Winter Travels II: Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Zhongdian: 28 January - 7 February 2006

Late the afternoon of January 28 I arrived by bus in Lijiang, home to the ancient Naxi people. The city's Old Town section, with its winding streets and traditional Naxi architecture, is what attracts most tourists to the city and I decided to stay within the Old Town. I wasn't able to find a hostel highly recommended by my guidebook even after asking several people and buying a large and detailed map, so I decided to stay at the First Bend Inn, also mentioned in my guidebook, when I stumbled upon it in my wanderings. It was a little pricier than I had hoped and didn't have sit toilets, but the traditional Naxi architecture and large room with a view of the central courtyard helped compensate. After settling in, arranging laundry service through the guesthouse, and enjoying a nice dinner in a nearby Tibetan restaurant, I spent the evening wandering aimlessly about the Old Town, admiring the lighted buildings and streets. Much of the Old Town was quite touristy, with souvenir shops lining the cobblestone alleys and canals, and there were a lot of Chinese tourists celebrating the Lunar New Year in the many restaurants. The Chinese love fireworks, and just outside the north entrance to the Old Town there were fireworks and firecrackers galore, often so many at once that the air became filled with acrid smoke. It was fascinating though a bit frightening to stand nearby, and I found myself wondering if they were really far enough away from the predominately wooden buildings that crowded the Old Town. Around midnight there was a larger and I assume professional fireworks display, and after several tries I caught this shot of fireworks over the water wheel that marks the entrance to Old Town. I don't know how late the festivities continued, but they were only beginning to slow down when I headed back to my room at about 1 am.

When I'd checked in the guesthouse had alerted me that higher holiday pricing for my room began on the 29th and lasted "several days", so between that and the holiday crowds I decided to head out as soon as possible and spend a few days treking through Tiger Leaping Gorge, returning later to what I hoped would be a less crowded and less expensive Lijiang. My first task the morning of the 29th was to buy a bus ticket to Qiaotou, starting point for the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. I first walked to a bus station a little north of the Old Town, partly along this new town street with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain soaring impressively in the background and passing the ubiquitous statue of Chairman Mao along the way. Although the new town didn't share the traditional Naxi architecture of Old Town, I did see quite a few women in traditional costumes. I also passed Black Dragon Pool Park, which I didn't enter partly because I wanted to sort out the bus ticket first and partly because the entrance fee was much higher than my guidebook indicated and the park didn't sound worth it, but I did get a picture of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain reflected in a pond just outside the entrance. When I reached the bus station, I learned that busses for Qiaotou left from a different bus station south of Old Town and I had to go there to buy my ticket. I headed back to Old Town, and with the help of my map walked through it to a southwest entrance, passing through the same very touristy streets (1 2) I'd wandered about the evening before, but also more residential sections (1 2 3) with lots of interesting architecture and doors decorated for the Lunar New Year. I had no trouble buying the ticket once I found the correct bus station, and then walked up Lion Hill to Wangu Tower, which offered the promised great views of the roofs of Old Town and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

The next morning I checked out of the guesthouse, grabbed some breakfast, and boarded the bus from Lijiang towards Qiaotou and a four-day leisurely trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Around noon on January 30 the bus arrived at its stop just outside the entrace to the park and there was a long discussion between the driver and other passengers. Thanks to some bilingual passengers, I learned that the driver was offering to arrange a van to drive us the last few hundered meters into the park and that we could then pay the van driver only 50 RMB instead of the 70 RMB park entrance fee. The claim was that the van got discounted tickets, though I suspect it may well have been some sort of under-the-table deal since we never got any physical tickets. Nobody along the trail ever asked for any tickets, though, so it didn't cause any problems.

After a very short van ride to the trailhead, I started the trek. The trail began to climb gradually through terraced fields with views back down to the road below. Eventually the climb became steeper and the portion of the trail known as the "24 Bends" (or "28 Bends", depending on whose map you looked at) began. I assume the name comes from the many switchbacks along this portion of the trail, and I wasn't counting them to know whether it was 24 or 28 or some other number. Local men with horses cruised up and down this part of the trail looking for tired hikers willing to pay them for a ride to the top. They apparently pegged me as a very likely customer, hounding me incessantly and following me for long stretches. I didn't set any speed records for the climb I am sure, but I did make it to the top without availing myself of their services. I knew I had to be close when they stopped even asking! After the 24 Bends the trail flattened out and offered great views of the valley ahead and of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which was so close across the valley that I couldn't fit the whole thing in the frame even with a portrait orientation. I decided to stop for the evening at the Tea Horse Guesthouse, where I enjoyed food, drink, and conversation with my fellow hikers in the guesthouse's courtyard before sleeping like a log in a clean and reasonably comfortable bed.

