Thursday, 31st January.
It’s time for the Spring Festival folks! 春节来啦！
Chinese New Year falls on February 5th, so we’re packing our gear and getting ready to leave the cold and grey climes behind and enjoy some warmth and sunshine, for a few days at least.
The plan is to set off from Chongqing, and be spend New Year’s Eve in Jinghong景洪, the main city of the Xishuangbanna Region in Yunnan Province, very close to the border with Laos. Ideally, I’d love to drive across the border and see some of Laos, but our schedule is going to be too tight this time.
We’ll be spending three nights in different cities along the way, as I love taking the opportunity to see places we would never usually specially make the journey for.
Over this post, I’ll update our roundtrip from Chongqing to Jinghong and back day by day, and I hope you enjoy the ride with us!
Here is a screenshot of the first leg.
Chongqing to Luzhou Tianzhan Hot Spring Resort 重庆到泸州天展温泉度假酒店
We left at about ten o’clock in the morning. We decided to leave later because we had noticed the traffic wasn’t particularly heavy, as most people had already made their journey home for the Chinese New Year. We counted three collisions on our way out, the first literally fifty meters out of the apartment complex. Some foolhardy driver had tried to do pull off a u-turn rather than wait an extra few seconds, and a taxi driver had crashed into his side door. Anyway. A few kilometers outside of the city, the roads cleared and it took two and a half hours to Luxian泸县 in Sichuan. The hot spring resort called Tianzhan was located at the end of a flashy new development along a two kilometre stretch by the river. As soon as we entered the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised by the grand lobby and cosy looking facilities. A friendly receptionist by the name of Ms Liu very kindly upgraded our room to one with a nice balcony overlooking the lake and gardens. A song dynasty stone carving museum was around the other side. The room charge included two tickets to the hot springs, which we took up that same evening. The changing rooms had all the necessary necessities, and. I really liked the sauna which had a full glass frontage, and the welcome touch of a heated towel before going outside to the pool area. The pools were large and elegantly designed, and there were no pools either too hot or cold for the crisp cold night air. After soaking a few hours, I left with no complaints other than the impression the scale of the hot springs was a little small, with a total of only about twenty pools at most.
One lasting memory after leaving the next morning after breakfast was the peace and quiet, something that comes at a premium in Chinese city life. It was bliss to chill on the balcony or take in the scenery from the pools with virtually no background noise at all.
Next. Onwards to Bijie.
Luzhou to Bijie 泸州到毕节
The journey today was a little longer, taking a straight three and a half hours from luzhou to Bijie. Again, the roads were perfectly clear, and the other users relatively civilised. But the one thing that stood out about the journey was the difference in weather as soon as we left the Sichuan basin. The surrounding mountains and particularly humid climate make for drearily overcast and drizzly winters. It may be normal for the weather to be like this for weeks on end, but every coin has two sides. The Sichuanese gene pool is known nationwide for being its attractive people, and this is further augmented by them having fair smooth skin due to the lower amount of sun exposure. This effect is quite obvious from people’s complexion as soon as you move out south to sunnier climes.
So, it was fitting that almost on the border with Guizhou Province itself, the gloomy overcast skies gave way almost immediately to a deep clear blue, something I hadn’t seen in months. The sun’s warmth shone through the car window, and our feeling of joy was only enhanced by a balmy high of 26 degrees in a bright and modern looking Bijie.
We took an hour or two to explore, and the new year crowds were certainly out in force. It was also clear that not many foreigners step foot here, and the locals were generally quite surprised to see me walk by. Chongqing was like this back in 2003, but nobody bats an eyelid nowadays.
Tomorrow will be a longer day of driving to the city of eternal spring, a city I haven’t visited in over a decade.
Bijie to Kunming 毕节到昆明
The driving was heavier today, but still bearable. It took around five and half hours to cover the 450 or so kilometre journey door to door.
However long the distance, I find watching the country and terrain unfold mile by mile, and this keeps me going for much of the time.
From Bijie, past Liupanshui六盘水 to the border with Yunnan, we past amazing mountain scenery and drove through picturesque valleys. The view was occasionally added mystic appeal by the fog and cloud enveloping the upper reaches.
The topography of Liupanshui resembled a little the karst scenery of Guilin and Yangshuo, and the sun shone down warmly making a stay here feel very appealing. Time though, didn’t allow, so we headed on through towards Yunnan.
