Monday, 21 January 2013

On Hold

For those who regularly check up on this blog, please know that there will be no updates until Julian returns from his second season on the Ice Road in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.
His input is essential and I simply can't go on without him!! :) I might play around with other blogging sites to see if a better option is available as I have had continuous issues with formatting.
I will await his return in Ton Sai, southern Thailand, helping a women run her guesthouse in exchange for free accommodation and some food, hopefully getting some climbing in as well. 
I expect we will continue catching up around mid April.
Thanks heaps for the continued support!

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Mythical Land of Shangri-La; a Tibetan Region of Yunnan Province, China

Leaving Tiger Leaping Gorge behind our mini bus, packed with dirty hikers, followed the valley north towards the mythically named land of Shangri-La.  As we followed the road up and and over a mountain pass the snow capped peaks we had just hiked through stood mightily above the rest and a couple Chinese passengers requested a photo stop.  Jumping out of the van the cold was immediately upon my bare toes, my breath hung in the air with every exhale. 

As we descended the pass and continued north it was like the China we had gotten to know over the past three weeks melted behind and disappeared completely.  Yaks roamed the golden countryside where corn stalks and barley rested upon large wooden drying frames for winter animal feed and a brisk wind rustled multi coloured prayer flags flying from white washed stupas, yurts and hand woven fences.  The courtyard homes gave way to massive whitewashed, timber framed, mud brick buildings with elaborately carved and brightly painted wooden windows and eaves, each easily larger than some the most expansive mansions I have seen. The identifiable hand woven clothing worn by the ethic people was strikingly different, and all this was evidence of an extreme culture change as we gained altitude, a land so different it could suggest a country all of its own: Tibet.  

The political circumstances in Tibet itself are constantly changing and currently is closed to tourism. A leadership change in Beijing looming in the near future as well as unrest with Japan over a dispute regarding ownership of an island bringing a palpable tension within China's boundaries and adding to the ongoing paranoia of the government regarding the occupation of Tibet and the emotive reactions of its people.  As the bus trembled along the unpaved dirt roads, through the mountainous farmland towards Shangri-La in north western Yunnan province, it was evident that Tibetan culture reaches beyond its political boarders, allowing us the opportunity to dip into this fascinating part of China, home to five ethnic minority groups; Tibetans making up the majority of the population along with the Naxi, Bai, Yi and the Lisu as well as the Han with their exclusive privileges backed by the governments program to 'resettle the west'.

Upon arrival in Shangri-La, and after deciding to turn away from a double room in a hostel for 120RMB, we were soon taken in by a lovely elderly women in traditional Bai dress in a courtyard style home just within the walls of the old town.  She showed us a large room which appeared far beyond our means and we were certain we misunderstood her price of 80RMB per night. It turned out however the language was hardly a barrier when communicating with her and every word and hand signal exchanged between us was understood as though we were speaking the same tongue.  She lead us into her living room to take our details, where we stood before a stunning ornately carved wooden family alter for ancestral worship which stretched the entire length of one wall and up to the ceiling. Portraits of deceased family members sat behind lit candles and in front were money and offerings of fruit, water and cigarettes which are replaced daily.  The Chinese believe that even after death family members still have a continued existence and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.

Out to satisfy stomachs next we walked deeper into the old town amongst streets similar to those of Dali and Lijiang, where we found the main square alive with music and about a hundred people engaged in a Tibetan 'square' dance (which actually was performed going around in a circle). Clearly the five elderly women who danced in full traditional dress with very young children snugly strapped to their backs with brightly coloured patch work cloth were the respected leaders and everyone else followed the choreographed steps, though some better than others.  

I was approached by a Tibetan man who spoke rather incomprehensible english as he threw every phrase he knew at me for a while as I nodded and encouraged him to practice with me.  Once he was out of words he pulled a notebook from his woven shoulder bag and began reciting more, asking for my pronunciation when he got stuck.  I couldn't wipe the smile from my face as the music and people drifted around the square and we watched some interesting characters. One man exceptionally flamboyant in his movement who clearly took much pride in his dance, another dressed similarly to an LA thug with his jeans hung low, a rotund policeman barely 5ft tall and still in uniform, a women in a long flowing black jacket with beautiful flowing gestures and a short, scruffy man awkward in his footing and not at all in time with the others, laughing incessantly, who could only have been the village drunk.  A western girl stumbled along past us, soon to throw her arms up in the air and give up altogether, retreating.  We patted her arm in encouragement as she passed and she stopped to express her frustration as my Tibetan friend continued to go over his english with me and it wasn't long before the energetic older couple from America we had met in Tiger Leaping Gorge joined our group.  Julian eventually tore me away from my conversation as I was being gifted a photograph by the Tibetan man, and the four of us followed our new Spanish friend, Veronica (Nikka) to a restaurant of her recommendation.

A fire warmed the interior of Tantra Restaurant and we were greeted with a complementary glass of local brandy by RIcki, a Chilean, who it transpired had worked as an attaché for the Chilean government before packing his suit and tie away in exchange for travel and ended up here with an invitation to co-own the restaurant. The food we were served was exceptional, with ingredients of far higher quality than anything we had eaten throughout Asia.  Our table grew when two Brits, Steve and Leanne joined us, acquaintances of Nikka. After teaching for the past 18 months in the wild north west they were on a journey south following the Tibetan border, before returning to England in time for Christmas.

Shangri-La is still a major stop on the tourist route in Yunnan for the Han, but in the far western reaches of the country it's far enough away from the major cities of China and a world away from SE Asia that it seems to attract a certain sort of western traveler, those who have been on the road for a while and have fascinating experiences to share; of travel through rugged lands, of exceptional journeys and lifestyles. Like minded people with whom conversation flowed easily until we realized that we were the only ones left in the restaurant. When we finally extracted ourselves from the fireside and headed out into the autumn chill we found ourselves locked out of our courtyard home, soon remedied by some loud knocking in the early hours (our apologies here to the local residents). 

