Magical trip to see the wonders of Nature
05.06.2014 - 10.06.2014 25 °C
Never expected to be back in China so fast so soon after my recent Jiangnan trip. This time it was at the last minute invitation of a friend. It was basically a toss-up between Lijiang and Guilin. We did consider Myanmar but it was out for now as visa required (too last minute to apply) but definitely I this would be a future destination next time. We ended up almost picking Macau / Zhuhai having run out of suitable tour packages on offer from various agencies but not for the fact that we finally found this Lijiang package on our last call that suited our schedules. I always had a soft spot for Lijiang after I saw the beautiful pictures on Facebook that my friend took and always wanted to make a trip to see its beauty with my own eyes so in a way it was me who had a great influence on our eventual choice!
The trip took us to Yunnan province and covered Dali (大理), Lijiang （丽江） and Shangri-la （香格里拉）. We skipped Kunming as this would mean another extra 2 days of travelling which was both tiring and schedule tight.
Tigerair flies direct from Singapore to Lijiang (that’s the beauty of Singapore, with flights to uncommon destinations) although the flight do not seem regular so do check schedules. I usually don’t pay attention to window seat scenery but this is one journey whereby window seat is highly recommended. Due to high mountainous area, one gets a magnificent view of the mountains and some spectacular greenery view just before landing. Also because of this the pilot has to skillfully maneuver the plane to avoid crashing into the mountains. It was both exciting and trilling plane ride. I was very encouraged by the good start and hoped this was a prelude of more good scenery to come.
We landed in Lijiang airport in the hot summer heat. The temperature was no different as compared back home but due to higher altitude, the ultra violet rays were stronger. We proceeded to take a 5 hour bus ride to Dali. Along the treacherous road, we passed by mountains and more mountains, taking into view the scenery along the way.
Dali city itself is not heavily populated, which is one thing I like. However, due to tour schedules, we only covered Dali Old Town and Chong Shen Temple. I sure would like to have more time to cover more areas!
Dali Old Town (大理古镇)
Having been to various parts of China, I noted that old towns are a common theme in various cities. Dali is no exception. These are basically old structures and towns refitted and renovated for commercial tourism. Along the streets you can buy local produce, food and basically just about anything local. There are even a few bars and cafes where one can just rest their feet and enjoy a cuppa. The human traffic wasn’t heavy also which gave us time to walk slowly and just enjoy the journey without have to fight through congested crowds. There are a few spots for photo buffs most notably at the main entrance where the bright lights illuming the city entrance makes it a wonder spot for a memorable picture.
The next day we went to Chong Shen temple (崇审寺). The most noticeable landmark is the 3 pagodas standing which is said to serve as a symbol of blessing to this city. What is unique about the temple is that it encompasses various aspects of Buddhist and Taoist teachings with influence by local beliefs in different temple location三, showing acceptance to different practices and beliefs. This would be a good ‘museum’ if one wishes to understand both Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. The area is rather huge so to really explore the place by foot in full could take at least 3 quarter days.
We then proceeded to Er Hai （洱海）. It is actually not a sea but a large lake. The locals depend on it for their livelihoods by fishing. We took a boat ride out to the lake and enjoyed the breeze and lake view. There was also a ‘demonstration’ on how the locals use birds which can dive into the lake to catch fish. Turns out this was only for show as I noticed the fish was already dead when the bird scooped it out from the water. I also heard the birds had their necks constricted to prevent them from swallowing the fish in whole. Sad but true.
It is a pity we missed Cang San (仓山). We did pass by it but did not get a chance to explore it.
We then proceeded back to Lijiang. The city itself is more congested than Dali with more mainland Chinese from other parts of China gathering here to do business plus Lijiang itself is already a well known tourist spot.
We once again proceeded to another old town （丽江古城）. We actually also made a return trip to the old town on one of our free nights to cover the unexplored parts of the town. Unlike Dali Old Town, commercialization and tourist dollars has caused it to lose the sort of special luster that such old towns deserve. Besides food and local produce, there was a stretch being allocated for pub street where beer was served and loud music was played at night. I can imagine the forefathers of this old town must be turning in their graves if they found out that their beloved town has turned into such a place!
