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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

In Search of the Real Shangri-la

CHINA | Friday, 5 August 2011 | Views [482]

Part 2 of our China adventure sees us seeking out Tibetan life in Yunnan Province.

Lijiang

Following a good night’s sleep we set off to work out what the fuss was all about as regards the old town and find a decent guesthouse.  We eventually got the map sussed – Steve very uncharacteristically realised he’d been holding it 900 out!  No wonder we’d not been impressed with the old town; we’d only actually ventured into the new old bit.  On wandering down the old, cobbled, mercifully traffic free streets we found Garden Inn.  It was just what we wanted so we paid up front for 2 nights, went back to check out and then check in!  Garden Inn was quiet and great value at Y160 for en-suite doubles with large private balcony area.  I managed to catch up on my chores and we relaxed over a brew.

Lijiang turned out to be just what we’d hoped for so long as you avoid the main very touristy thoroughfare.  Our guesthouse was significantly removed from that area hence not so many people shuffling around.  Lijiang is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets, stone bridges and tinkling streams.  Beyond the main tourist street many of the alleyways consist of private houses as opposed to shops and restaurants resulting in quiet areas with genuine old buildings to admire and photograph.  We had a drink overlooking a babbling brook and it was all very peaceful.  There are loads of places to eat and drink but the prices fluctuate wildly.  We tried a couple of places on the outer wall with views overlooking the old town but everything cost 3 times as much so we moved on.  There were so many places that we really couldn’t decide what we fancied.  In the end we found a basic satay / barbeque place that had an impressive selection of veggies, fish and meat on sticks.  You simply grab a basket fill it up with what you fancy and present it to the chief griller who brushes on tasty marinades and gets cooking  Not only was it delicious but it was incredibly cheap too.

The next morning we decided to make full use of our balcony so Steve popped to get some Naxi flatbreads while I put the kettle on.  It was cloudy and chilly initially but the sun finally won through and we could see the mountains again.  Later in the afternoon we tried to relax on our balcony but it was far too chilly and ended up diving under the duvet instead!  The second day panned out very similar to the previous one as we simply wandered around more of the old alleyways and cobbled streets.  In the end we thoroughly enjoyed Lijiang and yes parts of it are tourist plastic attraction standard but you don’t have to venture far to find interesting buildings.  Time to experience the great outdoors so let’s hope the weather improves.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Having not particularly enjoyed rural public transport we decided to book a seat on the tourist bus.  It was very convenient to book it through our guesthouse and at Y35 it was good value especially since it went door-to-door.  The added bonus was we were in a minivan – only 5 passengers and non-smoking.  Again we went through some lovely scenery and again we hit road works but these were minor and led to the journey being only 30mins longer than scheduled.

The van dropped us at Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou who provide a much needed and very cheap left luggage service.  Unbelievably the entrance fee for Tiger Leaping Gorge is only Y50 making it much cheaper than most things in China.  We were very surprised as this is one of the must do highlights in Yunnan.  We promptly dropped our bags and set off to see what the gorge would offer us.  We quickly found the path we needed but were a little dismayed to discover it is now a concrete road.  Fortunately this only lasted to the next village and beyond that we were on the trail proper.  We cracked on at a fair pace until we felt we’d left town and traffic behind and were entering the gorge area.  We reached Naxi Family Guesthouse in good time (1hr 20mins) and decided to stop for some lunch.

Many guesthouses provide maps and information on this walk in English and Chinese but the details don’t always tally.  We found distances and times between points varied quite a lot and to be honest you don’t need a map as there are yellow, red and green arrows along the route.  In true Chinese fashion you can cheat your way along and hire a pony to take you and/or your bag.  Being the determined independent souls that we are we weren’t going to go down that route but it didn’t stop a pony man latching on to us.  He’d followed us from the first village to our lunch stop despite us indicating that we would not require his services.  He kept an eye on us all through lunch and funnily enough was ready to leave at exactly the same time as us.  We made it clear that we did not want a pony thank you and please go on ahead.  He tried to make out that he was simply going that way anyway but we knew he was hoping that we’d crumble and holler for his nag.  In the end we shook him off so now it was time for us to enjoy the walk without someone shadowing our every move.

The next section of the trail is known as 28 bends but again the number varies slightly and we didn’t bother counting them!  Basically the path zig zags its way up to 2670m and there are great views from the top.  It’s a bit of a workout but nothing too challenging and we were at the top in an hour.  The weather was excellent and we knew we had plenty of time to reach our destination for that night so we didn’t push ourselves.  Instead we plodded along and frequently stopped to admire the views and of course take photos.  It’s always a delight for us to be walking in the open and in this case we had the valley below and the mountains rising above us.

The next section of the path is much gentler so again we didn’t dash – it seemed crazy not to enjoy the wonderful views we were getting on rounding every bend.  With glorious weather and fantastic scenery why hurry?  This slow plod led us from the top of the 28 bends to Half Way Guesthouse in 2hrs and 45mins.  Much of the information we’d read said you needed 3 days to complete the gorge walk but I promise you 2 are ample.  At a push you could do it in 1 day but you’d have to leave Jane’s Guesthouse very early and get a van back down again later.  However, to do the area justice we feel 2 days is the optimum.

Half Way Guesthouse was excellent and a big surprise – we actually got a double room with private facilities for only Y120.  We’re not used to luxury trekking and presumed there’d only be dorms available along the way and we’d struggle to find a space clean and private enough to get changed in.  Having a hot water shower was a real treat but what made the place stand out was the outdoor terrace area they have built.  To say it was a cracking spot doesn’t go anywhere near doing it justice.  We were so close to the mountains that you almost had to crane your neck to be able to see the tops of the peaks.  We don’t usually have a beer when trekking but how could we not in such a fabulous setting having enjoyed our days walk.  Apparently everyone else shared our sentiments!

