Hunan –the China from imagination

Before I begin my posts on our travels after China, I have a guest post for you from my incredible husband Marc who travelled to Hunan to visit a field site. Unfortunately, we were not able to join him as I was finishing our preparations to leave China. So, here it is. Enjoy!

China today is a living contrast between the old and new, between slow paced peace and the hectic speed of modern life, and between nature and full-blown industrialization. There are two images of China: one of massive cities and factories dominating landscapes; and the other image is best captured in classic Chinese ink paintings of landscapes and villages. Clouds wrap around rough rock towers, gnarled trees cling to rock faces, and idyllic villages are nestled at the base of a mountain.


Classic Chinese landscape painting -called ‘Morning in the Mountain Village

After more than eight months of living in China, I have come to doubt the existence of this romantic China. It seems like a China that exists only in imagination; that is until I visited Hunan province. Hunan jumps from canvas to reality and offers unparalleled beauty. Here you can walk through these classic Chinese paintings and peer through the mist that shrouds mountains and glimpse those villages that seem like time forgot.

In Hunan, you can be freed from the packed hectic megatropolises of the east and the polluted human-dominated landscapes that surround them. I wasn’t really expecting this –I went to Hunan to visit a field experiment and give a talk at Jishou University, but my hosts added in some stops to lovely sites around Hunan.

I started the tour in the city Zhangjiajie, whose sole existence seems to be as a gateway to the world-renowned Wulingyuan scenic area, also commonly called Zhangjiajie Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wulingyuan is famous for what is referred to as ‘sandstone pillars’ but this description does not do this place justice. The awe-inspiring sites defy adequate description, but the best I can come up with is ‘rock skyscrapers’. That is what they are, rock towers, many of which are between 200 and 380 m tall! To put this into perspective, the tallest building in Toronto (not including the CN tower) is the First Canadian Place building at about 300 m. There are hundreds of rock towers taller than 200 m, rivalling the skyline of New York City. Wulingyuan is simply one of the most remarkable natural areas I have ever seen. The only disappointing part was the fact that our visit coincided with an unrelenting rainstorm; so much of the beautiful scenery remained shrouded in mystery.


The base of a rock office tower


Towers peeking through the mist


Just like a classic Chinese painting


Imagining the beautiful sight before us. And, I never knew that twinsies came in multipacks


One of the marketed selling points of this park was its connection to the movie ‘Avatar’. Local tour operators and photographers will tell tourists that the Hallelujah mountain scenes in the movie were filmed there. You can have blue aliens superimposed on to a photo of yourself on the ‘Hallelujah mountains’ or you can even mount a fibreglass dragon from the movie. Sometimes reality gets in the way of a good story –the movie wasn’t filmed there and the movie creators said the inspiration came from a number of sites around the world, including Hunan. This is another example of the creative marketing that seems to be common in China (I saw a guy charging people to touch a 1000 year old turtle…).

“The wild monkey infesting area, caution! Do not tease feeding”

While these magnificent rock towers immediately draw your gaze, the park has many wonderful sites and hiking trails. But another aspect that really impressed me was the pristine state of the surrounding forest. There were animals everywhere, and wild animals are sadly in short supply in China. Wild nature is always at the losing end of conflict with human development, and with so many people in China, this means that nature exists in just a few remaining pockets.


The rhesus macaque -a very photogenic species.


Baby macaque and the best sad face to solicit handouts


Monkey infestation! Do not teases feed. Of course this is exactly what many domestic tourists were doing


Bird -all tail.


The landscapes modern China forgot

The next day I needed to visit the experimental site and give a talk in Jishou which was a 3 hour drive away. We passed through what seemed like an endless expanse of forested rugged mountains, making Hunan easily one of the greenest provinces I’ve seen. Along this journey I saw those idyllic villages at the base of mountains and perfectly laid out rice terraces. People used ox to plough fields while wearing the stereotypical straw hats. Besides Zhangjiajie and Jishou, we went to Chongqing, Fonghuang, Biancheng, and Huai Hua. Fonghuang is a famous ancient city, and like other famous ancient cities we’ve been to in China, it was overrun with karaoke bars and kitsch tourist shops. Biancheng is another ancient city, but for some reason is not a typical stop for tour buses and so retains its original splendid and quiet character.


