Mysterious Mugecuo Lake is located around 25 kilometres to the north of Kanding, in China’s Sichuan Province. At a height of 3700 metres above sea level it is actually one of the highest lakes in this part of Sichuan. Mugecuo is a really a series of small lakes, that has become collectively known as Mugecuo.
The road up to the lake is beautiful, especially the final part that follows a gushing river. One spot on the way up marks the scenic place that inspired the writing of the famous Kangding Love Song.
Mysterious Mugecuo Lake: Enshrouded in Mist
Once you enter the lake area you find yourself in a mystic and magical landscape that is more often than not, enshrouded in a deep impenetrable mist. The lakes are encircled by pine forests, huge cedars and ancient gnarled trees, with ´hairy´ threads of vegetation hanging off them. Furthermore, there are forests of rhododendron trees everywhere.
The day we visited a swirling mist had surged up from the lake causing the water to take on a deep dark green menacing look. Occasionally the mist would break, and for a few seconds the lake became a placid and friendly blue green.
As you hike around the lake, you’ll bump in to nomads on horse back. Some of these nomads set up temporary settlements near the lakes with some refreshments tents during in the high season.
Coming and Going:
There is no public transport; you can hire a taxi from Kanding for about 200 Yuan. Make sure you are prepared for abrupt changes in temperature and weather; it can snow here even in summer.
Our driver was a rather drunk- jolly fellow and nearly killed us all when returning to Kangding. We forgave him a as nothing happened.
These days Mugecuo lake is more touristy than when we visited. However, most day tippers stick to the entrance area. There are plenty of hiking opportunities and if you take your own equippment and just keep going , you’ll end up on the Taggong Grasslands. Be aware, the mist and the thick forest make getting lost a real possibilitity!
Getting to the Saturday market at the Bai village of Wase wasn’t as easy as we had first thought. Most people in Xizhou , the town on the opposite side of Lake Erhai where we were staying, had told us that there was no ferry and that we should try to get to Wase by hopping on and off the numerous buses that go around the lake.
To make matters more complicated, none of the locals agreed as to whether it was better to go round the North, or the South way. Only the owner of the Golden FlowerRestaurant on the central square of Xizhou was convinced that there was a boat.
On Saturday we got up early and tried our luck on the road, waving our arms energetically at any north-bound bus, but to no avail. In desperation, we tried asking about the ferry again. The first man I approached categorically denied the existence of any boat.
A second man was equally adamant that there was indeed a boat, and he was backed up by a number of local Bai women, who happened to be passing by. According to them, there was a ferry leaving at 9.00 from the pier at the village we thought was called Huoyijia, about 2 kilometres away. I think now the village was called Jiangshan Cun.
“How do we get there?” I asked with a certain urgency, because it was by now 8.50! They called over a young man on a motorbike with a trailer behind. We quickly agreed on a price and hopped on.
A trip to Wase Market: Missing the Boat
Unfortunately, the dirt road from Xizhou to Huoyijia/Jiangshan Cun is nothing but a series of bumps and craters; in short, more dirt than road. In order for the trailer not to overturn, the driver had to engage in endless manoeuvres, which reduced our speed to a snail’s pace.
Soon we found ourselves being overtaken by smiling children and cheerful old ladies on bicycles. If there was such a thing as a boat, only unpunctuality would help us catch it!
At 9.07 our trailer finally made it to the quay, where we could only stand and stare in disillusionment and disbelief at the ferry, fading away into the distance across the lake. It was a classical example of the implacable working of ‘Murphy’s Law’! It would eventually take a further two hours, two buses and a taxi, following the southern route this time, to get to Wase, and its lively and interesting Saturday Market.
A trip to Wase Market: Brushing Shoulders with the Bai
We were dropped off at the top of a narrow alley, leading into town. The alley was chock-a-block with fruit sellers and donkey parking lots, with piles of wooden yokes and saddles stacked up breast high.
When we managed to shoulder our way through the crowds, we emerged onto a large square, near the boat pier, with hundreds of stalls, mostly selling an amazing array of fruit and vegetables. The only souvenir stalls in town, selling batiks and ethnic embroidery, are located here as well.
The square is a buzzing, but friendly hive of activity, with hundreds of colourful Bai women pushing and shoving backwards and forwards, using the huge wicker baskets they carry on their backs as buffers.
A trip to Wase Market: A lot of Haggling
Cries of haggling fill the air as produce is picked up, inspected and either exchanged for money, or tossed contemptuously back onto the pile it came from.
As usual, men seem to be in short supply; they are mainly found peacefully smoking a pipe, or playing cards in one of the packed restaurants on either side of the square.
