a house in Lijang

Lijang, too, is entirely focused on tourists, and so are many of the surrounding villages, where Chinese minorities form the majority.

The road to Lijiang, some 130 km north of Dali, shows a quickly changing landscape, from the fertile agricultural plains around the lake to the grassy, yellow hills with not much more than low scrub as vegetation. Here no people live, on the contrary, the dead are buried here, evidenced by graves on all sides of the road. However, further on life, and colour, returned again, with terraced fields flanking river valleys, sturdy villages build against the lower ranges of the mountain slopes and the occasional herd of goats, flanked by a cow or two, crossing the road.


Lijang’s reference to Venice

a restaurant’s kitchen along the canal

Siping Square, the centre of Lijang

one of the inhabitants

stacked roofs

Lijang roofs from above

Lijiang turned out to be even more touristic than Dali. Hailed as the Venice of the Orient – as so many other places in China, by the way -, it really is not more than a couple of streets with one or two streams running through it. The streams are mainly crossed by planks, and only occasionally there is a small arched bridge built over it. The main town centre is heavily restored, and nicely decorated with hundreds of flower pots, yet there is little authenticity left here. Shops sell touristic souvenirs, and the Siping square in the centre of town has a market with antiques only, Chinese antiques that is, but without the usual clementines, apples, and other fruit and vegetables that any self-respecting Chinese market puts on display. It is only outside the central part of town that one finds the real village atmosphere back, cobbled streets, corner shops and genuine courtyards. Tourism also brings modernity, and today only the middle aged and elderly sport the traditional Naxi dress, the young are too cool for this.

another Lijang street

courtyard house

woman coming home in the suburbs


Yulong Xue Shan, or Snow Mountain


To get away from it all, we decided to visit Baisha, according to our three year old guide book a small, unspoiled village north of Lijiang, reachable by dirt track only. No way! Tarmac now leads all the way to the village, where one is greeted by a hefty parking fee for our taxi, and a tourist circuit lined with the usual souvenir stalls leading to the main attraction, the museum. But yet again, away from the centre life takes its normal form again, and strolling through the village outskirts, complete with its rural entourage of pigs, chicken and cows, was really nice. Things got even better in Yulong, the next village north of Baisha, and in Yuhe, which was not yet spoilt by tourism, and which took us considerably more time to find. No tarmac here, at least.



Yulong village

the women of Yulong

The afternoon we spent in the local park in Lijiang, very Chinese again, with a pond and arched wooden bridges, temple-like buildings and its main attraction, a performance by the Naxi orchestra. This was a group of mainly old men and young girls playing the traditional music, definitely on period instruments. Quite nice, although somewhat repetitive after a while. Before returning to Kunming by plane, we did manage to find the real market in town, with its usual cacophony of colours. Especially the green-white baskets, typical for this area and used to carry whatever you can think of on your back, were prominently on display.

a man in the pavilion

Deyue pavilion, in the park in Lijang

the Naxi orchestra

and a Naxi soloist

colourful display of people and products in Shaping

Dali is a good base for exploration around the Er Hai Lake, where the Shaping market and the village of Xizhou form attractive targets for a day trip, providing some insight in the minority culture of this area.

Thirty minutes from Dali, situated at the northern end of the Er Hai Lake, is Shaping, famous for its Monday market. Very colourful again, dominated by Bai dresses in white and red, long plaid skirts and conspicuous head decorations. At least one other minority, perhaps the Naxi in purple and blue, and occasionally green, was also well represented. As markets go in China, they sell everything, from incredible mountains of cabbage, huge chickens and bags full of red peppers to thousands of baskets and, for the tourists, antiques again. And tourists there were, arriving in droves on specially laid on minibus tours from Dali some 15 minutes after we had gotten there. A swarm of westerners, continually moving as one cloud, and only very slowly dissipating in between the stalls.

the market in Shaping

market woman in between her wares

Bai minority woman, with fabulous headdress

woman selling ropes

also plenty of space for the food stalls

which is an obvious necessity, during the day

woman selling her chicken

and another one, selling a smaller version

But Shaping had more to offer than just its wonderful market. Beautiful Bai houses, often two-storied, come with wooden paneling and wood-carved windows and balconies. Their large courtyards, often well maintained and clean, with dark red pillars support inner balconies, which have been decorated with plants.

