I’m spending some time with Stacey, an Australian gal who came over on an extended holiday to stay with her Australian friend Bob who lives and works in Baisha. Bob had to go back to Australia just as soon as she arrived, so we’ve decide to go off on some adventures of our own.

Stacey and Bob

This small town – a straggling village really – was once the capital city of the Naxi community.

Baisha square

It’s now a quiet backwater of Lijiang, attracting tourists during the day who trawl through the “High Street” with its antiques and bric-a-brac, see the frescoes at the temple, buy tie-dye or visit the infamous Dr Ho.

Bob's Cafe, Baisha

Baisha closes down by 5.30pm, when there is literally nothing to do.

Stacey was getting fractious. Another Aussie friend, Josie, was also on her way to visit Bob in Baisha. Who was still back in Australia.

Josie’s mad about mountains – lots of them – so we start with the closest, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from Lijiang

Timing is not great. There are two major festivals in China: The Spring Festival, and The Autumn Festival. Both are pretty horrendous in terms of the countless millions of Chinese on the move. I’ve experienced two Autumn Festivals the first one at Lugu Lake, a huge mistake. I knew better this time and hid safely away in the quiet backwater of Shaxi last October.

And from the parking lot

However, I couldn’t avoid the Spring Festival: Lijiang is one of China’s top tourist destinations, and the New Year probably the business time. And one of the biggest attractions (at 5,700m or so) is the mountain, just 15km north of the city.

And from half-way up

It is a zoo. It takes us over two hours to get our tickets: one hour for the entrance, then another hour, in another queue, to get the bus to take us up to the cable car.

On the way up

Cable cars

There’s no doubt the mountain is beautiful, but I think I would prefer just seeing it from a distance than having to experience the crowds swarming all over it, the snowball fights, the screaming, the worried faces as they climb, breathless, clutching small oxygen canisters, along the boardwalk and up the steps to the viewing point at 4,300m.

Josie - I point it where?

Josie gets through two canisters just standing at the top of the cable car exit…

From 4,300m

And it was chilly...

We head back to Baisha for the night.

We’ve hired a car for the next day, leaving at around 9am, so it doesn’t make much sense for me to go back to Lijiang. I can put a mattress down in Stacey’s room, and Josie has another room to herself above the cafe.

Then the driver turns up. So I shack up with Stacey in the double bed. It’s one of those nights when your body knows it shouldn’t move, for waking up the other. I didn’t sleep much. Not sure about Stacey.

The room is an upstairs space that has been converted from perhaps grain storage. Bob’s kept the interior mud-brick walls (spraying them with a sealant to stop them crumbling), and the bare curved tiles of the roof – a “feature”. The heat from the new wood-burning stove dissipates quickly.

Morning light

Then we drive up through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

It’s purported to be the world’s deepest river canyon and has become a world-famous trekking site, lying just 100k north of Lijiang. The high trek-path is scattered with guesthouses, the whole trek taking from one to three days depending on physical ability. Why anyone would want to race through such gorgeous scenery in one day beats me. But in 2009 when I trekked part of it, that’s exactly what some young lads were doing…

Turquoise river

We drive along the gorge on the lower road which is surprisingly deserted (everyone probably still at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) and check into Sean’s guest house – a choice made more from obligation than anything else.

Year of the Hair?

Life on the edge

It‘s late afternoon and the shadows were falling down the mountain into the gorge, but there’s still time to weave my way through the paddy fields and slither down the steep incline to the river below.

Benign - for now

I had seen it in autumn before, a rushing, chocolate-brown colour, thundering through the gorge. Now, during the dry season, it is a calm green ribbon – quite benign. But the jumble of massive rocks at the bottom, still covered in silt from “high tide”, belie its tranquillity. I gather a small white stone as a memento and hasten back before I got caught out – the path is difficult enough to find, and in the dark would be impossible.

Dark shadows

I’ve opted for one of the cheaper beds, but Stacey and Josie have a nice room – and a bath tub! The last time I had a bath was before I left England, over eight months ago. Oh, I wallow! Next day we head up through the back of the gorge, between Jade Dragon and Haba mountain.

Looking back through the Gorge

This used to be the main road to Zhongdian, which probably why the town managed to retain much of its charm for so long – it would have been impassable for much of the winter. Alas now the “new” highway and expanding airport has brought a great deal of change.

Above the snow-line

It’s an amazing drive through the mountains as the road winds up mile after mile, then plummets down into the valley through snow-patched woodland and turns, revealing huge vistas with mountain ranges stacked to the horizon; it passes through poverty-ridden villages where everything is make-do-and-mend; it darts out into the sunlight, splashed with the shadows of bordering trees, then into darkness as it hugs the cliff  – a sheer drop to the right, precarious boulders above: I try to absorb it all, but my attention is diverted as we approach the deeply shaded bends where the treacherous, icy patches, which linger on. He’s a good driver – it’s his life, and livelihood, after all – but fear isn’t always rational. I’m reminded of the time my old solid Ford hit black ice turning a corner and slammed into some bright red flashy designer car which crumpled at touch. I was horrified. It was something completely outside my control. Perhaps a first. An interesting thought, that.

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