Mountain state of mind

It’s Tuesday morning here in Buenos Aires (post written this morning; posted this afternoon due to slow internet), another wonderfully sunny day, but the temperatures are definitely starting to head south this week, and we are getting a real sense of late fall/early winter weather in JUNE. I know this is normal in the southern hemisphere, but it’s still quite the novelty for me! 🙂

We’re also getting organized for some travel in Argentina. We’re still waiting for confirmation to come through and to sort out some of the details, but chances are that we’ll be experiencing a good deal MORE cold before our time here is through. We’re also going to be catching our first look at the Andes, which I’m really excited for.

All this has got me thinking back to the last place we traveled that had both cold weather and mountains. The coldest weather we’ve experienced so far during our trip has got to be during our road trip along the ah-maz-ing Karakorum Highway in Xinjiang, China.

Second coldest though would be in Zhongdian, the closest we got to Tibet, in the Yunnan province, and a place that was definitely worth braving the cold for. I’ve posted about Zhongdian already, but I haven’t shared photos from the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery or Baiji Si Temple yet.

Two Tibetan Buddhist sites, both totally awesome in two very different ways.

The Ganden Sumtseling Monastery is one of the major tourist draws for the area. Over three hundred years old, it’s the biggest monastery in Yunnan and is home to around 600 monks. It used to be able to accommodate well over double that number, but was badly damaged during the cultural revolution and a lot of what stands there currently has been rebuilt in the past decades.

It has the feel of a walled medieval city (if it was completely Tibetan that is). You pass through stolid walls to enter the residential part of the compound. Small but beautiful houses are interspersed with lesser temples, all of them moving up a hill to the culminating, massive main temples up the hill, which loom majestically overhead. It really feels like something out of a fairytale.

Not the best panorama photo, but click to see what I mean:

The place definitely has some touches of Chinese tourism, like a shop in the middle of the Monastery selling loads of prayer beads and tonkas, but also sun glasses, keychains and other pretty secular stuff, right next to the sausage stand…

A monk serves Chinese tourists in the shop

But we found it quite easy to avoid the most popular/touristy spots and were able to explore and enjoy the dimly lit, mysterious temples, crumbling alleyways, amazing architecture and beautiful views pretty much on our own.

Here are some photos from around the monastery. Photography was not allowed inside any of the temple, so that’s why there are no interior pictures.

Baiji Si Temple was a completely different experience. A small temple set on a hill within the city of Zhongdian (the Monastery is outside the city), we hiked up to it on our last morning in town.

A steep but short hike up to Baiji Si

It was a sunny autumn day. The hill and temple were completely deserted (not even a chicken in sight – Baiji, for the record, means 100 chickens :-)), but alive nonetheless with the flutter of brightly colored leaves and thousands upon thousands of Tibetan prayer flags that were strung on lines all over the place. The atmosphere was peaceful, the sun was warm on my face, the light and colors magical, the views over the city and landscape awesome.

I didn’t want to leave, but we had a bus to catch…

These amazing flowers really were this blue! I wish I knew what they’re called.

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A taste of Tibet: Zhongdian

Transitioning toward Tibet

After completing the two-day trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, I was looking forward to a few hours of travel under someone’s steam other than my own two legs. We said goodbye to our new friends Gerard and Kiki and boarded a tourist-filled van which ended up being perfect for sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the scenery rolling along outside the window.

Farmlands, woodlands punctuated by the occasional burst of yellow and orange hued trees elegantly displaying their autumnal finery, and rushing, jade-colored rivers, all under the cover of a sky heavy with clouds, filled my gaze.

The road made a slow but definitive ascent and without noticing exactly how, I suddenly realized we were in mountain country. The architecture began to change as we got closer to our destination.