pack horses stalled outside the market area

two Bai girls with scales

pack horses cross part of the Er Hai Lake

one of the many courtyartds

street in Xizhou

another of the courtyards

elaborately decorated entrance

main shopping street in Xizhou

the Xizhou hotel, in the town centre

We walked along the lake for a while, and then picked up a bus to Xizhou, another large village, with even more elaborate examples of these Bai houses. This village turned out to be very compact, with very few main streets, but many little alleys leading to houses. Quite a few of those ultimately ended in a cul-de-sac, forcing us to retrace our steps. Many of the houses have fabulous porches, either stone- or wood-decorated, an occasional painting next to or above the door, and always room for incense, either in a specially constructed hole in the wall or in a rusty tin nailed to the porch. The centre of town, reached through a network of busy shopping streets, is a small square where all the old men seem to have gathered to play mahjong, cards or checkers, or just smoke their pipes in the sun and watch the children play.

Outside the village is actually just as attractive as inside, with people working the fields in colourful dress contrasting with the many varieties of green. In the distance other villages loom, as equally compact units, groups of houses built together with little space in between. People must have felt the need for a strong defense in the past, anticipating less peaceful situations than the images radiated at that moment.

Next: the other tourist trap of Yunnan, Lijiang

one of Xizhou’s inhabitants, smoking a pipe

the men, keeping an eye on proceedings in town

the local youth, on a rampage

Dali main street, from the city wall

Touristic Dali has plenty to offer, especially outside its touristic centre.

Dali is a strange place, with attractive architecture of the old houses in the central part of town, and narrow alleyways in between the main arteries. Some of the main streets have been turned into pedestrian roads, another testimony to tourism. But it is the kind of shops that divides the town. In the western half, batiks, artefacts, embroideries and ‘old’ silver (which is neither old, nor silver) are for sale in tacky souvenir shops, which are complemented with western-style café’s serving everything from fried eggs for breakfast to Hamburgers and French fries, Mexican taco’s and Indian curries. The southern part of town caters for Chinese tourists and sells a completely different type of souvenirs: stone vases, some of enormous dimensions, framed stone slabs – not the type of stuff a backpacker would easily take home. And there are literally hundreds of these shops, suggesting that the tourist loads in season must be enormous, stifling, and that perhaps January was not a bad time at all to visit, despite the cold.

main pedestrian street in Dali

the less touristic part of town, but so charming

the egg market, small scale yet colourful

more egg sellers, a basket each

the livestock market outside town

the owners of a cow, waiting for customers

pigs, well washed for the market

The nicest part of town was actually the northern part, apparently reserved for Dali inhabitants rather than for tourists. Here shops provide the normal, day to day purchases, and the streets are lined with market stalls selling fruit, cloths etc. – welcome back to China. In one corner is the egg market, a place near the Northern Gate where everybody who wishes to sell or buy eggs congregates. The chicken market is in a wholly different street again, and so is the pet market, with baskets full of puppies and rows of full-grown dogs, too, and pigeons, cats, rabbits, you name it. Just outside the walls we came across the cattle market, along a stretch of river. Very lively, not only because of the ferocious looking bulls for sale, or every size pig being represented, but also because of the many people wearing their colourful, traditional dress.

the city wall, with San Ta pagoda in the back

San Ta pagoda, of of the three pagodas outside town

The various tourist sites around Dali were disappointing. The Three Pagodas turned out to be a walk along tourist stalls skirting the pagodas in a wide circle before finally arriving at the main structure, which was closed off, just like the two neighbouring, smaller towers. The city walls at the South Gate are a heavily restored affair with little authenticity left, apart from the crumbling end. The most attractive building turned out to be a dilapidated pagoda to the south-west of the town, which had at least some feel of originality to it. And another highlight was the Old Dali catholic church in a back street, a temple-like building where the Christian spirit turned out to be stronger than the standard Chinese instinct: there was no obligatory entrance fee!

