South of the Clouds: Hiking Cangshan Mountains, Dali, Yunnan, China

Gadling introduced you to Dali, in Yunnan Province, the other day, and touched on a few activities and sights there. Out of all of them, hiking the Jade Belt Road (also called the Cloud Road) in the Cangshan mountains was our favorite.

Green furry mountains rise out of Dali’s back door, and are an easy escape from the town. A mostly flat, paved walking path winds in and out of valleys about two-thirds of the way up the mountains, making a lovely day hike. If you don’t feel like working too hard, an old-school chairlift can carry you up on one side, and a fancy-time, Austrian-built gondola 11.5 kilometers to the south can take you down – or vice versa. The path also extends beyond the lifts on either side, but we only explored the terrain in-between.

We chose to climb to the main trail by following a sometimes-muddy, often-slick path up under the chairlift. It took us the better part of an hour to climb up the steep mountain, and we arrived at the top of the lift sweaty and out of breath. The top of the chairlift, and the path that leaves from it, sit at 2500 meters (or roughly 8000 feet), high enough for us to feel it in our lungs.

%Gallery-111568%At the top of the chairlift sits Zhonghe Temple, a quiet spot with refreshments and a pleasant view of Dali and Erhai Lake. We paused for a snack and some photos, then began our walk south.

The path is paved with flat, square stones, and is better than most sidewalks. Mostly flat, it snakes in and out of valleys, across steep streams, and along vertical cliffs. We were in a foggy cloud, so a light mist constantly rained. Be sure to carry clothing for all types of weather; what might be a sunny day down in Dali could be a damp slog up in the mountains.

The walk to the gondola should take you a couple of hours. Once there, you’ll find Gantong Temple, as well as a giant chessboard (see gallery). From here, take the gondola down; taxis will be waiting at the base to take to back to Dali.

Read more about my travels in Yunnan here.

Hotel Review: The Linden Centre, Xizhou, Yunnan, China

Though it was only built in 1947, the Linden Centre is a nationally protected building – in fact, it holds the same status at the Great Wall. Built by a wealthy merchant in traditional Bai style architecture, the grounds were occupied by the army during the Cultural Revolution; the Red Guard were kept at bay, and thus the building and its paintings and artifacts remained intact.

Today, the Linden Centre functions as both boutique hotel and learning center. Meals and transport are included in the cost, and you can expect a quiet yet stimulating stay.

Gadling visited the Centre in mid-November on a trip through Yunnan with WildChina (read more about it here); here are our impressions of the hotel.

The Check-in

The alleys in Xizhou are so narrow that buses can’t squeeze through them; instead, your bus stops about a block away and you’re met by staff who carry your luggage through the unassuming gates.

Once you pass inside, you’ll enter a Bai-style courtyard, which means that one wall is a dedicated “reflecting” wall — painted white, it’s meant to reflect the sun’s rays. The other three walls are made up of guest rooms, a small bar, and offices. Though the grounds have been modernized to a very comfortable Western standard, the Linden Centre isn’t the type of place you’d stop over for business meetings; think of it more as a retreat. In fact, Gadling’s own features editor Don George will be teaching a writing workshop there in 2011!

%Gallery-110440%The Rooms

The 14 rooms at the Linden Centre were remodeled to modern Western criterion but retain their authenticity. Original feng shui principles were kept, and the lofty ceilings, antiques, and tall, wood-shuttered windows add a touch of the grand. Mattresses are large and Western (those of you who have traveled in China know what a difference that makes) and come equipped with thick comforters.

The rooms also contain a writing desk, wireless Internet, and a walk-in closet/nook complete with fluffy terrycloth bathrobes and tea-making equipment.

The Bathroom

The walls and floor of the bathroom are laid with dark stone, creating a spa-like ambiance. The large shower is walk-in style, with high-end toiletries on offer. A small stone sculpture protruded from one wall in my shower; just another touch of detail that makes the place special. Hot water is turned on in the mornings and evenings, and of course there is a Western toilet.

