Views of Vietnam – in pics

Just the Red River separates China from Vietnam at the Hekou/Lao Cai border crossing, but it’s like two different worlds. The Vietnamese like their Vespas as much as the Chinese and you’d think theirs would be noisier than the super-modern electric versions everyone uses in China.

Vespas in Vietnam

But the constant purring noise of the Vietnamese Vespas was actually soothing set against the raucous, incessant horn-sounding of the Chinese. Oh, and there’s no rasping of throats being cleared in Vietnam, since nobody seems to feel the need to spit, unlike the folk back over the Red River!

Vespas in Vietnam

France may have left Vietnam 60 years ago, but vestiges of their presence remain. Architecturally…

Colonial buildings in Sapa

 

French colonial architecture in Sapa

And in more subtle ways, not everyone may even notice…

French road stone in Vietnam

Of course, every now and then you get a reminder that Vietnam is still a Communist state, officially. I can’t help wondering what the Daily Mail would make of this place if it was in the UK.

Massage at Trade Union Hotel in Sapa

SapaTUHotel

You need a great sense of balance to make your way in Vietnam

Balance in Hanoi

Well, it helps anyway, in lots of ways Vietnamese go about their daily life.

Laden by bike in Hanoi

And if you want to run a retail business, who needs a High Street, when you can have your shopfront right on the railway line (though we’re not sure how customers know not to leave when a train is approaching)

Railway bookshop in Hanoi

My favourite shop by far was this place selling bamboo ladders, bamboo scaffolding poles, bamboo everything you need for household and building trade…

Bamboo scaffolding shop

 

Sapa

We began in the lovely mountain town of Sapa, built by the French as a convalescence place away from the tropical heat for sick and weary soldiers. Beautiful place still today, though the clouds can come down at a moment’s notice.

Sapa lake

It is impossible to avoid the determined street sellers, who stick with you like leeches, in our case walking with us for more than an hour. In the end, we warmed to May who, unbelievably, is 15, and helps out in the afternoons at her local school…

Street sellers in Sapa

Train

Vietnam’s trains are marvellous, allowing lots of beautiful views, from Hanoi down to Hue

Rice fields in Vietnam from the train

And then from Hue to Hoi An, where the line winds its way along the coast

View from the train Hue to Danang

Hoi An

Twinned with our soon-to-be home town of Kiama, so we had to go there. And it’s a lovely spot. Famous for its lanterns.

Hoi An lanterns

And its Japanese covered bridge

Japanese covered bridge in Hoi An

And we fell in love with this feathered friend who gave us his full repertoire of tunes, some of which I could even repeat so that we could almost have a conversation. We’d love to have taken him away with us…

Our bird friend in Hoi An

Quy Nhon

Further down the coast, we had our only beachside hotel on this whole journey.

Hotel by the beach in Quy Nhon

And lived the holiday life for 24 hours

QuyCoconut

Saigon

We didn’t much care for Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC), and seriously wondered why there were so many more tourists there than in Hanoi. But, as so often on this trip, the best bits came with our search for coffee and tea, or in this case yarn.

After a long, hot walk along busy streets to find a yarn shop (about which we’ll be blogging soon), we found both the shop and this temple tucked away just off the main drag. All the Vietnamese gems seem to be tucked away, somehow…

Temple opposite a yarn shop in Saigon

And finally, there were lots of water buffaloes and even more oxen around. Water buffaloes never seemed to be visible at good moments for a pic, but this oxen stood for us nicely.

Oxen

And we can’t finish our Vietnam overview without a brief mention of Nhang and his girlfriend, who joined us for dinner in Saigon, having ridden in 40kms on their motorbike, but then left in such a hurry that we didn’t get a chance to take a photo. Another social media meet-up and one we now have to follow up so we get the photo next time! Great to meet some locals…

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The marvellous markets for tea in Kunming

When we’d initially planned on basing ourselves in Kunming, the idea was to make it a starting point for visits to tea plantations in Yunnan Province, with special interest in Puer.

