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Tengchong - Baoshan

Volcanoes and hot springs and stuff

April 29 - May 2, 2002

In Tengchong they have a saying, “nine out of ten mountains have no head.” And with 97 volcanoes in the area, it’s not a hyperbolic statement.

Tengchong (elev. 1640m), tucked into a western corner of Yunnan province, 750 kilometers west of Kunming and located along the old southwestern silk route, is an area which includes natural sights of volcanoes, hot springs, and volcanic lakes interspersed with manmade attractions of Taoist temples and aged preserved villages.

Development in Tengchong can be traced back over two thousand years to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). Always an important stop on the Southwestern Silk Route, not only did products from as far away as Sichuan province destined for markets in western India and Afghanistan pass through Tengchong, but in later centuries Tengchong was to become quite a manufacturing base of its own, producing a wide array of items including textiles and soap. As such, since the Ming Dynasty, Tengchong has always been a city of international traders and today an unusually large number of Tengchong-born Chinese live overseas and conversely, Tengchong has a large population of former overseas Chinese now retired and living in the village of Heshun.

April 29
Coming by bus from Xiaguan, I wasn't going to make Tengchong in a day unless I subjected myself to an eleven-hour bus ride. No thanks. So I broke the journey in Baoshan, a city of a couple of hundred thousand residents and not really having anything to see except to say you've been there and in saying so, be secure in the knowledge that a lot of other tourists haven't.

I had left Xiaguan in a cramped bus at 8:45 a.m., arriving in Baoshan about three in the afternoon. I walked out of the bus station to the sight of an obviously homeless, and likely mentally ill, middle-aged, long-haired man walking naked through the center of town. Not many residents expressed surprise at this so I made the assumption this was not the first time Baoshan's resident nutcase had performed his striptease act.

I walked over to the nearby Huacheng Binguan getting a Y80 room for Y60. For the money, it was a decent hotel with a large comfortable bed in a spacious room. The shower wasn't the best, but it was sufficient.

As there's really nothing to see in Baoshan, I decided just to walk around the city, ostensibly to locate an internet place. I tried a couple of computer shops LP mentioned had internet but none had internet. I then tried a couple of other computer shops, including one that displayed the characters for internet in the window, but still came up empty.

Baoshan is a lively city that like much of China has gone through a recent facelift. There is very little that seems more than a decade or two old. Again, there really is nothing to see but it's a perfectly reasonable place to break a long bus journey if traveling in this part of Yunnan province.

April 30
I got a 9:15 a.m. bus to Tengchong which broke down an hour into the ride, but the repair was made rapidly and we were on the road in thirty minutes. Including a short lunch break and the breakdown, we still made Tengchong in five hours, arriving at 2:15 p.m.

I grabbed a cab to the Tengchong Hotel. This would be the Tengchong Binguan and not the Tengchong Fandian, as both translate in English to 'Tengchong Hotel'. One of the largest in town, on the board the rack rates showed the cheapest en suite rooms listed at Y268 (though when I checked out on May 2 the price had been hiked to Y288). With little difficulty the girl behind the counter had me in for Y100. Then I told her I wanted two nights. Okay, Y180 for all. So a Y268/288 room was had for Y90. And it was a very nice room that even at Y268 wouldn't have been a bad deal.

A few hours free, I resumed my search for an internet shop, again trying a couple of places LP said might have internet. I did manage to find one place, a China Telecom office, but there was no access to any website that sat on a server outside of the country.

No problem, who needs e-mail, right? I wandered around Tengchong finding another suitably lively city, that unlike Baoshan, has some older areas, most notably on the west side of town not far from the Tengchong Binguan. A lively market takes up one of the streets in this section of town.

Hungry, I first picked up some snacks from a well-stocked supermarket before looking for a real meal. I don't often consult guidebooks when looking for grub, but gave the LP a look just the same. They mentioned someplace called the Myanmar Teahouse, a place where I might pick up some samosas. I wandered in and determining that no one spoke English, made eating motions. They didn't seem to know what to do. "Samosas," I said. They started to laugh. A minute later somebody who spoke a little English came in and asked me what I wanted. "Food," I answered, to which he made some comment about beef or chicken but that there really wasn't anything here. "Samosas," I said again, to which everyone, the new man included, laughed about. So I left. I can only assume that this place doesn't have samosas, probably hasn't had them in years, and just as likely doesn't even know what they are. And they all laugh at this steady parade of foreigners wandering in asking for samosas all because some guidebook said they had them. So it was another inexpensive greasy Chinese point and eat affair.

May 1
Time to play tourist and head out to see the various sights in the county. Rather than wasting time riding buses, losing buses, and waiting for buses (I also had to write a magazine story about this place), I decide I would just hire a cab for the day. I wandered out onto the streets and saw a cab with a young driver sitting around with nothing to do, so I approached him, showed him a map with all the places (in Chinese characters) I wanted to visit and haggled over the price a bit. Y250 for the day. Fair enough.

We first headed north to Yunfeng Shan, the Taoist mountain 47 kilometers north of Tengchong, near the Myanmar border. Not a high mountain, options for reaching the top are hiking or taking a cable car. I chose the latter (Y54 on top of the Y10 entrance fee). There are a number of small pagodas scattered around the mountain, but most people head for the main temple of Yunfeng Si at the mountain’s summit.

