Shangrila, Yunnan Province

Shangrila, April 28th – The bus from LiJiang left at 8AM and took the same route as the one we followed to Tiger Leaping Gorge two days earlier. This is pretty country but the road is narrow and bumpy and the bus drivers go pretty fast so it’s hard to get any good photos from the bus window. The second half of the trip was new territory for me and I enjoyed the view. Shangrila sits at an altitude of about 9,000 feet and I did notice our bus was slowly climbing as we went. I was excited about going to Shangrila, a name that for many of us conjures up images of people living happy, long lives in an earthly paradise. The name comes from the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton. The book spawned a Frank Capra movie of the same name in 1937. For a good description of the Shangrila story/legend see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shangri-La.

I knew before arriving that many places in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces have claimed to be the “real” site of the Shangrila depicted in the book and movie. But this town in Yunnan province is the only one that has actually changed its name (formerly ZhongDian) to leverage its value for attracting tourists. Of course, the book was a novel, so there is no “real” site of Shangrila. In fact, Hilton never even visited this area. His vague references to Shangrila’s location (e.g. “travel southwest from Beijing for several months…”) were probably based on his readings of popular articles in National Geographic by botanist/explorer Joseph Rock (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Rock.) So, I didn’t really expect to find a “paradise-on-earth.” What attracted me was the fact that it’s near the Tibetan border so it’s an easy way to get a “taste” of Tibet. Chinese government sensitivities about Tibet make it difficult for foreigners to visit Tibet. You cannot travel on your own: you must join an authorized, closely-monitored group tour.

As in LiJiang, I had no hotel reservation in Shangrila, when I arrived at the bus station in early afternoon. Any bus station in China attracts scores of free-lance (unauthorized/unofficial) taxi drivers who rush to the bus as it pulls into the station. I ignored the throng of men around me beseeching me to let them take me to my destination, retrieved my suitcase from under the bus and started walking away. One man walked alongside me and was persistent, yet polite in his entreaties. When he mentioned he could take me to “Old Town,” I asked him how much. His low price of 5 RMB (~80 cents) led me to agree and we walked to his car parked just outside the bus station lot. On the way to Old Town he gave me his business card and a business card for the “Barley Guest House” hostel. When we arrived in Old Town he convinced me to let him carry my suitcase to the hostel, which was near where he parked his car. I figured he probably got a kickback for bringing customers to the hostel and I didn’t really want to let him make my hotel decision for me. But something about his manner made me go along with him: I figured I would just check the place out. I had never stayed in a hostel before and the Barley looked interesting. The young lady at the desk spoke English, and she showed me a single room with private bath. I agreed to the rate of 110 RMB (~$20) per night and checked in. I could have stayed in a dorm room (4 beds, no bath) for only 30 RMB/night but I liked the idea of having my own bathroom and a place to lock away my belongings.

Later, as I reflected on the decisions I had made since arriving in town, I remembered how my family had gently teased me about sometimes being too open to strangers (i.e. naïve). Michael and Grace were quite nervous when I let a man from a Bahamian restaurant load us into his car and take us back to our hotel. Here, I was again in a strange place and I had no way of knowing if the driver was honest, but it turned out he was. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky but I do think the chances of being mugged in China are much lower than at home. I don’t think the people are any more honest than Americans, perhaps just less inclined to commit crimes.

After checking in, I explored Old Town, which was much smaller than LiJiang’s and can be covered in just a few hours of strolling. There were no streams flowing through town, no charming footbridges and fewer ancient buildings than in LiJiang. But Shangrila’s buildings have a Tibetan character, which is more imposing and no less interesting than the Naxi buildings of LiJiang. It was also easy to see that Shangrila attracts a lot of Western tourists: several were in the lobby of my hostel during check-in, and I saw many English signs in restaurant and guesthouse windows advertising cheap rooms, free internet, and western style food. Most of the western tourists in my hostel were young to middle-age backpackers.

Video: Shangrila Old Town

Overall, Shangrila is less impressive than LiJiang. Yet, after six days in LiJiang, Shangrila’s smallness and Tibetan feel were appealing to me. It somehow felt more authentic and less like a tourist destination, although that’s probably only because they haven’t been in the tourist business quite as long as LiJiang. I found a restaurant on a nearby street called “N’s Café” that advertised western food so I dropped in for lunch. I was delightfully surprised to enjoy a delicious burrito, complete with cheese and homemade salsa. The staff speaks English and the restaurant seems to cater to westerners. It has a warm atmosphere with soft chairs, English magazines (New Economist), wireless internet, and soft jazz playing over a nice sound system. They also have heat in the café, which many places, including my hostel, do not. A young man sitting at an adjacent table was from New York City and he told me he was very happy to be staying in the restaurant’s guesthouse – Nana’s Guesthouse. Over the next day or two I discovered my own room was frigid and the shower’s hot water was a trickle. My New Yorker friend said his guesthouse had heat in the rooms and plentiful hot water. I contemplated moving but decided not to go to the trouble.

