Every year millions of tourists (mostly Chinese) visit the Stone Forest (Shilin石林). They are whizzed in on tours buses that cruise along the motorway from the Yunnan capital of Kunming.
On arrival they are met by a troupe of singing and dancing Sani Minority 撒尼族performers all dressed in their finest costumes.
Just 13 kilometers away and never seeing any of the tourists is the dusty Market town of Lunan 路南 where a large daily market brings in the Sani from surrounding villages to buy and sell their wares.
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.
Getting to the Saturday market at the Bai village of Wase wasn’t as easy as we had first thought. Most people in Xizhou , the town on the opposite side of Lake Erhai where we were staying, had told us that there was no ferry and that we should try to get to Wase by hopping on and off the numerous buses that go around the lake.
To make matters more complicated, none of the locals agreed as to whether it was better to go round the North, or the South way. Only the owner of the Golden FlowerRestaurant on the central square of Xizhou was convinced that there was a boat.
On Saturday we got up early and tried our luck on the road, waving our arms energetically at any north-bound bus, but to no avail. In desperation, we tried asking about the ferry again. The first man I approached categorically denied the existence of any boat.
A second man was equally adamant that there was indeed a boat, and he was backed up by a number of local Bai women, who happened to be passing by. According to them, there was a ferry leaving at 9.00 from the pier at the village we thought was called Huoyijia, about 2 kilometres away. I think now the village was called Jiangshan Cun.
“How do we get there?” I asked with a certain urgency, because it was by now 8.50! They called over a young man on a motorbike with a trailer behind. We quickly agreed on a price and hopped on.
A trip to Wase Market: Missing the Boat
Unfortunately, the dirt road from Xizhou to Huoyijia/Jiangshan Cun is nothing but a series of bumps and craters; in short, more dirt than road. In order for the trailer not to overturn, the driver had to engage in endless manoeuvres, which reduced our speed to a snail’s pace.
Soon we found ourselves being overtaken by smiling children and cheerful old ladies on bicycles. If there was such a thing as a boat, only unpunctuality would help us catch it!
At 9.07 our trailer finally made it to the quay, where we could only stand and stare in disillusionment and disbelief at the ferry, fading away into the distance across the lake. It was a classical example of the implacable working of ‘Murphy’s Law’! It would eventually take a further two hours, two buses and a taxi, following the southern route this time, to get to Wase, and its lively and interesting Saturday Market.
A trip to Wase Market: Brushing Shoulders with the Bai
We were dropped off at the top of a narrow alley, leading into town. The alley was chock-a-block with fruit sellers and donkey parking lots, with piles of wooden yokes and saddles stacked up breast high.
When we managed to shoulder our way through the crowds, we emerged onto a large square, near the boat pier, with hundreds of stalls, mostly selling an amazing array of fruit and vegetables. The only souvenir stalls in town, selling batiks and ethnic embroidery, are located here as well.
The square is a buzzing, but friendly hive of activity, with hundreds of colourful Bai women pushing and shoving backwards and forwards, using the huge wicker baskets they carry on their backs as buffers.
A trip to Wase Market: A lot of Haggling
Cries of haggling fill the air as produce is picked up, inspected and either exchanged for money, or tossed contemptuously back onto the pile it came from.
As usual, men seem to be in short supply; they are mainly found peacefully smoking a pipe, or playing cards in one of the packed restaurants on either side of the square.
Moving on from the square, the market continues down the main street for at least another kilometre. Here you can stock up on household goods, such as plastic buckets, scoops and ladles, iron woks and other cooking pots and pans, wicker baskets, brooms, colourful balls of wool and lengths of cloth.
More exotic items include the embroidered parts of headdresses and belts, embroidered shoes, silver jewellery, or even wedding dresses.
For all the variety, there was one item we missed at Wase market: the large, odd shaped bamboo fish traps that abounded around Lake Erhai, fifteen years ago. Perhaps they have been replaced by the more modern nylon fishing nets that we often saw stretched out along the lake shore.
Apart from the stalls, there is the usual varied collection of street artisans and other ‘professionals’, such as dentists, hairdressers and ear cleaners. Eventually the market finishes at a small animal market where chickens and pigs come to meet their end.
What is curious about this market is that it not only provides for the living, but for the ghosts of the dead as well. There are several stalls selling paper clothes, shoes, houses and other luxury articles; all presumably meant to make ‘life’ in the after world more pleasant. One stall in particular was selling the most exquisite miniature paper shoes, and the Bai ladies were buying them by the bag-full.