We never got to see the whole range of peaks clear simultaneously but the clouds shifted about to give us glimpses of individual summits.  By the next morning the cloud cover was thicker but at least it was still dry.  We ambled our way down to Tina’s Guesthouse in 1hr 30mins – again making sure we enjoyed the environment we were in.  The going was once again easy and we passed a couple of lovely waterfalls too.  At Tina’s Guesthouse we managed to find out about the options for getting right down into the bottom of the gorge.  To look at the sheer rock faces you wouldn’t think it feasible but we knew there were ways and means.  A few kind / sadistic locals have carved paths into the rock face and some of the routes include ladders too.

We walked down Mr Zheng’s path that leads down to Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge and he charges Y10 a head for the upkeep.  This is where the tiger is meant to have leapt across the river to escape the hunter.  Yeah right!  As impressive as tigers are there is no way one could have bounded over there and as for a hunter leaping down the cliff in pursuit of said feline – hmmmm!  The path is steep – obviously! – but luckily the rain was still holding off so it wasn’t too hairy.  Down in the bottom we had to pay another Y5 each to cross the bridge onto a rock in the middle of the river.  This was the only bit we wished we’d not bothered with as on ascending via a different path that Y10 fee included a different rock.  This second rock was much better as we were in a slightly narrower part of the gorge so the force of the water was even more impressive.

Our up cliff path was the ladder route that leads to Sandy’s Guesthouse.  In actual fact there are only 2 ladders; one of 20m and another of only 5m, the remainder of the route is steps / path carved into the rock.  Steve looked at the vertical ladder with infinite suspicion on his face but it looked safe enough to me.  To be fair he tried several times to overcome his fear but was defeated at the 6th step every time.  The ‘safe path’ simply skirts round the rock the ladder is bolted to and doesn’t take any longer.  The second ladder you have to use but it’s only short and is angled into the rock making it very doable.  Obviously even the path is very steep as you’re climbing in and out an almost vertically sided part of the gorge.  It was an excellent workout and ended up being by far the toughest part of the trek.  We were very glad we’d bothered as it was great to be in the bottom looking up at the sides of the gorge.  Plus it’s not until you get down there that you appreciate the scale of the place and the power of the water. 

We’d had a fantastic 2 days of trekking in the gorge and recommend it to anyone who’s even remotely interested in this kind of activity.  The going isn’t tough and it’s lovely to be in the middle of such wonderful scenery without having to share it with hundreds of others.  At the moment the tour group buses only go to Lower Tiger Leaping Gorge leaving the rest of the area to trekkers and local goat herders.

Back at Tina’s Guesthouse we enquired about transport back to Jane’s Guesthouse only to be given the flat rate of Y150 for a 7-seater van.  We pointed out it was only 20kms and very expensive for just two people only to be met with a shrug of the shoulders.  To be honest apart from this lack of customer service we wouldn’t recommend staying there as the place is just a concrete block without views despite its excellent location.  We didn’t use Bridge Cafe Guesthouse but it looked like a much better option – built in traditional style, with great views and the menu looked good.  Just our humble opinion for what it’s worth.  Anyway, we declined the over-priced van and walked a little way down the road to resort to good old hitching.  A van soon pulled up, and with our ever improving ability to communicate using sign language we, established chief was going the same way and he’d happily drop us off for Y60.  Deal!

Back at Jane’s we reorganised the bags, grabbed a butty (yuk – mayonnaise), played with the cute puppies and kittens and went to find some onwards transport.  Next stop – Shangri-la.  While lurking on a street corner trying to flag down a likely looking vehicle the threatened rain finally started.  We were just looking around for some shelter when a minivan pulled up.  He would take us all the way to Shangri-la for Y60.  Yes please but hang on does that sound too good to be true?  You guessed it there had to be a catch.  Understandably he’d rather drive with his van full so we drove back into the gorge to pick up 2 more passengers.  No problem except they weren’t waiting at the main gate.  A few phone calls later and we joined the queue / traffic jam crawling up the valley.  Luckily our driver soon spotted his customers and in they jumped leaving us to do a u-turn out of the endless line of tour buses.  In the end we’d only been messing around for half an hour and it was well worth it for the bargain price of luxury travel.

The journey up to Shangri-la was much faster than we expected as the road was in great shape.  The landscape changed but was just as beautiful in a different way – meadows with mountain backdrops.  It was great to see some Tibetan villages and we finally started to believe / hope that we may get our fix of Tibet yet.

Shangri-la

We never seem to get the best introduction to a place in China and despite instantly liking Shangri-la we soon got fed up.  We had to carry our bags around trying to find a place Steve had spied on the Internet.  By the time we were walking up and down the same streets for the third time we decided to admit defeat and find any old place.  The first place was full, the second two cheap as chips but grotty, though luckily we soon found a clean, well priced place.  Yong Sheng Yoan Guesthouse had bright, airy rooms (Y150 a double) but we didn’t have any mountain views.  To compensate for this; the minute we stepped out of the hotel we were faced with a beautiful Tibetan style stupa in the middle of a square.  Now ordinarily I would have added the world old or traditional to that sentence but Shangri-la is far from either.  The Chinese government have been desperate to lay claim to the real Shangri-la from James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizons for years.  In the end they dispensed with trying to find it and in 2006 knocked up Shangri-la as it is presented to the world today.  To be fair they’ve done a cracking job and we liked the place.

Having wandered round and round town carrying the packs we decided to do it again at a more leisurely pace.  Our aim was to find out about trekking options in the area and we were still hopeful of getting that Tibetan village experience.  To cut a long story short; we decided to finally give up all hope of getting close to the TAR region and liked the sound of a 4-day trek that started close to Shangri-la.  This would also mean we wouldn’t have to do a long journey on dodgy roads to Deqin and we just had to admit that Tibet wasn’t happening this time round.  Plus this would cost us substantially less than the trip we’d hoped to do.

