Kunming and Dali

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September 12th 2018
Published: September 13th 2018
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Our trip to China began with a 9.5 hour flight from Melbourne to Guangzhou. After clearing immigration and collecting our bags we headed to the departures area again to check in for our next flight to Kunming. We struggled to find the check in counter and eventually realised this is because there is a second terminal at Gungzhou airport.

We caught the bus to the second terminal and queued up at the service counter to see whether we could be transferred to an earlier flight. Queued is a somewhat generous term as it seems that word doesn't exist in China (how did we forget that?!). I eventually embraced the local etiquette glared / strategically positioned myself so others couldn't cut in and spoke to a lady who didn't seem to understand me that well so dismissively scribbled the check in counter number on some paper. Another staff member caught my eye and eventually, after watching her be interrupted by about 15 other people while she was trying to deal with the customer before us, she told us that all flights to Kunming had been delayed due to bad weather.

While waiting for our flight we had some dinner; a noodle soup for Scott and green veggies and egg custard steamed buns for me. Eventually we boarded our flight and settled in for the two hour trip to Kunming. We finally arrived at our hotel in Kunming at about 3am local time.

Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province; the province in which we'd be spending the first half of our trip in China. Kunming is a city of close to 10 million people. The city is at an altitude of about 2000 m above sea level so has quite a nice climate. During the Cultural Revolution many people who had fallen out of favour with the government were sent to Kunming. In recent times its prosperity has increased quite rapidly and it is now quite popular with tourists and foreign investors.

The following morning we had a slow start. We made our way out at about 10:30 and set off towards Green Lake. On the way to the lake we walked through smallish streets lined with restaurants and also checked out the local Walmart.

Green Lake is a lovely public park with paved paths which wind in / around a (green) lake. The grounds were quite lovely but the best part about the lake was the people watching. We spent a while watching people (mostly old women) dancing to techno / Bollywood sounding music before continuing our walk. We were approached by an 11 year old student who wanted to practice her English (the conversation was filmed by about 8 people so now we're famous in China).

After strolling around the park we went on a hunt for a massage shop we'd found a review of. We think we found the right place however it was at the back of someones house and looked very run down. We couldn't see any workers so snuck back out the gate and continued back towards out hotel.

On the way back we stopped for lunch at a restaurant which looked really busy. The restaurant had bain marie's filled with a selection of cold and hot dishes. We selected four (cucumber salad, a cold chicken dish, potato stir fry and a kung pao chicken type dish), grabbed some rice and then sat down to enjoy. The food was delicious.

After lunch we headed back to our hotel for a nap. After a nap we went to get a massage. The massage was...brutal, but quite enjoyable (except for the weird stomach massage part).

That evening we went back to the same restaurant for dinner as we both liked being able to see the option and choose lots of small dishes so we could try lots of things. This time we selected kung pao chicken, a pork stir fry, green beans, potato stir fry and a tomato and egg dish.

The following morning we set out towards Dianchi Pool. Calling it a pool is quite an understatement as it's actually a large lake which covers an area of almost 300 square kilometers. We purchased tickets for the Grand View Park, which is on the northern shores of the lake, and headed inside.

The lake was full of (mostly old) people strolling around, doing strange exercises and dancing so was excellent for people watching. It took us about an hour to walk around most of the park (including past the rides, odd statues tacky fountains which detracted from the atmosphere somewhat). After our walk we made our way back to our hotel, packed our bags and organised a taxi to the train station.

We pre-ordered train tickets before we arrived in China so just had to pick them up from the desk at the train station. After asking quite a few staff and having them point in a general direction we finally found the ticket collection office and collected our tickets for the Kunming to Dali train as well as train for later on in our trip.

After picking up the tickets we made our way through security and sussed out food options. We showed some interest in a little stall selling stir fry type dishes, but the lady working behind it waved us in the direction of the Dicos chicken 'restaurant' (a Chinese KFC type chain). We (shamefully) ordered a burger and fries and sat down to enjoy our gourmet meal...

When the sign for our platform changed from yellow to green we (along with the rest of the people in the 'queue') made our way through the gates, onto the platform and found the 'queue' for carriage 1. Our train arrived not long after and we swarmed aboard and settled into our large and comfy seats.

The Kunming to Dali train line only opened in July this year, reducing the travel time from 6 hours to only 2. Much of the trip was spent in tunnels, though we also got to see mountains, rice terraces and smaller towns.

Upon arrival in Dali we were greeted by heavy rain. After venturing out into it a few times we found our driver from our hotel and piled into the car. Our initial impressions of Dali were good, even with the rain. The buildings were much more beautiful than in Kunming and the town looked neat and quite clean.