At one point we were drawn away from the main street by a large group of middle-aged and ancient ladies, sitting on wooden benches, singing and tapping small wooden instruments.
To one side, there were several other grannies, busy folding and burning coloured pieces of paper. When we asked them what they were doing they explained that they were singing, or praying, to the dead and burning prayers. It was apparently the auspicious and appropriate time of the month for doing this.
Location: Wase is situated on the eastern side of Lake Erhai, about 350 kilometres north of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Apparently, the Wase market used to take place every 5 days, but it is now held on Saturday mornings, and runs well into the afternoon.
Besides the obvious attraction of the market, the town is full of wonderful traditional Bai homes and mansions, characterised by their sturdy adobe walls and painted doorways.
There are numerous other markets in the various Bai villages around Lake Erhai. The most famous and popular is the Monday market at Shaping, about 33 kilometres from Dali.
Even in January 1991, Shaping market was already pretty touristy, though interesting. These days, Wase’s Saturday market hasn’t been swamped by the tourist hordes from Dali yet.
Coming and Going
we can personally vouch for the existence of a boat that leaves from the pier at Huoyijia village / jiangshan Cun, on the western side of the lake near Xizhou, at 9.00 on Saturdays (at least in 2006 it existed). According to locals, it departs again sometime between 12.00 and 14.00.
People in Wase were far from unanimous in confirming that the last boat returns to Huoyijia / Jiangshan Cun at 17.00. We didn’t stay around to risk it, as the last bus back to Xiaguan is at 16.00. If you are staying in Dali, you might be able to organise a boat over (we saw one tour group getting to Wase that way), but expect to pay through the nose, unless you are in a large group.
if you are staying in Xizhou (far more recommendable than Dali), or anywhere else around the Lake, you can get to Wase by bus in both directions, though locals advised us to take the southern route via Xiaguan rather than the northern route via Jiangwei, because buses are more frequent.
The trick is to take any passing bus to Xiaguan, where you will be dropped off at the western bus station. From there, you can take a local bus or taxi (6 Yuan) to the eastern bus station, from where there are regular departures to towns and villages along the eastern part of the Lake, including Wase.
The Journey from Xiaguan to Wase takes about an hour and a half. The new road opened in 2006 means that from Haidong onwards, the bus skirts the lake shore all the way, thus avoiding the laborious inland route that climbed over and around the mountains.
As a result, the views of Lake Erhai and the Island of Putuo Dao from the bus are excellent. The last bus back to Xiaguan is at 16.00. From Xiaguan to Xizhou there are buses until at least 19.00.
Places to Eat:
After a couple of hours of wandering around, its worth stopping for lunch in one of the restaurants around the main square.
The local fish from the lake is particularly good, especially the deep-fried fish strips in batter. Some of the restaurants are quite used to dealing with foreigners, as they are frequented by tour groups, boated over in style from Dali.
Places to stay:
There is apparently a government guesthouse in Wase, though we are not sure whether we saw it. The courtyard restaurant on the left-hand side of the square (facing the water), which is where we ate, may have doubled up as a guesthouse, but we are not sure.
Laomeng Sunday Market, five minorities at One Market, that is what we were promised. The hotel owner in Yuanyang had told us to get there early, as many of the hill tribe people have to walk all the way back and the market starts breaking up at around noon.
Laomeng Sunday Market: Arrival
So we got to Laomeng at about 8.30, where we were among the first to arrive. We walked once round the town and had a look at the few stalls already set up by a small number of colourfully dressed Miao ladies and some older Yi women.
Most of them seemed as curious about us, as we were about them. By the time we got back to our starting point, dozens of vans, carts and other vehicles had already arrived, unloading hundreds of passengers and all kinds of goods.
They brought with them a kaleidoscopic mix of colours, as ladies from the Hani, Yao, Yi, Miao and Black Thai ethnic groups spilled out from the back and descended upon the market for a few hours of frenzied buying and selling.
For the next 3 hours we were treated to a visual feast that left us drained and out of film. Our driver had filled us in on some of the intricacies of the local costumes, so we were more or less able to distinguish between the women from the different ethnic groups. However, The men on the other hand were fairly indistinguishable, wearing pretty much the same peasant clothes and large wide-brimmed hats.
