Yunnan part 2: Shangri-La – Yubeng
The next morning we caught a bus North from Lijiang to Zhongdian (about 80 RMB), renamed XianGeLiLa (or for westerners, Shangri-La) by the Chinese government in 1997 in an effort to promote tourism to northern Yunnan, that was by all accounts successful.
We arrived with low expectations based on many accounts we’d read of drab communist architecture, the artificial culture created for tourists, and the aftermath of a devastating fire in the Old Town a few years back. But we were pleasantly surprised— though the main town shares some of the gritty characteristics of so many Chinese cities, it’s fascinating to see all the street and shop signs written in Mandarin, English, and Tibetan— the culture here is definitely different from back home in Fujian and even from elsewhere in Yunnan.
My first bowl of yak butter tea.
I was extremely curious to try Tibetan speciality yak butter tea, and we didn’t have to walk far from the bus station to find an accommodating spot. The café was charming, set up like a living room with couches and upholstered benches and tapestries on the walls. A friendly woman served us a large teapot and a ceramic bowl of flour with a spoon— I wasn’t sure what to do with this!
I poured my first cup of tea and inhaled deeply to smell— creamy and buttery.
I sipped, it was slightly salty, and I couldn’t tell if there was actually any tea in it, it mostly just tasted like hot milk. (I’m not sure I would know it wasn’t cow’s milk if I wasn’t told.) She offered us sugar for the tea but we declined. I did enjoy it, finishing my cup and pouring another from the pot.
My companion took a stab at the flour, “tsampa”, made from barley, stirring a small spoonful into his cup. The hostess motioned that he should put more in. Another small tentative spoonful, and another motion from the hostess for more. He acquiesced and stirred in a generous spoonful, making a thick paste with the mixture, and our hostess nodded and smiled. He ate a little, very aware of our hostesses’ watchful eye over us. We all tried some—it wasn’t offensive tasting, just a rather bland dough. One can imagine it being a useful and easy source of sustenance for cattle herding nomads on the move, but perhaps not the sexy cuisine food blogs are made of. We finished our tea, thanked our hostess, and continued on towards our hostel at the edge of Shangri-La’s Old Town.
We arrived at Tavern Hostel, an old Tibetan-style wooden house, colourfully decorated with textiles and funky art.
The owner of Tavern is a friendly Korean expat who’s explored the area extensively and is full of helpful insights into our plans for the next few days. We mentioned that we had wanted to go to Yubeng village but had been put off by the extended travel time to get there, and he shook his head. “You can do it, you can do it,” he said. He grabbed scrap paper and a pen and began scribbling an itinerary for us. “8/17, take the early morning bus to Deqin, get a car to Xidang, hike into Yubeng.
8/18, hike to the waterfall, hike to the glacier lake.
8/19, hike out of Yubeng to Ninong. Hire a car to Deqin, bus back to Shangri-La. And you still have two days to get to Kunming and fly home on time. You can do it. You should, this is the best place to hike in Yunnan.” It was enough to convince us, it felt like the universe wanted us to go to Yubeng after all! We headed out into the bright early evening sunshine to explore a little Shangri-La before we left again early the next morning.
Temple complex in the heart of Old Town Shangri-La.
We were a bit wary of spending too much time in Shangri-La’s Old Town after experiencing the overwhelming crowds and noise and monotonous stalls and shops of Lijiang’s Old Town, but we were pleasantly surprised. We found ourselves in a newly opened Thangka (traditional Tibetan painting) art gallery, perusing walls covered with large, colourful paintings of Tibetan Buddhist deities.
From inside the gallery, we hear music striking up. “They’re going to start dancing,” the gallery owner told us. We moved to the front steps of the gallery and watched as a very large circle of people, mostly local Tibetans by the looks of it, but later some tourists as well, formed and began stepping and swirling in time to the sounds of horns and drums played over a loudspeaker.
It was heartwarming to watch, equal numbers of men and women, young and old moving their limbs with gusto and flair, the dance was clearly a treasured part of the daily routine in Shangri-La.
I couldn’t help but think about the struggles the Tibetans have endured over the last half-century and found myself so moved by the sight of their dancing that I began to tear up a little, then felt embarrassed and fought it back. As I walked on with my friends later, it came up in conversation that we had all been fighting tears at the sight.
The next day we woke up early and had breakfast at the hostel, giant bowls of oatmeal with yak yoghurt and fruit, and Yunnan coffee. We caught an early bus to the small town of Deqin in the far Northwest of Yunnan (56 RMB), the closest city to Yubeng. From Deqin we hired a van that drove us to just outside the village of Ninong, at the foot of the trail to Yubeng.
We drove out on a hillside highway past a series of very small communities with many cornfields, I am impressed many times over by how many crops the residents are able to grow on such steeply slanted terrain. After a while, we took a turn onto a dusty, unpaved road and I tried not to contemplate the possibility that our driver could easily rob us and leave us for dead in this remote area!
We bumped along the road a while longer before turning into a wide spot in the road at the base of a dusty brown hill. The driver indicated that this was the start of the trail, though it didn’t look like much and it wasn’t clear exactly where to start. We found a beaten path next to a dilapidated wooden shack and stepped over a busted fence to get on it.
From there the path became clear and we began making our way uphill in the hot afternoon sun.
We hiked a long time on the dusty brown path, working our way along a brown hillside with the highway visible in the distance, and I fought off negative thoughts, wondering when we would reach the beautiful green forest land we had read about. Finally, we rounded a corner and the highway was out of sight and the green appeared! I felt a wave of relief and joy to be surrounded by lush forest at last.
The first sight of the beautiful green landscape along the Yubeng trail was a relief!
Around 5 in the evening we came to a very rustic guest house along the path overlooking a creek. We decided to stop for a breather and some water and to inquire how much farther to Yubeng village. It was hard to get a clear answer, the woman running the guesthouse said about 3 hours walk, while some hikers coming from that direction said about 5.
The sky was starting to sprinkle a little rain and we decided not to chance to get stuck hiking in the dark and rain, so we paid for a room in the guesthouse for the night and ordered some supper. The dining area was a set of outdoor covered tables and benches where an assortment of farm animals kept creeping in from off to the side, only to get chased out and yelled at by a Tibetan grandma.
Pigs, fowl, and a mule each took several turns trying to sneak into the dining area as we sat eating but Grandma fiercely shooed them away, rolling her eyes each time they interrupted her sewing work.
The pigs were the most persistent, and we tried to be helpful by scaring them away ourselves so Grandma could get some work done on her sewing in peace. She smiled her approval at us.
A pig, moments away from a ferocious scolding by this old woman.
We were thrilled to discover that despite its extremely rustic appearance, the guesthouse had a hot water shower and electricity! We cleaned up, charged our phones, and got to bed early for an early start on tomorrow’s hike.
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.