The name Shangri-la conjures up images of an impossibly beautiful paradise, a place we all dream of finding but never do. Well Shangri-la exits, in northern Yunnan Province… it says so on the map. So we went.
100km north of Lijiang is the town of Shangri-la. It used to be called Zhongdian but in 1997 the local authorities declared that it was the location of British author James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-la from his book The Lost Horizon and promptly changed the name of the town. Since then the town has expanded at an explosive pace fueled by a tourist boom. They have been frantically building houses, shops, hospitals, an airport and even a brand new Old Town area.
The bus from Lijiang followed the muddy Yangtze river north tacking back and forth as we rose up through the mountainous terrain. The turns made us a bit queasy but otherwise it was a very comfortable bus with large seats, plenty of leg-room and Kung Fu films playing on screens that drop from the ceiling.
Eventually we got to a large flat plateau and passed Tibetan style farm houses spread out across the open fields and crops drying in the sun on large wooden frames. After four hours on the bus we arrived in Shangri-la. Of course it’s initially a bit disappointing, after being hyped up as a place from your most wondrous imaginings, when you enter via a traffic filled road through huge construction sites pushing up ever-increasing rather drab concrete. However we concluded that the Shangri-la of our dreams must be located in the hills and valleys around the town. However, it seems typically Chinese to find a place of incredible beauty only to pour concrete all over it to build the visitor centre, theme park, hotels and shopping malls.
We arrived at Kevin’s Trekker Inn, a guesthouse of about 10 rooms, all opening out onto a garden, and were greeted by Kevin himself and shown to our room. The layout of the place seems to encourage the guests to meet and chat as they hang out on the veranda or in the garden. We met two friendly Australian women who were long time travelers and very forthcoming with travel advice, travel stories and gossip. We also met a couple in their 20s, Natasha from France and Big from Thailand. They were hatching a plan to travel even further north to the little visited town of Deqin and then hike on to some remote villages inaccessible by road.
In the evening we had a pleasant stroll through the old town area which although most of it was built in the last decade, feels very authentic with its cobbled streets, market square and quaint old (looking) buildings, like a mini Lijiang with a less crowded more relaxed feel. There is a big Tibetan population here and later we headed to a small local Tibetan restaurant to sample the food. We had mixed fried vegetables that we chose from the fridge, bread and an unusual honey and cheese dish.
As we were finishing the owners extended family began arriving, for tonight was the Chinese Moon Festival, an annual celebration which is marked by eating moon cakes and staring at the moon. Families will try to get together on this day, but for those that can’t they stare at the moon in the evening as do the other members of the family separated by distance but all looking at the same moon at the same time in a shared experience. We bought a large round Naxi moon cake and later in the evening we got together with Kevin and some of the other guests around a table in the common room and ate moon cake, drank beer and chatted about China, what we’d seen and what we wanted to see. There was a great atmosphere at the hostel and camaraderie between the guests as we were all in this out-of-the-way place on the edge of China together. We completely forgot to look at the moon however… someone said it was cloudy anyway.
Overnight the idea of venturing out to Deqin and the remote villages rolled around my mind and by the morning I really wanted to do it. I liked the idea of going on a little adventure and doing it in a small group. So I persuaded Jenn that the 8 hour bus journey over bad roads followed by a 7 hour trek over a mountain was nothing to be worried about and then asked Big and Natasha if it would be OK if we could tag along. They agreed and we decided to head out the next day. This left us with a day to explore Shangri-la before we went.
We visited the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa which is a huge monastery a little outside the town. Hidden from view in a valley but up on top of a small hill are three temple buildings with roofs of gold. A long stone stairway leads up passed a collection of smaller buildings, temples and shacks where those working for the monastery live. Some of the buildings really looked like they had not changed in centuries. The many monks, however, had changed with the times and were never without their mobile phones, honestly! We walked slowly up the steps as at 3000m above sea level we got short of breath very quickly (well that was our excuse). At the top we walked through the incense smoke and towards the temples with their bright colours and intricate geometric carvings.
