Hong Bao party

It is sometimes hard to tell if the Chinese are generous or very selfish. On the one hand, they are obsessed with making money, by any means. Sales people are often pushy, dishonest and even aggressive; Taxi drivers will refuse to accept you, if you only want a short ride and landlords will lie shamelessly to get out of returning your deposit. On the other hand they are very generous hosts and will fight fiercely to be the one who pays for a meal. What I realise now is that it is all about the perception and face. They want to be seen as generous, but the generosity can be quite superficial. At our end of term office party I was reminded of medieval nobles throwing coins into the street and watching as the peasants scrambled for a share of the money.

The winter holiday in China in centered on the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. In China this is a time when everyone is expected to return home, to visit their parents and grandparents. It is one of the longest school holidays, typically between 4-5 weeks long, depending on whether it is a primary or secondary school. If the foreign teachers are not setting or marking exams, then it can be a few weeks longer still for us. For most people working in China, the holiday is only about a week long. It is not a peak holiday season and most of the holiday is a good tile to travel, except for that one week, when China experiences the planets largest mass human migration, when airports and train stations can each have tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people fighting over tickets. If there are delays from smog or ice, like last year in Guangzhou,then even the thousands of extra soldiers and riot police drafted in for crowd control can be insufficient for the task of keeping order.

My last few jobs were at state run institutions. A public school and a university. At the end of the term we would have a couple of thousand as a bonus before the holiday and we might have a meal. At Bao’yi wai the Chinese English teachers and the foreign English teachers went out for a meal, paid for by the school. The head of the English department would attend, but no other school officials. It was just a time to chat, relax and have fun. At Ludong University nothing was provided, but the foreign teachers organised their own dinner. Here I am in the private sector and things were very different.

The first obvious difference was entertainment. Every group of teachers was expected to put on a performance of some sort. My girlfriend, with the grade 2 teachers, was doing a dance routine. The teachers of other grades were singing songs or performing comedy routines. We were lucky that one of our teachers, Andrew, is a semi-professional singer. He often has paid gigs at the weekends at bars around Shenzhen. We had just planned to let him sing for us. Then two of the American teachers also decided that they would also sing. The organizers were clearly taking the entertainment seriously, as the music teacher was trying to get the music that they would use two weeks before the event. Andrew, however, was unwilling to commit and insisted that he needed to get a feel for the crowd and would decide on the night, which, no doubt, made her extremely frustrated.

The dinner venue was a local seafood restaurant, with the typical revolving tables. We did not have a private room, as our group was too big, but we were not enough to occupy the whole restaurant. the teachers took up a little under half the room, with regular customers all around us. The foreign teachers were meant to be spread between two tables, along with the Chinese English teachers, but instead they just took over one table for themselves. As we had not had any real work to do that day, most of them had been at the pub most of the afternoon and were already a bit drunk. Pretty soon they had drunk everything on the table and were three sheets to the wind.

The entertainment was quite amusing. Crystal, Purdy, Mathilda and some other grade 2 teachers started off with a funny dance routine, that went quite well. Andrew has a powerful voice and sang well, despite how much he had drunk. Richard sand a rap song of his own composition and Angela sang along to Valerie. Then there was a “comedy routine” which I couldn’t understand but which reminded me of old stage acts, like Abbot and Costello etc. Then a few Chinese teachers sang very badly.

A major New Year tradition in China is Hong Bao. This translates as red bag, but in this case refers to red envelopes. At New Year relatives give children red envelopes of “lucky money”. In some places employers also give Hong Bao to their employees. For my last two jobs I was not in the private sector. At the end of the year I got a bonus in my paycheck. There was no ceremony. This was different.

Before the party we had been made to attend a very dull meeting, all in Chinese, with no translation. For an hour the principled droned on at us, before giving award to the top performing Chinese teachers in the school. We were then called up one at a time to be given 500 rmb in cash. This was the first part of the Hong Bao. The rest was via Wechat.

We chat, or Weixin, is a very popular social networking app from AliBaba. As well as being used for messaging people, micro-blogging and sharing articles, it is also commonly used for shopping. Many businesses in China offer discounts if you pay online, with Weixin or Alipay etc. It is fast, convenient and not really all that secure. It also has a Hong Bao function.

You can send a Hong Bao on wechat, to transfer money to one person. You can also use it to transfer money to a group of people. You set how much money you will give, how many people can receive cash and whether the amount will be equal or random.  The Chinese prefer to give random amounts and usually set the number of recipients to less than the number in the group. Anyone in the group will get a notification that they have HongBao. When they click the envelope, they get a share of the money (If any is left).

This is what was used at our party. When we arrived, everyone scanned a code to join the party wechat group. During the party the head principle got on stage and announced that he was sending us all 8000 rmb of HongBao. People got poised by their phones, ready to click the envelope for their random share of the cash.


At intervals throughout the rest of the party, other principles and school patrons got up on stage. After being introduced the announced how much money they would be giving away and everyone got poised on their phones. Later on a few teachers send small amounts of money to only about the first 10 people in a group of 150 or so. The teachers would be clicking away, only to get a message saying “better luck next time”. In the scramble for the loose change that had been thrown down virtually, they had been too late.

It was these small packets of Hong Bao, where not everyone would bet anything, which made me think that it was like the gentry casting down a few coins for the beggars to fight over, or Jack Nicholson as the Joker. In total I got nearly 1000 rmb from the whole evening, which was a nice added bonus, but even with the 500 in cash it was less than the bonus that I had been given without any ceremony at my previous jobs.

The principles and patrons of our school were no more generous than my previous employers, but they wanted to make very big deal of showing off their generosity and letting everyone know exactly how much money they were giving away. As Thomas Fuller said “Lavishness is not generosity.”


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This is Halloween in China

Last week we were celebrating Halloween at Yunding school. International schools and language training centers in China tend to put a lot of effort into staging events for western holidays. It is a way of showing that they are giving the students a chance to experience western culture, although they tend to do it in ways that are not at all western.

A week before Halloween they decorated the classrooms. More effort was put into doing this for the primary children, with parents contributing time and money, coming in at the weekend to help decorate. This also meant that Chinese teachers were coming in at the weekend, unpaid, to decorate the classrooms.


During the week we were asked to have Halloween themed lessons. Teaching about Halloween, singing Halloween songs, doing Halloween crosswords and word searches and watching Halloween movies (but nothing too scary. In my case, I showed them the original Ghostbusters, which was very popular)

The school had planned a Halloween party for Friday 28th, because they thought it would be better at the end of the week, rather than the start. Each class was asked to prepare some activities which the kids could try. Surprisingly nobody did bobbing for apples, as they thought it might not be hygienic.

On Wednesday one of the school principles decided that the party would be organised like a Chinese school sports day, with the classes parading past a stage in costume and performing a small dance routine in front of the school directors.

The teachers were all required to be in costume too (except for one NewZealender who told them to f*** off and refused). Some of us took a minimalist approach, while others bought cool costumes. The best was Ed, who decided that Halloween should be properly scary and made himself zombie make-up from latex, fake nails, flour and face paint.


The classes paraded in age order, followed by parents and then teachers. Each class was expected do do some sort of dance routine together, but the teachers were only told that this was compulsary on Wednesday evening. This gave them just over a day to prepare. Unsurprisingly most of the routines were lame. The music was often completely inapropriate for Halloween. The best performance involved the grade 11 teacher gunning down his undead students. The students then had to line up in their classes and stand to attention for what followed.

A couple of teachers were asked to speak about the meaning of Halloween (some of the foreign teachers went in school uniform, as their costume). This was followed by a “costume contest”. Primary students, middle school students and foreign teachers went onto the stage in pairs, to show off their costumes. However there was no actual judging, no scores, no winners and no prizes.

