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April 2017

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This was my last trip exploring Fujian province before leaving my ‘home’ of Fuzhou. An escape to the scenic area of Wu Yi Shan, home to an array of plant species and wild animals. Drawn in by its tranquil beauty, I spent a weekend exploring Wu Yi Shan’s primitive forest, drifting on the water of Wuyi Canyon, and wandering around the caves and tea plantations that make up this stunning and protected scenic spot.

map of wu yi shan

Sunday 6pm. Work is over. Myself and my weekend travel companion have our bags. The bus is on its way, we already have our train tickets. We’re set. Around two hours later the train and bus are behind us and we are exploring Wuyishan city heading to our hotel. We purchase tickets for Wu Yi Shan, pick up an illustrated map and get an early night to prepare for the next few days. We have two and a half days to cover the 60 square kilometers of this natural and cultural heritage site.

 

Not starting quite as early as planned and our mood being slightly dampened by the weather, we have breakfast and make our way to the bus to take us to the site. Although having a Chinese friend with me makes the travel process incredibly efficient, the area is very tourist friendly and signs, for the most part, are in English as well as Chinese. Stepping off the bus and taking in the surrounding nature, for the first time I’m aware of how fresh the air quality is. Fuzhou is one of the cleaner air cities in China but I have forgotten how crisp fresh air can feel on a cold day. My mood is immediately lifted and we venture inside the site.

wu yi shan views

The area provides transport to and from the various scenic spots in this mountainous area. We are dropped off and we pick one of the many routes to see where the road takes us. The views are stunning. The mountains are layered with lush forest echoing the sounds of birds and various wildlife. The waters are emerald, clear and full of life. Tearing myself away from the natural beauty we follow the path leading to the Memory Hall of Zhuxi, a Song dynasty philosopher and the founder of Idealism Confucian. The memorial hall was once Wannian Palace and its courtyard houses two cassia trees of one thousand years old.

 

memory hall of zhuxi
monuments to zhuxi

 

Continuing around the remains of Wuyi Palace,  the oldest Taoist temple in Mount Wuyi, you are aware of the ancient history of this beautiful setting. The gardens hold impressive monuments that are perfect examples of China’s exquisite art. Temple walls hold inscriptions of Taoist teachings and pavilions provide shelter to simply sit and look upon the surrounding beauty. Following the path to an old town you can purchase local crafts and take in the stunning architecture. Wu Yi Shan is famous for its tea that grows in the plantations here and so the tea sets available are some of the most elegant I’ve seen in China.

wuyi palace
wuyi palace temple
taoist text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

donhongpao tea plantation

It is to Da Hong Pao that we venture next. located at the center of Wu Yi Shan, inside the jiulong Nest Grand Canyon. The pathway is enclosed by step cliffs either side and growing out of the cliffs you can see the world-renowned Da Hong Pao tea. This scenic area houses several precious teas but Da Hong Pao is most revered for its color, aroma and taste. People always comment that the British love their tea but non celebrate it with more ceremonial elegance than the Chinese. To drink tea here is to be apart of a historical tradition.

The following day we head to the pick up point for the bamboo raft trip. Taking to the water you become immersed in the poetic landscape. Nine Bend Stream, the name given due to its abrupt changes in course nine times over, is the center piece of Wu Yi Shan. Sitting back and taking in the view of unusually shaped mountains, waterfalls and caves inscribed with ancient text, you lose yourself in natures overpowering serenity. Glancing in to the crystal waters you can see fish and turtles swimming contentedly alongside the raft. The boatmen are cautious in their rows and seem just as in awe of the scenery as though it was the first time their eyes had laid upon it.

bamboo rafting
water curtain cave

With the rafting drawing to a close we hike in search of more water in the form of the Water Curtain Cave. This is the largest cave of Wu Yi Shan and can receive over a thousand visitors. Following the paths steady incline we reach its peak where we find a man feeding a flock of white birds. The backdrop to this scene are mountains and tea plantations. It’s not hard to feel you have been transported into a piece of Chinese classical literature. Taking the bend to the left the water curtain reveals itself. Set in the hues of blues and greens, this waterfall that fronts the cave is responsible for its creation. The cave being eroded by the force of flowing water making it unlike the many other karst caves of the area. You can wander the higher ground to explore the ruins of temples and see the cliff carvings. The sticks placed under the curve of the rocks have their own charm also.

 

ancient cliff text

There are many hiking trails you can take here for stunning views of the entire park. Tianyou Peak gives panoramic views of the mountainous area and is located in the center of Wu Yi Shan. Unfortunately this was our last attempt of the day. With heavy legs we decided to stop half way and took rest at a pavilion, watching others continue the ascention of the stone staircase. Regardless of the level you reach you will not be disappointed with the views you find. Choosing a narrow path down between two cliffs we reach the bottom and return to our hotel for another day.

 

The final day is a half day as we need to return to Fuzhou for work. It would seem then to be a perfect day to explore the temples of Wu Yi Shan. There are grande new buildings in place for worship that, although beautiful, lack the charm of the older, simple temples that can be found if you are prepared to wander. Unlike the new temple, we find a smaller one that is void of other visitors. The building is much more simple in its design with passages to open small courtyards that hold plants and offerings to the gods for prayer. Opposite the temple are living quarters where the monks simple robes are hanging to dry. Bamboo holds these earthen colored fabrics in the air and they sway hypnotically in the wind.

modern temple
temple gods

Past the old temple is a beautiful building that is the living quarters of the monks. The windows are cased in wood, the overall design isn’t entirely recognizable as traditional Chinese architecture but fits the surroundings sympathetically. If you continue on you reach a magnificent view-point at the base of a striking white pagoda. Feeling a little rushed we make our way to a bus pick up point to return to the hotel and prepare for our leave. For anyone who has a love of nature, hiking, history and architecture, Wu Yi Shan should certainly be on your Fujian bucket list.