We went inside to explore the interior where there is a huge golden Buddha sitting on the ground floor with the upper levels encircling him, his head up on the third floor . The walls are covered in painted murals and many smaller buddhas and other statues line the walls. Monks were chanting near the big buddha and the atmosphere was warm and inviting unlike the sometimes cold stoney atmosphere of European churches. One of the temples was under construction but it was interesting to see the craftsmen carefully painting the carved wood. The third temple was similar to the first but with a female Buddha. It was impressive to see but I think I preferred the more peaceful hidden away smaller monastery we had seen before.
When we got back to the hostel we chatted with some of the other guests and firmed up our travel ideas for the next few days. The plan was to take the bus for 8 hours north to Deqin along a windy mountainous road that we were told was still under construction. Then the following day we would walk all day over the top of a 4000m high mountain and down the other side to the Yubeng villages and stay for two nights then trek a different route back to Dequin and then return to Shangri-la the next day. With alarm clocks set for 6am we went to bed.
At 7 in the morning we were at Shangri-la bus station trying to compare the Chinese characters on our bus tickets with the destination signs on the front of the many buses outside. At 8.15 we set off into the mountains towards Deqin. We were the only tourists on the bus and we got some quizzical looks from the locals. It felt like a real journey into the unknown. The bus was quite small but with a lot of seats. I think the average length of the legs of a Chinese man is smaller than mine because even if I sat right back in my seat my knees were rubbing on the seat in front, but you just have to put up with these things (and only for 8 hours).
The road was undergoing some major construction work to upgrade it from a small winding road into a bigger, faster and slightly less winding road. They don’t close the road while this is happening as it is the only route through the mountains. The bus just goes right through the many construction sites along the way. Sometimes we had to wait for the big diggers to get out the way then somehow find our way over mounds of earth and temporary dirt tracks up around the building work. In total about a third of the road was a very bumpy dirt track which the bus bounced along.
We were amazed to see that much of the building work was being done by hand. dozens of men and women were sweeping the road with straw brooms before the tar was poured on. Others were breaking up boulders with hammers.
We wound up into the rugged mountains climbing from 3000m to over 4000m in elevation passing huge gorges and rivers. Then we would descend gradually then climb up the next mountain.
We stopped once at a ‘toilet block’ then again at a small town for lunch but for the last four hours we did not stop and Jenn was in need of the bathroom for a long time. Eventually we saw our destination of Deqin come into sight on the valley floor below and around an hour later we arrived into the dusty town. We got off the bus and stretched our legs with Jenn running for the toilet. Deqin is an outpost town with a depressed feel far away from the boom of China’s economy. Run down shops line the streets and as we walked, some taxi drivers were shouting to us, wanting to take us wherever we wanted. After a tea in what turned out to be a Chinese brothel we very easily got a ride to the nearby village of Feilai Si where we intended to stay the night.
We attempted to explain to our driver to come back in the morning to take us to the start of the mountain trail then we went off to find a place to stay. The town is a strip of cheap hotels next to a famous viewing point where you can look out over a gorge to see snow-capped mountains all around. Two years ago you would see in the foreground 7 Buddhist monuments set in a row onto the bare rocks of the mountainside but recently the Chinese authorities had moved them onto a large wooden viewing platform near the road along with a coach park and row of souvenir shops. However we were almost the only visitors along with a handful of Chinese tourists. The view was spectacular though and we couldn’t wait to head out into the more remote villages untouched by the heavy hand of the ministry of tourism.
We found a basic but clean hotel for 8 pounds a night having rejected the first hotel we looked at because they were redecorating and although they were renting out rooms they had no bathrooms at all in the hotel! We went into a restaurant for dinner which was deserted apart from two German brothers, Tomas and Öva (sorry, not sure of spelling), on a three-week holiday who had just arrived in town. We told them of our plan to visit the Yubeng villages and asked if they wanted to join us. They agreed and now we were a group of six tourists on this little adventure. We were very tired from our bus trip and had headaches from the altitude so were happy to be in bed by 9pm.
Early the next morning we were in a minibus riding on a small dirt track around rugged mountains. We passed through a couple of small villages, one with a stream running down most of the road which we splashed along.