Moving on from the square, the market continues down the main street for at least another kilometre. Here you can stock up on household goods, such as plastic buckets, scoops and ladles, iron woks and other cooking pots and pans, wicker baskets, brooms, colourful balls of wool and lengths of cloth.
More exotic items include the embroidered parts of headdresses and belts, embroidered shoes, silver jewellery, or even wedding dresses.
For all the variety, there was one item we missed at Wase market: the large, odd shaped bamboo fish traps that abounded around Lake Erhai, fifteen years ago. Perhaps they have been replaced by the more modern nylon fishing nets that we often saw stretched out along the lake shore.
Apart from the stalls, there is the usual varied collection of street artisans and other ‘professionals’, such as dentists, hairdressers and ear cleaners. Eventually the market finishes at a small animal market where chickens and pigs come to meet their end.
What is curious about this market is that it not only provides for the living, but for the ghosts of the dead as well. There are several stalls selling paper clothes, shoes, houses and other luxury articles; all presumably meant to make ‘life’ in the after world more pleasant. One stall in particular was selling the most exquisite miniature paper shoes, and the Bai ladies were buying them by the bag-full.
At one point we were drawn away from the main street by a large group of middle-aged and ancient ladies, sitting on wooden benches, singing and tapping small wooden instruments.
To one side, there were several other grannies, busy folding and burning coloured pieces of paper. When we asked them what they were doing they explained that they were singing, or praying, to the dead and burning prayers. It was apparently the auspicious and appropriate time of the month for doing this.
Location: Wase is situated on the eastern side of Lake Erhai, about 350 kilometres north of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Apparently, the Wase market used to take place every 5 days, but it is now held on Saturday mornings, and runs well into the afternoon.
Besides the obvious attraction of the market, the town is full of wonderful traditional Bai homes and mansions, characterised by their sturdy adobe walls and painted doorways.
There are numerous other markets in the various Bai villages around Lake Erhai. The most famous and popular is the Monday market at Shaping, about 33 kilometres from Dali.
Even in January 1991, Shaping market was already pretty touristy, though interesting. These days, Wase’s Saturday market hasn’t been swamped by the tourist hordes from Dali yet.
Coming and Going
we can personally vouch for the existence of a boat that leaves from the pier at Huoyijia village / jiangshan Cun, on the western side of the lake near Xizhou, at 9.00 on Saturdays (at least in 2006 it existed). According to locals, it departs again sometime between 12.00 and 14.00.
People in Wase were far from unanimous in confirming that the last boat returns to Huoyijia / Jiangshan Cun at 17.00. We didn’t stay around to risk it, as the last bus back to Xiaguan is at 16.00. If you are staying in Dali, you might be able to organise a boat over (we saw one tour group getting to Wase that way), but expect to pay through the nose, unless you are in a large group.
if you are staying in Xizhou (far more recommendable than Dali), or anywhere else around the Lake, you can get to Wase by bus in both directions, though locals advised us to take the southern route via Xiaguan rather than the northern route via Jiangwei, because buses are more frequent.
The trick is to take any passing bus to Xiaguan, where you will be dropped off at the western bus station. From there, you can take a local bus or taxi (6 Yuan) to the eastern bus station, from where there are regular departures to towns and villages along the eastern part of the Lake, including Wase.
The Journey from Xiaguan to Wase takes about an hour and a half. The new road opened in 2006 means that from Haidong onwards, the bus skirts the lake shore all the way, thus avoiding the laborious inland route that climbed over and around the mountains.
As a result, the views of Lake Erhai and the Island of Putuo Dao from the bus are excellent. The last bus back to Xiaguan is at 16.00. From Xiaguan to Xizhou there are buses until at least 19.00.
Places to Eat:
After a couple of hours of wandering around, its worth stopping for lunch in one of the restaurants around the main square.
The local fish from the lake is particularly good, especially the deep-fried fish strips in batter. Some of the restaurants are quite used to dealing with foreigners, as they are frequented by tour groups, boated over in style from Dali.
Places to stay:
There is apparently a government guesthouse in Wase, though we are not sure whether we saw it. The courtyard restaurant on the left-hand side of the square (facing the water), which is where we ate, may have doubled up as a guesthouse, but we are not sure.
Bakong Tibetan Scripture Printing Lamasery Degeis not the only reason to come to this remote area of China’s Sichuan Province. There are plenty of other things to see and do. It is however, the end of the road for non- Chinese travellers. Tibet is so close but yet so far.
A bit of a Shock on arrival
The town, we must admit, came as a bit of a shock at first. Having travelled so far, to such a remote place, only to find ourselves in yet another dusty white-tile frontier town, full of hooting traffic, smoking exhausts and blaring radios was not quite what we were expecting.
