I’ve saved the best, or at least my favorite, for last. This final post of my Yunnan trip revolves around the small town of Shuhe. Although barely 6km away from Lijiang, sometimes seen as Lijiang’s suburbs, Shuhe does not play second fiddle. A historic village in itself, one that has been around for more than a thousand years, Shuhe is a quieter, more authentic version of Lijiang. We loved staying in Shuhe. We loved its clear running waterways filled with long frills of algae, its many chill-out spots (many so prettily dressed), its numerous friendly four-legged inhabitants. Coming back after a long day out was something we looked forward to every night. It felt comfortable and familiar. This in no small part, must be credited to the wonderful team at the Singaporean-run inn The Bivou. Shuhe is not small.
Walking in from the main southern entrance of Shuhe brings you to the ‘newer’ end of the town filled with pools, boardwalks and cafes, many with outdoor seating. It’s picturesque and would not look out of place in any resort town.
But as you walk deeper in, the broader passages start to narrow, the bigger pools disappear and the town takes on a friendlier, more local feel. At night, the streets empty out. Perhaps because it was winter and the crowds were not around, we often had the whole place to ourselves. Walking around in sub-zero temperatures at night, the sight of warm pools of light glowing from occasional shops and restaurants still open, conveyed a cosy feel.
The shops thin out in the northern outskirts of Shuhe; here there are patches of farmland growing vegetables. Old stone wells for washing dot the place and in the morning, you can see locals starting the day, like this:
The northern outskirts have gurgling water lanes, with luminous green long tendrils flowing in the current. Along this route are pretty cafes and tea houses – each so inviting. Sit outdoors in the sunshine amid the verdant green of adjacent farmland or indoor next to a picture window, each tableau enticing with lots of prettiness for the Gram.
Just across the farmland in front of our hotel is the Three Sages Pavilion – a charming small temple dedicated to several gods. It’s not very old – constructed in the Qing dynasty but it is a pretty spot, filled with red wooden charms inscribed with well-wishes, potted winter cherry blossoms.
In front of the temple is a small pond called the Dragon Spring Lake. The water is crystal clear and the lake is the source of all the water that runs through Shuhe town’s many water channels. It is said to be much cleaner than Lijiang’s water channels and the locals in Shuhe are often seen using the water directly for their needs.
Walking through Shuhe one is reminded that this town has existed for more than a thousand years, and is in fact one of the earliest settlements in the area. The beautiful stones of Qinglong Bridge are worn so smooth by thousands of footsteps over the years that one has to be careful walking on it. Built some 400 years ago, the bridge is one of the landmarks of the town and a favourite for couples getting their wedding pictures taken.
But one of the best things about wandering through Shuhe is meeting its many happy four-legged residents. My kids make a beeline for every adorable doggo they meet. And in Shuhe, they were in doggo heaven. Gorgeous furballs like these two:
Shuhe needs time to be discovered. There are just some places in the world which deserve repeat visits or just extended chill-out time. I am glad we spent four nights in Shuhe. It allowed us time to explore the place at leisure. Even then, I wished we could linger for longer. For people like me who love to ‘nuar’ (for those who don’t know, this is Singapore-speak which describes a state of bliss being somewhat like a lazy semi-hibernation state with breaks for food), Shuhe is right up our alley.
Nuar-ness can only happen under the right conditions. The vibes have to be right. And this is where Shuhe fits the bill. It is a place where you can choose to busy yourself day in and day out with hikes and bike rides in the beautiful surrounds or do a lazy cafe hop the entire day with nothing but a good book and a yen for conversation with the people you meet. And in Shuhe, there is no better place to facilitate the state of nuar-ness than The Bivou.
Run by a Singaporean and her all-women team plus one cat, The Bivou is a real haven. Not saying that all the other places we stayed in before were not comfortable – they were. But The Bivou goes one step further than just providing a night’s rest. This team has the art and science of true hospitality down to a T – they anticipate what the traveler needs and go out of their way to provide this. And often the tiniest details are the make-or-break elements to what makes a stay so-so or one that is truly unforgettable.