We then wandered round and round town again trying to find an Internet cafe as I wanted to send birthday greetings to my Mum.  Free wi-fi is available on every street corner but trying to find somewhere with a computer you could use was nigh on impossible.  See what I mean about just being a nobody if you’re not carrying your own gadgets?!  I eventually found somewhere but the message kept getting translated into Mandarin – I think I managed to at least send those 2 magic words happy and birthday but it was some struggle.  We then wandered round and round town AGAIN(!) trying to find a nice spot for a drink – there are loads of places that looked lovely but we seemed to be getting things spectacularly wrong.  We ranged from inedible mayonnaise drenched salad to odd staff or simply no service and even one place with no food.  In the end we popped into a local mini mart bought a beer each from the fridge and sat on the benches outside our hotel people watching.  We’d had a good day but it’d been somewhat trying.

Every time we say we’re going to visit a great place, have a slap up meal, enjoy a lovely journey etc the opposite seems to happen.  So today on waking up we vowed to have a bobbins breakfast in a seedy cafe, get ripped off in a touristy monastery and book the wrong trek.  By early afternoon we were back at our hotel so how did we get on?

Well, the first place we tried for breakfast gave us a short; “No!”  What? Not open yet – its 9.30am!  We decided there was a reason the foreigners all flock to one place and went to try N’s Kitchen.  We’d seen adverts for it painted on rocks all along the gorge walk and had been carrying a flyer around since Chengdu so it made sense.  It worked out to be an inspired move; the food was great and we got chatting to some people who’d just come back from Deqin.  You guessed it – the plans changed again.  What are we on now – Plan D?!  Plus it’s possible to do the whole thing independently and whether or not we find people to share a van with it will still work out substantially cheaper than the Y2950 per person quoted the previous day.  We decided that we hadn’t gone all that way to throw in the towel again and we’d just have to take a gamble on the weather.

Following that bit of good fortune we walked out of town towards Ganden Sumtseling Monastery which is the most important religious building in the area.  The information we had said it was an Y30 entrance fee and we’d be able to wander around at leisure and admire the local landscape.  As we neared where we expected to find the monks’ hangout the road forced us into a cultural centre.  Basically if we wanted to go any further we’d have to pay Y85 a head and the only option was to take the tourist shuttle bus.  Why are Chinese tourists incapable of walking and why oh why do they have to turn everything into a funfair?  Don’t they care about the extortionate entrance fees or the fact that traditional places of worship have been turned into theme parks?  Evidently not but I’m sure the locals would have an opinion or two given half a chance.  Suffice it to say we turned round.  On catching the No. 3 bus back into town we headed to the main square and walked up the one alleyway we’d not ventured down thus far.  Oh look, there’s the guesthouse we searched for endlessly yesterday.  In the end it looked like it would have been beyond our budget and we were very happy with our locally run place.

We carried on exploring the outskirts of town and these buildings looked like they were part of whatever the town was before being turned into Shangri-la.  We found ourselves going down a back alley that led to the town’s main temple.  We had a good look around, took in the views, had a go on their enormous prayer wheel and photographed a friendly monk.  We enjoyed the naturalness of the place and the calm, relaxed atmosphere so much that we actively hunted for a donation box.  All-in-all we felt we’d predicted the day correctly but salvaged it with an enjoyable off-plan morning.

With the decision made that we would go to Deqin it was time to get organised.  Our gaff said we could store a bag so all we had to do was arrange some transport.  We went back to N’s Kitchen as that’s where most foreigners were hanging out and we’d heard a couple of other people were keen to progress in that direction too.  It seemed to take a lot a debating and to-ing and fro-ing but eventually one of the girls (who luckily spoke Mandarin) negotiated Y700 for a 7-seater van and had amassed 6 passengers.  It’s a long way to Deqin and we’d heard the roads were shocking so Y120 a head sounded like an excellent fare to us.  A few of the others seemed dismayed that they’d be paying their share of an empty seat – I hope we never get to the point where we’re quibbling over a couple of quid!  On the way back to our room we heard music in the main square so we went to take a peak.  Locals and tourists were enjoying themselves taking part in a mass traditional dance – it was good to watch but there was no way we were joining in! 

In conclusion Shangri-la isn’t – we’d expected a picturesque little town nestled in a valley surrounded by imposing mountains.  The town is lovely with some wonderful buildings but the mountains are rolling hills and they’re in the distance.  So where is the real Shangri-la?

Shangri-la to Feilai Si

We all met up as planned and were on the road just after 8am.  The first section of the road was in excellent nick and we made good progress.  Following an unbelievably early lunch stop – 10.30am, I ask you! – the driver set off on a side track as apparently the ‘main’ road was under construction.  I’m not quite sure how that distinguishes it from the rest of the roads but there you go!  We didn’t care as the scenery was stunning and we climbed up and over a high point of 4929m.  We’ve done some fabulous road trips over the years but this one rated at No. 2 behind the Leh to Manali journey a couple of years ago.

The mountainous scenery was very similar to that No.1 trip as it’s all basically on the edge of the Tibetan plateau.  However, we didn’t get to reach the giddy heights of 2 years ago but to off-set that and what made this journey so wonderful is that we were among vegetation.  It was predominantly pine forests but there was a smattering of other trees and lots of colourful flowers.  The Leh to Manali road is devoid of plant and people life and on this trip we passed through lots of lovely but extremely isolated villages.

As we neared the pass a glacier clad mountain range dominated the horizon and as we neared Deqin we could see another snowy mountain range.  We did get stuck in one set of road works but an hour delay is mighty short by Chinese standards.  Besides which the weather was glorious and we were surrounded by lovely scenery.  We reached Feilai Si at 5pm after a 9 hour journey but for once we’d enjoyed every kilometre.  To add to the decent seats and great views the day was devoid of hockling, yakking on, DVD’s blaring, puking or smoking!

