A Week in Yunnan Province, China

I’ve traveled a lot in China, but one place I always wanted to see and never made it to was the Stone Forest near Kunming. My wife, on the other hand, has always wanted to visit Lijiang to the northwest of Kunming. So we turned this into more of a “Yunnan province” trip to see both of our wishes and then some.

The last time I traveled in China was in 2012, though. Things have changed quite a bit since then, as far as being a tourist goes. In theory, it should be much more convenient now to travel, but in practice, there are a lot of hoops for foreigners to jump through. Alipay, for instance, was a bit of a pain to set up and occasionally didn’t work for certain vendors. And booking things sometimes required a Chinese citizen with a national ID number to make the reservation. So if you’re planning to travel in China, do your research first! Such logistics are their own blog post, and I only want to use this time to talk about the travel itself.

Day 1: The Stone Forest

We actually arrived in Kunming the night before, but it was too late to do anything. For our first full day in Kunming, we skipped the city altogether and went straight to the Stone Forest (aka, Shilin). For as much as I had hyped it up in my mind, I was still pleasantly surprised. People generally spend about 2-3 hours there, but we were there for five, and I could have kept going if we weren’t dragging my wife’s parents along with us!

The Stone Forest is split up into “major” and “minor” scenic areas, and the major area has a lot of interconnected trails that you can easily get lost in. Most tour groups don’t venture very far into these trails, so it’s a great way to experience the Stone Forest away from the crowds. At the very least, I recommend seeking out Sword Peak Pond and Peak View Pavilion. The latter has the best view of the whole park:

An eye-level view of the Stone Forest's gray limestone formations

Day 2: Kunming

There wasn’t anything specific I wanted to see in Kunming itself, so the events of this day were kinda thrown together at the last minute. Kunming is famous for its flower markets, though, so we stopped by the Dounan Flower Market first. It’s fun to see, if you’re into bouquets, bonsai plants, and/or succulents.

Next, we booked it up the nearby West Hill mountain (aka, Xishan) to see the Dragon Gate grotto:

A pathway and Chinese gate built into the side of a mountain

Xishan is arguably a full day excursion, so we did not do it justice by rushing things and only seeing the Dragon Gate, even if the Dragon Gate is the most popular landmark there.

Lastly, we explored the inner city a little more and visited the Jinma Biji Archway and the East and West Pagodas that face each other across a walking street:

A tall, yellow pagoda glows in the sunset

I was also interested in seeing Yuantong Temple, but we did not have time and would have needed to cut Xishan to make it before closing. In retrospect, we could have spent another day in Kunming. It would have given us a chance to also see the nearby Dongchuan Red Land.

Day 3: Lijiang

We took the train from Kunming to Lijiang, which is about a four hour ride. Lijiang has three “old towns,” and we stayed in the one called Shuhe. It’s known for being the quieter and more peaceful one. We arrived early enough in the afternoon to spend the rest of the day exploring the streets of Shuhe:

A bridge connects two neighborhoods of the old town

There’s at least one shop on every street selling Yunnan flower cakes, so make sure you try some!

Day 4: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Lijiang’s old towns are cute, but it’s the proximity to other attractions that makes it such a popular destination. For instance, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (aka, Yulong Xueshan) is only an hour’s drive away. This national park is basically China’s miniature version of Switzerland with hints of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong (from my Top 10 list).

The national park consists of four main scenic areas, and you probably only have time to see 2-3 of them in a day. We tried to do three, which was maybe a mistake, as it really limited how much time we could spend in the central Blue Moon Valley area. This is where all of the beautiful blue and green lakes are, and it would have been nice to have time to walk the full length of it:

Looking down at a turquoise colored lake

The other two areas we visited were Spruce Meadow and Yak Meadow, both of which offer similar views of the snow-capped mountains. If the yaks are in town, I’d say go for Yak Meadow over Spruce Meadow. Unfortunately, we were there too early in the season for the yaks, and so I found Spruce Meadow to be the more pleasant walk:

Snow-capped mountains tower over a small meadow

Overall, I enjoyed this day a lot, maybe even more than the Stone Forest, even though the scenery here wasn’t necessarily anything I hadn’t seen before.

Day 5: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Another popular day trip from Lijiang is the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This one’s a bit farther away, though, and unless you plan to do the two-day hike (yes, two days!), you’ll only spend 1-2 hours there. So I’m not sure I would recommend it, to be honest. But don’t get me wrong, the canyon is still neat:

Steep canyon walls meet at a river below

If you come earlier in the year, the water is supposedly a prettier color, and if you come later in the year, the water is more “active.” So we might have just picked a bad time. Ultimately, we would have preferred spending the whole day in Lijiang. We did at least return with enough time in the day to explore the main old town of Lijiang:

Water wheels sit at the entrance of the old town

This one was definitely more scenic than Shuhe, but it was also very commercialized. The shops were much more in your face. But if you’ve traveled at all in China before, then you know that’s par for the course.

A Week’s Vacation in Spain

Spain was more my wife’s trip than mine, as she is a big fan of Antoni GaudĂ­’s architectural designs in Barcelona. That was the main goal of the trip, though it made sense to expand it into a bigger vacation and include Madrid. Thus, we started the trip in Madrid and ended in Barcelona. Here’s the full breakdown:

Day 1: Madrid

We arrived in Madrid with enough time in the afternoon to see at least one thing, which was the Temple of Debod. This is an Egyptian temple that was donated and relocated to Spain to help preserve it. The wait to get inside can be quite long (about 90 minutes for us), so a quick look at the outside might be all you have time for:

An Egyptian temple with two stone arches in front of it

Day 2: Art Museums

For our first full day in Madrid, we wanted to visit two separate art museums. The first, the Reina SofĂ­a, was a bit of a letdown. The layout of the museum was confusing, and there just wasn’t much in there to get excited about.

