“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished” – Lao Tzu
So this is it then. The last leg. The home straight.
As we mentioned on our last post, we’d split China into two halves. With the first half over, it was now time for part two and the province of Sichuan home to the mouth numbing ‘Sichuan peppercorn’. After that we took a short flight down to the mystically named Shangri-La in China’s most ethnically diverse province, Yunnan. On paper the second leg looked even better then the first and it would not disappoint.
China is many things to lots of different people. If you have never travelled here its hard to describe this vast country. Full of over populated mega cities, dotted with quiet rural villages and lorded over by snow capped peaks and incredible rice terraces. The two provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan encompass all of the above and so much more. Chengdu the capital of Sichuan province is one of the largest cities in China. Fifteen plus million people living in apartment block after apartment block, seemingly never ending. Having not spent so much time in the ‘Big’ Chinese cities, we were prepared for being out of our comfort zone. We needn’t have worried because that wasn’t going to be the case. Chengdu is big, very big, however it is also very friendly to foreign travellers. A large expat community means that you can, if in the know, find pretty much anything to suit a western palate. After weeks in the Chinese hinterland, this can be a big deal, believe us.
The main draw here though and undoubtably one of the biggest draws to this part of the country is the Giant Panda Research Base on the outskirts of the city.
After building it up for weeks, we kept fingers and toes crossed that Betty would get to see some. Well there are plenty of pandas to see and if you time it right for meal times, you will see them all. They aren’t stupid and they eat bamboo like machines. Lots and lots of bamboo. It wasn’t just the mummies and daddies that we managed to see, but the full extended family right down to some only a few days old. Aaahhh…
Day trips from Chengdu don’t just stop at pandas. An hour or so to the south via a bullet train brings you to Leshan. This busy city on the banks of the Min and Dadu rivers is home to the largest stone buddha in the world. At 71 metres tall, ‘Dàfó’ as he is affectionately know, is huge and is well worth a day trip if you’ve got time to spare. Being over a thousand years old, this crumbling giant looks pretty good all things considered and is a lucky boy that he lives in China. He should be in safe hands, unlike his brothers of Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
The scenery we’d been lucky enough to witness the previous weeks had been nothing short of beautiful. It was however blighted slightly by the presence of huge numbers of Chinese tourists on their summer holidays. The calendar though, had now flipped from August to September and this was a game changer in the way of numbers. The holiday season was over. So, after a 10hr bus journey north to the national park of Jiuzhaghou, we were met with what we had hoped for, far fewer tourist numbers.
The scenery? Well that went from beautiful to down right incredible. China certainly knows how to tease. The lakes inside Juizhaghou are reported to be some of the cleanest and clearest on the planet. Well, not all the facts you may read about China are entirely accurate, however this one, we have no doubts is. They are beyond pristine. Scenery apart, the most noticable difference this far north were the people. We were in the land of various ethnic groups, visibly different to further South, these were mountain people, it was after all historically part of a vast tibetan landscape that stretched from here to beyond the Karakoram mountains of northern Pakistan. That may have changed, but the people and traditions haven’t. Prayer flags, rosy cheeks and yak butter tea prevail in these parts.
The Tibetan theme was carried on through to Yunnan, as we caught a short flight South to Shangri-La. Said to possibly be the inspiration for the novel ‘lost horizons’ by James Hilton, the town is not quite as mystical as its namesake. Times are fast changing, even in this part of China and it would have been foolish to expect some kind of utopia. A devastating fire and the incessant appetite of the homegrown tourists put a stop to any lingering hopes that it may a few years before our visit. Surrounded though by rolling hills and mountain lakes Shangri-La was still a great place to visit. Exploring the old town streets in the early morning looking out for a tibetan breakfast was fun and the town had a nice feel to it. The Ganden Sumptseling Monastery a few miles beyond the new town is based on the Potala place in Lhasa, and is a big draw. As we have mentioned before, you can pay through the roof for tourist sights in China and that appears to include the monastery here. It was a shame to have to pay so much to visit a place of worship, but that was our choice and we paid it. We just wonder how much the monks actually get…?
We waved goodbye to the thin air of the mountains as we hit the road for Shaxi. Halfway between Lijiang and Dali this historic ‘caravan’ town on the old tea horse road has been restored for the tourists. The difference with this town though was the lack of tourists. No tour groups and certainly not a whiff of the ‘disneyland’ of elsewhere. They have done a good job and we liked it. We were told that the mountains surrounding the town are full of fantastic hiking routes and ancient temples hundreds of years old. Our time though was much more sedate. With the late summer sun back out in force the old town square was perfect for just sitting and watching. Betty even made a few new friends, until they started throwing stones at her! You can’t win them all!
Onwards it was to Dali, the original Chinese backpacker town. Many of the expats have moved on, but we found some tucked away on the shores of lake Erhai, a few miles out south of the old town gates. Keiko, Oliver and their son Sullivan gave our last few days in China an air of calm, after the whirlwind of the previous five weeks. Their homestay was just what we had needed and missed while we have traveled this country. Dali was an interesting place, but we had the best of both worlds. The ability to bike into the old town and sample the tourist delights or nightmares that awaited and then be able to head back to the lake and the peace of our hosts home was perfect.
It was a fitting end to an amazing trip. A ridiculous trip. A trip that took us to so many places but has left us with more questions than when we set off. One thing is for sure though, travel only does good and we hope that Betty reaps the benefits of our adventures in the future. We have been very lucky, not least in the people we met along the way, but in the experiences we shared. The people and experiences made this trip and we would like to say thank you to all of the people that hosted us and put up with our (steve’s!) made up English and Steve’s shocking facial hair! If we can return the favour one day, then it would be a pleasure.
In the words of Betty
Ciao Ciao, see you later…
- The Panda’s – Don’t forget the Red Panda’s as well!
- Our local noodles, Chengdu – Yes i know, but they were the best since Guilin!
- Betty’s new shoes – The shoe shop in Shangri-La’s new town was immense. Goodbye to wet feet!
- Depth of field, Dali – Keiko,… and Sullivan you made us feel very welcome in your home. Thankyou.
- Shaxi Old town – A very well restored old town, away from the tour groups.
- A final motorbike trip around the shore of lake erhai, Dali.
- Woodfish, Shaxi – A friendly place to eat in this great little town.
- “She’s a tour guide” – Betty after spotting a Chinese tour guide with a flag!
- “What are you all doing taking my picture?” – Betty after being surrounded by a group of tourists.
- “Best meal in China this!” – Steve everyday.
- “I think i’m fairly good at choosing Oranges” – Steve
- “Why did daddy put me in a puddle?” – (Betty to Steve) It was an accident honest!
- “I cannot believe that we have a heater on in China!” – All of us upon our arrival in the chilly Yunnan Mountains!
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