couple of primitive speakers.
the village of Suo Po
After this, we back-tracked to the village of Suo Po, which is only a couple of kilometres away from Danba and has a superb group of watch towers. To reach the village, you have to cross a wood and steel suspension bridge, completely covered in prayer-flags, flapping furiously in the wind. However, once you are there, Suo Po is the real thing; the village is rural, beautiful and unchanged. It seems prosperous enough, with lots of orchards and vegetable gardens, and plenty of livestock, such as chickens, pigs and even yaks, wandering around. The old farmsteads are huge, multi-storied buildings with court yards and flat roofs. Some of them serve as guesthouses too.
the views from the top were spectacular
To get to the group of watch towers we had to climb up through the village, picking our way carefully over rocks and shrubs, accompanied by some village children and a couple of stray dogs. One of the topmost towers is hexagonal and perfectly preserved. Two local boys unlocked one of the towers for us, showing us how to work the ancient locks, as well as the remains of some ancient paintings, barely visible in the dark room at the base. They also allowed us to climb the tower, first on sturdy wooden ladders, but finally balancing precariously on a tree trunk with footholds carved out in it. However, the views from the top were spectacular and most certainly worth the effort.
Our destination was Badi
The next day we spent again with our driver, this time paying him 180 Yuan for the whole day. Our destination was Badi, one of the villages we had been told about by Mr Lee, the famous tourist guide in Chengdu (see the Chengdu section). Badi is no more than 35 kilometres from Danba, tucked a way in another valley, accessible only along a pretty poor stretch of road. In fact, the year before there had been major landslides at Badi and the surrounding area, killing more than 50 people, including 4 tourists from Shanghai, an event we were blissfully unaware of.
On the way to Badi we passed the unremarkable white-tile village of Ba Wang, which houses a highly recommendable ancient temple and monastery that the monks claim is more than 800 years old. The carved and painted columns topped by animal heads, such as bears and stags, lend the temple a mystic and medieval atmosphere, which is quite moving.
The real treasure of the monastery
The real treasure of the monastery is to be found in a back gallery, guarded by a heavy curtain: there are some large colourful wooden statues, but more importantly, the walls behind the statues are covered in ancient, beautiful frescos depicting Buddhist scenes. Unfortunately, most of the frescoes are extremely deteriorated and the monks have no way or funding to restore them.
Badi, when we eventually got there, turned out to be not so much a village as an area, covering a group of small hamlets on both sides of the river and connected by swaying plank bridges with colourful prayer flags. The countryside is incredibly green, lush and fertile, with abundant fruit trees: you can find apples, pears, pomegranates, as well as chestnuts. There are endless opportunities for hiking in this area. You can choose, as we did, to go along the river from village to village, or climb into the mountains where there are more villages, watch-towers and breath-taking views.
“Model Family House for Tourist Reception”
Returning towards Danba, we stopped for lunch at what was called a “Model Family House for Tourist Reception”; agro-tourism Chinese style . The house was beautifully painted and decorated and boasted a wonderful covered terrace, where we ate a typical Tibetan meal, surrounded by plants and flowers. There were shredded potatoes, dishes of spicy cabbage, fried green peppers, purplish stalk vegetables, and cold noodles.
The old lady, our host, really impressed us by knocking up some tasty vegetation food; especially given that this is real meat-eaters’ paradise. We were particularly partial to the Tibetan flat bread, filled with strong goats’ cheese. Our driver meanwhile was happily tucking into portions of smoky dried pork and belly fat. We washed our feast down with strong local liquor, of which our driver luckily tasted little, and salty yak-butter tea.
Finally, about 6 kilometres outside Danba, we visited the temple at Zhonglu, the biggest and principal monastery in the area. When we arrived, the monks were sitting cross-legged on the floor, eating an unappetising dinner of watery soup, with bits of meat floating in it. In spite of this, they were very welcoming and relaxed about our presence.
Much to our regret
Much to our regret, we had to leave Danba the next day. As we were heading out, just about all the Tibetans from the surrounding villages were making their way into town, dressed in their finest traditional clothes, adults as well as children. It was the Danba festival, and everyone was moving towards the sports stadium for a day of singing and dancing.
We consoled ourselves by saying that having seen the authentic thing at Jia Ju, it couldn’t possibly be as much fun to see it again in a more organised format. What’s more, watching everyone pouring into town for the festivities was good enough entertainment for the day.
