In our last journal entry we were heading from China to Bangkok and Laos.  After finishing our time in Laos, it was time to fly back to China (via Bangkok).  Our first destination after returning to China from our little break in Southeast Asia was to the beautiful city of Kunming.  This city is in the famed Yunnan region of China, and we must admit, it was by far one of the most beautiful areas we have seen in all of China — definitely a must visit!

A Lively Park in Beautiful Kunming

Kunming is dubbed the city of eternal spring, because its technically in a tropical region but it’s high in elevation.  After spending a couple months in stifling heat and humidity of Thailand and Laos, we really welcomed the refreshingly crisp, cool and clean air!

We found a really cool place to stay not far from the heart of Kunming.  And since we had a long overnight journey before our arrival (we slept at the airport in Bangkok) we were pretty exhausted.  Rather than taking off to sightsee beyond Kunming, we decided to relax in town and catch up on some stuff and just wander around Kunming’s town center.

Playing music in Kunming

A couple guys in a park in Kunming China – playing traditional music and singing Chinese Opera!

Kunming was a lovely small-ish city in China, and we really enjoyed the laid back atmosphere here.  The weather was great, the air was fresh, and the town was nice.  We enjoyed the pedestrian streets and markets, and especially the Cuihu park.  Actually, we spent hours one afternoon wandering in Cuihu park and thoroughly enjoying the people watching!  That’s one of the things that we enjoy about China, the parks really are gathering places for the locals, as you can imagine since most of them live in crowded apartments.  But this park in Kunming was lively.

Dancing in Kunming

One of the many local people dancing their hearts out to traditional songs in Kunming’s Cuihu park!

We found one area where groups of people were doing traditional dances to music – men and women, young and old, and another group was singing Opera.  We also stumbled across multiple groups of musicians by the water playing traditional instruments while someone sang, we found a few groups doing fabulous ballroom dance (some of them were quite impressive), and of course there were elderly people huddled together playing card lively card games!

Going out in a local park in China is a great way to feel a part of the culture, and on this day in Kunming exploring Cuihu park, we truly felt immersed in the local atmosphere.

Teaching a Chinese Family How to Play Uno on a Train to Dali

After a few days in Kunming we headed out to Dali, one of the most popular towns in this area and one that all our Chinese students in Guangzhou told us to visit.  This once important ancient town has now been built up for tourists, mostly Chinese tourists.

When we boarded the train we were a little disappointed because even though we booked seats (not sleepers), they used a sleeper train and we all had to sit on the beds next to each other like they were seats!


Not sure what that was all about, this was the only time it occurred during our trip.  At first we were bummed because it wasn’t as comfortable not having a real seat, and we were crammed in there with another Chinese family.

However, this turned into one of the most fun train rides we had in China.

The family consisted of the parents and two older-teenage girls, one was the daughter and the other a cousin.  Immediately we could sense that they wanted to chat with us, but they didn’t know English and our Chinese isn’t exactly at conversation levels.  We were able to do basic introductions, and that was about it.

After a bit of basic conversation and using our phone apps to translate key words,  one of the girls had the idea of using WeChat (China’s social media platorm) to converse, because it has a translate feature on it.

Looking out the #train from #Kunming to #Dali #China #POPChina #travelchina

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Unfortunately, our phone data ran out in China so we couldn’t use our phones.  So the dad gave us his phone and we would send messages to the daughter — so everyone was conversing through WeChat and translating it!

We learned that they were from Chengdu and were going to Dali for the Dragon Boat Festival holiday.  The father owned a flower shop, and they showed us his creations on their phones — and wow, his were they beautiful!

They were amazed when we conveyed to them what we did, and the dad was fascinated at one point while Josh was editing videos of us on his computer.  He wanted to listen and so we snapped a photo of the two of them with the ear pieces in.  While watching the videos the dad laughed and kept saying “Ting Bu Dong” (I don’t understand) because he didn’t speak any English.

Making friends on the train

Grabbed this picture from their WeChat account. I was showing him some of our videos from our travels around the world.

The train journey to Dali ended up being a lot of fun.  We chatted with them the whole way, shared lots of snacks, made jokes, took pictures (which the dad loved to photo-bomb), and even taught them how to play Uno!  Yes, Uno.

Josh and I got the cards out to play and the girls wanted to learn.  So we taught them as best we could using a mix of basic words and lots of hand gestures (luckily it’s a fairly easy game to figure out).  After a few lengthy games, we discovered that we had an audience! Chinese families from other train compartments had come over to watch us play — you could tell by their pensive faces, pointing and discussing, that they were all trying to figure out how the game worked too!  Apparently, Uno isn’t a thing in China!

Nothing beats killing time and getting to know your Chinese neighbors than a game of #Uno #POPChina #travelchina

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They were all so fascinated by the game, and even taking photos.  We handed the box around to people and told them we bought it here in China, so they could look for it at the store.