A view of a Tibetan style house from the bus (actually on the way back to Shuhe; a sunnier day)

Chinese-style farm houses were replaced by buildings much larger, more solid, more whimsical. Massive beams of wood framed walls of solid, white-painted rock that were wider at the base than the roof, giving these Tibetan homes the look of something plopped down on the Earth from above by something or someone inhabiting the sky with a poor sense of the size of humans. Small windows peered out from these thick walls; Buddhist motives were painted along wall edges and onto doors in cheerful primary colors; the wooden tiles of the roofs were held down by sticks and rocks. The effect was of something both roughly hewn and yet entirely solid and comforting, something fanciful and wonderful and yet perfectly, practically mundane. They were the sort of homes that made me wonder about the feel, the smell, the arrangements inside; the sort of homes I would be intrigued and delighted to try living in for a while.

Roof detail

The van pulled into Zhongdian just as dusk was arriving. The approaching night was already adding a chill to the air, and Roman and I walked briskly through the darkening streets to find a place to stay. We were lucky to get the last room available at N’s Kitchen after only a short search. The room felt like the inside of a fridge but the bed was set up with electric blankets – a welcome sight. We got ourselves settled in and headed out into the night to find food and get a first glimpse of this city that would be the closest we would physically and culturally get to Tibet during our big trip.

The touch of tourism in China

I don’t have the in depth knowledge or authority to write about China’s relationship with Tibet/Tibetans. I presume with my head that it is probably more complicated than I know and can comprehend without a whole lot of research. I know with my heart that there is a lot of tragedy and needless loss and that, like with the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the assumption of land and resources and degradation of culture and history are appalling. I wonder very much what it’s like in Tibet and I hope to see for myself some day.

In Zhongdian, the atmosphere was totally fine and relaxed to my perception; but while Tibetan culture and arts were on proud (and totally purchasable) display for all the tourists to see, there was not a single image or mention of the Dalai Lama ANYWHERE to be seen, unlike in Mcleod Ganj, the home of the Tibetan government in exile in India, which after having spent a couple of weeks there earlier in our trip, was a striking absence to my eyes.

Zhongdian’s old town definitely caters to tourists. From Lonely Planet:

A mere decade ago, Zhongdian was just a one-yak town. Pigs nibbled on garbage-strewn street corners; there was but one place to stay and pretty much nowhere to eat. Then, watching Lijiang and Dali zoom into the tourism stratosphere, local and provincial officials declared the town/county the location of British writer James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-la, described in his novel The Lost Horizon. The result was a big jump in visitors, and the numbers are increasing all the time, as well as a building boom that continues to this day.

Ready for an authentic tourist experience?

During our months in China, we did notice that the Chinese do have a knack for taking anything remotely cultural, interesting, historic or beautiful and turning it into a pre-packaged and terribly efficient tourist “experience” ready made for flag following, photo snapping, souvenir purchasing tour groups who want to pack in as many prescribed sights into their (presumably) short holidays as possible. After Lonely Planet’s description, we were wondering if we were heading to another Lijiang, but we ended up enjoying Zhongdian a great deal more.

Curious to know just what these guys have got to do with traditional Tibetan culture...

We visited in October, just before the big cold settles in for the winter and snow storms begin to disrupt transportation in the area. Perhaps this was a factor but we found the town refreshingly less crowded than Lijiang. The tourist center of the old town had plenty of sibling shops, selling many of the same useless trinkets as in Lijiang, but the profusion was less pervasive and less cloying. A few twists and turns away from the tourist center, and the Disney-land atmosphere already began to fade, giving way to the provincial beauty and flavor of the place.

Not the best shot but a nice moment with a woman emerging from a beautifully painted door

A grandmother in traditional dress playing ball with the kids

Not quite 48 hours in Zhongdian

Given that we had such a limited visit to the place, I’m so pleased that in my memory, our couple of days there stand out as a significant experience, feeling emotionally much more like a week’s worth of time.