That afternoon, I spent some time looking for Tibetan souvenirs and taking photos. In the evening I got my first view of the public dancing in the center of town. It’s much like LiJiang’s dancing, but more people participate and it has more of a Tibetan character.

Video: Shangrila Evening Dancing

I studied their movements in hopes I could give it a try but it looked just as challenging as Naxi dancing. Before I could see the pattern to a particular dance step, the music would change and a completely new dance routine would begin.

After dinner I discovered my netbook computer couldn’t connect to the hostel’s wireless router. Two nice young men from Germany tried to help me and, since they had no trouble connecting their devices, it appeared to be something wrong with my computer’s network configuration. Since I wanted to let Grace know I had arrived in Shangrila OK, I used my phone to text my teacher friend Guoming in Shanghai and asked him to send her an email, which he did. I never did succeed in connecting to Barley’s wireless network but I didn’t mind too much because, over the next three days, I used it as an excuse to spend time in N’s café accessing my email. Of course, while I was there, I also enjoyed such treats as pasta, pizza, chicken salad, a double latte and a banana milkshake. Shortly before I left Shangrila, I asked the café’s owner/manager how she learned to cook western food so well. She told me, a few years earlier, she realized there was a market for western food so she bought some cookbooks and started trying recipes. She asked her customers for feedback and slowly perfected her repertoire of western dishes.

At bedtime, the temperature in my hostel room couldn’t have been over 45°F. I thought I was going to have to wear my clothes and coat to bed until I discovered the electric blanket under the bottom sheet. It worked great to provide a jump-start on warming up the bed: after fifteen minutes I could turn it off and my own body heat kept me warm through the night.

Thursday, April 29th: The next morning the room was too cold to even consider taking a shower, especially since the water was only a trickle and barely warm. I got dressed and went down to the hostel’s kitchen area where I had a western breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and coffee. I had no definite plans for the day and, after breakfast, the driver who had dropped me off yesterday showed up in the lobby. He asked me (using translation help from the English-speaking hotel clerk) if I wanted to go to any of the tourist destinations he had printed on his business card. One place sounded interesting to me – Snow Mountain – but I didn’t think I was yet acclimated to the high altitude so I told him I might want to go on a subsequent day. About that time, my young German friends came along. I learned later that my driver had also brought them to the hostel. They began to discuss possible itineraries and prices and I listened in. One of the young Germans spoke Mandarin well enough to handle the negotiations directly with the driver. After some discussion, he told us that the driver would take the three of us to Snow Mountain, to ride horses, and finally to the popular Tibetan Buddhism Monastery north of town for about $6 each. This sounded like a good deal and I appreciated that the German boys seemed happy to include me in their plans. There was also something about the driver that was appealing: he was never overly pushy and he gave me the impression of a man with integrity. So, I decided to join the party, even though I was still a little concerned about altitude sickness.

It turned out to be a very nice day. Not only did I enjoy the sightseeing destinations, I got to know and like the German boys, Lenny and Gabriel. Like me, they were working as volunteer English teachers in China. They worked at a middle school in southern Yunnan near the border with Myanmar. They were only 19 years old and had not yet been to college. They were doing this volunteer work to fulfill the “national service” requirement every German boy must complete. Domestic civil service or international volunteer work are acceptable alternatives to serving in the military. Having been in China for nearly a year, they were taking a few days off from school to see other parts of the country. Their assignments would end soon and they would return to Germany. We had a lot to share on the subject of teaching English in China, and they were also interested in American politics. It seems that most Europeans I meet are better versed in world events/politics than most Americans – certainly more well versed than I am, anyway. They were also fascinated to meet an American who had served in the Vietnam War, a historical event they knew well. They wanted to know what I had thought/felt about the war, and I tried my best to recall my state of mind when I was their age, over forty years ago.

As we left Old Town that morning, we could see that Shangrila sits in a wide, flat valley and is surrounded by grasslands. Distant dots on the landscape represented grazing horses, yaks, goats, pigs, sheep and Tibetan herdsmen (and women.) Beyond the grasslands were large snow-capped mountains in all directions. It was quite beautiful.

Lenny chatted with our driver a bit and and we learned his name is Qi Li and he is a member of the Tibetan minority. When we learned this, Qi Li pulled an object out of a compartment over his head and removed it from white the silk scarf it was wrapped in. It was a picture of the Dali Lama and after kissing it he touched it to each of our foreheads to bring us good blessings.