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old temples
monks living quarters
cliff temple ruins
white pagoda
chinese artist sculptures

 

The alarm is quite unwelcome this morning. It’s 6am. Nearly falling down the solid wooden staircase of the dorm bunk I reluctantly make my way to the shower. It’s cold and wet. It looks as though its rained all night. There is one other making this journey with me. A Norwegian who is even less impressed by the weather than the Welsh girl. We meet again at breakfast at 6:30am. The usual eggs and toast doesn’t feel hearty enough for day ahead. 6:50am we’re shuffled out the door. The bus is waiting for us at the end of the winding alley. Already my footwear feels inappropriate for the path I shall soon be on. This is the most unprepared I’ve been for a hike. I’ve gotten used to China’s version of hiking; stairs leading to a view point up a hill. But today, it’s Tiger Leaping Gorge.

barren mountains

Settling in on the bus I remove the already wet layers that need to last the day. Nothing is waterproof. My hiking gear is all comfortably stored in my brothers attic back in the UK. I didn’t see myself really hiking while living in China. The only semi appropriate kit I’m wearing are a pair of merrell hiking sandals. They have the grip but it is raining and they are sandals. I also have little faith that this temperature will increase as the day goes on. The Norwegian is assessing my attire. I can’t blame him. I’m slightly judging myself. He points out we’re on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge and begins to laugh. I try to convince him, and myself, that the weather will change.

monkey standing guard

Two hours into the bus journey and the rain hasn’t lifted. We’re nearing the Norwegian’s destination. He is on the full two day hike starting at a village called Qiaotao. I’m further down the road for the day hike; starting at a place called Tina’s Guesthouse. As I’m volunteering in Lijiang I can only give the day to this much anticipated trek, but with my kit and the weather I’m thinking this is the best course for me to take. I will explore the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge then hike to BenDi Wan village which is the half way point of the hike. From here I can follow the numerous bends to bring me down to the main road for the bus to collect me.

Arriving at Tina’s slightly later than planned I ignore my hunger and start my descent to the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge. I have 5 hours total for exploring the middle of the gorge and hiking to the halfway point and dropping down to the road. Going by the hand drawn map available at Tina’s my schedule is tight. In fact going by the map I need exactly 5 hours. I’ve been assured the bus won’t wait. I have to be there when it passes for it to stop. I’m feeling exhilarated already. I’ve excepted that if I miss the bus I will hike back to the halfway point and stay at a guesthouse. The less exciting part will be the remaining hike the following day in wet clothes and the apology to my Workaway host for not making it back to Lijiang.

tiger leaping gorge

Staying positive I pay the 10 yuan entrance fee to an old woman dressed in the traditional Naxi style to access the middle of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Aware of my time restriction I use the descent to break into a gentle jog. At times I lose my footing as my eyes absorb the scenery surrounding me. For the first time in a while I forget my destination. The setting is reminiscent of the weekends I would spend hiking in Cumbria. The deep browns, rustic oranges and barren trees create such a nostalgia.

fierce water

The gorge’s roar is echoing off the mountain walls. The route is a mixture of dirt track, scrambling on rocks and climbing up and down iron ladders wedged between rocks. There is no one else around. In the current weather conditions it would only take one misjudged step and the result could be catastrophic. Getting closer to the water the views are stunning. There are little huts with fruit sellers where you can take rest. There are also various access routes to get closer to the water that have been built by the local families of the area. For a small fee of 10 yuan you can walk across a wooden bridge that shakes and bounces simultaneously. I also get a ticket for 15 yuan to climb the iron sky ladder near the end of the route.

hand made bridges

Reaching the closest point to the water I sit in silence and observe natures power. The water rolls like white horses galloping out of the sea. The Gorge runs for about 15km in length and at its highest point has a maximum depth of 3790m. The river running wildly through the gorge is called Jinsha River. The story goes a hunter chased a tiger through the gorge and at its narrowest point the tiger leaped to the other side and escaped the hunter. Hence the name ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’. Feeling the pressure of the chase of time I get up and begin the search for the sky ladder. There are a few locals in the huts boiling tea and after my best impression of climbing a ladder in thin air I was directed to my intended destination.

sky ladder

The sky ladder is a vertical climb. My own weight is pulling away from the ladder with a wire tunnel surrounding me as my only support. with a heavy breath I reach the top and crawl back on to the dirt track. The route from here is a steady incline back to Tina’s. I’ve made it in good time, spending an 1 1/2 at the middle of the gorge. The jog bought me an extra 30 mins to my anticipated time to dedicate to the high trail. Reaching Tina’s and still ignoring my hunger I cross the road to begin the second part of the expedition.

Initially taking the wrong route I find myself in farm land face to face with a caged monkey. There is a moment of silence from us both until I remove my phone for a picture. The monkey begins screaming and shaking against the cage and I realize this is a version of a guard dog. Turning back I look for the now obvious route and for the first time meet people on the path. They are returning from the two day adventure and so finishing at Tina’s where I started. There are painted arrows and colored cloth hanging from trees to aid in the navigation of the high trail.

high views of tiger leaping gorge

Various routes present themselves throughout this hike due to locals trekking with horses in the area. During peak season and in the earlier trail at Qiaotao the horses are available to ride to the top. This isn’t something I would recommend as I feel if you’re here you are here to hike and work for the stunning views from the top. As I get into my route there is no sign of horses or any more hikers coming to the end of the trail. I spend the rest of the hike alone. This is the perfect environment for me, alone and isolated in nature.

