Aug 07, 2017

Journey to the Top of the World

Shangri-La’s hot springs are truly a mineral medical miracle


Shangri-La – depending on your age and upbringing, can either summon up images of a mythical sanctuary high in the Himalayas, a five-star hotel in Kowloon or a down-at-heel Chinese restaurant in Liverpool. For those in the know, however, the term is synonymous with Zhongdian County in northern Yunnan province.

In 2001, this county reinvented itself as “Xianggelila” (Shangri-La) in its bid to boost tourism – a bid that has certainly paid off. For those looking for Shangri-La of the mythical kind – an excursion to Zhongdian is now one of those unmissable experiences that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

It’s a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Hong Kong to Kunming, the starting point for this unforgettable eight-day extravaganza. The city is the political, economic and cultural centre of Yunnan and lies on the northern shores of Lake Dian. This urban sprawl – and real sprawl it is – of the city covers more than 1,000 square miles and is home to over a million people.

The city also boasts several universities, museums and galleries, as well as many economic and cultural institutions. By no stretch of the imagination could it be described as a pretty metropolis, however. Despite its lack of looks, there are many unique temples and historic attractions hidden thereabouts, together with some beautifully landscaped gardens on the shores of the lake. One must-see temple is the Ming Dynasty ‘Golden Hall Scenic Zone,’ set on Mingfeng Hill amongst the northern suburbs of the city.

After an overnight stay at one of Kunming’s more upmarket hotels, the tour proper begins early the next morning. Typically, all of those embarking on the tour are ushered into a large ‘people mover.’ A crawl begins through the city’s bumper-to-bumper traffic until one reaches the G56 Hangrui Expressway on the city’s outer limits and the pace finally picks up.

After bidding farewell to Kunming, the bus speeds off westward towards the town of Dali. This is about four and a half hours drive away but normally takes around twice as long, due largely to the many obligatory diversions, which see you heading off the beaten track for a quick look at many places deemed of “special significance.” These typically include temples or small cultural centres, with the latter staging traditional singing and dancing performances put on especially for visitors.

One of the more memorable digressions is a quick tour around the Tianglongbabu Film Studios, just south of Dali. A veritable mini-Universal Studios, this large movie lot was originally built for the filming of a Chinese drama series by the same name. It now features several large sets, with each recreating a different era of classic Chinese history. Throughout the day, displays of martial arts, acrobatics and historical reenactments are put on for visitors.

A martial arts display at the Tianglongbabu Film Studios near Dali

Then it’s on to Dali proper. This popular city is split into two distinct districts – housing the old and the new towns. The old town, a relatively quiet haven, dates to the Ming Dynasty and the reign of the Hongwu Emperor (circa the mid-1300s). The new city, Xiaguan is certainly bustling and hectic – particularly around Foreigners’ Street, an area in the middle of town offering Western food and music that has proved a big hit with both tourists and locals, alike.

The Cangshan Mountain Range overlooking Dali town

Dali lies between the Cangshan Mountain Range to the west and Lake Erhai to the east. A cable car system carries visitors from just outside Dali to a monastery on the escarpment overlooking the city. From here, the views over the valley, Dali and the lake are little short of spectacular. Inevitably, pashmina shawls and other local keepsakes are available from a huddle of surrounding stalls. Temptingly, they are offered at a fraction of the prices paid in Hong Kong for similar merchandise.

View from the cable car and escarpment above Dali township with the lake beyond

The following day it’s back in the car and off to the quaint little city of Lijiang, to the northwest. As with Dali, Lijiang has two very distinct old and new districts. The new part of the city is, sadly, rather characterless, virtually indistinguishable from many other contemporary Chinese cities.

Lijiang’s old town, though, now a UNESCO Heritage site, is a true treat and well-worth a prolonged investigation. Its original geography was determined by the three streams that flow through it and a keen adherence to ‘Feng Shui’ principles.

Picturesque archway and stream in Lijiang old town

The ward itself is a veritable maze of cobbled streets and small shops, all built and staggered on different levels. With no specific grid system to follow, it’s easy to get lost – even in this Google-mapped 21st century. Accommodation, though, is easy enough to find, with a range of quaint boutique hotels available to suit most budgets and preferences.

One of the three streams that bisect Lijiang's old town

Nowadays, as the tourist trade underpins the local economy, high-end hotels and condominium complexes are springing up across the city. Luckily, most of them are well away from the old town and so don’t compromise the scenic beauty of this unique and extraordinarily historic area.

Lijiang, all lit up at night — quite a sight

Much of the original town lies on the ‘old tea house road,’ an important section of the Ancient Southern Silk Road (or Ancient Tea Route). Dating back some 800 years, it is famous for its waterways and bridges. The architecture is quite different from any other ancient Chinese city and bears many of the hallmarks of the area’s native Nakhi people.