A good portion of our hours there went to aimless pursuits such as warming up and relaxing in cozy restaurants, cafes and bars with delightfully good food, coffee and beer or wandering around the atmospheric alleyways. But we also made it to Ganden Sumtseling Gompa and Baiji Si (100 Chickens Temple) – I’ll do a separate post on those two magical places.

Food and drink highlights included indulging in some really good western fare at Compass, actually enjoying yak that had been well-marinated and garnished by a very liberal hand at Arro Khampa, discovering the most delicious, tender momos I’ve ever had at the Rebgong Tibetan Art Studio & Restaurant, and spending one delightfully cozy cold evening in the dimly lit, wonderfully toasty Heat Nest Bar where Roman had beer while I enjoyed hot ginger Coke (this is apparently a Yunnan specialty – they boil Coca Cola with fresh ginger and serve it hot as a tea. Incredibly warming and much tastier than you might imagine!) and we alternately watched some live football (soccer) or the family of super-cute huskies napping contentedly together on a couch in the corner.

The first tasty yak I've ever encountered

Divine veggie momos

At Heat Nest

Journey through the clouds: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Pressing on with my China catch up, I’ll return to where I left off in Yunnan. We’d just spent the day in Lijiang and were set for the early morning wake up in order to catch a van to the start of the hiking trail that would take us through mythical Tiger Leaping Gorge. A sleepy but bumpy ride through lovely rural countryside got us to our destination, where Roman and I grabbed a quick breakfast at Jane’s Guesthouse (not very tasty but the calories would come in handy).

The hike was well plugged in Lonely Planet and we found loads of enthusiasts on the internet as well. From Lonely Planet:

One of the deepest gorges in the world, it measures 16km long and is a giddy 3900m from the waters of the Jinsha River… to the snowcapped mountains of Haba Shan… and, despite the odd danger, it’s gorgeous almost every single step of the way.

What we also found were quite a lot of varying opinions as regarded the hike’s difficulty. We wanted to be sensible – LP warned that “The gorge trek is not to be taken lightly. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a workout. The path constricts and crumbles; it certainly can wreck the knees.”

Some bloggers described it as life changing and one of the toughest things they did; others described it as a breeze. It was hard to know who to believe, but in the end we decided not too worry to much and just go and see for ourselves. After completing the hike, I decided to add my own opinion to the online info out there, so if you’re considering doing it yourself, maybe this post will be helpful.

Just to recap though, at the end of the day, while it was pretty steep in places, and slippery since we had bad weather, it was not nearly as daunting as we had thought it might be based on what we read.

It probably would have been even easier if the weather had been better – although I am sure it would have been considerably hotter and sweatier then too. As it was, we had clouds, mist and intermittent rain going on for most of the hike. This made for a cooler (albeit wetter and muddier) journey and often times created a wonderfully mystical atmosphere as wisps of clouds curled around us – but we did miss out on a lot of views that I’m sure would have been spectacular.

The view from towards the start of our hike, with clouds moving in

Even without the views though, the hike was wonderful and I’d recommend it even in cloudy weather. The landscape was an interesting mix – craggy, rocky mountain peaks, lovely peaceful farmlands, quiet woods, bamboo groves. There were a few sections of the path where we were too busy dealing with going up (we are out of shape!) or avoiding the thousands of pellets of goat poop or horse droppings to really appreciate the scenery, but aside from that, pretty much every step offered us another beautiful view.

Cute poopers!

When the clouds cleared enough to let us see through to the bottom of the gorge, we were rewarded with glimpses of the river; mind-blowingly far below and even from our height, the power and force of the water were evident.

The river at the bottom of the gorge. Check out how small the cars and buses look!

I also loved all the mountain flora. I did a whole post on that a while back – you can find that here; please take a look if you’re any good with identifying flowers cause I’d love to know the names of some of the things we saw! 🙂

We enjoyed our overnight in the Tea Horse Guesthouse. We met a lovely French couple, Gerard and Kiki, who alternately passed us or were pass by us all along the trail. Our paths crossed once again at the Guesthouse and we had a lovely evening warming ourselves by the fire (it was a COLD night) in the outdoor dining area, sharing yummy food and conversation.

