Northern Yunnan and the tiger that could jump the Yangtze

Photo gallery

(English below)

Nach einer langen und kurvigen Busfahrt erreichten wir am 11. November die Stadt Shangri-la (auch Zhongdian genannt) im hohen Norden Yunnans, wo man laut “lonely planet” in die tibetische Welt einzutauchen beginnt. Es war schon dunkel, als wir aus dem Bus in die klirrende Kälte hinaus stiegen und ich bereute zum ersten Mal, meine Winterkleider zurück in die Schweiz geschickt zu haben. Entsprechend erleichtert war ich, als wir in unserem Hostel (Tavern 47) einen Holzofen, um den sich sämtliche übrigen Gäste versammelten, sowie elektrische Wärmedecken, unter die wir uns schon bald verkrochen, vorfanden.

Old Town, Shangri-La

Old Town, Shangri-La

Old Town, Shangri-La

Old Town, Shangri-La

Shangri-La

Shangri-La

Gossiping in the shade

Gossiping in the shade

Mystical rooftop

Shangri-La

Shangri-La

Giant prayer wheel, Shangri-La

Giant prayer wheel, Shangri-La

Evening dancing

Evening dancing

Steaming lunch at the market

Steaming lunch at the market

Weigh-in for the duck version of “The Biggest Loser”

Cosy families

Cosy families

As the saying goes…"four heads are better than one"

As the saying goes…”four heads are better than one”

Happy stall owner

Happy stall owner

Another happy stall owner - less happy duck though

Another happy stall owner – less happy duck though

Local cheese - unfortunately we bought the whole volcano

Local cheese – unfortunately we bought the whole volcano

Jcak who?

Jcak who?

Gandan Sumtseling Montastery

Gandan Sumtseling Montastery

Gandan Sumtseling Montastery

Gandan Sumtseling Montastery

Gandan Sumtseling Montastery

Gandan Sumtseling Montastery

Gandan Sumtseling Montastery

Gandan Sumtseling Montastery

Quick Facebook status update

Quick Facebook status update

Off to work on a cold morning

Off to work on a cold morning

Shangri-La County

Shangri-La County

Jumping for joy at the first pass (3715m)

Jumping for joy at the first pass (3715m)

Baishuitai (White water terraces)

Baishuitai (White water terraces)

Baishuitai

Terraces as far as the eyes can see

Terraces as far as the eyes can see

A short breather to admire the view

A short breather to admire the view

Annina (<2m) and Haba Snow Mountain (5396m)

Annina (<2m) and Haba Snow Mountain (5396m)

Lunch with the locals, Haba

Lunch with the locals, Haba

A tough start to the day for some

A tough start to the day for some

The view straight along Tiger Leaping Gorge

The view straight along Tiger Leaping Gorge

As the name suggests

As the name suggests

A beer at Sean's Guesthouse overlooking Tiger Leaping Gorge

A beer at Sean’s Guesthouse overlooking Tiger Leaping Gorge

Trying to keep warm in Tiger Leaping Gorge

Trying to keep warm in Tiger Leaping Gorge

Autumn colours and snowy peaks along the high trail - Tiger Leaping Gorge

Autumn colours and snowy peaks along the high trail – Tiger Leaping Gorge

You never know who you'll bump into

You never know who you’ll bump into

Alex, Paul, Annina and Rachel - Tiger Leaping Gorge

Alex, Paul, Annina and Rachel – Tiger Leaping Gorge

Bit of a drop

Bit of a drop

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

The raging Yangtze, Tiger Leaping Gorge

The raging Yangtze, Tiger Leaping Gorge

Auf einer Höhe von 3200 m.ü.M. scheint die Sonne so intensiv, dass die Kälte der vergangenen Nacht am nächsten Morgen (12. November) auf der Terrasse unserer gemütlichen Unterkunft schon bald vergessen war. Wir faulenzten, frühstückten, lernten andere Reisende kennen und fühlten uns so wohl, dass wir uns entschieden, paar weitere Tage in Shangri-la zu verbringen. So hatten wir genügend Zeit, uns an die Höhe zu gewöhnen, die Stadt anzuschauen, Reisegeschichten auszutauschen, auch mal was anderes als den Reiseführer zu lesen und unser Chinavisum (völlig problemlos, siehe visas) zu verlängern.