At the ETC gate, the barrier didn’t open for us and two other out of province cars. This is annoying, as you have to back out and queue for the staffed booth. The smily fellow told me that our ETC card details were incomplete 信息不全 for Yunnan, and that we’d have to pay at the booths this way during our stay.
This is doable by just pulling out the card from its device and handing it over. The tolls are still deducted from the linked bank card.
We continued on into Yunnan. The mountainous topography gave way to a more arid and red rock plane which lasted most of the way to our destination.
We drove past Changshui airport and left the motorway at Kunming South昆明南. At the ETC booth. We queued for the staffed booth, only for the adjacent ETC barrier to detect us and open up. The lack of any car passing by set of the alarm, but nobody seemed to care. The young lady took my card, and after a few repetitive pushes on the keyboard, sent me on my way.
Our hotel was located in Chenggong District in the southeast of the city. I loved its flat wide streets, the balmy clear skies, and suburban feel. We tucked into some over the bridge noodles, walked around the neighbourhood, then collapsed for the night. The following day’s drive to Xishuangbanna and return three days later were to be the toughest stretches for us timewise.
New Year’s Day.
We awoke again to clear deep blue skies, and after some breakfast we set off on the long drive to Jinghong. The satnav on my Baidu Map application calculated more than seven hours.
As expected, the temperature en route continued to rise the further south we travelled. The window view on the stretch to Puer wasn’t the arid red rock topography we had seen from Guizhou to Kunming, but greener fields and moutainsides that eventually gave way to lush tropical jungle like vegetation almost as soon as we crossed into Xishuangbanna.
Around the halfway mark, we stopped at a service station on the Tropic of Capricorn called Mjiang墨江. The roads had been fairly quiet, but we found this place teeming with cars and people walking around. It turned out that behind the station itself was a tourist village that was attracting the crowds. I was tempted to go and have a look, but the desire to arrive in Jinghong at a sociable hour spurred us to continue on.
The motorway wound round mountainsides, bridges and tunnels, yet many stretches allowed us to step on the accelerator and blast down at 120 kilometres an hour.
Traffic was still light within touching distance from Jinghong when everything came to sudden halt. First thinking there was an accident ahead, we soon noticed a sign saying there was a border inspection coming up, and the traffic was being filed into a single line. The border with Laos at Mohan磨憨 was little more than two hours away on the same road.
Thankfully, our turn came quickly, but I caused a little excitement by stopping the car a metre too far forward. A cute but fierce young lady yelled at us to stop, then demanded I show my passport. I handed over my Chinese ID card instead, which she inspected and confirmed with an little surprise that I was British. She seemed happy though, as she sent us on our way.
A nice surprise was finding our motorway journey was toll free. I had been expecting the seven toll free days to be over the holiday itself, but it was obviously from new year’s eve to the sixth day of the Spring Festival.
Off the motorway and down by the side of a windy national park road, Jinghon suddenly appeared at the large roundabout. The architecture was drastically different than anything we had seen during the journey, taking on a southeast Asian, Lao or Thai style with the colourful pointy rooftops and eaves.
Our accommodation was located just by another exit to the roundabout. First time round, it was a little difficult to locate, but the hostel owner kindly came out and directed us to the undergrond carpark.
Looking back, despite the disappointment with the grotty room, the location and access to the carpark was a godsend. We stayed in the main tourist area on the northern bank of Jinghong, and the streets were teeming with people and traffic. There were guesthouses客栈, restaurants and night markets everywhere, and drivers were crawling at snails pace on the lookout for non existent parking spots whilst trying not to run over people’s feet. With our place, I found that as long as we arrived back before 5pm, there would be a parking spot left unoccupied for us.
We arrived around 5pm on new year’s eve, and the festivities were getting started with fervour. We tucked into a Dai style meal served on a huge round bamboo platter, and by the time we were back on the streets, firecrackers and fireworks were shooting off all over the place.
Many cities nowadays don’t allow this, but after a short time, the haze of smoke began to thicken and irritate my throat a little.
By around 10pm, the toll of the journey and walking through the myriad of streets made us retire for the night and watch the annual Chinese New Year Gala on TV for as long as we could stay awake.
On the first full day, we drove across the bridge and walked around the downtown area. It was almost deserted for the new year, but that wasn’t the case with our first tourist destination, Manting Park曼听公园. We mananged to buy our tickets and enter the park, but fell for the exagerations of spectacle clad man who harped on about how big the park was and the need for the buggy. I should have consulted the scale on my map, but we paid for the buggy and rode about two or three minutes along the easily walkable path, passing attractive embankments and stalls we wouldn’t have minded seeing.