The rest of the afternoon the kids were free to play games. The best was the inflatable maze, which Ed hid in and scared some of the young children.




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The CITA fiasco

Last year I arranged for work in Shenzhen through an agency. Obviously teachers can get better deals if they approach schools directly, but being a thousand miles to the north it was very hard for me to interview if schools in Shenzhen and a lot of the public schools are required to hire their staff through agencies.

I would like to make it clear that I myself had no major problems with CITA. My contract was handled properly and I was able to work legally. I was paid what I had been promised and more-or less on time. The only gripe I had was that the school accommodation was nothing like we had been promised. More details on that are here: https://smokeytower.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/truth-is-relative-or-that-is-their-excuse/ However, for others the way in which CITA handled their employment was both farcical and criminal.

During that year CITA found itself at the center of a legal controversy which cost the agency a lot of money, cost many people their jobs and destroyed the reputation of the company. The consequences of that fiasco are still continuing, with many people coming back to China, due to start teaching this week and still having no idea of whether or not they will have a job or anywhere to live.

As I mentioned before, https://smokeytower.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/the-illegal-practices-of-teaching-agencies-in-china/ many people who were working through CITA were not working legally. Having grown steadily over the previous years, CITA was cutting corners to get as many people into jobs as possible. They entered on business or tourist visas, the lacked any experience and had false reference letters for non-existent jobs provided for them. Some even had falsified degree certificates arranged, as they lacked any qualifications. Most people didn’t mind this, as it gave teachers to the schools, jobs to the people who wanted them and money to the agency, but eventually their house of cards started to crumble.

There are still conflicting stories about what happened and who is to blame. At first a few disgruntled teachers were said to have reported the agency but the “official” story from a CITA spokesperson was that one of the schools decided to use their foreign teachers in material to promote the school, even though no invitation letters had formally been filed by the school to get Z visas to legally hire the teachers. This led to visits by the police, who wanted to see if there were foreign teachers staying there. The result was that two illegal teachers were deported from China, had their accounts frozen and lost all their pay, but that was just the beginning.

In the winter the Chinese government decided to crack down on the illegal hiring of foreign teachers in Bao’an. Schools were banned from accepting teachers who did not have the correct paperwork, nationality and qualifications. English teachers now needed to be native speakers. Some schools found ways around this, hiring teachers to be German or French teachers etc and still having them also teach English, but many people, especially Eastern-Europeans found themselves out of a job. A few American or English university graduates still found themselves out of work because they refused to lie about their lack of teaching experience.

By the end of the year CITA had lost quite a few teachers, but the ones who remained were mostly properly qualified and competent teachers. The schools were generally happy with them and wanted them to stay on. CITA offered them a retention bonus, to stay on for another year. However, it was not clear whether the Board of Education would give CITA the contract to supply teachers to Bao’an again.

There is a lot of money to be made from supplying teachers and it was clear that CITA had some ruthless competition. In the winter most of the CITA teachers received letters, allegedly from CITA saying that we had been defrauded by CITA and should respond to them in order to get compensation from their legal department. As the letters were sent to people who had initially been assigned to the schools, before changes in the first weeks, it was clear that they had got their information from CITA very early on, probably from a disgruntled former employee. Someone was clearly working hard to get more material to use in further destroying CITA’s reputation.

The contracts with teachers staying on included the promise of 20,000 rmb if at the start of term CITA could not offer them a teaching job.

Over the summer it became clear that the teaching bid had gone against CITA, but their teachers were told to sit tight, as they were trying to get the decision reversed. As time passed it became clear that they had failed, but there were still some possibilities.

  1. CITA merges with a company that got the contract.
  2. CITA sells the teachers to another company, for a finders fee.
  3. CITA somehow arranges teaching jobs at other schools, possibly not in Bao’an.
  4. The teacher could leave CITA, try to find other work and forfeit the penalty fee.
  5. CITA fails to do anything and people try to get their compensation.

It is now two days before the start of term and the teachers are still waiting. CITA seem to have failed to get the decision reversed and people are left feeling very insecure.  Some of my friends are still living at school accommodation and are being told that they will need to move out soon. However, because CITA are still fighting for a favorable resolution, the board of education have not yet issued a final decision.

As far as I have heard, no organisation can supply teachers to public schools in Bao’an until a final decision has been reached. Some schools are being advised to suspend  teaching for the first week due to legal technicalities, which is extremely frustrating for schools, teachers and parents, although I assume that some of the students are happy to get a bit of time off.

I honestly have nothing against the people who work for CITA. They have tried their best to give people jobs and keep them in jobs. They are no more dodgy in their practices than most of the employers I have had any dealings with in China, either directly or indirectly. However the situation is definitely a complete fiasco for the 50+ teachers still waiting to see whether they will have a job or not this year.



On September 1st the CITA teachers who had signed on for another year had to move out of their school accommodation and move into a hotel together. However, CITA are covering the cost of the hotel. It is hoped that they will have some sort of answer within the week. Despite messing things up CITA do seem to be trying to do right by their teachers, which is good.

Update 2:

two weeks after the start of term CITA was trying to place teachers in private schools. As was obvious, they did not get a contract to supply any state schools. CITA teachers were informed by the staff that had abandoned CITA to work for their competition about which companies had been given contracts. Because CITA had been offering people some sort of jobs, they felt that they did not need to pay the promised compensation, and that people needed to sign a release to forfeit the promised 20,000 rmb if they wanted to work elsewhere or stay at their old school by going through another agency. All in all, it was indeed a thorough fiasco.

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Elope to Lijiang

Of all the places we visited in Yunnan, there was only one which had its own theme tune. In all the little music shops around Dali and Lijian we saw young women playing bongo drums, almost always to the sound of the same piece of music. It is a short, repetitive local tune whose name translates as Elope to Lijiang.


Lijiang is a city in the northwest of Yunnan province, near the border to Sichuan. Lijiang is located in the northwestern portion of Yunnan and borders Sichuan. It is in a region where the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau converge. Lijiang is famous for its UNESCO Heritage Site, the Old Town of Lijiang. The city really came to the attention of the world in 1996, following the Lijiang earthquake.

The 1996 Lijiang earthquake occurred at 7:14 p.m. on 3 February near Lijiang City. The shock measured 6.6. It triggered over 200 landslides in the surrounding mountains. According to authorities, up to 322 people died and more than 17,000 were injured, about 358,000 buildings were destroyed, and 320,000 people were made homeless.

Reconstruction assistance from the provincial government and the World Bank was used to restore traditional streets, bridges, and canals. Many high-rise buildings in the area were torn down and traditional single-family dwellings were constructed in their place. These efforts played a major role in Lijiang’s efforts to achieve the World Heritage Site designation by UNESCO.

The town has a history going back more than 800 years and was once a confluence for trade along the old tea horse road. The Lijiang old town is famous for its orderly system of waterways and bridges. The old town of Lijiang differs from other ancient Chinese cities in architecture, history and the culture of its traditional residents the Naxi people, therefore people there are called 胖金哥 and 胖金妹 (pàng jīn gē, pàng jīn mèi, male and female respectively). The town was ruled by the Mu Family during the portions of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, a period of nearly 500 years.

Several people had warned us that the old town is very commercialized, with touts and hotel owners trying to exploit tourists as much as possible. It is also necessary for all visitors to pay 80 rmb towards the upkeep of the town. We still wanted to see the area and were told that the old town of Shuhe was a much nicer place to visit than in Lijiang old town itself.

