South of the Clouds: Shangri-la, Yunnan, China

Gadling’s last stop on Yunnan’s ancient tea horse road was Shangri-la, China, a high-altitude Tibetan city named after the mythical town in John Hilton’s “Lost Horizon.” Full of snapping prayer flags in high-altitude sunlight, the town has only been called Shangri-la since 2001, when a successful marketing venture changed its name from Zhongdian to appeal to adventure-seekers. Most Chinese still refer to it as Zhongdian, though it’s worth noting that its Tibetan name is Gyalthang.

Shangri-la’s residents are mostly Han and Tibetan, and it’s common to see red-cheeked Tibetan-Chinese dressed in traditional clothing. The architecture, especially in the countryside, is uniquely Tibetan: large, square, three story homes house animals on the ground level, with human living quarters above. New homes are still being built in this style. Wood stoves (frustratingly drafty) occupy space in every restaurant, home, and guesthouse, often with the staff huddled around them.

%Gallery-113848%Things to see and do

Like Dali and Lijiang, Shangri-la has an “old city,” with the usual cobblestones and new-old architecture, as well as a very Chinese “new city,” full of traffic and electronics shops. The Thangka Academy is a center in the old town for Tibetan culture and learning. Students, usually orphans, are taught the ancient art of Thangka, an intricate style of Buddhist painting of deities. Foreigners can study Tibetan or meditate here.

Though Shangri-la’s narrow, old-city streets are pleasant for a wander, it’s the town’s surrounds that make the trip worthy.

The Songstam Monastery houses monks of the yellow hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the biggest Tibetan monstery in China, and certainly worth a visit. Besides monks and temples, you’ll see juniper burning in the mornings, pigs snuffing around the dusty grounds, tourists snapping photos, and a hodge-podge of colorful buildings built on several levels.

The monastery was built during the Qing Dynasty in 1679, and now houses 700 monks as well as 11 temples. In the tea-horse road days, the monastery stored tea, waited for the price to rise, and then sold it for a profit. The complex was destroyed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution and has since been rebuilt, though remnants of ancient mud walls still linger.

Beyond the monastery is Napa Hai, a lake and wetland with misty mountains backing them. More than a dozen Tibetan villages surround the lake, which is also home to black-necked cranes. We rented mountain bikes from one of the many bike rental shops in town, and road the often-muddy, sometimes treacherous roads out to the lake. A new highway being built ought to smooth the ride out significantly.

Getting there

Buses bound for Zhongdian depart regularly from Lijiang, Dali and Kunming. Diqing airport has daily flights to Kunming.

At nearly 10,000 feet, Shangri-la takes a day or two to acclimate to, especially if you fly in. Take care when drinking alcohol your first couple of nights, and be sure to drink lots of water.

For more about Gadling’s travels in Yunnan, click here.

Though our trip to Shangri-la was partially funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are all our own.

South of the Clouds: Lijiang, Yunnan, China

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Lijiang is a funny one. It was demolished by an earthquake in 2006, just before it received the UNESCO status. It was subsequently rebuilt, and retained its protected status even though most of the buildings are replicas of the originals.

Despite — or perhaps because of — its new-old architecture, Lijiang is actually pleasing to the eye. Narrow, cobbled streets wind through a labyrinth of wood and stone buildings with up-swept roofs. The best part are canals cut into the stone roads, filled with rushing water that tumbles down from nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (a “snow mountain” in China is one that is covered in snow year-round). Several wells in the town center also contribute clear blue water to the canals. Stone and wood bridges cross the canals – three of which are channels of the Jade River. According to the UNESCO website, Lijiang has 354 bridges.

%Gallery-112457%Bear in mind that though the town is beautiful, it’s also in China. It can feel a bit like a Disney conception of what an older China might look like. It’s also one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists, so it can get extremely crowded.

What to see and do

Getting lost in Lijiang’s old town can be a real pleasure, especially if you wander to the fringes. The center of the is filled with stores selling the usual Chinese tat, but as you move away things get (slightly) less touristy. Here you’ll be able to escape most of the hordes of tourists and see a bit of day-to-day life: a Naxi woman doing laundry in a canal, or school children released for the day in a mob.

Just outside the north gate (Beimen) are two large water wheels (and by the way, the Pizza Hut across the square from the water wheels has the best restroom you’ll find in town… ). These are modern constructs but are fun to watch nonetheless (where does the water go?). At night they are lit up, and the square is filled with minority dancing.

