Perched on the western edge of Yunnan, Tengchong (腾冲) has long been overlooked by the majority of travelers to Yunnan, but that is changing quickly.
The first sentence about Tengchong in the Chinese-language Lonely Planet Yunnan puts it a bit ominously: "Tengchong is becoming a new hot spot in Yunnan, headed in the same direction as Lijiang."
Hot springs, volcanoes, wetlands, important historical sites, a charming old town, the majestic Gaoligong Mountains (高黎贡山) and the possibility of good deals on jade are luring growing numbers of package tourists and individual travelers from around China.
Despite the increase in tourists, Tengchong is not yet overrun by tourism and maintains a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere. We recently spent five days in Tengchong to learn more about one of Yunnan's up-and-coming travel destinations.
The city of Tengchong – which is the administrative center of Tengchong County – has a population of only around 45,000, which makes for a rather quiet Chinese city experience. That said, the big trucks frequently barreling through Tengchong's wide streets do detract a bit from the city's otherwise laid-back vibe.
Most residents of Tengchong are ethnic Han, many of whom are descendants of settlers who came here during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The next biggest group is the Muslim Hui people, who have a fairly visible presence throughout the city. Tengchong is also home to small populations of Lisu and Dai people.
Easily explored by foot, most of Tengchong's downtown area fits within a square mile. There are bilingual Chinese and English signs pointing the way to major attractions, and much of the city has wide sidewalks paved with volcanic rock.
There are several interesting sites within Tengchong, many of which highlight the small city's historical importance to China. Much of Tengchong's character comes from its traditional role as the southwesternmost outpost of ethnic Han culture and also as one of China's main gateways to Burma – now known as Myanmar. In today's China, Tengchong's importance in the fight against Japanese invaders in the early 20th Century is probably its greatest claim to fame.
Tengchong's WWII legacy
Tengchong was a well-established trade outpost by the time the British Empire expanded into Burma. In 1931, the British had already established a consulate in Tengchong, which served both strategic and economic needs – at that time the empire was doing a million British pounds' worth of trade in Tengchong annually. The old British consulate, located in the city's center, is currently under renovation.
During World War II, Burma was taken from the British by the Japanese, who saw Yunnan as a backdoor to Chiang Kai-Shek's provisional capital in Chongqing. In 1942 the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Tengchong, expelling Chiang's Guomindang troops.
In May of 1944, thousands of Chinese soldiers, mostly Guomindang but also with a few Communists, managed to retake Tengchong with American air assistance. It was a great victory for China, but at the cost of more than 3,000 soldiers' lives. Today the National Cemetery to the Fallen of World War II (国殇墓园) on Songyuan Lu (松园路) on the west side of the city is a reminder of the great sacrifices made almost 70 years ago in and around Tengchong.
The cemetery's front courtyard is filled with statues depicting scenes from Tengchong's occupation and subsequent liberation, with bilingual explanations of their significance. Heading upward into the hillside memorial compound, there is a small hall with the flags of the Guomindang and the Republic of China flanking a portrait of Sun Yat-Sen. Such a show of respect to the Guomindang, and display of the republican flag, which today is the flag of Taiwan, is extremely rare on the Chinese mainland.
Next to the hall is a small graveyard for the 18 American soldiers who perished in the fighting to reclaim Tengchong for China. Led by Major William C McMurrey, who was killed in action and is buried in the graveyard, this group of fallen Americans has been given a VIP location at the front of the graveyard area.
Up a short flight of stairs, the large number of Chinese deaths is put into perspective by a hillside with more than 3,000 small headstones with the rank and names of those who lost their lives in the fierce battles for Tengchong that were crucial in preventing China's collapse. The memorial is free to enter and is open from 8am to 8:30pm.
A three-minute walk up Songyuan Lu from the memorial brings visitors to a rather unexpected site: the Dieshuihe Waterfall (叠水河瀑布), an urban waterfall consisting of a drop of more than 40 meters made by the Daying River (大盈江). As one might expect, the waterfall has inspired local poets and painters for centuries.
Even during the dry season, the gushing waterfall is an impressive and calming sight to behold. Within the waterfall park area, there is also a short climb to reach the Longguang Platform (龙光台), which is a relaxing place to sit down and rest in the shade while taking in the sounds of the waterfall below. The waterfall area costs 20 yuan to enter and is open from 8am to 7pm, staying open one hour later in the summer.
A 10-minute walk southeast of the memorial and waterfall, Laifeng Mountain (来凤山) sits imposingly on Tengchong's edge, with the Wenbi Pagoda (文笔塔) rising above the treetops at the small mountain's peak.