hiking in clouds

As the weather continues to decline I ascend into the clouds and feel the cold numb my skin. By this point my clothes are damp and the sandals provide no comfort. My fingers are becoming numb and I’m becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of this condition. The result of this thought process is a quick picture to my brother of my location and a break into a steady jog. At times the path narrows and I need to walk hugging into the cliff face. I continue my run until I warm up while desperately trying to keep my footing and take in every spectacular view that each bend offers. This journey could be just as difficult in Yunnan’s summer heat. I recommend everyone to come far more prepared than I.

narrow path

As the heat begins to comfort my body I reduce my pace to a brisk walk and enter the village of BenDi Wan. Its the afternoon and I feel my presence is unexpected. I don’t notice any life other than the sounds of nature and so don’t stop for a meal. I’m also concerned on my time frame and so walk on with a banana and find the bends to descend to the main road. Slipping at regular intervals but catching my balance I make my way down the path that seems to never end. When I finally reach the road I am 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Taking the time to eat the food that I at least did prepare, it is not long before I start cooling down.

mountain peaks in clouds

The bus arrives as I’m circling the road in an attempt to keep warm. I meet a gentleman from Nepal who was also on the bus when I arrived. We talk about hiking trails the world over and future destinations are logged in my memory to research for new adventures. This is my last trip in China for sometime and I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect location. The culture of the minorities in China have always appealed more to me for their traditions and history. The Naxi people of Yunnan are incredibly welcoming and humble. Leaving Lijiang is a start of a new adventure but a very sad farewell to this country I have had the privilege to call home for the last nine months.

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After visiting the highly commercialized Lijiang Old Town at night I decided I wanted a more authentic experience of Naxi daily life. Enticing with its bright lights and buzzing sound of life well into the night, Lijiang Old Town for me has lost some of its charm. Rather than being given a glimpse of Naxi culture to appreciate, you are often over charged for the same trinkets that line the alleys. At night the water turns to wine as the clubs open and the youth enthusiastically open their wallets and jump up and down out of sync with each other as their inhibitions fade into the night. A far cry from the slow lifestyle used to describe the warm and welcoming Naxi people. So today is a day for exploring ancient towns. It is a scenic walk to Shuhe followed by a visit to Baisha which sits at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Lijiang Old Town

Leaving October Inn I wind through the whimsical alleys. There are flowers hanging from baskets and leaking droplets of water onto the dusty ground. Stone, wood and slate make a striking combination to the old architecture that makes up this part of Lijiang. It is never just my destination that is the scenic pleasure of the trip. Lijiang offers such beauty and is best explored on foot or by bicycle. With the many short cuts the alleys give way to it is not long before i reach the south gate to Lijiang Old Town. It is the more ancient towns that I head for today though so I wander down the road and towards the North entrance of Black Dragon Pool.

Shuhe entrance

A lot of the old part of Lijiang sits in contrast with the new architecture that is springing up everywhere. Unfortunately if there is one thing that never seems to stop in China, it is construction work. The modern design is sensitive to that of its surrounding style but together there is a clear divide between the old and new. What is slightly less obvious are the partial towns that are being developed in the style of old. If it wasn’t for witnessing construction and seeing merchants start the beginnings of setting up shop, I would have mistaken these fusion builds for old, near abandoned relics of a town that is no more.

Shuhe architecture

Leaving Black Dragon Pool in my rear view I’m in owe every time the town opens up to reveal Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. I have no real hiking kit with me in China otherwise it would be those snowy peaks I’d be reaching for as today’s accomplishment. For now, it is ‘the hometown of springs’ for my first destination. The ancient town of Shuhe. Shuhe is one of the earliest settlements of the Naxi people and an extremely well preserved example of a town along the ancient tea route.

horses in Shuhe

Without Tom I wind up walking to the main entrance of Shuhe and needing to pay the admittance fee of 40 yuan. There are many routes in for free but it is knowing where they start. The ancient towns do also fall on the bus route of numbers 6 and 11 for Shuhe and number 6 at the last stop for Baisha. If you take the bus to Shuhe I recommend walking to Baisha. It takes less than an hour and you’ll wander through one of the deserted fusion towns I mentioned earlier.

One thing that caught my attention wandering through Shuhe was the small open stalls that held locals playing small hand drums and playing a beat more familiar with African culture than Asian. Each time I passed one of these drum stalls I could have sworn the same song echoed out of them. Altered by the lost rhythm of the tourists that clambered in to join them. Live music is also a constant present in the streets of Shuhe with some incredible talent coming out of coffee shops and restaurants. I stop for lunch after hours of wandering. I’ve chosen The Cafe on the Creek to enjoy the calm of the water than runs through the town.

charming buildings in Shuhe

Once I’ve had my fill of food and Yunnan’s delicious coffee, it’s back on my feet and to my favorite app MAPS.ME to find the route to Baisha. Walking through rural areas give a better impression of life for the Naxi people. I pass two old women in their traditional dress and can’t help but admire how hard they seem to have worked their entire lives. I hold my phone up for a picture but they decline and I move on with only a memory of their image. The road to Baisha is open and stunning rural landscape. The town of Lijiang does offer such a balanced blend of modern, ancient, convenience and escape.

architecture in Shuhe

Getting closer to the majestic snowy mountain, I stumble into Baisha. It is later in the evening now so the town is incredibly quiet. The silence is penetrated by the growl of a dog as I try to quietly wander into the very closed Naxi Embroidery Institute. It is the most influential embroidery institute in Lijiang and aims to promote, preserve and develop other ethnic minority cultures, including Naxi, Dongba culture and Tangka culture. The dog manages to rustle up the attention of a young student who enters the courtyard. I apologies and begin to leave when he attempts a dialogue in broken English. The result is a private tour around the gallery of embroidered artwork. There are pieces in there that so closely resemble the delicacy of oil paintings that I linger staring as close as I can to the glass box they sit in.