When we arrived in Dali, we were a little sad to say goodbye to our new friends from the train.  But as luck would have it, we ran into them a few times around town the next couple days – we would all shout and wave to each other and we do actually stay in contact on WeChat still.

Enjoying Dali, Yunnan

Dali was probably one of our favorite destinations in Yunnan.  It is a beautiful old town that’s been a bit restored for tourists.  Even though some work had been done to the old town, I still felt the old town charm and loved the history of the area.  Being set against the big mountains on one side and a beautiful lake on the other side, it was a wonderfully peaceful valley to explore.

Dali Old City

Falling in love with beautiful Dali, Yunnan, China!

One of the main activities for visitors is going up the mountain.  But unfortunately, we discovered that going up the mountain via chairlift was crazy expensive (as most tourist attractions are in China).  While there were some hiking trails up on the mountain and beautiful sights to see, we opted not to spend the money on it.  That was a bit of the theme for this part of the trip — everything touristy that we wanted to do was very overpriced, and we were getting a bit annoyed.

Another disappointing thing about Dali was the Three Pagodas tourist sight.  It was also quite expensive and only took you around some restored grounds and a museum in an old palace (I think it may have been a replica too because the original was destroyed long ago).  While these Three Pagodas are important to the local history, only one of them is original – since the others fell in Earthquakes.

The famous 3 Pagodas of #Dali #China #POPChina

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We saw the Pagodas from the outside, and they were really beautiful…but we felt like that was enough and didn’t warrant an overpriced admission ticket.  So instead, we spent our money renting an electric bike to drive around the valley and the lake…now that was a great way to spend the day! 

Driving away from Dali towards the lake, there were never-ending fields of beautifully manicured crops; impressive crops, really.  We drove around on side roads and through tiny old villages near the lake.  We followed the road around and even spent time wandering around on foot and enjoying the expansive vista and mirror reflections of the clear water.  

We even ran into a popular spot for wedding photos, as evident by the constant stream of couples complete with caravans of camera and lighting people, hair and make-up, and wardrobe assistants (wedding photos are a big industry in China, but that’s a story for another day!).  It’s no wonder they take photos here…it is probably one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve experienced in China so far!

Lake riding in Dali

Spending the day driving around the Lake in Dali, China was the highlight of our visit!

This was by far our favorite thing that we did in Dali, riding a bike down by the lake.  On a sunny day like this, we breathed in the fresh air, got lost on side roads around the fields, explored the villages, and got some fresh fruit shakes by the lake.  It was a wonderful day out — and much cheaper than taking the gondola up the mountain or paying entrance fee into the Pagoda park!

Another thing that we enjoyed about Dali, which was surprising to us, was all the live music that filled the town after dark.  In fact, nearby to where we were staying there was a street where almost every establishment – coffee shop, restaurant, bar, etc. had local musicians playing and singing.  Some were solo, others had bands.  So in the evening, we had a great time hopping around and checking out the music scene – and we even found one girl in particular who took our breath away so much that we would seek her out.  Luckily, we were also able to chat with her between sets and learned that she is making an album now…which we are looking forward to buying!

Even though Dali is touristy, we found it to be such a cool and laid back place.  We loved the natural scenery, enjoyed the local culture and history…and really loved the food and music.  Just a great vibe to this place.  It actually reminded us a little bit of Asheville, North Carolina…but in China!

Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Lijiang

After Dali, we headed north to the famous UNESCO World Heritage town of Lijiang.  This old city is actually quite large in comparison to Dali, and filled with old cobblestone streets, narrow lanes, and flowing water that was once critical to the towns livability.  Now the area is mostly full of guesthouses, restaurants and shops.  But the history of the town is quite interesting, and walking these streets does take you back to another time, even though it can get a bit crowded at times.

Ancient city of Lijiang

The ancient, narrow streets of Lijiang, China

We enjoyed Lijiang quite a lot, and we spent 4 days here relaxing and exploring.  This area are China actually starts to get a mix of some varying ethnic Chinese groups, and even Tibetans.  Here we had our first taste of “Yak” here in the form of dumplings, and even tasted our first Tibetan food at LaMu’s House of Tibet (highly recommended for all meals, but definitely the best breakfast in Lijiang…or China so far!). 

While in Lijiang we also sampled Yak frozen yogurt bars (made from Yak milk), which were surprisingly tasty!
Black Dragon Pool Park

Strolling through Jade Spring Park – looking out over Black Dragon Pool are are supposed to see the big Jade Snow Mountain…but not today!

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t the best during our visit to Lijiang.  And during our 4 days there, I think it poured rain for 3 of them.  We did however, make our way to Jade Spring Park and Black Dragon Pool to see Snow Mountain, but the clouds were covering the mountain during our visit.  But on the day we left, we were also able to see some local performers put on a show in the old town square, so that was a nice send off.

