Little towns and big gorges in Southwestern China

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July 15th 2010
Published: August 10th 2010
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Yunnan Province.......higher, wetter, cooler

After the heat and chaos of the big city, we were at a bit of a loss as to where to go next in China. It's such a big country and the options are endless. However, to escape the heat, we figured going up in altitude should cool things down. With that, we booked a flight down to Kunming in the Yunnan province of south west China, home to mountains and fabulous hiking and biking.

On arrival in Kunming, we moved straight on to the bus station and the 5 hour journey west to Dali. This probably still stands out as one of the most hair-raising journeys either of us has been on.

The pre-requisite when building a bus in China (as in many parts of the world) seems to be to fit a fog horn to it. In China, this is used with incredible frequency to warn pedestrians and animals that you are coming through, warn other vehicles that you are going to pass them and happily greet other drivers. Therefore, essentially the horn never stops.

Being British, we mostly associate the horn with impending danger, so we were constantly
Narrow Lijiang StreetsNarrow Lijiang StreetsNarrow Lijiang Streets

The old town without the people is very picturesque
perched on the edge of our seats in dread...not helped by the vertiginous hairpin bends we were negotiating. The silver lining to this however, was that it was possibly also the most beautiful journey so far...dramatic, lush deep green valleys followed one after the other, each deeper and more extreme than the last.


We stayed for a few days in the backpackery, hippiefied cafe culture of Dali, unable to resist the temporary Western comforts of banana pancakes and good coffee. Dali is really pretty and inviting, and an idyllic little place from which to explore a completely different landscape. It is sandwiched between a lake (Erhai Hu) and the Cang Shan mountains.

As would be expected for us, we wasted little time getting ourselves half way up the mountain (By cable car) for a 12km walk along a ridge. Being the prepared walkers that we are (or just too used to the British climate), we arrived fully kitted out in walking shoes, gortex jackets and enough water for a day's walking. We quickly realised at the top of the cable car that the walk may not be as demanding as we thought. Chinese tourists were
Working the rice fields around DaliWorking the rice fields around DaliWorking the rice fields around Dali

Back breaking work in the rice fields
around in little dresses and shorts, negotiating the tricky paved path in dainty shoes...they looked at us like we were from another planet!

Our advance planning did pay off though when we found a lovely hostel on the hillside, overlooking the town and lake to stay in for the night. After all the Chinese flip-floppers had left, we had the place to ourselves to watch the sun setting.

We did discover from bike rides in the surrounding area that Dali is in a lovely location. It is surrounded by rice fields and pictureseque little lakeside villages, and all in a pleasant climate of 20 deg.


Hoping to continue our run of nice towns in Yunnan, we hopped on a bus for the 3 hour journey to Lijiang. Like Dali, this is another old town within a new town. An ancient old town with rambling cobbled streets and pretty small houses is surrounded by a new town of generic Chinese white tiled buildings. With no reason to be in the new town, we pitched ourselves in a guest house in the old town.

We decided to go for a wander through town and to find a restaurant. Very quickly we realised Lijiang to be hugely busier than Dali. Vast numbers of Chinese tourists swarmed around the narrow streets, particularly on the narrow bridges over the canals in the town.

We also noticed that all the lovely buildings in town had been converted to tourist tat shops selling yak meat and jewellery.

We did get up early the next morning in order to see the town before the hoardes of day trippers got there and i have to say it really was beautiful. Full of very narrow streets winding up the hills and canals flowing through the town. Lots of good photo opportunities to be had all around.

However, the number of people around us as the day wore on forced us to cut short our time in Lijiang and look to move on.

Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek

Luckily our time in Lijiang was not wasted as 2 hours north of town is one of the main reasons we had visited the Yunnan province, Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is a trek along a path high above the Yangzi River which cuts deeply into a mountain range, creating a spectacularly
A river runs through itA river runs through itA river runs through it

The Yangzi River roars through Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge
deep gorge. In places, from mountain top to river, it is 3,900m deep.

After depositing most of our gear in a nearby village guesthouse, we set off on the well marked trail. For most of the first day walking it was a bit of an uphill slog to get up to the high trail path. Luckily though, every 1 - 2 hrs walking there is a teahouse along the trail where we were greeted by a cup of local tea, and the offer of lunch or bed if needed.