Shangri-la ist eine überwiegend tibetisch geprägte Stadt, die jährlich mehr und mehr Touristen anzieht. Die Altstadt versprüht – trotz der teils all zu kitschigen Renovationen und Restaurationen sowie der dutzenden von Souvenirläden ­- mit ihren traditionellen Holzhäusern und den im leuchtend blauen Himmel flatternden Gebetsflaggen nach wie vor einen ganz besonderen Charme. Eindrücklich ist auch das tibetisch-buddhistische Ganden Songtsenling Kloster, eines der grössten, buntesten und goldensten in der Provinz Yunnan – auch heute noch von hunderten von Mönchen bewohnt.

So sehr wir unsere velofreie Zeit in Shangri-la auch genossen, so beunruhigter wurden wir, als unsere Fahrräder am 14. November noch immer nicht im Hostel eingetroffen waren: Wir hatten sie 6 Tage zuvor bei der Post in der Stadt Kaili aufgegeben und uns versprechen lassen, dass sie uns allerspätestens am 12. November zugestellt würden. Unsere hilfsbereite Gastgeberin kam uns zu Hilfe, machte einige Telefonate und – ohne dass wir irgendein Wort verstanden hätten – wirkte dabei so überzeugend, dass ein Lieferant schon paar Stunden später, sich in aller Form entschuldigend, mit unseren intakten Fahrrädern vor der Tür stand.

Die verspätete Zustellung und damit das Hinauszögern unserer Weiterfahrt war zwar ärgerlich, doch hatten wir in der Zwischenzeit Rachel und Alex aus England kennengelernt, die mit ihren Fahrrädern ebenfalls Richtung Laos unterwegs sind, und uns entschlossen, am 16. November gemeinsam loszuradeln. Zu viert passte es so gut, dass wir die nächsten 10 Tage zusammen verbrachten, was gerade in China vieles vereinfachte. Dank Alex’ Chinesischkenntnissen etwa brauchten wir uns nicht mehr stundenland mit Händen und Füssen zu verständigen, Hotels waren dank dessen noch billiger und Essen machte noch mehr Spass, weil wir fortan vier Gerichte, statt nur zwei kreisen lassen konnten.

Zu viert verliessen wir Shangri-la also am 16. November frühmorgens, als die Sonne sich noch hinter den hohen Bergen versteckt hielt und uns trotz stetigen Anstiegs kaum warm wurde. Die Route führte uns über unbefahrene Nebentrassen mit ständiger Sicht auf die uns umrundenden, verschneiten Bergspitzen und durch bunte Herbstwälder hindurch – einmal mehr konnte ich mein Glück kaum fassen, durch eine solch unberührte Welt zu radeln! Ein unvergesslicher Tag wurde es auch in körperlicher Hinsicht: Kurz vor Mittag erreichten wir auf 3700 m.ü.M., wo mich jeder Tritt tief nach Luft ringen liess, den ersten Pass dieses Tages, woraufhin gleich noch ein zweiter, dritter und vierter folgten. Nach 10 Stunden Fahrzeit, 100 Kilometern sowie mehr als 1700 Höhenmetern waren wir erleichtert, bei Einbruch der Dunkelheit unser Tagesziel, das Dorf Baishuitai, zu erreichen, wo eigens für uns das Dorfrestaurant geöffnet wurde und wir nach einen gemütlichen Abend erschöpft in die mit elektrischen Decken gewärmten Betten sanken.