The Miao 苗族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Firstly,the Miao. The most colourful group are the Miao. The women of this ethnic group wear short, pleated skirts in electrifying colours such as bright orange, turquoise, yellow, pink or neon green.
The skirts are held in place by tight, embroidered belts and further embellished by lavishly decorated aprons, worn at the back (to protect their clothes when they are carrying loads, or sitting down on their haunches).
Their lower legs are covered by leggings, usually black, although the trendiest young ladies can wear coloured ones, adorned with dangling pieces of silver, or coins. Their outfits are completed by a final, embroidered strip of cloth, wound around the head as a kind of turban, peaking at the front.
Given the vibrant nature of their attire, it isn’t surprising that their Vietnamese relations are known as the Flower Hmong.
The Yao 瑶族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Secondly,the Yao. In stark contrast with the Miao, the Yao are probably the most fascinating to look at. Their all-black outfits of loose, flowing tunics and trousers, topped by incredible black boxed hats (resembling a Fez) lend them at once a forbidding and mysterious aspect.
The stern black of their costume is only livened up by tresses of fuchsia coloured wool, pinned to the front of the ladies’ tunics, and the heavy silver earrings and necklaces they wear. The proud Yao ladies stride through the crowds mostly unsmiling and they are reluctant to have their pictures taken.
The Hani 哈尼族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Thirdly, the Hani. Hani women also tend to wear a tunic or jacket over trousers, like the Yao, though their tunics are shorter and tighter. And like the Miao, they wear a protective apron at the back.
Their colours are subdued, blue and black are the favourites, but some green and petrol- blue can be seen too. If a Hani lady’s headdress is very colourful and decorated, this means that she is single. On the other hand, if her jacket is decorated with silver coins, she is married.
The Yi 彝族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Forth the Yi, The Yi ladies are almost as colourful as the Miao, but they wear trousers, not skirts. On top, they wear brightly coloured jackets, often with short sleeves. The colours can vary, but light blue, pink, yellow and mauve appeared to be all the rage.
The top part of the jacket is covered with a semi- circle made of embroidered flowers. At the back, instead of an apron, they tend to wear two embroidered lozenge-shaped appendages.
Black Thai 壮族 at Laomeng Sunday Market
Finally, the Black Thai were the least in evidence and dressed very simply in black, as their name suggests. Their ladies wore straight black skirts and short-sleeved blouses.
As to location, the market spreads out all over the town, which is small enough to be explored thoroughly in a couple of hours. Like most markets in China, each area or street is dedicated to a different product.
The square given over to vegetables and fruit is one of the highlights, with colourful ethnic women squatting down behind their wares, mostly small piles of exotic-looking vegetables, herbs or spices, spread out on a piece of cloth.
Purchases in this section are usually wrapped up in banana leaves.
Another, larger square combines meat and simple food stalls with stands selling clothes, cloth, wool and other items necessary for sewing, embroidering or knitting. The latter are particularly popular with the younger ladies.
Lunch is a simple affair, with stalls selling noodle dishes with plenty of meat, vegetables and spicies.
On the outskirts of town, there are corners dedicated to selling chickens, piglets, or watch dogs.
It’s a great place to watch and take photos as well, because once the market is in full swing, nobody will pay much attention to you, even though you may be the only foreigner in town, which is what happened to us.
Don’t come to this market looking for souvenirs; there are few things for sale that would interest tourists, which should hopefully keep tour groups away. We had a look at one of the colourful Miao skirts and were a bit taken aback by its price: although it was handmade and weighed a tonne, we thought that 300Yuan was a bit steep.
True to our landlord’s prediction, by midday the market began to wind down and the vehicles filled up again with their multi-coloured cargo.
As we were driving away, we could see lines of people heading off into the forest and up the mountain paths, back to their villages.
Laomeng is situated in the south of Yunnan, not far from the Vietnamese border. As the town lies in a river valley, the climate is hot and humid and the surrounding countryside is extremely green and fertile, allowing for two rice harvests a year.
Regarding its ethnic composition, Laomeng straddles two prefectures, Yuanyang and Jinpin. Of these, Yuanyang is home to many Hani and Yi who tend and cultivate the stunning rice terraces the area is famous for, while Jingpin is home to the Miao, Black Thai and Yao.
The first two live low down near the rivers, in the sub-tropical fertile lands, while the Yao dominate the high mountain areas and ridges and therefore the poorer lands.
As for Laomeng town, there are a couple of basic hotels, small eateries and shops, but not much more, and the buildings are definitely on the drab side.