Feilai Si

Feilai Si is a nice enough little town perched on the slopes of a mountain but there’s way too much Chinese style concrete block construction work going on.  The place is obviously building itself up to an influx of tourists once the road has been built – that could be said of umpteen places in China.  However, once you turn your back on the building site you are rewarded with amazing views of snow and glacier capped peaks.  The highest mountain in the area is Meili Xueshan or Kawa Karpo at 6740m.  There are various pilgrimage routes in the area with the longest and most important being the one that circumnavigates this impressive mastiff.  It takes about 16 days but part of it is in the TAR so of course foreigners need permits.  Anyway we didn’t have time to do it and hoped that the weather would hold out long enough for us to do a small section of it along with a couple of shorter walks.

We were dropped at the youth hostel but didn’t fancy being sheep and knew there were plenty of other options.  I’m sure it’s as good as any where to stay but being set back from the road the mountain views are obstructed.  We soon plumped for Keep Watch 6740 which has spanking clean 3-bed rooms for Y30 a bed.  Even though Steve and I had the room to ourselves and made it clear we didn’t want to share we were only charged for 2 beds.  The downstairs shared facilities left a lot to be desired but we’d expected that.  We hadn’t expected to get a nice room with pristine sheets let alone en-suite!  The views from their upstairs balcony were great and the restaurant downstairs cooked up some tasty grub.

We had a rough idea of what we wanted to do while in this area but we knew we’d have to let the weather dictate to a certain extent.  Our plans pretty much matched the itinerary the travel agent in Shangri-la outlined.  They were going to charge us almost Y6000 and that would have included travelling by public transport without food or drink being provided.  It was time for me to have fun totting up our expenses and see how much of that Y6000 budget we would actually spend!

Travel to Yubeng Village

The next morning we sorted out a van to take us to the Hot Springs and the start of the walk to Yubeng Village.  There is a direct walking route but we feel it would have taken up too much of the day just to get to the start of the track leading to Yubeng.  The van has to go right the way down Feilai Si’s side of the river to a narrow point where there is a bridge then of course it has to bump and bounce its way back along the other side to the Hot Springs car park.  We reckon it was Y150 well spent and in fact enjoyed the journey along the barren river banks and through fertile village areas.  We had to pay the usual inflated entrance fee – this time Y85 a head and then we were ready to try and find a pocket of Tibet.

The walk from Hot Springs (2680m) to the summit (3750m) was rumoured to take 3 – 3 ½ hours but we got up there in 2 ¼ hours.  Once again you can cheat your way up using ponies but you must know by now that we didn’t take that option!  There were quite a few Chinese tourists at the summit and most of them had some or good English and they came over to chat.  We were soon treated as heroes on finding out that we’d got to the top so quickly while carrying our own bags.  We’d passed one couple at the half way point as they were climbing onto their mules – they reached the top only 10mins before us.  It made us feel a lot better about ourselves even though we knew our fitness levels were down on the previous few years.

The weather on rising in Feilai Si was cloud, cloud and more cloud – in fact we couldn’t see the mountains and it would have been easy to quit.  Obviously we decided to press on and although it was cloudy all the way it didn’t affect the views since we were in a pine forest.  It did make the 1100m ascent to the top more comfortable in the cooler temperatures.  We soon got chilly at the top so hurried on towards Yubeng and were delighted to see the sun trying to peep out.  We even got a glimpse of the mountain range we’d come to see. 

 

Yubeng Village

It took us about an hour to descend to Yubeng village at 3200m and we then promptly spent another hour wandering around trying to find somewhere to stay. Yes it’s only a village but it’s very spread out!  We followed the signs to the lower part of the valley to a place we had a card for.  On getting there they thought we were the customers they were waiting for and pointed to a pile of luggage.  On pointing out that they weren’t ours they promptly declared the place full – hmmm.  So we showed the people lurking around (guesthouse owners / staff, pony men, hangers on?) our card; they studied it for some time it was passed to chief who said he didn’t know the place.  He then decided it was his place but it was full tonight but we’d be okay tomorrow.  It was all a bit surreal and he clung onto the card as if it had been written using gold inlay.  In the end we decided it probably was a card for his place but he’d never actually seen one of his own cards before!

So we wandered back to the main part of the village and tried all sorts of places that looked like they may be guesthouses.  One place clearly was and was standing wide open so we invited ourselves in, yelled hello until we were hoarse and gave up.  Another place had a long debate over whether or not they had a room.  However they showed us a room, well the store cupboard, and we realised that they were just trying to help us out.  Bless them – it wasn’t until we were walking out that we realised that it was just a restaurant and we vowed to give them some business before leaving Yubeng.  Another place was surrounded by people yelling hello at us but that was as far as the conversation went!  Finally we went back to where we’d entered the village to try the last 2 places.

One that looked okay and geared up for tourists; and one where aunty had waved and shouted hello on our many walk-bys.  Steve took the former and me the latter then we rendezvoused to compare notes.  Steve was met with spectacular non-service but was eventually shown a grotty room at Y40 and one equally as grim where we’d have to pay a premium of Y40 to get a window.  I’d looked at a much cleaner room with 2 windows and mountain views for Y40.  Yep!  I was the winner and aunty was delighted to see me return and take the room.  To be honest even this place wasn’t brilliant but what can you expect at that price.  True to form the facilities were downright disgusting but at least there was a wall separating the boys from the girls.  That was it though – all girls / boys together so we were forced to stand guard for each other!