The very distinct Nakhi-style architecture of this ancient town

The Wangu Pavilion, overlooking the town from Lion Hill, for instance, is composed of 16 columns. Each is 22-metres high and the structure houses 10,000 dragon carvings. It’s yet another of the city’s ‘must-see’ attractions. Lijiang lies in the shadow of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, providing a picture-postcard backdrop to this most photogenic little town.

The Jade Snow Dragon Mountain range

Heading off again, the tour takes you up a dirt road leading to the other side of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Here you get a completely different and far more imposing view of the range, with its rugged, snow-covered peaks surging towards the heavens at an altitude of well over 18,000 feet.

Some 30 miles up this trail and it becomes clear that this is no place for wheeled vehicles. It’s time to board the cable car and be whisked up the mountain, whizzing over yawning chasms and sheer cliffs to an arid plateau below the snowy peaks.

Once again, souvenirs and handicrafts are plentiful, as are yak rides. These are commonplace around the ridge and, at the very least, provide a memorable photo opportunity. In winter, however, the slopes can prove bitterly cold, with icy winds sweeping down frost and fog from the snow-clad peaks.

Following a return trip on the cable car, it’s onto the final leg of the tour and the ascent to the Shangri-La valley. A good head for heights is a definite advantage here as the gravel road gradually gets worse as it snakes along the steep valley walls with their precipice-like drops.

The escarpment, which the road runs along, drops down some 2,500 feet to the valley floor, where the Jinsha River has bisected the mountain range. This river is one of the upper tributaries of the Yangtze (Long River) and forms one of the deepest and most spectacular river canyons in the world. At its height, it spans an incredible 12,000 feet from mountain peak to river bed.

View across the valley rising above the Jinsha River

Some 15 miles from the previous stop, the bus comes to a halt at the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, set near the Haba Snow Mountain. Here the gorge drops about 6,000 feet, heading down to the cascading river below. Legend has it that a tiger once hurdled the 85-feet gap at the gorge’s narrowest point, in a dangerous bid to escape from a pursuing hunter. It’s not a feat worth trying to emulate on this visit, though.

The famous Tiger Leaping Gorge near Haba Snow Mountain

A narrow path and a series of steps allow those with a bent for exercise to venture down to the river’s edge. Once there, the very idea of climbing back up seems a seriously daunting prospect. Thankfully, the less sure-footed can pay local porters to carry them down the valley and back up. It’s an exorbitant rate, but it can be a Herculean task to manage the trip unaided.  Remember, you are at quite a high altitude here and the oxygen is rather scarce. Take it easy and don’t over exert yourself – it can be dangerous.

Although Shangri-La itself is only 30 miles away at this point, there is one more important stop to make first. Flowing down the mountain range to join the Yangtze, the Jinsha River has managed to cut completely through one of the main ridges of the range. In the process, it has breached a natural fissure into the heart of the earth’s crust.

As a result, its water is heated by magma from deep beneath the surface, resulting in an array of natural hot springs. The heated water then forms pools along the riverbanks. Naturally occurring steam pours out from pores within the rocks against which wooden sauna cabanas have been constructed for the benefit of avid spa lovers.

The hot springs and spa area just below Shangri-La

According to the tour guide, there is not a great call for doctors in the Shangri-La area. Apparently, any residents who feel a little off-colour merely board a local bus and head down the valley for a dip in the hot pools – followed by a quick sauna – before heading home to sleep it off. They wake entirely renewed and cured of whatever it was that ailed them.

The whole raison d’être of the tour is reached some 15 miles further up the road as you pull into the old township of Jiantang. Hugely picturesque and beautifully laid out, the site immediately inspires a strange sense of calm and a Zen sensation. While the source of this region’s rampant tranquillity remains a mystery, no visitor seems immune from it effects.

View of the monastery at Zhongdian 

The Tibetan section of the Himalaya mountain range forms a most impressive backdrop to this very picturesque and ancient of towns. Its resident monks are always on hand to bless and consecrate any of the many religious trinkets on sale. These items are essential for those visitors keen to take a bit of Zen culture away with them.

The Zhongdian township spreading out below the monastery

An ancient cavalry garrison is also stationed here and, every day, it stages a mock battle for visitors in the streets surrounding the monastery. This is hugely entertaining and certainly one for the photo album.

Ancient cavalry garrison parade in the town square

After a good hike around the town, it is time to head back. The drive back down the Jinsha river valley is every bit as enervating on the way down as it was coming up. There is also a chance to get some more impressive shots of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountains from a wholly different angle.

A Buddhist 'stupa' on the outskirts of the town

After a final night spent in Lijiang, with plenty of time to do some last-minute shopping, it’s back to Kunming, before the return flight to Hong Kong later the same afternoon. It’s the end of the trip of lifetime – one that will leave so many vivid and lasting memories. No matter what place is next on your travel agenda, recollections of the amazing scenery and vistas on this long drive towards the top of the world will remain with you for the rest of your days. 

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