This triangle linking the south of Sichuan province with the north of Guizhou is a great combination of lush subtropical scenery, traditional villages and impressive architectural monuments. Yet, in spite of its attractions, the area has not been put on the tourist map, which only contributes to its charm.
This route is equally feasible from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, or from Guiyang, capital of Guizhou, given that the bus connections are good both ways. If you start from Guiyang, like we did, you may find the first part between Guiyang and Chishui, a bit long and tiring, though you could always break up the journey in the historical city of Zunyi….
There is now a high-speed train operating between Chengdu and Guiyang bringing travelling times down to just a few hours.
This small town, with a big history, is situated on the banks of the Jialing River, some 225 kilometres from Chengdu. It is all at once the burial place of the Three Kingdoms general, Zhang Fei, birthplace of the Han dynasty inventor of the Chinese Calendar, Luo Xiahong, and home to a wealth of traditional Sichuan architecture. In short, Langzhong has plenty of things to see and do to keep a visitor busy for two days.
Your first priority on arrival, is to find accommodation in one of the many traditional family mansions that…..
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 hadn’t caught. 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.
“The Beijing Municipality and BOCOG have violated the housing rights of over 1.25 million residents of Beijing in pursuit of relentless economic growth, including the hosting of international showpieces such as the Olympic Games. The mass displacements and evictions implemented in Beijing are a clear case of the illegitimate use of evictions as a tool of development by the Beijing Municipality and BOCOG, in a bid to transform the city into a ‘world-class metropolis’ fit to host the ‘best Olympic Games ever.’ Despite courageous protests inside China, and condemnation by many international human rights organisations, the Beijing Municipality and BOCOG have persisted with these evictions and displacements. COHRE’s research has shown how the awarding of the Olympic bid to Beijing by the IOC has been used as a pretext to ride roughshod over rights of affected residents,”.
Apart from the forced evictions it should also be noted that hundreds, if not thousands of Beijing’s historic hutongs (old streets and home to the traditional courtyard houses), palaces and temples that have been reduced to rubble in order to be replaced by wide featureless avenues, souless shopping centres and a an opera house that locals call the Rotten Egg.
The dreaded entrance ticket 门票. The expensive surprise you get when you visit a remote village in China
Shitou Zhai 石头寨(visited in 2007)
the Dreaded Entrance Ticket or Ménpiào 门票 at Shitou Zhai 石头寨.
‘Menpiao, Menpiao, yinggai mai menpiao门票，门票应该买门票’ (buy an entrance ticket, you need to buy an entrance ticket). When someone from a hidden booth or shack shouts those dreaded words just as you enter what you think is an undiscovered bucolic paradise, you roll yours and ask yourself. “How much is this going to cost?”. In the case of Shitou Zhai; quite a lot.
The stone Bouyi (ethnic group) village of Shitou Zhai 石头寨 , not far from China’s largest waterfall at Huangguoshu黄果树 and easily accessible by public transport, is said to have been around for some 500 years, and judging by the condition of some of the houses it could well be true.
The Bouyi build stone houses that resemble dwellings in European medieval villages. Anyone who has visited the remoter parts of the Spanish provinces of Castilla and Leon, or Galicia, will recognise the style immediately.
The Dreaded Entrance Ticket
These days, visitors are met at the entrance by friendly young women, dressed in traditional clothes, who act as guides – included in the steep 40 Yuan ticket (the dreaded Menpiao: That unexpected expense when you arrive in a village in rural China) – and give you a reasonably interesting demonstration on batik making techniques, provided you can speak Chinese.
They then take you for a walk around the village. Some of the old stone houses are still quite impressive, but many are just ruinous shells with nobody living in them.
Producing Batik In Shitou Zhai
You might catch a glimpse of a few local Bouyi dressed in their dark-blue, dyed and embroidered clothes, but not many.
However, you will find plenty of opportunities to purchase batik products (蜡染 /Làrǎn) , your guide will be more than happy to point them out. While you are browsing, you may bump into wholesalers from Anshun 安顺 , many of whom buy their stock in Shitou Zhai.
It’s a good idea to check out Anshun 安顺 prices first (especially the shops lining Nanhua Lu, near the bus station, specialised in Bouyi batiks (蜡染 / Làrǎn and Miao clothes) and then buy here. Prices are very reasonable, as long as you bargain.