You must have a clear picture as to how spectacularly bad their toilets are by now and you also know there are times when the Chinese don’t make ideal travel companions.  Their lack of decorum doesn’t end there and this seemed even more evident in a village totally inhabited by quiet, kindly Tibetans.  Personally I don’t think its okay to shout at each loudly, be outright rude to the staff and chuck rubbish all over the place.  And I’m talking about meal time here.  Once a group has finished troughing (I use that word wisely) and vacated a table you’d swear you’d just missed a chimp’s tea party.  At one point we saw someone spoon a boned bit of meat into his bowl from the communal soup pot, chew the meat off, suck on the bone and then throw it back in the pot.  Yuk!  I may as well have my littering rant while I’m on as today’s walk had been the worst yet.  The locals had provided litter bins along the route at very regular intervals but there was no way we were going to lose the path.  Following a trail of pony poo is fair enough but the littering was terrible.  Then, as we entered Yubeng Village we had to pay a further Y5 each where the sign declared this was to help keep the area clean.  Pah!

And finally here’s a great oxymoron for you.  Bear in mind the general lack of hygiene standards all the above rants culminate in; why do all the plates, cups, bowls, chopsticks etc come individually wrapped in plastic?  Presumably they’ve been washed somewhere less than pristine and are then used in dirty kitchens and restaurants.  So the Chinese demand clean, packaged crockery but think nothing of chucking bones and other debris all over the table and floor.  More hmmms!

Right – that’s enough moaning let’s get some positives going.  Everywhere you go water is available, usually a flask of hot water but many places have filters too.  So in this way they do cut down on a whole whack of plastic being used unnecessarily.  In the long run we saved a fortune as well as not having to worry about our personal addition to the plastic mountain.  We’d walked into a beautiful area with steep gorges and high mountain peaks that we caught glimpses of through the cloud.  We’d only had a light shower and counted ourselves very lucky since we knew we were here at the worst time of year.  We could see forests, streams, waterfalls, gorges, meadows and glaciers making it all well worth the deliberation, time and effort to get there.  Since we’d reached Yubeng Village sooner than intended we decided to pop over to Lower Yubeng Village – well, it was only over there.  This gentle stroll turned out to be more strenuous than we thought - a 3 hour ramble.  First of all we had to descend into a steeply sided valley to cross the river to then have to climb out again on the other side.  So we’d spent the day travelling and walking through, then sitting and admiring some wonderful scenery to finally find ourselves in a 100% Tibetan village.  Marvellous.

Ice Lake

We woke up to find another cloudy day but we felt it was beginning to lift a little.  The important thing was it wasn’t raining but we expected to get at least showered upon before the end of the day.  I was determined to have a rant free day after going into overdrive the day before but my intentions were short lived.  By the time we were ready to set off everyone else was up and of course they demanded immediate and soul attention.  Aunty was making fresh Tibetan bread so I ordered and paid for a couple along with another night’s accommodation.  How could we resist another night in the delightfully misnamed Lced Lake Gusethouse?!  We waited patiently outside Aunty’s small kitchen while everyone else barged in and out with their various demands.  In the end I felt it was wise to join in to make sure our order wasn’t forgotten.  Another lad was waiting for his bread too and to be fair he had been waiting a while.  There’s only so much bread baking a basic wood fired stove can handle.  Anyway he got his order, wandered off and aunty prepared the last of her dough for our order.  He magically reappeared as soon as the bread was baked, picked one up and asked for a bag and promptly picked up another a bit straight into it.  Poor Aunty was flabbergasted but on recovering gave him a right good scolding.  Aunty looked mortified as she handed me the last remaining bread and a refund.  It was by far and away the best bread we’d had and I vowed to be at the front of the breadline the next morning!

By this time it was drizzling but we decided to press on anyway.  Even when it did rain a bit more forcefully it was nothing compared to the tropical downpours we’re used to.  We walked to the end of the village where we were stopped and told we had to pay another entrance fee.  The weather was grey; we’d ‘lost’ our bread and on walking through the village had witnessed a cow being skinned in the stream.  Anyway apparently this ticket was a village fee for path maintenance and keeping the environment clean.  In other words the main park entrance fee (remember that Y85 a head?) goes straight into the government’s coffers and the locals have to find ways to generate their own income.  Obviously we can’t blame them and just wish the authorities would share the spoils but what really irks is that the paths aren’t well maintained and I’ve already had my rubbish rant.  So we forked out another Y30 each and set off feeling as miserable and gloomy as the weather.  By now it was raining steadily and since we’d be climbing up into the cloud there was little prospect of the conditions improving.

We spent the first two hours ascending 600m through a pine forest to a meadow where the old base camp for Kawa Karpo was situated.  Most of the huts are now ramshackled but a couple provided some shelter from the rain.  We contemplated turning back, picking up our gear and returning to Feilai Si that very day but decided we’d spent too long squelching through the mud to give up that easily.  As we were having a short break the rain stopped and the weather perceptibly improved.  That was all it took for us to press on and find out what all the fuss was about with this here Ice Lake.

Since we were now at 3500m we’d left the pine forests behind and walked up a lovely shrub and flower lined path.  This ended 45mins later at a lookout point at 3920m – we’d enjoyed this section of the walk and had almost dried out.  By the time we reached the prayer flag strewn cairn we were delighted that we’d pressed on as there was only ourselves and 3 other English tourists to be seen.  The lake itself is quite small but it is set in front of an imposing and impressive rock and glacier clad mountain side.  We just had to investigate further so walked down (10mins) to the edge of the lake only to find ourselves actually standing on the glacier.  At this time of the year it’s very dirty and littered with pebbles and stones that have washed down in the snow and ice melt.  We had a good look and decided it would be rude not to circumnavigate the lake while walking on the glacier.