However, the market converts the town into festival of colours and sounds and it would probably make a good base for exploring the area.
Coming and Going:
From Yuanyang there are plenty of mini buses to Laomeng. The journey can take more than 2 hours, depending on how many passengers the bus stops to pick up and drop off.
You can hire a minivan for about 150 Yuan to take you to the market and back, including several hours waiting time. Buses from Laomeng also go to Jingpin and surrounding villages.
We actually passed a lorry that had just been forced to use one of these; its fortunate occupants were busy talking on their mobiles, while inspecting the damage to their clapped-out vehicle, its nose buried deep into a safety barrier of spare tires, which had probably saved their lives.
The land around here has been seriously eroded and there are numerous rock formations, shaped like fingers, poking up from the red earth. This is apparently how a ‘Stone Forest’ comes into being.
The bus station in Jianshui has been moved to the outskirts of town and a taxi for 4 to 5 Yuan is the best way to get to the centre.
Jianshui don’t skip it! Things to See:
China’s relentless modernization drive has hit Jianshui too, and the main thoroughfare Jianzhong Lu, connecting the East and West Gates, has been spruced up, though buildings have at least been kept in the traditional style. Fortunately, you can still find many historical buildings dotted all over the town, some of which serve as government offices or schools, while others have been opened to the public.
Jianshui don’t skip it! The Confucian Academy
The Confucian Academy and temple is Jianshui’s largest architectural monument; it consists of a whole collection of halls and courtyards, set inside a large park at the back of a Lilly-covered lake and accessed through some imposing arches and gateways.
If you are lucky, you might catch the Confucian orchestra, dressed in celestial blue robes and tall hats, playing traditional Chinese music in an old building, converted in a concert hall and teahouse.
Jianshui don’t skip it! Zhujia Huayuan Grand Family mansions
Jianshui also boasts a number of grand family mansions that are worth visiting. The cream of the crop is the Zhujia Huayuan, the mansion of the Zhu clan, which doubles up as a hotel and offers visitors the chance, so rare in China, to stay in a historical building full of character. The Zhu were a successful merchants’ family who built their mansion over a number of years, during the Qing dynasty.
The resulting structure consists of a whole labyrinth of patios, one of them with its own floating stage, and corridors, all lavishly decked out with potted plants and Bonsai.
The patios are surrounded by Ancestral Halls and living quarters, lovingly decorated with period furniture. These days some of the old family rooms have been converted into en- suite hotel rooms, complete with Qing- style furniture and four- poster beds.
To find out about other Mansions that are open to the public, which there are, you should ask the local people.
Jianshui don’t skip it! The massive Eastern Gate – cum Drum Tower
The massive Eastern Gate – cum Drum Tower or (Chaoyang Lou 朝阳楼), part of the old Ming wall that once surrounded the city, stands testimony to the important role Jianshui once played as an administrative centre in Imperial Times.
Nowadays, the Gate has been converted into an atmospheric tea house and a great place from which to observe the comings and goings in the centre of town.
You can look down upon people outside the gate selling fruit, playing musical instruments and cards, performing Tai Chi, or simply taking a nap under the bushes. You may also spot the odd Yi and Yao minority ladies, dressed in their finest, coming to the market.
Jianshui don’t skip it! Old Streets and Hidden Pagodas
Moreover, from the Gate you can still discern many narrow old streets, full of traditional architecture and workshops dedicated to the ancient trades.
We spied an old Pagoda, which looked really close and easy to trace, so we set out to find it. Actually, the Pagoda is very well hidden, in the centre of a factory compound, accessed through a maze of tiny alleys.
It took us nearly half an hour, and a lot of help from the puzzled neighbours, to find it. Nevertheless, finding such a great historical relic, just lying around as if it were an everyday thing, gave us a wonderful sense of continuity.
Places to Stay and Eat:
As we described before, the Zhujia Huayuan, an old merchants mansion, half museum and half hotel, is a fantastic place to stay. Rooms cost between 220 and 280 Yuan, which is a bit pricey, but saves you from having to fork out the entrance fee (Update; not sure if it is still a hotel). Early mornings and late afternoons, once the ticket office has closed, are a wonderful time to wander around and take photos, or just sit in one of the many secluded corners and relax!