Stunning Coutryside Surrounding Shitou Zhai
If Shitou Zhai is a bit of a let down, the surrounding countryside is stunningly idyllic. Slow rivers and water canals meander through rice fields, buffalo and village children swim in inviting pools, and enchanting paths lead off to other stone villages (without ticket) and towards the beautiful karst mountains.
If you continued for another 3 km after Shitou Zhai, through the rice fields, you’d reach the river ( Baishui River (白水河 ) only a few kilometres before it cascades over the rocks and turns into Huangguoshu falls.
Getting there and away:
You should get on a Huangguoshu– bound bus from Anshun 安顺 and ask the driver to drop you at the turn-off for Shitou Zhai, from where it is a pleasant 2- kilometre walk, following a slow winding river (Baishui River 白水河 ) and grazing buffalos to the village.
Returning, there are many buses that pass through Shitou Zhai going to the town of Zhenning, from where buses depart every 10 minutes to Anshun 安顺 .
Not Much! There are (were) no restaurants, but there is a small village shop where you can buy drinks, snacks and sweets.
Tuesday, September 10, 2002, Bus ‘Mafan’, or bloody hassle!
It wasn’t as easy as we had thought. Having paid 200 yuan for the Gansu Travel Insurance, a worthless piece of paper that does nothing for the hapless traveller, but protects the bus company in case you are injured or killed on one of their buses, a possibility that cannot be excluded, given some of the driving and conditions on the roads, we expected to be sold a ticket and board the bus to Pingliang. Our final destination being the Taoist mountain of Kongtong Shan.
Adam had seen on the departures board that a bus was leaving at 11.20, so he strolled over to the window, insurance paper in hand, to purchase two tickets. To our amazement, he was told by the rude attendant that there were meiyou (no) buses to Pinglian, ever, and that we had to take the train. Disbelieving, we went outside, to the departures area where we identified the actual bus and checked with the driver and conductor, who both confirmed that this was indeed the bus to Pingliang and that it was leaving at 11.20, but that we had to buy a ticket at the ticket office.
Round two: we returned to the office, choosing a different window, and asked for 2 tickets again. The second attendant just waved her hand at us in a dismissive manner and said meiyou baoxian (no insurance). So that was the problem? Triumphantly, Adam pulled out the insurance paper and placed it in front of her. Without even looking at it she just repeated meiyou and turned to the customers behind us.
Though Adam insisted that our insurance was in order, she just blanked us, as if we didn’t exist. And here began one of those episodes that occasionally can drive China travellers to despair: we refused to budge, she refused to look at us, or our insurance. After a stand-off of 2 or 3 minutes, she pulled down the shutter and moved away. We tried two more ticket sellers, but met with the same response.
Eventually, we decided to just board the bus. We took two seats and waited. The conductor wanted to take us and was willing to purchase two tickets on our behalf. Unfortunately, an inspector prevented her from doing so. By now it was 11.20 and the driver was anxious to leave. However, knowing that we were in the right, we refused to get off. It was an uncomfortable situation for all, but we held our ground, locked in a ridiculous battle of wills.
As a last resort, Adam decided to appeal to the PSB, the security police. Leaving me on the bus, he went to the PSB desk inside the bus station. A friendly officer told him that he needed insurance to travel in Gansu province. Patiently, he again produced our insurance papers. Again, without looking at the papers, the officer told Adam to follow him to a travel agent’s next to the bus station. The agent pulled out some forms for us to fill in and said the insurance would cost 200 Yuan.
Totally exasperated Adam showed our papers again and, at long last, someone actually bothered to look at them! ‘But you already have travel insurance!’ the surprised travel agent exclaimed, comparing the two forms. Back to the station Adam went, victoriously, accompanied by the PSB officer. He marched up to the same ticket seller, who had previously spurned his insurance papers. This time she merely smiled sheepishly and quickly sold him two tickets. Then we were off!
Update: You can no longer stay actually on the lake as we did in 2002. You have to stay at a tourist camp a few kilometers away or in a nearby village. Lake Hanas has in recent years become a huge domestic tourist destination especially in summer.
Getting to Lake Kanas
Lake Kanas / Ha na si hu 哈纳斯湖. A slightly more ambitious expedition will take you from Ürümqi to Hanasi Hu, or Lake Hanas, in the Altai region, close to the borders with Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. In fact, the majority of the population in the region is Kazakh.
