No drunken state of mind was needed. No spontaneity other than the heart and mind being aligned at a state of euphoric relaxation. A new experience was had. Better late, than never.
Dali was a place I felt relaxed enough to make enquiries about one of my ambitions. Many people call ambitions a bucket list these days. I haven’t really listed the things I want to do, the places I want to see and the experiences I must have, for two reasons. Firstly, why list? I’ll contradict myself immediately. I love a list and a plan (at times). Other times call for spontaneity. Secondly, things change. We adapt. We live. We learn. We fight problems like COVID-19, negativity, alarm clocks and mosquitoes.
So, on my, it’s in my head bucket list, I wanted a bee tattoo. Following the atrocities of the Manchester Arena bombing, the bee has undergone a resurgence in its representation of God’s favourite city: Manchester. I say God’s favourite city, but I mean the Gods of rain. All of them. It’s been about two years since I experienced Manchester in the drizzle. And Vimto fruit cordial on ready availability.
So, Echo recommended a friend called Lin for just black or blue tattoos. I wasn’t so keen. It’s a commitment. Bees are colourful after all. A further friend, Zhao, was put in touch and suddenly the bee idea was gaining momentum. Not only that but I wanted to incorporate bats, to symbolise flight and misunderstood mammals. Then, I had to add an aubergine, because QiéZi (茄子) has helped me relax and rediscover myself. Do you believe in resurrection? Then I wanted some lyrics. I toyed between the music of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Bring me sunshine? Echo offered to draw the tattoo too. I declined. Maybe the next one…
I settled on The Levellers and their track One Way, which has been there so long and I completely agree with the lyrics, “There’s only one way of life and that’s your own.” Perhaps I owe royalties now. I’ll donate to their chosen charity or cause. It needed a font. So, Helveticamazing was selected. It’s a very Mancunian font. At this time, the bee evolved into the colours of Manchester City. Well, the sky blue aspect anyway. Sadly, Zhao didn’t have purple so the eggplant needs finishing another day. Or, it could stay white, like white eggplants. Why not?
Being on a tattoo bed face down, having a pinching, scratching and sometimes sharp sensation was oddly relaxing. At first I was experiencing discomfort but soon found myself lost in John Le Carre’s The Mission Song. With QiéZi and Xiao Jie looking on, at times, I must have napped because they disappeared then reappeared later.
Zhao spent around two and a half hours defacing my skin. QiéZi has two artworks that each required ten hours of work. One on her thigh is a huge colourful fish imagery. Another is the Greek Olympian Poseidon. And her feet, arms, back all have interesting smaller complimentary stories. If a twenty-five year old can be so relaxed and patient, to complete that much fine artwork, so can I. My decision had been made years ago to get a tattoo. The actions needed to be in the right place, at the right time and accompanied by the right people.
Lee Child mentioned in his novels, that his character Jack Reacher never goes back to a place he’s visited. It’s a state of mind. I’m not Jack Reacher. I’m too short and not as strong. I went back to Dali’s Ancient town in a car with Qiézi (茄子) and the trio of girls that set out with our driver in the first place. It had only been for two nights away, but such was the refreshment of the trek, it felt longer (in a good way).
I checked into the Jade Emu Hostel once again, who were so busy that they put me into a neighbouring hotel. A room is a room. Then it was time for a coffee at Movie Time Coffee Shop, surrounded by a chilled setting. Qiézi joined me for a cuppa and we talked a little. Two dogs, one tiny and one medium in stature had a fuss, before climbing all over us for hugs and attention. It was a pleasurable end to a good day.
The following morning I met QiéZi with Xiao Jie, one of the girls from the trekking, and we wondered to a set of temples (including Gantong temple and a nunnery) and trails on 苍山 Cāngshān, starting somewhere near Dali University (by Xuefu Lu). The gentle upwardly walks led to BuLuoSi temple and a view of numerous waterfalls. We didn’t return to Dali’s old Town (古城, Gǔchéng) but instead bypassed it to meet QiéZi’s good friends Lin and Spirlo. The once top 13 city (in terms of size – in the year 1000AD) is a sprawl of farms and villages along the Cāngshān range. Lin and Spirlo live at the far end of along road, and down an alley, in a lovely little farmhouse surrounded by gardens rich in vegetables.
We’d gone from orchids, rhododendrons, camellias and birdsong to a relaxed house filled with warmth and harmonies. The six cats with their talented masters of Lin (from Fujian) and her Greek husband Spirlo were great company. Plenty of conversation was had from talking about the didgeridoo to football to camping and trekking.
The final full day involved a filling breakfast of omelette and salmon at Serendipity cafe and diner. It did exactly what it said on the label filling my belly to the brim. Not a bad iced coffee indeed! Then, a wander to drink fruit juice, natter and following that a gander at the market on Sānyuèjiē (三月街) and all the marvelous oddities for sale. A fire festival is due in Dali around about now. After which a spot of planned spontaneity was called for, planned and put into action. A relaxing mix of sensations followed. I’ll write about that another time.