In the end our change of plans – and our need to shorten the overall journey by three weeks – meant cutting the whole Puer section and the onward route to Laos out of our itinerary.

So we were delighted when US-based tea specialist @CrimsonLotustea told us about Kunming’s amazing tea markets.

Jinshi tea market in Kunming

Jinshi Market is on the northern edge of Kunming, easily accessible by bus (number 25 goes nearby), though we were given a ride by our hotel.

Entrance to Jinshi tea market in Kunming

It is enormous, and extends across acres of land on both sides of a busy road. Now, on an early Sunday morning, don’t expect throngs of customers or even traders shouting their wares and prices. This enormous place is deserted if you get there too early, though by the time we left mid-morning most shops had opened up.

TeaMarketHiggledy

There are all sorts of stores, some with loose leaf tea piled high, though without labelling it was hard for us to tell what was what, and if there was labelling it was just in Chinese of course. But you could see the different types – or colours – of tea in each box: some greens, some blacks and some reds (and what’s interesting linguistically is that the Chinese for what we call black tea is often the word ‘red’, so I’ve yet to get to the bottom of just how these leaves differ…)

Tea piled high in Jinshi market, Kunming

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of those wrapped cheese-shaped puer cakes. The trouble with these is that, as a consumer or buyer, you need to know what you’re getting, as it’s very easy to pay over the odds for poor quality, and the really good stuff is so expensive you’d need to remortgage your house to have many pots of the stuff.

TeaMarketUrns

And there were intriguing boxes full of small packages, wrapped in gold or silver paper, that would be mistaken for sweeties by a western kid visiting here, but are actually (I think) small quantities of puer.

Mini puer cakes

As I’ve said before on this journey, you can always go into any tea shop and ask to taste or sample, but there is then usually some pressure to buy, so you need to choose carefully before you take the plunge and enter one of these shops.

Jinshi tea market in Kunming

We made our pick and spent a wonderful hour with a young woman who was selling teas grown not far from Puer and from Jinghong, further south in Yunnan. With no English on her part, and very very little Chinese on ours, there was lots of sign language to indicate what we fancied.

But even then, with pointing and playing tea charades, you can get to a stage where there is a block in communication. How DO you get across the idea that you’d like X tea in a packet the same size as Y tea, when she only has packets of Y tea in that size and the X tea is all loose.

It may sound easy to get across, but this took at least 10 minutes, and ended up with a lot of use of hand held calculators to bring up numbers I hadn’t yet learnt in Mandarin.

TeaMarketPurchases

Still, we did come away with some lovely looking black loose leaf tea from Yunnan, which was NOT puer; and a gift box set of small puer tea containers. I’d really love to have tried the red tea, but couldn’t face going through another hour of gong fu ceremony and more linguistic mime games.

Right across Kunming, in the south of the city, is the big Kangle tea market. This is also worth a visit just for being an icon of the old tea route. Its entrance has a fabulous mural with depictions of old tea traders starting the long trek west, through Tibet and on beyond.

Tea route mural at Kangle market in Kunming

Tea route mural at Kangle market in Kunming

But Kangle is mainly a wholesale market, meaning the traders are there on an even bigger scale than at Jinshi (though the area it covers is probably slightly smaller).

TeaMarketKangleTeapot

What struck us was just how many traders there are in one place. How on earth do they all stay in business? Since they didn’t act like your traditional raucous market stall holders back home, how on earth do they actually sell anything? And who does buy all that tea?

In any case, if you’re a tea lover, whether or not you want to buy tea, you shouldn’t miss one or both of these markets on any visit to Kunming.

Having said that, there is nowhere nearby just to drop in for a cuppa without any intention to purchase.

And that was an issue throughout our time in China: finding a tea room to sit and sip the afternoon away, maybe with a pastry or cake. It just isn’t the Chinese way, except in places like the Chengdu People’s Park (but they had no cake…)

Jiren tea house in Kunming

We did see one tea shop by the lovely lake in Kunming which had a table outside and people sitting with a flask one afternoon, but when we returned the next day intending to try Jiren Tea House, the table was put away and it appeared like yet another tea shop aiming to draw you in to sample before you buy.

