Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Mythical Land of Shangri-La; a Tibetan Region of Yunnan Province, China

Leaving Tiger Leaping Gorge behind our mini bus, packed with dirty hikers, followed the valley north towards the mythically named land of Shangri-La.  As we followed the road up and and over a mountain pass the snow capped peaks we had just hiked through stood mightily above the rest and a couple Chinese passengers requested a photo stop.  Jumping out of the van the cold was immediately upon my bare toes, my breath hung in the air with every exhale. 

As we descended the pass and continued north it was like the China we had gotten to know over the past three weeks melted behind and disappeared completely.  Yaks roamed the golden countryside where corn stalks and barley rested upon large wooden drying frames for winter animal feed and a brisk wind rustled multi coloured prayer flags flying from white washed stupas, yurts and hand woven fences.  The courtyard homes gave way to massive whitewashed, timber framed, mud brick buildings with elaborately carved and brightly painted wooden windows and eaves, each easily larger than some the most expansive mansions I have seen. The identifiable hand woven clothing worn by the ethic people was strikingly different, and all this was evidence of an extreme culture change as we gained altitude, a land so different it could suggest a country all of its own: Tibet.  

The political circumstances in Tibet itself are constantly changing and currently is closed to tourism. A leadership change in Beijing looming in the near future as well as unrest with Japan over a dispute regarding ownership of an island bringing a palpable tension within China's boundaries and adding to the ongoing paranoia of the government regarding the occupation of Tibet and the emotive reactions of its people.  As the bus trembled along the unpaved dirt roads, through the mountainous farmland towards Shangri-La in north western Yunnan province, it was evident that Tibetan culture reaches beyond its political boarders, allowing us the opportunity to dip into this fascinating part of China, home to five ethnic minority groups; Tibetans making up the majority of the population along with the Naxi, Bai, Yi and the Lisu as well as the Han with their exclusive privileges backed by the governments program to 'resettle the west'.

Upon arrival in Shangri-La, and after deciding to turn away from a double room in a hostel for 120RMB, we were soon taken in by a lovely elderly women in traditional Bai dress in a courtyard style home just within the walls of the old town.  She showed us a large room which appeared far beyond our means and we were certain we misunderstood her price of 80RMB per night. It turned out however the language was hardly a barrier when communicating with her and every word and hand signal exchanged between us was understood as though we were speaking the same tongue.  She lead us into her living room to take our details, where we stood before a stunning ornately carved wooden family alter for ancestral worship which stretched the entire length of one wall and up to the ceiling. Portraits of deceased family members sat behind lit candles and in front were money and offerings of fruit, water and cigarettes which are replaced daily.  The Chinese believe that even after death family members still have a continued existence and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.

Out to satisfy stomachs next we walked deeper into the old town amongst streets similar to those of Dali and Lijiang, where we found the main square alive with music and about a hundred people engaged in a Tibetan 'square' dance (which actually was performed going around in a circle). Clearly the five elderly women who danced in full traditional dress with very young children snugly strapped to their backs with brightly coloured patch work cloth were the respected leaders and everyone else followed the choreographed steps, though some better than others.  

I was approached by a Tibetan man who spoke rather incomprehensible english as he threw every phrase he knew at me for a while as I nodded and encouraged him to practice with me.  Once he was out of words he pulled a notebook from his woven shoulder bag and began reciting more, asking for my pronunciation when he got stuck.  I couldn't wipe the smile from my face as the music and people drifted around the square and we watched some interesting characters. One man exceptionally flamboyant in his movement who clearly took much pride in his dance, another dressed similarly to an LA thug with his jeans hung low, a rotund policeman barely 5ft tall and still in uniform, a women in a long flowing black jacket with beautiful flowing gestures and a short, scruffy man awkward in his footing and not at all in time with the others, laughing incessantly, who could only have been the village drunk.  A western girl stumbled along past us, soon to throw her arms up in the air and give up altogether, retreating.  We patted her arm in encouragement as she passed and she stopped to express her frustration as my Tibetan friend continued to go over his english with me and it wasn't long before the energetic older couple from America we had met in Tiger Leaping Gorge joined our group.  Julian eventually tore me away from my conversation as I was being gifted a photograph by the Tibetan man, and the four of us followed our new Spanish friend, Veronica (Nikka) to a restaurant of her recommendation.

A fire warmed the interior of Tantra Restaurant and we were greeted with a complementary glass of local brandy by RIcki, a Chilean, who it transpired had worked as an attaché for the Chilean government before packing his suit and tie away in exchange for travel and ended up here with an invitation to co-own the restaurant. The food we were served was exceptional, with ingredients of far higher quality than anything we had eaten throughout Asia.  Our table grew when two Brits, Steve and Leanne joined us, acquaintances of Nikka. After teaching for the past 18 months in the wild north west they were on a journey south following the Tibetan border, before returning to England in time for Christmas.

