Yunnan is arguably the most beautiful province of China. There are high mountains, clean – CLEAN – lakes, superb landscapes, beautiful towns (or what’s left of them), many ethnic minorities that have been divided from one another for centuries by natural obstacles, therefore kept their uniqueness (until recently).
I meet Davide and Daniele again in Shangri-La (3200 m) and we spend the day in town before setting for the Leaping Tiger Gorge trek (although the gorge is much lower, we need to acclimatize). Shangri-La is the prettiest city I’ve so seen in China. Of course there is the obligatory chairman Mao giant statue (immortalized in a Magneto-like pose, but I don’t risk taking silly pictures with the leader this time). The town is small for local standards, it has a Tibetan feel, and there is a charming all-wooden old town. Everything is brand new of course, but there is a good reason for it this time. Apparently, no one has any heating at home, but everyone has electric blankets, which may have been the source of the fire that destroyed the entire city two years ago. Not that you can see any sign of that. The Chinese are extremely efficient when it comes to covering traces of basically anything. Contrary to the popular believe, they don’t eat dogs everywhere in China, but they do in Yunnan. So be careful what you order (although it is considered a delicacy, so a tourist should not end up with a puppy for dinner, unless he insists on it). Still, seeing a shop that sells skins of what used to be San Bernard at the entrance to the city centre is a bit of a shock.
We rent an electric scooter (50 yuan for a day, or better, for the 50 km range that it does on one charging), and go for a ride around the close by lake Napa, towards the beautiful Songzanlin complex of Lamaist temples, and back to town. In the countryside the roads are empty (which is good, because I am still getting used to handling my panda mobile), the views on the lake are extraordinary. It is only a 40 km lap, it is perfectly doable on a normal bicycle, but the change of altitude is catching up with me (the stairs to the monastery almost killed me), so I am quite glad we opted for a motorized vehicle. Also, when we eventually get to town, cycling in London has been a great education: I ride through the city traffic like a local (I swear in a mixture of english and italian though, both countries should be proud).
The Leaping Tiger Gorge.
Possibly the nicest thing I’ve done in China. September is off-season, no need to book the guesthouses. There are no Chinese, either. All-year-round, cause there is no chance in heaven that a Chinese would face the (in)famous 28 bends to climb to the upper trail. The chinese tourists just stop on the viewing platform above the gorge, make a video and go elsewhere. You will meet only westerners on the trek. Now, I don’t want to seem like I went to China and didn’t want to see any locals, but the truth is, they can be rather annoying. Apart from the constant concert of spitting (and the preparation), burping, farting (while maintaining eye contact, that was quite bizarre), and I actually saw a guy who managed to produce disgusting sounds while yawning; they constantly stare at you, point at you, take pictures or videos of you for no reason, so yeah, I admit that I was quite happy to avoid masses of Chinese for a couple of days. This is the 21st century, a person of a different race should not come as a surprise anymore.
Now, the trek itself: you will find all the information you need on the internet: halfway between Shangri-La and Lijiang, trail runs between the town og Qiaotau and Tina’s Guesthouse on the Middle Gorge, Tine herself runs bus services from Lijiang and Shangri-La (it’s actually her relatives who drive the bus, so if you are coming from Shangri-La and want to start in Qiaotau, you can leave your luggage on board and the bus will deliver them to the GH, where they will be stored for free). I’d recommend to stay 3 days. Two for the actual trek (which itself is doable in a single day, but why run) and the third day to descend down to the gorge (3 hours round trip, which is not much, but after completing the trek you will not feel like walking more on the same day.) Most people start at Qiaotau and finish at Tina’s, which means climbing the 28 bends (the trail bends guess how many times before reaching the highest point of the trek) on the first day, but after that it’s either descend or flat. Problem is, there is a huge construction going on (a cable car would be my guess), which prolongs the trek by rather unpleasant two hours.
We (me, Davide and Daniele) decide for the opposite: leave the luggage at Tina’s and start from there, stop for lunch in a random place, where the boys explain to the owners that they do not eat meat, so they pick fresh vegetables in the garden and cook them for us. Possibly one of the nicest meals of the entire month. After the initial ascend the trek is mostly flat, and the views over the mountains and the gorge are spectacular. We stop at Tea Horse GH and spend the evening on the terrace admiring the spectacular sunset and playing cards. We continue the trek on day two, but instead of finishing at Qiaotau, we call a cab from Naxi GH and spare ourselves the walk through the building site, go back to Tina’s and take the afternoon bus to Lijiang.
Lijiang – reportedly, the old Lijiang used to be a cool place before having been destroyed by a massive earthquake in mid-nineties. Built on a grid of canals, it used to be some sort of chinese Venice. Nowadays it’s a newly rebuilt, colourful mixture of oldish-looking tourist crap shops that all play the same annoying song. Still with Dani and Davide, we walk through the old town, visit the Black Dragon Pool, where we watch chinese kids playing some sort of dodgeball game, only they play it with something that looks like a roll of toilet paper (therefore doesn’t really fly). Bizarre. The highlight of the day is the visit to the market, real market, with all sorts of food, fruits and vegetables, spices and livestock (killed on demand), and then we sit by White Dragon temple, where people come to wash the goods bought at the market in the adjacent canal. There are be people washing lettuce next to someone cleaning fish or river prawns for dinner. Quite fascinating. We climb to Wangu Pagoda to watch the sunset over the old town, and later go again in the centre to experience some local nightlife. The place we end up in has an inflatable bouncy dance floor. Hell, yeah!
Market & White Dragon Pool shots: (I was unconfortable at first to take pictures of people, but that all changed with the long lens)
The area (with Lijian being the capital) is home to an ethnic population called the Naxi, which is a society traditionally ran by women. Young women leave the family early and establish their own home. There is no institution of marriage, but they form semiofficial boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, where the men remain living with their mothers and only spend the nights at their girlfriends’ houses. So pretty much like Europe, really.