In the closing months of 2011, I began dating my now-wife, Ashley. Her background is quite convoluted – born and raised in Taiwan, grew up in Colorado, went to high school in Hong Kong, studied and worked in Boston, and then back to Hong Kong at the end of 2009. We’d met at church the previous year, and after a few months of getting to know one another, we decided to date and see what happened. One of the things we had in common was a passion for seeing the world – while I was in Singapore and Shanghai over Christmas and New Year’s, she was exploring northwest India by train – so one of the first things we wanted to do together was travel. Hong Kong has a slate of holidays in late March and early April, covering Good Friday, Easter Monday, and the Ching Ming Festival, that can be strung together with a few strategic days of annual leave, so we set our sights on the first week of April. We briefly considered Myanmar and Tibet, but we eventually settled on the Chinese province of Yunnan. Our traveling companions this time around included two friends that had also been in Shanghai in December – Clem, the Chinese-Brit, and Sharon, one of the host sisters.
Yunnan is a province in the southwestern part of China, bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. It is a geographically diverse province, with the western highlands forming the far eastern edge of the Himalayan Uplift, and tropical forests in its southern latitudes. Three of East Asia’s mightiest waterways flow through Yunnan – the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Irawaddy – and numerous other rivers carve and plunge their way through the province’s steep gorges and lush mountain valleys. As a result of its topography and temperate climate, Yunnan is known for being the most biologically and culturally diverse province in China. Our own itinerary focused on the northwest part of the province, taking us to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, the Stone Forest (Shilin), the old town of Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Shangri-La.
Kunming has a history dating back to 765 AD, when it was known as Tuodong in the kingdom of Nanzhao, though there is evidence of earlier settlements from 279 BC. It entered into the Chinese sphere for good during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, and, by the 19th Century, had established itself as a key trade node between interior China and southeast Asia. Modern Kunming is largely a result of the Second World War, as wealthy refugees from the war-torn east coast poured into the region, bringing with them wealth, industry, and education. With the fall of French Indochina to the Japanese, Kunming took on additional significance as the northern terminus of the famous Burma Road. The Allies established a military command centre in the city to coordinate operations in Southeast Asia, and the legendary Flying Tigers, lead by the American Volunteer Group, used the city as its base of operations in creating a vital aerial link between China and British India. In the years and decades since the war, Kunming has thrived as a regional centre of industry, and, in recent decades, has benefited from increased tourism and foreign investment. Our stay in Kunming was short – we needed to catch the train from Kunming to Lijiang – but we managed to take a day trip out to the Stone Forest, a fascinating landscape of limestone formations that stretches as far as the eye can see. What we did see of the city wasn’t much to look at, though we did enjoy a delicious bowl of guoqiao mixian, or crossing-the-bridge noodles. After brushing our teeth in the restaurant washrooms, we made our way over to the train station, squeezing ourselves into a hard sleeper cabin for the overnight journey to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lijiang.
We arrived bright and early the next morning, making our way through the still empty streets to find the Lijiang Garden Inn, our lodgings for the next two days. After settling into our four-person room, a perfectly adequate space with two bunkbeds, we grabbed an incredibly satisfying breakfast of toast, bacon, and eggs, and planned out the rest of our day. The Old Town of Lijiang is famous for its unique architecture, a blend of the local Naxi aesthetic along with the later Ming and Qing influences. Its narrow, cobblestone streets wind their way through town with no discernible plan or design, occasionally giving way to one of Lijiang’s many canals and waterways. We spent the morning wandering through its timeless streets and neighbourhoods, each footstep seemingly taking us deeper into the China of old. Lunch was at a restaurant called Lamu, and it was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. Everything we ordered hit the spot, and that really did set the tone for the rest of our trip. There was not one meal that we regretted in Yunnan, and that was a very pleasant surprise.
After lunch, we rented bicycles to do some exploring in the surrounding countryside and villages. The scenery was outstanding – long winding roads that stretched out to the horizon, vast fields of green produce and agriculture, and the imposing presence of the impressively named Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. We stopped by a few villages and took a tour of an embroidery institute, a hallmark of the Naxi people, before turning around and heading back to town before sunset. I had a really hard time getting comfortable on my bicycle though, and I was in constant pain for nearly the entire ride. Needless to say, I was grateful to be back on my feet again for the evening.
The next day, we took a taxi to the aforementioned Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to watch an outdoor performance called Impression Lijiang. Set against the inspiring backdrop of the sacred peak, this Zhang Yimou-created show involves over 400 local Naxi, Bai, and Yi performers from the surrounding towns and villages. For about an hour, we were treated to a number of performances, including ethnic singing and dancing, horseback riding, and drumming. I’m normally not so keen on things like this, but I found myself enjoying the spectacle of it all, as the sheer scale of the setting lent the entire performance a sort of detached yet epic atmosphere. But the true star of the show was not the crowds of talented singers and dancers, nor the brave horsemen standing on their mounts – over and above the humans on parade, the immense Jade Dragon Snow Mountain loomed ever in the background, changeless and timeless.
