In Search Of Shangri-la

Trip Start Nov 15, 2009
Trip End Aug 03, 2010

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Sunday, April 18, 2010

We were up early following our night out in Lijiang for our tour to the edges of Tibet. Our first stop was Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the world as it is set between two huge mountains; Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain. The Yangtze River works its way between these two giants before it gets to a giant rapid where a tiger was reputed to have leaped from one side of the river to the other, hence the name.

To get to the rapid a 2.5 kilometre path has been hewn into Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Progress along the path was slow due to the sheer numbers of tourists, all of whom appeared to reach the Gorge at the same time. The route has a certain austere beauty but the gray of the mountain rocks has very little greenery to relieve the monotone of colour.

At the end of the path we reached the main attraction; the rapid where the Yangtze narrows to a width that would allow the legend of the tiger’s leap to gain credibility (well, with the locals at any rate!). At this point the water thunders deafeningly through the gorge with the power to crush anything that should be swept along its path. We jostled with the assembled crowds for photos we knew would not capture the sheer force of the river.

After lunch we travelled onwards towards Shangri-la. Yes, there really is such a place! It was formerly a town called Zhongdian but local officials wishing to promote tourism used some “evidence” from the James Hilton book “Lost Horizon” to claim that Hilton had been referring to the area when he wrote his book and accordingly the name was changed.

The scenery on the road to Shangri-la is more imposing than the area around Lijiang. It’s true that Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towers over Lijiang but the area around Shangri-la is dominated by several snow mountains and the scenery is very rugged.

The first part of the journey from Tiger Leaping Gorge featured rivers running besides the mountain foothills. As we journeyed further Li minority villages were set in verdant scenery with trees dotting the mountainsides. Finally we reached the outer reaches of Tibet where the greenery reduced and the mountains soared upwards.

Our first stop was the Sumtsaling Monastery which has been called the small Potala Palace after the giant monastery in Lhasa, Tibet, which is the most revered edifice for Tibetan Buddhism. The Monastery proved a bit of a disappointment as its central building, and apparently most impressive feature, had been completely dismantled and its replacement was in the process of construction. The setting was good, though, and we were able to get a good look at the mountains that dominate the surrounding area.

The Monastery does boast one incredible feature, though. Even with Mandy’s extensive experience of toilets she was able to award the public conveniences at the Monastery the accolade of being the world’s worst.

As we left the tourist centre for the Monastery we spotted one of the locals with the most impressive yak imaginable, a huge light coloured beast that had been groomed and well cared for by its owner. One of our party made the mistake of taking a photo without paying it’s master and was greeted with what sounded like a torrent of Tibetan expletives.

After dinner we were due to go to a Tibetan cultural show. By this time the altitude was beginning to affect us as Shangri-la is situated 3,200 metres (10,498 feet) above sea level. Rather than go to a contrived and touristy show we instead took leave of our group and retired to our hotel hoping that our bodies would acclimatise to the altitude by the following day.

Shangri-la is no idyllic mountain paradise. The setting is certainly beautiful yet the town itself has a remote and, in parts, run down feel. There is a modern area and also a recreated “old” area but these do not compensate for the cold and the altitude. Also, we thought the local Tibetan people were unfriendly and unscrupulous whereas we have found the Han Chinese majority in other parts of the country to be friendly and trustworthy.

The following morning got off to a bad start when we were presented with boiled eggs where the attached chicken’s droppings had worked their way into our serving. We naturally left the restaurant without eating the meal. After filling up with toast at another restaurant we made our way to Shika Snow Mountain, first stopping to hire extra clothing for those who had not come with adequate cold weather gear and purchasing oxygen which was recommended for combating the possibility of altitude sickness.

To get up the mountain we had to take two cable cars which climb the mountain to reach the viewing area at approximately 4,500 metres (14,763 feet). Although this is not the summit it was quite near the top. The ride up the mountain gave us great views but was a mere prelude to the spectacular scenery on offer at the top. Once out of the cable car we made our way along the wooden pathway immediately feeling the bitter cold and struggling in the thin air. In mountaineering terms 8,000 metres and above is supposed to be the death zone where the altitude has severe effects on the body. We were at just over half of that height but every breath and every step seemed a struggle, only the exhilaration of the experience helped to combat it. Well, some oxygen may have helped although we found out later that we were misusing the oxygen so probably received little or no benefit from it.

As we made our way past Tibetan stupas we could see even bigger peaks in the distance including Meili Snow Mountain whose highest peak, the 6,740 metre (22,113 feet) Kawa Karpo, has never been climbed. Despite the cold some of the locals took off layers to show their macho credentials with one foolhardy soul going so far as to bear his naked chest to the cold. We, on the other hand, just wished we had even more layers to combat the cold!

Our time at the top of the mountain was the highlight of our tour but we were still a bit relieved when it was time to go back down the mountain to the relative warmth at 3,200 metres. We subsequently found out that the clear weather we had experienced was a rarity at that time of year and we had been incredibly lucky to get such great views.

After Shika Snow Mountain we travelled to the Napa Hai where we saw some yak but from a distance. They were fairly unimpressive, though, when compared to the giant we had seen on the day before.

Our last stop was a visit to a temple in Shangri-la which reputedly has the largest prayer wheel in the world. Steve managed to move it a few inches on his own although Mandy was suspicious that some of the locals may have been pushing from the other side.

Our journey back to Lijiang was interspersed with several toilet stops including one where we were able to view the first bend of the Yangtze River, something that did not mean too much to us but which seemed to impress our fellow travellers, all of whom were Chinese. The toilets in the rural areas are very interesting. They often serve whole groups of houses and the cubicles are built with very low dividing walls, certainly no more than a metre high. These have the benefit of allowing you to talk directly with your neighbour when squatting to do your business. We believe that their introduction into Britain would help to foster a communal spirit and combat the lack of social cohesion that blights the Britain of today. Or perhaps it would just encourage anal retention!
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