Chasing the China of yesterday

Times Staff Writer

I had chosen a “boyfriend” from among the Miao villagers, as instructed by Wilson, our Chinese guide. We danced, bumping hips, in sort of a Miao conga line, and then he led me by the hand across the courtyard and into a dim hut, a living space shared with chickens. There, he painted a red circle on my forehead.

Later, Wilson gave this explanation: “Only pretty lady has red ink there.” Maybe, but more likely the attention from my blue-robed dance partner had to do with yuan — the expected tip.

We were an hour outside of the south-central Chinese city of Guiyang on a 13-day ethnic adventure tour that covered a loop from Guangzhou northwest to Kunming, Dali and Lijiang, east to Guiyang, then back to Guangzhou.

I was drawn here partly because I wanted to be ahead of an expected tourism boom. Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport, which opened in August 2004, is now the largest in mainland China and the new gateway to the area; heretofore, Hong Kong, about 100 miles south, was the logical point of entry for visitors to Guangdong, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.

The late-spring tour was not quite the journey to remote and exotic places that I had anticipated. Even in these provinces — largely untrammeled by Americans but awash with Asian visitors — the Chinese are tourist-savvy. Expect tour buses and souvenir shops at every major site, where vendors thrust kitschy trinkets and Mao Tse-tung memorabilia at Westerners. We spent an inordinate amount of time at designated shopping stops; I hope never to see another jade bangle bracelet.

I had e-mailed Times photographer Bryan Chan, who was coming to China a few days after I landed, about my disappointment at not having more authentic experiences, and we devised a plan: He was traveling independently, retracing my tour’s route, so I would tell our local guides that a photographer friend would contact them in hopes of capturing off-the-beaten-track places where more adventurous travelers might go. He did this, and some of the results of his travels can be seen on Page 8.

On my tour, we saw mainly the China that has made a great leap toward capitalism — cities with glitzy shopping malls and overly ornate Western-style hotels and must-see tourist stops.

Rural China presents a different face, that of a developing country under communism. Passing through villages, we saw the hardscrabble conditions, the women with weathered faces standing in knee-high water planting rice, the men tilling the fields with water buffalo, men and women carrying backbreaking loads in baskets over their shoulders.

The mountain and lake scenery was memorable, the tour well organized and, at an all-inclusive base cost of about $2,000, it was a bargain. For those who’ve done Beijing, Shanghai and Xian, it’s a logical destination.

The rush is on

WITH the strong demand for China travel — the country has supplanted Italy as the fourth most popular tourist destination, according to a recent World Tourism Organization report — U.S. airlines are scrambling to get routes. I booked my fare independently, taking a $600 tour credit so I could take Northwest’s daily service, inaugurated in fall 2004, from L.A. to Guangzhou, with a plane change in Tokyo.

There were eight on our tour, five of whom were Chinese-born Americans revisiting the homeland after decades; one couple had brought their teen and pre-teen granddaughters. Our guides were bilingual and our group was compatible, considering that the adults preferred to speak their native tongue, of which I understood not a word. Mr. Chen, the other single in the group, spoke no English, so we spent a great deal of time grinning at each other.

China Travel Service had booked our first night at Guangzhou’s White Swan Hotel, a riverfront oasis of luxury in a big, noisy, congested city, the capital of Guangdong province. It’s a traditional stop for Americans who have come to China to adopt a child, and the public rooms swarmed with couples toting baby girls. I was amused to see one hotel shop selling strollers.

After too few hours’ sleep, I was awakened by a call from another tour member who informed me, much too chirpily, that it was 5:45 a.m. and our guide would be there soon to take us to the airport for the flight to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province.

We were met at the Kunming airport by our meet-and-greet guide, Johnson (guides tend to adopt Western names), who was wearing a Minnesota Twins T-shirt. Our bus navigated its way carefully through this teeming city of 6 million, sharing the road with aged trucks and cyclists carrying incredible cargoes; one had seven 5-gallon bottles of water balanced over his bike’s rear wheel.