This was particularly welcome at the quaintly named "Tea Horse" Guesthouse when we arrived at the end of the final big uphill climb. It was a unanimous decision to stay the night here and rest our weary legs.

The teahouse had fantastic views - looking out our bedroom window, we were looking directly across the gorge at the seemingly unscalable mountains across from us. It was a really inspirational view to wake up to....pretty close to trekker's paradise, really.

We were also lucky enough to share our teahouse with a good number of other equally inspired multinational trekkers. We shared our stories long into the night over
Tibetan Ladies dancing in Shangri-LaTibetan Ladies dancing in Shangri-LaTibetan Ladies dancing in Shangri-La

The Tibetan "Barn-dancing" happened every evening
beer and some great (much needed) food.

After a sluggish start, day 2 continued in the same vein as day 1, but with much less uphill climbing. We were also very lucky, as it was the beginning of the rainy season, not to see any rain during our 2 day trek. The path in places is pretty narrow, with some very steep drops off straight down to the river below.

We descended right down to the river level after lunch, to watch the mighty, brown Yangzi river at one of the narrowest points. It's at this point that Tiger Leaping Stone is found, from where the gorge gets its name. It's thought that a tiger was being chased by a hunter and to escape, it jumped onto the stone and across the river to the other side. Looking at the stone, it's still a good 100m across the river at this point. Good leap by the tiger!

Sitting at the base of the ravine, its possible to take in the majesty of this huge gorge. It really is a spectacular sight and Helen and I were quite awestruck. The power of the Yangzi at this narrow point in the gorge is incredible. Because it had rained a lot recently, the river was at full flow, bubbling like a boiling torrent past the rock where we sat.

What is also quite spectacular is the climb back up from the river, along rocky cliff faces straight over the roaring river, getting ever higher (and more scary) above the river. We were glad to get to safety away from the river, walking through corn fields, to spend the night at Walnut Garden village, before leaving the gorge the next day. A great trek that we would thoroughly recommend.


Following our gorge trek, we needed some R&R, so we moved further northwest to the town of Shangri-la, and a whole different experience. Although this town used to be called Zhongdian, the Chinese authorities thought that not enough people visiting, as its a little obscure and out on a limb. So, to make it more noticeable, they renamed it Shangri-la, so that more people, like us, would be drawn to come. Well, it obviously worked!

Glad we were that we visited too. It's the first step into the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, at 3,200
Come on are supposed to enjoy thisCome on are supposed to enjoy thisCome on are supposed to enjoy this

A dance and a good gossip every evening.....soon to be launched in Omagh
m.a.s.l, and certainly feels altogether more Tibetan than anywhere we had been to date. Again there was an old town, in which we stayed. The buildings in town had beautifully carved wooden frontings which were painted in bright colours, as we were to discover is very traditional. Along all the streets in town, prayer flags fluttered, and these all met in the town main square which looked magnificent.

There is also a large Tibetan monastery in town which contains around 600 Tibetan monks. This strengthens the feeling of being more Tibetan than Chinese, as you constantly see monks, dressed in distinctive long red gowns, wandering around town.

The Tibetan culture is wholly different to the Chinese, and this was to manifest itself in many obvious, and some less obvious ways, over the next couple of weeks. The ancient Tibetan region of Kham, it transpires, includes northern Yunnan and western Sizchuan, and the Tibetans who live there still feel that they live in Tibet. Their architecture, food, customs, dress, facial features and demeanour are completely their own.

The main meat on menus in this area is Yak meat. Yaks, for the uniniatiated, being long haired, slightly smaller versions
Chinese ChequersChinese ChequersChinese Chequers

Guys playing chequers at one of the stops on the bus journey from Yunnan - Sichuan
of cows. Generally it just seems to taste a little like pork, but a bit tougher. Tasty, though. What was very good was Yak yoghurt, which we had a couple of times. Although it sounds rank, it was delicious!

We made the most of our recuperation from our walk by not really going outside much at all in Shangri-la, which was mainly due to the continuous rain that fell for 2 days while we were there. After avoiding it in the gorge, it had finally caught up with us.

This was a real shame as Shangri-la seemed like a lovely area to explore, in particular the small villages nearby. The rain did generally clear up most evenings to allow us to venture out, and witness the local dancing which happened in the 2 main squares in town. Every evening at about 7:30, all the locals congregate, from the more elderly members of the town, who generally dress in traditional outfits, to teenagers in jeans. For women this includes long, blue flowing skirts, purple blouses and their hair often plaited into pink scarves.

