The attractions of Yunlong (云龙), the westernmost county in Dali Autonomous Bai Prefecture, include a pleasant, un-congested city surrounded by hills and temples, an ancient salt mining village and several classic 'wind and rain bridges'. But until the recent, sudden popularity of nearby Nuodeng (诺邓) — an old Bai minority salt village — it suffered from undeserved neglect.
The usual way to Yunlong starts from Xiaguan (下关), 165 kilometers to the east. The route crosses rolling hills with pleasant but unexciting scenery until just before it reaches Yunlong City. Then the road runs between two towering cliffs called Stone Gate, named after the town's original moniker, Shimen (石门).
A more interesting route starts from Lanping (兰坪), 100 kilometers to the northwest, and follows the west bank of the Bi River (沘江) south to the city. The road passes a few old covered bridges on the way — especially around the town of Changxin (长新) — several Bai minority villages, with forested hills above them, finally crossing to the east bank of the river. A few kilometers later it rounds a hill and suddenly, just one kilometer away, the buildings of Yunlong come into view. Drab, modern structures of concrete and glass dominate this part of the city, but the center has some nice old buildings and several parks, and the residential quarters in the southeast are comprised of two-story, mud-brick houses with tiled roofs.
Yunlong means 'Cloud Dragon' in English and an iron sculpture of the city mascot stands in the central square. The office and commercial buildings around it feature Bai-style, narrow, tiled awnings over the windows of each floor. Smaller buildings in the parks and market area exhibit the traditional Bai architectural style and would fit in harmoniously in any Dali Old Town neighborhood.
A long concrete channel runs through the city, carrying the water of a stream from the hills down to its confluence with the Bijiang at the lower end of town. All along one side awnings covered with blossoming bougainvillea shade the sidewalk. Running into the city and passing the central square, the stream empties into the Bi River near an unused Qing Dynasty temple. Set on a large stone base, the classic structure is still in good condition, but with its interior stripped of furnishings,
A suspension bridge crosses the stream here to a high and steep hill, its summit crowned with a relatively new, multi-tiered pagoda. Partway up the slope is a small temple honoring an eight-armed Guanyin. One of the city's garden parks lies beside the Bijiang here, with a full view of the hill. A red sandstone railing along the river features bas-relief sculptures of various animals, not of all of which — like the giraffe and the hippopotamus — live in China. Yet another park with long roofed pavilions, Bai-style wall sections, potted shrubs and flowers, lies between the main square and the old former temple.
Signboards along the river, erected every thirty meters or so, between the bridge and the former temple as well as along the last stretch of the concrete channel before the central square, advertise the county's attractions. These include pictures of scenic beauties like Tianshi Lake (天池), ten kilometers west of the city at a height of 2,500 meters; various temples; rope-bridges over the Lancang River (廊沧江) in the west; rattan suspension bridges over the creeks and gullies; classical covered bridges in the north; a long suspension bridge at Baofeng (宝丰) 15 kilometers south, its two sections joined at a tower standing in the middle of the Bi River; and cultural shows including a Bai opera and a strange dance called erzige, in which performers dress in what looks like costumes made of palm fibers.
Signposts also depict scenes from the old salt trade that made Yunlong, in dynastic days, an economically important city in Yunnan. Until recent times salt production, a government monopoly confined to a handful of places, in the province and Yunlong was one of them. The wells were located about seven kilometers away, in the ancient Bai village of Nuodeng. For most visitors to the county, Nuodeng is the prime attraction and sometimes the only one they come to see.
To get there the traveler goes north of Yunlong to the suspension bridge crossing to the west bank of the Bijiang at Guolang, and then south a few kilometers to a loop in the river that encloses a parcel of hilly land shaped like a taiqi symbol. Nuodeng lies on this peninsula, though its evocative shape is not apparent without ascending one of the nearby mountains to get a view down.
After crossing the river on a suspension bridge, a trail leads to the village entrance gate, a fine old edifice from the Qing Dynasty. Inside the gate a stone staircase leads up to the village. The houses of Nuodeng, some 200 or more, sprawl along the slopes of a hill with a relatively flat summit. All buildings are still in the traditional Bai style — mud-brick and timber on stone bases, with wide fronts and roofs of gray tiles. Some have whitewashed side walls. Most are in compounds with fancy entrance gates. Narrow footpaths with stone staircases or steps chiseled out of the mud connect the neighborhoods. At some places on the slopes the gradient is so steep the houses seem to be built on top of each other.
The brine wells lie a short walk from the bottom of the village. Supposedly, production of salt began here in the Later Han Dynasty. By the middle of the ninth century, during the Tang Dynasty, the village that grew up beside the wells became known as Nuodeng, the same name it has today — though it was often referred to simply as Nuodeng Well. Every household participated in salt production. In those centuries before the introduction of refrigeration, salt was the primary preservative for food like meat and fish, so this trade was destined to make Nuodeng rich.
To produce salt is not particularly laborious, but it does require paying attention to the application of heat and the evaporation process. Workers begin by boiling the brine in a large cauldron over a wood fire. As the water evaporates it leaves behind a residue of salt crystals. These are heaped into wooden baskets to dry in the sun. When all the crystals have been released and dried, workers stuff them into a two-piece bamboo mold to press them into cylinders. The final step is to place the cylinders on an iron tray and heat it to harden them. The entire process takes a full day.