The next morning after breakfast I continued following the high trail through the gorge. Before long I reached a spot with some large rocks jutted out from the cliff just off the trail and, since I had planned to spend a relaxing four days on the trail and was already almost halfway, I decided to stop on these rocks for awhile to relax and enjoy the changing light and watch both fellow trekers and locals walking by. I stopped at the Halfway Guesthouse for a lunch of stir fried vegetables with a view and to use their squat toilet with a view. As the trail continued I passed several interesting villages and farms (1 2 3) and passed several mountain goats. At one point the trail was nearly washed out by a small waterfall but was still passable. Eventually the trail began descending gradually back down to the road and met Tina's Guesthouse, where I decided to spend the night. After a long, hot shower I selected some dishes from the bilingual wooden menu and enjoyed dinner on the balcony perched on the edge of a cliff. That evening I walked partway back up the hill to get away from the lights and spent some time just sitting by the trail and watching the stars.

After breakfast the next morning I followed a very steep trail from the road beside the guesthouse down to the Jinsha River at the bottom of the gorge. Partway down I encountered this locked toll gate operated by locals who maintain the trail. Since I had no way of knowing whether this was legitimate or whether the people with the key even had anything to do with maintaining the trail I tried to argue a bit, but eventually gave in and paid them the 20 RMB they were asking to unlock the gate. If they were the trail maintainers, I guess they earned their money as the steep trail no doubt required continual maintenance and at several points had ladders and other aids. At the bottom a large, wedge-shaped rock jutted out into the Jinsha River and I had to pay another 10 RMB to a man who apparently "maintained" this rock before I could climb out onto it to get some shots of the river, which later becomes the Yangtze, rushing by. While I doubt the rock's maintenance requirements were anything close to those of the trail, the man did earn his pay by giving me a guided tour of the rock, to which were anchored various ropes and chains allowing you to safely shimmy down almost to the water's edge. After touring the rock, I backtracked about halfway back up the cliff and continued the trek on a cliffside trail running along the gorge. Tiger Leaping Gorge takes its name from the legend of a hunted tiger that supposedly jumped across the chasm to escape its pursuer, and the gorge here was narrow enough that I could almost imagine it. Again there was a local toll taker along the trail blocking the narrow path. I managed to get by this time by paying only 3 RMB since he didn't have change for a 100 RMB note. A bit later I came to a small building where the toll collector apparently lived, and since I still had plenty of time I decided to wait there for the sun to reach the bottom of the valley so I could get a better picture. The triangular rock near the center of the picture is the one I had paid to climb around on earlier. A pleasant young couple consisting of a Japanese husband and Chinese wife had also decided to wait for the sun to reach the valley floor and were kind enough to get this shot of me standing in front of the gorge to prove I was really there. As we resumed hiking, the valley walls became less steep but still quite scenic. Before long we approached the village of Walnut Grove, climbing back up to the road from the terraced fields below. We got comfortable rooms in the Chateau de Woody Guesthouse and enjoyed dinner and conversation in the guesthouse's outdoor restaurant.

The next morning I decided to continue hiking along the road while the young couple, who were in a bit more of a hurry, decided to wait to try to catch a tour bus back to town. As I followed the quiet road, the gorge became less dramatic but still scenic. After a couple hours, some locals help guide me from the road through a scenic village and down to a ferry crossing on the river. When I arrived at the crossing, I was surprised to find the Japanese husband. Apparently his wife had gotten a bus back to Qiaotou while he had decided to catch a ride on ahead. We crossed on the old ferry then climbed a steep bank and walked on to the village of Daju and the end of the trail. It was too late to catch the regular bus back to Lijiang, so I spent the night in the Snowflake Guesthouse and rode a crowded bus through scenic roads back to Lijiang the next morning.

