A taste of Tibet

Trip Start Nov 28, 2011
Trip End Apr 09, 2013

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Where I stayed
Swallows Nest

Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

After the hike in the Tiger Leaping Gorge (see our previous entry) we took the minibus from Tinas Guest House to Shangrila. After about three hours – and passing most stunning and sometimes breathtaking highways with cliffs dropping down up to 1500 meters and no guardrails – we arrived around 6.30pm in Shangrila.

For those who did not get a Tibetan permit – for whatever reason – Shangrila is the place to visit! As we are travelling during the Spring Holiday, the permits for Tibet are not granted for foreign tourists, and for was no exception for us. The official story is due to 'political months' we know by now that the actual reason is because of the huge stream of Chinese tourists due to the Spring Holiday. Nevertheless, as we looked for alternatives to get a taste of Tibet, we soon realized that Shangrila would be the best option. Shangri La, Zhongdian, or Gyalthang, the place has different names to different inhanbitants and cultures. It consists of an old centre enveloped by a growing new Chinese city. The atmosphere here is like no other we have experienced. It is cold and dry; Snow sits all year round. Sitting at over 3.200m above sea level, the air is thinning noticeably. Despite our travels through the Andes Mountains in South America without any problems (over 5.000 meters) we suffered a little bit of altitude sickness. Especially after turning the "big prayer wheel” to accumulate wisdom and merit (good karma) and to purify negativities (bad karma) as we found out.

The legendary fictional location of Shangri-La: a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. Hilton describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia — a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. In the novel Lost Horizon, the people who live at Shangri-La are almost immortal, living years beyond the normal lifespan and only very slowly aging in appearance.

Shangrila and its place in China

In the second half of the 20th Century the county was called Zhongdian County, and primarily Tibetan county in northwestern Yunnan province, but was renamed in 2001 after the fictional land of Shangri-La in the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon, in an effort to promote tourism in the area (as mentioned above). The original Tibetan population refers to this place by its traditional name Gyalthang, meaning "Royal plains". This ancient name is reflected in the Tibetan Pinyin name Jiantang Town, the county seat. By changing the name, the tourism exploded and turned the traditional small Tibetan county into a tourist destination. People from all over are visiting the area and strolling through the old city town, looking for souvenirs and the real Tibetan experience. So did we!

We stayed in Swallows Nest Hostel in the old city center. We left our luggage in the hostel and explored the ancient city center by sunset and night. Lots of shops are still closed due to the winter period, but we got already a great taste of the Tibetan lifestyle. Perched in the centre of the old city, is the Shangri La golden Temple. Towering adjacent, and drawing the visitors up from the village floor is (as far as we know) the worlds largest spinning prayer wheel. Sitting high up over the village skyline and weighing in at over 60 tons the wheel is a golden extraordinary attempt to have your prayer heard.

As we stand marvelling the tower, a few Chinese people approach the wheel and pick up the straps that give the most effective ignition to the enormous wheel. More people join in, but clearly 6 or 7 people aren't enough to animate the still sculpture. We join them and together with a group of 10 or 12 Chinese we start to assemble around the circumference of the wheel, an almighty shout brings some organisation to the group and with a communal burst of strength the great golden tower begins to rotate in a clockwise direction. We succeeded to turn the payer wheel which was quit a big deal here! Wisdom, merit and purification of the negatives were all around us! Nice! After we lighted some incense sticks and walked clockwise in the most beautiful temple, it was time to find some local food.

On the way back we found “tastes of Lhasa”, a typical Tibetan restaurant. Heating here is done by fires places, also in this restaurant. After we had chosen some dishes we enjoyed our tea and the warmed ourselves at the fire place. The food we got served tasted delicious and stuffed we went back to the hostel. The headache is getting stronger so time to get some medicine and a good rest!

Early risers we were! And the best thing, the altitude sickness is gone! Today, two important things to do: the first thing is to book our bus tickets to Dali at the bus station for tonight.  The second thing is to visit Song Zan Lin Monastery. Song Zan Lin Si is the second largest and oldest Buddhist temple after the famous Tibetan temple Pudala – that is why the alias of the monastery is “little Potala Palace”. We took bus 3 to the ticket office and from there on a special tourist bus drove us over the hill into the valley where the monastery was constructed. The construction of the monastery began in 1679  and was completed two years later. It was in 1679, that the Dalailama chose this place by divination, and it went on to become the uppermost public place in Yunnan which features the particular local characteristics. Annually, the Gedong Festival is celebrated here by the Tibetans. Pious believers, with their knees and foreheads knocking the ground at every step, come here to pray.

The monastery seems like a group of ancient castles and is composed of two lamaseries, Zhacang and Jikang. The gilded copper roof endows the monastery with strong Tibetan features and the 108 (an auspicious number in Buddhism) columns downstairs also feature the characteristics of Han nationality. The main halls in the monastery are magnificent, and on both the left and right sides are wonderful frescos, depicting Buddhist tales and legends. The inside-halls are exquisite with cloisters running through. The cloisters are all decorated with beautiful sculptures and consummate frescos. The monastery is full of treasures. There are a lot of golden figures of Buddha josses, golden lamps, Tibetan lections, silver censers and so on. All of these are wonderful collections accumulated from each dynasty. They are precious productions made by people of both Tibet nationality and Han nationality.

Around the temple are Tibetan prayer flags, soft and silky to the touch, colourful and delicately illustrated to the eye, announcing themselves with a gentle flapping with the rise and fall of the winds. It was here on the hill-top were we had a great panoramic view of the region, including the monastery and the city behind.

Although we did not made it yet to Tibet, it is absolutely worthwhile visiting Shangrila to get a little taste of Tibet. Especially the monastery Song Zan Lin Si is just fabulous and full of great people and happiness... just confirmation of what you see in the village as well.
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Lars on

OK. It's now official. I'm jealous.

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