Within walking distance along the Jade River is Black Dragon Pool,with an oft-photographed scene that you’ll often see in promotional photos of Lijiang. A clear pool is framed by an arched bridge and then topped by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It’ll cost 80 yuan (about $12) to get in, and your ticket allows you access to a few other (rather unexciting) sites around Lijiang.

A quick taxi ride out of town is Shuhe, a another “protected” village like Lijiang. In fact, it really just feels like a smaller version of Lijiang, though slightly less crowded. Shuhe was also a stop on the ancient tea-horse caravan route, and was an important leather-producing village. As in Lijiang, the river is divided into channels that flow along each street. The water is clear, but — as if to remind us that this is indeed still China — garbage and a dead pig slumped under one bridge when we visited (see photo gallery).

How to get there

A high-speed rail connection just opened from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, to Lijiang, making the journey a fairly pleasant overnight ride. It’s definitely preferable to the bus, though bus is the best way to connect to either Dali or Shaxi.

Because Lijiang is popular with Chinese tourists, there are plenty of flights to and from Beijing and Shanghai. It’s also a short and inexpensive hop from Kunming.

For more about Gadling’s travels in Yunnan, click here.

Our trip to Lijiang was partially funded by WildChina, but the opinions expressed here are 100% our own.

South of the Clouds: Around Shaxi in Yunnan, China

A few days ago, Gadling told you about the historical charm of Shaxi, an intact way station from the ancient tea-horse road days. Though the little village offers plenty for a mellow day or two, part of what makes it so great is the quiet valley it sits in, as well as the surrounding hills.

Just outside the village’s walls runs the clear Heihui River, with walking paths on either side and arched bridges providing photo-ops. The paths are great for strolling, and you’re likely to encounter Bai villagers going about their daily routines. Follow any of the cobblestone roads across one of the bridges to catch a glimpse of rural life as you pass through tiny villages and farmland.

Around 4km from Shaxi is the even smaller village of Duanjia. Its theater was used as a model for Shaxi’s restored venue. Duanjia makes a pleasant day trip destination; rent a bike and enjoy lunch in the village.

%Gallery-112119%The hills are fabulous for hiking; we spent one day exploring Shibao mountain. Our bus dropped us off at the top, and we explored some Buddhist grottoes that escaped the Cultural Revolution. In one grotto a giant vagina is carved into the rock; that would be shocking enough on its own, but this vagina is slick with the cooking oil of pregnant women who come to pray for a smooth delivery. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed.

From the grottoes, a paved path leads down the mountain through a small, green valley. It should take just under two hours to walk back to Shaxi.

There are several multi-day trekking options, as well. Check out for more info.

Shaxi and the surrounding valley are undergoing a renovation to preserve their history as well as ready them for tourism. Now is the golden time to visit; much of the restoration has been done, but the village has yet to become overrun with tourists.

For more information on Gadling’s trip to Yunnan, click here.

Though our trip to Shaxi was funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are 100% our own.

South of the Clouds: Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Once an important market town on China’s ancient tea-horse road, Shaxi is one of seemingly very few Chinese villages that have retained their original feel. Quiet, with cobblestone lanes and courtyard homes, Shaxi is currently undergoing a “remodel” to restore and preserve its historical market square, inner village, and, eventually, ready the entire Shaxi Valley for tourism. Though only a few hotels and shops currently smatter the tiny village, there’s no way a town like this will stay this quiet for long. You’ll be rewarded by visiting soon, as the vibe is sure to change after the completion of a new highway nearby.

Gadling was lucky enough to visit Shaxi in November on a trip with WildChina, during which we traced parts of China’s tea-horse caravan route.

%Gallery-112119%Shaxi sits roughly between Lijiang and Dali, and was a halfway point for tea and horse traders traveling between southern Yunnan and Tibet. The town experienced its prime from 1368-1911, when it flourished as a way station along the tea-horse trading route. When the last of the caravans passed through in 1949, Shaxi settled into relative isolation. In 2001, the World Monument Fund added Shaxi’s market square to its Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, as the square had its original theater, temple, and guesthouses. All, however, were in danger from neglect and the potential of shoddy restoration. In partnership between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the People’s Government of Jianchuan County, the first phase of the Shaxi Restoration Project began in 2006, and the village is readying itself for more visitors.

