A Tale of two Towns

Pingle 平乐 Versus Songji 松溉

Pingle and Songji

A Tale of two Towns. Pingle and Songji are two traditional ancient towns in the South West of China. The first, Pingle, is a couple of hours away from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, while the second, Songji, is a mere two hours from the metropolis Chongqing.

The architecture in both towns is similar: the houses have black slate roofs and white walls supported by dark wooden beams; the streets are narrow and cobble- stoned. Moreover, both towns share a riverside location: while Pingle is built along both banks of a river, the streets of. Songji run downhill towards the Yangtze. As for village life, drinking tea and playing board games are still the favourite pastimes of the locals. However, after that the similarities stop. Pingle has become a hugely popular tourist destination for Chengdu residents and domestic tourists visiting Sichuan.

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As a result, it is full of souvenir shops, its streets lined with teahouses, inns and restaurants. Songji on the other hand is a slightly melancholy, time- forgotten town without a single souvenir shop, just one hotel and a few local restaurants and traditional teahouses. We visited both this summer and here are our impressions, taken from the Diary:


… First impressions aren’t good. The toilets at the otherwise modern bus station that necessity has forced us to use are high up on the ‘Worst in China’ list: they are piled high in shit, there’s no water and the stench impregnates the station and beyond. Outside a steady drizzle is falling.  The next realisation is that Pingle is far from being a hidden gem; in fact, it is entirely overrun by Chinese tour groups. Our guide book, the trusty Lonely Planet, had warned us that “modern life (was) encroaching”, but had also assured us that “enough old-town life (remained) for a pleasant day-long excursion from Chengdu”.

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As it turns out, the whole town is one great souvenir shop, selling all kinds of crap, from giant water pistols to screaming toys. We pass the town’s blacksmith (proudly advertised as the last remaining ‘traditional’ one) and cynically speculate whether he spends his whole day heating and whacking the same piece of metal for the benefit of the tourists, while the knives and other things on sale are mass produced in Guangdong.

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Mourning Old Kashgar

Mourning Old Kashgar

Mourning Old Kashgar. In recent weeks a number of articles have appeared in the international press, warning us about the imminent destruction of the old historic quarter of the city of Kashgar. Kashgar is an oasis town in the Western province of Xinjiang, inhabited by Uyghurs, Muslims of Turkic origin. Historically, it was one of the most important stops for the caravans on the Silk Route, and its Sunday Market was, and is, renowned.

demolishing Old Kashgar

According to these articles, the Chinese Authorities’ pretext for demolishing Old Kashgar is to protect the residents from the risk of earthquakes and generally improve their living conditions. The mayor of Kashgar has deemed the old buildings to be unsafe and decided that the residents should now live in new ones. The New York Times sums it up perfectly with the title ‘To Protect an Ancient City, China Moves to Raze It’.

My reaction is one of horror, first of all for selfish reasons: I visited Kashgar twice, in 1990 and then again in 2002, and I still have romantic images of the Old City. From 1990, I remember the Uyghur story tellers and street comedians performing to huge crowds in front of the Id Kah Mosque during the day, and then at night the food market with its smoking spits, emitting wafts of roasted meat and grilled fish. 

Magician Outside the Id Kah Mosque 1990
Magician Outside the Id Kah Mosque 1990

The humongous Sunday Market was stunning

The back streets were a hive of activity where you’d be drawn to bakeries by the smell of freshly-baked bread, or you’d pop you head into a blacksmith’s to see horse shoes being smelted. The humongous Sunday Market was stunning: the whole town was clogged up with traders driving in on donkey and camel carts to sell their wares.

Meanwhile, in the animal section, prospective buyers busied themselves inspecting cows, or ‘test driving’ a new horse or camel. Finally, there was the availability of cold beer and Kashgar Pizza which, after 6 weeks in Pakistan, was manna from heaven.

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The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces: Longji Titian

Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs (Longji Titian/ The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces)
Yao Lady Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces
Yao Lady Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces

The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces: Longji Titian how will these incredible teraaces survive? This piece looks at the issues raised in the article “Drinking Their Fields Dry”, written by Xiong Lei and published in the China Daily on 12 -7-2007. The article focuses on the effects tourism is having on the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces (Longji titian) near Longsheng in the Zhuang Autonomous Region in Guangxi province.

