Friday, September 04, 2015

Creature Comforts in Lijiang at The Bivou

Didn't need a mega five-star resort or that S$600-a-night boutique luxury. I'm still missing mountains and would gladly do a no-shower no-proper-flush-toilet stay anytime back there in the cool mist and green. Glad we chose the small cosy The Bivou (佖屋) for our stop in Lijiang. Housed within the old houses and fully refurbished, it offers an oasis away from the bustle of Shuhe (束河).

We took a tiny garden room that was really comfortable. Except maybe for that weird awkward misaligned sliding door/cabinet to the shower. Hot water, heaters, electricity (that does stop once in a bit, but less often than Zhongdian), plenty of sockets that didn't require adaptors for our three-pin plugs, etc. Well, it's run by Singaporeans, so there's a sort of efficiency that's comforting. Things do work, perhaps not according to one's expectations, but chugging along to what the town can do.

Delicious local-style mushroom soup.
There's a full shelf of books in the dining room that offers more insights by various writers into Lijiang and Yunnan's history. Very nice to sit down for an hour to read through what they have. It was inspiring enough for me to thumb through cookbooks on the region's cuisines, photography journals and notes on the Ancient Tea Horse Road (茶马古道).

The Bivou tries to reach out to travelers and tailors trails and treks that are slightly different from the rest of the operators offer. They work with the surrounding villages, and the guides seem to have been well briefed and trained. All my emails have been answered promptly, in English. With that hint of Singaporean phrasing. Hehehehe. Honestly, I find it a tad torturous to have to conduct every conversation in Mandarin. It isn't my thought-language.

Many nights, we retreat to the silence of Bivou for dinner instead of dealing with the crowds outside. Mainly we're tired after long treks. After a hot shower and all, it's 7pm and we're too lazy to head out again except to the hotel's dining room. Sprawling out there with a beer is great. Hehehe. The a-yis cook us delicious food and consciously use less on oil and salt because we requested for that. One evening, the stir-fried greens presented themselves as baby bokchoi (小白菜). Was so tickled because it felt so 'home'.

The daily breakfast spread is small and lovely. With none of the cold-metal trays of big-chain hotel buffets, but all the warmth of bread baskets and little plates.

Granola, muesli, yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice, cold and hot milk, and loaves of homebaked bread. Mains are rotated daily. It could be Spanish omelette, scrambled eggs, sausages or even noodles. Love the coffee. Good strong thick black coffee from local beans. Mmmm.

Stomach space has shrunk even more on this trip. Shed the city fats and am seriously trim. As it is, I don't eat very much, and am not bothered about breakfast, especially not if it's a really early wake-up call. However, on days when we head out for a walk and not planning to get lunch till later, I nibble on the toast and honey. Just in case I really don't get another meal till like 4pm. On other days, I grudgingly do congee. Half a bowl would do nicely. The hotel puts out a pot of congee every day with simple condiments for the guests. Grinned at the tray of bottles and roasted peanuts. The condiments are very Cantonese. Preserved stuff. No nutrition but I like for the high salt content. Kekekeke.

Thursday, September 03, 2015


Decided to walk over for lunch at neighboring Baisha Village (白沙村) instead of paying horrendous prices for unsatisfying and not-great food in Old Town (古城) and Shuhe (束河). We started from Shuhe. The normally one-hour walk took two hours because we stopped and did jump shots and silly things like that. The route there was tranquil and lovely enough to grab a few photos.

Baisha Village is compact and small and not yet as stupidly commercialized. Definitely a welcome change; I'll grudgingly describe it as 'charming'. Stared at its famous Buddhist murals and frescoes depicting the town's history and development of religion. But I didn't want to see temples with Chinese architecture. I live in Southeast Asia, and Singapore at that. So we didn't bother about seeing anymore places of worship after looking at Fuguo Temple (白沙村福国寺).

