Introduction to Yunnan
Granted, my introduction to Yunnan in the form of a 22-cum-24 hour bus ride from Chengdu to Lijiang wasn't that great. I found myself in a semi-reclined position for the entire ride in the alleged sleeper bus. The driver took our full-size bus on a series of smaller and smaller gravel roads, in the interest of avoiding tolls on the Chengdu to Panzehua highway, turning a nine-hour leg into a 15-hour one.
The trip wasn't bad, though. I was seated next to the only other lawai, foreigner, on the bus – a friendly Aussie girl who was good company. I saw the second half of a kung fu flick I'd started on an earlier bus ride, starred Jet Li as an assasin with a conscience. I watched pretty out-of-the-way corners of Sichuan province. I'm quite sure we actually drove through an active ore mine construction site, for example, which made for an interesting distraction.
At any rate, Yunnan has been all uphill from there.
Lijiang is known for being a bit of a tourist trap. I hadn't expected much. The Disneyfied maze of cobblestone streets and endless souvenir shops were suprisingly appealing, atmospheric and photogenic.
The Bar Street
One of the most interesting parts of town is the "bar street", a long strech of two-story bars with open windows facing each other across a narrow canal. Every night the bars are packed with happily inebriated groups of Chinese tourists who compete to serenade each other across the canal. They end each slurred musical tidbit with a shouted yasu, yasu, ya-ya-su! I'm not sure what the prase means, but it always seems to stir the opposing side to new heights of out-of-tune enthusiasm.
Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge
After a late night on the bar street, I hopped on a bus early the next morning to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge with a mix of people I'd met in Chengdu. At the trailhead, we picked up a solo Chinese hiker named Daisy. Almost every Chinese person I've met who has studied English has an incongruous English name they chose the first day of class. I don't go around introducing myself as François to every French speaker I meet. In any case, Daisy's name suited her sweet personality. She was helpful in negotiating prices for donkey rides up steeper sections of the trail for a few of our fellow hikers who weren't feeling too hot.
Tiger Leaping Gorge was every bit as amazing as I'd been led to believe. Sheer gorge walls reach hundreds of meters towards the sky from raging rapids on the Yangtse below, above the gorge lip snowcapped mountains shine in the background.
Hiking in much of China can be a neverending series of well-paved concrete paths and identical stone steps. Finding myself on a rugged dirt path for once was refreshing. The hike from one end of the gorge to the other only takes about eight hours, but the friendly Naxi minority guesthouses scattered along the way, are a great excuse to break the trip into several days.
Hiking Meili Snow Mountain
After finishing the hike and heading back to Lijiang, our trekking group set off for different corners of China. I climbed on the bus to Zhongdian near the Tibetan border. I met a few guys who were headed further north to Dequin for a four-day trek near the Meili Snow Mountain. Tagging along with them was probably one of the best decisions I've made on the trip, as the Dequin trek was as scenic as Tiger Leaping Gorge, not even one tenth as developed for tourism.
Roads in Northern Yunnan
A note about roads in Northern Yunnan: distances that would normally take a few hours take half a day or more in this part of the province, due to the intervening valleys and mountain passes. The trip from Zhongdian to Dequin is allegedly only 71 kilometers, but between stopping for the driver to cram roadside snow into the cooling system and crawling up steep inclines, it takes a full eight hours.
Uninspiring Dequin is a short 20-yuan taxi ride from a cluster of guesthouses perched at 3,300 meters near Feilai Xi temple, offering a fantastic view of the Meili Snow Mountains. Fantastic, that is, as long as they aren't completely socked in by fog as they were on the afternoon we arrived. We spent the night at "Watch Out", a laid-back bar/guesthouse that looks like it will be the first backpacker hangout in town, once they finish renovations.
Despite even thicker fog the following morning, we started our trek by descending 1,000 meters on a steep, rocky, 12-kilometer trail deemed "dangerous" by an offiicial looking Dequin prefecture sign at the top. At the bottom of the trail, we crossed an only slightly "Indiana Jones" suspension bridge festooned in prayer flags over the Mekong River below.
One-Eyed Tibetan Monk
Crossing the bridge put us at Baiju Temple, where I met a one-eyed Tibetan monk, Tso Ren Do Bo. Between my lacking command of Chinese and his even more lacking command of English, we managed to communicate remarkably well. Before I left, he led me around a circuit of prayer wheels three times, showed me how to pray to the Buddha inside the temple.