Shangri-La is still a major stop on the tourist route in Yunnan for the Han, but in the far western reaches of the country it's far enough away from the major cities of China and a world away from SE Asia that it seems to attract a certain sort of western traveler, those who have been on the road for a while and have fascinating experiences to share; of travel through rugged lands, of exceptional journeys and lifestyles. Like minded people with whom conversation flowed easily until we realized that we were the only ones left in the restaurant. When we finally extracted ourselves from the fireside and headed out into the autumn chill we found ourselves locked out of our courtyard home, soon remedied by some loud knocking in the early hours (our apologies here to the local residents). 

The inviting, comforting vibe of Tantra made us feel at home and with the great group of people we had met there and despite our plan to remain in town for just 36 hours we found ourselves sucked in and spent the majority of the first few days in Shangri-La within its walls, drinking Yak butter or green tea, catching up with writing and discussing each others travel routes, offering ideas to those who were heading in the direction from which we had come, and drinking in the suggestions of others who had come from the north. The sliced yak meat was perfectly cooked and among the nicest dishes I have ever had, the quality of the cut of meat far exceeding our usual fair. 

The first couple of nights as I tried to sleep, I was very aware of my heart beat, slower and much stronger than usual.  I could feel its pulsations through my entire body and hear it in my ears and sometimes would have to gasp for breath to satisfy myself.  At 3,270 meters (10,728 ft.) meters above sea level it was the first time I had felt the effect of altitude and my system was having to work a little harder than usual due to decreased levels of oxygen and atmospheric pressure. It was a considerably uncomfortable feeling for me for the first few days and simple tasks such as walking had us out of breath in moment, heart racing and lungs gasping.  Julian still felt the affect though not as significantly as myself, and I found it necessary to avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages as I acclimatized.  

Finally, on our third day we decided to get out and see something other than the interior walls of Tantra. Ricki loaned Nikka and us his two electric motorbikes to get out to Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Buddhist Monastery in Yunnan province.  As we approached, it appeared as though we were looking at a cluster of ancient castles with glowing golden roofs set at the foot of a mountain.  With Ricki's direction we approached from a less used road, circumventing the tourist charges and were rewarded with a view of the monastery from across the rim of a basin. 

The temple buildings loomed above us, tiered up the mountains lower slopes and after a hotly contested debate in the 90's were the reason for the town being renamed Shangri-La after the mythical setting of the book Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. Tourist numbers to the town have increased from 10,000 when the town was known as Zhongdian (or "Jiantang" in Tibetan) to over 1 million visitors a year after the renaming! Whilst an obvious ploy by the authorities to artificially increase tourism in this remote region, it has been successful surely beyond even the most wildly optimistic predictions, the atmosphere was as magical as the name suggests. 

Above the magnificent front gateway, the ubiquitous prayer flags fluttered in a strong breeze and we approached to be accosted by a monk asking to see our tickets. At 120RMB each, we had avoided the charges with good reason and retreated with Nikka's thickly accented english claiming innocence. We wandered along the outer walls just 100m up the hill and found another, smaller gateway, without doors or desk and walked into the grounds. Following narrow streets between residential buildings we headed up the slopes to the main monastic structures. Officially the monastery is open and free to all but the coach parties and uninformed are tapped for funds as and where they may be easily removed and no doubt both the local economy and the tax man benefit greatly from this easy supply of cash.

We stood for a few minutes in the central square under more streams of prayer flags admiring the huge building before us then climbed the few steps into the main assembly hall. The hall was barred by a cloth and from within we could hear the sounds of chanting. Cheekily, Julian set his camera and lifted it high over the cloth barrier, snapping the interior before we turned away and headed up a staircase to the floors above. Our exploration continued up through five or six brightly decorated levels, the walls covered in buddhist murals and dotted with statues of deities and guardians, until we emerged into the bright sunshine upon the roof, offering wonderful views down over the monastery and across the valley to the town in the distance, the gilded roof tops surrounding us in a sea of gold.

Heading back down a symmetrical set of stairways on the opposite side of the building we found the monks had finished their devotions and the assembly hall was open to us. From the ceiling hung brightly coloured banners above rows of benches covered with cushions. The pillars supporting the floors above were similarly decorated and the whole effect was an assault on the visual senses. Two Tibetan horns stood on their bells, concetinered from their fully extended 25ft length down to quarter size and a huge double ended drum hung from its frame in one of the aisles. At the 'alter' end of the room, three giant statues rose three stories high and around their feet lay offerings from the devout, ironically each bank note featuring the face of Chairman Mao. Pictures of revered monks, including the Dali Lama were placed at intervals between the statues feet as well as incense sticks and smaller effigies. The walls were painted with murals from floor to ceiling; fantastic characters of myth loomed down over us with demonic faces and scenes of both the macabre and serene surrounded them and the three of us wandered around the hall as a detail of monks cleaned away the detritus of a hundred more with grass brushes, sharing good humour between themselves and accompanied by much laughter. 