Jiren Tea House in Kunming

So, in the absence of a visit to Puer and other tea growing parts of Yunnan, Kunming, with its fantastic tea markets, made a pretty good effort to keep our tea interest alive on this section of our journey.

Next stop, though, the coffee-loving country of Vietnam…

A great concept for coffee in Kunming

Until we arrived in Kunming, we’d always associated Yunnan Province with tea. But then we found Salvador’s Coffee House and discovered Yunnan Coffee.

Salvador's Coffee House in Kunming

I liked Salvador’s before I even found the place. It was nowhere near our hotel, and we’d had terrible trouble finding places in other Chinese cities without a map or good guidance, so I took the unusual step of emailing Salvador’s to find out the best bus route to get there

And I was delighted when co-owner Colin actually replied, with very clear instructions (Bus Number 2, in case you are wondering).

From the outside this looks like many other expat coffee shops we’ve seen in far-flung places, but the first thing we noticed inside Salvador’s is that there are as many Chinese customers as there are expats (sure, many of them may be studying at the uni round the corner looking for careers abroad, but the mix gave this a good feel as part of the local community rather than an expat ghetto).

Inside Salvador's Coffee House in Kunming

And all the staff are local. In fact, read the inside cover of the menu and you’ll see that Salvador’s goes out of its way to employ and train up young women from Yunnan villages, offering them a stake in the business and giving them not only a salary but great skills which will take them far if ever they move on to other things.

The concept is so interesting and unique that there is a French anthropologist writing her PhD on the place – she’s virtually set up home in the café for now so go there in the next few weeks and you’ll surely see her propping up the bar (or indeed helping out wiping tables); after that she’ll be in the field in those Yunnan villages where the baristas come from. Should be a fascinating study.

But we were there mainly for the coffee (and cake, of course). And what we really liked about the coffee they have here is that it is all grown locally in Yunnan Province, and roasted by Salvador’s themselves (though they do also sell some Yunnan coffee roasted by others).

Yunnan coffee beans sold in Salvador's cafe in Kunming

It may not be the best coffee we ever tasted, but it’s a wonderful concept and we liked the place enough to return three or four times during our short stay in Kunming.

Coffee in Kunming at Salvador's

For traditional western coffee drinkers who also like cake with their cuppa, Salvador’s also comes up trumps, with some fantastically tasty and good value pumpkin muffins (though whether these are just seasonal – and so we got lucky – I’m not sure).

Salvador’s celebrated its 10th anniversary last September and both Colin and partner Kris seem just as full of new ideas as ever, so long may it continue (interestingly, they have diversified into Yunnan energy bars lately; and the Salvador’s concept has now launched in a nearby town of Lincang, only this time fully employee-owned).

So for coffee in Kunming, Salvador’s should not be missed.

A complete contrast to Salvador’s can be found about ten minutes’ walk away, heading towards Kunming’s big lake to the north of the town centre.

Kafka Cafe serving Julius Meinl in Kunming

Here we found Kafka Café, with a big sign over the front door telling us they get their coffee from Julius Meinl.

Now, I’m a big fan of Meinl, as large companies go, so I was keen to see how it tasted in Kunming. And if I’m really honest, I probably just preferred the cappuccino they served up here to the Yunnan coffee we had in Salvador’s.

Coffee in Kunming at Kafka Cafe

The Kafka Café also has a very relaxing feel with lots of space, light, and interesting spots to sit among the books, in the window or out the front on the terrace.

Inside Kafka Cafe in Kunming

They also did Yorkshire Tea, the first time I’d seen our tea from home in the far east (served in – virtually – a pint jug and black) – it was nice to try, though not quite the same as having it back in Yorkshire.

A pint of Yorkshire Tea in Kunming

And I have to say, I prefer the Salvador’s concept of going local rather than importing from thousands of miles away. So, although we enjoyed Kafka Café, it would probably be a 2nd choice for us for coffee or tea in Kunming.

