The drive through Yunnan (云南) was akin to weaving a tapestry rich in colour and texture, with an endless formation of different shapes and sizes, so that when the final work was looked at from different angles, resulted in a unique kaleidoscope of emotions. As we meandered through the Stone Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Shilin (石林), we erupted into childish joy, executing star jumps, climbing the craggy limestone, playing peekaboo, and feeling ‘on-top-of-the-world’ as we perched on the peaks. Such was the sense of anticipation and awe as we began each new day.
The landscapes were animated with people dressed in modern and ethnic costumes. There were minority tribes such as the Yi, Bai, Han, Dai, Miao and Tibetans, with Hans as the majority race. With skilful driving by Javiny, we soon arrived in Xizhou (喜洲). Ingenious forms of transport such as a custom-made motorised mini three-wheel truck were improvised to carry a family and their farm produce to the market. Along the way, we witnessed herds of cows, goats, buffaloes, pigs, and even the occasional yak.
The ‘wet’ market in Xizhou featuring produce from the farms as well as live seafood from the river and Lake Erhai provided a field day for photography enthusiasts like Jack, our fellow traveller from Hong Kong, and Hui-Juan. The sights, sounds and smells harked back to the days when my mum used to take me to the Ellenborough Market in Singapore. Foodstuff such as tea leaves and chillies were sold in huge cartons or sacks. Live fish swimming in tanks, livestock such as hens and ducks were slaughtered on the spot, unlike the frozen variety we have back home. Dachings instead of digital weighing scales were used. The village, however, is not devoid of modern technologies — mobile phones were widely used. And since eating is a Singaporean passion, we sat on low stools for freshly pan-fried ‘baba’ (吧吧) which were buns with minced pork or sweet bean paste and rose syrups as fillings.All in all, it was a comfortable walk in the morning, with the cool breeze a bonus to Yunnan’s mild climate.
One of the most uplifting moments of the trip was when we were seated on the terrace at a beautiful 1940s Chinese mansion in Xizhou overlooking rice fields. We had a panoramic view of the mountains, which summits were shrouded by white floating clouds, and traditional old houses that sat at their feet. With wine glasses in hands, we toasted each other and prayed for good weather and a safe journey ahead. Against the picturesque scenery, Jack soliloquised, “No amount of money can this be bought in Hong Kong”, bringing murmurs of approval from everyone within hearing shot.
Early the following morning, I spied Robert from Taiwan sitting in deep thought on the terrace. As the steam from his cup of hot Pu-er tea spiralled into the morning air to join the clouds floating around the mountains, the composed 30-something shared his bliss and gratitude at his upcoming wedding. Later, I wandered through the maze of alleys in search of adventure in the tranquil morning till a heard a symphony of frogs croaking in a hidden pond in a backyard.
Our next stop was at Laomadian, a converted Ming Dynasty coach inn in Shaxi (沙溪). It is a preserved caravan town with an open courtyard, cobbled streets and a permanent covered stage opposite a temple. The scenery reminded me of the one at Yio Chu Kang / Lim Tua Tow Road in Singapore. Then, on festive days, my aunt, cousins, sisters and neighbours would watch Teochew ‘wayang’ (opera) as we sucked red bean Potong sticks peddled by ice-cream sellers on bicycles.
As we cruised along the banks of the Yangtze River, we stopped at the first bend of the river for a group photograph to etch the significance of that river to the Chinese people historically and economically. This river meanders through several counties and its force is continuously harnessed into hydro-electric power. In fact, the Yellow River Piano Concerto, depicting the history of China and the wrath of the river which affected the livelihood of the people, was composed on it.
High up on the mountain paths on the way to Benzilan (奔子栏), close to the Tibetan border, we spotted pool tables outdoors as well as indoors. It was a pleasant surprise to see workers and villagers enjoying pool instead of the expected table-tennis! Was it a sense of modernity or practicality to indulge in ‘Western’ games?
Stupas were erected along the precarious edges of mountains for the Tibetan form of Buddhism. Here, the houses were perched closer to the edge of mountain slopes; probably flatter ground was less available, or could it be that the Tibetans were less afraid of height?
As we were finishing our lunch in Tacheng (塔城), we requested the chef for a Tibetan dessert. What surprised us was that the chef used locally produced corn to whip up delicious steamed corn cakes — each wrapped artfully with a corn sheath! The service was delivered spontaneously and with pride. This was not the only instance of service-with-the-extra-mile we received from the Yunnan people.
We had a pleasant moon-lit night on the open terrace at the Songtsam Benzilan Hotel. With the vast expanse of the mountains accentuated by cascading rapids as the backdrop and a solitary monastery perched in the foreground providing a stark contrast, we dutifully sipped our well-deserved glass of wine after a long day’s journey. Serenity enveloped us that moment as we breathed the crisp mountain air far from the madding crowd!
That night, Robert slept with his windows wide open with surround sound from the waterfalls and moonlight filtering into his room. It was a treasured moment for him.
We had ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’ (过桥米线) –a local dish — besides the usual bread and cakes for breakfast the following morning before embarking on our dirt track up the winding narrow mountain paths.
The most memorable moment of the trip for me was a visit to a Tibetan family in the mountains. There, the Lama, a Tibetan monk who had returned home for vacation, showed us around his home,s a three-storey wooden house containing a number of artefacts. The first level was used to house animals; the living room, dining room, bedrooms and kitchen were on the second level while the attic was used as a store. The ceilings and walls had colourful paintings. It was also here Robert chanced upon a passer-by with a bag of freshly dug out matsutake (pine mushrooms) from the mountains. Wild matsutake mushrooms are highly sought after by the Japanese as they are prized for their distinctive spicy aromatic taste. After a brief haggling, he purchased all her mushrooms. To our surprise, the Lama agreed to cook the dish of mushrooms for us! He had such humility and generosity as to extend such warm hospitality to us! “Being happy to do what you’ve set out to do is the most important,” was the wisdom he imparted to us. There, we relished his cooking, including the buttermilk and buns prepared in Tibetan style.
The drive to the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery at Shangri-La (香格里拉), one of the the largest monastery outside of Tibet, was akin to the ascent to Llhasa as it is about 3,300m above sea-level. People who are sensitive to altitude differences would feel uncomfortable. We offered our prayers and asked for blessings at the monastery.
Another moment of awe tinged with fear was at the Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡) on the way to Lijiang (丽江). There, the placid river water from the Yangtze forced its way into the canyon, resulting in a ferocious, roaring display of power. In order to experience the force of the river, we walked down several flights of stairs. The return journey was more challenging as we had to take a few breathers.
At Lijiang, we wandered through the maze of streets in search for traditional wares and the Naxi (纳西) food. The old town of Lijiang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the scenic height of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) at an altitude of 5,500m framed the valley. There we had a fish dish with lots of dried chillies floating on top. It was not a small feat for the faint-hearted. We were told Yunnan people relished spicy, exotic dishes, although other dishes without chilli are also available, for example, tofu, omelette and stir-fried vegetables. Goat cheese and butter were abundant, so a great variety of dishes were prepared from them. Yunnan is also well-known for its great variety of tea and coffee, and I assure you, they are good too!
All in all, the journey was enjoyable, thanks to excellent drivers such as Jack and Javiny as well as good companionship from our fellow travellers. I certainly look forward to fulfilling our parting promise of meeting up with each other over a ‘bak kut teh’ dinner!