This six-day expedition trek aimed to find a route from the caravanserai at Shaxi to the “First Bend in the Yangtze” at Shigu. This would involve a series of relatively minor trails that have the modern virtue of bypassing Lijiang – and hopefully the main roads – to reach the Yangtze River directly. Read on to see how we fared. There is also a video account of the trek here.

Our team gathered at the Lao Ma Dian in Shaxi. Located on the north side of the old Shaxi market square, this was once the best of the town’s caravan inns, where the wealthiest caravan leaders stayed. Today it’s the best of the town’s growing number of guesthouses. Shaxi has resisted mass tourism so far, but developments this year suggest time may be running out. One whole street has been “contracted” by an outside developer and is scheduled for demolition and reconstruction in the “authentic” style familar to anyone who has visited Lijiang recently. Other developers have taken options on tracts of farm land outside the old town, where they hope to build a new “old town” big enough to accommodate busloads of tourists and sell cheap crap, six-packs of lager and phoney ethnic dancing.

Rant out of the way, for the time being Shaxi is still about the nicest place in China to hang out. Check out the video link above to see more of it, especially the Friday market.

Our team bonds over a traditional Bai “badawan” feast, washed down with plenty of Dali beer. The dishes include cured meats, very fatty Bai-style pork, rice noodles, butter beans, pickled vegetables, and deep fried fish.

Just outside Shaxi on the first day of our trek, we passed a tumbledown courtyard famous for its imposing, if decrepit, architecture. Not so well known is this splendid example of Cultural Revolution propaganda-art, which adorns one of the interior courtyard walls.

Two kilometers south of Shaxi, our route turned sharply west, leading from the plain steeply up the moutain toward Mapingguan, beyond which is the pass over the range. Simon Wong found the going tough under the midday sun and opted for a temporary mule solution. The total elevation gain on the day’s trek was approx 800 meters.

I think this may be Rhododendron floccigerum. In early May most of the rhododendrons and azaleas at this altitude (around 2,400 meters above sea level) have finished flowering, but we still passed the odd bush in full bloom.

Camp at the end of Day 1 was just over the top of the range. The name of this pasture was unknown to our local muleteers. It was pristine spot with a sparking stream flowing within 50 yards of our tents and good grazing for the mules. Five stars on the official Red Rock table of campsites!

Expedition Day 2: This beautiful stretch of old caravan trail was only about half an hour below our camp. If you look closely you can see the remains of the stone paving. It’s impossible to say exactly when this was laid, but Yunnan’s stone-paved roads in general seem to have been built during the Ming Dynasty, starting from the late 14th or early 15th centuries. They were not well maintained even in the days when the caravan trade was at its peak – perhaps because such paving was profoundly unsuitable for mules! They seem to have been built more with porters in mind, so perhaps porterage was once more common than mule transport (or perhaps Ming officials sent from other provinces simply built them without regard to local conditions). Further up the mountain (and photographed too poorly to be included here, sorry) were the remains of more practical wooden reinforcements to the trail, which acted as “steps” suitable for pack animals.

Australian scholar Gary Sigley befriends some Yi ladies at Mijing, where we stepped off the mountain trail at lunchtime. Mijing is the location of one of the salt wells that were formerly important landmarks in the Shaxi area: one well for each major point of the compass, Mijing being the west well. Salt was the second most important commodity (after tea) traded along these routes.

A group of local children gathered to inspect our odd group while we inspected the Mijing salt well, which is now in the basement of a small temple. The well is no longer used – even if it were economically viable to produce salt in the old way, the salt water has been diluted by an irruption from a freshwater aquifer.

Our mule team set up a characteristically idiosyncratic camp by the Misha River. This site struggled for two-stars: the dirty river was useless for drinking or cooking water, which had to be hauled from some distance away. Still, there was a lovely moon and the sound of rushing water is a perfect lullaby. We have camped in much worse places!

Expedition Day 3: Five kilometers beyond camp was the small town of Misha, which happily was enjoying market day. We resupplied with fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, then proceeded another couple of kilometers along the main road to where the trail struck off back into the mountains. As you can see above, mules are still valuable pack animals in this area – in this case hauling timber of doubtful legality back to the village.

One of our muleteers proudly presented Yang Xiao with a crab he caught in the stream below our lunch stop. Rather than adding it to his sandwich, Yang Xiao let it go when the muleteer wasn’t looking.

The lunch stop in question, where our team took a lengthy break in pleasant sunshine. In the meantime, Yang Xiao and I interrogated some passing locals about the trail ahead. One 50-something gentleman claimed to have walked it many times as far as our destination, Shigu, while another older fellow recalled caravans passing this way in days past. As we proceeded deeper into the range, we passed several turnings which suggested a network of trails leading back toward Shaxi and the surrounding district.

Gary and Yang Rui try out the local fashion. These felt cloaks, called pei zhan,  have been used to keep out the weather in the Yunnan mountains for centuries.

Gary entertains the team after dinner at camp. The weather turned in the evening, with light rain and a stiff breeze blowing across a beautiful site: a broad, flat, grassy space watered by a clear, shallow stream ideal for cooling the crate of beer acquired at Misha market. Four stars.

