This year’s first major group hike took us along the Tea and Horse Trail between Lijiang and Dali. The hiking section covered 11 days and approx 180 km.

This is part of the true caravan trail between Jianchuan and Lashi Lake. At more than 10 km it’s one of the longest sections anywhere in Yunnan, preserved thanks to its enduring usefulness to the villagers who eke out a living on this ridge between the Hongmai valley and Jianchuan. They have a rough modern road that connects them to Jianchuan, but the old trail gives them a direct link to the Lijiang area, as well. In this picture you can see our mules picking their way across pretty rough track – stone for road-building was being quarried out of the hillside near the north end of the trail.

This young lady came a cropper on the caravan trail, and so while the main caravan continued on to camp, she, her mother and I enjoyed a jeep ride down that ‘modern’ road I mentioned above. It’s easy to understand why the villagers keep the old trail maintained, as the new road is in dreadful condition. Still, thanks to the vehicle kindly provided by the local fire service we made it to Jianchuan hospital in little more than 2 hours. The hospital turned out to be a brand new affair with almost no patients, so we got remarkably rapid service. It’s a combined military-civilian hospital, I believe (sitting on the Yunnan-Tibet highway), which I presume accounts for the relative excellence of this institution. X-rays were swiftly performed, a broken thumb diagnosed, remedial action was taken and we made it to Jianchuan’s all-night barbecue strip in good time for a restorative dinner.

While the caravan pottered along to camp on Day 3, our hospital team enjoyed a day out in old Jianchuan. This was my first visit and I was taken very pleasantly by surprise. While most old towns in Yunnan have been swept away either by economic development or by ‘reinvention’ courtesy of the tourism authorities, this one was as close to intact as any I’ve seen. Life moved at a delightfully slow pace. Locals were happy to invite us in for tea and even show us around their historic homes. The photo above was taken at a crossroads where paper items were being sold for the Qingming Festival, during which families visit the graves of their ancestors.

This courtyard was built in the late Qing Dynasty, towards the end of the 19th century, by a family that was prominent in the printing trade and in educational circles. The old lady who ran the household said one of her ancestors had been the ‘Minister of Education’ for Jianchuan under the Qing. Wandering around the streets and alleys, we passed dozens of beautiful old courtyard buildings: some severely dilapidated, others in fine repair. The future of old Jianchuan was on show on the west side of town – a whole block had been bulldozed and marked for redevelopment as a ‘Bar Street’, while next to that a new square had been cleared and a ‘temple’ style building erected. The temple already features on Jianchuan promotional literature, so it’s clearly been constructed as a ‘signature’ building to advertise the area. Old Jianchuan’s real old buildings aren’t interesting enough, it seems. Next year the new Dali-Lijiang freeway will open, with an exit right by Jianchuan, so the plan is to siphon off Lijiang-bound tour groups – or as the authorities’ newspeak puts it, to ‘reduce to pressure on Lijiang’. I give it two years before old Jianchuan disappears. Great investment opportunity, though…

Beyond Jianchuan we rejoined the caravan to move south into the Shaxi valley. It’s a particularly attractive area at this time of year, with the rape fields in full bloom and the evening sunshine frequently offset by threatening cloud on the mountaintops – a threat that only rarely translates into storms, however. The photo above looks towards the performance stage of Duanjiadeng village, atop which is a kuixing shrine to the Bai people’s guardian spirit of education.

A handful of old fellows from Duanjiadeng keep the local musical tradition alive, and they can usually be prevailed upon to give a brief concert in the evening. I always enjoy this greatly, though it’s a bittersweet enjoyment given the knowledge that the orchestra’s days are severely numbered. The music they play has been handed down from master to pupil over many, many generations. One of the old gentlemen reckoned its history at 1,000 years, though I doubt this is more than a wild guess. I reckon the Bai people probably learned it first from Han Chinese migrants brought by the Ming invasion of Yunnan in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

Looking north along the Shaxi valley, you can see where the caravan trail would have come in from Jianchuan over the lowest point between the mountains. To the left is the Shibaoshan sacred mountain, home to grottoes featuring stone carvings dating from the 8th century.

The view from the Lao Madian Caravan Inn across Shaxi’s old market square to the stage where traveling entertainers once performed for the caravanĀ  traders. Recently I happened across a photo of this square and stage taken in the 1930s by C.P. Fitzgerald. The photo was in pretty poor condition, but you could see how much less ornate the stage was, plus the picture suggests the square was smaller than it is today. I couldn’t afford to buy it, so unfortunately can’t supply the comparative image.

