Yúnnán: Líjiāng, TLG and Shangri-La

Over the course of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, an amazing trip became an unforgettable one. With a significant spike in the altitude, the craggy Himalayan mountaintops were never out of sight. With our cameras at the ready, every bend in the road revealed a new peak, and I even had to tell one passenger to put her head back inside the window!

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On Wednesday (gosh it seems so long ago given all that we’ve seen and done) we arrived in Lijiang after a three-hour bus ride featuring terraced rice fields, lakes and streams, and gentle mountains in the background. We met out guide who led us to lunch, and then we explored Lijiang’s 1,000 year old Old City which bears UNESCO’s emblem as a distinguished World Heritage Site. The network of narrow cobblestone alleys rise and fall over gentle terrain, and given the winding streets and hordes of tourists, it was a challenge to keep up with our guide. He brought us to temples, markets and the like, and finally after about three hours on our feet he left us at a Pu’er tea tasting room, and then we finished the day with a group dinner and some extra time on our own to explore.

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Thursday we took the mini-bus from Lijiang northwards first stopping at Tiger Leaping Gorge. I had made a special request for this stop because it’s been at the top of my list ever since I first started fantasizing about traveling in China. As the name would indicate, this gorge carved by the Yangtze River is so narrow and so deep that a hungry tiger could traverse it in one bound. Today, though, it is well on the radar of the domestic tourists, and an easily navigable boardwalk has been constructed down to the roaring water’s edge. For the infirm, a sedan-chair (a rickshaw carried by two men) will transport you back up the 600 steps for $25. While the overall character of the site could be compared to Niagara Falls, one can easily look right through the crowds since the water’s flow is so enchanting. (Of note, UNESCO also recognizes the Three Parallel Rivers–China’s Yangtze, Indochina’s Mekong and Burma’s Salween–which all begin in the Himalayas and run parallel for 200 km before the Yangtze bends back in a northeastern direction towards Chungking and Shanghai. Seeing the juvenile Yangtze at the TLG makes it our third UNESCO site of the week and 8th since February. I think we’ll max out at 12 in China, which only leaves 995 left in the world to see!

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After having lunch on an outdoor terrace in the shadow of the tallest mountain I’ve ever seen (photo below), we boarded the bus and headed two hours farther north and 6,000 feet higher in elevation–the guide told us not to fall asleep or else we’d end up with a headache. This ascent meant we’d entered Tibet in terms of culture, climate, architecture, language and ethnicity; we simply hadn’t crossed the official border of Tibet (as that would’ve required some extra paperwork as foreigners in a politically sensitive region.) The destination our tour guide had in mind: the fabled Shangri-La! …or as most Chinese people pronounce it, Shan-gorilla (the ‘gr’ sound isn’t in the Chinese phonetic palette).

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No matter that this place’s origins began in earnest in 2001 as the Chinese tourism authority identified it as the Shangri-La of James Hilton’s utopic novel “Lost Horizon”, this place was really stunning. We drove straight for the Songsanlin Lamasery (a monastery in Tibetan Buddhism) in which our guide explained the principles and tenets of Buddhism and more specifically, Tibetan Buddhism. The complex, pictured below, in fact had several chambers, altars and effigies of various Buddhas, not to mention a stunning panoramic view from below. After a thorough 90-minute visit, we headed to the hotel, first stopping for a photo with Asia’s Only Mystical Yak–sometimes these cheesy 10 cent photo opps are instead just priceless!

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Early Friday morning we headed back down the mountain to Lijiang for an equally scenic four hour trek. Our same guide in Lijiang brought us to lunch (no lazy Susan this time, we had to manually pass the dishes!) and he walked us through a very photogenic park (this entry’s cover photo), a small museum about the ethnic people of Yunnan Province and Lijiang sub-prefecture, and we ended in a ‘village’ which seemed purpose-built for the domestic tourist crowds.

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Saturday’s plan was simple enough: 8am departure for the airport for a 10:30 flight back to Xi’an. While no students would trade the clear blue skies of Yunnan for today’s rain in Xi’an, I did notice two in our group sub-consciously refer to Xi’an as home, which was a subtle and touching moment I had to share with our readers following us from our real home 🙂

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