An early morning start on the second day rewarded me with a first glimpse of blue sky and snow-capped mountains. Both were soon obscured by clouds shortly after this picture. 🙂

Our second day on the trail was just as overcast, but happily less rainy, and we had an easy hike to the end of the trail. The sun finally began to peak through the clouds as we reached our destination, and we enjoyed the sunlit views as we had a bite to eat with Gerard and Kiki – who we found again at Tina’s Guesthouse, and wandered around a nearby waterfall, passing the time until we could catch the bus to Zhongdian.

To give you a sense of the scale of the mountains, there's a man walking along the path in the foreground. Can you spot him?

I loved the small mountain farming villages - so pretty!

Harvested corn and pumpkins in a farmhouse

Dried peppers hang in a guesthouse balcony

Photo impressions from Shuhe

I’m jumping around chronologically in this post. We didn’t explore Shuhe until after we’d returned from Zhongdian, but for geographical reasons – namely that it was right next door – I’m putting this post right after Lijiang.

As I mentioned, while Shuhe definitely pulls its share of tourists, it felt slightly less tarted up to me than Lijiang and I definitely preferred it of the two destinations. We didn’t have a ton of time there – just the afternoon and evening after we got back from Zhongdian, but the combination of the more rural feel, beautiful architecture, babbling waterways and narrow streets lit by red lanterns in the dusk ended up charming me.

Here’s a collection of visual impressions, starting during the walk from our hotel to Shuhe’s old town.

These cats are on many of the buildings in the area; apparently according to some info I read in town they are auspicious “tiger cat watts” and are traditional Naxi ornaments have something to do with “wealth, pray for the family business thriving” and are a “lucky mascot”. If that doesn’t make much sense then blame the translation, not me. 🙂

I wonder what game this is; it was on a table outside a simple shop outside of town.

Beautiful houses

Ah, to be a cat!

Flowers in light

An example of a traditional Naxi well, with another well-translated explanation: “Enjoy comfortably is convenient near the water live; To the cities time, has created “three wells” culture: Divides into three ponds well water a water seepage, first makes the tap water; The second does washes the vegetable water, And the third does washes the water, water three uses, did not struggle does not snatch, has manifested the Naxi nationality awe nature, treasured environment the fine tradition.” Or, as Lonely Planet puts it “Where there are three pools, these were designated into pools for drinking, washing clothes and washing vegetables.” Slightly more succinct.

Narrow lanes

Some of the streets had canals between the road and the building entrances. Here a dog contemplates whether to cross the bridge or not.

The lanterns started to light up as dusk approached.

Clearly Shuhe is not entirely a tourist town if they’re giving visitors this advice! 😉

Looks like a heavy load!

 

Yunnan tour: first stop, Lijiang

Ok, back to China! As I mentioned, our first stop in Yunnan province was Lijiang/Shuhe.

Accommodation notes

After swinging by the tourist office in Guilin to (thankfully!) pick up our passports with their extended visas, we flew in to Lijiang’s airport and arrived late at night in Shuhe.

We knew to expect a colder climate in northern Yunnan. We’d read in the guidebook how many hotels in that part of the province provide electric blankets since they typically don’t have heat. I was super excited to crank ours up and get cozy in bed shortly after we arrived at The Bruce Chalet in Shuhe – it was definitely a necessary luxury as far as I was concerned! 🙂

We’d read good reviews about Bruce’s online and we were happy with it. The rooms were small but cute and cozy, the bed was great – one of the nicest and most comfortable ones we found in China (land of notoriously hard beds) – and Bruce, the owner, was helpful in coordinating transport and providing information for our hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Lijiang’s old town: pretty plastic and glimpses of Naxi traditions

Because of our limited time, we spent our first full day checking out Lijiang, leaving exploration of Shuhe for when we returned from our little trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Zhongdian. Bruce arranged transport for us to get in to Lijiang – by taxi the ride wasn’t too long and was cheap enough.