Randomly watched a program on CCTV about Suzhou embroidery (苏绣) last night, and was given an explanation on what stitches and stuff to look out for in factory-made and hand-sewn works, especially when the threads used are of the same quality. So it was at least interesting to step into The Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute (白沙锦绣艺术院) to admire its works.

Found a super local eatery right at the edge of town and plonked ourselves there for lunch. Woot. ¥10 (~ SGD 2.18) for a bowl of noodles or fried rice was most acceptable. Way better than the kertok ¥45 and above (~ SGD 9.84) a plate in the Old Town or Shuhe. Those aren't even like the food's served in a proper clean lovely smoke-free restaurant with shiny cutlery and utensils that aren't stained, chipped or covered with a thin layer of grease (because they don't use detergent to wash the stacks of dirty dishes and cutlery). I'm talking about staple Naxi fried rice in a small portion for one person leh, not like it's the strangely-popular western food of spaghetti bolognese or a burger or something, which are usually priced higher than local fare.

We sat outdoors on the little stools because indoors were totally smoked out by cigarettes. UGH. Outside was a much more pleasant experience. Ordered random noodles (肉碎米线) and Naxi fried rice (纳西炒饭). They held preserved vegetables and pickles. Also came with a side dish of pickled chilli. YUMMY. Something about those sour-salty pickles made the dishes most delicious.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015


“边陲古城气势雄,遍布名胜醉春风。遥望玉龙琼山峻,俯视墨潭泉液通。万朵茶花一半山,千翠绿树十三峰。佛洞烟霞锁翠微,金沙虎跳腾碧空。” 《滇西游记》

As it is, this rainy season, it's already not-so-high tourist season compared to April/May/June and September/October. But it is the domestic school holidays in this month, so people are still traveling. The crowds in Lijiang are too frazzling. Can't deal with them. I miss the quiet of Zhongdian. Decided to hit the trails where there aren't many humans out and about. Went up the back hills of Shuhe (束河). The thing is, these trails are literally in someone's backyard. City folks won't have that luxury of 'just heading out for a walk'. I'm seizing every moment to get out amongst nature. A two-hour walk is short. Three hours would be just nice.

These trails have almost zero animal poop on them. Didn't see many animals either. Birds, yes. These trails are too close to the Old Towns. It's either too frequently used by humans or too much construction going on. When we were up there, lots of tractor marks all across digging sides out of the mountains to build dunno-what. We're lucky to see this now. Years later, they'll probably build more resorts up here.

Saw many graves and paused to read the headstones. These were Han Chinese graves and not done in the ornate way that Southeast Asian Chinese do. (Think our Bukit Brown Cemetery) It was bright and sunny when we climbed up. An hour in, it began raining. But as the way mountains are, the rain stops after twenty minutes or so. Then the trails are safe to walk again. Of course the slight danger is in slipping on the mud and loose stones. Clearly, before this trip, we've sorted out insurance and the sorts.

Didn't take that many photos of humans. Each one of myself is in an unglamorous squat on some rock. Grrrrr. My friends lah! Dunno why they keep catching me in those moments.

Wandered up to a rocky area with red ribbons tied around the tree branches. Assumed it meant 'ascent'. But OOPS. Too late. It might have meant 'danger'. We walked straight onto a narrow ledge where it's tough to put two feet side by side. Precipice. Death down left. Bloody hell. Like that trip at Mount Hua (华山,华阴市,西安).  At least we were prepared then.

This time, we had only four carabiners, no quickdraws and no climbing ropes. Because we thought this was going to be an EASY WALK. Hugged the stones as we navigated the bends. No one could circle past those unless you've lived in these mountains all your life, or if you're a goat. Treaded gingerly, then gave up. Had to backtrack to seek out a more stable route. Some muddy paths led to dead ends. Basket. Did I mention I have this fear of heights that I keep trying conquer?