We brought the mules in to load up before departure. It’s unusual to be able to move pack animals through towns these days, and I suppose it won’t be long before the Shaxi authorities put a stop to it, too. The new freeway through Jianchuan may also increase tourist traffic here quite dramatically; certainly the authorities believe and hope so. More than 20 new guesthouses opened last year (when I first visited in 2008 I counted only three or four in the whole town) and an entire block of the old town has been bulldozed to make way for a fancy hotel and apartment complex. The local traders on the high street are struggling to keep going as rents rise through the roof. Relative to Lijiang, it’s still a lovely place to hang out, but the character of the town and its people has already changed quite noticeably. Our mule men all came from surrounding villages and they are fed up with the high-handed attitude some of the townsfolk are starting to take as they cash in on the property boom.

Once through the old east gate, our caravan crosses the Heihui River via Yujin Bridge.

We were a bit early for the rhododendrons this year. A few had been suckered into blossoming by an early wet spell, but most of these had withered as Yunnan’s five-year drought re-established its grip. As we moved south our views were sadly impaired by a gathering haze caused by massive forest fires in the Dali area. We had to take special care while camping; next year’s trip may have to follow a slightly different route if the drought keeps up, as some camp sites could be closed off by the village fire control teams.

This camp site is in something of a wind tunnel and also sits 3,000 meters above sea level. Those who braved the cold were rewarded with a fine night sky.

We usually bump into various members of this Yi family on the trail into Eryuan County. I’ve turned into something of an unofficial family photographer for them. In October I met this lady’s aunt while hiking this trail once again: she was out foraging with some of her grandchildren and dressed me down for forgetting to deliver her latest portrait in the spring!

Note the different hat styles of the two ladies in the centre. The broad hat on the left signifies motherhood; the lady on the right is only recently married and has no children yet.

Even with a mule team to do the heavy lifting, a long-range trek is no small physical challenge. It’s easy to pick up minor injuries along the way, and so staying loose is always a good idea.

Our caravan descends into the Fengyu valley, where it was market day in the old town. We lunched in Fengyu and shopped for supplies to carry us over the final mountain range before Dali. You can see in the distance the effect of the forest fires on visibility – as a rule the air in this valley is crystal clear. Click here to see a picture taken from more or less the same spot in 2012.

On the east side of the Fengyu valley our group takes a breather in the cemetery of Majia village before tackling the final climb of the day. The obelisk in the foreground was said by our caravan leader to mark the boundary of one family’s burial plots.

On our second-to-last night we camped in a pine forest close to the village of Laping, where Yang Xiao and I have a number of good friends. The older folk especially enjoy recalling aspects of their traditional Bai culture, and they are easily persuaded to get their musical instruments out for a bit of song and dance.

Most of the popular songs concern either drinking, welcoming guests, or courting. One of the older fellows said that in the old days “you wouldn’t find a wife” if you didn’t know the courting songs. Doesn’t matter now, of course, though I’ve met teenagers in more remote areas who still enjoy the playful aspects of traditional courting rituals. One in particular is a form of song in which the boy and girl must each invent their lines in turn. It’s a great test of wit as well as a chance to show off to other, perhaps more desirable, partners.

I’m also village photographer for Laping. In return I never have to worry about a bed or a feed when I visit. Laping looks like a traditional Bai village and its inhabitants all identify as Bai. Some of the old ladies can’t even speak Chinese. Yet they also agree that their ancestors came from Nanjing sometime in the early Ming Dynasty, probably the early 1400s, and so their ethnic origins are in the first big Han migration into Yunnan province. Such was the strength of Bai culture that those Han migrants were totally assimilated.

The final stretch of our journey takes us over the Cangshan mountain range, passing through the finest pastures south of the Tibetan Plateau.

This is the highest pass of our journey, 3,300 meters above sea level…

…from which our caravan descends into the pasture of Xiao Huadianba, where we camp for the last time and enjoy a fresh pot of mutton from one of our shepherd friends.

A last chance to grab a group shot with our muleteers. The final day featured a long descent of around 20 km, at the end of which the mules had to board a truck to return to Shaxi. Everyone was in a hurry to get home before dark, so we made our farewell toasts at camp the previous evening.