Lijiang is a convenient gateway for mountains of Northwest Yunnan. The old town is meant to be very picturesque and I was imagining a gnarly, well-worn, overgrown mountain town – maybe like a Chinese version of a somewhat developed Mcleod Ganj or something.

The old section of town was awarded status as a UN World Heritage Site in 1999, and it seems like the locals, or some board of tourism somewhere in China anyhow, decided to capitalize on this fact.

While the buildings, canals and alleyways of the old town today ARE beautiful, there’s little real life happening outside of the tourist trade (of which there is PLENTY – literally every building is either a hotel, a restaurant catering for tourists or a shop targeting tourists with “local” mass produced goods and plenty of generic and often pointless China-themed souvenirs) and the whole scene feels pretty sterile and Disney-fied.

Plus, while you can maybe see the start of mountains from certain vantage points, the town itself is pretty flat. Mcleod Ganj it certainly is not!

Here’s a snapshot of one of the squares in the center of the old town. Yes it’s busy, but all those people are Chinese tourists, most of them parts of lumbering tour groups, rather than locals. Please note that this is MUCH less crowded than the main square, which seemed to be THE favorite congregation and coordination point for all those tour groups…

If you can handle the crowds, Lijiang does have certain charms, but I’m glad we erred on the side of caution and stayed outside of the city in a smaller, less developed town not too far away. Not that Shuhe hasn’t been affected by tourism too, but it didn’t feel quite so plastic as Lijiang’s old town.

Lijiang has traditionally been home to the ethnic group the Naxis, who were traditionally a matriarchal society and who developed a beautiful pictographic script which is apparently the only hieroglyphic language still being used today. For all my feminist linguists out there, according to Lonely Planet:

There are strong matriarchal influences in the Naxi language. Nouns enlarge their meaning when the word for ‘female’ is added; conversely, the addition of the word for ‘male’ will decrease the meaning. For example, ‘stone’ plus ‘female’ conveys the idea of a boulder; ‘stone’ plus ‘male’ conveys the idea of a pebble.

Which of course I think is awesome. 🙂

This writing was on a wall outside the more touristy section of the old town. The text on the left is Chinese, but the larger characters on the right are Naxi pictographs. No idea what it all says…

The Naxis, as many of the ethnic minorities in China, have a beautiful and distinctive traditional way of dressing. We saw some people wearing traditional outfits while we were in Yunnan; in Lijiang’s Old Town the women in traditional garb were inevitably in the tourist business but outside of the Old Town it was great seeing folks in this traditional clothing just doing normal, every-day stuff. (Some content and pictures about minority garb from my favorite Chinese fashion blog here, here and here)

Water is an important part of traditional life in and around Lijiang. The Old Town is laced with beautiful little canals that were – and sometimes, although less frequently, still are – used by locals in daily life for things like washing clothing.

Of course tourist towns do offer some advantages; we were happy to find the Well Bistro in the thick of the old town’s winding streets whose friendly staff served up Lavazza coffee – give me a decent latte and I am a happy girl! 😉

On the flip side, there were some other for-tourist-delicacies that I found somewhat less appealing. Apparently yak is a thing in Yunnan. There was loads of different kinds of yak meats for sale all over town. Here are some cured yak ribs:

And I’m not sure if I really want to know what part of a yak these things are:

On that appetizing note, I think I’ll finish up on Lijiang for the night. Back in the present/Australia, we had a beautiful day here on the Great Ocean Road but now night’s turned really cold and it’s time for me to try and warm up in our camper bed. 🙂 Goodnight folks!