That was suitably scary. Plus the rain started again and didn't abate. The intensity increased till we had to pull out raincovers for the backpacks. Found the paths we took and re-traced it downhill. It was 4.30pm. Didn't want to be caught searching for paths by sundown. These hills weren't our familiar backyard. We had supplies and food but those weren't enough preparedness. With no climbing equipment on a trail like this, it was time to head back. 

Tuesday, September 01, 2015


Work is over! Taking a break now. Asked M why we couldn't stay in Zhongdian/Shangri-La to play and needed to trot over to Lijiang (丽江). She said she wanted to buy shoes. I was like...WHUT. Couldn't believe she dared to tell me that during trip-planning months earlier. Imagine how far back my eyes rolled, and I actually humored her.

Yup. Our sole purpose in hopping over to the annoying-touristy Lijiang was for M to buy shoes at one of those street stalls. BUY SHOES. Win liao lor. Like we don't have shoes in Singapore where a million malls exist. KILL ME NOW.

Nope. After checking out shops for two days, she didn't buy a single pair of shoes. The fashion trends have shifted since she last bought shoes in the designs and color combinations she likes. In the end, she bought shawls. The plain-colored cotton ones that are easy on the eye and useful in Singapore's humid heat.

I honestly can't tell the difference between Lijiang Old Town and Vietnam's Huế or Hội An. Okay I'm being sarcastic. Architecture in Lijiang is very influenced by Han Chinese traditions rather than Tibetan culture. I suppose it's like how the minority tribes sourced for a compromise between cultures and pragmatic concerns and have evolved building design over the centuries. There's the UNESCO Old Town of Lijiang (丽江古城) where you pay ¥80 (~ SGD 17.68) EACH TIME you enter. I understand it's for preservation purposes. BUT. EACH TIME??! Jeeez. Vietnam's Hội An Ancient Town currently charges a fair VND120,000 (~ SGD 7.39) for a day or two, I think; Huế Imperial City levies a VND150,000 (~ SGD 9.24) entry fee. Plenty of bars and beer joints in Old Town (古城). Rather frazzling. Didn't like it years back, still don't like it now.

Dali (大理) isn't so bad yet but it's getting there. Their culture and traditions is a mix of Bai and Han. The city levies weird ticket charges at monasteries, chair lifts and even on mountain trails surrounding their Old Town. Lijiang's Old Town and Shuhe (束河) strangely felt like Hội An and HuếThere's the new-old town they created out of Shuhe's old village houses. It's not the 'original-designated-original Old Town' but hey, the buildings are same-old-same-old. Shuhe holds fewer drinking joints and seems to be going for a cafe-feel. Is it politically correct to say this.... it feels like those little cafes in Kaoshiung, Hsinchu, Hualien or Chiayi .... Just three years ago, Shuhe is made up of only three streets. Now it has expanded. A cappuccino at a random cafe is more expensive than Singapore at ¥35 (~SGD 7.60), and quite crap at that.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Forgotten Kingdom

What better time to re-read Russian-born traveler and explorer Peter Goullart's 1957 'Forgotten Kingdom' than right before the drive to Lijiang (丽江). A refresher of how Lijiang was and what it meant to the explorer when he lived there for over eight years from 1939 to 1949.

We were caught in a horrendous traffic jam on the way from Shangri-la/Zhingdian down to Lijiang, turning a usual four-journey into six hours. The winding mountain road is two-lanes only- one up and down. So when a traffic accident happens on either side, traffic is backed up all the way. Till rescue vehicles and tow trucks arrive. That means it's a minimum two-hour wait. Since nothing moved, we switched off the engines, got out of the car and stretched. Might as well read a book.

I loved the stories. Hahahaha. He talks about the now-patriachial Nakhi (the Naxi tribe, 纳西族) ethnic people's characteristics, similar but culturally distinct to the still-matriachial Mosuo (摩梭). The narrative is factual, gleaned from the author's observations. There's wit and humor, but it doesn't offer a deeper voice to his inner thoughts, in spite of him seeking solace in the simple life in the mountains and its religions.