Once, Kunming was known for opium poppies, but today it’s cut flowers, which are seemingly everywhere. Like other major Chinese cities, Kunming is racing to obliterate many vestiges of “old China.” From the 28th-floor restaurant of our hotel, the New Era, I had a bird’s-eye view of past and future: squat tile-roofed houses built around courtyards, aging Mao-era apartment blocks and neon-festooned high-rises.

Iven, our city guide in Kunming, said only about 50,000 Americans visit Kunming each year, most lured not by its antiquities but by the Robert Trent Jones-designed Spring City golf course. Brits, he said with a go-figure shrug, come for bird-watching.

From almost anyone’s perspective, the No. 1 reason to visit Kunming would be the 200-acre Stone Forest, about 80 miles southeast by way of a good highway. It attracts 10 million visitors annually and, it would seem, the same number of vendors on a given day. Members of the province’s Sani minority, a subgroup of the ethnic Yi, pop out from behind the rocks, peddling colorful embroidered bags and clothing.

On a blistering day, Iven led us through narrow passages among towering gray limestone pinnacles that thrust up when the ocean receded 270 million years ago. We climbed up and down, down and up, ducking under low-hanging rocks, and passed beneath an enormous boulder perched precariously between two walls of stone, where it landed in an 1833 earthquake. Legend has it that it will fall on you if you’ve been bad.

Our group made it through.

The Chinese have a passion for finding shapes of people and animals in inanimate objects, in this case these erosion-sculpted rocks. We squinted in the sun, trying to make out elephants, birds, a rhino and even George Washington.

Minority report

OUR ethnic adventure tour was so named because it took us to places that are home to several of China’s 55 recognized ethnic minorities, including the Miao (known in Laos as Hmong), Bai, Yi and Naxi. Each of the minorities, who are descendants of migrants who assimilated from bordering lands, has its distinct language, costumes, rituals, cuisine and religion. In Lijiang, a Naxi stronghold, Jenny, our part-Naxi guide, wore the traditional costume: white pants, blue vest and pleated white apron.

These provinces have their own charms — mountains, lakes and old towns — but they have no Great Wall or Forbidden City. We rode a boat through a cave, saw a mighty waterfall at Anshun in Guizhou province and the wonderfully preserved Chen Ancestor Temple at Guangzhou, with its paintings of evil-deflecting door gods.

Sometimes, as on a four-hour cruise around Dali’s crystal-clear Erhai Lake aboard a 500-passenger pagoda-topped tourist boat, it felt as though we were killing time. Onboard entertainment included a traditional Bai wedding celebration, the bride in a tunic costume with red pants and towering floral headdress. Not exactly authentic, Shirley, our Bai guide, conceded. “In new Dali, brides are very modern, just like Europe. Long white dresses and Lohengrin.”

Dali, home to the Bai minority, has an old town — very commercialized — and the stunning Three Pagodas that stand in a row at the foot of Cangshan Mountain and once were part of a Buddhist monastery. The oldest (9th century) and tallest, at 230 feet, is flanked by two smaller pagodas, one of which tilts like the leaning Tower of Pisa as the result of damage from earthquakes.

The most interesting parts of our tour were not the temples and pagodas but the glimpses of local life. In the cities, it was the street markets that drew me, places where locals come to buy items as varied as underwear and onions and where, as a white American woman, I drew open stares. At night in Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province, vendors set up food stalls that fill blocks in the city’s center, and the aroma of barbecue filled the air.

My favorite city was Lijiang, which has a delightful old town with cobblestone streets, ancient wooden houses, gurgling streams and weeping willows. Although the main street is now shops and restaurants, the side streets, where people really live, were a joy to explore. Lijiang, framed by the snowcapped peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, is at an altitude of about 7,800 feet. Jenny, our guide, advised eating sugar to avoid altitude sickness; our bus driver told us to avoid lengthy hot showers and to expect abdominal distress. But we did just fine.

Chinese legends abound in these provinces. At Yak Meadow at White River on the lower slopes of the Jade Dragon range, docile yaks-for-rent wait for riders. (I hopped aboard one just long enough for a photo. My yak was pretty apathetic.) The river runs clear, cold and green, and it’s here that young lovers, by tradition, come to test their love. “If the boy can stand in the water a long time, it means he loves her,” Jenny said. I washed my hands three times in the river, guaranteeing me good fortune, money and multiple lovers.

