We arrived in Beijing on April 1st and after eating some really bad food at the Shanghai Restaurant in the Food Court, we went for a walk up Chang An Da Jie just to try to stay awake and get on China time.
April 2nd: We had lunch at a fancy old Beijing restaurant known for its Beijing Caw Ya (Roasted Duck). It is one of the few restaurants I encountered in China that served organic vegetables. Afterwards we went to the Summer Palace, where we spent the rest of the day exploring. The air quality had become very bad and was at 254 (over 60 is bad for your health) and as everywhere in China, it was extremely crowded. We had an enjoyable time though walking around the lake which the emperor had made for his own enjoyment, and admiring the 17th century architecture. When it got late we began looking for taxi but found none. So we hired this woman on an ATV who drove us dangerously bouncing around in the back, along the highway to the Subway Station.
April 3rd: The air was very bad so we stayed inside until we flew to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, where we met up with our travel companions from France, Danielle, Patrick, and Claudine. We arrived late and just checked into our hotel, Expo Garden Hotel, said hello to our companions and headed off to bed.
April 4th we had an extensive breakfast at the hotel’s wonderful breakfast buffet, before meeting our driver who drove us to the Stone Forest for a day of wandering around these spectacular karst formations of limestone pinnacles. As usual it was extremely crowded. We hired a guide who was from the Yi ethnic minority. She was dressed in the traditional Yi clothing and only spoke Mandarin. The things she was saying were nonsense anyway about what kinds of things the formations looked like and silly legends. After leaving Stone Forest our driver was very recalcitrant and tried to tell us he couldn’t drive us anywhere else. We demanded, however, that he drive us back to Kunming to the Ethnic Minority Museum. We got stuck in some horrific traffic though due to a man in cardiac arrest on the side of the road, and only arrived with 30 minutes to explore this wonderful museum. While wandering the open hallways I found a beautiful Common Hoopoe perched in a tree just feet away. There was much to see but soon the museum closed and we had to leave. Next we walked around Dian Chi, a large lake in Kunming. We had an uninspired dinner at some Muslim restaurant near the Garden Expo Hotel before heading off to bed.
April 5th we again had a huge breakfast at the Garden Expo Hotel of dumplings, noodles, hot buns, you name it, before meeting a new driver for the duration of the trip, Mr. Ma, who picked us up at the Expo and drove us for eight hours to Li Jiang. Li Jiang is at 7500 feet and home to the Naxi ethnic minority. Mr. Ma was an excellent driver and provided ongoing commentary about the surroundings. We were hungry and so we had to stop at a rest stop for dinner. It was very unsanitary and I was afraid to eat. They only had Dali beer which was so bad and was only 3% alcohol, hardly worth the calories.
In Li Jiang we stayed first at the Yonsamity Hotel in Old Town. After walking from the road to the hotel which was tucked inside the maze of narrow cobblestone roads that make up the quaint old town, we walked up a hill for a view of the city with its lovely tiled roofs framed by the mountains. Then we walked the cobblestone roads of old town admiring the tiled roofs, excellent woodwork of the buildings, and the old waterwheel, a World Heritage Site. Soon the sun set and the ugly side of old town took over with crowded noisy bars overflowing with noisy tourists blaring competing music across narrow passageways. We had a great dinner of local fish in a hot pot while the others had yak meat and also had excellent Tibetan beer before we decided to retire for the night to our great hotel. The hotel was a refurbished old house well equipped with modern bathroom fixtures and amenities. The whole town of Li Jiang is surrounded by snowy mountains. It’s a beautiful old town that no one knew about until an earthquake in the 1980s brought relief workers to help out. After seeing how beautiful it was the quaint undiscovered little town of ethnic minorities had been discovered and became almost overnight a major tourist destination.
April 6th we checked out of Yonsamity and drove three kms to La Shi Lake which the guide book said was beautiful. I thought we would be hiking above the lake for great views but when we arrived we were told our only choices were to ride a horse or kayak the lake. We did not want to ride horses so we chose the kayaks. Walking was not allowed. We got our kayaks but there was nowhere to go and not much to see. It was also windy and unpleasant. There were a few Red-billed Gulls on the lake and that was it. We had hot pot lunch near the lake and left. Next we went to the ridiculous Romance Park, which used to be a real Na Xi village but had been torn down to build a fake one instead. The whole park was made to look like Disney Land. I hated it. We walked around for a while and then we went inside this giant auditorium to watch a show which was ridiculous and kind if like Shen Yun in that it told the story of China with dancers and flashy outfits. Everyone was filming it with their phones but when I pulled out my Video camera I got yelled at in Chinese. We left the park after the show ended and I was glad. I don’t recommend it. The park was hideous except that it is surrounded by the beautiful Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
After leaving the first old town of Li Jiang we moved to the second Ancient Town, Shu He, where we stayed at the River Hotel. This part of Li Jiang is much quieter. We hiked high above the town amidst the Tibetan prayer flags for more great views of the surrounding mountains and the old town of Shu He. Afterwards we walked over a 500 year old well polished marble bridge in town.
The next day we drove a short distance to Black Dragon Pond Park. You see the picture of the pond framed by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in all the guidebooks. This is a must see place. It was truly wonderful to walk around. Although there are few untamed places not trammeled by the multitudes this park at least was full of trees and birds. We stopped at the Longevity Park for tea and nearby some old people were dancing in the streets. The Naxi have lived in this area for 800 years. First they were conquered by Kubla Khan. He left and later they were dominated by the Han people who make up 90% of the Chinese people today. But the Naxi minority still thrives today in small numbers in Li Jiang still wearing their traditional dress and practicing their old ways. The Na Xi had a deep connection to nature and some of it showed in this terrific little park.
