Missionaries, Minorities & the Mekong (001)
12 days, 4WD Overland
D1 Kunming Hotel
D2 Lijiang or Yuhu Flight, Hotel or GH
D3 Liming 4WD, Guesthouse
D4 Xiao Weixi 4WD, Guesthouse
D5 Cizhong 4WD, Guesthouse
D6 Hongpo monastery 4WD, Homestay
D7 Feilai / Deqin 4WD, Hotel
D8 Benzilan 4WD, Guesthouse
D9 Zhongdian 4WD, Hotel
D10 Haba village 4WD, GH
D11 Lijiang 4WD, Hotel
D12 Kunming Flight, Hotel
Arguably the most open and relaxed of China's provincial capitals, befitting to a province that straddles so many cultures and civilisations. Dubbed the 'City of Spring' due to its yearlong great climate, it's long been a summer getaway destination for the savvier of China's political and economic elite. Nowadays, it only has traces of the old city and its semi-colonial French influences, but the reconstruction has gone well and it retains much of the atmosphere (if not the actual buildings!) of earlier times.
Pick-up from the airport followed by an initial orientation. For those arriving early,
whereby Kunming isn’t chock-a-block with traditional ‘sites’,
it’s a relaxed and pleasant city to wander around, visit the Bird
& Flower market, sip tea by the lake, imbibe coffee at the pre-revolution
era coffee house, etc. Accommodation is by Green Lake in the northwest of
the city, a good place to use as a base for a rewarding stroll or two and
a chance to kick the jet lag.
D2 Lijiang or Yuhu
An early flight to Lijiang which at 2400 m provides an initial chance for altitude acclimatization. Lijiang is in many ways the capital of the Naxi minority, and despite being afflicted by the somewhat crass “authenticity” drive so popular amongst Yunnan local governments, remains an interesting place. A beautiful old town - ancient canal system, traditional architecture, with abundant cafes in the centre. Tonight the option of staying in either Lijiang or Yuhu, small village located a short drive north of Lijiang. Nestled on the lower slopes of Jade Dragon Mountain, amongst other things this was the home of Joseph Rock - who was in parts an explorer, a plant collector, and a scholar of Naxi language, who roamed SW China in the 20s, 30s and 40s. Guided afternoon walk up the slopes behind Yuhu is an option, after which it’s a home-cooked meal, and an evening of star gazing from the courtyard, before turning into clean, cosy rooms at this family-run guesthouse.
Flight, Hotel or Guesthouse
A morning drive over the hills with some great views of both Jade Dragon (Yunnan’s 2nd highest - 5596m) and Haba (Yunnan’s 3rd highest - 5396m) snow mountains before heading down to the banks of the Yangtze for the small village of Liming, a remarkable little town, populated by the Lisu minority, with a history of missionary activity. It’s set in a deep valley surrounded by red sandstone massif scenery that gives a canyon-like atmosphere to the area. Getting there by early afternoon, there’s a great opportunity to head out for an afternoon hike to the top of one of these massifs to take in the vista.
D4 Xiao Weixi
Crossing mostly Lisu and Naxi country the trail hops watersheds to join up with the lush valley of the Mekong and begin the trail north. Upon meeting the Mekong the landscape starts to divide between the pattern so common here, the Naxi villages occupying the fertile area along the valley bottom while Lisu, a few Yi and at this point, even a few Tibetans farming and living on the arid slopes and isolated villages (out of view) on the hilltops. The first night’s stop is in the charming, predominantly Naxi village of Xiao Weixi, also the site of one the churches put in place by the French missionaries of the late 19c. Evening strolls and a good meal mark the end of the day.
Moving north through a series of small market towns towards Cizhong, amongst other places worth a stop is the monastery of Shouguo Si, one of 13 Kagyüpa monasteries in the region, dating back to the 17c and 18c. Shouguo Si has gone through hard times with the coming of the missionaries, the expansion of the Gelukpa school in northwest Yunnan, and last but not least, the Cultural Revolution. Still it hangs on in there, full of history if not treasures! Late afternoon arrive Cizhong, site of a large Catholic church and vineyards initially planted by the French. Situated on the banks of the Mekong, the village (Naxi) these days is prosperous, though isolated. There should be an hour or two of daylight left to explore. Accommodation is in a villager's house, basic but very relaxed!
