China Travel Journal: Northern Yunnan

This travel journal is part of a series of journals, which are all written during a long trip between november 2007 and may 2009.

> The Bus to Lijiang

Dali17-04-2008 Right after breakfast, when we are walking with our full bags through a still sleepy and farely quiet Dali to the bus office, we see we're so early we might be in time to catch an earlier bus. We ask the lady behind the counter whether there are still seats available in that bus, but apparently we speak Chinese, as she doesn't understand a word we say. Peter is trying his best with our dictionary and she seems to understand him now, as she grabs her telephone. After the conversation she changes the departure time on our tickets from 10.00 into 14.00. Huh?! We wanted to leave at 9.30, one bus earlier. When another employee enters another call follows, but as we can tell from his fase he's not very happy about the news on the other side. There are more calls done and when we ask whether there's a problem we don't get a reply, while his English was not that bad when we came here yesterday to purchase the tickets. Odd, how the few words of English people speak always seem to become less when problems occur.
Thirty minutes later, it's now 9.45 am, we think it's enough and we press the button when yet another phonecall will be held: we demand an explanation NOW. It turns out that the silly woman who is now being ashamed of herself canceled our ticket and rescheduled us for the 2.30 pm bus. For some unaccountable reason the 10 am bus was full within 2 minutes after that and now we can onlt leave at 2.30 pm. Ah. Well, we have other ideas about that and it doesn't take that long to make them perfectly clear, Chinese or English... our sign language is not to be mistaken.
So here we are at 10 am in a taxi to the local bus station, 15 kilometers back in the new town, where the taxi driver gets us tickets at the right counter and makes sure we get into the right bus.
LijiangAt 10.50 am, almost an hour later instead of thirty minutes earlier, we leave Dali, on our way to Lijiang. All the time we're descneding or ascending and we see some amazing mountain landscapes passing by our windows. When we arrive in Lijiang mid-afternoon we scare our wits of the circus we find here. There are thousands of, mainly Chinese, tourists and shuffling we move around to find a guesthouse. Undoubtedly it will be a picturesque town, but unfortunately there are too many Chinese, wearing red or white hats or sometimes even entirely identical trainig suits, standing in the way to even catch a glimpse of it. We'd rather leave this place right away, but we wonder where to, so we find ourselves a place to stay first. It's a now quiet and authentic little house built around a courtyard, like you can find dime a dozen in Lijiang, and stay for at least one night.
That night Yvonne starts to feel sicker by the minute and what we first thought to be altitude sickness looks more and more like food poisoning, certainly at the point where it's no longer clear whether it's best to first sit n the bowl or to hang over it.

18-04-2008 After spending a morning and also part of the afternoon in bed and drinking some ginger tea from the local restaurant owner and an antibiotics-pill from ourselves it's getting slightly better. We walk around in the labyrinth called Lijiang and see at the more quiet places, which are definately happening to be there, that it is indeed a very adorable town. It's a pity the 1996 earthquake made most Naxi people move and almost all of the houses are now property of souvenir salesmen. Another pity is that the crowds who walk around here only seem to notice the salesmen in costumes while they ignore the true athentic residents who are so poor they have to find their food in the garbagebins.

> Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Park in Lijiang19-04-2008 We'd love to go out early on a bicycle today, but the weather's so clear and everything looks so pretty we keep on taking photos in the old center of Lijiang. The Naxi houses, with their red details, are a wonderful contrast to the snowy peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the deep blue sky. Only at 10, after a healthy breakfast, we cycle out of town. A few kilometers further down the straight and brand new boulevard we see a water tank with nice plantation around it and two arch-bridges. For the hyped and probably crowded Dragon Pool Park we don't feel too much like paying 6 Euros each, but this seems a nice alternative, so we stroll around and enjoy the free view on the snow peaks in the distance.
Back on our bikes we approach the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and even before we notice we're in the town of Baisha. We see people busy with pushcarts and men fetch water at the pump, carrying two buckets on a wooden pole on their shoulders. We walk around a bit and when we meet an older man he spontaneously invites us to come see his house. We go with him and first we need to admire his pride: a plant with two giant flowers. When Peter, commissioned by the man, has taken a photo of each flower separately and of the plant as a whole, we get our phrasebook and we find out grandpa's already 74, has two kids and a grandson. We're directed to the main temple of the village and we're taught how to pronounce its name in Chinese and off we go again. The temple is not much and tourist trapPeter on his bike in front of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain doctor Ho is not what we're looking for, so we cycle to the next village, almost at the foot of the impressive Jade Mountain. Once more we see clay houses, built in a square around a courtyard, with grain, straw or corn drying on racks. The wind is quite strong here and as we still have to go all the way back, we turn around. Following winding roads through green fields of waving grain we cycle back to Lijiang.
We take advantage of the clear weather and shoot some more pics from the hill at the outskirts of the old town, from where you have an interesting view over the ocean of roofs below. Unfortunately the other guests in our guesthouse have spring in their heads and it's noisy untill late. That's our biggest issue with old, wooden guesthouses which everybody always seems to find so characteristic and cozy, but which we find "old noisy crap". We prefer a concrete, cheerless, square box allowing one to at least get some sleep!

> Tiger Leaping Gorge

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain20-04-2008 After a very short night we've kind of had it with the "ancient noisy shit" and as there's no other choice in Lijiang, except for some way too expensive hotels in the new town, we decide to move on to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It turns out we arrive at the bus station exactly 5 minutes before departure of our bus, even though the owners of the vans outside try to make us believe there's no bus to Qiaotou, at the beginning of the gorge. The last two seats, so the two most uncomfortable of the entire vehicle, and not even next to each other, are ours. Yvonne can squeeze herself on the backseat between an I-am-important-so-I-sit-broadly-Chinese-man with a high hat and a fairly large young guy, while Peter has a chair for himself in front of the back seat.
The bus first climbs to a plateau, from where we constantly have an amazing view on the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, while the road is now paved and then unpaved. Regularly our driver choses the largest in a series of holes to plow through Tiger Leaping Gorgeand everyone is separated from his chair for at least fifty centimeters. The mountainous landscape totally makes up for all this and three hours later we roll off the bus in Qiaotou, still slightly light in our heads. We dump our big backpacks at Margos, where we eat something and next we get into a private car used as a taxi. Soon we're driving between unimaginably high peaks, some of them covered with snow, forming a canyon, as they are opposite each other. Deep down below there's the Yangtze river swirling and sometimes we've got quite shaky knees as we peek over the edge, closely approached by our driver, to avoid fallen rocks. The steep walls of the gorge are impressive, already, even before we've walked a single step, so we're looking forward to the next few days, in which we'll be hiking back to Margos.
We move into an expensive, but very comfortable, room at Sean's Spring Guesthouse and explore the area a bit, before we get into our beds early.

Yvonne crosses a waterfall21-04-2008 The sun has not yet risen above the mountains as we start walking. The first thirty minutes we follow a paved, flat road back in the direction of Qiaotou and of the highest peaks of the Canyon. Then we take a turnoff and we climb a steep mountain path. We're climbing ever higher, the views are spectacular, especially when the sun enlightens everything. After two hours of climbing we reach the highest point and right away our route gets quite adventurous, as we have to cross two waterfalls and a lot of debris, where rocks have come down. A new temple is built here and from time to time we now encounter donkeys who ensure the supply of roof tiles. The tree trunks for the rest of the temple are brought here by strong men. They balance along the narrow ledges, with a huge amount of trunks on their shoulders.
The views on the steep walls on the other side and the snowy peaks above are very impressive and every now and then we stop to look around. Around noon we arrive in a village, where we have lunch and right after that we loose the trail for a moment. There's a new concrete path being constructed and therefore entire pieces of rock have to make way. Apparently some arrows have vanished due to the constructions, but our Chinese sign language is fluent by now, so one of the construction workers helps us to find the path. The cliffs are veru steep here and the path is narrow, but before the end of the afternoon we reach "Tea Horse Guesthouse", where we'd like to spend the night. We take a look in the hamlet and enjoy the 360 degree views on the mountains, before we have diner and the mountains turn red in the sunset.