Hotel “Mei Ren Gu”, in the centre of town, overlooking the gushing river, is a friendly and clean family-style hotel with its own restaurant in the basement. Rooms are very reasonable at about 80 Yuan, though the toilets are squats.
There are plenty of other places to stay in town, some even looking rather flash. There are small restaurants, snack-bars and shops as well.
There are some direct buses linking Kanding and Danba, but they do not run every day. An alternative solution is to take a share-taxi to Guza for 10 Yuan a person, taking about 30 minutes, and to pick up a mini-van from there, about 35 Yuan for 2 to 3 hours. Returning to Kanding, the situation is similar.
For excursions, it is relatively easy to hire a taxi for a day; expect to pay between 150 and 200 Yuan.
The Holy Man of Wutaishan: I thought I was bumping into a sage from China’s mystic past or even a larger than life Gandolf. The wispy beard and the implausibly brushy eyebrows harked back to an age of Chinese ledgends or Tolken’s Middle Earth.
The old monk was causing quite a stir; all the other monks, pilgrims and tourists were making an enormous fuss over him. Everywhere he went, he was stopped, greeted and revered.
Obviously, he must have been important figure in the world of Chinese Buddhism and his presence in Wutaishan shouldn’t have come as any surprise. There are few places more sacred to Chinese Buddhists than the 5 peaks of Wutaishan
The kids loved him too; especially his pointed staff. Some kept trying to touch it’s tip, others tagged on to his orange robe.
We never found out who he actually was, but he was incredibly photogenic and I think he knew it.
He smiled at me and the encouraged me to take some snaps. I must admit, I should have centered the camera better, but I was trying not to get in his way and that of his followers.
Changzi Accident Town 2016: It was one of those moments you will never forget. Our bus entered a tunnel close to the Shanxi city of Changzhi. In front of us was a small van, swerving slightly from side to side. Something was wrong. Was the driver drunk? Did they have a puncture? The traffic coming towards us on the other lane was relentless: lots of those enormous Shanxi coal trucks, fully laden and seemingly heading straight for our bus.
A quick decision
The van in front suddenly stopped dead in its tracks. We were in seats 1 and 2, right at the front. The bus driver had a split second to make a decision. Swerve and risk hitting the oncoming traffic head on, or let the inevitable rear- end collision happen. Luckily, he chose the latter and I am here to tell the story.
As we smashed into the back of the van, the front windows of the bus shattered and my hands, braced for impact, were twisted backwards and I felt a sharp pain. On the oncoming lane, the stream of coal trucks kept passsing us one after the other, their drivers oblivious to what had just happened.
We came to a grinding halt; the van was catapulted several meters in front of our bus by the impact, but fortunately not into the on- coming lane. There was a brief silence and then everyone laughed, relieved. My hands hurt but we were basically okay. We just had to flag down another bus.
After our own experience, I should not have been that surprised to read about another traffic accident in the vicinity of the city of Changzhi; the very same city where we had been involved in that near fatal accident.However, the crash I read about in the international press was truly astonishing.
This time, what happened was far more incredible. Apparently, a heavy goods lorry driver had been misled by his GPS / Satnav and had been directed on to an incredibly torturous and precipitous mountain road, instead of a more accessible and suitable one.
Shenlongwan village 神龙湾
This particular road in the vicinity of the city of Changzhi was built by hand by the villagers from Shenlongwan village 神龙湾 in the 1980s, keen to link their village with the outside world. It is exceedingly narrow, traverses numerous low tunnels and has huge drops into an abyss at every corner. In short, it’s totally unsuited to a huge, articulated lorry.
hammers and chisels
Hewn from the mountainside using hammers and chisels, the road took the villagers 15 years to construct between 1985 and 2000. Their endeavors have been rewarded by a surge in domestic tourists coming to visit the now accessible scenic area. Previously, the only access was via an ancient path of broken steps with vertical drops.
Amazingly, nobody was injured or killed in the incident and the lorry was retrieved and the road cleared again after 3 days of resue efforts. When you see the video footage (see video above), it seems inconceivable that the lorry didn’t plunge down the cliff.
off the beaten track
The dramatic scenery in the video inspired me to investigate a little more and find out about things to see and do around Changzhi. When we passed through, it appeared to be a reasonably ordered and tidy town, but without much charm.
However, digging a little deeper I found some surprises. Changzhi is way off the beaten track, but it makes a good base for some interesting excursions. Apart from the Shenlongwan village 神龙湾 scenic area, there are plenty of other areas worth exploring. The most notable ones are the Taihang Shan mountains 太行山大峡谷 and the Tongtianxia Gorge 通天峡, the Ice Frozen Cave and the Taohuadong. Interesting villages include Hongni Cun and Monkey Village 猕猴寨. We’ll just have to save them for next time!