Working  the  Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces
Working the Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces

The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces: Longji Titian

On that beautiful late summer’s evening in 2003 the dynamite went off at regular intervals, with a thud that echoed around the entire valley, shattering the silence of an area without cars and very little electricity. I looked on as a crowd of local Zhuang from the village of Ping’an gathered to watch how huge swathes of the beautiful terraced mountain side were blasted to pieces to make way for a new road that would eventually arrive at the very centre of their village.

Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces
Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces

I wondered then what changes that road would bring to their lives. I never imagined that they would be so quick and so damaging.

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The Death of Dali

Shangri-La Tourism What happens when all of China and the world want to visit a small town?

The historic city of Dali

The historic city of Dali, situated on the shores of Erhai lake in China’s Southwestern province of Yunnan,  has died and risen again several times during its long history. Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies raised it as part of their destruction of the Nanzhao Kingdom. Chinese Imperial troops put the city to the torch when crushing a Muslim rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century. And an earthquake destroyed it again in 1925.

After the earthquake

After the earthquake, Dali was rebuilt in keeping with its traditional style, a mixture of large Bai courtyard mansions and small wooden shops and stores. Its layout within the old city walls remained the same, and the city was criss-crossed by beautiful flagstone streets.


This was the Dali that we found in 1990 and liked so much. But Dali has died again and this time the enemy is probably much more dangerous than anything that came before.  The enemy is called Shangri-la Tourism. My reaction on revisiting the town after 15 years was: Benidorm!

the dreaded banana pancake

It has to be said that Dali was fairly touristy even in 1990. Hordes of local Bai women used to pursue the newly arrived backpackers down the streets, trying to flog batiks, earrings, hairpins and change FECs (the Foreign Exchange Certificates that foreigners got at the bank instead of the local currency). Restaurants offering the dreaded banana pancake and other so-called Western food were ubiquitous.

Dali became a pleasant place to chill out

It wasn’t the ‘real’ China; not even then. However, the businesses dealing with backpackers were generally family affairs run on a small scale, and once you had settled in and the grannies had given up on you as a lost cause, Dali became a pleasant place to chill out, recharge your batteries and recover from the considerable effort of getting there. Moreover, the scenery around Dali was and is spectacular, the surrounding villages beautiful, the local Bai culture (see Xizhou) fascinating and the markets pretty amazing.

Dali is no longer remote, nor undiscovered

Nowadays, Dali is no longer remote, nor undiscovered: endless tour groups are bussed along brand new motorways from Kunming or Lijiang in a matter of a few hours. The infrastructure improvements form part of the government’s wider attempt to boost China’s underdeveloped South-West; a cause it is difficult to disagree with. One of the key areas that have been earmarked for development is Tourism which, in this part of Yunnan, means Shangri-La Tourism.

James Hilton’s book ‘Lost Horizons’

Shangri-La Tourism refers to the promotion of North-western Yunnan as the mythical Paradise-on-Earth, immortalised in James Hilton’s book ‘Lost Horizons’.  It is an area of small and isolated towns and villages set in a landscape of outstanding beauty and historical interest. The ideal setting, in short, to attract tourists and generate wealth and prosperity. On paper this sounds fine. The problem lies in the implementation and planning.

The New Old buildings in Dali

In order to cater for the invading tourist hordes, much of Dali’s original architecture has been bulldozed an subsequently re-built as a new ‘old Dali’, in a fake Qing style and with conveniently widened shopping streets, lined by tacky souvenir stalls. Heaps of new hotels have opened their doors, alongside a wide variety of Pizzeria’s, German Bakeries and English Pubs, advertising Shepherd’s Pie and Premier League Football.

The streets are thronged

The streets are thronged by thousands of avid shoppers and obedient tour groups led by screaming guides with megaphones. From the terraces, the scene is observed by an ever decreasing number of misguided backpackers, attracted by Dali’s past reputation as a Travellers’ Mecca. Grim would be an understatement.

What wll happen to other old towns around Erhai Lake?