High Altitude Fun in Shangri-La

After Lijiang we decided to go up to Shangri-La.  At nearly the same altitude as Lhasa in Tibet, this was our first experience going to a fairly high altitude.  To be safe, we decided to give our altitude sickness pills a try – just to be sure we felt comfy before going even higher to Tibet a few weeks later.

The drive to Shangri-La was breathtaking.  We could feel the increase in elevation as we approached town, and those high mountain passes were a little scary with traffic (and crazy Chinese drivers).  Pulling into the town, we could already see the strong Tibetan influence and culture everywhere.

Shangri-La Prayer Wheel

Giant golden prayer wheel in Shangri-La, China

We chose to stay in the old city, which unfortunately had a huge fire a few years back.  The old town is still rebuilding from this fire, but some of the most historic buildings and temples weren’t touched.  We really enjoyed checking out the old city, including the temple on top of the hill with its giant golden prayer wheel!  Of course we had to climb up there and join in as people worked together to move it the giant golden wheel, always in a clockwise motion.

Our time in Shangri-La was quite relaxing.  We did some hiking up to “Chicken Hill Temple” – which overlooks the old town.  This is where we got our first real taste of the affect the altitude had on us.  Going up this hill, we discovered that our legs were burning much quicker than usual, likely from the lack of oxygen getting to our muscles.  We also got out of breath often, and it felt like it took forever for us to catch our breath again!  Wow – hiking at higher altitudes isn’t easy…I don’t know how they climb Everest!

Chicken Hill in Shangri-la

“Chicken Hill Temple” overlooks old Shangri-La town…and we had it all to ourselves!

The views from “Chicken Hill Temple” were fantastic – and even better, we had it all to ourselves — well, us and our friend Aloy who we met at the hostel.  We all teamed up for this short hike to the temple.  Aloy was from Singapore, and we enjoyed spending the afternoon, and later at dinner, chatting with him about his solo travels around Asia and his upcoming finance job that he was starting soon in London.

On another day in Shangri-La, we rented a motorbike and ventured out of the town into the countryside.  Unfortunately the weather wasn’t cooperating with us…rain, rain, rain!  But the weather here changes dramatically, and fast.  One moment you are freezing, the next you are roasting and shedding layers.

We were lucky to get to explore some of the countryside, but our motorbike wasn’t holding up too well.  The idle didn’t work properly, it went super slow at full speed and barely made it up any hills, and it burned through gas!  The slow and sketchy bike combined with the uncertain weather made us change our minds about venturing too far from town.  It was definitely a bummer not to go further beyond town to some of the grassland areas, but we did get to see lots of wild Yaks and some beautiful scenery outside of Shangri-La town.

Pictures in Shangri-La

In China, sometimes you become the tourist attraction. While at one of the monasteries in Shangri-La, Josh actually had a LINE of guys waiting to take photos with him…including a monk!

Oh, and while in Shangri-La we had our fair share of tasty Tibetan food too.  From more Yak dumplings to Yak hamburgers.  We also even had a Yak hot pot!  Needless to say, we were a little ‘Yaked-out’ by the time we left.

Falling in Love with Tiger Leaping Gorge!

Next on our journey was a visit to the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge!  Located south of Shangri-La just a couple hours north of Lijiang, this is a famous gorge and hiking destination.  While most people choose to spend a couple days hiking into the gorge on the “high road” (a mountain trail high on the mountainside), we decided to have a more relaxing visit.

We stayed at Sean’s Guesthouse in the middle gorge.  So they sent a car for us to drive in rather than hike (public transportation doesn’t usually go into the gorge area).  Immediately we were blown away by the beauty of this place, Josh was hanging his head out the window with his jaw dropped open!  We were in love right away.

At Sean’s guesthouse, we were spoiled with views that never ended.  Our room had floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the gorge, and each night we could fall asleep to the sound of the rushing river far below and the stars in the sky.  In the morning, we awoke to the sun rising over the gorge mountains – it was breathtaking.  Plus, we were one of only a few people staying at Sean’s – so we enjoyed getting to know Sean and Lily and chatting with them each day.

We spent 4 nights in Tiger Leaping Gorge, and we wish we could have stayed a few more.  Shockingly, we had great internet so we could stay up to date on things, and it was so quiet and peaceful.  But one of our favorite things we did was go on the Middle Gorge Hike – down to the water to see the famous “Tiger Leaping Rock.”  Our friend Aloy who we met in Shangri-La told us that it was a must do – and he was right.

That Middle Gorge Hike was definitely one of our favorite memories of Tiger Leaping Gorge, and of China so far.  In fact, we even documented the journey on Instagram and put together a complete post here with photos and videos during the trip.  Check out our Middle Gorge Hike here!