The driver set us off by the elephant arena at the far end of the park. We watched the performance for a few minutes and the entertained crowd, but I felt a little sorry for the captive elephants performing circus tricks, like balancing on a stool and whirling hoola hoops with their trunks to pulsating music tracks.
We basked in the warm sunshine for a while, then had a look at the temple area and ‘parrot paradise’ attraction, after which we took a buggy back to the entrance for the sake of using up our return ticket.
The afternoon and evening was spent exploring the street markets and visiting the local temple shrine. Out of curiosity, I kept following the road down to the Mekong riverbank, and discovered yet another huge market area selling all sorts of snacks and trinkets.
Our second full day was spent mainly at the Dai Ethnic Village傣族园. The main attraction is the circular pool with a large elephant statue and fountain at the centre called ‘Water Splashing Square泼水广场.’ They enact their tradition several times a day, and tourists can participate by renting one of their costumes. The hosts ride out on an elephant, and everybody walks once around the pool before the splashing commences. The water was a little cold, but the heat of the sun made it perfectly bearable, and after half an hour or so, I had even caught the sun a little.
When we arrived at the main entrance that morning, I did consider turning round and looking elsewhere on seeing the number of cars vying for the few remaining spots. We were directed past the entrance and down into a dusty riverside gravel port where I had no desire to stop and walk all the way back up. I searched my satnav for another entrance and found a north gate北门 off the beaten track and decided to give it a try.
That worked out perfectly! We drove over some narrow tracks by some farms, but found a staffed kiosk with nobody else in sight. We bought our tickets, and actually parked inside the Dai village less than 200 metres from the pool. It would have been more perfect still had some inconsiderate driver not blocked us in the carpark later in the day when we wanted to leave. While we waited for the staff to contact him, we went back and drank fresh coconut milk under palm trees in the hot sunshine, which was apt compensation.
Our time in Xishuangbanna was unfortunately quite short, but I certainly don’t regret going. We even bumped into some people we know from Chongqing, like the local stationer my elder daughter goes to often. She and her family had driven straight down to Xishuangbanna in one foul swoop, taking turns to drive and sleeping in the car. She complained how the cheapest rooms available on the day were over 800 Yuan, which made us feel more inclined to trust the owner of our guesthouse when she said our rate was fantasically cheap at 500 Yuan. The advice is that you should book in advance if travelling over the new year.
On the 8th, the journey was mostly going back the same route, except the last part took us to the west of Kunming along Dianchi Lake. The views were great, and our hotel was in a picturesque tree lined mansion community close to the lakeside and cablecar station.
From Kunming to Zhaotong, we climbed up the motorway through rocky desert like landscapes on a four hour journey. A feature that caught my eye was a long reservoir called Maijiacun毛家村水库 surrounded by towering rocky mountains which ended at a dam with giant characters and letters proclaiming it as the largest earth dam in Asia.
Towards Zhaotong, we found ourselves on a more barren plateau, but was surprised to find a lot of development, and we liked the wide roads and night view from the ‘Purple Light Hotel,’ which was a drastic improvement on our Jinghong guesthouse.
We walked around the virtually deserted streets opposite the hotel in a nice looking new residential and commerical complex, and luckily found one place open, an excellent western style decor music restaurant, where we stayed an hour or two before calling it a night.
At breakfast, we overheard some people discussing how an old friend of theirs shouldn’t do his morning jog here. I was surprised to learn that the elevation here was around 1,600 metres, which explained the barren look of the surrounding countryside.
The penultimate leg was Zhaotong to Yibin. Just like the day we left Sichuan, we approached this province to find a highly visible blanket of cloud in the distance. We crossed the boundary line and said goodbye to the blue skies and sunshine for the next few weeks.
The motorway took us an hour through an incredible mountain pass that separated the Zhaotong plateau and Sichuan basin. Lush cliffs towered either side, and fast flowing green torrents raced alongside down below. It began to rain, but the sight of clouds envelopping the crests only enhanced the scenery.
Out of the pass, the journey to Yibin and Chongqing the following day were much more routine. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any serious traffic apart from a spot just outside yibin where four cars had been involved in a nasty collision. both of these final legs took about three and half hours to complete.
The weather in Yibin was cold, dull and wet, so we didn’t venture much outside the hotel apart from a short drive across to the Wanda Mall.
And that was that. The journey was long, but very enjoyable. Stay tuned for our next driving adventure!