Sunday, August 17, 2014

Back in Lijiang and Kunming - Yunnan, China

14th Aug 2014:
On the 14th we headed back to Lijiang. After squeezing into another minivan to get back to Jianchuan, there was a bit of a scare when we found the tickets for the official bus were sold out, however this didn't last long as we were soon scooped up by a private driver and with others paid 40RMB per head to take us near to the old town, from there we were able to hitch the remainder of the journey.

Giving Lijiang Old Town another bite of the cherry we made out way past the square and up the hill to find a nice view. We found a cafe with just that but got a little stung when the two cokes we ordered came with a price tag of 90RMB or nine GBP. The place wasn't even clean but we compromised by sending one back and sipping the remaining beverage as slowly as possible, damn you Lijiang!

Nice rooftops view in Lijiang

The most expensive coke in Lijiang?
Soon enough we were at a busy Lijiang train station. Kate had a nasty fall on spillage and hurt her knee just as we were boarding but being on the bottom (of three) bunks this time, she was able to rest and have doctor Bailey tend to her. This Lijiang to Kunming train was a little less comfortable than the outward journey owing to there being triple bunks and no cabins. Strongly recommend getting the bottom bunk if possible.

15th Aug 2014: 

We woke up in Kunming train station and took a nearby bus (number 25) to Beichen Pedestrian Street to get some breakfast and get some energy for the day. We had met a new friend called Nicole at the train station and she came to join us at Prague Cafe. The street has tons of eating options and boasts O'Reilly's Irish Bar, one of the best places to drink in Kunming (according to trip advisor, locals may know better).

Energy restored, we headed to Golden Temple on Mingfeng Shan (singing Phoenix Hill) to spend a few hours before heading to the airport. We bought tickets to try the German built sliding car which tugs you up a portion of the hill via a cable as you sit on it. The area has many interesting sights such as the temple itself, however for me the most interesting things were the historic bronze artifacts held in the museum (and replicated on the outdoor paths) along with the 500 year old massive bronze bell in the bell tower. 

Statue in the park

Bronze replica of an ancient artifact

Enjoying the Japanese garden

The 14 Ton bronze bell

Nicole and I also managed to work out a suitable Chinese name for myself, we settled with Bai Li Ping, we weren't sure which Bai character to use but we came across a Bai tree (cedar) and it was fated. 

Nicole and I by the Bai tree

Kunming airport was very busy and check-in queues were pretty brutal, luckily we left plenty of time. Stepping off the plane in Zhuhai we immediately felt the humidity and pined for the freshness of Yunnan. Even so, Zhuhai is a great place to come back to and having jumped from place to place it will be nice to stay in one place and see the gang again. 

They say if you travel to one place it China as a backpacker then it should probably be Yunnan. With the scenery on offer I can definitely see why. My only advice would be to make sure you leave enough time to explore the surrounding areas as well as the main towns. Much of Yunnan's infrastructure such as railways and highways were developed in accordance withthe towns that were hand picked to be developed for tourism or have at least been on the receiving end of heavy investment. Therefore,whilst it is straightforward for travellers to reach the likes of Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-la, you are essentially following the path prepared for you by the Yunnan government. Try to vary from these channels and you may quickly find it inconvenient, expensive and in some cases near impossible due to the lack of infrastructure and difficult terrain. However, from the short time we travelled we found that the more you investigated independently and the more difficult the route was to arrange, the more rewarding it would be. Visit Yunnan with the sheep and you wil be part of the tourism machine. Visit Yunnan with your mind open and you will be blown away by awesome experiences and mindblowing surroundings.

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Shaxi - Yunnan, China

11th - 14th Aug 2014:

In Shangri-La We moved to N's Guesthouse as 517 only had the expensive rooms left. They did a great yakburger and rooms were good value but we were ready to move on so checked out and made our way to Sha Xi. To get to Sha Xi you have to book a ticket to Jian Chuan, from there it's a 10RMB packed minibus ride to the small town. Although small, Sha Xi had to be one of our favourite stops on this trip. The buildings are beautiful and in the most part authentically old unlike other places we had been. The pace is relaxed and the people honest and friendly. We spent the first day relaxing in the square watching a film crew shooting for a phone advert. Later we spent some time getting purposely lost amongst the back lanes. We stayed at the guest house Horse Pen 46 in the square. Our room was small but quirky, our toilet was positioned at the end of the bed! A St. Bernard and Tibetan Mastiff lounged around the courtyard and received a belly scratch or two (they would have received more if they weren't so smelly!).

