Nepal 2013

Nepal

Time: October-November 2013 (peak season)

Route: Kathmandu – Annapurna Circuit (from Bhulbhule to Beni) – Pokhara – Kathmandu – Chitwan – Kathmandu

Duration: 37 days including 24 days of trekking

 

General information

Weather

Second half of October and November are supposed to be the best time for trekking in Nepal, with fine weather almost guaranteed, especially in November. We found the weather good and sunny for most of the time. Anyway it tends to get clouded and even rainy (with snowfall higher in the mountains) sometimes as a spill-over effect from tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal. On our trek we had a few cloudy days, with cloudless morning, clouds quickly gathering around noon and even some rain in the afternoon and evening (I have also heard that it is similar to typical monsoon weather on the Annapurna trails). While descending from the Thorung La we had some snowfall and the next morning everything above ca. 3300 m was snowed over. I have heard that nobody crossed the pass the next day and the trail to Tilicho lake remained closed for a few days.

Temperature – everywhere above 3000 m there were freezing temperatures in the night and morning but then it got quickly warmer during the day, maybe to 10-15 degrees Celsius in the sun. People who crossed the Thorung La later than us during the cold spell told us even about starting in -20 degrees in the early morning before dawn.  The lowest temperature we had was perhaps -8 degrees. Even in Kathmandu and Pokhara the temperature was not in the T-shirt range – maybe 10-15 degrees (a bit more in Pokhara), getting colder in the evening. Supposedly tropical Chitwan was warm during the days (for shorts and T-shirts) but got much colder just after dusk.

Changing money and ATMs

The best place for changing money was Kathmandu with plenty of moneychangers offering good rates for cash. All major currencies accepted,  no difference between EUR and USD and the same rate paid for all denominations, even 5 EUR bills. Rates offered for EUR by Kathmandu moneychangers were between 132 – 133 Rs, while the interbank rate on http://www.xe.com/ was ca. 135 Rs. In Pokhara rates were much worse at ca. 129 Rs. For large transactions the moneychangers were willing to pay a bit more, by ca. 0,50 Rs per 1 EUR.

For people travelling from India – possession of 500 INR and 1000 INR notes is illegal in Nepal and they can be exchanged only illegally with some discount.

Most ATMs charge an additional 400 Rs fee per transaction (on top of your home bank fees) and some impose a daily transaction limit of 10.000 Rs. Altogether it makes using ATMs pretty expensive and unreliable – the best way is to bring cash in USD or EUR and to exchange most of it in one large transaction in Kathmandu.

Arrival

Visas are issued on arrival for US$ 25 for 15 days, US$ 40 for 30 days or US$ 100 for 90 days (all multiple entry). A passport picture is needed for the visa. There is a picture booth at the airport before immigration control. Visas are easily extended in immigration offices in Kathmandu and Pokhara (the Pokhara office is within walking distance from the Lakeside tourist district). Extension costs US$ 2 per day but with a minimum of 15 days/US$ 30.

In arrivals hall of Kathmandu Tribhuvan airport there is a pre-paid taxi desk – we paid 650 Rs for a cab to Thamel. Next to the taxi desk there are two desks with pre-paid SIM cards of Nepali Telecom and Ncell, highly recommended as they are used to foreigners and subscribing to a SIM card there (passport-size picture needed) is faster and easier than in the city.

There are at least two moneychangers at the airport. The first one before immigration control is to be avoided, as it offers terrible rates and charges 100 Rs fee. The second one behind immigration, near the exit, pays semi-decent rates (much worse than in Thamel though), so it is a good place to change first $ 20 or 20 EUR or so for the taxi and SIM card.

 

Kathmandu

We first planned to stay in Pilgrims Guesthouse (http://www.pilgrimsguesthouse.com/) in northern part of Thamel, supposedly a quiet place, which is not so easy to find in Thamel. However we decided to look elsewhere when we heard their prices – 1500 Rs for a dark and damp ground floor room, US$ 25 for a nice room upstairs, without much willingness to negotiate. A year before in low season our friends paid just 600 Rs for the upstairs room. We went to a side lane opposite to Annapurna Guesthouse (http://www.annapurnaguesthouse.com/). Nice quiet location, there was even some mountain view from our room. Probably a bit overpriced at 1500 Rs for a quite large double, ensuite, free wi-fi. Not a bad place, although the owner overcharged us for bus tickets to Pokhara taking US$ 10 instead of the standard price of 600 Rs.

On our way back we stayed in the nearby Hotel Budget, 1000 Rs for a double, ensuite, free wi-fi but it did not reach our room. Quite basic but corner rooms were much better than the rest.

Sightseeing in the Kathmandu valley means paying some hefty entrance fees, even more annoying as they are charged to foreigners for entering places which are freely accessible to locals. In most places a single ticket can be extended to a long-term visitor pass at no additional charge (very handy for Kathmandu’s Durbar Sq), with a passport-sized photo required. Prices are the following:

Kathmandu Durbar Sq – 750 Rs, includes a visit to Royal Palace

Bhaktapur – 1100 Rs

Patan Durbar Sq – 500 Rs, Patan Museum not included (additional 250 Rs)

Swayambunath – 200 Rs

Unfortunately, high fees do not mean good conservation and maintenance standards, maybe with exception of Bhaktapur where some efforts are visible. Most monumental temples of Kathmandu’s Durbar Sq are in variable state of disrepair, sometimes quite sad.

Transport between Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan

Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan are connected by tourist buses leaving in the morning (7 a.m. from Kathmandu and 9 a.m. from Chitwan), travelling at snail’s pace along the bumpy crowded road and arriving at the destination 7-8 hrs later. Standard price of any of those rides was 600 Rs, tickets can be booked in any hotel or agency. Buses are usually Indian Sutlej type, in pretty decent condition. There is also a “de-luxe” company named Greenline, charging US$ 20 for somewhat better and faster buses (but don’t expect miracles, as the road condition is quite miserable). Departures from Kathmandu are from Kanthipat, a short 20 minutes walk from Thamel. All buses stop for breakfast and lunch at some of the more “upmarket” roadside restaurants (usually overpriced and of dubious hygiene) and for toilet breaks at some really disgusting shacks (it seems as if the drivers are specifically instructed to choose the dirtiest toilet along the road).

 

Annapurna Circuit

We trekked almost the whole length of the Annapurna Circuit, starting from Bhulbule (we could have started 3 hrs earlier in Besisahar), walking till Galeshwar shortly before Beni, including hiking to Tilicho Lake and several shorter breaks and side walks. Altogether the trek took 24 days, with 19 days of moving forward (the rest was rest days or side trips).

NATT trails, guidebook, map and avoiding the road

In recent years some alarming news were heard that the Annapurna Circuit had supposedly been irretrievably destroyed by the construction of the road along the trail. On the Manang side, as of end October 2013, the motorable road reached Chame and a motorable bridge was already constructed on the Marsyangdi Khola but not yet joined to the road on the other (left, north-eastern) side. It looked like it may happen anytime soon. Anyway, that would probably still not open the traffic up to Manang, as a section of the road was missing behind the bridge on the Marsyangdi just below the Swargadwari Danda, between Bhratang and Dhukur Pokhari. On the Jomsom side there is a motorable road all the way up to Muktinath, with regular jeep traffic to Muktinath and bus traffic at least to Jomsom. There is even a jeep road linking the villages of Chongur, Jhong and Putak to Muktinath and Kagbeni.

Luckily, most of the trek can now be done bypassing the road by using the NATT trails marked by red-white signs. Several side trails were also added and marked by blue-white signs. Altogether we walked along the road only for a few relatively short stretches and even then it was not a bad experience, as the road is rather a rough track and is not so busy. The parts of the trek where we walked along the road are indicated below in the trek log.

For finding the NATT trails and planning our trek we used the 2013 edition of the very useful guidebook by Andrées de Ruiter and Prem Rai “Trekking in the Annapurna area” (available on http://www.nepal-dia.de/int__England/AE_Book/ae_book.html). It was invaluable, we realized several times that other trekkers missed some superb places by taking the easiest or shortest route instead of side paths recommended in this guidebook. We also used a 1:100.000 trekking map purchased in Kathmandu (but also available in Pokhara and in many places along the trail), which was OK, even excellent by average Asian standards, but obviously not enough to indicate every side path.

TIMS and ACAP permit

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit requires two documents – TIMS (Trekking Information Management System) card and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Permit). TIMS for independent trekkers costs Nepali currency equivalent of US$ 20, ACAP costs 2000 Rs. Both are very easily arranged from the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu, behind Tundikhel, corner Durbar Marg and Exhibition Rd, easy to locate, maybe 20-30 minutes walk from Thamel. Passport-sized pictures are required for both documents. Along the trail there are several checkposts where both documents are checked.

Crowds

As we trekked in the very highest season, we were initially a bit apprehensive about the crowds of tourists on the trails. It turned out that our fears were exaggerated. In lower parts of the trek we met just enough trekkers to have a nice chat now and then. For several nights we were the only guests in lodges. It did get more crowded above Chame but then most organized groups followed the main road and the upper trail by Upper Pisang, Ngawal and Ghyaru was only a bit busy but not crowded. The only part that was actually crowded was the highest part of the main trail between Yak Kharka and Thorung La. Even there we had no problem to secure a room in lodges, even in Thorung High Camp. From Muktinath there are again several options, including taking a jeep down, so the crowds thinned. The wonderful villages of Kagbeni, Marpha and Tukuche were already looking half-empty at times.

Lodging, food and drinks

Easy availability of lodging a food is what makes the Annapurna Circuit so easy to trek independently, without a guide nor a porter. On average there are lodges every 2-3 hours, sometimes even more often. The only longer part without a lodge is the part over the Thorung La – starting from Thorung High Camp, the first basic lodge is at ca. 4200 meters, an hour or two before Muktinath. Anyway, even this part is very easy to trek in one day in normal conditions.

The lodges tend to be quite comfortable, many of them offer rooms with en-suite toilets or sometimes full bathrooms. What is more problematic is the cold. Usually there is some sort of heating in the dining room but very often locals had the annoying habit of leaving the door wide open – they are simply used to living in cold temperatures. The rooms are never heated and above 3000 meters temperature dropped below freezing point every night. Bottom line: a good sleeping bag, preferably down, graded for sub-zero temperatures, is a must. In most lodges additional blankets of varying cleanliness are available.

Most lodges have quite decent showers with hot water either from geyser (powered by gas bottles) or solar heating. In case of solar heating the water was usually not really hot, rather lukewarm, and leaving such shower for a freezing corridor or room was not exactly healthy. Above Manang there were no showers anymore, possibly saving the lives of some hygiene fanatics from succumbing to pneumonia.

