Unless you want to be human-trafficked or see your face on the evening news, hitchhiking is one game you really shouldn’t play. Especially in China. Especially in southern China. Especially in the mountains of Yunnan Province.
But there we were last Sunday, lost in southern China, in the mountains of Yunnan Province. What choice did we have?
That particular adventure began peacefully, innocently, with a taxi ride from Peking University to Beijing Capital International Airport. It was the Chinese May Day holiday weekend, and the eight of us––7 students from Stanford, 1 from Peking University––had planned a 5-day expedition to Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan. A 3-hour Hainan Airlines flight later, we were breathing in the clean (!) air of Yunnan and facing the imminent danger of having our body parts sold by a predatory swarm of strangers offering us cheap rides to our hotel in unmarked, windowless vans. We declined politely and took legit taxis to our home-away-from-home-away-from-home, the 4-star Kunming Jin Jiang Hotel. Granted, that’s 4 “Chinese stars,” as my roommate put it––1 for a bed, 1 for a TV, 1 for a working toilet, and 1 more for a shower––but even with 8 people stuffed into 2 rooms, we were living the good life.
Having banned early morning activity for the weekend, we set off at noon the next day in a rented bus with hired driver, in search of a real Chinese adventure. Our first stop: Jiuxiang Scenic Area (the equivalent of a state park in the US), 2 hours southeast of Kunming. On the way, we got a glimpse of the “real” China: sun-browned farmers knee-deep in rice paddies, a bevy of sad-looking oxen, and, in a representative juxtaposition of rich and poor, lavish country clubs with 18-hole courses right next to crumbling peasant abodes.
Jiuxiang is arranged as a linear passage, leading visitors through dazzling caves and spectacular gorges, and although the views alone were worth the trip, I was most impressed by the preferred mode of transportation back to the entrance…
That 20-minute ride on a Yunnan farmer’s horse––and a friendly chat with the farmer himself––was one of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip. Upon reaching the entrance of the park, we proceeded to spend tourist-worthy amounts of money on dried fruit, fresh fruit, and souvenirs.
Back in the bus, our questionable young driver was stewing in discontent. Hoping to shirk half a day’s paid work and get home before sunset, he lied to our faces, saying that we were out of time, that our next planned destination, the Stone Forest (Shilin), closed daily at 5PM. We insisted on going anyway.
The Stone Forest, which covers a vast area extending beyond our field of view, turned out to be a climber’s paradise. Rocks of all sizes sprout out of the ground in clusters, with hidden crevices, weathered cracks, and natural handholds aiding our efforts to scale them. Our late evening arrival meant the park was completely devoid of tourists, and we did our best Spiderman impressions in clinging to sheer rock faces and posing for sensationalistic photos. And from our vantage point atop the tallest stone cluster in the park, we had the opportunity to watch the sun set over the rock-dotted horizon. Beautiful.
Meanwhile, snoozing alone in the bus, our driver had reached a tipping point. When he realized that his contracting manager (basically his pimp) had signed him up for the extra drive to Shilin for a meager 200¥, he exploded. We feared for our lives, as the crazy kid floored the gas pedal and started passing cars left and right. At 80 miles per hour. On a 2-lane mountain road. We made the 2.5-hour trip back to Kunming in 1 hour, but by the time we reached our hotel, none of us ever wanted to see a bus again.
Saturday was a day for relaxing. After a massive Western-style breakfast––our first since coming to China––at the hotel’s 20th floor “revolving” (it didn’t revolve) restaurant, we explored downtown Kunming, wandering through a crowded but charming city park, a minority food and music festival, and various roadside shops. With the evening approaching, we took a cab over to Dianchi (Dian Lake) and watched the sun set over the Western Mountains (Xishan)––yet another unforgettable view.
That evening, we were all tired, but we decided that we couldn’t leave Yunnan without experiencing a night out on the town. The concierge recommended checking out the Kundu Night Market. The party didn’t start ’til we walked in, and when one club started blasting Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” just as we walked in, we knew we were in the right place. Brash Americans the lot of us, we had no shame taking over the stage at each venue––the moment we got on, everyone else got off––and, there in the middle of downtown Kunming, we danced the night away.
It was supposed to be a day of rest.
With grand plans of climbing the Western Mountains, we set off for the park gate around noon on Sunday. A navigational debacle ensued, with half the group ending up on the wrong side of the largest lake in Yunnan, and the rest of us baked in the sun for an hour waiting for our lost companions. Once we were all together, a gondola whisked us over Dianchi and halfway up the mountain.
Climbing Xishan was like trying to wear out a Stairmaster. The stone steps seemed to never end, and when we reached a summit of sorts––so what if it wasn’t the actual mountain peak––we declared victory and celebrated with a picnic of eggs, Chinese bread, and jackfruit chips.
A quick downhill walk and a rocky bus ride later, we found ourselves at the base of the mountain, with no transportation and no idea where to find transportation. Our Holy Grail was the hot springs district of Anning, a small town 30 kilometers away, but how would we get there? We started to walk, hugging the shoulder of the mountain road and winding our way through shabby little towns before realizing that we had no chance in hell of finding our way alone.
After finding out that taxi companies in Yunnan do not, in fact, dispatch drivers, we set off on a wild goose chase, taking a series of rickety, peasant-filled buses and ending up in the middle of some sort of city, which we were first told was close to Anning, then were told was as far from Anning as it was humanly possible to be. With each passing moment, hitchhiking was becoming more and more attractive an option.
We were saved by a couple brave men, Kunming taxi drivers willing to ferry us through the mountains to our destination for a reasonable fee. We arrived at the Jinfang Shenlin Wenquan Resort––it was truly a resort––around 8PM, paid 128¥ RMB per person, and hightailed it out back to the springs. Each spring was like a big hot tub, minus the bubbles and the grime, and several were flavored: milk, rose, various Chinese fruits/vegetables. Befitting the theme of our trip, every time our group entered a spring, the incumbent Chinese family immediately departed. We didn’t mind. After our trying day, it took 4 hours of physical and spiritual cleansing before we were ready to part from the heavenly warmth of those hot springs. The experience was worth every penny and every wrinkled finger and toe.
All in all, one of the most exciting weekends of my life.