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.

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