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Getting Away: Tengchong

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Despite the drab architecture, Tengchong can be a rather colorful town
Despite the drab architecture, Tengchong can be a rather colorful town

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.

Older buildings in Tengchong are disappearing quickly
Older buildings in Tengchong are disappearing quickly

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.

Sino-American cooperation in World War II is commemorated throughout Tengchong
Sino-American cooperation in World War II is commemorated throughout Tengchong

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.

American graves at the National Cemetery to the Fallen of World War II
American graves at the National Cemetery to the Fallen of World War II

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.

Chinese graves at the National Cemetery to the Fallen of World War II
Chinese graves at the National Cemetery to the Fallen of World War II

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.

Dieshuihe Waterfall
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.

A rare urban waterfall - Dieshui Waterfall drops 40 meters
A rare urban waterfall - Dieshui Waterfall drops 40 meters

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.

Laifeng Mountain
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.

Wenbi Pagoda, at the top of Laifeng Mountain
Wenbi Pagoda, at the top of Laifeng Mountain

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.

In addition to countless jade shops, the east end of Fengshan Lu also has a series of several large gates
In addition to countless jade shops, the east end of Fengshan Lu also has a series of several large gates

Jade City
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.

Many shops in Tengchong specialize in 'gambling stones'
Many shops in Tengchong specialize in 'gambling stones'

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.

Dagunguo (大滚锅), or 'the big boiling pot', at Rehai
Dagunguo (大滚锅), or 'the big boiling pot', at Rehai

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.

Rehai's pay-to-enter area is filled with high-end spa resorts
Rehai's pay-to-enter area is filled with high-end spa resorts

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.

Beihai Wetlands
Beihai Wetlands

Beihai Wetlands
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.

Rush hour in Heshun
Rush hour in Heshun

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 Library
Heshun Library

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.

Zhongtian Temple in Heshun
Zhongtian Temple in Heshun

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.

Suantang (l) and dajiujia are required eating in Tengchong
Suantang (l) and dajiujia are required eating in 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
Tengchong ersi

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.

A Tengchong woman washing tianma
A Tengchong woman washing tianma

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.

Getting there
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.

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Comments

Mimane

I went to Tengchong during the Qingmin Holidays. Did not like it that much..

The old town Heshun was nice but the many motorbikes and little vans going around it kind a spoiled its charm to me. Then I went to Beihai and it did not look like the pictures I had seen upfront. A flat and dry landscape with a 40yuan ticket to walk around what you can see from the outside..

I liked the Yinhuagu Hotspring though! And I recommend riding biking to go around the city and its whereabouts (you can rent bikes at Tengchong International Youth Hostel).

JPowers

Thank you GoKunming!!! I love how you are able to write and capture the essence of places you visit!

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Tengchong and Heshun... it was definitely a highlight of our quick trips out of Kunming while we were living there 2010-2011. We also took a long van ride from Tengchong and drove past hundreds of round buildings used for brick making, on our way to Cherry Valley Hot Springs which was so worth the long van ride and entrance fee to get in (don't remember total cost). Here's a little armchair travel to Tengchong and Heshun for sharing:

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Keep these wonderful articles coming! We are back in the states and love living vicariously thru you! Thanks again!

Walter

Oh, there's also another village on the southeastern (vs. southwestern) periphery of town, not dissimilar to Heshun with some cool architecture.

Good story yet slightly glossy here and there. Laifeng Mountain is a great place for a drive and a couple of sandwiches and you usually have the place mostly to yourselves. Heshun is adorable, especially around the lakes and ponds on the west side. It's also worth it walking up through the narrow streets where fewer tourists go. Insider tip: You don't actually need to pay the entrance fee if you say you're visiting someone inside or live at one of the guest houses. Alternatively you can turn left at take a side street that will lead you to the back of Heshun where no one is checking you.

I wonder when you lads went to the wetlands. I've driven past it 3 or 4 times and there never seem to be any water. Maybe there's more during the summer but for a wetlands area it sure felt rather dry. The one near Shangri-La is much much better in comparison.

Tengchong is also looking increasingly weird with many new jade and residential areas where absolutely no one lives or has set up shop, and they just keep churning them out.

Tengchong has a relaxed atmosphere compared to many other Yunnan towns and people are nice and generally friendly. There's a sense of community due to the small size of the place that you don't often encounter.

I would have to agree with Mimane's post above that we too did not care for our visit to Tengchong (and surrounding areas of interest) that much. We also went during Qingming Jie and basically my impression was of an (even by China's new pricey standards) over priced area in the midst of renovations and new construction so as to be able to charge even more in the future.

To date, we have been to a lot of places around Yunnan, and I really was looking forward to Tengchong, but it fell far short of what I was expecting (based on what I had read about), unlike any other trip we have taken.

One exception was the volcano park which was interesting and not overly priced and allowed a fair amount of hiking up to, around and within these extinct cones.

And in response to Danmairen, one now does need to pay the 80 kuai entrance fee to Heshun even if one is staying overnight at one of the guesthouses. But save your money till the construction work there is finished as the tiny alleys are filled with exhaust belching motor vehicles bringing in construction site materials from morning till nite. And unfortunately the prices of most anything there, food to whatever made Lijiang look cheap.

