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China (part 2) : Our travels to almost-but-not-quite Tibet

After the tiger leaping gorge, our goal was to go to Yubeng, a small Tibetan village still located in Yunnan (so no need for a permit) only accessible by hiking in or on the back of a mule. Shangri-La and Deqin were only short stops on our way there.

Shangri-La

We therefore only passed quickly through Shangri-La. Until 2001, the city was called Zhongdian but it probably wasn’t good enough to attract tourists so the government decided to rename it. The old town was devastated by a fire in 2014 and has been rebuilt since then in a rather artificial way, with big tour groups in mind. The new part of town is still renovated and most of it is under construction. We got lost more than once because of streets being completely blocked to pedestrians or new streets not on our GPS and the rather inconvenient fact that public buses did not run normally. Once we found the old town, we still had a bit of trouble to find our guesthouse and we managed to arrive there after what seemed like a very long day. In the evening we went out to explore the old town, but neither of us really enjoyed the atmosphere, and it was raining so we quickly called it a day. The next morning, we took a cab to the bus station (no more getting lost on foot) and got on the first bus going to Deqin.

View from the bus on the way to Deqin

Deqin

When we arrived in Deqin and in order to go to Xidang Hot Spring (the starting point of the hike to Yubeng), weย had the 2 usual options: either take a private minivan right away, or wait for one to fill up to share the cost. We went for the second option and so went on the search for a place to eat. When coming back to the bus station, a minivan driver rushed towards us: he only needed 2 more people to go. Perfect ! We did the trip with 5 locals, all very much under the influence of alcohol, alternating between a cigarette and a few sips of schnapps. They were still very friendly, they kept offering both to us ๐Ÿ™‚

The driver dropped us off in Xidang and turned a deaf ear when we asked him to do the 5 extra kms to go to the hot spring. After having walked about half of the way (uphill and under the sun of course), a really nice man stopped and offered to drive us there. We were so happy to finish the steep climb on his motorbike.

We paid the entrance fee for the national park and made our way to the “guesthouse” next to the main gate. The manager proceeded to show us some “bungalows” that looked very unhealthy and dorms that were pretty filthy (all the sheets were dirty), for a surprisingly hefty price. Oh, and there were no toilets on site either, you either had to go down to the visitor centre or hide behind a tree. Our uneasiness was probably palpable as she put the prices down, and considering we didn’t really have a choice anyway, we ended up agreeing to a filthy bungalow. We then realised that the “Hot Spring” was basically some hot water coming out of an old pipe and pouring into an overflowing trough. The positive side of our staying there is that it allowed us to meet a very friendly group of Tibetan pilgrims. Intrigued by the card game we were playing, two of them came to our table and we all tried our best to communicate. In the end they taught us a card game they liked, offered us some Yak butter tea (strange and very salty taste but quite nice) and gave us lots of Tibetan bread. We had an amazing afternoon with them !

In the evening, we engulfed our delicious instant noodles, smacked a giant spider running above our beds and had the pleasure of realising that in top of not having running water we did not have electricity either. We went to bed still completely dressed with one thought in mind: as soon as there’s a bit of daylight, we start walking. Fun fact: as we didn’t have access to water, the manager pointed to the hot spring (which is supposed to cure more than 460 different diseases) when we asked where could we brush our teeth.

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Yubeng

In the morning, the rain kind of spoiled our motivation so we lingered in bed a bit longer. We ended up leaving at 7am under a grey sky. The way to Yubeng has been widened to leave enough space for a 4×4. It’s virtually impossible to get lost as the large path is further indicated by the many green waste bins and the numbered utility poles (from 0 to 100 for the way up to the pass, 100 to 140 for the way down to the village). The path is a bit steep but not too much, so the 1100m of ascent is still highly doable.

We met a Tibetan family on our way up, and funnily enough the main thing they were very eager to do was a few high fives ๐Ÿ™‚ We exchanged greetings, our first names, and everyone went on its way. We also ran into a few other groups of hikers who had given up and were on the back of mules. The most memorable guy was looking completely exhausted on the back of his mule, wearing some kind of a down jacket with a “hood” that covered his face completely, adorned with 2 small portholes to see and some sort of gas-mask type grating to breeze. Oh, we wish we had the time to take a picture of this wonderful scene ๐Ÿ˜€

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We reached the mountain pass under the rain. The view was still pretty good, but we guess it must be breathtaking on a clear day.
By the time we got to upper Yubeng, the clouds had disappeared, giving us an unobstructed view of the Meili Snow Mountain range. The highest peak in this range is the Kawagebo (also called Kawakarpo in Tibetan), rising at 6740m.