The toilet at the end of the room :o)

The sleepy dog
Shooting the advert

Chilling at the cafe
The temple in the square

The backstreets of Shaxi
For dinner we found an amazing hotel called Cindura-Di, whilst to stay there would be comparitively expensive, you can enjoy a delicious meal in the luxury surroundings of the courtyard at increadibly reasonable prices. The food is lovingly prepared by Fiona, who when she found out about our fragile stomachs set about arranging some special tea and mint drops. The hotel is a Taiwanese family run business and incredibly hospitable.

The stunning reception area

Being treated like royalty

Highly recommended

The second day we wanted to visit Shibao Shan (stone treasure mountain) to see the temples and excellent views. Arranged via the Horse Pen 46 Hostel, it was 200 RMB return for the driver to take us to the mountain and two temples in a small van which we shared with two other tourists, Laura and Matti from Italy. We found these guys after asking around to see who wanted to share the trip costs with us. There was a bit of a situation when the moto driver they had already had preliminary discussions with saw us approaching the car to leave Shaxi and moaned until Matti gave him some money for not going with him. You aways hear about how important it is to 'save face' in China but from what we saw on this trip it must have a different meaning this country!

Another long and windy road eventually took us to the ticket gate, where upon the driver's advice, Kate ducked down in the back to save on a ticket cost (we let Matti have this saving to make up for paying the whining driver off). We asked the driver to take us to the farthest temple, Shizhong Temple (Stone Bell Temple), to begin with. We could immediately see why this was one of the first nature reserves to be officially protected by China. There are countless grottoes, shrines and stone carvings many dating back around 500 years. The forest walks are beautiful and the views are sprinkled with smaller temples and shrines along the mountainside. Note that you do need a ticket to enter but we got past this with the 'I must have left it in the car' routine'.

Village on the mountain side

A statue in one of the grottoes

Some interesting geology
After a couple of hours we headed back to the car and made our way back towards the other temple of merit, Baoxiang Temple (Scenic Treasure Temple). Monkeys were rife here and we heard they could be aggressive to visitors but we didn't encounter any difficulties. We thoroughly enjoyed the sights of this temple, some old some new, and it was truly a beautiful setting amongst stone cliffs, forest and waterfalls. Well worth the trip. Upon return our driver asked for a little more money for us taking longer than we should have done but this did little to dampen a noteworthy trip.

At Baoshi Temple

Monkey posing

Monkey family and friends
The evening was topped when we enjoyed some amazing Italian food at The Hungry Buddha restaurant. We had briefly attempted to find it before with no luck, but Matti and Laura knew the owners and were able to show us to the small restaurant just off the main square (if coming down the longer street from where minivans drop off their passengers, keep going straight past the square and it is the second business on your left). We are both foodies, spoiled after living in Jersey, even so I can't recommend this restaurant enough. If you like good western food, especially Italian food, it would be a crime to leave Shaxi without eating here.

Maurie along with his wife and team prepare the food right in front of you, all of it is sourced locally or made in house. They even have a selection of home made cheeses of the highest standard (anyone who values good cheese knows that in most parts of China it is as rare as rocking horse poo). After we discovered the Hungry Buddha we didn't eat anywhere else. The pizzas and cheeses are sublime but everything on the menu is fantastic and reasonably priced considering the time and love that goes into the food. Washed down with excellent wine and great vibes (the small 8 seater square setup encourages conversation so a great place to make friends) you get a real homely feel and will definitely leave with a smile on your face.

Maurie and his wife

Happy customers

Fine trio of desserts

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Shangri-La - Yunnan, China

5th - 9th Aug 2014: 

We arrived in Shangri-la early evening, conveniently dropped off in the courtyard of Tina's guesthouse Shangri-la which isn't so conveniently located.  It was easy enough to flag a cab and tell them to take us to the old town (gu cheng/lao cheng) for a 10RMB off the meter short trip (taxis start at 5RMB here, that's just 50p or under a dollar it's almost charity! with dad being a cabby I had no problem paying a minimum of 10 especially when they ran the meter as they should).  We traversed the old town where although calmer than Lijiang, hostels were less numerous and as a result little more pricey. We finally found a bed in Shangri-la International hostel (YHA) but checked out the next day after a chilly night in a hard bed in a place that didn't feel very clean. 