The fear is that now Dali has become oversaturated and lost most of its charm, other unspoilt villages around Erhai Lake, such as Xizhou or Wase, will be designated as tourist destinations. Already, Western tour groups have started avoiding the tourist trap that the Monday market at Shaping has become and heading straight for the Saturday Market at Wase instead. As a result, the central square of nearby Xizhou is under threat of demolition, with a view to modernising and sanitising the town in preparation for the expected increase in visitors.

Old Dali has died

Old Dali has died. Further on, the equally renowned town of Lijiang, the ancient capital of the Naxi Kingdom with its intriguing matriarchal culture and distinctive language, has been mutilated. Once again, it was done in the name of Shangri-La tourism. Development of the Tibetan town of Zhongdian is well under way and, no doubt, Deqin will soon follow. As more and more towns are keen to have a piece of the pie, Shangri-La tourism, unless controlled, threatens to devour some of the China’s most beautiful and authentic places.

One final, positive note: it seems that town planners in Zhongdian* have taken a critical look at the excesses of Dali and Lijiang and are keen not to repeat the same mistakes. Meanwhile, my only advice if you want to visit is: get there sooner rather than later and travel individually and independently.

(*Zhongdian’s Old City has since burned down and been rebuilt)

For more on this area and topic, keep a look out for our Shangri-La Special that will soon be published on the web.

The Tropical Botanical Gardens at Menglun


An unlikely gem if ever there were one

The Tropical Botanical Gardens at Menglun, Xixuangbanna, Yunnan Province; an unlikely gem if ever there were one, Menglun’s dusty main road is a mishmash of small restaurants, cheap hotels and motorbike shops. Pretty it isn’t! But then one doesn’t come to Menglun to see the town, but rather the fabulous Tropical Botanical Gardens that begin after crossing a suspension bridge over the Luosuo River, only a few meters from the unglamorous main road. To really experience Menglun, stay at the atmospheric hotel set in the middle of the gardens; an oasis of serenity and a rare treat in modern- day China. The Gardens are huge, which is why you really need two days to explore.


Menglun should be a must for anyone embarking on a long trip around Asia. The Tropical Botanical Gardens are home to all the species you will become familiar with when travelling around Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, or the rest of China. Highlights include the Tropical Rainforest and the colourful Tropical Plants area. The Rainforest gives you a pretty good idea of the vegetation you will come across if you are doing any trekking in Xishuangbanna or in Laos, especially the Nam Ha Protected Area near Luang Nam Tha. Be prepared for extreme humidity.

Other areas of interest are the Medicinal Plants, including the Dragon’s Blood Tree that is reputedly able to heal wounds. The Palm Section has more different species than you could ever imagine. The Arboretum harbours some amazingly tall trees and Indiana Jones- like jungle foliage. The diverse types of Bamboo and the amazing Water Plants add to exotic ambience of the park. The highlight of the water plants is the “King of the Water Lily” a disk- shaped Lily growing up to a meter in diameter. The immense size of the gardens means that even if noisy Chinese tour groups do turn up, their presence doesn’t take away from the experience, as it can do in many other major sights.


Besides being a tourist destination, the Tropical Botanical Gardens are also a major research centre where scientist investigate how to protect biospheres and plant species, create seed banks and carry out the commercialisation of plant products for medicine, cosmetics and other areas. A number of Chinese companies have research centres in the park. Some of the Chinese professors and research workers speak English and are happy to tell you about their work.


Staying overnight in the Gardens’ accommodation is the best way to maximise your experience in Menglun. The evenings are particularly wonderful when fireflies, bats and other strange, flying insects come out. The hotel has a wide choice of rooms . The cheaper ones are damp and musty, while the 240 Yuan rooms are spacious with balconies. However, this might just be one of those places where you might want to splash out a bit more. There are two suites for 320 Yuan (32 Euros). The enormous rooms have nice bathrooms, private terraces and even fridges to keep your beer cold in the evening when everything closes up. Unfortunately, the hotel’s massive swimming pool was closed at the time of our visit in August.

Staff at the park entrance will be able to tell you whether there are any rooms available, or phone on your behalf. It is a good 1 km walk from the entrance to the hotel. One added advantage of staying inside the park is that the 80 Yuan entrance ticket only has to be paid once. Your room card will allow you to come and go as you please.