Why were we passing by Changzhi?
Our bus that crashed had originated inPingyao. Our destination was Jincheng 晋城 , the closest town to Mr Chen’s Castle and the ancient city of Guoyu郭峪古城. Changzhi was where we had to change buses to get to Jincheng.
Nothing quite prepares you for your first sight of the bridge. Chengyang Bridge is what is known locally as a Wind and Rain Bridge. These covered wooden bridges were built with the purpose of literally protecting the farmers from the wind and rain and allowing people to sell their wares, sheltered from the elements.
Moreover, the bridge at Chengyang was built to help the locals cross the swollen Linxi River during the rainy season. The Chengyang (or Yongji) Wind and Rain Bridge is 64 meters long and 3.4 meters wide. Not one nail was used in its construction, which is said to have taken more than ten years and was completed in 1916.
On top of the bridge there are a number of beautiful eaved pavilions with one of them housing a small shrine. The whole structure rests on a number of sturdy stone columns that span the Linxi River.
Rural Charm and the Dong Minority
However, Chengyang’s charm lies not only in its bridge. The whole area is beautiful and embodies much of what attracts so many people to Asia: the peaceful, rural scenery of rice paddies, swaying bamboo, slow moving waterwheels and traditional wooden villages.
Then, there are the colourful local Dong people with their unique culture and language, which is related to Thai. As they mostly live in isolated, forested areas, the Dong people have only recently come into contact with the outside world.
The Dong are best known for the elegance and the exotic features of their architectural designs. Apart from Wind and Rain Bridges, the second most important architectural characteristic of Dong villages are the Drum Towers.
The Drum Towers
These incredible pyramid structures on stilts can be quite stunning, with beautifully carved statues and images of gods and musicians. Once used to warn the villages of impending danger, they now serve as a kind of communal hall, where locals gather to chat, play cards and enjoy a drink. And from what we saw, they can get pretty drunk!
There are plenty of hiking opportunities around Chengyang, taking you past many Wind and Rain Bridges, big and small, and through numerous Dong villages, all with their respective Drum Towers.
Chengyang Bridge and the surrounding Dong villages: The Villages
The village right by Chengyang bridge is called Ma’an and from here you can embark on a round walk that passes through two other villages, called Pingzai and Yanzai.
Around the Bridge and in Ma’an you may get accosted by Dong ladies, trying to sell you the purple ethnic jackets and embroidered halter tops that are typical in this region, but in the other villages there is nothing touristy whatsoever.
Overall, the Dong people seem pretty impervious to foreigners, neither being overly friendly, nor shy. During our stroll through the villages we came across a funeral and a jam session with long bamboo flutes, another Dong specialty, and on both occasions our presence didn’t cause a stir.
We can only hope that mass tourism, Chinese style, won’t wreak havoc on their culture.
Before crossing the bridge you have to buy an entrance ticket, which at that time cost a mere 8 Yuan, and which also gives you access to the eight surrounding Dong villages. Once you have got your ticket, you can stay as long as you like.
Accommodation and Food:
We stayed at the atmospheric Chengyang Bridge National Hostel, a weathered wooden structure with a large veranda, right next to the Chengyang Bridge. Rooms are nice, with large beds covered in mosquito netting and views over the river and the waterwheels. Bathrooms are shared, but clean. One word of warning: arachnophobes, such as Margie, may be unpleasantly surprised by the large, fast-moving spiders that tend to hang out in the bathrooms!
Food at the hostel is simple but good and the covered veranda is a great place to enjoy evening beers and meals. Simple snacks are available in some of the villages as well.
The friendly and helpful owner of the hostel, who calls himself Lao Wu, is an excellent source of information on what to do in the area. Among other things, he can provide you with hand-drawn maps and instructions for walks. He also hires out his minivan for excursions, or to take people to the bus station.
If you are heading to Zhaoxing, there is a direct bus leaving from Songjiang at 6.30 am. The owner of the hostel may give you a lift to Songjiang to catch this bus for around 40 Yuan, especially if he is going into town to pick up supplies.
If you wish to stay longer and explore some of the other Dong villages in the area, then Songjiang is the best base from which to reach them.
These days Roads are better and faster. Furthermore there is now a highspeed rail link joining these areas. Incredible when you think about it; 20 years ago this was an exotic off the beaten track experience.
