Our first trip this year was the fruit of a fresh collaboration with Asia Photo Tour, who organize “off the trail photo tours and workshops” in China. I met APT’s founder, Sharron Lovell, at the Dali International Photo Festival last October – we hit it off right away and Sharron asked if I could suggest a route that might suit some of her clients. Less than six months later, Sharron’s APT partner, Steve Radke, arrived with a multinational group of six photo enthusiasts. I’ll accompany the words with a few of my and Yang Xiao’s snaps, and eventually add a few of the group’s contribution at the end.

Among many things I got out of this trip was the kick up the backside I needed to upgrade the photo capability of this site. The photos below are now linked to a Lightbox function, so if you click on them you should get a better view. Please let me know if it works!

The group arrived at Lijiang Airport on March 19. We drove straight to Xizhou, where they spent the afternoon exploring the alleys and courtyards of this atmospheric old town. I’ll be writing more about Xizhou once we get some down time in the summer, in particular about the work being done by the people at the Linden Centre. Brian Linden was kind enough to show us around the town personally. Thanks to Brian, we gained access to some fascinating old courtyards and their remarkably friendly (and tolerant) inhabitants.

This is a rare sight – in fact, I’d never seen one of these before. On the wall is a record of the members of a local work team in 1964 and the “work points” allocated to each. Under the commune system, workers received points instead of money.


Brian took us into one home where a few elderly locals were enjoying their daily game of mahjong. Upstairs was preserved this lovely altar, which had miraculously survived the Cultural Revolution. On the right is just one of many details from the carvings.

Team member Paz gets into the broad bean field outside the Linden Centre, which you can see in the background.

Next morning, Sigrid and Petra rose early to catch sunrise from the platform in the Linden Centre’s rear courtyard.

Steve (right) is a professional photographer in Shanghai.

Steve shoots mainly black and white, so in his honour here’s one Yang Xiao took as the mule team departed Shaxi: as our photographers left the Linden Centre, Yang Xiao and an eight-strong mule team were leaving Shaxi to make the trek over the mountain to our rendezvous point by Cibi Lake. The picture shows Yujing Bridge, which crosses the Heihui River just outside Shaxi’s old east gate.

Our first stop was the old town of Fengyu, where Tuesday every week is market day.

Fengyu and its surrounding villages are mostly inhabited by Bai people.

On longer treks, we usually resupply at Fengyu Market. As we were only planning two days in the mountains on this journey, there was no need to buy anything on this occasion. I still wound up with bags of mushrooms and spicy roots, plus some tea samples from the local plantation – I usually feel obliged to buy something once I’ve stuck a camera in someone’s face.

In the meantime, the mules were probably around here, on the far side of the mountain in Shaoheng.

After a long session, plus lunch, in Fengyu, we drove to our lodgings on the north shore of Cibi Lake. I got up early the next morning to enjoy a walk around the lake, where I met this gentleman fishing for small fry. He didn’t catch a thing while I sat with him; after a few minutes, looking rather sour, he wordlessly got up and moved to another location.

I say mules, but we also had two horses in our team. Yang Xiao led them off the mountain to join us after breakfast, and after we loaded up we began the long, long climb up to the top of the range, where Yang Xiao and the mule men from Shaxi had pitched camp the previous evening.

We took lunch in the pine forest after a couple of hours’ steep hike.

We reached camp soon after 5 pm. It was just over 3,000 meters above sea level at this point and the wind howled all evening and all night.

The team huddled inside Yang Xiao’s improvised teepee.

Usually we’d cook and eat under the same shelter, but with the wind so strong we didn’t have room in the teepee-style tent. Yang Xiao put up a second shelter for the kitchen.

Yang Xiao poses with one of his four-legged friends on the downhill trail towards Shaxi.

The earth in much of northern Yunnan is a rich red colour, much like the central desert in Australia.

As we came off the ridge and into the Shaxi bazi itself, the evening sun lit up the rape and rice fields. The villages were also full of flowering pear and cherry trees. It’s a lovely time of year.

Our caravan returns into Shaxi across Yujing Bridge. Once we’d unloaded the mules, our team settled into the Laomadian, the former inn where caravan leaders stayed in the old days. The following day was market day in Shaxi, when Yi villagers from the surrounding hills come into town to trade with the Bai people of the plain. You can see a bit more info about that here.

Below is a shot from Rebecca Teh of Singapore. Rebecca is currently making the front running for this year’s Mule Prize!

And here’s another lovely mule shot from Caroline Maes…

The selection below comes from Sigrid Brede and Juergen Jentsch…