Shangri-la's center-piece

Courtyard of the YHA. Layout is better suited for warmer climates.

We found our second lodgings at 517 guest house, also in the old town. Zoe the landlady was extremely helpful when it came to general advice or booking trips, with perfect English. The double was comfortable with a hot shower for around 130RMB (they had variously priced rooms).  

A large part of the old town was unfortunately leveled in a fire in January 2014 which means that many of the information you can find about hostels and restaurants etc is unfortunately redundant.  We also found ourselves trudging across a construction site at least once a day to get around town.

Fire damaged Old Town
The streets of Shangri-la are similar to Lijang, expect cobbles, souvenir shops and deceptively new architecture (the whole town is less than 10 years old, purposely built for tourism). Unlike Lijiang the streets are now overcrowded and the place serves well to relax those who visit rather than raise the blood pressure. The main focal point has to be the temple just off the main square, with the highlight being the massive prayer drum (go on give it a spin), the largest in god knows where and great for photos. At night the square comes to life as locals engage in rotating dance routines en mass, tourists are more than welcome to partake. You can rub shoulders with the local minorities and you should definitely try to interact or learn some of their lingo before sticking a camera in their face. I found most had a great sense of humour. 

Local minorities

Dancing kicks off in the square

Kate helping to turn the prayer drum

This lady served us up our first Yak meat kebab!

Yakety Yak

On our first full day we visited the local temples, the highlight being Bai Ji Si or White chicken temple. Less crowded than the one off the main square, you can hang out with chickens, rabbits and pigs in a beautiful setting with great views of the town.  I managed to step on a shard of glass which went through my flipflop but we had the first aid kit on hand to clean it up pretty quick and there wasn't any harm done. 

View of Shangri-la from Bai Ji Si

Bai Ji Temple

Is this THE white chicken of Bai Ji Si?

Arguably, the best things to do in Shangri-la are actually in the surrounding area. We arranged a trip to Nixi village via our hostel who took us to where the private drivers hung out. After some banter we organised a driver for the two of us in a minivan for 160RMB. After walking around the deathly quiet village we stumbled across a residence where they were making pottery (hei tao), watched the potter make teapots and bought two as souvenirs and were given a third as a gift from his live-in apprentice 'Yuan' who had taken a shine to us. 

It even made it back to Zhuhai!

Master potter going about his business

Yuan learning the trade
We got peckish whilst in the village and the only shop we could find was near a schoolyard in which two 13 year old girls were drilling children aged 4-13. We bought some instant noodles from them and used the kettle in their home to add hot water. It was bizarre, we asked where their parents were they told us that dad is out working as a driver and mum was up the mountain picking song rong mushrooms (valuable at around 90RMB or nine GBP for half a KG) as it was the season. We gave them a little gift of Jersey pound note each and proceeded to give the kids an English lesson free of charge whilst a village elder watched over from the back of the basketball court. 

Children teaching children

In the home to add hot water

Happy boy

Group photo with teacher Kate

Our new friend Yuan took us inside the Tibetan home she was staying in whilst studying the art of pottery and it was truly stunning. The iron stove, hand crafted wood and elegance and detail of the interior was enough to warrant the home to be classed as a museum. The Buddhist prayer room was especially impressive although it is forbidden to take photos. We left Nixi village very relaxed and satisfied. 

Visiting the Tibetan home

Cooking equipment in the home

The views on the way weren't too bad either

9th Aug 2014:

On the Saturday we decided to visit Bai Shui Tai or the white water terraces. A windy 3 hour drive there and back is possible when you book tickets via the main bus station in Shangri-la. There is only one possible day return with this bus if you take the one leaving at 9.10am (the only other leaves at 14:10) and the only return being at 14:30. The road here is good albeit windy and not well trafficked so hitchhiking may be a problem. Booking the return is recommended and even so we ended up sharing the small bus with locals picked up along the way and crammed in so as they were practically on our laps! All good fun. 

Cramped bus

The long journey took us through rural Yunnan

Whilst we would have preferred slightly more time the terraces, two hours is a reasonable amount of time to absorb the sights spread over a small area. After a bit of an incline (there are plenty of good looking horses on offer although unnecessary for anyone of average fitness) you get to a point just below the terraces. We found them extremely beautiful. Here you will come across a Naxi Dongba Shaman who will bless you and expect a small donation which is well worth it for the experience (we gave him 20RMB and he seemed well chuffed). You can then reach the peak of the terraces where you can seen them in all their splendour as you walk across the trickles of mountain water, feeding the terraces with its minerals. 