The ending of this book, while expected, was sad. Everything about China as my grandfather knew it had changed after October 1949. Author Peter Goullart, along with botanist and fellow explorer Austrian-American Joseph Rock had to leave China. Joseph Rock returned to his adopted hometown of Honolulu in Hawaii; Peter Goullart moved to Singapore to continue his work and writing till his death in June 1978.

To marry a Nakhi woman was to acquire a life insurance, and the ability to be idle for the rest of one's days. Therefore, the market value of a Nakhi bride was very high, and as the Nakhi men outnumbered women by five to four, a man was lucky to find a wife at all. A single woman of almost any age would do; there were youngsters of eighteen married to women of thirty-five. What did it matter, the boy was secure for life? She was his wife and mother and, moreover, she kept him in clover. What more could a man want? 
Thus the women in the little Nakhi world were despised creatures in theory but powerful and respected in practice. Men were the privileged beings, but weak and of little account in the economic life. Even in physique they seldom appeared the equals of their husky mates. When young, they sponged on their mothers and sisters and spent the time in picnicking, gambling and dalliance. When old, they stayed at home, looking after the children, talking to cronies and smoking opium. Like drones, they would have quickly died of starvation had their wives stopped the money-making.

Sunday, August 30, 2015


架子是用来嗮青稞 (Highland barley) 的。青稞蜂蜜酥特别好吃。

And that's a wrap for the sojourn in Zhongdian/Gyalthang/Shangri-la. I'm going to miss it so so so so so much. In five years, when the highway connecting Zhongdian to Lijiang (that's now four hours away on the narrow two-lane crowded mountain road) is completed and open to heavy traffic, the destructive mark of domestic tourism will be seen and felt everywhere in paradise.

This trip is much treasured. Zhongdian has a special place in my heart. It was a destination that was undertaken as a personal challenge 10 years ago. It fed my soul and fortified me in faith and strength. Today, this trip is more of gratitude, thanksgiving and paying-it-forward. Should I return in another decade, I don't think I'll be fit enough or have it in me to sleep on groundsheets, trek or gallop on horses across the plains anymore. Ahhh memories. The next trip would be rather different, I fancy.

As beautiful as Zhongdian is, my mind is swirling upon the upcoming General Elections at home, even though I'm trying my best to ignore the many idiotic statements made. Anyway, in view of current mood, only certain aspects of James Hilton's 1933 'Lost Horizon' resonate with me, least of which is this quote in Chapter 6,

Certainly during visits to the valley Conway found a spirit of goodwill and contentment that pleased him all the more because he knew that of all the arts, that of government has been brought least to perfection. When he made some complimentary remark, however, Chang responded: “Ah, but you see, we believe that to govern perfectly it is necessary to avoid governing too much.” 
“Yet you don’t have any democratic machinery — voting, and so on?” 
“Oh, no. Our people would be quite shocked by having to declare that one policy was completely right and another completely wrong.” 
Conway smiled. He found the attitude a curiously sympathetic one.


Onward to Lijiang.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

香格里拉 :: 农家饭

We've had the fortune and privilege of being invited to partake many homecooked meals in Zhongdian. Hearty down-to-earth dishes that are mighty familiar food to us.

Living in Asia means that we see these combinations of vegetables, meats, spices and herbs on a regular basis at most families' dinner tables and casual eateries. Think of the idea of 'three dishes and one soup' (三菜一汤) that Southeast Asia knows well across cultures and ethnicities.

The food tends to be on the oily and salty side. So oily till it's scary. There were a few times when I was THIS CLOSE to taking over the frying pan and loudly proclaim "I'll cook." We keep reminding every kitchen and eatery to put less of them and no MSG. But for us, the hosts took extra effort to cut down on the oil and the salt especially in our homecooked meals. Good! Besides giving the arteries and kidneys a rest, using less meant the essential cooking ingredients last longer.