We would love to know if the Chengyang Bridge National Hostel still exists?
We get to Pingyao from Taiyuan by bus. And even though our luggage is heavy and the hotel a bit further than we expected, we immediately take to the city. We’d half expected a heavily commercialized tourist trap, but instead find ourselves in a quiet town where time, away from the main drag, seems to have stood still!
All the dark, weathered, grey-brick houses with their elegantly sloping tiled and eaved roofs, their carved wooden doors and sculpted pillars are still intact; just as we remember them from our first visit. The hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops are mostly low-key and tastefully decorated in traditional style. The sky is blue, the air crisp and cold and the pervasive smell of burning coal takes us back to that first winter we spent in China, back in 1990.
TWO DAYS IN PINGYAO: The Yinde Hotel
The Yinde Hotel turns out to be a centuries old former merchants’ home, tucked away in a quiet alley; its simple but comfortable rooms with enormous kang beds (a kang = traditional stone platform for sleeping which used to be heated from underneath) and wooden furniture arranged around two peaceful courtyards. The overall effect is both atmospheric and authentic. We love it!
Before starting our sightseeing tour, we have to get a tong piao, or through-ticket, valid for 19 sites and 3 days. As it is the low season, we get a considerable discount.
TWO DAYS IN PINGYAO: Start using the Tongpiao
As Pingyao is famous for its merchants’ mansions and financial businesses, we bravely tackle the Rishengchang Financial House Museum, China’s first draft bank dating from 1828; one of the main sights and just about the only one we remember from our previous visit. After this, we visit another one next door, the Wei Tai Hou Money Shop.
As a result, our memories of the two sites tend to blend together. Both are superb, though somewhat forbidding mansions with lots of court yards, elegant arches, carved, painted and gilded wood, massive blue and white ceramic vases and so on.
While Adam loves the courtyards and the fading afternoon sunlight hitting the tiled roofs, I’m fascinated by the domestic details, such as the romantic paintings on glass of pretty turn-of-the-century ladies reclining on sofas, or the gorgeous, lavishly decorated cabinets with tiny drawers and secret compartments.
Unfortunately, all the signs supposedly explaining the financial business must have been put through Google Translator. What else to make of … ‘the customer discussion is frequent’ … or …’ supposes the dining room entertainment’…?
We just manage to visit a third, smaller mansion before closing time, which in winter tends to be 17.00 / 17.30 all over China.
Strolling along the main streets, looking for somewhere to eat, we notice lots of attractive souvenirs like clothes, bags, stuffed animals and cushions made of traditional flowery cloth in bright red, pink, green and yellow patterns. Other Pingyao specials include a range of beautiful red and black lacquered boxes, paper cuts and fold-out postcards.
After our meal we head home along the narrow, cobbled, lantern lit streets, under a clear, starry sky. All very romantic, if it weren’t for the freezing cold!
Two Days in Pingyao: Day Two, Tuesday 30 December: Making the Most of Our Tong Piao
It’s another glorious winter’s day; perfect for sightseeing!
First stop:the Ancient Government Building. At first we are unpleasantly surprised by a string of electric buggies delivering a Chinese tour group but, as the site is huge, we soon manage to shake them off. There are vast halls, courtyards, offices, a temple, a stage and a prison … and everything’s in an amazing state of repair.
The gloomy prison cells, for light offenders only, the gruesome black and white photos of corporal punishments and, above all, the instruments of torture, such as a harmless-looking wooden donkey with sharp metal spikes on its back, are some of the grimmer highlights.
On a more positive note, there are friendly stone phoenixes and other mythical beasts on the roofs, ancient gnarled trees in the court yards, as well as displays of beautifully embroidered gowns, hats, pendants and other objects that once belonged to the officials.
Moreover, there is a small tower that visitors can climb, to get good views over Pingyao’s sloping grey-tiled roofs!
The Cheng Huang, or City God Temple
On to the next sight: the Cheng Huang, or City God Temple. This is a sizeable temple with gorgeous turquoise and yellow glazed tile roofs, topped by a pavilion that offers brilliant city views. Curiosities include a cave dedicated to the God of Wealth, full of little golden figurines that have been donated to him, or stacks of fake gold ingots that look like little boats with candles inside. Adam, of course, loves the gory images of yet another Buddhist Hell.
As we find ourselves close to the City Wall, we decide to follow it for a little while. We’re amazed to see how authentic the city has remained, just off the main streets. There are narrow alleyways, full of rusty motorbikes and ancient handcarts, piles of coal in front of tiny hovels, old men sunning themselves outside crumbling doorways, but very few children.