It was a fantastic experience even though initially it looked a little disappointing – you know when you’re dismayed to see yesterday’s lovely crisp white snow has turned to brown slush?  As we started to walk up the glacier we started finding small crevasses that steadily increased in size.  Some of them were pretty deep and we realised we’d have to be careful where we stepped to listen out for cracks and creaks.  It was amazing watching over a dozen waterfalls gush down the mountain side to seemingly disappear into the rock.  Actually they were going under the glacier and we just had to hope there was plenty of ice between us and running water!  We walked to the top of the glacier and near the base of one of the most powerful waterfalls.  Looking back down the glacier over the ice was incredible and we noticed that another group had arrived.  They looked tiny and that’s when we realised just how big the glacier was.  Obviously this wasn’t the biggest or most impressive glacier the world has to offer but at 4000m the glaciers in this area are some of the lowest lying in the world.

We walked back down towards the lake carefully avoiding crevasses and lines where it looked like the next cracks would appear.  In the end it was possible to walk all around the lake and we were very pleased that we had.  On getting back to the main cairn the weather was the best it had been all day so we hung around hoping the clouds would finally leave the tops.  No such luck but we did get glimpses of some of the peaks and higher lying pristine glaciers.  The weather remained dry as we retraced out steps back to the old base camp.  As I was dawdling and taking photos of the meadow flowers it occurred to us that we’d actually spent about an hour at the lake and we realised we were peckish.  We bought a couple of China’s ever present pot noodles and they warmed us up a treat.

Luckily the weather remained our friend while we walked down into the gorge along the river and back into the pine forests.  Unbelievably this is the Mekong all the way up here but it looks so very different from the wide brown meandering river we’d recently been on in Laos.  The weather was good enough to take lots of photos with mountains, rivers, cairns and fungi featuring in most of them.  Even though the path through the forest was still muddy it was nothing like the horrendous quagmire we’d squelched our through that morning.  We made excellent time and were back in the lower Yubeng meadow watching parakeets within 2 hours.  A quick boot wash on the way back through the stream (that was now mercifully free of bovine carcass) and back to the guesthouse before the rest noisily trooped in.  The toilets may not have been up to much but the rustic showers actually had functional and efficient solar panels so we managed to grab a nice warm shower in peace.  We enjoyed the peace and quiet while we could and were only disturbed when a couple of pigs oinked their way into the yard demanding their evening meal – the slop bucket.

That evening we went to Tibetan Wine and Dine – remember that place that was going to offer us the store cupboard?  It’s unique in being the only restaurant in town and yet again the deal was to point to what you wanted and it would be cooked there and then.  The array of veggies was excellent and we ended up having the best food yet and all for a tuppence ha’penny.  Their upstairs terrace affords cracking views out over the village and down the valley.  We toasted an excellent day feeling very glad we’d made the effort to get off the beaten track and finally get our taste of Tibet.  Granted we were on the Chinese side of the TAR line but geographically and culturally speaking we were firmly in Tibet.  In fact the TAR line was just over the mountain we’d set foot on earlier that day so you can’t get much closer than that without a guide and permit.  Time to bid the Tibetan folk and peaks  farewell.  For the record we reckon Yubeng Village is the real Shangri-la.

Back to Shangri-la

The next morning was cloudy and drizzling again so we decided to forgo the walk to the sacred waterfall.  Had the prayer flags been cracking we’d have done that walk in the morning and then made our way to the Hot Springs but as it was we hot footed it back to Feilai Si.  The walk from Yubeng Village back to the summit of the path took a steady 1hr 20mins and since we had all day we didn’t bother rushing.  It turned out we were leaving at just the right time as huge group after huge group were making their way up.  I dread to think how busy it is in the peak season and how over worked the ponies are.  To be honest all the animals we saw looked happy and healthy.

There may not be many wild animals left in China but I thoroughly enjoyed my Tibetan domesticated animal encounters.  All the beasts as so used to being around people that they don’t need to be penned or tethered.  It was lovely watching pigs demanding their dinner at the kitchen door or chickens suddenly popping up out of windows.  Many times while we’ve been eating the local cat would slink in and most are so friendly that they leap up onto your lap.  Mind you they soon turn their noses up when they realise there’s only rice and veggies on the table!

Meanwhile back at the Hot Springs we quickly negotiated a van and Y150 must be the set price as there was no messing around.  We didn’t have to contend with smoking or music blaring but he insisted on belting out a Tibetan chant all the way.  The valleys in this area were all dramatic, magnificent and / or pretty – don’t forget we’d not seen them on the way up due to the weather.  The long ride back to Feilai Si was most enjoyable and once there we wandered around looking for just the right place for the night.  Couldn’t get into the best looking places but we found a Tibetan style establishment with mountain views and that all important private loo.  As luck would have it we bumped into the lad who’d driven us up from Shangri-la so we quickly booked his services for the return leg.  He seemed bemused that we were happy to pay the full fare even though there were only two of us but we assured him he would get his money.

The next morning the man with the van arrived as promised but he was still shaking his head at the ludicrous behaviour of two people paying for a 7-seater van!  We didn’t care; we had the money, we were well within our ‘trek budget’ and just wanted to get back to Shangri-la.  Anyway we indicated that it was okay for him to drum up some more business and one girl did jump in.  She promptly bailed out again 20mins down the road, the thought of 9 hours in a mini-van with us was obviously too much to handle!  A little further on we picked up a couple of ladies and their baskets who were clearly off to set up shop in Deqin’s market.  On dropping them off the driver spent some time trying to conjure up some more passengers.  A bloke jumped in and we turned round and headed back towards Feilai Si – er no!  Helping people going in the same direction is one thing but we’re not a local shuttle service thank you.  Luckily he didn’t go far then we picked up a lady and her daughter and finally made it to the other side of Deqin.

We’d just started to feel like we were making progress when we got stuck in road works.  The delay wasn’t too bad but we knew there was more to come.  Luckily we got straight past the section that had held us up in the opposite direction to then climb up into thick clouds.  We realised just how lucky we’d been to get those fabulous views on the way up and to be able to do one decent walk in Yubeng.  Near the top of the pass we picked up 3 more passengers; I dread to think how long they’d been waiting in the freezing cold mist.  It’s rare that vehicles have space so it was good we could help them out.  It wasn’t clear if they would chip in or not but never mind.