Another period-style hotel, the Hua Qing, has just opened its doors, slightly further up the road. The owner, a nice, hospitable lady, who is keen to attract foreigners showed us around. Large comfortable doubles with balconies cost between 150 and 180 Yuan. The hotel has a restaurant and bar as well. Just ignore the kitsch lighting outside and the poor receptionists done up in Confucius-style robes!
Eating in Jianshui
As opposed to Tonghai, Jianshui offers many places to eat, as well as some tasty food. In the streets around the Zhujia Huayuan and the Hua Qing many restaurants with English menus have sprung up recently, some of them in restored historical buildings.
However, if it’s atmosphere you’re after, you can’t beat the ancient Lin An Fandian on Jianzhong Lu. During the day, the ground floor is packed with locals, snacking on spicy cold noodles with peanut sauce, or grilled tofu pieces, both of which go for 1 Yuan a piece. Then, in the evening, the upstairs dining hall and adjoining balcony rooms fill up with huge groups of heartily eating, heavily drinking and toasting Chinese. It can get quite boisterous and noisy, but it’s great fun! The food is excellent too.
If you don’t speak Chinese, just go to the area by the refrigerators and point, nothing is too expensive and the portions are enormous. You pay at a counter next to the stairs, where you can also get cold beer.
Near Jianshui there are a number of interesting villages, bridges and caves. When we visited, Jianshui was well off- the -beaten track, and we didn’t have any information about what to see and do around the town so we never got round to visiting them.
Swallow Cave: On the 8th of August local Yi lads risk life and limb to collect the prized Swallow’s nests.
Tuanshan Village: An ancient Yi minority village with traditonal Ming and Qing dynasty architecture
Twin (Double) Dragon Bridge双龙桥: a spectaular Qing dynasty bridge with towers and 17 arches. The bridge spans the confuluence of the Lu and Tachong Rivers.
Tuanshan Village and the Twin Dragon Bridge can be visited on a tourist train from Jianshui.
Coming and Going:
There are plenty of buses to and from Kunming throughout the day. There are also regular buses to Tonghai, which take 2½ hours, and to Nansha, which take 3½ hours and where you need to change buses for Yuanyang and the rice terraces.
There are now daily trains to Jianshui from Kunming.
Gweilo or gwailou (Chinese: 鬼佬; Cantonese gwáilóu, pronounced [kʷɐ̌i lǒu] is a common Cantonese slang term and ethnic slur for Westerners.
The rumour spread like wildfire around the gweilo* hangout cafes in Dali: Ruili 瑞丽 was now open to foreigners. Margie and I looked at a map and thought:’ why not give it a go?’
Ruili is open 1991 and China in 1991
China in 1990 was a very different place. Many areas still remained firmly shut to Western visitors, which is why the opening of any of these previously closed off areas caused an immediate stir in the small backpackers’ community. Travellers trying to ‘out-travel’ each other would excitedly head for these newly opened areas, chasing adventures and cool anecdotes to share in the next gweilo café they’d find themselves in.
Ruili is open 1991 and Getting there
Deciding to go to Ruili 瑞丽 was one thing. Actually getting there quite another: in those days Ruili was a two day bus ride away from Xiguan 下关 / Dali City大理, with the bus overnighting in Baoshan 保山.
It is difficult to remember everything from the long trip down to Ruili 瑞丽, but I remember the incredibly polluted river running out of Xiguan 下关 and passing through several rural markets. And I’ll never forget the incredulous faces of the receptionists at the Baoshan transport hotel保山交通宾馆 when two foreigners joined the other Chinese passengers for the overnight check in.
Heading to the Burmese border
Descending rapidly after Baoshan 保山, the road then crosses the Nujiang 怒江 / Salween River and you can begin to smell and feel the sweltering heat of sub-tropical South East Asia.
I remember a strange incident at a check point just before crossing the Nujiang River: Military Police, obviously looking for drugs or other illegal goods, boarded the bus and almost took it apart; nuts, bolts and all. They then dragged a passenger, a young soldier, off the bus and gave him a vicious beating, before dumping him back on the bus. At one point, I feared he would never be seen again.
Ruili is open 1991. Arriving in Ruili 瑞丽
We eventually arrived in Ruili at 12.00 midnight on the second day and no sooner had we got off the bus than we noticed there was something different about this town. In spite of the lateness of the hour, the whole place was buzzing: bars, restaurants and dodgy ‘massage parlors’ were all doing a brisk trade. The streets were filled with Chinese, Burmese and ethnic minorities milling around the open shops and street markets where hawkers were still touting their wares. Welcome to Ruili, 1991.