The day culminated with the eating of tiramisu at the Terra cafe. It was by far the best tiramisu I have ever experienced. Qiezi, Xiao Jie and I were eventually joined by Echo. As is very Echo, she broughta new friend along. Farola talked star signs and birth times (08:37, if you aren’t wondering). They ordered more tiramisu but by then I was stuffed like a well-fed teddy bear at a teddy bear factory. I’ve tried many and few have satisfied. It took me a while to realise that Terramisu wasn’t a spelling mistake but a variation on the cafe name in the food type! And, then Qiezi and Xiao Jie bid everyone goodbye. It could have ended there and then, but the magic carried on.
I was invited by both Qiezi and Xiao Jie to Lin and Spirlo’s farmhouse. Qiezi had taken the responsibility to feed their six cats. I pondered the difficulty of getting from there to Dali Railway Station. Echo asked me, “What’s stopping you?” She was completely right. Nothing was stopping me. I hugged Echo goodbye and I’m not ashamed to say a few tears formed in my eyes. Emotions can be high at times of homesickness and when you really appreciate great friends.
Leaving Dali behind, I feel like I will return. There’s much more to explore and within the whole province of Yunnan, there’s too much nature to ignore. I’ll probably be back. The final night lay on the ground staring at stars with Qiezi and Xiao Jie was special. Qiezi made a few very wonderful photos. Sharing the sights of five shooting stars in one night was a unique experience.
Home is where the heart is. Your heart doesn’t have to just be in one place, at one time, or with one person. Hearts are open. Making a connection irrespective of time and space is a wonderful experience. There needs to be more love and peace in the world. In the words of Qiezi, “Everyone is free spirited and an adventurer. Independent individuals but connected together.” It’s been a delightful and unique time in Yunnan. My heart feels warm and my head clearer than ever. Something will travel with me from these days that started in Dali and I leave behind a piece of my heart.
“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.” – Vera Lynn song We’ll Meet Again written by Ross Parker (Mancunian) & Hughie Charles (also born in Manchester)
Anticipation surrounded the morning. We after off for a selection of steamed, boiled and grilled breakfast mainstays of Chinese breakfasts (across this huge nation). With that, those without raincoats purchased those disposable rain jackets designed to be worn for an hour or so. The kind that would make Mr Macintosh roll in his grave with tears. Not to mention environmentalists. Sorry Greta!
Abuji Cuo (阿布吉措) sounds Japanese. It certainly seems unlike Mandarin Chinese. It’s surrounded by the Ajiagang Mountains and stands high over meadows and scattered pasture houses. It’s well off the beaten track and fairly clean of trail litter. The name comes from one of the many local Yunnan languages and people but I couldn’t find a true translation or meaning. It is apparently very holy. The China National Highway 214 and Xiangli Expressway (toll road) are to the west. Here a dirt track leads under two bridges (the new Shangri-la railway line).
The car journey led us to a gate. It had a weight on one end and two barriers across the path ahead. Here began the wander. The base camp was labelled just that. The pathway was an old track, now used by loggers as well as the original farming people of these steep damp foothills.
Rounding a bend, the footpath exited the road, passing between free-range pigs and towards a slim yet fast-rushing stream. Our group of six with a local man tagging along crossed the stream over felled logs now doubling as a bridge. Here the path gently led to an open plain standing below the face of the mountains. The phone signal had soon disappeared – something good for the quiet ahead, but unusual on mainland China.
After passing through the deep lush green meadow, the path banked left over several bubbling streams complete with stepping stones and bridging points. Here the path zig-zagged up and across gaining altitude fast. It’s steep sections were marred by slippy sticky clay interspersed by sharp shards of rock. The sides of the path displayed vivid biodiversity with wild gooseberries, something like rhubarb and wild strawberry plants amongst the plethora of greenery.
A local Yunnan man Qī Lín(七林), a girl from Anhui, a student from Guangzhou, a girl from Heyuan, a girl from Hubei, and another girl (from somewhere in China) walked up in light to heavy rain. The thick cloud thinned and grew in almost pulsating slow motion. At times the valley behind seemed hidden. At others it became a tapestry of various green hues.
The imposing mountain to our right shoulder (mostly) could have been Skull Island from the King Kong movies. It’s ferocious face looked brittle and completely impervious to those intrepid climbers who like such nooks and crannies. The artistry of nature had created such a detailed spectacle. The top range of peaks could have been a crown, or a bed of thorns. It truly sets the imagination running as wild as the fight ravines within.
The stream accompanied the walk up, and at times became the pathway giving clear flow to passersby in need of a quenching swig of freshness. After one small lake the path hugs a slope covered in knife-sharp vicious broken rocks. Blue flowers emerge where the rocks allow soil to gather. The rug of land is unforgiving and not a place to stand in awe of the view ahead.