But our Yunnan coffee journey didn’t end in Kunming.

Tom, the owner of the hostel we stayed in near Lijiang, is also a great coffee enthusiast, and he proudly served up Yunnan Coffee for us first thing in the morning (highly recommend his place, by the way: the October Inn is 15 minutes walk from the old town of Lijiang).

Early morning coffee at October inn in Lijiang

Lijiang Old Town is virtually impossible not to get lost in. It must be China’s equivalent of Venice in that way.

That meant we just couldn’t find Tom’s coffee supplier (which he had recommended and had told us was in a small shop just a few metres from the water wheel – in case you feel like trying for yourselves).

But amazingly, we did manage to find Prague Café.

Prague Cafe in Lijiang

We didn’t find out how they got their name, but this lovely coffee shop in Lijiang serves up more good Yunnan Coffee, with some great cakes for us westerners, catering also though for Chinese customers who seem to prefer noodles with their coffee (at least at the time of day we popped in…).

Cake and coffee in Lijiang at Prague Cafe

Actually, Prague serves up Lavazza in their espresso machine, keeping the Yunnan coffee for their pourover (and by the way, they also have lovely puer teas on the menu).

I’d recommend this place if you’re looking for tea or coffee in Lijiang. But it’s hard to give directions as we found it by chance: best I can do is, down the stream from the water wheel towards the market and it’s on a street just over a bridge half way down.

The view out of Prague Cafe in Lijiang

And I reckon that pretty well sums up their postal address too. But that is how things work in Lijiang.

Touristy it may be, but we loved the place. It made a fitting end to our time in Yunnan, the only province we’d probably rush to return to in all of China. But then it probably is the only province that produce both tea and coffee in China.

Empty cinemas, empty carriages – more of Kunming in pics

We had the extraordinary experience of watching a film totally alone in Kunming. In fact, at first when we tried to book the tickets, we were told in the way the Chinese have with words, ‘mei you’, which is usually used for food on menus when they haven’t got any, but this time meant the film was off.

Empty cinema in Kunming

In fact, they were probably thinking of cancelling the film we wanted to see since nobody had turned up, but they relented and let us in. So we got to see an American film with Chinese subtitles shown just for us…Wasn’t a great film, but the staff all waved goodbye as we left, so it was a hit with us and obviously entertained the staff to let two westerners in.

I may write more on this particular film experience if ever I do make this journey into a book, because sometimes sitting on your own in a 500-seater cinema is not quite as grand or luxurious as you may think, and hidden dangers might just lurk somewhere in the dark…But more on that at a later date…

The place I enjoyed most in Kunming was the old railway station, which used to be the starting point for trains to Hanoi, when this was right next to French Indochine, but is now a museum with some fascinating insights into train history.

Kunming to Hekou line

First up was a nice reminder of home, especially since we lived just ten miles from Darlington and my Mum was born in Stockton…

Stockton-Darlington railway

There were panels full of purple prose about the French colonialists exploiting the local population and destroying the beautiful Yunnan countryside to have the railway built, but also beautiful reminders of some of the rolling stock from days gone by. I could just picture this Michelin carriage plying the route maybe a hundred years ago

Michelin carriage on the Kunming to Hanoi line

Or the more basic third class Chinese carriage

Railways3rdClass

There were interesting names among the railway’s past suppliers. This piece of track was from Thyssen of Germany, sent in 1933…

Thyssen rail 1933

Some of the original planning documents are displayed, all in French of course

YunnanRailwayFrench

And I couldn’t help smiling at the staffing structure for when the railway was first built by the French, since the shape and style mirrors almost exactly a place I used to work in, although that wasn’t officially French…

OrganigrammeYunnanRailway

And last of all, this museum had something we see all over the place in the UK and western Europe,  but seems not yet to have caught on much in the east: a café in the museum. So, a lot of galleries and museums around both China and the rest of Asia could learn from this initiative at the Kunming railway museum. Service with a smile, too, by the way…

RailwaysCafe

The one thing I couldn’t see anywhere, in between the colonial start to the railways and the information on the superfast modern lines China is now building, was any explanation of why or when they closed the line to passengers wanting to get to Hanoi. Maybe it was linked to the Sino-Vietnam scuffles that took place in the late 1970s, but the museum stayed schtumm on the issue. They clearly don’t want to tell us so it’s simply left out of the museum’s narrative.

