I was very much looking forward to travelling around Yunnan. Mountain air, hills, world’s deepest gorge and tibetan villages were all on our list of things to experience whilst in the area. In the 12 days we had in Yunnan we managed to squeeze in quite few sights and whilst not all of them as exciting as the next there were definitely few gems worth mentioning and worth the effort of getting to.
We started our journey in Kunming from where we took a night train to Lijiang, another UNESCO heritage site. In Kunming itself we only had few hours to spare, so we headed to a beautiful and peaceful Yuantong temple where we wandered around for few hours. The night train took us by surprise because not only there were spaces available for the train leaving on the same day/nigh but ‘by mistake’ we booked ourselves onto a soft sleeper, which was real class! Only 4 people in the carriage, carpeted floor and a flower on the table. High life I call it!
My first impression of Lijiang was… it felt clean. The citiy’s cool, fresh air, lack of smog was refreshing in comparison to what we had experienced in Changsha and other cities. We could actually see the clouds and breath in with a full chest. What I joy!
The main attraction of the city itself is the Old Town. Cobbled streets, canals and wooden buildings do have its appeal but this is mainly in the morning when the souvenir shops are closed and all you see on the old town street’s are locals going to work and fresh buns steaming away getting ready to be eaten.
The Black Dragon Pool Park is apparently a must see for the amazing photo opportunity with the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background but when we paid a visit the majestic snow covered mountain was nowhere to be seen.
(Shuhe, a small ‘village’ not far from Lijiang came out to be a real tourist trap, with no personal feel to it but just a copy of its bigger neighbour. If you are in the area don’t even bother going! )
As the weather was not in our favour and the heavens opened the day we planned on leaving, we altered our plans and instead of heading for 2 day trek in the Tiger Leaping Gorge a decision was made to work our way up all the way to Deqin, a town just on the border with Tibet. The trip had to be broken into to two parts with a stop over for a night in Shangrila.
Shangrila welcomed us with almost glacier like temperatures and no public transport after 8pm meant we had to walk 3km trying to find some where to sleep (not that far but as I was freezing my butt off the walk seemed to take forever!)
The views on bus journey in between Lijiang-Shangrila-Deqin were absolutely breathtaking, although sometimes we could not see a thing being surrounded by nothing by the clouds.
From Deqin it was only a short drive away to a small town by the Feilaisi temple, were we stayed the night. Unfortunately the weather conditions were again nowhere near what we prepared for (it was cold, rainy and foggy) so off we went again this time making our way down to Shangrila, where we hoped to see some blue skies and the countryside.
Sadly there isn’t that much to see in Shangrila’s old town, as most of it has been recently destroyed by a fire. Thankfully no lifes were taken but the charm of the traditional buildings went down together with the flames.
The countryside around Shangrila made up for the lack of sights in the town. A bike trip to the lake, or a swamp, as I could see no lake at all, was a great day out, although at few points I did think my poor knees may not make it. Green plains of Yunnan, wild looking horses, game of cards with local men and a steamed tibetan bread with a yak cheese made it all worth the effort (and terribly sun burnt faces as we later found out!)
Tibetan prayer flags are seen all over this area of China because of the high numbers of Tibetan population. Prayers, mantras and symbols inscripted on flags are belived to bring happiness, wellbeing to the flag ‘owners’ and people around them. As the wind goes through the colorful flags spreads the positive energy and harmony.
So after 3 lovely and rain free days in Shangrila we caught a very early bus to town of Qiaotou where we started our 2 day trek at Tiger Leaping Gorge. One of the worlds deepest gorge 16km long and with the mountain peaks reaching 3900m excited me not only because I was urging for some back to mother nature time but I also knew that as this high the chances of seeing other tourist were very little.
From the Lonely Planet and few other websites I have learnt that the first day of the trek is the most exhausting. People were talking about a really tough experiences and that it should not be taken lightly. In fact this apparently knee wrecking trek with strechenous 28 bends and crumbling paths turned out to be at times steep and tiring but mainly overdramatised when it comes to its difficulty. We completed the first day after 7 hours of walking with plenty of breaks for resting and taking photos. The best part apart from reaching our shelter for the day was the apple pie!
The second day was much more relaxed with leveled paths but mind you it did feel like it was never going to end! The Belgian couple we met the day before kept us company, as well as the goats we meet on the path! And of course there were the views.
In the end we did not make it all the way to the rapids as an extra fee was being charged on the top of the entrance fee we paid (60 yuan). The extra fee of 15 yuan wasn’t much but for us it was more a principal.
With such an amazing weather we completed the trek in a great spirits and were ready to head to our next destination. Being tight on money but in a fantastic luck we hitchiked almost all the way to Shaxi. Our first ride did cost us some cash (sadly Chinese don’t really get the idea of hitchhiking) but the second one was a real hit. We got picked up by an English guy who drove us for the next two hours or so to the town of Jianchuan, from where we were only 40 minutes away from Shaxi.
Shaxi turned out to be a real gem and possibly the nicest place in China I had ever seen. This tiny town once played an important part on the The Tea and Horse Caravan Trail where the ethnic groups living along the eastern edge of Himallayas used to trade and exchange various goods. Although quite a lot of buildings got destroyed in the past century, Shaxi’s character remained and with only little tourist visiting the town and beautiful surroundings I totally fell in love with the place.
On our last day we planned to rent bikes and cycle around the country side but the previous night of eating, drinking Chinese wine and palm hand reading provided by the hostel owner and few other friends prevented me from doing so…Still, Shaxi is an absolute must see village in Yunnan before it gets flooded with mass tourism.
And here are few tips on travelling in Yunnan
- Baggage storage at Kunming airport- we flew into/flew out from Kunming and decided to leave one of our backpacks at the airport. It only costed us 50 yuan for 12 day storage and made a big difference when travelling. You will pay 20 yuan for 24 hours, 10 yuan per extra day, with max charge of 50 yuan.
- Sleeper trains book out quickly especially during summer holidays, so book your return ticket as soon as possible.
- June-August is a rain season in the parts of Yunnan we visited, so the views may not always be there. Temperatures can drop below 10 degrees, especially in areas high up in the mountains, like Deqin. Make sure you bring warm and waterproof clothing!!!
- Don’t spend more than a day in Lijiang but do head for Shaxi (not for the Friday market but for the sweetness of the town and stunning views surrounding the area)
- Getting to Deqin from Lijiang- Last bus for Shangrila leaves from Lijiang around 4.30pm. A night needs to be spent in town if you take the last bus. The following day there is a bus to Deqin around 10:30am.
- From Deqin to Feilasi Temple take a shared taxi and pay no more than 10yuan per person
- Entrance to the Feilasi Temple costs 150 yuan which is extortionate but you can avoid this by walking down the hill with the wall temple to your left and turn left when the wall finishes.
- Most people who visit the area hike to the remote Yubeng village but consider the fee of 258 yuan you have to pay to enter the area we didn’t go
- Buses back to Shangrila from Deqin can book up quickly and we had to spent the night in Deqin, so if you can book your bus back in advance.
- Hitchhiking is popular in China, so make sure you give it a go but dont be surprised if you get asked for some money.