What lies ahead is possibly the greatest lake view I have ever seen. The cauldron of clear green and blue water appears impossibly deep. Local legend has it that there is no bottom to the icy water. It’s entirely believable. The edges look crystal clear but beyond that, well diving would be the only way to know what lies beneath. The surrounding slopes are mixed in terms of harsh angles but most are barren. Life is not easy. We were stood around 4300m and the highest point is about 500m above here.
The caldera-shape of the valley spreads wide and long. From numerous vantage points it’s hard to tell what started this paradise on high. The geological features and lay of the land are mesmerising. It grips your heart whilst choking your throat of air. You can suddenly become breathtakingly awestruck. You look. It stares back blankly. Rumour has it, if you speak to loud then rain will come. Here at the top, for the most part, rain eluded our group. The feeling of healing as you look around you at the majestic landscape is overwhelming. I couldn’t help but feel my heartstrings being tugged and a tear in my eye. There are few places left that are this pristine.
Shangri-la (香格里拉县/Xiānggélǐlāxiàn) is a county and a city that draws it’s English and Chinese names from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It influenced China to rename the Yunnan city of Zhōngdiàn (中甸) in 2001 to Shangri-la. The Shangri-la of Hilton’s writing could have been Kashmir, Tibet or anywhere else along the Kunlun Mountains of the author’s description. But, if James Hilton had have travelled to Yunnan and Abuji Cuo to see the steep cliffs, loose and rocky earth scattered with flora and colour, he may have set his chapters here.
Abuji Cuo is about 4 to 5 hours (around 17-20km) up and only accessible from May to October. The gate (near a temple) is manned and access denied at other times to allow ecological balance. Non-slip shoes are essential, although I spied a few people in sport shoes. One unlucky soul was sporting a sprained wrist, leg injury and looked sheepish. Her local guide was guiding her down ever so slowly. The muddy pathways demand good grips. The steep falls are lethal in appearance. And there are yaks. Yaks can surprise from above, and they did on our walk once or twice. Death by yaks would be rather a bad day at the office. The road starts between to Bixiang and XiaoZhongDianZhen.
The hamlets of Nigeria, where we drank milk, and the Niguqe (尼古个) hamlet are sparsely populated so expect to see few people. The nearby hamlet of Gangzhemu (岗者木) is close to a scenic spot called Bitahai (碧塔海景区) but that could easily be a different world. However, it would make a tasty multi-day hike with camping. Scope to return? Head to Bengla (崩拉)?
The walk back down was every bit as unforgettable as the ascent. Ancient woodlands caked in drapes of moss and lichens, the sound of a chorus of different birds and the smell of flowers give your senses a tasty day. After reaching the pasture at the cliff face, a local woman gave us hot potatoes, and well wishes. After that we walked to the road and were greeted by a drift (or drove) of pigs. The curious tail-wagging group led us to discover some local fruits, to which nobody knows the name. QiéZi gave me one that looks like it is shaped like a bottom. Rather cheeky!
Soon after Qī Lín (七林) introduced us to an elderly farming couple. Here we had hot milk, sour homemade yogurt and delicious cheese. The wooden cabin was a good end to a day’s hike and we bid the farmers goodbye before jumping in a car back to Shangri-la. The unique and diverse holy Abuji pasture would occupy our minds for the evening and I’m sure that visiting there, we gained something more.
Grid reference: 27.666254378118495, 99.90886934422305 (Abuji Cuo) to Bixiang village (27.604282621386876, 99.78759058373961). 14km distance as a local chough would fly.
I awoke on Wednesday just after 05:30. I’d had about 5 hours sleep. The rooster may have fell under the category of an unwanted alarm clock. Bizarrely, I couldn’t nod off again. Yesterday evening had been quite subdued. I’d hung out with Echo and QiéZi (茄子) in their funky friend Cici’s juice and snack bar. Over blueberry and banana toasties it was decided that QiéZi and I would visit the legendary Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡/Hǔtiào Xiá) on the Jinsha River (Jīnshājiāng/金沙江) in Lijiang Naxi autonomous county (Lìjiāng Nàxīzú Zìzhìxiàn/丽江纳西族自治县). The chance to see more of Yunnan (云南) wasn’t something to pass up. Besides which QiéZi is a wise traveling companion.
Checking my phone at 05:45, I see we’ve grown to a group of 6 people and we’re headed to a trek somewhere near Shangri-La county (香格里拉县/Xiānggélǐlāxiàn). I have until the 3rd of August to play with, so as the Reverend Gallaghers said:
“You gotta roll with it You gotta take your time; You gotta say what you say; Don’t let anybody get in your way.” – Roll With It, Oasis
So, I gave in to not being able to sleep more, grabbed a coffee at the cosy Song Sisters Bookshop and Cafe before departing the fantastic hospitality of The Jade Emu. Song and Dave are most welcoming owners and have knitted a fantastic community for those wishing to pass through, or stay a little longer.