And that’s how you tell a story in China these days, it seems…

Tea in Chengdu’s People’s Park – that’s our kind of place, but beware the big Buddha

The top tip for tea in Chengdu from Tashkent’s tea shop owner Deng had been to go to the People’s Park in the centre of town. He was not wrong.

Line dancing in Chengdu's People's Park

On a Sunday afternoon the People’s Park is buzzing with bodies; thousands throng there every week just to do their thing, whether that be tai chi line dancing, Chinese opera busking, flower gazing or taking tea.

Reading over tea in Chengdu's People's Park

We enjoyed watching all of this, though only took part in the tea tasting bit.

Tea Garden entrance in the People's Park, Chengdu

Mind you, we got a few stares when we arrived in the ‘tea room’ and sat down for a cuppa. I guess they don’t get that many westerners in there, and they were probably intrigued to see how we’d go about drinking our tea.

You might think having a cuppa is something I should know something about. After all, I’ve probably had 10,000 or so cups since I began this tea and coffee blog.

But tea in Chengdu’s People’s Park is just a little bit different.

Menu at People's Park tea garden

The menu you get on taking your seat has ten or so teas on it, though none of them looked familiar to me. I plumped for the top one on the list, something called West Lake Tea.

Basically, the waitress (if you can call the lady in overalls who turned up at our table a waitress) chucked a handful of green leaves into a cup, and poured some water from a giant flask over the leaves.

Flask of tea in Chengdu tea garden

Now that may strike you as pretty normal. But then the problem comes how you manage to drink the tea without a mouthful of swollen green leaves. Not to mention knowing how long to let the tea brew.

I mean, I’m not a big fan of green tea at the best of times, but I’m willing to give most tea things a go, so after what felt like a suitable number of minutes, I tried to have a sip. Hmmm, it tasted more like a cup of warm water in which some lawn grass cuttings had been sitting.

This was not my favourite cuppa in the world, and those green leaves were making a beeline for my mouth.

That’s when I realised the lid-looking piece of crockery might just have those little dimples in it on purpose – maybe they weren’t chips in the china. Maybe you were actually supposed to sip the tea through the little gap they left if you turned the lid upside down and placed it over the tea.

Flasks at the ready in the People's Park tea garden

That did kind of work and made the tea palatable, though I think I’d choose another tea if I went there again.

Having said all that, the overall experience is fantastic.

The tea garden is packed with people sipping tea in between naps, while reading a novel, having a good old natter and a laugh with friends or playing a lively game of mah-jong.

And that big flask of water is all you need to refill and keep that cuppa going for hours, judging by the people around us.

All the travel guidebooks suggest Chengdu is packed full of tea houses.

The trouble we had was finding them. Without a good map it’s pretty hard to find anywhere, even with an address. And often we’d walk for hours (once we had a city map) only to find the tea room had closed down or was in fact a restaurant which also did teas.

So we didn’t come away from Chengdu with the best impression of its tea scene.

FancaoStreet

But we did also find a whole run of tea shops near Fancao Street (in the south of the city).

Fancao Street tea plaza

This felt like a more organised collection of People’s Park-type tea gardens, with wicker chairs where people sat to while away an afternoon at the mah-jong table or to have a siesta with a flask of hot water by their side.

Fancao Street tea houses in Chengdu

It’s a nice concept, though lacking in something to nibble (or cake to eat) along with the tea for our liking.

Chengdu certainly has hundreds of tea shops, but most of these are shops, places where you sample and buy tea rather than somewhere to socialise.