The only hotel in town had even incorporated a karaoke cum disco in its rapidly deteriorating “new wing”: even though this part of the hotel was only one or two years old, there were cigarette burns in the carpets, peanut shells and pips littering the floor, and stains everywhere.
It wasn’t until the next day that we discovered the delights of the small old town, which houses a number of interesting and beautiful temples, converting Dege in a vibrant place, dominated by the wine-red robes of the monks and the exotic attire of the numerous pilgrims, circumambulating the temples and shrines.
Bakong Tibetan Scripture Printing Lamasery Dege
The jewel in Dege’s crown is undoubtedly the Bakong Scripture Printing Lamasery.
This monastery, whose printing press was built in 1729 and is still operative, holds an important part of Tibet’s history and heritage. The building itself is quite imposing; its walls are painted brick-red, with a decorative rim of dark-brown twigs pressed into one solid layer, while the flat roofs are topped by golden birds, bells and turrets.
Groups of wild-looking pilgrims with unkempt long braids and wrapped in Tibetan greatcoats move clockwise around the outside.
Nearby, groups of monastery workers, most of them women, their index fingers protected by leather thimbles, are busy making wood pulp from thin strips of shredded wood, while others are wetting finished sheets of paper to soften them and prepare them for use.
Inside the print, nothing much has changed for centuries: there are still over a 100 workers, more than 210,000 stored wood-block printing plates, and no mechanization to speak of; so far the monastery has even avoided electricity for fear of fire.
The wood-block texts
The wood-block texts in the library cum storeroom include works on astronomy, Tibetan traditional medicine, geography and music, as well as important treatises on Buddhism. The most valuable item in the collection consists of 555 blocks, detailing the history of Buddhism in India, in Hindu, Urdu and Tibetan.
The oldest blocks are carved into precious woods that are no longer available. In the past, carvers were only allowed to produce one line of text a day, for reasons of clarity.
At the end of the day, their work would be remunerated by putting gold dust on the blocks and then wiping it off. All the gold that remained in the openings, lines and spaces was for the carvers. Obviously, the deeper and clearer they carved, the more they would earn.
The printers, who are mostly young men, work in groups of three, moving like well-oiled cogs in a machine: one of them places the paper in the wooden contraption used for printing and holds it in place, the other one inks the wood-block and presses it down on the paper.
The third one is in charge of fetching the correct blocks, collecting and sorting the finished prints, as well as plying the printers with tea. The printed text appears quickly, at a speed of about one page every four seconds.
However, given that many of the sacred texts, such as the Tengzur, a 46,521 page collection of 14th-century scholastic commentaries on Buddhism, are extremely long, it can take one team of workers roughly a month to produce just one copy.
Bakong Tibetan Scripture Printing Lamasery Dege
In the open-air courtyards, which are surrounded by beautifully painted columns and galleries, older men are busy washing the ink off used printing blocks, mixing paint, or proofreading and checking finished texts and storing them away.
Just by being there and observing the process, you can appreciate how fragile Tibet’s heritage is. That the monastery survived the ravages of the cultural revolution is a miracle in itself!
Moreover, the fact that the whole interior of the building, the library and its irreplaceable collection of printing blocks are made of wood, make it extremely vulnerable to fire. One careless mistake or loose spark and it could all go up in smoke.
The vulnerability of the monastery is one of the reasons you can only visit by guided tour. Unfortunately, most of the guides are elderly men with only the most rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin, who will herd you through far too quickly.
An Amazing Guide
However, there are exceptions. We were extremely lucky to be guided by a lovely young Tibetan girl who had actually studied Tibetan culture at a Minorities University and who was completely dedicated to her work.
She explained that most of the print workers are locals who spend their whole life there, starting with the physically taxing work of printing itself, and gradually moving on to lighter tasks as they get older.
They all need to be literate, up to an extent, in order to carry out their tasks well. In winter, when work at the print comes to a standstill, due to the bitter cold which freezes the ink, and makes the printers’ hands clumsy, many of them spend time at their family farms.
We spent over two hours with her, eventually going up to the top floor where a few ancient monks were making coloured picture prints on cloth and valuable parchment, of which we purchased several, and finally climbing onto the roof, from where there are splendid views over the town. Printing blocks that have been washed are covered in yak butter and laid out to dry here.
Other Monasteries in Dege
Just beyond the Bakong monastery, there are several other lamaseries that are well worth exploring: there are temples, residential blocks set in flower gardens, communal kitchens and primitive outdoor latrines. Groups of monks in flowing robes and child novices in yellow tunics and trousers move between the buildings.