Peter in the Tiger Leaping Gorge Yvonne in the Tiger Leaping Gorge

22-04-2008 After a fairly late breakfast we climb a forestlike slope, to reach the highest which we have to cross. Again the abyss is getting deeper by every step we take and the path more narrow, in some places barely 30 centimeters. As we round another bend where you look straight into an abyss of several hundreds of metres, with the steep peaks we have to cross high above us, we decide to leave this one for the real mountain goats and turn around. Fortunately going down is much faster than going up and just over thirty minutes later we're back at the guesthouse where we spent the night, trying to get some sleep (attempt failed due to some noisy Chinese).

> On to Shangri-La

This time we take the path down to the valley. We follow the roaring river for an hour or so, until we reach the parking lot where the Chinese are dropped to see the gorge. Here we get into a taxi back to Margo's to get our backpacks and when we're just waiting for the bus there's a van passing, looking for 2 extra passengers to Zhongdian. Let this just happen to be the place where we're heading to!
Zhongdian is the last large town before Tibet and tghe Chinese claim this town in the autonomous Tibetan region of Deqin is THE famous Shangri-La from James Hiltons "Lost Horizon". As this book is fiction we're surprised by this assumption, but India and Nepal probably disagree with us, as they both claim to have THE Shangri La in their mountainous regions as well.
From the moment the van leaves we're going straight up and we have to, as we need to ascend 1300 more meters, as Zhongdian happens to be on a 3200 meter altitude.
House near ZhongdianAfter crossing a high pass about an hour later the landscape suddenly changes. We've ended up on some kind of plateau with snowy peaks in the distance everywhere and on the plateau itself there are large houses, like we've never seen before, next to bizarre tall drying racks for grane and corn. Yaks are grazing everywhere and there are many hairy pigs and tiny horses. From time to time we see police checks on the other side of the road. They are probably there since the uprisings in Tibet and many cars are stopped, but we're able to pass all the time. As we enter Zhongdian we see lots of police here as well and every now and then there's a truck passing, full of Chinese green men. They're not car sick all together in those trailers, but are wearing green suits to show their large guns to the public with deadpan faces. Pretty intimidating.
We make our move into a real hotel and as we're at high altitude and it's only just above zero, we're glad to have a heating and an electric blanket. In the old town we find many wooden houses in Tibetan style, with lots of woodcarving. Barbecue skewers in ZhongdianPeople are around fires everywhere, with often a pan or a teapot on the stove. At the central square we sit down with a Chinese couple, to try various kinds of barbecued skewers, prepared by a Tibetan lady. The mushrooms are our favourite.
We take a look at the temple on the hill, in the center of the maze of streets, before we warm ourselves in our room.

> Zhongdian and Around

23-04-2008 Wa maken an appointment with one of the gentlemen in front of our hotel, presenting themselves as taxi drivers, to check out the area tomorrow, as there's barely any form of public transport here. Next we enjoy a luxurious breakfast and wander around at the market. Songzanlin Monastery ZhongdianTibetan women, each one even more colourfully dressed than the other, sell vegetables and fruit and at the butcher's we see some truely extraordinary merchandise.
We hop on the bus to Songzanlin monastery just outside town, one of the largest Tibetan monasteries outside Tibet itself. Actually it's more like a village on its own, where hundreds of monks are living, rebuilding the monastery which has been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The structure has been built against a slope and contains several temples and many dwellings. We stroll through the place for the entire afternoon and meet a very old monk and two of his novices. The old man gives each of us a bracelet for good luck to say our prayers and we learn how to say "goodbye" in Tibetan.