The inviting, comforting vibe of Tantra made us feel at home and with the great group of people we had met there and despite our plan to remain in town for just 36 hours we found ourselves sucked in and spent the majority of the first few days in Shangri-La within its walls, drinking Yak butter or green tea, catching up with writing and discussing each others travel routes, offering ideas to those who were heading in the direction from which we had come, and drinking in the suggestions of others who had come from the north. The sliced yak meat was perfectly cooked and among the nicest dishes I have ever had, the quality of the cut of meat far exceeding our usual fair. 

The first couple of nights as I tried to sleep, I was very aware of my heart beat, slower and much stronger than usual.  I could feel its pulsations through my entire body and hear it in my ears and sometimes would have to gasp for breath to satisfy myself.  At 3,270 meters (10,728 ft.) meters above sea level it was the first time I had felt the effect of altitude and my system was having to work a little harder than usual due to decreased levels of oxygen and atmospheric pressure. It was a considerably uncomfortable feeling for me for the first few days and simple tasks such as walking had us out of breath in moment, heart racing and lungs gasping.  Julian still felt the affect though not as significantly as myself, and I found it necessary to avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages as I acclimatized.  

Finally, on our third day we decided to get out and see something other than the interior walls of Tantra. Ricki loaned Nikka and us his two electric motorbikes to get out to Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Buddhist Monastery in Yunnan province.  As we approached, it appeared as though we were looking at a cluster of ancient castles with glowing golden roofs set at the foot of a mountain.  With Ricki's direction we approached from a less used road, circumventing the tourist charges and were rewarded with a view of the monastery from across the rim of a basin. 

The temple buildings loomed above us, tiered up the mountains lower slopes and after a hotly contested debate in the 90's were the reason for the town being renamed Shangri-La after the mythical setting of the book Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. Tourist numbers to the town have increased from 10,000 when the town was known as Zhongdian (or "Jiantang" in Tibetan) to over 1 million visitors a year after the renaming! Whilst an obvious ploy by the authorities to artificially increase tourism in this remote region, it has been successful surely beyond even the most wildly optimistic predictions, the atmosphere was as magical as the name suggests. 

Above the magnificent front gateway, the ubiquitous prayer flags fluttered in a strong breeze and we approached to be accosted by a monk asking to see our tickets. At 120RMB each, we had avoided the charges with good reason and retreated with Nikka's thickly accented english claiming innocence. We wandered along the outer walls just 100m up the hill and found another, smaller gateway, without doors or desk and walked into the grounds. Following narrow streets between residential buildings we headed up the slopes to the main monastic structures. Officially the monastery is open and free to all but the coach parties and uninformed are tapped for funds as and where they may be easily removed and no doubt both the local economy and the tax man benefit greatly from this easy supply of cash.

We stood for a few minutes in the central square under more streams of prayer flags admiring the huge building before us then climbed the few steps into the main assembly hall. The hall was barred by a cloth and from within we could hear the sounds of chanting. Cheekily, Julian set his camera and lifted it high over the cloth barrier, snapping the interior before we turned away and headed up a staircase to the floors above. Our exploration continued up through five or six brightly decorated levels, the walls covered in buddhist murals and dotted with statues of deities and guardians, until we emerged into the bright sunshine upon the roof, offering wonderful views down over the monastery and across the valley to the town in the distance, the gilded roof tops surrounding us in a sea of gold.

Heading back down a symmetrical set of stairways on the opposite side of the building we found the monks had finished their devotions and the assembly hall was open to us. From the ceiling hung brightly coloured banners above rows of benches covered with cushions. The pillars supporting the floors above were similarly decorated and the whole effect was an assault on the visual senses. Two Tibetan horns stood on their bells, concetinered from their fully extended 25ft length down to quarter size and a huge double ended drum hung from its frame in one of the aisles. At the 'alter' end of the room, three giant statues rose three stories high and around their feet lay offerings from the devout, ironically each bank note featuring the face of Chairman Mao. Pictures of revered monks, including the Dali Lama were placed at intervals between the statues feet as well as incense sticks and smaller effigies. The walls were painted with murals from floor to ceiling; fantastic characters of myth loomed down over us with demonic faces and scenes of both the macabre and serene surrounded them and the three of us wandered around the hall as a detail of monks cleaned away the detritus of a hundred more with grass brushes, sharing good humour between themselves and accompanied by much laughter. 

One night, the six of us, Ricky, Steve, Leanne, Nikka, Julian and I, headed out to the Eco Lodge, a hostel in progress, set in the countryside 10km from the town.  Steve and Leanne had recently sealed an agreement with the Tibetans building the place and after a couple months visit back home to the UK, they aim to return to to assist in setting up and running the place.  The four story wooden home was set beautifully on the edge of a village in a stunning landscape, quiet and secluded amongst the foothills of the mountains upon which yak roamed, large cow bells around their necks jingling throughout the night.  After a tour of the place we spent some time brainstorming, our years working in the hotel industry and travelling we came up with some fresh ideas; the Eco Lodge has potential to be an exceptional experience and offers exactly the sort of 'off the beaten track' twists we look for when travelling.  We spent the night sitting in front of a warming fire, enjoying some food from Tantra which Ricky had brought along as well as some medicinal brandy which can only be purchased in pharmacies and very inexpensive (which I actually ended up sincerely enjoying).  I slept exceptionally well in the quiet of the countryside in a toasty warm bed with a heated mattress pad (essential for these frigid climates) while Julian and Steve stayed up talking into the early hours of the morning. 