Greater Lijiang includes Dayan, and two villages to the north, called Baisha 白沙 and Shuhe 束河 respectively. It was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List on December 4, 1997.

The Baisha Old Town was the political, commercial and cultural center for the local Naxi people and other ethnic groups for 400 years from the year 658 AD to 1107 AD. In ancient times, the Baisha Old Town used to be the center of silk embroidery in the southwest of China and the most important place of the Ancient Southern Silk Road, also called the Ancient Tea and Horse Road or Ancient tea route.

Shuhe Ancient Town is a small, isolated village in the foothills of the mountains, below the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, four kilometers to the northwest of the Old Town of Lijiang. It is it is a well-preserved example of a town along the ancient tea route and one of the earliest settlements of the ancestors of Naxi people.

We had a taxi tide from Lijiang train station and at first were struck by how quiet the modern housing areas of Lijiang that we passed appeared to be. We then turned onto dirt tracks and cobbled roads, past horse drawn carts and mud brick barns. It really did seem as though we were moving into the past. We then came to a single lane road and got stuck behind vehicles trying to turn around, as vehicular access further up was blocked. From there we walked along the lane and up a rugged alley, to our hotel.

Seeing the street we were living on, my girlfriend was not happy. She is not someone who likes to rough it, preferring places that are more modern and developed, whilst I was ecstatic. Inside, the hotel and the rooms looked lovely. It was a small boutique hotel, more like a guest house, with only about 5 or 6 rooms. The only drawback was that the sound proofing of the rooms was very poor and the children in the next room were very rowdy.

Accommodations in the area are varied, but most are boutique hotels run by individuals and families. These boutique hotels are in old traditional houses converted to rooms, courtyards, and gathering places, and designs all trend to traditional Chinese sensibilities. They are often within the town in areas inaccessible to vehicles and can be quite tricky to find. They are ideal for backpackers, but you can’t easily drag suitcases along some of the roads. There are new high end hotel and condominium developments on the edge of the town, both here and at Lijiang old town, so there is a definite push to make the destination one for all tastes and not just young adventurers.

We were staying on the opposite end of town from the main entrance in a part of the town that was less developed. It has no street lighting, so it gets very dark and quiet in the evenings. Fortunately it is in the west of China and because all China uses Beijing time the sun sets quite late in Yunnan. Most of the houses in Shuhe are either hotels, restaurants or shops.

It was pretty common to see groups of people being led along, pony trekking through our part of the old town. This also meant that you had to keep an eye out for horse shit on the road. In the middle of the town there is a series of small canals and a large pond, which is the center of the restaurant district. In the evenings the bars here are the only part of Shuhe where there is anything going on. The restaurants are not that expensive, by western standards, but might seem fairly pricey compared to most of China. One little cafe we found sold western food, but the prices seemed very high to us for a small, greasy spoon cafe. For example they charged over 100 rmb for spaghetti.

Tucked away on one of the old streets, next to a place selling beautiful hand crafted leather goods was a tiny little tofu stall. It had featured on the tv series A Bite of China, as is shown by a screen above the stall which showed the episode. The tofu there was very nice and quite cheaply priced. One of the shop owners that we met nearby told us that she went there for food twice every day.

Another place we really enjoyed was a small ice cream stall, selling ice cream flowers. The owner was from the north-east of China and told us that she had gone to Italy to learn how to make ice cream into the flower shapes. Chatting with her we learnt that most of the shops in Shuhe were not owned by locals, but from people who had come from other parts of China. The buildings were still owned by locals, who were able to live very well on the rents that they collected. Her rent was 20,000 rmb a month, whereas the rent for a typical apartment in China’s working class areas is under 1000 a month, but can be much more in the middle of big cities. A two bedroom apartment in a fairly nice, central part of Shenzhen is typically 4-5000 rmb. She also told us that the rent in Lijiang old town was twice as high as Shuhe. This goes some way to explaining why the cost of food in most places here was so high.

Owing to its low latitude and high elevation Lijiang experiences a mild subtropical highland climate. Winters are mild and very dry and sunny, summers are warm but often rainy  and damp. We were lucky to have mostly dry weather, except for one evening. As someone from Britain I found the climate to be very pleasant.

In the area around Lijiang there are a few popular attractions, but most of them as not as nearby as you might expect. The Tiger leaping gorge is 2-3 hours away to the north. The white water table land is a couple of hours further north, along very poorly maintained roads. Lugu Lake is home to the Mosu minority (China’s only matriachal society), and what has to be some of China’s most spectacular scenery, by there is a seven or eight hour bus ride up and down mountains on narrow dirt roads to get there on a good day and the roads are virtually impassable during the rainy season.

The places that you can easily reach from Lijiang, other than the places immediately around the old town, are the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Lashi lake. By far the most popular is the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which is the southern section of the Hengduan Mountains, is located 15 kilometers north of Lijiang, is a national-level scenic area. It is covered in snow most of the year and on a clear day offers wonderful views of the surrounding area.

Because of the altitude visitors are required to have oxygen bottles, in case of altitude sickness. These cost around 25 rmb near the old town, but are sold for 100 rmb on the mountain. The park which includes the mountain is a nature reserve. Access to the park around the mountain costs 120 rmb, but if you want to go up the mountain you need to get the tourist bus to the ropeway, for 20 rmb, spend an additional 180 rmb to get the cable-car up the mountain and then join the line of tourists struggling up the steps to the peak of the mountain. The Impressions of Lijiang show is held twice a day below the mountain. It is said to be spectacular, but tickets cost from 190 per person, with higher priced tickets costing much more depending on your seats. As we arrived on a hot but slightly cloudy day in the summer when the mountain was shrouded in cloud, but lacking in snow, we decided not to bother.


Lashi Lake, or Lashihai, on the southern slope of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is only 6 miles from Lijiang Old Town. It is part of the Lijiang – Lashihai Plateau Wetland Nature Reserve and is a paradise for migrant birds, with thousands of them stay here over winter every year. It is also the origin of the Ancient Tea Horse Road and a popular spot for pony trekking.

The Ancient Tea and Horse road was part of the Ancient Southern Silk Road, which started from Burma, crossed Lijiang, Shangri-La County, Tibet, journeyed through Iran, the Fertile Crescent, and ultimately to the Mediterranean Sea.

Hai literally means sea, but several lakes in Yunnan seem to have Hai as part of their name, such as Erhai, Lashihai and Chenghai . It is actually a lake cut off by Lashi Dam. Lashi is a word in ancient Naxi language, meaning a “new desolate dam”.

Because of the lake, the wetland nature reserve was established in 1998. Now Lashi Lake is famous for viewing migrant birds by boat and also experiencing the Ancient Tea Horse Road on horses. The best season for seeing birds is in December. Annually, 30 thousand of about 57 species of birds come here during winter. Among them, nine species are endangered, such as the bar-headed goose, black-headed crane and Chinese Merganser. Even when there are no birds, boating is still worth trying due to the beautiful scenery around the lake.

Our hotel manager arranged tickets for us, which included a taxi ride to and from the lake, canoeing on the lake and pony trekking along the old tea road and lunch for 190 per person, which seemed like a pretty good deal.

The pony trekking train takes you past some small villages, through woodland and along a small section of the old tea-horse road. It is a good 30-40 min ride each way. At the top there is a viewing platform and a path up to another viewing area, which offer nice views of Lashi lake and the Jade Dragon snow Mountain beyond.

Some of the sights have grand names and stories to them, such as Beauty Spring, the Holy Well Source, the Cliff Dying for Love and the Seven Fairies Lake, but they are not so special. There was a small pool, fed by a mountain spring, which had been lined with concrete and a platform on the rocks above built, in order to make the natural waterfall look more dramatic. In reality, it just made it look fake.

