Tibet to the Tropics: Yunnan


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Asia » China » Yunnan
January 25th 2008
Published: April 8th 2008
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Tiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping Gorge

The upstream end, where the wide and peaceful Yangtze is forced into a narrow, angry monster beneath the long, spiked back of the Jade Dragon Mountain.
We had done it, we were officially out of the permit zone that is the Tibet Autonomous Region, but in Zhongdian we were still very much in Tibet. The faces, clothing and houses all still looked Tibetan. Above the 'old town' stands a prominent Tibetan Gompa with an even more prominent prayer wheel next to it. In fact this is allegedly the biggest prayer wheel in the world, and as it takes at least 3 people to start turning the thing it’s not hard to believe it. The town is surrounded by pine forested hills and wide grasslands alongside the lake, full of huge wooden racks drying the last of the hay and barley before the winter snows arrived.

As everywhere in China however Zhongdian is something of a sprawling modern concrete city with many Han Chinese immigrants. We had heard and read many negative things about the place from other travellers, mostly surrounding the recent name change from Zhongdian to Xangelila, which is usually translated into “Shangri-La” for obvious reasons. Many feel this is shameless tourist propaganda, and that the ‘old town’ is nothing of the sort, it has been purpose built for tourists, as has the giant prayer wheel and so on. Maybe some people come here to get a taste of Tibet, wrongly believing they cannot travel freely inside Tibet proper, and then feel they have been cheated by all this fakery, I don’t know.

It is true that the ‘old town’ was purpose built for tourism by the Chinese government. But most of the businesses there are run by local Tibetans who make a good profit from Chinese and foreign tourists alike. Similarly the giant prayer wheel was another tourist gimmick by the Chinese government, part of the whole name-change idea, but the Tibetans love it, so who cares right?
We had already noticed that while the surrounding hills were covered in pine trees few of them were more than a couple of metres high and all very young; the area has been badly deforested. We soon learned that until a few years back the only industry in Zhongdian was logging and locals and migrant Han Chinese alike were plundering the place. Realising this could not continue, and sensing the potential for tourism, the local government banned logging overnight. This left a huge whole in the economy, so it was decided to promote tourism to
Giant Prayer Wheel, ZhongdianGiant Prayer Wheel, ZhongdianGiant Prayer Wheel, Zhongdian

Probably the largest in the world...
fill it, complete with a not-so-subtle name change and a heap of investment, not just in the old town etc. but in improving the roads and putting in an airport. Now the town is thriving and the trees are growing back. It doesn’t seem so bad to me, although I still call the place Zhongdian, as does everyone else living there.

Whilst Zhongdian is culturally and geographically part of Tibet, politically it is in Yunnan - The Land Beneath the Clouds. Fortunately there were not too many clouds around on our visit. Yunnan is famous within China for its huge diversity; in altitude, landscapes, peoples, crops and fruit, architecture, fashions and languages. There are over 20 different ethnic groups in Yunnan, and while the north is Tibetan, the south is tropical. The population is not as dense (yet) as the east of China and there are plenty of lush green hills and clear blue skies. In fact Chinese tourists come here just to see the blue of the sky that is no longer visible in much of the rest of the country!

We happily bumped into a different type of ethnic minority in Zhongdian - the Expat. When
Yi WomanYi WomanYi Woman

Complete with the characteristic Yi head-dress.
we arrived two days before Christmas we only had one name to check out, the Raven Bar. Luckily we found this even before a hotel room and we were welcomed by a great group of Australian NGO workers and the American - English couple that ran the bar. Christmas was excellent; we could not have hoped for better (blagging our way into someone else’s party complete with a 25pound turkey and all the trimmings… Cheers Guys!!). All the cold nights in the tent to get here had definitely been worth it. Although the experience across Tibet was wonderful it was also a great relief to have a room and a fire to relax by and to rest, sleep and eat.

We finally got our first long awaited shower since Lhasa. Although we planned to have it the first night we arrived (which would have made it 24 days unwashed) it was not until the next morning that the hotel staff finally managed to defrost the water system! Still it was great to dive into the hot water after making a quick run across the room from our electric blanket heated beds to the shower, our breath steaming out in
Cranes, Zhongdian New CityCranes, Zhongdian New CityCranes, Zhongdian New City

A nice change from the giant construction cranes that dominate the skyline of many Chinese cities.
clouds inside our room!

After days and days of drinking, sleeping, eating and generally making merry we decided to drag ourselves back onto our bikes. Although we had really needed the wash and rest in Zhongdian, Robin's mantra of "rest days are bad" had turned out to be true - we had slept and slept and we still felt exhausted. We hoped that on the bikes everything would fall into place and we would feel more energised again, we had to be, we had family to meet in less then 4 weeks, still over 1700km away.

