Yunnan Province, China: The Tea Horse Trail

Our arrival in China was the biggest culture change we have had thus far in our travels. Just getting our bags and going through customs included coughing without covering your mouth, passing gas loudly, and cutting in line. When we caught our cab and miraculously made it through insane traffic with mopeds and pedestrians narrowly missed (I purposely did not write avoided because there was no veering off course to avoid an accident) we made it to our hostel. We got settled in and went out to explore Kunming, the largest city in the Yunnan province of China.


We began to really enjoy ourselves while walking around and soaking in the change of culture and the atmosphere. If you could just ignore the sound of lugies being hacked by people of all ages and genders then you could enjoy the other sounds of the city. We ended up eating back at the hostel, noodle soup and fried noodles and then taking a steaming hot shower and going to bed after a long day of traveling.

The next morning we were a bit jetlagged so it was hard to wake up, especially with the dreary rain falling outside. When we finally got up, we walked to Green Lake Park. It was a gorgeous park with lilies and grasses growing in the lake. The architecture of the buildings in the park and the gates were in traditional Chinese styling. At each gate were red lanterns hanging for several hundred feet past the entrance.

IMG_9380 IMG_9383 IMG_9410 IMG_9401 IMG_9387

After the park, we went to find some lunch. We figured it might be a bit of an adventure and it certainly was. We found a place that didn’t have an English menu but it did have photos. We ordered by pointing at what we wanted off the menu and hoped that what we ordered would be something kind of normal. I was hoping for chicken noodle soup and I did get chicken noodle soup, but the chicken included parts of the spine and plenty of other bones as well. Ronen ordered a chicken skewers and a spicy noodle dish. In the pictures, the skewers looked huge and the noodles looked small but in reality, it was the opposite. The skewers were hilariously tiny!


After lunch we went to the Yuantong Zen Temple. It was closed in the morning for a ritual but in the afternoon it was open and stunningly decorated with flowers, lilies, roses, birds of paradise, that all smelled incredible. The smell of incense burning added another layer of fragrance to the temple on top of the flowers. It ended up being my favorite temple that we visited throughout the trip. It had a special vibe that was mystical yet approachable and very peaceful. We were even welcomed by a Buddhist monk during our visit.

IMG_9417 IMG_9440IMG_9428 IMG_9433

IMG_9491 IMG_9450  IMG_9446 IMG_9476 IMG_9438

Afterwards we walked back to the hostel and picked up our bags to move to our new hotel and meet our Intrepid tour group. This was our first tour ever and I was honestly quite happy to be on a tour in China because the language and cultural barrier is quite large. We met our group and had dinner together to get the low down on the information for the next few days and then we went to bed tired and excited for the days ahead.

In the morning we left on a public bus for Dali, a town on Lake Erhai, which used to be one of the larger stops on the Tea Horse Trail. The bus ride wasn’t too bad except for the bus station bathrooms that are basically concrete trenches that may or may not have dividers for you to squat between but will definitely not have doors or toilet paper. I will spare you any further details but I will say that I left each public restroom feeling like I needed to bathe in hand sanitizer.

When we arrived in Dali we did some exploring with the group, ate dinner, and then we went to check out the bar street in Old Dali. The bar street was lined with flashing neon lights and every bar was blaring its own live music so it was so loud that you couldn’t have a conversation. We had a great time anyway watching “Hula” dancing Chinese women and listening to the Chinese 20 something’s rendition of Bob Dylan.

IMG_9742 IMG_9533

IMG_9526 IMG_9562

Bar Street:


The next morning we did a day tour. We had a traditional Bai, which are the minority people in the Dali area, breakfast called Baba, and then we walked around the market. I loved the market, particularly the chili pepper stand. It smelled amazing as she was grinding the peppers right there.


IMG_9708 IMG_9720

IMG_9727 IMG_9734

After visiting the market, we went to see a traditional Bai home, see how they make a local cheese, participate in a tea ceremony, see traditional Bai dances, and see how tie dye is made (this was the first place that tie dye was done). Unfortunately, in the market our camera battery died and our spare was also dead (lesson learned, double checking takes two minutes but could save you hours of headache later when you don’t have the photos). When we were done, we walked around Old Dali and checked out some of the antique shops before meeting Cary and Kit for dinner.

Our dinner that night was one of my favorites of the whole trip. We ate at a street food “restaurant” where you order your skewers of meat and vegetables, then sit at a table where they bring out coals and a grill as well as oil and spices and you grill the skewers yourself. We had a great time and it was also a good way to know the meat was cooked completely before we ate it.

IMG_9751 IMG_9752

IMG_5788 IMG_5792

The next day we went to Shaxi, a small and relatively unknown town along the Tea Horse Trail. It was quiet compared to Dali and we loved our time in Shaxi so much I wish we could have stayed longer. We did some exploring around town the first day and walked on the Tibet Road.

The old Temple:


The Orchestra Stage:

IMG_9789 IMG_9783

Images from around Shaxi and the Tibet Road:

IMG_9835  IMG_9919IMG_9904 IMG_9984IMG_9967 IMG_9881

IMG_9884 IMG_0275 IMG_9841

The second day we went on a hike to the Shi Bao Shan Buddhist Temple and Grotto. The hike was gorgeous climbing up above the farm fields into the mountains before reaching the grotto. The grottos had depictions of former Nanzhao Kings as well as Buddha’s but the one I found the most interesting was the grotto depicting the female organ. They aren’t sure when the vagina grotto was carved but it is the only grotto of its kind in the world. Women used to travel from all over the Yunnan province when they were trying to get pregnant and once they found out they were pregnant to bring offerings and rub oil on the lips in hopes of a smooth delivery.

The hike up to the grottos:

IMG_0027 IMG_0040 IMG_0064

The Vagina Grotto, you can see that it has been stained black from years of rubbing oil on it:


The view of the grotto complex:

IMG_0152 IMG_0157

After visiting the grottos we went back to Shaxi and walked near the river. The river was quite polluted but that didn’t stop two men from electrofishing for what little fish may be left in it. They did “catch” a few fish but they were no bigger than a childs’ pet goldfish.

IMG_0249 IMG_9853

We also went to Lijang later in the trip which is one of the most popular towns for Chinese tourists to visit. It was my least favorite part of our trip. I found it to be very expensive (1080 Yuan or $165 USD for a beer at one place we went to!), crowded and the overall energy of the town was sort of fake and touristy.


Wishing bells hung by the water wheel:


The streets of Lijang:


Black Dragon Pool:

IMG_1763 IMG_1823 IMG_1824 IMG_1809

Snack Street:


Larval bees anyone? Or scorpions and beetles?

IMG_1592 IMG_1598

No? How about baby chick stir fry?


During the rest of our tour we visited Shangri La, Tibet and trekked in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world. Stay tuned for the next post highlighting some of the best hiking we have ever done, as well as our incredible experience in a Thangka painting school in Shangri La, Tibet.