Nomadic QiéZi arrived with the driver and we set off, with her friend Cici to collect two more friends. The journey began with a chattering driver, who gave so much information along the way, and recommendations. We stopped for hot corn and potatoes – although I declined the corn. The driver also provided yogurt and a selection of fruit. QiéZi gave me a coffee early on too, so a welcome toilet break arrived at an ideal time. No sooner had we left than we arrived, give or take four to give hours of driving.
Our group of six entered a restaurant and ate delicious breads, with a sweet cottage cheese and a meaty potato dish. A jolly day with a few games of wéiqí (围棋, sometimes called Go). The game involves black and white stones and is a territorial game of strategy. There are variations on the original but for this occasion, it was first to five in a row. Simple. Fun. Entertainment.
The evening involved sitting on our arses talking and planning tomorrow. The heavy rain brought about my several freakish weather fronts will challenge the next two days and any potential wanderings. The group have their eyes on Abuji Lake (阿布吉错). This may prove overambitious, but not every journey has to complete. Some off the beaten tracks lack tracks at times. The hard to find details for the trail aren’t exactly clear or enlightening. If the walking starts at Jiulong Yangchang (九龙羊场) then all is good.
Right now the courtyard of Desti Youth Hostel, complete with two big cute dogs isn’t a bad place to chill and await the next day. With a giant screen showing an Indian movie and a variety of games in a covered area, it’s a great place to be.
Salvador Dali has nothing to do with the Yunnan city of Dàlǐ (大理). The draw to Dali has been the art district, cycling, the coffee and cafe culture and my friend Echo. Also, wherever I’ve been in China, everyone mentions the comfortable weather of Yunnan.
Echo or Eck published a poetry little picture book recently. She’s made her nomadic home in Dali. Here she’s honing her artistic talent, existing comfortably and living happily. I dropped by (via Guiyang and Kunming) from Chengdu, Sichuan province to say hello. I told Echo I’d arrive on Sunday but Saturday afternoon, walking by the Terra coffee shop seemed as good a time as any. Yunnan is great for growing coffee and Dali has no shortage of coffee shops.
A good old chinwag and catch up preceded a walk through the ginnels of Dali’s ancient old town to a door in a wall. The door was open and smooth tempting beats were gently rolling out. Ducking below the low entrance, an Old-styled yard with greenery and tables greeted us. Echo’s friend (or should I say complication?) Yali and his brother were serving up delicious pizzas. The pomegranate tree nodded towards the range of locally-produced liquors. Here Echo introduced me to Myrtle Bee, a girl named QiéZi (茄子 or eggplant/aubergine). There were several others but my recollection for names had by now been overwhelmed.
Meanwhile my mouth had been delighted by a cream cheese and tomato pizza, followed by a further shared pizza with zucchini and deliciousness on top. The pesto dip was a smart move. A side salad featured a baked cheese and rocket lettuce. It was a bit too salty for my pallet, but overall very tasty. The funky beats faded and a disappointing bar called King Cat followed. The music wasn’t my cup of tea, but it saved wading through deep puddles and high-bouncing rain. After a later than expected hour, I arrived back to the Jade Emu China Australia International Youth Hostel, only to find my swipe card to enter didn’t work. The matter resolved itself and I slipped off into dreamland.
I didn’t need a sign for Cāngshān (苍山). The imposing green and cloud-kissed range of peaks. The Didi taxi driver from Dali railway station to the hostel had given ample chance to view the waving weaving green peaks. So, with a late rise and a belly full of good food, I set out for a waterfall recommended by a friend. On passing a set of small waterfalls, I headed up a track made by goats or sheep or possibly very narrow humans. The steep track disappeared and I soon found myself jutting between soft earth, trees and huge fluffy plants. By which stage I’d reached a ridge, with a very confuddled water turbine worker, who then directed me up a hidden pathway towards the top ridge. It was a tough but pleasant trail.
The undergrowth swept away to reveal a near-hidden valley tucked between two mountain ridge lines. I wandered down, dipped my feet, watched the butterflies and listened to the idyllic birdsong. One can definitely relax when clouds cuddle the mountains above, and gentle breezes softly drift around your chest whilst your feet are in chilly flowing waters.
Once again Busa called for dinner. Their second opening night led me to catch up once again with Echo, her Yali and other friends. The waitress Hazel, from Changde, took an interest in the book I was reading. A few days later, the tatty and soggy paper back was left for her to read. Echo’s friend QiéZi invited herself to my next walk the following day. Cāngshān (苍山) once again would be the wandering space.
With little barefooted QiéZi (who is no taller than 155cm), we set out towards the Cloud Jade pathway of Cāngshān. Passing the chair lift to our left, then our right, then left again we ascended. Stopping for Pu’er tea, a coffee and a snack at a park Police point seemed reasonably normal. The local boss had her grandson playing with leaves as she served a refreshing brew to us both. We left behind the options of hospitality and wandered paths here, there and everywhere. My pigeon Chinese and a relaxed mood made the afternoon to evening a satisfying and contented ramble.