Yunnan is a great place to cycle; the roads are good and there is not much traffic. We took the back road out of Zhongdian towards the famous Baishuitai white water-terraces. It was hilly but beautiful, the road twisted and wound around the steep pine forested hillsides, up and down, with the ever looming presence of Haba Snow Mountain dominating the horizon ahead. If we had thought the mountains would end upon leaving Tibet, we had a lot of surprises ahead.

Even as we crossed the first pass the architecture changed in style from the massive Tibetan houses, with huge wooden
Mixing Up the PunchMixing Up the PunchMixing Up the Punch

Christmas with the Raven Crew, Zhongdian.
pillars supporting big balconies and roofs covered with wooden slats held down by rocks, to smaller more "Chinese" looking buildings. In fact they only looked Chinese to us because we do not really know much about China. The tiled roofs seemed to bow along their spines and the spines themselves curled upwards at the ends in what I imagine to be pagoda style roofs. The people here were Yi and while they didn’t look so different facially, the women wore a different style of brightly coloured clothing complete with large wooden frames on their heads which held up even more garishly coloured cloth sunscreens.
People smiled and waved at us as usual and we were about to shout “Tashi Deleg” to them but realised maybe this Tibetan greeting is not a Yi custom. We hesitated to use Chinese but the problem was solved as they simply yelled “hello” at us.

Baoshuitai is a tiny village on a steep hillside under Haba mountain, where brine springs emerge from the Earth and flow downhill, depositing their salt load in the bright sun forming terraces of encrusted salt which then hold the brine back above them, encouraging the whole process to continue
Zhongdian Old TownZhongdian Old TownZhongdian Old Town

The traditional style rooves of the newly built 'old town' are dominated by the equally new Gompa and Giant Prayer wheel.
even more. Surrounded by thick forest it is a beautiful spot and we enjoyed it even more as we got in for free over a fence in the woods thus avoiding another tourist charge!

From here our road is mercifully mostly downhill, back towards the mighty Yangtze River. This river cuts across China from Tibet to Shanghai and has been a major dividing line in the country at various times in history. It remained unbridged until after WWII. As we descend we can see the valley far below but not the river, which is hidden in a steep mini-gorge inside the wider valley. Our eyes are drawn west though to the huge chasm that cuts through the line of high mountains where the Yangtze forces its way through the earth forming “Tiger Leaping Gorge”. Above the gorge to the south crouches the massive “Jade Dragon Snow Mountain”, though we thought it was the Tigers that should be crouching and the Dragons leaping. Nevermind.

The wind certainly wasn’t crouching as we tried to cycle upstream on a narrow ledge of a road into the gorge. We were blasted backwards at each curve by the air funneling through this narrow
Christmas in The RavenChristmas in The RavenChristmas in The Raven

Thanks again guys.
gap in the mountains, while hundreds of feet below us the Yangtze is forced into a narrow foaming stream cutting its way through huge walls of rock, which run upwards to our pathetic little ledge and then continue far up above us, impossibly far up into the sky. The noise of the river would have been deafening but the wind had done that job already. Fortunately we reach a tiny hamlet of stone and wooden houses clinging to a steep grassy slope in the lee of the wind and find a guesthouse here, once again avoiding the tourist entry fee as we just cycled past the unmanned gate!

After an amusing evening with some Canadians we set off back into the wind the next morning, battling our way through the rest of the gorge in the beautiful early light. The gorge is so deep and narrow it is impossible to capture it properly on camera, and some lower sections must receive only an hour or two of direct sunlight, even in summer. Legend has it that at a particular spot a Tiger leaped across the river, thus avoiding the pursuing hunters. Although narrow it still looked a bit wide
Leopard-Looking Skin, ZhongdianLeopard-Looking Skin, ZhongdianLeopard-Looking Skin, Zhongdian

No it's not really a leopardskin. Neither are the Tiger-looking skins also on sale here. Which is good for the wild big cats of Asia. But not so good for the Alsatian Dogs that are farmed and dyed for this trade.... Hopefully Tibetans will one day lose the desire to wear expensive animal furs for prestige - most big cats poached in India and the rest of Asia end up in Tibet where their skins are worn and bodyparts used for medicines.
for this, but then there is no mention of any success in the legend of the leap!

Finally we emerge at the upstream end and the river broadens to a wide, sluggish, turquoise blue snake lined with golden sand on its banks. Locally it is called “Golden Sand River”. Unfortunately we have to backtrack north to cross a tributary in the town of Qaotai, which would have been more annoying except it was market day and the place was heaving with women in from the hill villages. Here we could see Tibetans, Yi and Naxi women shopping side by side in their different traditional costumes, it was quite a sight.

