Songzanlin Monastery & Tiger Leaping Gorge

Trip Start Nov 02, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Friday, October 19, 2012

From PanZhiHua I decided to get the bus to Lijiang firstly which is around 9 hours away, from the hotel I tried to get a taxi but they were all full and I was getting tight for time after collecting my visa in the morning.  One of the ‘minivan’ taxi’s said he would take me for 12 yuen but that’s double the taxi fare so I declined, instead one of the guys hanging around the hotel (looking for work I think) said he would take me for 6 yuen on his motorbike so without hesitation I jumped on and I was handed a yellow hardhat to wear, I must have looked a picture!  Although helmets are not compulsory here, many wear their work hard hats on their bikes as helmets, they’re all red or yellow or blue in color.   

I arrived at the bus station with not too much time to spare, bought my bus ticket and boarded, I have a window seat and I’m looking forward to the trip and the views on route, I’ve heard the rice terraces on the way are impressive.  The road out of PanZhiHua is terrible, it’s all potholed and that start of getting thrown around for 9 hours.  I have to admit this has been the worst bus journey that I’ve been on so far (worse than India and Nepal) but a lot of it has to do with the speed we’re driving round the hundreds of hairpins, I must admit I prefer cycling them.  The scenery was impressive though and the rice terraces in particular incredible, only thing, I wish I could have jumped off the bus to take some pictures.  When I eventually arrive in Lijiang I’m not impressed with the taxi drivers, trying to get a taxi to the old town but no-one would take me to the extent I paid too much in a minivan so I arrived feeling grumpy, I hate getting ripped off although it was too far to have walked, I would do it different next time.

The old town in Lijiang is beautiful and filled with flower displays, old traditional housing and people in traditional dress, it has a lovely river flowing through it and has a really nice atmosphere.  There are the usual crowds of Chinese tourists in their massive groups following someone with a flag which I always find funny, especially when I am kicking around on my own, making it up as I go along.  One old man gets off the back of a motorbike in his traditional dress of skins etc. but when we look at each other we burst out laughing, honestly I’m in a sun dress and he wrapped up for winter, I had to take a picture.

I enjoy it here, part of me feels like I’ve been dropped back in Nepal with all the shops selling Tibetan items from traditional dress, to pashminas, yak horn goods, prayer flags and lots, lots more.  It is full of lanes and alley’s to get lost in while you wander, and nice places to eat and drink.  Once again the KFC is dodged and I head for traditional dumplings which are very much like the momo’s in Nepal which I love, and a small local restaurant for rice served with pork and green peppers in the evening.  I’m not here long enough really to explore much more than the old town before I get a bus up to Shangri La which was a beautiful journey, the roads and driving are far better, and it’s a lovely sunny day although you can feel a nip in the air as we climb to an altitude of around 4000m.  

I get a cheap dorm for only 35yuen (3.50) which is clean and quiet and head off to explore…wow what a place.  I’m staying in the old town and wander round the lanes full of shops similar to Lijiang, the old square which has local dancing in the evening and the local temple which has the biggest prayer wheel I have ever seen.  It takes around 40 people heaving and pushing away just to get the wheel started, it’s all tourist trying, and are having fun in the process.  In front of the temple is another square with people in traditional costume and there are yaks and dogs to have your photo taken with, there are big Newfoundland’s with big fluffy collars on them, and loads of people are having their photos taken with them, they look like big lions.  I enjoy wandering round the temple, monastery and the massive prayer wheel; you get a fantastic view of the valley from this vantage point, it’s all very Tibetan but we’re right at the border here really.

I headed up to Songzanlin Monastery on the local bus but I didn’t realise what I was about to see.  I got off and paid into the complex and was put on another local bus which takes you up.  On the road we pass massive Tibetan housing, the walls are really think, some are just being built so you can see the structure, families (or communities) live in these together with the ground level being used for animals and feed from what I can see, the housing being on the first level with balconies to dry corn or chilies etc.  They have big courtyards and all the wood work is carved and decorative, being painted accordingly and all have a grand entrance (the Chinese love their entrances).  We turn almost into the village and I get my first sight of the monastery, I feel like I’ve just been dropped in Lhasa.  The monastery is vast, I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t this, the scale is like nothing I’ve seen before and I can’t wait to start exploring.

I spend hours and hours up here, it’s a lovely sunny day which I spend walking round, in and out of the different areas, round the complex and lake and out to the huge Stupa.  I sit chilling out with a few young lamas who speak some English and are amazed by my travels so far, I enjoy being in their company.  I never realised until this moment how much I miss Nepal though, and this very moment reminds me of sitting at the monastery in Upper Pisang on the Annapurna Circuit Trek in the middle of the mountains, which was almost a year ago (that’s hard to believe).  I take a million photographs, I love the colors and style and the whole valley is really stunning, I could stay here all day but as the sun goes it really starts to get cold, jolting me back to reality and jumping a bus back to the hostel and a nice cozy fire, although I’m disappointed the fire isn’t yak dung, that would really have taken me back to my trek.   I enjoy Shangri La, and I spend much more time watching the main square dancers and pottering around the old town until I decide to head on to Quintou, and Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is another one on my ‘list’ (as well as Shangri La) and I’m looking forward to going although I a bit conscious about my time left on my visa, so the plan is to go into the gorge and out again but once I’m there I can’t resist walking the high road where the views of the valley are immense.  I meet a doctor from Canada just as I’m starting out and we head off together which is nice having a bit of company.  He’s been in KunMing for a conference and is taking some time out while here, he’s walked down to the ‘stone’ where legend has it the tiger leapt from while trying to escape a hunter, and once we’re nearing lower ground he tells me how to get down the ‘ladder’ then walk along to Walnut Garden where I plan on staying for the night.  

The walk through the gorge is breathtaking, the shape of the mountains, the snow capped peaks, how close the opposite valley is, the river running through it, and not forgetting the noise of the rapids.  The high pass then starts downward towards the main gorge and the ‘ladder’ which takes you down to the river which is a steep, treacherous walk (especially in cycling shoes), although every step is worth it.  The noise once your down the bottom is deafening, the rapids are churning up and the river is leaping high into the air with every clash, I could watch it for hours.  I stand on a stone (further down river) and enjoy the spray mixed with the sun on my face before making my ascent up to Walnut Garden.   I end up a bit panicked because I couldn’t find the path I was looking for which meant I might have to return up the ladder which I wasn’t looking forward to and there wasn’t another single person around, it was so steep and high up that it could take me a couple of hours to climb and it’s starting to get dark.  I tried path after path before finding the right one, adding considerable amount of energy onto my day but the path provided beautiful high up views through the gorge which were worth the effort.  

So eventually I arrived at the hostel I celebrated with a well deserve beer, I’ve arranged a lift in the morning down to Lijiang with the doctor in a taxi which he’s already paid for, so I just give him money towards it which suited us both.  I spent a pleasant evening with him and the hostel owner before crashing out for the night, I love sleeping out in the mountains it’s so peaceful and quiet.  I’m glad I decided to come to Lijiang, Shangri La and Tiger Leaping Gorge, it’s been quite an adventure, time now though to head back to PanZhiHua to continue cycling my way through China and beyond.
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