In reverse direction, Yang Xiao and Climb Dali‘s Adam Kritzer recently retraced part of the Great Khan’s march to the Jinsha River. A fascinating slice of history and a terrific hike, as you’ll see from the pix below…

I don’t have my library to hand, so I hope I have remembered this correctly. The future Great Khan’s army approached Yunnan from three directions, with Kublai himself leading the central force that crossed the Jinsha (upper Yangtze) River northeast of Lijiang. If memory serves, this was in 1252 and the first object of the Mongol advance was to defeat the Kingdom of Dali and take control of what is now the Yunnan region. The part of the trail pictured above is still in such good condition because it was upgraded in the 1950s as a link between Lijiang and the Yongning area.

That’s not to say it’s all in good nick. Our pair of explorers encountered some difficult sections and in places had to move off trail and onto the modern road.

The first part of this hike offered wonderful views towards Tiger Leaping Gorge. To the right is Mt. Haba; to the left the Jade Dragon mountain. Behind the Jade Dragon lies the city of Lijiang, which was nothing to speak of in 1252 but which would become a great trading centre and the seat of a powerful kingdom thanks in no small part to a deal struck with Kublai Khan. More on that below…

This route took Yang Xiao and Adam from Naxi to Yi to Mosuo areas. Pictured above are members of the Yi ethnic group.

A particularly unusual feature of this route is its “caravan tunnels”. I can’t think of anywhere else you can find tunnels specifically dug for the passage of pack animals.

I’ve forgotten the fellow’s name, but a prescient Naxi chieftain met and submitted to the Mongol army at the Jinsha River. Together with fealty, he offered guides and soldiers to help Kublai Khan defeat Dali – a kingdom dominated by the Bai people and unfriendly to the Naxi tribes. The Mongols were defeated on their first attempt to seize Dali in 1252; in 1253, however, Naxi soldiers led the charge via a poorly guarded route over Mt. Cangshan. King Duan of Dali surrendered immediately. He kept his head, however, and also gave soldiers to Kublai Khan for the next phase of his campaign. Taking Dali was merely a tactical step in a long-term strategy to outflank the Southern Song, who had retreated behind the Yangtze River to establish a new capital in Hangzhou. But that’s another story. The point here is that our Naxi chieftain’s new Mongol friends helped him lay the groundwork for a united and powerful Naxi polity, which under the Mu clan in the 15th century would not only build a magnificent capital at Lijiang, but would also extend its rule far north into the Tibetan Plateau.

The route takes in Naxi villages in dramatic locations within the Jinsha valley.

Yang Xiao and Adam explored the trail as far north as Lugu Lake, now a celebrated beauty spot and tourism attraction. It lies on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and is most famous as a centre of Mosuo culture. That is also a story for another day, but if you have time now it’s well worth doing a bit of Googling. The Mosuo are an especially interesting group and continue to attract university anthropologists as well as tourists.

An unspoiled view over Lugu Lake, which has been seriously affected by tourism over-development. The opening of a new highway is accelerating this process and an airport is also in the works. Nevertheless, Yang Xiao says that if you hike away from the town and particularly around to the Sichuan shore, then it’s still a very rewarding place to visit.