At mealtimes you can see them with their bowls and utensils in hand, lining up at the kitchens or dining halls. Overall, they are extremely friendly and welcoming and don’t seem to mind posing for the odd photo, as long as you don’t overdo it.
Dege Ganchen Baden Lundru Ding Temple
One of the monasteries, the Dege Ganchen Baden Lundru Ding Temple (though this seems to be just one of many names given to it), has a particularly imposing main hall with tall pillars, colourful wall hangings and thankas, big painted drums and large but serene statues of the Buddha.
Where the monastic town ends, an idyllic rustic village takes over, with Tibetan farmsteads, haystacks and vegetable patches. Beyond that, fertile fields, small streams and an endless expanse of countryside.
At the time of writing, the best hotel in town was the “Que Er Shan”, opposite the “Dege Binguan” and run by the same management. In the “Dege Binguan”, double rooms are only Yuan 50, with pay-showers outside, while the “Que Er Shan” charges Yuan 180, no haggling admitted. Despite the slightly run-down feel of the hotel, rooms are quite large and bright, beds are comfy and the showers are piping hot at night. Just make sure your room isn’t too close to the Karaoke.
There are plenty of small, hole-in-the-wall type eateries in town, some of the best run by Han-Chinese and specialising in Sichuan food. Up on a sloping street, just above the hotel, is the “Rhong Zhong Bros Restaurant”, run by a nice young couple from Chengdu; its specialty are potato pancakes and they have a basic menu in English. Other options include Tibetan and Muslim food.
Dege even boasts an upstairs Internet café, on the main street leading to the Bakong monastery, on the left-hand side as you are heading towards the monastery, which is popular with the younger generation. Keep your eyes open for pickpockets though.
The manager of the “Que Er Shan” can help you to rent vehicles for excursions further afield. We paid Yuan 450 for an old jeep, plus driver for the day. A much more comfortable brand-new Mitsubishi would have cost us Yuan 1,000. In retrospect, given the state of the roads, plus the state of our backsides after the ride, the Mitsubishi would have been worth it.
The Dege bus station is nothing like its Ganzi counterpart. Every time we tried to buy tickets, we had found it closed. Eventually, we asked the hotel manager of the “Que Er Shan” to book the tickets for us. Daily buses for Ganzi leave around 7 o’clock in the morning, and they are mostly old beasts. Make sure you have a reserved seat as the bus does fill up.
There is a daily bus to Chamdo in Tibet 7.00 but as the Tibetan border is still closed to individual travellers, your options for continuing your journey are the following:
To Baiyu 白玉
If you want to avoid risking the Chola Pass for a second time,you can hire a vehicle or share a mini bus from Dege to the Monastery town of Baiyu. The road follows the Jinsha Rvier with Tibet proper on the other side. The must see sight here is the Pelyul Gompa 白玉寺 (Baiyu Si) which is also a Tibetan printing monastery.
In Baiyu there is accommodation, food, and onward travel to Ganzi. If you set out early enough with your own transport (jeep), you can take in the spectacular and remote Palpung Monastery (click here).
You can backtrack to Ganzi and eventually make your way back to Chengdu from there. There is even a direct bus linking Ganzi to Chengdu, though we wouldn’t recommend it.
This bus leaves Ganzi at 6.15 in the morning and takes 11 hours to get to Kanding, driving steadily and without any delays. However, once you get past Kanding, night falls and road conditions worsen. We found ourselves driving down pitch-black windy mountain roads, overtaking vehicles on blind corners and going faster than even modern passenger cars. Terrified, we repeatedly shouted at the driver to slow down, to the amusement of the Chinese passengers, who didn’t seem to share our sense of doom.
Eventually, after 19 hours on the bus, the last 7 of which were extremely stressful, we pulled in at Chengdu bus station. If we ever had to do it again, we would definitely stop for the night in Kanding.
The road between Kangding and Chengdu is now is much improved and the journey a breeze.
To Yushu / Serxu
Secondly, you can backtrack from Dege to Manigango and change buses, or go all the way to Ganzi if you want to be sure of a seat, or don’t fancy spending a night in Manigango.
Next you can head for Serxu, and then Yushu in Qinghai province. From there, you can make your way slowly to Xining, the capital of the province. There are some important monasteries close to Xining, such as Tongren and Ta Er Si, and the city is linked by rail to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The journey only takes 4 hours on a fast train.
Finally, you might want to continue your journey by moving into Yunnan province. In order to do this, you need to get back to Kanding first. From there, you make your way to Litang, then Xiangcheng – where you most likely will have to spend the night – and eventually Zhongdian in Yunnan.