All lodges offer hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Except for a few snacks that can be also bought in village shops along the trail, there is no need to take any food. Every lodge has a menu that is usually standardized and approved by a village committee, so prices were uniform among lodges in the same place. The room was very cheap – usually 200-400 Rs, with some negotiation it could be easily down to zero. To get such low room price, guests are required to eat at least dinner and breakfast at the lodge where they stay. Meals were quite pricey by Nepal standards, with dishes costing between 150 – 600 Rs. Our daily expenses on food and drink quite quickly added to above 2000 Rs per person per day.

One of the few food items that it actually makes sense to bring on the trek are teabags. Because of low temperatures it was very pleasant to order a full Chinese thermos of boiling water and have plenty of tea in the evening and for breakfast. “Big” or “medium pots” of tea were usually ridiculously expensive, so ordering boiling  water, while not cheap either, saved some money. While on the Manang side “big” or “medium pot” of either tea or water usually meant a thermos, on the Jomsom site it was simply a much smaller teapot. Thermoses were always available on request, usually cheaper than teapots.

Bottled water was also very expensive on the trail and not recommended for environmental reasons, so we used water purification tablets. As usually, we used Micropur Forte, but there are also some local ones named Piyush.

For alcoholics – beer prices on the trail start from ca. 300 Rs and reach even above 500 Rs in the highest lodges. However, all lodges offer a local rice or grain distillate called rakshi (sometimes inadequately labelled “local wine”) for less than 100 Rs a cup. It was drinkable, sometimes even tasty and actually a better idea for cold weather than beer. On the Jomsom side of the trek, quite decent local apple brandy was available. Local Khukri rum was also available everywhere – it made a good addition to tea in the evening.

Costs and money

The solution is simple – take enough Nepali rupees for the whole trek plus some reserve. There were a few places to change money on the trail (including Kagbeni and Jomsom) but rates were very bad – 110 – 120 Rs for 1 EUR while Kathmandu moneychangers were paying 132 Rs. The only place with ATMs on the whole trek was Jomsom (see below, day 20).

Our costs averaged ca. 6000 Rs per day per couple, a bit more in the upper part of the trek, a bit less in the lower part. We were spending this amount mainly on food and drinks in lodges. Manang side was a little more expensive than Jomsom side but the difference was not so big.

Connectivity (internet and mobile)

In the arrival hall of the Kathmandu airport we bought a local pre-paid SIM card of Nepal Telecom (NTC). The card cost 200 Rs, one passport-size picture was needed for the subscription.

Nepal Telecom had a good reception during the Annapurna trek, basically in all inhabited places and also between the villages. There was no reception only for a few days close to the Tilicho lake and then last 2 or 3 days before the Thorung La. Ncell had reception only in a few bigger places (Chame, Muktinath, Jomsom) and only within the actual village. Ncell is better for cities though. NTC top-up cards were available in every village on the trek but the shopkeepers demanded somewhat inflated prices of 110 or even 120 Rs for a card of 100 Rs. We also found that a card for 100 Rs actually tops up your account only for 96 Rs or so. Anyway, costs for international calls were still very reasonable – below 30 Rs per minute for a call to Poland and even in the 10 Rs range for a call to some other countries. The quality of the voice connection was sometimes patchy (delayed answers, difficulties in making a call) but finally it did always work. When we asked for GPRS while buying the SIM cards at the airport, the NTC guy said it wouldn’t work and directed us towards Ncell, which we didn’t want, as we knew it wouldn’t have reception in the mountains. Later we subscribed for GPRS internet as instructed in the NTC office in Kathmandu but it didn’t work at all. Text messages (SMS) to abroad numbers did not work either.

Many lodges on the Jomsom side of the trek have free wi-fi. On the Manang side, there were very few with wi-fi and it was quite expensive. There are also a few internet cafes in some bigger villages like in Chame but they were very expensive, like 10 Rs for a minute. In Kathmandu or Pokhara internet cafes charged less than 100 Rs per hour. There were not many of them though, as most hotels and restaurants offer free wi-fi nowadays.

Contrary to what was said many times, in several lodges on the AC we could actually recharge our phone and camera batteries for free and there were electrical sockets in our room. Some lodges still charge 50 or 100 Rs for battery recharge but we easily managed with a free recharge every 2 or 3 days.

Getting to the trailhead

We took a tourist bus bound for Pokhara (standard price 600 Rs, even though we were overcharged and paid $10), departing from Kanthipath in Kathmandu at 7 a.m., and got off after ca. 6 hrs at Dumre. From Dumre junction in the middle of the town we took a local bus to Besisahar. We had to pay exorbitant 350 Rs for the 2 hrs ride, several times more than the price paid by locals. In Besisahar we were directed by locals to the northern end of the town, a 20 minutes walk from the arrival point, from where there was another bus to Bhulbhule. Again, we were charged a ‘special price’ of 200 Rs per person for the 1 hour ride and there was no chance to negotiate as everybody took part in the racket. Finally we reached Bhulbhule around dusk.

Missed part: Besisahar to Bhulbule. According to the guidebook, there is a nice trail on the other side of the river, taking ca. 3 hrs. Some other trekkers that we met confirmed that later.

Day 1. Bhulbule (840 m) – Ngadi (930 m) 1,15 h; Ngadi – Bahundanda (1310 m) 2 hrs; Bahundanda – Ghermu (ca. 1200 m) 1,30 hrs. There was a new road all the way from Bhulbule to Ngadi and it was very busy with new Chinese Dong Feng trucks. There were also a few busy constructions sites for hydroelectric projects between Bhulbhule and Ngadi. Altogether pretty ugly experience. Luckily it was just one hour from Bhulbhule onwards. The part from Ngadi up to Bahundanda (partly road, partly trail) was already peaceful and quiet and the trail between Bahundanda and Ghermu simply maginificent. Anyway, after arriving to Bhulbhule in the afternoon, it makes little sense continuing to Ngadi now, as lodges in Ngadi were right on the road. Bhulbule made a much more pleasant place for the first night.

Day 2. Ghemru – Syange (1100 m) 20 minutes + walk to the nearby waterfall; Syange – Jagat (1300 m) 1,5 hrs (one of the few parts we had to walk along the road), Jagat – Chamje (1430 m) 1 hr (by Rainbow Guesthouse, perfect place for a lunch with waterfall view); Chamje – Tal (1700 m) 2 hrs.

Day 3. Tal – Dharapani (1860 m) 3 hrs; Dharapani – Danakyu (2300 m) 2,15 hrs. The NATT trail from Dharapani to Danakyu by Thoche on the left (NE) side of the river was a bit tricky. First section of the marked trail was a bit overgrown at some places but passable. Then, near the little powerhouse the trail was very poorly marked and we lost our way. There are also some sections of old walking trail which are completely overgrown in the shrub forest near the powerhouse, so it added to our confusion. Once we reached the fields, it was easy to find the trail again.

Day 4. Danakyu – Timang (2750 m) 1,30 hrs; Timang – Thanchok (ca. 2700) 1h; Thamchok – Chame (2670) 1,30 h

Day 5. Chame – Bhratang (2850) 2 hrs, partly on the road; Bhratang – Dhukur Pokhari (3060) 1,5 hrs, partly on the road; Dhukur Pokhari – Upper Pisang (3300) 1h. Beyond Chame, there is one lodge in Talekhu and one in Bhratang. The NATT trail bypassing the road carved in the cliff beyond Bhratang, on the other side of the river, was closed by some branches very clearly put there to obstruct traffic on both entry points from the road (starting and ending point). It looked like the branches were there for a longer time. Possibly a landslide occurred somewhere on the other side of the river  – we did not venture there to check it out.

On the place where the NATT trail to Upper Pisang branches off from the road near mani wall at the end of Dhukur Pokhari the NATT signs were painted over with blue colour. After some 100 meters the original red-white NATT signs appear again.

Day 6. Upper Pisang – Ghyaru (3670) 2,30 hrs; Ghyaru – Ngawal (3660) 2 hrs.

Day 7. Ngawal – Julu (ca. 3400) 1,5 h; Julu – Braga (3450) by upper trail, not marked, 2,45 hrs. Julu to Braka upper trail was maginificent, a high plateau with some pines, spectacular views and a lone giant yak grazing on the meadow. Pure bliss! Most important, we were completely alone between Julu and Braka, even in high season we did not meet even a single person there.

Day 8. Day trip from Braka to Milarepa’s Cave (ca. 4000) 4 hrs return.

Day 9. Braka – Manang (3500) 0,30 h; Manang – Praken Gompa (ca. 3900) 2,15 hrs return; Manang – Khangsar (3730) 2 hrs.

Day 10. Khangsar  -Shree Kharka (ca. 4050) 2 hrs; Shree Kharka – Tilicho Base Camp (4150) 2,40 hrs.

There are two lodges in Shree Kharka. The first one, as approached from Khangsar, seems to be friendlier. In Tilicho Base Camp the first lodge, as approached from Khangsar, is newer and much better than the old one a bit further along the trail.

Day 11. Tilicho Base Camp – Tilicho Lake (teahouse above the lake at ca. 5000) and return, 4,30 hrs up, 2,30 hrs down.

Day 12. Tilicho Base Camp – Shree Kharka (2,30 hrs), rest day to cure a cold

Day 13. Shree Kharka – Upper Khangsar –Yak Kharka (down to ca. 3850 and up to 4050) 4 hrs; Yak Kharka – Churi Ledar (4200) 0,30 hrs. Shree Kharka to Yak Kharka was one of the best sections of the AC in my opinion, spectacular views during the whole day. There is a permanent iron suspension bridge instead of a previous wooden one on the Thorung Khola now. A small teahouse with simple meals is right at the bridge.

Day 14. Churi Ledar – Thorung Phedi (4500) 2,45 hrs; Thorung Phedi – Thorung High Camp (4880) 1,10 h. We hired a porter to carry our bags for the steep ascent from Thorung Phedi to Thorung High Camp by asking around in Thorung Phedi. He charged 2000 Rs.

Day 15. Thorung High Camp – Thorung La (5416) 2,30 hrs; Thorung La – Muktinath – Ranipauwa (3700) 4 hrs. We hired a porter for the ascent to Thorung La, arranged by staff at the Thorung High Camp for 4000 Rs (to the pass only, excluding descent to Muktinath). Lodge owners also offer a ride up Thorung La on a pack horse for US$ 100 per horse.

Day 16. Rest day in and around Muktinath, walks to the temple complex and to Jharkot (30 min below Ranipauwa).

Day 17. Round walk Muktinath – Chongur – Jhong – Putak – back to Jhong – cross the valley to Jharkot – Muktinath. An easy half day walk, including a long lunch break in Jhong. We could have also included Purang which is very close to Ranipauwa.

