Neon-lit Caves & The Stone Forest – Yunnan

Traveling to Yunnan can be difficult as a foreigner especially because of the language barrier. I guess that’s why it took my parents almost 3 years to come visit me! Attempting to be a tour guide was an experience. From the miscommunication about losing pre-booked train tickets (I’m looking at you, Ctrip!) to having my Dad getting lost for over an hour in a neon-lit psychedelic cave outside Kunming to haggling with the locals and getting turned around numerous times. But that’s the fun part about traveling. Not going directly from A to B and not having everything work out smoothly, as planned.

The experience was worth it and it’s something I’ll always remember. Because I believe a big part of life is about making memories and telling stories from experiences.

Boats docked on Er Hai Lake

To the extent that experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience, having a better memory would mean knowing not only more about the world, but also more about ourselves.

We got to the airport around 6:45 am and our flight to Kunming was delayed about an hour. It had started to rain and my parents and I were looking forward to getting out of Shanghai. Flights getting delayed are to be expected when traveling in China.

After we landed and collected our bags we caught a cab after avoiding the pian ren 骗人, literal translation (cheat people) aka scammers, who were trying to charge us over $30. We pushed our way through and found a cab. Our driver was a nice old woman and she helped us get to our hotel. As we rode and we chatted about boring stuff like the weather and where we were from she mentioned places we should go. After struggling for a while trying to understand her dialect, I learned some pronunciation differences. It might sound small but when it comes to Chinese and tones the wrong usage and you can be saying something completely embarrassing.

It reminded me of this one time I was in a small town called Moganshan.

We went to Shilin 石林 or the “Stone Forest” which was about an hour and a half outside Kunming. We hired a driver for the day for cheap. When we got to the entrance we took an electric shuttle bus to the ticket office then hopped on another bus that would drop us off at a certain section of the park. The Stone Forest is a perfect place if you’re a screenwriter looking to film a set in some far-off distant alien planet. The stones shoot up abruptly and sharp as if unnatural. Like someone had planted them. A perfectly manicured green lawn with thousands of light and dark gray stones jutting up from the earth, knife-like.

Shilin – Stone Forest

We hiked randomly to different parts of the forest park and along the way met a Chinese girl from Beijing named Liu Yang. She tagged along and we ended up going together to Jiu Xiang Cave, which was a larger and more scenic version of the Reed Flute Caves in Guilin. The cave is huge with rushing water below carving its way through all the crevices. Inside the stalagmites and stalactites are alien looking, lit up with different bright neon colors. Halfway through the cave, we came upon fossilized ancient mushrooms, different gems, and rocks displayed behind glass on shelves. Saw a group of people hovered over a fish tank. I was wondering what was so special and when taking a closer look I realized that the cavefish didn’t have any eyes and were blind.

After taking the cable cars back and spending some time wandering around looking for my Dad because we got separated, we finally met up at the exit. We then drove back to Kunming. After exchanging our WeChats and sending stickers we dropped Liu Yang off at the train station.

We left Kunming for Dali and took the night train.

In Dali and laying in bed at the Sky Valley Hotel. We’re all burnt red from yesterday’s bike and electric scooter ride throughout Dali and around Erhai Lake aka “Ear-shaped Lake”. We first rented bikes from our ancient 100+year-old hotel, which we had some trouble finding. Our taxi driver was a young lady and she originally took us to another part of town, which had tons of construction, dogs, and rats. This couldn’t be the beautiful place advertised online, so after going in a large circle carrying all our luggage looking like typical, lost tourists we asked around and were eventually pointed in the right direction. Now, this is what we’re talking about!

We couldn’t check in till 2 pm so we rented bikes from the hotel and rode around and got lost. Eventually, my Dad spotted some electric scooters and for $15 we rented two of them for the day. Best decision. No more pedaling. We rode everywhere and saw a lot more. The Chinese “aqueduct” construction, beautiful new homes, green rice fields, large nets being dried out, small shrimp being caught and prepared. We stopped at a couple of places to eat them fried and also at another point to drink some beers and have “juice” wine. We were amused at all the people yelling “hello!” to us.


Negotiated with an old lady so my mom could buy some original tie-dye cloth. We ended up getting lost and I asked a guy to help find the address, he hops on and my parents followed behind. We got to an intersection and the place doesn’t look right, but the area feels familiar. I get him to call the phone number and we barely make it back as the scooter battery was almost dead. We got back around 4pm all red and exhausted from the day. Had clay pot chicken, goat cheese, and garlic vegetables for dinner.

Spending time in Dali was great and we agreed we should have stayed longer. Not expecting the rain that would hit us in Lijiang we took the train.

On the ride over we met a family. A mom, a 10-year-old daughter named Fiona and grandma. We chatted for a while and found out they came from Xi’an. Awhile later a train conductor came by and sat with the family on the bottom bunk. We talked some and I explained a lot about Mom and Dad and shared pictures. The Mom asked to take a photo with me and Fiona sitting together before we got off the train in Lijiang. As we were walking out and we got separated the Mom ran up to me to get my WeChat, as we continued I asked where the taxis were but she had already arranged for a van to take them into town so we caught a ride. We said goodbye and the driver ended up taking us to Shuhe Old Town where we were staying.

The place was nice and eclectic with a couple of dogs named Papi and Louie. One is old and smells, half blind and half deaf. The other one is a red poodle and my mom makes the joke that she looks like fried chicken. We ended up eating dinner here. Jiao zi, egg and tomato noodles, and famous “baba” bread which is a type of thick, round, heavy bread that is prepared either plain or with various fillings by the Naxi people of north-western Yunnan.

When we woke up the next morning we were greeted by Louie and Papi. We had coffee, eggs, toast and “baba “ bread. After, we walked down to Shuhe, the Old Town and explored the streets. So many different kinds of dogs here. We found a scooter shop and rented two bikes for the day. We rode down to Snow Mountain about 15km and stopped along the way to a small village that had ethnic tribes hanging out in huts. Left after 30min and just rode around some more. It started to rain some so we turned back to the old town and parked and ate lunch. Lijiang was fun but it was all over too quickly.

And just like that after a week, we were heading back to Shanghai. But not too fast, because our flight was delayed. As is the case for most flights in China!

Joseph Pallante
Joseph Pallante
An avid traveller, Joe enjoys spending time exploring the New Zealand countryside. In his spare time, he travels around in his campervan, writes about nature and how to live a frugal and sustainable lifestyle.

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