One night, the six of us, Ricky, Steve, Leanne, Nikka, Julian and I, headed out to the Eco Lodge, a hostel in progress, set in the countryside 10km from the town.  Steve and Leanne had recently sealed an agreement with the Tibetans building the place and after a couple months visit back home to the UK, they aim to return to to assist in setting up and running the place.  The four story wooden home was set beautifully on the edge of a village in a stunning landscape, quiet and secluded amongst the foothills of the mountains upon which yak roamed, large cow bells around their necks jingling throughout the night.  After a tour of the place we spent some time brainstorming, our years working in the hotel industry and travelling we came up with some fresh ideas; the Eco Lodge has potential to be an exceptional experience and offers exactly the sort of 'off the beaten track' twists we look for when travelling.  We spent the night sitting in front of a warming fire, enjoying some food from Tantra which Ricky had brought along as well as some medicinal brandy which can only be purchased in pharmacies and very inexpensive (which I actually ended up sincerely enjoying).  I slept exceptionally well in the quiet of the countryside in a toasty warm bed with a heated mattress pad (essential for these frigid climates) while Julian and Steve stayed up talking into the early hours of the morning. 

Before breakfast the following morning Julian, Nikka and I went for a stroll around the grounds, admiring the landscape and clusters of large Tibetan homes and drying racks in the company of a herd of yaks, some with pierced noses and ears.  The sun melted away the frost on the ground as we returned back to the house where we were served yak butter tea; a savoury soup like beverage which is traditionally made with tea leaves, yak butter and salt though also it is also served with the salt substituted for sugar.  Butter tea is a regular part of a Tibetans diet, especially amongst the nomadic tribes who are said to drink around 40 cups of this each day as it is very warming with lots of calorific energy particularly suited to high altitudes (and also helps prevent chapped lips). With the tea we were also served tsampa, a powder of ground barley flour.  At the time, none of us knew what the tsampa was for and we dipped our steamed buns into the tea then into the tsampa.  I later read on Wikipedia though that "You leave a little buttered tea in the bottom of your bowl and put a big dollop of tsampa on top of it. You stir gently with the forefinger, then knead with the hand, meanwhile twisting your bowl round and round until you finish up with a large dumpling like object which you proceed to ingest, washing it down with more tea."  It was interesting to enjoy this traditional Tibetan breakfast, Julian very much enjoying the salted butter tea whist I much preferred the sweet. Ricki's well aged yak cheese topped the steamed buns nicely, along with the spicy tofu spread and raw, local honey. We sat in the courtyard in the late morning, enjoying the warming rays of the sun and each others company.  Prior to the taxi coming to take us back to town Nikka and I went for a walk around the village, greeted by local families and their pigs.

That evening, we all gathered at Tantra once again where a few more travellers joined our group for a couple days; a Quebecois couple and a French man.  We shared a large spread of exceptional food, the sweet an sour chicken worth a particular mention, the Sichuan chef adding her own special twist to this common dish.  The South American spirit Piscal flowed freely and we danced the night away together. Two Tibetan girls joined our throng, their natural reserve and shyness eventually overcome until they too danced with the carefree abandon of the inebriated, accompanied by wide smiles and fits of giggles as Leanne encouraged us all into a line dance over the familiar western beats emanating from Ricki's stereo. The soundtrack chosen by many DJ's, spanned 50 years from the eclectic tastes of our group, brought to these borderlands on i-Phones and MP3 players that we all find essential kit in our travels.  The following morning was within the top five worst hangovers I have ever experienced! I woke up for breakfast in a sickly state and returned to bed immediately after eating, waking five hours later feeling much better and ready to head back to meet everyone for dinner. 

The following morning we met up with our Quebecois friend, hired out a couple of bikes and ventured out into the countryside for a ride around Napahai Lake as per Steve and Leanne's suggestion.  We left the city behind and followed the flat paved road into the surrounding grasslands.  The sun was warm yet the breeze quite chilling and it wasn't until we began to ascend a long sweeping hill into a valley hidden behind the hills that I began to warm.