Expedition Day 4: Camp was difficult to find, as after spending much of the day winding around interminable detours through the mountains, we descended onto a well-populated plain where every inch of flat ground had been converted to agricultural use. As is often the case in such areas, we headed for the local graveyard – always located on high ground with excellent fengshui and matchless views, and usually with some spare flat space for campers. Our muleteers had a word with the villagers in Xinwen below, who did not object to our staying the night among their ancestors. Chinese peasants never seem disturbed by our forays into their cemeteries, though we always check with anyone local we can find to ask. Cemeteries here do not have the same mournful or sacred connotations they do in Europe, and it’s not unusual to see farming proceed around the family tombs.

Expedition Day 5: Jacques Castonguay from Canada (right) and Lao Yang, who invited us into his home for morning tea at the junction close to Yangcen. Lao Yang was a Bai gentleman who served for many years in the army, which was where he first learned to speak Chinese – as a youth, no one spoke Chinese at home, as is still the case in many Bai households, though all the children now learn Chinese from the time they start to attend school, if not before.  Lao Yang recalled the caravans that used to pass his village on the route between Jianchuan County Town, a few kilometers to the east, and Madeng to the west.

Expedition Day 6: Early morning at camp above the Yi village of Dafodian, right at the foot of Laojunshan, which has taken at least half a day longer than expected to reach. Our Bai muleteers have become roundly fed up with the people of this area, especially the Yi, whose notions of time and distance appear to come from an alternative reality. Caravan leader San Ge has been overheard swearing at the “clueless” locals, who say 20 minutes when it’s really an hour, and two kilometers when it’s actually 10. In the foreground of the above picture is our camp toilet. To the right of the tents and outside the picture is the village performance circle, where the Yi gather to celebrate their major festivals. Five stars for this campsite! But the trail leading here is predominantly along a stony road that makes for uncomfortable walking.

We begin the ascent of Laojunshan. According to the Party Secretary of Dafodian, who has arranged a guide for this leg of our journey, we should be over the top and heading down towards the Yangtze by mid-afternoon. The peak of Laojunshan is 4,240 meters above sea level, but we expect to cross the range at a point little more than 3,600 meters up. Who wrong we were! (OK, how wrong I was).

These  Rhododendron uvarifolium were prominent among the magnificent display on all sides of the steep route we followed after lunch. By this time we were already 3,600 meters up and moving slowly because of the altitude, but no one was feeling ill. Laojunshan is famous for its huge variety of rhododendrons. Judging by what we saw on this day, its fame is well deserved. We have seen many fine rhododendron forests on the high ranges of northwest Yunnan, but nothing to top Laojunshan.

Expedition Day 7: We were supposed to be home and hosed in Lijiang by now; instead, we were camped nearly 4,000 meters above sea level at the very top of the Laojun range. When we finally reached the top of that steep, rhododendron-encrusted slope after lunch the previous day, our guide informed us that, sorry, he’d taken us completely the wrong way and we would not be able to even cross the range that day – oh, and he had to be off home, bye! You may imagine what San Ge and his muleteer comrades had to say about their Yi compatriots after this turn of events. Anyway, we pushed on until the trail completely ran out just above this small pasture, which had the virtue of magnificent scenery and the vice of sloping, bumpy ground. Still, far from a bad campsite, as water was plentiful and the weather smiled upon us. The photo above was taken at dawn, when the forest opposite was lit a brilliant red by quite the most vivid sunrise anyone, even our mule men, could recall. Yunnan had been in the grip of a prolonged drought for several months, and although we were at the start of the normal monsoon season and the air had felt pregnant with rain for several days, we had experienced nothing more than a light shower. Every day the sunrise was a deeper shade of red, topped off by this one, to which our photos could do scant justice.

These rhododendron look like a paler version of the Rhododendron uvarifolium above. They were growing just a short walk away from our campsite close to the ridge on Laojunshan, about 3,900 meters above sea level.

After scouting throughout the evening and early morning, we concluded that there was no way through for the mule team, even though our revised destination - Jiulongtan, a famous beauty spot with a small tourism development on the north side of Laojunshan – was only about an hour’s walk away. We packed essentials to carry ourselves and said goodbye to the mules, who took the rest of the gear back down the mountain to Dafodian, from where it could be sent on to meet us in Lijiang.

Just two of our mule team stayed behind to see us as far as the road, where a pair of jeeps where waiting to take us back to civilization. The final part of our journey took us through a primeval rhododendron forest that was one of the highlights of this trip. We met a handful of peasants from villages lower on the north slope: some foraging for aweto, a valuable medicinal fungus, and one Lisu gentleman hunting for small birds with a miniature crossbow.

These lovely flowers carpeted the forest for the last few hundred yards before we reached the Jiulongtan tourist center – at which we were the only visitors. I haven’t found out what they are called yet,  so if anyone can help… The road from Jiulongtan down to the foot of Laojunshan is in a shocking state – you really need a 4-wheel drive to negotiate it – so it’s hardly any wonder few people take the trouble.

We drove around to our original destination at Shigu. This is the Red Army Bridge, so called because the Communist Red Army crossed here during the Long March in April 1935. This is not the original bridge – that was washed away by a flood in the late 1930s. It took around three hours to drive from Jiulongtan to Shigu, where according to the GPS we were only around 20 km as the crow flies from our camp at the top of Laojunshan. When we have time, we will try hiking backwards from Shigu and see where we went wrong.

The First Bend in the Yangtze, just outside Shigu on the road towards Lijiang.