The third hole punched in our through ticket: the Confucius Temple
The third hole punched in our through ticket: the Confucius Temple. Most Confucius Temples consist of a succession of vast, but largely empty halls and this one is so exception. So, though listed as an AAAA site, it doesn’t hold our interest for too long. There is lots of calligraphy and writing related to the examinations, which is probably of more interest to serious scholars.
Tian Ji Xiang Museum
Our post-lunch fourth visit is to the Tian Ji Xiang Museum, the seat of a Ming dynasty international trading company. We find this one quirkier than the ones we visited yesterday, perhaps due to the animated displays of colourful little dolls, illustrating the workings of the company.
First Armed Escort Agency in North China
Fifth on our itinerary is the nearby First Armed Escort Agency in North China. The building looks similar to many we’ve seen before, but I was curious about those ‘escorts’, whose name conjures up all kinds of sexual images. Turns out they were the predecessors of today’s security companies. The escorts, who were renowned boxers, accompanied and protected gold and silver transports.
Sixth and last, but definitely not least, we pop into the Qingxu Temple, an ancient Taoist Temple, now doubling up as a museum with a fascinating collection of plaster and wooden statues. The latter were apparently carved from willow trees, as far back as the Song dynasty. The faces of the seated figures are incredibly serene, and their beards and pleated robes seem to flow.
The other highlight is a series of display cases with ‘Shage Xiren’ dolls showing scenes from popular Jin operas, created by the famous artist Xu Liting between 1905 and 1906. The details in the faces, headdresses and costumes –made of delicate materials such as paper, clay, silk or wood pulp- are astonishing! Make link to small article found on internet
Two days in Pingyao: The City Walls
All sighted out, we go for a little walk on the City Walls, before they close at 17.30 on the dot. Although the sheer size of the Walls is impressive, as well as the broad walkway and the towers, the views from this North Gate area aren’t exactly great: humble little houses, flat rooftops, messy backyards and lots of chimneys belching out coal smoke that makes our eyes sting.
Completely zonked, we have an early dinner at our hotel. The proud female manager points out several features of the handsome, spacious dining hall, such as the massive wooden pillars holding up the high ceiling, which are apparently centuries old.
The Tong Piao or through ticket:
Entry to the walled city is free. However, admission to any of the sights requires a common ticket that can be bought at any of the ticket booths in the old town. Tickets are ¥150 as of winter 2018/19, ¥65 for students with valid student ID, and free for senior citizens over 60 (bring your passport). The tickets are valid for 3 days. On our last visit in 2016, 19 sights were included in the ticket, but that number seems to have gone up to 30 now.
Many of the sights are Ming/Qing dynasty courtyard residences, converted into small museums dedicated to the buildings’ former owners or businesses. Though the contents of some of these museums are only mildly interesting and English captions are few and far between, popping in and out of these mansions gives you a great chance to admire traditional Chinese architecture and interior design.
Every year millions of tourists (mostly Chinese) visit the Stone Forest (Shilin 石林) in China’s South western Yunnan Province 云南省. They are whizzed in on tour buses that cruise along the motorway from the Yunnan capital of Kunming 昆明 in two hours.
On arrival they are met by a troupe of singing and dancing Sani Minority 撒尼族performers all dressed in their finest costumes.
The Lunan market is one of the best places to see the Sani away from the tourist circus at the Stone forest.
Who are the Sani Minority 撒尼族?
The Sani Minority are a branch of the Yi minority group 彝族. The Yi are one of China’s biggest minorities with a population of over two million and have an officially recognized language; Nuosu / or in Chinese Yi Yu 彝语.
The Sani minority mostly reside in Yunnan province in the towns and villages in the vicinity of the Stone Forest / Shilin 石林 such as, Lunan and Luxi.
Sani villages tend to be stone villages with sturdy brick buildings. It seems the government, in its attempts to boost rural incomes and the rural economy, has earmarked some Sani villages for tourism development.
Sani costumes are colorful and the hats can be spectacular. The dresses are long with vibrant and flamboyant embroidery.
The hats are round, slightly turban like, with embroidery and what seems to resemble a folded napkin on top.
I particularly like the men’s blue and white sleeveless waistcoats and purchased one in Lunan market.
If you can’t make Lunan market you will see the Sani in their Costumes at the Stone Forest where you can pose with them for photos and buy trinkets from them in a theme park ambience.
