Sort of Shangri-La
Trip Start Mar 04, 2004
77Trip End Jul 02, 2005
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Where I stayed
And so I hopped into a micro-bus with a Beijing architect, his lawyer girlfriend and two science students from Kunming. The original plan was to stop at Qiaotou and try to get a look at Tiger Leaping Gorge before heading to Zhongdian. Sadly, it turned out the road into TLG had been destroyed by a landslide and the only feasible way to get a god view was to trek in. Well, all the guides in Qiaotou looked very dodgy and I didn't want to risk getting sick again on a big trek, so with much regret, I skipped TLG. I would never have been able to gather all the pertinent info were it not for the Beijing couple. Hanging around with English-speaking Chinese while in China has huge benefits as was proven to me again later.
So we arrived in Zhongdian, which all Chinese now refer to as Shangri-La (they pronounce it shangrilla), it even says so on the bus tickets, much to the confusion of som Aussies I met. At first, Zhongdian isn't much to see and I was unimpressed with it being bestowed the hallowed moniker of Lost Horizon fame. However, this was a side thought as my main mission was to get a plane ticket into Tibet as fast as possible. Lots of people seem to think this is difficult, especially in an outpost of civilization like Zhongdian. Instead it turned out like this: I walked to the Tibet tourist office. I said "Hello, I would like a permit and plane ticket to Lhasa." The sales guy replied in good English "Sure, that will be 2500 Yuan and come here at 9am on Monday and I will drive you to the airport." Bingo, done deal. Well, that is assuming everything goes well and I get on the plane tomorrow with no hitches.
So now to see what the region of Zhongdian has to offer. Nothing outside the city limits is easy to get to solo so that first night I left a note at the Tibet Hotel saying I was interested in splitting costs with whoever was up for it. This turned out very well because I met Lucas, Tina, and Jess, all Chinese, and from the Hong Kong-Guangdo area and looking for a fourth traveller to split costs with. That night I also sat down for a beer with an Aussie couple and bitched about the atrocious Chinese habit of spitting. They really put gusto into it, hacking up one big oyster after another. Most of the time they spit out the window of the bus but on some public buses they just spit on the floor. We all found this very hard to take. To be fair, none of the young Chinese I hung out with did this so perhaps its one cultural relic that won't be preserved.
In the morning Lucas, the girls and I piled into a rust-bucket rattletrap taxi for the hour ride to Shodu Lake. I was curious about this lake because its not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet and yet it seems to be a must-do location for the Chinese tourists, and is considered one of the Shangri-La viewpoints. I eventually figured out that the Shangri-La designation refers to a number of spots of noted beauty in the area. The most famous of these is Mei Li mountain near Deqin. Sadly, I am missing this also but the pics that Lucas showed me make me think it would certainly be a worthwhile trip. So halfway to the lake, the rear left door had flown open 6 times and Jess was really freaking out. Lucas took charge, jumped out and flagged down a passing Chinese tourist bus and negotiated our way onto it. Another example of something I could not have done on my own. On the way I got a good look at the countryside. The Zhongdian region is actually the start of the Tibetan plateau and the areas inhabitants are a mix of Tibetan and Naxi, with a fair few Han Chinese thrown in through immigration. The villages I passed had three distinguising feature: Solid Tibetan white-walled architecture, 20-ft high barley drying racks, and lots and lots of yaks. Big yaks, little yaks, black ones, ones with white markings, yaks in fields, yaks on roads, yaks in diced form for kebabs.
Shodu Lake was a bit of a disappointment for me. Had it been sunny the autumn colours, which I have so missed while away from Canada, would have been bright and cheery. On the whole though, the lake is nothing compared to what one can see in Canada or NZ. We hopped back on the bus and it turned out we were headed for damn long drive to the Baishutai limestone terraces. The road is still under construction and the way there and back pretty adventurous as far as bus rides go. The terraces themselves are quite scenic, being 100m wide, 300m high and overlooking a splendid alpine valley. The terraces are famous for being the birthplace of the Naxi culture and Dongba its attendant religion. Hell of a long way to drive though and we didn't get back to 9pm. But at least I got a tasty four-course supper of Naxi cuisine. Again, ordered by Lucas and something I could not have done on my own. I would have ended up eating chips or something.
Today is my last day Zhongdian and I decided to explore closer to town. First up was the Old Town of Zhongdian, which every city in this region seems to have. The women are very colourful, with the Tibetan women in their bright pink headresses and the Naixi women dressed similarly to Lijiang. It always seems to be the women that continue the traditional dress styles. All the men seem to have opted for ill-fitting brown suits. Our first and, for me, unexpected stop was at Mr. Abu's house, which has been standing for 400 years. Mr. Abu is a kind man of 73, very much interested in letting travellers know the history of his traditional Tibetan house and how it is connected with 400 years of Chinese history. The scars of the Cultural Revolution as well as sword marks from earlier bandits are easily visible.
Then we visited a small gompa, or Tibetan monastery. Its defining feature is an enormous prayer wheel, and I mean enormous. It must be 40 ft high at least. Me and two Chinese committed a terrible faux-pas by pushing the wheel counter-clockwise, which sent two novice monks streaking out of the temple to stop the prayer wheel. Oops.
After that I said goodbye to Lucas, Tina and Jess and got on #3 bus for Gamden Sumtseling Gompa, which is 300 yrs old and the most important monastery in SW China. And its massive. With the surrounding buildings, its more like a separate town, dominated y the stout prayer hall in burgundy and white, topped with gold symbols. This was my first proper monastery and I was very impressed. Once I am into Tibet proper I will write more about Tibetan Buddhism but I must say that the paintings of fierce protector gods, stark vistas, and incense-smoke filled prayer halls kept my eyes wide and my mind sharp. Its a fair number of stairs into the monastery so I took the point off my hunger with a BBQed potato, which is a Sichuan staple in the winter. Very spicy. Funny to have a potato on a stick too.
Just before leaving I saw the most remarkable thing. I had heard of Buddhist pilgrims who make their pilgrimage by laying out flat, stretchin their finger tips, getting up and walking to that point with hands above their heads and then prostrating themselves again, doing this for miles till they reach the desired gompa or chorten. I expected the first person I would see doing this would be a weather-beaten Tibetan in Lhasa. Remarkably, the first person I saw doing this was a pretty young Chinese girl, in a bright pink raincoat, new hiking boots and dyed hair. She had foam strapped to her knees to cushion them and was slowly making her way up to the chorten, or stupa. I was stunned and felt sure that when she reached the top she would be pulling out her mobile to text her friends and let them know she had made it.
Tomorrow I get on a plane to Lhasa. I am stoked. I am missing a lot of China by flying directly into Lhasa but I am going to try and beat the snow and get some cools treks in before late October. My VISA for China is good till 21 November but I suspect the cold will force me out long before that. This is one adventure I am really looking forward to.