Before breakfast the following morning Julian, Nikka and I went for a stroll around the grounds, admiring the landscape and clusters of large Tibetan homes and drying racks in the company of a herd of yaks, some with pierced noses and ears.  The sun melted away the frost on the ground as we returned back to the house where we were served yak butter tea; a savoury soup like beverage which is traditionally made with tea leaves, yak butter and salt though also it is also served with the salt substituted for sugar.  Butter tea is a regular part of a Tibetans diet, especially amongst the nomadic tribes who are said to drink around 40 cups of this each day as it is very warming with lots of calorific energy particularly suited to high altitudes (and also helps prevent chapped lips). With the tea we were also served tsampa, a powder of ground barley flour.  At the time, none of us knew what the tsampa was for and we dipped our steamed buns into the tea then into the tsampa.  I later read on Wikipedia though that "You leave a little buttered tea in the bottom of your bowl and put a big dollop of tsampa on top of it. You stir gently with the forefinger, then knead with the hand, meanwhile twisting your bowl round and round until you finish up with a large dumpling like object which you proceed to ingest, washing it down with more tea."  It was interesting to enjoy this traditional Tibetan breakfast, Julian very much enjoying the salted butter tea whist I much preferred the sweet. Ricki's well aged yak cheese topped the steamed buns nicely, along with the spicy tofu spread and raw, local honey. We sat in the courtyard in the late morning, enjoying the warming rays of the sun and each others company.  Prior to the taxi coming to take us back to town Nikka and I went for a walk around the village, greeted by local families and their pigs.

That evening, we all gathered at Tantra once again where a few more travellers joined our group for a couple days; a Quebecois couple and a French man.  We shared a large spread of exceptional food, the sweet an sour chicken worth a particular mention, the Sichuan chef adding her own special twist to this common dish.  The South American spirit Piscal flowed freely and we danced the night away together. Two Tibetan girls joined our throng, their natural reserve and shyness eventually overcome until they too danced with the carefree abandon of the inebriated, accompanied by wide smiles and fits of giggles as Leanne encouraged us all into a line dance over the familiar western beats emanating from Ricki's stereo. The soundtrack chosen by many DJ's, spanned 50 years from the eclectic tastes of our group, brought to these borderlands on i-Phones and MP3 players that we all find essential kit in our travels.  The following morning was within the top five worst hangovers I have ever experienced! I woke up for breakfast in a sickly state and returned to bed immediately after eating, waking five hours later feeling much better and ready to head back to meet everyone for dinner. 

The following morning we met up with our Quebecois friend, hired out a couple of bikes and ventured out into the countryside for a ride around Napahai Lake as per Steve and Leanne's suggestion.  We left the city behind and followed the flat paved road into the surrounding grasslands.  The sun was warm yet the breeze quite chilling and it wasn't until we began to ascend a long sweeping hill into a valley hidden behind the hills that I began to warm.

A cable car was available to take tourists up into the mountains but we turned down the 60RMB fair, appreciated the large yurt style building and after a long rest to catch our breath and cool down again we hopped back onto our bikes cycling past eight large white stupas at the foot of the mountain, the final resting places of local families. We headed down a dirt track, Julian and our accomplice tearing ahead of me at breakneck speed towards a Tibetan village en-route to Nappa Lake.  The residents of the village, dressed in their native attire, went about tending to pigs and goats amongst their enormous homes and drying racks as children peered at us curiously.  Nikka and Julian road on ahead and as I walked alone, three young children followed me, not responding to my attempts at communication.  Their darker skin, mysterious eyes and bright red cheeks distinctly Tibetan.  I have heard (though found no evidence) of ideas suggesting parents may burn the cheeks of their children when they are young to protect them from the strong sun found at high elevation.  There was something particularly magical about this village, still rich in tradition, culture and old ways not at all for the amusement of money spinning tourists, the coaches ferrying the Han to the mountain never pausing here; real life as it has been for a thousand of years with only the occasional tractor unit and the telephone wires providing a nod to the outside world.

Rejoining the road, we descended from the village towards the grasslands again and we began the ride around the lake which we were told was here.  We passed small clutters of large stone houses, some in the process of being built.  I learned that the most expensive part of building these homes is in fact the interior support pillars which are actually entire tree trucks and must be quite old considering their thickness. Nikka said they were local trees yet I failed to see evidence of this amongst the pastural valley until we came upon a group of workers bringing the lumber down off the highlands. A young boy waved in greeting as he leaned out from an intricately carved window of his stone house and I wondered how much such structures costs these families to build. In the west similar homes would be well into the millions of US dollars. Obviously with the amount of new buildings being constructed many of the tourist dollars now flooding into the area are invested within the community and the standard of living is slowly being raised. 

As the sun began to descend we realized we still had quite a long way to go until we arrived back in Shangri-La, and finally we came across Napa Lake. Being the autumn dry season, the lake had dried and receded, opening up the shallower regions to grasslands, the prairie now golden and herds of yaks, horses, sheep grazed upon land.  During the wet season the lake will expand and the water will rush through nine surrounding caves and empty into the Jinsha River. Now cycling in shadow the temperatures dipped considerably and we picked up the pace.  Just before the sun dipped behind the mountain Julian and a couple other Asian photographers passing in a car, were blessed with exceptional light upon the grasslands we shared with flocks of geese and a some white cranes, the sky blessing them and us with a very atmospheric sunset. 

The route around the lake ended up being much longer than we anticipated, about 40km in total, and the final stretch was a long hill up and over a pass back into Shangri-La.  We waited for Julian as he took his pictures back in the valley and the cold crept over me and deep into my bones.  I had been trying to put off spending money on buying some warmer clothing but finally, the cold won and Steve and Leanne hiked around town with us acting as translators until I found a warm, down jacket which makes me look like a shiny MIchelin man.  I would have bought the smaller, more attractive one for a few dollars more but Julian managed to bargain himself an ugly red hat in for next to nothing and apparently that was a deal maker. 

