This hike was easily accomplished in two days – even including the bus from Dali to Jianchuan on the first morning. It’s worth spending more time in the old part of Jianchuan County Town, though, as this is a lovely example of an old Yunnan market town. See it now – the new Dali-Lijiang freeway cuts across the Jianchuan Plain about 5km away and opens to traffic on June 30 this year. The local authorities hope this will allow them to siphon off some Lijiang-bound tourists, and development is under way accordingly in Jianchuan (i.e. one block of the old town has been bulldozed already so it can be reconstructed to meet tour group expectations).

You can see a few more pix of Jianchuan here. We walked out of town along this old street, which once led to the west gate in the days when Jianchuan still possessed its city wall. Today there is a main road leading out of the south gate and straight across the plain, but a group of old ladies told me that the former caravan trail ran along the foot of the mountain on the west side of the plain before turning towards Jianchuan. I asked the ladies about life in the old days and the importance of the caravans. They said they were all members of ordinary families who worked simple jobs in the service of the town’s merchants, traders and officials. They all had bits of land outside the city walls, however, which they could farm themselves to supplement their income. One said the caravans were especially important to her as she cleaned out the stables – and used the horse manure in the fields.

The first section of trail is now a quiet concrete road, which took us through a number of Bai villages for the first hour or so. Before lunch, however, we left the road to follow a pleasant trail through young pine stands.

In the afternoon we crossed the Jianchuan-Lanping highway and continued along dirt paths into the lovely bowl in which Upper Taoyuan village is located.

Towards sunset we reached this heartening proof that we were on the right road. This marvelous stone bridge is just north of Upper Taoyuan, marking the line of the caravan trail from Jianchuan towards Shibaoshan and Shaxi.

This shrine to the gods of mountain and earth is specially for the likes of us, promising as it does protection to travelers.

We camped south of here on a small patch of grass, which was the only spot we could find not being farmed. There are no clean streams or springs and so we made sure to be close to a peasant home, to which I hurried to introduce myself before dark. The lady who answered my knock looked bemused to find a large foreigner on her doorstep, but she allowed me to help myself to water from her kitchen.

The following morning we climbed up into the Shibaoshan hills, passing through one exceptionally isolated Lisu village on the way. Shibaoshan has been a site of religious and political ceremony since at least the 9th century: its ancient stone carvings are among the most important relics of the Nanzhao Empire, while its temples are mentioned in the diaries of Ming traveler Xu Xiake (1587-1641).

Not far from the famous Jinding Temple is the lesser-known but altogether more interesting Lingquan’an, where we stopped for lunch and brewed tea using water from the spring (‘quan’ ‘泉’, centre-left of the photo above) which gave the temple its name.

Lingquan’an was built by subscription in the second year of the reign of Yongzheng, i.e. 1723. The stone pictured above dates from the temple’s foundation and records donations.

From close to the highest peak of Shibaoshan we could see all the way back to the Jianchuan plain, with Lake Jian also clearly visible.

Back near the base of the mountain is Baoxiang Temple, whose dramatic setting greatly impressed Xu Xiake. It is said to have been built sometime in the Mongol era (13th-14th centuries), but burned down late in the 17th century and was rebuilt in either 1690 or 1695, depending which of the inscriptions you choose to believe.

Baoxiang Temple is also notable for its colony of monkeys, which hang around hoping for snacks from visiting tourists. As there aren’t that many tourists yet, the monkeys aren’t as aggressive as they can be at more popular sites. By the time we had reached and enjoyed Baoxiang Temple, the day was nearly over and so we hitched a ride to Shaxi. I suppose that made this a long-weekend hike, as we didn’t get back to Dali until lunchtime the following day.