Yunnan Part 1: Lijiang – Jade Peak Monastery – Yuhu
With 9 days free from work, two of my friends and I decided to check a mutual China travel goal off our lists: Yunnan province. We were particularly intrigued by descriptions of a small Tibetan village in the far Northwest corner of the province called Yubeng. Located in a valley between snowy mountains, and adjacent to a sacred waterfall and glacial lake, it required a full day’s hike in and out, which sounded just the right amount of off-the-beaten-path.
On day one we boarded a train from Fuzhou to Kunming (800 RMB). As a newbie to China, I was eager to see so much of the countryside out the window, and it was enjoyable to see the rolling hills and fields and villages pass by. After 12 hours of sitting next to a father with a wiggly young son, however, I was very happy to disembark.
In Kunming, we immediately transferred to a sleeper train from Kunming to Lijiang (140 RMB). The second class tickets on the sleeper train featured 6 beds to a room, with triple-stacked bunks. I had a top bunk and there wasn’t enough room to sit up properly, so it was good that I was quite tired and wanted to sleep anyway!
It had been dark when our first train arrived in Kunming the night before, so waking up the next morning on the sleeper train to my first breathtaking views of Yunnan’s dreamy tree covered, cloudy topped hills were very exciting.
I shimmied out of my narrow bunk and made my way to a little fold-down table in the passageway outside the bunk room and made myself some coffee and oatmeal for breakfast. (All trains in China have hot water dispensers!) There doesn’t seem to be any social taboo against blasting music or tv shows from your phone on Chinese trains, so I was grateful for my earbuds to drown out the noise!
The top bunk in the sleeper train is a bit cramped.
On day two we made our way to a hostel called Timeless at the edge of Lijiang’s old town.
We chatted with the host about our Yubeng plan but he threw cold water on it: it’s so remote that the amount of travel time required just to reach the nearest neighbouring town would eat up the better part of our allotted time, and then we’d have to rush our way through the village anyway. He tried to steer us toward Tiger Leaping Gorge instead, but we wanted something less squarely-on-the-beaten-path. We walked around the old town while discussing alternate options for the rest of the week.
While Lijiang’s old town was charming and enjoyable in the early day, by evening it was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with crowds and we came to realize that every twisting alleyway seemed to have the same shops selling the same half dozen items over an over again. We acquired a bottle of tasty local speciality plum wine from a shop and escaped the crowds and pop music to the privacy of our hostel’s balcony and drank up while making plans for the next day: biking to a nearby Naxi minority village called Yuhu.
We started our bike ride early the next morning.
Biking through the countryside was wonderful, the scenery is beautiful and we felt like we were in “real China” instead of “tourist China”. The accuracy of the bike map we got from the hostel was questionable but between the map and our phone’s gps, we navigated well enough.
After a solid push uphill, we reached a place called Jade Peak monastery, where a group of Naxi elderly women who were selling snacks and trinkets waved us over. We bought some potatoes and sat with them as we ate, making as much conversation as possible as we each spoke limited Mandarin.
They taught us the Naxi word for hello: “Nalala lei shi!” As we walked down the path to the temple gate, we were greeted by another line of Naxi elderly women in traditional dresses, holding hands and singing. They smiled and beckoned us to hold hands with them. We obliged, holding hands with them as they sang, threw a few bills in their collections box, and then entered the monastery.
Our new Naxi friends.
Like most Buddhist temples, every wall, ceiling, nook, and cranny at Jade Peak is intricately painted, carved, and bedecked with images of deities, bodhisattvas, spirits, and other characters from Buddhist literature, as well as delicately curling clouds, plants, and an assortment of curious looking fauna. As a lifelong art nerd, I couldn’t help but get lost in the endless details in the murals. Every character’s robe has a different pattern meticulously rendered over crumples and folds in the fabric.
One of the many intricately rendered characters on the walls at Jade Peak.
The 10,000 Blooms camellia tree.
Jade Peak is particularly famed for its treasured 10,000 Blooms Camellia Tree. The 500+-year-old tree is actually two camellia trees whose trunks grew together and are now inextricably fused, indistinguishable except during the springtime when half of the tree’s alleged 10,000 blossoms are pink and half are white. The tree’s crown spreads so wide that it would likely collapse if not for the support beams lovingly propped under it.
Aside from its natural beauty, the amount of human care that has been fostered on this tree is what makes it so special. During the height of the cultural revolution, when many temples were being destroyed, one of Jade Peak’s monks hid out in the woods surrounding the monastery and snuck in regularly to water and care for the tree, preventing it from becoming one of the many casualties of the era.
He is touchingly memorialized in a bronze statue seated near the tree in the courtyard.
The stylized version of the character shòu, 寿, meaning “longevity,” is laid out in a stone mosaic on the ground in front of the tree and also stamped into the roof tile end caps surrounding it, a tribute to everything it has survived so far and also a prayer for its future.
Continuing further uphill from Jade Peak, we finally reached our destination: Yuhu village!
Friendly Yuhu villager riding one of the town’s many mules.
Yuhu is a small, relatively traditional (though definitely now open to tourism) Naxi village. The cobblestone streets are lined with old stone houses and we pass more horses and mules than cars as we walk through town. We ate lunch in a small cafe to refresh from the bike ride: Yunnan-grown coffee and a “Naxi cake”, which turned out to be a pleasant sugar-butter cookie topped with sesame seeds, plus some standard favourite Chinese fare— fried rice with tomatoes and eggs.
Yuhu village’s claim to fame is the historic Joseph Rock House, now a museum with somewhat dishevelled displays. Joseph Rock was an anthropologist and natural scientist in the early 20th century noted most for the articles he wrote for National Geographic, who dubbed him “our man in China.”
Rock taught himself Mandarin, Naxi, Tibetan, and Sanskrit, and recorded many aspects of Naxi life, language, and culture.
He was documenting and introducing much of the flora and fauna of Yunnan to the West for the first time. It is thought that Rock’s National Geographic articles were the main inspiration for the novel “Lost Horizons,” from which the English speaking world got the myth of Shangri-La.
The museum is not well maintained— many vintage photos have fallen crooked inside their frames or are artlessly scotch-taped to their mats, and the ground is a crowded maze of display cases, with or without items inside, which must be squeezed through and around to move through the exhibit— but it is actually a fascinating look into the life of the Naxi culture in the early 20th century. Many of the large photos have quite good English captions to provide insight, and I spent a long time poring over the details of the costumes worn in the photographs.
Up a narrow set of stairs is Rock’s bedroom, carefully maintained as he kept it, a framed photograph of him sitting at his desk in the room completes the scene. It’s enjoyable to imagine the naturalist sitting in this room, studying pages of Naxi hieroglyphs or mapping out his next flora-gathering expedition.
After leaving Yuhu village, we were treated to a lovely long downhill zoom back to Lijiang on the bikes, the best reward for a full day of biking and hiking up hills!
Join my three-part series on our trip cycling in Yunnan province!
Author: Katey is our American teacher at our Hu Qian branch. You can read her blog posts on What to Pack When Moving to China here.