THERE’S AN “only in China” feel to Lufeng Dinosaur Valley, with its kitschy models, dioramas, fun fair, zip line and museum housing hundreds of mounted skeletons, most – if not all – of which were discovered in the region.
Lufeng, in Yunnan province, is one of China’s most renowned dinosaur excavation sites and part of the museum building covers one of the main bone beds. Steps lead down from the exhibition hall to walkways and a section of glass suspended on scaffolding, through which visitors peer down to where dinosaur bones and a fossilised turtle shell have been left in place.
In one gallery I encounter a Lufengosaurus. Dating from the early Jurassic period, almost 200 million years ago, the beast was barely twice the size of a camel yet was among the forerunners of sauropods, the giant plant eaters. This specimen is laid out in a rectangular exhibit almost flush with the floor, unmounted, as if it had been brought here directly from its excavation.
From Lufeng I head for landscapes that had not even formed when dinosaurs roamed the land.
Onwards and westwards from Kunming, we cross a grand new bridge above the Nu River, which becomes the Salween when it flows into nearby Myanmar. The west bank of the river is bordered by the Gaoligongshan, a Himalayan mountain range thrust like a spur into subtropical China, and we take a winding road up to Baihualing.
The hillside village is benefiting from a fast-growing form of nature tourism: the photographing of forest birds. Villagers have set up at least 30 feeding and watering stations in the surrounding forest. At each there’s a simple hide made from netting and poles, the people within barely visible to the birds that arrive for the proffered fruit and mealworms.
I pay 40 yuan (HK$46) and spend a couple of hours in one of the hides, photographing a beautiful black-throated thrush, blue magpies with extravagantly long tails and a chunky flycatcher with shining blue upper parts.
The hills above are within the protected Gaoligongshan National Park, which boasts a wealth of plant and animal species. Simply finding – let alone photographing – forest birds along its trails proves challenging, until I come upon trees festooned in creamy blossoms, their nectar a magnet for small birds in search of an energy-rich feast.
With little else but verdant grassy patches and views over the woods to lower hills in the distance, this seems a wild place. Yet a signpost calls it The Old Street, noting that the trail lies along the path of the ancient Southern Silk Road and hereabouts “used to be a busy and prosperous market, crowded with taverns, lodges and teahouses”.
Though less well known than the Silk Road which passed north of the Himalayas, this was an important trade route, along which tea bound for India travelled. There’s still a good path – its stone boulders recalling those on Hong Kong trails – but it’s now used by hikers who cross a pass at 3,200 metres before descending the western slopes of the Gaoligongshan. As one group departs, their gear in baskets strapped to horses, I glimpse something of the scene that must have unfolded regularly when The Old Street wasn’t so old.
Cheung Ho-fai, former chairman of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, arrives in Baihualing, having agreed to guide us for the rest of our trip. Now based in nearby Baoshan, Cheung aims to foster bird conservation across Yunnan.
First, we drive north along the Nu, then up and over Feng Xue Yakou – the “Pass of Snow and Wind”. There’s no snow but the pass is swathed in dense cloud, putting a damper on birdwatching.
We overnight in Pianma, a small town on the Myanmar border surrounded by hills.
“This was very busy with the timber trade,” says Cheung, indicating a number of storage yards – metal-roofed, open-sided warehouses – stacked with logs. The remains of once mighty trees are strewn by the roadside, bearing sad testimony to the pillaging of primary forests in northern Myanmar. Logging and exportation are illegal but the current hiatus may be more down to a glut in the China market than legal controls.
During the second world war, Pianma was within “The Hump”, the mountainous region over which Allied transport planes crossed as they flew supplies from India to Chinese forces battling Japanese invaders. The terrain, weather and attacks by enemy fighter planes made this an extremely hazardous journey, and nearly 1,000 men and 600 planes were lost.
The wreckage of one of the aircraft – a Douglas C-53 Skytrooper piloted by American James Fox – was found nearby, and it has been pieced together to form what’s now the centrepiece of a museum in Pianma.
After we’ve inspected the Skytrooper, the curator asks, “Do you want to visit the anti-British exhibition?” Being British, I find it impossible to refuse.
In a smaller gallery are photos, including some of tribespeople carrying muskets, from early last century, when British officials sparked a border dispute by laying claim to land, including Pianma, along the Burma-Yunnan border. I depart the museum feeling appropriately chastised.
We leave the Gaoligongshan and head towards Yingjiang (“bountiful river”) county. We spend a night in Nabang, a small town that is at peace. It isn’t always so, though; adjoining Laiza in Kachin state, on the Myanmar side of the border, Nabang has in recent years been hit by shells as fighting between rebels and the Myanmese government has spilled over.
At Hornbill Valley, we find a fine mix of birds – including hornbills, which are huge yet mainly eat tiny fig fruits – in protected forest that’s barely safeguarding some of the species against extinction.
We enter a village that served as a way station for logging trucks but which now lies neglected and forlorn. Home to a handful of families, its few stores and restaurants seem to be waiting for business that has long since moved on. With just a single road, it reminds me of an American Wild West town, and I half expect Clint Eastwood to ride in, watched by a couple of people behind twitching curtains and, of course, the undertaker. Only a stream separates us from Myanmar.
Just under 100km away, Ruili, the main border city, fails to live up to its reputation as a hub for drugs and associated shenanigans, with ladies riding scooters, complete with sun umbrellas, along the tree-lined boulevards of what appears to be a typical laid-back southern Chinese metropolis.
On our final morning, we visit the colourful Puti Temple. On a low hill, topped with the Menghuan Grand Golden Pagoda, the temple abounds with richly detailed statues of monks and elephants, a reclining Buddha with a splendid Tree of Life painting as backdrop. Not only does it eclipse Hong Kong’s Po Lin Monastery, this complex rivals the best Thailand has to offer.
The same can be said for the surrounding countryside.