Trip to Snow Mountain

When we arrived at the entrance to Snow Mountain, Qi Li accompanied us to the ticket office. He gave me an oxygen canister to carry with me in case I found breathing difficult at the top of the mountain. He told me he got it for 40 RMB in town and they would charge me about 200 RMB if I bought one on the mountain. As it turned out, I didn’t need it so I just returned it to him unused. Snow Mountain is one of many snow-capped peaks in the Shangrila area but the only one with a cable-car lift to the top. When we climbed out of the cable-car it was only a few hundred more feet to the peak: 4,600 meters, or 15,000 feet! I felt a little light-headed and had to rest often while climbing the final steps but it wasn’t too bad. Many of the Chinese tourists were throwing snowballs and sliding down gentle, snow-covered slopes on their backs. They probably weren’t supposed to be doing that, but they were laughing and having such a great time it was hard to resent their fun. The views were spectacular, as you’ll see in the photos, but it was pretty cold up there so we stayed only about twenty minutes before starting back down the mountain.

Qi Li met us at the parking area and drove us to a small set of buildings back in the grassland area where ladies wearing colorful scarves led horses carrying tourists. I say horses but they should probably be called ponies. When you see the photo of me on my mount you’ll probably feel as I did: that I should have been carrying him. Lenny, Gabriel and I had a short, enjoyable ride on these ponies. They moved at the slow pace of the ladies leading them, so the riding wasn’t too exciting. But the beautiful views, the smells, the sounds of the bells around the ponys’ necks and the chatter of the brightly attired Tibetan ladies made it memorable.

The photo of me on the pony was taken by the lady who led my pony. I gave her a small tip at the end of the ride. In general, tipping is not done in China but I figured we were practically in Tibet and customs may be different – she readily accepted the tip. I also felt the need to say something to her in Mandarin so I tried to be funny by saying “Wo hen peng – ta hen lei” (“I am fat, (the horse) is tired”). She understood me because she responded with a simple “yes” :-).

Riding Ponies on Yunnan Grasslands

After the pony ride, Qi Li took us to a small, inexpensive restaurant in the modern section of Shangrila where we pointed to the fresh vegetables we wanted cooked for our lunch. It was delicious and we all agreed we were lucky to have met Qi Li, who seemed to be a good man who was trying hard to take care of us. The final part of the journey was a visit to the SongZanLin Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The guidebooks describe it as “… one of the most important Tibetan monasteries outside of Tibet.”
SongZanLin Buddhist Monastery, 6 miles north of Shangrila

It is very old and very, very big – really more of a town than a monastery. Apparently, more than 600 monks live there, and we came across some of them as we walked around the place. Some of them are mere boys – a couple that must have been about 8 years old seemed to be threatening to throw rocks at us. This didn’t seem very “monk-like” to me but perhaps it is normal for 8 year old monks-in-training. The main buildings were under construction and scaffolds covered their faces making them much less photogenic. Also, the monastery has a large, modern visitor’s center where you buy your expensive entrance ticket (about $10) and board the bus that takes you to the monastery. I’m not an expert on Buddhism, but this felt more like a Disney theme park than a place of worship/meditation.

Later that afternoon, the German boys and I shared all of the photos/videos we had taken during the day. They thought they might leave early the next morning so we shared email addresses and said our goodbyes. While copying my photos, Gabriel noticed they all had a very small file size. Sure enough, I had the camera set on the lowest resolution. Unfortunately, it had been on that setting since Mianyang. I was disappointed to learn that all the photos I took in JiuZhaiGou, Chengdu, and LiJiang were low-resolution. I thanked Gabriel for pointing it out and changed the camera settings. At least the setting applied only to still photos so none of my videos were affected.

That evening I enjoyed another great meal at N’s Café while I took notes for the blog and caught up with email. After dinner I watched the Tibetan dancing for a while and then retired early because I was quite tired from the long day.

Friday, April 30th: In the morning, I ran into Lenny and Gabriel downstairs and learned they had decided to stay an extra day in Shangrila. They had hired Qi Li to take them to a town called BaiShuiTai. It was two hours away from Shangrila and they would pay Qi Li 300 RMB for the day. Since I had nothing else to do that day, and since I enjoyed their company I asked if they wanted to divide the cost 3 ways instead of 2. They said they’d be happy to have me join them, so we met Qi Li a few minutes later and set off for BaiShuiTai. BaiShuiTai means “White Water Terrace” and these terraces look a little like the Mammoth Terraces of Yellowstone National Park, although they’re not quite as impressive.

