I landed down into Kunming airport with rain streaking down the window. I transfered into the city bus without hassle, but struggled to find a free taxi for my final leg. I ended up on the back of a moped with a large umbrella over it skidding our way through oncoming city traffic to the hostel, certainly a nerve wracking experience.
I checked in with the grumpy receptionist, dropped my bags and went to the bar area in search of fellow travellers. I’d planned on wandering the city that afternoon, but it definitely wasn’t the weather for it and the forecast for the following days didn’t look great either.
I met some great people in the bar. Jonas, a French guy, who’s stories of hitchhiking and camping through Africa and the Middle East inspired me to want to buy a tent and book a ticket to Namibia. There was an interesting, if slightly odd, Chinese guy called Mar, who joined us for dinner. Finally there was Kathrin, from Germany, who, after comparing travel routes, turned out to be heading the same way as me so we’re now traveling together.
Kunming seemed like it wasn’t the nicest of cities, and with the forecast looking poor I cancelled my second night and booked a bus to Dali. The bus journey took most of the day as our rickety old bus, that felt as if it were about to fall apart whenever it exceeded 80, trundled along the highway. As we journeyed the landscape was coloured with greens, orange and browns of the terraced rice fields in various stages of farming, interspersed between the harsh cliff faces, vegetation clinging to their crevices. We drove along through many towns and villages, all of which featured some form of ugly tower block that permeate Chinese architecture.
Dali is a small town that sits at just under 2000m, with a hyper touristy centre, wedged between a mountain range and China’s seventh biggest lake. Annoyingly the buses drop you at the newer Dali city, a good thirty minute cab ride from the old town where everyone stays. We found an Irish guy with his Chinese girlfriend to split the cab ride with and after a bit of searching found our hostel.
The old town is now a heartland of traveler aimed commodities, with the most Western restaurants and bars that I’ve seen around China. The streets were packed, especially in the evenings, which was really the only time we were there, in search of food or watching some of the guys from our hostel play at a bar.
On day one we went on a very unprepared hike. China likes to package its tourism, something that can be very frustrating when you just want to get out and explore. We set off towards the mountain range taking a chairlift up to the start of what we thought was the trail. Turned out to be very easy slabbed walkway, nevertheless with lovely views, but hardly a hike. The mountain range is 50km long, made up of 19 peaks with valleys between each. The path snaked its way round several of the valleys before reaching a different mid way cable car station which went to near the peaks.
We’d hoped to be able to find an access trail to hike the summit, but there were no routes. At the cable car station we managed to find an old map that had a hiking route on it from the summit taking us down near where we’d started. On attempting to buy a one way ticket up, we were told only return as the was no path down despite us showing the ticket seller the map. So hugely expensive return tickets were purchased and up we went.
The cable car dropped us at about 3900m just before the clouds. I was in t shirt and shorts so it was a bit chilly. There another very man-made path taking you up to a viewing platform near summit. On heading this way we saw the old trail heading up the opposite way to the ridge line. Jumping the fence we headed in that direction.
Normally I’m very prepared when heading out for a hike, but for some reason today I’d completely forgotten to pack anything. No food, jumper or jacket, just some water and my camera. So it probably wasn’t the smartest move to be climbing up on a path that officially didn’t exist through a cloud to 4100m, but we figured we could always turn back so ventured forth. The trail was lovely, very similar to pathways in England, and with the chilly cloudy weather it certainly could have been the UK.
We traversed the summit of four peaks meeting a Chinese hiking group on the fourth kitted out in full waterproofs with radios and huge backpacks, they found us very entertaining and the usual photoshoot followed. We showed them our photo of the map and managed to kind of check we were on the right path.
Our trail now started to slowly descend its way down across the mountain faces, dropping out of the clouds at about 3800m. Eventually the path turned into man made steps which took us to an access road. We followed the road down, passing a delightful temple with a single monk watering his garden. There were also a few dilapidated buildings that looked like old hostels. The road was much longer we realised and after about two hours we managed to hitch hike in the first vehicle that was passing us. The drive was a good thirty minutes, probably a few hours walking, so if no vehicle had passed we wouldn’t have made it back till about 11.
It was a fantastic adventure in the end, even though we didn’t get the views from the top due to the cloud. The path had old signs at the summits with heights and distances to the next one and the trail had definitely had some work to make it. The authorities have evidentially decided at some point to basically close the mountain range and removed the trails from all new maps, which is a great shame as it was a great hike. Instead they want you pay exorbitant prices to be cabled up and down with a quick stop near the top for pictures.
Day two and we were moving from hiking to cycling. I’d been checking out the conditions of the various bikes whilst heading out in the evenings, so we rode out on pretty decent bikes towards the lake.
It was a gloriously sunny day, spent on the lake road, diverting down into random little villages and down dirt trails to the water’s edge. Unfortunately the edges of the lake isn’t water you’d want to swim in, this didn’t stop the locals, but it did stop us. Apparently there used to be countless small punts that would take you out into the lake so you could swim or taxi you to another point. These all got shut down several years ago, so there are now only a handful of docks with government official boats that cross the lake, for a huge fee.
We were heading up the lake towards its ‘tongue’ where a strip of land sticks out into the lake. We reached it mid afternoon and had a bit of a sunbathe before making the 25km return cycle, the final 5km or so with a rather sore bum.
Today we are on another bumpy bus, but only for a few hours, as we head north to Lijiang, another mecca of a tourist town with it being the most popular entry point into Tiger Leaping Gorge. Staying at a hostel recommended by a friend, (and coincidentally also Lonely Planet’s top pick), before we get the hiking shoes back on and, with a few more supplies this time, go into the gorge.