After an hour or so we got to the start of the walking trail where we were greeted by some locals who offered us some horses to take us over the mountain. Jenn and Natasha were keen but the price was quite high so we decided just to walk it.We were at 2700m above sea level and the trek would take us up to almost 4000m before descending to around 3000 at Yubeng. The path climbed up steeply through a mixture of forest and open hillside higher and higher. It was a pleasant but strenuous walk and we passed several Chinese hikers finding it equally as tough. There was a good friendly spirit between hikers all encouraging each other on. “How far to the top?” we would ask those coming the opposite way. “Only 2 hours!” they would say. Then we would realise that was two hours walking downhill not uphill.
After a few hours Jenn and Natasha wished they had taken horses so when we passed some being taken down the hill they asked if they could hire them to go up (cost was now not an obstacle). But the horses were needed elsewhere so the girls had to carry on on foot. The path is used to carry everything over the mountain to the Yubeng villages as there is no road to connect it to the outside world. We saw horses carrying supplies including boxes of live chickens. “That will be our dinner tonight”, we thought.
Many things have to be carried by hand. We saw two guys struggling with a big metal water pipe, one on each end. Some others were carrying what looked like kitchen furniture on their backs including cupboards, tables and a kitchen sink. One guy had a massive water tank on his back. It made us stop complaining about our small day packs we were carrying.
Finally we reached the top of the mountain! The wooden summit was adorned with strings of Tibetan prayer flags all around and a shack where you could buy food and drinks. We managed to book a guesthouse in Yubeng with the help of a Chinese couple who were good enough to call on their phone for us. The couple spoke no English and we communicated with gestures and hand signals “Six people, three rooms, two nights, arriving today”. Most of the people living in this area are Tibetan and look quite different from the Han Chinese who form the majority in China. As we passed them on the trail they would shout out “Tashi Deley!” which means Hello! Good luck and may good things come to you today. We would reply “Tashi Deley!” and they would smile and laugh.
From the top of the mountain the path wound down through forest providing some welcome shade from the sun. We passed other hikers struggling up the hill or locals striding up leading their horses. Eventually we saw a green valley come into site nestled between giant snow mountains and in it the small settlement of Yubeng, our destination.
There are two Yubeng villages, Upper Yubeng on the hillside and Lower Yubeng on the valley floor. We were staying in Lower Yubeng. We entered Upper Yubeng first via a farm where pigs and chickens roamed about our path and villagers looked at us bemused as the six of us from around the world walked across the mud of their farmyard. We felt a little out of place but in an exciting way.
To get to the lower village we were directed to walk literally along a stream jumping from rock to rock and we happily descended into a small wooded gorge. Once we had crossed a bridge and climbed a small hill we entered Lower Yubeng walking passed a cluster of farms then onto the large flat valley where we found the “Mystic Waterfall Inn”.
It’s a guesthouse of about 15 basic rooms around a central grassy area where a few other intrepid guests were sitting around relaxing. The rooms were simple with two small beds and that’s about it. A single electric bulb dimly lit the room as the electricity here was of such low power it would barely cause the filament to glow. Even though the rooms were basic this seemed like perfection.
The view from the window was a picture postcard of a small stream with ducks on it, beyond which was a beautiful monastery in a valley with yaks roaming around all framed by huge mountains on all sides and in the distance a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. We had made it!
We sat around the grassy area on makeshift tables and chairs drinking tea, happy to relax. As it got darker and colder we moved inside to a dimly lit room set out with low wooden tables and benches. A whole stuffed dear stood in the middle of the room with eyes that followed you around. Behind a counter was a primitive kitchen where a wood fire was heating a large pot of water. There was a staff of about five preparing food.