Planting the rice paddies


Ploughing the terraces with ox


Biancheng was full of narrow alleys


Biancheng scene -crossing the river brings you into the neighbouring province


Biancheng water taxi fighting the current in the rain-swollen river.


Keeping out of the rain with a game of majong


Man with backpack basket. These were commonly carried by the local ethnic group and were used to hold everything from food and goods to small children.



The food in Hunan was quite different from other parts of China -and it was delicious!


A scene from the uber-touristy Fonghuang

Hunan is the China of history and art, but like the rest of China, it has been impacted by modern industry, its just not as readily apparent as elsewhere. The main purpose for my trip to Hunan was to visit a field experiment. This is a globally unique and significant experiment that examines how plants can help clean up soil that has been contaminated by toxic pollution. The area was severely polluted by mining waste and the soil is virtually barren of all life.


The field experiment with the abandoned mine processing facility in the background. The grey soil is contaminated with zinc, nickel and cadmium, and has been devoid of plants for at least 6 years –nothing grows on it (at least until the experimental plots were established). This experiment will provide valuable information on how plant communities can be used to help clean polluted sites.

Hunan represents everything that is good about China and is a part of the country that visitors must see. I have two regrets about my visit to Hunan: it was a much too short of a visit and my family did not come with me. At least now I have a perfect reason to visit again.








Shě bù dé

In the blink of an eye, nine months has passed and today we start our slow journey home. From here we will travel through Singapore, Borneo (Malaysia), Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and Vancouver before finally arriving home to Toronto at the end of July. Let’s see if our plan to overcome jet lag by travelling East one country at a time works.

There’s a phrase in Chinese that best describes how I feel about leaving Guangzhou,“shě bù dé”, meaning the person cannot bear to leave or is in fact just quite sad and reluctant to leave a person or place. I love this phrase for the simple way it captures a much more complicated mix of emotions because that is how I feel about leaving China. It’s complicated. It’s a relief to leave the constant Chinese crowds where survival is based on one’s ability to get there first. No handicaps for the handicapped in this country. It’s a relief to go where what I read and what I do online is not censored. It’s a relief to leave behind toxic pollution days that leave my throat sore and my head hurting. So why can’t I bear to leave? Because this place has become home to me. That sense you get when you walk in your front door or when you get into your own bed and lay your head down on your pillow. Familiar ground. The people and places have become so familiar that it’s hard to say good-bye. Wǒ shě bù dé. Fortunately, it looks like we are not really saying good-bye forever so zhí dào xià yī cì Guǎngzhōu (Until next time Guangzhou)!


Langmu, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, China

After a wave to the nice police sending us off, we were headed to our final destination, Langmu (town and monastery). And you know how I thought we travelled on the Worst Road Ever to the grassland field site? Well, as luck would have it, we found one that was even worse than the Worst Road Ever. We ended up on a rutted and impossibly narrow mountain road that really could benefit from some nice sturdy guardrails. Thankfully we never encountered any cars coming from the opposite direction, as there would have been no way for two vehicles to pass on the road without one dropping off the side of the mountain. It was either a miracle or there was good reason no other car was travelling on this road. Perhaps it wasn’t really a road but rather a yak trail. Our van bounced and skipped up and down mountains hugging the inside of the road with our hosts giving regular assurances to our agitated driver that we were almost at our destination. This was not the case for quite some time. When we finally saw Langmu, we were like the marathon runner who finally sees the finish line. Instead of a medal, we got this:












Monastery and town in Tibetan culture seem to have a symbiotic relationship and it would be difficult to separate one from the other. Just as the Tibetan person is inseparable from their family, they are inseparable from their Tibetan culture and by way their connection to the monastery and their faith. Prayer beads are an extension of the person. Monks are part of the community. A fellow Tibetan whom you meet for the first time is seen as a brother or a sister.

We were incredibly fortunate to have our Tibetan friend along for our first experience of Tibetan culture. During the journey we heard stories of his childhood and family and what it was like for Tibetans of his generation growing up in China. There were subtle pressures on their Tibetan identity that were presented as choices: keep their Tibetan names or use a Chinese one in school and they had to choose between Tibetan or English in school. For a culture that is fiercely proud of their identity, there was a lot to prove. But it’s different for the Tibetan youth of today. We met our friend’s 15 year-old nephew whose father and mother are both Tibetan. They live in a Tibetan prefecture yet if we didn’t know him, we would not be able to identify him as Tibetan. The Tibetan youth of today appear, act and sound Han Chinese with many no longer even able to speak the Tibetan language. A culture assimilated no longer has anything to prove.

