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China – A Haven for the Free-spirited Explorer

by Lynn Gail

 

There is nowhere on Earth quite as unique as China. Its history, its people and its race to keep up with the rest of the developing world is extraordinary to witness. I travelled through Yunnan province which sits in a stunning mountainous area bordering Burma, Laos, Tibet and Vietnam. Myself and two companions could only mutter basic Chinese greetings as we travelled through the steep picturesque snow covered valleys using public transport. Not many western women travel by themselves so we were quite a novelty for the locals, especially when our only option was to jump into one family's van full of livestock, food and children when we had missed our bus after visiting a temple. After much head nodding, pointing and giggly laughter, through which our new found hosts all took selfies with their new found passengers, we made it back to our village. Unplanned moments like these stay rooted in my memory – the unexpected kindness and curiosity of people on the road never fails to humble me. During our journey we travelled through areas I can only hope stay just as they are in China’s rapid westernisation movement. Shaxi, with its ancient cobbled streets once used as a stop on a tea-trading route has been well preserved. It is still ‘old China’ and you really feel as though you’ve stepped back in time as you wander the narrow laneways passing cattle, lantern decorated doors and people with so much character, their faces tell a story of a life very different to ours. Shangri-La, previously known as Zhongdian and located close to the Tibetan border is home to Songzanlin Monastery, built in 1679. This imposing castle-like building has been built into a hill top village and is home to around 600 Tibetan monks. Villagers circumnavigate the monastery as part of their worshipping ritual and it is not uncommon to see people laying out prayer mats on the ground to pray. Quiet blankets the complex and lulls you into meditation, then like a thunder clap, the debating begins. Lamas and monks debate on Buddhist doctrines as a way to improve their knowledge. They stamp the ground with their colourful robes flapping in the breeze, punch the air and clasp their hands as the whole atmosphere becomes so heated you worry it will become physical. It was one of the many cornerstone moments of my time in Yunnan Province. China will no doubt always remain in my top ten destinations. Yunnan is such a small part of China’s amazing cultural landscape that it begs to be revisited along with many of its other fascinating provinces.