The Dragon & The Mekong (003)
14 days*, Trek [Grade 1+] & 4WD
*For a 6-day trekking extension, see The Dragon & The Mekong Extended.
D1 Kunming Hotel
D2 Lijiang Flight, Hotel
D3 Yuhu village Guesthouse
D4 Wenhai village Trek (1+), Homestay
D5 Xuehua village Trek (1+), Homestay
D6 Shanghai village Trek (1+), Homestay
D7 Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek (1+), GH
D8 Walnut Grove (TLG) Trek (1+), GH
D9 Zhongdian 4WD, Hotel
D10 Xiao Weixi 4WD, Guesthouse
D11 Cizhong or Hongpo 4WD, Homestay
D12 Feilai / Deqin 4WD, Hotel
D13 Zhongdian 4WD, Hotel
D14 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 ‘sights’,
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.
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 one of the not-to-be-missed gems of SW china. An intriguing and beautiful old town - ancient canal system, thriving central market, traditional architecture, with abundant cafes in the centre.
D3 Yuhu village
For early birds - if you’re interested in ornithology, there are at least 2 sites around town known for the large number of endemic (and oft endangered) species they attract. Getting up early is also a chance to see Lijiang at its most natural, before the tour groups kick into gear. After breakfast it’s a short drive to reach the village of Yuhu, a small village 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, a scholar of Naxi language, and a bit of a master of fakery - who roamed SW China in the 20s, 30s and 40s. A quiet village and a delightful little guesthouse provide a great jumping off point for the beginning of the trek. Guided afternoon walk up the slopes of the hovering mountain 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.
D4 Wenhai village
Today it’s a 5-hour trek to Wenhai, another Naxi village several hundred metres up on the slopes of Jade Dragon. The site of a half-hearted attempt to impose eco-tourism, Wenhai has a slightly schizophrenic character - sometimes a quiet remote village struggling with the after effects of the ‘98 logging ban, sometimes playing host to large groups of ‘eco-tourists’ with cameras and heels. Either way the views of the snow peak to and from Wenhai are beautiful and the trek, though up, relatively undemanding. A pleasant first day.
Trek (1+), Homestay
D5 Xuehua village
A short day’s trekking along the slopes to Xuehua, a much poorer Yi village and a chance to relax for the afternoon and check out a little local life. Interestingly Xuehua is also the home of one of the few 'bimo' of the area, an Yi shaman-like figure steeped in a ritualistic history infinitely longer and more complex than its newcomer counterpart amongst the Naxi - the ‘Dongba priest’. Whether or not you’ll get the chance to meet him is moot, but it does give some indication as to the depth of tradition in this village.
Trek (1+), Homestay
D6 Shanghai village
Another relaxed day’s trekking under the snow peak to Shanghai, a relatively affluent Naxi village and the last stop before heading east away from Jade Dragon. By now those muscles should be flowing!
Trek (1+), Homestay
D7 Bendiwan village
(Tiger Leaping Gorge)
The day starts off with a 2-hour trek to the road and a pick-up (by mini-bus or 4WD) for the short drive to the trailhead of the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. The gorge, while by no means as some claim the deepest gorge in the world, is still a sight worth beholding. The start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike is a slightly grueling series of switchbacks, but once that’s accomplished, the trail evens out a bit and you can begin to really admire your surroundings. Bendiwan is a small village on the upper path of the gorge, and it offers simple but cosy and friendly accommodation.
Trek (1+), Guesthouse
D8 Walnut Grove (TLG)
A great trek initially continuing along the upper road, the gorge and rushing Yangtze far below making their inimitable impression. Trail then descends down to the lower road, where the night's lodging is again in a clean and very hospitable guesthouse offering ‘gorge-side’ accommodation, taking meals on the veranda. As today’s walk is a shorter one, for those with a surfeit of energy it’s possible to take a small trail which ends at the river’s edge, giving you an up close and personal view of the force of these waters which have carved their way between Haba and Yulong mountains.
Trek (1+), Guesthouse
Meeting up with the 4WDs this morning, the trail exits the gorge and winds along the foothills of Haba Mountain (Yunnan’s 3rd highest at 5396m) through Yi, Naxi, Tibetan and Lisu areas and passing the limestone terraces of Baishuitai before breaking out onto the edge of the eastern Himalayas, to Zhongdian. In Zhongdian (now optimistically renamed Shangri-La), staying at a hotel at the bottom of Songzanlin monastery. 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 eat dinner at a neighbourhood DIY grill house, then 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.
D10 Xiao Weixi
After an initial foray north-west the trail heads south down to follow the Yangtze as it meanders along a wide valley bottom (upstream from TLG) before cutting east. Mostly Naxi country with the occasional Bai village. Meeting up with the Mekong, trail follows the river upstream a little ways to Xiao Weixi, a mostly Naxi village with some Lisu and Tibetan people. Catholic church here, started by a French Catholic priest in the late 1800s.
D11 Cizhong or Hongpo
From Xiao Weixi 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! Further along is Cizhong, site of a large Catholic church and vineyards initially planted by the French. Situated on the side of the Mekong, the village (Naxi) these days is prosperous, though isolated.
Today there is also the option of continuing on to Hongpo monastery, situated up a steep, slightly nail-biting switchback. Set at 3200m in an extremely beautiful and secluded valley with a bustling Tibetan village at its head. Possibly a highlight of this route.
4WD, Guesthouse or Homestay
D12 Feilai / Deqin
Again starting early, the trail starts to climb up from the Mekong as it parallels the Meilixueshan range that peaks with Kawagebo (6740m), super views as the road climbs higher and higher. A couple of hours before Deqin, take a side road to what can only be described as a ‘hidden’ valley, an extremely beautiful and secluded scene opening up onto the mountain, with a bustling Tibetan village and the recently restored Hongpo monastery at its head. For sure a highlight of this route. After knocking around the monastery and village, continue another 2-3 hours 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.
The route heads out of Deqin, the road climbing back up to heights of 4500m+ as it heads southeast. Given the right weather, a picnic at one of the passes and a chance 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. Then the trail drops down to the Tibetan village of Benzilan on the banks of the Yangtze, facing Sichuan 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’! From here it’s a 2-hour drive to Zhongdian.
Extremely early birds can browse the morning market. Then it’s a morning flight to Kunming, and a final meal together, which may just hold its own surprise!
A trail that moves through four different minorities - the Naxi, the Lisu, the Yi and the Tibetans; follows both the Mekong and the Yangtze rivers; and touches on Yunnan’s 3 big snow peaks - the 6746m Kawagebo (Meili) in the far NW, Jade Dragon north of Lijiang (5596m) & Haba (5396m) to the north of Tiger Leaping Gorge. For those who enjoy getting a broad overview of the region in addition to a spell of trekking, this combines a relaxed 5 days of trekking with a ride that samples the many landscapes and minorities covered by Missionaries, Minorities & The Mekong. After an initial day in the Naxi capital of Lijiang, the trail takes off on a two-leg hike combining 3 days around the slopes of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain staying in Naxi and Yi villages along the way with a 2-day hike along Tiger Leaping Gorge. Although reaching heights of 3000m+, the trekking for the most part comprises gentle, half-day hikes. Meeting the jeeps at the other end of the gorge, the trail heads off for a 5-day overland excursion that veers south-west to follow the Mekong north up into Kham Tibet in far NW Yunnan. For those who want to have their cake and eat it too, see the 5-day extension.
Photos & Text © 2003-2008 Haiwei Trails