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'.
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.
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.
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.