The People’s Park is a great place, though, and an insight into the real China we had come to see. I’d just steer clear of that West Lake tea in future…

While in Chengdu, we also took a day trip to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha, and the other wonders of the Buddhist world around him.

Giant Buddha in Leshan

There is a tea house of sorts right by the big Buddha’s head, and it had a terrace with fabulous views over the river below.

Tea house near the giant Buddha

We saw one couple sipping tea there, so sat at the next table to wait.

And, boy, did we wait. At first we were told by the other couple that the waitress had gone to the toilet and would be five minutes. Ten minutes later they shouted downstairs to get some attention, and were told she’d be another ten minutes. The other couple actually got so embarrassed on our behalf that they offered us some of their own tea while we waited…

When we’d been there 25 minutes and were about to leave, a rather sullen young woman came back (clearly from her lunch break) and rather grudgingly brought us what was actually a delicious chrysanthemum tea.

Chrysanthemum tea near the giant buddha

But instead of ‘sorry for the delay’ or ‘sorry I was at my lunch break’ (which was pretty extraordinary for a venue with only one member of staff), her first words were ‘you pay now’, and not even a smile with it.

Lovely tea house with worst service ever

So go to this tea house by all means, but expect possibly the worst service I have ever experienced in four years of reviewing. Having said that, the tea was good and the view tremendous.

TeaHouseCrysanthFlask

But that’s China…

They roast their own coffee in Chengdu, you know

I know Chengdu is a popular tourist destination, for its panda centre as much as for its location on the route to Tibet, but we were amazed just how many western-style coffee shops there were dotted around town. The ones we found were all run by Chinese, though we didn’t see a single local actually having a coffee in one!

Our first coffee in Chengdu was a completely chance find. We’d been wandering more or less aimlessly. Without wifi, without a map and with only a few basic words of Chinese, it is not easy to start navigating a coffee trail in a big city like Chengdu.

And even when we did find a street that seemed to have a fair range of decent-looking cafés at round about 10am, they were mostly shut, and had the look of bars that opened around midday.

We decided to take refuge in a hostel that claimed to serve good coffee. And that’s how we discovered The Loft, with its own coffee shop and a really nice, relaxed vibe. (It’s in Xiao Tong Xiang by the way)

The Loft hostel in Chengdu for good coffee

The coffee was in a different league to anything we’d drunk since we left Istanbul. A smooth, rich roast that was not too strong and left the palate craving more, that’s the kind of coffee I love.

Good coffee in Chengdu at The Loft hostel

As I ordered my second cup, I commented on how good it was, and was told that the roaster was one of China’s top coffee guys; he lives in Chengdu, they said, and runs his own coffee shop in another part of town. We made a note of the address and got ourselves over to Let’s Grind the next day.

Now, the thing about coffee shops in China is that – just as we’d found in Iran – they don’t tend to open for the early risers on their way to work or the university. Many only open at 12, and sure enough when we got to Let’s Grind at about 10.45am, it was boarded up and very much shut.

We went somewhere else down the same street and had a coffee that was not half as good as at The Loft, and felt very disgruntled, especially as there were no opening times on the door of Let’s Grind.

Let's Grind for coffee in Chengdu

Well folks, I’m pleased to report that Let’s Grind opens at 11am, so we went in for another coffee as their first customers of the day. Sadly, the owner and champion roaster guy (whose name I have written down somewhere, but it is lost in a pile of papers in my backpack – so I’ll add that it once we are at the end of our journey) was away for a few days in Shanghai, but his staff of baristas made us a fabulous cappuccino, and brought some cheesecake out of the fridge for us to wolf down while they had their breakfasts of meat and noodles.

Lots of coffees roasted by Let's Grind in Chengdu

They have a wonderful blend for the espresso machine, a whole range of options for the pourover coffees and some delicious-sounding single origins, all roasted locally in Chengdu. Let’s Grind is a real coffee lovers’ paradise.

