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[Outbound]: Rugged Adventure Awaits in Northwest Lijiang

Forging unique experiences in the remote valleys of Baoshan...
2023-05-21 12:00:00
Outbound is SmartShanghai's travel features series dedicated to fascinating and wonderful places, nearby and far-flung, around China and sometimes not.

There is something about waking up to the crisp country air, the musky scent of morning mist rising up from the fields. There's something about waking up to the sound of the rooster's crow and the rustle of cows gently nudging their calves up the hill. There is something about the stillness and calm of this idyllic village life that has brought Wendy back here for 20 years.

When Wendy Van Heesvelde met Jeff (和吉腥), she was a university student. Coming from Belgium, she was studying in China, and working part-time as a tour guide. Jeff was a waiter at one of the few restaurants in Lijiang Old Town that, at the time, had an English-language menu. Wendy would take her guests there to eat, and she soon discovered that Jeff was a resourceful man, a man who knew how to hire horses, find drivers, book buses and hotels, and spoke a bit of English too. They became friends, and, at some point, Jeff brought Wendy back to his village, Wumu (乌木), in the remote region of Baoshan Township (宝山乡), just north of Lijiang.

She fell in love with Wumu—and him. They would go on to marry, have children, and buy a plot of land upon which they would build Huahuasei Lodge (, a charming European-style bed and breakfast buried deep in the mountains.

A Journey Begins: Huahuasei Lodge

You can sense the love and care put into every facet of the place: the comfort of the rooms, the craftsmanship in the woodwork, the familiarity of homemade bread and jam served over a hot pot of coffee. Guests often come planning to stay a few days and end up staying weeks, working remotely alongside the peaceful rhythm of the village, a welcome change from big city life. When work is done, plenty of excursions await, both long and short, suiting not only the experienced trekker but also novice explorers.

Jeff has been instrumental in laying the trails from Wumu to the outlying villages. He was, at one point, the head of his village, and in his eight-year tenure, he oversaw the laying of a concrete road down to Wumu from the main road. He also supervised the construction of over 100 water reserve tanks, which guaranteed water year-round for every household in the village. In 2020, he relinquished his position to focus back on his true passion: hiking, trekking, and being outdoors. Every year, he goes through the surrounding trails multiple times to clear fallen foliage. He cuts paths into rock using a hammer and chisel.

Baoshan is a good starting point for any number of destinations, or a satisfying ending to a triumphant journey. It must be said that passage to somewhere this remote is not exactly easy. From Lijiang City, it is a three-hour drive that cuts through Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Park. A section of the road is being asphalted at the moment and will likely take another year to complete. That doesn't mean Baoshan is inaccessible, only that getting here is not for the faint-hearted, but rather for those who love rugged adventure, who seek out the less trodden path in search of forging an unforgettable experience.

For inroads into your adventure, a good start would be contacting Wendy or Jeff, who between them speak five languages, are a treasure trove of information, and are more than eager to help travelers find the perfect balance between relaxation and adventure.


The Mountain Village Yanke

Yanke (岩科) is a quaint and lush village that sits against the backdrop of Mount Baoshan — the mountain to which these clusters of villages belong. An impressive sight, Baoshan looms over the valley with crags that would taunt and allure any rock climber. The hike from Wumu to Yanke is rather vertically inclined, with plenty of ups and downs to test the knees, while the path further north, from Yanke to Stone City, is more steady and flat. Conversely, you can bypass Yanke altogether by taking a boat from Wumu to Stone City along the Jinsha River.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site: Jinsha River

The Jinsha River (金沙江) pertains to the upper part of the Yangtze, or Changjiang (长江), aptly named as it is the longest river in China: It originates in Qinghai, flows down into Yunnan, then east into Sichuan before eventually emptying into the East China Sea, morphing into various regional names along the way. The Jinsha section of the Yangtze, in particular, is one of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is no wonder why: Not only is it a biodiversity wonderland, but whether you are viewing it from the mountainsides of villages like Wumu, or down next to its deafening roar in the trenches of Tiger Leaping Gorge, it is a
continuous presence, both comforting and terrifying as you traverse throughout northwest Yunnan.

In the Baoshan sector of the Jinsha, the river is quite calm, and you can admire the mountains and caves from the comfort of a local villager's modest ferryboat. During the rainy season, roughly May until June, the water is a murky brown, but in the dry months, the Jinsha glimmers a beautiful translucent turquoise.

Into Stone City

About 40 minutes upstream from Wumu, Stone City (石头城) is a one-of-a-kind village built atop a boulder that towers above its surroundings. Legend has it that in the 13th century, Kublai Khan left this village untouched because it was too difficult to invade. Inside the walls of Stone City, a fortified platform and a watchtower at the edge of a cliff indeed gives one the feeling that this was once a well-guarded enclave.

Walking through Stone City, man-made steps intersect with the natural slope of the rock. A few homes here display not just the classic Naxi style of mud brick, wood and stone, but elements that are particular to Stone City, where steps, walls, even gardens are built directly into the rock. One such home that is open to visitors preserves the setup of a traditional dwelling, with beds made on a part of elevated stone at one side of the room, and on the other side, a flat rock surface protrudes out from the wall and is used as a
worktop where food could be prepared. A deep hole in the rock at one end of the countertop cleverly stores water, while another hole at the other end functions as a hearth.

Staying in Stone City

There are a good number of low- to mid-range accommodations in Stone City, but one of the more lavish options would be Lux* (View on, an exquisite boutique hotel tucked away at the farthest edge of town in a stone courtyard boasting a stunning view of the river. The Mauritius-backed hotel chain has firmly established itself as a corner of comfort in Lijiang's more far-flung places, with hotels specifically traveling the course of the historical Tea Horse trade route.

Their cozy, 6-suite hotel in Stone City is managed by Zhang Huiyun, a cheery 50-something Naxi woman, born and raised in the village, whose earthy demeanor betrays her distinction as a world traveler. In fact, Huiyun has been to Italy, Mexico, and Peru, where she was invited to exchange farming methodologies with academia, local farmers, and other indigenous people, even taking part in a UN conference on biodiversity. She certainly does a fine job of managing the hotel, but just ask her about her stash of ancient seeds and the importance of preserving them, and watch her eyes light up.

Forging Out from Stone City

After taking a rest in Stone City, travelers can venture on to Lugu Lake, either by car (a few hours) or by foot (a few days), or head off in any other direction: Tiger Leaping Gorge, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the fertile valley of Daju, or Dadong's hot springs are all within a half day's drive, or a few days hike. You can even trek to Lijiang proper if you want to, camping for two or three nights along the way. And that is the wonderful aspect of this region. People can explore at their own pace, stretch it out into a multi-day affair, or do it all in one day.

Trekking, ferries, horseback riding, authentic Naxi culture, a historical village, the untouched countryside — there is a little bit of everything to be found here. Whether you are a backpacker, a group of friends, or a family with kids, the perfect adventure awaits.