Gannan Tibetan Grasslands,China

From Labrang we made our way to the city of Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture to enjoy a delicious Tibetan dinner and spend the night.

Our Tibetan dinner included roast Tibetan sheep, shabalep – fried dough stuffed with meat, momos – dumplings, masan – pastry made with tsampa (roasted barley flower) and yak milk tea. Unfortunately, I always forget to take photos of the food we eat as I’m too busy stuffing my face so you’ll have to take my word for it that the experience was incredibly satisfying.

After a good night’s sleep, we headed off on what would become the journey on the Worst Road Ever. A road that is more suitable for an ATV rather than the minivan with questionable suspension we were travelling in. We are; however, grateful for the disproportionately high clearance of the van’s ceiling as we would have surely hit our head on many occasions as we bounced along for what seemed like an eternity. Thankfully we were distracted from our misery by the gorgeous scenery outside. Out our windows we saw herds of yak and sheep, sometimes in the company of a Tibetan cowboy on horseback, yurts set up in their summer pastures, fat marmots lounging in the sun, and ground squirrels darting from hole to hole, careful not to be caught by one of the many condors soaring above.


Endless grasslands marked by the occasional yurt in the distance

Just when my brain started mulling the possibility of shaken baby syndrome in older children, we reached our destination. The grasslands of the Tibetan plateau were just beginning to wake up from its winter slumber but it was already incredibly magnificent. I can’t imagine how much more jaw-dropping it will be in July or August when flowers blanket it.


The field site


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Ecologists at work


Driving through endless grasslands past herds of yaks


Yaks everywhere



Treasures found at the field station



Yurts in summer pastures



Marked sheep. Tibetan sheep have horns that go straight out from their heads.



Travelling through the grasslands really gave us a sense of the openness of the plains and the freedom it offers. It is understandable why 40% of Tibetans remain nomadic despite attempts by the Chinese government to settle them. Being nomadic allows them to liberate themselves from the restrictions imposed on them.

Restrictions we felt when we tried to get a hotel room that night in the Tibetan town of Maqu (closest town to the field site). We were told that all the hotels in the town were not allowed to accept foreigners due to a festival/holiday that was a month away. Our hosts were not surprised but had been hopeful that we would get lucky. It seems the upcoming holiday was just an excuse as this practice happens regularly. Apparently, another biologist and his foreigner guest were woken up in the middle of the night and asked to not only leave the hotel they were staying in but the town of Maqu. Our only recourse was to ask for permission at the police station, which turned out to be a thoroughly absurd process. We were told the police supervisor was not available to give us permission as he was apparently out drinking. It seemed that travelling with small children in tow was not convincing enough that we did not have an ill intended political agenda. (Although we feel strongly that the policy is not to send a message to visiting foreigners but rather to the local Tibetan people.) Our host considered the feasibility of going to where the supervisor was and drinking with him. Fortunately, he is a Tibetan well versed in the practices of the area. A few cigarettes proffered and the right respectful words seem to have done the trick. We would be allowed to stay the night if we provided copies of our passports to the police station . The process didn’t just stop here though but rather continued until we left town. There was a police officer at the hotel to check our documents again when we went to check in and then the next morning at check out, two police officers arrived to once again ask why we were in town. I think they just wanted to make sure we were leaving. Nothing is ever simple in China.

Labrang, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, China

After our brief stay in Lanzhou, we headed to Tibet! That’s right, you heard me. Tibet. I know I said (after meticulously investigating) we just couldn’t justify the cost for four days in Tibet (20 000 RMB / 4000 CAD, flights not included). It turns out though that ethno-cultural Tibet goes well beyond its official borders. These areas are referred to as Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures and there are a total of ten, spread out over four provinces: Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan (divide and conquer right?). The prefectures do not require you to have the additional Tibet Entry Permit and according to our Tibetan friend, they have significantly less military and police presence than Tibet proper. A much better cultural experience without the crazy high price tag? Win-win!

