Shangri-la la land

Trip Start Jul 21, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Driving into Zhongdian, the place looks disappointingly like any other Chinese town: dreary concrete buildings covered with the ever-present white bathroom tiles, pitiful shopfronts hiding dark and dirty interiors. Is this supposed to be Shangri-la? But we quickly discovered the lovely little old town with its carved wooden farmhouses and later the huge Potala-like monastery, "Gamden Sumtselling Gompa". However, with the budgeoning tourist shops, restaurants and building work going on, it won't be long before Shangri-la becomes another Lijiang. At least the tourist shops are selling useful stuff, mainly warm clothing to combat the freezing nights here (ah, the bliss of using electric blankets! who'd ever want to get up in the mornings?).

A note here about the renaming of Zhongdian. The tourist map states that India and Nepal have each claimed Shangri-la as being located in their respective countries, but apparently the world has not recognised these claims. The Chinese authorities happened to stumble across the "striking similarities" between Zhongdian, a small Tibetan town near the border, and the Shangri-la of Hilton's book, and was thus renamed. I haven't read Lost Horizon but I strongly suspect the renaming had more to do with commercial reasons than any likely resemblance.
A little off the point, but this tourist map also has the best example of "Chinglish" (Chinese-translated English) that we have come across since the "Book Sexchange" advertised in a Dali guesthouse. The mistranslation goes like this, "In more religious times in Shangri-la, every family had a monkey or a nun". I'll leave you to hazard a guess as to what it means, it took me a good few minutes...

One of the endearing traditions of this town is the daily dance at sunset in the town square. At around 7 o'clock the locals begin to gather at the edges, then suddenly a blaring beat comes over the tannoy and all are dancing away, from the old grannies in their traditional outfits to young rebel boys in their leather jackets. It's a bit like line dancing in the round - Steps-esque disco for old folk - and everyone knows the moves. It's obviously a bit of a social event each day, but also a pretty good way of keeping warm before bed in a town devoid of central heating.

Traipsing around the town's travel agencies and getting thoroughly disheartened by the obscene cost of travelling overland into Tibet, we bumped into an Israeli couple that we'd first met a couple of weeks back in Dali. We agreed to share a taxi to Baishuitai, a large area of calcium carbonate deposits on the side of a mountain, terraced into drop pools of milky blue water with fantastical names like "Celestial Being Left over Fields" and my favourite, "Dragon Frolicking in Limpid Water". Standing on the calcium with the water flowing in thin waves over the rippled surface, it feels as though the ground is moving under your feet. A bit like that moment in Wayne's World, where they wiggle their fingers to indicate a flashback (help me, does anyone know what I mean?).
Somewhat troubling were the artificial diversions created for the water, presumably for use in the nearby village. This has put an end to the natural process and in many parts of the mountainside the pale stone is already discoloured by red earth and black tree roots. I'm sure the rippled surface of the mineral deposits will also be soon eroded by rainwater.

The taxi ride took 3hrs, taking us along a winding mountain road complete with necessary hairpins and ravines. The scenery was stunning, since Autumn has really hit the mountain slopes and dotted amongst the bland green of the pines are brilliant swaths of bright red and yellow trees. Lehavit became increasingly agitated, so I asked if she got travel sick. She replied that the roads made her understandably nervous. As we progressed, she became paranoid that our driver was falling asleep and offered him a biscuit, hoping the sugar might give him a boost. But only if he stopped driving to eat it. I hadn't realised that she'd earlier forbidden him to smoke in the car, probably contributing to his sleepy boredom. The biscuit trick only confused the poor guy, distracting him further from the road as he kept turning back, trying to understand why biscuits were being shaken under his nose then cruelly withdrawn as soon as he put a hand out to take one.

Lehavit and Norberto recommended a fantastic restaurant called "Arro Kampa" serving Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan cuisine in the back streets of the old town and we became addicted to their Nepalese Basti Dhal soup. In fact the only night we didn't eat there was when invited to a lovely restaurant opposite "Karma Cafe" which served up traditional Tibetan food and music. Whilst the dinner wasn't inspiring for a veggie (I think the Tibetans live mainly on a diet of yak meat), the music was intimate and dreamy, the surroundings cosy, and it was fun to be in a big group of people again. We even managed to get past the obligatory traveller conversation of "where have you been, going to and for how long?" batting backwards of questions. I must think of something new to say next time, to steer talk away from the obvious. Something like, how do you feel communism has affected the development of feminism in China? Though that might just put an end to any conversation.

Four days in Zhongdian and we'd accepted that overland travel into Tibet was impossible on a budget. Deciding instead to take the new train, we headed to the bus station to begin what would become 4 days of scary, dirty but stunning bus journeys through the mountains back to Chengdu.
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