Here we could glimpse the larger versions of the furry creatures in all their beauty. They munched on leaves and prowled the grounds with waddling gaits through the constant precipitation, enjoying large morning meals of bamboo. With thick coats of pure white fur and dashing black outlines around their eyes, every time we caught a glimpse of one of the pandas head on it was a shocking sight.
Occupying fertile plains that are hemmed in by a long line of mountains on one side and an expansive lake on the other, the ancient city of Dali has long been the preeminent backpacker destination in China’s Yunnan province. The beautiful natural surroundings combine with an artistic counter-culture to form one of China’s most unique combinations of tourism and local culture.
Picking up speed from a set of rapids further to our right, the river cruised down a smooth plateau and then tumbled over a small cliff which caused everything to explode into a chaotic symphony of beauty. Suddenly huge walls of water bursted forth to swallow everything in their path, mist sprayed upwards like fireworks rising into the canyon, and wave after wave of the mess slowly eroded the rocks which have stood the test of time.
Now it’s one thing for me to describe the landscape here as “alien”, but it’s quite another for James Cameron to use it as a filming location for scenes set on another planet. Our next pit stop was heavenly mountain, the spot where they filmed parts of Avatar. Even without the accolades this individual pillar was mind-bending in the way it continuously rose from the depths of the earth, never widening from its already thin base. Truly, landscapes like this just don’t exist anywhere else on our planet!
Soon we had ascended to the highest point of the trail, which quickly became my favorite place in China. Not a single sound of humanity was audible; instead, an entire ecosystem flourished. Salamanders wiggled into the bushes at the first sights of us, worms squirmed across the pathway, birds fluttered amongst bountiful branches, butterflies surrounded us in the air, bees pollinated bright yellow flowers, and the steady hum of insects accompanied my every move. Finally, we had found a place where nature still reigned free!
Right next to hip artisan jewelry makers and kitschy tourist shops stocked with bedazzled hats, old women sat in circles drinking tea and men played rowdy games of cards. Despite signs of encroaching development, the architecture of the town retained much of its charm. Stone walls separated wooden houses with broad entrances, each one accompanied by red banners to bless the inhabitants. With plenty of flowers, traditional lanterns, and cozy interiors to take in, we took the slowest possible lap around the compact central to soak in the vibe as best we could.
We picked a trail that led back towards the city and found ourselves shrouded by canopies and overgrowth, making us feel like we had found a distinctly wild side of the peak region. From the depths of the forest, we could only hear insects and see wide views of blue ocean and wild islands, making us wonder once again if we were really in a metropolis of 7 million people. As we worked our way back to the tram, the clouds opened up to offer the most spectacular views yet. Suddenly shimmering blue waters split up an endless line of sparkling skyscrapers that reached from the depths of our view up above the highest peaks.