Getting There: Baishui Terraces are located about 61 miles from Zhongdian city. A few Yunnan or Shangri-la area tour packages include this as part of a group tour, but clients might have interest in a FIT visit that also includes several Shangri-La sights. It will allow more time to hike, explore and check out the local culture, which would be the main reason to book a FIT adventure tour to this region of remote China.
Guide: The writer’s guide was Pan Ronggui of China Travel Service.
For More Information: China International Travel Service offers an English online service to answer questions.
This wasn’t the path well traveled, and for good reason. The dusty, gravel stretch of road we were driving on snaked along precipitous cliffs without guardrails in China’s Hengduan Mountains, where snow-capped peaks tower over 12,000 feet.
The Travertine Terraces are considered by some to be a spiritual locale. // © 2009 Christopher Batin
Rounding the last bend in the narrow mountain pass, the Baishui, or Travertine Terraces, eased into view, appearing as a white speck of lint on the mountain’s shroud of green. I had already toured China’s best cave and karst regions, marveling at rich, diverse geological wonders and engaging in their social and religious influence. I wondered how this location would compare.
As I got closer, the mountainside became a cascade of ivory-colored terraces, stacked like tiers of wedding cake toward the top and widening out to a lower section of multileveled shell plates filled with sparkling aquamarine water. I was looking at history frozen in time. Spring water saturated with calcium carbonate cascaded down over this gradually sloping mountainside, depositing layer after layer into what the Naxis now call “a field left by fairies.”
My guide, Pan Ronggui, and I stopped at Baidi, a Naxi village consisting of a few buildings located across the long trail leading up to the terraces. The Naxi are one of the minority ethnic groups in China, and they embrace a subsistence farming lifestyle. Dried grasses and corn hung outside one home, and a satellite dish seemed out of place above the rough-cut wood house, which was topped with rocks to keep the roof from blowing away in the high wind.
Across the road at the trailhead, Naxi guides waited with their horses to transport tourists up the mountain trail. Ronggui waved off the horses, and we proceeded to hike the brushy trail to the terraces. Unless tourists have been acclimated to hiking at 7,000-foot-plus elevations and to breathing thin air, I recommend taking the horses. The trail there can be rough at times on foot, but with trekking poles and stout hiking boots, we were able to easily reach the many sights of this 700-acre attraction. Also, clients should take plenty of water, as the high elevation and bright sunlight can expedite dehydration.
On the path up, we encountered two elderly Naxi women. One was 74 years old and was carrying a backload of brush and plants to her house. She engaged us in conversation and said to Ronggui that, while the terraces are open year-round, tourists may better enjoy the annual folklore festival held during the first week in February, when the mountainside is starting to blossom. The local Dongba religion started here centuries ago, when a holy man, on a journey back from Tibet, found the terraces to have special religious significance. He soon established a Dongba mission in a nearby cave. Dongba believers call the terraces “growing flowers,” which ties into their religious doctrine of respecting and revering nature.
The Dongba religion is a mainstay of the Naxi culture and the terraces have great historical influence among the locals. Dongba is a cross between Taoism, Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism.
The terraces became an important religious symbol to the local people, and caused them over time to switch from being nomads to farmers. The terraces also taught them how to grow crops on the slopes, to shape the earth and work with nature to enjoy its many fruits. In order for men in the region to become true believers in Dongba, they have to visit these terraces to experience the mystical nature of this keystone to the Dongba faith.
After our hike, I explored the terraces at my own pace, as such holy places are meant to be explored, with ample time to stop and contemplate. I was viewing the same sights that influenced generations of Chinese to embrace living in harmony with Nature. It was a humbling experience.
The sound of the cascading water, the baby-blue hues of placid pools reflecting the surrounding mountainside and the geology of the terraces all contributed to make this a destination that, for me, was more of a spiritual pilgrimage than flash-in-the-pan rural eye candy. Indeed, the Travertine Terraces were a little hard to find, but worth every effort as they led to a better understanding of the allure of one of the world’s mystical places.