On the rooftop of the world!

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When we first left home it had always been our intention to visit Zhongdian, otherwise known as Shangri-La. However when we caught Dengue Fever we decided to  streamline the remainder of our trip because our energy-levels were so low, this meant that we removed both Zhongdian and Tiger Leaping Gorge from our plans. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the world's deepest gorges, an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and about an hour outside Lijiang; if you are traveling in this area it is seen as something of a rite of passage to trek the gorge for a few days. But we have been struggling with even the slightest amount of exercise lately so we thought that trekking through the mountains in the middle of nowhere probably wasn’t the best idea. We were both really upset not to be visiting Tiger Leaping Gorge and Zhongdian.  So upset in fact that we finally relented and decided to take a chance on our health and chip out to Zhongdian for a few days after all. The town of Zhongdian is nearly 4000 meters above sea level and many people who visit here have major problems with altitude sickness (to give you an idea of the altitude around here, Snowdonia is only 1085 meters above sea level). Because we are so high into the mountains the air is very thin here and for some people there isn’t enough oxygen in the air to sustain their bodies; the symptoms of altitude sickness are similar to having a really bad cold and whilst most people get accustomed to the altitude after a day or two, if you become ill you must return to a lower altitude immediately or things can turn quite nasty. It just goes to show that our attitudes to life have changed during this trip; previously I would never have even considered going to Zhongdian while we both had cold and bad chests, however we’ve got to the point now that we just shrug our shoulders and hope for the best.

Zhongdian is on the border between China and Tibet and a few years ago it was officially agreed that Zhongdian was the inspiration for James Hilton’s fictional town of Shangri-La in his novel Lost Horizon. Since then the tourism board has realized that they can make some major cash if they trade under the name of Shangri-La instead of Zhongdian, so they officially renamed the town and now they see thousands of tourists flock up into the mountains every year to visit the infamous Shangri-La. We aren’t quite convinced about this story so, despite all the signs telling us otherwise, we still call it Zhongdian as do most of the locals. It is our dream to one day visit Tibet, we even wondered whether we could squeeze it into this trip, however it seems that Zhongdian is the closest we are going to get to Tibet for the time-being. The drive there was magnificent and we got some great views of Tiger Leaping Gorge which helped to console us after our decision to not visit it. Since we have been traveling we have seen Tibetan Prayer Flags strung up in cafes and souvenir shops and we have been desperate to see some real ones and we hoped that Zhongdian would provided us with a glimpse of some. Well before we even arrived in Zhongdian we drove through some fields and valleys that looked just how I imagine the Tibetan Plateau to look and sure enough we saw dozens of flags strewn around a smoking stupa in the middle of one of the fields. That was good enough for us and we would have been very content if they were our only sight of any flags.

Our accommodation is Zhongdian is basic but very comfortable. The temperature here is a lot colder than we are used to (it is not unusual to have snow on the surrounding mountains all year round) and one of us (I’m naming no names but it begins with the letter T) forgot to bring a jumper with them, so one of us was lovely and toasty in their jumper and wooly gloves and the other was freezing their backside off in just a t-shirt. Luckily our beds had electric blankets so we weren’t too cold at night. We could both feel the effects of the high altitude as soon as we arrived; we were headachey and just walking from one end of the street to the other left us out of breath. We stayed well hydrated though and pretty soon our symptoms began to ease off. It is a very strange sensation to breathe in and feel like there isn’t enough oxygen in the air; it makes you feel very light-headed. By the time we had got settled and got used to the altitude it was already tea-time so we headed out for some food. Walking through the old town square was quite an experience; it feels like we are on a different planet. Zhongdian is a world away from the China we already know; it doesn’t even feel like we are in China anymore… it feels like we have crossed the border into Tibet. Everything is different here; the language, the temperature, the food, the people, the buildings, the smells, the sounds. In short….I have fallen in love with this place. I almost don’t want to tell people how amazing it is because then it won’t feel as special anymore, but I can’t help but describe how utterly spectacular it is. Flung high up into the mountains it feels like we have gone back in time; this is one of the only times on this entire trip that I have felt like we have found something really unique, not many places like this exist in the world anymore. It is so difficult to adequately describe how I felt in this place… this wasn’t just backpacking anymore… this was being a real traveler. I am actually struggling to think of another town or city that I love more than Zhongdian… I think it might be my favourite destination of the entire trip.

Luckily for us there weren’t many tourists around so we could wander around in peace and quiet. As we entered the main square the ladies selling street food and trinkets were packing away for the day and before we knew what was happening they turned some music on and everyone was taking part in a huge dance in the middle of the street. There must have been about 30 people performing this dance and they all seemed to know what the moves were. It went on for about 2 hours altogether and we have absolutely no idea what it was all about. The only thing which we can think of is that is it a traditional Tibetan dance which the locals do to celebrate the end of a successful day at work. After a while watching them I noticed that two other tourists had joined in so I decided to have a go too; so I jumped onto the end of the line and watched what the other ladies were doing. Pretty soon I was dancing around and have a brilliant time! I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but everyone was laughing and smiling so I was happy to stay for a while and dance with the local ladies.