On our fifth day, we took the decision to finally move on the following day but we still had yet to see the worlds largest prayer wheel 500 meters from our guesthouse.  Climbing the stairs up to the temple we approached the copper prayer wheel engraved with the sanskrit mantra 'Om Mani Padme Hum' standing 21 meters overhead.  A number of people had joined at its base in attempt to rotate the 60 tonne mass in a clockwise direction and much to my amusement it wasn't until I grabbed hold that it started to move.  Gaining momentum it spun faster and abiding by ritual I kept with it for three turns. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition spinning a prayer wheel will have the same meritorious effect as reciting prayers.  We wandered around the grounds of the temple overlooking the city and decided that the overview of the city itself wasn't a particularly lovely site, most single or two story rooftops creating a very uniform look. 

 Of course, as we had every other night since we arrived in Shangri-La we all gathered with Ricky at Tantra for yet another mouth watering meal, which Ricky offered on the house with the suggestion we tip his staff in liew of charge, which we did with much thanks for the manner in which they had looked after us.  Ricky has turned out to be one of the most generous, selfless people I have ever met; a very beautiful soul and so rare to find.  Steve and Leanna also decided to continue to new pastures for a while after getting stuck in Shangri-La for over a month and we all congregated for one last time.  A new face had joined our group a couple days before, a lovely middle aged Chilean women, who treated us to a couple of the the most fabulous cocktails I have ever had which she squeeze exclusively from fresh ingredients; green apples, red chillies, raw ginger and a generous helping of Piscal.  As much as we enjoyed being in Shangri-La, the reason we ended up staying so long was sincerely because of the fabulous people we met there.  The times we shared, lessons learned and experiences told sealed a bond between us unique to travellers who may never actually meet again. Being away from home for so long, away from family and friends for years, these moments are priceless.  

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

(Since we plan on being in Ton Sai for a fair length of time we splashed out on a mobile internet dongle  <USB connection>.  Hopefully this will help us catch up on the blog a bit before Julian heads off the Ice Road newt week but truth be told, there are much better things to do than sit on the computer around here.  The climbing is great, the people are wonderful and quite frankly, sitting on the computer is the last thing any of us want to do here.  Thanks to all who have regularly checked for new postings. Really nice to see we generally have about 40 people who do so.  Hopefully we get a few up over the next week before things on here go on hold for about 15 weeks until Julian gets back the the tropics). 

Jagged teeth of snow covered granite loomed in the distance as our bus neared Qiaotou Village at the mouth of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Legend has it that a tiger jumped across the gorge at its narrowest point using a large boulder (about the size of a house) known as Tiger Leaping Stone in order to escape a hunter.  From the snow capped peaks of Haba Shan (5,396 metres or 17,703 ft) to the gushing rapids of the Jinsha River is a sheer drop of 3900 meters, making it one of the deepest gorges in the world and as avid hikers, a much anticipated part of our exploration of Yunnan.  Leaving the majority of our belongings at Janes Guesthouse we paid the 65RMB fee to the national park and hit the trail late in the afternoon. Climbing up to Twenty-Four Bends Path, we chose the higher trail over the one alongside the river.  Passing through someones front garden to access the trail (for which we were taxed for the privilege) we found ourselves on a narrow path with a chinese couple from Beijing and soon after we were joined by a horsemen, hopeful that one of us might grow tired of the steep climb and opt for the services of his four legged accomplice.  The residents of the gorge are the indigenous Naxi we had met in Lijiang, who live in a handful of small villages throughout the gorge and have been utilizing this 22km long trail for centuries. Along the route they farm grain, tend livestock, mine natural crystals and now extract a few foreign dollars from the millions of tourists who pass this way each year. 

The bells around the horses neck jingled as we hiked upwards towards the jagged peaks; the river, terraced paddies and courtyard homes on the lower banks growing further and further away.  The vegetation varied dramatically; from palm trees and ferns up to pine trees, cacti, a species of thick, hardy lavender and colourful alpine flowers.  The scent of marijuana often graces the nose which grows in clusters up to 8ft high along the path, which we shared with herds of goats.  The chinese women we found ourselves hiking with, whose name I was never able to pronounce, was gasping for short, sharp breaths; the elevation here clearly affecting her city lungs in particular of us all.  

My yoga practice has me very aware of my breath which I feel made a big difference but it was the intense beating of my heart, common at high altitude, that forced me to pause.  As we approached the most strenuous part of the trail, a set of 24 switchbacks up to the highest point of the trail, a Naxi women bustled around her teahouse customers like a mother hen, serving us a delicious 'raw honey and ganja tea' and refreshing slices of the largest cucumber I had ever seen. 

Revitalized and ready to tackle the 24 bends, Julian motored on ahead (just longer legs - ed) whilst I set steady pace, followed by our friends from Beijing, stoping regularly to catch our breath.  We almost levelled with the rocky snow covered peaks opposite, the dramatic grass covered ridge lines now below us sweeping into the gushing rapids below which have only been successfully navigated once, claiming the lives of all others who attempt it.  As we neared the summit a granite outcrop offered spectacular views of the gorge, as intense as any mountain landscape I have ever hiked through as I giddily stood on the edge.  Julian had managed to find himself a secluded outcrop just off the trail above a sheer drop of several hundred metres to admire the view in solitude for a few minutes as he waited for our arrival. 

Dusk was upon us and the setting sun cast long shadows down the east / west lying gorge; the granite peaks above us changing shades of pink and grey, as our path descended towards Tea Horse guest house, our intended stop of the night.  The descent reeked havoc on my knees slowing us considerably and we found ourselves hiking in the darkness of the night.  Preceded by a brilliant glow, the full moon rose above the Himalayan peaks stopping us in our tracks. Illuminating the trail brightly, the snow covered peaks and occasional fluffy white cloud glowed radiantly under the light.  Dogs throughout the valley howled to welcome the night as we checked into our twin room, throwing open the windows to the moon lit gorge below. 

