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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!