As we dropped down out of the cloud we realised we were going back via a different route.  We think this was the road that was reportedly shut until a couple of days previously.  It was generally in better shape but with many more patches of road works.  We got stuck a couple more times but nothing too drastic and we could only hope conditions would improve along the way. We made reasonable time on what will be the main road on completion but to be honest the lesser road we used on the way up was much better.  We got within 40kms of Shangri-la to get stuck and it proved to be the longest delay yet.  Our fellow passengers did not make the wait any more enjoyable with their annoying habits, constant chomping and blatant littering.  Put it this way Steve was happier perched on a rock on the side of the road reading his book.  Our enforced diet of bread and water only added to the mundane and monotonous events.  We waited for 2 ½ hours for Wacky Races to start only to be stopped again 1min up the road.  The huge machinery making its way down put pay to the crazy over-taking as we all had to hug the side of the road.

We eventually reached Shangri-la at 9pm following a 13 hour trip and by this point Steve was in a foul mood.  We popped back to the hotel and tried to check back in only to discover they were full.  Now this had neither or us jumping for joy but I tried to keep my emotions in check as I’d have to communicate civilly with people if we were to find a bed for the night.  We ended up in Dragon Cloud Youth Hostel who luckily had one double en-suite left at Y120.  The room was nice but it lacked necessities like towels and loo roll that you’d expect at that price.  I was told that we couldn’t have any towels as backpackers tend to nick them – thanks for the vote of confidence and do we really look like we’re straight out of university?!

We ended up going to N’s Kitchen again that night for dinner and again the food was excellent.  To be honest it was good to have a change from pot noodles and plain bread.  While in there we bumped into the other English people that had shared the glacier and hellish journey experiences with us.  We all agreed that the journey had put a dampener on things but more importantly it had been worth it to get that fix of Tibet and to walk on a glacier.

The following morning we tried very hard not to go back to N’s Kitchen for breakfast – honest – but nowhere else was open.  While we were there I worked out the final scores on the doors as regards going to Yubeng independently instead of booking the trek – a whopping Y4240 saved.  That’s over four hundred of your pounds sterling so someone somewhere is on a nice little earner. 

By 9.30am we were at the bus station where we were instantly bustled onto a bus which promptly pulled out.  Next stop Dali and we mentally pencilled in a 10hour trip.  For once the journey ran smoothly and the bulk of the passengers were women or Chinese tourists so not interested in a smoking competition.  The only hockler was a loud very uncouth lady with a blessedly quiet child and even the eat-a-thon was circumspect.  Added to this heady mix was sealed roads virtually all the way and no road works.  Initially it was very cloudy and as we headed up over a mountain range visibility was very limited.  However, on dropping down the other side the clouds lifted, it stopped raining and we saw the first blue sky in days.  We may have left the dramatic mountains behind but we passed wide fertile valleys lined with rolling hills.  Most of the area is given over to agriculture and it was interesting watching the style of the buildings change.  By 6pm, after the quoted 8 ½ hours, we were on the edge of Dali Old Town.

Dali

We weren’t entirely sure where the bus has dropped us and even before retrieving our bags we were being hassled by some manner of taxi driver.  Unfortunately we had to use his services to make sure we ended up at the right place.  In the end he only went round the corner so an argument over the price ensued – Y10 was more than a fair fare.  Unfortunately / fortunately the owners of the guesthouse came out as we were in mid debate and they ended up getting involved in the negotiations.  One of the owners spoke Mandarin so we got it sorted out, handed over the cash and apologised to the owners.  They were totally unfazed as they’ve had to witness this rip off / scam time and time again.

Luckily Sleepyfish (cool name huh?) had a room but not one upstairs with a terrace.  In the end the room we got was probably much better as our private decking ran into their lovely garden.  At Y140 the place was a steal – we’d stayed in some great places but this was a cut above in terms of fixtures and fittings; beautiful wooden furniture and a spanking bathroom.  To think that we only tried the place as we’d spotted their business card way back in Chengdu and couldn’t resist the name.  Sleeypfish comes highly recommended.  Other than the taxi debacle we’d reached Dali without feeling fraught and frazzled and it was lovely to relax with a brew in the garden.  Time to explore Dali – another old city.

Now we knew that much of Dali had been rebuilt just like Lijiang but first impressions were not favourable.  We’d expected to like the place as most others travellers that we’d met rated it much more highly than Lijiang.  To be fair to Dali it was dark and beginning to rain by the time we’d dragged ourselves away from the garden.  We eventually got our bearings and wandered towards the centre where we plonked ourselves down in a restaurant.  The food was excellent but the constant stream of people walking past only inches away from the table was annoying.  On wandering back down a parallel street it appeared we’d made the wrong choice so we knew we’d have to explore further and give Dali a second chance. 

The next day dawned sunny but it soon clouded over and even started drizzling.  This wasn’t conducive to photo taking but in the end that didn’t matter as we didn’t find Dali particularly photogenic.  The old town is nice with cobbled streets and very little traffic but for some reason it didn’t float our boat.  I’m sure if the weather had been better we’d have spent a few days in the area as there’s a big lake to visit, mountains to trek and other places of interest.  However, the weather was against us and really we just fancied a couple of quiet days.  Mind you we soon got fed up of wandering past poor shop after uninteresting shop.  At least in Lijiang the shops were full of locally produced goods – well I say produced but manufactured would be more accurate.  There’s no way one man with a hammer produced that quantity of stock and it all looks suspiciously identical.  I’m not fooled by someone banging away on a piece of metal in the shop.  The shops in Dali were just any old modern clothing or shoe shop, full of tat or selling stuff that had clearly been brought over from Chatachuk Market in Bangkok.