Our evening meal was decidedly void of flavour but seemed to satisfy our bodies until I was later woken with waves of nausea.  On the other side of the room I heard Julian moaning and asked him if his stomach was upset.  He told me no, still deep in sleep with no memory of the conversation, and the nausea subsided allow me to drift back to sleep.  I woke later as the pain swelled again and moments later Julian sprang from his bed, swung open the windows and heaved the contents of his stomach into the valley below.  The pain in my stomach woke me numerous times but refused to release and it wasn't until early morning that I induced vomiting in attempt to relieve my system.  Clearly last nights meal had poisoned us both and despite discussing hiking two hours to the next guesthouse neither of us could summon the energy to rise and we ended up sleeping until late in the afternoon, waking only to vomit occasionally.  I can think of worse places to be ill though; the cool mountain air and quiet valley allowed us to be sick in peace, and I have never puked out of a prettier window.  It was a painful, disgusting bug that drained us of every once of energy.  Despite having no appetite we knew would have to fuel our systems that evening and eating out of that kitchen again not an option, so we packed our bags and hit the trail to the next guesthouse.  Thankful for the homemade fruit and oat bars Louanne had sent us away with we had a small bite to eat out of necessity for the energy we were about to about to expend.  It was a slow and painful start but mercifully the path gained no elevation and the going was relatively easy, and stunningly beautiful.  The thrillingly narrow path followed deep gullies weaving in and out of the hillside, passing two distinctly different waterfalls; one being crystal clear glacier run off, the other thick and grey, murky with clay and sediment.  A man tended a motorized shifter and we thought that perhaps he was collecting the clay for pottery however having read about the area afterwards, I realize he may have been sluicing for minerals or crystals. 

By the time we got to the Halfway House guesthouse we were both feeling considerably refreshed despite a hollow pain in the stomach and exceptionally low energy level.  Our room was nestled in the far reaches of the guesthouse, offering views just as splendid as the previous evening.  After a hot shower we had a look at the menu, the local Chinese food having no appeal what so ever.  The only thing remotely appealing was a banana pancake which took ages to get through, though the ginger tea was exactly what I wanted.  Two couples we had shared the previous guesthouse with were in lively mood as they enjoyed a locally brewed barley spirit, though Julian and I were in no fit state to socialize and we were both in bed by 2000, and slept a solid 12 hours. 

The sick had dwindled throughout the night and we both woke feeling much better, though still lacking appetite and energy levels still low.  After forcing down a small breakfast we were back on the trail and able to enjoy ourselves and our surroundings much more fully.  The dramatic snow covered peaks were now behind us, the gorge opening up in the distance to a valley below dotted with small hamlets.  We have been blessed with ideal weather every day since our arrival in China. Clear blue skies, cool autumn breeze and deceptively strong sunlight; the elevation magnifying the suns rays but the cool breeze masking its effect.  The trail began to descent softly and we arrived at Tinas Guesthouse, an optional end to the trek, far earlier than we had anticipated.  Instead of spending an additional night on the trail as we initially thought, we opted to take the next bus north to Shangri-La, giving us three hours to spare before the bus headed out.  

The local people have built and maintained a steep trail descending into the narrowest point of the gorge offering hikers of the high trail the opportunity to get close to the river (should legs and knees be up to it) for 10RMB each.   A two hour round trip down steep switchbacks and rebar ladders spiked into the rock took us the last few hundred feet down to the waters edge, passing locals eager to sell bottled beverages to the unprepared, jade jewellery, and bags of saffron and marijuana.  The path itself was an impressive feat and I almost felt 10RMB was to inexpensive for their efforts, though Julian pointed out that with the sheer numbers of tourists which hike through here, particularly in the high season, the locals must be doing quite well for themselves.  As Tiger Leaping Gorge gained popularity the lives of these peasant farmers must have taken quite a positive turn.  Standing next to the rapids of the Jinsha and looking up at the steep granite walls of the gorge offered a fantastic, different perspective of the place.  The hike back up was an exceptionally strenuous affair in our state of health and decreased food intake combined with the effects of altitude.  Our American friend in her late 50s easily kept up with us. 

After the intense couple of hours down to the Jinsha River and back up to Tinas Guesthouse we should have been famished but our stomachs desired no food.  We knew however that sustenance was necessary and ordered a naxi flatbread sandwich before boarding our afternoon bus out of the gorge.  This road alongside the river once a simple mule track, has only recently been paved, and our bus followed the snaking trail avoiding local pedestrians and oncoming traffic.  A recent rock fall forced us to stop and our driver got out to clear the larger boulders out of the way.  This world heritage site is considered the most dangerous gorge in the world, especially during the rainy season where regular rock slides have claimed many lives, wiping car loads of people driving the lower road into the rapids of the Jinsha and it was comforting to see our driver stop well before the litter in the road, constantly mindful of the slopes above.  In 2004 the Chinese (Han) government proposed damming Tiger Leaping Gorge for hydroelectric power as part of the nations insatiable appetite, increasing the local governments tax income by some 50% at the bottom line. The proposal would have destroyed beyond recognition one of the most scenic areas in China and displaced 100,000 Naxi people to higher Tibetan land further north.  Fortunately, for a change, common sense prevailed over immediate financial gains and this idea was scrapped in 2007; tourism still remains a major source of income for the local people.  

We are fortunate to have been able to explore the countryside (mountainous or otherwise) in many parts of the world, and perhaps it has something to do with the romanticism of roaming the largest mountain range on the planet, but we both agree that Tiger Leaping Gorge is among the most wondrous and dramatic of landscapes we have ventured through. 

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Ancient Town of Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China

(Now back in Thailand China feels a world away and writing about China has been quite difficult. Especially with all the great climbing here, I can not be bothered to spend much time on the computer!  Going to try to catch up on the blog over the next few weeks but with the super slower internet connection it may take a while). 

