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Hiking the Tibetan mountains of Yunnan province, China


Go ask Chinese travelers anywhere in China which province they most want to visit and Yunnan is most likely their answer. Whether you travel through the tropical south, the fertile central, the thermal-active west, or the mountainous north, Yunnan offers something for everyone. While non-Chinese travelers still remain scarce in this part of the world, the Chinese are coming in droves from all over the nation - in particular during the summer holiday months. Fortunately, these mainly package travelers only stay in the "party" towns such as Lijiang and few venture onto the unbeaten-paths.

Lijiang (丽江市) is known for its historical old town (a UNESCO Heritage Site) with a history going back more than 800 years to the Song Dynasty at which time it was an important town at a confluence for trade along the old "tea horse road". The town is known for its lovely system of waterways and bridges and is mainly occupied by the Nàxī (or Nakhi) people, one of China's many minority groups. However, several other minority groups, as well as the China's largest ethnic group, the Han people, call Lijiang their home.

Start your trip in Lijiang by flying in via Kunming (Yunnan province), Chengdu (Sichuan province) or a few other Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Spend at least two full days in the town of Lijiang to enjoy the sights of the old town (such as the Naxi Orchestra, cosy guesthouses and restaurants) the good Yunnan food and all too vibrant (albeit somewhat annoying and kish) karaoke and open-bars. Visit during the

shoulder-months such as February and March when it is considered too cold by local travelers. November and even December should be less crowded too. While based in Lijiang, make a pleasant daytrip to the Yulong Snow Mountain. Take the impressive cable car to the top of the mountain (4,636 meter), and before leaving the area, go watch the Lijiang Impressions show which is a masterpiece of work directed by Chinese artist Zhang Yi Mou (who also directed the 2008 Olympic Games opening show). This breathtaking show of dancing and excellent choreography employs about 500 actors and 100 horses in a 360-degree open-air theatre stage with the mountains as a back-drop.

After two days of strolling the cobbled stoned alleys of Lijiang and nearby villages (all with their own entrance fees) you will be glad to leave these touristy places for a few days of solace of hiking the mountains north of town.

Head north, past the Yulong Snow Mountain, to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Spend two or three days hiking high in the mountains and down to the narrow Yangtze River as it rushes through the gorge. The river is only three meter wide at some spots and it is hard to believe that this same river will stretch several kilometers wide at the Yangsze River Delta near Shanghai before it flows into the East China Sea.

From the Tiger Leaping Gorge, take a 5-hour bus ride north to the town of Zhongdian, also known as Shangri-La. Zhongdian is
well known for its old town - though much smaller (and less crowded) than Lijiang. At an altitude of 3,000 meter, the town is less touristy than Lijiang as it is more difficult to reach (in particular via the very bad roads) and is generally colder than Lijiang to the south. The town's inhabitants are mainly Tibetan which gives it a whole different flavour than Lijiang. Good Tibetan restaurants abound in the old town and several scenic spots can be visited on day trips.

Don't miss the impressive Songzanlin Monastery which is a large, sprawling and well-preserved lamasery built in the 1700s by the 5th Dalai Lama. As is custom nowadays in China, steep entrance fees are being charged at any place being consider a "scenic spot". This includes old towns, villages, mountains, rivers, hiking paths, ladders, famous rocks, and the list goes on and on. Villages regarded as "scenic spots" do not only require an entrance fee, but also painfully offers an endless number of tourist shops with the usual tourist junk. My advice is to avoid any designated "scenic spots" and get off the tourist trails to where you can experience real life in small-town China.

After two or three days in Zhongdian, rent a 4-Wheel Drive and driver for the five to six hour ride to the town the Deqin - close to the Tibetan border. Pass Deqin and head higher up to the small town of Feilai-si and stay for the night (after paying a hefty "entrance fee" to this dull little town). If the weather is good, get up early to see sunrise over the summit of Mount Miacimu (6,054 meter). Get on a minibus (or your private car and driver) for a 90 minute bumpy ride down the gorge and over the narrow Mekong River. Yes, this is the same Mekong river which is so mighty big in southern Vietnam. Your long hike starts about 30 minutes after crossing the Mekong.

This is a strenuous hike over the mountains and if you get a lot of rain or snow, the path becomes very muddy and slippery. Expect at least a few spectacular slips and slides. Make sure to bring your two hiking sticks. Four legs are better than two! You'll be glad to eventually descent into the little isolated and small Tibetan village of Yubeng. There are no roads to Yubeng and all supplies come in on donkey back over the mountains. Don't expect anything luxurious - and that includes a nice chocolate bar which seems like gold in this little forgotten village. Accommodation is limited to very basic rooms (most with an awesome view of the lower village and the mountains). Stay in the upper village and make sure the hot water works before you move in.

You'll live off local grown veggies and noodles, and a freshly slaughtered goat if you are lucky. Avoid beef and pork - or any meat for that matter. Pork is mainly slices of fat, large chunks of raw meat is partly dried-out and not so appetizing to even look at. As is custom at most Tibetan restaurants, you will enter via the kitchen to decide exactly what food you want to be cooked. Once you look at the chunks of raw meat, you'll promise yourself to become a vegetarian right away!

There are many lovely hikes around the village, including the so-called "base-camp", "ice-lake", sacred-waterfall", etc etc. The problem with traveling in this area is to choose the right month. From December to April it can be very snowy which means hiking is difficult and dangerous. Some paths will be inaccessible. Even though you will pay a hefty entrance fee to this "scenic spot", none of the money is used to maintain the paths. Summer months are very rainy, which makes paths very muddy and tough to hike. Honestly, the safest and most comfortable hiking season may only be early May and probably November.

When you're done, and need some better food and bed and clean body, get out of Yubeng and head back to Feilai-si, Deqin, and back south to Shangri-la from where you can fly out to your next destination. Note that you still can't cross into Tibet as the border remains closed for foreigners.

Enjoy the hiking and Tibetan hospitality of northern Yunnan province. But, like me, you'll probably say "Been there - done it. Next please"

For more pictures of Yunnan
http://globerovers.blogspot.com/2012/05/yunnan-province-of-china.html