The ride was very enjoyable, although I thought that the ponies were definitely far too small for someone like me, who is 6’4″. The value for money was also great compared to places later in our holiday where we were asked to pay over 400 rmb to have someone walk around a meadow, leading people on horseback.

The area around the lake seemed to be very popular for people taking wedding photos. The water of the lake was very shallow for quite a large section around the bank, where people were allowed to paddle. As well as the two man kayaks there were flat bottomed punts, where tourist groups were taken out by guides. It was a very pleasant way to spend a morning.

Our next stop was at Lijiang old town itself. The main problem we discovered about staying in Shuhe was that the transport links were so poor. There was a bus service which went close to Lijiang old town, but not to the old town itself. Surely there would be a lot of tourists wanting to visit both old towns, so the lack of a bus between them seems very strange. I can only assume that it is a deliberate omission, for the sake of local taxi drivers. The other big problem was that the buses to Shuhe stopped running before 6.00 in the evening. After that, taking a taxi was your only option.

We took a bus to the old town, getting off half a mile from one of the minor entrances. We then had to climb a slope to get to the old section, as we were close to the Lion Hill, which overlooks the rest of the old town. We stopped for lunch outside the old town, as we expected the prices to be much cheaper. Before we could get into the town we had to pass a checkpoint and pay 80 rmb each. The tickets we were given allowed us access for a week, as long as we did not lose it. There were checkpoints at every entrance and staff who were quite strict about checking tickets.

On the hill we passed a number of typical tourist shops and restaurants. The restaurants had signs about the great views they offered of the city, but they would not let you in unless you were a customer and the prices were very high. Just getting a drink was about 40 rmb.


Overlooking Lijiang Old Town is Lion Hill and at its summit is the Wangu Pavilion, which is a wooden building that stands 33 m  tall and boasts 10,000 dragon carvings. The pavilion was only constructed after the city got UNESCO world heritage status. From Lion’s Hill it is possible to view the entire Li River valley, including both the old city and new city of Lijiang and out at the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain on the horizon.

We approached the hill from one of the smaller gates. There is a 60 rmb fee each to access the hill, but like most things in China there is a reduced rate if you pay online. Unfortunately only the main gate had the facility to confirm the online tickets, so we had to wait around for half an hour for someone at the other gate to check that we had indeed paid and call our gate attendant to have them let us in. The pavilion also houses a display of Chinese art.

The Old Town is a maze of winding cobblestone streets. It is extremely easy to get lost as there is no grid, but each turn takes one to some new interesting spot, and it’s not hard to eventually find one’s way out of the maze and back to familiar territory. The layout of the town was established to conform to the flow of 3 streams in adherence to Feng Shui design, so there was water and waste disposal for the inhabitants. Traditionally one stream was used for washing food, another for washing clothes and a third for drinking. The water was a lot less clean than in Shuhe and we were quite worried to see staff in the bar district washing dishes in the streams.


The Old Town has fast become a destination for young Chinese artists, students, and adventurers. Most recently, it has become a favored Spring Break destination for students. “Bar Street” is a line of clubs with live music, dancing, and revelry. The Old Town has a multitude of shops, some a bit tourist oriented, but several showcasing handcrafts, individual artists, and local manufacturers of interesting personal products. There are dozens of restaurants, from snacks to high end dining. Some are quite expensive, but there are some little gems.

The town really is a maze and we found it very hard to follow the street maps. The main attraction in the town is the Mu mansion, which was home to the rulers of the town for 500 years. Again there is an extra fee for entry to the reconstructed buildings. Outside the north end of town id the Black Dragon Pool, which used to be included in the entry cost for the old town, but now had an additional entry fee. It is well known for the beautiful view it offers of the pool and bridge, with the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background. Nearby the pool is the museum of the Dongba religion, which is a traditional Naxi religion.


One place that I would definitely recommend is N’s Kitchen. It is a small cafe, upstairs, overlooking a small courtyard area. The prices were surprisingly low, the portions were big and the quality was great. It is popular with cyclists, backpackers and foreign tourists. While we were there there were 8 customers and all of them were European. I have heard that it is also a great place for getting travel advice.

All in all, I thought that Lijiang was an interesting and pretty place to visit, but the streets seemed very repetitive, with the same things being sold in so many different shops. It is a very pretty city and it would probably take at least a full day to see everything of interest, but I preferred the atmosphere in Shuhe.

One place we did enjoy seeing was the pictogram mural. It was on a wall near the bar district and showed the Naxi language. There are apparently only about ten people left who can read or write this language, but quite a few signs around Lijiang include Naxi pictograms.



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Around Erhai

The area around the shores of lake Erhai has several other towns and villages, which collectively form the “city” of Dali. It also has the iconic three pagodas, a couple of historical film villages and some beautiful scenery. The Cang mountains offer interesting places to hike, with the cable-cars up the mountain offering easy access to the peaks.

Anyone who has ever joined a tour group in China will no doubt have experienced the same frustration at the way the tours are nearly always run. The tour group will usually stop at overpriced outlet stores on their way both too and from their destination. Meals are often included, but are usually barely edible. You can expect to be hurried through the sightseeing spots, while left to linger for ages at souvenir stalls. In Yunnan the tour groups have an even worse reputation than in most parts of China, with guides demanding that tourists spend an extravagant amount at the shops they visit and threatening to not let them back on the bus if they haven’t spent enough.



The other place this happens a lot is with Chinese tours to Hong Kong, although in Hong Kong the excessive actions of tour operators is more likely to be punished, if they are called out on it.





But it isn’t just Hong Kong.



The other side of this is the atrocious behavior of some tourists, but I am not going to get into that here.

This sort of thing didn’t quite happen to us, but our guide to the Stone Forest did rant a lot about how she needed her commission from the shops to live, threatened to have us black-listed, so that we could never again go on tours in Yunnan and and said she would be checking our receipts at the store on the way back.

Admittedly, most Chinese tour groups have started having two options for tours now. The standard, cheap tours with lots of shopping, and more expensive tours without shopping stops. Foreigners on the cheap tours are expected to pay more, as they are less likely to persuade us to buy things we don’t want.

In the Erhai region the local government has started a service which allows tourists to avoid all these issues. It is a government run double decker tourist bus service around the shores of Erhai. The buses start and finish at the coach station, south of Dali old town, stopping at all the main tourist sites around the lake. These buses run about every half hour and a single ticket allows tourists to hop on and off at any place on the tour. At quieter times of day there are mini buses sent out to pick you up from the various stops (you can call in advance to arrange a pick up time). The guides will tell you about the places you can see along the way and tell you a bit about local culture etc. It costs about 98 rmb per person for the day, so it is much cheaper than taxing a taxi, but more expensive than the regular bus services. However, it is faster, more direct and much less crowded and more comfortable than the regular bus services. You need to pay for your own entry fees into anywhere you want to visit, but it is a very nice way to see the area.


We decided to book tickets for the sight seeing bus. The bus stopped at the end of Yuan street, at the same bus stop that we had arrived at. Near the bus stop and town gates you will see a lot of touts, trying to get you to book places on their tours, or stay at whatever hotel they work for. We were not sure exactly where it stopped and asked for directions, but were told that the tour bus did not exist. This was, of course, a blatant lie, but the sight seeing bus has been taking a lot of business away from the tourist companies, so the touts hate it, which is why they tried to persuade us that it did not exist.

