Yunnan Part III: Lijiang & Shangri-La

When Matt and I were considering the move to Shanghai, colleagues and friends who had paved the way told us: ‘you’ll be experience-rich, but time-poor’. Six months in, and I can wholeheartedly agree with their predictions. Life almost literally flashes by and whole months pass in a heartbeat. The third and final part of my Yunnan trilogy has been the unwitting victim of this mysterious disappearance of time, but I hope – despite the considerable delay – that you still enjoy reading about it!


Yuhu Village

Moving on from Dali (which I wrote about in Yunnan Part II) we drove 3 hours North to Lijiang, arriving in the Yuhu village just before lunch.

We had been promised a view of the infamous ‘Jade Dragon Snow Mountain’ but as you can see from the pic below, the weather wasn’t quite on our side. Still, the low clouds and drizzly rain lent a moody romantic feel to the village that bright sunshine would have done hard to compete with.


In Yuhu we visited the lo-fi museum of Joseph Rock, an Austrian-born American explorer and botanist who spent the 1920’s in deep fascination with both plant and human life in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. He lived in this area of South-West China for years, taking photos and writing articles for National Geographic. Damp black-and-white copies of his photos were displayed in a dilapidated stone cottage which was apparently his former residence. The definition of the word ‘museum’ was certainly being stretched, but the photos were an incredible glimpse into what life would have been like here a century ago.

Then Matt drank Yak Butter tea, which he wrote about here. I did try it but a sip was enough!


Our hotel in Lijiang was in the Old Town, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site which was undergoing a bit of repair work…


The Old Town is a maze of narrow cobbled pathways, built up around an ancient water-supply system which still functions today. Much of the town was destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1996 and repair work is ongoing, sympathetic wherever possible to the traditional architecture; timber-framed buildings with elaborately carved wooden doors.

It’s a bustling place, with hundreds of shops to mill through during the day and an impressive number of bars to filter in to once the sun goes down. However, if you like variety in your shopping expeditions then Lijiang Old Town is a bit of a let-down, and I started to experience de-ja-vu after wandering down a couple of streets as the same shops selling the same things at the same price started to repeat themselves three, four, five times.

The Road to Shangri-La

After just over 24h in Lijiang we set off for our final and much anticipated Yunnanese destination: the legendary Shangri-La; however, the First Bend of the Yangtze River was not far off our course, so we took a short detour to take a look.

Driving along the winding mountain roads we passed many local people selling fruits, mostly watermelon, from makeshift shacks covered with tarpaulin and twigs. Women with tiny children on their laps, and men sat smoking or drinking tea. This guy had quite the professional set-up compared to most; and a prime spot next to the First Bend.


The First Bend of the Yangtze

At 6,300km the Yangtze is the longest river in Asia – third longest in the world. It snakes through the middle of China from the western Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (north of the Himalayas) to the East China Sea. It’s incredible when you think that I can see this same river from the window of my office in Shanghai, a 4 hour flight away!

In the photo below, Matt and I stand at the point at which the Yangtze makes a sudden turn from south to east creating a panoramic scene boarded by the lush green mountains. The water was a muddy brown due to the rainy season, but it was still a pretty magnificent view.


Matt has the i-phone ‘panoramic’ setting nailed


Tiger Leaping Gorge

Hopping back in the car we continued North via another Yangtze River pit-stop: Tiger Leaping Gorge; one of the deepest river canyons in the world and part of a UNESCO natural preservation area.

Ancient legend says that a tiger crossed the river here to escape a hunter, using the rock as a stepping stone. The rock is positioned at the gorge’s narrowest section but this is still 25m wide and the picture below belies this intensity of the cascade of water which crashes down the valley at an epic speed – Brave tiger. 


We walked down flight after flight of wooden steps built into the side of the canyon to reach the river bank. If you can deal with heights then I would really recommend this, but be prepared to get a bit wet!

Obligatory photo with the tiger

Apparently there are also a few amazing hikes in this area, but it’s best to avoid the rainy season.


Another 2.5 hours drive and we arrived at Shangri-La, entering via the New Town down a street lined with gloomy grey government offices and huge hotels which I imagine have seen better days. Granted it was raining, but I’d bet this place would still be depressing on the most beautiful summer’s day. It’s safe to say that the ‘new’ towns – which have built up to accommodate locals involved in the tourist industry  – rarely have the amount of aesthetic consideration given to them as their characterful ‘old’ town counterparts.

