Five things to do in China’s volcanic city of Tengchong: from hiking the Gaoligong Mountains to relaxing in hot springs
Tengchong is located just 50 kilometres from Myanmar in the southern province of Yunnan. The city is well known for volcanic activity, so try your hand at hiking the Gaoligong Mountains or simply relax in a hot spring
Landing in Tengchong is an exciting experience. The plane banks steeply several times, before touching down in a gap between two thickly forested mountainsides. If you pay attention, you will realise that some of these flat-topped mountains are, in fact, volcanic cones.
Tengchong is perched near the southwest edge of China, just 50 kilometres from Myanmar in the southern province of Yunnan. The identity and wealth of this small, subtropical city grew from its position on the crossroads between China and Mandalay and beyond, on the loose network of trading routes that are now known as the Southern Silk Road, or the Tea and Horse Trail.
Tengchong is not an easy travel destination for foreigners. There is no information in English and staff at most hotels only speak Mandarin. It caters almost exclusively to the needs and tastes of domestic tourists, who come to soak in the hot springs, hike up a volcano, and sample the local cuisine.
But for those who have the resilience and patience to step off the beaten path, Tengchong is generous in its rewards.
“Tengchong portrays the diversity of Yunnan like no other place can – diversity of landscapes, people, and also, very importantly, food,” says Frank Hitman, a Dutchman whose company Zouba Tours have been taking Westerners to the area for the past 10 years.
If you’re lucky enough to venture to this part of the world, here are five things you must see and do.
1. Visit the Tea and Horse Trail old village of Heshun
Heshun Ancient Village, a well-preserved Ming dynasty hub on the Tea and Horse Trail, is the tourist centrepiece of Tengchong. The wealth that settled here throughout the centuries of trading fuelled remarkable architecture and cultural growth. The ponds and pavilions that you can still see today once made a famed poet compare the remote Heshun village to the great cultural centre of Suzhou, a city to the west of Shanghai.
Now, Heshun has been reinvented as a jade trading hub. Take a stroll through the narrow streets laid with slabs of porous volcanic rock to be dazzled by the rows of blue jadeite, red jade,amber and agates laid out in the shops. The owners welcome you to take photos, but buy the more expensive gems at your own risk, as you may be overcharged unless you are an expert.
Unfortunately, Heshun is now suffering from excessive development because of increased tourism. On the plus side, good restaurants and coffee shops with Wi-fi connections have sprung up around the area, and a 20 yuan (US$3) turtle or elephant carved out of volcanic rock makes a good souvenir. The locals go about their daily lives oblivious to the tourists milling around.
2. Explore the Gaoligong Mountains
Lying 50 kilometres to the east of Tengchong, the low and narrow Gaoligong Mountains run north to south in an almost exact straight line, with the mighty Salween River washing against their Eastern flank.
The subtropical jungle which covers Gaoligong is home to some of the greatest biodiversity in China – clouded leopard, red panda, endangered gibbons, and a vast variety of bird and plant species.
You can enjoy a day hike on an original section of the Tea and Horse Trail but getting there and back from Tengchong is more of a challenge than the jungle itself. First you must get to the remote village of Dahaoping. A village bus can take you there from Tengchong’s Daolida Bus Station, but local buses leave early, and the ride will take three to four hours (there is no fixed schedule).
From Dahaoping, a well-marked stone path takes you straight up into Gaoligong. The stonework dates to the Ming dynasty, but this very trail had been used by caravans since the times of the Roman Empire till the 1950s. Stepping on these worn-out stone slabs is like hiking the Great Wall, albeit a very low one, overgrown with moss and shaded by liana-strangled trees – not to mention you will be completely alone.
There are no hotels at Dahaoping, but you can talk with the locals, who may put you up for the night. Bringing your own sleeping bag is essential as the locals’ houses can be extremely basic.
3. Sample the local food
Yunnan is famous for its rice noodles and chillies. In Tengchong, the local staple is dajiujia, flat rice noodles fried with vegetables, eggs, pork, and chillies, and served in a spicy soup.
The variety of ingredients used locally is bewildering – wild fungi, jungle fruit, wildflowers and insect larvae (hornet pupae are a prized local treat).
“At the market I buy guests certain fruits from the jungle to try,” says Hitman. “They taste incredibly bitter, but then twist your taste buds and make everything suddenly taste sweet.”
One of the best local restaurants is called Qiao Xiang Zhai (tel: +86 875-5159666), a century-old courthouse on the outskirts of Tengchong. Try their xi dou fen – a jellylike substance made out of bean paste. The jelly comes with several flat pancakes which are torn up and added to it. Condiments are arranged in two lines, to be added in certain order. Stringy but delicious wild fungi are also thrown in.
4. Soak in the hot springs
The active volcanoes that surround Tengchong do not look threatening; their low, gently sloping calderas are covered by lush jungle. But they are active, and their underground energy fuels hundreds of local hot springs.
The best place for a soak is the Angsana Tengchong Hot Spring Village Resort (angsana.com), where for about 3,000 yuan you can spend a night in luxury and be assured of quality service in English. There are a number of other local hot springs, too. Rehai Geothermal Scenic Area is one, but it helps to speak Mandarin.
5. Visit the Dianmian Anti-Japan War Museum
Unknown to most, Tengchong played a crucial role in the second world war. Japanese forces advanced from Burma (now Myanmar) and threatened to cut off China’s supplies from British-ruled India. The now legendary volunteer pilots known as The Flying Tigers – led by American officers, and aided by US air power – fought under the Nationalist Chinese Expeditionary Force, taking on the Japanese and stopping them from advancing further into China.
During the cold war the Americans and the Nationalist soldiers fell on the wrong side of ideology and were written out of history, but now they are once again warmly welcomed by the Yunnanese.
This modern second world war museum, where statues of American commanders stand shoulder to shoulder with those of their Chinese comrades, spans every subject of this period in local history. It includes dramatic, yet realistic, panoramas of the Battle for Tengchong and a section dedicated to the sufferings of “comfort women” (a Japanese euphemism for the sex slaves its armed forces recruited to serve in military-run brothels during the second world war).
Entrance to the Dianmian Anti-Japan War Museum is free, and the museum is a short taxi ride from anywhere in Tengchong.
Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, Hong Kong Express, and China Eastern fly direct to Kunming in about 2 hours and 45 minutes. From Kunming, there are a dozen flights a day to Tengchong, and the flight time is under an hour.
Tengchong has a bus system, but metered taxis are the best way to get around. Alternatively, you can hire a car and a driver through your hotel. The prices are around 300 yuan for half a day and 600 for full day, depending on the vehicle and the destinations.
There are plenty of options, but Tengchong Zuoyouke Hotel (+86 875-5195666) is clean and new, and the staff are very helpful – some even speak English. The hotel’s inexpensive restaurant is excellent. Prices start at around 450 yuan a night.
Zouba Tours (zoubatours.com) are happy to answer your queries. Another good reference for Tengchong and Yunnan is GoKunming.com