The following day we headed out to the main site of interest in Zhongdian: a huge monastery for Tibetan Buddhist monks. The easiest way to get to the monastery is to catch a local bus right up to the entrance gate; however about 3 minutes before we arrived at the entrance the bus pulled over and three policemen climbed onboard and told us to get off. We had no idea what they were saying to us so we just sat there and smiled at them before we finally clicked that we had to get off. It turns out that the local tourism board has decided to start charging a massive fee for entrance to the monastery; the policemen walked us to the ticket booth and we had to pay £8 to get in! However we have forgiven them the huge charge because the monastery was incredible. It is set into the side of a mountain and is considered the most beautiful Tibetan site outside of Tibet; the style of it is similar to the royal palace in the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. We had to trek to the top of the mountain, which left us incredibly light-headed, but it was worth it. We’ve been to 3 other monasteries during our travels but this one was so completely different; the music was different, the smell of the incense, the colour of the monks robes. We entered one of the huge meditation halls and received a blessing and some Buddhist prayer beads from one of the monks; it was worth coming all the way to Zhongdian just for this amazing experience. Later we went for a wander around the monastery grounds and found a collection of stupas strung with thousands of prayer flags… maybe it was the lack of oxygen but we were practically hysterical to find so many flags. We must have spent at least 2 hours just walking beneath the flags and looking at the different colours fluttering around in the wind; they were beautiful. We felt very lucky indeed. The next day we ventured into town to visit a temple set on the side of a hill overlooking the old town; this temple is very special to the local people because it is also home to the world’s largest prayer wheel. Despite being in Zhongdian for two days already Tom seemed to be really struggling with the altitude today; he was feeling really light-headed and out of breath, so we took the rest of the day really easy and settled down in a local café with a big pot of jasmine tea and a couple of books.

We can’t believe how quick our time is flying by at the moment; the following day it was already time to leave Zhongdian and head back to a lower altitude. Our plans for the next week or so are really hectic; after leaving Zhongdian we have a 5 hour drive back to Lijiang, later the same day we catch a 12 hour over-night train back to Kunming, after one night in Kunming we then board a 20 hour over-night train northwards to a place called Chengdu. So we are going to be pretty worn out by the end of the week! Our journeys all went very well and before we knew it we were back in Kunming and preparing ourselves to leave the Yunnan Province for good. Before we arrived in China we were very anxious that Yunnan would prove too difficult for us to negotiate by ourselves, but it has turned out to be both manageable and utterly fantastic. We are so proud of ourselves for having conquered Yunnan and we rate the last two weeks as one of our biggest achievements so far. From here we keep heading north until we finally reach Beijing in about a week’s time. As time goes by we keep getting more and more emotional at the thought of going home; our emotions at the moment are a real mixed bag…we are excited, nervous, happy, sad, overwhelmed. I keep on randomly bursting into tears, which doesn’t help with the whole getting-stared-at-by-locals thing. I don’t know what kind of state we will be in by the time we get to Beijing!      
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rach on

wow it sounds like you,ve had the time of yourlifes here ! im going to sound really stupid and ignorent of other peoples cultures here, but are they there own personal prayers thet people have wrote ? what a lovely place to be , would quite like to go there myself lol would make a nice change from spain !lol , hope your keeping well ,did you also suffer from alitude sickness hayley ? you were both soooo missed 2day xxx it was bloody boiling it was reading 30.5 when we got in the car after going 2 the pub and we were all melting ! i dont want to say to much about you coming home ,coz your still having the time off yourlifes, but your both missed and loved by all of us , and when we all get together were allways talking about you , caz carnt wait 4 u to meet charlie and benji told me today that you were flying home on a big green plane !! evie is just the cutest lil girl who never stops smiling with her cheeky grin ! x all the kids spoke of you today and holly is missing like crazy xxxxx see you soon love you to shangri-la and back xx

tomandhayley on

Ahh I'm so glad u all had a good time yesterday, I'm just about to go on fb and se if there are any photos on there yet. Bless Benji, how does he know what colour plane we're flying home on?! It was really rainy and grey here yesterday so you might have had a hotter temperature in North Wales than we did here! You don't sound ignorant at all, I spend most of my time on google trying to learn about all these new things I'm seeing :) I think in the olden days the flags would have been individually written out but now they are printed in factories and bought as offerings; we bought some for our new house when we get back. I wasn't too bad with the altitude, I just got really out of puff every time we had to climb a flight of stairs or something like that. Glad you like the pics, they are some of my favourite. Speak soon, love you lots and lots xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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