From here we made a long slog upstream along the Yangtze, crossing the river before climbing slowly up the eastern flank of the valley and crossing a high pass over into a wide, shallow bowl sitting within the surrounding pine forested hills. The northern side was dominated by Jade Dragon Peak and the bowl was filled with a large lake. We crossed the pass as the sun set and then had to round the far side of the lake in the dark to reach the ancient Naxi capital
Another Beautiful RoadAnother Beautiful RoadAnother Beautiful Road

Heading towards Tiger Leaping Gorge, with Haba peak onthe horizon.
of Lijiang.

Lijiang is a UNESCO town and is wonderfully restored with little streams running along the middle of the streets and turning water wheels. Cobble stones and craft shops abounded and although we found the place relaxing and pretty it had a weird feeling for an ancient city, more of a theme park rather than a city like Damascus or Varanasi where the atmosphere of continuous lifetimes living, bumping and sweating along right in the same place as you for hundreds of years is palpable. We figured it was because no local people actually lived in the old town anymore, it had been cleared of real life and replaced with souvenir shops, craft rooms and guesthouses. Even though the restoration was in the best taste with quality building, clean streets and beautifully lit up houses we found ourselves cycling around the modern Chinese city searching for markets, post offices and general shopping. We liked it in Lijiang however, even though the old city was a little sterile it was beautiful to wander in and watch the big goldfish and wild trout jostling for position in the waterways that bisected the town. Also it is hard not to like
The Road to BaoshuitaiThe Road to BaoshuitaiThe Road to Baoshuitai

Yi and Naxi villages nestle between the pine forests under Haba Snow Mountain
a place that is overlooked by "Jade Dragon Snow Mountain", I just love these catchy Chinese names!

We would have stayed longer in Lijiang since the 3 day ride from Zhongdian had tired us out more than we anticipated but we pressed on the get to Dali for Robin's birthday. The road south took us back up through more pine forest covered hills before dropping steeply down into a wide, flat bottomed valley filled with another lake and surrounded by paddy fields - the first we had seen since leaving Punjab months ago.

All the hard work of Tibet and then the drinking of the festive period had finally caught up with Erika; a stinking cold descended turning the otherwise pretty ride through the hills and eventually down to the lakeside town of Dali into a huge effort. But we made it and were rewarded with a hot bath (even though it was only 4 foot long) and a DVD player in our room. Robin plugged in his new MP3 player and for the first time in almost 3 years we had music and films to enjoy. We lazed in Dali for 5 days, enjoyed wandering in the
White Water TerracesWhite Water TerracesWhite Water Terraces

The salt terracesof Baoshuitai, northern Yunnan.
old town here which although quite newly restored had escaped the theme park feel of Lijiang since people still lived here and there were normal shops and businesses around.

Dali is quite touristy by Chinese standards, it is the ancient capital of Yunnan and is dominated by the Bai people who are great artisans - much of the craftwork in other parts of Yunnan, even Tibet, is actually made by Bai in Dali. Although most of the tourists are Chinese, there was an obvious western backpacker presence and even bars being run by westerners for westerners. Dali is also the Amsterdam of China, of course nothing is actually legal here but local herbs from the mountains are easily available. The fact the street touts of this industry are all nice little smiley old Bai women meant there was none of the sleazy atmosphere that these kind of places often have. Ancient walls surround old Dali with big gates facing each of the cardinal points. Outside the city tall Bai style pagodas rise up against the backdrop of the surrounding hills.

The rest of Yunnan was to be more off the beaten track. After our prolonged stop in Dali we had to make up some time and took the most direct route south towards the Laos border, often following secondary and minor roads. Leaving Dali we climbed up through more pine forest before descending down into the next valley, in fact we kept on descending for over 70km and finally we had found the downhill that we knew must be awaiting us somewhere as we left Tibet. As we dropped the forest changed slowly and pagodas stood proud on rounded hilltops.
For the next few days we followed a series of river valleys, sometimes downstream, sometimes upstream, whichever way took us steadily south. In the wider valleys villages became more frequent and paddy fields cut picturesque terraces into the hillsides. As the valleys became progressively lower the forests changed until we were back in sub-tropical rainforest complete with buzzing insects and brightly coloured birds.

Of course the valleys couldn’t last forever and we had big climbs in-between them. We stayed in a different town each night, easily getting used to there being a decent cheap hotel in every place with good cheap Chinese restaurants everywhere for lunches and dinners. This was easy cycle touring after the constant camping and instant noodle eating of Tibet, it was a really enjoyable change.

