In April we helped stage a two-week trek along the Tea and Horse Trail between Lijiang and Xizhou, working together with “multi-award winning independent travel company” Wild Frontiers. Yang Xiao and I had explored this route extensively over the past three years, but this was the first time we had taken a group the whole way.

It was billed as a “recce” trip and while most of the paths were familiar to one or other of us, we couldn’t be sure what state some of them would be in. The gravelly slipway above, which leads into the Shaxi Valley, turned out to be the worst: the mules had to go another way and I think in future we shall probably follow their example. Overall, however, fortune favoured our venture. The sun shone, but not too much; the mules behaved impeccably; and the people weren’t too bad, either…

DAY 1: We began from the small town of Shuhe, just to the north of Lijiang, from where we drove about an hour along a road that was surely last repaired sometime during the Ming Dynasty. That took us to the mule team’s camp above Jizi Reservoir, around 2,600 meters above sea level, where our trek began in mid-morning. This country belongs to people of the Naxi ethnic group, the dominant people in the Lijiang area, and the trail first worked its way up the hillside through fields tilled by the Naxi villagers of Tianhong Cun. They greeted our caravan with some surprise but plenty of good cheer – not much happens up here and, despite the village’s proximity to the tourist trap of Lijiang Old Town, outsiders rarely come this way. The same could be said for almost all the points on our route (bar Shaxi), where one of the outstanding features is the general friendliness, patience and good humour of the locals, even when confronted with a bank of snapping cameras.

By late afternoon we had hiked up to 3,000+ meters, already the highest point of our journey and also its highest, coldest campsite. There isn’t a lot of space up here: what’s flat and open is farmed by the people of Songzhiyuan Village; the rest is covered with young pine forest. Songzhiyuan’s residents belong to the Pumi ethnic group. The next morning an old fellow wandered up from the village to say hello; I asked him where his ancestors had come from, and how long ago? He scratched his head and said he didn’t know when, but he thought they had come from Mongolia. That tallied with Yang Xiao’s theory about the Pumi, which is that they are descended from people of the Western Xia (or Tangut) Dynasty in what’s now northwest China. Legend says Genghis Khan died after being injured in battle with the Western Xia; when the Great Khan’s son defeated them in 1227, he took revenge in genocide. The survivors fled far and wide: a man named Tang Rongyao has argued that the Sherpas of Nepal are also their descendants.

DAY 2: From camp we followed the old caravan trail, which runs wide and level along the ridge far above the Hongmaicun Valley. This is the finest and longest stretch of original caravan trail that we know of, running the best part of 15 kilometers between Songzhiyuan and Gaoshanding. A curious thing occurred midway through the afternoon when we passed through the fields south of the only village on the trail. An old man broke off from digging the soil to wave at me and shout something that sounded like “Red Army”. I stopped and gestured a “beg your pardon” at him; he replied by shouting that the “Red Army walked this trail”. I waved him over to hear more. Yang Xiao and I had trekked the full Long March route (from 1936) in this region in 2006, but we had been on the trail of the 2nd Red Army, which marched right through Lijiang. The 6th Red Army had bypassed Lijiang and gone straight to the Jinsha River at Shigu; I knew this, but had never considered the exact trail they might have followed. The old fellow, whose name was Shen Xuewen, said that he saw the Reds pass by when he was 5 years old, and as he described their route I realized that this made perfect sense – so not only were we on the Tea and Horse Trail, but we had stumbled onto the Long March Trail, as well.

With a clear sky the air turned cold after sunset and so the group huddled in the teepee after dinner.

Being evangelists for Leave No Trace in China, we don’t light campfires ourselves. The muleteers have their own customs, however, and we don’t interfere with them too much. Instead, we shared a few shots of whiskey and tried to learn everyone’s names. Caravan leader San Ge offered his home-made liquor in return. Paul took a slug and his eyes almost popped out of his head; perhaps more accustomed to fiery moonshine, Neil quietly helped Paul drain his glass…

DAY 3: We left the caravan briefly to take a steep, mule-unfriendly path down the mountain via Gaoshanding, reuniting by the stream below Erlong Hydropower Station. From here the trail led down onto the plain around Lake Jian.

Camp was on the east side of the plain in one of the Bai people’s many multi-faith temples. After hiking through the village’s old-fashioned industrial zone, lined with medieval-looking lime kilns, we reached Dongshan Temple as the sun was setting over the freshly planted rice paddies.

Dongshan Temple stands next to a freshwater spring, known as a “dragon pool”, which the people from the nearby village use for fresh drinking water. Starting at dawn the next morning, a steady stream of villagers arrived carrying pails and plastic lined baskets. Unfortunately, they also leave a lot of trash behind, and so a considerable clean-up effort was required to make this site habitable. Some of us laid out mats and sleeping bags on the old performance stage you can just see at the back of the above picture.

