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Tibetan Plateau (part 1) : Shanghai to LiJiang

Updated: May 20, 2021

Preamble and Preparation

I’ve wanted to go to Tibet for the longest time but since neither the wife nor the Chinese Government would let me do that (at least not as a solo photographer & hiker), on the spur of the moment (well not exactly – my wife announced she was going to London to see our daughter and that set off my “Trip Radar’ !) I decided on the next best thing, which also just happened to include a mountain trek I’d wanted to do since I'd read about it, which was to travel to the North West of Yunnan Province in Eastern China, which most people don’t realise not only constitutes a large part of Tibetan Plateau but is 80% populated by ethnic Tibetans .... so almost Tibet right ?

To keep my spouse appeased I was intent on keeping costs down for this trip. This is in direct contradiction to when travelling with my better half, where the bank account balance invariably dies a quick death and is followed by calls from the bank manager and various debt agencies. Although to be 100% truthful frugality is pretty much my modus operandi when travelling alone anyway ; cheap lodgings (hey, don't judge, I’m not even in the room except to wash and sleep), cheap food (family restaurants, street stalls and convenience stores – ‘cheap eats’ doesn’t have to mean low quality food however) and cheap travel (usually the cheapest flights I can find – unless there are exceptional reasons for business class, such as a fantastic discount on offer, long haul flights, where I usually refuse to compromise, utilising airline points or if I need the extra weight allowances for camping gear and my photographic equipment).

With 2 weeks to plan and execute it went like this :-

1. Researched and booked Flights – secured discounted economy seats Shanghai Hong Qiao Airport > Kunming > Lijiang (1,182 rmb about US$180) and for the return Shangri La > Kunming > Shanghai Hong Qiao Airport (1,112 rmb about US$165). 2. Researched hiking routes, timing & costs 3. Researched & booked a hotel in Lijiang (I’d book other places along the way using my mobile phone and the CTrip or apps, as I didn’t want to be restricted to a fixed plan) 4. All equipment was prepared and weighed (I’ve used the app ‘Packing Pro’, to be exact and track everything, for years, it works great as once an item is in the app I don’t need to re-enter it for different trips)

By now the excitement levels had risen considerably. As always for me the preparation and research is a major aspect of the fun !

Arrival in LiJiang There was no drama going from Shanghai to Kunming (4 hours flight time and Kunming Airport is at an altitude of 2,088m, which shouldn’t really bother anyone too much) nor, after a few hours waiting for my connection, the flight from Kunming to Lijiang (a 40 mins flight and Lijiang Airport is at an altitude of 2,245m).

Note there is a fixed price for the taxi fee, of 80 rmb, from the airport to downtown Lijiang (or to be exact to the edge of the Old Town, which is really where you want to stay and not in one of the many hotels in the new town areas which basically just look like any other city in China).

The hotel had arranged for a motorised cart to pick me up and when the taxi dropped me off the cart was already there waiting for me. We bounced along the cobbled stone pathways with me hanging on for dear life, with one hand on my backpack in the rear of the cart to prevent it going into orbit, and very often nearly failing as I frequently lost my balance and was almost sent flying! Luckily I clung on and the trip was mercifully short, ending right at the door of the hotel.

The hotels within Lijiang Old Town are typical traditional courtyard style construction, entry being through an often elaborately decorated passageway, with the rooms usually on two floors and almost always set around a gorgeous, plant and water adorned, courtyard.

Mine was no different even though only costing 123 rmb per night (ca. $18, no breakfast – which could easily be found in the streets of the Old Town for just a few dollars each morning). I stayed at the Dayetang Shangpin Inn, run by three friends from Shanghai who were friendly and helpful (but I don’t think they speak any English). Do note this was regarded as Low Season though and prices will reflect that, there were only 2 other rooms occupied on my first night there ... and none at all on the second.

Lijiang Old Town

Lijiang is quite a nice town/city and very easy to get around, as a tourist not interested in the ‘newly’ constructed residential & commercial areas (which is where a lot of the upmarket hotel chains are located).

There are many many awesome small boutique hotels within the Old Town to choose from, one to suit every budget (seriously), and all of the buildings have been rebuilt to conform with the city planning depts idea of what the Old Town was actually like.

It’s a big area too, so will take most people more than a few hours to walk around, shop and eat. Shopping here is actually really good and if you see something you like here …. buy it, because some of the objects on sale here I didn’t see anywhere else (no, not even in Shangri La).

I found it fun to walk around, even though you know you’re a tourist in a tourist trap it’s still very enjoyable, pretty lights are everywhere, cute canals with dinky little bridges and narrow streets packed with shops selling food, interesting silk and yak’s wool clothing and any amount of bric-a-brac.

However do your best to avoid the main square at night (it’s perfectly safe to walk through it and you will remain unmolested by touts) as there are lots of bars with bands belting out vibes and young girl/boy dance troupes entertaining the gathered hordes. It’s Chinese Tour Group heaven.