At the foot of snowcapped Jinhong mountain, Lijiang is one of the major stops along the Yunnan backpacking trail. One of the most visited ancient cities in China and UNESCO World Heritage site we have often heard it referred to as China's Disney Land.  Old Town is similar to the example at Dali with its maze of cobbled streets and ancient rickety wooden buildings.  It's much more likely for one to get lost, as Old Town, Lijiang is much larger than its neighbour to the south and unlike Dali, is not built to a grid system. Its architecture is a blend of many cultural influences reflecting the ethnic diversity and geographical position of the town within Yunnan's borders.  Where Dali is home to the Bai people, Lijiang is predominantly home to the Naxi (pronounced Nah-shi). In 1996 when a earthquake devastated the area, it was noted how well then ancient Naxi architecture held up in comparison to modern structures and millions was subsequently spent in rebuilding the area in Naxi traditional style; cement and bricks being replaced with cobblestone and wood. 

I have used some pretty disgusting toilet facilities over here, especially in China, though never before have I refused to use one.  The toilets at the bus terminal were my first exception and I opted to walk around with a full bladder after a five hour bus ride rather than risk the facilities there.   As we entered the streets of old town in search of accommodation we were discouraged to find prices well above our norm'.  Travelling in low season has resulted in some fantastic bargain room rates in some nice places throughout China, yet this did not seem to apply to Lijiang. We were further put off by notices everywhere insisting tourists pay 80RMB each for the privilege of walking the streets as a mandatory contribution to the restoration and preservation of the buildings (although the cynic in me wonders where the money really goes as another Maserati rolls by).  We wandered narrow cobblestone alleyways with hanging red lanterns and crossed bridges arching over sedate canals, weeping willows sagging over our heads until an hour and many guest houses later we finally put our bags down in a closet of room at the Memory of March YHA Hostel just outside the old town limits.  Our room was actually a converted entrance way, a locked gate acting as a wall which would have opened into the neighbouring alleyway. Two breeze block walls flanked the bunk beds and a single table inside, not offering even enough floor space for the two of us to stand at one time. Here, we were able to avoid the Old Town fee and at 80RMB a night for the room, we were able to stay within budget.  Upon check-in they gave us sheets to make our own bed which, they requested, we strip upon checkout.  It was evident staff here hardly raised a finger but mercifully the beds had heated mattress pads and the cost of the room included a small kitten and two playful puppies to keep us amused first thing in the mornings.

Once again we were a major attraction on the streets of Old Town, Chinese tourists snapping pictures and eyeing us as curiously as we eyed our surroundings.  Restaurants and boutique guesthouses with prices well over our heads were intertwined with shops selling local handicraft, artwork, musical instruments, street food and a random Irish pub.  Despite being low season the streets were rammed with people snaking their way up and down the cobbled thoroughfares and back alleys.  Occasionally horses plodded along the cobblestones with tourists on their backs led by elaborately dressed Yunnan horsemen in animal skins and wide brimmed hats and here and there, beautiful women in traditional dress would charge to have their pictures taken.  We munched on some unmemorable fried street food dripping with oil as we explored the ancient old town, eventually finding our way into the modern new town; a striking contrast with white multi story concrete buildings and where the roads were thick with rush hour traffic as we searched for a pair of socks.  The temperature, noticeably cooling as we make our way further north, has us faced with the harsh reality that our attire suited for the heat of the tropics leaves us chilled to the bone as we climb in altitude and latitude and autumn marches it path through the hemisphere.  In addition, my shoulder was in constant pain, worsened by the cold.  The sporadic pinching sometimes turned into sharp pain, like a knife digging into my shoulder, resulting in numerous painful knots tensing my entire upper body into the base of my skull making the simple action of turning my head just about impossible. 

As we explored an open air food court in search of dinner we were approached by a Chinese man in his mid 50's sporting a angled baseball cap, inviting us to come stay in his home.  Intrigued, we learned he lived in a traditional Naxi village 2.5km from Lijiang, home to 150 families who settled there about 700 years ago.  He and his nephew were in the process of setting up a guest house in the village, inviting foreign tourists into the village for the first time.  The guesthouse is still a work in progress and despite his warnings that there was no running water at all, and electricity only in the main house, we agreed to meet him in the central square two days later. 

The following day was spent entirely walking around Old Town, admiring the low rise architecture, the two market squares and the hill top pavilions which offer views of the city and snow capped mountain peaks beyond. The traditional curved roofed buildings stand shoulder to shoulder, open fronted to the shops on the ground floor. Artists and sales people ply their trades. Local ceramics shops with their beautifully crafted, fantastically shaped vases and plates, glazed in earthy colours depicting scenes from the town or covered with the Naxi hieroglyphics (the oldest pictorial language in the world still in use today) vie for space with the leatherworkers, the weavers, engravers and silversmiths, the wood carvers, candy factories, barbecues, bongo makers, flute sellers and clothing shops. Each junction with the two rivers that pass down through the town provides space for tables and chairs for the restaurants, cafe's and hotels that hold ground for their customers; themselves a constant writhing mass of humanity, creeping aimlessly, vocally and with much gaiety on along the narrow cobbled streets from sunrise to after dark.  One can't help but wonder what happened to all the people who used to live here, and where they had been displaced in preference for all this and we later learned that they were now living very comfortably off the extortionately hight rent prices they can charge for this prime real estate.  North of the old town centre, a majestic gate guards the entrance to Black Dragon Pool Park at which they requested an admittance fee of 80RMB per person.  Shaking our heads we retreated, to be accosted by a couple of middle aged Chinese women (who spoke no english) offering their services as guides around the park.  Not willing to pay the park entrance fee we were certainly not in the market for a guide (especially one that didn't speak english), and playing with the language barrier we invited them to join us for a stroll into the new town for a lunch of  bubbling hot pots down the back streets at a fraction of the prices in Old Town.  Giggling they waved us away and as we smiled in parting, noticing as we did a side street alongside a stream leading towards the park.  Thinking perhaps we might be able to slip into Black Dragon Pool Park unnoticed we followed it only to find it ended abruptly, the stream marking one edge of the park.  As we deliberated our options a local man bounded past, crossed the river and disappeared up the path only to return moments later.  Finding us clearly debating sneaking into park grounds he encouraged us, nodding and pointing to the stepping stones and satisfied with his approval we followed his lead.  