Day 18. Muktinath – Lubra (ca. 3000) 3,30 hrs; Lubra – Kagbeni (2800) 2 hrs.  Going from Ranipauwa to Lupra and then continuing to Kagbeni was another of the highlights of our trek, across a pass with spectacular views of Dhaulagiri. There is now a regular lodge in Lubra, so it is also possible to stay there for the night. The Ranipauwa – Lubra section was marked by infrequent blue signs and a few signposts. The Lubra-Kagbeni  trail is not marked but very easy to find. Directly below Lubra village we crossed the river on a small wooden bridge and went up the slope opposite the village, along a not very distinct path, to a big chorten-like pile of stones on the ridge. Altitude gain is ca. 150 meters from Lubra. Alternatively one can start from Lubra by taking the main trail towards Jomsom, then ca. 100 m below the village cross the river on an iron suspension bridge and continue uphill to the pile of stones on the ridge. From the pile of stones the path is very visible, it descends gently across a barren plateau with amazing views. It was very empty – no people and no road visible. At the end of the plateau it gets a bit steeper, descends almost to the Kali Gandaki and joins the jeepable road some 10 minutes before Kagbeni. Even though we hiked this section in the afternoon, it was mostly protected from the ferocious wind in the Kali Gandaki valley, so it was very enjoyable.

Day 19. Kagbeni and short walk to Tiri and Tiri Gompa in Upper Mustang.

Day 20. Kagbeni – Jomsom (2720) 2,15 hrs, mostly on the road, quite busy and dusty. Jomsom was the only place with ATMs on the whole trek. There were two ATMs near the airport. One did not accept Mastercard/Maestro cards, but no fee was charged for Visa cards. Daily withdrawal limit was 10.000 Rs. Another one accepts both Visa and Mastercard, has a withdrawal limit of 16.000 Rs and charges 400 Rs fee for each withdrawal.

Jomsom – Thini – Chhairo – Marpha (2670) 3,30 hrs. Warning: there is a water pipe crossing the Kali Gandaki river just above Marpha that looks very much like a bridge when seen from the high trail from Thini and Dhumba. We even went to check it, but it was not a bridge. The first place to cross the river is in Chhairo, below Marpha.

Day 21. Marpha – Chimang – Tukuche (2590) 3,30 hrs. Tukuche Guesthouse in the centre of the village was probably the best lodge on the whole Annapurna Circuit, in an old Thakali house with a climatic courtyard and traditional dining room. Very comfortable rooms with bathroom, great views from the roof and one of the few places with reliable hot water from solar shower. It’s a pity that the place was almost empty – there were only 4 people staying there, even though it was high season. Another similar lodge next door has already closed.

Crossing Kali Gandaki near Tukuche turned out to be quite problematic, as there were no wooden bridges in places indicated in our guidebook. The last place to cross the river above Tukuche was the suspension bridge ca. 30 minutes upstream from the village. There were no wooden bridges at all near Chokhopani. Next place to cross the river below Tukuche was only in Kobang, a half-ruined concrete bridge.

Day 22. Tukuche – Kalopani (2500) 5,30 hrs including lunch and a side walk to Naurikot. First part from Tukuche to Larjung along the road.

Day 23. Kalopani – Ghasa (2010) 3 hrs; Ghasa – Dana (1450) 3,15 hrs. Dana was one of positive surprises of our trek. The village is very atmospheric, has some superb Thakali architecture and great views from the valley with almost tropical vegetation to ice-covered peaks. It seemed much nicer than Tatopani and was definitely less touristy. There is a nice lodge in the upper part of the village, at the main jeep road. Dana is located on the right (western) side of the river, near the road, but the road does not pass right through the village. In order to visit it, we had to leave the NATT trail which continued on the left (eastern) side of the river.

Day 24. Dana – Tatopani (1190) 1,30 hrs along the road (but an alternative trail exists on the other side of the river); Tatopani – Galeshwar (900) 5 hrs (incl. 1 hr lunch) along the road. We did not plan to walk beyond Tatopani but because of the general strike there was no transport anymore when we arrived there at ca. 10 am. From Galeshwor we took a cab to Beni for 500 Rs.

Beni to Pokhara. In Beni we stayed at the basic Hotel Kalasha on the main street for 600 Rs per double. Later we realized that Hotel Yeti in a side lane above the second main street would be a much better place to stay for a similar price. Hotel Yeti has also a nice reasonably priced restaurant.

Because of the pre-election general strike, we were barely able to get to Pokhara the next day. Finally, after 3 hrs of preparations and negotiations, a single bus left Beni bus station with police escort and we had to pay 900 Rs (around the triple of the normal fare) for the ride. It took 5 hrs to reach Pokhara.

Pokhara

In Pokhara we stayed at Noble Inn at a side road in Lakeside (http://www.nobleinn.com/). A nice place, impeccably clean, with a large pleasant garden and some mountain views from some rooms. We paid 1100 Rs for a very spacious and comfortable double room.

Chitwan

River Bank Inn – after some negotiations we paid  1300 Rs for a huge room with balcony overlooking the river. The building is a huge concrete block but the room and terrace on the highest floor were nice. The owner offered us a package of jungle activities for almost double the price charged by agencies on the main street, so it’s better to avoid booking any activities with them.

Another place that seemed OK was the Holy Lodge, located at a more central place where the main road reaches the riverside.

There was a decent moneychanger in Chitwan, paying quite good rates, better than in Pokhara, only ca. 1 Re per 1 EUR less than in Kathmandu.

For visiting the national park and booking jungle activities it was definitely a good idea to shop around in the agencies on the main street in Sauraha, as there were quite significant price differences. We got the best deal at the Nepal Dynamic Eco Tours agency (http://callvans.wix.com/nepaldynamictours-), at their booth near the end of the Sauraha main road, for the total price of 10.540 Rs for two of us, including (prices per person):

- 1500 Rs national park entry fee (valid for one day and for the subsequent day for the community forests)

- 1050 Rs canoe ride on the river (1 hr) and walk back in the national park (3 hrs)

- 1520 Rs jeep safari in the national park and a visit to the gharial breeding center (100 Rs ticket not included)

- 1200 Rs elephant ride in the community forest near the village

Altogether, we saw most animals during the elephant ride in the community forest, including 3 adults and one baby rhino. During the jeep ride we saw many large crocodiles, a python and one rhino, partly hidden behind bushes. The boat ride and the walk gave us most adrenaline, even if we did not see any animals except a couple of crocodiles from a distance. The boat was a very rickety dugout canoe, easy to capsize, and the river was full of crocodiles (we saw one 3-4 meters long beast just opposite the village). Then in the jungle we heard from quite close distance some roars that our guide told us were tiger males preparing for a fight over territory. It seemed quite likely, as monkeys gave alarming sounds at the same time. Plenty of fresh rhino tracks as well. Quite thrilling when you are walking in the jungle and your guides are armed with sticks only. Altogether we were satisfied and we can recommend the Nepal Dynamic Eco Tours agency. Their guide for the walking tour was very knowledgeable and showed us many interesting details in the jungle. For the jeep safari and elephant ride you get a standard (quite good) service wherever you book, so it is the price that makes the difference.

Gujarat, South Rajasthan and Mumbai, 2013

Gujarat, South Rajasthan and Mumbai, February 2013 (20 days)

Route:

Mumbai – Junagadh – Sasan Gir – Diu – Palitana – Ahmedabad – Mount Abu – Udaipur (day trips to Kumbalgarh/Ranakpur and Chittorgarh) – Mumbai

Transport:

Trains for long distance. We booked tickets on-line in advance via Cleartrip (http://www.cleartrip.com/). Booking in advance is crucial, as tickets get sold out on most routes several weeks in advance. We even booked some backup tickets to be flexible in case of a flight  delay or a change of plans, which we then cancelled, as cancellation charges are quite low. For last minute bookings, there is also a batch of Tatkal tickets which are released a few days before departure and sold at a higher price.

Since early 2012 setting an account from abroad is not as straightforward as before, as an Indian mobile phone number is required. There is a way around it by e-mailing the IRCTC customer service and requesting the mobile password via e-mail. The whole process is explained here: http://www.seat61.com/India.htm#book – from outside

http://www.indiamike.com/india-articles/setting-up-your-irctc-and-cleartrip-accounts-for-buying-indian-railways-tickets-from-abroad

I managed it quite easily and got my password e-mailed from the IRCTC within a day or so.

For checking trains, prices and availability I found http://erail.in/ to be most user-friendly and comprehensive, although Cleartrip website is also useful. For railway buffs, here’s the official website, quite confusing but ultimately has all important information: http://www.indianrailways.gov.in/

For first-timers, a useful introduction into Indian railways is found here:

http://www.indiamike.com/india-articles/india-railways-and-the-indian-train

http://www.indiamike.com/india-articles/indian-railways-rac-and-indian-railways-waitlists

Buses for shorter distance. We found state buses in Gujarat quite easy to use and not particularly crowded – we always managed to get seats. Tickets on state buses in Gujarat are bought on the bus. Schedules can be found here: http://www.gsrtc.in/site/ but the site apparently does not include all local buses. For longer trips, trains are much more comfortable, as buses are quite run down and roads often bumpy.

Site for local buses in Rajasthan: http://rsrtc.rajasthan.gov.in/ We only used them once on a short distance, so cannot give any opinion.

There are also private buses in most places, a bit more expensive but more comfortable than regular state buses. We used them once in Rajasthan.

Changing money was a bit hit and miss on this trip. We found no place to change money on a Sunday in Mumbai (Fort and Colaba area). In Junagadh (a bank) and Diu (a moneychanger) rates offered were only slightly better than costs of using an ATM. The only place we found much better rates than ATM conversion rates was in Udaipur, at a moneychanger in a touristy area between the Jagdish Temple and the lake.

Guidebooks: we used chapters from both latest Lonely Planet (2012) and 2010 Rough Guide and this time RG was much better. Lonely Planet has lost much with its latest changes – city maps are much less readable than before and we found the it much less practical than previous editions.

Malaria prophylaxis: Gujarat is marked as high-risk area on NHS travel advice maps, so we duly took malarone pills. However, the only place with many mosquitoes during our trip was Mumbai airport (literally infested) and we saw just a few mosquitoes in Diu but not a single one in Gujarat.

We used local Odomos cream as mosquito repellent, available at almost every shop.

Route:

Mumbai

We only stayed in Mumbai for one day at the beginning and at the end of our trip. It was just a scratch on the surface, as the city is fascinating, with plenty of interesting places to explore.

Mumbai Airport: one of the worst airports we ever visited. Bad organisation, huge queues to both immigration and security control. We arrived more than 3 hours in advance for our flight home and barely made it in time. The airport, including inside terminal buildings, has also a serious mosquito problem – little suckers were almost everywhere, including inside the plane on our flight back. It is a good idea to use a lot of mosquito repellent before going to the airport to have a small-sized container of repellent on the plane.