Thankfully our hotel, the ‘Shangri-La’ (ha!), was a luxurious  exception – to which I breathed a sigh of relief* and took a long hot shower.

* It’s worth mentioning that ‘breathing a sigh of relief’ is not easy in Shangri-La because of the altitude… along with the usual tea and coffee making facilities our room came with cans of Oxygen! I was a bit sceptical at first, but you could definitely notice the difference in air quality even just from walking around the town.

Prayer bells in the garden at the Shangri-La hotel


Shangri-La is part of the Tibetan cultural area, and in it’s original form it was a landscape of barley fields and yaks scattered in the valleys. 

One of the first things that we learned from our guide Tenzin was that the name Shangri-La (香格里拉) was a fairly recent acquisition. On 17th December 2001 the city was renamed from ‘Zhōngdiàn’ (中甸) to ‘Shangri-La’ after the ultimate fictional paradise destination described by James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon; basically to promote tourism. This seemed like the type of general knowledge I should have acquired during all my years of voracious reading, but I was genuinely surprised!


Ganden Sumtseling Monastery

Our first expedition in Shangri-La was to Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. We caught a bus part way up the hillside into which the monastery is built, then walked the rest of the way, cutting through dusty debris-littered alleyways in which children and chickens played. This next photo is perhaps my all-time favourite; the boy’s priceless expression, wary of my intrusion into their secret game.


The monastery – which sits at an elevation of 11,090 ft at the heart of the Hengduan mountain range – unveiled itself slowly from the muddy hillside as we hiked closer; a cubist expression of rural white, burnt umber and brilliant gold. We ascended the stone steps, passing a few Tibetan monks dressed in ruddy red robes with orange detailing, heads shaved, carrying plastic carrier bags filled with groceries.


My favourite thing about the monastery was the beautiful bright painted woodwork around windows and structural beams, juxtaposed against the dusty brick and concrete render.

Reaching the top of the steps we were met with this breathtaking view:


I didn’t take any photos of the interior monastery buildings (it’s not cool to take photos inside), but the artwork was similarly spectacular.

Established by the 5th Dali Lama in 1679, the monastery suffered extensive damage and destruction during the Cultural Revolution and was then rebuilt in the early 1980’s; as you can see from the photo above reconstruction is ongoing and we saw a number of men hard at work.

Local Life

Walking back down the hillside we passed a lot of houses in various phases of construction. Rural Tibetan architecture is unlike anything I have ever seen or could have imagined; the buildings were huge, with beautiful carved exterior and tiny windows. Traditionally the cattle will live on the ground floor and the family upstairs, three generations under the one roof.



We were invited to take a look around the house of a local Tibetan family, and this picture shows the main family room:


As you can see, the decor is a little overwhelming!; coloured murals, bright lights, Buddhist shrines, copper cooking pots. It was a working room with a small TV, walls covered with faded family photos, and several pigs’ stomachs dangling from the ceiling undergoing a curing/drying process. The mother of the family invited us to take a seat, then passed from this room through a small door to the adjacent pantry. She returned carrying a tray full of treats; including some home-made yak butter tea and yak yoghurt which was truly delicious!

Yakkety Yak


Potatso National Park

Our final stop in Shangri-La (and in Yunnan) was at Potatso National Park, the first National Park in mainland China which opened to visitors in 2007. The gloomy drizzle was unrelenting but, similar to Yuhu village, it seemed to add rather than detract from the ambience of our surroundings.

Sightseeing buses run along the 42 mile track around the park and stop at designated spots where you can get off and explore. Raised wooden walkways allowed us to wander around the lakes and marshlands, weaving through forests of century-old pines and cypresses whose leaves were dewy and draped with a stringy kind of lichen or moss.

We spotted wild horses and lots of wild boar, the latter of whom were incredibly efficient at upturning and rooting through the rubbish bins in the car park looking for snacks!

Shudu Lake

After 6 days in Yunnan, Matt and I were craving a decent coffee to the point of insanity (considering Yunnanese coffee is quite popular in Shanghai, finding a coffee shop in the Yunnan cities we visited was like drawing blood from a stone!); however, I knew I would miss the stunning natural beauty that we had found in Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-La the minute we boarded the plane home.

