More perfect days in classical China

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

More of the perfect trip in China, according to CNTraveler:

Day 6 (Thursday): Drive to Zhongdian
Before hitting the road, make sure your A&K guide has picked up some bottles of water. The scenic drive north to Zhongdian takes three or four hours if you're going direct, but you'll want to make a few stops en route to explore small communities and photograph natural wonders. The ride takes you past farm country and fruit stands until you reach the first lookout terraces over the Yangtze. You'll want to snap some photos on the terraces, but avoid the Buddhist temple-the authorities will try to get you to contribute money, and there is some concern that the monks aren't even monks.

Continue on to the village of Shigu, which sits at the first bend in the Yangtze, where the river does a V-shaped turn before continuing eastward. The 300-degree twist makes for panoramic, though usually mist-shrouded, views. The best day for Shigu is market day-which happens every third day-but at any time you can see the town's Red Army Memorial, a moving statue of a soldier and a Naxi farmer that commemorates the winter crossing of the Yangtze by 20,000 Red Army soldiers at the start of the Long March in 1934. Continue on to Shigu's giant sixteenth-century shi gu (stone drum), which memorializes a joint Naxi/Han army victory over an invading force from Tibet and is believed to have magical powers. Take a walk along the town's main street, have an early lunch at the charming little Jiang Nan Restaurant, and then leave Shigu for Tiger Leaping Gorge, so named because, according to local legend, a tiger fleeing from a hunter was able to leap across its narrowest point (which, by the way, is 82 feet wide). The gorge, one of the world's deepest river canyons, can be accessed from either the Lijiang side or the Zhongdian side of the river-but the former seems preferable. The latter requires walking 1,100 steps down to the river-which means walking back up again. A few miles away, a monstrous parking garage is being built where you will soon be required to park your car and board buses to get to the gorge. The Lijiang side, on the other hand, has a level walking path that runs alongside the river, taking you through the gorge and affording more scenic vistas; if there has been rainy weather, though, you need to watch out for falling rocks. The gorge is most impressive during the high-water months from June through September, when the river thunders through. A round-trip hike on the Lijiang side from the parking lot to the narrowest part of the gorge and back will take you about 90 minutes.

Then continue your drive north to Zhongdian. You will climb and climb, perhaps driving through clouds, until you reach Zhongdian, at 10,500 feet. Ward off altitude sickness by drinking plenty of water during the ride.

The hotel quandary you face in Zhongdian is similar to the one in Lijiang: If you stay at the most inviting property-the Banyan Tree Ringha (86-887-828-8822;; doubles, $400-$900), a 40-minute drive from town-you won't want to leave your room, and therefore you may miss a lot. Again, if sensual delights are a priority, opt for the Banyan Tree, whose villas resemble traditional Tibetan lodges, only a helluva lot plusher. If sightseeing or affordability is your priority, stay at the quaint 22-room Songtsam Hotel (86-887-828-8889;; doubles, $75), within walking distance of Zhongdian's most famous monument, Songzanlin Monastery. Request a standard room with a balcony facing the lake. As soon as you check in, order a pot of ginger tea, the local antidote for altitude sickness. It's so tasty, you'll be an addict before long.

The lack of oxygen can tire you out, so tonight you'll want to take it easy, avoid alcohol, and turn in early. At the Puppet Restaurant (Old Town St.; 86-887-822-5485; meals about $17), order the thendu soup (with yak meat and handmade noodles), Tibetan potato curry, and momo (Tibetan dumplings) stuffed with either yak or vegetables.

Day 7 (Friday): Zhongdian
The town that I think of in my heart not as Zhongdian or Shangri-La but as Gyalthang (pronounced gehl-tung)-since that's what the locals call it-sits amid a stunning landscape of tranquil lakes framed by snowcapped mountains and valleys dotted with wildflowers and horses. The region's three parallel rivers-the Mekong, Salween, and Yangtze-have made it a World Heritage Site. The city itself has a Wild West flavor-yaks and black pigs wander through the streets at rush hour-and the car-free Old Town has not yet been gussied up Lijiang-style. Of course, tourism is growing so fast that, by the time this article comes out, the town may also have finished building the massive parking garage where visitors to Songzanlin Monastery, Yunnan Province's largest, will be required to park their cars and board tour buses to get back and forth. If you're staying at the Songtsam Hotel, though, the monastery is just a short walk away. I don't know if it's the lamasery of the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon, but I do know that about 500 lamas live there, including two adorable little boys. Stop by the small second-floor chapel-the room of the Protector of Gyalthang-where monks sit on the floor chanting and praying.

Next stop, the vegetable market-there are three. The most engaging and photogenic is the oldest, which you'll find in the New Town, across the street from the People's Bank of China building. You'll see Khampa Tibetans in their traditional ethnic garb, as well as a few monks, buying everything from yak cheese to noodle soup to Tibetan black clay cookware.

Hit the Tibetan-style Old Town next. The renovated section is lined with shops with trilingual signage (Tibetan, Chinese, and English) and names like Lucky and Trustworthy Silver Workshop Handed Down from Generation to Generation. Don't miss the brand-new Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Museum, which will introduce you to the region's Tibetan minorities.

After a lunch of warm, sweet, gooey yak cheese and baba at a spot in the New Town that's a favorite among locals-Tashi Khata ("Lucky White Scarf")-and after buying a prayer flag ($2) for use later this afternoon, head out of town. Get a feel for the "road to Tibet" by driving half an hour along this dramatically winding highway as far as the town of Nixi. Stop by Nixi's Tibetan Black Pottery Workshop to watch artisans shaping the clay with their hands and wooden tools, just as they've done for centuries. Turn around and drive back to Zhongdian, and then to the tiny village of Ringha, set amid rolling meadows where medicinal herbs grow. It's well worth the climb of several hundred steps to reach Five Wisdom Buddha Temple, a serene hilltop haven that is a reflection of the local culture of people and animals living together in harmony. Beneath the countless prayer flags strung around the temple, you'll find clusters of surprisingly outgoing goats, sheep, and black pigs. (At the Tibetan New Year, such animals are given to the monastery as a form of atonement for livestock that have been killed; at the temple, nobody will harm them-which is why they are so friendly toward strangers.) Remember that prayer flag you bought in town? Tie it up among the other flags.

After tea with a village family in a traditional Tibetan farmhouse, it will be 4:30 or so and you'll be a five-minute walk from the Banyan Tree Ringha. Whether or not you're staying at the hotel, get an herbal massage in its over-the-top Tibetan spa. Dinner tonight in the Old Town should be at Potala Log Cabin (Bei Men Lu; 86-887-822- 8278; meals about $17), a cozy place whose specialty is Gyalthang hot pot.

Next comes the experience that was the highlight of my entire trip. At 8 every night in Zhongdian, the locals come out-older ones in ethnic dress, younger ones not-and dance around the illuminated market square in concentric circles to galvanizing Tibetan rhythms. While the dancers you saw in Lijiang's market square were paid to perform, these people do it for free and with heartfelt zeal: It is a local tradition that knits the community together. Surprisingly, just as many men dance as women-and every bit as gracefully and enthusiastically. Hopefully, you'll join in too. This "square dancing" is a tough scene to photograph, given the darkness and the rapid movements, so don't be shy about standing in the best spot for pictures: smack in the center of the square, while everyone swirls around you in a colorful circle.

Day 8 (Saturday): Fly to Shanghai
Catch the 8:35 a.m. flight out of Zhongdian that gets you into Shanghai at 1:10 p.m. and you will feel as if you've been laser-beamed from the past into the future.
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