The first stop after the old town was the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple. This is the most iconic spot in the Dali region and is generally seen as the symbol of Dali. We decided that it would probably take too long to look around the whole site and still see all the places we wanted to around the lake, so we returned here the day after taking the Erhai tour bus.

The next stop on the Erhai bus tour was at Xizhou ancient town, an old village on the north-west shore of Erhai lake. It was about 18 km north of Dali and has a completely different in feel to Dali old town. A single street ran from the bus stop to the center of the village, where there was a museum, the Yan courtyard, a tourist center and several old buildings. The shops lining the street displayed a lot of art and crafts, but unlike Dali, it was pretty quiet and not expensive. You could pick up some lovely local snacks and flower filled ice cream very cheaply. I would have loved to spend more time there, but we were trying to see as much of the lake area as we could in one day.

We had arranged a pick-up from that village, but rather than a double-decker bus, we got a minibus. It was clean and comfortable. There was nobody else to share with, other than the driver and the tour guide. The next stop should be the butterfly spring, but it is a pretty seasonal attraction and was said to not be very interesting except in the spring, when it is full of butterflies. We skipped that and went on to a local god temple, which offered a nice view out across the lake.

The main stop after that was the ancient town of Shuanglang. Shuanglang was a lot dirtier and less developed than Dali. The bus stopped on the north edge of town. There is one main road running through the town, lined with shops, restaurants etc. Off to the sides were narrow alleys and residential areas. A lot of the buildings look very old, but it has a much more lived in feel to it, more like the market street in other Chinese cities than a tourist town. The main attraction of Shuanglang is the Nanzhao Folk Island (南诏风情岛), which is about two miles from the north end of town. The streets through town are all narrow. The main road is only a single lane road, with no pavement, that most traffic is prohibited to use. As soon as you get onto the main street you will see people queued up for the tourist carts through the town to the waterfront. It is 10 rmb per person and you can ask to hop on or off anywhere along the route. We didn’t realise how long the road was and found that no matter where you get on the fee is the same. There are also a lot of bike and moped hire shops catering to tourists. The result of this is that pedestrians, bikes, mopeds and tourist carts are all trying to use the same lane, making it a bit dangerous for everyone.

Food in Shuanglang is a lot cheaper than most of the places in Dali and we were impressed by the quality. We only had one meal there and had gone for some fairly simple Chinese dishes. The price was about what I would usually expect to pay in China, but they were a lot more generous with meat than most places I have eaten in China. We were also impressed by the staff. My girlfriend left her phone charging in the restaurant and the waiter came after us on his moped to return it.

Off to the right we passed a turning towards Yujidao (玉几岛), which is a more tourism-oriented area of Shuanglang. Yujidao is a small peninsula crammed with old houses, temples and guesthouses. All along the road we saw lots of old women wearing traditional local clothes. Shortly after that the road forked again. The turning on the left would go towards the south of the town, while the right took us down to the waterfront.

Here is an interesting blog I found about Shuanglang:  http://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/2275/getting_away_shuanglang

There is a ferry service for 50 rmb taking visitors to the Nanzhao Folk Island. The large tour boat that takes tourists around Erhai lake also stops here, to allow passengers to visit Shuanglang.

The island has statues of local gods and other local mythological figures. Before crossing to the island you can see the large white statue of Guanyin Acarye, also called Akalokitsevara of Acarye the local goddess of mercy and patron deity of Yunnan. The first statue that you see after getting off the boat is Mother Shayi the fisher girl, the legendary mother of the 10 tribes of the Nanzhao people. The island is landscaped with fake waterfalls and has a large white building in the center, a hotel called the Nanzhao summer Palace. At the far side of the hotel is the Square of the Patron Gods. The main patron god is Duan Zongbang, a commander of the Nanzhao state, now revered as a god. Various other historical heroes and mythical figures, now revered as gods, have smaller statues. There is also a small amusement park on the beach and the Taihu Rocks and a View of Fishing Families. Seeing all the sights will probably take around two hours.

Erhai lake has various other attractions which we did not have time to see, except as we drove past. The last bus from Shuanglang leaves before 5.00 and the last couple of buses will not stop as they continue the remaining 2 hour journey around the rest of the lake.

As we passed along the coast we had a nice view of Little Putuo Island (小普陀). It is the smallest island located in the east of Erhai Lake, close to Wase Village. In the Ming-dynasty Little Putuo Temple was built on the island. The temple has two floors, one is for worshiping Buddha Bodhisattva and the second is for worshiping Avalokiteshvara.

We almost failed to notice the huge tower on the eastern shore of the lake, until we were well past it.

Once you reach the modern Xiaguan region, at the south of the lake, there are still more attractions, such as Erhai Park, located in the southern tip of Erhai Lake. Standing at the lake edge, it is a steady climb up with 270 stone steps leading to two viewing decks – the Observation Pavilion and Long Corridor where stunning Erhai Lake vistas await. No entrance fee is needed to visit Erhai Park.

Eventually we returned to the bus station, near the South Gate of Dali old town, feeling quite satisfied with our tour. I am completely happy to recommend it as a way of getting to know the area, early on in a vacation to Dali.

There are, of course, other options for visiting the lake. Cycling around the lake is popular, although it would probably take even a strong cyclist two days to complete a circuit, depending on how much sight seeing they did on the way. Rental cars and mopeds are also available and then there are the cruises across the lake.


More information can be found here:  http://www.chinadiscovery.com/yunnan/dali/erhai-lake.html


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Three Pagodas, Dali

One and a half miles north-west of Dali old town was the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple. This is the most iconic spot in the Dali region and is generally seen as the symbol of Dali.

The main pagoda, known as Qianxun Pagoda (pinyin Qian Xun Ta), reportedly built during 823-840 AD by king Quan Fengyou (劝丰佑) of the Nanzhao state, although probably built later that century, is 69.6 meters (227 feet) high and is one of the tallest pagodas in China’s history. The central pagoda is square shaped and composed of sixteen stories; each story has multiple tiers of upturned eaves. There is a carved shrine containing a white marble sitting Buddha statue at the center of each façade of every story. The body of the pagoda is hollow from the first to the eighth story, surrounded with 3.3 meters (10 feet) thick walls.

The other two sibling pagodas, built about one hundred years later, stand to the northwest and southwest of Qianxun Pagoda. They are 42.19 meters (140 feet) high. Different from Qianxun Pagoda, they are solid and octagonal with ten stories. The center of each side of every story is decorated with a shrine containing a Buddha statue.

The Chongsheng Temple was once the main temple of the kingdom of Dali. It was destroyed during the Qing dynasty, but in 2005 it was rebuilt as a vast temple complex, which stretches out over miles.

In 1978 the area was cleared, in preparation for restoring the pagodas, and more than 700 Buddhist antiques, including sculptures made of gold, silver, wood or crystal and documents. During repairs in 1979, three copper plates were found at the bottom of the steeple which recorded the exact years of previous repairs, those being 1000, 1142, and 1145. Many of the artifacts found during the restoration are housed in the two museum buildings, a little way behind the pagodas.

Beyond the museums, further towards the mountains, you will find a couple of Ming style halls containing gift shops. The first is the old bell tower, followed by the Yutong Avalokitesvara hall. The balcony upstairs in the bell tower offers a good view back at the three pagodas and forward, towards more temple buildings.

After these two halls you pass through the portal of Chongshen Temple and there is a large courtyard, followed by the main temple complex of Chongshen temple. When we had first come through the entrance we immediately saw a large queue for the electric tour bus. The bus bypasses the pagodas, museum and first two halls, to drop tourists at the base of the temple complex. The buses seemed to be used almost exclusively by tour groups, who were rushed to this point, half way through the complex, led into the first two temple buildings and then rushed back out again.