Let's Grind menu in Chengdu

We returned with some other coffee-loving Brits we’d met a couple of days later. Again, we arrived at 11am, just as they were opening up, only to find out that the grinder had completely broken and they were unable to make us our coffees.

We had visions of the little café in Osh where they individually hand grind the coffee for each cup, but there didn’t seem to be a plan B for Let’s Grind. You could tell the barista was very upset, and we couldn’t help wondering what she’d be doing for the rest of the day, but we had to move on, with only the memory of the wonderful coffee we’d had on our first visit.

Go to Let's Grind for best cappuccino in Chengdu

Still, top tip for coffee in Chengdu has to be Let’s Grind in Tangba Street (that’s Tangba Jie and it’s an extension east of Dongsheng Street/Jie)

We only managed to try one other coffee shop during our time in Chengdu. Corner Coffee was well-placed just between Mao’s statue in the centre of town and the People’s Park (about which more in our blog on tea in Chengdu).

Corner Coffee in Chengdu

The coffee was not as good as Let’s Grind or The Loft, but it was a decent brew in a nice little place, with tasty cakes to go with it.

Coffee and cake in Chengdu at Corner Coffee

Coffee is blooming in Chengdu in a far bigger way than we’d seen in Xi’an, and there are far more independent coffee shops opening up in small premises. In that way, it’s growing into a coffee scene more like an average big city in the UK.

And with local roasters like the guy at Let’s Grind (name to follow, sorry) upping the quality, things are looking great for the future of coffee in the city.

What we’d struggle with is the timing of the opening hours. Very few are open early in the morning, and most open long into the evening, so coffee seems to be a sociable drink for afternoon/evening rather than a morning booster.

It’s not even a lunch time drink, since it’s rare outside the big chains like Starbucks to find anything savoury to have with your coffee in Chinese coffee shops. Cakes you may find, but even that not always.

Of course on this trip we haven’t been to Beijing or Shanghai, so it’s quite possible the coffee scene is developing differently and more quickly there, but Chengdu felt like it was a long way ahead of Xi’an.

Yunnan Province, China – our favourite part of the country (in pics)

Once we’d taken the decision not to go through Laos to Vietnam, we had a couple of days to spare before we wanted to leave China, so from Kunming we took a bus up to Lijiang, an old town on the ancient tea horse route to Tibet and beyond.

Sculpture marking the tea horse route from Lijiang

This is a beautiful part of the world, watched over by snowy mountain peaks, even though it is not very high altitude itself.

Mountain watching over Lijiang

MountainDicos

I guess in the high season Lijiang would be swarming with tourists, but for our visit in early November, it was pretty quiet relative to the big cities we’d been to in China. And we came away with a very positive image of the place.

Peppers protecting Lijiang

Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan Province

Lijiang, Yunnan Province

It’s probably very gimmicky, but we were rather enchanted by the number of local girls posing for pics in the ethnic Naxi costumes. These girls would pop up all over Lijiang in pretty spots, so they may not have posed for us, but they made great pics anyway.

Naxi costumes in Lijiang

Naxi costumes in Lijiang

Naxi costumes in Lijiang

NaxiCostumes

We also took a rattly old local bus the 12kms to the village of Baisha (great value bus fares, by the way, at about 10p for the long ride out there).

Frescoes in Baisha near Lijiang

Baisha is famous for its frescoes, dating back hundreds of years.

Baisha Embroidery Institute

But it also has an embroidery institute which drew us in. We watched the girls working away, and were told of how some were students, some teachers, some masters, with the masters’ work costing upwards of several thousand pounds.

Baisha embroidery master at work

We opted for a beautiful piece done by one of the students working in front of us – she seemed pretty pleased with our choice.

BaishaEmbroidStudent

And one last mention for our B&B/hostel in Lijiang. Outside the old town so less noisy, the October Inn is a beautiful spot (if you can find it), where owner Tom makes dinner every evening and wows everyone with his culinary delights.

Our room at October Inn, Lijiang

October Inn, Lijiang - top tip for accommodation Lijiang