Dongshan Temple incorporates several religious traditions. The biggest hall belongs to the village’s own guardian spirit, the benzhu. You can read more about the Bai people’s benzhu tradition here. Next to where we slept on the stage was a hall for the “dragon spring” guardian, who belongs to the Taoist pantheon, as did the hall at the very top of the complex on the hillside. On the second level were several Buddhist icons, as pictured above, while in a separate pagoda we found the kuixing pictured below: a spirit particular to the Bai who reflects their traditional commitment to education (note the writing brush in his right hand).

I don’t know why he’s riding a big fish, but this wasn’t unique to Dongshan Temple – the kuixing on Shaxi’s main square was represented in exactly the same way.

DAY 4: We crossed the plain around Lake Jian, spending much of the morning befriending and photographing the denizens of Xinren Village. One old fellow was particularly pleased to see our mule train – he told me that when he was young his village served the caravan trade in a big way, being home to more than 400 mules and horses. “There are none left now,” he said. “Mules aren’t worth anything here, anymore.” Beyond Xinren we skirted the water on the west side and endured rather an unpleasant afternoon on the main road into Diannan, a grubby town on an intersection of the Yunnan-Tibet Highway whose only redeeming features were a toilet and a fruit market.

In the afternoon, we rejoined the mountain trail above the village of Hejiang, finishing a taxing day with a steep, steep climb: 900 feet up and over a rise to a camp whose previous guests had apparently been a herd of cows. Yang Xiao named it “Cowpat Camp” and the next morning I climbed back up the mountain to find  a more salubrious spot for next time (and I did find it – no more Cowpat Camp for us!). I spotted the unusual, lone flower pictured above late in the afternoon. I was hoovering up back markers as our caravan became increasingly strung out, but stopped to take a picture in the hope someone among you readers might know what it is?

DAY 5: The trail gradually worked its way along the ridge above the Heihui River to lead us into the Shaxi Valley, which you can just see in the distance in the photo above. The only sign of human activity all morning was a hut and some fields belonging to an Yi gentleman named Shama Sijin. Unfortunately, he wasn’t home – doubtless back in his home village preparing for the Shaxi market the following day. Yang Xiao made friends with Shama Sijin not long before this trip – you can see his pix here.

DAY 6: After resupplying at the colourful Friday market in Shaxi, we spent the evening in the company of a group of old Bai musicians, who performed for us in the Old Theatre Inn in Duanjiadeng. This is a simply lovely spot and my own favourite part of the trip. You can see and hear what the old musicians are like on a video here.

We had a brief chat with one of the musicians after the performance. I wrote a bit about that here.

DAY 7: We had rested, showered and generally lived in fine style during our rest day in Shaxi, where we stayed at the beautiful Laomadian, a restored caravan inn on the north side of Shaxi’s ancient market square. No more than two hours back on the trail, however, one of our guests fancied a full bath in the limpid waters of the Black Lake Reservoir. It’s the first time anyone has gone swimming on one of our trips: next time I shall add “swimming costume” to the gear list, but given the water temperature I don’t think there will be too many takers. Lovely spot for morning tea, though.

This was among ouor longest days, and with the sun beating down during the afternoon climb above Shaoheng Village, it was probably the toughest. From our starting point in Shaxi to camp at the top of the range, we made an elevation gain of 3,300 feet – and most of that was in one go during the afternoon.

DAY 8: The next day, however, was our shortest: a mere three hours down the steep hill to the north shore of Lake Cibi. Given  that we had to descend the full 3,300 feet we had walked up the day before, however, it was with aching ankles that I entered our small guesthouse. The village by the north shore serves as a miniature tourist resort for the people of nearby Eryuan County Town, giving us another chance to shower and get fresh food supplies (as well as someone else to do the cooking).

I wasn’t the only one who needed a rest on the way down…

Once again, I was trailing along with the back markers – my preferred position in the caravan, as I like to take my time and soak up as much of the experience as possible. The only people who live on the mountain here are a handful of isolated Yi families. Passing by one of their houses, little more than a wooden shack, this old lady and her grandson waved at me and Paul (The Swimmer) and suggested we join them for lunch. We said we were sorry but we had to catch up our friends, but were persuaded inside for a cup of tea, instead. The old lady was called Yu Zhifa (as far as I could understand her accent) and as we sat by the fire and sipped her green tea an assortment of Yi children came in to join the circle: as well as Yu Zhifa’s grandson, there was his twin brother and two cousins on their way down the mountain to school – most kids from the mountains board during the week, but the cost (800 yuan a year, or about US$130) was too much for these people to bear. Yu Zhifa’s younger sister came in, as well, and like her elder sibling pulled out a packet of cigarettes and offered us one – the Yi are most unusual in having no taboo against their women smoking.

