So close, yet so far! In Shangri-la (or Zhongdian, as it is more commonly known to the Chinese), I felt that I could smell, hear and almost touch Tibet! Another four hours north from Lijiang, Shangri-la had a totally different feel to it than the rest of China. The faces were different, the architecture different, and even the signs now included being written in Tibetan, as well as Chinese (in addition to the occasional English). I closed my eyes and conjured up every image of Tibet that I could. Coupled with what I was seeing, feeling and breathing, it really was the very closest I would get to the magical land, which now so very close, was yet so very far! Unfortunately, despite the fact that Tibet is a “part of China” one still needs to get a “special permit” to go there. Politics is a dirty word, and in respect to Tibet it has been unscrupulously filthy! It would be worth your while to do a little background reading here on Tibet.
We were fortunate to end up in a cosy place called Harmony Guesthouse. The common area, which included a restaurant, came complete with an open fireplace (it really was quite cold at night in this neck of the woods), where we spent many a night indulging in a magnificent buffet dinner and copious cups of tea. The owner, Joey, did not speak much English, but he sure made up for it with his hospitality and warm personality. I must add that this place afforded us some of China’s best food, which I have already mentioned has generally totally failed to excite us! We met a great girl from Spain there, called Mariona, who often joined us for our nighttime extravaganzas.
Effectively, Shangri-la is a Tibetan town. Its Tibetan name is Gyeltang, or Gyalthang, and people mainly come here to visit its famous monastery, as well as to get a taste of Tibet if they cannot make it to the real thing. In this case, we were no exception! Ganden Sumtseling Gompa is a 300 year old Tibetan monastery complex with around 300 monks. It is huge and the area surrounding it physically spectacular. Perched up on a hill, several kilometres from the city centre, the view from the top is gorgeous. Add tinkling bells and fluttering prayer flags; it really felt like I would expect Tibet to feel like. Despite the busloads of tourists, there was something so very peaceful about this place. We took several hours, walking in, out and around the several temples and monks’ quarters. We later took a scenic route back to the centre, passing several open fields, people working, children playing, and animals in the fields.
Closer to town, we did several other walks, which took us through other monasteries and pagodas, again with advantageous viewpoints. We also walked around the countryside, and saw several people at work in the fields. As most tourists do not venture out of the immediate centre, we were quite a novelty amongst the workers. It’s always wonderful to see people as they really live their lives, outside of the tourist hustle and bustle.
We checked out the weather forecast, and as far as doing the trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge went , it was (finally!) looking good. Located roughly halfway between Lijiang and Shangri-la, it would be our next destination. We had not hiked in a while, so we were really looking forward to it. The starting point for the walk was from Qiaotou. Although only a couple of hours away, it was almost 2.00pm by the time we got ourselves organised, onto a bus, and there. It’s quite a small town, and its only claim to fame , really, is that it’s the place from where the hike starts.
For something like a little more than one Aussie dollar each, we left the bulk of our luggage at the Gorged Tiger Cafe, run by a super helpful and friendly Australian lass called Margo. Not only did she tell us how and when to do the walk, she even told us how we could “avoid the authorities” and slip away without paying the fairly high entrance fee…..which we did! I have already mentioned that the Chinese love charging high prices to “get into places”, which often includes roads that pass through or enter villages and natural places of beauty. Armed with our small backpacks, Alex and I were away in a flash, and needless to say we did “avoid the authorities”.
It was a beautiful, refreshing and breathtaking walk, but we knew that we would have to move on, as the expiry date on our Chinese visa was coming to a close. We made it back to Margo at The Gorged Tiger in Qiaotou, via mini-bus, which took around 45 minutes on a narrow, mountain-hugging road that I imagine would be horrendous in rainy weather. A couple of showers later (that’s us, not the gorge!), and we were waving goodbye to and thanking Margo, as we hopped on to another mini-bus, this time back to Lijiang from where we would organise a bus to Kunming later that night, and then make our way towards the Vietnamese border.
A couple of hours later we were in Lijiang, where we decided on an overnight sleeper bus to Kunming. Overnight means arriving at a reasonable hour like 6.00am, right? Wrong! I had never been on a sleeper bus before, whereby you lie down in a totally horizontal position. I assumed (oh, woe to those of us who assume!) that it would be reasonably comfortable. Well, for a smaller Chinese person, or a waif-like foreigner, perhaps. But, for two normal size foreigners, it was about getting into the foetal position. I tried to hit memory recall……Geez, it was only almost 40 years ago that I’d done it for 9 months! Personal space? What is that? I tried to ignore all of the “smells”, and that was not an easy task. Then there was the guy playing games on his mobile phone at midnight….with the volume right up! Alex and I seemed to be the only two who, apart from being foreigners, were also pissed off! Coincidence? Let me remind you about personal space in China……there is none!
So, off to Yuanyang we went, arriving late afternoon. The bus was bearable, whilst the road was rather nasty, making the ride a tad uncomfortable. When we arrived, and saw a town which was quite dirty with litter and whose vegetables and fruit were sold from and on the floor on the main road running through the centre of town (read, straight from the dust and bitumen to you!), we felt disheartened and lacking the desire necessary to see the rice fields. Most of the budget options did not exactly hit China’s 100 most cleanest (are you kind of getting the idea as to what accommodation was like in this town?) either, so in this case we opted for a cleaner and more expensive hotel. The Hilton, we do not need, but if it isn’t clean, we simply will not stay in it. We may choose to cut corners in other areas, but never in cleanliness. We argued that we had already seen some spectacular rice terraces in China, and that we did not have to do it again (read…….cannot be bothered, time to move on!).
“There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures” – James Thurber (1894 – 1961).
(Photos: 1.- View of Shangri-la and surrounds, taken from Ganden Sumtseling Gompa Monastery. 2.- One of the temples in the centre of Shangri-la. 3.- Harmony Guesthouse, Shangri-la. L to R: Mariona, Alex, various guests and Joey. 4.- One of the temples, Ganden Sumtseling Gompa monastery. 5.- What’s your beef? (or a plethora of other animals), Shangri-la. 6.- Alex asking the locals the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge, at the beginning of the walk. 7.- Walkin’ the gorge! 8.- Spectacular flowers, impressive mountains, and a tiny butterfly, Tiger Leaping Gorge. 9.- Tibetan prayer flags in China – Shangri-la. One senses that the Chinese are very keen to “keep” any and all things Tibetan! 10.- Indigenous woman in Yuanyang. 11.- Indigenous child in Yuanyang. 12.- “Inside job”; catching a bus from Yuanyang to Hekou with the locals. 13.- One of the locals, in the bus from Yuanyang to Hekou. 14.- Show me where you’re from Julia, and I’ll show you where I’m from, Tiger leaping Gorge trail.)