A tour of Shaxi

The first thing to do is visit the village’s market square. Largely unchanged for centuries, the square is a quiet remnant of the bustling tea-horse days. It livens at night, when locals gather to dance and play music, and on Fridays, when Yi villagers dress up and descend from the hills to join Bai locals for trading and fun.

One one side of the square sits Xingjiao Temple, parts of which dates back to the early 1400s. Part of Shaxi’s restoration project, the temple was once a headquarters during the Cultural Revolution and was also used for grain storage. Today it is a quiet courtyard off of a quiet square, interrupted only by the occaisonal Chinese official with a cigarette, screaming into his mobile phone.

Also in the square sits the Sideng Theater, the most prominent building in the area. A small museum has been established in the refurbished building, and plans are underway to re-open shops along the ground floor.

Courtyard homes and guesthouses make up much of the rest of Shaxi. We were invited into the home of Ouyang Shengxian, a 70-year-old Bai man whose father and grandfather were muleteers on the tea-horse road. Ouyang’s ancient courtyard home once housed traders traveling the route. His kitchen has changed very little in the past couple of centuries (see photo gallery), and Ouyang himself seems from another time. Wearing a thin, cracked leather jacket held closed by two pieces of bright red yarn, Ouyeng recalled for us not only his stories, but those of his grandfather and father (who was killed at 33 by bandits). Though he never worked the tea-horse road, Ouyang traded salt from the nearby Misha salt mines, as well as worked in coal mines.

The Laomadian Lodge, off of Market Square, is another venue that was used as accommodation for tea-horse road travelers. Comprised of several coutyards, the 151-year-old venue still has the original cabinets that horsemen slept on top of to guard their personal belongings. White reflecting walls in the courtyards display restored Bai paintings, and, as with all of Shaxi, stepping across the threshold of the inn feels as though you have stepped back through centuries in time.

Stay tuned for more on things to do around Shaxi.

For more about Gadling’s tour of Yunnan, click here.

Though my trip through Yunnan was partially funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are 100% my own.

South of the Clouds: Yunnan’s ancient tea-horse road

In November, Gadling traveled with WildChina throughout Yunnan province. The theme of the trip was “the ancient tea-horse road,” and it followed a trading route that runs from Yunnan’s tropical lowlands up to the Tibetan plateau and eventually in to India.

As the name implies, the “road” was a caravan route along which tea and horses were traded, though salt was also a major commodity. Lesser known than its glamorous older sibling, the Silk Road, the tea-horse road was nevertheless an important trade route. Though defined in the singular, the tea-horse road was actually a series of small trade routes; it was rare for traders to travel the entire route.

Tea, still grown and fermented for travel in Yunnan today, was carried north, while mules and horses from Tibet plodded south. Small traces of the original trade still exist: condensed bundles of tea packed into bamboo pipes at a rural market, an old square in a village where horse stalls still sit behind a guesthouse once used by muleteers (those who traveled the route with mules), and even a few people who worked in the trade before 1949.

Though the route extends all the way to India, we focused only on locations in Yunnan. First we visited Xishuangbanna prefecture, at the south of the province. Here, Pu-er tea is grown on small trees whose size belies their age: many are several hundred years old. We then traveled to Dali, a conduit market town where tea traders and growers traveled north to meet Tibetans who had journeyed south. The Bai minority group still live in and around Dali and were middlemen between the tea and horse traders.

After Dali came Shaxi, a market town where we met the son of a muleteer who was killed by bandits. Everyone in Shaxi once depended on the tea-horse trade, as it was an important stopover town along the route. Today, Shaxi’s market square still fills every Friday with Yi villagers who dress up and travel for fun, trading, and food.

After a quick stop in Lijiang, another conduit market town filled with rushing canals and cobble-stoned streets, we climbed up to Shangri-la. A town packed with prayer flags, restaurants serving yak meat, and the distant lure of giant mountains, Shangri-la (also called Zhongdian) at times feels more Tibetan than mainstream Chinese. A few sad horses lingered near a marshy lake, decorated and waiting for tourists to reenact the glory days of the trade route with horse rides.

By no means the end of the line for traders, Shangri-la was nevertheless an appropriate ending point for our trip. We’d gone from summer temps in sub-tropical Xishuangbanna to near-freezing at 10,000 feet, and it was time to go home and warm up with a nice cup of tea.

Read more about our travels in Yunnan here.

Though my trip was funded by WildChina, the opinions expressed here are all my own.