By about 8pm, after almost eight hours of moving forwards, we descended through dark shadows and paths more at home in the deepest darkest parts of JRR Tolkien novels. Emerging from utter darkness, with only the company of fireflies, seemed to take a while but the adventure was nevertheless a great day out!
The next day (which is today, now) I decided this town needs a little more of my presence. I decided for the remainder of the holiday that I’d be here or there, but not so far from Dali. Why not? A place that puts a smile on your face and opens you to the nature around it, isn’t all bad! Ian Fleming penned some of his books in his Jamaican home of Goldeneye. Perhaps a few days in Dali and I may have found my Goldeneye.
However, a few hours later, I changed my mind. Have shoes, will walk. I will keep looking for answers and smiles.
I awoke on January the 2nd in Shangri La. The final day of trekking around YuBeng (雨崩) village involved a 500m ascent followed by a 1100m descent to XiDang village. YuBeng translates directly as rain and collapse or avalanche. As Piotr, Oliver and I were ascending we heard a mighty crack in the air and watched an avalanche high on the wide expanse of the Hengduan mountain range. A shelf somewhere near Kawagabo peak slid away. Rather noisy.
On arrival at XiDang, our driver Mr ZhaShiDingZhu (扎史定主), a warm-hearted Tibetan, picked us up. He would take us to Shangri La. Our driver stopped at three historic monuments, two dramatic views and to enjoy a chicken hotpot. It was a good journey indeed. The long road of return was pleasant and a fitting end to a wonderful few days in the mountains. Arriving late to pleasant digs gave us all a chance to rest our weary heads.
A day of gentle cycling and pottering around followed. With hire bicycles from the Boudhi Boutique Shangri La, Oliver and I cycled around old buildings, shops and I stripped down to my underwear as the rear of my trousers underwent a cheeky repair. The shopkeeper wasn’t too perturbed but his wife certainly showed embarrassment.
In Shangri La, Oliver and I bid farewell at breakfast to Piotr. He was off exploring more snow-capped wonders. As he wandered off, Oliver and I meandered and ambled up and down the Shangri La old town. Between gift buying and sightseeing, we ate great Nepali food at the Bohdi Boutique Inn. A most wonderful find. Shangri La beers did their best to quench our thirst and that’s where the trip closed. One simple flight back the next day and we were back to Guangdong. Yunnan was far away but close to my heart.
Sat eating our selection of dishes, people were drifting by the window in small groups. Sometimes one or two. Sometimes ten strong. Our dishes featured Tibetan pork, eggplant, potato in some shape and form, lovely eggs, and various vegetables cooked to perfection. Our New Year’s Eve selection was delectable. Piotr, Oliver and I supped Shangri La Beer local lager and nattered away carelessly. By 10pm, Oliver was flagging by the hot stove and Piotr was busy on a phone call. I suggested Oliver can sleep as nothing seemed to be happening. Soon after we all decided to go and get some fresh air. And beer. Mainly the beer.
With our carrot dangling before us, we set off like donkeys on a mission. We briefly called into a neighbouring hotel/KTV bar before watching a party there. It was rather boisterous and loud but not our cup of tea. The warm stove was welcoming but the floor beneath it rocked precariously. Off we set to the Yak Butter Inn, and the many cats within. Here the boss welcomed us but a group of footbath users were less than warming. The cats wandered around, greeting us with gentle mewing and meow sounds. A beer sank ever too easily and we strolled back to our lodge. Still people passed by heading to the upper part of Upper YuBeng.
After another beer at our lodge;curiosity swung it’s hands at us. We followed the now more frequent groups heading to the upper limits and temple area of Upper YuBeng. Off we trotted. Here, by Upper YuBeng’s main stupa, a group of a few hundred people were doing their best to resemble Chinese druids. A swelling and pulsating circular throng of people moved around to no particular beat. Some instructions by people in the middle rang out. A central fire, with warmth attracted Piotr and Oliver. I stood around the edge trying to make sense of it all. As 2020’s final minutes arrived, a ripple of excitement charged through the gathering.
A girl from Beijing grabbed my hand and explained the proceedings. Sparklers, countdowns and fireworks with some local dancing. And that’s almost what happened. Some of it was wonderful, other bits disorganised and cumbersome. Either way it was a welcome surprise and a great experience to share the welcoming of 2021 with trekkers, some local Tibetan people in modern takes on traditional headwear and attire. I never thought I’d see Apple-brabded Yunnan clothing. This is China, after all. Everything is possible. The next morning involved Tibetan pork, eggs and Tibetan bread for breakfast. Well if you’re heading off, head off on a full tummy…
The road from Feilaisi (飞来寺) is long and winding, with concrete under foot or wheel. Towering on the opposite side of the valley is Kawagarbo (6740m) and Yunnan province’s highest point. The roads bend and wind up and down to a checkpoint. At this point, one must surrender 27.5RMB. This gains you access to the Yubeng village scenic area (雨崩村). Starting an ascent at Xidang Spring (西当温泉), my colleagues Javier and Carmen headed up alongside me. We were to follow a trail marked by green bins. The spring of the village was rather an anti-climax.