Getting back to China: an intro to Yunnan

It’s our last night in Melbourne. Tomorrow we start a new chapter in Australia as we get away from city life and start exploring a bit of the great outdoors in a camper van! I’ve never traveled by RV before and I’m ridiculously excited about it. I have had romantic notions about gypsy life since I was a girl, and this is probably as close as I’ll ever come to living out of the brightly painted, horse-drawn caravan.

Before we switch travel gears though, I want to get back on track with this blog and pick up where I left off ages ago with China.

Last China post, we were experiencing golden fall afternoons in the mountain village of Dazhai. The fact that the weather here in Melbourne has turned down right cold the past couple of days is making the little bit of Spring we experienced in the States, not to mention those lovely Autumn days in China, feel even further away than normal.

Our next stop in China, after Dazhai, was the Yunnan Province. Wikitravel has a blurb that does an so-so job summarizing a province that is as multi-faceted as it is beautiful (in my humble opinion anyhow :-)):

Its name literally means south of the clouds. The province is one of the most diverse in China… The province is famed for its multitude of ethnic groups, whose diverse customs can still be seen today. Of China’s fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities, twenty-five can be found in Yunnan: about one-third of the population is not ethnic Han-Chinese.

Certainly one of my favorite aspects of all of China and definitely Yunnan IS the diversity of its people. Yunnan has that and more going for it. Its landscapes and climates are multifarious and gorgeous (pun intended…).

The dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lonely Planet give this overview:

Then there’s the hugely varied splendor of the land… In one week you can sweat in the tropics and freeze in the Himalayas, and in between check out ancient towns… However long you’ve given yourself in Yunnan, double it.

Unfortunately, due to our visa situation and how much we wanted to see, we really had to be thrifty with our days in China.

Lantern-lit village pathways at Shuhe

In the West and South, Yunnan is bordered by Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. It even is dissected by the Mekong River, which we got plenty familiar with in Laos. Since we’d spent loads of time in those three countries, we didn’t feel too bad skipping tropical Yunnan and heading instead into its mountains.

Tibetan prayer flags and a stupa lit up at night in Zhongdian

We only had one week in this amazing place, but we managed to pack in a lot. Here’s our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive late at night in Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 2: One full day in Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 3: Early morning van to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Day one of hiking and an overnight in the mountains
Day 4: Second half of the gorge hike and another van ride to Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-la
Day 5: One full day in Zhongdian
Day 6: A morning in Zhongdian, a long bus ride back to Lijiang/Shuhe
Day 7: A morning’s recovery and then an afternoon/evening checking out Shuhe
Day 8: One final breakfast in Shuhe and then it was already time to fly on to Beijing

Details of these days to come in future posts. Watch this space! 🙂

Name that mountain flower

I’ll pick up where I left off last week – back in Xinjiang Province where we were exploring the amazing city of Kashgar on the third day of our tour – in the next entry. But first I want to do one more quick post from our hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

I mentioned we didn’t have the best weather for our hike. I think the views of the mountains and valleys would have been even more spectacular if we’d gotten some sun while we were walking, but the Gorge was plenty pretty, even as it was swathed in wreaths of fog and cloud. Having less of a view into the distance also kept my attention closer to the trail, and there was so much smaller-scale beauty to enjoy there.

One of the highlights of the hike for me was all the gorgeous plant life there was to discover and enjoy. Between the temperatures and the colors, things felt very fall-like. Autumn is my favorite season, so after all those months of steamy tropics, I was eating up the end-of-season colors on display in the mountains.

Even with winter approaching, with the leaves beginning to turn and the farm lands full of dried out stalks of corn, there was an abundance of incredible flowers (and other plant-life) on display along the path. The colors and variety were amazing. Some I recognized, some looked like cousins of plants I know from home, some were new to me.

Here are some of the favorites that I “collected” along the way. If there are any plant experts out there who can fill me in on the names or species, I would love to hear from you! 🙂

There were these lovely, little, bright wild marigolds all over the place. Loved them!

No clue what this one might be… 🙂

The delicate pink of these berries was so pretty

Fall colors!