A cable car was available to take tourists up into the mountains but we turned down the 60RMB fair, appreciated the large yurt style building and after a long rest to catch our breath and cool down again we hopped back onto our bikes cycling past eight large white stupas at the foot of the mountain, the final resting places of local families. We headed down a dirt track, Julian and our accomplice tearing ahead of me at breakneck speed towards a Tibetan village en-route to Nappa Lake.  The residents of the village, dressed in their native attire, went about tending to pigs and goats amongst their enormous homes and drying racks as children peered at us curiously.  Nikka and Julian road on ahead and as I walked alone, three young children followed me, not responding to my attempts at communication.  Their darker skin, mysterious eyes and bright red cheeks distinctly Tibetan.  I have heard (though found no evidence) of ideas suggesting parents may burn the cheeks of their children when they are young to protect them from the strong sun found at high elevation.  There was something particularly magical about this village, still rich in tradition, culture and old ways not at all for the amusement of money spinning tourists, the coaches ferrying the Han to the mountain never pausing here; real life as it has been for a thousand of years with only the occasional tractor unit and the telephone wires providing a nod to the outside world.

Rejoining the road, we descended from the village towards the grasslands again and we began the ride around the lake which we were told was here.  We passed small clutters of large stone houses, some in the process of being built.  I learned that the most expensive part of building these homes is in fact the interior support pillars which are actually entire tree trucks and must be quite old considering their thickness. Nikka said they were local trees yet I failed to see evidence of this amongst the pastural valley until we came upon a group of workers bringing the lumber down off the highlands. A young boy waved in greeting as he leaned out from an intricately carved window of his stone house and I wondered how much such structures costs these families to build. In the west similar homes would be well into the millions of US dollars. Obviously with the amount of new buildings being constructed many of the tourist dollars now flooding into the area are invested within the community and the standard of living is slowly being raised. 

As the sun began to descend we realized we still had quite a long way to go until we arrived back in Shangri-La, and finally we came across Napa Lake. Being the autumn dry season, the lake had dried and receded, opening up the shallower regions to grasslands, the prairie now golden and herds of yaks, horses, sheep grazed upon land.  During the wet season the lake will expand and the water will rush through nine surrounding caves and empty into the Jinsha River. Now cycling in shadow the temperatures dipped considerably and we picked up the pace.  Just before the sun dipped behind the mountain Julian and a couple other Asian photographers passing in a car, were blessed with exceptional light upon the grasslands we shared with flocks of geese and a some white cranes, the sky blessing them and us with a very atmospheric sunset. 

The route around the lake ended up being much longer than we anticipated, about 40km in total, and the final stretch was a long hill up and over a pass back into Shangri-La.  We waited for Julian as he took his pictures back in the valley and the cold crept over me and deep into my bones.  I had been trying to put off spending money on buying some warmer clothing but finally, the cold won and Steve and Leanne hiked around town with us acting as translators until I found a warm, down jacket which makes me look like a shiny MIchelin man.  I would have bought the smaller, more attractive one for a few dollars more but Julian managed to bargain himself an ugly red hat in for next to nothing and apparently that was a deal maker. 

On our fifth day, we took the decision to finally move on the following day but we still had yet to see the worlds largest prayer wheel 500 meters from our guesthouse.  Climbing the stairs up to the temple we approached the copper prayer wheel engraved with the sanskrit mantra 'Om Mani Padme Hum' standing 21 meters overhead.  A number of people had joined at its base in attempt to rotate the 60 tonne mass in a clockwise direction and much to my amusement it wasn't until I grabbed hold that it started to move.  Gaining momentum it spun faster and abiding by ritual I kept with it for three turns. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition spinning a prayer wheel will have the same meritorious effect as reciting prayers.  We wandered around the grounds of the temple overlooking the city and decided that the overview of the city itself wasn't a particularly lovely site, most single or two story rooftops creating a very uniform look. 

 Of course, as we had every other night since we arrived in Shangri-La we all gathered with Ricky at Tantra for yet another mouth watering meal, which Ricky offered on the house with the suggestion we tip his staff in liew of charge, which we did with much thanks for the manner in which they had looked after us.  Ricky has turned out to be one of the most generous, selfless people I have ever met; a very beautiful soul and so rare to find.  Steve and Leanna also decided to continue to new pastures for a while after getting stuck in Shangri-La for over a month and we all congregated for one last time.  A new face had joined our group a couple days before, a lovely middle aged Chilean women, who treated us to a couple of the the most fabulous cocktails I have ever had which she squeeze exclusively from fresh ingredients; green apples, red chillies, raw ginger and a generous helping of Piscal.  As much as we enjoyed being in Shangri-La, the reason we ended up staying so long was sincerely because of the fabulous people we met there.  The times we shared, lessons learned and experiences told sealed a bond between us unique to travellers who may never actually meet again. Being away from home for so long, away from family and friends for years, these moments are priceless.  

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