The Kawakarpo is one of the most sacred mountains in Tibetan Buddhism and each year, many people go on a pilgrimage trail around the mountain. It was never climbed: Japanese teams attempted the ascent several times but never succeeded, at the cost of many lives. In 2001, the local government banned any further attempt at climbing this sacred mountain.

We stayed at Peter and Wing’s guesthouse “Interval Time”, a really nice little guesthouse sitting at the top of the village. Wing speaks perfect English and laughs all the time, the dorm is actually with only 2 beds (perfect for us) and has a direct view of the Kawakarpo. To top it off, there is a game room and the food is excellent.

We enjoyed ourselves in the village in the afternoon and went to bed fairly early as the day’s walk had tired us completely. That night, unfortunately, our laptop charger died in its sleep. RIP.

The next day, we did the hike called “Glacier Lake”. It is a bit harder than the hike into Yubeng (or maybe we were just more tired…) but is really worth it.

It starts in the forest, where you clear most of the ascent, and as soon as you reach the top of this first part, you have a view of the Meili mountain range. From there, you can see signs telling you to keep quiet and not spoil the nature (with some very explicit drawings to make sure you understand what you shouldn’t do): you have just entered a sacred space.

The hike continued with a nice flat portion up to the base camp of the unsuccessful Japanese climbing teams. The lake is just a bit further, you only need to go up a little bit more ๐Ÿ™‚ At this point a young Chinese girl separated from her group to join us (without really trying to communicate with us though). She stopped us at some point and told us to complete a cairn and urged us to go on every time we took a break by saying “Goooooo !!”. And more than anything, she really wanted to give us her walking stick. Neither one of us is used to walk with a stick (last time we tried was in Nong Khiaw and we both ended up falling) so we politely declined.

Little aside on cultural differences:
We noticed that in China, in an attempt to be helpful, quite a few people tend to forget to leave it up to us when deciding on something. For example if you ask your hotel staff for advice on what to see around:
– “So I will show you on the map: first you go there, and then you go there, then you go there, and in the evening you eat at this restaurant. You need to book in advance your tickets otherwise you will queue. I call them to book, ok ?”
– “Oh wait, no… thanks but, umm.. we’ll think about it !”

You could think that they might just be trying to sell you something for their own benefit, but no, most of the time our hotel staff was not getting any extra money for the services they were trying to force upon us, it was genuinely to be helpful. We also had this experience in a few restaurants with waiters who wanted to choose what was best for us without giving us a say in the matter. It stems from good intentions but can be a bit frustrating sometimes.

Let’s get back to the young Chinese girl who desperately wanted to give us her walking stick. The closer we got to the glacier, the more snow there was and thus the more difficult became the walk. Seemingly confused by our refusal to take her walking stick, she went forward really fast to throw the stick to us once she got higher. Of course, she didn’t warn us she was throwing the stick so Clement received it straight in the ribs (which slightly upset him). He got up to her, gave her the stick back while thanking her, said it was ok, she didn’t need to give it to us, we didn’t need one, but the same thing happened again… Luckily this time we all had reached the top, so this little dance of sticks was over.
If we had to do it again, we would probably just accept her stick from the get go and thank her. She just wanted to be nice to us, something we didn’t really get at first because of communication problems and cultural difference. On top of that, we probably insulted her in the process as it seems to be very impolite to refuse a gift in China. We’ll do better next time !

We arrived at the bottom of the glacier to see the lake mostly frozen and only one tiny opening to observe its turquoise water. The altitude is 3900m, we are surrounded by snow everywhere and the mountains rise so high and so abruptly that it is quite hard to take pictures capturing all of it. Very impressive.

We took some time to relax in this beautiful place for a while before slowly walking back to the village.

To leave Yubeng, we wanted to take a different route than on the way there and so we passed by Ninong. The trail, although it was described by several locals as “super easy”, turned out to be quite steep in some places ๐Ÿ™‚ We were walking close to the river (which has an impressively strong flow) when we met a Chinese guy with whom we walked the rest of the way. To sum up: after 10 minutes of talking (and 3 sentences exchanged in that time), we had established that his 4 friends were ahead of us and that we should try to catch up with them if we wanted to share a van to Deqin, where we were all going.