Towns like Dali, with their touristic appeal, obviously attract a whole range of entrepreneurs, like the ones who want to sell you tours on the nearby lake, the ones who continuously want to repair your shoes, and the ones who approach you with photo books of antiques. The latter ones are also the people selling embroidery from home, anything from baby bags to aprons, hats, shoes, jackets, trousers, pillows, and pieces that as yet have no distinct purpose. All this stuff comes out of huge carton boxes, and comes in a wide variety of quality. Some are newly made, some even machine made, the most pompous being a belt with a zip on top to hide a small money pouch. But so once in a while one can dig up old pieces (or should I say ‘apparently old’), very nicely done in a range of beautiful colours, a testimony to hours and hours of tedious handwork, which, given the right negotiation skills, can be purchased for very reasonable prices.

In fact, the people themselves are still wearing this type of cloths, although the typical Bai dress is nowadays often complemented with jeans, a Nike wind breaker and platform shoes, the latest fashion craze in China.

Next: an excursion to the villages around Dali

local transport

the market also attracts minority people from outside town, splendidly dressed

cabbages, not a few, and no small ones

and the ever-present army, causing traffic jam

ducks for sale in the old quarters of Kunming

Kunming is the relaxed capital of China’s southern-most province, Yunnan, with a lovely old centre

A trip to Yunnan usually starts in Kunming, the pleasant provincial capital with its ‘eternal spring’. More about that later! We checked in in the New Era Hotel, a very new hotel indeed, judging from the lack of guests. The 28 story hotel provided a nice view of the city, and especially over the old quarters, the only attractive part of the city.

This area, also called the Muslim quarters, is a collection of narrow alleys and winding streets, some still lined with old wooden houses, and clogged by market stalls selling everything imaginable. Old men hang around, smoking their pipes, others sit at the food outlets, small hole-in-the-wall affairs serving noodles. Especially memorable are the rows of ducks and Yunan hams, made of beef rather than pork, displayed outside.

hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Kunming’s Muslim Quarter

food stall selling roasted ducks

another duck seller

After some turns we reached the pet market, which was really mainly birds and exotic fish, and everything you need for it: cages, fish bowls, but also fishing gear. Some of the fish looked painted, so unnatural were the colours, and maybe they were, nothing is impossible in China.

narrow alley in the Muslim Quarter in Kunming

street corner in Kunming, with a very narrow building

wooden balconies, wooden houses

We traveled to Dali in a luxurious touring car, and I mean really luxurious, an unheard of standard in China. Onboard toilet, complementary mineral water, lunch included, and a series of videos, or rather VCDs, featuring Chinese films with the obligatory fighting and excess noise. This type of bus, and the expressway that comes with it, are the early warning signs for how touristic this part of China really had become. The bus actually stopped in Xiangyun, half an hour or so before Dali proper, so we traveled the last bit by public bus, back to the familiar way of folding ourselves in the seats.


Next: Dali itself

the Great Wall of China, in the vicinity of Beijing

The Great Wall remains one of the prime sights in China, and near Beijing access is easy.

No travel website that mentions China can get away without mentioning the Great Wall. I have been in quite a few cities that claim to have the second longest wall in the world, but there is never a doubt which one is the longest, some 6000 km along China’s north. Begun in the 5th C BC, at great expense in terms of both human life as well as financial resources that could have fed quite a few at the time, the wall was meant to defend the empire against the barbarians, a collective for the non-Han peoples to the north. Over the years, the next 2500 years, or so, the wall served its purpose, more or less – it failed to keep out Ghengis Khan, though, and became equally obsolete when China’s borders extended further and further north, far beyond the wall. The last dynasty, the Qing, let the wall crumble without further maintenance; in fact they originally came from Manchuria, north of the wall, which didn’t stop them. And in any case it was of little use in the 19th and 20th C, against maritime powers like the Japanese and the Europeans. But things have changed: as a tourist attraction, the wall is unbeatable.