I arrived back in Lijiang the afternoon of February 3. When I returned to the First Bend Inn, where I'd stored my larger bag during my Tiger Leaping Gorge trek, I found that their holiday rates hadn't ended yet so decided to check out some other places. I ended up at another guesthouse just around the corner where they obviously weren't as accustomed to foreign tourists but had a smaller room but with a private bathroom, full time hot water, and a sit toilet for significantly less than another night at the First Bend. I was sold on the sit toilet: my knees just complain too much if I squat for very long. The town was still pretty crowded and I'd seen most of what I wanted to see the first time through, so I decided to buy a bus ticket on to Zhongdian for the next day. I had no trouble getting a ticket, then came across some women dancing in local costumes (1 2 3). I returned to the Tibetan restaurant where I'd eaten once before to sample their Tibetan yak meat dumplings, which were quite tasty. Then I attended a Naxi Ancient Music concert that featured haunting music played on interesting instruments by musicians that included one blind man and several in their 80s and beyond.

The next morning I left Lijiang by bus for Zhongdian, an interesting and much less visited town that is promoted as the Shangri-La of James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon. I checked into the Long Life Tibetan Hotel, where I got a large room with private bath and an electric space heater. As near as I could tell, I was the only guest on the entire floor. Zhongdian lies at an elevation of about 3200 meters (10500 feet) and out of the sun was quite cold. Shortly after I checked in there was a light dusting of snow, visible here on the rooftops as seen from the hallway just outside my room. Though a little leery about leaving the unproven space heater going on the room's hardwood floor, I elected to do so anyway so the room would warm up a bit while I wandered about the town. Like Lijiang, Zhongdian has both new and old town sections with the Old Town section being the more interesting. Zhongdian's Old Town, however, was obviously a lot newer, with fresh woodwork done in the old style. After walking around the old town a bit, the sun began to disappear so I decided to escape the cold with an early dinner in a restaurant near the hotel. The restaurant used a different form of space heater: glowing charcoal wheeled about on a small cart. After dinner I headed back to my room, which had warmed up fairly well, to bathe while the hot water was on, plan activities for the next day, and read a bit before turning in early.

Sometime during the night the power went off and when I woke up the next morning the room was quite cold. I asked about it at the front desk and learned that the outage had affected the entire district and that it was not a normal occurrence. The power came back on as we spoke, so I headed back to the room to make sure the heater was working before I caught a public bus to Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan province. The monastery was an impressively large complex set on a small hill and I began by heading for the stairs that led from the bottom to the top of the complex, passing many colorful views on the way. At the top of the stairs one could look back to the city and the mountains beyond, and the temples at the top of the complex featured much colorful architecture (1 2) along with interesting prayer wheels (1 2) and architectural details (1 2). One could wander much more freely about Songzanlin than was the case with any other monastery I had visited, and it was fascinating to see how the monks lived and observe some of their day-to-day life, whether it be beating a large drum, preparing food, or cooking it in a rustic kitchen. The monks were generally remarkably friendly and agreeable to being photographed. I spent hours just wandering about the monastery and among the interesting sod-roofed buildings (1 2) just behind it. Near the monastery I found a stupa that was surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags and people's offerings.

When I returned to the city I couldn't resist heading to the giant prayer wheel that sat atop a hill in the old town. From the platform on which the prayer wheel sat there were good views over the roofs of the old town to the new town beyond as well as of the large shadow cast by the prayer wheel itself. Turning the massive wheel required a group effort: this lad pitched in to the fullest of his ability while this lad took an easier route! As twilight began to fall, lights came on at the small monastery seen earlier in the shadow of the giant prayer wheel, creating an interesting view of the lighted temple above the old town roofs.

That evening I contemplated my options. There were many other places in China I wanted to visit, but since I had only ten days until my residence expired and still had no air ticket out of China or easy way to obtain one anywhere near remote Zhongdian, I decided to return to Dali, where travel agencies were plentiful, which I could reach via a direct bus from Zhongdian, and which was on the way back to Chengdu, where my large bags were stored. The next morning, February 6, I headed to the bus station in the new town and had no trouble purchasing a ticket to Dali for the next morning. On the way I ran into several local people in minority garb who didn't mind me taking their picture (1 2). I then returned to the old town to visit the small temple that had been lighted the evening before, then headed to a cemetery I had seen just outside the old town. The lower section of the cemetery had many old graves, some with food offerings. Above this was a larger section with newer looking graves, but this section was fenced and locked so I couldn't explore it further. Since the day was still young, I decided to return to the Songzanlin Monastery complex to do a little hiking in the surrounding hills. That evening after dinner I returned to the giant prayer wheel and got this shot of the moon over the lighted giant prayer wheel, then on the way back paused to enjoy the locals dancing in a square in the old town.

The next morning I packed up and headed to the bus station for the ride to Dali. As I waited to board the bus, I was quite amused by this unusual carry on, and I think its owners were equally amused by my photographing it!


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