The poor guy had an enormous pack on his back which looked like it was 5 times his weight (judging by his grimaces), but it didn’t refrain him from walking as fast as a nordic walking olympic champion. Over the 10km we did together, he allowed us only one break of 45 seconds to take 3 sips of water. The path was carved on the side of a wonderful gorge (no time for pictures though), with a steep drop next to us. Our Chinese friend got a bit feverish each time the trail went close to the cliff and offered us a fantastic series of impulsive little sounds which covered the music coming from his bluetooth loudspeaker ๐Ÿ™‚

In Ninong, we met again with the Lancang river, the name given to the Chinese part of the Mekong, this mighty river we had already followed many times in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

We were also met by an army of minivan drivers ready to take us pretty much anywhere as long as we had enough cash, and among them the driver who had ditched us in Xidang. The friends of our new friend arrived in their car, and explained to us that they were actually not going to Deqin. After a few minutes of very confusing talk, we understood that we had ran along the trail like madmen for.. not too much actually. We were therefore a now easy prey for the minivan drivers. We negotiated hard (we got the price down from 150 to 80 Yuans), and then the drivers all gathered in a circle before drawing straws to decide who would take the fare ๐Ÿ™‚ From Deqin, we took the last bus going back to Shangri-La.

Shangri-la bis

In 3 days, Shangri-La had already changed. You might think we are exaggerating a bit, but not really: several streets that were completely fine had now been replaced by 3m deep pits over several hundred meters. The workers were at it all day and even late in the evening. It seemed to never end. It was our second time in this city, and we still did not enjoy it that much. We went to see world’s biggest Tibetan prayer wheel. That’s it ๐Ÿ™‚

Shaxi

We had read that Shaxi was a bit difficult to get to but well worth a trip, being one of the few ancient cities not yet taken over by the big tour groups. In fact, it’s pretty easy to reach: you just need to take a bus to Jianchuan, the nearest “big” city. From there, a very well organised minivan service takes you directly to Shaxi (13 Yuans/pers). The only downside is that the minivans only leave when they are full, which adds some uncertainty to your travel times (we waited 45 minutes on our way there but only 5 minutes on our way back).

Shaxi was once an important place on the tea and horse caravan trail which linked China and Tibet from the 7th century. China wanted the renowned horses of the Tibetan warriors that they exchanged with tea produced in the middle kingdom. Over time, the tea route even extended into Myanmar and India. Although not as famous as the silk road, it was pretty much equally important at the time.

You can easily explore this wonderful village on foot. The atmosphere there is really great, much better than Lijiang or Shangri-La, which is probably due to the fact that it looks much more real, and you can see a lot of locals around. And you only need to walk around a bit to find rice paddies and other small villages where you are met with friendly smiles. In an old temple, we got to see the old men of the village playing mahjong for money while looking after their grandchildren.

We stayed at Shaxi Horse Pen 46 guesthouse, on the main town square. The rooms there are really nicely fitted, and the staff is great. We had a communal meal with them during which we learned a ton about life in China, and they even got the projector out after to do a movie night! We were treated to a classic, The Rock, with Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery, awesome ๐Ÿ™‚

Dali

Dali is one of the most famous tourist towns in Yunnan, and is usually part of the classic “Kunming – Dali – Lijiang” itinerary that many Chinese tour groups go on. This is why when we had to make choices about what we would see within our tight schedule, we had decided to stay here only one day. In retrospect, we regret a bit this decision as we preferred Dali to Lijiang. It’s true there are a lot of people visiting the city and there have been a lot of restoration/embellishement going on in the old town, but we still found it quite charming. Just like with Shaxi, what makes a big difference is that there are people living in the city, it’s not just about the tourism industry.

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From the old town, it is possible to see Erhai lake to the east and the Cangshan mountains to the west. One of the main things to do is to walk on the fortification walls which gives you great views of the city and is a very photogenic spot.

This point is not lost on all the young married couples as there are countless couples doing photoshoots over there. It’s pretty funny to observe !

We took a night train to go to Kunming. Upon arrival at 5 in the morning, we met Sky, a teacher working in Dali who had come to Kunming to pass an English test. At this time of the day there is no public transport yet, so we spent 2 hours talking with her at “Dico’s” (some kind of local McDonalds quite popular in China). And as she said, “it’s the kind of food you like!” ๐Ÿ™‚ We had a really good time talking to her and learned a lot of things. The rest of our day consisted in finding a new charger for our laptop and some waterproof trousers (what a day). In the evening, when we returned to the train station, we met Sky again and spent a few hours with her before going on board another night train.

Sky showing us where she is from (Hunan province)

2 thoughts on “China (part 2) : Our travels to almost-but-not-quite Tibet

  1. Klaus

    Amazing travelog! Hope I will have some day the chance to go there as well! Enjoy your trip and take care!
    All the best, Klaus

    1. clementandtracy Post author

      Thanks Klaus! Glad to hear you like it ๐Ÿ™‚
      Do go to China, it’s a fantastic and interesting travel destination! Sometimes strange, but always fascinating!
      Best wishes man,
      Clement & Tracy

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