Our destination was the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture to visit a plateau grassland field site. Driving straight, it would have taken us over seven hours from Lanzhou; however, we decided to break the trip up and make a stop on the way there and on the way back so that we could experience as much of Tibetan culture as we could.

Our first stop was the more than 300 year old Labrang Monastery, the most important monastery town outside of official Tibet. Labrang contains 18 halls, 6 institutes of learning, and houses 1500 monks (it use to house 4000 but the Chinese government has restricted enrolment since the 1980’s). It was also where we would first experience Tibetan culture. Of all our ethno-cultural experiences in diverse China, our experience with Tibetan culture will be remembered as the most extraordinary. The bold beauty of the people, the illuminating spirit of the culture, and the food that is at once robust and simple satisfies what I desire most in the places I travel to.



Dozens of prayer wheels as you enter the monastery





Main temple


Most of the people we encountered still wear their traditional Tibetan clothes and prayer beads are always in hand. The women all wear their hair in two braids no matter what age.



A door that has been opening and closing for centuries



I see you!


Round and round we go


Exquisite art created from yak butter. Keeping it in a cool room, the art lasts for a year. The monks create new art once per year.


A closer look at the yak butter art




A woman in prayer. The motions begin from standing and eventually end with the person horizontally on the ground. They go through these movements for many many rotations.


Sharing vacation photos with a friend. In front of a public toilet.


Bingling Temple, Gansu, China

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was really just a short added stop to the main target of our trip (although a spectacular stop); which was Gansu province, specifically Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. We were generously hosted by an ecology group at Lanzhou University who had field sites in the Gannan grasslands which sits on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau just at the transition to the Loess Plateau.

The plan was to spend as little time in Lanzhou as necessary as according to our hosts there’s not much to the city. Our impression seemed to corroborate their assessment. However, a daytrip away, are the amazing Buddhist grottoes of Bingling Temple (another UNESCO Heritage Site) so that’s where we went when we found out we had a free day before we trundled off to the field site.

Bingling Temple (or Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves or Bingling Si) is neither affordable nor easy to get to due to its location in a canyon along the Yellow River. We had hired a car to take us the one and half hours from Lanzhou to Liujiaxia Reservoir where we then took a boat to the temple. Total cost for our family for the visit: 300 RMB one way car transfer X2 plus fast boat to the temple 120 RMB X4 plus admission to the temple 50 RMB X3 (the boy was free) = 1230 RMB ($245 CAD/$187 USD). We considered this expensive for a day trip – amazing how we have defined affordable after living in Asia for nine months. There is bus service from Lanzhou to the reservoir but I am unsure of the cost and a large slow boat is available at half the price of the fast boat but it will take you two to three hours to reach the temple compared to one hour by fast boat. The downside of the fast boat was that they limit you to one and a half hours at the temple. We felt a bit rushed and had to miss visiting an area that required a shuttle ride to get to. If we had to do it again, I might have given one of the many boat touts in the parking lot at the reservoir a chance.

Regardless, Bingling Temple was worth the effort and cost. There are 183 niches, 694 stone statues, 82 clay sculptures and at least 900 square metres of the most well-preserved murals we have seen. The caves are the incredible result of work from a millennium of artists. Here are some of my 162 photos from Bingling:)


Tiny boats that transported 14 of us (bit of a tight squeeze) from Liujiaxia Reservoir to Bingling Temple


View of Liujiaxia Reservoir from the boat


The walk from the pier to the temple entrance


During rainy season, there is a river where the trees are


Bridges and walkways


Exquisite mural inside one of the caves


Each of the holes hold carvings


Intact Buddha statue



Us and the Great Maitreya Buddha (similar to the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan that was destroyed by the Taliban in 2001)


The Great Maitreya Buddha overseeing the priceless caves



There are many caves ascending the cliffside around the Great Maitreya Buddha but unfortunately all the stairways accessing them were closed during our visit. 


View over the Yellow River


Do you see the tiny temple on the side of the spire 


Tiny Taoist temple at Bingling


Adorable caretakers of the Taoist temple

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – Turpan, China: Day 2

Day two of our time in Turpan was as incredible as day one, albeit with less stops as we had a train to catch for our return to Urumqi. We visited three sights: the Jiaohe Ruins, the karez irrigation system and the Emin Minaret.