Versions of traditional Tibetan tunes pump out onto the square, often with some horrendous beat
Tibetan monastery in Xiang-chengTibetan monastery in Xiang-chengTibetan monastery in Xiang-cheng

The preferred way for monks to travel is by motorbike, of course!
put to them. Everyone gathers in a circle and everyone knows the dance moves. The town moves together, around the circle, arms moving in unison, all knowing when to step and when to turn. It's really moving, seeing the old, the little children, the traditional women, and the funky young dudes all dancing together. Some people look quite solemn and serious, others are smiling and visibly enjoying looks self-conscious in the slightest. There seems to be no obligation to take part, but people casually drop by and join in. This apparently happens every evening, unless the deep snows in the winter are just too prohibitive. Incidentally, this Tibetan tradition is not currently permitted in any other Tibetan towns by the Chinese authorities. We've added a video of this at the top of the blog.

Eastern Tibetan Plateau to Litang

Shangri-la left a really good impression on us of life in a Tibetan town. So we decided that we should continue working our way north from here, along the Eastern Tibetan plateau, and the Western edges of Yunnan and Sizchuan provinces. This involved bus rides north from Shangri-la, over high altitude (4,500m) passes, and along some really
A Young Tibetan monk in LitangA Young Tibetan monk in LitangA Young Tibetan monk in Litang

They start them young here!
spectacular valleys (and through a dingy village or two!), to ultimately reach the little town of Litang.

We really did see some of the most spectacular scenery of our journey to date during these 2 days of bus rides. Valleys plunged down below the roads we were travelling along to tree covered valley floors, while huge mountains would tower above us, often with snow covered peaks frustratingly just hidden in the clouds. Although i have to say the state of some of the roads did test our enjoyment of the scenery!

Eventually we arrived in Litang, which at over 4,000m, was having its effect on my lungs and had caused me a persistent cough. Litang is a small town, surrounded by huge peaks, with an incredibly Tibetan feel. There is really no evidence of Chinese Han culture at all. The town is also dominated by a huge Buddist Tibetan monastery, which has an especially peaceful feel. The slow, exhausting walk up to the monastery rewarded us with some spectacular views over the town itself and the surrounding mountains. The strong gusts of wind made a strangely appropriate accompaniment to the quietness of the place.

A number of
Prayer flags on a hill over LitangPrayer flags on a hill over LitangPrayer flags on a hill over Litang

With obligatory Yak in the foreground
Tibetan traditions are still practiced at Litang, including the highly poignant Sky Burials Sky Burial Link Here .
We met a few people in town who were planning to attend these. It seems that the burials in some cases have been turned into tourist events, where tourists can attend on Mondays and Fridays, paying a fee to watch. Both Helen and I were a little surprised by this and decided not to go along to such a personal and intimate ceremony. However, i think what surprised us more was that people are going along to the town, expecting to watch one of these events. I think reading about them is enough for us to understand what happens.

The main thing we noticed about the town was how friendly the locals were towards us. We really were made to feel at home and in particular we had a wonderful meal with the friendly Mr. Zheng in his restaurant...he was quite happy for us to go into his kitchen and point out what we wanted to eat. Sounds strange, but honestly, after a few weeks of not knowing what you're ordering, it was a treat.

It was in Litang also that we met our travelling companions for the coming days. A group of 5 other travellers were in town, and they needed 2 other bodies to fill a mini-bus the following morning for the journey into central Sizchuan and Kangding. They had negotiated with a local Tibetan to take us, via his village to watch a horse festival. We jumped at the chance. Any break from Chinese people smoking in our faces on the public buses would be a welcome relief.

Litang - Kangding (via a Tibetan "Horse Festival")

And so early the following morning we jumped into a cramped minbus with Anne & Marc (a young French couple), Amaury (a friend travelling with the French couple) & Emilie & Tik (a French girl who had met a Thai man while there, who were now together and travelling). Squeezing us all into the minibus with bags and starting the journey on very potholed roads, it was beginning to seem like a bad idea. Things didn't get any better when the cloud and rain closed in around us. All i could do was hope a large bus or lorry wouldn't come hurtling around each blind corner we approached. Although my mind was
Tibetan traditional dancing....Tibetan traditional dancing....Tibetan traditional dancing....