The rest of the temple complex followed a fairly regular structure. There would be a large temple building, with a large cult stature inside. To either side would be two smaller temple buildings, with statues of minor gods or eminent monks. Behind the main hall would be steps, leading up to the next temple building. As you progress through the temple complex you pass through five main temples, before reaching the last temple. Around the outside are a series of ancillary buildings. The first temple is the Heavenly King Hall, followed by the Maitrey Hall, the Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara Hall, The Hall of Mahavira, The Pool of Nine Dragons Bathing the Buddha and the Ecuoye Avalokitesvara Pavillion, a memorial archway and finally the Lakeview Tower.

My girlfriend was getting tired by the time we reached the Eleven-Faced Avalokitesvara, so we didn’t see all of the complex. It felt pretty huge and as the halls looked very similar and since you could not see what else remained of the complex it seemed to go on forever.

Outside the temple were a lot of people selling overpriced fruit, drinks and trinkets. Just across the street from the car park the same fruit and drinks could be bought for less than half the price.

It is a pleasant place to visit. The areas close to where the tourist carts stopped were pretty crowded, but if you head off to the side from the main path, it was a very quiet and pleasant place for a picnic. Also, the further on you go, the fewer tourists reached those areas. If you want to see the whole site, you will need at least 2-3 hours. If you want to thoroughly see all the temples, you could spend half a day here, or longer.

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Of all the places in Yunnan that I visited, Dali is the one that I felt most relaxed in and the place to which I am most likely to return. It seemed to me to be very much like I had expected China to be, before coming to China and having my illusions shattered.

Dali City (formerly Tali) is the county-level seat of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Yunnan. Dali is located on a fertile plateau between the Cang Mountain Range to the west and Erhai lake to the east. Erhai meand “ear sea” and is so named because the lake looks like the shape of an ear.  The area around Erhai has traditionally been settled by the Bai and Yi minorities.  It is at a fairly high altitude, but not high enough to cause altitude sickness.

Dali City is not a single city but a county-sized area called a city for administrative purposes. Usually when people discuss “Dali”, they are referring to the old town of Dali, although transportation to Dali usually arrives at the modern industrial section of Dali, an hour drive to the south, locally distinguished by its former name Xiaguan. Dali is about 7 hours from Kunming by train and the old town is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Yunnan.

The Dali area was formerly known as Jumie (苴咩, Jūmiē). The old town was the medieval capital of both the Bai kingdom Nanzhao ( 8th and 9th centuries) and the Kingdom of Dali (937–1253). That city was razed and its records burnt during its conquest by the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. The present old town was organized in the late 14th century during the Ming Dynasty. 

For much of China’s history Yunnan was considered to be a place of exile, on the furthest fringes of the empire. This attitude continued in Communist China, and so live in the isolated valleys of Yunnan continued in the same timeless manner until the late 20th century. It was only then that the Chinese decided to renovate and restore the ancient buildings of places like Dali and convert them into tourist towns. The pictures below, from Wikipedia, show what it was like in 1999.

Visitors by train will be greeted by crowds of taxi drivers and hotel staff, hoping to take you to their hotels.There are only a few train services each day and it is clear that these people know exactly when the trains are due. When leaving we arrived very early and the place was deserted, but after we went for lunch and returned, the area was crowded. There is also a regular bus service, the number 8, from the train station which goes past the old town.

I only spent a little time in the modern city, Xiaguan, but it did seem as though there were some nice parks and a good sized sports stadium. There were also a lot of new buildings going up, including some nice looking shopping malls, so I expect that it will be quite a nice place in its own right, in a few years. Near the station there was very little of interest, but the station did include on of the most famous examples of bad Chinese translations.

The Chinese word for line “tiao”, can also mean string, cord, cable, rope etc and is the second part of the word for noodle. “mi tiao” means rice noodle, but uses the same character as the word for meter. Therefore “one rice noodle” is written in exactly the same way in Chinese as “one meter line”.

Dali old town was far more beautiful and fascinating. The main local ethnic group were the Bai people. Bai means “white”, and Bai buildings are traditionally painted white. The local government requires that all new buildings in the area are built in a traditional style and painted white, in order to fit the local aesthetic.

The origin of the name Bai is not clear, but is connected to the first state of Bai built in roughly the 3rd century. This state, called Baizi Guo (白子國; State of Bai), was not documented in Chinese orthodox history (being too far out on the fringes for Chinese historians to bother with) but was frequently mentioned in the oral history of Yunnan Province. It was believed to have been built by the first king, Longyouna (龍佑那), who was given the family name “Zhang” (張) by Zhuge Liang, the chancellor of the state of Shu Han (221–263 CE). Zhuge Liang conquered the Dali region at that time and picked up Longyouna and assisted him in building the State of Bai.

I haven’t seen maps of Dali old town  online on any English language websites, so I have included one below.


According to a sign at the coach station, there is meant to be a fee of 30 rmb paid by visitors to the old town, to go towards the maintenance of the town, but unlike at Lijiang, nobody ever asked us to pay this money. The city was walled and in the southwest a section of the wall still survives, as do most of the city gates. The South gate and Wuhua gate offer really good views over the rooftops of the old town. The Wuhua gate closes in the evenings.

There are a couple of main shopping streets. Fuxing road heads North-South from the South Gate. The other, Renmin Lu, crosses it heading East-West. Renmin Lu (people’s street) has a lot of older buildings, now turned into cafe’s, snack shops, clothes shops and gift shops etc.

Fuxing road is a wider street, with a small water canal along the street. In the old days this would have probably served as an open sewer. At the corner of these street I was surprised to see a McDonalds, that was also built to fit into the aesthetic of the town.

Alongside Renmin Lu is “foreigners’ street” which is the main bar street, which comes alive during the night. However, the roads nearby have a lot of other, quieter bars, for people who want a more relaxing drink. The town has a fairly friendly atmosphere. The shop owners were not too pushy and don’t try to trap people in their shops. The snack shops are often quite expensive and some of the restaurants can be expensive, but there are also some very nice places that are quite cheap. The northwest of the town has a regular fruit and vegetable market, where you can pick up some bargains.


the hotel that we stayed at, the Dali Old-town Business Hotel, was on a back street, just 5-10 minutes walk away from the bus stop on the east end of Yuer Road. It was reasonably priced, clean, comfortable and had very helpful staff.

One of the most unusual features we came across during our exploration of Dali was an old catholic church, which is built in a Tang style temple building.


One odd thing that my girlfriend noticed in Dali was that there was often confusion about languages. Many of the native Bai and Yi people do not speak good Mandarin. At the market it was hard to communicate with some of the vendors and they had to call friends over in order to translate into Mandarin Chinese for them. At the ticket offices there were signs saying “please speak Chinese” written in Chinese. Fortunately, although the locals speak a different language, they still use the same Chinese writing. When the local Yi woman in the train station could not understand the Chinese customer in front of us, who was presumably from one of the many other Yunnan ethnic groups, she wrote down “please write where you want to go” in Chinese and he was able to respond in writing.

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The Stone Forest

The Stone Forest or Shilin (Chinese: 石林; pinyin: Shílín) is a notable set of limestone formations approximately 90 km (56 mi) from the provincial capital Kunming. It covers an area of about 500 square km and is located in Shilin Yi Autonomous County,Yunnan Province. The county was previously called Lunan county, but the name changed in 1996 to encourage tourism. Similarly the nearest town was also renamed Shilin.  approximately 90 km (56 mi) from the provincial capital Kunming.