All this nocturnal activity was in stark contrast to the rest of China: in 1990 /91, even in Beijing 北京 and Shanghai 上海, such nightlife as there was, mostly packed up before 20.30. Ruili seemed to be on another planet altogether!
Ruili is open 1991. Finding a Hotel
We checked into a brand new hotel, only to find it was so new that there was no running water and only the reception area was connected to the electricity mains. The following day, we escaped at the break of dawn and managed to track down the modest Ruili Binguan 瑞丽宾馆, where we bagged a cheap dorm room and where, to our immense surprise, we bumped into Glen and Lisa, an American couple we had met in Lijiang 丽江 a few weeks earlier. In fact, it turned out that the 4 of us were the only gweilos in town.
Ruili is open 1991. What to do or see in Ruili?
That was precisely the question. As Ruili wasn’t mentioned in any guide book (we were using Lonely Planet China, version 2) we set about trying to find the sights. Luckily, Glen and Lisa, who had taught English in Taiwan, could speak some Chinese,. After questioning the bewildered locals as to what we should see, we soon discovered that the actual sights were somewhat underwhelming.
A pagoda here, a huge banyan tree there, and the Burmese border crossing were about all the tips we could get from anyone.
Undoubtedly, the most interesting thing about Ruili was the incredible mix of people on its streets, the colourful markets and, why not, the sleazy, seedy ambience that hinted at clandestine wheeling and dealings.
Among the more exotic of Ruili’s various dodgy businesses were the wet markets (live animal markets), where the usual suspects blamed for causing the current Coronavirus outbreak and the previous SARS epidemic could be found in cages, waiting for the wok: cats, bats, rats and pangolins to name just a few.
A town with Character and Colourful Characters
Ruili in 1991 played host to jacks of all trades: Burmese Muslim merchants, jade traders, rich Chinese buyers with pretty young girls on their arm, hookers, pimps, drug dealers and addicts… and… beating them all for novelty:Kachin rebels (景颇族; Jǐngpō zú; in Chinese; members of an ethnic tribe struggling for an independent Kachin state) on rest and recreation after fighting the Burmese Junta. It was a kaleidoscope of peoples definitely worth coming all that way to see.
We found ourselves being wined and dined by rich Chinese jade dealers who seemed to think it gave them status to have Westerners at their table when negotiating with their Burmese counterparts. The whole thing was surreal and rather ridiculous.
The Burmese Influence
After all, why invite people you don’t know to a slap- up meal? They couldn’t even speak to us; they just pointed at the food and urged us to eat! In hindsight, having a cheap Burmese meal with a few cold beers in the marvelous Sweet Café would have been much more fun. But that was the kind of thing that went on in Ruili in 1991.
The Burmese Connection Sweet Café
As I mentioned before, by far the most interesting people we met were the Kachin rebel commanders, back from fighting the Burmese military Junta. They used to hang out in the Sweet Café, a real Asian hole in the wall, but with more character than any posh banquet hall.
Some of the commanders were women, and they all spoke pretty reasonable English. They were a great source of entertainment with their stories of heroic exploits whilst fighting the Burmese army.
After its clientele, the next best thing about the Sweet Café was definitely its breakfast: milk tea, fried eggs, great fruit juices, and even Mohinga, a delicious Burmese spicy noodle soup with catfish and herbs, the perfect cure for a vicious hangover. Nowhere in China could beat the Sweet Café when it came to a tasty breakfast!
The infamous Darkie Toothpaste
Burmese and other foreign produced products were ubiquitous in the street markets; including the infamous and totally politically incorrect Darkie toothpaste that had been renamed Darlie two years previously. Obviously, what was being sold had passed its sell by date.
The Border between China and Burma / Myanmar
And speaking of border, the border between China and Burma / Myanmar must have been pretty porous at the time, as the rebels explained that they often came to Ruili when they needed a bit of a rest. It seemed that the Chinese were turning a blind eye to their comings and goings. Actually, the Chinese authorities were turning a blind eye to almost anything happening in Ruili. But that was Ruili in 1991.
Of course, these laissez faire policies didn’t quite apply to Westerners. Some travelers told us they’d managed to sneak across the river to the town of Musé in Burma, only to get arrested and deported back to China, where they were made to write a self-criticism for having violated the laws of the People’s Republic of China. Obviously, this anecdote and the written self-criticism were worth their weight in gold, as the ultimate proof of ‘travel cool’.
