Lay of the land
This is peak-hour traffic of a kind not found in Hong Kong. There are cars aplenty but they're bumper to bumper with motorcycles, water buffalo, hand-pulled carts, rusty bicycles and other ancient vehicles that still pass as transport in rural China.
On the pavement, scrawny chickens dart about anxiously and mangy dogs scrap in mock combat. Amid plumes of sunlit dust, children chase each other through market stalls while the womenfolk huddle together, animated in conversation.
Road trips might not be everybody's cup of puer tea but you've little choice if you want to sidestep the mainland's big cities and tourist routes to visit more remote regions. A good guide and a Global Positioning System (GPS) device make such a trip possible.
Among the five of us squeezed into a four-wheel-drive on a two-week road trip of about 4,000 kilometres is our guide, Peter Schindler, a racing-car driver who has turned his passion for switchbacks into a self-drive touring business, On the Road in China. We're exploring Sichuan and Yunnan, heading south from Chengdu, to the Myanmese border and on to Kunming. Schindler is using the trip to scout for hotels and restaurants, measure distances and log GPS co-ordinates for clients who will get behind the wheel themselves - although they will have the support of a lead car and guide.
Driving through these provinces would be almost impossible for an outsider without such support. For foreigners, renting a car in the mainland is a process dogged by bureaucracy. Once on the road, orientation is a problem. Apart from the language barrier, the national road atlas is a collation of provincial maps that do not conform to scale. Following a road from one page to the next requires the patience of a Buddhist monk. The maps aren't necessarily accur- ate either. Some highways, marked clearly on the page, have not yet been built. Schindler aims to help travellers overcome such difficulties so they can enjoy the freedom and adventure of the road.
And what a ride it is. Southwest China has some of the country's most awe-inspiring scenery, with an equal mix of dirt road and smooth bitumen well suited to touring. Sichuan, on the edge of the Great Tibetan Plateau, is mountainous and green and the roads duck and dive over steep passes, through rocky gorges and along the gushing red rivers.
Two pit stops punctuate this leg of the journey. Just south of Chengdu, Emei Shan is one of the mainland's four sacred Buddhist mountains. Pilgrims journey here to visit monasteries, including the country's first Buddhist temple, built in the first century. Others come to hike, immersing themselves physically and spiritually in an enigmatic environment, home to vast tea tree crops, pine forests and feisty monkeys.
Nearby, Leshan's remarkable Dafo - which, at 71 metres high, is the world's tallest seated Buddha - has been carved into the cliff face at the confluence of three rivers. Its seven-metre ears and eight-metre big toe are worthy in their own right of pious observation.
Food is a topic that is returned to often on the road, mostly inspired by the scenery: spreads of red Sichuan peppers dry in the sun, cauldrons of noodle broth bubble in front of blackened kitchens and cobs of corn hang under rooftop eaves.
Schindler has an aptitude for finding excellent restaurants and food stalls in the most unlikely of places and we get to sample everything from twice-cooked suckling pig and marinated mushrooms to fiery chilli beef loaded with Sichuan pepper.
Yunnan province is just as enticing as its neighbour. In the north, it shares Sichuan's topography but as we journey south, banana palms and rice paddies become ever-more prevalent. At least half of China's native flora species grow in the province, which boasts a large share of the country's parks and reserves. Home to members of 26 of the mainland's 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities, Yunnan's cultural diversity is also fascinating.
The Mosuo, on the Sichuan-Yunnan border, near cloud-shrouded Lugu Lake, exist as the mainland's last matriarchal society. The children retain their mother's name while the men live and work in their mother's household, visiting their partners at night.
Further south, the Naxi, a related minority, have their stronghold in the ancient town of Lijiang, where timber-and-earth houses with tiled rooves line a labyrinth of cobbled streets and laneways. The souvenir shops and the walls of its aged buildings, inscribed with hieroglyphics, provide a glimpse into Naxi culture.
A few more hours in the car brings us to Dali, a beautiful city with its surrounding wall still intact.
The last leg of the journey is arduous. A green line on the map should be a highway but, in reality, more closely resembles a dirt track. An expected half-hour cruise turns into a four-hour pothole-avoidance exercise, albeit with excellent scenery. Schindler will have to re-jig the entire itinerary to avoid this bit. But not us. Twelve hours after we set out, we climb the winding road to the Yuanyang rice terraces.
Surrounding us are 12,500 hectares of striking steep hillsides ribboned by horizontal furrows. Cultivating rice on otherwise impenetrable terrain is an ancient horticultural practice of the Hani minority, who live and work here alongside the Yi, Miao and Yao ethnic groups. Filled with water, the terraces reflect the golden and pink hues of the rising and setting sun: a marvel to behold.
In the front seat of a four-wheel drive, with the window down, there's nothing to do but take it all in.