Tourist traps and the first Tibetan influences

When you read a travel guide on Yunnan, chances are that the list of recommended cities will contain Dali, Lijiang and Shangri-la. All played an important role as part of the Tea horse road and have an Old town that has been restored. These cities represent the success of the trade route and attract a lot of tourists. People we had met in Dali had warned us that they didn’t like Lijiang too much for the huge groups of Chinese tourists and the feeling that you walk in an open-air mall, so we were prepared! We had booked a guesthouse with great reviews in the middle of the center so we could form an opinion for ourselves.

The daughter of the family owning the guesthouse, Jessie, came to guide us from the North gate of the car-free old town through small, but busy streets to the guesthouse. A very warm welcome! After a couple cups of tea, prepared in the traditional way by Jessie’s father, and a good explanation of the things to do and to see in the town, we set out for a short walk. The first impression was indeed that the main streets were swarmed by tourists and the shops that have been build in every house do indeed take away a lot of charm from the beautiful buildings. But…as is often the case, a little effort and a couple of left and right turns into smaller streets show off that the old town has some beautiful places that give you an impression of the old days. That evening we had a taste of one of the dishes that Chinese people LOVE: hotpot. According to our hosts, this was one of the best places to eat it in Lijiang, but we both thought the broth lacked flavor. On the bright side, we had really good Shangri-La beers (that they forgot to put on our bill). 

This left us with a full day in Lijiang before we headed to the Tiger leaping gorge. Since we had seen already a lot of the small old town and didn’t fancy more time between the steady streams of tourists, we decided to go to a nearby nature park in the hope of having beautiful views of the mountains. In Chinese fashion, the Jade dragon snow mountain park is not freely accessible, but has been “developed” to be an ideal tourist destination. For this reason, most people book a full option tour package, which will set you back between 300 and 400 euro per person! This includes: entrance to the park, three cable cars, one from the tourist information center at 2200m to a viewpoint at 4700m, thick waterproof jackets, bus tickets within the park and oxygen canisters!!! These oxygen flasks are very important accessories for all the Chinese tourists. A funny sight, especially if they are just walking around at an altitude of 3000m. But if we were thinking of escaping the hordes of tourists, we were wrong.

For us, this proved to be one of our most frustrating days in China. First of all, Lonely planet writes that you can take the public bus nr. 7 from a bus stop at Mao Square. We waited for more than 30’ and didn’t see a bus nr. 7, it turns out bus nr. 7 does not exist. There are however cars and minivans with drivers that say they drive to the Jade snow mountain park for a fixed fee per person, which obviously is a lot higher than any regular bus would be. Next we had to wait until the car was full before we could leave. Some 20 minutes later, we were finally on our way, we hoped. Halfway between the city and the park, we stopped at an office with tickets for the cable cars. The prices are high, but we hoped to do some walking on our own, so we kindly declined. The other passengers bought their tickets and started to doubt their choice of clothing and their lung capacity at altitude. This meant discussions about hiring a jacket and buying oxygen etc. and more waiting for us.

Finally, we arrived at the park entrance were we paid the (high) entrance fee. Now we would be able to look around and look for beautiful spots! Or so we thought… The car dropped us off at the visitor center and there it appeared that you can only go somewhere interesting by park bus. This bus (obviously) requires that you buy a special bus ticket. This also means that if you go for example to a cable car and then want to go to another cable car, that you have to come back to the center and buy a new ticket to take a different bus. Pretty complicated, but since all the other visitors are here on a tour they don’t care. But it is very annoying for travelers that want to see things on their own terms, like us.