Lunan Market on the other hand is where you will see and meet the Sani in a natural setting and they won’t be pursuing you with souvenirs: There aren’t any on sale in the market.
Lunan Market is a small town farmers market. Arrival is a bit underwhelming. The market is not as bustling as some of the Guizhou markets such as Rongjiang, or as colourful as some of the southern Yunnan Markets such as Laomeng.
However, find a place to stand aside and obseve the comings and goings and you’ll be well rewarded with a feeling that you are in real rural China. Many of the Sani come dressed in their gorgeous ethnic costumes, it is possible that there are other Yi minority groups as well as some of the costumes differ quite widely.
If you enjoy seeing artisans at work the market is a real treat. Many of them making household wares in the same way their ancestors did.
The highlight of the market is the opportunity to watch the embroiderers making the Sani costumes. There is one section of the market dedicated to this craft. People are friendly and we were invited to take photos.
I am afraid the eating options are quite limited. The food stalls are basic but the noodle soups are great.
It is easy to visit Lunan and the Stone Forest on a day trip from Kunming. It takes two hours by bus. While the Stone Forest is one of China’s number one tourist attractions, when you arrive back in Kunming you’ll probably have fonder memories of Lunan’s farmers market.
Go to Lunan first. The earlier you get there, the more market activity there is. The market tends to fizzle out by late morning and dead by midday. We took a taxi to the Stone forest afterwards. It is about 13 kilometers between Lunan and the Stone Forest.
From the viewpoint over looking the Nujiang River怒江 (Salween River in English) just before entering Bingzhongluo, the last administrative center before Tibet, there is an incredible view over what the Chinese call Peach Island 桃花岛.
Actually, it is not an island, but a flat tongue of emerald land that forms the first bend in the Nujiang River, it is only accessible via a swaying footbridge from Bingzhongluo.
Finding the path down to the bridge is no easy matter. It doesn’t start from the viewpoint, but from the center of Bingzhongluo (ask the locals to show you the way).
The step walk down can test your knees. Once on the island there is some lovely walking.
You can choose between exploring the one and only village, strolling through the orchards of peach trees, or the more adventurous can scramble up the ridge of the mountain the tumbles down to form Peach Island.
The residents are from theNu minority 怒族 and seem pretty unperturbed by visitors coming to gawp at them and their houses.
The children fight with each other to pose for photos and are eager to show off their basketball skills; which I must say are incredibly good.
My advice for visiting Peach Island is to prepare a picnic with supplies bought from Bingzhongluo, find a secluded spot by the river and chill out and enjoy this magical spot.
Are there any draw backs? Those with arachnophopia don’t go in the houses. The spiders are spectacular and there’s lots of them.
All accommodation / food and transport is in Bingzhongluo
Guide books recommend the Chama Guesthouse 茶马客站, but all locals will point you to the new Yu Dong Hotel directly opposite. It’s a very clean (for now), spacious hotel with great views and a friendly, pot-bellied, chain-smoking owner. Rooms go for around 60 to 80 Yuan and 140 for the suite. Some bargaining is possible for longer stays.
There are more options now as Chinese tourists have begun coming in increasing numbers.
The Niurou 牛肉饭店(beef) Restaurant
Again, all locals will point to the Niurou 牛肉饭店(beef) Restaurant, a simple affaire run by a friendly young Muslim and his wife. The restaurant is a bout 200 meters north along the road of the Yudong Bingguan.The food is pretty good and not limited to Niurou at all.
They always had a good and varied selection of fresh vegetables. If you are staying for a few days you can ask them to pick up different veggies for you in the market. The local wild mushrooms are great as is his tangy and spicy cucumber salad.
Near the market is local restaurant run by a welcoming lady. We found this the best place for breakfast. Her fried egg and tomato dish and noodle soup were just what you needed before embarking on a long walk.
Again there are more options now.
Getting there and away
Getting to Bingzhongluo is pretty straight forward; weather and road conditions permitting. There is one direct bus in the morning from Liuku 六库, from the bus station on the left bank of the Nujiang River (See previous article) plus there are frequent options to Gongshan 贡山 from where onward transport to Bingzhongluo is frequent. Mini buses go until relatively late in the evening, but you would miss all the stunning scenery in the dark.
Leaving town, there is one direct bus at 8.00 in the morning to Liuku 六库. It is a good idea to get the owner of the Yu Dong Hotel to buy tickets for you in advance. The bus parks overnight in the hotel compound. However, should the bus be full, there is frequent transport to Gongshan 贡山 from where you can get buses throughout the day to Fugong 福贡 or Liuku六库.