We joined the other tourists in the walk around the edges of smaller ponds en-route to the main Black Dragon Pool, a striking white bridge spanning its width towards a pagoda.  Jade Dragon Snow mountain with its snow capped glacial peaks, the source of this pool, is perfectly positioned amidst the visible landscape making this one of the most photographed scenes in south China, an obligatory snap for tourists and professionals alike.  The park itself was lovely with its clear walkways and manicured flowerbeds, though we would have been disappointed had we forked over 160RMB for the experience. 

My shoulder was so bad that night I couldn't sleep and had to support my head in my hands in order to sit up the following morning.  Richard was expecting to meet us but the pain was so overwhelming I couldn't bear to move and felt seeking professional advice at this point was necessary.  Julian went to meet Richard, explained the situation and upon returning had in hand some herbal Chinese medicine patches Richard had suggested.  On-line I found the address for a Chinese medicine and acupuncture office and we set out to the city in hopes of some relief.  If this place exists I still don't know about it; we spent five hours traipsing around the city in vain.  Overwhelmed with pain we gave up as evening was upon us and returned to the hostel to call Richard in hopes of getting out of the city and into the countryside.  Within 30 minutes, his nephew Thomas was loading our bags into his van and we headed away from the tourists to his village. 

At his courtyard home we were greeted by Ted and Louanne, an American couple from California who have lived together in China since 2008. Ted has been in and out of China for the past 14 years, initially invited by the Chinese government as an economics expert.  Having travelled China extensively they settled temporarily in Litang based on a personal interest Ted developed in the Naxi people. Whilst researching for the first ever book on the people (White Horse - Ted Erskin), he and Richard; a Naxi linguistics expert (who can speak all local Tibetan and tribal dialects in addition to english and who acted as Ted's guide) formed the idea of opening up a guesthouse and guiding service. Also there to greet us was their adult guard dog, Mighty Dog (who stands an impressive 7 or 8 inches from the floor) and a tiny new puppy, Oreo.  Leaving our bags in a simple room with two twin beds, no electricity and plenty of blankets, Ted showed us the upper level.  Upstairs will be the male dormitory with eight wood framed beds with woven rice straw mattresses (which I found to be very comfortable having come to like the harder sleeping surfaces in Asia).  The building itself had been bought and dismantled in Tibet before being transported to the village and rebuilt as a giant jigsaw puzzle on the grounds of Richards family home, forming the second of what will eventually be four buildings making a courtyard house. Upon learning about the stress my shoulder was causing Thomas went about setting up a meeting with his good friend, a master masseuse who would certainly be able to help me and arrangements were made to pay him a visit after dinner. 

Ted and Luanne's bedroom was on the second floor of the neighbouring building and we would share their bathroom on the ground floor.  Running water had yet to be set up; a well in the corner of the yard was the water source, bathing done by mixing boiled and cold water in a bowl.  Of course, as is the same everywhere we have stayed over the last 6 months, there is no heat, and bathing is done as quickly as possible, especially in the cooler temperatures at the eastern end of the Himalayas.  The women living in villages at higher altitudes in the neighbouring mountains would come down to Lijiang once a year in groups, for their annual bath.  

The main house (opposite our own building) was the only room which had electricity. Louanne was busy cooking dinner in the kitchen which has been furnished with a few creature comforts like a single gas burner and a table top combo-oven.  Ted originally built an oven on the front porch and they were the first people in the village to produce baked goods. Of course this has been of great interest to the Naxi though the baking Louanne shares with them is often too sweet for their palates.  Local kitchens here similar to those we have seen in rural villages throughout SE Asia where they cook over the heat of open fires or hot coals set in brasiers.  As Louanne was putting on the finishing touches to dinner we went for a short stroll down the street and Ted told us about this village.  

The village does not have a name itself, indeed one of the biggest issues facing Richard and Ted in marketing the guesthouse is that they have no address. Instruction to future guests are going to be along the lines of: "Take a taxi to the big statue of the horse, then call us!" but therein of course lies part of the charm. Sitting about 3km east of the centre of Lijian, the village contains about 150 homes, each of which may well contain several generations of the family. All the men in the village are related and known by their position within the family rather than by a given name. The women are married in from the surrounding villages and must pass the scrutiny of mothers, sisters and aunts (to make sure their housekeeping skills are up to the task and their personality will be compatible with the women she will have to live with) before any wedding might be blessed. The groom will go to his prospective brides village, with all his important family members and the two families will meet. During lunch, the prospect will serve and clean up, the scrutineers will follow her around en-mass. They will check to see how the house is kept, looking for dust, how the beds are made, the organization within the house and the planning around it. If all is well, the groom and his entourage may stay for dinner too, all the while, the prospective bride (and by implication, her family) are on trial to make the very best impression under the closest of pressures.

The kitchen smelled fabulous upon our return and we were soon presented with an american style home cooked dinner, a very welcome change to the oily, fried Chinese food.  A chicken and yak cheese casserole topped with crunchy bread crumbs and a side of green beans which Julian went head over heels for.  It was fascinating learning about their experiences and getting an inside look at local culture from a western perspective as the first and only foreigners welcomed into this village. 