Ganzi 甘孜 to Manigango (Manigange 马尼干戈) and onto Dege 德格 Over the Chola Pass 雀儿山
Ganzi to Manigango and onto Degeis a journey you will never forget. As the crow flies, it’s not that far from Ganzi to Dege, the last town before the Tibetan border and home to the famous Bakong Scripture Printing Lamasery. However, separating the two towns is the forbidding 5,400 meter Chola Pass 雀儿山, one of the highest roads in the world.
As we approached Manigango, after about two-and-a-half hours, the scenery became more dramatic and we could see Khampas on horse-back herding yaks, and nomad settlements dotting the pastures.
Although horses are still the predominant means of transport for the Khampas, motorbikes are gaining in popularity, even out on these remote grasslands, judging by the number of bikes whizzing past the bus with two, three and even four people on them.
Welcome to Manigango
On entering Manigango for our lunch break, the sky suddenly turned black and the heavens unleashed a tremendous downpour, which left the muddy streets even muddier.
If any town ever looked like a Wild West one-street film set, then Manigango was it. For many Sichuanese, the name Manigango is associated with wild bandits robbing and even killing Chinese and Western tourists alike.
It does appear that until recently a problem of security did exist around these parts. However, on arriving there, the town seemed quiet enough.
In August 2004, Manigango had only one mucky street, and one vile public toilet, located in a crumbling wooden shack, just off the building site for a new hotel.
There was quite a decent restaurant at the bus stop, with lots of boiling cauldrons, dishing out some rather tasty food. To get to the restaurant however, was another matter: passengers had to jump over puddles, avoid roaming yaks and run the gauntlet of an army of beggars that attached themselves to every incoming bus.
Next to the restaurant, another large hotel was under construction, most likely a sign of the times: Manigango seemed to be gearing up to becoming something of a tourist town.
What’s more, it’s quite likely that it will succeed; the town may not be much, but the surrounding scenery is fantastic and a mere 20 kilometres away on the road to Dege is the Xinluhai lake, one of the most beautiful and pristine in China.
For the time being, we were merely content to find something to eat, a place to pee – of sorts – and leave muddy Manigango and its beggars behind. The bus started to climb steadily over the grasslands, huge snow-capped mountains came into view and suddenly the Xinluhai lake appeared before us.
The lake is set in alpine meadows, dotted with pine trees, that slope steeply towards the turquoise waters. On one side, there is a dramatic backdrop of threatening grey, jagged peaks and a glacier that comes all the way down.
After the lake, the bus started the huge ascent up to the Chola Pass. Going up from Manigango is not so bad, as your bus is on the inside and you cannot see the precipice down below you. This is especially important when having to pass an oncoming truck, or overtake one that has broken down. Eventually, our packed bus crawled to the top, and all the Tibetans on board cheered and celebrated by throwing hundreds of paper prayers out of the window. We were ready to join them, having bought some in Ganzi for the occasion.
Once the bus has made it over the pass, the rest of the journey is a piece of cake. We just rolled downhill for two hours, through deep pine valleys and following gushing mountain rivers until we pulled up at the crummy bus station in downtown Dege.
Returning back over the Chola Pass in sleet and snow was far worse!
Five years later we came through Manigango again on our way from Yushu (just before the earthquake) to Ganzi. Somethings had improved. We overnighted at the Manigange Pani Hotel, then still the only option. Unfornutately, this was one of the worst nights of my life as I was suffering from servere Altitude Sickness that I had come down with in Yushu. These days there are other accommodation options in Manigango that might be better than Pani Hotel.
Litang; China’s Wild West maybe a little tamer these days as transport connections improve and the authorities build more tourists facilities. However, it is still a place for great adventures in Western Sichuan’s wild Tibetan lands.
The journey to Litang from Kangding takes about 7 or 8 hours ( a little less these days weather permitting) and takes you through some pretty rural scenery.
For the first two hours or so, the bus goes through farming land and past some gorgeous two-or three-storey Tibetan farmhouses; these are sturdy stone and wood dwellings with a courtyard and flat roofs for drying chillies, grains and vegetables, quite often surrounded by a wall.
Incongruously, many of the farmsteads sport satellite dishes these days and some have been converted into guesthouses.
Later on, the bus moves through higher and hillier scenery, where meadows and small woodlands alternate and you start seeing herds of yaks. Eventually, you hit the high plateau, where Litang is situated.
Litang, sitting in a wide valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains at an incredible altitude of 4,200 meters above sea level, is literally China’s Wild West.
Litang China’s Wild West: The Town in two Parts
It is a frontier town, on the fringes of government control and full of wild people. As soon as you step off the bus, you will feel the altitude: what with the weight of our backpacks and the lack of oxygen, it seemed that our lungs and head would explode.