Visiting Friends in Chongqing

After Tiger Leaping Gorge, we traveled down to Lijiang to catch a flight to Chongqing to meet up with some friends who used to live in Guangzhou.  One of the first things we did was go out for the famous Chongqing spicy hot pot!  And wow was it spicy — and AMAZING!

While I’ve been somewhat addicted to spicy food for years, Josh was never a huge fan until we moved to Asia…and particularly China.  Now he’s all about the spicy food too.  But this hot pot in Chongqing is, by American standards, “melt your face off hot!”  And yet, this pot right here was not even the spiciest level they had available.  I can’t imagine how spicy the levels beyond this are!

Overall we found Chongqing to be a pretty cool place.  We enjoyed going to Ciqikou Old Town and wandering around looking at all the shops.  Given our addiction to spicy Chinese hot pot, we were overjoyed when we saw that you could actually buy the hot pot cooking oil the spices and everything ready to go!  But we decided against carrying pounds of oil with us for the rest of the trip!

We lover hot and spicy peppers but this store in #Chongqing #China takes it to the extreme #POPChina

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During our time in Chongqing we also made a trip to the theater with our friends Steven and Wendy to see the new Finding Dory movie in 3-D.  Awww, how cute was that?!?!

Bullet Train to Chengdu – Tea, a Big Buddha, Opera, and Pandas

After seeing Dory, we headed out to the train station to catch a bullet train to Chengdu.  Flying through the countryside on the fast train, is always a wonderful way to travel and look out at the fields and villages.  We arrived in Chengdu and loved our really cool hostel, Mix hostel.

With weekly events like walking tours, dumpling making classes, and hot pots in the dining area, the vibe and friendly people here were awesome!  We stayed 5 nights and felt so comfortable, and the workers were so helpful.  Plus, they had some great tours, maps, and recommendations for us during our stay in Chengdu.  So we definitely recommend staying at Mix Hostel if you are planning to visit Chengdu!

Hanging out with Pandas in Chengdu

Look at all these “kids” – exploring the Panda Research and Breeding Center in Chengdu, China

During our time in Chengdu we did all the popular things.  We strolled through one of the local parks, had tea in the garden and even had our ears cleaned by one of the professionals (seems weird I know, but it is tradition…and it felt great!).  We also made a trip out to see the celebrity Pandas at the breading and research center, as well as going to see the famous Sichuan Opera – complete with the mask changers as the finale.  What a cool show experience!

Opera in Chengdu

Really loved our time at the Sichuan Opera in Chegdu – complete with the famous mask changers and fire breathers!

We also navigated our way through a traditional Sichuan hot pot dinner – just the two of us.  Because you can’t come to Chengdu and not have Sichuan hot pot (and didn’t I mention…we are kinda addicted to Chinese hot pots now!).  Walking around the city, you could actually smell spicy food and peppers wherever you go!

 But after this hot pot dinner, we vowed no more…because while it’s tasty, cooking food in oil and dipping it in more oil sure makes it feel as though your arteries are clogging up at that very moment!  

We also traveled down to see the Leshan “Big Buddha” south of Chengdu.  We opted against taking a tour because we realized that you could easily do it on your own, and avoid the crowds.  So we actually took a bus just before noon south to Leshan.  It was a couple hours journey by bus, and when we arrived at the bus station, we simply hopped on a local bus that stopped right outside the bus station – taking us to the Big Buddha park.  See, easy!

Sitting Buddha in Lijiang

That is a really big Buddha! – Leshan, China

Arriving at the Big Buddha much later in the day, we had far fewer crowds – in fact, there was practically no line at the Big Buddha itself!  So we were able to relax and enjoy our visit much more than if we had come in the morning or taken a group tour.  It was an absolutely beautiful park – we wandered around for hours enjoying perfect weather.  We didn’t really want to leave, because as evening approached the Buddha and the park became even more stunning.  But we had to get back to Chengdu before it was too late.

We really enjoyed our visit to Chengdu.  Even though we spent only 5 days, it seemed like to had a chance to do most of the major things for visitors.  And we really enjoy the laid back lifestyle of the people there.  Compared to Guangzhou and other cities in China, Chengdu is definitely a more chill place.  I think I could live there!

Flight to Lhasa, Tibet!

Also during our visit to Chengdu, we made a visit to the Tibet Discoveries office to pick up our Tibet travel permits — yes, Tibet was next on our itinerary!  Unfortunately, the only way to travel to Tibet is by group tour for foreigners like us.  So we had to suck it up and pay for a complete tour package (but more on that in another post).  Usually they mail the permits out, but since we were in Chengdu, we were able to stop by the office to pick up our permits in person and say hi to the team!

Now that we had the permits, we were ready to take off on our flight from Chengdu to Lhasa — on what would be one of the coolest and most epic adventures of our lives so far!  But that story is for the next journal entry!

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