Noilly Prattle: July 2016

Saturday, July 30, 2016

China – Winter 2016 (Tiger Leaping Gorge)

bridge to the Shangri La side of the Yangtze River
Whiplash Express
    We were so impressed with Nongbu, our guide to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, that we engaged him again for another eco-tour to a gorge on the Upper Yangtze River called Tiger Leaping Gorge. Nongbu picked us up at our hotel in Shuhe at 8:45 a.m. for the 2-hour drive to the gorge. The first hour was on a relatively fast and smooth tollroad until we arrived at a point on the Yangtze where a bridge crossed over to the Shangri La (from the Li Jiang) side of the river. We didn't cross the bridge but continued straight ahead on a road whose condition I can only call the Whiplash Express.

terrace farming along Whiplash Express
        This road was partially under reconstruction and in a condition that was partly dirt road, partly broken asphalt, and potholes some of which were full of water. We were jostled and thrown around the rear seat of the van for the better part of an hour (try taking photographs), passing through old towns and wide vistas of terraced farming and always the Yangtze river that we were riding parallel to. It was hard to believe that this was the only route to a well known tourist attraction, yet there it was. I have to say, though, that arriving at your destination this way makes you appreciate it all the more.

        We finally arrived at the entrance to the Upper Gorge. This course is relatively easy for older folks like us. There is a 2.7 km. path cut into the cliff along the river that is wide, smooth enough, on a level without ups and downs to hamper easy strolling and a chain rail for psychological security. The scenery (especially rock textures) becomes increasingly spectacular as you walk along, first the smooth flowing river and, as the gorge narrows, increasingly squeezed into a narrower channel with white water rapids beginning to occur. There are a couple spots along the path where tunnels were dug into the rock to circumvent dangerous passages where rocks can fall and there have been a few deaths according to Nongbu.

 . . . go around rockslides 

tunnel cut to . . . 

        The Upper Gorge is a popular tourist attraction of both sides of the river. On the Shangi La side there is a relatively short hike from the parking lot above, but it consists of some 600 steps. Coming down isn't bad, but going back up, I hear, is a bitch. We, being on the Li Jiang side only had a relatively short set of steps to negotiate since the approach path is much lower than the Shangri La side where you can get to the gorge by motor vehicle. On our side to have to walk the 2.7 km., but the climb down to the rapids is much easier.

Li Jiang (our) side

Shangri La side (600 steps to climb down and UP)

        The river is low at this time of the year so the water was blue green in color. When the snow melts later in the spring the river rises and turns yellow and submerges some of the rocks in the main gorge that are visible today. After oohing and aahing and taking I-was-there photos we walked the 2.7 km. back to the entrance, and took the van for the outbound run along Whiplash Express (which hadn't improved over the inbound run).

Tiger Leaping Upper Gorge

the fabled tiger leaping across the gorge

the lunch
traditional kitchen
       Soon we stopped at a local restaurant in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain that was run by some friends of Nongbu's and ate a delicious lunch. In fact, the best meals we had during our entire stay in the region were had at Nongbu's friends' restaurants which were included in his very reasonable tour prices.

in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

pear blossoms
         I mentioned in previous posts that we wanted to see some pear tree orchards after seeing some photographs at an exhibition in Dali without any success. Nongbu may have heard us talking about this because he took us along winding rural roads through the Lashi Lake region of farmlands and fruit orchards on our way to Ziyunshi Tibetan monastery. Spring had come to the valley with flowers and fruit trees in full bloom. Particularly beautiful were the pear tree orchards (which we finally got to see) with their branches ablaze in white flowers.
field of Rape Blossoms in the Lashi Lake valley

Ziyunshi Tibetan Monastery
        Ziyunshi Tibetan monastery (like the Chongsheng Temple in Dali) was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt with private donations and some 20 or 30% funding from the government. It is a concrete replica of the original, very colorful in red and yellow and gold. It is reached by climbing numerous steps as it is on a mountainous site (as are many Buddhist temples), and commands a wide panoramic view of the Lashi valley below.

Lashi Lake valley from Ziyunshi Monastery

the high lama Gamba
Dapeng Bird - a Dongba deity
resembles a Balinese Garuda Bird
        We learned from Nongbu, who is both a Tibetan Buddhist and a practitioner of the ancient Naxi religion called Dongba (he claims it is 18,000 years old), that there are different kinds of Tibetan Buddhism designated by colors. I noticed that there were no pictures of the Dalai Lama and asked him why. He gave two answers: one, that the Dalai Lama is a “Yellow” Buddhist and the local high lama here (called Gamba something I couldn't quite catch) is a “White” lama; the second was that probably the government doesn't permit mention or images of the Dalai Lama (a political topic I didn't care to pursue). 