Those green litter bins and new saplings littered the pathway upwards. The path would zigzag across numerous dirt tracks and one under construction concrete road. For the entire ascent, I stopped only once for hot milk and some water in a tiny rickety-old-shack. The pleasure cost me a staggering 130RMB. The man had seen me coming. Each half litre bottle of water was 10RMB and the milk was 110RMB. The man charged 200RMB for noodles to a group calling by. In the future, always enquire about prices before accepting goods. I did wonder how at least 500 noodle pots stacked up at the wooden lodge’s side hadn’t improved the roughness of the building.
The route up had a positive gain of over 1100 metres. At its highest point, my lower legs enjoyed some much needed respite. At which point, a Snickers chocolate bar, not my favoured choice, tasted marvelous. I’d passed through some great panoramic viewing points before reaching Yubeng Upper Village (雨崩上村). Nazongla Yakou (那宗拉垭口) wasn’t too dramatic, but the views on entering Yubeng certainly brought a beaming smile to my face. A good 6 hours from Xidang to YuBeng was needed. On arriving, I checked into the Yak Butter Inn.
The Yak Butter Inn has a flowery name. It should be renamed to something feline like a cattery. The lodge has numerous large moggies strutting around. Young long-haired fuzz balls can be seen curled up in various baskets and cushions. A lone dog limps around, evidently resigned to being shy of any further pack members. The pleasant warmth of a wood stove heats one corner of the room, as the sun licks through windows at another. A busy kitchen emits fragrances of common Chinese cuisine and piping hot teas. A young cat thwacks my leg with its paws seeking attention.
I elect to stay at the Yak Butter Inn for one night. A night in a shared dormitory reminds me that I no longer want that kind of experience. Farting, belching, snoring and a roundabout of lights-on, lights-off motions are one thing. Hearing Douyin/TikTok at every hour is another. With my colleague Oliver and his entourage arriving the following evening, I changed lodges. Two nights later, we changed lodges again. No rooms at the second inn, due to New Year bookings. The kind Tibetan owner had served us great Pu’er teas (普洱茶) and good hearty hiking food.
Before Oliver arrived, Carmen, Javier and I wandered upwards to the Sacred Waterfall (神瀑). A gain of 600 metres altitude. It being winter, the waterfall was mostly frozen and receding. The valley walk up from Yubeng Lower Village (雨崩下村) was gentle with a solid pathway built to guide tourists slowly in one direction and back again. CCTV and Chinese good luck shapes marked the route making it impossible to go off the beaten track. Walking poles needed a soft base and were generally of little use. The five hour round trip was pleasant enough with sweeping chains of prayer flags coating the latter stage of the route. Overflowing green rubbish bins and hundreds of scattered Red Bull drinks cans added shame to such a holy route. Chipmunks, adventurous and cute, sought treats amongst furry green moss-coated ancient trees. The cool fresh air a certain reward for stretching your legs out.
Prior to walking up the valley, our trio had a few jumps and twists around the flowing streams that sit just above Lower YuBeng. The great boulders and pebbles are home to a logging camp which causes the water channels to splinter like roots from a tree. The transition into the old woodland beyond is chilling and in the shadow of the mountain. Like many places, frozen snow regulates the ambient temperature, giving a dark murky cool feel. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Master Yoda lived here. An icy world in opposition to the sun dried bank over the gentle flow of the stream. Perfect for Jedis in hiding.
A six to seven hour walk from Yubeng Upper Village (雨崩上村) via Xiaonong Base Camp (笑农大本营) gets you to the cold dry icy landscape of the Ice Lake (冰湖) at 3900m, nestled beneath Kawagarbo. The great overhanging peak condensed with snow from seasons of snowfall and heavy wind looms overhead. The wind reminds you of nature’s power, driving in, swirling and biting sharply. Remnants of receding glacier shelves and loose looking snow shelves linger menacingly. They will fall one day. The Ice Lake lived up to its name. Some of the ascent (around 800m gain) that day necessitated crampons. My tough boots bore the brunt of careful footwork and one walking pole, as I climbed the challenging route. No crampons for some. The donkey tracks and frozen soil pathways before it zig-zagged up and down various forestry climates battering my boots into disrepair on the return journey. Rhododendrons, pines, cypress trees and other green species reflected various browns, reds and greys. It was a real rainbow of a route.
Mother Nature has been busy here. The valleys around YuBeng are dramatic. They’re microclimates with epic visual proportions. Each has a mysterious feel to which evidently religion has become attached. They’re places of stories and tales, entwined to folklore and legend. As a devout daydreamer, they’re a place to let the mind go and wonder as you wander. Every twisted tree, shadowy rock or distant sound could start a new story. Farming, the traditional Tibetan ways, mixes with a blend of the modern and the local wooden builds make way for tourism-aimed metal and concrete lodges. Glamping has arrived, but the Tibetan pilgrimage routes remain. New stories will yet be told.