Transport from the airport: we took a pre-paid taxi from the official taxi booth, on the left side just before the exit from the arrivals terminal. Cost: 750 Rs to SBS Road in Fort, near Victoria (Chhatrapati Shivaji) Terminus.

Sleeping: we stayed at Travellers’ Inn in Fort (Adi Marzban Path, SBS Road, within walking distance to Victoria Terminus). Priced 1350 Rs for a small double room with ensuite bathroom, very clean. Free wi-fi. The place is small and they were quite busy, so booking ahead was a good idea (it is possible to book via agoda.com, with a bit higher price, ca. 1500 Rs). Website http://www.hoteltravellersinn.co/ (warning: you can come across their false website under the same address ending with “co.in”, with much higher prices and redirecting to another hotel for booking). On departure they happily arranged a taxi to the airport for us for 550 or 600 Rs.

Getting to and from railway stations: we left Mumbai from Mumbai Central station, a 100 Rs taxi ride from Travellers’ Inn. On our way back we arrived to Bandra Terminus, much farther from the centre. As we arrived at ca 2 p.m., out of rush hour, we decided to take Mumbai’s notorious suburban train to Churchgate near Fort. We needed to walk ca. 15 minutes from Bandra railway station to the nearest suburban train station. The train was not crowded at all. From Churchgate station it was a 40 Rs taxi ride to Travellers’ Inn.

Getting around in Mumbai: Fort area is very walkable and best covered on foot. We took a few bus rides in Colaba – not so easy to figure out, as bus numbers are in Marathi. Autorickshaws are not allowed in downtown Mumbai (south of Mahim creek), so cabbies rule. We took some taxi rides and the drivers were always equipped with electronic meters and willing to use it. We found drivers of older Ambassador cars more trustworthy than cabbies in newer cars.

We really enjoyed Fort area within walking distance of Travellers’ Inn. Wide walkable streets, usually without much traffic, some greenery, a lot of nice heritage architecture, some interesting spots, in particular related to the Parsi (Irani) minority. There are two Parsi fire temples (called “agiary”) in the area, sadly closed for non-Parsis. There are also a few Irani cafes left in Fort. Cafe Universal, one of them which went upmarket, is just on the street corner near Travellers’ Inn. We enjoyed its laid-back atmosphere, nice Art Deco design and wide windows open on the street. Quite pricey by Indian standards – beers for 220-250 Rs, meals from 200 Rs up. Later we learnt that it was a less famous sister property of Leopold’s in Colaba.

On our way back in Mumbai we visited Elephanta Island. Ferries depart from near Gateway of India. Tickets were in the 120-150 range for return trip, getting to the island takes ca. 1 hr. It is worth paying a few rupees more for the “deluxe” one which is much more comfortable and better for views.

Entry into Elephanta caves was 250 Rs (foreigner price). For anybody with even minimal interest in Asian art and culture history the caves are an absolute must-see, we found them by no way overrated, even if we usually prefer “living” monuments to archaeological sites. The guys at the ticket counter apparently run some kind of racket with the ticket checkers, collecting whole tickets (instead of only the control coupon) from visitors in order to resell them. We insisted on having our tickets back and they were extremely reluctant but finally handed them back to us.

Mumbai – Junagadh

The most useful train for reaching places in Saurashtra, Gujarat directly from Mumbai is the daily Saurashtra Mail (schedules and prices on http://erail.in/, we booked it much in advance via http://www.cleartrip.com/). The train is split in Rajkot, with one part going to Veraval via Junagadh, another one to Okha via Jamnagar and Dwarka. If there are no tickets to the farther destination, it is worth checking whether there are places to Rajkot and then separately from Rajkot to the destination.

Junagadh

A very friendly and picturesque place, with some fantasy-like architecture resulting from fascination of the local maharaja with neo-Gothic Victorian style mixed with Indian and other oriental elements.

We stayed at Relief hotel (http://www.reliefhotel.com/), a short rickshaw ride or maybe 20 minutes walk from both bus and train stations. 650 Rs for a decent double with bathroom, there were also smaller rooms for 500 Rs. The manager is incredibly helpful and will happily provide any useful information you would need for visiting Junagadh and surroundings. Hotel restaurant did not work at the time of our visit (but the manager guided us to a very good place nearby), wi-fi was planned in a short time.

A definite highlight of the visit to Junagadh was climbing Girnar Hill with its Jain and Hindu temples. There are stairs to the very top of ca. 1100 m, Gujarat’s highest point (Girnar Kaleti, the starting point, is below 200 m), so the hike is quite punishing for the legs. Starting early (7.30 a.m. at the latest) is definitely a good idea, as the sun gets scorching afterwards. Rickshaw ride from Relief to Girnar Kaleti was 100 Rs. The owner of Relief hotel warned us against having any food along the trail on the mountain and he was probably right, as there was no clean water available anywhere on the path. Bottled water, soft drinks and packaged snacks are available all along the way.

Junagadh – Sasan Gir

There are GSRTC buses every 1 hr or so, 30 Rs, ca. 1,5 hrs. We took one at 10 a.m. and it was not crowded. There is also one passenger train (unreserved class only) at 07.15 a.m. (exact schedule on http://erail.in/). As we learned later, the railway goes directly through Gir Forest and with some dose of luck it should be well possible to spot a lion from the train. Actually, the lion we saw on our safari in Sasan Gir was maybe 100 meters from the railway track.

Sasan Gir – hic sunt leones

An otherwise nondescript village which is a gateway to Gir Forest, the last place in the world with wild Asiatic lions. As a backgrounder, it is worth to see a BBC documentary “Last Lions of India” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEL2f90L_kY), which is also shown daily at the park office.

On arrival we were met by Nitin Ratanghayara, a local guy running a small guesthouse in his home. The owner of Relief hotel in Junagadh can contact him in advance, alternatively Nitin’s e-mail is ratanghayaranitin [at] yahoo.com. He seems to know all the strings, helped us with safari booking, and – most important – found other foreign travellers to share the safari cost. He seems to do it quite routinely, so if not in a group and intending to share the cost, it is definitely a good idea to look for Nitin. He does not charge anything for his help and his guesthouse is decently priced (400 Rs for an acceptable double room + 100 Rs per person per all-you-can-eat meal).

Safari details: it is booked at Sinh Sadan lodge in Sasan Gir. It can be booked a day in advance (at 5-6 p.m. for the next morning) or directly before starting. Despite a limited number of vehicles being allowed for each safari, foreigners should have no problems with booking, as paying much more, they enjoy unofficial priority. Safari timings are 06.30 a.m., 09.30 a.m. and another time in the afternoon (I don’t remember exact time). The first one at 06.30 is apparently best for seeing lions.

The costs were as following (for foreigners, Indian nationals pay considerably less):

2000 Rs for permit for a group up 4 persons, 2500 Rs if the group size is 5-6 persons, to be shared among the group

1000 Rs for the jeep (or ‘gypsy’), to be shared among the group

150 Rs for the guide, to be shared among the group

500 Rs photography fee for EACH camera above 7 megapixels.

Permits are valid for one safari only. I am not sure about the photography fees but it’s probably the same. Altogether it is not prohibitively expensive if you find other foreigners to share a gypsy. It is not possible to share a vehicle with Indian tourists as in such case Indians would be charged according to foreigner rates. Weird but so it is.

Most important – we saw a lion! A big male walked within maybe 20 meters of our jeep. It is far from certain – our companions took altogether 3 safaris and had 2 sightings, one of them a lioness from very far, a kilometer or so. We can consider ourselves very lucky, as we took only one safari.

It is also apparently easy to spot crocodiles while walking along the river on the northern outskirts of the village but this time we were not lucky. Having read about a crocodile breeding centre in Sasan Gir, we asked around and were directed by the locals to a glass pavilion inside a camping ground just right (east) of Sinh Sadan, with a few small reptiles inside. Afterwards I checked on Google Earth and there seems to be some sort of bigger structure deeper inside the camping ground, so probably we missed the proper breeding centre.

Download: [Sasan Gir train schedule]

Sasan Gir – Diu

The early morning safari ended just in time for us to grab our bags and catch the 09.57 a.m. train to Delvada (ca. 3,5 hrs, 20 Rs). There are also some buses to nearby Una later during the day, so getting from Sasan Gir to Diu is easy. From Delvada we took a rickshaw to Diu bus stand for 150 Rs.

Diu

A very pleasant place to chill out for a couple of days. Some interesting Portuguese-Indian cultural mix, slow pace, a few beaches (but not really a swimming place) and a welcome oasis in the middle of prohibition-parched Gujarat. Because of the last element we were initially a bit apprehensive before visiting on a weekend, but it the weekend crowds of Gujarati visitors turned out to be not so big and much more sober than expected.

We stayed in Herança Goesa, a family-run guesthouse listed in all the guidebooks. Every word of praise is justified – the rooms are spotless, ours came with a balcony with nice view, and the price was very reasonable (a negotiable 700 Rs per double). In addition to English, the hosts speak excellent Portuguese.

We tried some places for food. O’Coqueiro near our guesthouse was OK but we found Apana restaurant on Fort Rd at the waterfront the best place.

On one day we rented bicycles from a repair shop close to the mosque in Diu bazaar area (80 Rs per day) and rode to Vanakbara, a fishing village on the opposite end of Diu island, some 15 kms from Diu town. Probably most interesting: a bit south of Vanakbara village (accessible by taking a road to the left just before entering proper village) there was a boat yard with wooden fishing boats being built by traditional methods.

Diu to Palitana

We took a 9 a.m. bus from Diu to Talaja (bus destination is Bhavnagar), 5,5 hrs, ca. 80 Rs.

Download: [Diu bus schedule]

There are many more buses from Una if you miss the last one from Diu. In Talaja we had to wait ca. 1hr for a local bus to Palitana (1,5 hrs). Altogether getting from Diu to Palitana took 8 hrs of quite bumpy bus rides and after arrival and checking in we still had some time for a late afternoon walk from our hotel across the bridge into the center of Palitana.

Palitana

We stayed in Hotel Shravak just opposite the bus station. It was basic and rather gloomy but OK for one night. 450 Rs for a large double with bathroom. Staying for one night is enough, as there are onwards buses to Ahmedabad every hour in the afternoon. We had to check out in the morning but the receptionist stored our luggage until we were back from Shatrunjaya.