One of those working was a rather manic looking guy with messy sticking up hair and carefree attitude. One moment he was serious the next he was laughing. He had shown us to our rooms earlier and spoke a bit of English. He gave us a menu and we ordered a few dishes to share. I had yak meat for the first time which tastes a bit like beef. The guesthouse had a bit of a rough-and-ready feel. The outside toilets were little more than a hole in the ground but the shower was good and hot. There was a similar easy-going, make do but slightly crazy feel to the people who worked there but maybe that comes with being in such an isolated place. A small group of Israeli hikers sat at the table next to us and two Russians at another. The food orders got a bit mixed up between the tables but we didn’t care. It all added to a crazy, overtired in the middle of nowhere in the middle of China feeling where we were communicating with hand gestures to equally crazy locals, but we were enjoying it. We were out of place not knowing quite what would happen next and it brought us and the other guests together. The crazy hair guy was called Nimbu or something like that as it seemed to change every time someone asked. We were a bit confused as we began to try to put together how the guesthouse functioned from fragments of english and overheard conversations. Nimbu was in charge but a guy called Aqinpu ran the place but he was away but we heard that his brother spoke English and was a guide we could talk to about trekking but we never saw him so we began to think he didn’t exist. “He’ll be back tonight” they said, but when, and what did he look like? In the evening Nimbu brought out the skull of a bear, the skin of which was hanging on one of the walls next to a stuffed raccoon. Later he brought out a plastic bag and we gathered around to see inside the rare caterpillar fungus; half caterpillar, half fungus which occurs when the fungus grows on a living caterpillar slowly eating it until it sprouts a stem from the caterpillar body. They are a Chinese delicacy. “Very rare and expensive” he said, laughing at our confused faces. Nimbu became a bit of a cult figure to us tourists, “He’s a hunter! He’s a cook! He’s a magician! He’s a dancer!”, someone shouted. Afraid to get further caught up in this madness we went to bed and slept well.
The next day we decided to hike up to a nearby waterfall. We ordered a breakfast of bread and hard-boiled eggs plus a scrambled egg and tomato mix. We packed away most of the eggs and bread for a picnic and set off along the valley floor passing the monastery and several monks. We passed the family of pigs that lived nearby and walked towards the tall snow mountains. We entered a forested area leading to a small river. When we got to the water’s edge we saw on the stony shore next to the river hundreds of small rocks that had been carefully stacked up.
It was an amazing and mysterious sight. The mountain we were heading for and the waterfall are sacred places for the Tibetan Buddhists who make a journey to it regularly, and the stacks of stones are built to encourage good luck and safety for the journey.
We walked under more prayer flags crisscrossing the path leading us on. We passed many Tibetans making the trip to the waterfall to pray. “Tashi Delay!” was the cheerful cry echoing around the valley. The path became steeper as we climbed higher until the waterfall came into sight.
Near to the waterfall a small glacier of ice and snow was gradually melting in the heat with the melt-water forming small streams running down over rocks and boulders. Big from Thailand was excited as he had never seen or touched snow before and seeing it so near he raced forward for a closer look.
He went up to it and touched it rather cautiously, smiling with a huge grin. Up close the ice seemed huge and monolithic filling a large area of the valley and up into the hills. It’s edge was ever-changing as it melted from below with mist pouring off like a freezer when the door has been opened. We climbed up on the ice and walked about on the crunchy snow like it was midwinter back home.
Tired but exhilarated we sat and ate our bread and eggs. As we walked back we met a group of Chinese tourists looking up at a tree. There was a local girl up the tree who was collecting berries and happily throwing some down to the group below. One of them explained that the girl said she would sing when we left and sure enough as we walked away we heard her beautiful, haunting voice float towards us in the breeze as she sang traditional songs. We passed back by the stone stacks, our minds full of the mysticism of nature.
It was mid afternoon when we arrived back at the guesthouse and one of the Israelis, who was an acupuncturist was performing a medical procedure on his friend which involved rubbing his shoulder with a stiff brush until it was red raw. But nothing surprised us now in this place.
In the evening we discussed ideas for our departure the next day. There were two options. The safe option was to walk back over the mountain the way we had come which we knew would involve a steep climb on our stiff and weary legs. But we had heard about an alternative route leading out of the village the opposite way following the river through a large gorge. A path that is known to the locals but little used by tourists. On the plus side it would be a mostly level or downwards trek taking just 5 hours to a bridge near a road from where we could be picked up and taken back to civilisation by minibus. This path passes through a spectacular gorge and beautiful hillside meadows. The down side is that it is said to be quite dangerous. The path is very narrow in places and winds its way very high up on the side of the gorge with a long scary drop down one side to the river and rocks below. Also it is prone to landslides and was sometimes impassable. We would need a local guide to take us and some steady nerves. After dinner the owners brother made an appearance and we asked him if we should attempt this route. He said we would be OK if we were careful and if it was at all raining we shouldn’t do it. We debated between us for quite some time before making our decision. We would do it!
