Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province and its cultural hub, has a history that stretches back some 2,400 years when it was a gateway to the celebrated Silk Road. Our journey begins outside the city to witness the remarkable landscapes of the Stone Forest (Shilin in Chinese). Known since the Ming Dynasty as the First Wonder of the World, the limestone karsts here have been sculpted by nature over the course of 270 million years to form great pillars resembling a forest made of stone.
Next, we visit the Green Lake Park, a scenic urban space created in the 17th century that is filled with willow trees and vibrantly colored lotuses. The park consists, in effect, of a group of 4 small sub-lakes linked by bridges in the traditional style. The lake was originally a water reservoir for the city. Brightly painted pavilions on the islands inside the park, tree-lined walks, flowers, and the local populace enjoying themselves by exercising in various specialist groups all add to the appeal of the park. There are performances of pieces from Chinese operas and of folk music within and around the park. During the winter months, black-headed seagulls from Siberia migrate to this lovely park to escape the arctic chill.
After bidding Kunming farewell, we begin our transfer to Dali and stop at a local tobacco field and visit its roasting house. Nestled between the shores of Erhai Lake and the Jade Green Mountains, Dali is a city in southwestern China's Yunnan Province that dates back to the 8th Century and is a cultural center for the Bai people, one of China's many ethnic groups. The walled old city, from the Ming dynasty, contains traditional homes and towers from the Bai ethnic minority. Upon our arrival, we embark on a walking tour along cobbled streets to visit local markets.
Next, we visit the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple which are nestled between the massive Cangshan Mountains and face the west short of the Erhai Lake of Ancient Dali. They date from the time of the Kingdom of Nanzhao and Kingdom of Dali in the 9th and 10th Centuries and are made of brick and covered with white mud. According to local legends, Dali was once a swamp inhabited by breeding dragons before the humans arrived. As the dragons, which were believed to deliberately create natural disasters to dispel human intruders, revered pagodas, the Three Pagodas were built to deter the dragons.
The Chongsheng Monastery Complex is by far the most well-known and magnificent Buddhist shrine in this part of Southeast Asia. Originally, the Chongsheng Monastery was built in the 10th century to be near the Three Pagodas, so this shrine became known as the "Chongsheng Monastery and Three Pagodas Complex". There are many different temples and pagodas scattered throughout the complex, each one higher up the mountain than the last.
Our Yunnan discoveries continue with a journey through the Weishan Valley, home to Yi, Bai, and Hui ethnic minority groups. We first stop at Dong Lian Hua (East Lotus Village), which was a renowned Hui caravansary along the ancient tea and horse road. We also walk through Weishan's Old Town, which contains a wealth of well-preserved ancient structures. The whole city has been well-preserved with architectures of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1636-1911). The people of the Weishan Valley depend on a rich and diverse agricultural base for their livelihood. Han, Muslim, Yi, and other minority nationalities are expert farmers of rice, tea, tobacco, fish and corn.
Located in the south of Weishan County about 70 km (43 miles) north of Dali, Weibao Mountain looks like a crouching lion that turns its head back and looks at the county seat and the belt-like Guajiang River in the mist. As one of the fourteen famous Taoist mountains in China, Weibao Mountain features a combination of enchanting scenery, refined ancient architecture and is dotted with 22 well-preserved Taoist temples that date back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lijiang is home to what many consider the best-preserved Old Town in China. The town has a history going back more than 1,000 years and was once a confluence for trade along the "Old Tea Horse Caravan Trail". Lijiang's culture combines traditional Naxi culture and incongruous elements learned from Ming Dynasty Han Chinese traders who settled in the region centuries ago. The focal point of Old Town is Old Market Square, where there is a constant flurry of activity as locals and visitors shop and Naxi women sometimes gather to dance.
Next, we journey into northern Yunnan to the small village of Baisha located just outside of Lijiang, where Naxi culture has thrived for some 1,400 years. An ancient capital of the Naxi kingdom, Baisha is home to some stunning temple frescoes painted during the 15th and 16th Centuries. There, we visit the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute (comprised of students, teachers and masters), which promotes the Naxi traditional hand-made silk embroidery techniques.
Next, just north of Old Town, we head to Black Dragon Pool Park, a picturesque wonderland of temples, marble bridges, and serene waters. It was built in 1737 during the Qing Dynasty and offers a spectacular view of the region's tallest mountain, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, over its white marble bridge.
The Old Town of Lijiang has retained a historic townscape of high quality and authenticity. Its architecture is noteworthy for the blending of elements from several cultures that have come together over many centuries. We wander through Old Town's enchanting maze of twisting lanes, crisscrossed by cobble stoned streets, picturesque canals and stone bridges before bidding this area farewell.
As we bid farewell to this mystical paradise, we visit a local shaman who wishes to "bless" us on our travels to Mongolia and back home. A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.
Floyd Schleyhahn Photography www.floydandjodi.com