Let's start out December the right way, with a trip to China. Our Imaginary Vacation founder Jessen is back and this time she’ s graciously laid out an itinerary for those of you who are interested in going. Take it away Jess! In October 2009, I spent 8 days in Yunnan Province in southwestern China. Yunnan was famous for being the equivalent of Russia's Siberia; you are on the political outs, then here is where you are exiled. That's where the comparison ends, for although Yunnan is pretty rural, I can't imagine a more beautiful place to be stuck. The weather is awesomely mild in the lower elevations year-round. Besides that there is a really good black tea grown here named Pu'er. And did I mention this is the only place in China where coffee is grown? COFFEE. 'Nuff said. I could definitely see myself living here.
Day 1-Arrive in Kunming AKA the Spring City, the capital of the province. Feel the laid back vibes. Wander though Green Lake Park and order up some soup-filled dumplings to snack on. If you've been in China for a while and miss things like tacos, go ahead and slobber over "Culture" street, where the cities relatively large population of ex-pats have set up shop. I say relative because you will still get plenty of stares for looking foreign on pretty much any other street.
Day 2-Day trip to The Stone Forest (Shílín) to see an impressive collection of really big rocks, worn by water into a variety of fantastical shapes. Try to puzzle out which rock is "Mother holding child", "Elephant occupies crags", or "Two Birds Capture Food". It's way bigger than you'd expect and you can hike around most of the day and still not see all the different rock formations. Pathways take you around, over, under, and through an amazing variety of stone shapes. Near the center of the "forest" lies a still pool with no inlet or outlet (above ground) surrounded by sharp sword-like towers. Even the noisiest of tourgroups hushed when they arrived at this special spot.
Day 3-From Kunming it's a 12 hour bus ride up into the mountains to the town of Lijiang. The center of town is built in the traditional ethnic Naxi style, with 800-year-old buildings indistinguishable from those built in the last few years. Get pleasantly lost in the narrow cobblestone alleys winding up Lion Hill and as you pass decorated wooden lintels catch glimpses of family courtyards hidden within. Most shutters are intricately carved with a crane motif. Grab some supplies from the long market street, especially yak jerky (in a billion different flavors), fresh fruit, and delicious local yoghurt drinks, while browsing leather goods etched with Naxi pictographs, or watching a silversmith at work. Too many tourists? Just 20 minutes north of Lijiang is the ancient village of Shuhe, while smaller, has similar features without the thronging crowds. For dinner, local fish caught fresh from the river is a good choice.
Day 4-If there are no tickets to Qiaotou, you can buy a bus ticket through to Zhongdian and then ask the bus driver to let you off on the side of the road near Qiaotou. Walk into town and right through to the ticket gate for Tiger Leaping Gorge. Abjure the low paved road for the more difficult but breathtaking high path. The high path is definitely not for the faint of heart, in some places it narrows with a thousand foot drop. The first village is a good place to stop for lunch and you will need to fortify yourself for the steepest part of the path the "28 bends" Locals may follow you with horses until gasping for breath you agree maybe it would be better to ride up. From 28 Bends it's an equally steep descent to the second village. Most people would press on to the third village which is the halfway point of the hike, but if it randomly decides to rain and make the trail a slip-n-slide of mud, then stopping at the Tea Horse Guesthouse is a good plan B.
Day 5-Wake up early for gorgeous views of Jade Dragon Mountain across the gorge. Set out early and you will see the shepherds setting out with their flocks of mountain goats. Like waterfalls? There are quite a few on this section of the trail including one you have to walk through. Eventually the high trail descends to meet the road at Walnut Garden village, but clamber down a series of ladders and you can reach the riverside, look up to see the road passing high overhead.
Day 6-Head off to Zhongdian, recently renamed Shangri-la, for a taste of Tibetan culture, lifestyle and scenery. Go even further: a gorgeous 3 hour drive winding past near vertical fields of barley and roadside stupas will take you to the serene town of Benzilan.
Day 7-Shangri-La lies in a broad valley surrounded by three sacred mountains. The city is modern concrete, but just a few minutes away people do things much the same as they have for generations. Check out Songzanlin, the biggest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the province, looking pretty good for being over 300 years old. Head back to Kunming in the afternoon. It's a 15 hour ride.
Day 8-Kick back in Kuming and grab a bit of local American history at the Hump Hostel, which has mini-museum dedicated to those who flew over the Himalayas (!) during WWII to get much needed supplies in the back-door of occupied China. Wander aimlessly and you might find some interesting things around town like a internet bar disguised as a rocky wall devoted to Counter-Strike or the personification of the Chinese Zodiac in four foot high statues just hanging out in front of a electronics repair shop. The oldest and newest part of the city jostle quite close together. Don't miss the Flower and Bird Market, although it's less birds and more jewelery and art these days, it's fun to browse through several floors and see everything from pressed butterflies to enormous hand-carved pieces of furniture.
I hope someday I can so back to Yunnan, it was by far the most beautiful and varied place I have ever been. I didn't have a chance to visit the southern part full of tropical jungles or the west where there are some volcanoes and places with both rainforest and permanent snow. Truly a wonder