We awoke early the next day. Would this be the last day of our trip and possibly our lives? After our breakfast of bread and eggs we waited a little nervously for our guide who the owners brother said he would organise. Our guide turned out to be Nimbu. Even more nervous, we set off. It started fairly easily with narrow but solid paths through the forest. We followed the course of a rapidly flowing youthful river which crashed against rocks in places and was gentle and calm in others as it descended into an ever growing gorge. The path began to get narrower, rocky and a bit slippery in places as it carved its way down on one side of the wooded valley.
Jenn slipped and fell a little bit at one point but was helped by our guide who turned out to be very good at looking after us and knew the path well having made the trek for years. Jenn later realised that she had ripped a small hole in her leggings, revealing her red undies – a fact that our guide found hilarious and he rolled about on the floor laughing.
The path lead us through beautiful meadows of wildflowers and amazing smelling herbs. We joyfully walked on, breathing the sweet smell and feeling very small amongst the huge hills on either side of us that started to form a giant gorge with the river gushing through.
The path became more difficult and at times was just a track of boulders and the drop on one side became higher and more severe. At our halfway point we stopped to eat our food. We met a group of local women coming the other way. Nimbu explained that one of the women was his wife who had come to take us the rest of the way while he would return to Yubeng. With our new guide leading the way we headed out to the most dangerous part. We crossed the river onto the left side of the gorge and started walking along a ledge cut into the side of the gorge about two-thirds the way up. Some of the water had been diverted from the river and along a small channel on the ledge that we were walking on.
So we were walking on a narrow path with the channel of water on our left and to our right was an almost shear drop down to the river below. To me it actually felt quite safe and manageable even though I don’t normally like heights. I just stayed near to the channel of water knowing that I would rather slip and get a wet foot than fall down the gorge. Jenn found the going a bit tough but with a lot of concentration bravely kept going. The gorge was huge and spectacular and it was exhilarating just to be there. The forest disappeared giving way to rugged and increasingly barren rock.
Then we hit a bit of an obstacle. At one point the stream of water at our side was overflowing across the path and down the side of the gorge in a small waterfall.
Amazingly the guide gingerly walked over the wet rocks on the path treading on the ones that were just poking up above the water that was flowing across. We looked but realised that one slip on a wet rock and you could easily fall down the gorge. We decided to take our shoes and socks off and walk in the channel of water passed the overflowing part. This way it was much safer. Big actually walked on the path like the guide but the rest of us didn’t take the chance.
The terrain became dryer and more desert-like, just dirt and rocks. At one point a landslide had gone across the path but we just walked right over it. As the gorge turns a corner the river flows into the Mekong river to begin its long journey through southern China, Vietnam and into Cambodia. Maybe we shall see it again later in our trip.
Eventually we saw a small settlement come into sight. We climbed and slid down a crumbling path to a rickety looking suspension bridge across the river. From there we walked into what seemed like a road construction site to try to meet the minibus which had been called for us by the guide. As we came to the bus it was about to leave with some other people, the driver having obviously given up on us. Luckily we got there just in time and the driver kicked the other guys out. We bought some drinks from some men there who were selling them from a shipping container which they were sitting inside. They had a fridge in there full of drinks and a table and chairs you could sit on. They invited us to sit down for a drink and a chat but we said we had to go. It felt very off the beaten track here, free, lawless and a little crazy.
We got in the minibus and headed out on what turned out to be the most terrifying part of the journey. We had to drive up what seemed like a steep mountain made of stone and rubble that had been excavated while building the road. The rough track zig-zagged up the hill with a frightening drop down the side. There was no vegetation or trees that might prevent us falling if we got too near the edge. It was nerve-wracking and wasn’t helped by the fact that our driver was simultaneously talking on the phone with one hand and trying to drink tea from a flask in the other, while also trying to maneuver around the tricky switchbacks with his elbows. After we arrived safely at Deqin one of the German brothers who had been sitting in the front seat next to the driver explained that the driver had also been falling asleep and at one point he had to grab the wheel to prevent us from falling into the gorge. Had we noticed this at the time I think we would have got out and walked.
Relaxing in the restaurant in the evening together we drank a few bottles of Dali beer and reflected on our adventure. It was a real highlight on our trip and was great to do it with such nice travel companions who made it so enjoyable, and it was a bonus to have survived to tell the tale.