The second museum, the Prado, was much better. Alas, they didn’t allow pictures in this one! Some notable exhibits were a room dedicated to Bosch, some early wax figures, and a copy of the Mona Lisa done by a direct student of da Vinci.

Day 3: Park and Palace

This was our favorite day in Madrid. We spent several hours walking through El Retiro Park, which is basically the Central Park of Madrid. There are many nice photo ops here, but my favorite was probably the Palacio de Cristal:

A large, glass greenhouse next to a small pond

We had booked a tour of the Royal Palace for the afternoon. You might not find much enjoyment in seeing room after room of overindulgence, but it’s still interesting. Just make sure you also visit the armory. It is not part of the main tour and is easy to miss!

The white facade of the Royal Palace in Madrid

Day 4: Barcelona and GaudĂ­

In the morning, we took the 2-hour train from Madrid to Barcelona. In Barcelona, we bought the Modernista tourist card that grants you free public transportation and access to a handful of mostly GaudĂ­-related venues. Between the things we saw this day and the next day, and the number of times we took the subway or bus, we definitely got our money’s worth.

We were only able to fit in two of the venues on this day, though: Casa BatllĂł and La Pedrera-Casa MilĂ . These were homes designed by GaudĂ­. For me, Casa BatllĂł was a bit too silly-looking. Casa MilĂ  was better. Here’s a look at the front of the building and the rooftop:

The wavy facade of the Casa MilĂ  building

Spires on the rooftop of the Casa MilĂ  lit by the sunset

Day 5: All Things GaudĂ­

Every vacation needs a cram day, and this was definitely ours. We had to justify buying the Modernista card, after all! The day started with the Palau de la MĂșsica Catalana concert hall:

Looking down at the stage in the concert hall

We also visited GĂŒell Palace (another GaudĂ­ home), the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau (old hospital grounds), and Casa Vicens (GaudĂ­’s first big project in the city):

The colorful, checkered facade of Casa Vicens

The main event, though, was the La Sagrada Familia cathedral. This was not part of the Modernista card and requires a reservation, but it was definitely the highlight of the entire trip. Yes, this place has been under construction for over 100 years, but most of the remaining work to be done is on the outside. The interior is 99% complete and packs a lot of wow factor:

Stained glass windows in the cathedral

Day 6: Figueres Day Trip

For our last day in Spain, we made a day trip to a smaller city called Figueres. Figueres is about an hour’s train ride from Barcelona, and the main attraction there (or rather, the only attraction) is the DalĂ­ Theater and Museum. This theater-turned-museum was designed by DalĂ­ as his final legacy and resting place, so it’s a very interesting (and at times weird) experience:

The red exterior of the Dali Museum

Because Figueres doesn’t have much else going on, we returned to Barcelona early enough to visit the Picasso Museum. Frankly, we did not care for this museum. It is more about Picasso’s early works and his friend, Joan Miro. We wished we’d skipped it and squeezed in one more Modernista freebie instead.

A Weekend in Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm was almost where I took a job before I ended up in Oslo, so I’ve always been interested to see “what could have been.” This weekend trip was mostly just to get a feel for the city and experience the highlights. Many travel blogs had suggested that two days are enough for Stockholm, but after a jam-packed Saturday and Sunday, I would argue that you should squeeze in one more day yourself. Here’s what we did:

Day 1: Gamla Stan and Skeppsholmen

The Gamla Stan islands represent probably the most famous area of Stockholm. It’s where the Royal Palace is located, as well as the picturesque old town square:

The main square of Gamla Stan with colorful buildings in the background

We visited the Nobel Prize Museum in Gamla Stan, which was interesting but a little small. There’s really not much to it. Pro tip, though: check out the chairs in the cafe. Nobel Prize winners who have visited the museum in the past have also signed the bottoms of some of the chairs.

Gamla Stan itself is a fun neighborhood to walk through. The different buildings and churches are neat, if you haven’t seen much European architecture before. And there are many photo ops nearby, like “Stockholm’s narrowest street” and the tiny but cute Iron Boy sculpture.

To the east of Gamla Stan is another island, Skeppsholmen. The main reason we headed to this island was to see the Toy Museum. If you have any interest in old toys and comics, then it’s a fun visit. The presentation of some of the toys is sometimes better than the toys themselves:

A car split in two with smaller model cars on display inside

Lastly, if you head farther south on Skeppsholmen, you can also see the Kastellet citadel:

The red brick Kastellet citadel in Stockholm

Day 2: DjurgÄrden

DjurgĂ„rden is another island even farther east of Skeppsholmen. This is where many of the city’s most popular museums are. We were able to fit in three museums that day.

The first museum, the Vasa Museum, was our favorite museum of the whole trip. This well-preserved 17th-century warship is a sight to behold and has a fascinating history:

The preserved, wooden Vasa warship

Down the road is the Viking Museum, which I felt was a little underwhelming at first. I was about to rank this museum as my least favorite… until we visited the second floor that has an amusement park style ride through a series of dioramas:

A diorama of an old Norwegian village

It’s funny that an otherwise unassuming museum would have something like this in it, and it certainly elevated my opinion of the museum overall.

The last museum we visited was the ABBA Museum. I can’t say I am a huge fan of ABBA’s music. Aside from a few cutesy, interactive displays, there really wasn’t much here for me to get excited about. But I know other people love this museum, so don’t skip it on account of me.

Life-size, silicone models of the ABBA band members

Overall, it was a good trip, but, again, I wish we had spent one more day there. It would have given us a chance to hunt down more food options and possibly take a boat tour around the islands.