Friday, February 22, 2013

The Highs and Lows of Trekking the Jade Cloud Road in Dali

The trail was climbing up the mountain again and I was starting to get worried. We have been walking for about five hours now and what we thought was a morning hike was lasting well into the afternoon, God forbid, the evening. Neither my equally worried trekking companion nor I am prepared for trekking in the cold dark night.

"It does not make sense," Kristen said. "We were descending the mountain just a few minutes ago, why are we climbing up again?"

"I say we follow the trail," I responded as I sat down to take a breather. "If there's anything I learned about trekking in the Himalayas, it's that you trust the paved trail in front of you."

Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China
One of the more scenic parts of the Jade Cloud Road in Dali

Kristen and I were currently walking along the Jade Cloud Road, a paved hiking trail situated at an elevation of about 2,500 meters above sea level. It snakes through the eastern slopes of Cang Shan, or the Green Mountains of Dali in Central Yunnan, Southwest China. The Jade Cloud Road begins north right by Zhonghe Temple located 500 meters above the Old Town of Dali. It ends about 11 kilometers to the south at another temple, Gantong Temple, close to the New Town of Dali (Xiaguan). Cable cars are set up at both start and end but being the foolhardy, intrepid travelers that we are, we did not take either.

Pleasant beginnings

Today's hike started pleasantly enough. That morning, five of us began walking from the Jade Emu International Hostel outside the Old Town of Dali. There was an Englishman, a Kiwi, an American (Kristen), a Filipino (me), all traveling through China and all staying at the hostel, and a Russian currently based in Dali. After a few minutes of navigating the narrow lanes lined with the beautifully bare white houses of the Bai people (Dali's original inhabitants), we reached a paddy field from which an unpaved trail rises up towards the mountains. The unpaved trail leads to Zhonghe Temple, the starting point of the Jade Cloud Road.

We walked the uphill forest trail to Zhonghe Temple, through pine woods with a rocky and sandy soil. We passed by crop gardens as well as burial grounds marked by small, gray headstones. The Chinese believe, the Englishman Simon explains, the higher in the mountains you are buried, the better your standing is in the afterlife. We imagined the relatives of the departed having a hard time lugging those huge boulders from below in Dali up to the slopes of the mountains here.

Trek to Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China
Trail to Zhonghe Temple dotted with Chinese burial grounds

Worst part over (or is it?)

After an hour or so, we reached the temple, where a courtyard, a covered pavilion, and an eatery are also found. The pavilion serves as a viewpoint and looks east towards Erhai Hu (Ear-shaped Lake) and the Old Town of Dali. The view is nothing short of stunning from these heights. Low tables and stools are set up and a group of men were playing checkers across the courtyard. It seems people actually live in the area around Zhonghe Temple. Since it was lunchtime, we thought we might as well fuel up with a plate of chow mein or stir-fried noodles with vegetables, what we Filipinos call pancit. It was one of the better decisions we made that day. Our next meal would come many hours later, too many hours later.

Dali, Yunnan, China
View of Erhai Hu and the Old Town of Dali from Zhonghe Temple

Continuing on the day's hike, we finally found ourselves walking along the Jade Cloud Road. I began realizing how anticlimactic all this was. The trek to Zhonghe Temple is all uphill and the trail unpaved. However, the Jade Cloud Road itself, completed in 1992, is flat, cemented, and fenced. This is not to say though that there is a lack of stunning views here. The road was carved out of rock faces and huge boulders, impressively grandiose in themselves and quite telling of their fascinating geological origins. Falls and streams punctuate deep gorges. The rocky upper slopes and snow-clad peaks of the Cang Shan range would peek at us on the road from time to time.

Trek to Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China
Fascinating geological folds of Cang Shan

Trek to Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China
Trail is (super) paved and flat.
Trek to Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China
Well, hello there, snowy peak.

Trek to Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China
Rocky upper slopes of Cang Shan. Plenty of stunning views here.

The end is nigh, well, high

I thought it was the end of the Jade Cloud Road when we reached the cable car a couple of hours of walk later. Tourist facilities can be found in the area around the cable way, including, well, a lot of tourists. Judging by their relaxed, fresh looks, compared to our disheveled, clearly tired-from-walking-all-day looks, these tourists took the cable car. Gantong Temple, where the Jade Cloud Road leads to, could not be far from here.

It seemed that way at first. The trail was beginning a rather steep descent back towards civilization. Admittedly, I began feeling elated and was now looking forward to a big, delicious dinner. Hopes were dashed a few minutes later, however, when we found ourselves climbing up the mountain again. Kristen and I were getting tired and hopeless and our three other trekking companions were nowhere to be found. We knew we had to pause and think things through.

Trek to Cang Shan, Dali, Yunnan, China
And the trail climbed up the pine forest yet again. Damn.

"Hey, maybe we can ask her." I pointed to a Chinese woman who appeared from behind a rock. She looked like she was also doing the Jade Cloud Road hike today. More importantly, she obviously preferred not take the cable car and walk the whole 11 kilometers like us. She must know something.

"I can ask, but it doesn't seem like she knows anything," Kristen said. Having previously taught at a Chinese university for two years, Kristen has a working knowledge of Mandarin.

Chinese words exchanged, Kristen says the Chinese woman is actually a Dali local (Hallelujah!) and tells us to continue walking up towards the hill. This is the right way, she says. It looked like she knew where she was going and it certainly looked like she has done the entire Jade Cloud Road hike many times over. It is in our best interest, I think, to heed her directions.

The most delicious dinner I ever had

I blame hopelessness, fatigue, and desperation. Our new-found Chinese friend was right. We were to discover that a few minutes more of walking uphill and we would reach a forest clearing located on a flat ridge. The trail continues on from here and finally descends towards Gantong Temple and the Cang Shan Tourist Service Center a few minutes later.

Through Buddhist stupas, Tibetan prayer flags, and Chinese archways, we finally see our other trekking companions sat at the benches outside the tourist service center. Unfortunately, they said, we still had a few more minutes of walking along the road, an actual road with vehicles, which goes down to the Tibet-Yunnan Highway, where we can catch a bus back to the Old Town of Dali. Fortunately, we said, we met a kind Chinese woman, a Dali local, who has her car parked at the nearby parking lot. We were dropped at the highway, bid farewell to our Chinese friend, and endlessly thanked her for her kindness.

It was Sunday that day and every Sunday, the English-owned Bad Monkey Bar along Foreigner Street in the Old Town of Dali serves English Sunday Roast. It is a hearty dish with big slices of roasted beef, roasted potatoes, carrot sticks, Yorkshire pudding, and stuffing all rounded-up together by a deliciously meaty gravy. Bonding over Tsing Tao beer and stories about severely exhausting walks, we had one delicious dinner, certainly the most delicious dinner we had in China thus far.

Sunday Roast, Old Town, Dali, Yunnan, China
A very English Sunday Roast after one fine Sunday hike in China. We deserved this.

What meal did you have after a full day of trekking and hiking? Was it also the best meal you ever had?

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