We visited the fantastic ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe first. Along with the ruins of Gaochang (that we visited the day before), Jiaohe is also one of the Silk Road UNESCO Heritage Sites. Jiaohe is quite different from Gaochang though. It’s a much more compact city and we were able to easily walk its 1650 metre length and 300 metre width. It’s also in significantly better condition than Gaochang and many of its structures are still recognizable. There were many times while we were walking around that I could imagine the past inhabitants going about their life in this city. Its coolest feature is that it is built on top of a leaf shaped plateau providing it with natural 30 metre high walls by way of the steep cliffs. From the city, you could see a deep gorge separating the city from the surrounding hills. An incredibly photogenic city. Here are just a few of the 159 photos I took here:)


Can you see the houses?


Monks rooms in the main temple


Two stories clearly defined


Residential block


The neighbourhood’s falling apart


Main temple with stupa behind on far left


The main stupa


View across width of the city to the mountains. Can you see the cliff line?


A room inside a home with an ancient tool


This house must have had a great view



At least the first floor walls were strong


The neighbourhood



From Jiaohe we stopped to see the 2200 year old karez irrigation system. It is a network of subterranean tunnels that channel water from the base of the Tian Shan Mountains and the nearby Flaming Mountains using the gravity of the slope of the Turpan Depression (Turpan is one of the lowest areas on earth as it sits in a mountain basin). There was not much to see except for a very short walk through one of the tunnels and a much longer walk through the gift store. For some bizarre reason, the karez water system was where we found all of the tourists.


Vineyards surround the Karez Water System Museum


Statues showing the strength of the men who built the karez


The karez system

Our final stop was the 239 year-old Emin Minaret. It is the tallest minaret in all of China, standing at a height of 144 feet. It is attached to the Uyghur Mosque which we were allowed to walk through.


Emin Minaret, Uyghur Mosque to the right and tombs to the left


Emin Minaret built in the Iranian style


Inside the Uyghur Mosque


Vineyards surrounding the minaret. The buildings are for drying raisins which are a main export for the area.

Although travelling in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region did not always feel the safest, we saw some amazing places that adds to our view of China. From here we will travel to Lanzhou and the Tibetan grasslands. I will leave you with a final image taken in the home of our driver and a video of what it’s like driving around the Taklamakan Desert.


Our driver’s wife rocking their infant daughter in their home. This space is living room, dining room and bedroom all in one.

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – Turpan, China: Day 1

From Urumqi, an hour long bullet train ride took us to the oasis town of Turpan in the Taklamakan Desert. This was the target of our trip to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as just outside Turpan can be found ancient Silk Road settlement ruins, 1700 year old tombs, 1400 year old Buddhist caves and sandstone mountains made famous in the novel Journey to the West (one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature). The city itself felt more open and relaxed than Urumqi (although there were still police stationed at the hotels that accepted foreigners).


This is the image I want to remember from our visit to this area and not the police presence

We spent two days in Turpan and hired an English-speaking driver for both days at a cost of 1000 RMB (just under $200 CAD or $150 USD). We covered a lot of ground on the first day; managing to visit the Flaming Mountains, Bezeklik Caves, Gaochang Ruins, Astana Tombs and had enough time to stop for a late lunch and a stroll through a village in the Tuyuk Valley. Incredibly, we were usually the only tourists at each of the places we visited. Completely unheard of in China where hoards of tour groups with their selfie sticks swarm any remotely interesting tourist site! Looks like May is a good time to visit. Not too hot and no crowds. Win-win! Hope you’re ready for an onslaught of photos of incredibly pretty places!

First stop – the Flaming Mountains before the day got too hot. The mountains are sandstone and are described in the novel Journey to the West as being on fire during certain times of the day when the sun and shadows looks like they are flickering red hot.


Flaming Mountains


A tree in a desert looks like this


View of Flaming Mountains in the morning light


Looking down into the valley from the Flaming Mountains


My girl will find the one tree for miles and climb it


GoPro photo of us


Second stop – just below the Flaming Mountains are the Bezeklik Caves that was once part of a Buddhist monastery in the 6th-14th centuries. There are 77 rock cut caves that hold painted murals of Buddha. Sadly, they suffer significant damage from the local Muslim population and many murals were removed by early European and Japanese explorers. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the caves.


