The buttons below link to details of our trip through Yunnan. The gallery link takes you to photos of our trip and 'About' includes travel practicalities as well as a reading list.

Introduction Kunming to Dali Places - Shaxi to Shangri LaPeople AboutGallery

Vicky's blog has a lot more detail and colour. You can read the first episode here



Shaxi, Lijiang and Shangri La

Heading NW away from Dali and Erhai lake the countryside gets drier - people are growing tobacco and maize rather than rice. After leaving the highway we follow windy roads up through the hills. First stop is Shibao Shan, the "Stone Treasure mountain" and location of the Shizhong Temple (below) where there are a number of elaborate carvings in a series of sandstones caves in the side of the mountain.

Leaving the temple we head down to Shaxi where we are staying in a traditional old wooden house - Laomadian Lodge. Our cosy room is in the corner of a traditional courtyard where we can sit and drink tea. We also have a rather fine lunch when we arrive in Shaxi at Zhong Hui Yuan, sitting in a courtyard under a pomagranite tree. Shaxi old town has a great central square (Sifang - below) with an old opera house opposite a temple.

The Sifang, or central square in old Shaxi

The old square in Shaxi

Next day we drive to Lijiang where we are staying in the neighbouring village of Shuhe. This proves a good plan as Lijiang has become a huge tourist destination with 15 million visitors a year. Shuhe is a smartly restored village with the old part again interweaved by streams. There is nothing original here but the place has a nice atmosphere and the Bivou, our hotel, is a stylish haven with great rooms. It also has a very well stocked library on Yunnan. Shuhe also has some very photogenic locations for wedding shots and we have never seen so many brides to be posing on bridges and old streets. We also watch a dance show in the local square where Naxi, Yi, Morso and Tibetan dancers cavort in traditional costumes.

Old stone bridge, Lijiang

Old stone bridge, Lijiang

We were warned that Lijiang would be like Dali "old" town. It certainly has as many, or more, tourist shops and tourists but the overall feel of the place is more interesting. With rivers winding through the town (3 rivers and 365 bridges) and a hill at one end, as well as the Black Dragon Pool to the north of the old town, it has a more interesting feel and with a bit of imagination you can picture the old women shopkeepers throwing out Tibetan traders when they get too drunk on rice wine. The museum by Black Dragon Pool, where we learn about the Dongba culture, is interesting and well presented.

Jade Dragon Snowy Mountain

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which we visit the next day, is tourism on an industrial scale - "a real money machine" says our guide. The scenery north of Lijiang is beautiful with rolling pine ridges and the backdrop of this large, 5596m peak. However up to 20,000 tourists visit a day and there are huge parking areas full of coaches. We go early (7.30) and manage to slip through without queueing straight up the bubble lift. We take the lift up to Spruce Meadow, at around 3200m a good viewing spot for the mountain which is unfortunately swathed in clouds while we are there. We avoid the crowds by walking through the woods rather than taking an electric cart and Nini tells us that long ago Spruce Meadow was also a famous suicide spot where lovers would kill themselves hoping to be transported to the Three Kingdoms of the Jade Dragon rather than be separated into arranged marriages. We read about this in Peter Goullart's excellent 1930s book, Forgotten Kingdom.

Yuhu farmhouse drying grain

We are trying to find a simple Naxi village, rather than a tourist stop, and the best we can do is Yuhu village, where the Austrian/American botanist Joseph Rock live for 27 years from 1922. The villagers are running horse rides up and down the main street as well as selling various animal skins and other trinkets. Here the houses are made of stone and the village is obviously doing well as many properties are being rebuilt or extended. From here we go to the village of Baishi to see some interesting old Ming frescos and to dodge more tourist stalls. We do have a good lunch in the "Baishi Times" with fried yak meat with chilli peppers and mixed veg.

Baishi village and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

We leave Lijiang heading on NW towards Shangri La. The new highway takes us past Laxi Lake where the popular snow peach is grown and farmers offer horse rides. Next (v touristy) stop is a layby where, from a tower, you can see the bend in the Yangtse where it turns North towards Sizchuan after its long SE journey from Tibet. From here we drive to Tiger Leaping Gorge, a famous spot on the Yangtse, also very touristy were we meet our Tibetan guide who will look after us for our last 3 days. He is very interesting - born in a town in Tibet - East of Llasa and at around 4000m. He walked to India as a teenager and was educated there by his relatives. Returning to Tibet he was arrested and spent 6 months in prison before moving to Shangri La, marrying and setting up as a tour guide.

Yangtse heading toward its first bend to the North

After the gorge the road climbs steeply until we reach a high plateau at around 3200m and from here we drive through grassland, interspersed with small Tibetan villages and patches of pink flowering azalea to reach Shangri La. This town is the capital of Daqin county and was formerly called Zhongdian, or Jeltan as the Tibetans called it. About 15 years ago the local government decided to market their small old town as a tourist destination and renamed the place Shangri La after the utopian Tibetan location described in Jack Hilton's novel, Lost Horizon. In early 2014 much of the old town burnt down so there is even less to see now. However we did stay in a very nice hotel and it is a good base for exploring this South Eastern tip of the Tibetan plateau.

What is left of Shangri La old town

Our first trip from Shangri La is to visit the Gandansumtseling Monastery. This is Tibet for coach loads of Chinese tourists. Originally built in 1667 it has been quite heavily rebuilt. Tour buses bring you to the gates and most of the income is taken by the local government rather than the monastery itself. The 600 monks live in monastic houses built around the main temples. When we visited most of the monks were sat inside the main temple, chatting or praying on long lines of benches. We followed our visit with a walk through villages around Napa Lake. This large flat area is only flooded in the wet season. It looked overgrazed by hundreds of black cattle. During the winter migrating black cranes settle in the marshes here. The houses in the villages are regularly rebuilt as the farmers like to 'keep up with the Jones'. Always in the traditional style with thick adobe walls, few windows, animals on the ground floor with the family above and fodder stored in the attic. Big wooden crop drying frames are scattered regularly cross the landscape.

The Yangtse winding through mountains NW of Shangri La

On our last day we have one of our most interesting excursions. We drive about 100km further NW towards Lhasa on an amazing road built in 3 years and cut into the mountains with big viaducts over the frequent gorges. After about 30km we pick up the Yangtse again and cross the river by the border with Szechuan. We continue through spectacular scenery to reach the Denduling monastery perched on a ridge among the monk's houses. This is the same age as the other monastery (1667) but unlike in Shangri La there are no tourists and we have the place to ourselves. We are lucky to watch some monks working on an amazing sand mandala. We then explore the many rooms and treasures on the monastery's upper floors.

monks making a sand mandala

Returning towards Shangri La we stop in Nixi village which is famous for its black pottery. Here we buy a teapot from a potter and then look round his traditional house. Perhaps a 'show house' it still give a good idea of how the Tibetans live with the big family kitchen/living space, few smaller rooms and family shrine.

Tibetan kitchen and living area

Although an autonomous province, life for the Tibetans is clearly not easy. The government continues to be suspicious of dissent among minorities and we hear how recently 25 Tibetan owned bars were closed to avoid 'trouble'. Dispite this one of the charming features of Shangri La is how every evening the locals come out to dance. We first saw this in the small square by the old town and on our last night we witnesses a much larger dance taking place in the new town. We were on our way to a dance show about traditional customs. It was well done and a positive way to end our visit to Yunnan.