Zhongdian - China's Shangri-la

Trip Start Oct 30, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

After a day back in Lijiang to sort out odds and ends, and saying goodbye to Mama, we boarded the bus in the morning for Zhongdian, now renamed as Shangrila. (Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the novel, Lost Horizon, written by British writer James Hilton in 1933 - now many countries around the Himilayas claim that it is their country which he wrote about. China has staked their claim to it as well, and have gone so far as officially changing the name of Zhongdian to Shangrila!).

The first part of the trip worked its way past the same area as we went to Tiger Leaping Gorge, except this time at a convenient toilet stop we were able to buy some of the strawberries being sold along the roadside. They were delicious. Probably even more so since it had been quite some time we had eaten whole strawberries.

Further on, the bus passed under a construction site - it was a dam being constructed - scaffolding supporting the roof above. Yes, a little scary, and we were relieved to see the other side of it.

Arriving in Zhongdian, we first noticed how cold it was compared to everywhere else we had been. Even though it was only 6 hours from Lijiang, the elevation was much higher (3200m) and in the distance snow capped mountains reminded us of why it was so cold.

We had seen a notice at Mama's for a place to stay - Harmony Guest House, and had decided to seek it out, but trying to ask directions at the bus station soon made us realise that English wasn't as common here as we had been used to, and with no name or address in Chinese we were on our own. We organised a taxi to take us to the Tibetan Restaurant (our guidebook had the chinese characters for it), but we were dropped instead at the Tibet Cafe (a few blocks away).

We went inside and asked them for directions (with our taxi driver) and although they didn't know the place, they seemed to know the street, so our taxi driver set off, and turned the corner (wrong direction), stopping a bit further up at another guesthouse (Kevin's Trekker Inn). Our driver seemed surprised when we said it was wrong again, but this time we decided to walk it and find it ourselves. We wandered around the old town, using the guidebook map (turns out to be not a very good map) and after failing to find the guesthouse, we stopped at a few guesthouses along the way to check them out. We found one that had been recommended by Mama, but it seemed a bit too basic and rundown for us, so we decided to keep looking. Some other ones seemed a little better, but with either no or very limited hot water available, and the weather freezing outside we thought better.

Finally after about 2 hours of frustrating searching (and no luck finding the Harmony Guesthouse), we made our way back towards the original Tibet Cafe (which had good but expensive accomodation). We decided to check out Kevin's Trekker Inn first - not in our guideboook, and we were glad we did. This place had hosts which spoke excellent english, were very friendly, the double rooms were cheap, very clean, with electric blankets (great for the freezing weather) and most importantly - piping hot water 24hours! It was a great find. Pity we didn't look at it when the taxi pulled up outside 2 hours earlier! Nothing like acclimitising to altitude with a 2 hour hike around town with heavy backpacks.

Zhongdian is a tibetan town, but is rapidly being expanded with the bland chinese buildings that are sweeping cities all over the place. The old town retains some of the old tibetan architecture, but is also being redeveloped with new "old style" buildings replacing the old town - preparing it for another tourist town like Lijiang we suspect.

Settling in, we had some dinner and as then went into the main square in the old town to see the locals dancing. It was quite a spectacle that apparantly happens every night. It seemed quite an authentic local get together rather than put on for the tourists, but in either case, the locals were enjoying dancing to the tibetan style music, and we were enjoying it also!

Back to Kevin's, we were glad we had the electric blankets - we hadn't been this cold since Chengdu 6 months earlier! It was a bit like the Tibetan weather, except still a little damp - not quite as dry. Our thermals, beanies, scarves and winter jackets that we had been lugging all around in the heat of South East Asia certainly came in handy again!

The next morning, we caught the local bus to the nearby Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, one of the biggest Tibetan Monastaries outside of Tibet. It was quite an impressive place, and immediately brought back our fond memories of Tibet. At the entrance, we tried our luck with student cards (yes fakes that we bouhgt in Bangkok), but the monks shook their head for a discount. Still, as we only had the exact note for one person, or alternately a much bigger note, the monks were reluctant to change the bigger note, so motioned to pay for only one. He handed over only 1 ticket and motioned us in.

We climbed up the stairs to the main part of the monastery, and with the main entrance closed (it sounded like a prayer meeting was on inside from all the chanting), so we made our way around the side. Their was another ticket check here to go up, and we now thought it wasn't so smart only having one ticket. But they didn't seem too fussed when Glenn produced only 1 ticket, so we climbed up to look around. Near the top, surrounding the prayer hall upper level was prayer wheels, quite a sight, although without all the pilgrims we saw through tibet. Walking towards the prayer hall upper level, there were a few tourists that had entered, so we stuck our heads in and walked in. It was like a narrow balcony all the way around the prayer hall, and we watched the monks, as it appeared that the prayer meeting was ending. After watching for a while, a monk came upstairs and shooed us away - oops, it appears we weren't supposed to there. Heading toward the front of the building, we were impressed with the views - green fields with snow mountains in the background. Glenn was excited to be near the snow moutains again.

Heading back down, Glenn decided to go into area that said no women allowed, mainly out of curiosity. It was basically a kitchen area, with monks sitting around chatting, and one drinking yak butter tea. Glenn was invited to sit down with them. He tried to communicate with them a bit - one of the monks knew a litte English, but the topics remained quite simple due to the language difficulties.

One thing that had impressed us so far with Zhongdian, was the friendliness of the people, and their curiousity with foriegners. It appeared that although Zhongdian was well on the tourist map, it was not yet quite so changed from all the tourism, and from meeting the curious stares of the people with a smile - we were rewarded with the beaming happy smiles of the Tibetan people.

We returned back to the old town on the local bus again, and decided to have another look around the old town. Armed with a different map, we actually came across Harmony Guest house! Except that it was closed. Continuing on, we climbed a hill to reach a giant golden prayer wheel that we had seen lit up from the guesthouse the night before. It had appeared to rotate occasionally which we had though must have been driven by electricity, but we were surprised when we saw some chinese tourists and some locals rotating the prayer wheel by hand! After this we headed for a smaller local monastery back down the hill.

There was much less to see here, but it was still quite nice. Glenn attemped to chat to the monks in order to get a photo, but even though the converstation was going ok, they weren't keen to be photographed.

Back at Kevin's, we discussed our desire to head towards Deqin to see the snow mountains, but he advised us that he had just come back from a trip there with some other guests and the road was blocked by snow. He showed us the digital photos he had taken - snow covering the road, and at some stages - landslides! The thought of the adventure sounded good to Glenn, but we would need a few more days with good weather for the buses to make the trip again - time that we didn't have.

The next day was cold. Icy cold. And also cloudy, so the sun didn't warm up the town. Our hopes of making it to Deqin were sinking - we needed sunny weather to ensure that we could see the mountains, let alone make it there. We spent the day catching up on our travel diaries and drinking way too much tea to keep warm.

That evening we discussed our options - try to make it to Deqin, and cut down our time for Laos, or head back to Kunming and start making our way down towards Laos. The latter option was sounding the most realistic as we closed our eyes to get some sleep.
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