A Silk Road leg off the tourist circuit

If you want to explore China's history without rubbing elbows with throngs of people, venture to the hinderland of Dali for a delightful surprise.
Yang Meiping / SHINE

Yongping nestles beneath a scenic mountain range.

The southwestern city of Dali in Yunnan Province has long been a popular destination on the China tourist circuit, but few visitors venture beyond to Yongping, a county poorer in income but rich in culture and natural resources.

During the National Day holiday early last month, the county held a festival to showcase its distinctive food, wine, tea, ethnic culture and, most importantly, its incredible history.

Archeologists found ruins from the Neolithic Age there in 1993, tracing the area’s human footprint back 4,000 years. In the Eastern Han Dynasty almost 2,000 years ago, Yongping was administratively established as Bonan County, named after a nearby mountain.

A segment of the ancient Southern Silk Road that connected Sichuan Province with Myanmar, Thailand, India and the Middle East ran through this area. It carried Chinese exports like Shu embroidery, Qiong bamboo sticks, silk, tea, tobacco, salt and traditional Chinese herbs, and imports such as cotton yarn, kerosene and diamonds from abroad.

Today, Bonan Ancient Road is the best-preserved part of that ancient route connecting China with the world, though the caravans have been usurped by modern highways and rail transport. 

Still, the vestiges of a glorious heyday linger in the culture, and local authorities see great prospects for tourism by tapping those roots.

Since last year, Yongping has hosted a hiking race along the ancient road, attracting participants from around the world.

Ti Gong

Caravans laden with cargo, once common along Bonan Ancient Road, are now a rare sight.

Yang Meiping / SHINE

Part of the Bonan Ancient Road

With my limited time in Yongping, I visited only a few segments of the ancient road. Local people told me what I was missing, such as the Baotaishan National Forest Park with its more than 3 million camellia trees.

In the county’s Shanyang Town, visitors can still view the stone road that once supported horse transport, though the pavement is now seriously pockmarked. But even that is of historical interest since the shallow holes in the thousand-year-old road were carved by hooves over hundreds of years.

Though modern buildings have been built in the town, many ancient dwellings, shops and caravansaries made of mud and wood still remain. Some of the buildings are so well-preserved that you can see counters in the deserted shops and the upper floors where shopkeepers once lived.

There used to be more than 30 shops along this section of the ancient road in Shanyang, according to Zhang Jiqiang, a local historian born in the township.

“I still remember that one store sold brown sugar when I was a little boy,” he recalls.

Li Fengxiang, 60, says she has been living along the ancient road since she was born and remembers seeing horse-laden cargo passing by her home.

“My grandparents told me that there used to be large caravans carrying goods from long distance, but I remember only local residents using horses to transport grain and other commodities,” she says.

Li now operates a roadside shop selling food, beverages, cigarettes and even recharging cards for mobile phones.

“Business has plummeted because fewer people use the road anymore,” she says. “But if the government repairs the road and develops tourism here, I would like to expand my shop.”

Yang Meiping / SHINE

An old house on the roadside

Yang Meiping / SHINE

Another old dwelling on the roadside

The old caravan route sports many trees 100 years or older. A plum tree in Huaqiao Village bears a plaque saying it was planted in the middle of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Experts have determined that it is the oldest tree in Yongping County.

The tree stands on the site of a former temple that now functions as a primary school. It still blossoms every year, amazing local residents with its vitality.

Another tourist spot in Yongping is Jihong Bridge, which spans the Lancang River. Historical records show that it was first built of bamboo and rattan in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280) and later replaced with an iron chain bridge in 1475 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

It was the oldest bridge of its kind in the world until a flood in 1986 badly damaged it, dropping the chains into the river. A new bridge has been built near the original site.

The location of the bridge is said to prove the wisdom of ancient people in choosing the most suitable site for crossing the river. An oil and gas pipeline between China and Myanmar was subsequently located there, and a railway connecting China and Vietnam is currently under construction.

Yongping is home to 22 ethnic minority groups. As a fortress site on the ancient road, it hosted garrison armies, bringing government officials and soldiers of the Han population to the region. They intermarried with people of diversified minority groups, such as the Miao, Yi, Hui and Lisu, fusing cultural influences.

Yang Meiping / SHINE

In typical ethnic headwear, a local woman works on Miao embroidery.

At the recent festival, many of the ethnic groups performed traditional songs and dances and exhibited examples of a famous local embroidery.

“Among the Miao, embroidery is very important,” says Tao Qingxiang, a middle-aged Miao resident. “Usually, a bride needs to make about 30 pieces of traditional clothing by herself before the wedding. If she fails to do so, she would be disdained by her mother-in-law and widely perceived as inept.”

There is also a settlement of about 7,000 Hui ethnic people, the largest of its kind in Yunnan Province.

The county government and Shanghai-based Fudan University, which has been designated as a “development sister” to Yongping by the central government, are planning to create a special cultural area in an effort to boost local tourism.

The cuisine here is also an attraction for visitors. Residents eat pickled peppers and garlic for almost every meal, and every family has its own special recipe.

Among the most popular local dishes is braised chicken, which dates back to ancient times and used spices carried by caravans. Since the road was also a postal route, staff in the post houses made braised chicken for rushed couriers to eat.

Yongping is also one of the largest producers of walnuts in China, and businessmen from all over the country go there in autumn to purchase the nuts.

Tourism in Yongping is expected to become more convenient as local authorities step up development. A thermal spring resort is in the planning.

Ti Gong

 Braised chicken is a delectable specialty of Yongping locals.

If you go:

How to get there: It’s a nearly four-hour flight from Shanghai to Dali. Yongping is about 100 kilometers away from the Dali city center and can be accessed by a two-hour bus trip.

Tips: There are no luxury hotels in Yongping. Most accommodation is priced between 100 yuan and 200 yuan a night. Your best bets are on Bonan Road.

Ti Gong

The remnants of Jiangding Temple stand as a reminder of the area's vibrant cultural past.

Yang Meiping / SHINE

The largest caravansary in Shanyang Town

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