Dishes aren't what is termed fancy. But I think the kitchen makes an effort to put in extra meat for us, and also extra vegetables since we declare that we love greens. Duck appeared one day just for fun. It's pricey by local standards and by Asian standards, it's a lean duck without much meat. I don't mind it at all. It's tasty without the eeky fats. And it's free-range. Heh.

The hot tasty food at either lunch or dinner was incredibly welcomed after a long day out. Getting rained on for hours and sloshing about in the mud can be rather miserable although the spirits are kept cheerful. We swooped down at the plates with eager pairs of chopsticks and forgot the ritual of taking photos. Too many people with uber-hungry stomachs. I was early for some meals by mere minutes and managed to grab a few shots before humans whooshed in. Heh. Much appreciated meals and companionship at the table.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Foraging for Mushrooms

Mushroom season!!! Of all Chinese provinces, Yunnan has the best wild mushrooms! What more we are already at the right altitude to grab them fresh. While there're more than 600 species sprouting across Yunnan, probably only about ten to twelve types are edible. Don't randomly eat them. Check with the locals.

In the northern Yunnan, we could get chanterelle (鸡油菌), morel (羊肚菌), porcini (牛肝菌), berk heim (鸡纵菌), ganba (干巴菌), bamboo (竹荪菌), et cetera, and of course the jeweled top-grade pine mushroom or what we know as 'matsutake' (松茸,纳西语称“裕茂萝”). The for-real matsutake with caps both closed and opened. Just so you know, Bhutan's mountains produce the same matsutake too.

The eateries in town sell loads of mushrooms; further south, a pot of stir-fried average quality of matsutake goes for S$26 (~ ¥120) per portion that's good for maybe... three persons. We've had tons of mushrooms and can't stop eating them. Similar to what you get in Bhutan and Europe, Shangri-La's altitude gives it a richly diverse profile of wild mushrooms. One could cultivate them of course, but the fun is in the foraging. We did that a couple of times. Mushrooms are addictive and all of us love it. A good reason as any to go exploring the area on not-too-rainy mornings.

One morning, we climbed up up and up to nibble on sour berries and fill our baskets. The same woven baskets you see the ladies carry to the market and fields. Had a good haul. Glorious. It was a cloudy morning- that meant our mushrooms were extra juicy. Woohooo. Met an elderly couple on their way down from the mountains. They had one full basket of mushrooms from a fruitful morning of foraging and showed us what they had. They were going to sell it at the market in town. For all that effort, we decided to buy their basket and relieve them of that trip. Hahahaha. Went back down to the campsite for a late lunch. Farm to table freshness, OH YES.

Meals are kept simple. It's not a gastronomic trip. Food sustains our energy and spirits for the daily toil. We eat what the locals usually have. Told the team that if they want chicken, they would have to go chase down one and slaughter it themselves. HAHAHAHAH. The locals like to have the mushrooms in hotpot and all that. But we very much prefer to enjoy the mushrooms' full flavors by grilling them with the barest hint of oil and a light sprinkling of salt. Oh you know, some of us actually brought along coarse pink Himalayan salt and tiny bottles of olive oil. LOL.

The camp kitchen a-yis had prepared flatbreads (粑粑) and the local short-grained almost-sticky rice (米饭), thin slices of spiced yak and stir-fried greens. They had set up the grill for the meat and to await our mushrooms. OH DELICIOUSNESS. Best meals ever.

The paths up the mountains aren't exactly smooth. They're mostly crudely eked out, steep, muddy and rocky. Navigating them required some skills that we city folks don't quite possess. Most walks are done in under three hours. There have been days when five-hour treks are a must. No issues with altitude at all. The team prepped for it. We began slow, but once we got used to the paths, we started uhhh... walking really fast. Not quite sprinting. At this rate, my butt and thighs are getting really trim. With the meal portions and level of fats being strictly controlled, I could feel the muscles tighten day by day and the entire body getting thoroughly conditioned. AWESOMESAUCE.