Am nächsten Morgen (17. November) stiegen wir zu den schneeweissen Kalkformationen Baishuitais, eine kleinere Version der weissen, mit Wasser gefüllten Kalkfelsen Pamukkales, hoch, bevor wir uns an weitere Nadelkurven, steile Steigungen sowie rasante Abfahrten machten. Wieder erwartete uns ein anstrengender Tag, der uns bei viel Sonnenschein durch die malerische Herbstwelt führte. Gerade als es in unseren Bäuchen laut zu rumoren begann, erreichten wir das Dorf Haba, wo wir in einer Baracke, auf kleinen Holzhockern und unter rülpsenden, schmatzenden, spuckenden, rauchenden und uns amüsiert musternden Einheimischen erst mal eine Schüssel Nudelsuppe leerten. Gestärkt liessen wir uns von einem weiteren geschäftigen Dorfmarkt in den Bann ziehen, bevor wir den letzten Pass des Tages zu erklimmen begannen. Eine 15 Kilometer lange Abfahrt führte uns zum Schluss in die Tiger-Sprung-Schlucht (Tiger Leaping Gorge), einer der tiefsten Schluchten der Welt, hinein. Der Legende nach soll ein Tiger einst über die engste Stelle der Schlucht gesprungen sein. Ob wahr oder eher nicht, der wilde Jangtse-Fluss sowie die steil hochragenden Felswände und Berge laden – immer auch mit etwas Respekt – zum Staunen ein.

Unsere erste Nacht in der Schlucht verbrachten wir in Sean’s Guesthouse, an der nordöstlichen Mündung, wo wir bei schönster Aussicht, einem kitschigen Sonnenuntergang, wohlverdientem Bier und einem ausgiebigen Abendessen einen weiteren unvergesslichen Tag ausklingen liessen.

Am 18. November radelten wir auf einer schmalen, aber geteerten Strasse durch die 16 Kilometer lange Schlucht hindurch, wagten uns dann und wann einen Blick über den Abgrund hinaus und zum reissenden Fluss hinunter und legten so viele Fotopausen ein, dass wir einander immer wieder aus den Augen verloren und – wo es die Strasse zuliess – auf einander warteten. So auch bei einem Aussichtspunkt, wo Paul und ich fasziniert dem Treiben der per Bus herchauffierten chinesischen Touristen zuschauten, während wir auf Alex und Rachel warteten. Die Zeit verstrich immer langsamer, als aus 5 Minuten zehn, dann zwanzig, dreissig und vierzig Minuten wurden, die beiden noch immer nicht aufgetaucht waren und wir uns vom einfachen platten Reifen über einen Beinbruch bis hin zum in-den-Abgrund-Stürzen immer schlimmere Szenarien vorstellten. Nach einer Stunde Warten radelte Paul einige Kilometer zurück, doch die beiden waren spurlos verschwunden. Uns blieb nichts anderes übrig, als das Hostel an der südlichen Mündung der Schlucht (Jane’s Guest House) aufzusuchen und dort auf Neuigkeiten zu hoffen. Die sich windende Strasse wollte kein Ende nehmen, die Schlucht schien endlos geworden zu sein und wir verbrachten die wohl längste halbe Stunde unserer bisherigen Reise. Endlich erreichten wir Jane’s Guesthouse, wo uns zwei nicht weniger beunruhigte Gäste sehnlichst erwarteten: Rachel und Alex! Vor lauter Trubel um uns beim Aussichtspunkt – fürs Ferienfoto chinesischer Touristen posieren, Fahrräder erklären, Äpfel geschenkt kriegen – war uns entgangen, wie Rachel und Alex an uns vorbei geflitzt waren. Die beiden wiederum hatten uns aufholen wollen und uns in der Eile übersehen. Nie zuvor hätte ich geglaubt, dass es möglich ist, einander auf einer solch schmalen Strasse zu verlieren! Wir feierten unser Wiedersehen mit einem ausgiebigen Mittagessen, liessen Gepäck und Fahrräder im Hostel zurück und machten uns von sämtlichen Sorgen befreit an eine zweitägige Wanderung, die uns auf Jahrhunderte alten Pfaden durch die Schlucht hindurch führte.