And needless to say, if you did anything like this today, you’d be sent to prison. But that was then. China and Ruili in 1991 were not what they are today.
Playing Cat and Mouse with the PSB
Back then, the Chinese authorities hadn’t really worked out what to do with mischievous foreigners. It was almost as if the PSB (Chinese Internal Security) and travellers were involved in playing a good humoured game of cat and mouse with travellers pushing the boundaries between those areas that were actually open and those that were still off limits, and the PSB trying to interpret the continuously changing directives from Beijing.
Baoshan to Jinhong景洪 in Xishuangbanna 西双版纳. No Way Jose!
On our return to Baoshan we spent two hours trying to convince the local head of the PSB, who incidentally spoke impeccable English, to let us travel on by bus from Baoshan to Jinhong景洪 in Xishuangbanna 西双版纳 so as not to have to backtrack all the way to Xiaguan下关 and Kunming昆明. We studied the map together and he agreed it would be much shorter to travel direct from Baoshan 保山. However, his only answer was: “this area is closed to foreigners”. And that was the end of the matter.
All in all we spent three days in Ruili, exploring the border area near the bridge that linked the town to Muse on the Burmese side, taking a day trip to the sleepy, non-eventful towns of Wanding 畹町 and Mangshi, playing Chinese chess with the locals, and cycling out to the nearby景颇族; Jǐngpō zú ( or Kachin); villages where we were made to feel very welcome.
Our only regret
Our only regret is that the town of Tenchong 腾冲 had also just opened, but we didn’t know. At that time, Tenchong still preserved its historic architecture, which apparently has now vanished under the sledgehammer. A pity.
The pictures you see here are the prints I bought from the temple when I visited as photography is not allowed.
Visiting Arhat Halls
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: I love visiting the Arhat Halls in Chinese temples; halls filled with amazing figures and painted with scenes from the supernatural. Arhats, or 羅漢 Luóhàn in Chinese, are often defined as beings who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and have achieved nirvana.
Qióngzhú Sì 筇竹寺 Bamboo Temple Kunming: Are these the world’s best Arhats?
The Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple is home to what is probably the most amazing collection of Arhats in the world. And if you are visiting Kunming, looking up the Arhats is a ‘must’!
Although Arhats line the walls of many Chinese temples, you’ll fine some of the most stunning examples in the 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì, on the outskirts of Kunming, Yunnan Province.
The temple’s famous Arhat Hall was built between 1883 and 1890 and includes 500 individual, painted clay Arhat sculptures 五百罗汉Wǔbǎi Luōhàn by Li Guangxiu, a folk artist from Sichuan province.
Arhats are usually depicted in groups of 16, or 18 and less frequently in such a large number as 500.
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: The Arhats
Among the one-metre tall sculptures, there are Arhats reaching for the Heavens with exaggeratedly long arms and others crossing the seas on stick-like legs; there are pensative, serious Arhats and jolly ones; there are bare-bellied chubby Arhats and others that are sceleton-thin.
When you are in front of the Arhats, staring at their true to life faces, it is inevitable to speculate about who their creator was basing them on, and whether they were real characters who existed in the artist’s lifetime, or just a figment of his imagination. And some imagination that must have been!
The Arhats are remarkable for the riot of colours enveloping them; memorable for the individual expressions on their faces and mind-blowing for the bizarre mystical scenes in which they are placed.
In the light of China’s long history, these Arhats arerelatively recent creations, yettheir lifelike facial expressions, their clothes, the backgrounds and the colours, all take you back to China’s mythical past and conjure up the West’s romantic ideas of all things exotic and Chinese.
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: the China of my Imagination
For me personally, an Arhat Hall represents the China I imagined as a kid, after visiting the Chinese Galleries at in the British Museum, ore reading one of the stories in my book of Chinese Tales.
The universe of the Arhats is the China I imagine when I read such epic stories as Journey to the West 西遊記 Xī Yóu Jì, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义 Sānguó Yǎnyì.
Of course, this romantic vision of ancient China is a far cry from the reality of the country’s historical past; a tumultuous history of 5000 years full of brutality and oppression, wars and conquests, famine, drought and floods.
This other, much harsher China, is vividly described in much more contemporary novels such as Su Tong‘sBinu and the Great Wall (a love story set against the background of all the hapless labourers conscripted into building the Wall), or Mo Yan‘s Big Breasts and Wide Hips (a sweeping family saga that spans over 30 years of wars, occupation, revolution and political upheaval).