....Around the traditional motorbike!
frequently taken off the danger by us being lifted off our seats by hitting some large pothole along the way. Tip for the uninitiated - the back row of a minibus makes EVERY bump feel magnified!

Eventually Dali, our Tibetan driver, made it off the main road and down towards his village. He seemed to be getting more and more excited as he approached, tooting his horn and shouting at everyone he passed. His bus of foreigners seemed quite a coup for him and was increasing his status no end!
We passed through a normal built up village and then on though a couple of tented villages, before we reached the final group of tents, where we found Dali's 'village'. It seems that for 10 days each year, during the festival, the village moves out and all pitch camp together to watch the festivities. What security they leave in place at the normal village to prevent mass looting wasn't mentioned.

We were all (thankfully) shifted out of the minbus and invited into a nearby tent where we were served cups of warm water, along with some Tibetan 'momo' (a piece of yak meat (or in some cases gristle)
Tibetan dancing attracts great interest from young and oldTibetan dancing attracts great interest from young and oldTibetan dancing attracts great interest from young and old

There wasn't much else for them to do in the village to be fair!
stuffed into a pastry dumpling and then boiled) and butter tea (really, tea with butter in it, slightly salty and not very nice).

It seemed the entire village was interested in our arrival and most of villagers came to stare at us from the tent opening. It was a slightly strange experience as none of us could communicate with any of them, so we generally sat chatting amongst ourselves, getting to know our new travelling companions (and Helen getting to slip back into French speaking mode again)....and every now and then we would look up to see five villagers staring at us! A little off-putting. It was really endearing to see how shy they were - if you managed to catch one of the youngsters eyes and smile at them, they would immediately blush in excited consternation, and run away.

The mood lightened a little as we moved to another tent to watch some traditional Tibetan dancing, again in a circle. Some ingenious villager had connected their i-Pod to the speakers on the back of a motorbike, so they all danced around this, in beautiful, colourful silk tops with very long arms, which we were informed was the
Tibetan ladies in the village....Tibetan ladies in the village....Tibetan ladies in the village....

....eagerly awaiting the horse festival to begin
height of Tibetan fashion. The drinks also improved (they may have sensed our hesitation at the butter tea) to coca-cola for everyone. Amaury did his bit for the european contingent and joined in the dancing, although his goretex and trekking boots perhaps left a little to be desired sartorially!

Eventually the dancing finished and everyone gathered expectantly on the hill to watch the horse festival. I have to say we were all left a little bemused by this part of the billing, our main reason for coming to town. The horse festival consisted of one horse race, over a kilometer, of 6 horses being ridden by young villagers. By the time they reached us, near the finish line, the poor horses were being whipped repeatedly to get them over the line first. They looked knackered. And that was the end of the horse festival.

I have to say though that it was a great, if humbling, experience to go along and visit the village. We really were made to feel most welcome guests, and it was lovely to communicate through smiles and nods with our incredibly warm and friendly hosts, who evidently had so little, but wanted to give us all that they could.

It was also a welcome break in the long journey to Kangding, where we finally arrived 14 hours after leaving Litang, to a very welcome meal of.....yak burger and.....even some nice Chilean Merlot for Helen! A really nice way to round off a long and unusual day.

Additional photos below
Photos: 43, Displayed: 34


Pretty streets of LijiangPretty streets of Lijiang
Pretty streets of Lijiang

Early in the morning to avoid the crowds
A very useful sign in LijiangA very useful sign in Lijiang
A very useful sign in Lijiang

Possibly should be installed along Oxford Street......although unlikely!
Early Stages of Tiger Leaping GorgeEarly Stages of Tiger Leaping Gorge
Early Stages of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Climbing high above the river on Day 1

10th August 2010

So nice to read your blog update, I even read it with an Irish / British accent. The parts of China you're visiting sound and look amazing. Not sure if i'd be keeping up with your trekking though. Looking forward to your next post. Braden
10th August 2010

Bus Rides!!
It sounds like the chinese driving style will put you in good stead for when you get to India. Drivers who have no fear of death can make for a fun trip!!
19th August 2010

nice article
Hey Mike As usual, nice article!! Glad to see you are having fun... cheers Amol

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