D6 Hongpo Monastery
Again starting early, the trail starts to climb up from the Mekong as it parallels the Meilixueshan (Kawa Karpo) range that peaks with Kawagebo (6746m), super views as the road climbs higher and higher. A couple of hours before Deqin, follow a nailbiting side road to what can only be described as a ‘hidden’ valley, an extremely beautiful and secluded scene opening up onto the mountains across the Mekong, with a bustling Tibetan village and a recently restored monastery at its head. Certainly one of the highlights of this trail. The afternoon spent knocking around the monastery and village.
D7 Feili / Deqin
A 2- to 3-hour drive over high passes, again with the snow peaks of the Kawa Karpo (Meilixueshan) range in view, before dropping down to the Deqin area. Staying the night a few kilometres outside of Deqin at Feilai, the nearest viewing point from town of the Meili snow mountain range. Once the site marked by just a lot of prayer flag-covered chörtens and a little shop across the street; these days there are a few guesthouses and restaurants catering to those who want the possibility of waking up to a snow-covered mountain vista.
Out of Deqin the trail climbs back up to heights of 4500m+ as it heads southeast. Given the right weather, a stop at one of the passes for a picnic and to say goodbye to the peaks before dropping slightly to have a look at a couple of monasteries - Dongzhulin and Shusong (a nunnery - a much rarer animal indeed). Both sub-monasteries of the huge Songzanlin in Zhongdian, both remote but active teaching gompas. After a couple of hours (or more) of pottering around at these two sites, the trail drops down to the Tibetan village Benzilan on the banks of the Yangtze, facing Sichuan province on the opposite side. For centuries another important stop on the old trading route into Tibet; indeed in central Tibet, imported Chinese tea was often known as ‘Benzilan tea!
An early start and a 2-hour drive to Zhongdian (now optimistically renamed Shangri-La), there staying at a hotel at the bottom of Songzanlin monastery north of town. This sprawling and, in historical terms, very key monastery was commissioned in the 17c by the DL5, and was the central monastery in the Gelukpa order’s south-eastern expansion. In the evening a nice dinner, a stroll around the old town, and for those who want, off to the Natural Bridge hot springs for a soak under the stars.
Since the retreat of the Tibetans from the Lijiang
area in the 19c, Zhongdian (Tib. Gyalthang) has pretty much marked the south-eastern
border of Kham Tibet in Yunnan. Up until a few yeas ago, it had the rough reputation of a classic
frontier town - but now things have calmed down, and its markets and the
old town make for a fruitful afternoon stroll.
Initially the trail here heads up (again!) to 4000m before dropping down back into Naxi country via the limestone terraces of Baishuitai and Haba Mountain (Yunnan’s 3rd highest at 5396). Tonight will stay in a cosy guesthouse run by a local Hui family in Haba village, which is located in the foothills of Haba Mountain just before the road meets up with the gorge. Options for late afternoon or morning walk up the slopes.
D11 Lijiang (via Tiger Leaping Gorge)
Morning drive through Tiger Leaping Gorge, a sight worth beholding. Early lunch or coffee can be had midway through the gorge on a veranda with the accompanying roar of the Yangtze far below. Lunch at Shigu, ‘First Bend of the Yangtze’, accompanied by a visit to the old town and Long March monument. As the sun begins to set, arrive in Lijiang, where it’s time to wash off the dust, relax and reflect. For those who want, attend an evening’s performance of the famous (infamous?) Naxi orchestra.
A little last minute shopping before an afternoon flight to Kunming, and a final meal together.
In many ways the ride up through the Mekong is a trip through time as the changing human geography provides a key to the changing patterns of influence and interplay of the various factions and minorities (in this case the Naxi, Yi, Lisu & Tibetans) over the last 800 years or so. Similarly, as the trail moves from the fertile plains of Lijiang, across the Yangtze watershed over to the Mekong and following it northwards, eventually rising to meet the snow peaks of the Kawa Karpo range - the trail passes through a highly representative cross-section of the many landscapes that make NW Yunnan so notable.
Photos & Text © 2003-2008 Haiwei Trails