 

Maybe a foxglove relative?

This one reminds me of edelweiss

I should know the name of this one but I forget. 😛 The blue was amazingly vibrant!

Funky pine cones!

More incredible blue

Tiger leaping gorge: my two cents

This is a post for any normal person wondering whether they should hike the gorge or not. If you’re regular trekker and know what you’re doing, you probably don’t need this advice. 🙂

Wondering how challenging hiking the Gorge really is? So were we…

Roman and I may have been living in Switzerland, but neither of us are serious hikers. But I’m crazy about mountains and we love the outdoors so were interested in doing the hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge in the northwest of Yunnan province. Lonely Planet raved and was encouraging about it but also had this to say about the hike:

“The gorge trek is not to be taken lightly. Even for those in good physical shape, it’s a work out… A few people … have died in the gorge. Over the last decade, there have also been cases of travellers being assaulted on the trail. As always, it’s safer in all ways not to do the trek alone.”

This advice gave us pause and we decided to do some internet research to see what we were potentially getting ourselves into.

We found a lot of info and blog entries; none of it made things any clearer. Some people made the hike sound like the biggest challenge and a life-changing event, others painted it as a piece of cake.

Having hiked it myself now, I’ll jump into the muddle and add my own, hopefully helpful, perspective.

The bottom line

Just to paint the picture, Roman and I are in our early thirties. We are healthy and in decent shape but not massively fit or sporty. (Going into the hike, I even had a cold.) For us, hiking the Gorge was totally manageable.

There are a couple of challenging sections but we paced ourselves for those and were fine. There were also a lot of flat, easy-going sections. There were some bits on the second day that made me glad it wasn’t raining. That would have been do-able even if it was slick but doing it safely would have made for slow, muddy hiking.

We shared parts of the trail with a lovely French couple. I would guess they were in their sixties and they often out-paced us (I blame my cold! 😉 ).

So if you are considering doing the hike and are reasonably fit I would totally encourage you to do so.

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Some bits of the trail are wonderfully flat and totally easy

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Some are more of a scramble. This is looking up after just coming down the steep, rocky path. Ok when it’s dry, would have been tough if it was raining…

Things that might be helpful to know

We did the hike in October, so my advice is based on doing the trail in autumn. Other advice might apply to spring and summer. 🙂

– It is possible to hire guides but the trail is clearly marked with blue and yellow signs and spray painted arrows and advertising from the various guesthouses along the way. We had no problem finding our own way – just keep your eyes open and you’ll be fine.

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Signs along the way on the trail, each of them with the same spelling mistake 😉

– We were told that the drive from Lijiang to the start of the trail would take about an hour; it ended up taking two. The later start meant that it would have been tight for us to reach the halfway point before dark. We weren’t bothered by stopping at an earlier guesthouse, but some people might want/need to get to the halfway point on the first day. You DON’T want to hike the Gorge in the dark.
If you are there at a time of the year when there are fewer hours of light in the day, make sure you start early enough. The drive from Zhongdian/Shangrila was also about two hours. (Maybe both drives will go faster for you, but it’s China – when we were returning from Zhongdian the bus ride between Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang actually took closer to 2 hours 40 minutes when we had to stop for a half hour at one point for no apparent reason…)
I’d also agree with LP’s advice – don’t hike the Gorge alone. Better to be safe than sorry.

– There are different versions of maps of the Gorge – ask your hotel if you need a copy. Most of them list the same hiking times between different points. We found the times listed to be accurate, based on our moderate pace (which included breaks for photo ops ;-)). (I’ll add a photo of the map to this post later)

– Pack as light as possible! I’ll include our packing list below. Lonely Planet advises to bring 2 – 3 liters of water per person. We found that 1.5 liters per person per day was more than enough, but we were hiking in cool, overcast weather. I will bet it gets plenty hot when the sun is out.
There will be spots along the way where you can get drinks and snacks but some stretches you’ll be walking for a while with nothing in sight but the beautiful nature, so it’s definitely good to err on the side of caution with water and I’d have at least a Snickers (sold everywhere in and around the gorge) or some fruit with you in case of and energy lull.

