Six months or so through the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma & China
We bussed up to Lijiang from Dali, another pretty old town, full of windy cobbled streets, picturesque traditional wooden buildings and, at night, red lanterns. It is very lovely, but hence incredibly touristy, again mainly Chinese tourists. There are also a lot of shops, almost every building is a shop selling souvenirs. We thought it rather spoilt the beauty of the town, but I'm sure the locals need to make a living. Traditionally the local people from here are the Naxi (pronounced Nashi), you still see lots of them about, many (especially the older women) still wear traditional dress, including a blue and black cape with large bright embroidered circles on the shoulders that apparently represent frogs eyes. For the Naxi frogs are a sign of fertility, and therefore very lucky.
For our first full day in Lijiang we planned to visit the house of Joseph Rock, a well known anthropologist and plant hunter (like George) who lived in China from 1922 until 1949. Rock made a study of and wrote many interesting articles about the indigenous tribespeople of the Yunnan, in particular the Naxi, who he chose to live among. His articles, published mainly in the National Geographic, brought him a modest amount of fame and also supposedly inspired James Hilton's 1930's novel 'Lost Horizon: The Classic Tale of Shangri-la'. Rock was based in Yuhu a tiny village about 20km from Lijiang. The nearest bus stop is 8km from the village and a taxi was expensive so we decided to cycle. It was a pretty punishing ride, uphill almost the whole way from Lijiang, but we were cycling towards the spectacular 5596m Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, so the views were amazing. We didn't really know where we were going, there are no road signs to Yuhu (what do you expect for a village without a bus stop) but we had carefully copied out the Chinese characters for Yuhu on a piece of paper. We waved this at various locals, all smiled and nodded, assuring us we were going the right direction. Eventually a lady we asked, excitedly pointed at a collection of Tibetan prayer flags a few hundred metres (directly) up the hillside. We eagerly, but slowly, cycled up the hill, sure we had arrived. However, worryingly, this didn't look like a village, it looked like a temple, at this point we realised we'd copied out the Chinese characters for the temple which was listed immediately before Yuhu Village in the guide book. Luckily en route, so we had to cycle on!
Eventually (after about three hours cycling) we arrived in Yuhu and found Rock's house. We were the only visitors and a very friendly old man unlocked the rooms for us. It wasn't flashy, but there were some great photos of Rock's expeditions (many similar to George's) as well as his old saddles, horse whips and saddle bags. Rock was forced to flee China in 1949, after the Communists took over, and the simple room he lived in was left as it had been when he lived there, there was a great photo of him posing in the room which served as an office, bedroom and living room. Well worth the cycling effort and we free wheeled almost the whole way home in half the time!
Continuing our adventurous and energetic activities, the next morning we headed off to Tiger Leaping Gorge for two days' hiking. The gorge is so-called because at points it is so narrow it is said that a tiger once leapt across the crevasse to escape hunters. We are dubious. On the first day we hiked (mainly up) along a high path with incredible views across the gorge of the Haba Snow Mountains, they were spectacular, towering above us but seemed almost close enough to touch. We stayed at the Halfway guesthouse on the way, our room had probably the most impressive hotel room view I've ever had. The following day we hiked down to the road and then onwards down into the bottom of the gorge. We'd been told of a little used path that took a bit longer but was very beautiful, we hiked along it and saw no one else, except a local girl who charged us 10 yuan (just over £1) for using the path. We were happy to pay though as the views along the gorge were breathtaking. The way back was directly up and incredibly steep, some of the way on ladders, including I'm sure the longest ladder I have ever climbed. Looking back over my shoulder down into the depths of the gorge was frightening, but irresistible!
George Forrest also spent time in and around Lijiang (he calls it Lichiang), in one letter he describes it as 'the last post town' so he had stopped for a few days of letter writing 'before making my second disappearance'. The letter is addressed 'Camp No. 7, Lichiang Valley, 6 miles N.W of Lichiang', which was probably very close to where we cycled on the day we went out to Yuhu. From here George set with his entourage to explore the wildest western reaches of the Yunnan: 'I have 5 mules, 2 muleteers and three servants with me, and I find I cannot travel with less. My own pony too of course.'
Always keen to follow in George's footsteps (within reason of course, we're not nearly so hardy) we booked onto a half day pony trekking trip. No one else on the trip, including guides, drivers and other guests, spoke English so we made do with lots of pointing and smiling. We trekked on our ponies through farmland and then up into the the pine covered hills overlooking the rather dry Lasiho Lake (it is the end of the dry season). There were lots of flowers (azaleas and rhododendrons) in bloom or almost in bloom, so I could imagine George on his plant hunting expeditions.
Tomorrow we head off on a big circuit around the north west corner of the Yunnan, skirting the border with Tibet. Although, a lot of the area we will be travelling through would have traditionally been called Tibet, and indeed George called it Tibet in his letters. We're pretty much following a journey that George did several times to collect specimens and seeds, but mainly due to lack of time (nothing to do with discomfort) we've opted to go by car, rather than on horseback.