The Bar and Restaurant

The Cafe-Wine Bar straddles two courtyards, with walls opening to either side, and has a very laid-back vibe; it’s the type of place where you might go read a book over a cup of tea. Low tables and soft lighting impart not so much a lounge feeling as a coffee-house one – and I wouldn’t say that that’s a bad thing. Still, it has an admirable wine list (which they were still putting it together when I stayed there) and a range of beers and liquors.

The restaurant is amazing in that it has an entirely glass ceiling. This feature gives it the feel of a courtyard, but you don’t have to worry about the elements. Paintings in this room were left untouched. A small fish pond and fountain break the space up, making dining more intimate.

Food is locally sourced, and most meals are eaten Chinese style, in a group. A breakfast buffet offers anything the Western diner might desire, from omelets made-to-order to freshly brewed Yunnan coffee.


The Linden Centre is a sort of learning retreat, and as such has almost as many activity rooms as it does guest rooms. A spiral staircase leads to a rooftop terrace, where you can gaze across fields and the village. There’s a library and painting room, a conference room, an exercise room, a small meditation chamber, and a large kids’ activity center.

The Bottom Line

It’s hard not to be impressed by the Linden Centre. The preserved architecture, antiques and art (the owners run a gallery back in the States), and the emphasis on learning make for a great environment. The owners are warm and involved; you’ll even see their kids around. Though small-group retreats and seminars are a bit more common, the independent traveler will feel very comfortable.

Read more about my travels in Yunnan here.

Though my stay at the Linden Centre was funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are all my own.

South of the Clouds: Dali, Yunnan, China

Pressed by Erhai Lake on one side and the Cangshan mountains on the other, Dali attracts both Western and Chinese tourists drawn to its scenic location and laid-back vibe. Here you’ll see long-haired Chinese hippies and Israeli backpackers throwing back beers in Dali’s many bars, as well old folks from the Bai minority group shuffling along the sidewalks. One of Yunnan’s most popular backpacker destinations, Dali has been on the travelers circuit for longer than most towns in the province.

We visited Dali twice in November, the first trip funded by WildChina. Here’s a little of what we experienced and learned in and about the popular destination.


First of all, there are two Dalis. Dali New Town (Xiaguan) sits about 30 kilometers south of Dali Old Town(Gucheng). Dali Old Town is where you’ll want to head. Here, the town’s original gates, invoking Dali’s grander years, mark entrances to a grid of streets. A few are pedestrian-only, and some are cobbled. Throughout the old town is a mix of new-old architecture; essentially, it’s full of newer buildings that are meant to look old. The result is definitely more attractive than regular new Chinese construction, but it can at times feel fake – especially since many of the shops sell the same mass-produced Chinese crap.

%Gallery-110391%Guesthouses, bars and cafes catering to travelers are clustered on and near what’s called “Foreigner’s Street.” You’ll find yummy home brew at the Bad Monkey as well as possibly the best Western food in Asia at Bakery 88.

Things to do and see

Walking around the old city is an activity in itself; the photogenic streets with rushing streams canal-ed on the sides are a good place to plant yourself and people watch.

Bicycles are for rent everywhere, offering the intrepid traveler (cycling in China is not for the unbrave) access to the countryside. Cycle out to the Three Pagodas, Tang Dynasty relics that are some of the best preserved Buddhist architecture in the country; the Central Pagoda is nearly 1200 years old.

Hike Cangshan mountain (more on this later). A chairlift and gondolas are separated by 11.5 kilometers of paved trail, so you can ride up, enjoy a mostly-flat path that winds in and out of steep, lush valleys, and then ride back down.

Go rock climbing. Climb Dali offers guide services and equipment to sites throughout the area, and even has a climbing wall.

How to get there

Dali is a 4-6 hour bus ride from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital. You can also catch regular buses to Lijiang. It has its own airport, with flights to Kunming, (and beyond, though most will stop in Kunming). Trains to Kunming and Lijiang are also available.

Note that the airport and train station are both in Dali New Town.

Read more about my travels in Yunnan here.

Though my trip to Dali was partially funded by WildChina, my opinions are all my own.