route to Baisha

I only capture one photograph of the gallery; I’m informed photographs aren’t allowed so I apologize and try not to take up too much more of the students time. Baisha is the smaller of the ancient towns and it’s not long before I reach the end of the road. I seek a local to aid in locating the bus stop as the walk back to Lijiang and up the hill to October Inn was only a little shy of three hours! I’m loosing light also and so I patiently wait nearly 40 minutes for the number 6 bus. There are mini vans that can drive you for 50yuan which if you fill the car isn’t so bad, if you’re happy to wait though the bus is a mere 1 yuan for the return journey.

style of Baisha

Exploring the ancient towns has left me which a rather big appetite. Upon my arrival I smell Toms cooking and sit with my fellow travelers to discuss the days adventures. There are an American couple who arrived back from Tiger Leaping Gorge. After hearing their stories I book my bus ticket for the day trip to the gorge. The weather ahead is planned for rain and I don’t have hiking gear on me so going for the day, although slightly disappointing, is by far the sensible option. So come back to visit the Solo Pursuit for the adventure of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

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Naxi Embroidery Institute
embroiders tables
embroidery gallery
steps to Elephant Hill

The sun is high, its heat being carried on a strong wind even at the base of Elephant Hill. Today is a climb to a view point of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. I’m told the most beautiful view, other than being on the mountain itself, is actually from Black Dragon Pool. So today I shall see both. Ascending to the peak of Elephant Hill and descending into the heart of Black Dragon Pool in Yunnan’ heat with no hat or sunblock. China is a country that to travel through requires the preparation for several seasons. Regardless of the inevitable sunburn I will suffer today I am determined to explore this area of Lijiang.

Lijiang from Elephant Hill

As with many of China’s hills and “mountains”, the route is a mixture of steps and dirt track. The wind increases its strength the higher I climb. Although this breeze is welcoming against my skin, I’m aware the effects will be visible later this evening! The path takes me past small pavilions that offer perfect resting ground for a snack and a glimpse of the views to come. You don’t have to climb for long before the whole of Lijiang starts to appear in front of you. The combination of an old town and a new city creates an interesting blend of architecture and scenery. The further I climb I look to the other side of Elephant Hill, the views are in contrast to that of Lijiang. Instead you see mountains for miles only being interrupted by farm land.

mountain views

It’s not long before I come to a point where the steps split. Upwards for the view point and down to Black Dragon Pool. I continue the climb and come across old gravestones that are decorated with materials that then unfortunately litter across the mountain. I follow the noise of Chinese tourists to find the views that open so splendidly to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It’s nothing short of breathtaking. The only negative to this whole scene is that Chinese tourists aren’t one to take in nature and its serene beauty in silence. There is excessive noise and endless selfies so I do not stay long. Instead I circle back to where the steps descend and take the route down to Black Dragon Pool.

graves of Elephant Hill

This is a back route into the tourist hot-spot and actually avoids the entrance fee of 80 yuan. The ticket is not unreasonable as it also permits entry in Lijiang Old Town. As I enter I come across the Lijiang Academy for Naxi culture research. Although unable to enter the building, the grounds and plant life of its courtyard are quaint enough to wander through. Exiting the Academy I take in the scale of the area. At 40 hectares Black Dragon Pool is a haven for bird and water life. A diverse collection of plant life thrives here also and surrounding the pool are ancient monuments that help make up this stunning landscape.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Many tourists and, I assume, locals have gathered in this park to enjoy the scenery and give prayers at the temple. The pool is enormous and wandering around it’s easy to lose the crowds and enjoy the nature that is on offer. I come to the point on a bridge where Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is visible, set majestically between a temple and a pavilion. Oddly enough, I have to agree. It is this lower view point that offers the best view of the snowy mountain. This park has much history on offer. The emerald spring waters are famous for their curative powers, the temples mystery are surrounded in Chinese mythology, and the nature alone that fills the park gives reason for all who visit Lijiang to come and see Black Dragon Pool.

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Academy Naxi Culture Research
Longevity Corridor

Leaving Xingping behind with it’s stunning karst landscape has left me with mixed emotions. Excited for my next adventure yes, but not feeling entirely ready to leave Yangshuo. It’s not long before I leave China, most likely for quite some time. I don’t feel ready to leave this beautiful and diverse country but being true to my nomadic self the wind is calling and I feel it’s push. For now though it’s a flight to Kunming followed by another to Lijiang, Yunnan province. Through my second use of Workaway it’s a week at October Inn, one of the most unique hostels I have ever seen in China.

October Inn

Arriving around 7pm a car pulls up to collect me. It’s Tom, the owner of October Inn and a friend. I’m being given a guided tour of our route from the airport bus drop off to the top of a hill in the old part of Lijiang where October Inn resides. Grateful  for not having to walk I immediately shower ready for dinner. To start the shower is the hottest I’ve experienced in China and consistent with the temperature. I could stand there for hours but Tom is cooking dinner for the guests in my honor. The food rivals any restaurant and the setting is the most welcoming environment. We are all on long sofas that stand either side of a long table. At the end there is an iron table that holds a fire in the center.

October Inn interiors

With travelers exchanging stories and drinking beer the night soon becomes the early hours of the morning. Those of us insistent on remaining awake move to the rooftop of October Inn, taking in the view of the city. It’s been a long time since I’ve been surrounded by such a diverse group of foreigners. Tonight we are a group made up of Americans, Singaporeans, Dutch and British. Tom tells me October Inn rarely has Chinese guests and  that he loves meeting foreigners from all over the world. As the noise of the town slowly dies away, we too retire to our dorms. The beds are solid wood and extra wide, all with heat blankets. It’s the most comfortable nights sleep I’ve had for a while.