There is a good, though slightly pricey restaurant on the hotel grounds. They mostly cater to tour groups, serving exotic dishes made from the trees, plants and flowers in the gardens, such as fried banana flowers or bamboo ‘eggs’. You may need to order in advance and/or speak a bit of Chinese to persuade the cooks to serve up similar delicacies. Failing this, they have a fairly extensive menu of common Chinese dishes.

We had lunch in the restaurant while the torrential downpour that had been going on for most of the morning continued outside. It was interesting to observe how the Chinese tour groups seemed unfazed by the weather. Eating, drinking, toasting and playing cards, the groups from Ningxia and Sichuan were determined to enjoy themselves and make the most of their, undoubtedly, short holiday. We always feel that the Chinese’ resolve to have a good time, regardless of the weather or adverse circumstances, is one of their most endearing characteristics.

Apart from the restaurant, there are a couple of small shops on the premises, selling instant noodles, snacks and drinks.

Outside the park, there are many decent, cheaper restaurants near the market and on the main road.


Coming and Going

New highways have made Menglun quick and easy to reach from Jinghong, Mengla and Kunming. Buses run throughout the day. Unfortunately, the new highway between Menglun and Mengla (for Laos) bypasses the stunning jungle scenery the old road used to traverse. It now takes a mere 2 hours to Mengla.

Beijing 1990 – 2007

Up until the 1950s, Beijing was an architectural wonder, an almost perfectly preserved metropolis from the pre-industrial era. Many ancient towns and cities exist around the world, but Beijing was enormous: 62.5 square kilometres (25 square miles) large including lakes, parks, palaces and of course the Forbidden City, the emperor’s home. Surrounded by some of the greatest fortified walls of antiquity, it was a microcosm of ancient China, a city that symbolized the political and religious ideals of a system that had existed for twenty – five hundred years. Ian Johnson, Wild grass, p. 101

HolaChina: Your Gateway to China


Part One- Beijing 1990

Stepping out onto the concourse outside Beijing railway station into the sharp winter sunlight we saw the number 20 bus pulling in. “That’s the one!” I shouted to Margie. We stormed it with the rest of Beijing. The descending passengers didn’t stand a chance as the mob rushed the opening doors. I tried to use my backpack to annihilate any opposition in my quest to get a seat. However, despite my efforts, the old ladies with their jabbing elbows still managed to get on before us. But we did get our bums on those precious seats in the end. Two foreign tourists getting off the bus looked at us in total shock and disgust. But, hey, we had already been out in Western China for 2 months, and when in Rome… Welcome to Beijing 1990.


It’s a long time ago, but Margie kept a diary, so the memories come flooding back every time we reread it. I remember a cold, hazy city. The sun, though occasionally glaring, was more often weak and blotted out by a polluted sky (worse than now). When the clouds covered the sky, snow sometimes fluttered in the air, but mostly melted before it had time to settle. The people looked pretty poor, though there were some inklings of an incipient urban sophistication we hadn’t seen elsewhere in China. Something was happening but we couldn’t quite put our fingers on it…..

For more go to: HolaChina: Your Gateway to China


Hotan / Khotan / Hetian/ 和田

City of Jade / City of Anger


Hotan is remote. It is one of those end of the world places beyond which begins one of the world’s largest deserts, the Taklamakan, an enormous area of sand dunes and barren rocks forming some of the most hostile terrain on earth. Boiling in summer, freezing in winter, towns like Hotan hang precariously to the desert’s outer ring, hemmed in by the looming Kunlun Mountains that rise up to the Tibetan Plateau. Over the centuries, many other once thriving oasis towns like Hotan have succumbed to the advances of the Taklamakan, and their half hidden remains lie buried in the sand, a poignant testimony to the harshness of the environment.

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“Tofu Buildings”

Doufu Jianzhu or Doufu Zhengfu?

Doufu is the Chinese word for Tofu. It is sometimes used metaphorically to describe something that, like tofu, looks strong and hard on the outside, but is soft and weak on the inside. Following the huge earthquake in Sichuan and the subsequent collapse of so many shoddily built schools killing thousands of school children and students, the local press in China has been labelling the schools, Tofu buildings (doufuzha gongcheng). The actual meaning implies a complete botch job, combined with official graft.