The tiniest details – like heated flooring, hand-drawn maps with helpful personal tips (working in a design environment, I am a sucker for things like this), travel books in the room about Lijiang and its environs, heated toilet seats (a norm in Japan, a rarity in China), complimentary lipbalm (not commercially available, blended as a house brand), purified water daily, a welcome pack of moisturisers for the dry Lijiang air, individually controlled electrically heated mattress pads. These details are often not provided even in five-star hotels (case in point, the Hilton Dali).
Then let’s talk about design. Designed by a Singaporean, the rooms are simple minimalist pretty – think clean lines and white linen with decor accent pieces drawn from local culture. The kids were raving over how their bathroom was accessed by steps leading downwards. You get a space that is private, intriguingly designed, with thought put into the details.
But the best part of The Bivou? Its people. Everyone, from the lady boss to the many strong A-yi in the house are warm, cheery and welcoming souls. I recall the first night we checked in and my daughters running over to my room gushing: “Mum, we just met the coolest lady here! You should say hi!” They were of course referring to Hwee Ling, the lady boss of the house. Who not only freely and enthusiastically engaged us in conversation every time we met (and after two weeks in China, it was so good to hear the Singaporean accent!) but also patiently engaged my daughter in her questions on what it was like to work in/grow an inn in China.
A shout-out to the many strong and hearty A-yi in the house who take care of the meals, the housekeeping, always ready with big grins and a kind word. You get the sense – unlike many hotels – that the people who work here are as close as family and don’t see themselves as merely ’employee/employer’ and this shows in their approach to their guests. They take pride in what they do and they seem to always enjoy chatting with us, meeting new people.
In all my travels all around the world, it is rare to find a gem like The Bivou, a place where you instantly feel at home. And I guess when I say home, it not only means a place where you feel comfortable, it also means a place where you feel safe, relaxed knowing everything is in good hands.
I am spending time gushing over this because The Bivou is a gem. I highly highly recommend this if you are ever travelling to Lijiang or Shuhe. Honestly, Shuhe has no shortage of 5-star resorts eg The Banyan Tree. But The Bivou is in a class of its own. I truly enjoyed my stay there and look forward to coming back some day. To nuar. Can’t think of a better place, really.
Shuhe was the last stop of our Yunnan trip. I was sad to leave for so many reasons.
On the last day of 2019, we left Shuhe, took the highspeed train back to Kunming where we would spend the night before catching our flight home to Singapore. At the Lijiang station, I read a report on the South China Morning Post. It was about an outbreak of a mysterious SARS-like disease in China. That would be the first time I would read about COVID. It stayed with me probably because KH was just recovering from a really bad bout of the flu and I was just coming into one myself. In fact I would return to Singapore feeling really ill with a perforated left ear drum. And I remember reading the article and joking (in bad taste) if what we had was this weird flu-like illness.
As the train sped east along the shores of Erhai lake, the sun was setting. Dali and Cangshan mountain range were on the opposite bank. Some snow had fallen on the mountain. The clouds hung low. It looked beautiful, but so ominous.
A storm was coming.
It was New Year’s Eve but I was pensive with a sense of foreboding. I just had this sense that things were going to change. As I sent New Year wishes to my friends with this picture, I also did not know how in a matter of months, COVID would disrupt and upend life as we know it.
I did not know this would be the last time I would travel nor do I know when I can safely do so again. I think I have been incredibly blessed to have traveled as much as I have thus far. I am happy that Yunnan, China was my last adventure before things changed. Writing this now, 6 months into the future from this picture, this experience feels even more precious.
The world will never be the same again. Travel too, will never be the same. But I will look forward with optimism to the day when the borders re-open for us to once again discover new lands, meet new people, make new friends. What an exciting time it will be then. For we will travel again in a time of renewal. And in doing so, cherish more than before, the serendipity of travel.
As for Shuhe? Well, it has lasted more than a thousand years. I know it will be there for me again someday.