Shuhe and mountains

The stir of guests wakes me from my slumber. I move slowly from my bunk with the early signs of a headache and head to the shower. I meet Tom on my way back and within minutes I’m in the sun eating oats with cinnamon and apples. There is also a small cup of Yunnan’s coffee in front of me. Coffee isn’t something that I would say is done particularly well in China but this is a strong cup with a smokey flavor. The aroma alone lifts my headache and I enjoy the heat of Lijiang, without the humidity of Fuzhou.

shuhe coffee shop

Following breakfast, Tom suggests we take a ride around town so I can become familiar with my surroundings to better advise guests on places of interest. It’s been a while since I’ve been a passenger on an ebike and I’m wearing an awkward dress for the occasion. With the resident puppy in tow we are off down the hill, winding through the old alleys. The tour begins. The well preserved architecture of this old area is quite beautiful. The more the alleys open up I’m given glimpses of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. A breathtaking mountain that is covered in snow all year round and made up of 13 peaks. Entering the main road we pass the tourist hot spot of Lijiang Old Town.

Shuhe town Lijiang

On route I’m supposed to remember things like the bank, places to eat, bicycle rental shops…instead I’m excitedly taking in this city with its echos of Naxi culture everywhere. From the passersby in blue hats to the embroidered cloth that holds against the wind in open shop windows. As we move out of town through farmlands the Naxi presence is even stronger. We finally stop at the ancient town of Shuhe which lies at the foot of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It’s like discovering an old village hidden among a forest. One of the earliest settlements of the ancestors of Naxi people, the town of Shuhe is full of charm and character.

handicrafts of Naxi culture

Wandering along the alleys and crossing small bridges I notice countless fish in the clear waters that run through the town. Shuhe has a tranquil and poetic rural setting that allows you to escape the bustling tourist hotspot of Lijiang Old Town. It’s almost possible to forget modern life whilst here. There are even horses being guided through the streets. Just as time seems to flow backwards the everyday comes to light. We are now surrounded by coffee shops and restaurants. We enter a restaurant belonging to a friend of Toms and immediately we are greeted with tea and the resident cat who becomes slightly unsettled when our company canine totters in.

traditional store of Shuhe

Shortly after tea we are back on the bike heading for a village called Baisha. Arriving, it is clear that this village is far less commercialized than that of the old towns and is a more honest portrayal of Naxi culture and every day life. It’s history is painted on the walls and woven into its textiles that blow in the gentle breeze. We are not here long but it is certainly a place I shall revisit. For now it is back on the bike to return to October Inn. Passing through farm land, the new city and the old town, it’s back up the hill to where the old architecture stands, well preserved, in the fading sunlight. The rooftops always capture my attention in China. Curved, decorated and ancient. All of Lijiang is beautiful and I can’t wait to explore more.

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View of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
textiles of Baisha
Baisha textiles

There is no alarm today. I wake slightly unnaturally to the construction of a new hotel across the road from my room. It doesn’t matter though. The day ahead is full. It’s my final day in this beautiful village of Xingping. Not only does that mean one more day to explore but it also means packing and preparing for my next adventure. In search of coffee and breakfast I begin my checklist of preparations. Forever nervous about missing a fight I plan to be at the airport with double the time required. So not to exhaust myself hiking is off the table. Instead I’m going to attempt to find my favorite fisherman again and discover the original part of Xingping village, the Old Street.

The escaping fisherman

Xingping it seems, often referred to as a village, has grown to become a quaint town. Full of charm set in one of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen, this has been the most rewarding place I have traveled to thus far. From the traditional cormorant fishermen, the hikes to several villages and the openness of the locals to give a glimpse into their lives. It has also been my first opportunity to volunteer whilst traveling. A desire to travel more ethically inspired by the discovery of Workaway. A website that facilitates cultural exchange, with accommodation being offered in return for work. Although I intend to move towards causes that will have more of a positive affect on the lives of those I become entwined with, this has been a perfect platform to move on from.

Cormorants resting on bamboo

After packing my life back into a suitcase and ruck sack I head to the ferry ready to seek out the fisherman. As my feet land on the stones of the other side, I look back to the pier I have just left and glimpse my fisherman headed directly for it. It would seem the universe feels I have had my moment with him and so I laugh to myself and move towards the rivers walkway. Again taking to the stones it is not long before I come across a string of bamboo boats, half on land and half dancing on the water, the magnificent cormorant birds stand asleep.

resting cormorants

Cormorant fishing is a traditional ancient technique of using cormorants to fish in shallow river waters. The birds have a snare near the base of their throat to stop the swallowing of large fish but allows the consumption of small fish. Once a successful industry, cormorant fishing now serves mainly the tourism industry. During my visit, China is within its three month fishing ban to protect fisheries and ensure the industry’s sustainability. So although there are plenty of fisherman on the waters of the Li River they are mainly here to pose for eager tourists wanting a glimpse of this traditional fishing technique.

 

Stalls of Old Street

Returning on my regular ferry I reach the pier and follow the road down to a alley alive with tourists, cafes and stalls. I’ve entered Old Street, the ancient part of Xingping town. With all the charm of every old street found in China’s towns and cities I wander through its winding alleys, now and again glimpsing mountains through the ornate rooftops. There are more people here than any area I’ve explored despite its size. Before long I’ve reached the end of Old Streets alley and I’m back on the route to This Old Place Youth Hostel. This hotel has been my home for the last week and its staff have become more than people I work with. I will miss Xingping more than I could have imagined but it’s time to prepare for the next adventure.

