Almost touching Tibet.

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.

Does the word Shangri-la sound familiar or ring a bell? It is the name of a fictional place described in the 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon”, by the British author, James Hilton. It was a place used to describe an earthly paradise, a Himalayan utopia. This may just be the place! The town is indeed both known and recognised by both names. It only takes a few days of lazing and walking about in this tranquil place in order for one to realise that there really is something very special and uplifting about it. It is a feeling, a vibe, an essence, and it is indescribably magical!


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”.

Tiger Leaping Gorge covers roughly 15 kilometres of terrain, and can be done from anywhere between 1 and 4 days. We opted for 2, and wanted to make it halfway by nightfall of day 1. We were told that we’d left it a little late, and that due to the heat of mid-afternoon, perhaps we should only go a quarter of the way, whereby we should reach a guesthouse called Naxi. Hmmmmm, let’s see! I was secretly determined to make it halfway, and without a doubt, Alex knew this! I am now totally able to admit that my partner knows me better than I know myself! One hour and 10 minutes later, we arrived at Naxi Guesthouse. There was not a sliver of doubt that we would continue on!


So, continue we did, meeting both locals and other travellers along the way. The first day was mostly uphill, and whilst you do not need to be an elite athlete, a certain degree of fitness is required. Whilst travelling, I certainly have not gone running as often as I did in Australia, but the walking we do on a daily basis, has kept us both very, very, fit. I am proud to say, that we both did it effortlessly…but I would be lying if I said that we did not stop a few times to regain our breath. The gorge, Hutiao Xia in Chinese, is one of the deepest in the world and measures between 15 and 16 kilometres long. It is a dizzying 3900 metres from the torrid waters of Jinsha River (Jinsha Jiang) to the snow-capped mountaintops of Haba Shan (Haba Mountain) to the west. Needless to say, we were provided with one breathtaking spot after another; a veritable photographer’s dream come true. Alex was in his element!


So, what exactly is the explanation behind the 100-metre-wide gorge’s name? The locals, would suggest something to the tune of, “A tiger was being chased, and it leaped across the river to escape”. An explanation totally befitting the name of Tiger Leaping Gorge……. don’t you think? We finally reached halfway at around 6.00pm, and stayed in a guest house called Tea Horse. It was chock-a-block full of fellow travellers, and we all had a great night eating, drinking and chatting. Supposedly, the best was yet to come and people generally rave about the views on Day 2. We were grateful for a comfortable bed, which we felt we had totally earned!


I’m not going to say that we were up at the crack of dawn, but we got up early enough to have breakfast and be off by around 9.00am. I would have to agree with all the hype, and say that the scenery on Day 2 was indeed spectacular. Sadly, a dam is currently in the process of being built, and it has been said that in the next few years the gorge will not even exist. Damn! How sad! I feel that we are slowly chipping away and destroying our world, and the focus seems to be on today and not tomorrow! Will our children’s children ever see places such as Tiger Leaping Gorge or the Amazon? Or will they have to rely on books and photos, putting them all in the “Dinosaur league”? Only time will tell, or perhaps I should say that time IS telling! There are also “softer” options of seeing the gorge, as the Chinese are not really into hiking. Sadly, many of them do not have a very romantic view of nature. Rather they see what we would call the Great Outdoors as being frighteningly empty, unless livened up by cable cars, stone staircases, strategically placed pavilions, souvenir hawkers and noodle stands! I’ll take the option that’s not soft, thanks!


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!

Back to rocking up to Kunming at a “reasonable” hour. The bus pulled up just before 4.30am, which it did outside the bus station, as it was still too early to actually be open! I was suddenly trying to shake myself out of my half-asleep stupor, whilst stumbling off the bus and into darkness. OK, so where to now? At first, we did not even know that we were in front of the bus station. With our lack of Chinese, and the Chinese’s non-existent English, it took us almost 15 minutes to work out that we were standing in front of it! We somehow managed to squeeze into a side door, and sit on a table outside. The station would not be opening until 6.00am.


Luckily, we had bought a couple of cans of coffee the night before, which we guzzled down, whilst leafing through our guide book as part of a “Where to next” quest. It is here that we met Wu, a guy in his early 40s from Taiwan, who was travelling around Asia for a few months. This is really uncommon for both the Chinese as well as the Taiwanese, but as neither of us spoke each other’s language, it was hard to get the full story. Having said that, it is equally as amazing as to how much you CAN find out, with a smile, hand and body gestures, pointing to things in your guide book and some determination. In no time at all we had forged a friendship with this man, called Wu, who helped us book tickets to Yuanyang, some 4 to 5 hours south of Kunming, famous for its rice paddies. As the bus was not leaving until 10.40am, we decided to go and get some breakfast. I was able to make Wu understand that I was vegetarian…..and the search begun! We found several places, all of which included food “with only a little bit of meat”. Although I inwardly sighed, after almost a month, I have become accustomed to this. Yet again, I settled for something bland and tasteless, whilst still trying to smile, as I knew what a huge effort Wu was making to help me. Sometimes, it is important to remain humble, and eat that pie which goes by the same name.

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!).


Next morning we were off again. Unfortunately, we had to travel some of the journey via the exact same road we were on the day before. By this point, we were both tired and over it. It took us another 5 or 6 hours to arrive at Hekou, the Chinese town on the border crossing with Vietnam. The border crossing closed at 5.00pm, and as the bus ride continued, it was becoming more than obvious that we would not be able to cross on time. Luckily, there was a lady on the bus that directed us to a great little hotel, which she happened to work in. It was cheap and clean, and so we decided that it is where we would rest our weary heads for the night. I was quite impressed with the town, I must say. It was rather clean and organised and had a bit of a commercial town vibe about it. And the border was only a walk away!


Our last night in China was spent eating some great food, which tasted more like Vietnamese than Chinese. I was finally being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel! Believe me, the tunnel had been long! The next morning, we got ourselves organised and walked to the border. The sounds and visuals of people hurtling spit continued to haunt me, and I prayed that this would change as soon as we crossed the border! Was I expecting too much?


We crossed into Vietnam on the 8th of October, the day our visa was due to “expire”. Great timing, or so we thought! We got through the Chinese side without a fuss, but, it was on the Vietnamese side that the fun and games commenced!




NOTE 1: I know that people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones, but now that I am out of China, and can access most web sites, I would like you to take a look at China’s Human rights record. Not exactly a very rosy picture!


NOTE 2: I would like to mention Julia, a 7 year old Alex and I met whilst hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge. She is Polish, and her family is currently living in China. Not only was I stunned by her stamina, but by her personality and attitude. This little girl’s dream was to travel the world, and not to own an X-box or a Barbie doll. She was bright, intelligent and engaging, and attracted people like a magnet! What a breath of fresh air!


DEDICATION: Julia, this dedication is for you. I hope that your brother, Vitek, or Dad, Robert, shows you this. Alex and I just want to let you know that you were an inspiration to us both (this means that we thought that you were amazing), and we hope that many more children can learn from your determination and strong will. You will help change the world!


“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.)

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One Life! Live It!
Alex & Ombi

Alex & Ombi

Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!

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