The main if not the only reason of our stop in Palitana was visiting Shatrunjaya, the sacred Jain temple-hill above Palitana. The stairs uphill were a 50 Rs rickshaw ride from the bus stand and Hotel Shravak. Entry is free but there is a photography fee of 100 Rs, paid at a booth to the left from the starting point of the stairs. The climb uphill is much shorter and far less spectacular than to Girnar Hill near Junagadh but there are much more temples to visit on the top, so a visit to Shatrunjaya takes most part of the day. Again, it is very recommended to start at dawn, as the sun becomes unbearable later on. Contrary to what some guidebooks say, nobody objects to having bottled water on the hike uphill and in the temples. It’s definitely needed, as the sun was scorching. All along the path uphill there are no food and drink stalls, only small kiosks offering drinking water from big tanks (we did not risk it).

Palitana – Ahmedabad

State bus, departures every hour in the afternoon, 5,5 hrs, ca. 120 Rs.

Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad turned out to be a very interesting city and definitely worth staying a couple of days. As we stayed only one full day (two nights), we visited only the old town, exploring its fascinating mosques, Sufi shrines, bazaars and semi-enclosed neighbourhoods called “pols”. While arriving by bus we also saw some ultra-modern and rich-looking districts with glitzy malls and posh cafes but they were quite far from the old centre.

Accommodation: we stayed in Hotel Volga (http://www.hotelvolga.in/) in Lal Darwaja area in the centre. It attempts without much success to be a half-smart “business-class” place. Ca. 950 Rs for a double with bathroom, decent-looking but it turned out that there were cockroaches in the room. On leaving we were unpleasantly surprised by an additional charge for wi-fi which did not work properly. Not recommended, there are several other decent-looking places in the close neighbourhood.

Ahmedabad – Mount Abu

We took a train from Ahmedabad to Abu Road (ca. 4hrs, booked much in advance via Cleartrip schedules and prices on http://erail.in/) and continued by a local bus to Mt Abu (1 hr, ca. 20 Rs).

In Mt Abu we stayed at Shri Ganesh hotel, a short walk from the centre. The managers were friendly and helpful but the room was quite basic – small and musty, with some humidity on the walls. Priced at 650 Rs per double with bathroom. Hot water available on request.

Mt Abu was OK for a short stay but nothing very special. It would be great to hike in the hills around the town but all the guidebooks warn against the danger of assaults or muggings in less-frequented places and the hotel owner confirmed that it was an issue. No guided walks were available for the day we were there. It was definitely worth to visit Delwara Jain temple, a 100 Rs rickshaw ride uphill from the town centre, with even more exquisite carvings than those in Palitana.

Mt Abu – Udaipur

Private bus, booked at Gujarat Travels agency on previous afternoon, departure 8.30 a.m., 220 Rs, 5 hrs.

Udaipur

First impression: Udaipur was very touristy! Compared to almost tourist-free Gujarat, there were literally hordes of tourists around the lake and the area near Jagdish temple was full of souvenir shops and similar places. Anyway, the town is really charming and real life in full coulours of Rajasthan was always just a short walk away. Shopping for spices in the bazaar area near Hathi Pol is especially recommended, as is getting lost in narrow streets of the old town.

On arrival in Udaipur we took a rickshaw to Jagdish temple and walked across the footbridge to look for accommodation in the Hanuman Ghat area. It turned out to be a perfect idea, as the area was much more peaceful and relaxed (even if still touristy) than the main tourist spot between Jagdish temple and the lake. We stayed in Panorama Hotel (http://www.panoramaguesthouse.in/) and really loved the place – 900 Rs for a clean comfortable double room with bathroom, with paintings on the walls, balcony and – most important – full spectacular view of the Lake Pichola and the City Palace. There is a rooftop restaurant with even more spectacular views. We also had some meals at the nearby Dream Heaven which seems a similar place, as regards charm, views and standard.

One place to be avoided in this area is Hanuman Ghat Hotel. On a Saturday night its unscrupulous owner threw an incredibly loud disco party on the roof, flooding half of the town with thumping noise. In Panorama some 100 meters away we had to shout to hear each other.

Day-trips fro Udaipur

We made two trips from Udaipur by car with driver, hired via the reception of Panorama:

-          Kumbalgarh and Ranakpur, 1600 Rs. Entry to Kumbalgarh Fort was 100 Rs. Only part of the fort can be visited on a day visit but it gives a good idea of the whole and almost the whole fort can be seen from the citadel.

-          Chittaurgarh, 1800 Rs. Entry to the fort was 100 Rs. The fort is very large with sights spread across the whole area, so our driver drove us around stopping at the sights.

Udaipur – Mumbai

By train, Udaipur Bandra SF Express, schedules and prices on http://erail.in/.

Yunnan and Sichuan 2012

Sichuan and Yunnan, August 2012

Route: Chongqing – Chengdu – Panzhihua – Lijiang – (Shangri La) – Benzilan – Feilai Si – Yubeng – Mingyong – Deqin – Lijiang – Shaxi – Jianchuan – Lijiang – Lugu Hu – Xichang – Chengdu – Zigong – Dazu – Chongqing

Time: 29 days

General info

It was our third trip to  mainland China, after a break of 5 years. We found a newly opened Finnair connection to Chongqing, on the doorsteps of Sichuan and Yunnan, starting with a really cheap offer, so we decided to visit some places in those provinces that we skipped on our previous visit. Our main objective were the footsteps of Kawagebo (Kawa Karpo, Meili Xue Shan), mountain range that we wanted to visit since reading about it in 2007.

Getting around – we did that mainly by buses, occasionally taxis, rarely by train. We found it quite challenging at times. Finding out connections and arranging tickets was definitely the least fun aspect of our trip.

Train: as August is high season and there is now internet booking available to people with Chinese banking accounts (so short-term visitors are excluded), it was very difficult to get train tickets. For our only overnight train ride we asked our hostel to book the tickets and sent them money from Poland before our departure. Passport is needed for booking train tickets (usually a copy is enough) and passport number is indicated on the ticket. A good website for checking timetables and prices and even availability of tickets is http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/ (however fees charged by them for booking tickets border on rip-off). A good starter into train travel in China can be found here: http://www.seat61.com/China.htm

Bus: usually bus tickets were available for the same day or one day ahead. No passport needed to buy tickets. Minus: almost complete lack of information in English. In most places there are several bus stations, so it can be challenging to figure out which is the right one.

Getting around in cities – city buses were very cheap (1 or 2 Y per ride) but quite difficult to figure out. The routes and stop descriptions were usually only in Chinese. Taxi drivers were usually trying to overcharge, as almost everywhere. In almost each case when we forced them to use the meter and paid attention to the map it turned out that the meter indicated about half of their initial price.

Guidebooks:  we used Lonely Planet China’s Southwest 2007 and Rough Guide Southwest China 2012. Unusually, Lonely Planet was much better, even as regards context and descriptions, but obviously seriously out of date. Rough Guide had many details wrong and was impractical to use at times.

Food and beer: eating in simple restaurants usually cost us between 40 and 70 yuan for two persons, beers included. Meat or fish dishes were usually 20-30 yuan, vegetable dishes 8-15 yuan, beer 4-10 yuan. Strangely, in some places we were first shown weaker beer (about 2,5% alcohol content) as an ‘upmarket’ choice for 10 yuan or so and first later a slightly stronger one (3,3% or 3.6%) as a cheaper basic version. A good rule is to order as many dishes as there are people at the table plus one and share them.  For breakfast we usually had steamed dumplings (where available), starting from 5 yuan per person.

Internet: major changes since our previous visit. There is a requirement of registering Chinese IDs of users in internet cafes, so most of them don’t bother to serve foreigners anymore. We tried 3 or 4 times and did not succeed to use an internet cafe even once. However, most hotels and hostels offer free wi-fi (it’s useful to have at least a smartphone, if not shlepping a notebook around), in some cases there is a computer or two (usually slow and dilapidated) for use at the common area and there is a growing number of hotels, even budget ones, providing internet-enabled computers in their rooms.

We found the Great Chinese Firewall to be much more selective than during our previous visit. Foreign news websites like BBC or CNN were usually accessible, even totally ‘subversive’ stories e.g. on Tibetan protests or the Bo Xilai affair. There’s a blanket ban on Facebook but most hostels openly advertise a way around.

Weather: August is considered rainy season in this part of China, so we can consider ourselves lucky. It was cloudy or partly cloudy most of the time, but it did not rain so much to spoil our experience. Most important, we had three days of perfect sunny weather during the most spectacular part of our trip – hiking to and around Yubeng in Kawagebo/Meili Xue Shan mountains. We had less luck on Lugu Hu where we had 3 days of very cloudy and chilly weather with some rain and finally we got completely soaked by a day-long torrential rain while visiting Buddhist sites in Dazu.

Changing money: possible in major banks, the same Bank of China rate applies everywhere (airport branches may charge additional commission), see http://www.boc.cn/sourcedb/whpj/enindex.html
It is much better to exchange USD than EUR – USD cash is changed at ca. 1% less than the mid-market rate, while exchanging EUR costs ca. 3,5% in exchange rate spread. Some banks are open and exchange money un Sundays.

Entrance fees: one of the most irritating aspects of travelling around China. Anything labeled a tourist spot is likely to have an entry fee which borders  on extortion and is simply ridiculous compared to the general level of prices and personal income in China. It can be anything from 30 – 50 Y for lesser sights to well in excess of 100 Y for major ones. In several cases a substantial fee is charged for entering an area (a national park, a temple complex or even a city or village) and then more fees are charged on top of that for specific sights around this area. Some advice: it is worth always asking for discounts showing a student card, teacher ID, fishing license, library card or whatever. In some places there are genuine discounts, in some other cases ticket booth staff would give discounts to avoid losing face and admitting that they cannot recognize the ID in question. In several places, mostly rural, ticket staff are aware that the level of entry fees is completely out of touch with reality, so they are open for negotiation and quite willing to grant discounts for any reason (e.g. group discount for groups of 3…). The rule is that it is most difficult to get discounts for major tourist attractions in most-visited places. More remote or less visited places are usually more flexible.

Costs: we were spending a bit below 500 Y per day per couple, travelling almost exclusively by bus, staying in cheaper hotels or hostels (almost always with en-suite bathrooms) and eating in simple restaurants.

Travel details

Chongqing

There is a brand new ultra-modern metro connection to the airport, serving also the main ChongqingBei (North) train station under way. The metro station is at the big and modern domestic terminal, a short walk or free shuttle bus ride from the much smaller international terminal. Ride to downtown Chongqing was 6 Y and took almost an hour.

The metro (CRT, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chongqing_Rail_Transit) is also a real saver for moving around the city, as Chongqing is enormously large, quite chaotic and traffic is heavy. In 2013 it will reach Ciqikou, an old town now part of Chongqing.

As we landed in Chongqing in the morning, we planned to move on to Chengdu as soon as possible and save Chongqing for the end of our trip.  At the station we heard the familiar words ‘mei you’ though and it turned out that the first train with available tickets was in 4 or 5 hours. We took the metro downtown for a jet-lagged walk around the centre, visiting Luohan Si (entry 10 Y).