With the expression doufuzha gongcheng flying all over the Chinese media, it now seems that the government has had enough of this open criticism and is reining in the local press, most likely because the truth hurts. In the people’s minds there is no doubt that official squeeze in collusion with business interests led to those poorly constructed state schools. The extent of the repercussions of local party corruption for the Chinese Communist Party as a whole will be known much further down the line. For now it is a case of damage limitation.

If you can read Chinese, here is an interesting link confirming what I have said above:南方周末 – 【学校之殇】建设部专家认定聚源中学是问题建筑——聚源中学倒塌悲剧调查

It now appears that the above article has been removed from the web. I wonder why????????????

The Hani Minority



Photo From the Yunnan Book on the Hani


The The Hani Minority / Hanizu


One of China’s least known Ethnic minorities



Photo From the Yunnan Book on the Hani

We first came across the Hani, one of China’s more than 50 ethnic minorities, a few years ago when we had the fortune to spend a number of days in Yuanyang (Yunnan Province link) and the surrounding rice terraces of the fabulous Ailao mountains. Apart from the Hani, the Ailao mountains are home to a number of other minorities such as the Yi, the Yao, or the Miao. However, it was the Hani who were most in evidence in and around Yuanyang, and it was fascinating to watch them going about their daily lives, whether buying and selling in the vibrant markets, strolling around the town square at dusk, tending to their famous rice terraces, or walking back towards their idyllic ‘mushroom’ villages with their farm animals in tow.



Who are the Hani?

The Hani, who number about 1.29 million in China, used to be renowned for being fierce warriors, but these days it is their remarkable farming techniques, especially rice terrace farming, that have made them famous. The finest examples of this spectacular agricultural feat can be seen near Yuanyang.

The Hani are made up of various subgroups – each with its own customs, dress and dialect – which can be found not only in China, but in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar as well. In China, they have settled in southern Yunnan where they have established communities in the prefectures along the Red River (Honghe) and in the Mekong (Langcang) area of Xishuangbanna. They are also found in Pu’er, Jiancheng near Simao, and Yuanjiang county near Yuxi.

The location of their settlements is a result of centuries of migration, due to wars, famines and natural disasters, from the elevated Tibetan lands near the Burmese border. It is therefore no surprise that the Hani speak a language that is related to Tibeto-Burman, and is classified as part of the family of Tibetan languages. However, as opposed to Tibetan or Burmese, no writing system exists for the Hani language.


Hani Lady Yuanyang

While Hani men are generally indistinguishable from their Han counterparts, though on festive occasions they often wear black or white turbans, it is the women who continue to wear distinctive ethnic clothing, which varies widely, depending on the region in which they live. Some common traits are heavy silver jewellery, the use of decorative silver coins and a strong liking for black cloth. Other colours worn by the Hani are indigo and petrol-blue, as well as green. 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.

Mushroom Houses



The Hani from around Yuanyang have specialised in building what are popularly known as Mushroom Houses or Mogu Fangzi in Chinese. These are Square adobe structures with slightly pointed thatched roofs. Seen from a distance a Hani village might remind one of a Hobbit’s house from The Lord of the Rings.


Photo From the Yunnan Book on the Hani

The Hani have a variety of gods and wizards who they worship. They hold a number of festivals throughout the year in order to pay homage to and venerate these spiritual beings. The biggest of these festivals are the Kuzhazha Festival and the Tenth Month Festival. The latter coincides with the first dragon day of the tenth month and is the occasion when you can witness the Hani celebrating their legendary long table banquets. Rather like a British street party. Tables are set out in a long line through the center of the town or village and food and wine are served to all villagers. Singing, dancing, games and general mayhem all follow.

More Information

Anyone who wishes to know more about the Hani should try to see the excellent film “When Rouma was 17 (Rouma de shi qi sui) directed by Zhang Yiarui and starring Shu Linyuan, Li Min, Yang Zhigang.

This sweet and sometimes humorous story is about a young Hani girl, Rouma, facing up to the complexities of modern life that are now penetrating the remote rural area where she lives. Apart from a good impression of Hani lifestyle, the film also provides some great shots of Yuanyang and the surrounding countryside.

We’ll hopefully add more information to this article after our visit this summer (2008) to the Hani areas of Xishuangbanna.