Soon after dinner I left Julian in front of the PC with Oreo on his lap and Thomas and I went to see the masseuse who suggested a half hour massage followed by a half hour of acupuncture.  He passed me off to one of his younger apprentices for the first half hour of massage who had the best hands anyone had ever massaged me with (granted, I had only ever gone in for two professional massages in my life, one of which I walked out of five minutes into it).  Then the master came up, his touch far exceeding the younger man as he massaged and contorted my body in ways which shocked me, applying chiropractic methods in with his massage.  He followed this with a series of needles into my neck and shoulders, probably 30 in total, which put me into a trance like state, a tingling sensation through my limbs which was followed by a temporary sense of paralysis accompanied by gentle waves of nausea.  He followed this with a intense massage and more chiropractic adjustments and by the time he was through I felt quite shaken up by the intensity of that hour.  That night, my upper body pulsated with such energy that it kept me from sleeping for a few hours, but for the first time in over a month I was almost free of pain.  

The following morning Ted and Louanne lent us the best maintained bikes we had used in six months and we ventured off into the countryside.  The Naxi farming the land seemed exceptionally pleased to see us and when we greeted them in english they responded in kind with 'hello', followed by a good hearted laugh, pleased and amused to have used the only english word they know.  The obvious pleasure they had in seeing us riding through their farmland was heartwarming as we peddled through their corn fields laced with tall marijuana plants (for their morning tea of course).  In the distance atop a hill, a large golden stupa shone in the sunlight, enticing us in that direction.  

Pushing our single speed bikes up the final stretch of road we found ourselves in a very large, empty car-park, easily capable of hosting a couple of hundred vehicles.  Music drifted from tall whitewashed walls where two monitors showed film images of temple grounds.  Parking our bikes and noticing nobody in the ticket booths we followed a few locals to the huge red doors with golden handles, swung open to revel two duelling dragons and four taoist guardians protecting the entranceway and the multiple turnstiles, taped aside allowing us entry.  Staff in small open tents selling incense to the devoted hardly acknowledged us as we passed, walking the pathway towards a 5m high, golden, fat, laughing buddha, who greeted us whole heartedly.  Chanting Tibetan prayers drifted over our heads from speakers set at regular intervals in the ground as we walked up the steps, spinning the golden prayer wheels and goosebumps erupted over my skin.  Standing in front of a fountain alive with golden koi the stupa which had drawn us here rose in to the north at the end of a perfectly symmetrical pathway lined with green bushes and smaller white stupas. Colourful prayer flags fluttered in the wind adding to the ambience and my eyes well with tears; Julian and I were both overwhelmed with emotion with this unexpected first taste of Tibetan culture and we both felt the need for solitude as this feeling washed over us. 

The Goddess of Mercy, towering above me to the west and still under construction, eyed me watchfully as I circled the fountain towards a smaller temple to our rear, dedicated to her. We crossed a small arched bridge over more water and entered the cool building. Inside another image of the Goddess dominated the space and two life sized statues of monks sat behind to her left and right. The pillars supporting the roof were bound with silk prayer scarves left by worshippers and the scent of incense hung in the air, still burning at her feet. The walls were decorated with murals depicting the Goddess and we spent a few minutes there admiring the artistry and absorbing the feeling of the place through open hearts and bare feet.

Retracing our steps back towards the central fountain and slowly onwards to the main stupa three local woman in traditional Naxi dress walked towards me, their leathery skin, browned and wrinkled from years of working in the fields, and a group of middle aged Chinese men in suits smiled at me in obvious amusement and surprise.  The prayer music drifted overhead as I crossed a small white bridge spanned a trickling stream encircling yet another white stupa, the constant wind playing with more dancing prayer flags providing a constant fluttering accompaniment . 

As I neared the golden stupa the hundreds of prayer flags splaying outwards from it created that sound which can only be associated with flying Tibetan prayer flags, and intertwining with the musical chanting creating an overwhelmingly atmospheric experience. I was approached by  a local Naxi girl; a tour guide here who spoke excellent english.  I learned that this magnificent Buddhist site was still under construction which at the moment was free for local people to experience before the grand opening in a months time when they would start charging 160RMB per person.  In previous generations and for a thousand years only a stone stupa stood here, the last incarnation having been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The most recent renovations, the forth rebuilding on the site, had begun in 2004.  Together the guide and I circled the first level balcony of the stupa discussing Tibetan Buddhism before entering the interior shrine, still under construction.  The stupa and the site are now dedicated to Taoism, Buddhism (both Chinese and Tibetan) and Confucian, and within the ground level of the stupa are a collection of statues dedicated to the 81 gods of wealth and the '18 ways'. This multi denominational and money orientated dedication should if nothing else make it a popular sight for the coach loads of Han tourists that make up the majority of the four million visitors Lijiang sees every summer.

Thankful for her open hearted information and her humble, quiet soul I found out she felt herself fortunate to have inherited the tour guide position here, as generations of her family are buried within the grounds in their own stupa where eventually she will be laid as well.  As Julian joined us he commented that a trip to the gift shop was essential (knowing full well it was not open yet), as the music was so moving he wanted a copy of the CD.  My guide wandered over to her colleagues and soon produced us with a copy of the moving Tibetan chants wafting over our heads and presented it to us as a gift. We parted having exchanged e-mails and Julian and I headed back to our bikes for the ride home in the sunshine. 

Our final day around Lijiang was a relaxing affair before hitting the road once more to continue our journey north. We took a couple of local busses out to the edge of the valley to hike the hills below Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and spent a slow afternoon overlooking the city and the surrounding fields. It had been a most welcome break from the cycle of moving from hostel to hostel very couple of days. Ted and Luanne had made us feel quite at home for a time, providing some relief from the pressures of language barriers, an insight into local culture from a western perspective and some wonderful, most welcome home cooking in a style familiar to us. Well fed and recuperated we were excited to continue further into the borderlands the following day towards the infamous Tiger Leaping Gorge and a two day hike through some of the most dramatic scenery in the world. True to form, and after our farewells were all said, Thomas obliged us in the morning with a lift across town to the bus station where we purchased our tickets for a ride into the wild.