Gate­way to the Hi­malayas, Li­jiang is an an­cient city full of cul­ture from the lo­cal eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties, as well as a per­fect jump­ing-off point for hik­ing in the up­per reaches of the mighty Yangtze River

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Francesca Triggs

Tak­ing the Tiger by the Tail

In the north­west of Yun­nan, a province which stretches from the moun­tains of the Hi­malaya to the jun­gles of Southeast Asia, lies the an­cient town of Li­jiang, framed by the snowy peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Moun­tain. Pre­vi­ously a tran­sit point on the An­cient Tea Horse Road – think the Silk Road, but for tea – Li­jiang is known not only for its breath­tak­ing nat­u­ral scenery, but also as a site of cul­tural com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween sev­eral eth­nic groups, in­clud­ing the Naxi, Ti­betan and Bai com­mu­ni­ties. Such is the beauty of the old town that it earned a place on the list of UNESCO World Her­itage sites, draw­ing tourists from afar to wan­der its cob­bled streets. Sixty kilo­me­ters north of the town, on the east of the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau, is the spec­tac­u­lar Tiger Leap­ing Gorge, one of the deep­est river canyons in the world. It is also con­sid­ered one of China's most stun­ning hikes, pro­vid­ing both breath­tak­ing views, nat­u­ral un­paved hik­ing trails and an in­sight into the lives of the lo­cal Naxi com­mu­ni­ties who live there.

Even though we only had two full days in the area, we saw a great deal, and left again en­chanted. We ar­rived in Li­jiang on the bumpy overnight train from the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal Kun­ming. On board we shared a com­part­ment with two be­mused brothers from the town of Shangri-la (also known as Zhong­dian) who of­fered us sun­flower seeds, cig­a­rettes and liquor. I think we made quite an im­pres­sion on them – be­fore dis­em­bark­ing they in­formed us that they would like to send their sons to the UK to find wives. At 5:30am we pulled into Li­jiang, greeted by light rain – the cooler weather here was ex­tremely wel­come af­ter the heat of Kun­ming.

We be­gan the day wan­der­ing the old town's maze of cob­bled streets, lined with old-style tea­houses, and smart shops sell­ing the lo­cal spe­cial­ity rose cakes and yak meat. Fol­low­ing a dev­as­tat­ing earthquake in Fe­bru­ary 1996, sub­stan­tial ef­forts were made to ren­o­vate the town in keep­ing with the orig­i­nal lay­out, restor­ing the orig­i­nal ar­chi­tec­ture as far as pos­si­ble in or­der to pre­serve “his­tor­i­cal au­then­tic­ity.” One of the town's most im­pres­sive fea­tures is the sys­tem of wa­ter­ways which branches out across the town and down its maze of nar­row al­ley­ways. Th­ese are fed by the wa­ters of Black Dragon Pool to the north of the town, which in turn flow from the springs of Jade Dragon Snow Moun­tain. One could hap­pily spend hours in Black Dragon Pool Park, wan­der­ing along the crys­tal-clear streams, watch­ing the bright green wa­ter weeds danc­ing in the cur­rent. Ex­pan­sive ponds re­flect the dis­tant moun­tain's jagged sil­hou­ette, and the vi­brant col­ors of the Qing and Ming dy­nasty pago­das lin­ing their banks. The re­sult is a nat­u­ral wa­ter­color paint­ing across the sur­face, a still image in­ter­rupted only by the oc­ca­sional rip­ple of a swoop­ing bird, or of the sur­fac­ing of the brightly col­ored gold­fish in­hab­it­ing its depths.

In con­trast with this vi­sion of tran­quil­ity, come evening, the streets of Li­jiang were ab­so­lutely buzzing with peo­ple, noises and smells, and near the main square, large rowdy bars se­duce passers-by with scant­ily clad ta­ble top dancers and large quan­ti­ties of beer.

The next morn­ing, we caught an early bus into the moun­tains for the Tiger Leap­ing Gorge hike, which many peo­ple take two days to do. We opted to dis­em­bark at Qiao­tou where we paid a lo­cal shop owner 80 yuan to drive us most of the way up to­ward the Naxi Guest­house – this ini­tial sec­tion is all road and no views, so can be skipped. Al­ter­na­tively, the bus can drop you at an­other spot for a shorter loop walk, but this misses a

lot of the most beau­ti­ful scenery.