After about a 20 minute drive we arrived in the Dali Old Town which is located near the shores of Lake Er Hai. Dali Old Town is very popular with (mostly Chinese) tourists because of the historical Bai style buildings, old city gates (the South gate being approximately 600 years old), nightlife and as a convenient base for exploring the surrounding area.

After checking in to our hotel we set out for a walk around the town. The streets are in a grid pattern (which seems to be quite unusual in China) which makes it easy to navigate. The town was incredibly busy with tourists, though we only saw one other group of westerners.

Eventually we made our way to a restaurant which was recommended by the guide we'd be spending the following three days doing a food tour with. We ordered a chicken dish and a lotus root dish. The food was fantastic and quite different to the Chinese food we normally eat.

On the way home from dinner we stopped to buy some of the local pastries which are filled with rose jam (something this area is famous for). We also grabbed a bubble tea, though avoided the flavour google translate translated as "dead".

The following morning we started our three day food tour. Our guide Luxi met us at our hotel and we walked through the town to a local restaurant to have noodle soup. Scott had the lamb and mint version whilst I stuck to the vegetarian option which included cabbage and pickled vegetables. Both were delicious.

The next stop was for our second and third breakfast. We had a thick soup made from ground dried beans topped with delicious sauces (including chilli and peanut) serves with fried dough. We also had what we're referring to as a Chinese taco; rice paper filled with various different pastes, bean sprouts, pork and fried dough. The soup was delicious and Scott enjoyed the taco as well.

After our third breakfast we made our way towards the market where we met up with a Dutch girl who would join us for the cooking class part of the day. We walked through the market buying ingredients and learning about the local vegetables. The food in and around Dali has a very strong South East Asian influences with fresh herbs and lime which isn't as common in other parts of the country.

Once we'd purchased all the ingredients we headed back to the cooking school by local bus. After arriving at the cooking school Luxi explained about the key ingredients in Chinese cooking. Once we'd learnt about them we got stuck into making our first dish for the day; spring rolls (pork for Scott and vegetable for me). Spring rolls aren't really that common in China, but they are found in the area around Dali.

After we finished the spring rolls we sat down to eat them while Luxi's coworkers cleared up our mess and prepared for the next stage (if only this happened at home!). Once we were done eating we prepared the next two dishes; grandma's potatoes (smashed potatoes cooked with pickled vegetables and seasoning) and cucumber salad. Both dishes were delicious and easy to recreate at home. We finished lunch with some plum wine made by Luxi.

After lunch we walked back to our hotel to relax in our hotel for a while (until we were less full). After a well deserved rest we set off on a walk to Er Hai lake. The walk was about 3.5 kms; along the way we walked past farms and Chinese tourists getting weird photos taken. Eventually we made it to a town on the shores of the lake and after navigating the maze like streets (with a lot of doubling back after reaching a dead end) we made it to the lake.

The shoreline wasn't particularly stunning, but it was nice to see. We watched the fishermen for a while and attempted to stop a little girl from traumatising her dog (she was not the best with managing a leash..). We then headed back towards our hotel.

That night for dinner we went to a local Dai style restaurant with Luxi. The Dai are a local ethnic minority which are related to Thai and Laotian people. Luxi ordered a potato stir fry dish, an eggplant salad and morning glory stir fried with chilli and garlic. The food was much more similar to Thai food than the Chinese food we're used to eating.

The following morning we met Luxi and a driver near our hotel. We then made our way to Xizhou which is one of the towns around Er Hai lake, approximately 18 kms north of Dali Old Town. Xizhou is a town of approximately 2,500 people most of whom are Bai.

After arriving we made our way to one of the baba stands. Baba is a local dish Xizhou is famous for; it's a baked bread with either pork (meat + lard) and spring onions or bean paste, rose jam and brown sugar. Both options are usually finished off with a generous brush of lard. The baba are then baked over a fire / covered with a lid topped with coals.

Scott and I made our own babas (savoury for Scott, sweet without lard for me) under the close supervision of the shop owner. Even with the supervision she still marked ours so that she wouldn't have to sell the inferior products. Once they were cooked we headed to the restaurant next door to eat our baba as well as a rice noodle salad dish topped with about 12 different delicious sauces as well as shredded chicken. A very enjoyable (and filling) breakfast.

After breakfast we made our way through the town via the market to a local rice noodle factory. We watched the workers soaking the rice, grinding the rice, rolling it into sheets and then creating noodles as well as rice paper.

From the rice noodle factor we made our way to a local dairy to try our hand at cheese making. Cheese making was introduced to the area by the mongols when they invaded from the north. The local cheese is quite bland (no salt) and is typically stretched out and dried so that it lasts longer.

It was interesting to try our hand at making the cheese. The kneading process is done using over sized chop sticks which are fairly difficult to work with. I eventually figured it out ("better than most Chinese who use chopsticks every day") whilst Scott resorted to using two hands. Once it was ready we stretched our cheese on the drying rack (no doubt they threw our ugly handiwork out after we left).

