The Bridges of Yunlong County

Marcia and I met Xuelin at a bus station in India in the spring of 2010. Learning that she and her friend Dai Hui ran a tourism business in Kunming, we agreed to get together to play majiang and have some adventures in places ordinary tourists don’t go.

In December, they invited us to go with them on a trip to check out an unusual area called Yunlong County. They had never been there before, so it was an adventure for them as well.

Yunlong (“Cloud Dragon”) county is 150 kilometers to the west of Dali, the furthest most travelers get in Yunnan. It is out of the way, requiring almost ten hours of driving from Kunming, with the last four hours on a terrible one-lane road. When we arrived, we had to call our host to guide us into the village of Nuodeng where we would be staying in a traditional courtyard farmhouse.

Nuodeng is a well-preserved hillside village built around a salt well. It is mentioned in documents as old as the Tang Dynasty (7th century AD) and it has buildings dating back almost 1000 years. Salt was a valuable commodity, so it was clearly a wealthy and influential village.

We stayed in a farmhouse owned by the village headman. The house was over a hundred years old and a fine example of a traditional four-sided courtyard house (siheyuan).

Other houses in the village followed the same layout, although often modified to accommodate the steep slope on which the village was built.

Most had family shrines on the upper floor.

A sign of the salt village’s wealth was the Confucian temple built at the top of the hill. These were usually found only in larger provincial towns where high-ranking students were studying for government exams. But so many influential students had come from this village that it merited its own now-quiet temple.

The area is known for its ancient covered bridges, which were part of the “Tea Horse Trail.” As important as the Silk Road at some times, this road connected the fertile regions of Burma to the cities of Yunnan and ultimately the heart of China. Salt was a valuable currency produced and sold along the way.

The bridges are all still in use for foot traffic, including this vine bridge that even the goats refused to cross.

It was market day, so many people were out in traditional costumes.

Marcia got a chance to make friends with a goat.

Some cemeteries in the area have unusual Buddhist gravestones with Chinese writing on one side and Sanskrit on the other. People speculate that Indian culture may have filtered this far up the Tea Horse Trail and some people wanted to have both languages on their graves.

On the way back we spent a night in Dali, a famous tourist destination that we had somehow never visited. It’s easy to get to and quite the backpacker hangout, but charming nonetheless. Its 16-story pagoda is famous throughout China.

One interesting anomaly that most travelers miss is this religious building in the old town. Only the cross on the roof and the icons of Santa Claus show that it is a Catholic church.

It was market day, so many people had come into town to shop.

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