The next day we left Li Jiang and drove a winding road that climbed into the mountain high above Jin Sha Jiang, Gold Sands River, the headwaters of the Yangtze River. The road had commanding views of these upper stretches of the Yangtze. Our destination was Lugu Lake at 9800 feet, a beautiful subalpine lake that closely resembled Lake Tahoe. The lake is the second deepest in China at 45 meters deep. It is 2600 meters and is framed by Lion Mountain (Gemu) at 3784 meters. The lake separates Yunnan Province from Sechan. Below the overlook you could see the tiny village of Da Lo where we would stay the next two nights while exploring the lake. The village is an old Mosuo village, another of Yunnan’s 50 ethnic minorities. We had a fantastic dinner of local fish in a hot pot made right at the table with local vegetables picked from the mountainside.
In the morning everyone gets up early hoping to get postcard pictures of the sun rising over the lake. It wasn’t that great when we were there. We then started our tour around the lake. We went to Acacia Village Temple, a Buddhist temple. The Mosuo were not Buddhists; Buddhism was introduced to them by the Tibetans who are very nearby. We also went to the Magpie Bridge before taking a ski lift up Gemu to the summit at 11,000 feet. Mosuo are the only matriarchal society left in the world. They don’t believe in marriage. But at the top of Gemu is a cave where they would go to have romantic encounters. There were monkeys at the summit who had obviously been accepting illegal treats from the tourists. One of them attacked Danielle.
On Sunday we had breakfast in town and the owner had made Chinese buckwheat pancakes for us. I should not have eaten the whole thing. She made them way bigger than we were expecting big enough to share between four people. Later I felt sick and was not able to eat lunch and Jie got very sick that night with food poisoning. We left the lake and drove back to Li Jiang to the third old town, Ba Sha. Our first stop was the Bai Sha Museum which had 14th Century frescoes from the Ming Dynasty. The museum was framed by Snow Mountain and the courtyard had a 500 year old Fern Leaf Willow and a 460 year old Ginko Biloba.
we went to Tiger Leaping Gorge which was a huge disappointment. It had a wooden staircase down to the gorge that was full of tourists and trash in the water. There were people there who would carry you down on a cart if you couldn’t make it. On the other side of the gorge was a great looking trail that was empty and looked fabulous. Why couldn’t we have gone there? We left the gorge and had lunch and some great buckwheat tea in town.
Next we drove a very long way to Shangri la (Xianggelila). It is very beautiful there. I enjoyed this part of the trip the most. On the way we traveled over a highway high above the Yangzi River with commanding views of it. We stopped and had lunch across from the river. They pulled a fish out of a tub and scaled and gutted it right there and also decapitated a chicken from the yard. Finally after eight hours of driving we came to the magnificent Lugu Lake where we stayed for three nights. The lake is a spectacular blue color and has an island in the middle of it. On one side is Yunnan and the other is Sichuang (where they eat incredibly hot food). One day we took a walk over the Walking Marriage Bridge and also had lunch in Sichuang. Mostly we took incredible pictures of the beautiful lake. We stayed at a lodge next to the lake and had a very tasty meal one night in town. We sat around a table with a steam pot in the middle. We picked out vegetables from the fridge and they steamed them in the bowl along with a fish fresh from the lake. It was delicious. The morning we left Lugu Hu we had a lady make us fresh shougum pancakes. She made them much larger than we were expecting. I should not have eaten the whole thing as I felt sick later after we left Lugu Hu.
We drove a very long way to Dukezong in Xianggelila (Shangri-La) We climbed up 10,000 to get there and as we approached the wooden houses built by the Tibetans became larger and larger. As Shangri la borders Tibet there is a heavy Tibetan influence in this area set aside by the Chinese government to appease the Tibetans in China. After checking into the Blossom Hill Inn in the middle of Dukezong I headed for a walk around town where I saw some interesting birds on a lake. When the sun went down we took a stroll around town to a small monastery in the middle of town that has the largest prayer wheel in the world, Guishan Park. It is lit up at night and has great views around Shangri-La. If several people work together they can get the wheel moving.
The next day we headed out of town to China’s first National Park, Potatso National Park. It was April so things had not started to bloom and it was still brown and not green like you see in the photos. However, it was a very beautiful park full of wild horses and yaks. Most of the park is only accessible by the park bus. They will let you get out at specific stops and walk on boardwalks only. The park reminded me of Denali except for the prohibition against walking around.
The next day our driver, Mr. Ma, drove us to Songzhanlin Scenic Spot and Gamden Sumtseling Monastery. The monastery, a 500 year old Yellow Sect Buddhist Tibetan, is the second largest Tibetan monastery in the world and is known as Little Potola. It was huge and spectacular. The rooms were elaborately decorated with beautiful paintings and gold buddas everywhere. The rooms said to remain silent and respectful but as with every tourist spot in China there were tour guides with loudspeakers blaring out their commentary inside the prayer rooms, very annoying and disrespectful. After visiting the rooms and watching a monk bang on a drum while intermittently checking his cell phone, we headed to the Lamuzin Zhou Wetland Refuge. The gigantic monastery was reflecting in the wetland making for some spectacular photos. There were a lot of birds and ducks and unlike most of China it was very peaceful.