After we finished making the cheese we tasted it three different ways; freshly made, dried with rose jam and toasted with rose jam spread in side. We both liked the toasted version best.

After the cheese making we went to another little village to take a look at the local Bai tie dye factory. After tying a series of elaborate knots to create patterns, the fabric is dyed a bright blue (using all natural dyes based on the indigo plant).

After the factory we headed back to Luxi's to have our second cooking class. This time we made a tofu and capsicum salad, fish flavoured eggplant (which isn't actually fish flavoured, the same flavouring used to be used just for fish) and kung pao chicken. After we finished cooking we had the dishes for lunch.

After lunch we headed back to our hotel and spent the next few hours reading our books. That evening for dinner we were picked up by Luxi and, along with an Israeli guy, we headed to a local Bai restaurant for dinner.

Luxi ordered a tofu dish, some very crispy looking pork, a dish which looked like potato chips but was actually the solidified pea soup we'd had on the first morning deep fried and seasoned with chilli and a noodle salad with lichen and a local fungus collected from the forest. Everything was delicious; we were both surprised by how amazing the noodle salad was as it's definitely not something we would have chosen off the menu (even if we could have read it...).

The following morning we met Luxi and an Israeli couple near the Dali Old Town market. We walked through the market and picked up ingredients for our dumpling making class (and bought some bao and some sticky rice balls filled with walnut and rose jam to snack on).

After the market we made our way back to Luxi's and began preparing the ingredients for our dumplings. The first step involved preparing the dough for the dumpling wrappers. While the dough was resting we prepared two types filling for our dumplings; zucchini, carrot and mushroom as well as beef and vegetable. After the filling was ready we rolled and filled the wrappers using the dough we'd made earlier. We then cooked the dumplings in three ways; boiled, steamed and pan fried. Finally after all our hard work we had our delicious dumplings for lunch.

After lunch we hopped in the car and headed to a tea plantation on the hills around Dali. We then picked tea leaves for about an hour whilst admiring the lovely view over the valley. Once we had enough leaves we set about making green tea from scratch which involved little them air out, then tossing them in a warm bowl to stop the fermentation process, kneading them, drying them and then allowing them to cool. The process took about an hour (including 40 minutes of constantly tossing the leaves so that they wouldn't burn). After we were done we had a glass of our tea which was actually quite pleasant. Apparently the flavour will improve over the next week or so.

After we drank our tea, we tried some of the local Pu'er tea which Yunnan is famous for. Pu'er is an aged black tea. Apparently Pu'er tea was discovered when the Emperor of China held a competition to find the best tea in China. After packaging the tea into cakes (each holding 357 grams) the local people from Yunnan began the long trek north to participate in the tea competition. By the time the representative arrived many months later he was distraught when he realised that the tea smelt funny and planned to commit suicide. A courtier told him to hold off until the Emperor tried it as he may not have to die. Sure enough the Emperor declared that the aged Pu'er tea was the most delicious of all.

There are two types of Pu'er tea sold now; the artificially fermented and raw Pu'er tea which needs to age for a minimum of 5 years. We tried two types of raw Pu'er tea; one made from plantation tea plants and one made from 300 year old 'ancient' tea plants. Antique raw Pu'er tea made from ancient plants (up to 1000 years old) is most prized and, much like wine, can sell for thousands (even millions) of dollars. Both the plantation and ancient Pu'er teas we tried were from this year so hadn't gone through the aging process yet. The flavour was quite subtle but delicious. We ended up buying some of the ancient Pu'er tea so now have to wait at least 5 years to try it.

That night for dinner Scott, Luxi and I met up with the Israeli couple and headed to a local Hui restaurant. The Hui minority are Muslims who are apparently descendants of Mongols who invaded Yunnan 800 years ago. Luxi ordered a whole lot of different dishes including a vegetable noodle soup, a beef noodle soup, a beef and papaya salad, a beef stir fry, a stir fry made from a vegetable which grows in the lake and tastes like potato, a lotus root stir fry, a dish made from peas, corn and edamame and a 'Chinese hash brown'. Once again the food was fantastic and we were all incredibly full by the time we finished.

After dinner Luxi accompanied Scott and I to her favourite tea wholesaler in town so that we could taste some more tea. We tried a whole range of different black teas, an artificially fermented and raw (2017) Pu'er tea as well as Jasmine tea. We purchased some oolong tea which is grown locally and processed like black tea as well as some Jasmine tea.

The three days we spent with Luxi were fantastic; we got to try so many delicious dishes that we wouldn't have known about or thought to try had we not been with her.

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16th September 2018

This is a part of the world we would like to explore. Thanks for sharing your adventure with us.

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