Ponies and mules fully laden with salt cylinders joined the caravans transporting the salt to distant places. A portion of it went east to Dali and beyond, but most of it was consigned to caravans on the Tea and Horse Road to Tibet and the Southwest Silk Route to Burma and India. The salt trade grew increasingly lucrative in the Ming and Qing Dynasties and Nuodeng won the sobriquet 'the richest village in China'.
Enjoying their prosperity, the villagers built themselves fine homes, embellished their compounds with carved entry gates and constructed temples to Buddhist and Taoist deities. They also installed a Confucius temple at the top of the hill and used it to educate their children. In the Qing Dynasty over a hundred Nuodeng villagers won government commendations for their performance on the national examinations. Six of them were chosen to be government officials.
With the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the salt trade, and every other kind of caravan business, became vulnerable to banditry on the main routes. After 1949, peace returned to this remote area, but the availability of cheap sea salt, plus the spread of refrigeration, doomed Nuodeng's salt business. Today most of the wells have been abandoned and only a few families still engage in salt production. And that's not to market the salt, but to use it for salted ham, a famous local dish that was, in the heyday of the caravans, exported along with the salt cylinders.
Villagers prepare this by first draining the pig carcass of its blood and removing excess skin and fat. Then they cure it with corn liquor and rub salt all over it. Throughout all the steps they must remain vigilant against flies. Finally, they hang up the salted carcass to dry for 12 to 24 months. Because the villagers feed the pigs corn, yellow beans and green vegetables, and the salt has a high potassium content, the ham has a delicious and unique taste.
A popular TV show, Bite of China, once ran a feature on Nuodeng ham a couple of years ago, prompting skyrocketing demand for it from all over the country. Villagers could sell it for at least 100 yuan per kilogram, so they stopped eating it themselves. The media exposure also brought a new influx of tourists, for Nuodengi is a rare example of a large village without a single modern building marring the unanimity of traditional Ming and Qing dynasty houses. Around 40 of them have now turned their quarters into home-stay venues, offering travelers basic accommodations and meals with the family in a traditional Bai social and cultural environment.
Nuodeng is also popular as a day trip out of nearby Yunlong. Chinese from Yunnan usually opt to stay in the city's hotels. They may even skip the Bai village altogether, because their main purpose here is to make the climb up Tiger Head Mountain at the southeast edge of the city to the temples perched on its summit. The path up begins gradually but soon becomes a zigzag trail up steeper cliffs, passing small shrines — both Buddhist and Taoist — as well as pagodas and pavilions etched into the crevices along the way.
A Buddhist temple sits at the top. A small waterfall emerges from the mouth of a stone tiger head next to it. Narrow paths lead to other pavilions on the adjacent ridge. And of course, from anywhere up this high the view down to Yunlong City is spectacular. There are several ways down, too, ending up at different points in the city. The paths are especially crowded on Buddhist holy days like those for full moons and new moons.
Otherwise, Yunlong is rather sedate except on its Sunday market day. Then umbrellas go up over small stands hawking sundry types of merchandise all over the commercial area. Villagers from all around bring in their farm produce to sell and the hustle and bustle lasts until late afternoon. Unlike other market day venues in the prefecture, though, the Bai do not dress in the ethnic style. Some Yi minority folks from the eastern mountains may turn up, however, and the older women are likely to be wearing their traditional black turbans and a long coats with embroidered flowers.
Sunday is also market day in Changxin, 36 kilometers north, on the west bank of the Bi River. The town lies on the other side of the Anlan suspension bridge, built in the 18th century, its wooden planks just wide enough for pedestrians and pack animals. The market scene is much the same as in Yunlong, with perhaps more livestock on hand, and no evidence of ethnic clothing.
However, Changxin is worth a visit anyway for the old covered bridges in its vicinity. Called 'Wind and Rain Bridges' (风雨桥), they have protective roofs and sometimes walls on each side, and were designed as refuges from sudden storms. Such bridges exist elsewhere in Yunnan, but usually in villages far off the beaten track, and never in major towns. In Yunlong County four of them are on the main north-south road.
The oldest, constructed in the late Ming Dynasty, sits slightly arched with wooden walls on each side, spanning the Bijiang. Opposite Changxin a straight bridge without walls on the sides, and built much later in the Qing Dynasty, crosses a stream coming down from the mountains. A little further south, over a smaller stream, stands a more beautiful Wind and Rain Bridge, made of brick, wood and tiles, arched in the center with wooden walls each side, its towers on either end partially whitewashed.
Two kilometers north, stands the other covered bridge in the area. This one, was built in the late eighteenth century, and is longer than the others. Also slightly arched, the bridge is mostly wooden, with brick towers at the two ends. A large Bai village lies on the other side and this particular covered bridge sees far more traffic — of both man and beast — than the others.
The Wind and Rain Bridges, like the preserved traditional Bai village of Nuodeng, even the old temples, used and unused, are like living relics of pre-modern China. This is becoming known to a greater number of discerning travelers, for there are few places like Yunlong County so evocative of a bygone era.
Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.
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