Romantic legend

A 1959 Chinese movie, “Five Golden Flowers,” told the legend of Butterfly Spring, near Dali, an obligatory tour stop. When two doomed lovers drowned themselves in the spring, their spirits emerged each spring as butterflies.

Once, there were many butterflies, but pesticide use in the ‘50s has all but wiped them out. Today, it is vendors and tourists who are there in abundance.

Sometimes truth is as intriguing as fiction. At Lijiang’s Black Dragon Pool, a high official brought his paramour one night in 1950 to drink wine in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Moon-Embracing Pavilion before they set themselves and the pavilion on fire. The rebuilt structure is a dramatic sight standing in the pool, framed by mountains.

Although it was somewhat dismaying to find villagers at the Miao village of Chang Ling Gang outside of Guiyang ready with a polished act for tourists, I was glad to see them making a little money. Their routine went like this: They sang. Our group sang. We chose “Jingle Bells,” “You Are My Sunshine” and “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” They held up two fingers of each hand in a V and chanted “yo se” (very good). We followed suit. We sipped wine from a water buffalo horn and dipped flour-dusted fingers into a plate of sticky rice. In a formula that’s never-fail, whether in China, Cairo or the Caribbean, they zeroed in on likely looking tourists and hauled them out to dance.

In the nearby village of Tian Long — home to descendants of Ming Dynasty soldiers — we sat on narrow benches in the courtyard of a former castle and watched an opera staged by six men in masks with black face veils and pheasant feathers, flags jutting from the shoulders of their colorful costumes. The story line, amid the lunging and leaping, gongs and drums, escaped me.

Afterward, strolling the cobblestone back streets of that village, we saw old women stitching embroidered shoes, men playing mah-jongg in the shadow of a temple, women stirring pots of food in their humble living spaces.

It was the real thing, old China, and it was fascinating.



Answering the great call of China


From LAX, nonstop service to Guangzhou is available on China Southern, and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on Northwest, Air China, Singapore, Thai, Lufthansa and Air France. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $989 until Oct. 15.


The 13-day ethnic adventure tour was booked through China Travel Service in Houston, which is offering the tour through October, priced at $1,999-$2,099, including all airfares: China Travel Service, 7001 Corporate Drive, Suite 210, Houston, TX 77036; (713) 988-8535, fax (713) 988-8046, .

Among other agencies:

China Focus, 870 Market St., Suite 1215, San Francisco, CA 94102-2907; (800) 868-7244, fax (415) 788-8665, .

Ritz Tours, 208 S. 1st St., Alhambra, CA 91801; (626) 289-7777, fax (626) 281-0117, .

The China National Tourist Organization website, , has an extensive list of California-based tour operators offering China itineraries.


Times staff photographer Bryan Chan, traveling independently, booked his airfare and hotel stays through Travel Design USA/China Discovery Tours, 20407 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, CA 90503; (310) 371-3228, Ext. 111.

In China, these English-speaking guides were used:

In Kunming, Iven Chen, cellular phone 011-86-139-87-683-613, e-mail Chen’s fees are $50 a day per person for up to two people, $25 per person for three to nine people. A car costs $120 a day for two people and $200 for three to five people.

In Dali and Lijiang, guide Shirley Yang, in Dali and Lijiang, or her sister Annie, also a guide, can be reached by cellular phone, 011-86-138-87-216-098, or at 011-86-872-88-82-498; e-mail Fees start at $25 a day for a guide, $50 for driver and car.

In Guiyang, Wilson Zhen of Tian Ma International Travel Agency, 011-86-851-580-5710, can be reached directly at 011-86-138-851-23-029, e-mail wilsonzgx The fee for one or two people is about $60 per person a day, including lunch and dinner; for three or more people, about $50 per person, not including transportation. A van for four or five people is about 50 cents a mile.


To see video and an extended photo gallery:


China National Tourist Office, (818) 545-7507, .

— Beverly Beyette