The tall Karst limestone rocks seem to rise out of the ground like petrified trees thereby creating the illusion of a forest made of stone. Since 2007, two parts of the site, the Naigu Stone Forest (乃古石林) and Suogeyi Village (所各邑村), have been UNESCO World Heritage Sites as part of the South China Karst. The site is classified as an AAAAA-class tourist site


The term Shilin was first used by a Chinese poet named Qu Yuan (340-278 BC). In his poem Asking Heaven he asked 170 questions on geography, history and philosophy. One of those was “Is there a stone forest on earth?”. In 1931 Long Yun, the former governor of Yunnan, visited the area and, being very impressed by the region, he inscribed the words 石林 onto the rock. The Stone Forest Park was officially opened that year.

The local Sani Yi people have a legend about how the Stone Forest was created. Jinfen Ruoga, a Sani hero, wanted to build a dam to block a river for his people (trying to control rivers features regularly in early Chinese myths). He stole a magic order for shepherding mountains and a magic mountain driving whip. At night he started to drive the mountains in Luliang to the Nanpan river in Yiliang. However, as he was passing through this region dawn broke and the crow of a magic rooster caused the rocks to stop moving and remain forever in this spot. (It reminds me of Trolls in Scandinavian folklore)

The reality was less dramatic, but still interesting. The limestone cracks and water seeps down into the cracks, eroding the stone and causing the cracks to widen until eventually the jagged formations that are found at the Stone Forest remain.

The cheapest way to get to the stone forest is by bus from Kunming East coach station, which will cost about 25 rmb. Buses run about every half hour. entry fee for the Stone Forest Park is 175 rmb (there are buses from there to the Naigu Stone Forest Scenic Area every 40 minutes). When you arrive at the ticket gate you will probably want to also get a ticket for the electric tourist bus to the actual gate of the park, about 2 km away. Tickets are 25 rmb for a return ticket.

We decided to book tickets with a tour group. For Chinese visitors tickets cost 140 rmb, but for foreigners the fee is 200 rmb. The difference in price is because both on the way there and on the way back you will be taken to different overpriced jewelry outlets, where you will required to stay for at least an hour. The tour groups make their money from commissions at these places, so there will be a lot of pressure to spend money, but they will not be able to do much to compel foreigners to spend money, as the guides generally don’t speak English. The benefit is that this is the cheapest way to visit the site, a basic meal is included and you can get picked up from outside your hotel. If you don’t know your way around Kunming and want to save the taxi fare, this could be a reasonable option. If you are not Chinese and choose this path, I strongly recommend ear plugs. The trip will take over two hours each way and most of that time there will be a guide speaking over a very loud PA system, talking about the places you will see and trying to promote the shops. Some of this might be interesting to people who know Chinese, but if you are like me it will be too loud to relax, read or listen to music, so the trip will really drag on.

The local ethnic group are the Sani Yi and nearly all the park staff wear traditional Yi costumes. The bus drivers, guides, snack vendors and entertainers. There are regular dances performed by groups of elderly Yi women. You will also have plenty of opportunities to dress in (a cheap modern version of) traditional Yi costume and pose for photos. This only costs 10 rmb.



The Stone Forest is a confusing maze of paths and passages. The main focal point is the pagoda, which offers the best views out over the tops of the karst formations, however it is always crowded at the top. making it very hard to get photos of your family and friends up there, without dozens of other tourists getting in the way. The further you go through the park, the quieter it will become, as the tour groups are not likely to go to the far end of the park.



The main Stone Forest Park will take about 4 hours to explore fully, although after two hours or so the landscape may start to look a bit repetitive. The stone forest region has a lot of other attractions, including some dramatic Juixiang limestone caves. Other tour groups might visit those, but sadly ours did not. If you are making your own way there, a taxi will cost you 50-60 rmb, but you may be able to share with other tourists.

If you have your own car, or hire a driver for the day, you might also see the subterranean Stone Forest in Zhiyun Cave, the strange wind cave, the long lake or the Dadie waterfall. There is plenty to see in the region.



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Kunming and the Western Hills

During the summer I took a few weeks to visit Yunnan. Although it is just one Chinese province, the geography of the area meant that for much of China’s history Yunnan was very much isolated from the rest of China. It was frequently not a part of China at all, occasionally being a protectorate or even a hostile kingdom. Even within Yunnan the individual cities are isolated by the various mountain ranges, resulting in a huge range of cultures. Out of the 56 ethnic groups in China, 25 of these, nearly half come from Yunnan. In the 1990s Yunnan was home to 50 ethnic groups, but many of the smaller ones have died off, merged together or been absorbed by the Han Chinese. The influx of Han Chinese since 1949 means that now only 34% of the population belong to native ethnic groups, but the native culture has still had a huge impact on the various cities. With so much variety, I think it best to speak about each of the places I visited individually, in separate posts, rather than all at once.

Kunming is located on the shore of lake Dian. The area was on important caravan roads into Tibet and Burma.  The Dian Kingdom was also established near the area. Dian was subjugated by the Chinese Han dynasty in AD 109,seeking control over the Southern Silk Road running to Burma and India, but left the King of Dian as the local ruler. Chinese control did not last long and subsequent dynasties could do little to tame what was then a remote and wild borderland.

Kunming was founded in 765 as Tuodong (拓东) city in the Kingdom of Nanzhao  (737–902). Tuodong later became part of the successor Kingdom of Dali (937–1253). Eventually this changed when Tuodong came under the control of the Yuan dynasty invasion of the southwest in 1252–1253. In 1276 it was established by the Mongol rulers as Kunming County and became the provincial capital of Yunnan.

It is considered by scholars to have been the city of Yachi Fu (Duck Pond Town) where people had used cowries as cash and ate their meat raw, as described by the 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo who traveled to the area and wrote about his fascination of the place.

In the 14th century, Kunming was retaken as the Ming dynasty defeated the Mongols, who built a wall around the city. Until 1952, Kunming was a walled city. The city government in 1952 ordered hundreds of young people to tear down the wall and use its bricks to make a new road running north-south. Until 1920s Kunming was called Yunnan-fu (云南府).

My first impression of Kunming is that it was not really much different from the other Chinese cities that I had seen. The area we were staying in was fairly central, but not very glamorous. The town center is quite nice and when wandering around we found plenty of evidence of a large Muslim community. The climate was warm, but not too hot, however the air was clear and the sun felt quite strong. I had been warned before I arrived that it was very easy to get sunburn in Kunming.

The main place we wanted to visit in Yunnan was the West Mountain (or West hills, as Chinese generally does not distinguish between the two) nature reserve, on the shore of the Dianchi lake, overlooking Yunnan.


There is a promenade along the southern stretch of lake Dian, which offers a lovely view out over the West Hills. The west hills are sometimes called the “sleeping beauty hills” as they are said to resemble the outline of a sleeping woman. The day we arrived was sunny and 29 degrees. It was the hottest day of the year in Kunming, but was positively mild compared to the stifling heat and humidity of Shenzhen.

Looking across at the west mountains, we could just make out several reconstructed temple buildings. Throughout Kunming’s history a series of small temples and grottoes were built on the West Mountains, overlooking the city. The most scenic way across to the West Mountains is by cable-car, crossing the southern tip of lake Dian.

As with most old places in China, the temples were destroyed during the cultural revolution and were reconstructed during the 1990s, to encourage tourism to the area. Although the temple buildings are mostly reconstructions, some of the small grottoes are still original features, surviving from the Ming and Qing dynasties. The hills include such scenic spots such as Huating Temple, Taihua Temple, Sanqing Pavilion, and Dragon Gate. The Dragon gate is one of the few surviving original features.