Like all the towns in the Tibetan areas of Western Sichuan, Litang is divided between a new Chinese town and the old Tibetan quarter. Recently, huge numbers of Chinese have been encouraged to migrate from the low-lying areas of the Sichuan basin to the Tibetan highlands, with the promise of jobs and business opportunities.
The Chinese part offers the traveller food and accommodation facilities that only a few years ago didn’t exist.
However, it is the Tibetan town that holds all the interest: it is a fascinating maze of Medieval-looking mud-alleys lined by sturdy, traditional Tibetan homes, and dominated by the sprawling monastery complex on a hill overlooking the town .
Open gutters run through the middle of the streets, and a central well provides water for most of the households. Tibetan ladies gather there to fill their buckets, or wash their hair or clothes.
Litang China’s Wild West: The Chöde Gompa
The Chöde Gompa is a huge rambling place, complete with courtyards, halls, temples, surrounded and overlooked by dark wooden galleries decorated with paintings you can barely make out in the semi-darkness, kitchens and sleeping quarters for the monks.
On our visit, we found everything open, but not a soul in sight; not even to sell us a ticket.
Back in the new town, there are several markets, shops and food stalls to keep you entertained.
Trendy Khampa youngsters on decorated motorbikes race up and down the main street, sporting huge sunglasses and leather jackets and flashing golden teeth; while their more conservative counterparts still prefer to ride into town on horseback.
Litang: Sky Burials
What is a Sky Burial
Litang China’s Wild West, has in recent years become an increasingly popular destination to observe Sky Burials, Tibetan funeral rites. Sky burials are the way Tibetans have been disposing of their deceased for centuries.
The burial involves cutting open the deceased’s corpse and removing the body’s organs. This is followed by dismemberment; all limbs are then smashed into pieces and mixed with tsampa (barley flour with tea and yak butter, or milk).
monks known as rogyapas (“body-breakers”) carry out the burial rites. Finally, the rogyapas spread the remains out around the burial site so that vultures and other scavenging birds can come and eat the body parts and clean out the flesh from the carcass.
Litang; China’s Wild West: The Grasslands
The grasslands and high country around Litang offer great opportunities for trekking and hiking and exploring remote monasteries.
You only have to walk a few kilometers out town to stumble upon the nomadic life of the Khampas. Herders graze their horses and yaks, and Khampa farmers and traders, many with large knives holstered in their belts, ride in and out of Litang on their horses giving the whole area a real Wild West feel.
The Khampa women, often dressed in their most elaborate costumes, provide the colour and allure of the grasslands.
If you leave town via the eastern part, you can visit the Qudenggabu, a fairly new stupa, on your way. In spite of its recentness, this place attracts a large number of pilgrims, circumambulating the structure, spinning prayer wheels and reciting mantras.
Moreover, a couple of kilometres out of town, you will come across a simple hot-springs resort, where you might be tempted to have a soak, depending on the level of luxury you are enjoying in town.
ACCOMMODATION: A very Dodgy Hotel
Speaking of which, we stayed in a Tibetan-style hostel, just to the right of the bus station. The place was nice enough, we had traditionally furnished rooms with carved and brightly painted wooden furniture, colourful rugs and blankets. There was a common sitting area and a toilet in the corridor.
However, as we discovered on our first night, the place also doubled as an annex to the seedy bar, cum brothel, across the road. All night long, there were shouts, drunken brawls, slamming doors and thudding footsteps on the landing. We reached our limit on the second night, when a fearsome Khampa warrior with a knife in his belt just strode into our room, stood there grinning and pointing at us, and just refused to move.
On awaking the next morning, our last one, we found a wild-haired nomad squatting on our, the hostel’s, toilet with the door wide open and a vacuous expression on his face… time to go.
As we discovered later, there is no need to stay at the hostel/brothel we stayed at; if you swing a left from the bus station and walk about 10 minutes into the centre of town, there is a proper hotel on a corner, on the right hand side of the street, with a glass-fronted reception. They have en-suite rooms with hot water.
The best time to visit Litang is in the first half of August, when the horse festival takes place. Nomads come from all over to participate in wild, breath-taking races.
If you want to travel on to Yunnan, Litang is where you should go. From here, you can catch a bus to Xiangcheng, where you will have to spend the night, and then Zhongdian in Yunnan.
Matang Gejia Minority Village is a leisurely two kilometre stroll from the turn off from the main road that leads to the lively, friendly and prosperous town of Kaili 凯里市 Guizhou Province .
On the way you’ll pass plenty of colourfully dressed Gejia ladies working in the fields, or dangling live chickens over their shoulders on their way back from the market.