We then decided to go to the Blue moon Lake. A series of lakes connected by some real (and some artificial) waterfalls. It’s fed by the glacier on the mountain, which gives the water a milky blue color. With clear weather, you have an incredible view on the snow-capped Jade dragon mountain. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t good. A lot of low hanging clouds combined with a light but steady rain. Not great conditions, but the lake was still a beautiful sight! Wooden walking paths line the border of the lake, making it easy for everyone to enjoy the views and to take photos. The love of Chinese for selfies is well known and they could go all out here, with possibilities to pose in traditional clothing or with yaks! After walking around and taking a lot of pictures, we then wanted to go to a spot 9km further in the park called yak meadow. After Google translate confusion with the staff we came to the conclusion that we would first have to go back 5km to the information center to take a different bus, which would take us again past the lake towards the yak meadow. We thus decided to skip this and to walk a little further up the hill to enjoy the lakes from a different angle.

Getting back, we had to look for a car that would take us to town. To round off the feeling that we had all day of being a walking wallet, they charged us even more to get back. In conclusion, we had a very expensive day to sit between a lot of tourists. We had bad luck with the weather, but on the plus side the lakes were really beautiful. Although we know we sound very negative about the experience, we believe it’s too easy to say that you shouldn’t go. We think it can be great if you know where you are going to exactly. Not a nature reserve where you experience nature, but a tourist attraction, set in the raw and beautiful nature of the Jade dragon snow mountain. Still a bit frustrated, we headed to the best place in Lijiang for beers and burgers, Prague café.

The next day, the disappointment was gone and we were already excited for our trip to the Tiger-leaping gorge. A little nervous, we made sure we were prepared, with a lot of snacks and fruit to survive a long day of hiking. The next morning we left early for the bus to the Tiger-Leaping gorge. If you have read our post about the Tiger-leaping gorge trek, you will understand that we were still very much thrilled (and tired) when we arrived back in Lijiang. We got bus tickets to get to our next destination: Shangri-La and relaxed the rest of the evening. The next morning we packed our bags and got ready to take the bus to Shangri-La. As we really like a good local market, we spend the morning at the market at the south gate of the old town to buy fruit and cake. The market is probably one of the most sincere and traditional places in Lijiang. It is clearly the place where all the locals do there shopping.

Shangri-La is located in the North West of Yunnan, with borders with Sichuan in the North and in the West with Tibet. This proximity to Tibet can be noticed if you look at the people. The name of the city has been taken from the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. In the novel, the fictional city of Shangri-La is a mystical and harmonious hidden city in the Himalaya, a paradise on earth. This inspired the Chinese government in 2001 to change the name of the city of Zongdian to Shangri-La, to attract more tourists to this old town. Apparently this was a successful move, since the numbers of tourists raised after the decision. In 2014, the old town, consisting of small cobbled streets with wooden houses, was almost fully destroyed by a fire. Even now, we could see that they are still rebuilding and restoring houses.

We arrived in Shangri-La in the evening after a six-hour bus ride. Our guesthouse for the night was called Cloud Nine, and the atmosphere and exterior of our guesthouse made it clear that this part of China has Tibetan influences. The host, Apple, was a funny character, and clearly wanted to make sure that we had everything we needed. She did freak out when she saw Koen, since she was extremely afraid he would not fit the bed. After we assured her we would be fine, she made a warm cup of tea for us and it was time to look for some food. We ended up in a Tibetan restaurant, where we had dumplings and a big bowl of noodle soup with yak meat.

At an altitude of 3200m, it was for us also a good way to get used to walking at high altitude. We had been in Lijiang at 2400m, but we would be staying at 3000m+ elevations until the end of our trip in China. It was immediately clear that less was the keyword here. Less oxygen, a drop in temperatures, but also less tourists. This gave a more relaxed feel to the old town allowing us to wander around the cobbled streets. Next to the old town, Shangri-La is famous for the Gandan Sumtseling monastery. The biggest Tibetan monastery in the Yunnan province and nicknamed: Little Potala palace (the former residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa). This monastery lies in a small valley with a big lake and wetland in its center and protected by hills from all sides. As with most of these “attractions” the Chinese have organized everything so you pay a pretty high entrance fee. The walk around the beautiful lake is included in your ticket (different from what the Lonely Planet tells you, it is not free) and the visit of the impressive monastery however make it worth its money. We then bought our bus tickets to take the early bus the next day towards Daocheng, our first destination in Sichuan!

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