Some common items on sale include precious metals and stones, especially silver and jade. Advisable not to buy these are we are no experts in such stuff and can easily be conned. The locally recommended food is Xian Hua Bing (鲜花饼). Besides this another unique item on ‘sale’ is drums. If one does not wish to buy them, one can spend some time to learn some skills from the shop owners. Or buy a CD. And there is this common one song that everybody keeps playing that is still ringing in my head! It is heartening to see so many people still dedicated to music.
Another area worth mentioning is Wan Gu Lou (万古楼). This was a place where one gets a paranormal view of Lijiang town. The guide actually tried to dissuade us from going as he said the route to the top was tough and was exhausting (no pain no gain). Ended up only 3 of us insisted on going and we were rewarded with a magnificent view from the top! Actually he exaggerated the difficulty of the journey. Sure we had to walk upslope and took steps but was not a difficult walk since there was no time constrain. And we almost missed the view because of his words if not for our insistence!
On return to Lijiang from Shangri-la, we visited Hei Long Tan （黑龙潭）. Actually I didn’t plan to log this down if not for what I felt was some of the best photo shots taken during the entire trip at this location – beats even Shi Ka mountain shots. Well, the curse of the Group tour as we left barely 15 minutes after reaching the park. If only we had more time!
Guan Fang Hotel (官方旅店)
Usually I don’t talk about hotels but this is one unique experience that I simply have to mention. Due to Lijiang’s geographic location at higher altitudes, high rise buildings are rare. The hotel we stayed is spread out over a large land area built in a chalet style format. The individual blocks are 3-stories tall and occupy about 5 rooms per block. On the ground floor is a living room with a large sofa and a big plasma TV where people can gather round in comfort to chit chat and drink tea, just like being at home. This sure beats having a gathering in the confined space of a cramped hotel room. What’s so unique about this hotel is that there is a dedicated housekeeper / butler to serve each individual block. The housekeeper even prepares breakfast for everybody, giving one the feel of being at home away from home. It is styled something like Taiwan’s Min-Su (民宿) concept.
The first housekeeper we met was a cute young girl who was very dedicated and attentive to details. The second one we met on our return stay was the more shy and reserved type. Overall, I loved this concept and really enjoyed my stay there. One minus point is that some of the items in the room are old but still it does not devalue the experience. Also if only there were more facilities like a swimming pool or a gym just like a chalet! Think I am asking for too much!
This is definitely a good location to wind down, do nothing and just relax.
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山)
This was one of the most anticipated attractions of this tour. However, it turned out to be a letdown due to cloudy weather.
The journey started off well enough. During the bus ride we continued to enjoy the scene of majestic mountains. Our first stop was to catch the mega show “Impression of Lijiang”, which we were almost late. It was an impressive act with hundreds of cast dancing away. However, the show was constantly interrupted by the entry of late spectators and continued until the 45 minute mark of the 70 minute show. This proved to be a huge source of irritation as our efforts to enjoy the show were distracted constantly. Sad but this is the way the show organizers wanted to milk more money by admitting more spectators even as the show was well and truly underway.
After lunch we continued our journey to two key attractions. First stop was the Yak ranch against the backdrop of the Jade Snow Mountain. Unfortunately, the weather was not perfect and we could only see the bottom half of the mountain, with the top part being blocked by clouds. We then walked one big round around the ranch hoping for better weather as time passed but the clouds did not break, which was a big disappointment.
We then went to Lan Yue Gu (蓝月谷), a huge lake with shades of green and blue colored water. From far the lake looks magnificent but on closer look, I would only give it a 6.5 of 10. Perhaps my bar has been raised sigificantly after the lakes I witnessed in Jiu Zhai Gou （九寨沟）during my Sichuan trip.
I was left slightly disappointed when we left and hoped for better scenery in the remaining attractions yet to be visited in the next 2 days.