See bottom of the page for some more info on Chongqing, including a hostel recommendation.

Chengdu 

Our trip by Chongqing – Chengdu high-speed rail took only 2 hrs (98 Y, 2nd class seat). The catch was that our train terminated at ChengduDong (East) railway station, a new huge airport-like structure far on the outskirts, near the WuGuiQiao bus station. Information on city buses to downtown was only in Chinese and we did the mistake to board the bus heading to the more central North railway station in order to take the metro from there to our hostel. The ring road was partly closed for construction work and the bus ride took us almost 2 hrs in traffic jams, so it would be probably a better idea to avoid buses going by the ring road at least for some time. Metro link to ChengduDong should be opened soon. In the meantime, a useful search engine in English for Chengdu city buses can be found at http://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/sichuan/chengdu/bus-subway-search.htm.

We stayed in our long-time favourite Mix Hostel (http://mixhostel.com/), a double room with air-con and shared facilities was 98 Y in early August and 108 Y in late August. The location is within walking distance to Wenshu monastery (entry 5 Y) and the surrounding touristy area, as well as Aidao and Jinsha Nunneries (free entry). On Jiefang Rd near Aidao Nunnery there was a branch of ICBC where it was possible to change money on Sunday. For a lunch or dinner it is a better idea to head 15 minutes or so north-eastwards to the market district near Beimen bus station. It felt like a surviving piece of Chengdu we remembered from our previous visit and a welcome respite from all the fancy shops in the centre. There are plenty of simple eateries there serving standard delicious Sichuanese food for very reasonable places.

As we still felt a bit jet-lagged, we wanted to avoid figuring out public transport in the early morning and took a hostel tour to the Panda Breeding Centre (118 Y, transport and entry ticket included) next morning. It turned out to be not a very good idea – we were supposed to stay with the group (which we did not do) and time for visiting the centre was somewhat limited. A better idea would be probably to take a taxi and force the driver to go by the meter.

Some more Chengdu recommendations are in the end part of this report.

Chengdu to Lijiang

We took an overnight train from Chengdu to Panzhihua (179 Y for hard sleeper). Before our departure from Europe we asked Mix Hostel to book tickets in advance for us, which they happily did charging a very moderate fee of 20 Y per ticket (but we had to send them money via Western Union which added ca. 25% to the cost). It turned out that we did a major error by selecting a through train originating in Beijing. A train starting in Chengdu would be a much wiser choice, as our train was ca. 5hrs late. Not much information (and none in English) was available at the crowded Chengdu North railway station, so we just waited at the station until the train was eventually announced, figuring it out with help of other stranded passengers.

In Panzhihua we took city bus no. 64 from the train station all across the town to the bus station (3 Y, 27 km, took almost 1 hr) and still managed to get tickets for the last bus to Lijiang at 1 p.m. (87 Y, took 9 hrs). There are also several earlier buses.

Lijiang (alt. 2400)

We treated it just as a transit point, so stayed in a cheap hotel near the bus station (no English sign, 80 Y for a standard Chinese double, ensuite). There are several such hotels, all similar, just behind main bus station (the one south of the old town) – on leaving the station turn left, then again left. Some simple restaurants are also there, including an eatery doing brisk business with delicious dumplings (5 Y) starting from early morning.

Lijiang – Benzilan

First we took a bus to Shangri La (Zhongdian, alt. 3300) from Lijiang main bus station (4,5 hrs, plenty of buses during the day, we paid 80 Y but most other buses apparently cost 65 Y). We didn’t stay in Shangri La, as we visited it already 5 years ago. We took a minibus to Benzilan for 50 Y per person, by negotiating with drivers hanging around at front of the bus station. The trip took 2,5 hrs. There was no public bus until next morning and taking it would require paying full fare to Deqin (53 Y), at least that’s what we were told at the station.

Benzilan (alt. ca. 2080, 28.14 N, 99.18 E)

A small Tibetan town (or large village) on Yangzi river, situated relatively low in the valley. There are several simple restaurants and a couple of hotels along the main road. We stayed in the lower part of the town, for 50 Y per double room, with bathroom but quite dirty. Some side lanes still have feeling of a Tibetan village.

On the next day we went to Dondrupling monastery (Dongzhulin Si, alt. 2700, 28.15.50 N, 99.13.50 E), a big monastery on the main road about 20 km beyond Benzilan. Initially we wanted to hitch-hike but there was almost no traffic in the morning so after a while we gave up and paid 100 Y to a driver from Benzilan. The monastery was pretty new, rebuilt on the present site after its predecessor further uphill was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (later a Tibetan guy from Shangri La told us that there is now a nunnery at the original site, seemingly at 28.16.10 N, 99.11.20 E). The main temple was quite impressive with several storeys and the setting quite spectacular. Entry was 30 Y. There is apparently no accommodation for tourists in the monastery and we didn’t notice any shop either.

From the monastery we caught a passing minibus, crossing a 4300 m pass to Deqin (50 Y per person + further overpriced 50 Y per whole car for continuing to Feilai Si).

Feilai Si (alt. 3450, 28.26.30 N, 98.52.30 E)

We stayed at a friendly family-run guesthouse right on the main road, near the entrance to the viewing platform, with a red Chinese-only sign but ‘wi-fi’ and something like ‘food’ was written in English on smaller signs. We paid 150 Y for a very nice, large double with bathroom and a breathtaking frontal view of Kawagebo right from our window. There was a restaurant at the entrance, with very good food, English language menu and quite reasonable prices. They also agreed to store our luggage free of charge for almost a week we spent hiking in Yubeng and Mingyong.

Feilai Si is being developed in quite ugly way. A monstrous hotel complex is now situated right over the viewing platform and a huge area is fenced off. The viewing place with a picturesque row of chortens often seen on pictures on the internet has been rebuilt as a big viewing platform, separated by a high wall from the main street. There is a ticket booth at the entrance and a sign about a ca. 60 Y entry fee but nobody was there to charge it when we entered it late afternoon. The Feilai Temple itself (from which the place takes its name) is located in a more authentic village area ca. 500 meters towards Deqin – first along the main road and then a short walk down (visible from the road and signposted in English).

Warning: Google Earth images of Feilai Si and surroundings are several years old and the area has developed considerably since then. No hiking maps of the Kawagebo/Meili Xue Shan area are available except a very basic sketch sold in the shops in Feilai Si for 10 Y. Another, slightly better sketch can be found on http://chinabackpacker.info/maps/m29.gif

The area around Kawagebo was one of most spectacular places we have ever visited. The setting is of 6000 m high mountains overlooking a deep valley, hanging glaciers and waterfalls just overhead and a surprising diversity of landscapes from arid slopes almost like in Ladakh to lush semi-tropical forests. It seems that the monsoon shadow starts somewhere here, so there are very diverse microclimates depending on the exact location and orientation. The place is also authentically Tibetan, with several temples (albeit no major monasteries), shrines, chortens, prayer flags and even some semi-hidden Dalai Lama pictures, in spite of major influx of Chinese tourists. There are several easy to follow and pleasant hikes accessible without camping stuff and major preparations.

Main drawback of the area – there was an incredible amount of thrash on and around more frequented paths. Efforts were apparently made to reduce it some time ago, as there were wooden rubbish bins along some paths around Yubeng. At the time of our visit most of the baskets were already broken and it seemed that nobody bothered with emptying them. The whole area has a serious litter problem and it’s a pity that at least part of the income from steep national park entrance fees is not spent on controlling it.

Feilai Si to Xidang to Wenquan (Hot Springs)

From Feilai Si we walked down to the footbridge on the Mekong and to Xidang. There is a steep but well-visible and quite easy path, starting from the main road right at the end of the viewing platform. The path is well visible on Google Earth. After some time of steep descent through low forest we reached a small semi-deserted village. From the village it is important to take the path in descending traverse of the right (north) slope of the valley. The correct path descends all the time, there are no fragments going up. Other ascending paths do not lead to the Mekong bridge. The views from the path must be fabulous but sadly during our walk, even if the weather was sunny in general, the Kawagebo range was completely hidden in clouds.

After reaching the Mekong bridge (alt. 2020, 28.26.51 N, 98.50.02 E) we visited the small Tibetan temple on the opposite side. The temple itself was closed but the surroundings were very interesting – many chortens, prayer flags of several sorts and small shrines set  spectacularly over the muddy Mekong. Due to low altitude there are also some cactuses there – a rather rare view in a Tibetan setting.

Xidang village (“centre”: alt. 2250, 28.26.19 N, 98.49.47 E) is situated quite high above the Mekong. Altogether it took us 5 hrs to reach there from Feilai Si, including a visit to the temple but helped by getting a lift from a local for most of the way between the bridge and Xidang. We planned initially to stay overnight in Xidang but the only guesthouse in the “centre” of the village (called Karma House was full and the lady in charge was completely unhelpful in suggesting some alternative accommodation. Assisted by a Chinese tourist, we asked around and were answered that there was apparently another guesthouse a short walk up along the main road. There wasn’t or maybe it was perfectly hidden from potential guests. We walked up until we left the village entered the ravine leading to the hot springs. Then we stopped a passing car and after some haggling we paid the driver 20 Y for taking us to the hot springs (Wenquan), starting point to the trail to Yubeng.

Our impression of Wenquan (alt. ca. 2700, 28.25.32 N, 98.48.42 E) was quite negative. Afterwards we felt that a night there was like some kind of purgatory necessary for getting to the paradise of Yubeng (obviously with some degree of exaggeration). Anyway, two places to sleep are available, both definitely on the filthy side. The upper one near the starting point for horses charged 30 Y per bed in a dorm. Some acceptable food was also available. As regards toilet, the advice was to go to the woods. The lower guesthouse seemed a bit better – the dorm (40 Y per bed) was a little cleaner. They offered also a few small houses with hot water directly from the springs for 140 Y per double. It may sound well but the houses were in fact incredibly dirty and dilapidated, with sparks flying around from malfunctioning electricity wires. Toilet and washing in the wood as well (luckily there was hot water from the spring). The manager in charge was completely drunk, one of the girls working there spoke some English but the staff was only interested in selling us entry tickets to the national park (quite pricey at 80 Y per person). It was definitely the least friendly and shabbiest place we stayed during our whole trip – a pity, as in this location with some very limited investment and a degree of basic hospitality it could easily be a paradise-like retreat.