First, you need to take an overnight sleeper bus from Ürümqi’s main bus station to Bu’erjin, the capital of the region. Most probably, taxi drivers will be waiting for you at the bus station, to arrange further transport up to the lake, as there was no public transport at that time (2002).
We got together with two other travellers and hired a jeep for about Y400. Before setting off, our helpful driver first took us to the Public Security Bureau (PSB), as foreigners still need a special permit to visit the area. In spite of what the CITS (China International Travel Service) in Ürümqi had been trying to tell us, this was an extremely painless operation lasting no more than 10 minutes.
Lake Kanas: Need a permit
After this, the actual ride to Lake Hanas took another 3 to 4 hours, due to bad road conditions and large scale construction works, meant to improve them.
Arrival at Lake Hanas is at the tourist camp, or settlement, that has developed at the lake front. Accommodation here is quite basic and your best bet is probably a Kazak yurt.
In the evenings around the yurts there is singing, dancing, drinking and plenty of barbecued meat on sticks.
Anyway, apart from the lack of creature comforts, the lake – which is of an incredible turquoise blue – and its surroundings are stunning.
Lake Kanas / Ha na si hu 哈纳斯湖: Hiking
From the village, you can climb a peak near the lake, up to Guanyu Pavillion 观鱼亭 (2030m), from where there are spectacular views over the lake, the mountains, dark pine forests and grasslands。(There now appears to be a rather hastily built and untasteful new structure acting as a look out post). Pity! Sometimes beauty is in simplicity.
From the view point you can see the snow capped friendship Peak (Youyi Feng 友谊峰) in the distance. The part that rises up from Mongolian territory makes Friendship peak Mongolia’s hightest mountain. Just two and a half kilometers beyond Friendship Peak is another peak, Mount Kuitun ( 奎屯山; Kuítún shān), which marks the international boundary between China, Russia and Mongolia.
There are plenty of other easy day hikes that you can take through the grasslands, stopping off at some of the yurts that sell refreshments. Or, if you prefer, you can hire a horse for a day or half-day. The common sight of nomads herding flocks of sheep and Bactrian camels provides a genuine pastoral charm that’s difficult to replicate in the rest of China.
It is also possible to make excursions to other valleys and villages further afield, but you will have to hire a car and driver.
Additionally, you may need a permit for some of these places, so take this into account when applying in Bu’erjin. The scenery in the neighbouring valley of Hemu Hanas 和木, and around the stone village of Bai Kaba is said to be particularly stunning.
Back in 2002 the entrance ticket (men piao 门票) cost a steep 100 yuan and that was when one euro got you 10 yuan. Be assured that the entrance ticket costs a lot more now.
Eating and Sleeping
The settlement that has sprung up in the lake area is quite chaotic: it’s a mixture of yurts, tourist hotels, guest houses and cabins, spread around a couple of meadows and muddy lanes. (See above for more recent info).
In spite of the increasing influx of tourists, especially since the construction of a nearby landing strip for small planes, facilities for tourists have not really kept up.
The yurts and many of the guesthouses don’t have any toilet or washing facilities, and the whole village has one large block of (unlit) public toilets, extremely hard to find your way around in after dark, especially since there are no street lights either. (This has now changed)
When we got there, we were told that foreigners were not allowed to stay in yurts (officially) and that we had to find a place with permission to take foreign guests. However, all the decent-looking places were full and we had no other option, but to stay at the actual PSB- run guesthouse! (Nothing unusual about that; in China it is quite normal for members of the armed forces to be involved in business and other lucrative schemes).
There we paid around Y180 – after protracted haggling with a young soldier – for a bare room, no washing facilities except for a cold tap outside, and an outdoor latrine. We were however, right on the lake.
If you prefer a bit more comfort, your best bet is probably to visit either the CITS or a private travel agency in Ürümqi and book a hotel through them, though they will probably want to sell you a complete tour.
Transport: to get back to Ürümqi, you have to make arrangements with one of the jeeps or taxis (most of them have business cards and mobile phones these days) to pick you up in the morning and take you down to Bu’erjin in time for the sleeper bus. There are several, but most of them leave in the late afternoon.