The Gejia, a sub group of the Miao nationality
The Gejia, a sub group of the Miao nationality, wear distinctive clothes and are renowned for their batiks. Especially striking are the women’s multi-coloured striped hats, as well as their elaborately embroidered aprons.
At first sight Matang looks like any other minority village in the Kaili area. Large wooden houses ramble up and over a hill, green rice fields and terraces surround the houses on all sides.
It’s only as you approach the entrance that you notice something different about the place.
We weren’t the first foreigners to visit
First of all, you quickly realise that you are not the first tourist to pass by, as you are greeted by a scrum of ladies trying to flog you anything from batik cloth, local lace and embroidery to ethnic silver jewellery.
The negotiating is pretty good- humoured and you are soon left alone, once you make it clear you aren’t buying anything. The second thing you note is that Matang has been earmarked for special development.
Matang Gejia Minority Village: A Model Village
In Matang you won’t find the usual broken and scruffy paths, found in most Guizhou villages. In this model village you will come across well- laid cobbled paths with neat concrete gutters running alongside and little night-lights built in.
The houses, like the streets, show a cleanliness and order unusual in minority villages, as well as obvious signs of prosperity, such as TV aerials and satellite dishes.
The Gejia seemed friendly and pretty unfazed by a couple of foreign devils strolling around and poking their curious noses into homes.
Bedlam only ensued with the arrival of a French tour group that found itself besieged by souvenir sellers on the brand-new and partly covered village square.
In the commotion, we slipped away behind the village, where numerous paths wind their way into the pretty countryside, offering good hiking opportunities.
Luckily, bullfighting in China isn’t as bloody as in Spain. Basically, two buffalo are incited to fight each other by crashing their heads together, until one decides he has had enough and runs away.
There are loads of daily buses from Kaili that pass the turn off for Matang so getting there and back in a day is very easy. The village can be explored in an hour, but as I mentioned above, hiking opportunities abound in every direction.
With the 2021 Harbin Ice and Snow festival underway. Here is a look back to our visit in 2015
Harbin Ice and Snow Festival 2015: Memories
Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is a must! At last we made it to Harbin. We had wanted to go to Harbin for its Ice Festival for years and at last everything fell into place.
Here is the rundown for this year’s Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Later we’ll be putting up a more personal account. In this post we’ll give you the info you need if you are planning to go this year 2015.
The journey from Kunming to Tonghai takes less than three hours, a straight bus-ride down the motorway with very little in the way of visual distractions. Tonghai itself is a small agricultural town, a few kilometres from the Qilu lake, on whose shores a village inhabited by descendants of soldiers from the Mongol armies survives to this day.
The town, which is currently undergoing a beautification campaign, like so many others in China, is nothing to write home about. Unfortunately, many interesting old buildings, mostly dating from the Qing dynasty, have already fallen prey to the sledge hammer, while others are undergoing dubious reforms.
However, Tonghai’s saving grace is its interesting population mix and, most of all, the wonderfully atmospheric Xiushan park.
Tonghai’s Xiushan park
Xiushan park is a large temple park in the style of China’s famous Holy Mountains, set on Xiushan mountain, overlooking Tonghai city and Qilu lake. Its total lack of cable cars, souvenir stalls and tourists make this park easily one of the most pleasant and laid- back in China.
Those relatively few monks and pilgrims there are, earnestly pray and leave offerings for the gods, simple yet beautiful gifts of flowers, rice, candles and incense. Meanwhile, the locals sip tea and play Mah-jong, Chinese chess and cards in the courtyards of the temples.
Minimalist Bonsai gardens and ancient, gnarled trees of a variety of species, such as camellias, cypresses or firs, many of them held up by metal bars, add beauty and a kind of timeless charm to the place.
Besides trees, dragons are the protagonists of the park, either wrapping their bodies around pillars, cavorting above doorways, or splashing in fountains. All in all, it’s a lush and peaceful place.
Entrance to the park is 15 Yuan and foreigner visitors still attract the curiosity of the locals in these parts.
Places to Stay and Eat:
We stayed at the Tongyin hotel, supposedly the poshest and most expensive one in town, for 145 Yuan, including breakfast. You can’t miss it, it’s the tallest building in town, two minutes away from the bus station, on a main road. There is no shortage of cheaper hotels, most of them new, near the bus station and on the road into town from Kunming.
Food options in Tonghai are not great. There are a number of small hole-in-the-wall type restaurants near the bus station with lots of meat and hanging carcesses, or the entrance to Xiushan Park, as well as at least one smart restaurant inside the Tongyin hotel. A couple of decent supermarkets provide for self caterers.