Wenquan (Hot Springs) to Yubeng

Well-trodden path, very easy to find. A lot of horse-caravans on the way, horses can be hired for carrying luggage or for a ride to Yubeng. Parts of the path were muddy. There are wooden huts with simple food and hot and cold drinks every 1-2 hrs. As we went there, concrete poles were being erected for electricity or fixed phone line, so it will be even easier to follow (but more difficult to make pictures of unspoilt landscapes). The path is visible on Google Earth. First we went up to Nazong La (ca. 3770 m, 28.23.40 N, 98.49.08 E). From Nazong La spectacular views started and continued for the whole descent to Upper Yubeng (3200 m, 28.24.00 N, 98.47.30 E). Altogether it took us ca. 6-7 hours to reach Upper Yubeng. On the entrance to Yubeng another fee of 5 Y was charged, but it was afterwards deducted from the accommodation price.

Yubeng and around

We stayed in Upper Yubeng for three nights and made some hikes in the surrondings. The place was truly spectacular, in a green, mostly forested valley with full view of the southern part of Kawagebo range. There are easy day hikes up to the end of the valleys, to the places directly under the hanging glaciers and waterfalls.

There are many guesthouses in Upper Yubeng (many more were built since the Google Earth picture was made)and a bit less, but still several in Lower Yubeng. We stayed at the youth hostel (signposted ‘YHA China’) for 88 Y per nice double room in a wooden building, with spectacular mountain view. Shared bathroom with hot showers. They also had restaurant with quite tasty food, a bit more expensive than on the lowlands (full meal for two with beers was usually ca. 80-100 Y).

Hike to the Kawagebo Base Camp and Ice Lake (Bing Hu) – the walk starts near a big chorten directly behind the village (west of the village centre) and quickly enters the forest. The path was then quite obvious and easy to follow, with wooden rubbish bins (mostly broken) along the way. First it went up the valley directly above Upper Yubeng, then steep ascent to the forested slope to the left (north) led to a side valley with a glacier-fed stream. Soon the forest ended and Kawagebo base camp appeared, now a hut with some food and drink available (approximate location: alt. 3650 m, 28.24.10 N, 98.45.30 E). From the base camp there was another one hour or so to the Ice Lake (alt. 3900 m, 28.24.30 N, 98.44.44 E), fed directly by several spectacular waterfalls falling from hanging glaciers. Altogether the hike took us 8 hrs (there and back), with a long break near the lake and some rests in the base camp and elsewhere along the path.

Hike to Shenpu (Sacred Waterfall) – the hike starts from Lower Yubeng (ca. 3070 m, 28.23.32 N, 98.47.35 E), reached from Upper Yubeng in ca. half an hour by a path crossing a deep ravine. Mid-way along this path there is the only spot in Yubengs where the main summit of Kawagebo can be seen above a pass. Lower Yubeng has a small but interesting temple in the centre and a small nunnery behind the village, near the start of the path towards Shenpu. An elderly nun (probably the only one in the nunnery) was initially a little reluctant but then invited us to have a look inside after we greeted her with a ‘tashi delek’. From the nunnery the path soon entered the forest. It was very obvious, with a lot of prayer flags and offerings left by pilgrims, including pieces of clothing – leaving them is apparently considered to be like shedding past sins. There is a hut with food and drink and simple accomodation in the upper part of the valley. The waterfall (actually two of them, alt. 3650, 28.22.01 N, 98.45.18 E) was impressive, with water literally jet-streamed into the air from the edge some 50 meters overhead and arriving to the bottom as more of a drizzle than a stream. It is considered auspicious to run through the waterfall an odd number of times. Mindful of falling stones, we decided against doing it but a Chinese tourist did 21 runs. The whole hike took ca. 5 hours (both ways) from Lower Yubeng, plus ca. 2 hrs for the walk from Upper Yubeng and back, some leisurely time in Lower Yubeng and a beer in a shop on the paths between Yubengs.

From Yubeng to Mingyong 

From Yubeng we hiked back to Wenquan hot springs via Nazong La in ca. 5 hrs. [A longer and seemingly spectacular alternative would be a hike down to the Mekong valley in Ninong and from there another long hike along the Mekong to Xidang or crossing the bridge on the Mekong and catching some transport (unreliable) on the Deqin – Cizhong – Weixi road on another side. This hike is apparently quite adventurous and not without some danger – there was a big sign warning against it in Lower Yubeng and I vaguely remember a story of a hiker dying on this trail some years ago.]

Initially we planned to walk from Wenquan to Mingyong by taking a path traversing the slope above Xidang and continuing high above the Mekong across two side ridges (partly visible on Google Earth). We skipped it as the weather worsened and it was already 2 p.m. as we arrived to Wenquan. After some unsuccessful wait for somebody willing to share a car to Mingyong we finally hired the car for ourselves for a steep and non-negotiable 130 Y. According to an English-speaking Tibetan guy we met there, charge for a mini-bus ride from Wenquan to Feilai Si would be 190 Y, to Deqin 210 Y.

Mingyong

Mingyong (2300 m, 28.28.18 N, 98.47.16 E) seems to be waiting for a tourist boom that never actually arrived, as most tourists visit it on day trips from Feilai Si. Anyway, there are several decent inexpensive hotels on the only street in the village. We paid 80 Y for a large comfortable double with bathroom in the upper part of the village, close to the entrance to the trail.

On entering the trail we were unpleasantly surprised by a refusal to recognise our national park entry tickets bought in Xidang/Wenquan, which according to staff in the ticket booth did not cover the Mingyong area. We managed to negotiate a discount by waving our teacher cards, so we paid 39 Y instead of the regular price of 78 Y (but were issues regular 78 Y tickets nevertheless). The walk to the glacier and back took ca. 4 hrs. We only went to the glacier viewing point near the Taizi temple (alt. ca. 2950, 28.27.24 N, 98.45.54 E). It was not possible to reach the viewing terrace directly above the glacier, as the wooden plank way leading there has been swept down by an avalanche. It started raining, so we skipped going to the Lianhua temple, some 500 meters above Taizi temple. The path leading to Lianhua temple was easy to miss, signposted only in Chinese not far below Taizi temple.

Mingyong to Deqin

On our return from the hike we found no bus and it was also not so easy to find people to share a mini-bus, as most Chinese tourists had their own pre-arranged transport. Finally we shared a minibus to Feilai Si (150 Y per whole car) with a French couple. After picking up our luggage and having a late lunch/early dinner in Feilai Si we took another mini-bus to Deqin (40 Y per car).

Deqin (alt. 3300, 28.29.20 N, 98.54.40 E)

In Deqin we made the mistake to look for accommodation in a group of 6 foreigners. In result staff in inexpensive places on the main road were quite reluctant to take us, even despite having a Chinese speaker among us. Other places were quite pricey, above 200 Y per double room. Finally I went alone to a hotel on the street leading to Feilai Si, some 50 m from the main crossroads, near a closed and sealed KTV parlour. I managed to convince the lady in charge to give us two very nice double rooms for 120 Y per room (haggled down from 150 Y) and another smaller one for 100 Y.

There is no proper bus station in Deqin, just a ticket office with blue sign on the left (northern) side of the street towards Shangri La, maybe 50 m from the main crossroads. Ticket office opened at 6.45 a.m. A section of the road in front of the office is fenced off in the morning for departing buses.

Initially we wanted to go to Weixi but we were told at the bus station that the road was broken and there were no buses in that direction. It turned out that there was a direct bus to Lijiang (dep. at 7.30, 129 Y, 10 hrs), so we took this one. There were also several buses to Shangri La at 7 a.m., 8.30 and later.

Lijiang again

This time the bus dropped us at the express bus station on Xiangelila Dadao (northern part of the town). We took a taxi to the main bus station (12 Y according to the meter) and stayed in a hotel near there for the night (80 Y per double).

Getting to Shaxi

We took the first morning bus to Jianchuan at 8.20 a.m. (there are also several more during the day) from Lijiang main bus station. Price: 20 Y, duration 2,5 hrs. From Jianchuan to Shaxi we took a minibus from a parking in front of Jianchuan bus station – 45 minutes, 10 Y per person.

Shaxi (alt. 2100, 26.19.10 N, 99.51.00 E)

Shaxi turned out to be a very pleasant place, to some extent a rural version of Lijiang minus the crowds. There are some touristy cafes (so far reasonably priced) and souvenir shops but they do not yet dominate the place. There are many guesthouses in old mansions with courtyards. We stayed in Horse Pen 46 (http://www.horsepen46.com/), for 80 Y per very nice double room with bathroom. It was a very friendly place, in a nice wooden house with courtyard, directly on the main square, with all usual hostel services and staff speaking excellent English. Booking is advised – we got a room on arrival only because somebody has just cancelled.

There was no charge to enter Shaxi and also the visit of the temple on the main square was free of charge when we visited.

Some things to do in Shaxi and around – we arrived just in time for the weekly Friday market, much fun, with many traditionally clothed Bai ladies doing shopping for the whole week and excellent fruits and snacks.  For another day we hired bikes and took a ride around the villages of the Shaxi valley. We also hiked to Shizhong temple with its Buddhist carvings on Shibaoshan mountain (alt. 2450, 26.21.35 N, 99.50.10 E). The hike is 3 hrs one way from Shaxi – first across rice fields to the village of Shadeng and the trailhead (26.20.24 N, 99.50.22 E), then just following signs along stone paths. Horse Pen 46 offers guided hikes there for free on Mondays, and they are happy to explain the way if you want to walk there alone.  Entry fee to Shizhong was nominally 50 Y but very negotiable – we paid 25 Y by showing our teacher cards, our Chinese friends got a group discount to 30 Y per person even though there were only 3 of them.  There are also many smaller temples scattered across the mountain. We did not reach the Baoxiang temple and monkey-watching area which was several kilometers further. It is probably well possible to continue to Baoxiang and then walk to the Jianchuan – Shaxi road and flag down a passing car or to do it in the opposite direction – take a Jianchuan-bound minibus, get off at the Shibaoshan crossroads and walk via Baoxiang and main Shizhong temple to Shaxi.

Jianchuan (alt. 2200, 26.32 N, 99.54 E)

We decided to spend an afternoon and a night there and it was a very good decision. There are no specific sights but the old part of the town (from the bus station head westwards towards the hills) was very pleasant with its old wooden architecture. Behind the old town, right under the hills there is a nice park with some temples, a Communist monument to the PLA and curious-looking pagoda with Tibetan characters (no entry fee). In the evening the main road was lined with barbecue stalls with probably the widest selection we have seen during our trip. We stayed in a hotel just opposite the bus station – 80 Y for a large, comfortable double with bathroom and a small separate room for playing mahjong.

Third time in Lijiang

This time our stopover in Lijiang took a good part of the afternoon, so we had more time to walk across the old and new town. The old town changed for much worse since we visited 5 years ago – it seems now a big theme park with ridiculously priced cafes and restaurants (we laughed out loud when we saw beer and coffee priced in the 30-40 Y range) and kitschy souvenir stalls, with teeming crowds of tourists. There is some normal life in the new town, with many eateries with decent and reasonably priced food.

