Chinese tourists just love Lijiang. When I arrived you couldn’t move for them and the winding alleyways and narrow lanes clogged with humanity as a result, which is a great shame and a perfect example of the behemoth that is the burgeoning middle class of China. It has been said that more than 50% of China’s entire population is middle class, and they want a holiday! The small city receives 5 million domestic tourists every year, all of them convening in the old town. With me.
Like many popular destinations, Lijiang is a victim of its own success. Free of people, the old town would be a beautiful calm place. Crystal streams flow down hill, bridged by ornate red wooden structures and stone crossings as old as the town itself. Today though, the shuffling masses take the shine off what would have been a great place a few years ago. Some say these places exist still, but if you’ve read the town’s name in a guide book, chances are it’s too late. Such is life when travelling through China. The domestic tourism industry is so massive, any time something gets a sniff of interest, it’s drowning in stalls selling random tat, sub-par street vendors and touts, all vying for your money.
Fortunately I was only in Lijiang for a single night before heading off to see what I was really here for: Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is a remarkable scar across the landscape where two mountain ridges lie very closely to each other, with the raging Yangtze river cutting a deep chasm at the base of where they meet. The result is a nearly sheer climb from the river to the peaks of up to 5,600 metres. It is quite an awe inspiring view.
The trek itself takes you from the western rises of the gorge, all the way to the other side if you wish, but most people take about three quarters of the way and call it enough. The single high path weaves its way through farmland, old local villages, bamboo forests and grassy flats.
The views remain remarkable, but it is never too wild, with a paved road near the river side always in view if you peer over the edge of the path. Contrary to the treks I made in South America, this really was a walk in the park. With one steep section in the entire trek (before which is a woman who insists you drink her honey tea and buy marijuana from her), the route is accessible to anyone with a modicum of fitness. If you are planning on doing this walk, do your homework but don’t be put off by reports of dangers etc. Try to avoid the rain, and you will be fine (reports of locals extorting money from walkers are mostly restricted to the summer months so bear that in mind). Getting from the trail head to any one of the guest houses en route for a night is easy. Once complete, you can take a bus back to Lijiang, or do what I did and go north to Shangri-La.
The novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton gave birth to the idea of a Shangri-La, a paradise supposedly found in the area east of the Himalayas. What is now known as “Shangri La” was only called such in 2001 after Chinese academics “analysed Hilton’s text carefully” to ascertain that indeed, this was the location of Hilton’s lost paradise. That Hilton never visited China was a moot point it seems. In any case, the old town survives, and in a similar fashion to Lijiang is awash with tourists and tatty shops, restaurants and guest houses. The major difference is that this place is undeniably Tibetan. It can be seen in the faces of the locals and the Buddhism that is practised here – very different to that in the rest of China. It is also cold. Bone chillingly cold.
In the midsts of winter, temperatures drop to minus 20 or below and the roads can become closed due to the snow. Fortunately the heavy snows had yet to fall, so I shuffled out with a set of clothes designed for beaches in Thailand, to be greeted with a light sleet and a night of minus five. To do… what?
Simply put, Shangri La is not a particularly interesting town. The landscape is pleasant enough, but not as dramatic as the gorges to the south or the soaring peaks to the north and the west. It is a staging post almost, which has I known I may not have bothered visiting but I was here so what to do? Well, there is the Songzanlin monastery which is awash with prayer flags, vast murals of Buddhist deities, golden Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and smiling monks of all ages; much more cheerful than most of the surly monks I had encountered thus far. There is also the largest prayer wheel in the world. It takes 20 or so people to get it moving, and I don’t want to show off, but it didn’t start moving until I started to help…
A number of people I had spoken to were in town as a jumping off point further north or in to Tibet proper; something I wasn’t able to do without the proper permit. Others planned on taking the several day journey in to Chengdu via the mountain passes on rickety old buses. More power to them!
After two nights only, I decided to hotfoot it back south and make the journey all the way to Dali. With an unfortunate but necessary night stop in Lijiang (for the last time! hurrah!), it was down to much warmer climes.
Dali has been on the backpacker circuit for decades and was considered a good place to hang up the flip flops for a while and soak up the local vibe. Those days have mostly passed as the town and the surrounding area has been discovered by the package tourists too. It is in no way as bad as Lijiang, but the central streets have been spruced up for SLR toting Chinese visitors and that ‘local vibe’ can be hard to find. It’s not impossible though, and the town retains a lot of charm. It is a working town too, so you are as likely to be walking against a crowd of school children or fruit sellers as you are a sea of flag bearing tour groups.
Local attractions are not numerous but there is plenty to keep your attention span, from making a circuit of the adjacent lake, to hiking up to the “Sky Path” which winds its way along the mountain side several hundred metres above the town. There are chair lifts you can take up to it, but where’s the fun in that?
Local villages have markets that absolutely do not cater to tourists: pig’s heads are cleaved asunder to pluck the fresh brains; tea is weighed out by the liang, and local food is consumed cheek by jowl next to hungry villagers. Definitely worth a visit.