Der Pfad, der uns, hoch über dem Fluss, durch bunte Herbstwälder, kleine Bauerndörfer, über loses Geröll und entlang steiler Felswände führte, erinnerte mich an Wanderwege durch die Alpen und liess mich immer wieder vergessen, so weit weg von zu Hause zu sein. Mit einigen andern Gästen verbrachten wir einen gemütlichen Abend in einer einfachen Unterkunft (Tea Horse Guesthouse) und verkrochen uns schon bald unter die dicken, wärmenden Bettdecken.

Nach einem stärkenden Teller Haferbrei sowie einer wärmenden Tasse Kaffe legten wir den zweiten Teil unserer Herbstwanderung zurück, stiegen am Nachmittag zum Fluss hinunter und drängten uns gegen Abend in ein Taxi, das uns zurück zu Jane’s Guesthouse fuhr. Ein – wie immer – köstliches Abendessen (verschiedenes Gemüse, Pilze, Fleisch und Reis) rundete einen weiteren unvergesslichen Tag ab. Morgen würden wir die Schlucht verlassen, um zu viert weiter Richtung Süden zu radeln.

Northern Yunnan and the tiger that could jump the Yangtze

Hour upon hour, winding our way northwards, ever climbing, higher and higher, we finally reached Shangri-La (what used to be known as Zhongdian, though not any more courtesy of some tourism name-changing razzle dazzle) around 8pm, scrambled out of the comfort of the bus into the sudden chill of the evening and set off to quickly find some warmth for the night.  At an elevation of 3200m and with winter approaching, there was good incentive to escape the cold air as quickly as possible.  Incandescent stars spread across a cloudless stage lit our way, and we were happy to soon find ourselves sitting around a wood stove in our hostel, Tavern 47, warming up with the other guests.

A dazzlingly blue, crystal clear sky greeted us the next morning, and the intensity of the sun allowed us to lounge about outside on the terrace eating breakfast, the only reminder of the cold from the previous evening being, when a foot inadvertently slipped into the shade a little too long and began to slowly freeze.

Besides eating and relaxing, our main objective in Shangri-La was to obtain a one-month extension on our Chinese visa.  After reading that the procedure here was relatively quick and pain free, we headed off to the local Public Security Bureau (PSB) in the afternoon with high hopes.  A couple of forms handed over to friendly PSB officer and we were gone as quickly as we’d arrived with the promise of another 30 days in China, ready for pickup in two days time.  Sure enough, two days later our shining new visas, which had already been stuck into our passports, were waiting for us and we departed the PSB office happy, albeit both 160 Yuan (US$25) poorer.

Shangri-La is a distinctly Tibetan town, with fluttering prayer flags, mountains known by holy names, and lamaseries and rocks inscribed in Tibetan language with Buddhist sutras.  Until 2001 known as Zhongdian, the popularity of James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon”, which describes the fictional Tibetan Buddhist town of Shangri-La, resulted in the Chinese authorities changing the town’s name in order to promote tourism.  And promote tourism it has!  Within twelve years the entire old town was been renovated, restored, rebuilt and repolished to within an inch of it’s life.  Standing sentinel around the old town are rows and rows of hotels, some springing up seemingly overnight, to house the streaming busloads of local tourists being transported from the south and east.  Despite this overenthusiasm, and maybe also the fact that we’d hit the low season, the quaint old town manages to retain its charm, wooden houses lining the narrowed cobbled streets, Tibetan flags flattering in the breeze against the backdrop of an eye-catchingly blue sky.

Sitting at the edge of the old town is reputedly the world’s largest prayer wheel, 60 tonnes and 24 vertical meters of cylindrical sparkling gold.  Quickly unlocked for each busload of tourists, although suitably impressive in its own right, the real entertainment comes in watching the generally exercise-fearing tourists huffing and heaving to get the thing spinning clockwise (in accordance with Buddhist tradition) on its axis.