Beyond the idyllic setting of managed walking routes, it’s possible to trek along an ancient Buddhist pathways. That pathway leads to a glacier, snuggled beneath Kawagarbo. Remembering that climbing the mountain is banned and ill advised, it’s possible to follow an ancient trail through woodland, across a grass plain into a kind of Alpine tundra. The evident altitude cools much of the area and ice watetfalls, streams and ponds are frequently found higher up. The thickness of mosses, lichens and bearded trees drape on wilder routes. The mountain hinterland maintains a natural ecological state, and away from the beaten track, it’s the best place to witness it. Leave only footprints. Certainly don’t attempt the long walk to Myanmar. But enjoy the diversity of fungi and lichens.
The Northwest of Yunnan has quickly become my favourite place in China. YuBeng is itself a piece of heaven on Earth. Perhaps the nearby city of Shangri La should hand over its adopted name to the village of YuBeng. This growing tourist hotspot will see many pilgrimages, changes and challenges in the coming years. Will it sustain its beauty? Only time and UNESCO status will tell. I was told around twenty householdsmade up YuBeng in the last decade. Now, there’s a Guangdong restaurant, Hong Kong style guesthouses, plenty of Sichuan options and even a family from Shandong (Eastern China). It will be tough to retain the Tibetan charm and character. Like much of the world, this corner of Dêqên is becoming quite samey-samey. The same old KTV can be heard by a shattered water prayer wheel. Up the way, steamed Cantonese food can be ate, with an ancient Stupa baked under a solar powered streetlight. Mani stones hide behind new hotel signage. The old ways are slipping from sight.
I’ve experienced a little altitude sickness, for most of the region is over 3200m. Discomfort in sleeping for the first few days, some muscle exhaustion, breathlessness at times and minor headaches resolved mostly yesterday. Enough so to enjoy a light Shangri La Beers lager or two, with delicious fresh yak meat, at the insistence of our lodge owner.
This morning when I walked into dining area of the lodge, I thought the weather-beaten looking Tibetan men had all had an argument. The dozen men, that seem to be ever present within the lodge (under renovation and expansion), were sat one per table at various parts of the room. On getting my door key, I spied that they were all head down and deep into Mandarin Chinese writing and reading textbooks. I left them to study in peace, passed the hanging yak meat, locked my door and joined Oliver, Piotr and Benedict for breakfast at another lodge.
Piotr works for shell. Oliver had met him and others on the way up from Xidang. Sociable Oliver teaches to travel and travels well, making friends as he goes. Knowledgeable as he is, he can be a little loud, as is the Australian way for many. He’s a sound lad with a keen eye to see more, do more and learn more. It’s a pleasure to have him as a colleague at Tungwah Wenzel International School. He met Piotr and you’d think they were best friends. It’s pleasing to see. The two entered the ice cave, skidded on the ice lake and galloped up the glacier together. Some people are more astronaut than astronomer. I’m happy flirting between active and observer. The mountains are familiar and here I feel relaxed. Wandering around watching jays feeding in the undergrowth satisfies me just as much as ascending ridge lines. We did enjoy a little camp fire and tea though.
Sat reading Roald Dahl’s Someone Like You, on a moss covered rock, shaded from the bright sun, as it dropped below the mountains overhead will no doubt remain my favourite place to read for many years. The gentle stream underneath that feeds into either of the three great rivers makes me feel dreamy and sleepy. The Jinsha (later Yangtze), Lancang (later Mekong), and Nujiang (soon to be known as Salween) rivers come from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. People from roughly 22 ethnic groups (Naxi, Lisu, Tibetan, Bai, Yi, Pumi, Nu, Dulong etc) live in and around the starting areas of these great rivers. One drop of rain water into this relatively narrow area of basins could end up in the Andaman sea by Myanmar, or flow by Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, or slip through Tiger Leaping Gorge towards Jiangsu and Shanghai. I look up from my book, watching a clump of ice break up and drift downstream. What a pleasant little journey.
Let’s not dwell on COVID-19 and it’s terrible spread throughout the globe. It’s been a challenging and upsetting year for many. The less said on this eve of a new year, the better. Stay positive.
With trips to Nepal, Thailand (as a Corona refugee), Suzhou and now Yunnan, I’ve been lucky to experience a variety of cultures and religions in different shapes and forms during 2020. All have stood the test of time and all have stories about being adaptable. 2021 for the human race will be no exception. I’ve been lucky to get some travelling in, during this new norm but unlucky not to travel and see loved ones. The future is tingling with uncertainty but when a reunion comes about, I’m certain it won’t be wasted.
Climatic change, political indecision, blundering idleness by an impenetrable elite, racism and divide, disease and worry. Twenty twenty’s themes will carry on into this year as we all live as best we can. The gloom of a serious Sir David Attenborough message should stay with us. As should Amnesty International. Black Lives will always matter. #MeToo? Where changes are needed things will always need to happen. Vaccines and immunisation can only cure so much.