Shangri-La is primary a Tibetan-influenced town located approximately 3,200m above see level. For those who envision the utopian land with lush mountains and endless greenery grassland associated with the mystical land would surely be bitterly disappointed. Originally known as Zhong Dian County it was then referred as Shangri la, I suspect, for commercial reasons. The city is as much a Chinese city as other parts of China, albeit on a 10 times smaller scale. Although primarily a Tibetan influenced area, this county is as commercial and modern as other Chinese city. Just the presence of a cinema showing latest Hollywood blockbuster movies and KFC tells you as much. Interestingly, Shangri-la chain of hotels is also set to build a hotel on their namesake territory!
We covered the Old town overlooking a monastery. Incidentally this was the location where the fire burned down the houses recently but by some miracle the monastery escaped unscathed. After settling down in our hotel, we proceeded to watch a local dance performance having thought there was no activity at night. How wrong we were! Along the way we saw the glittering streets and even locals dancing away in the park, just like what we witnessed in Chengdu’s People’s Park and Cambodia’s Sisowath Quey. Had I known before hand this was quite a modern Chinese city I might have instead spent the night wandering the streets and clocking my KFC! But still no regrets on watching the dance show. It was worth it and time well spent.
One thing to note on oxygen canister. We were told to buy one for insurance sake in case of breathing difficulties. Actually I felt no difficulty at high altitude but as different bodies react differently to high altitudes, it was better to get one if not for a peace of mind.
Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡)B
Before we reached Shangri-la, we visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This was a river with fierce flowing water. I cannot find words to described what I have seen。One has to be there to witness it yourself to appreciate what I have seen. Breathtaking is the best word I could think of. At least at this moment of my life, this was the most impressive fierce flowing river (hence the name of the gorge) that I have seen. There were 2 view points, one from the top and the other closer to the edge and both offered different angles. Due to higher altitude, we were told to take out time to descent to the base and even slower to ascend from the base and for those who found it tough, not to continue the journey to the bottom. Or alternatively there were human carriages, for a fee f course. And I can say the ascend back to the top was tough as I panted and puffed my way hauling myself back up! I think I should work on my fitness again! I certainly enjoyed the view and finally found my money’s worth.
Shi Ka Mountain (石卡雪山)
After the euphoric of Tiger Leaping Gorge came the next highlight of the tour and the most challenging - to ascend 4,400m above sea level to the top of the Shi Ka Mountain attraction. I hoped for good weather unlike the experience back in Jade Dragon Mountain.
The journey was broken into 2 sections – ascend to the second base camp via cable car and if one felt fine, then to ascend again by cable car to the summit. Due to different people’s reaction to high altitude, safety was always emphasized and those who could not continue were asked not to ascend to the top. And of course to breathe from the oxygen canister purchased constantly.
Getting into the cable car was a funny experience; one car could take 8 people and for those with slow reaction would find it slow to get on the car leaving the last man scrambling into the car! Along both rides we took in some nice scenic shots.
Once we reached the top, it was an exciting experience. Due to summer weather, it was not as cold but still a minimum jacket was necessary. I was once again disappointed by the thick clouds overhanging us which reduced visibility and hence we could not see far. Then just as mysteriously, as if an answer to my prayers, the winds began to slow and the clouds started to break, giving us some spectacular view of the Snow Mountains, albeit mountains without the snow. I stood there not quite mouth open yet (still does not beat what I have seen on route to Hung Long in Sichuan Province) but still you have to marvel at Mother Nature’s beauty. I wanted to stay and just stare afar to enjoy this unique and rare experience. But as time ran out and the group slowly made their descent, I reluctantly followed. A truly sad moment.
Onto the second base camp and everybody literally had a field day taking photos of the greenery fields with azalea flower, against the backdrop of the mountains. Some were even being harnessed by hungry wild boars! When time was up everybody reluctantly left.
Shu He Old Town (束和古镇)
This is another old town located in another part of Lijiang. Unlike Lijing Old Town, it is not as congested and we had a good walk inside and enjoying the slower pace in life. Items on sale are similar to Lijing old town minus the bars and loud music. I just hope commercial dollars does not invade and ruin it soon.
It was finally time to leave for home and we brought back good memoires. Although it may not be as spectacular as what I had expected, still it was a wonderful trip.