Even though some valleys were heavily farmed and many people were employed in the fields it was not a busy atmosphere. In fact the farming really impressed us. The methods here are heavily labour intensive, but the fields were chock full of produce with no bare earth visible and it meant that people had to work together in families or entire villages. Everyone was industriously doing something but no one seemed to be rushing or stressed. We passed houses whose yards were full of pumpkins or corns and other vegetables drying and homemade sausages hung from the balconies while older children tended to the ducks, chickens and pigs. Most houses also had solar water heaters and we never even needed to ask in the hotels since there was always tonnes of hot water, freely heated up each day for us to wash away the cycling sweat.

As we progressed south to Pu’er and beyond the valleys ran out on us, no longer running in a helpful north-south direction, and so we were forced back into the hills. Somewhere we also crossed the invisible line that marks
Tiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping Gorge

The downstream entrance tothe Yangtze gorge.
the northern edge of the tropics, for the first time on this trip. Every day we had to slog it up hills, I found it easier to just accept that there would never be a top and settled into a steady pace. It was good though since we managed mostly be to on back roads with little traffic and cycled through forests where big beautiful trees kept us shaded and cool and gave us plenty of colours, shapes, butterflies and birds to distract us from the climbs.

Our ride through the XishuanBanna National Park was brilliant. Here the jungle was the most impressive I have seen, we were constantly stopping to watch different tropical forest birds. I was so impressed by the richness of life all around me. It was a perfect temperature and there were no mosquitoes at this time of year. The many different shapes of leaves all clamored to me for attention and the buzz of signing insects let us know that the place was truly living. I really felt the amazing diversity of the jungle and realised that only nature can create this wonder. It really brought into focus that other forests we have seen,
The Mighty YangtzeThe Mighty YangtzeThe Mighty Yangtze

Forcing its way through the mountains at the bottom of Tiger Leaping Gorge.
although nice, have not been a patch on true tropical rain forest and that once chopped down, the earth has really lost something so valuable that may well be impossible to recreate!
Unfortunately a lot of chopping is going on even here, as this is a major tea growing area and the Chinese are clearly keen to expand not only this industry, but also rubber plantations. Fortunately most of our back roads had strips of good forest left along the roads, hiding the bare hillsides of tea and keeping us well shaded under some truly impressive forest trees, and many areas have been set aside as protected under the National Park plan.

One road marked on our map as a main road turned out to be a muddy cobbled track. It had not even been raining but the road was a glistening long puddle of liquid mud! Our bikes and us were soon covered. The mud was from the many trucks slowly heaving themselves up and down the steep climbs. These Chinese trucks use water-cooled braking systems and all this water sloshing out from their wheels had turned the road into a slippery mess. It took us about 6 hours to cover 40km, but we couldn't grumble; it passed through some of the most mature jungle we had been through. When we finally emerged from the trees it was into a totally different land. The houses now were all made of bamboo and timber, many were on stilts. Papayas, bananas and sugar cane were the crops. We suddenly felt very much in part of South East Asia and the women were wearing sarongs and had all got much smaller. We were very close to the Laos border now, and the people here were all Dai (Thai) tribes folk, the same as in northern Laos, Thailand and Burma.

We had to leave China but we did not feel ready to. However our bodies were long overdue a rest. We had struggled through the Yunnan hills with all our winter gear from Tibet, using none of it, and what had not felt too heavy high up in the cold mountains now dragged and dragged on our tired thigh muscles. Soon we were to get rid of the excess luggage in Laos, but until then it wore us out. Finally there was humidity after the long months of intense dry air.
LiJiang LiJiang LiJiang

The new part of the city, overlooked by Jade Dragon Peak and the usual Chinese urban smog.
However this change in climate only made us more sluggish. Robin joked that it was the thicker, denser low altitude air making it harder to move around! Really lower altitudes should have felt great to us with our thick Tibetan blood, but we were obviously still tired. So we were glad in the end to leave China for Laos. We had heard enough Chinese pop songs to last a lifetime and were happy to head to Luang Prabang to see family again after over two years apart.





























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8th April 2008

Love your blogs!
So where is the end of the road?!? I love this entry, the mountains are spectacular as is the culture. The "giant aloe" is actually an Agave though, native to the Americas. In fact it looks like Agave americana: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Agave_americana4.jpg looking froward to the next post, Cheers!
8th April 2008

Hello again
We were beginning to wonder if you had disappeared in the misty mountains never to be seen again! Great to hear from you and lots of good photos this time. It's hard to believe you have been gone for 3 years. Keep on truckin'! Love, Shirl and Dave
14th April 2008

Another great entry
Yes, once again inspiring! And sitting here in a Guwahati internet cafe I appreciate the effort that goes into getting te most basic blog written and uploaded!! Happy roads!!!!
24th April 2008

Very many thanks!
This blog is another great one for which I am grateful for your efforts to write it and to load the photos. Also, I am always so happy to read that you are well even if tired.

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