2020 allowed me opportunity. I’ve been blessed to start work at Tungwah Wenzel International School. A few weeks of expensive quarantine and drastically overpriced return flights got me back into China, as others faced even tougher routes to work or pathways no longer open. It’s been a good ride at work so far. I can only see it getting better.
Football for and with Murray’s FC has provided a regular escape from a landscape tinged by trepidation. Having also joined Dongguan Bulldogs, for a few games of tag rugby, and several solo bike rides, freedom has been a privilege.
I’m writing from a cold bed in YuBeng village, Yunnan, China. I’d like to write more but like the new journal in my bag, there’ll be plenty of opportunity and positive days ahead for the writing of new well remembered days. All the best for 2021. Keep hope in your head and heart.
It was Christmas Eve and I enjoyed scrambled eggs, with toast and cappuccino. I decided to have an easy day of wandering. To acclimatize to altitude is important. I drank ginger tea, water and ate bananas with other dried fruits. Other tricks include walking high and then sleeping low. So, for Christmas Eve, I looked for a bumpy mountain. I had my eye on a few peaks around this valley that envelopes Shangri La city. The cold was manageable with a City shirt and my trusted Sherpa jacket. The Italian wool socks were and are highly effective too. Nighttime hit -12C outside but inside a Green Tree Hotel it was standard room temperature.
Following a late breakfast at The Compass, I headed to LánYuèGǔ (蓝月谷) which translates to Blue Moon Valley. It’s real name is Shika Mountain (石卡山; Shíkǎshān) and it towers to the west above Diqing Shangri-La Airport (DIG). The airport is at at around 3280m. I was able to wander up to about 3500m, way shy of the peak towering above. There were too many people saying, “You shall not pass.” Strong winds had closed the nearby cable car and every path upwards. Rules is rules. I headed back and spotted some cranes, a photo opportunity or two and plenty of construction. Some splendid stupas and magnificent views made for a pleasant wander. Blue Moon wasn’t all that, but the name belongs to City’s chant so what’d you expect?
In the evening, I enjoyed local Tibetan food and hospitality before heading back to rest. I woke up in the same Green Tree hotel, opposite the city bus station. At 08:20, I was on a bus headed for Déqīn town or city. Unsure what it actually is. From there many trails lead off to waterfalls, glaciers and villages. This area is spelled as Diqen, Díqìng and Deqin (བདེ་ཆེན་རྫོང་). It’s rather confusing. Since Tibet handed over Kham province to Yunnan province, it’s become autonomous (迪庆藏族自治州). The many names should be a starting point for a clear up. By noon, after a climbing route of a road trip, the bus pulled into Deqing city’s bus station. Here I was told that I could go onto Feilaisi (飞来寺) village. I agreed and returned after a quick lunch. Less than an hour later and the bus halted outside a terrace of hotels. Opposite stood a rather imposing two metre wall. Beyond that wall, a view to a kill. The picturesque and snow capped range of MeiLi Snow Mountain (梅里雪山).
After a few minutes standing outside I checked into the a catching named hotel, Deqin Snow Mountain Town Tourist Reception Center (No.2 Reception). I couldn’t find the sequel. After dropping my bag up four flights of stairs, I grabbed my camera and crossed the road into the Mingzhu Langka Viewing Platform, and following my health code check, I was away to wander and enjoy the view. The panoramic settings on cameras was made especially for this kind of scene. The clear air, beautiful blue skies and Lancang river valley below only added to the dramatic setting. A main deck with 8 stupas, a rare Mani wall, and an abundance of prayer flags made my Christmas Day special in ways I hadn’t previously imagined.
The fluttering sound of prayer flags, slapping each other, and spiraling up and down on winds with the fragrance of incense and juniper took me moments to clear my mind. The overwhelming scenery had swallowed me up. With each majestic cloud hovering like a pirouette over the many peaks, it was easy to catch my jaw falling lower than usual. The interjection ‘wow’ felt seriously below par, yet it flew out of my mouth with consummate ease. The main peak, Kawagarbo, is 6740m up. Tibetan people refer to it as Nyainqênkawagarbo. It’s a hugely sacred mountain and climbing is banned. Climbers have tried and in 1991 it claimed 17 members of one expedition. It is a sinister and magnificent looking mountain range with twenty peaks, of those 6 tower over 6000m. Tibetan pilgrims cover a different distance each year, circumambulating 240km (150 miles) around the mountain base, praying to the warrior God inside the mountain. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a real spiritual ambience. I’d look upon the framed snow peaks on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day in wonder. Absolutely stunning.
On Boxing Day, my light stroll rewarded me with views of at least ten vultures and different angles of the mountains over the raging river below. Dinner was nothing to shout home about but the oranges and pomegranates around Feilaisi certainly need a positive mention.