Having said all that, I would like to comment that I thought Chris Horton's article was well written, informative and perhaps had we accompanied him and his group of travellors, we might have seen a different side than we did.

I first went to Tengchong in 2006 during my first trip to China. At the time, I remember Tengchong being a very fascinating off-the-beaten-path destination. At that time I'd been sticking pretty much to the well-worn backpacker route: Hong Kong-Guiln-Yangshuo-Kunming-Dali, and Tengchong was the first place I went where there were no youth hostels and no English speakers. My most fond memory of Tengchong from that trip was walking out of the town in the eastern direction into the rice paddies and wandering amongst the stone-walled villages. It was summer and the rice paddies were full of bright green saplings, and the peasants were trudging around the paddies with water buffalo-pulled plows. I found a swimming where locals gathered to go swimming and joined them. Totally uncommercial, no tourist infrastructure in sight. Well, not exactly, I did go to the rehai on that 2006 trip as well, and I remember being let down by its touristy nature. I'd wanted to go to the hot springs, but even in 2006 it cost 120 yuan, and I remember thinking at the time that was too expensive. Chris reports that now they cost 260. I guess 120 was a comparative bargain.

I went back to Tengchong in 2011, curious to see how it had changed since 2006. I found that it had changed quite a bit. There seemed to be a lot more tourist infrastructure there now. I found that same swimming hole from 2006, but now its next to a giant construction site for some so-called Ecotourism Conference Center and Resort (how a project that bulldozes hillsides, cuts down forests, and builds golf courses on them can be called "Eco" anything is beyond me). I found that Tengchong in 2011 was also considerably more expensive than Tengchong in 2006. In 2006 I paid 20 yuan for a private hotel room. In 2011 most places wanted 80-100. I ended up paying 60 for a really scuzzy place.

I didn't discover Heshun on my first visit to Tengchong. I did in 2011. The village itself is indeed charming, with excellent preserved architecture and winding cobblestone streets. However, I disdain villages that charge money simply to enter. It seems like the ultimate in commercialization. Real live villages where people live should not be turned into commodities themselves. Luckily, I got a ride into Heshun in a minivan where, for an extra 10 yuan, the driver snuck me in through the gate without having to pay. Inside the village itself every single home has been turned into a guesthouse or shop. I was there on a Saturday during the summer, peak tourist season one would imagine, yet there were very few tourists there. I wandered into a charming courthouse guesthouse/bar/coffeeshop. They wanted 30 yuan for a small beer. I couldn't help but wonder if Heshun's attempt to copy Lijiang wasn't failing to gain traction.

I later returned to Tengchong in April 2012 and did a bike ride from there to Yingjiang (盈江), Nabang (那邦), Husa (户撒), and Ruili (瑞丽), roughly retracing the steps I'd done by bus from Tengchong to Ruili six years before. This was a good cycling route, and I saw some towns and villages along the way that were beautiful and less touristy (well, basically not touristy at all) than Tengchong.

Seems nice although as Geogramat pointed out, paying to enter a village, totally commercial.

I spent a few days in TengChong this May Day holiday, partly inspired by this article. I enjoyed the city and there was plenty to see. Sadly, prices have risen even in the last month. For example, the BeiHai Wetlands are no longer 40 + 20 RMB, but a staggering 100 + 40RMB. Shame. I'm surpised the article didn't feature the volcanoes at all - a major draw for most tourists (...though largley disappointing in my experience; small, dormant, pricey and thoroughly "paved"!). If you can afford 200RMB, the Fairyland Hotel is worth recommending. Converted "villa-style" houses set in pretty grounds, with full shared use of living room, modern kitchen, balconies, etc. Breakfast included.

There may be beautiful sights and sounds around Tengchong, but above all, the historical aspect of the town was what drew my husband and I to visit it in December 2011. Visiting the Cemetery of the War Heroes overwhelms you with emotion. History could have taken a different course had it not been for the valour and sacrifice of these brave soldiers. Amidst the schedules of our busy lives, we must not forget those who 'gave their today for our tomorrow'.

so cool~I will go tengchong this summer holiday~

I been in an out of Tengchong for the last three years and as much as I came to enjoy Tengchong township, its people and attractions, it is being invaded by outside property developers, with one thing on their mind; make money and stuff the locals. If you go, enjoy the volcanoes, the hot springs and the township with it meriod of eateries. Have an interpreter and enjoy yourself.

Take note - there used to be a quaint little Dao temple on Yunfeng Mountain but it is now spoilt by over development and is a messy construction site in the valley below (I know, I lived in the village below for a year and felt disgusted at the shoddy workmanship, poor quality materials and use of unskilled labour during construction. Dusty in the winter and muddy in the summer; A real shame.)

See the volcanoes and turn back to town, there are more interesting attractions to enjoy in and around the township. There is a lovely village with Ginko trees as old as 500 years and during the autumn it is a grand place to visit. Take your camera and umbrella, because the trees weep sap which stains clothes and has a rather funky aroma. Rehai Spa is wonderful and if you ask for a cupping treatment, you'll feel great afterwards, believe me - I've had it a few times, fantastic. Enjoy Tengchong Township.

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