Qióngzhú Sì Bamboo Temple: a Moment of Peace
Nevertheless, for a few moments when I gaze at the Arhats in front of me, I am transported back to that dreamworld of China’s fantastical past; the China of its great mythical novels.
It is clear that the Bamboo Temple’s Arhat Hall is the creation of an artist at the height of his artistic powers; an artist whose unbridled imagination has run wild. And that is why this is our all time favourite Arhat Hall. Don’t miss it if you are in Kunming! Below are the accounts of our two visits to the temple.
February 1991 and August 2010: Two Visits to the Bamboo Temple, 筇竹寺, Qióngzhú Sì
Getting There in 1991
In 1991, you picked up a clapped out overcrowded bus in downdown Kunming and within a few minutes you had already reached the outer limits of the city. After that, the bus slowly trundled past verdant green rice paddies and along pot- holed roads, before eventually ascending through the lush forest to the temple.
Getting There in 2010
Despite China’s modernization, it still takes almost as long to get from downtown Kunming to the Bamboo temple as it did way back in 1991.
Today, there are no green fields, just kilometer upon kilometer of monotonous suburbs and snarling traffic that holds up the comfortable modern bus. Only the last two kilometers of the ascent through the forest brought back any memories of our previous trip.
Mayhem in 1991
I remember the mayhem from our visit back in 1991. In those days, Chinese visitors used to come on organised outings with their Danwei (work group). Men and women alike, were dressed uniformly in blue Mao suits.
As soon as they arrived, they would try and fight their way to the front of the hall in order to touch, or throw coins at the Arhats. It was quite a sight watching the hordes clamber over each other to get to the Arhats!
The incredulous, and at the same time resigned expressions, on the faces of the caretaker monks said it all.
There also used to be snack stalls and tacky souvenir vendors around the temple. Most of them (if not all) have gone now. The area is actually quite serene, given that this is one of Kunming’s highlights.
2010: (Domestic) Tourists Can No Longer Enter the Arhat Hall
As I mentioned before, the situation around the temple ix much more relaxed and organised now. Chinese domestic tourists still come in large groups, but on air-conditioned tourist buses. They are then disgorged from the buses and unleased upon the temple; a few selfies later they return to their waiting vehicles and move on to their next destination.
The Difference Now
However, there is one more important difference: due to their past unruly behaviour, especially throwing coins at the Arhats and patting them on the head for good luck, the monks do not let (Chinese) visitors enter the Arhat Hall anymore. Instead, the sculptures must be contemplated from a safe distance. This may explain why the Bamboo temple is actually far more sedate than it was 30 years ago.
If you are a foreigner travelling on your own or in a small group, chances are that the caretaker monks will turn a blind eye, or even directly invite you into the hall (which is what happened to us), as long as there are no tour groups nearby. Just be discrete about it and remember, no photography allowed! Enjoy!
The Vegetarian Restaurant
When you have gazed at the Arhats enough, you can have a delicious meal at the vegetarian restaurant, or sip a cold beer in its lovely garden and watch the huge resident tortoises roam around the grass.
What more could you want?
How does the Qióngzhú Sì compare to other Arhat Halls?
Not all Arhat Halls are the Same!
In some temples, the Arhats can be simple, almost monotonously similar, and painted in one colour; often gold.
Was the Artist Hallucinating?
However, other Arhat Halls are such an exuberance of colour and fanciful scenes that it makes you wonder what the artists might have been taking when they created them.
Taijitu YinYang Landscape (Taijitu太极图) near Yunlong 云龙, Yunnan Province, is a freak of nature. It looks remarkably like the famous Taoist Yin-Yang symbol when seen from high above. However, when seen from ground level you would never know it was there.
The climb up to the view point is made along a steep winding road. If you can find a vehicle to take you there it is Yuan well spent. You don’t get any real inkling as to what is below until you suddenly arrive at the scenic viewing area. From this point, the whole Yin -Yang shape just suddenly appears before you. It’s quite magical.
Near Taijitu is the spectacular Bai Village of Nuodeng. A remarkable collection of traditional mudbrick houses that appear to tumble down the side of a mountain. You can hike up through the village via a warren of narrow twsiting lanes devoid of traffic to get amazing views from the top. The only traffic you encounter are mules carying agricultural produce.