journey to the west

We transferred planes at Kunming, the green capital of Yunnan, where the lines of a grand ultramodern airport came into view and then receded as we huddled back on another 747 bound for Lijiang. As we boarded, attendants handed us herbal candies for altitude adjustment and a bottle of water. Rows of wide brimmed hats and backpacks laden with hiking gear gave away the Shenzhen city slickers’ plans to escape to the wild side of Yunnan. Our journey to the west had begun.

lijiang valley
viewing shuhe and lijiang from the old tea horse road

Yunnan (云南 literally south of the clouds) in southwest China is one of the most diverse provinces in China, with 25 of China’s 56 ethnic minorities represented here, and innumerable rare types of wildlife and edibles flourishing in its river valleys, plateaus, and mountain foothills. The province borders Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Tibet Autonomous Region, and Chinese provinces Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi. The peoples, landscapes, and cultures of Yunnan are as varied as the mental pictures this list summons.

shaxi market
the weekly market of shaxi, drawing women from the diverse villages in the nearby mountains

Our plane would take us from Kunming over rolling mountains on to Lijiang, an old merchant town along the ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道 cha ma gu dao). This ancient trade route was carved north-south through the region, to carry tea in past millennia from the southern part of the province at Pu’er near Burma into Tibet and beyond, and horses from Tibet into China. It was a kind of southern parallel to the northwestern Silk Road, which took silk and porcelain from central China west into Central Asia and Europe. These trade roads were a path to other lands and cultures, taking Chinese treasures and ways out into the world and receiving peoples and ideas in return. This international exchange has shaped China and Eurasia since the Han dynasty, for over 2,000 years.

tea horse road
following the ancient tea horse road

Chinese history is accented by individuals who made these journeys, for commerce, for scholastics, for exploration. In the eighth century, a monk named Xuanzang went on an expedition from the Chinese capital throughout India in search of original Buddhist scriptures, and brought back new words and ideas, and inspired the epic tale Journey to the West. Marco Polo’s father and uncle pursued business in Central Asia, but ended up as emissaries for Kublai Khan and the Pope, bringing religious teachings and culture east and west. In the twentieth century, Peter Goullart fled political turmoil in Russia and was able to secure a post in the Republic of China government, setting up rural cooperatives in Yunnan province. But his greatest legacy was accomplished through his book Forgotten Kingdom, a kind of true life Lost Horizon, in which he describes the peoples, traditions, and complex social and business structures which he found along these crossroads. This book is a major reason the west knows the existence of this corner of the world in Yunnan province.

Whatever takes you out your door—necessity, business, or adventure, you are bound to discover something you unexpected. Travel the world. Come to China. You never know what you will discover.


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