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local basket weaver
Old street with mountain views
Old Street Alley
alley of Old Street

After five days of hiking I decided to have more of a relaxed day. My feet were starting to ache and I feared my legs would loose all momentum. I felt it worth revisiting Nine Horse Hill after utterly failing to recognize any of the nine ancient murals on the cliff face. As it is a route I’ve done before I take the Li River walkway to my destination. I follow the upper path back as it occurred to me after visiting the famous landscape printed on the back of the 20 yuan note I failed to take a picture. This time a 20 yuan note sits in my wallet waiting for its moment of glory.

sleeping cormorants

I take to the river stones rather than the paved walkway. Allowing their uneven firmness to slowly massage my feet. A type of remedial reflexology. This allows me to stay close to the water. I’m looking for the elder fisherman I passed yesterday hoping for an opportunity to recapture him but today I’m out of luck. However, I do stumble upon two sleeping cormorants on a grounded bamboo boat with its basket sitting still. The image is beautiful. The eyes of these magnificent birds are wide open but their beak stays nestled into their wings. Incredibly tame and unnerved by my presence, I glance around for their keeper and quietly move closer. In a flawless synchronized motion they raise their heads, a caution perhaps so I take a picture and leave them be.

rousing from slumber

There are several rustic boats floating alone on the water. Abandoned except for the few clothes that hang to dry. I’m unsure as to whether these are homes or vessels of temporary life for the boatmen out all day, transporting tourists on the motorized bamboo rafts to and from various scenic destinations. The surrounding landscape is alive with the sounds of birds hidden among the mountains. Combined with the gentle knocking of rocks under feet and the rippling water that trickles by there is a moment of pure tranquility. Of course a ferry full of tourists soon passes by and test their vocal cords in the echo of the mountains.

 

river rafts

Glancing with a frown at the ferry I spot another rusty house boat I wish to capture but it is at too far of a distance. I decide to cross at the ferry point again at Nine Horse Hill, something I had no intention of doing following my near disastrous hike that resulted in a friendly couple coming to my rescue and popping a tyre! Day 2 of my Xingping adventures for those of you who are curious! Across the river gives a better view of Nine Horse Hill anyway and will allow me to capture the charming if some what disheveled boat.

rustic abandoned boat

I stand opposite the sight of Nine Horse Hill. Straining my imagination past its usual creativity I fail again. There is not a single image that gives shape of a horse, to my eyes at least. For the second time I give in. I follow the narrow path to the left and settle on an image of the boat. Along the way I come across a horse grazing freely. The scene is perfect. Cautiously approaching I’m able to capture the beautiful animal with the back drop of Nine Horse Hill. In my opinion I have succeeded beyond my original pursuit. A second horse comes into view as I come around a corner. This one is attached to a chain and has a spirit slightly more wild than the other. Still, the image is too perfect not to capture and I draw closer slowly.

Nine Horse Hill

After a while of standing surrounded by this perfect vision of nature I capture the house boat hoping not to rouse any occupants. The ferry does its duty and I return to the other side. I’m disappointed not to see the helpful old woman with her sticky rice steaming away. This is the upper route that I’ve wandered before. The last time I was on this path it was full of stalls and tourists but today is much quieter. It’s how I prefer it. I’m always drawn more to villages and small towns for their gift of solitude. Xingping, although a popular destination, has offered many treks to surrounding villages where the only people I’ve met are the locals, always small in numbers and usually within trees!

horse of Nine Horse Hill

I finally come to the landscape that’s printed on the back of the 20 yuan note. The area lies between Xingping and Yucun. Unlike in the note, the Li River is void of a fishermen floating down the river with his faithful birds but is a stunning landscape regardless. Capturing the landscape with my 20 yuan note I feel very much the tourist. This is the last time I will take in this karst mountain landscape, from this view at least. These mountains haven’t failed to move me since my arrival. They hold an ethereal and evocative beauty that hasn’t been matched yet in my experience of this fascinating country. As the wind rises gently to bring a chill to the air I continue ‘home’ content again from the days roaming.

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charming rustic boat
wild horse views
20 yuan landscape
old cormorant fisherman

Today I’m taking what’s become my regular ferry across the Li River. This is my third time taking this route to find yet another scenic area that Xingping has to offer. I’ve decided to trek to Shawan village. I’ve crossed this path the day before on my way to Tengjiao Nunnery. As I’ve ventured through the orchards and organic farmland twice already, I decide to take the slightly shorter river route. Within moments I come across a fisherman with his two cormorant birds. He is in simple clothing and wearing a straw conical hat, in China called a dǒulì (斗笠). Under the shadow cast by the hat emerges a long white beard. His feet are bare and he’s leaning on his basket looking quite content with the world.

 

stone path begins

Wandering through these familiar villages I reach the point where the road splits in three. To continue ahead I revisit the rural farmlands up high where the only company for a while are lizards and the song of birds. To take the concrete route to the right is to wander close to homes of the villagers and I’m pretty sure a dead end. It’s the narrow route to the left I need to take where the orchards intertwine over head and you feel you have stumbled upon a secret garden. It is this way to the Tengjiao Nunnery. What I hadn’t realized the previous day is that the stone staircase I glanced to the right, but continued past would actually take me on an adventure to Shawan Village.

stone staircase
tunnel of trees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For around 20 minutes it’s a steady road of broken, uneven stone steps ahead. The trees create a tunnel and there is a variety of songs sung by different types of bird. Although tempting to keep eyes down on this somewhat hazardous path every now and again the trees part and give way to the stunning karst mountainous landscape that surrounds this entire area. So far I have met no one on this trek. It’s a challenging journey that gives no direction in Chinese or English to the intended destination and yet you can’t ignore just how peaceful it is.

glimpse of views

Before I reach the peak of this steady incline the stone staircase slips away to a dirt track. As I hit the top the road divides into two. Both roads follow parallel to the left for a while. The top path gradually continues upward further into the mountains. It’s the lower ground I follow, descending into a lush green valley. Surrounded only by nature I feel as though I’ve stumbled across an untouched land. But as I continue on a small collection of houses emerge. After mistakenly taking a high path directly to a locals doorstep, I double check my direction is correct and push forward.