Discovering a hidden gem is one of the great motivations for travelling off-the-beaten-track in China. After hours of bouncing up and down on an uncomfortable overcrowded bus along bumpy pot holed roads you find yourself in small town China where little has changed for years and the old architecture is still intact.
What’s the catch? Sometimes you find that half of China has got there before you! Way back in 2003 and the year of SARS, we thought we had found a hidden Gem only to discover the Chinese were keeping it a secret from foreigners. Welcome to the stunning riverside town of Fenghuang 凤凰 in Hunan Province 湖南.
It was one of those early evenings in small-town China in 2001; we’d already eaten and the after dinner entertainment options were conspicuous by their absence. The only fall-back was to retire to our room with a few beers and watch CCTV9, the mildly interesting English Language Channel. We tuned in to ‘Around China’, a cultural and travel programme dedicated to the promotion of traditional and/or exotic aspects of Chinese culture. On the programme, they were discussing a type of opera that was only found in a remote town in Hunan Province whose name I couldn’t catch.
We were immediately drawn to the screen, wondering, ‘where is this stunning place with covered bridges, ancient houses on stilts and pagodas?’ At the end of the clip， I managed to catch its name, ‘Fenghuang’. Grabbing the guidebook， I tried to find it, but there was no such town. We decided to look for more information about this elusive Fenghuang so that，if one day the opportunity arose, we could visit it.
This opportunity eventually came in 2003
This opportunity eventually came in 2003. We were travelling from Anshun in Guizhou province (famous for the Huangguoshu Falls as well as its Sunday Market) to the natural wonders of Zhangjiajie in Hunan province, when we realised that our train was actually stopping very close to Fenghuang. So we decided to break up our journey and satisfy our curiosity.
Under the bridge Fenghuang 2003
Arriving at the bus station in the dark, after a beautiful three-hour ride from the rail junction of Huaihua, we were at a loss as to where we might sleep. Fortunately, there was Mrs Li with some flattering photos of a room in her house. Without too much fuss， we agreed on 60 yuan for a double with shower. We followed Mrs Li into the warren of narrow streets that make up Fenghuang’s old city, our bulky backpacks attracting some curious stares from the passers-by.
Eventually, we arrived at Mrs Li’s house and even though the room, and especially the bathroom, didn’t quite match what we had seen in the photos, tiredness and lack of orientation resigned us to staying.
Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. A Hidden Gem No More
When we ventured out of our room the next morning, we were expecting to find an undiscovered gem. Fenghuang’s remote location in the far west of Hunan, bordering on Guizhou, as well as its absence from all guidebooks, had led us to imagine we would have the whole city to ourselves.
Imagine our surprise then, when we found that Chinese domestic tourism had already arrived in the so-called Phoenix City (Fenghuang means Phoenix and according to legend two of these sacred birds flew over the city in ancient times) in a big way, complete with tourist guides armed with flags and megaphones, leading their charges from one scenic spot to another… Though Fenghuang might be a gem, undiscovered it certainly was not! Perhaps, the Chinese had just been keeping it a secret from foreigners. Nevertheless, the town is still far from overrun and the majority of Chinese tourists are students, many of them art students, who spend their time painting the famous sights and river scenes.
A number of shops catering for the growing tourist industry have sprung up along the cobbled main street, set in attractive wooden houses. While many of these sell the usual knick-knacks that can be found at tourists sights all over China, others sell high quality batiks and attractive ethnic clothing. Another speciality are the sweets that are made in the streets and sold in very attractive packages. The spicy ginger sweets are the best we’ve ever tried.
Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. History and Background
Fenghuang has a long history. It was an imperial garrison town serving the dual purpose of keeping a watchful eye on the restless Miao and protecting the salt route. Fenghuang owed its prosperity to the salt trade in which it played a pivotal role. Many of the grand merchant mansions were built from the profits derived from this trade.
The population of Fenghuang is a mixture of Han Chinese and Miao and Tujia ethnic groups. Contrary to the official view point, the relationship between the majority Han Chinese and the Miao has not always been harmonious. During the 1850’s， a huge rebellion by the Miao in this area saw them pitted against the imperial soldiers in a fight that cost millions of lives. Clashes between Han Chinese and the Miao continued right up to the founding of the Peoples Republic of China. The Southern Great Wall passed close to Fenghuang and its remains are a testament to the fierce struggle between Imperial China and China’s ethnic groups.
Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. Fenghuang’s Attractions
Once we’d recovered from our initial shock at finding the town full of tourists, we set out to discover what had brought them all here.
First of all, there is Fenghuang’s setting and scenery. Lying in a scenic valley, surrounded by lush green hills, with a placid clear river running through its centre, Fenghuang is the archetypal image of a classical ancient Chinese town. The architecture in the historical part of town is an interesting mixture of Ming and Qing dynasty wooden and stone houses, with some local Miao minority influences adding to its uniqueness.
There are narrow lanes, old gates and ramparts. A large section of the old city wall has been restored and provides great views over the rooftops, the town and the river. The most striking buildings, many of which have been converted into atmospheric restaurants and bars, overhang the river and are propped up on wooden stilts. During the day, you can appreciate the outlines of the houses reflected in the green-blue waters of the river, at sunset the river takes on an orange hue, while at night hundreds of little lights shine on its black surface.
Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. The Sights
Then there are the sights, although it has to be said that the first of these, the ‘Hongqiao’ covered bridge, is a bit of a let-down. The bridge, which is said to be about 300 years old, looks spectacular from a distance. However, a closer inspection reveals that the top part is a new construction and serves as a shopping centre with tacky souvenir stalls and an entertainment arcade.
More interestingly, you can visit a number of old mansions around the town, built by ancient aristocratic and merchant families. Some of these buildings are very atmospheric and contain detailed carvings, antique furniture, shady courtyards, as well as theatre stages where Fenghuang opera, known as Yangxi opera, used to be performed. Yangxi opera has its roots in Shamanism and local Miao customs and operas were often staged to ward off plagues and famines.
Discovering a Hidden Gem:Shen Congwen
One of the mansions open to the public once belonged to the famous writer Shen Congwen, known for combining the vernacular style of writing with classical Chinese writing techniques. Shen Congwen based many of his stories on the local traditions and customs from around this western area of Hunan and portrayed the violent clashes between the Chinese and the local Miao ethnic group. You can visit his tomb by taking a pleasant walk away from the town, along the river and past some pagodas and temples.
If you get tired of walking around, there is an alternative way of viewing Fenghuang, which is to hire a small boat, punted by a man with a huge bamboo pole. Many Chinese spend hours going up and down the river, knocking back ‘baijiu’ (Chinese rice wine) and generally making merry. At night, these boats have lanterns hanging from their roofs, making it all look very romantic.
Discovering a Hidden Gem: Fenghuang. Practicalities
Fenghuang used to be accessible only by bus. There are three approches from to the town. If you are heading to or from the nature reserve at Zhangjiajie, then you need to use the town of Jishou. There are regular buses between Fenghuang and Jishou. If you are going to Zhangjiajie, you need to catch the first bus at 6.30 from Fenghuang to Jishou (2hrs), in order to catch the first train from Jishou to Zhangjiajie at 9.08. A hard seat ticket costs 22 Yuan. The bus from Fenghuang drops you at the opposite end of Jishou from the train station and a taxi to the station is probably the best option, if you want to get a train ticket.
There are also regular buses from the railhead town of Huaihua on the Changsha – Guiyang rail line. It is a beautiful two and half hour ride.
Finally, there are buses from Fenghuang to Tongren in Guizhou, for those wishing to climb Fanjing Shan.
Times have changed. Fenghuang is soon to be on the high speed rail network, so getting there will be a whole lot easier; for better or for worse!
It will be part of the Zhangjiajie / Huaihua high speed line.
Places to Stay:
We stayed in a family guest house on the edge of the old city, where we paid only 60 Yuan for a clean room with (primitive) bathroom. After we had checked in, we discovered several modern hotel options in the new town, as well as a whole string of atmospheric wooden Inns (Kezhan) by the river. These cheap hotels are basic but clean and many rooms have balconies overlooking the river.
Places to eat:
The riverside restaurants serve excellent food. Lots of them are point and choose joints, where the chef will cook up something wonderful, from your choice of ingredients. The tiny fried shrimps and small fried fish with chilli are particularly good.
If you haven’t been to Guizhou, Fenghuang is a good place to try Miao dishes, especially the hot and sour chicken, or hot and sour fish. We particularly liked one excellent restaurant just off the old main street, run by a friendly young couple. It is recognizable by the huge selection of fresh vegetables outside and the cured meats hanging in the front window (See photo).
They do a great sweet and sour cat fish as well as good vegetarian dishes. Lastly, in the modern town there is a night market that has a good selection of snacks and local specialities.