More than once during our Yunnan holiday Matt and I wondered about the sustainability of some of the things we had been privileged enough to see, given the pace at which China is evolving and the desire of younger generations to tap in to modern Western traditions. Even in the remote rural villages we noticed that the teenagers (in an all-too-familiar smartphone-induced trance) wore jeans and trainers, while it was their grandparents who wore the traditional ethnic minority dress and bartered at the markets. That said, we did see some great efforts to keep the traditions alive such as the State sponsored embroidery schools for young people in Dali and Lijiang; fingers crossed they keep up the good work!



Still life in the fast lane


One of the most eagerly awaited packages in our sea freight was my box of painting stuff. If you don’t know me all that well, my primary non-alcoholic interest is painting – so the first thing I did when all our boxes arrive was crack open a bottle of wine. The second thing I did was set up my easel.

Because my paintings can take me a long time (months; years) , it’s important to carefully consider the subject matter. I’d just completed a landscape of Scotland which took a long long long time to finish, so didn’t fancy another marathon landscape. I have been keen to get back into portrait painting but hadn’t been overly inspired by any faces yet. Instead, I decided to try and capture an atypical element of the city. Typical Shanghai images are of the Bund or the skyline containing the Pearl tower. They’re pretty, but ubiquitous.

One of my little pleasures has been to wander off around the Puxi districts exploring some of the side streets. One of the most curious aspects I’ve found has been the contrast between adjacent neighbourhoods, some of which consist solely of giant skyscrapers of glass and steel and others which are small cramped residential warrens. Though these little residential ‘lanes’ aren’t exactly historic, they are more traditional Shanghai; and typically it is these areas that get flattened to make way for the modern malls and apartment blocks.

The lanes are fascinating. They seem to almost always feature clothes drying from suspended hangers, people washing in outdoor sinks or sat on tiny plastic chairs playing cards. They’re almost always strewn with something; litter, scooters, animals, stacks of cardboard or plastic. Occasionally people set up a few tables and chairs and sell food to passersby. When you take a stroll down one of these lanes, you often experience a number of unusual smells, sounds and sights.The last time I walked through one, the back of my throat hurt with all the chilli in the air from the cooking. I imagine it like a bee-hive; people will emerge from the tiny ‘lane houses’to undertake a bit of frenetic activity in the street, and poke their heads out of windows and doors to partake in animated conversations with their neighbours. Sometimes these dwellings consist of only 1 room; which is astounding given some of the wealth and prosperity you will see in adjacent neighbourhoods (or even adjacent streets!). Given the possibility that these areas will make way for more gentrified buildings, I thought it would be appropriate to make it my first painting.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To get back into the swing of things, I chose to take a departure from my usual painstaking approach to constructing a painting. Normally with these lanes, you’re walking through or past them rather than taking time to soak it in so I wanted to try and represent the essence, not the detail. I also wanted to reflect some of the charming griminess that many of the lanes seem to have.  I didn’t think I could capture the human element at the same time, so I chose not to include any people in it. I’ve got plenty of time to do some character studies. The finished painting is below.


It didn’t take a huge amount of time to do – around 4 hours i’d say in total. It’s painted with oil paint on canvas and I tried to use a limited colour palette; there are only 2 reds, 2 yellows, black, white, a tiny bit of blue and a brown called ‘Burnt Sienna’. Almost all of it I did with a palette knife (a type of blade used for mixing and spreading paint that you can get in various shapes). One of the characteristics of oil paints is that they don’t dry very quickly at all. This is very unhelpful if you ever drop a wet painting (the same physics that apply to buttered toast apply here too), but it is very helpful if you want to mix and blend paints while on the canvas. This can produce the kind of effect I achieved in the central pathway- where you have separate colours that are blend unevenly across a surface and give the impression of multiple shades of colours.

Palette knives are also great for creating texture. You can apply paint and then scratch it off in parts to reveal the white underneath, or to reveal the grainy texture of the canvas. This was useful when trying to differentiate between one surface and another, and was particularly helpful when creating the bricked areas. With a picture like this, where the composition relies heavily on perspective created by having straight lines disappearing into the central area, getting the lines right can be very important. Bricks are a challenge, because you need to deal with vertical and horizontal lines across 3 dimensions, as well as having to make them look bricky. I found that I could ‘cut’ the bricks into the picture by loading the knife up with paint and chopping in to create the desired impression. Much easier and much more effective, as the illusion of depth is maintained.