a great view of the Great Wall at Mutainyu

the wall, and watch towers, near Badaling

looking down the wall at Mutianyu, a steep descent

a rougher section in Mutianyu

another less-restored section, Mutianyu

inside a watch tower, Mutianyu

well-preserved watch towers on the wall at Mutainyu

I have described visits to the Great Wall in other parts of China elsewhere on the site (the Great Mud Ramp, Jiayuguan, and on the way to Zanye), but the easiest access is indeed from Beijing. In the 1990s (and I presume that won’t have changed much) the most popular area was Badaling, restored in 1957 and now fully prepared for mass tourism, complete with hand rails and rubbish bins, and a very insisting crowd of souvenir sellers. More authentic, although equally restored, was the Mutianyu section of the wall – although I understand that nowadays a toboggan brings you down again. By far the most exciting part was at Simatai, which was mostly the wall in its original state. A walk here, from watch tower to watch tower, was a sequence of steep climbs and descents, often across crumbling pieces of wall. All these sections were ultimately dead ends, of course, the wall would peter out after several kilometres, or – in the case of Simatai – become completely inaccessible, and dangerous. So the idea of one long, single wall defending China does need to be adjusted. Which in no way diminishes the excitement of walking over the longest wall in the world, by far.

other Beijing entries: the imperial palace at the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and other Buddhist Temples,

or: return to the China page

the wall at Simatai

steep section of the Mutainyu wall, in the snow

another view of wintery Mutainyu

at Mutainyu, too, there are plenty of vendors, even in winter

peppers drying

the wall, winding its way through the landscape, across mountains

the Summer Palace outside Beijing

The Summer Palace outside Beijing is not just a building, but a great park and lake complex ideal for an afternoon, or a whole day, out.

Just outside Beijing is what is known as the Summer Palace – Yiheyuan, in Chinese -, in fact a large complex of park and lake, with on one side of the lake the imperial retreat, a collection of wooden buildings built at the end of the 19th Century. Although the location has seen earlier palaces, the current building is mostly the initiative of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who brought the empire to the brink of collapse.

Much of the palace is built against a hill, with pavilions and corridors coming down to the lake side, where a huge marble boat – one of the follies of the Empress, constructed with money meant to support the navy – will never move an inch away from the jetty.

It is a fabulous complex at every season of the year; in winter the lake freezes solidly, providing space for ice skating and for sledges. Many of the Beijing residents will make the outing, on a Sunday afternoon.

other Beijing entries: the imperial palace in the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, other Buddhist Temples, and the Great Wall

or: return to the China page

one of the buildings against the hill

the highest building of the palace

the palace from above

one of the corridors to the lakeside

the stairs from one building to the next

the massive marble boat

and in close-up, stained glass

a little bridge, across the ice, in this case

and the lake in front, solidly frozen in winter

a moment’s rest

inside the Lama Temple in Beijing

Some of my favourite Buddhist temples in Beijing were the Lama Temple and the Five Pagoda Temple, great retreats from the always-busy city.

At the end of the 1990s there were lots of active Buddhist temples in Beijing, somehow the Communist Party never managed to stamp out religion entirely. Lots of Chinese people would visit a temple, big or small, and pray, lit a candle – well, incense sticks, really – or just sit and appreciate the peaceful atmosphere.

My favourite was what was called the Lama Temple, officially the Yonghe Temple. This was originally built as a court residence at the end of the 17th century, was later turned into a lamasery, a Buddhist monastery, and now serves as a temple – and tourist attraction.


one of the buildings making up the Lama Temple

intricate roof decorations in the Lama Temple

The another remarkable temple that I have pictures of, was the Zhenjue Temple, or Five Pagoda Temple, remarkable for its unusual structure with pagodas topping a large square building, decorated with thousands of Buddha sculptures in niches.

other Beijing entries: the imperial palace in the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall

or: return to the China page

the Five Pagoda Temple in Beijing

one of the pagodas in close-up

the Buddha decorations on the outside of the temple

same in close-up

and an elephant – Indian influence, clearly

the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, in all its glory

The best-known, and most impressive, temple in Beijing, the Temple of Heaven, is also a meeting place for many local people.

The Temple of Heaven is not just a temple, it is perhaps the largest community centre in China. Best time to visit, early morning, is also the time that the grounds of the temple complex are filled with Chinese exercising their daily Tai Chi. Inside the complex, many of the local people are sitting in the corridors leading to the several buildings, talking, drinking tea, showing off their birds in little cages, or just reading the paper. Great atmosphere! Or so it was in the late 1990s.

collective tai chi in the park, early morning

the main temple, and the surrounding buildings

which serve as meeting place

well, mostly elderly people, Mao suits in vogue

or just for reading the newspaper

one of the entrances to the complex

the main temple, from the base of the marble platforf

an incense burner, as there are so many here

It didn’t use to be that way. Like the Forbidden City, the temple was built at the beginning of the 15th century, for the exclusive use of the elite, foremost the emperor himself, who conducted several ceremonies here. Shielded from the public.