Looking down onto the caves


Terrace from which some of the caves can be accessed


View of the caves on the cliffs

Here’s a little video Marc shot. Follow the little swinging arms:)

Third stop – the Astana Tombs which was once the cemetery of the ancient city of Gaochang. Not all of the tombs have been excavated or made open to the public but what was open was pretty cool. The children got up close and personal with a couple of mummies in one of the tombs. They don’t seem to be overly traumatized by the experience;) Again unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the tombs.


Guardian statues outside the tombs


Stairs leading down into one of the tombs


Fourth stop – the extensive Gaochang Ruins, a garrison town that was founded in the 1st century AD as a Chinese colony, came under Uyghur rule(who were Buddhists at the time) in the 8th century AD, and eventually abandoned during the early Ming era. What remains is just a faint shadow of what was once there. It is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


To cover all of Gaochang it is best to take one of the electric shuttles that run on these brick roads (available for 35 RMB per person). We saw bikes for rent too but not sure what the fee for those were. The benefit of being the only tourists is that we had our own personal shuttle that drove us around the complex, stopping and waiting at various points so that we could explore and take photos.


Difficult to tell what this use to be


Most of the site has boardwalks to keep tourists off the crumbling ruins


Temple complex


Musician at one of the walls of the temple complex


A great city once stood here


Found on the outskirts of city. Perhaps this served as storage?


They are so similar


Ruins of someone’s home


One of the most special memories of our visit here will be of us walking around this site as the only tourists on a beautifully sunny day while a musician plays traditional music in the background:

Fifth and final stop for the day – late lunch and a stroll through a village in Tuyuk Valley. This village has existed for at least 2000 years. Incredible right?


The village tucked in the valley


Lunch stop at a local family’s home


Women in the family (the men were at prayer at the mosque)


It was mulberry season. These men were taking a snack break from whatever they were doing. They happily offered us handfuls to try. There was the black variety we were use to and a white variety that was new to us. The white ones were like liquid syrup bombs.


Entrance to a home in the village


A home in the village. The day bed type set up seems very common in the area and seems to serve multiple purposes from lounging to eating to sleeping.


Roads and homes in the village


The whole village


The hills just outside the village contain shades of red, green and yellow. The cave like holes you see in the centre of the photo are Buddhist caves similar to the Bezeklik Caves but are not yet open to the public.

Day one in Turpan was incredibly magical, transporting us to a time and place beyond China. Excited to hear about Day 2?


Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – Urumqi, China

Crappy Internet. Busy travel schedule. Those are reasons why I often do not manage to write a blog post during our travel. However, the main reason I haven’t written any posts on this trip is that I’ve been struggling on how to capture our experiences. But now that we are back in Guangzhou, I’ve just got to get the words down before they fade.

We have spent the last ten days in a region of China that doesn’t feel like and perhaps some might say shouldn’t be a part of China.

The first part of our trip was in two cities (Urumqi and Turpan) in the province of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the Northwest of China. This is where the Silk Road once crossed and became the meeting point of East and West. Those Silk Road merchants who put down roots in this region are clearly reflected in the cultures and the people that are found there today. The largest ethnic group here are the Muslim Uyghurs, linguistically and culturally descended from the Turkic group. They are quite physically diverse, ranging from a more Western Eurasian look to a more East Asian appearance. In recent years, the Han Chinese population has increased dramatically in the province which has brought with it increased tensions between the two groups. The anger and resentment of the Uyghurs could be felt underneath the tightly controlled environment. Beijing (in reference to the political power of China) has decided that the best way to respond is to restrict the movement of foreigners by determining which hotels can accept them and they have turned the area into a police state where there are police and military patrolling the streets. It is the first place in China where we have visited where large armoured vehicles drive down the streets, soldiers with machine guns stand behind metal fencing at the bazaar, police are stationed inside the hotels, and hotel and/or police knock on your door in the middle of the night to check your passport (that happened to us on our last night). It was made obviously clear to us that this would be unlike any of our previous travel through China.


A show of force


There were soldiers with machine guns behind this screen


Military tank (behind the yellow van) easily visible on city streets


Military vehicle with soldier carrying machine gun at the train station. The Coca Cola umbrella makes it a little less scary I guess.