Garuda - Bali c. 1983

Sunday, July 24, 2016

China – Winter 2016 (Shuhe and the Holy Scam)

oldest stone bridge in Shuhe
cobblestone streets parallel the crystal clear canal
     Unlike the relatively simple grid pattern of the street layout in Dali, Shuhe, although smaller, has a more complexly convoluted street pattern and takes more getting used to finding your way around. There are many lovely clear canals gurgling through town from a spring source to the north. We strolled northward along the cobblestone streets and lanes that parallel the main stream towards a source spring. Spring (the season) was bursting out all over Shuhe now, and the greening of the town was becoming unmistakable.

 the center of Shuhe surrounds a large pool of clear spring water 

The Source of the Shuhe waterways.
Spring at the spring
        There turned out to be a worm in the apple, however. In that nearly idyllic Spring/spring setting we got scammed—by a “Buddhist monk” of all things. He was a bald largish man in yellow robes and very friendly, nodding and smiling and talkative—a mile a minute in Chinese to Road Buddy thinking, as most people do, that she is Chinese. Obviously (or intentionally) oblivious to the fact that he was getting no positive feedback he casually pulled what looked like a bead necklace from somewhere inside his robes and put it around her neck and then slipped a wooden bead bracelet on my wrist. Still smiling broadly he made the sign for money (rubbing the thumb and first and second fingers rapidly to indicate counting money). At first I thought he was showing us how to use “prayer beads” and nodded and smiled and thanked him and made to walk off. But he stopped us and made the thumb and fingers rubbing sign again. Then it hit me and we offered him 50 yuan, but he, still smiling, pointed to a 100 yuan bill, so, caught off guard and embarrassed (as he knew we would be) we foolishly gave it to him, realizing we had been effectively conned. What an MO!

necklace or prayer beads?

the "Buddhist monk" who conned us
eyeing his next prey 
the accomplice with his
black sneakers
       A few days later we were lunching in the park around the Shuhe water source on bread and water, apples and rosewater flavored pastry. While sitting on a bench I spotted the scam artist “Buddhist monk” who had accosted us a couple days earlier talking to another “monk”. They separated and the second one (unconvincingly shod in black sneakers) strolled our way, passed on by and stopped in front of a Chinese couple sitting on the adjacent bench. I got my camera ready and sure enough he started the con on them. The conversation went on a for a while with the man while the woman, totally oblivious, was absorbed in her smart phone. Finally, I saw the man, all smiles and a prayerful hand clasp, take out his wallet and give the “monk” some money in exchange for some bauble I couldn't identify for sure from a distance (but probably the same type bracelet seen on his wrist as I had gotten). I did manage to get a couple of pictures though--to me, well worth a scam by a clever enough grifter!

a successful scam

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

China – Winter 2016 (Jade Dragon Mountain)

玉龍雪山 Yùlóngxuě Shān

     WHAT an extraordinary day! It was an experience to take your breath away—literally—and to blow you away—almost literally. We took a day trip on an unvelievably beautiful sunny day to Yùlóngxuě Shān in the eastern foothills of the Himalaya Mountains with Nongbu, a mixed Tibetan and ethnic Naxi guide who seemed to be a human embodiment of the mountains. He sang, chanted, danced and shouted with the pure joy of existence in those seemingly enchanted hills. It was mesmerizing and contagious . . . or maybe it was due to inhaling pure oxygen from time to time. . . or, maybe, negative ions? Who knows, who cares, it was just a pure high!

nomad houses in shadow of Jade Dragon
        Nongbu picked us up at the hotel and we walked to the van and met the driver and Bianca, a young Australian woman who was on the tour with us. It was too windy for the high cable car that goes up to glacier country, so we settled for a cable car to a less aggressive place called Yak Meadow. After going through the ticketing formalities we boarded a bus for the 45-minute ride up to the cable car station to Yak Meadow. The road was tortuous, narrow, bumpy and winding through nomad villages with endless switchbacks, but we finally arrived at the cable car which took about 20 minutes or so before reaching Yak Meadow.

Yak Meadow and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Bianca in the Lamaist temple
Nongba - high on the mountain
        The rest was walking the long climb up to the top of the meadow where yaks graze in the summer months when the grass is green. Along the way we came to a Lamaist temple rather picturesquely located in the shadow of Jade Dragon Mountain, a splash of color in an otherwise ochre and gray white landscape. The trek up the meadow was somewhat taxing due to thinner air at 3,700 meters altitude, high winds that sometimes threatened to blow you over and a pretty challenging slope for someone in his 70s. Nongbu was just bounding along as if he were on a Sunday stroll, capering around, singing, yelling and spreading his arms in ecstatic transport, while Road Buddy and I trudged along taking occasional sniffs of oxygen. Bianca, meanwhile had gone way ahead and was already at the summit of the meadow. Finally, however, we all managed the climb and arrived at the top practically face to face with the massif of the Jade Dragon. It was pure exhilaration.

sniffing oxygen

on top of the world

 the remains of a great lunch
"Our Wedding" photos-
not necessarily on the same day
        The walk down was much easier and we were soon back on the cable car for the ride down and the bus back to the ticket terminal where we were met again by Nangbu's driver. After a brief stop at a series of natural turquoise lakes (due to limestone in the water) we headed for the Naxi town of Baisha for a delicious meal at a local Naxi restaurant. We were all ravenous and ate every dish in site.

the town of Baisha

Dr. Hu
        Before returning to our hotel we stopped off at a couple other places in Baisha. One was a Chinese medicine clinic run by a Dr. Hu, who is apparently quite famous (judging by some newspaper clippings framed around the clinic. Dr Hu is a bright and vivacious 94 year old man who speaks a kind of “English” and regaled me with a couple of tales of some of his successes of the past. He is still a consulting physician and had patients waiting so we left and headed for a shop that does embroidery.

the artist
portrait of a Naxi woman
        But what embroidery. The work here looks like photographs and paintings, unbelievable detail and coloring. A woman was patiently working on a portrait of a young Naxi woman in traditional costume. The detail was astounding and the subtle blend of threads phenomenal. (I'm running out of superlatives.) The woman is an artist. I took a couple of photos (with permission) of her work (which has taken almost a year to execute and will be finished in a few more days) and asked the price--9000¥ a steal at $1385. Alas, a little rich for my blood.