We decided to sort out our onward travel arrangements so popped into a couple of travel agents that advertised the selling of train tickets.  We could have bought all manner of bus or plane tickets but we were told we had to go to the train station for those tickets.  Fine but the main town of Dali, Xiaguan is a 30min bus ride away from old Dali.  One helpful travel agent, Michael, told us to catch the No.8 bus – so we did.  Sure enough 30mins and Y1.50 later there was the train station.  We picked a random queue but weren’t hopeful that we were in the right line let alone be able to get our message across.  Unbelievably we quickly attained Kunming to Guilin tickets but they didn’t have any sleepers left.  Oh well we’d just have to sit up and assume we’ll be perched on a plank all night with hundreds of others – getting any ticket was a bonus.  It all sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?  As we were studying the tickets, still not believing that we’d achieved our objective so smoothly, Steve realised the tickets were for the wrong date.  He went back to the front of the queue and was politely allowed back in and the tickets were instantly changed for the correct date.  See what I mean about China being one huge oxymoron?  One minute people are pushing and shoving like you’re invisible and in the next no one bats an eyelid when you blatantly queue jump.  The highlight of the day was the train station’s signs requesting people do not gob anywhere!!

We jumped on the bus back to town and decided to celebrate with a posh lunch.  We plumped for Italian as we’d not had pasta in over 3 weeks.  Following lunch we popped back to see the friendly, helpful Michael and bought our bus tickets for Kunming.  These coaches cost a little more than the regular service buses but the bonus is they go from the old town and are no smoking.  That’s got to be worth a few more kwai.  There were a few side streets we’d not wandered down so we went to investigate to see if we’d missed the point of Dali.  No, still not our bag and we rate Shangri-la and Lijiang way higher.  Fortunately we hadn’t really wanted much from Dali we just wanted to relax, reassess our onward travel plans and recharge our batteries.  Quite literally as there was no electricity in Yubeng!  Sleepyfish turned out to be the perfect spot and we chilled on our balcony with some tunes.

That evening for tea we went to another one of those places where you just point to what you want.  There was a huge choice of fish, shelled beasties and meat but there’s no way we could resist the impressive and colourful array of vegetables.  It was all very tasty and I’ve never tried so many varieties of mushrooms before.  That’s it dull Dali duly done and time to move on to Guilin via Kunming.  This area wasn’t part of our original plan since if we’d made it to Tibet it would have been beyond our reach.  The new revised plan is to not return to Chengdu but to lose those flights and fly back to KL from Guilin.  How far down the alphabet now are we?  Plan K?

Kunming

By the next morning the decision had been made and Steve booked us Guilin to KL tickets.  We bid Sleepyfish a fond farewell and jumped on our luxury coach.  The route used an expressway so distances were covered quickly and the hills gradually shrunk.  The weather was grey and miserable all the way and the lunch stop was even grimmer!  We reached Kunming on time (5pm) but yet again were dumped at a random bus station on the outskirts of town.  Yet again the flyer trick didn’t work as just like in Lijiang the taxi drivers simply refused to take us.  There were loads of van touts hanging around but they were quoting outrageous fares.  As we walked away from the station a lady in a van pulled up and quoted us a sensible fare so we finally made it to Cloudland Youth Hostel.  It didn’t look too clever but with limited choice, time and it was only for one night it would do.  Well it would have done but they were full.

Another miserable introduction to a town ensued and we ended up marching through town in the rain trying to find somewhere to stay.  It’s not on the tourist route so all the likely places are spread out so once again we’d done the city tour while carrying our packs!  We eventually found Yunda Hotel but were dismayed on reading the tariff board – a standard double was up at Y468.  Eek!  We were almost past caring by this point so plunged in and asked if they had a room.  Yes and that will be Y200 a night B&B please.  Result!  All the time we were in Dali we felt there should have been a place called Salvadors – we found it in Kunming instead.  Their food was fantastic and that evening we had a slap up Tex Mex style meal.  We’d ended up in the university area so there were endless bars and restaurants to choose from offering all types of cuisine.

Kunming doesn’t have a huge amount of tourist attractions and we were basically just waiting for our train to Guilin that evening.  The morning was as grey as previous days but with being back in a city we weren’t sure if it was the elements or pollution!  We had intended to while away the morning reading in our huge, comfortable room but that plan was scuppered by the noise from the building site over the way.  So we decided to have a wander and see a little of Kunming which is billed as China’s safest and most relaxed city.  We wandered towards the city centre via Green Lake Park which was full of vendors selling snacks and nick-knacks.  The lake is given over to paddle boats on one side but the other is carpeted in water lilies.  It was good to see people enjoying their green space but the park wasn’t over crowded.  There were lots of old folk playing cards for pennies and there were other board games involving more serious gambling going on.  We watched one game where Y100 notes were changing hands in rapid succession.  The lads studying the game seemed convinced they could beat the hustler but of course no one did.

We tried to find the bird and flower market but it seems to have turned into a jewellery market now.  In this part of town we found a couple of old, traditional streets and it looks like they’re trying to restore the area.  Makes a change from knocking it down and starting again!  We then found ourselves in the main modern shopping area but of course that didn’t hold our attention for long.  We decided to return to the university area taking in Yuantong Temple on the way.  We found a lovely path that follows the river and it was great to be free of the Saturday shoppers.  Yuantong Temple is a Buddhist site that allegedly dates back over 1000 years and at only Y6 to get in we thought we may as well have a look.  At first we were dismayed that we’d bothered as we plunged straight into another building site.  However, it’s a big complex and past that area we found some lovely buildings, a very ornate pagoda and the usual fish and terrapin pond.  Again it was busy but not overly so and we were glad we’d popped in.  That left us just enough time to have a beer in the Box Bar, scoff a delicious burger in Salvadors, grab our bags, hail a taxi and catch the train to Guilin.

Tune in soon for the final chapter of this China trilogy – Guangxi Province.

 

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