We made two late excursions onto the Tea Horse Trail between Shaxi and Xizhou, both of which culminated in a crossing of Mt. Cangshan. I’ve combined the pictures from both trips into this one blog. As ever, click on any photo to open the full gallery…

These journeys both took place unusually late in the year, from the end of October to the second week of November. We were blessed with exceptionally fine weather: up to the mid-20s during the day, but down as low as minus 5 at night on the mountains. On the way into Shaxi from Lijiang, we stopped first at Shibaoshan to look at the ancient grottoes. This was my first visit, but surely not my last. I was quite bowled over. The mountains alone are worth the visit and would offer a fine location for three or four days’ wandering and wild camping. The road to the temples has just been upgraded, and so it’s an easy drive in, but not many people are visiting so far. We practically had the place all to ourselves.

Photos aren’t allowed in many sites, so I don’t have much to show you on this occasion. The oldest of the carvings dates back to the early ninth century, I believe, when the Nanzhao Empire was at its peak. Several of the Nanzhao rulers are immortalized in stone, with images also of their families and court scenes. It’s a priceless record of the time when Yunnan was the centre of a great southeast Asian empire/was a minority local kingdom on the fringes of Tang China. The photo above shows a carving assumed to represent a visitor from Persia, which suggests a vast cultural and economic reach for the Nanzhao.

You can read a bit more about Shibaoshan here. I’ll be returning next year and writing a lot more about this area.

Our mini-caravan departs Shaxi across the Heihui River.

The final hike of the first day was also the steepest, taking us up to camp at around 3,000 meters above sea level.

This little dog was obviously in search of a new master. He joined us just outside Shaxi and stuck with our group all the way to Lake Cibi – where he dived into the water to swim after our boat, such was his determination not to be left behind. We circled around and fished him out, then had to tie him up to stop him doing it again. Our mule handler took him home. He was a good camp dog.

We spent one evening by the shore of Eryuan West Lake, a little-visited but very pleasant spot about an hour’s drive north of Dali. Several villages are dotted around its shores. The lake is central to the lifestyle of the locals, who punt around its shallow waters in flat-bottomed boats. It’s also an important habitat for a large number of birds.

We just had time to go boating around the lake before sunset.

We started up the mountain above West Lake early the following morning. The villagers here still depend on Cangshan for much of their livelihood, and so mules – loaded and unloaded – passed in a continual procession as we loaded our own small caravan for the two-day hike over the mountain. In the background you can see a pair of dentists, who had come up from the county town (about two hours’ drive away) to offer consultation and treatment to the locals.

The first view of Jici Ba pasture, just as we crested the ridge at about 3,300 meters above sea level.

Herds of goat and yak moved across the pasture as we descended. The yak were moved here from the Shangri-la area around 15 years ago, I think. The goats have been here many generations.

Yang Xiao leads the way across the pass above Jici Ba…

…onto the even larger pasture at Xiao Huadian Ba. You can see the seasonal lake drying up in the middle ground. In the background is Mt. Guogai, at 3,500 meters the highest peak on this side of the range.

And this is the view looking north from the peak of Mt. Guogai. To the right is the upper pasture of Xiao Huadian, while down below to the left is Da Huadian, which offers the easier route over the Cangshan range.

We helped get the goats in for the night. With a clear sky, the temperature fell to at least five below zero. Most of the flock huddled in one pen, while the new-born lambs sheltered with their mothers in another, better-insulated stone hut.

I woke up in the middle of the night and went outside to the latrine. The pasture was lit by a full moon, so I plonked the camera on the ground, set a long exposure and hoped for the best…

The frost-covered ground appeared speckled with diamonds in the pale sunlight of the early morning.

Back on the Dali side of the Cangshan range, we emerged from the forest to this fine view over Erhai. It was almost mid-November by this time – still lovely and warm in the valley, but I don’t think we’ll be going back up the mountain until spring…unless some snowshoeing opportunities present themselves! Dan, keep an eye on the weather forecast.