In the foot steps of the ancient tea horse road

When we decided on China as one of our destinations, we quickly knew that we would need a double entry visa, two times 30 days. A first period where we would explore the Beijing area and a second, more “adventurous”, period in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. In between, there would be a quick visit to Hong Kong to meet Thomas and Charlotte.

We started the second 30-day period in Kunming, the biggest city of Yunnan. After a rocky start with the cancelled flight from Hong Kong, we arrived one day later than planned in the laidback backpacker vibe of the Kunming Upland Youth Hostel. A perfect spot to relax after the hectic days in HK. And that’s exactly what we did. We mainly spent time in the bar of the hostel working on our budget-excel, on one of the blog posts and on arranging our train tickets to Dali for the next day. Although it might be a missed chance to see something of the city, it mostly felt great to just chill.
In the evening, we went down to the nearby park/lake and looked for a place to eat that was highly recommended by Lonely planet. The place (Hong Duo Yuan) was packed with locals and the food was Yum! As always we ordered too much, but boy was it good! The steamed fish in sweet and sour sauce was incredible and both the popped beans (like pop corn) and the fried shredded mushroom were great. The bar for the Yunnan kitchen was set very high!

The next morning we took a train and local bus to go to Dali. Once the capital of subsequent kingdoms between the 8th and the 13th century. The current old town’s layout dates back to the late 14th century, was protected and restored recently and is now one of the most popular tourist spots in Yunnan for both Chinese and foreign tourists. This unfortunately has transformed the old town into a collection of renovated and newly built shops and restaurants in the authentic style. Luckily, the town is situated between a mountain range and an ear-shaped lake (Erhai lake), offering possibilities for different activities.

In good tradition, our first hours in a new place were dedicated to food. Raving reviews on TripAdvisor made us decide on a place called Emma. A small cozy restaurant just off one of the main streets of the old town.When we got there, we got an enthusiastic welcome by Emma. She suggested two dishes from their small menu and to our surprise, she said this would be enough food for two. Since everything on the menu looked so nice, this prevented us from ordering way too much food again. In the kitchen, Emma’s parents started to cook and brought us our two super tasty dishes. The people on TripAdvisor were certainly not wrong!In the end we ordered some coffee and despite being filled up completely, we both craved a small dessert. Unfortunately, they had nothing sweet on the menu…but Emma had bought brownies earlier and couldn’t finish them all by herself. So she insisted to share one with us. A perfect end to a wonderful dinner!

The next day, we were going to test our hiking legs on a trail along the nearby Cangshan mountain. After taking the wrong bus, the right bus and walking up a long steep climb, we had to take a cable car to reach the start of the trail. After fifteen minutes, we could board the gondola, together with two men happily slurping up their corn cob. Don’t ask us how, but they proved that it is possible to make eating sounds even with this kind of food. Koen was very glad that halfway the ride, they were finished eating. Once at the end station, a beautiful scenery unfolded. From the mountain you could see the short stretch of flat land, with Dali Old town and Erhai lake. The view was amazing!

The moment we started walking, we saw arrows, indicating that the route we were about to start would last 6 hours for 12 km. This seemed a little bit slow, but you never know how the trail will be, so we were a little bit worried, because it was already 1 pm. Close to the cable car, we saw the tourists that were in the waiting line with us, but once walking, we were more or less alone.
After half and hour, it became clear that the time indications were based on really slow hikers, because the indicator to our starting point indicated already more than an hour of walking.
Our good progress, was partly because the “trail” was a well paved walking path that ran along the mountain with minimal ascending or descending. After 2 hours and a half, we reached the point of the trail were we could descend towards our guesthouse. This descend from 2600 to 2000m would take us more or less an hour down steep stairs. These stairs led through a humid forest with wild pheasants and a lot of graves. In combination with the scarce light that made it through the leaves of the trees, this gave a quite spooky atmosphere. In the evening, we made the mistake to not go back to Emma, because we wanted to test a different place with good (but also a couple bad) reviews on TripAdvisor. Unfortunately, the bad reviews were right. The food was nothing special.

For the next day, we wanted to cycle along the shore of Lake Erhai. The first hurdle to take was finding a place to rent bicycles. The description that was given to us at the guesthouse didn’t turn out to be correct, so we had to ask at other places. Long live Google Translate for helping out!
The bicycles that we finally found were very small, but would do. We soon noticed that the roads outside of the Old town were not really optimized for bicycles with a lot of fast traffic. On the crossroad with the road around the lake, there was a big field with purple flowers. A beautiful spot for a photo. And that’s what Chinese tourist think as well so we ended up paying a small entrance fee for this field with flowers. Everywhere, people were taking pictures for their WeChat account and also a a number of couples taking wedding pictures. We didn’t realize it yet, but his would be a recurring theme that day. All these people walking around and posing, was the ideal moment for Suus to snap a couple of really cool pictures. A girl with an umbrella between the purple flowers with the magnificent mountain backdrop, would become one of our best “scoring” pictures on Instagram.

A little bit further down the road, we reached the shore of Erhai. Apparently another hotspot for wedding photographers. Along the side of the road, there were camper vans and tents for make-up and getting dressed. Big business!
We couldn’t help but take some pictures of the different poses, dresses and so on. Due to the time loss while looking for the bike rent and the heat, we shortened our trip and went back to the Old town. This meant more time that we could spent for our second time of dinner at Emma. Again, they produced nice dishes and a superb service. We were both sorry that we didn’t come here three evenings. After a good cup of coffee, it was time to go and pack for the next destination: Shaxi.

The small village of Shaxi was once an important town along the Tea Horse road. This route connected China with its neighbors, enabling the export of tea and the import of strong horses to China. This route stayed important until the first half of the 20th century. While the old towns of Dali and Lijiang have been renovated and extended intensively during the last decades, the old town of Shaxi is a lot more authentic, both in look and feel.
Shaxi can be reached from Dali by early morning shuttle bus that takes around 2 hours. Which, in all honesty, were among the longest two hours of our lives. The shuttle bus is an electric bus, which allows the driver to reach cruising speed in no time. Since the mountain roads that we had to take required a lot of breaking, this meant a very “animated” drive. On top of these constant accelerations, the driver loved taking over cars/trucks/… right before blind corners. Not a good combination! We both were really glad to arrive in Shaxi alive.
After check-in in our lovely room of a very nice guesthouse (the Water Inn), we went straight to the market. We both love markets and this one ticked all the right boxes. A lot of colorful fruit and vegetables, authentic butchers, fresh fish and a lot of local people.

It soon became clear that there were not a lot of tourists in the town. Peak season was over and this meant a very calm town. Unfortunately, this limited our choices in restaurants. After walking around for some time, we decided to go for a typical Chinese place where you pick an ingredient and they prepare a dish from it. We chose eggplant, chicken and wild mushrooms (a local speciality). They started right away and within a couple of minutes, we got three delicious dishes in front of us. As a plus, it was really cheap and the people were super friendly. Again a really nice dinner experience! While walking back to our inn, everywhere we saw people that were selling mushrooms and truffles straight from the woods on the surrounding mountains. We didn’t buy anything, but from what we understood, you can get a bag with truffles for the price that we pay for truffle oil at home.

The next day we walked around the town some more had coffee on the main square and, most importantly, relaxed in the lovely courtyard of our guesthouse.With charged batteries, we were ready for the rest of Yunnan, starting with Lijiang!

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