We entered the park that occupies the upper half of Laifeng Mountain, opting to hike up the stone steps of the forest path rather than taking the longer paved road. A pleasant but fairly demanding 20-minute walk up the hill brought us huffing and puffing to Wenbi Pagoda. We were looking forward to the good city views the pagoda surely offers, but it happened to be locked. Regardless, it was a nice short hike that made the city feel far away. Laifeng Mountain is open daily 8am through 5:30pm and is free to enter.
Heading down the mountain toward the city leads to Fengshan Lu (凤山路), which cuts through the center of Tengchong. Remnants of old Tengchong still exist in several small pockets on both sides of the road, offering a chance to imagine the city as it once was. There are several large plots of land where old buildings have recently been demolished to make way for real estate developments, and it seems likely that most of the old buildings that remain will be demolished in the coming years.
Many of the recently built real estate projects feature commercial spaces that tend to be filled with jade, all of which comes from nearby Myanmar. The eastern end of Fengshan Lu itself is a pedestrian street consisting almost exclusively of jade shops. As Tengchong is a major processing center for jadeite, one of the two minerals on Earth recognized as jade, there is an abundance of shops selling finished jade jewelry and jade carvings.
There is another kind of jade available in Tengchong – so-called "gambling stones" (赌石), rocks that obviously have some kind of jade within, but the quality is not certain. Small bits of the gambling stones' crusts have been chipped away to allow potential buyers to shine a flashlight into the rock in an attempt to glean the quality of the jade within.
Given that gambling is illegal in China, gambling stones offer a unique way for cash-rich Chinese tourists to risk large amounts of money on the chance to strike it rich. Despite the seemingly high risk of gambling stones, they are quite pricey. A stone the size of a small apple may go for a few thousand yuan. Rocks the size of a large watermelon may run as much as 250,000 yuan – quite a lot of money to drop on something that is not guaranteed to be worth anywhere near that much. Needless to say, gambling stone sales are final and no returns are allowed.
Rehai: Geothermal getaway
Much of Tengchong's personality comes from being a strategic outpost that has historically connected China with Burma, but another large part of its character comes from the mountains, volcanoes and hot springs that surround the city.
Volcanic rock is everywhere in Tengchong, it is used to pave most of the city's sidewalks and even to make public benches. It is also used extensively in the hot spring resorts 12 kilometers to the city's south in the area known as Rehai (热海).
Featuring more than 80 hot springs in a scenic mountain valley, Rehai is the most popular hot spring resort area around Tengchong. Rehai has more than a dozen spas and hotels with hot springs and massage treatments, most of which are in a geothermal park area that costs 60 yuan to enter.
After reading one spa's boast that more than 2,000 bathers per day pass through its waters, we skipped the comparatively expensive and overtrafficked hot springs options within the ticketed area. Instead, we took a short uphill hike to a smaller and more modest hot springs experience at Huangguaqing Hot Springs (黄瓜箐温泉疗养院) which can be reached by walking the road or quiet dirt path roughly one kilometer north from the Rehai ticket office.
Within the pay-to-enter part of Rehai, the cheapest hot springs are 260 yuan per person. Smaller, off-the-beaten-track family hot springs resorts such as Huangguaqing offer two hours in a small private room with hot spring for 70 yuan, or a larger room big enough for four or five people for 150 yuan, with massages running a very reasonable 20 to 40 yuan. After soaking for an hour or so in our private room, our muscles were relaxed and our spirit at ease.
The Beihai Wetlands are another good reason to get out of the city. Roughly 12km northeast of the county seat, this area has been protected since 2004.
The main reason to visit the wetlands is for the tranquil scenery, which is dominated by water and the surrounding mountains. Most of the area is covered with one to two meters of water but some spots are much deeper. In May orchids bloom around the wetlands, splashing color across a million green patches.
Visitors to the wetlands can walk around on the limited walking paths, which were still wooden walkways when we visited, with larger metal and plastic walkways soon to go into operation. For an additional 20 yuan on top of the 40 yuan entry fee, visitors can take a half-hour boat cruise through the wetlands.
We went during the week when visitors are fewer and had a boat which could have had another 10 people in it to ourselves. The sound of rippling water, wind blowing through grass, chirping insects and a far-off tractor were all we heard.
Slowly paddling us around the wetlands, our boatman told us the area was once a popular source of fish for people in Tengchong and nearby villages, but fishing is now prohibited. The ban on fishing the wetlands has had a positive impact on its fish population but is not heeded by all the nearby villagers, he said. Regardless, it was good to see that the conservation efforts at Beihai Wetlands have been largely successful, despite the growing numbers of tourists passing through the area each year.