My driver was a very funny guy, he spoke maybe 50 words of English which is about 25 words more than I speak of Mandarin. After passing some police on a fundraising campaign, he said "police is dog". And he wasn't referring to canine members of the police force, but rather, as we in America derogatorily call police "pigs", in China they have chosen to call them "dogs."

It’s a steep climb from the cable car station to Yunfeng Si. Near the top, one small shrine houses a figure making what would appear to a westerner as an offensive hand gesture, but local Chinese assure me it’s not, though they are unable to offer an explanation as to what it means instead.

Reaching the summit I find expansive views of the area reaching as far east as 3780-meter Gaoligong Mountain, which delineates the eastern boundary of the Tengchong valley.

Returning to my taxi, we headed next to one of the many volcanic lakes in the area but not before being delayed by pedestrian traffic in one small village where it was market day. It’s the usual assortment of foodstuffs, clothing, household goods, and so on. You could cynically say, you’ve seen one Asian market, you’ve seen them all, but there’s always something appealing about the level of human energy that is associated with a rural market.

The lake was nothing worth seeing and I still wonder if it was even the right lake the tourist map is telling me I should see. No matter, there are still volcanoes.

Though Tengchong offers many attractions, Volcano Park (Y20) is the area’s biggest drawing card. Near the park entrance lie three volcanoes with Dakong Shan in the middle, a name meaning “Big Empty Hill” and is possibly the most aptly descriptive place name in all of China, though I'm not entirely sure of the adjective "big".

The summit of this small mountain is reached by climbing 600 steps where a friendly tour guide with minimal English skills awaits at the top. She does her best to explain the volcano’s history using the English-language version of the speech she has no doubt rehearsed over and over. The brief hail storm was perhaps more interesting.

The mountain has been dormant for several centuries so the center is indeed quite empty, save for some grass and weeds, but the rim can be circumnavigated and from the opposite side are more views of a landscape pock-marked with volcanoes. Alternatively, as with each of the volcanoes I ambled up, it is possible to take the relatively short walk down into the crater.

My driver next took me on a scenic drive through the valley, ending up at some place called the "Columnar Joints". I climbed down a steep set of stairs into a ravine, walked around, looked around, and climbed back up to my waiting taxi still having no idea what columnar joints are and if I saw them or not.

Day finished, I headed up to the bus station to get a ticket back to Baoshan for the following afternoon. I had dinner at another point and eat, stuffing my face for all of Y3. Back at the hotel, a pile of laundry that had cost me Y87 at the Traffic Hotel in Chengdu only set me back Y29 here. Good deals all the way around in Tengchong.

May 2
The following morning I took a trip to the nearby hot springs (Y20), locally known as Rehai (hot sea). The main attraction here is called Big Boiling Pot, a large spring at 97 C where locals offer eggs cooked in the spring’s heat. The park also has cooler springs suitable for a swim among the numerous smaller springs and geysers. Overall, Tengchong has around 90 hot springs and nearly every village has one of its own.

The village of Heshun, a retirement village for returned Overseas Chinese is supposed to be a picturesque place but upon arrival a large barrier prevented entrance to this village unless I forked over Y20. No way. I wasn't paying to visit a retirement village. So we turned back to Tengchong, I paid off my taxi driver, and I can only assume Heshun is picturesque.

Tengchong County is quiet, but in the last five hundred years the area has registered over 70 earthquakes measuring at least 5 on the Richter scale and as a geothermal area, Tengchong is second only to Yangbajing in Tibet. As such, more activity is certainly in store. Meanwhile, casual strolls around small volcanoes followed by a dip in a hot spring will have to suffice as earth-shaking activities.

As my bus was leaving at 12:10 pm (Y 25.50), I still had about two hours to kill. At last I found an internet shop that was around the corner (Y2/hour) from my hotel and it had a surprisingly fast connection, so I could finally get caught up on some aging e-mails.

The bus ride back to Baoshan was four and a half hours of chain smoking hell. Three hours into the trip we were hit with an unplanned stop when the police pulled the bus over and cited the driver for who knows what. Illegally overtaking another vehicle on a hill was my guess.

I had a few hours to kill as my plane to Kunming didn't leave until something like 8:00 pm. I had had enough of buses and with my girlfriend flying up from Bangkok the following day it was rather important that I got there ahead of her.

This was my first domestic flight in China since 2000 and I noticed that the airport security is, like so many places now, much more thorough.

Surprising me somewhat, on the airplane I found myself seated next to a young woman who spoke excellent English. She works for the Foreign Affairs Division of the PSB in Kunming and had been visiting her husband who works in Baoshan. Thus, conversation passed what was only a forty-five minute flight anyway.

Story continues in Kunming.

Some practical information on Tengchong:

Getting there:

The nearest airport is in Baoshan, a five-hour bus ride from Tengchong. To and from Kunming there is one daily flight. A bus from Kunming is about 17-18 hours.

Getting around Tengchong:

A taxi for the day that will include Yunfeng and the volcano park should cost around Y250 ($30 US). Add another Y50 for the hot springs. There are public buses to these sites but it can become very time consuming to use them and some walking or hitching will still be involved.

Staying there:

Tengchong Binguan (Hotel) is a very good deal. Standard rooms are Y268-288 but can be bargained down to at least Y90 in the low season.

Admission fees: Yunfeng Shan is Y10 plus Y54 for the cable car. Volcano Park costs Y20. The hot springs are also Y20. Other attractions usually levy modest entrance fees as well. Prices are the same for foreigners and Chinese.


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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.