Yu Zhifa’s daughter-in-law, Yu Niuniu, also joined us. She is holding Gu Wuga. Her husband was further up the mountain helping her brother build a new house. The Yi really live on the margins of society in this region. Unable to communicate directly, Paul bewitched the children with magic tricks – he “ate” a 100-yuan note and then reproduced it from Gu Wuga’s ear. They’ll be talking about that for years.

DAY 9: The mule team had to trek around the west shore of Lake Cibi, but for the rest of us there was the comfortable and picturesque option of a boat across the water. This cut something in the order of 8 kilometers out of the day’s hike. A “guilty pleasure,” said Paul.

The largest part of today’s trail was across the plain south of Lake Cibi, passing very briefly through Eryuan County Town (where we stopped for a lunch of quite splendid noodles made, unusually, from corn flour) before reaching another mountain trail at Xia Longmen Village. In the picture above, caravan leader San Ge tests a bridge over the stream south of Eryuan. He decided against risking the mules on it – to this photographer’s intense disappointment!

Although it was another testing, 1,000-foot, late-in-the-day climb up to camp, many felt that this was the nicest site of the journey. Although the wind was swirling through the tops of the pine trees, at ground level it was quite still and we could hear almost no sound from the valley below. Yang Xiao said the sound of the wind in the pines had its own name in Chinese: 松浪 songlang, which literally means “pine wave”.

DAY 10: A short walk from camp brought us to this wonderful view over the Fengyu Valley. From here we descended to the valley floor, where we faced another rather difficult stretch of road leading into the town of Fengyu, itself (the mules bypassed the town to get camp set up early). It was market day in Fengyu and so we made the diversion to shop for fresh fruit, meat and vegetables. We also had lunch in Fengyu, though not at the place I had planned – that turned out to have been demolished, along with half the old main street. I enjoy the markets greatly and having been several times before I knew a few of the traders (the old lady selling the local tea slipped me a pound of her best stuff for half price while her daughter wasn’t around – the younger woman looked quite displeased when she arrived at the tail-end of this transaction). The group divided up into fruit and vegetable teams, while others simply wandered around photographing the activity. No tourists come to Fengyu and so there is no hostility to outsiders with cameras (yet); simply curiosity and an open welcome. In the afternoon, we walked south out of town and through a string of old villagers, which turned out to be a surprise hit with the group – it took twice as long as I expected, as every few steps there was another sight to photograph, or another person inviting us in to his courtyard for tea and snacks (who had to be resisted courteously).

Close to camp, Neil found a village shop with the desired Beer Supplies.

Camp was by the spring pool at Qingyuandong, a local beauty spot whose fame has spread a bit too far. When I first camped here in 2008, it was pristine and lovely, easily the favourite campsite of the group who hiked with me along a similar route between Dali and Shaxi. We found it covered in trash. Even after two hours’ clean-up work, it was still barely habitable. A terrible shame and, sadly, symptomatic of the effect of development on much of the Chinese countryside.

DAY 11: The trail from Qingyuandong onto the Cangshan mountain range is, to my mind, the finest of this journey. The flowers are late this year because of the drought in Yunnan, but the brilliant red Rhododendron floccigerum were starting to come out in force around 2,800 meters above sea level. You can see more of the flowers of Cangshan from just a week later in the season here.

Our route over Cangshan passed through the magnificent highland valley called Huadianba, which was the site of a nutty Great Leap Forward project to make the “mountains flower with industry.” All that’s left of that is a few crumbling buildings and a small Chinese traditional medicine enterprise, plus shadows of vainly ploughed fields. The valley is now home to herds of yak and goats, while mule teams from Eryuan come up to haul wood down the mountain.

We put the kitchen in one of the abandoned buildings to shield it from the wind, which swept down the valley all evening. The boss of the area stopped by the lecture us at length on the importance of fire control – even in non-drought times, this is the dry season and fires are banned from the mountain until the end of June. Less than a week later a wildfire devastated the mountainside on the far side of Lake Erhai, only 10 kilometers away from us.

At 2,900 meters above sea level, our last night was lit by a sky full of brilliant stars.

DAY 12: From Huadianba was only a half-day’s walk downhill to Xizhou and the end of our journey. We said our thank-yous to the mule team here on the mountain. They were great guys, never complained – even when we sent them the wrong way and made them camp far from water. Many thanks to San Ge and all the others for making the trip possible!