I enjoyed the Tea and the Flower Cookies (the ones I liked were made with Rose petals) that sell for 2 rmb each (30c/20p) however I wasn’t so keen on ‘Baba’ (a rather plain tasting vegetable pancake). Clearly though my favourites were the Yak’s Milk chewy snacks (there are plemty of free samples to try) which are sweet and tasty (Yak’s milk is not strong, it’s pleasant, a little sweet and more akin to Cow’s milk than say goat or sheep’s) …. buy these in Lijiang as I didn’t find them anywhere else during my trip!

Do avoid drinking at the bars that overlook the city, if you’ve walked up to the higher vantage points of the Old Town, as these charge outrageous prices (for Lijiang) to accompany your view, typically being 60-80rmb per drink and upwards and snacks the same or more.

I can’t say anything about the restaurants as in Lijiang itself I didn’t eat at any, I just picked some snacks up at one of the numerous convenience stores, to eat in the hotel room, after I’d finished photographing and wandering the streets at night. There are however a plethora of options for all budget ranges and food in China is delicious so ...

Areas surrounding LiJiang and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

I hadn’t decided if I was going to stay 2 or 3 nights in LiJiang, it rather depended on the vibe I was getting over the first 24 hours, but I’d booked in for 2 nights to start, even though I was very keen to move on and up into the mountains, the real purpose of the trip.

I had ruled out going up to the very controlled and seemingly ‘made for tourists’ Jade Dragon Snow Mountain 玉龙雪山 Yù Lónɡ Xuě Shān, via the cable car, where the whole idea seems to be that many people can say they went up to 5,596m (18,360 ft), I heard many stories of people not properly acclimatised suffering from altitude sickness and not making it to the top anyway !

However for me time restraints meant I wasn’t going to hike in the immediate area, such as the 3 day Jade Dragon Glacial Trough ( link here ) or hike and maybe sneak an overnight stay in Yak Meadow, despite the lack of snow meaning it should have been an interesting overnight hike to do (snow can close the trails in that area), and unfortunately travel to Lugu Lake was also out of the question on this occasion (that’s definitely on the list for another time though).

Shahe & Baisha

Shahe : is touted as supposedly a much smaller but more authentic alternative to Lijiang. Basically that’s rubbish, it’s not a patch on LiJiang, it's tiny in comparison, and is more or less a tourist concoction where little remains of the authentic town. There are lots of new looking accommodation blocks for Chinese tourists though. I took a bus here from Lijiang and spent an hour walking around, that was more than enough.

It’s disorganised, dirty, and doesn’t feel in any way authentic or interesting. I can’t understand for a moment why it’s on many guides’ tour lists, although probably because it’s quick and easy to get to, so they can generate a higher profit margin.

The hour I spent here was an hour too long.

To get there I took Bus #6 : 1 rmb for 30 mins drive to a roundabout close to Shahe. Brown signs direct you to the town, they say 1km but it’s more like 1.5kms or more but anyway no hardship and an easy walk, just turn left at the roundabout after alighting the bus just before it. It’s well signposted thereafter and you absolutely can’t miss it … even though you should !

I think you can take the #10 bus from the main road running through Shahe to Baisha which is just another 10 mins away. I took a taxi which cost 20 rmb (should probably have been 10 rmb haha).

Baisha : is far more authentic, though it does cater more to tourists in terms of the narrow cute little streets, with lots of cafes and restaurants (catering mostly to Chinese tourists but also there were a few places with English menus) and lots of authentic NaXi people in traditional clothing walking around (especially after the day-trippers departed I noticed)! 

I ate at a traditional NaXi minority restaurant (as in authentic NaXi people and NaXi food) which was excellent, the people were great, the food was great and it was reasonably priced (100rmb, US$15/£1.20, for a three course lunch) and included the famous Yunnan coffee, which was refilled until the pot the old lady brewed in it was empty (most places will ask you to pay by the cup).

After a small dinner in the evening (30rmb, US$4/£3) I missed the last bus back to Lijiang so wandered around and found a taxi in the main town square. After a little negotiation we settled on 25 rmb to Lijiang. If I’d taken a taxi on the way out from Lijiang to Shahe (which is closer to Lijiang) then it would have cost 30 rmb. Motto : negotiate and check taxi prices before jumping on a bus!

Wenfeng Monastery, Baisha, Yunnan

During the day, whilst wandering around the village and it’s back streets, I got talking to a young lady trimming flowers at the entrance to a private youth hostel she was managing (though empty at this time of year). She poured me tiny cups of Chinese tea and we chatted about my solo travels, and of hers to end up in Baisha.

She then asked me if I’d been up to Wenfeng Monastery. I hadn’t. So, declaring that she had nothing to do that afternoon and as she was a keen hiker herself, she offered to take me up there. Delighted to get out of the town and get back on a trail to delve further into the real psyche of the area, I happily took her up on her kind offer and within 20 mins, after she’d changed into her hiking clothes, we were on our way, first trudging through farmland and then up and up into pure countryside.

It took us about an hour or so of continuous uphill hiking to get to the monastery but with not another wandering soul (AKA Tourist) around, just the odd shepherd and my companion, it was lovely to be able to enjoy the monastery and sit back and watch the young monks relaxing, in peace and quiet. I even got to meet the Lama of the monastery who first wanted to see my cameras and then to have his picture taken with me !

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