Tibetan Yak Butter Tea
As we continued to the Xidang Hot Springs, we were invited to a free lunch in the village of Yongzhong. Although Tibetan yak butter tea has a cool high-mountain ring to it, it is disgustingly rancid. Every time I've been offered the stuff, I forced down as much as I could before politely declining a refill. Tibetan temples and homes tend to smell strongly of the stuff, since the candles are made from the same fat as the tea. I admit, I gagged a little each time I caught a whiff.
After a long climb to the springs, we met a group of local women heading in the other direction. They had stopped for dinner on the porch of the one guesthouse at the springs. They were kind enough to share their steaming pot of potent egg whiskey. I think they got a kick out of watching our reactions as we each gan-bei'd, Chinese for bottom's up, our sizable bowls.
Xidang Hot Springs
The hot springs can be experienced in a series of small, seriously grotty (to borrow a Rough Guide favorite) shacks. The friendly guesthouse owner cooked us a tasty dinner in her kichen, we spent a cozy evening huddled around the houapan, cast iron pan full of warm coals.
From Nonzongla Pass to Lower Yubena Village
The next morning we set off in only slightly improved weather for the top of Nonzongla Pass, a tough 1,000-meter-plus climb. At the top, we got an only slightly cloud-obscured view of some spectacular mountains, drank hot tea with a shopkeeper who has a shack there.
After a brief break, we decended the other side of the pass to Lower Yubeng Village, which sits in a broad, grassy valley in the shadow of the (cloud obscurred) Meili Mountains. We found a festival commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the village in progress. The group of about 40 villagers sat on the grass near a small temple, offered us candy, cookies, soft drinks, and, of course, baijio, rice whiskey, which we dutifully gulped down.
On some signal I missed, most of the villagers got up and processed up to Upper Yubeng Village, beating gongs and drums the whole way. This left we three men sitting with a group of 15 women and three local men. The women began to pick up each of the village men by their arms and legs, swinging them back and forth. We figured we were next, we weren't wrong. After finishing with me, the last male to be swung, the women fell to the ground, giggling and breathing hard.
Slightly drunk, we climbed back to the Hiker Dwelling House, halfway between Upper and Lower Yubeng. This guesthouse, with log stools on a stone terrace overlooking the valley, is far more welcoming than the Aqinbu's Shenpu Lodge in Lower Yubeng, strongly recommended by Rough Guide and Lonely Planet.
A 15-kilometer Day Hike
We awoke to an Oh-My-God view from the window of our room. The clouds had finally lifted, the white mountains stood out sharply against the deep blue pre-dawn sky. We took great sunrise pictures before setting off on a 15-kilometer day hike. As we reached the end of the valley, we were forced to leave the trail for the streambed because of knee-deep snow. After rock hopping up the stream, the valley opened into a spectacular 180-degree mountain bowl. We sat and dried our socks in the sun while watching the occasional avalanche cascade down the mountain face before deciding we weren't equipped to go any further.
Best Section of the Trail
We had similarly specatular weather the next day for our hike out. We chose to make an end run around the valley ridge rather than climb the 1,000 meters back to Nonzongla Pass. After a few hours of hiking along an increasingly raging mountain stream, we came to what may be the best section of trail.
Just after the trail crosses the stream on a log bridge, the villagers from downriver Ninong, have diverted some of the water for agricultural use. Their man-made canal runs between the gorge wall and the trail. As the gorge floor drops steeply away, the trail and canal cling to the valley wall, descending gradually. You find yourself walking a narrow trail between a vertical rock wall, with a calmly babbling brook on your left and a sheer drop on your right.
The effort required to create this several kilometer long canal must have been huge. It's amazing to see the canal turn the corner where the gorge meets the Mekong Valley, flow 500 meters above the Mekong, in the opposite direction. Seeing Ninong high above the Mekong, though, does make sense – moving water uphill from the Mekong would have been even more difficult than diverting the stream so far out of its way.
We enjoyed a quick lunch in a family home, finished the fantastic four days of trekking with a brutally hot eight-kilometer stretch back to Yongzong. There, we chartered a van for the drive back up to Feilai Xi to enjoy a few bottles of Dali Beer as we watched the sun set behind the Meili Mountains.
There's a 12-day pilgrimage circuit that runs from Feilai Xi, behind the mountains, into Tibet. I think that's reason enough for me to come back to Yunnan some day – reason enough for Yunnan to deserve a hearty "you should".
Read more about my China adventures on my blog.