Our first stop was Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. We intentionally chose to stay in the Uyghur area of Urumqi and spent a day just walking around getting a feel for the city, the people and the food. It was an odd experience knowing we were in China but feeling like we were in a place that felt more like Turkey. It was also in Urumqi that I felt unsafe for the first time in all of the travelling we have done this year. I felt a huge relief when we left the city.



Arabic, Chinese and English sign at the Grand Bazaar


Carvings on a minaret


Carpet seller sleeping on the job


Uyghur street food


Corn vendor and buyer


There were homemade ice cream vendors like this one all over the city. The Uyghur people seem to like to eat this from first thing in the morning until late at night.


Inside the Grand Bazaar


Dates, nuts, and raisins galore


Traditional musical instruments seller and his wares


Turkish tea and a platter of roast chicken for dinner


Gaoligong Mountains, China

On our way from Tiger Leaping Gorge to the Gaoligong Mountains, we were to stop in the city of Dali to see its renowned old town. Before it was conquered by China, it was once the capital of the Bai kingdom. Unfortunately, our timing could not have been worse as we arrived in the middle of the largest Bai festival of the year and the city was at a stand still. We could not get anywhere near the old town, including the hotel we were originally planning on staying at. It took hours of manoeuvring around the closed roads and detours to find another suitable one. By the time we arrived, there was only time for a late dinner and then bed. Dali will have to wait until our next visit to Yunnan as the Gaoligong Mountains were waiting.

The Gaoligong Mountains straddles the border of China and Myanmar (Burma). Part of the mountain range has been designated a national nature reserve and World Wildlife Fund considers it a level A grade protected area. If that is not enough, it is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and since it’s part of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, it shares its UNESCO World Heritage status just like Tiger Leaping Gorge. It is within the borders of the nature reserve that our hosts had their field sites.

Our plan was to stay in one of the mountain villages and visit a lower elevation site on the first day and then a higher elevation one on the second day. The village hotels were built to cater to the many birders that come to Gaoligong Mountains. Apparently, the mountains are home to 525 species of birds. We heard many of them but did not see any during our hikes. It might have something to do with the noise level of two young children.


View from Gaoligong Mountains


Villages tucked into the mountains


View from the village we stayed at

The weather cooperated on the first day and stopped raining just as we were about to head out for our hike. We were able to reach the field site and see some of the forest at the lower elevation. However, we woke up to a thunderstorm that had been raging all night on the second day. We thought we got lucky again when the rain stopped after breakfast but that was not to be the case as the rain started again once we were in the forest. Our progress was also hindered by the damage left behind from the storm the night before. Branches and fallen trees were all over the trail and in some parts it was almost impossible to pass. The storm damage combined with the heavy rain finally convinced us we would not make it to the higher elevation we were hoping for. It is at that higher elevation that the forest remained undisturbed and it would have been possible to see many animals such as monkeys, red pandas, flying squirrels, leopards, Asian black bears, etc.


Walking in the clouds


Some of the plant residents of the forest


A more ethereal resident


In this photo this waterfall looks tiny and insignificant but in reality it was powerful, heavy from the rain, pouring down the side of the mountain into the river below.


Did you know ferns are one of my favourite plants? They remind me of the Pacific Northwest where I grew up. The colours of this one are particularly pretty.




I love fiddleheads even more than I love ferns. Especially this really cool aerial one.


Didn’t see any animals but did see a biologist


A fern bigger than my 10 year old


Storm damage


Finding our way through the damage



The upside of not making it to the higher elevation site was that we had some extra time when we came down the mountain and managed to stop at this neat ancient bridge.


See the vertical pieces of wood? It’s to hold the bridge together where the wood has rotted. Note that it covers the whole length of the bridge. I questioned our sanity for crossing it.

So our trip ended with a couple of disappointments but it seems that we are meant to return to this part of Yunnan. We will be back to visit Dali, to hike the undisturbed forests of the Gaoligong Mountains and for one member of our family, to ride as many of the incredible mountain trails on his mountain bike as he can.

Oh and exciting news! All the Pretty Places now has its own YouTube channel since sometimes photos just can’t really capture the feel of a place.