DSC 0620
Gorge views, day one. Overcast but still lovely!

– Accommodation in the gorge is simple but fine. We stayed at the Tea Horse Guest House. For RMB 60 we could have gotten the basic room, which is just a room with a bed. We sprung for the deluxe room at RMB 180, which came with an en suite bathroom (western toilet, shower, sink), soap, TP, towels, hangers and a lovely view. I used the public toilets at the Halfway Guesthouse the next day and while the view was as stunning as Lonely Planet mentions, the smell of it made me REALLY glad that we paid extra for the bathroom at Tea Horse. 🙂

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Arriving at the Tea Horse Guest House. Check out that gorgeous vibrant red Bougainvillea!

Food at the Tea Horse was simple but good and the portions were massive. The electricity cut out briefly a couple of times so it may be a good idea to have a flashlight or mobile phone with a light on hand after dark. 🙂

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Our room at Tea Horse

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Our view at Tea Horse – not bad! 🙂

What to pack

Roman and I each carried our daypacks. Aside from the aforementioned food and drink, here’s what we needed:

• Layers. It was definitely cold and wet at different points during the hike but I also worked up a sweat during the more challenging sections. You’ll want to make sure you can keep warm enough and dry too if you have to hike in the rain like we did. The guest houses in the gorge provide electric blankets but are not heated so having a (dry) long sleeve shirt to sleep in is good. In addition to my base layers I traveled with my fleece, raincoat and scarf which were essential. I had extra clothes as we were continuing on to Zhongdian – I didn’t mind having my warm vest when it was time to eat dinner outdoors at our guesthouse! 🙂
• A side note – keep your clothes and other sensitive things dry by storing them in plastic bags in your pack.
• Sunscreen and lip balm – it can get dry and windy. We didn’t need the sunscreen the first (wetter) day but I was happy to have it the second.
• Tissues. I needed tons because of my cold but these are always a good thing to have on you – never know when the toilet you’re using won’t have TP.
• Basic toiletries only. You’re gonna get sweaty and dirty anyhow…
• Only the essentials of our valuables. We kept the laptops at our hotel back in Lijiang with no problem. Of course you have to feel comfortable with the hotel that’s keeping your stuff…
• Camera – worth the extra weight!

Things we didn’t use but were good to have along just in case:

• Hats and sunglasses – the sun made an appearance only during our last hour in the Gorge but then it was plenty powerful!
• A change of clothes – our rain coats did the trick and kept us dry but it would have been pretty miserable going if our clothes were really wet.
• Basic travel meds – you never know!

I’ve gone into greater detail about my backpack and other gear in earlier posts if you want to know more.

One thing I don’t think I’ve talked about before is socks. I have a couple of pairs of Smart Wool socks. I didn’t use them tons in SE Asia because of the heat, but for mild to cool weather, they are brilliant. Your feet stay dry and warm – never too hot – and they are comfy as heck. Love them!

If you’re thinking about visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge, I hope this info is helpful. Happy hiking! 🙂

Current events: Landed in Beijing

It feels like forever since I’ve written anything. Really it’s only been about a week, but what a full one it’s been!

Yunnan was a whirlwind – three stops (Tiger Leaping Gorge, Zhongdian, also known as Shangrila, and Lijiang/Shuhe) in six days and all of them beautiful.

And now we’ve landed in Beijing.

We’ve gotten ourselves a big, bright studio apartment in the art district (using Air BnB again) and it feels good to know we’ll be staying in one place for more than two nights! Although as of today we only have two more weeks in China – and a LOT we want to see and do before we leave. So I’ll enjoy the bit of down time while I can. And do what I can about the blog backlog. 🙂