One of the wonderful things about living in or visiting Yunnan is the ease with which you can stray just outside nearly any city in the province and find tiny and secluded villages set amongst scenic mountains.
At times, the surroundings are little more than rolling green hills where a wander in the countryside can take only an hour or so. In other places, the peaks knife out of the ground like angry, monumental teeth, providing more challenging and significantly lengthier hiking options.
This supremely enjoyable feature is available in places like Kunming, Dali and Lijiang. But the further afield you travel — from cities, highways and typical oft-trod paths — the more alluring the nooks and crannies hidden away in the province become.
Those that have been here in southwest China for a while typically have go-to spots. These little areas or villages possess quiet, calm and an escape from the frenzied routine of our workaday lives. For a short time at least, they furnish us with a sense of much-needed escape.
One such place — nothing more than a crook in the vastness of Yunnan really — is called Damaidi (大麦地). It is not the Damaidi in Chuxiong Prefecture, nor the one in Dali, and definitely not the far more famous Damaidi in Ningxia, which is home to an astonishing array of 8,000 year-old petroglyphs.
No. This Damaidi is nestled up in the hills of Lijiang Prefecture, quite close to the town of Shigu. Shigu sits on the banks of China's most important waterway at a place known as the 'first bend' in the Yangtze River.
Tourists stop here is take in views of the river as it swings 180 degrees in the span of only a few hundred meters. But just four kilometers west of Shigu is an attraction of an entirely different sort.
Damaidi means 'Big Wheat Field', and while agriculture is way most locals make their livings, space is limited due to the cliffs. Their purple and pink faces tower over everything. The area at times looks like something out of a Spaghetti Western from the 1960s. One major difference is the lushness.
Forests full of old trees, spreading ferns and thickets of bamboo fill the spaces between the mountaintops. And the hiking options in Damaidi are nearly endless. Wildlife abounds, from dozens of bird and mammal species to wildflowers of extraordinary variety.
When out and about on the trails encircling Damaidi, you're just as likely to run into small herds of goats as you are their shepherds. On rare occasions you may bump into a fellow traveler, but it's pretty rare. Tourism is coming to Damaidi, but thankfully in the form of nature lovers intent on preserving the region's rugged beauty.
For now, backpackers and avid rock climbers make up the bulk of out-of-town visitors. An added bonus of their arrival is a decreasing need for logging — long a source of supplemental income — among the local Naxi, Yi and Lisu people.
The hiking options in Yunnan are nearly unlimited, but for big mountain trekking through forests gently sighing in the breeze, you can't get much better. Making things even better, the Stone Drum House guesthouse is right there in the middle of everything. Restored and lovely, this oasis of calm is owned by a couple who are more than willing to help you find the perfect climbing routes and trailheads you've been looking for.
Images: Benjamin Campbell