Naxi Dongba dude 

The Bai Shui Tai Water Terraces 
The Bai Shi Tai Water Terraces

The views are tremendous. At the top we came across another Dongba, Naxi fellow. We went with him and he showed us where the best picture could be taken. He took our camera and climbed a tree for our picture, he was also selling rocks from the terraces. He then lead us to two more Naxi dudes who were chilling by the most beautiful, secluded blue pool which although small had a certain magic about it. We were blessed again and drank from the pool, by this point we were practically out of small money so could only give them a pittance but they were absolutely cool and invited us to break bread with them. 

Our pictures taken by another Dongba, Naxi dude

For a small tip you can be blessed by this legend

The magical pool we drank from

We took the windy road home feeling very blessed and fulfilled although it is a lot of travelling for two hour's sightseeing so understandable if you pass if running against the clock. 

Local villagers spotted on the route back to Shangri-la

Snow Mountain

If you're that close you might as well make friends

10th Aug 2014: 

We arranged a homestay with a Tibetan family through a contact we found via Wiki Travel. His name is Andrew from Detroit in the United States and he has lived in the region for around ten years during which time he set up his own travel company and made some great connections with the locals. The village we stayed in was called Ha Mu Gu in the Napa Hai/ Yi La Meadow only a twenty minute drive from Shangri-la, chauffered by Andrew. When we arrived the village was quiet but for a few chickens clucking around. At the house were two children along with their grandfather and Buddhist uncle. It wasn't an especially warm welcome but we were shown our room which had plenty of blankets and we were left to our own devices. Having brought along some small toys, we handed a couple to the kids and we were instantly in their good books. So much so that when we went out for a walk they asked us if we wanted to go together, so sweet!

The courtyard at our homestay
Our room

Not quite sure what to call this room

We went, or more appropriately, we were lead through the village up a nearby hill all the while being toyed with as the children 'Dan Zi Yi Jin' and 'Dan zi Li Dan' would run ahead and hide only to jump out and scare us. It started to rain so we headed back to the house. 

Having a rest from all the hide and seek

and it begins again! 

We had a quick walk around the area, aiming to follow the nearby river but we both suddenly felt ill probably from something we ate at breakfast. We stayed in the field until we felt better and headed back to the house but before long we were heading out again with our little buddies to find a nearby shop where we could buy water. During the walk we showed the children how to use the camera and offered piggy backs to make the whole thing more fun. At the little shop we got to try some local yogurt an we bought some fried potatoes for everyone to share.

Give that kid a tissue

Piggy-backs became order of the day

Having fun

Nearby piglets having some lunch

Little buddies trying the camera
Granddad was milking cows when we got back and the whole village came to life as animals were being herded to their stables and pens by villagers old and young. When mum came back from picking mushrooms she immediately set about preparing a delicious dinner for everyone. The uncle showed us around the house which was similar to the home in Nixi, with great woodwork and interesting furniture. At some point gran had returned and joined us for dinner whilst uncle sat to one side to eat his. After dinner mum laid out her haul of mushrooms of various sizes, altogether just under a kilogram. Dan Zi Yi Jin was enjoying playing with a kitten that couldn't have been more than a few weeks old. Over dinner mum told us that dad was with the eldest son of 13 chopping trees and building a house up on the mountain. I felt we were all starting to bond by the time we went to bed. 

Kate offering to lend a hand

The various dishes on offer

Mum preparing dinner

Around the dinner table

Mum inspecting the mushroom harvest
Breakfast was great, granddad was using a wonderful looking contraption to make cheese from the fresh milk and we were served traditional Tibetan butter tea amongst other delicious food. Mum had already left to climb the mountain and pick more mushrooms. As we weren't feeling 100% and wanted to get somewhere a little more comfortable, we had to cut the stay a little shorter than we would have liked and Andrew came to collect us before the afternoon. I felt bad as the previous day the children were asking us when we would go and I told them not until the afternoon but they got a few more toys out of us so weren't too upset. By the time we had left, I felt the ice had been broken and we were sad to go.

The milk and cheese machine


Saying goodbye
Andrew (for homestays, trips and general advice): 18687645054

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