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November 14, 2009

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Gateway to the mountains where tradition lives eternally on

THE land that time forgot Breathe deeply amid traditional towns nestled among breathtaking mountains, picturesque temples, wholesome food and simple welcomes. Fei Lai explores the heights of Yunnan Province.

No junk mails, no endless calls, no work - just boundless blue sky with white clouds and dynamic ancient towns surrounded by endless mountain tides.

The beautiful natural landscape in Weishan, the Yi and Hui Autonomous County in the south of Dali Prefecture, west of Yunnan Province, makes people slow down the beat of life and sip its essence.

As one of the earliest counties in Yunnan, Weishan's history and culture make it magical.

This is where you'll find not only the source of the 1,200-kilometer Hong River, but also the former Nanzhao Kingdom of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), which was named as "the land of literature."

Covering an area of 2,200 square kilometers with a total population of 305,000, the county has 10 towns and 83 villages. Its highest sea level reaches 3,037 meters.

Twenty-three ethnic minorities, including Han, Yi, Hui, Bai and Miao, call Weishan home. These minorities account for nearly 44 percent of the total population, which brings diversity to the folk culture.

There are mosques with unique building styles that represent rich Islamic culture. It is also known as the holy place for Yi people to worship their ancestors with a special dance called dage.

With its rich tourism resources, Weishan has become a crucial part of the famous scenic spot, Dali.

Weishan Ancient Town

The ancient town, built in the 23rd year of Emperor Honghu of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), has until now maintained its building styles of the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

There are 25 streets and 18 lanes that total 12 kilometers in length. Almost all its ramparts, town gates, streets and residences are well-preserved from ancient times.

"It is not a dead ancient town, but full of vitality. Local people live and work in such an ancient environment, extending the traditional culture in modern life," says Zhuang Xuemei, vice director of the Tourism Bureau of Weishan Yi and Hui Autonomous County. "Serenity and simplicity are what the ancient town has inherited from the ancient culture."

Along the roads, there are shops selling cloth, antiques, handicrafts and snacks and also teahouses where people can stop and have local teas.

Enjoying such a long history and brilliant culture, beautiful mountains and rivers, people here are wise, honest and simple.

An 82-year-old woman surnamed Zhou has been selling miliangxiao, a local dessert, since she was 28 years old in the ancient town ? same vendor, same place, same dessert. Miliangxiao, in shape of shrimp, is made of rice and costs only 1 yuan (14 US cents) for a cup.

"I never get bored," says the old woman. "Whenever people stop by and ask for one cup, I feel so content."

The same persistence is seen at the Su's Family, a shop run by local noodle masters. For three generations, the family has been making a living by cooking the local specialty called yigenmian, which literally means "one piece of noodle."

Every morning, the family makes two big plates of hand-made noodles - each plate featuring only one noodle sheet. The owner of the shop tears up the sheet for customers according to their demand. Once the two noodle sheets are sold, they will not make any more until the next morning.

Ingredients such as ham, mushroom, chili and bamboo shoots are often applied as side dishes.

Zhuang, from the Tourism Bureau, says the noodle is auspicious with the meaning of "long life." In the past, it was cooked only on occasions to celebrate birthday of elderly people. But now it has become a common breakfast.

In the center of Weishan Ancient Town, the grand gate tower Gongchenlou still stands firmly. Built in 1389, it is a historical landmark that witnessed the ups and downs of the ancient town for more than 600 years.

From it, visitors can enjoy a grand view of the town from four directions.

If one wants to get a closer look, take a quick tour on a motorcycle, the most popular transport vehicle which can hold at most six passengers at one time.

Since streets and lanes in the ancient town are pedestrian roads, motorcycles are not allowed to enter. The tour around the outline of the ancient town by motorcycle takes about 10 minutes.

Those wishing to get a feel for traveling back in time can take a horse-drawn carriage.

Weibao Mountain

Covering an area of 19.4 square kilometers, the peak of Weibao Mountain is 2,509 meters above sea level.

The mountain was the native land for its first ancestor Xinulo, who herded and ploughed there and founded the Nanzhao Kingdom.

The place is one of the most famous Taoist mountains and forest parks in China.

The old buildings here are treated as the most famous historical relics in Yunnan, among which Changchun Cave is protected as a national relic.

There are also scenic spots such as Kai Men Suo Sheng, a celestial gate locking all the beautiful scenery; Longchi Yan Liu, willows growing around a dragon pool; Gudong Cang Chun, beautiful scenery hidden in an ancient cave; and Niaodao Xiongguan, a grand passage of migratory birds on the ancient Silk Road and for trade of tea and horses.

The stone tablet of Niaodao Xiongguan was carved in the reign of Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty. Zhuang says it is the only known ancient stele in the world that recorded bird migration.

Wenchang Hall on the mountain is dedicated to a former regional Taoist ruler. It was designed according to geomantic principles.

The hall displays a "Mural of Dancing," a precious ancient Taoist picture unique in Yunnan. Focusing on the ancient folk customs of the Yi minority people, the mural is vivid and lifelike, giving visitors an imagination of the past.

On the mountain slopes, Qingxia Temple was built to honor Taoist gods. The interior is solemn and stately. During the first day to the 15th day of the second month in the lunar calendar, people gather at the temple to pay homage to the gods.

Here visitors can also hear classical music of the former Nanzhao Kingdom.

Diversified cuisine

Weishan enjoys a long and rich history, which can be shown in its 58 major historical and cultural sites under protection, as well as its cuisines.

Weishan is known for its delicious snacks. Here you can taste rice noodles with tender pork, sweet beans, soya bean milk and deep-fried twisted dough sticks, roasted rice cake and cool bean jelly.

"The dishes are something that you shouldn't miss. Besides, handmade dye cloth, dried salt beef, candied fruit and local green tea are surprises for relatives and friends back home," Zhuang says.

"They can be souvenirs as well as gifts. Just like Weishan, a place which feels like a present for people who love to look back in time," Zhuang adds.


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