Heshun: Rustic charm
Visitors to Tengchong lamenting the continuing demolition of the older parts of the city will likely enjoy Heshun (和顺), a well-preserved village just 4km west of Tengchong. Heshun is a large cluster of old mud-brick courtyard homes, many dating back to the Ming Dynasty. The idyllic village sits above vast expanses of farmland and is surrounded by low mountains and four volcanoes, identifiable by their concave peaks.
An 80-yuan ticket to enter the old town and a recently constructed shopping area known as Heshun Xiaoxiang (和顺小巷) that masquerades as a cultural center are two reminders that even tiny Heshun is fully plugged into the modern Chinese tourism industry.
That initial bit of commercialism aside, Heshun doesn't feel overdeveloped yet. Perhaps hoping to avoid the shopping mall feel of Lijiang's old town of Dayan, local officials have banned Heshun residents from selling their ancestral homes to outsiders and are actively encouraging locals to convert their homes into guesthouses known as minju (民居).
Minju typically offer no-frills standard rooms for 120 to 150 yuan (minju with especially good views may cost more) plus home-cooked meals, bicycle rental and tourist services at additional cost. They are also a great way to understand the history and people of Heshun, as many minju are homes that have been passed down for more than 20 generations.
Heshun is not just famous for its beautiful old homes, it is also known for having business-savvy locals who often move to far corners of China or overseas to engage in trade. One of the village's more interesting buildings is the Heshun Library (和顺图书馆), which was built with funds sent back by locals working overseas nearly a century ago. The elegant compound is a testament to the importance of both trade and education to this village of 3,000.
A short climb above Heshun, Zhongtian Temple (中天寺) offers tranquil environs and a few nice vistas of the town and fields below. Walking back down from the temple, we were invited into the home of a man surnamed Yin, who was walking with his toddler grandson.
As we sipped on tea that had been grown uphill from the temple, Yin asked if his comfortable courtyard home would make a good guesthouse. The heat of the midafternoon sun momentarily subsided as a cool breeze swirled through the courtyard and rustled the bamboo outside the compound's walls. We left our name and number so that he could let us know when his minju was ready for guests.
Back in Tengchong, we sat outside the guesthouse where we were staying and drank fresh passionfruit juice while munching on banana roti. It was our last night in town, and we were disappointed that we had failed to make it to several points of interest outside of Tengchong, including a volcano park, Yunfeng Temple and Yinhuagu, another hot spring area.
While watching the clouds above the hills to the west fade from pink to purple to black, we listened to Chinese and Indians having a lively conversation in Burmese. We were overcome by the feeling that we had only scratched the surface of Tengchong, and we were already looking forward to our next visit.
Food and drink
Blessed with agricultural abundance and near the biodiversity of the Gaoligong Mountains, Tengchong is full of unique local food experiences. Some of the most flavorful rice in Yunnan – or China for that matter – grows in the area around Tengchong.
Two of Tengchong's best-known dishes, dajiujia (大救驾) and ersi (饵丝), are made from erkuai (饵块), a heavy rice pancake made with local rice. Dajiujia is large pieces of erkuai stir-fried with pork (egg can also be substituted for pork), greens, tomatoes and chili peppers. It is typically served with suantang, a simple spicy and sour soup that is quite a sensory experience.
Tengchong ersi is finely shredded erkuai served in a light broth with shredded cabbage and pork. It is usually accompanied by a condiment tray featuring a selection of oils and seasonings to customize one's bowl.
Tengchong County is a famous source of hundreds of the herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), many of which also find their way into local cuisine. Tianma (天麻), a medicinal herb used to treat nausea, headaches and even epilepsy, is often an ingredient in chicken soup in Tengchong. Yebaohao (野坝蒿) is a popular tea noted in TCM for its cooling properties. It is also the tea used to make the popular sweetened drink Wanglaoji (王老吉).
Courageous diners can indulge desires they may have to eat insects in Tengchong. Hornet pupa – fengyong (蜂蛹) – is probably the most popular local insect dish.
Xidoufen (希豆粉), another one of Tengchong's famous dishes, is a yellow and gloopy (its detractors would probably say snotlike) custardlike dish made from peas. If xidoufen's consistency doesn't turn you off, it can be delicious with some ersi thrown and a bit of chili oil and green onion.
Buses leave daily from Kunming's West Bus Station for Tengchong. A ticket for the 10-hour bus ride is 255 yuan.
There are multiple direct flights every day from Kunming to Tengchong. Full ticket price is 1,180 yuan, not including tax.
Heshun can be reached by the number 6 bus from Tengchong for one yuan or by taxi for 15 to 20 yuan. Minivans shuttling between the western edge of Tengchong and Heshun cost two yuan per person and leave when the vehicle is full.© Copyright 2005-2022 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.