Un­like China's other more touristy moun­tain hikes, there were no other trav­el­ers in sight here. It was also won­der­fully quiet, bar of course the odd dy­na­mite ex­plo­sion in the dis­tance – a large in­fra­struc­ture project is cur­rently un­der­way to build a tun­nel through the moun­tain. Af­ter the Naxi Guest­house, the trail is marked in­ter­mit­tently with red spray-painted ar­rows and blue signs. The first cou­ple of hours of the trek were the tough­est, con­sti­tut­ing a seem­ingly never-end­ing se­ries of stone steps wind­ing up the moun­tain un­der a mer­ci­less sun. Be­fore long one reaches the dreaded “28 bends,” marked by a warn­ing sign scrawled in white paint across the wall of a stone hut. Within this hut lurks a lady is­su­ing warn­ings to trav­el­ers that she is their last chance of procur­ing drink­ing wa­ter – this is a lie. Drink­ing wa­ter is avail­able for pur­chase at the top of the 28 bends, as well as at homes­tay houses along the walk.

The bends were in­deed tough, though, and lasted about an­other hour, but we were re­warded at the top by the most spec­tac­u­lar view of the gorge. As we stood on the rocks over­look­ing the steep ravine, the Jin­sha River (lit­er­ally “Golden sands” the name given to the up­per reaches of the Yangtze River) roared fu­ri­ously be­low us, a thun­der­ous sound which echoed around the stun­ning rock faces, their hues of black, grey and white shin­ing in the mid­day sun. For an even more im­pres­sive view one can pay a mod­est 10 yuan fee (US$1.4) to gain ac­cess to a path lead­ing down to an ex­posed cliff edge, guarded by an­other lady in a card­board hut (she waives this if you buy some­thing from her stall).

Af­ter try­ing, and fail­ing, to cap­ture the beauty of the scenery with hun­dreds of pho­tos, we headed down­hill through a for­est, stop­ping for a very scenic lunch on the roof of the Tea Horse Guest­house. The next stage brought with it ever more spec­tac­u­lar Tolkienesque scenery, ferns brush­ing our legs as we walked un­der black over­hang­ing cliffs, dodg­ing roam­ing herds of cows and goats. As we ap­proached Half­way Inn (which, mis­lead- in­gly, is not half­way but close to the end of the hike), the tem­per­a­ture be­gan to drop and sud­denly dark clouds were blow­ing across the gorge. We hur­ried along the nar­row cliff edge, scram­bling over rocky land­slide de­bris and over water­falls, keen to make it to the end of the trail be­fore the storm hit. Even in good con­di­tions the nar­row path is not safe, drop­ping off sharply down the gorge. One stum­ble and you could be on your way down to the river.

The hike ends with a steep half-hour scram­ble down the moun­tain­side to Tina's Guest­house. Although this marks the end of the longer hike, those who plan to spend the night here may choose to con­tinue on down to ex­plore the river. How­ever, we were keen to make it back to Li­jiang that night. As evening set in, too late to in­ter­cept the last bus from Shangri-la back to Li­jiang and with no taxis avail­able, the land­lady talked her grudg­ing hus­band into driv­ing us back for a to­tal of 450 yuan (US$65). We climbed into his car as the sky dark­ened, set­ting off down the wind­ing road with stun­ning views of the gorge just as streaks of light­ing lit up the sky ahead, thun­der roared in the dis­tance, and a heavy rain be­gan to fall.

Prac­ti­cal­i­ties The bus to TLG leaves Li­jiang around 8:30am, although some guest­houses can ar­range trans­port ear­lier. For those who choose to take a longer trip, stay­ing overnight at the Naxi Guest­house and then set­ting off early in the morn­ing, there is a bus that leaves around 3pm from Tina’s Guest­house back to Li­jiang.Tick­ets to en­ter the park cost 65 yuan (US$9.5) – half price for stu­dents. Li­jiang can be reached by air – the air­port is to the south of the city – or train from Kun­ming, which takes around 8-9 hours. There are fre­quent bus con­nec­tions from Dali, Shangri-la and Kun­ming. Li­jiang, Yun­nan

A tra­di­tional street in Li­jiang

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