Getting more nervous with every passing day without delivery, we were relieved when our bikes finally completed their own long journey to Shangri-La and arrived at our hostel, 6 days since we’d parted company in Kaili.  We were ready to become cyclists again, instead of backpackers with panniers.  Another day of getting ready and then we’d get on our way again.

A short (5km) bike ride away from town brought us to the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, situated at an elevation of 3400m.  Built in 1679, the monastery is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside of Tibet, and the most important in southwestern China, at its peak accommodating 2000 monks.  Extensively damaged (read destroyed I guess) during the Cultural Revolution, the monastery was rebuilt in 1983 and now houses up to 700 monks in 200 dwellings.  Wandering through the complex, we were rewarded with stunning ornate temples filled with intricate colourful artworks, detailed woodwork, and stunning views across the plains towards the encircling mountains.

Our inadvertent delay waiting for our bikes meant that we’d found company for our onward journey.  Two other cyclists in our guesthouse, Alex and Rachel from England, were also heading south, so we set off early together in the frigid, extremity-numbing morning air (November 16th) along some back roads, hoping to avoid the nightmare of the G214 that we’d already traversed (and expressively insisted on trying to bypass) on the bus ride up to Shangri-La.

The four of us sped along, each praying that the sun would rise a little quicker above the mountain tops, hoping that the feeling might then return to the tips of our noses.  Shortly before midday we hit the top of a hard earned pass (3700m) well out of breath, and sailed quickly down the other side.  With a little less acclimatisation than we’d acquired in Kyrgyzstan at similar heights, our breathing was much more laboured and small exertions had us panting profusely.  Although tough, the day was one that reminds you of the beauty of cycle touring – quiet, smooth roads, encircled by towering snow-covered mountain peaks, colourful Autumn forests, clear air and good company.  After over ten hours in the saddle, 100km and more than 1700 meters of ascent, we were all relieved to roll into Baishuitai, our planned destination for the night, just as the last light disappeared from the day.  A hotel room was quickly negotiated, a restaurant opened for our eating pleasure alone and soon afterwards everyone fell into their electric blanket warmed bed for a well-earned sleep.

A visit to the spectacular calcium formations the next morning (November 17th) gave us the perfect start to the day.  Not dissimilar to Pamukkale in Turkey, the terraces in Baisuitai (Chinese translation: white water terraces) cascade down the mountain offering stunning views along the valley across the shimmering water-filled natural calcium pools.  Our early arrival meant that we had the place to ourselves, and in some places, the ice formed during the freezing cold night hadn’t yet thawed as we crackled over it.  Once back on the bike, another tough day lay ahead.  Thankfully the scenery was still spectacular, the roads still quiet and the skies clear, so the day flew by.  A long windy picturesque descent opposite the face of the Haba Snow Mountain (5396m) saw us arrive in Haba on market day, filled to the brim with regional produce and local costumes.  Noodles along with the locals in a small lean-to hut revitalised us and we continued onwards towards Tiger Leaping Gorge.

One last pass had to be climbed then we rolled 15km and 1200m downhill to the northeastern mouth of Tiger Leaping Gorge.  The entire descent offered spectacular views along the whole length of the gorge, leaving nothing to imagination in relation its enormity.  Upon entering the gorge, the realisation that the road ahead of us again climbed heavenwards into its depths, knocked the remaining strength out of our legs, but a little “head down, bum up” mentality finally got us on to the terrace of Sean’s Guesthouse, with it’s stunning views along the gorge, just in time for sunset – well earned beer firmly in hand.