24-04-2008 It takes some time to find a place where they serve breakfast before 9 a.m. We also buy some pairs of gloves in the supermarket and just after nine we drive out of Zhongdian. Once more we see the interesting houses in the area, which are characteristic for this plateau and are constructed by tamping layers of earth in a wooden frame. Building a house togetherAll the time a new layer is put on top, untill the house is high enough. The walls lean a bit inward and on top there's a wooden roof.
Thirty minutes later we're at the entrance to the nature reserve we'd like to visit, but we're shocked by the steep entrance fee. Over 17 euros a person we have to pay, just to get to the lake. When we need to ride horses as well we have to add a large sum to it. The oversized, new and shiny hall they call a visitor centre here needs to be payed of course. We don't think a walk or a ride around a lake is worth this amount of money and try to convince our driver to take us to another lake, not that far from here. Eventually he's willing to take us, but for a fee seeming unlikely steep; he already has his booty for today in his pocket of course.
We drive back in the direction of Zhongdian and stop at one of the villages we saw on our way over here. We meet some villagers and one family, who are restoring their home, invite us in. The owner of the place creates, like many people in this area, the most wonderfully decorated beams for his home. He chisels the most complicated patterns and all of it is colourfully painted.
We make a short stop at an eco-tourist village, but we find it too fake and stop in the next "real" village. We chat with a group of girls in colourful costumes and more and more ladies gather as soon as they hear the sounds. When the primary school just opens its doors for lunchtime we're th sight for the local schoolchildren, especially when we take out our camera. To see your own face on a tiny device like that is completely new for them and some of the kids are even so affraid they run away jumpy, but some moments later they curiously return. With a group of 8 kids we walk home to their village, 2 kilometers further down a narrow road. Peter teaches the boys that it's much cooler to wear your cap backwards, undoubtedly the latest fad in the village from today on.

Boys wrestling Kids whom we walked home

Using some stairs, made from a treetrunk, we enter the village. One by one the kids leave us at their houses and eventually we say goodbye to the last 2, but we're not even out of the village when the first ones come back running from their homes: it's time to get back to school. Some of them are carrying their sandwiches or even got some candy and like this we walk back in the other direction for over 20 minutes.
The headmaster is meeting his kids on the road and as he speaks a few words of English we can ask him whether we're allowed to look around in his school. We are! The kids living near school already returned to the schoolyard and we also meet the other teacher. The photos of Yvonnes last class are being looked at enthusiastically, by all 38 at once, so we line them up to make everyone able to see the photos when they pass. When the photo book is finished they are still standing so still and focussed Yvonne also teaches them to count to 10 in English, while at the same time she's learning the numbers in Chinese.
We look around in the brand new building, in which books are not available, as usual, but fortunately they are provided with an electric schoolbel and a giant widescreen tv. We take one last group picture and say goodbye. Back in Zhongdian we arrange the bustickets for tomorrow and at night we visit the daily dancing tradition on the main square of the old town.

> Over the Mountains to Deqin

25-04-2008 We're more than on time for the bus to Deqin, on the Tibetan border, to make sure we have two seats and slowly we see the bus filling up with Chinese and Western tourists. Today we see more tourists together than On our way to Deqinin recent times, but that might be as there are just a few buses a day heading in that direction. We meet Peter en Yvonne (for real!) and their son Mark. The steep cliffs are again horrible, especially as there re no guard rails, but the views are truely phenomenal.
An hour later we're at the first police check post, but apart from gazing around authoritarian there's not much happening here. Another hour later that's different and all tourists have to hand over their passports to copy the data, before handing the sticker books back over.
After about 3 hours we climb higher and higher from a green valley to the dry, bare slopes, to even reach the snow line. Living airy at an altitude of 4000 metersAmazingly there are people living here in simple huts and even in handmade (plastic) tents at an altitude of 4000 meters. We wonder why the asphalted road makes way for those uncomfortable pebbles, but we will get the answer a few days from now. For now we conclude that it has to be because of the rubble and debris coming down regularly, destroying the asphalt.
As we also crossed the highest pass at 4210 meters, we descend for another ninety minutes, until we reach Deqin, where we take a taxi to Feilai Si. This is a tourist village with a few hotels, eateries and a wonderful view over Meili Xue Shan, the Meili Snow Mountain. This 6740 meter high summit is holy to the Tibetans living here, but also for the Chinese and even for the Thai.