Lugu Hu (alt. 2690)

Bus from Lijiang main bus station to Lugu Hu – departures at 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., price 74 Y + 3 Y insurance, took 6 hrs (probably will be much faster soon, as the road near Lijiang was being reconstructed). The bus took us to Luoshui (27.41 N, 100.46 E), main village on the Yunnan side of the lake. Shortly before there was a gate where everybody was charged 100 Y entry fee to the lake area. From Luoshui we took a minibus to Lige (60 Y per whole car, negotiable to 50). There is almost no public transport around Lugu Hu, in most cases the only choice is to hire a minibus which is quite pricey but with some luck you can find other people to share the cost.

After checking out several places in Lige (27.44 N, 100.44.50 E), all priced above 250 Y, we spent a night at the Lao Shay hostel (150 Y for a double with bathroom, there are also some doubles for 128 Y but they were full). Lige was rather a disappointment, maybe because of dismal weather. What was described by our guidebook as a charming village turned out to be just a cluster of expensive guesthouses and a bit less expensive restaurants, although situated in a really beautiful setting. Anyway, it seems that it would a better idea to visit it on a day trip rather than choose it as a base.

Luoshui seems to be a better place for a base on the Yunnan side of the lake. There is some real life going on there, there is a choice of accommodation (we did not check prices but we saw a hostel – Hu Si Tea House, http://www.husihostel.com/) and finally there is something like public transport with regular minibuses going to Yongning (27.45 N, 100.39 E), a nearby wide valley with some interesting villages and temples. As Lige is within walking distance to the crossroads of the road around the lake with the road to Yongning, it seems that both Yongning and Lige can be visited on a day-trip from Luoshui by minibus or maybe also on bicycle (the road around the lake is quite hilly but less so for the remaining 10 kms or so to Yongning).

We gave up our plan of a bike ride to Yongning because of rainy weather and, following the advice of other travelers, chose to spend some time on the Sichuan side of the lake. It turned out to be a good idea – there is much more rural life left in the area around Wuzhiluo on the Tubu peninsula, some genuine Mosuo culture can be observed and the peninsula has also better walks than the surroundings of Lige. We hired a minibus to Luoshui and then from Luoshui another one to Lugu Hu Zhen, main town on the Sichuan side of the lake. The ride to Lugu Hu Zhen was 60 Y per person with 4 persons sharing the car. From Lugu Hu Zhen we took another minibus to Wuzhiluo (30 Y per car, probably overcharged) at Chochai, grassy part of the lake. In Wuzhiluo (27.42.20 N, 100.59.30 E) we stayed in Wind’s Guesthouse (http://www.windguesthouse.com/), marked as YHA hostel, for 88 Y per simple double with bathroom. Lake view or rather swamp view rooms are also available for 188 Y. English is spoken and they were helpful with booking bus tickets for onward travel to Xichang.

We did a bike trip in the surroundings of Wuzhiluo. Unexpectedly, we found an active Bon temple, of the ancient religion pre-dating Tibetan Buddhism, in Zhawoluo, a little village on the road between Wuzhiluo and Lugu Hu Zhen, at the northern end of the “Walking Marriage Bridge”. The temple looked like a Tibetan Buddhist one, except that the prayer wheels and circumambulations were done anti-clockwise. There were also some atypical images of deities on the frescoes inside (unfortunately most of them were hidden from view by a cover).

Another day we did a very nice walk to the very tip of the peninsula, just opposite Liwubi island already in Yunnan. The starting point was Luowa Pier, end of the road where Chohai (grassy part of the lake) borders with Lianghai, the open water part. There is a wide, well trodden path leading towards a small pass with a stone-concrete chorten (27.42.07 N, 100.48.34 E). From the pass the main path goes to the northern side of the peninsula and another smaller path branches out to the left (westwards) following the peninsula to its tip. The smaller path is well visible except the last 200 or so meters where it disappears and we had to force our way through the bushes. There are some prayer flags at the tip of the peninsula and a splendid view on Liwubi island and its monastery. On our way back we followed the main path northwards from the pass with chorten and went down to the lakeside (beer and simple meals are available in the huts some 100 meters above the lakeside). In order to go back to Luowa Pier and Wuzhiluo it was necessary to head back to the pass with chorten. We tried some shortcuts and it turned out that they would bring us to road on the wrong northern side of the peninsula. Timing: ca. 3 hrs one way from Wuzhiluo to the tip of the peninsula, a full day-hike if including a descent to the lake on the northern side and a well-deserved beer.

For downloading: a picture of the map of Lugu Hu

and a self produced map of the Tubu peninsula [LuguHu_Tubu_Peninsula].

Getting out from Lugu Hu

A regular bus from Lugu Hu Zhen to Xichang’s South bus station costs 77 Y but there was no tickets for regular buses because of big demand, so additional buses were scheduled, charging 95 Y. Departure at 8 a.m., the ride took 8 hrs. The guys from Wind’s guesthouse conveniently arranged tickets and transportation to Lugu Hu Zhen on the morning of departure (by minibus, 5 Y per person). Otherwise it could have been quite hard to figure out, as there is no bus station in Lugu Hu Zhen, only ladies hanging around on the central crossroads and selling plastic tokens instead of bus tickets (apparently genuine but not very convincing until you get into the actual bus).

Xichang (27.53 N, 102.15 E)

Xichang lies at the altitude of ca. 1500 m, so the air was still pleasantly fresh.  We stayed in Ke Du Binguan, opposite the glitzy Ziwei Hotel on Changan Dong Lu in the center. For 128 Y we had a very clean double, with bathroom, AC (not needed) and computer with internet access in the room. Moving around Xichang and navigating its bus and trains stations required some bus rides (1 Y), so here are the useful bus numbers in August 2012: no. 12 from South bus station to West bus station and onwards to the train station; no. 14 from the West bus station via the centre and very near the South bus station to Lu Shan and the Qiong Hai lake; no. 6 from the train station to the centre but skipping the West bus station.

We spent a very pleasant day in Xichang viewing the temples and hordes of macaques on Lu Shan, then having a beer and a walk on the lakeside of Qiong Hai (both reachable by bus no. 14).

From Xichang to Chengdu

Getting out from Xichang to Chengdu we expected troubles, as train tickets were booked for a week ahead and our guidebooks warned of horrors of bus rides in excess of 12 hours on winding roads. It turned out that there were buses to Chengdu every 30 minutes or so from the brand new West bus station (Xi Ke Zhan). Some of the buses go to Wuguiqiao bus station in Chengdu (on the western outskirts), some go to Shiyangchang bus station on the southern outskirts. The ride along a brand new spectacular expressway (the longest tunnel was 10 km long) took only 6 hrs.

We had some trouble locating our arrival point in Chengdu, as Shiyangchang bus station is not mentioned in any of the guidebooks. A Google search and very useful Chengdu bus lines search at http://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/sichuan/chengdu/bus-subway-search.htm gave us the answer – buses no. 11 and 28 go from Shiyangchang to the Chengdu North train station, bus no. 28 very conveniently via the city center. It took us an hour to get to Mix Guesthouse (by buses no. 28 and then no. 55).

Chengdu and trip to Luodai

There are buses to Luodai from Xinnanmen all the time until 6.30 p.m., 7 Y, 1 hour. Luodai was a pleasant place for a half-day trip, with some traditional architecture, very relaxed teahouses and good food.

Chengdu to Zigong

By bus from Beimen bus station (within walking distance from Mix Guesthouse), departures every 1 hour from 7 a.m. till 8 p.m., no pre-booking possible. Price 78 Y, duration 3,5 hrs.

Zigong

In Zigong there are several decent hotels on the main street opposite the bus station. We checked the following: Enjoy Business Hotle (no typo, really spelled this way, 168 Y per double), 7 Days Inn (147 Y per double) and finally stayed in 365 (98 Y for a clean and nice double). The bus station and hotels are linked to the center by city bus no. 33.

Zigong – Dazu: buses at 8.30 a.m. and 2.50 p.m., 52 Y, ca. 3 hrs. No problem with tickets, the bus was half-empty.

Dazu

There are two bus stations in Dazu. The bus from Zigong dropped us at the “long distance” station near Longzhong Lu, from where there are also buses to Baodingshan. Another “local” bus station, located on the other side of the river, ca 20 minutes walk across the bridge and then right, has frequent buses to Chongqing. The town is not very big but somehow the orientation in it was confusing and buying a city map was definitely a good idea.

We stayed in Dongbin Hotel, on Longzhong Lu, very near the “long distance” bus station. A large, quite clean but somewhat gloomy room with bathroom AC was 120 Y (haggled down from initial 160 Y).

Main reason to visit Dazu are the Buddhist carvings in Baodingshan and Beishan. Luckily we visited Beishan first and achieved some gradation of impressions. Baodingshan is so spectacular that we would have probably failed to appreciate the also interesting Beishan carvings if viewing them after Baodingshan. The combined ticket to both sites was 170 Y (single entry to each site, valid for 3 days), separate tickets were a bit more expensive. Beishan can be reached by taxi (the driver initially wanted 15 Y but it was 6 Y by the meter) or on foot, the walk back into town across a nice park took us a bit more than 30 minutes. For Baodingshan there are buses from the “long distance” bus station near Longzhung Lu, with departures every 30 minutes between 8 a.m. and 12 noon.

Dazu to Chongqing  

Buses from the “local” bus station in Dazu depart all the time until some time in the evening. Fare: 52,5 Y, duration 2 hours.

Chongqing

The bus dropped us at Chenjiaping station in western part of Chongqing and we would have been left at the mercy of predatory taxi drivers but luckily we figured out that schedules at the bus stop were showing connections to the metro lines. We picked up a bus with 3 stops until the next metro station and were saved – suddenly everything was clear.

We stayed at Tina’s Hostel  (http://www.cqhostel.com/), for 110 Y per double with bathroom and AC. The hostel must have been a great place just a couple of years ago. It is located in the very center, within a short walk from Jiaochangkou metro station, in the area of Shi Ba Ti street. From the station walk down Zhongxing Lu and look for graffiti style directions on the walls on the left side of the street. There are some nice simple eateries with delicious food on a side street branching off Zhongxing Lu between the hostel and the metro station. Just don’t start eating la zi ji without having a beer served on your table first…  The hostel itself has many nice places to hangout, 2 bars, and great rooftop views. The catch is that the whole area of old buildings around it has been scheduled for demolition and it looks like a partly deserted ghost town. I have no idea whether the hostel will survive in this area but it looks like they stopped repairing the building some time ago. So far it stays open and is very close to Zhongxing Lu anyway, so there was no need for long walks across dark deserted neighbourhoods in the dark.