South of the Clouds: Introduction to Yunnan, China

Yunnan, which translates as “south of the clouds,” is China’s most diverse province, and offers travelers extreme variation: tropical lowlands bordering Laos and Burma curl at the bottom of the province, while the unsummited Meili Snow Mountain reigns near Tibet. It’s home to more ethnic minorities than any other province in China (25 out of 56), three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the deepest river canyon in the country (Tiger Leaping Gorge).

Long on the informal backpacker’s “banana pancake trail,” Yunnan shares not only borders but culture and languages with Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Tibet.

Gadling recently spent three weeks in Yunnan on a trip partially sponsored by WildChina. During that trip, we followed parts of the ancient Tea Horse Road, from the southern Yunnan tea fields to caravan market towns. Over the next few weeks we plans to introduce in detail some of Yunnan’s delights.

But first, the basics:How to get there

Though high-speed rail connections to Southeast Asia are in the works, the easiest way to visit Yunnan from outside China is by flying there. Kunming is the capital of the province, with direct flights to and from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Hong Kong, among others. Within China, domestic flights abound, and it’s possible to ride the rails from Shanghai and Beijing. For “shorter” distances, sleeper buses run between provinces — and there’s even a 40-hour bus from Kunming to Vientiane. It’s also possible to ride the bus to the Vietnam border in Hekou and transfer to a train to Hanoi on the other side of the borer.

What to do and where to visit

Your options are nearly limitless, but more popular destinations include Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-la (Zhongdian), and Kunming. You can hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, cycle to the Vietnam border, and photograph the terraced rice paddies in Yuenyang at sunrise. In Xishuangbanna, eat Dai food and wander medicinal gardens. In Shangri-La, perform koras around a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and in Dali hike the Cang Shan trail.

In most tourist-centric towns you’ll manage with English, and though traveling without any Mandarin is no doubt tough, it’s not impossible.

Read more about my travels in Yunnan here.

Though my trip to Yunnan was partially funded by WildChina, my opinions are all my own.

[Photo credit: treasuresthouhast, Flickr]

Relaxing in China Part 2: A Walk in the Park

The twitter of birds, the fresh scent of flowers, a picnic on the grass — is this your idea of an afternoon in the park? If so, you’d better stay far away from China.

Recently, I discussed the decidedly non-relaxing experience of a Chinese massage. A walk in the park is another activity that might normally be peaceful in a North American setting, but is cacophonous in China.

As you probably know, there are a lot of people in China — well over a billion. This makes the Chinese a bit more used to crowds than those of us who grew up with any sense of elbow room. Add to that an amazing tolerance for noise and a love of anything carnivalesque, and strolling in the park becomes more like a day at Disneyland for the western visitor. Here’s what you can expect on any given sunny day in any given park in China:

%Gallery-94745%Noise. And not just the noise of hundreds of people clamoring for space. The Chinese have a penchant for synchronized dancing, often with props. You’ll find dozens of men and women moving in unison to a screechy boom box, waving fans or flags, or dressed in minority costumes. The dancing wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that several groups cluster near each other, so that the screeching music overlaps until you think you might lose your mind.

Paparazzi. The Chinese love their cameras, and equally love posing for them. If you’re in an area that sees few tourists, you can expect the cameras to focus on you as well. Any moment constitutes a photo op, but some of the more bizarre that I’ve witnessed include people feeding hundreds of gulls bread, snapping a shot just as the bird swoops down to grab its food (see album).

Junk. You’re at a park, not a shopping mall… right? Think again. Parks here are packed with more than just popcorn vendors. Need a key chain? How about a ceramic pig? Stalls selling trinkets and electronics line walking spaces, encouraging you to trade your yuan for more stuff. On the other hand, masseuses in white lab coats will help rub out your tension, and teahouses are surprisingly calm oases in all the chaos.

Other sights. Children in split pants peeing next to the sidewalk. Games of mahjong set up along walkways. Groups of men playing cards, a crowd gathered around them. Buskers playing screechy string instruments. Fake flowers, roasting nuts, beggars writing characters on the ground in chalk, old ladies knitting on park benches… the list goes on.

No matter what you encounter, you won’t be bored or understimulated. Don’t expect a bucolic scene, and instead prepare yourself for an onslaught on your senses, and you should be able to enjoy an afternoon in a Chinese park.

Photo credit: Flickr user damien_farrell