My other aim was to create some interest at the focal point (the end of the lane). I tried to do this by just contrasting some black and white to represent the extremes of light. There are hints of some ‘stuff’ towards the further recesses, but I put a bit of detail into the bike as one of the handful of elements you’d have time to notice if you only glanced up the lane.

My next picture is more in line with my usual style (painstakingly detailed) so it’ll be a few more weeks until i can post about it but I will do so once it’s done 🙂

– Matt

Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival in Guilin

Each year on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Chinese calendar – which this year fell on 15th September… yes, I know it’s confusing! – the whole of mainland China celebrates the Mid-Autumn festival (‘Jhongqiu Jie’ in Mandarin). During this holiday, it’s tradition to supply your close friends and family with a mountain of mooncakes – little circular pies with a  golden-brown crust and indulgent filling which can be sweet (e.g., sweet bean or lotus seed paste) or savoury (e.g., pork and salted egg yolk).

A yolk-filled mooncake

Mooncakes suddenly appeared on sale everywhere we turned and there were stories on social media of people queuing for over 2 hours to buy traditional ones from stores on East Nanjing Road. Matt compared this to queuing for 2 hours outside Greggs for a sausage roll, but I don’t think it’s quite the same thing!

Starbucks and Hagan Daas, exploiting the Chinese love of popular brands, marketed their somewhat less-traditional and significantly more expensive chocolate and ice-cream filled mooncakes on every billboard in every metro station in Shanghai. Unable to escape, Matt and I promptly changed into stretchy trousers and resigned ourselves to piling on a few pounds as we sampled one calorific pastry after another!

Guilin Lantern Festival

Another -less fattening – tradition of Mid-Autumn festival is to hang brightly coloured lanterns and we had heard that there would be a lantern festival that evening along the banks of RongHu (Banyan Lake), a short walk from our hotel in Guilin.

Banyan is one of four lakes which make up Guilin’s “Two Rivers and Four Lakes Scenic Area”; a continuous waterway that flows through the centre of downtown Guilin. The two rivers are the Li and the Taohua (peach blossom). Of the four lakes, three are named after trees that grow along their banks; the Rong (Banyan tree), Shan (Chinese fir),  and Gui (Osmanthus tree). The fourth – Mulong (wooden dragon) – is named after the cave which overlooks it.

We wandered into town after dark to find the banks of Banyan lake lit up in bright primary-colour floodlights; the two pagodas were also floodlit and looked like something straight out of Disney.



Predictably every man, woman and child in the vicinity of Guilin that evening was heading in the same direction that we were, which made the the main entrance looked more daunting than Liujazui metro station at rush hour. Not keen on elbowing our way through the mob, Matt and I found a table outside a cool lakeside cafe and ordered a pizza and bottle of white wine and set about some people-watching.

The two girls below joined us on the patio, dressed up for the occasion in beautiful pastel coloured traditional dresses, photographers flocking to them like flies to a flame (myself included).

An hour or so later, bolstered by carbs and wine, we headed into the festival and joined the hundreds of people taking photos of hundreds of lanterns. The lanterns themselves came in every colour of the rainbow and looked to have been decorated by children; they were an incredible sight strung up and floating in the night sky.


Some of my favourite lanterns:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I love this next photo; Matt surrounded by the ‘people mountain, people sea’ – a phrase used here in China when you find yourself swamped with many, many, many other people, which actually happens to us quite a lot!


The atmosphere was bustling and friendly; everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Families spanning three or four generations were enjoying themselves together; teenagers helping their grandparents or great-grandparents to amble around. No gangs or binge drinking like you would undoubtedly find in the UK.

One thing I’ve noticed since we moved to China is how safe I feel, even amongst huge crowds of people all speaking a language that I don’t understand. You still have to be careful – and being a blonde girl in a sea of brunettes I get stared at on a near continuous basis, which can be unnerving – but the feeling of safety is one of the things about our new home that has been a pleasant surprise.

Matt and I concluded that we would love to go back to Guilin, especially the Yangshuo region as it was a truly beautiful place; although our long bucket-list of places to visit in the next 2 and a half years might make return trips unlikely!