view through trees

The hillside now is steep and laid with loose rocks that cause every muscle in my legs to tense to keep me upright. With a heavy sigh I reach the top. It’s incredibly beautiful. Even though every view point has the same landscape of mountains and the river, they are all unique in their own right. The mountains take on different forms and the river bends in different ways. The hills form unique patterns created by the land being farmed. Even the same picturesque view takes on a new light in the changing hours of the day.

green valley

Descending towards Shawan village that is set among the greenery, I keep the river to my left and the dirt track below my feet. There are several opportunities to veer off into grasslands which, I’m sure magical in their own right, would send me into a forest and away from the quaint little village below. As I’ve mentioned there is very little information on how to get to Shawan village from Xingping and with a poor sense of direction and inability to read maps I rely entirely on common sense. I can see Shawan and know I want to reach the waters edge to take a break before repeating my footsteps back to Xingping.

simple architecture

When I reach the village it is almost deserted. A few farmers linger in the trees but I meet no one on the road. The architecture is simple and traditional holding the utmost charm. The streets wind and narrow in all directions so I keep heading to the right and downwards until I hit the main road. It’s here I meet the first locals of Shawan village. An elder man and the smallest boy with the largest spirit I have ever had the opportunity to meet. Following his (I assume) grandfathers voice his ‘hello’ is infectious. Full of joy and life his hello’s continue and I can’t help but parrot them, he breaks into laughter and claps his hands. If this was all I was met with when entering this village it would be enough to make the entire journey worthy of it. His little legs speed off at an unsteady pace before I am able to photograph him and so I continue following the faint roar of the river.

farm house

Taking a moment to rest I listen to the gentle crashing of the water on the rocks. There is a breeze and, although pleasant, it slightly irritates my mosquito bites. Many other visitors I’ve met during my stay here are passing through just for the night before heading on to more well known tourist locations. But Xingping and it’s surrounding villages are one of China’s hidden gems. If you are heading this way and considering a short stop over I would highly recommend extending your stay and truly make the most of what is on offer here. Taking the same route back to Xingping there is no disappointment in repeating these views. They are truly breathtaking.

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river resting point
village house
Shawan farmland
view of Shawan village
view from the top of the stone steps

Today I’m starting late. I needed to send emails, catch up with friends and I’m feeling a pull towards my kindle and This Old Place Youth Hostel‘s rooftop lounge. It’s not long before I get that usual itchy feet feeling, and it’s not just the mosquito bites! No longer able to sit around I head out the door to Xingping pier and in less than a minute reach the stone steps that will take me all the way to the top of LaoZhai Hill, a view I’m told is worth the arduous journey.

beginning of Mount LaoZhai climb

A few minutes in I reach a pavilion with views of Lijiang River holding the usual cluster of bamboo boats and ferries bursting with tourists. The steps are wide and incline steadily. I deceive myself into believing this maybe a fairly easy climb familiar to that of Gushan Mountain back in Fuzhou. But LaoZhai Hill is not Gushan and the steps are slowly becoming narrower and uneven with some areas of the steps resembling piled stones.

 

early pavilion views

I notice the circular stone graves that I’ve seen so frequently venturing out to mountain rural areas. It has recently been tomb sweeping day, a festival that honors the dead and so the graves are littered with red from the firecrackers that have been laid. I rest here a while and notice all the fallen leaves that almost bury the steps. I hope we don’t have rain as it would be the most uncomfortable fall down. I continue on, sweating through the inappropriate dress I have chosen to wear today back when my feet were comfortable having a lazy day ahead.

graves of Mount LaoZhai

The incline feels as though it is becoming more vertical with each step and the few people I do pass on their way down are out of breath and now obstacles. Not every point allows for ease of crossing another and there are a few awkward embraces that occur. LaoZhai Hill itself is not very high, maybe only 300 meters. It’s difficulty comes from the terrain. Over 1000 uneven, slightly broken steps that are the only route to the top. 15 minutes in and my calves are burning. Fortunately each step higher is rewarded with glimpses through the trees of the view that is the climax of this expedition.

iron ladder of Mount LaoZhai

I soon come to an ancient stone archway. Passing through I follow the red painted arrows that someone has felt the need to graffiti on this beautiful archway. The downside to tourism is it’s effect on the landmarks we are encouraged to flock to. What was once untouched landscape is now a selfie on every wechat moments. But I am here also with my phone camera firmly in hand at the ready and so have no right to pass judgement.

The next part of the route is slightly unnerving. There is a steep, rusted iron ladder that seems to be the final requirement to ascend to the top. In contrast to its appearance the ladder is actually quite stable. Its now a narrow path around a protruding rock that is the next obstacle. After the ladder I assume the iron railing is just as stable so I barely assess it and just continue forward. Of course the railing shakes unbelievably and I’m immediately off balance. Error of judgement noted! My panic is calmed by a pavilion coming into view. I’ve reached the top.

xingping views mount laozhai

The views are breathtaking, as they are everywhere in Yangshuo. I’m looking down on the village of Xingping and can’t help but smile. Grateful that I am here in this moment and proud that I’ve overcome my anxiety to do it alone. Feeling confident I hike up my dress and climb over a rocky area that will give me 360 degree views, much to the dismay of the tourists below me. Although I’m not necessarily recommending others do this I can say that the view you are rewarded with is nothing short of spectacular.

Li river views laozhai

After I while sitting perched on a rock and lost in my own thoughts I decide to head back down LaoZhai Hill. Although the route is faster and less sweaty, the fallen leaves prove dangerous and there are a few moments where I nearly lose my footing. The view would be spectacular at sunset but I don’t recommend venturing up alone and without a flashlight if you intend to see the views at dusk.

famland views

Reaching the bottom I feel slightly torn. I’ve waited to long in the day to adventure out so another hike is out of the question. But it’s far to early for me to head back to the hostel and I’m already at the pier and so I catch a ferry. Initially I’m not exactly sure where I am going but I was told the route I took to the view point yesterday, if slightly altered, would take me to Tengjiao nunnery.