After taking a cable-car across the lake, to the western hills you find yourself among reconstructed temple buildings, now used as shops, ticket offices and selling low quality food. The area you arrive in also houses a museum and the grave of the man who wrote China’s national anthem.


To visit the rest of the park it is necessary to pay for entry into the forest park and also to get onto a chair lift, taking you towards the main attractions, as they are a couple of miles further across the hillside. There is a circuit which most tourists follow, taking the chair lift up and riding tourist cars back, although you do have the option of walking, should you choose.

CNY 40 for Dragon Gate Grottoes;
CNY 20 for a combo ticket (including Huating Temple and Taihua Temple);
CNY 100 for the combo ticket (including Dragon Gate Grottoes, one-way Dragon Gate Ropeway, one-way sight-seeing battery car, round-trip tourist bus, magnolia garden, Huating Temple, Taihua Temple and Xuyun Memorial Hall);
CNY 88 for the combo ticket (including Dragon Gate Grottoes, one-way Dragon Gate Ropeway, one-way sight-seeing battery car and round-trip tourist bus)

It was a very pleasant day out, despite the narrow, crowded walkways. The view out over the city and lake Dian was lovely and if it were possible to get a clear day, without the haze of pollution that was hanging over the city in even the best weather, it might be a spectacular view. At the top of the ropeway there will be guides offering to take you around for free.  If you follow them, they will tell you a bit about the features but will try to rush you through most of the area in order to take you to the tea house or one of the temples, where you can get your fortune told, as these two places will pay them for any customers they manage to bring. I definitely recommend anyone who is thinking to visit here to bring their own food, as the stuff available was pretty dire.

Not far from the bottom of the cable-car across lake Dian is the Yunnan Nationalities Village. Shuttle buses go back and forth between the cable-car and the village. Twenty-five ethnic nationalities have their respective villages and conduct many activities to present their unique folkways and beautiful clothes. Also you can enjoy the water screen movie and an elephant performance, have a taste of the local dishes and buy pretty handicrafts. We didn’t visit this area, as we hadn’t allowed ourselves much time, but we kept having taxi drivers recommend it. I suspect that the drivers may get kickbacks for bringing visitors.

I feel that I can’t end this section on Kunming without mentioning the railway station.

In the evening of March 1, 2014, a knife attack occurred inside the Kunming Railway Station. At around 21:20, a group of 8 knife-wielding men and women attacked passengers at the city’s railway station. Both male and female attackers pulled out long-bladed knives and stabbed and slashed passengers. At the scene, police killed four assailants and captured one injured female. The other three attackers were arrested two days later. The incident, targeted against civilians, left 29 civilians and 4 perpetrators dead with more than 140 others injured. No group or individual stepped forward to claim responsibility for the attack but Xinhua News Agency announced within hours of the incident that it was carried out by Xinjiang separatist terrorists.

Naturally, the incident has had an impact on the security of Kunming, which is still pretty obvious two years later. The back entrances to the Kunming station are no longer open, so there is no way for people to get from the front to the back of the station, without a detour of a couple of miles. In front of the station there is a large armed police presence, with an extra layer of security, with bag scanners, metal detectors and occasional pat downs of anyone who wants to approach the square in front of the station in order to buy tickets or meet passengers. Visitors to China will be used to seeing bag scanners in the train stations, bus stations and subways, operated with very lax security. I am used to seeing security guards sleeping at the screen of the bag scanner and waving through everyone passing through the metal detectors, despite it going off to warn of the metal objects (keys, wallets, cameras) carried by virtually everyone going through. That was not the case with Kunming. The security, just to get to the station was tighter than many airports, with regular bag searches. Passengers going into the station then had to pass through a similar level of security once again, along with two ticket checks while entering the station, ticket checks before being allowed through to the platform and further ticket checks when entering the trains. Clearly the people of Kunming are taking their security seriously.


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School memories

Yesterday was my first day at my new school and was a complete waste of time. The students are not here and the classes don’t start until September 1st, but we were told that we had to be here on the 15th for “training”. The first day of so called training was a meeting with the Chinese staff in which the Chinese principle spoke at us in Chinese and the new Chinese staff introduced themselves. It seemed to me that the only reason the foreign teachers were asked to be there was because someone was photographing the meeting and we were there as window dressing. After an hour we were free to go home, but were told that we needed to be back for another meeting at 3.00. We had hoped that this was something useful for us, as foreign teachers, such as perhaps being told what classes we would teach etc. However, once again this was with the Chinese teachers. The owner of the school was due to turn up, but was running late. We waited around for an hour and a half for him. When he finally turned up he made a 5 minute speech, the photographer was back to document it, and that was it. Another complete waste of time.

It says something about the Chinese style of leadership. The subordinates wait around, just for the boss to appear. Last year our first experience of the school was when we had to wait two hours for the director to turn up for a welcome dinner. The people in charge often have no skills or abilities and they certainly have no respect for their subordinates. All they have is guanxi, the political connections.

Afterwards I was talking with Crystal about her school experiences. Shandong has a very good reputation for good academic grades, but not for producing well rounded students. Students there generally do very well in exams, but learn very little else. She went to the Lichung number 2 middle-school, but even before she started there she had heard it referred to as Lichung number 2 prison. It reinforced a lot of things that I had noticed during my time in China, but at her school it was even more extreme.

In China the students are not allowed to have boyfriends or girlfriends, but Crystal’s school took this further than most. Students were not allowed to spend any time together with students of the opposite sex. Students were not allowed to sit next to students of the opposite sex. They were not allowed to touch, hold hands or even walk side by side. They were not allowed to talk to each other. The dining room even had separate floors for boys and girls.

The students were not allowed to have mobile phones, in order to prevent them from talking to each other or having any other distractions. They were also not allowed to leave the school campus, except to go home at the weekends. Students could only go home every two weeks and the teachers would even be watching to make sure that they did not try to get taxis together and were not sitting together on the bus.

Crystal had a boyfriend when she was at school, although the innocent relationship was probably good practice for a career in covert operations. They were in separate classes but arranged to pass each other on their way out of classes during the break, so that they could slip notes to each other as they passed. On other occasions she would get girls in her dorm building from his class to slip him notes.

They both needed to take two buses in order to get home, so they would get a little bit of time to see each other on the second bus and waiting for that bus, but this was only once a fortnight. Therefore they got good at finding ways to see each at school. Since the school did not allow them to have mobile phones (which they did secretly have, but had to keep hidden in their rooms to avoid confiscation) the students needed access to payphones. At the front of the school were a couple of phone boxes, so they would slip notes to each other, for a time to meet at the phone box. Whoever was there first would pretend to make a phone call and the other one would pretend to wait to use the phone. In this way they could talk, while pretending not to be talking to each other.

Another school restriction was to try to prevent vanity. It was felt that girls who paid attention to their appearance would not be paying attention to their studies. Make-up was prohibited and all girls were required to have the same basin hair cut. Hair was not allowed to be long enough to cover even the tops of their ears. If their hair grew too long a hairdresser was called into the school, in order to cut their hair in front of the class. This was intended as a punishment, to embarrass the child.

Life in such a school must have been quite unbearable for the children, so I was not surprised to hear that during her three years at the school there were a couple of children who killed themselves.

At every school I have taught, at least one student has compared it to a prison. I found myself immediately thinking of prisons when I first passed the international school behind Baoyiwai. With the ugly accommodation blocks, sometimes with bars on the windows, barbed wire fences, prison trays in canteens, crowded dorm rooms and lights out at fixed times Chinese schools can easily be compared to prisons, but until speaking to Crystal I had not realised quite how far the analogy goes.1095

Categories: Living in China, Teaching in China | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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