Video: Visiting Bai Shui Tai (White Water Terrace) and a Naxi Farm Village

We explored the terraces for a couple of hours and then had lunch in a local restaurant, again selecting the vegetables we wanted in our meals. On the way back, we stopped in a small village of the “Yi” minority people. The Yi ladies wear colorful clothing and a very interesting large, square, headpiece. In the video below, a lady is carrying water to a site where men are pouring concrete. She obviously was no stranger to hard work and her clothes were quite dirty from the job she was doing.

When we returned to Shangrila, I made arrangements with Qi Li to pick me up Sunday morning and take me to the airport. Lenny and Gabriel had made plans to leave that evening on a “night bus” to Dali. They told me they had done this before and it’s a great way to travel. The bus actually has beds and you are able to sleep while you travel, as long as you don’t mind rolling around in your bed a little. We said our goodbyes (again) and they loaded their huge backpacks into Qi Li’s trunk for the trip to the bus station.

That evening, I was on my way to dinner at N’s Café when I bumped into another hostel resident I had met shortly after checking in. Johannes was also German but he was about 40 years old. His English was pretty good and he told me he was riding a bicycle across Asia. I had actually met several other people that were doing this. One group of three hailed from Holland, England, and Switzerland. They were all taking months, or even years, to slowly work their way across countries like India, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and China. Their bikes carried large saddlebags on front and rear tires and on the bar under the seat. On such a long trip, they tried to economize on expenses: often sleeping in their tents along the road. So, staying in a hostel was actually a luxury for them. Johannes had briefly shared with me some amazing stories about his journey, like the accident he had when a dog ran in front of his bike in Laos. He was hurt pretty badly and the family who owned the dog took care of him for a few days. They also had the mortally wounded dog for dinner!

Johannes

As I was leaving, Johannes asked if I’d like to have dinner together. I told him where I was headed and asked him to join me. But, when he learned how expensive their meals are, he said he would prefer to eat more cheaply. So we went our separate ways that night. As I thought about it later, I realized I should have just offered to buy his dinner. Although expensive by Chinese standards, a good meal at N’s Café is still cheaper than the same food at home. So I decided I would treat him to a western meal the next evening.

Saturday, May 1st: I spent my final full day in Shangrila strolling around Old Town taking photos and buying some souvenirs made in Tibet. I gave my Lonely Planet Southwest China book to the English biker and she was happy to get it. I was trying to cut down on baggage weight and I figured if I ever needed it again there would be a newer edition. That evening I took Johannes to N’s Café for dinner where it was a delight to watch him savor a meal of spaghetti carbonara followed by a double-latte. He was very appreciative and we had time to talk more. I learned he is a social worker and had only recently obtained an advanced degree in this field. His bicycle journey had its genesis in a love affair that ended badly: his fiancée had shocked him by announcing she had met someone else. He didn’t start out to make a bicycle journey across Asia. He started by visiting an uncle in Sri Lanka, and the idea to travel across Asia on a bike evolved slowly. He’s not an avid biker and he’s a heavy smoker. As a social worker, he found himself trying to help many people he met along the way, like the 12-year-old boy in Bangkok who was obviously working as a prostitute. Johannes spent some time with his family and convinced them to enroll the boy in a local school. As an enticement, he set up a bank account (using his mother’s help in Germany) that would provide enough to keep the boy away from prostitution. The money would be available only if he stayed in school and away from prostitution. Unfortunately, the story didn’t end well: the family seemed to be using the money for purposes other than school. He told me a few other stories like this and that most of these attempts were less than successful. One family had a boy who needed an operation and they used the money Johannes gave them to buy a new TV. Johannes is writing a book about his journey but it will be written in German. Nevertheless, I hope to stay in touch with him to see how he fares on his journey. He has no end-date or end-destination for his journey, which I find amazing. I thought I was being brave by traveling around China on my own for two weeks but what he’s doing requires much more courage.

Sunday May 2nd: Qi Li picked me up at the hostel early, again insisting on carrying my heavy bag to his car. We talked a little on the way to the airport. I told him I thought he was a good man and thanked him for his help in Shangrila. He seemed to echo the sentiment. The Shangrila airport is brand new and complete with internet café where you can enjoy a $3 cup of coffee (an outrageous price in China.) My flight to Shanghai had a stop in KunMing, a major Yunnan Province city, and those of us destined for Shanghai had to get off the plane and wait in the terminal for a while. We reboarded the same plane, sat in the same seats and headed for Shanghai.

At the end of my two weeks traveling through Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces, I was ready to go back to Shanghai. It had been great fun, with many interesting adventures, but I was tired of being on my own and moving from one place to another. Traveling alone has the advantage of forcing you to meet more people, but it has a lonely and “rootless” feeling that I don’t like. I looked forward to seeing my good friends in Shanghai where I also know how to get around without being a detective.

Passing over the Mountains of Southwest China enroute to Shanghai

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