Coming and Going
Buses to Tonghai leave from Kunming’s main long-distance bus station regularly throughout the day. There are plenty of buses in the other direction as well. Regular buses leave for Jianshui, every two and half hours.
Siberian Tigers in Harbin 哈尔滨. If you get the chance to visit Harbin in Heilongjiang Province this winter (that’s a big if!), remember that during the day light hours before the ice festival is lit up, you can visit the amazing Siberian Tiger Park 东北虎林园 just outside town; best reached by Taxi from central Harbin 哈尔滨. This park has successfully bred more than 1000 of these spectacular cats
Seeing these powerful beasts up so close is quite an extraordinary experience. You’ll be glad you are in a protected bus and just hope that the engine doesn’t stall. The tigers seem well-looked after and especially well-feed. However, that brings us to the controversial part about visitng the park.
Feeding live animals to the tigers
Visitors have the option to buy a variety of live animals to feed to the tigers; an option very popular with domestic tourists who love to see the ravenous tigers pounce on the cow that is made to slide out the back of a truck, the chickens that are hung for the tigers to torn out of people’s hands, and the goats that are just pushed through the wire gates to be mauled and ripped apart in a matter of seconds.
The price of the live animal rises according to its size. Chickens are the cheapest and a mature cow the most expensive. Prices are listed at the ticket booth. It is not a spectacle for the squeamish and hyper-sensitive.
While tigers may never be vegetarians, we don’t recommend participating in this type macabre gimmick: It is totally unnecessary. The tigers can easily be feed slaughtered meat and the idea of laughing and getting pleasure from watching another animal meet its end is rather distasteful. This apart, seeing the Siberian tigers in such close proximity is truly memorable.
“Bu kaifa, bu kaifa 不开发” it hasn’t been developed for tourism. That was our driver’s favourite motto.
So he took us to the “bu kaifa” village of Hongcun 洪村
Hongcun 洪村 (Wuyuan 婺源, Jiangxi 江西省 Province).
The quaintest Village in China might be Hongcun 洪村. Hongcun, is surrounded by drop-dead gorgeous sub-tropical scenery. It is home to some wonderful Huizhou architecture and when we visited; no tourists
From the diary
Is this the quaintest village in China? After a copious and excellent lunch, which was at a restaurant opposite a huge ancient tree and seemed to be a favourite with tourist drivers, our man ( the driver) then took us to a remote and completely ‘undeveloped (bu kaifa 不开发)’ village called Hongcun (not to be confused with its more famous namesake in Anhui near Huangshan), where there wasn’t an entrance ticket or single other tourist in sight.
The place was extremely pretty and peaceful: on the outside, a line of elegantly greying houses stood beside a clear river winding its way through the rice fields.
Stunning Hongcun Village Wuyuan
Contented-looking ducks floated on the water, bamboo poles loaded with washing swayed gently in the wind, while farmers in conical hats tended to their fields.
In the narrow, shady streets towards the centre, local residents sat outside their doorways chatting, playing cards and cutting vegetables.
We found some people busy restoring a spacious wooden community hall. In fact, in spite of its lack of (tourist) development, the buildings in Hongcun were in remarkable shape and had some of the most intricate wooden carvings we’d come across.
A Relaxing Afternoon in Stunning Hongcun village
We sat down on a stone bench in the shade of a drapping tree to enjoy a lukewarm beer, bought from a hole-in-the wall shop without a fridge, and let ourselves drift into the unhurried pace of village life.
The locals, obviously not used to having foreigners in the village, eyed us up with friendly curiosity, often directing questions to our driver about who we were and what we were doing there.
With the hearty lunch now weighing heavy on our stomachs, making us feel both comatose and soporific, we just let our driver exaggerate our importance to the villagers.
We were now distinguished professors from a great overseas university and not merely humble English teachers from a university in Madrid; the locals seemed impressed and nodded approvingly at his every Word. Our driver was lapping it up!
Normally, we would have underplayed our importance and protested our driver’s flattery, but we let it rest and everyone seemed contented. It was a perfect day and even the warm beer went down well!
Update: Hongcun has changed
As with everything in China in this century nothing withstands the changes of time and Hongcun is no exception. The village is now defiantly very Kaifa 不开发 (developed) for tourists. However, it is still beautiful and I am sure that on an off-peak day it can still be a lovely place to visit.
Some of the buildings have undergone tasteful restoration and the ancestor halls and guild halls that were being used for weaving and chili drying are now housing museums and teahouses.
Getting there and away:
Difficult when we visited. A hired car was the best option. Hongcun is located between Dazhang Mountain and Sixi and not too far from the famous Rainbow Bridge.