> Meili Xue Shan

26-04-2008 This morning two Peters, two Yvonnes en one Mark (ahhhh ) get into a car with a driver who takes the five of us to the foot of Meili. On our way over there we pick up a monk, and an extremely smelly man, who otherwise had to walk the entire stretch. We're glad to escape the odor of toes cheese and start a steep climb of two hours straight up, to a viewpoint on the world's lowest glacier. Us on top of the glacierIt's more than worth the effort, as we have an impressive view on the creaking ice below, from where entire parts break off and crash somewhere deep down there. We also see a snow waterfall on the other side, delivering fresh snow all the time. At the temple at the start of the glacier we also meet our lift-monk again, who will spend the night here. There are also three colourfully dressed ladies taking a rest here, from lugging all the way up with their baskets on their backs.
After some hesitation we follow the sporty Dutch people up another path up, even steeper than the firts one. At the summit a small temple awaits us, built and inhabited by a rather sturdy monk, who obviously has to get used to this unexpected human contact.
Only around 18.30 we're back down and just before dark we've reached our hotel at the end of the winding road.

Stupas in the Mist27-04-2008 Around 10 we leave to get back to Zhongdian today, we share a car with Peter, Yvonne and Mark, to be able to make regular stops to enjoy a specific view a bit longer or to take photos. Unfortunately the weather Gods, where we're really near in those mountains, seem to be unhappy today, as the sky is completely overcast and it's even raining. Because of the low clouds we soon end up in ever thicker fog patches, until Yvonne gets too scared and jumps out of the car.
We take shelter in a dwelling near the road, accompanied by the lady of the house, a neighbour and a pig in two pieces, hanging from the ceiling to dry. The fog seems to get thicker all the time and a bit later we even don't recognize the house on the other side of the road any more. We wait for a long time, fortunately the wood-burning stove is comfortably warm, but halfway the afternoon we decide it's better to return to Deqin. At a foorpace we drive the 15 minutes back to the valley.

> Back to Zhongdian after all

28-04-2008 We sleep like roses in a nice hotel, but as we open the curtains the next morning it turns out it's been snowing on the hills on the other side and it's still all foggy around us. We're not sure what to do, especially not as finally the sun starts shining, but eventually we buy tickets for the noon bus. At the last minute we see a parade of colourfully dressed Tibetan Wedding ParadeTibetans passing, on their way to a wedding and accompanied by exploding fireworks thrown in all directions. We take a peek at the actual party, but really have to go then.
It's pooring with rain when we leave Deqin, but soon the rain turns into snow. Still we think this snow much better than the murky fog of yesterday. However we've been cheering too early, as after three more curves we have wet snow AND dense fog. Fortunately we now can't see the steep cliffs now and our driver seems to be an experienced one, drinig slowly.
As we're climbing the 4210-meter pass the snow is getting more dense and the road is now completely white. We fear for the high pebble road, but as it finally appears we finally understand: Chinese porous alphalt! The snow disappears in the cracks between the pebbles and the road stays visible and offers grip to all that has to pass. And now we understand how comfortable this uncomortable road really is.
Bus in the SnowThis is scary and beautiful at the same time, as we're driving through at least 10 centimeters of snow. The huts and tents are barely visible anymore and sometimes it's even a bit too much for the porous asphalt and we don't quite know where the road ends and the ledge starts. Fortunately our driver seems to know where it all is and even though we turn quite near the ledge, it all feels kind of reliable.
Down in the valley sight seems fine, but the final mountainous stretch there's more heavy fog, for us the least pleasant of all weather types. Fortunately it soon turns into heavy snow and slipping we enter Zhongdian, where we move into our familiar room wth heating.

29-04-2008 We muddle around for a few days, to finally travel back to Kunming and moving on to Guilin and Yangshuo.

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