There are several buildings, but the main eye catcher is the monumental Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, an entirely wooden circular structure on a marble terrace. And not only for its outside architecture, but also the inside decoration of walls and ceiling. Highlight of a Beijing visit!

other Beijing entries: the imperial palace in the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, other Buddhist Temples, and the Great Wall

or: return to the China page

the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing

Long considered the centre of the universe, Beijing’s Forbidden City is one of the great monuments of dynastic China.

What is popularly known as the Forbidden City is, in reality, the Imperial Palace, the residence for 25 generations of Ming and Qing emperors. Created at the beginning of the 15th Century, the present palace has been very well restored. In spite of its particularly un-Communistic credentials, pragmatism towards the spoils of the many tourists trumps the ideological purity. Imagine the approximately 800 wooden buildings that require regular painting, and it is clear that you will never visit the palace without encountering one or more maintenance crews.

one of the first court yards

well maintained, freshly painted buildings

another builiding

gate from one to the next courtyard

inside one of the ceremonial halls

multiple gates deeper and deeper into the palace

the roofs decorated

and in colour…

perhaps this gives a better impression of the size, street inside the Forbidden Palace

At the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the access to the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square, you buy your ticket; whether it is still the same I don’t know, but in the 1990s you could also get the audio-tour here: switch it on and you were treated to the characteristic voice of Sean Connery telling you the ins and outs of the Chinese dynasty excesses that took place here.

I have been to the Forbidden City several times, and could return many more. Great place to wander around, and not only admire the fabulous ceremonial halls and other buildings, but also soak up the atmosphere.

other Beijing entries: the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, other Buddhist Temples, and the Great Wall

or: return to the China page

view of another hall

Buddha sculptures inside one of the Yungang caves near datong

Buddhist caves and temples light up the surroundings of coal capital Datong

Quite a few cities in China have been a capital of some dynasty at some stage, and Datong is not different. In fact, it was a capital in 4th and 5th Century AD, and again in the 10th Century. But present day Datong, is mostly known as capital of Chinese coal production – it produces around a third of all Chinese coal -, and it shows. It is not only the air you breath, it is also visible everywhere in town, in the dark-stained houses, in the trucks that transport the stuff, and in the coal dust that you find back everywhere.

Datong town, coal capital

the Yungang cave complex

inside one of the caves

one of the big Buddha statues

another sculpture – note the coal dust!

the sculptures

thousand Buddha niche

and sculptures outside, too

detail of the decorations

That coal dust is also present on the shoulders and the heads of the many Buddha statues in the nearby Yungang caves. These caves, man-made during Datong’s first stint as capital, of the Northern Wei dynasty, were started in 453 AD and apparently took forty thousand workers a century to complete. They may have held up to 50,000 sculptures in a variety of sizes, originally covered with plaster and brightly painted. Those in the know claim that these are some of the nicest, artistically outstanding Buddhist statues in China – and China has a lot of them!

the wooden pagoda

every floor made from wood

and inside the pagoda, more Buddha statues

The second period as a capital generated further treasures for Datong. In nearby Yingxian stands the oldest wooden building in China, the over a thousand year old wooden pagoda, initially built without the use of nails, although these days that concept has been abandoned. Still, impressive, with its multiple stories and 70 meter height.

the Hanging Temple, in all its glory

the narrow stairs and corridors

one of the temple rooms

Even more impressive, though, is the Hanging Temple near the town of Hunyuan, also not far from Datong. Also largely made of wood, this structure is kept upright, against a sheer vertical cliff face, thanks to wooden poles supporting the temple, that somehow have been attached to cliff ledges. You can enter the temple, which naturally is a rather narrow affair, linking small rooms with a series of wooden stairs and corridors. The dramatic scenery of the Heng Shan mountains serves as the perfect backdrop.

All together worth the trip from Beijing, which we did by train very early in January. When it was so cold, thanks to a freezing wind, that we couldn’t stay outside for longer than 15-20 minutes – we moved through downtown Datong from heated shopping centre to shopping centre, warming up enough to brace ourselves for the next walk outside.

outskirts of Datong

temple decoration