Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge to Zhongdian

Well, I hated Lijiang. I suppose I was tired, or in a bad mood, or maybe it was the holiday crowds, but my immediate reaction to the most loved spot in Yunnan was, ‘No. Just no.’ I did not like it. Yangshuo grew on me, and I found Dali enchanting for whatever reason, but I couldn’t swallow Lijiang. Too touristy, too garish, too Disneyworld-ish. I was not charmed by the old architecture, the peaked slate roofs and winding cobblestone lanes and little bridges over canals. I was not delighted by the minority costumes, or the neverending stalls of printed bloomer pants and marble bracelets. I couldn’t find a hostel I liked and then the one I finally took had the shower right smack in the tiny squat toilet. And folks, that’s where I draw the line. I am not a princess: I will shower in front of, next to, beside, over, on top of, or even astride a toilet, but I will not shower in a toilet. That’s counterproductive. So, I was dirty and tired and cranky, and I bailed out of Lijiang first thing the next morning. Every tourist I’ve met since says I should have given it a better chance, that it has quieter streets and so forth, but I’m not going back, so if you want to hear about Lijiang, you’ll have to read it in someone else’s blog.


North of Lijiang is another Yunnan must-do: Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Yangzi River flows through this gorge, which is one of the deepest in the world, and there’s a trail winding along one side, overlooking the wide, muddy river, and dotted heavily with little mountain guesthouses. The mountains on the opposite side of the gorge are much higher, so much so that the uppermost peaks are actually snow-capped, so the views are really spectacular. Most people hike the gorge in a couple of days, staying overnight in one of the guesthouses. I planned to hike to Walnut Gardens, an area nearly to the end, but not quite, in one day, and then just catch a bus back to the beginning.

I met a fellow on the bus from Lijiang, Maarten, a coastal engineer who’s been working in Sydney for the past couple years and is traveling on his way home to Holland. We stayed that night in Qiaotou, the little village at the start of the trail, and met up with two other travelers: Torsten, a Swede in conflict resolution, whose most recent assignment was Sri Lanka, and Kirk, an environmental enforcement agent from Sydney, who might fine you $200 if you flick a cigarette butt out the window in his neck of the woods. We all drank and talked politics and decided to get up at 7 to start hiking.

When I woke up, it was pouring. I had absolutely no desire to be battered and defeated by another muddy, flooded mountain trail, and thought I might just go on to Zhongdian, but then it stopped coming down, and I realized I could hike in my Keene’s, which are waterproof (although open to mud and chicken droppings), so I chanced it. It turned out to be a great day: heavily misty and raining off and on, but we didn’t get flooded, the mud wasn’t too slick, and the trail, although steep at first, was a total picnic after my Cang Shan experience. We hiked at a good pace. Alongside the chasm, there were horses and mules grazing with bells around their necks, and many goats (Kirk let one suck on his finger for some reason, and of course was promptly bitten). The trail also heads through some pine forests and is crossed by a few impressive waterfalls. We met very few other hikers.

early on
me in the fog
river through the gorge
sun coming out
at trail's end

We reached Walnut Gardens by 5:30, but there were no buses going back to Qiaotou until 11 the next morning, so we all ended up staying at a guesthouse with this enormous collection of young and drunk Americans, Irish and Brits. The four of us sat up talking to a 65-year-old guy from California that we’d played tag with on the trail. Tom had actually planned to run the trail, but soon realized that was overly ambitious. I did not sleep, in part because the revelers didn’t pack it in until late (drinking leads to dares, which lead to spats and domestic disputes), and in part because of the snoring of my traveling companions.

Next morning, we all split a minivan back to Qiaotou with a couple of the Irish kids. Maarten and I then caught a bus to Zhongdian, a Tibetan town that everyone had told me was disappointing. Many towns here and in Tibet claim to be Shangri-La, but the name is most frequently applied to Zhongdian. It’s just an ugly little town, at 3200 m. and surrounded by almost desert-like terrain, but I find it charming, and it’s nice to be somewhere that is not crowded. We spent yesterday looking at the massive prayer wheel that looms over the town (prayer wheels are cylinders, usually of gold-leaf, that are spun to release prayers into the heavens, and they come in all sizes, from the personal hand-held models monks carry around to huge ones like the one here), and the big monastery North of town. The monastery was a lot closer to what I’d expected Buddhist temple complexes to be like: packed with crimson-robed monks of all ages and reeking of yak butter (they make the candles out of it, and it is potent). Incidentally, there is yak in absolutely everything in Tibet: yak noodles, yak rice, fried yak, stewed yak, yak toast, yak tea, yak jerkey (which is actually delicious). I’ve eaten my weight in yak.

prayer wheel
girls spinning wheel
monks and tourists

Yesterday was blazing hot, but because I arrived, it began to pour last night and hasn’t stopped. I’d wanted to bike through the countryside today, but now I’m sitting by the stove at the hostel. Tomorrow morning, I fly back to Kunming and head South again. I’m mostly looking forward to changing clothes – I only have one warm outfit and have been wearing it every day and sleeping in it every night since I came down from Zhonghe mountain.

(Click here for more pictures of Tiger Leaping Gorge, and click here for more pictures of Zhongdian.)

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