Baishuitai to Zhongdian

Baishuitai is still relatively unspoiled on the tourist scale.

Stacey at Baishuitai

If you can’t read Chinese characters, you could easily drive right past it – one wooden sign by the side of the road – and maybe the tell-tale signs of ‘white water’. Bai meaning white, shui water, and tai terraces.

The water seeping out and spilling down the hillside is so saturated with calcium carbonate that anything it flows over, or around, becomes coated in white – the “Baidas” touch… although the water itself appears quite clear.

The terraces

Stacey and Josie

Over thousands of years, the sediment has formed layer upon layer of crystalline pools. And despite being in both Chinese and Western guidebooks, and the ‘home of Dongba religion’, only one thin wire prevents anyone from clambering all over them: that and a few local watchmen who sit around smoking or playing cards.

As we approach the base we are beckoned by a plainly dressed Dongba Priest to burn incense at the small shrine. I’m quite happy to donate ¥10 and touch my head against the glassy-smooth mineral in blessing. I think of the struggles I am having with my new paintings: I could do with some support.

Ancient Oaks

A dilapidated boardwalk leads up through ancient oak woodland to a small plateau and a mosaic of shallow ponds, and the sacred source of the water – another shrine and opportunity to burn incense and donate.

Throughout the adjacent woodland are pockets of clearings with charred remains of bonfires, and individual shrines at the bases of trees. What a sight during a festival – flames flickering during the night, laughter and perhaps chanting and who knows what else going on.

I hope to find out in mid-March when I return for the ceremony of Worshiping Shu, the God of Nature – one of the most important ceremonies in the Naxi calendar.

From Baishuitai we head on up through the mountains towards Zhongdian.

Mountain Ranges to the East

We arrive at Zhongdian just before dusk – in time to see Tibetan dancing in the square.

Dancing in Zhongdian Square

The hotel is in the old town, and I have acquiesced to a personal recommendation to stay there, fighting my desire to book into the new Youth Hostel which was installing central heating in all its rooms when I checked it out last autumn.

I wish I had insisted. The only room with three beds is a new construction on the roof – no insulation and bitterly cold. The only advantage is the view.

The largest prayer-wheel?

We finally manage to get electric blankets and a heater – which we leave on all night, to little effect. Temperatures plummet to -12o and there is ice on the inside of the windows; the pipes are frozen and there’s no water in the bathroom…

But by late morning the sun is warm and the sky a brilliant blue, and it doesn’t take much to persuade Stacey and Josie to climb up to one of my favourite places, the Chicken Temple – it’s a riot of colour, with wonderful views. And a great place for contemplation.

Prayer flags erected in 2010 to commemorate earthquake victims


We walk up the back of old town, through rough dirt and dry hillsides – the same meadows I literally crawled through in October 2009 searching for tiny gentians – passing numerous cairns with slabs of slate engraved with Tibetan prayers.

Tibetan prayer cairns

Some have been newly carved, but others are old and encrusted with lichens. Patches of snow linger at the base, even in the sunshine.

At the base of the steps leading up to the temple we encounter a small stall set up selling prayer flags, incense and branches of Cyprus to burn in the stupas, which seems to be doing a thriving business.

It’s still the holiday season and Tibetans young and old are making pilgrimages, bringing bamboo stems with flags to place in the shrines.











Other offerings and gifts are brought – fruit, rice and foodstuffs for the monks, with the odd bottle of Baijou thrown in – and a growing array of surprisingly kitsch plastic and pottery icons.

The hilltop is thick with prayer-flags and old ladies, already bent with age, must stoop even lower to pass underneath as they circuit, clockwise, around the temple.

I’m sad we don’t have more time in Zhongdian, and it feels strange to come back to Lijiang and the vast empty courtyard of Rhizome. Although having spent three rather intense days with the girls, lovely as they are, it is quite nice to be on my own again…