Further into the belly of the gorge (November 18th) left us gaping at jaw-dropping views at every twist and turn.  With all four of us constantly stopping for photo opportunities, it didn’t take long for us to lose track of one another.  A 5-minute wait with Annina for Alex and Rachel at a tourist viewpoint filled with tourist buses soon turned into 10, then 20, before soon it was over and hour and still no sight of our English companions.  First thoughts of a puncture slowly metamorphosed into less savoury explanations, more major problems with one of their bikes, an accident and serious injury or even worse, plunging from the road down over the cliff-face into the raging Yangtze River below.  With a little apprehension, Nina waited with our luggage and I sped back along the gorge to search for the others.  After over 5km, back to where I’d seen them last, there was still no sign.  Not knowing what to do, we made the decision to continue on and head to the guesthouse where we’d planned to stay, hoping to be able to find out more information there.  Those last 10km of not knowing, fearing the worst, were the most troubling of our trip to date.  As we walked into Jane’s Guesthouse to the sight of two very recognisable, but equally worried faces peering at us over the balcony, everyone’s relief immediately drained away.  It turned out that exactly where we’d stopped to wait for Alex and Rachel, the tourist viewpoint, was where they’d passed us without noticing us.  We were obviously equally distracted by the comic comings and goings of the other tourists to such a degree, that we totally missed them ride by.  Able to now laugh about our misfortune, we tucked into lunch together, then packed our things and got started on the famous hiking trail along the gorge.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge is located where an upper tributary of the Yangtze River passes between the towering Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5596m) and Haba Snow Mountain (5396m).  Around 16km long, and at times over 2000m deep, the gorge is one of the world’s deepest river canyons.  Legend has it, that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at its narrowest point (a mere 25m) – hence the name.  If nothing else, credit must be given to the Chinese for their inventive naming techniques.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Local Naxi villages spot the steep northern side of the gorge at various points, high above the river below, offering accommodation and food.  Charming wooden guesthouses with breath taking views, delicious meals of regional produce, and friendly Naxi villagers are to be found at numerous positions along the high trail.  The route has been used for centuries by locals for transport to connect the different villages, and is now a beloved one or two day hike (determined by how much of a hurry you’re in) along the length of the gorge.  At times the path clings to the side of the cliff, offering plunging views, sometimes it weaves through dense, green forest, or over rocky outcrops, but at no time does it fail to be spectacular.  Four hours of walking got us to Tea Horse Guesthouse, our residence for the night.  Cold beer, delicious filling food, and tired legs had us clambering satisfied into bed for a peacefully quiet sleep.

Long, rickety ladders...

Long, rickety ladders…

or the safe (apparently) way down

or the safe (apparently) way down

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Dinner just waiting to be put into the wok

Dinner just waiting to be put into the wok

Warm banana porridge to start the day (November 19th) gave us the energy to continue on our way and around lunchtime we made the end of the path, where another guesthouse was waiting for us with lunch.  A little over 40 minutes of scrambling, sliding and climbing brought us down to the banks of the river, where we could see the famous rock, from which the tiger is said to have leapt across the gorge.   Interestingly, the famous rock seems to have multiplied, since there were what seemed to be numerous “tiger rocks” visible along the gorge, each guarded attentively by an equally entrepreneurial local.

A hitched lift got us back to Jane’s Guesthouse, where we packed our things together and prepared to keeping moving (by bicycle) the next morning.  A wander into the local village of Qiaotou in search of food for dinner, had us again peering into well-stocked glass-fronted fridges, each ingredient begging to be let out and onto our plate.

Having lived a year and a half in China many years ago, Alex’s Chinese ability was especially helpful when ordering food in restaurants and bargaining at hotels.  Annina and I had some respite from the hand and foot charades we’d been employing during our first month in China.  Having other companions on the road also meant having other people to talk to, rather than just each other.  Being food lovers though, maybe the highlight of travelling as a group of four, was that instead of only getting to order two dishes every evening for dinner, we could now share four, which meant getting to try even more different specialities.  No offence intended to Alex and Rachel of course!!

2 thoughts on “Northern Yunnan and the tiger that could jump the Yangtze

  1. I am so jealous right now… It’s such a beautiful country! In the mountains again….Enjoy! Grtz Esther

    • Esther and Lars, happy New Year! We booked flights at the end of April back from Australia to Amsterdam to begin our ride home. After all the good things you said about Eindhoven, it will definitely be on our route back to Switzerland. Hope to see you in 2014.

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