 

woman and cormorant birds

Following the river again through the organic farm lands I come across a woman sitting on her bamboo boat with her cormorant birds. I can’t get over how tame and unfazed they are by the world around them. Her two dogs are jumping on and off the boat and even with her protests at their behavior the birds are still and simply watching the water. Further down the road there are horses grazing on the other side of the river. The entire area is so peaceful to wander through.

adorable children on the road

I meet farmers tending to their plantations as always and the most adorable gathering of children who seem so excited to practice their “hello” with a native speaker. We entertain each other for a short while and part with a photo. It’s not long before I find the narrow path that leads to a stone bridge and the walkway to Tengjiao nunnery.

I arrive and quickly note the nunnery is set in a cave. It’s old, humble and a beautiful place of worship and example of spiritual fulfillment. There are open rooms full of books and statues. The simple garments of the monks are hanging to dry and the small stools and table for eating are stacked in away that I find quite charming. The cave is quite cold in contrast to the balmy heat that surrounds the rest of Xingping. This adds to an almost ghostly feeling as apart from myself the temple seems abandoned.

Tengjiao nunnery archway entrance

I meet no one else while here and so wander freely, finding sanctuary. I want to open the books and feel the fabric of the clothes but it seems disrespectful and so I take my leave to catch the ferry back to Xingping. This time, instead of being greeted with the laughter of the children I meet a farmer on the road walking his cows. I pass them feeling slightly anxious as they pause to watch my movements. I hurry my step feeling unwelcome by the cattle and almost take up the offer of a passing tuk tuk for a lift to the pier. But these mountain views are best seen from the river walkway so I regain my composure and wander contently after another day exploring this beautiful village.

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Tengjiao nunnery entrance
Tengjiao nunnery
buddhas Tengjiao nunnery
table and chairs Tengjiao nunnery
monks clothes Tengjiao nunnery
statues and books Tengjiao nunnery
worship at Tengjiao nunnery

12pm, the work day is done and I have another filling lunch in front of me provided by the chef as part of my volunteering benefits at This Old Place Youth Hostel. I’m debating whether to hike or not as the last two days have been exhausting though adventurous. I search my newly discovered app for the closest sight to visit. I glimpse the word viewpoint down the list and forget about my tired feet. It’s decided. Trekking to a viewpoint through organic farmland is today’s agenda.

Dirt road ahead

The hostel is in a perfect location for the expedition ahead. Stepping out and turning right, within 30 seconds I’m at a ferry point. Crossing the Li River within minutes I jump off and follow the signs for Nirvana Organic Farm Inn. The Inn is the third property owned by This Old Place and sits at the foot of the Yuanbao Mountain, which is painted on the reverse side of the new ¥20 note. I’m lost in this stunning scenery. Surrounded by ecological farms, gardens and orchards, my company on the road are the village dogs and chickens. The architecture is traditional Chinese style, many have open walls where clothes are hanging to dry. The river is full of bamboo boats drifting peacefully around the mountains.

farm houses and mountains

Now and again I pass the farmers in the trees tending to their plantation. I’m relatively alone on this hike, wandering slowly through the mountains, lost in an ancient world. The dirt track path I’m following is a poor imitation of the beautiful mountains around me. I hope it doesn’t rain as it would be like trekking through murky pools. Every bike that passes I stay clear out of the way to allow them to navigate this assault course.

organic farming

The sounds of birds and the scatter of lizards as I intrude their path all adds to the feeling of being in some tropical jungle away from society. The mountains are a lush green and for the most part untouched. Life is simple out here, peaceful. That’s not to suggest the work that farmers do here is easy. Every generation is involved in maintaining the lifestyle here. I imagine the area could suffer quite considerably from Southern China’s volatile weather conditions, particularly as the area is so remote.

Cattle on the road

As the road becomes steeper I’m grateful for the light rain that begins to fall. The mountain viewpoint will not be at its most spectacular with the haze that is falling but I have no doubt it will be worth the near two hours it will take to reach. The final stretch of the journey is on an actual road, not the uninviting dirt track that seems unsuitable for any mode of transport. It’s not long before a small bus pulls up on the side of the road to try and usher me inside. From what I can tell they think my destination is Yangshuo. I reassure them it’s not without being able to tell them the name of where the viewpoint lies. They reluctantly continue on their path. The locals here have been the warmest people I have met so far in China.

lone farmer

Further down the road I peer from under my umbrella to answer the familiar “elo”. Every Chinese person seems to know the English for hello. There are two women perched on an unbelievably small stool. They are ushering me over. We are all using our hands and our native tongue to try and communicate. They want to know where I’m going, again they think I’m attempting to walk to Yangshuo or at least to a bus stop to get there. I try my best to explain I’m walking to an unknown viewpoint to take a picture. They look at each other, look back to me and point to a motorbike abandoned behind them. I smile and start to gather that hiking really isn’t a thing in China.

organic farm land

I walk on, there is only 15minutes left to my intended destination yet it just seems like I’m following a regular road. I start to think the journey and not the destination will be the most scenic part of this route. Of course I’m wrong. I turn a corner following a steep incline and can see a stone platform ahead. With a little skip in my step I walk onto the platform. I can’t help but smile, the view is breathtaking. All the view’s in this area of China are breathtaking yet every time I reach a new viewpoint it’s like seeing these mountains again for the first time.

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untouched landscape
village surrounded by mountains
farm landscape
viewing platfrom
Viewpoint