The rest of the day was spent looking for a place called Yak Plateau. We took a long bus ride into the mountains, and then a rickety-looking cable car into the higher altitudes, arriving at a barren, yellow field that was decidedly lacking in yaks. It was only then that somebody told us it was the wrong season for yaks, and that the shaggy beasts were on some other field lower down the mountain, where the grass was green and fresh. It’s baffling why nobody bothered to tell us, even as we were buying tickets marked Yak Plateau, but I’ll chalk it up to one of those things every tourist learns – a fool and his money are soon parted. Over the next few days of our trip, we’d encounter more situations in which we felt pressured to pay various made-up costs and fees – we obviously didn’t pay, but the experience was unpleasant. At the same time, I can’t fault people for wanting to get their fair share of the tourist economy. As the infamous wordsmith Tupac once said, “I gotta get paid.”
Tiger Leaping Gorge is a stunning, two-day hike through some of the most beautiful and jaw-dropping landscapes you’ll ever see. On the flip side, its growing popularity has led to increasing development and construction, and its a little disheartening to come across giant pipes and cables lying across the treacherous paths. I realize that these modern intrusions are partly a result of tourists like myself, though, arriving in ever-increasing numbers to a location that was never meant to handle large crowds, so its disingenuous of me to lament the signs of progress. As it stands, given the continued pace of development, I think Tiger Leaping Gorge is going to be a quite different from when we were there in 2012. That’s the basic conceit of every traveler though – it’s so tempting to think that things were so much better when we were there, and then everything changed for the worse afterwards. I still think Tiger Leaping Gorge is worth a visit, and that’s enough about that.
The legend states that there was once a tiger in the vicinity of the gorge. A hunter had picked up its trail, pursuing it to the edge of the cliffs, as the Yangtze River churned and raged below. Trapped between certain death and almost certain death, the tiger studied the two sides of the gorge, looking for its narrowest point. It spied a narrow gap from a distance, and made a beeline for what it hoped was its salvation. As it raced towards the gap, however, it became clear that there was still a considerable chasm between the two sides of the gorge – 82 feet, in fact. In a fit of desperation, and with the hunter hot on its heels, the mighty beast leaped into the yawning void and, incredibly, felt its claws find purchase on the other side. The tiger presumably became impossibly insufferable, his friends dreading and eye-rolling each re-telling of his fantastic tale of escape. So that’s how Tiger Leaping Gorge got its name.
It really is a beautiful place. Some of the scenes that opened up in front of us were straight out of a Chinese painting, and the colours of the exposed cliffs and mountains were unreal. The first day of the hike was the most difficult, especially the section known as the 28 Bends. In fact, the section before the 28 Bends was plenty difficult, and it didn’t help that there was a guy with a donkey following us, ringing his bell incessantly. These guys follow groups of trekkers throughout the hike, anticipating that, at some point, someone will give up and hire the donkey. They ring their bells constantly, an unceasing reminder of how little they think of you, and it is absolutely tempting. Our motivation to resist the donkeys came from a place of stubborn pride, and we eventually told the man and his beast to leave us alone. We stayed overnight at the Halfway Lodge, I believe, though it could have been the Tea Horse Trade Guesthouse. The second day’s hike is more of a half-day, and most of it is downhill. The landscape was a little drier on this section, and the gorge seemed wider. In some parts, the cliffs got quite sheer, and we had to pick our way carefully along the narrow path to avoid getting too close to the edge. We arrived at the guesthouse at the other end of the gorge by early afternoon, and after a quick and hearty lunch, we picked up our luggage and boarded a bus bound for the interior. Our next, and last, destination would be a tiny Tibetan town, formerly known as Gyalthang, now somewhat amusingly renamed Shangri-La.
Shangri-La is the capital of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, historically part of the Tibetan-influenced region of Kham. The Chinese government lumped all the inhabitants of the region under a single ethnic category, the Tibetan Nationality, though, in actuality, there are over 14 different culturally and linguistically distinct ethnic groups. In 2001, in an attempt to generate more tourism, the town was given its current name and promoted as the inspiration for James Hilton’s celebrated novel. We trundled into the fabled town late one afternoon, unsure of what to expect from a place called Shangri-La, and found ourselves in another tired and weary township. Perhaps it was the grey weather, or maybe because it was the last stop on our holiday, but the day-and-a-half that we spent there seemed particularly sombre and subdued. On our only full day in the area, we took a bus to go see the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. Established in 1679 by the Fifth Dalai Lama, it survived bombardment by the People’s Liberation Army in 1959, and then the violence and destruction of the Cultural Revolution the following decade. The impressive complex overlooks farmland and wild fields, though spring had yet to arrive when we were there, and the dominant shade of the world was a dull yellow. The only other highlight from Shangri-La was our meal at Bhaskar’s Kitchen, a Tibetan restaurant located just outside the old town. It was arguably the best meal of the trip – delicious curries, dumplings, soups, and local vegetables, cooked to simple perfection.
We flew from Shangri-La to Kunming on our way back to Hong Kong, where we said our goodbyes to Sharon. She had moved to Beijing for work the previous summer, so she’d be flying back to the northern capital instead. Sharon would stay in Beijing for a little over two years, moving back to Hong Kong in 2014 to attend business school. After a short period abroad in London, she’s currently back in the fragrant harbour conducting her job search. Ashley, Clem, and I took our own flight back to Hong Kong later that evening, running into some truly terrifying turbulence – people were screaming and shouting as the plane dipped and dived across southern China. After this trip, the next time I’d travel with Clem wouldn’t be until the end of 2013. For Ashley and I, we’d have to wait until the summer to travel again. On a sadder note, a part of the old town of Shangri-La was destroyed by fire in early 2014. Much of it has been rebuilt, but, going back to the basic conceit of the traveler – it just won’t be the same.