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LIJIANG

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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