On the road to Shangri-La

Today we headed north towards the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. First stop was the ‘first bend of the Yangtze River’. Three rivers rise in the north and head south through the mountains. Two of them continue south and join the Mekong, emptying in the South China Sea. The Yangtze makes a different choice – at this spot it makes a U-bend that then leads it eastward across China, ultimately reaching the sea at Shanghai. At this season, before the rains, the river looks charming and benign, but in a month or two it will be an iron-red raging torrent. We strolled through the little town next to the bend and snacked on deep fried potatoes with chilli.

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We continued on to Tiger Leaping Gorge (still the upper Yangtze, here known as Jinsha river). I had toyed with the idea of hiking the gorge for a couple of days but all the guidebooks say it is extremely steep and demanding, especially on the knees. Not for me these days. Instead we drove to the inevitable visitor centre, with walkways, viewing platforms and tat shops. Even so it was a considerable descent to reach the river and a stiff climb back up. No matter all the trappings of tourism, it is still stunning. Hydro power is growing massively in China and there was talk of flooding the gorge to create a dam. As well as affecting tourism, this would have displaced about 100,000 Naxi people. In a rare response to public outcry, the dam project has been shelved. However, there are still plans for dams higher up and lower down, so it is not all good news.

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We climbed from 2400m at Lijiang to 3200m at Shangri-La, via spectacular mountain scenery. We are close to Tibet here and the flavour of the town is very much Tibetan rather than Chinese. Goats gave way to yaks, pagoda style roofs disappeared and traditional Tibetan houses started to appear, signs started to be in Tibetan script as well as Chinese characters and prayer flags were flying everywhere. It’s also much colder here, but still good weather. There was a major fire in Shangri-La last year that destroyed about 400 houses in the old town. I’m not sure how much that will affect the look of the place.


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